This is a placeholder. Tomorrow morning I'll talk about how polished a manuscript needs to be before an agent will send it out on submission.
This is a placeholder. Tomorrow morning I'll talk about how polished a manuscript needs to be before an agent will send it out on submission.
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!
Quick one today, because it's 11:15 and my wife and I just got back from taking our son to see L'Avventura, the first non English-speaking film he has seen (The Artist, to us, didn't count because it wasn't anything-speaking). He got an education. Sex, moping, wandering around melodramatically, smoking, some more (mopy) sex, a train (no sex on the train), an island, and a climactic scene in a hotel I HAVE to stay in one day. And all in black and white. In Italian. With subtitles. Which occasionally faded into the black and white. While it was longer than Kate's labor (had to get ONE reference in!) (sorry, labour), it was an artsy, modernist, interesting movie about gorgeous, unpleasant people sitting around (See Gatsby, Great).
And Joe was up for it, and that was terrific. We weren't sure he'd sit still, weren't sure he'd get it. And certainly some elements went over his head. But he's 14, not 9, and has internet access. So, I mean, he's hardly going to be shocked. And he really wanted to give it a shot. It was kind of like our middle daughter JJ, last summer, who read Hunger Games even after she'd been told not to, by borrowing her camp counselor's copy. When she got home from camp last August she said "Dad, I did something naughty."
"What?" I said, slightly apprehensive.
"I READ Hunger Games."
We went up last Sunday for visiting day. Ita, the youngest, almost couldn't wait to get into the bunk before coming out with "Jessie took a Walk with a Boy."
This afternoon, I received an email from a potential client who has never before had a literary agent. The author had reasonable questions about certain aspects of the relationship between agent and client, including a version of the often-asked “Why do you get the checks from the publisher and pay me, rather than vice-versa." I started to answer this and a number of other questions, and found myself writing what amounted to a primer on what an agent’s job is.
Ultimately, what is below is not comprehensive, but it gives a sense. And if you are a writer and reading this, and are wondering, this is all industry standard. It’s not all mandated by AAR (although some aspects—like not charging for services rendered before the author earns income—are), but I don’t know too many agents who don’t hew pretty closely to this formula.
In terms of the accounting aspects, by the way, it is absolutely standard operating procedure for literary agents to receive the checks from the publishers, analyze the royalty statements, and then send the payment to the author. The author may examine (and question) every number. I do not get paid until the author does. I do everything on spec until there is a deal, and then my percentage is prescribed by the Association of Author Representatives, of which I am a member—it’s 15% of what the author gets, with a couple of exceptions (I split 20% with foreign co-agents and 15% with film agents). So there is no invoice from agent to author, and my terms are 100% industry standard.
Ultimately, my role is the following, if I am your agent. (Note: This is for nonfiction. We skip the proposal step for novels, though typically there are a few more backs-and-forths in the editorial process before the book goes out on submission.)
1) I will read your current material.
2) I will edit it as necessary, show you the format I typically use for a project like yours, and fit your material into that kind of proposal.
3) I will create a list of publishers appropriate to your book, based both on my own experience with books like yours and on where comparable projects have gone. I will go over that list with you in as much detail (or lack of detail) as necessary.
4) I will approach the editors we will have discussed, and pitch the book to them, whether on the phone or via email, or, if they wish, by going with you to meet with them in person (particularly if you are local).
5) I will send these editors your proposal, and manage the responses. When we receive rejections I will either send them to you or just let you know that we received them, depending on how you would like to hear about them.
6) When we receive interest from publishers, I will manage the closing, ie I will work with the publishers and you to determine which is the best deal FOR YOU, and communicate thus with the publishers.
7) When we have made a deal, I will negotiate contract terms, read and reread the contract, get the best deal I can, and send it to you; then answer the questions you have on deal terms so you understand it and sign it with complete cognizance of the terms and language.
8) When you are actually writing the book, I will be as active or inactive as you wish in assisting with editorial suggestions and reading drafts or chapters. I will manage your relationship with your publisher so you and your editor can concentrate on the book itself. When you have issues with the publisher, I will work with the folks there to be certain that your relationship is as smooth and pleasant as possible.
9) When it gets closer to publication, I work with the publisher be sure that we get the best marketing and publicity that we can, based on their budget and will.
10) I will, when appropriate and we have retained the rights, attempt to sell foreign or film or audio rights, and negotiate those contracts.
11) When payments are due, whether for an advance or royalties, I will make sure you are getting paid on time and the right amount. I deposit the checks into the HSG account, then deduct my commission and send the net to you, with a detailed Statement explaining the deduction.
12) When your next project gets underway, we do it again!
So this is the direct work that an author sees. It doesn’t include the relationship building an agent does so that he or she knows the correct editors to approach for a particular project, or the reading or research necessary to stay current, etc etc. It’s a fascinating job, and it really requires a whole mess of different aspects on which to concentrate. And there are parts I love (working with text, finding new authors, actually submitting books) and parts I love less (lots of the important administrative stuff, juggling different obligations when time is limited). But I had a feeling six and a half years ago that I was going to love this job, and it has rarely disappointed.
I’ll be happy to answer any questions about these pieces of the puzzle (though of course only as they relate to my experience—opinions are my own).
Summer blahs—who says? It’s been crazy-busy the last few weeks, and today I managed to spend six hours on the phone before schlepping out to Newark to see my beloved NY Liberty play and defeat the hated Seattle Storm. So here’s a quick set of thoughts on a sweltering Tuesday evening:
1) My son reports from the high school writing program at Columbia that he’s the only teenager not writing long stories about suicide and illness. “What’s with these kids?” he asked. “They’re all happy-happy in the halls after class, and they all write well. But God, it’s SO depressing.” He writes about dogs. It is not depressing. Bless him. But it’s interesting that the kids all write dark. On one hand it reflects their experience. On the other, it’s apparently all realistic dark YA. Could it be that some parts of the paranormal craze of the last 10 years or so is waning. (Not saying this is good, not saying it’s bad. But it’s interesting. John Green, hello…)
2) My youngest daughter just finished Octavia Spencer’s middle grade novel about ninja detectives and said it was “amazing.” Octavia Spencer spoke at BEA this year and I completely believe that her novel is amazing.
3) Hey Jessy Randall, while I’m delighted that The Westing Game made your list, you know I think it’s second best to The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.
4) Hey Marilyn Thiele, I’m glad you are feeling more upbeat. I felt terrible that my post disheartened you, and I’m delighted that Amanda’s post was encouraging.
5) Tomorrow night brings the beginning of Thrillerfest visits, with the annual Speed-dating afternoon of Agentfest on Thursday. It’s a terrific conference, and shows (along with Bouchercon) how strong a community there is among crime fiction and thriller writers and readers and industry professionals. Report on it next week.
Note from Josh:
So I was sitting happily if frenetically at my desk this afternoon, thinking about the eight—EIGHT manuscripts I need to read—when I got a call from my wife, Amanda, who was walking on the Upper West Side.
“You don’t need to write your blog tonight,” she said.
“Why?” I thought. “Have we skipped Tuesday?”
“I want to write it this week,” she said. “I want to write about independent bookstores.”
A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the Kindle Daily Deal, the Dead Guy bookseller, Marilyn Thiele, wrote to me that she should apparently close up shop because obviously Amazon was going to drive her out of business. Amanda’s guest column, below, should be the antidote. Don’t call the movers, Marilyn!
(Oh, I guess I should say, by way of introduction, that Amanda is a World History teacher at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and is the inspiration behind—among other things—my abiding love of all things Tudor.)--JG
Let me begin by saying right off the bat that I love all bookstores. Really. They all draw me in, whether they’re large chains (as a kid, I loved the WaldenBooks stores in malls) or small independent bookstores. The Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway is my home away from home, and where I have spent hours searching for novels and cookbooks and reading with our kids. The folks there are incredibly knowledgeable and unfailingly helpful.
But in my guest blog post I sing of independent bookstores and the teacher mom.
It goes like this: I am a history teacher, which is a wonderful job ALL months of the year, but a particularly easy one in July and August. When the grading is done, and my desk is finally cleaned (ed. Note: HA!), I have time to wander and peruse. And although I have projects pending (new paper assignments, new curricula) I have much more free time and invariably find myself strolling the neighborhoods of Manhattan.
This summer, my son is taking a three-week creative writing course at Columbia University, and I have been dropping him off each morning. On my return downtown, I pass several lovely bookstores along Broadway, and I stop at them all—often consecutively. The Bankstreet Bookstore has a lovely selection devoted to education books for teachers, and I have already bought a book about making history more meaningful and fun for students, whose ideas I hope to incorporate this fall. Another fine independent bookstore is Book Culture, where I spent a lot of time (and money!) this morning. I noted with pleasure their huge middle grade section, where Geoff Rodkey’s New Lands was face out on the shelf. I bought a book of Neuroscience Haikus by Eric Chudler (sample: Memory fleeting; Cannot remember who, what; No hippocampus.) and a French vegetarian cookbook.
These small bookstores remind me of all the bookstores that populated the Upper West Side (and all of New York City) when I was a kid. I am very nostalgic for these places, like Shakespeare and Co. (ed. Note: The people there were RUDE!), or Eeyore’s (lovingly fictionalized in the movie You’ve Got Mail). They somehow seemed like places where you didn’t need to need anything in particular, but you wanted everything so much. The booksellers really love the books, and want to talk to you. My husband Josh Getzler and I seek them out wherever we go (like last summer in Woodstock, New York) and always chat with the sellers, exchange picks and usually buy something nice.
So here’s to your neighborhood bookstore. Talk to the booksellers. Tell them what you like (be sure it’s one of my husband’s clients). Sit and read—to yourself, your friend, your kids. Attend an event. And then be sure to buy something wonderful. I recommend Neuroscience Haikus.
Every year on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, WPLJ radio in New York broadcasts its morning show from Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. There are bands playing live, the atmosphere is festive. I used to listen every year I worked in baseball as I drove from my apartment in Manhattan to the ballpark in Staten Island. And every year, the highlight of the broadcast was the same: The traffic guy, Joe Nolan, would get up on stage and tell a long story about his father taking him out to the shore in the summer, and how now, as a father himself, he marveled at his own life. Then he would pause, yell “1, 2, 3, 4!” and bust into a highly emotional, slightly off-key but marvelous Born to Run. I once found myself feeling oddly choked up on the New Jersey Turnpike as I yelled along with Joe Nolan.
I feel like every summer I write a blog post about the day my girls go to camp. It has to do with being a dad of daughters who are still little but grow more worldy and somewhat more inscrutable by the day, even as they are still willing to hug me and still cry when they get on the bus. Only now it’s for seven weeks straight, and that’s a long time.
And every year I talk about what they read, and what they read on, as technology changes and they become more sophisticated and plugged in. Which is why it was fascinating to me that this year they went without e-readers at all, and simply took their books with them the old fashioned way—weighing down their backpacks and crammed among the lip gloss and the illicit granola bars and the sunscreen, in hardcover and paperback.
Now this is not a judgment—I’m not proud that they’re reading print books or disappointed that they aren’t reading on machines (or vice versa, if that’s even logical). Rather, it was interesting, and I was thinking about why. And I came up with a couple of answers:
The first is that a couple of years ago, when I first started chronicling the kids’ adventures in reading, they read shorter books. Therefore we could load, say, 117 My Weird School books onto the Kindle and send them on their way. Now that they are older, they read longer books, but fewer of them, and with more words per page. And they mess around all evening when they might be reading, doing things like talking to their friends and (ahem, girls) writing letters to their parents, who miss them. They’ll get through the books they bring, but don’t need as much of an inventory.
The second (although the first was more than one point), is that they are fundamentally indifferent to the platform on which they read. They have so many options at this point, and they are all “normal” now, as opposed to a couple of years ago when it was cool to read on a tablet, that they go with the most convenient (and frequently best looking). And in this case, the one they don’t need to plug in or keep safe from, say, getting wet.
So this morning I stood with a hundred or so other parents (around a third of whom were crying at any given time), waving vaguely at the tinted window where we think we saw our particular kid’s face flit by, though it could be Maya. My son, who just started a writing program and is now going to have my wife and me to himself for a couple of months, was waving frantically saying “I’ll miss you, I’ll miss you…heh.” Several of the other parents were people I went to school with myself, now with dogs on leashes and smaller children who haven’t yet started day camp holding on to them. I stepped back for a minute, looked around, and started humming Born to Run.
Last night, after months of first negotiation then anticipation, the Newman-Getzlers hosted a sleepover party for our daughters. They both have birthdays during the summer, so they rarely have had parties with school friends. That’s how we ended up with six girls under the age of 12 spending the night in our apartment along with my wife Amanda, our son Joe (whose blogging shoes I’m reluctantly—and, I suspect, unsuccessfully—trying to fill), and me.
I say “spending the night” because “sleeping at our house” would be lying. Not so much sleeping. First there was the mid-afternoon bowling, followed by the Wii, followed by the pizza followed by the movies followed by the cupcake “decorating” (read “smearing frosting all over their faces like shortstops’ glare-b-gone”).
Then it was 11:15 and the sugar rush was starting to fade and I walked into our daughters’ room. There were the six girls, sitting in various positions on or near the beds, each on her smart machine. Mostly it was phones, though there were a couple of tablets as well. Some were playing games involving fruit (?). Most were taking photos of their socks and posting them on Instagram. “I HEART ITA’S SOCKS! (followed by seventeen Imogi (??)” Nineteen friends not at the sleepover then commented, largely complimentarily, on this fascinating developing situation. My wife looked over my shoulder and shook her head.
“In our day we read BOOKS at our sleepovers.”
I almost did a legit double take.
“Oh bullshit,” I said. “In our day we watched “Emergency” and “Eight is Enough” and “The Love Boat,” then ate too many cookies and talked until midnight or until our parents got mad and made us go to sleep.”
“We also did makeup and pretended we were Cher.”
We shrugged, looked again. They were having long, involved conversations. By text message. While sitting next to each other.
Brave New World.
(NOTE FROM JOSH: I was sitting down to write this evening when the Boy, two days done with Middle School but not yet a Freshman, tells me to step aside. “You’re tired,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about something.”
Clearly he has been. And he’s not shy about discussing it. I hope I miss the train to Weenieville.
By Joe Newman-Getzler
What is a “classic”? Depending on whom you ask the answers could vary wildly. For some, a classic could be a book like Murder on the Orient Express, a movie like Casablanca, or a song like “Let It Be”. To others, a classic could be a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie like Johnny Dangerously, or a song like “Boom! Shake the Room." This need not only apply to books. The term “classic” can also be applied to anything from a good joke to a memorable sports play. But what, indeed, is a classic? And how does it unify these many different things?
To most people, a classic is merely a thing that stays in their head for a long time, usually for a positive reason. But to some, the name goes much deeper than that. A classic means a piece of cultural significance, something considered a great thing that all should love and cherish for its greatness. Typically, there is a predetermined set of “classics” for any kind of genre or type. For example, if you want a “classic” book, the names that’ll probably come up would be books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or Gone with the Wind. A “classic” movie? You’d probably see names like Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, or Singin’ in the Rain. But should we have our classics defined for us? Or should we form our own opinions on what is classic and what’s not?
This is a question that has been troubling me for a while now: what’s a classic and what’s not? The reason this has been rumbling through my mind is because lately I have been trying to give myself a “classical” film and literary experience. Summer’s just begun, and now that I have gobs upon gobs of time to spend, I want to fill them with great books and great movies. For the former, my family has been supplying me with tons of great books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. And yes, they are great. But I will admit, my standards for classics are pretty low. The whole school year was peppered with classic books in my English class, like The Woman Warrior, The Chosen, Animal Farm, you name it. But my ideas of classics are Dave Barry is Not Making This Up, Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Gray Hare, and There Is No Dog. And yet, Mom and Dad say not to read those over and over. Read The Hobbit. Come on! It’s only 500 pages long, you wuss!
Movies are another area of “classics” that drive me crazy, though for a different reason. While I would consider myself a rather decent film lover, there are still so many movies I haven’t seen that I feel pressured by myself to watch. Seriously?, I ask myself. You haven’t seen Citizen Kane? Jaws? The Dark Knight? You, sir, are on the train straight to Weenieville. And even my gym teacher’s let into me about my lack of film exposure: he spent 10 minutes telling me how I simply must watch The Empire Strikes Back in order to truly deem myself a Star Wars fan (BTW, I’ve only seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. That fact led to not only the aforementioned monologue, but another about how I should watch the prequels because, yeah, they suck, but I MUST have the complete Star Wars experience.) And yet, I also feel that there are a great many films that I truly love and yet many don’t even think of in the same league as “classics.” Seriously, does nobody but me consider UHF a classic? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory better than the Gene Wilder one? I feel so lonely.It’s times like this when I start to think about how subjective a term “classic” is. Can only what has been previously called a classic be a classic? Can others come up with their own “classic” films to share with the world? That is my hope. While, naturally, classic books and movies are to be revered and respected, they aren’t the only good books and movies out there! I wish more people would realize that. And YES, I am going to watch The Empire Strikes Back this summer. But the prequels? Hmm. Maybe. But for now…keep on readin’.
I’m in the homestretch of eighth grade final exams, so this will be quick. I had a conversation with my wife yesterday about the fact that the longest line at BEA for any celebrity book signing was not Jim Carrey or Ann Romney, but internet sensation Grumpy Cat. As I made my way near the Chronicle Books display, I saw a line of terribly excited publishing professionals and librarians all vibrating at the thought of having a photo taken with the most famous sleeping dwarf cat in the world, Tardar Sauce.
They were not impatient, and most of them were either making jokes about the absurdity of waiting two hours for a photo with a sleeping dwarf cat or happily looking through their thirty tote bags filled with ARCs and Wimpy kid tchotchkes.
“Amazing,” I said.
“Not really,” said my wife the history teacher. “It’s all about community. People have needed something in common since they started to live in civilized groups. Sometimes it’s religion, sometimes it’s sports teams, sometimes it’s rock concerts…or online memes.”
She’s right of course. And in this era of sectarian violence, shameful politics, and sports where soccer stars are fixing games around the world and 20 baseball players are about to be suspended for 100 games each, it’s nice to be able to come together over a cat who makes people happy by looking miserable.
An article appeared in today’s New York Times about the “instant bestsellers” created by Amazon’s Kindle Deals of the Day (and parallel deals on Nook etc). The story described the immediate, material effect on a book’s sales when it is discounted for a day and advertised as a “Daily deal” in email blasts and on front pages. For the sake of ease (and because of my own experience) I am going to use the Amazon version throughout this post. There must be some differences, but the idea is the same.
The article in the Times simplified the event to its most easily digestible ingredients: Amazon lowers the price on a book from, say, $3.99 to $1.99, sends out an email, and Boom! goes the dynamite. Then the price goes back up, and the event is over.
Except that’s not what happens. What happens—unusual for an event in Publishing—is better. Because these deals are sticky. Let me explain, using a real-life example.
E. M. Powell’s historical thriller The Fifth Knight, which I’ve discussed before in this blog, is one of my little engines that Can. It sold steadily, first in its serialized form and then, when the serialization was complete, had a lovely eight-or-so-week run of steady, strong sales. The book had sold a good number of copies—low five figures, very nice. We were happy, but (as happens inevitably) sales began to slide. Where The Fifth Knight had spent twelve weeks hovering between 1,500 and 3,500 in the Amazon rankings, it then dropped below 10,000, 15,000…It was time to start regrouping for book 2.
Then, one Sunday morning in March, I get an email from the author. “What on earth is happening to my book?” What do you mean? “It’s going crazy—the rankings are in the hundreds.”
What had happened was that that day, without a heads-up (Ahem, Thomas and Mercer…), The Fifth Knight was made a Kindle Deal of the Day. The price had gone to $1.99. I watched, stunned, as the rankings hit 300, 100, 50, 25…all the way to 6. We doubled our sales.
But something else happened, which the Times didn’t discuss, and which to my mind is the genius of the Daily Deal. As a large number of copies sold during the course of that Sunday, the rankings for The Fifth Knight improved not just in the overall Kindle list (which was, of course, lovely), but also in Fiction, mystery, thriller, historical fiction, romance, historical romance, hot movers and shakers…you get the idea. And each of these lists showed a thumbnail of The Fifth Knight. Thumbnails with links to the book’s page, where you can buy it.
So in one day, The Fifth Knight went from having a negligible presence on Amazon.com to one you pretty much can’t buy—it was on at least ten separate “landing pages,” where you go when you want to browse, for example, Historical Fiction. It’s akin to being face out in ten different areas of a bookstore, so wherever you look, there is the book. It begins to be bundled more frequently with other books with similar themes, starts to be included in “if you like ___ then you will like The Fifth Knight” emails. It works the algorithm, as it were.
THAT is the genius of the Daily Deal. Because then, once the price of the ebook had risen back to 3.99, people still bought The Fifth Knight because it was Hot. The fire, which had become a merely warm ember, restarted, and burned brighter. The second run lasted another six weeks before sputtering again—having sold another significant number of books.
And the stickiness of this deal doesn’t end there. When the author’s next book comes out, anyone who bought The Fifth Knight will hear about it, whether the copy was on deep discount or regular price. The bar will be set higher for book 2, with greater expectations for sales leading (we can hope) for more marketing coops, perhaps a higher advance…and maybe, maybe, another Daily Deal.
PS—Early this afternoon we received word that Dana Cameron’s Seven Kinds of Hell will be the Science Fiction Daily Deal on Kindle tomorrow. It will be fascinating to see how that plays out. But I will say, we whooped a bit on West 80th Street.
Every night, my wife and I record BBC World News and watch during dinner. We find that it’s the only broadcast that actually reports news, rather than hours of political commentary of one stripe or the other.
And every night, after the half hour is over, we look at each other and say “the world is coming to an end.”
Except last night. Last night, there was a long report about Commander Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who spent five months living on the International Space Station. While he was there, Commander Hadfield, who is 53 and trim and effortlessly charming, Tweeted about life in Space. He didn’t talk only about the elevated scientific experiments he was performing, but how to eat spinach or brush his teeth in zero gravity. It’s amazing, riveting journalism in 140 character chunks.
Commander Hadfield returned from space last week, but before he did, he performed his piece de resistance—he recorded a music video of himself singing a slightly rewritten version of David Bowie’s 1969 song Space Oddity (Major Tom). Of course in the original, Major Tom loses contact with Ground Control and presumably hurtles off into the abyss. It’s brilliant, but ultimately depressing. In this version, Commander Hadfield sings about strapping into his pod and coming home, his time in space complete and successful. The video has been viewed millions of times now. Even David Bowie himself retweeted it, approvingly.
What’s remarkable about this video is that it is completely, whole-heartedly positive. Space, in HD, is gorgeous. Stunning. Commander Hadfield is not commenting on President Obama’s troubles or chaos in Syria. He’s just making music, in space, floating in his tin can. It’s brilliantly uplifting. And in this time of war, famine, global warming, tornadoes in the Plains, political and religious strife worldwide, the idea of unbridled joy is even more overwhelmingly rejuvenating. Take a look. And enjoy your day.
This week, I participated in an online conversation with author (and my client) Geoff Rodkey and Putnam editor-in-chief (and Geoff's editor) Jennifer Besser at the marvelous middle-grade-oriented website www.fromthemixedupfiles.com. I think it gives a fun insight into the three perspectives that often go into the creation and publication of a book. We aren't saying exactly the same things, but I think the idea of creativity and collaboration and thought that goes into deciding how to position a book are worth reading. So I will leave you to click onto the site here , though I also will be happy to answer any questions or comments left below.
Oh, and if you get the chance, go out and pick up Geoff's new novel, New Lands, which continues the Chronicles of Egg started in Deadweather and Sunrise (out now in paperback!).
Twice in the last week, at the end of the workday, I've crossed Broadway and entered the Dublin Inn, where I've met agent-friends for a beer and a talk.
I chose that particular pub, which is dark and narrow and feels smoky--almost like a phantom scent, as an amputee itches on the missing limb--because I just took on an author who wrote a mystery set in Dublin. (It's called A Fine Irish Wine, which is ironic, since I believe the Dublin Inn only pretends to serve wine, and I guarantee it's not Irish.) Also because it's right off the #1 train, and if I'm making my friends schlep uptown, I might as well not make them walk too far. You can have beer at the Dublin. Or, if you wish, a shot and a beer. Food is not in evidence.
I think most writers who've attended conferences or fairs have realized that agents, while occasionally competitors for manuscripts, are generally quite collegial. This makes sense. We all meet and talk to editors; we all receive enormous numbers of queries; we all are discussing terms with contracts departments. The more information we share, the more fully we understand our industry, and the better we will be at our jobs.
Incidentally, this doesn't mean we aren't collegial with editors, and very often mix our drinks with them. I just find it's a different kind of shop talk when I'm with a few agents--yes, it's gossipy, but it's also valuable. In both of my drinks with fellow agents this week I've given and received advice which was put into action within the next day or two. In many ways, drinks with an editor is more like a date, while drinks with a couple of agents is like going out with classmates or fraternity brothers.
The back of The Dublin Inn is a lovely (?) room with tables and an abundance of atmosphere. I'm thinking of the right occasion to hold a Gathering there. Perhaps when I sell A Fine Irish Wine, I'll spot a round of beers. Or perhaps a shot and a beer.
Kindle Paperwhite: A Quick Review.
Saturday was my wife Amanda’s birthday, and one of her presents (along with a Vitamix blender she’s apparently leaving me for) was a new Kindle Paperwhite. No frills, just Wifi. She spent a great deal of time playing with it over the weekend, and even let me take the wheel for a few minutes here and there. Verdict: A terrific e-reader, both in the dark and in the light. MUCH easier to read in bed than, say, an iPad, and lighter than any other reader I’ve used.
One unexpected element that was a pro rather than a con: The ads. Somehow having an ad for the Kindle Deal of the Day was no more obtrusive than having Emily Dickinson or James Joyce on it. If it keeps the price down—and could conceivably entice readers to new books (Amanda made her way to the Daily Deal page both weekend days), then both personally and professionally I am for it.
Then this morning we had breakfast with Amanda’s sister, who thought a corollary to the Daily Deal Ad (for higher-end models, perhaps) could be to use the cover of the book a reader is currently reading as the screen saver. Would sure save myself from craning my neck on the subway to see what folks are reading!
Hey, There's a Dead Guy on Facebook.
So over the weekend, Hey, There’s A Dead Guy in the Living Room established a Facebook page. It’s here: https://www.facebook.com/HeyDeadGuy. It’s nice, and we’ll be sharing our posts on it. It’s going to be interesting for me to see whether it becomes more than that. Initially, my reaction to the page was “eh, that’s nice. Why do we need a page for a blog? Isn’t that redundant?” The answer, to me, is I don’t Know. It might just turn out to be a way for folks on Facebook to scroll through our archives. It would be more interesting, of course, if it turned out that the page turned into a little community of folks who like to read and/or write, with discussions transcending the particular day’s post. Now, does that make the Comments section on the blog unnecessary? Possibly. But we won’t know till we try, and I’ll be interested in seeing the results.
A word or two on Boston.
I grew up in Manhattan directly across Central Park West from the finish line of the New York City Marathon. During the past 40-odd years, I’ve seen it grow from a small but energetic race to an enormous undertaking. It’s one of the best days of the year in New York, just as Patriot’s Day is in Boston. I hope, after the suffering and damage, that the evil person or people who set the bombs in Boston doesn’t cause cancellations of these and other such mass public gatherings. Then he or they will have won. Sadly, we’ve all seen too many acts of terror these last years. I always hope that This One will be the last. It probably won’t be. But if you want to put your mind into a better place about Humanity and people’s better instincts, read actor Patton Oswalt’s blog post, which is simply beautiful.
Last weekend, I was out in New Jersey visiting my in-laws with the family. It was the end of Passover, and including my brother-in-law's family and some friends, there were fifteen people (including seven children) hanging around the house.
My youngest daughter, Ita, had an English assignment and decided that for her report she was going to read one of the books I represent--Geoff Rodkey's wonderful and clever Deadweather and Sunrise. As something of a treat, and in order for her to get into the rhythm of the story (and because, having read it, oh, ten times already, I was pretty fluent), I agreed to read the beginning to Ita, with the understanding that she'd take over after a reasonable number of pages.
Turns out that "reasonable" meant a hundred and twenty. And it was a pleasure. Beside the actual words of the story, which are funny and at times quite beautiful and poignant (when people aren't hitting each other with rocks), a fascinating thing happened: I acquired an audience. Slowly, over the course of the hour and a half or so that I read, people found their way onto the porch.
They had all read the book already--Deadweather and Sunrise was my go-to book last summer, and my son and wife had read it when it was on submission. But there was something about the whole sociability of sitting together and hearing a story that was magnetic. By the time I got to "and I realized REDACTED (read it yourself!) was trying to kill me" and closed the book, there were eight or nine people in the room.
We spend an enormous amount of time hanging out in front of screens. We write posts and emails and text messages. Particularly when kids aren't around we rarely sit together and read to each other. Heck, the Author Reading as social event at the local bookstore has almost disappeared as publishers have realized that blog tours are generally more efficient and cost effective than sending writers on the road (except--as is the case right now with Geoff Rodkey himself, coincidentally--when they send a group of authors on tour together to visit schools and bookstores en mass).
So it was particularly fun--in a retro, quaint way--to read to Ita and the greater Jersey Shore. It helped that it was a lively book, and on a holiday where we don't use electronics so the audience was somewhat captive. And everyone walked around the house smiling for a few hours at the sheer pleasantness of the experience. Ita has not, in fact, read on this week--the return to school has taken over her free time. But it's almost the weekend, and the days are long, and I think the immediate family is going to NEED to hear how Egg escapes from REDACTED.
Well, it's the last day of Passover, and I'm undoubtedly savoring my last matzah pizzas as you read this. I couldn't write a full-on post this week on account of the endless celebration of the Exodus, so, too anyone who's reading this: thanks for stopping by Hey, There's A Dead Guy in the Living Room. Check out Jeff and Lynne and Marilyn and Jessy and Ben and Erin, and if you wish my own previous posts. More to come next week.
So last week I had the single biggest blog post of the two years of writing on Hey, There’s A Dead Guy—and it was all because my son wrote the post for me. And it was the best feeling I’ve had in years. Thanks to everyone who commented and Liked and retweeted. We’ve managed to keep Joe’s head on his shoulders…but just barely.
I’ve seen some very interesting developments in the publishing industry as far as distribution goes. On the unfortunate side, we’ve seen the conflict between Simon and Schuster and Barnes and Noble go public, with the reports that B&N is (depending on how you look at it) either making a point about the value of shelf space with one of its biggest clients, or cutting off its nose to spite its face. B&N is cutting its orders of S&S books because S&S is unwilling to participate in certain pieces of its co-op programs. S&S, and its writers in particular, are reacting with justifiable alarm, as they are feeling (again justifiably) like pawns in a battle they did not start.
On the upside, I’ve now had three experiences with the power of online reach. Two of the books I represent made big moves in the last month. One was a Kindle Deal of the Day; the other was a screen saver on the Kindles with ads. A third made a splash based on the authors’ combined 250,000 Twitter followers and enormous general online following. The pushes came from different places, but now were based on physical bookshelf placement. Rather, by rising on the Amazon digital charts, these books appeared on more landing pages on their retail outlets—if you went to Historical Fiction, Historical Romance, Historical Mystery, General Fiction, and top new sellers and hot sellers (in all those areas), you’d find The Fifth Knight. It’s opportunity after opportunity to click through and purchase, and it dominos in on itself like a digital self-fulfilling prophecy. Fascinating stuff.
The juxtaposition of these two examples could lead you to think that I’m simply telling another version of the Print Is Dead story. And that’s not the case. It’s actually cautionary. I think that it’s terribly vital for the parties to resolve their issues. I’ve talked to editors and authors and other agents like a broken record about the fact that the publishing industry is out of whack, far away from equilibrium. This is not a zero sum game. There can be multiple winners. But staying out of equilibrium, whether in royalty rates for e-books, co-op dollars spent in different markets, or not having any kind of industry standard for what constitutes a recoverable expense for an author to need to return to a publisher (and there should be very few of these, by the way, but that’s a different column), will only create a negative spiral. Markets hate chaos and uncertainty—it’s bad for business. And our market is, at this point—despite terrific books being written and an explosion in distribution opportunities—both uncertain and chaotic.
Note from Josh: My son Joe is off from eighth grade this week for Spring Break. He saw me sitting down to write the blog this evening, and asked if he could do it for me. He said he’d been thinking about character, and wanted to explore it. He shooed me off my computer, patted me on the head, and yelled a bit later that he was done and could I have a look. I tell you—sometimes good advice comes through experience and deep, thought-provoking examples. And sometimes it’s through Loony Tunes, Enjoy.
Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
What’s the first thing that draws your attention to something? Color? Size? Overall flashiness? Whatever the case, these first impressions help leave an important mark, whether positive or negative. When you write a book, however, these cannot help you. Unless you’re writing a picture book, you must rely on your own writing to draw peoples’ attention to something—give an image in peoples’ minds about what this thing looks like. In terms of characters, you must look to personality, which can be incredibly difficult for many writers.
You see, whether the character is good or villainous, something about him/her must rope you in. Some key facet must intrigue you or interest you. At best, these characters transcend the written word; knowing how they feel or what they’re doing is a major matter of importance to you, and you want to see what happens next. In the hero/heroine’s case, you want to see them defeat the bad guy and escape safely without dying (which, leave us be frank, is rare for literary characters these days). In the villain’s case, you want to see how they meet their doom, or how they are put off until the next encounter. If a character is poorly written, you couldn’t care less about what they do or what happens to them. They strike you as having no personality whatsoever.
A prime example of personality lifting a character to superstardom is that of Bugs Bunny. Not a literary character, I know, but bear with me. The rabbit we know and love actually began life as a screwy bunny known unofficially as “Happy Rabbit”. Even his creators admitted that he was little more than Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit, with some elements of Goofy and Woody Woodpecker for good measure. Viewers couldn’t care less what happened to this irritating screwball; some may have preferred to see the rabbit hastily shot. Basically, he had no personality. He was all cartoon and no character. But, through revisions, directors began changing the bunny. Director Tex Avery completely revised Bugs, and even after that, directors added more, and within less than ten years, Bugs Bunny, as we know him and love him, reached complete fruition. And why did they not simply abandon him after his early failures? As some directors put it, while they were drawing Bugs’ misadventures, they became Bugs. If something happened to Bugs, it de facto happened to them, and they needed to be as clever as the character they drew to get out of it.
This is an important key to giving a character a personality: you need to care about the character yourself before you get everyone else to. If a writer gets completely roped into the story-where he or she, as said before, experiences what the character experiences through their writing—they put the emotions of the character right onto the paper. You can imagine some writers catching their breath after writing a swordfight, or sighing with happiness after writing a happier scene. And this literary form of method acting pays: you care, your readers care, and the book is a success.
Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Gale, Peter Pan, Atticus Finch: if you’ve read the books these characters have starred in, you basically have been them for all the time you’ve read the book. They grip you and instill a bit of themselves in you. The best writers do this effortlessly, but no fear: the more trying, the better you get, even if you’re an established author. And always remember: there is no such thing as too much personality. Even a little makes a huge difference.
Every so often, I have a day where so many things happen in a short period of a time that I go home and my wife says "So, what did you do today?" and I honestly don't know where to begin. Today was one of those days, and I thought I'd give a sense of the different types of balls I juggle. And the interesting and cool thing is that I know (from discussions, tweets, Facebook posts, and emails) that my colleagues in agencies and publishing houses and living rooms/offices/Paneras (or the myriad other locations that writers write) that so many other folks who make publishing run are equally busy. Any time I hear that Publishing is Moribund I wonder how that is possible...
Anyway, I realized when I left that I'd emailed or spoken with 14 clients, 11 editors, both of my partners, my new assistant and my old assistant. I interviewed a possible intern to help with submissions and social media, and tweeted, Tumbled, and updated my Facebook page and Publishers Marketplace page. I submitted or discussed submitting seven manuscripts, and read and asked for more pages from two very interesting blind queries. One of the books I represent--Seven Kinds of Hell by Dana Cameron--was published today. Another, Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest, is in its final buildup to next week's publication. I received an offer for one of my clients to write an e-original Short, discussed the minutia of a cover for another, and prepared for a marketing strategy meeting for Geoff Rodkey's new novel before he goes out on the Endangered Authors Tour next month. Before 4, when I had to leave for an appointment.
Now typically, after I write an entry like this, I get several emails from clients saying "I see how busy you are. Do you still have time for me? Am I on the back burner?" And the answer is always no. There are certainly days where I concentrate harder on some clients than others, but I know that every client would want and expect me to tweet happily on their pub dates (and I do!). And so I beg--and (most of the time) receive--their patience (with some eye rolling). And on a day like today, when I've touched almost half my clients' projects in one way or another, I realize that I've got a terrific job, working with a LOT of interesting people. We'll get it all done. My burners are on high.
Of course, I forgot to pick up bread and milk on the way home, and the Super called wondering why I'm not meeting him at my apartment for him to get in and snake the bathtub. But, I mean, something has got to give...
Last night I began a column about the power of a Kindle Daily Deal on book sales, but assorted children needed attending to and I had to leave it. I realized as I was thinking about it though, that the end of the story isn't told yet--I want to see what kind of tail we get on it before discussing the results, so let's wait a week.
In the meantime, I had a long back and forth with my cousin Matt Resnick today. He posted on Facebook about having listened to "The Perfect Album" today, and asked what his Friends thought it was. A number of people weighed in--Rubber Soul, Aja, Beethoven's Ninth, Born to Run, Pet Sounds. And it got us into questions of perfection and what makes a perfect album. Is it production values (at which point you could make a case for Boston or Paul's Boutique) or an individual's opinion on genius of songwriting or concept or music (Freewheeling Bob Dylan, perhaps, or Dark Side of the Moon or Sinead O'Connor's The Lion and the Cobra, or the Smiths' Queen is Dead or Purple Rain or Bob Mould's Workbook or...you get the point.)
Of course, this is an impossible argument, as much as it's fun to do. I have perfect albums that the artists themselves don't even think is their best work (I like U2's War better than Joshua Tree, REM's Reckoning better than Out of Time, and I can listen to Terrapin Station or American Idiot for days and days). It also changes by genre--you can't compare Tannheuser to Rumours, really, or Candide to London Calling.
It's clear that you can do the same in books (and we do here all the time--how do you compare Pride & Prejudice to Moby Dick, or Wolf Hall to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Even within genres, a cozy is different from a police procedural (mostly) is different from a spy novel. Your idea of perfection might be The Corrections; your friend's could be Crime and Punishment or Harry Potter (but which one? Heh!) or Love in the Time of Cholera or Foucault's Pendulum or Easy Rawlings. But it's always a good time.
Oh, and Matt was listening to Kind of Blue. Hard to argue there...
When I was in high school, there was an enormous Tower Records store on 66th Street and Broadway, right in front of the subway station I used to get home from school. I spent a serious amount of time in Tower Records, learning about Jimi Hendrix and Depeche Mode, Prince and The Replacements, browsing the racks of LPs and reading liner notes, which were their own metaliturature.
No, I’m not going to spent the next 500 words mourning the death of the record store (though I could) or comparing the slow death of Tower Records to what appears to be a similar death spiral of retail Barnes and Nobles stores (again, I could). But I am going to discuss, somewhat wistfully I suppose, another aspect of the Tower Records experience that is gone and which I miss: The Ticketmaster line.
I was talking to one of the guys I share my office with the other day, and mentioned that tickets for a particular concert I wanted to see had sold out at the price I wanted to pay. And I said, in a kind of throwaway line, that pressing refresh on the Live Nation website was nowhere near as much fun as it had been to wait on line for tickets to, say, Jethro Tull or Rush or the Kinks in eighth or ninth grade.
Actually, it wasn’t that much fun to wait. You had to line up around the Tower Records store up Broadway to 67th Street, then around toward Amsterdam, and couldn’t get in until the store opened at 9 in the morning. It was cold and boring and the smell of stale weed gets old. I didn’t do it often. But there was still a shared sense of community with other teenagers to wait to get tickets to a show, and you’d talk about how you hoped they’d only play Old Stuff because the new album sucked and did you see them the LAST time they were in New York—no, not the Friday night show, I heard that was terrible, but the Saturday night one when Joey Ramone came onstage for the encore and, well, looked like he was going to fall over but he was SO COOL!
And then the door would open and you’d go in and wait some more (but warm, now) and you’d hold each other’s places to (finally) go to the bathroom and talk about how you hope that they would just open the stupid register already because last time they sold out the first show in 11 minutes, but you’d get it and pay the cash you collected from your friends and get your tickets and bounce out and start the countdown to the actual show (and maybe buy the new album and see if it really did suck).
Then the next week, you’d walk past Tower Records and see another line of teenagers, for another concert, maybe dressed more metal or punk or new wave and you’d ask some tired kid “who’s coming?” and either nod approvingly or shrug, and get on the subway.
Look, it’s way more efficient to buy tickets (or books or albums or…toothpaste) on line than it is to wait all night on Broadway or shlep to the grocery store. Tower Records is out of business (a whole other column), replaced by Raymour & Flanagan, and nobody is waiting up all night for a new sofa. Teenagers meet on YouTube and Instagram to talk about whose songs suck, and take videos on their smartphones when they’re actually at the concerts. There are great advantages to our virtual world. But somehow that conversation the other day brought me back to the excitement and enthusiasm of an adolescent community experience which has gone the way of Joey Ramone sightings and liner notes.
I spent a couple of hours going through my unsolicited manuscripts on Monday with Danielle, my new assistant. It was fascinating going through this with a new person after a year and a half, when the material has become a bit more focused (much more historical fiction, much less fantasy and literary shoe-gazing). But we were struck by the fact that so many writers were still falling into the trap we call The Modifier Zone. Therefore, as a Public Service (as well as because it is evening and I've just returned from a conference run by the writing program at Columbia), I'm reprinting an old column (hey, after a year and a half this is the first time I'm doing this--not SO bad, no?) called (uh huh) The Modifier Zone. PS--The manuscript I discussed in this column turned out to be The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas, which was released last month by Minotaur and is selling like crazy (and which is THAT good).
“Josh stretched his tired arms and wearily dragged his calloused, tapered fingers through his curly, tangled hair as he struggled to rouse his overworked body out of his comfortable bed, the tinny chirps of the chrome iHome alarm clock mocking him…chirpily. He staggered blearily past the cluttered wood desk and opened the white door to the beige bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his scruffy cheeks and shook himself awake as the minty toothpaste shocked his sleepy tastebuds into awareness. He trudged heavily into the book-lined family room, past the herringbone sofa and the orange chairs, stopping at his dark brown Jack Spade messenger bag to take out his red Dell laptop. It is 5:15, and you have entered…The Modifier Zone.”
One of the more common flaws I’ve found in the queries I read is the Modifier Dump, when an author—whether in looking to be absolutely sure that the reader knows precisely what the room looks like or the character feels, goes adjective and adverb crazy. A tree is not a tree—it’s a green, leafy tree. A person doesn’t walk down the street—he walks down the wide, car-filled, green-leafy-tree-lined, newly-paved highway. At times it’s an excuse to show off SAT words: “The perspicacious toddler lugubriously imbibed the apple juice, perspiration trickling over his blowzy digits.”
Regardless, it’s the sure way to make me stop reading. When I am looking at the beginning of a book, I want to be hooked. That’s not a revelation—everyone wants to be hooked at the start of a book. It either needs to have action that draws the reader in, or a description of a place or character that makes you want to continue because that character or place is going to do something or be the site of something interesting. And you don’t need a lot of words to make that happen. (And you sure don’t need to describe the weather. Weather, unless we’re talking about, say, the moors or the desert or the ski slopes or the Islands, is rarely relevant; and when it is, it’s often self-evident.)
Rather, in a short space, you (typically) need to place the reader in time and location, and indicate something about the person or people involved, and what they are doing.
I was talking to my (FORMER!) assistant, Maddie, yesterday (LAST YEAR!), about an exciting query which had come in through the weekend. It had many of the elements I salivate over—foreign, historical setting, crime, class issues, badass proto-feminist protagonist, and author with a great background and the background to pull off an ambitious novel of this ilk.
“How’s the writing?” Maddie asked.
“Marvelous,” I said, and read the first sentence to her. “On the night I delivered Mercy Harris of a bastard child, the King’s soldiers burned the city’s suburbs and fell back within its walls to await the rebel assault.”
There is so much good about this—in 29 words, the author managed to convey so many things—let’s see how many:
1) The narrator delivers babies. So the protagonist is a doctor or a midwife. Not an amateur, or it would have been “The night I helped Mercy Harris deliver her baby.”
2) More than that, the narrator delivers bastard babies, which means that the story takes place during a time where that is important.
3) It’s set in a city.
4) With a wall.
5) It’s set during a time and place where there is
So the reader immediately knows that there are big things going on—a civil war of some kind—and also local dramas of childbirth. We don’t know where it’s going, exactly, but we want to continue. And in these 29 words, there is one modifier—bastard—and it’s vital, and evocative. It would say something very different about the book if the adjective were “illegitimate,” right? And it wasn’t necessary to say that the night was dark or rainy or dangerous, because the details given are more than sufficient to pique our interest. I don’t know if the author will be able to sustain the prose or the story, but I do know that I want to read on, and I’m inclined to like it.
So the takeaway on this I suppose is that for me the best writing is careful writing, where the pyrotechnics can be subtle, the adjectives minimal and always germane, and the weather implied. Many agents and editors talk about wanting to be transported to a different or unfamiliar time and place, with unique characters and gripping plots. That’s an incredibly tall order, and one whose difficulty is only magnified when it is burdened with unnecessary modifiers.
When my wife and I lived in deepest upstate New York, where entertainment options were…limited (Sam’s Club was a hot date on a Saturday night), we spent more than a little time reading essays by Dave Barry to each other and attempting not to spit out our Stewart’s root beer. From discussions of the worst songs in the world (sorry Neil Diamond and MacArthur Park) to riding at the speed of sound with pilots and trying not to throw up, we went through his oeuvre repeatedly through the long North Country winters.
It stood to reason, therefore, that when our 13 year old son who has a liking for Weird Al and Tom Lehrer discovered our Dave Barry collections, he fell madly in love. He’d insist on reading us chapter after chapter out loud, until our 9 and 10 year olds were repeating the punchlines (“and then the cyst was gone”—HAHAHA!).
Last week, Barry released his latest novel, Insane City, and nothing short of a second Hurricane Sandy was going to keep our gang from going to B&N to watch. We don’t go to readings that often—at least all of us don’t, and not together—and Amanda and I were hoping that they weren’t going to be disappointed. We hoped that he’d be funny and charming, but steeled ourselves for jaded and phoning it in.
What we got, very simply, was a master class in book touring. Look, Dave Barry’s been doing this for years, and he’s comfortable and practiced. Rather than giving anything terribly introductory or biographical or philosophical, as most writers appropriately do, Barry started us off with 15 minutes of stand-up comedy. It was a greatest hits tour through his Miami Herald columns, and the audience (the average age of which my children reduced by around thirty years) was nodding and laughing and mouthing along and winking at each other knowingly.
Seamlessly, he then segued to a short description of the new book, adding new anecdotes and a riff on the foibles of Miami. Then he took questions, and deflected the rude and the weird with grace and humor. Finally he finished, exactly, it seemed, at the minute he’d intended to, and sat patiently as 100 or so people streamed past with books to sign, even standing and taking photos with those who wanted them. When we got to him, he signed one book to “My idol Joe” and then told him to stay sane, even when Joe told him that he knew the whole Book of Bad Songs by heart. It was utterly satisfying, and great fun.
I write about this not to be hokey or to give a Larger Message about author readings and signings. There are a great number of ways to read well in public, from providing literary pyrotechnics to appearing sweet or simply showing one’s talent, to getting up and reading and letting one’s writing take center stage. Rather, I write about last week because it is a good feeling to go to an event—whether a reading or a play or an opera or a ball game or a movie—and get exactly what you hoped to get, and leave happy.