Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Short Stories and Credentials

Dear Rejecter:
I've been following your blog for some time as part of my attempt to create the perfect query letter - I want to do this before the manuscript is finished so I won't be tempted to send out a hurried query letter. Do you read science fiction? The reason I ask is because I'm wondering which short story venues, apart from magazines that contribute to SFWA eligibility, would impress you favorably if you saw them on a cover letter. Are you familiar with any magazines so pathetic the title would be a negative?

I do read science fiction. When I do read fiction, it's generally sci-fi/fantasy or historical fiction, unless something else has been recommended to me.

Your question addresses a larger issue, which is credentials. Yes, publications in important literary journals and sci-fi magazines (in this case) are very impressive to us. Your college's literary mag, not so much.

With that said, novel writers out there: Don't stress over short stories if you're not a short story writer. Some people aren't. If you are, by nature, a novelist, then you might burn a lot of time and frustration trying to get some short story that you threw together for the query letter published. The magazines/journals we care about have very, very high standards and way too many submissions to publish everything they would even want to publish.

I made my own foray into trying to get short stories published when trying to sell my second manuscript, which never sold. Eventually I got some short story into an online mag that paid me $5.00, but really, it was an excruciating process. I rarely write short stories and when I do, they're not my best work. All of the different magazines have their own standards and processes and then there's the waiting, waiting, waiting. If you have strong short stories it's worth it, but if it's just eating time that could be spent on another novel, it's not.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Post With My Writer's Hat On

This week my book went to copy-editing, which is essentially the last stage of editorial. Generally editorial works like this, after you signed the contract, but in this case it started before we actually signed the contract because it got held up for a ton of reasons.

1. I, according to the contract, give them a polished copy of the manuscript.

2. The editor suggests revisions and you do them, or the editor likes it the way it is and says "I'm sending it to copy-editing."

3. You panic on a level on which you've never panicked before, knowing that once it goes to copy-editing, no major revisions (addition or removal of scenes, etc) can be done, and this is you presenting yourself to the world even if the novel has nothing to do with you, so G-ddamn it, it had better be perfect, because those Amazon commentators are going to find something wrong and you're going to look like an idiot, you just know it.

4. The editor eventually pries the manuscript out of your hands, assures you that it's fine, and sends it to copy-editing.

5. Months later, it comes back with some minor (grammatical) revisions, you get a final pass at it, and it goes to press. Changes at this point are only cosmetic.

Last week I was not a sane person, and worried about this scene that I didn't do and that scene that I did do and was I really satisfied with it and G-ddamn this thing had better be perfect and so on. Granted, I am very, very grateful to be this far along and having my lifelong dream fulfilled and whatnot, but DAMN, this sort of thing will keep you up at night.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Kindle

So Amazon.com's pushing their Kindle e-reader on us pretty hard, as anyone who regularly visits the site in the past few weeks has noticed. Now normally I associate "kindle" with some flammable pieces of garbage you use to start a fire, which seems to be the consensus about the device in general, only it costs more and is hard to burn.

To be fair, I have never seen a Kindle in real life or used it myself, so I'm not the most well-versed of judges here. The Amazon reviewers gave it a "mediocre" rating, which is I suppose not as bad as it could be, but in principle I never buy a new piece of technology/software first off the line. I wait until the second edition at least, when they've fixed all the bugs from the first edition and there's been a price drop. I also am not a fan of e-readers, as I do a lot of my reading on Shabbos, when electronic devices are forbidden because the rabbis who decreed that didn't have a Playstation (or that's my feeling on the matter).

I have to say, for a device that seems overpriced and ridden with obvious difficulties which would bother me as a customer (like not working in rural areas, or not reading .pdf files), they are pushing the hell out of it, and I have to admire them for that. Suddenly my account has a "Kindle orders" page (empty) and every book's profile makes sure to let publishers know they can have it in a Kindle edition. With all the timidity and confusion about the e-book market, they are going headfirst into it with the determination to at least attempt to temporarily corner the market. With all that effort, you'd think they would have designed a better reader, but they were probably rushing it a bit.

This all amuses me more than it annoys me because about a month ago, I may (or may not, future employers) have been at an AAR meeting with the heads of the big 6 publishing houses for a panel on digital publishing. In short:

CEOs: OH NOES, THE INTERNET HAS PUBLISHABLE WORDS AND NO ONE TOLD US!
Agents: Can our authors have 50% royalties on eBooks?
CEOs: No.

All of the major publishing houses are currently throwing millions of dollars into research and development for the digital revolution they know is coming, but can't predict the outcome of, since a book is not the same as a song or a movie. Fair enough. That didn't stop them from saying some things that I, as a Technocrat, was utterly baffled by.

"No, we don't see a reason why the author royalty rate should be significantly higher on an eBook than on the print version."

"I think eBooks should be priced at the same retail price as regular books, because it's essentially the same thing."

"Though it hasn't worked for the record or movie industry, we should definitely put a lot of money into investing in DRM technology."

(in response to a question about file sharing) "Why would someone do that?"

Amazon, as a website run by people who work on computers all day, is obviously ahead of the curve on this one, though for some reason one of the publishers felt that Amazon was no longer worth talking about because their book sale profits were on a downward slope, in a study that failed to take the blossoming used book market into account, from which Amazon reaps huge commission fees.

Amazon also thought of a way around file sharing, at least until someone cares enough about a Kindle to hack it, which is that the Kindle editions are in Kindle files that are sent straight to your Kindle reader, and you never really own them, and they don't go on your computer and you can't send them to other Kindle machines. Oh, and you can't upload non-Kindle files to the Kindle reader. I have good faith that my friends will hack the device sooner or later (if they haven't already) and find a way to get .pdf files on it, or they'll just buy a better eBook reader that actually lets them do that and lets them store more than 40 books at a time. (40? 40? Are fucking kidding me?)

Will Kindle dominate/topple publishing as we know it? No. Will a future, better device succeed where the Kindle will ultimately fail? No. Someday, I may buy a cheap e-reader, load my library into it, and use it for reference purposes while writing, but otherwise, it's books for me. Cheap, used books available on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More Genre Guessing

Dear Rejecter,

You know how certain autobiographies go from interesting personal incidents to relevant social analysis(essay form) and back to more personal incidents? Would this format, if executed well, be out of line in a novel(with a fictional character instead of myself)? Because I've found that didacticism in the story incidents themselves (almost) always drag things down, but being straightforward about "this is what happened and this is what I think," if well written, could really work. Also, if you think this could work, would an editor pick it up? And to what area of publishing would you direct queries- and how would you label such a work? Is it inherently literary because of the analysis, even if the writing is plain? Should I call it anything other than a novel(in spite of the fact that that term is quite broad and welcoming thanks to the experimental fiction movement)?

A novel is a work of fiction. If you've written a series of essays based on your beliefs and personal life experiences, but changed the names, it's not fiction unless you change the facts.

The real question here seems to be whether it's "memoir" or a book of essays on social analysis. Novels - and even memoirs - are generally not written as a series of essays, but the real issue here is what point you're trying to get across. Do you want to tell a life story because it's interesting, or are you using life anecdotes to give social commentary? It sounds like the latter.

Your genre is: not relevant to your query. Just say it's a bunch of essays and that should be pretty clear. The agent will request it or not request it based on their interest in your subject matter, not how you label it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Tale of the Demon Stapler

So apparently I am not the smartest person in the world. By that I mean, if I were the smartest person in the world, I certainly would not hold the stapler with my two forefingers in the exact places the staple comes out while trying to fix it. Then I would punch holes in my fingers, but I wouldn't be stupid enough to do that.

Theoretically.

If this makes any writers feel better, my boss's first concern upon learning that I'd pierced my hands was that I might get blood on the contracts, and I should move away. The second was, you know, that I'd pierced my hands.

The comments are being approved a little slowly because blogger has decided that those emails alerting me to new comments are better as a concept than as a reality. If you don't see your comment up immediately or even for a day or two, don't repost it. It's just in the pile to be approved. I do generally approve comments unless they contain anti-semitic rants or suggest things about my sexual proclivity. I would like to lay down a general rule here about plugging your blog.

Writers who plug your blog: Don't do it. First of all, I know you're doing it so that I (or other industry people who read this blog) might wander their, discover your genius, and email you with a 5-figure offer based on the novel excerpt you have up. Or worse, you're plugging your self-published book that needs sales beyond your friends and family. Well, we all know what you're doing, so stop it. Second, it looks really tacky.

If are logged in and clicking on your name leads to your own blog, I have no problem with that. If you want to post a link to your blog because it has something relevant to do with the current conversation, I have no problem with that. If you repeatedly keep adding your blog URL to the end of every comment you make, I will give you a warning, and then start rejecting your comments.

And now: pain medicine!

EDIT: If blogger insists on adding the URL for you, it's OK.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

I Venture Away From My Computer

Today I went to a small press/independent press book fair. It's been a good six months since the Book Expo of America, so I guess I'd forgotten that most small presses that rent booths at book fairs seem to be lower quality fantasy, erotica, Christian fantasy, or erotic Christian fantasy. There were some Marxist and/or conspiracy nut presses, legitimate translation presses, and the few remaining children's books not produced by Scholastic. Personally, I think if South Park took an entire episode to make fun of your conspiracy theory, you should probably call it a day.

But seriously - small presses are important. Yes, Barnes & Noble has made sure that their hopes of widespread distribution will be squished like that weirdo bug near my bathtub drain, but the internet has made it so that if they manage to correctly title the books, they might be found by a search engine and actually bought. I did recognize some titles, but only from Amazon browsing. I am a small press. I published a book last year using Lightning Source that was a public domain work and made a few thousand bucks by doing my own distribution. In 2008 I'll do it again with another book that hasn't seen the light of day in 100 years. It's a labor of love, not a career.

Unlike the BEA, which charges a steep admission fee and makes you have to come up with some industry job on their form to be admitted, this one was open to the public, which meant to say the talks were geared towards unpublished writers. As an unpublished writer myself (the book's in development but it's not on shelves), I've tried to stay away from writer's conferences, because I find the information provided in them to be misleadingly optimistic and the air of desperation to be stifling. The speaker on how to query agents, who shall go unnamed, was not only there, but hocking her own book on the subject, which made me glad I wasn't her client. She did give good advice. It was obvious advice, but you gotta start somewhere. I was actually sort of surprised that I agreed with most of it, because it is true that agents have differing opinions.

The really sad part was, of course, the writer's questions. It takes something to stand up to a crowd of desperate people longing for that one nod of approval from an agent or that one call from a publisher that changes their lives, much less tell them the truth, so she softened her answers to the point where they became totally useless answers that didn't address the main problem, which was that the author was a pretentious asshole or has written a book that no one would ever want to read. (How did I know? Oh, trust me, you know. If they say they're too unconventional and fantastic for normal publishing and that's why 70 agents rejected them, you know)

I don't have a huge fear of public speaking, but I tend to be much nicer in person, which I think would eliminate my ability to say anything useful. Yes, there are people who just need to be pointed in the right direction, or assured that no, the agent will not get pissed if they send 52 pages instead of 50 because that's when the chapter ends, and no, we don't throw out an entire query letter because of one typo, and yes, if you have written an excellent book, our job is not to crush your hopes and dreams. It is to fulfill them. The bad news is that most people haven't written a good book.

She did draw the line at endorsing self-publishing. That was for the next speaker to do.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Junior Agents and You

I've got a burning question. I'm in the querying process, and there are several junior agents that I'm interested in querying, but -- how much clout do they really have? My work is genre, and I'm afraid if I go with a younger agent who's actively building his or her client list, I'll end up being published by one of those houses that just tosses a million books out there and sees if any stick. I know I don't want an uber agent -- my friend had good ole Binky Urban and fired her after her initial book and 7 years of writers block and no attention. But I'm afraid I'll be part of someone's learning curve. This especially pertains to agents who have only worked as agents, and not on the editorial side. How do they build contacts with editors? Won't it just be the cold query process all over again?

First of all, all agents have a learning curve, because the market and even the industry is always changing in massively unpredictable ways. Until an agent lands an ultra-mega-huge score (something Salinger-esque) that will probably be paying them money when they're in a nursing home, their career is always in flux. A couple dry years and they're putting out for that third mortgage and hoping to G-d that their big clients write something new.

Junior agents, sub-agents, associate agents - whatever you want to call them - are new, but they're not on their own. They belong to a bigger agency for a reason: the head of the agency will help them along and nourish their career (and take a cut for her hard work).

My agent has no particular label to her title, but she is a new agent who is part of a larger, very established agency, and I don't lose any sleep about how many years she's been in the business.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Widely Querying

Here’s my question: My number one first pick for an agent requested a partial after I pitched to her at a conference. I have sent the partial and not heard anything, which is totally fine and expected (it’s only been two days). Should I go ahead and start querying the other agents on my list? I know that a partial does not get the same consideration as a full, but I don’t want to jump the gun. She expressed excitement about my work and we had a really great meeting.

Unless she asked for an exclusive and you gave it to her, feel free to query as widely as you like.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Rethinking "Genre"

As my previous post inevitably dissolves into another literary fiction vs. genre fiction debate, in which the literary fiction people get on their high horses and the genre people collect paychecks, consider this:

Genre in its purest form exists for a singular purpose: To help you find the books you want to read. "Genre" is a classification system used by libraries and bookstores to herd people towards the type of literature they are looking for at the moment. Now the categories are more narrowly defined, but it wasn't always this way.

In Western Europe during the Middle Ages, what books were being produced were largely religious in nature. Books were monstrously expensive to produce. Most of our fiction from that period is some author's hand at recording oral traditions (which is why a lot of this literature seems to look the same). The non-monastic book production industry relied on noble patronage, and undoubtedly the noble would specify what kind of book they wanted before the first page was properly stretched out from bleached calf skin. After all, if you're spending a small fortune to have something made for you, and then wait years for it to be finished, you're going to be rather specific about what you want the final product to look like. While devotional books were popular (like a Book of Hours), those who could afford to be patrons of the arts also preferred tales of suspense, romance, and adventure.


With the invention of the printing press and the dramatic reduction in the cost of paper, it became affordable for authors to dream of creating a book on their own and just hoping it would sell, though they probably had an audience in mind. There still was no formalized system of dividing books by type of story, simply because there weren't 3-story bookstores to wander around. You had access to the books that were available in your area, or maybe you could get something popular on loan from a circulating library (a popular source of book distribution in Britain in the 1700's-1800's). A reader probably could generally find out what the book was about by asking the store owner or the librarian.

The dividing of books into specific genres is a commercial instinct. Growing up, my local library had three sections: Adult, Children's, and Video Tapes. It was a fairly small library, but I remember being frustrated by it once I moved out of the children's section, because the adult section seemed to mush everything together and the librarian was less interested in pointing me in the right direction and more interested in running the children's programs.

Bookstores operate on the basic principle that you, the reader, probably like only certain times of fiction, and if you just happen to be browsing, it will be easier for you to find new authors if they're in the same section with the authors you're familiar with because they write the same type of book. This rigid classification system has changed not only the way books are sold, but how they are developed, and how they are viewed.

Barnes and Noble has a "Fiction and Literature" section, because it sounds better than "General Fiction," but I deeply suspect that a lot of authors who are in there are in there because they were published before categorization was so strict. Today, Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man might wind up in memoir even though it is about a fictional character who happens to heavily resemble the author. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice might show up either in women's fiction or even in romance, depending on the store's decision. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein would undoubtedly be buried in the sci-fi/fantasy section. Shakespeare, a playwright, would be in that tiny section for plays. Imagine Sei Sh┼Źnagon's The Pillow Book being mislabeled and winding up in the erotica section. And so on.

One could make the argument that while our modern sensibilities think this is cheapening the way we treat the classics, genre labeling is what it is - a method of enabling the reader for find the type of book they like and other books that might be like it. Since all books need to find a reader, all books belong to some genre, however hard it may be to define - but that's probably because no one's tried to define them yet.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Do People Love My MFA Discussions?

Dear Rejecter,

Alas, I have a dilemma I'd like to share. I'm currently studying public relations and creative writing at the University of Miami. To make a long story short, my writing professors hate commercial fiction, love literary fiction, and I have no idea why. I never thought it was a crime to try and be an entertaining writer. In fact, if studying PR has taught me anything, it's that you better be entertaining and likable as much as you possibly can. And yet, my instructor (who actually wrote a novel herself) seems to think that prose and language trumps all.

Is this pretty much commonplace within academia? Your experience in the MFA program seems to confirm my suspicions, and yet your day-to-day descriptions of your job paint a very different picture. Correct me if I'm wrong, but an easy-to-read commercial novel is more likely to get published than a literary novel, right? So why on earth do professors keep shoving literary fiction down our throats?

It certainly doesn't appear to be helping anybody; in fact I think it's actually irresponsible in a way. If it comes down to it, who would be more attractive to an agent and/or publisher: the kid with a business background who writes supernatural thrillers (read: me) or the kid with the traditional MFA training who writes about... whatever it is literary novelists write about? As of right now I'm taking what my professor says with a grain of salt. I know that might sound arrogant, but every bone in my body is telling me to keep going on my own track -- finish my novel, finish my degree in PR, and use the business acumen I've developed to help me land a deal.

Thoughts? Comments?

Many, many great literary masterpieces have come from writers who took MFA programs. Like ... all right, I can't think of any off the top of my head. Or at all. In fact, after 2 1/2 years in an MFA program, I've only read one piece by a fellow writer that was potentially publishable or even likable, but this is probably an anomaly. Some of the teachers were published once, like in 1976 and never went into a second printing and I've never heard of their work, but that's probably also an anomaly. Oh, and that was also true of the MFA program professors who taught my undergraduate writing programs at Brown, but again: anomaly. Every single encounter I've had with college or graduate level writing has to be one long line of coincidences that all the people I encountered wrote incomprehensible things or boring, pretentious, and plot-less stories. Man, imagine the odds of that?

Or it could be the other thing you mentioned, that MFA programs suck. Tough call there.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reply cards

Dear Rejecter:

I'm about to start sending query letters out and found examples of good and bad query letters on the underdown web site. One of the good examples mentioned "I have enclosed a reply card for your convenience." I've never heard of reply cards. What comes to mind is a postcard-like thing, self-addressed and stamped, with something like this:

Dear [Author]: we have read your manuscript and

___ you are a god. Please send us your MS immediately. P.S. We want to have your baby.

___ it might be right for somebody but please god, not us.

___ never submit anything else to us. The Hazmat teams totally trashed the place.

___ please settle a bet: which end of the pig did you pull your MS out of?

___ we have turned it over to the FBI, kiddie porn division.


But seriously: are these common in publishing? Can you buy them at stationery stores or should I make them up myself? Do I just leave them blank and let the agent supply the rejection text? Should I include only the positive response ("Please send us a copy of your MS.") or some negative ones too? Most importantly, are they a good idea or will they be seen in some mystical, inaccessible-to-industry-outsiders way as "unprofessional" (even without the humour)?

So I'm going to go neutral on this one. Comment cards don't generally annoy us, but sometimes they do, but not in a major way. And yes, we do get them from time to time.

Some agencies like to put a form rejection in the return envelope, and are annoyed when one isn't provided and they have to write their rejection instead (some people literally send a blank, SAS postcard). Some people don't find the humor funny (it usually isn't). On the other hand, yes, it is wicked convenient.

What is annoying is when an author provides various check marks, and somewhat literally, none of them offer us a rejection option. Then I have to write in a little "__x__ Thank you, but not for us" thingy. Don't be a dork.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bad Manners

I've been querying for my first agent. Some queries went out a few months ago with requests for the full but no response otherwise. Some queries went out a week ago with almost instant requests for fulls. And then phenomenal turnaround times in reading the MS.

Great feedback, some rejections and one accepted offer of representation later, I emailed everyone who still had a partial or full manuscript to update them on my new agented status.

I got an email back from an agent who was holding on to the full the longest stating they had spent the day reading my manuscript and deserved to respond to the offer. Bad manners, they said. But there was no exclusivity attached.

Is it bad manners? Have I gone against established protocol? I should be happy to have jumped this hurdle and focus on revisions and preparing my manuscript for the next step. But that response really took me by surprise and made me question how I've gone about the process. How should I proceed during the next stage of writing life without making another stupid mistake? Many thanks for your insight.

If it makes you feel any better, I made many similar mistakes when I got my own agent this summer, despite my years of working in the business. It's a very tricky thing because some understandings are unwritten, and I honestly don't know how agents expect us to know them if they never talk about them.

In general, people who get an offer from an agent usually call up the other agents who were considering a partial or a full and ask them if they also want to offer representation, because authors like to keep their options open and are not necessarily sure that the agent that responded is the one they want. When I got my book offer, I called every agent who had a partial or full and told them I had a book offer, and would they like to consider my work more seriously? Most responded within 24 hours, some begging for more time. Then it became difficult to choose, and I wasn't quite sure how to go about doing it. It's not easy for anyone.

I don't think what you did was bad manners. Some authors do jump on the first (or second) offer, and leave other agents in the dust, because that was the agent they wanted in the first place. In fact, it was very polite (and correct) of you to inform the others that you now had an agent and they should remove you from their consideration pile. If they expected more from you, they should have told you so, or demanded an exclusive. I would mark that agency off your list for down the road; it doesn't seem like they're right for you, anyway.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Things That Make Me Laugh #3

In a query, someone described his novel as having "more irony than shootin' irons."

Does anyone want to explain to me what that means?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Agent Salaries

I've been getting a lot of these:

Just out of curosity,

How much do agents (on average) get paid? What's the low and high end?

And here's another:

Once you become an agent, even if you have to give up a part of your income, don't you get a "base salary" and benefits? Wouldn't that be worth holding on for?


So, you know how when you sign with an agent, they find you a publisher, and then take 10-15% of your earnings? That's their paycheck.

Agents don't "work" for anyone but themselves and their clients. There's no one to provide them with a salary or benefits. Their income comes entirely from a small percentage of their clients' total earnings. This means that a year could pass where an agency could make no money whatsover, if none of their older clients have written books that sold that year, or they fail to sell any works from new clients. Most agents are smart enough to make some money every year, but that money could easily be under $4,000.

So how do they stay in business? An agent relies on an author (or preferably a few) that make considerable advances and write books on a regular basis of once every 2-3 years. And when I say "considerable" I mean, "over 100,000 dollars." Remember that the agent gets only 15% of that, tops.

A new fiction author will generally make around 5,000 dollars in an advance and then not earn any royalties. That's $750 for the agent. Now math isn't my strongest suit here, but to be able to earn $30,000 (with no benefits, no overtime, no 401k) the agent would have to take on 40 new authors a year, which is by anyone's reckoning an insane amount of authors. The agent simply wouldn't have the time to edit and sell all those manuscripts.

Most clients of the agent are not significant earners, but a few have to be, or the agency doesn't stay in business. My boss has a few clients who make about $250,000 or $500,000 advances, but those authors don't write a book a year, or even a book every other year. She just hopes one of them will come through, so she can pay her electricity bill.

In answer to the second question, as to why don't I become a salaried agent, it's because the job doesn't exist. If I started out as an agent today, I would have to build up contacts and a client list, and then sell the manuscripts of my clients to editors. It could easily be two years before I see any money at all, and more before I see enough money to constitute a living wage.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Reading Lists and Market Shares

I officially have to stop buying books. Not only is there very little room left in my apartment (we haven't started using them as furniture yet), but I am legitimately behind on my reading.

As I've been told many times by different publishers and market researches, Amazon.com only has about a 17% market share, so publishers tend to ignore the website. I think this number is deceptive. I still do buy books in bricks & mortar stores, but I also write down the titles and authors of books I want that look too expensive and then go buy them online for 10% of the cover price, after shipping. I know I'm the exception to the rule, what with buying an overwhelming majority of my books online and having an Amazon credit card to earn rewards points to continue buying books online, but maybe the industry should take a little note: I buy around 200 books a year. That makes me unusual in a very significant way. Serious readers without a tremendous amount of disposable income now have a serious alternative to libraries - buying used books on the ever-expanding online used book market. Honestly the biggest hurdle to that is the recent postage increase, but it's worth it if the book costs $0.01 and is "used, like new." Used book sales aren't tracked (at least not by anyone I've heard from), and I wonder what Amazon's "market share" would be if they were.

Reading list this week:

- The Mishnah, Seders Kodashim and Tohoroth
- I am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (gift from dad)
- Sefer Yetzirah, Chapters 1:1 - 1:14
- Samurai by Mitsuo Kure
- The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice (admittedly, couldn't get through it)
- Half of an urban fantasy manuscript I'm reading for a friend

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Job Ladder

I was wondering... how much access do you have to clients and publishers, how do you get to know them, and how easy is it for you to move up in your world? In the Hollywood system, assistants are expected to listen in on calls, memorize everyone's phone number, and talk to clients a lot-- this is sort of the "apprenticeship" phase of your career, and while you are getting this education in "who's who and how to please them," you work for $300-500 a week, with the promise that eventually you will be a better-paid agent/manager/producer. Does the lit biz in NY work like this, or do you have to be creative in figuring out how to meet people? And are you paid any better?

If I was working even close to full time, yeah, I guess I would be making about $400 a week. I'm not, though. That's the first misconception. Most assistants are only part-time. I know assistants who work for multiple agents on different days of the week to fill out their schedule (this is an accepted practice).

Beyond the hourly-wage part-time assistant, you generally move up in two ways.

(1) You become a sub-agent to your boss or go to work for another agency as a sub-agent and start representing your own clients. Your boss takes a cut, but you get to use her name and contact sheet and she holds your hand through the process of your first few contracts. More and more people are doing this as agencies proliferate, but in the past, being an agent required years of experience working on the other side, in a publishing house. I could go into long theorizing about why that's changed, but it would be guesses and I can't say if it's better or worse for the industry. It's difficult to make any hard statements about the book industry.

(2) You now have a year's experience and get a job as an editorial assistant (or a publicity assistant, or a production assistant, or whatever - the bottom rung) at a publishing house through the normal methods of calling your contacts and submitting resumes and whatnot. This is what I'll be doing in December, when I graduate from my MFA program. While an agency would be a better working environment for me (setting your own hours) with my chronic illness, I don't want to be an agent. Contracts and sales and pitching books to editors and rights don't interest me. My first boss nailed it on the head when she said I was made for editorial. So, that's where I hope to be, in a few months (hint hint, industry people) - rejecting people from the actual publishing house and not the agency. Or just doing general editorial work. Plus it's a standard paycheck thing, not relying on the success of your author to make any money, which I'm more comfortable with. As much as I enjoy working for an agent, I'm not a saleswoman at heart and I don't think I could do it for a living.

---

On an additional note, many, many people have been emailing me, asking how to get a job like mine. Please refer to my earlier post about it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More on Rejections - Surprise!

Well! I'm less likely to respond to people flaming each other if I don't seem to be the one flamed, but I will answer some questions. Oh, and to clear things up, these segments are from different people's posts.

So Rejecter, if the personalized rejection comes five months after sending a requested partial which in turn came five months after sending a query, do I punch myself in the face or tell the agent's assistant (who, by the way, had no idea what he was talking about with respect to the subject matter - believe me, I know: I've heard from enough agents who DO understand the subject matter)to get F'ed?

You waited five months for a response from a query? Wow. The partial thing is not a surprise to me. Response time on requested material is slow. But if the whole process took 10 months, yeah, that is a little obnoxious, but surely you submitted to a ton of other agencies at the same time, right?

You can tell the assistant to get fucked only on the condition that you supply the money for the prostitute, with the understanding that the assistant might go spend it on a new hard drive instead. Or some DVD box set. Either one.

Here's to the fucking assholes of the world: they'll always be there and so will the professionals who see this whole process as a business.

We do classify our work as "business," at least to the IRS. Then books become a "business expense." Also agents rely on author's proceeds to pay the rent and electricity bill and stuff, so it actually needs to be a profitable business.

The agent in question has a blog where they blabber on about their vacations, and stuff they're doing with their kids and how they've been to this conference and that looking for clients, yet they can't keep their "house" in order with respect to projects they've requested. ... This agent reminds me of a part-time real estate agent - they were that unprofessional.

Not all agents act professionally all the time. Just like anyone in any other business.

I once got a rejection back from an agency on a partial after 3 days. The (requested) partial was 50 pages. No way they read it. And there were no sticky fingermarks, coffee rings, mustard stains or dog-eared pages on the pathetic pristine pages I got back. Nah, they didn't read it.

I would put my money on the idea that they did. We tend to treat submissions fairly professionally, especially if you supplied return postage for the entire submission. I don't smoke, drink coffee, wear lipstick, or dog-ear pages, and my hands are washed on a regular basis, so for the most part the partial looks the same when I'm done with it as when I started, and if it's going back to the author, I generally put it back together and make the neat before it goes in the envelope.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Inside the Partials Process

Obviously this is only true at agencies with an assistant, and then only some of them, but at every agency I've worked at, it's gone something like this:

(1) My boss asks me to read a partial she requested because she's especially busy lining up interviews for her bestselling author.

(2) I read the partial. (Obvious)

(3) We have a 2-minute conversation, tops, about the partial. Sometimes it doesn't take two minutes. I once worked at an agency where for the most part, the agent did not personalize the response to partials unless they were very close, but she did have a special form letter response specifically for partials. My current boss responds herself, in her own handwriting (not mine).

Most of the time with partials, I don't say to reject unless it's obviously so horrible that the query was just plain misleading. Partials are something the agent was interested in from the get-go, so I'm not quick to dismiss the work, and if I do, I have to give a reason. (Occasionally "The author can't spell" is enough) Here are some common responses I'll give her:

"I'm not thrilled about it, but to be honest, it's not my type of literature anyway, and there's nothing wrong with it on a sentence level, so you might like it."

"The author has a specific style of prose. You'll decide whether you love it or hate it in two pages."

"It's very similar to a lot of stuff on your list in terms of content, but I don't think it's as good as any of the stuff on your list."

"I can't make heads or tails of it. Was this an e-query you responded to? OK, you look at it then. I have no idea."

"Does this guy know you, or something? Why was this requested?"

"I hate literary fiction, and this is literary fiction, and I actually liked it a little, so that's pretty much a stunning recommendation."

And so on. If it's a reject and she doesn't want to read it herself for time reasons, she asks me specifics about it so she can be more personal in her reply.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Personalized Rejections

Dear Rejector,

I read in an agent blog today of a woman who hammered back at the agency with a long tirade of snide comments after receiving a rejection letter. I was horrified at her attitude.

Then I remembered a note by me to an agency about a year an a half ago where I frustratingly told them their standard rejection letter seemed very cold.

I have learned so much since then, and now look upon rejection letters as the things they truly are: not personal. It's a business. And a writer trying to sell a manuscript and enter into a business agreement should remember the other party has the right to reject it if it isn't good business for them.

Still, that comment I made might come back to haunt me when I start sending out query letters again. Yes? No? Probably wasn't memorable enough to stand out? Never darken an agent's door again?

To answer the second question first, no, that one agency will probably not remember you unless they rejected your full and you're resubmitting the same manuscript. And even then, it's one agency! There's over a hundred of them.

As to the first question, which was unasked, what is the deal with people complaining about personalized rejections? I mean it's still a rejection, but if you get a personalized rejection, it generally means we cared enough about your work to personalize our rejection. You were close. You were closer than about 95% of the applicants. Slap yourself on the back and then write something just a little bit better.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Literal First Five Pages

Dear Ms. Rejector,

I've seen a lot of agents request the first five pages of a manuscript along with the query letter. This frustrates me a bit, because the prologue to my book is seven pages long, and I think an agent would be more enticed by the whole prologue than just the first five pages. So my options, as I see them, are:

1. Bite the bullet and only send 5 pages
2. Revise my prologue to be 5 pages long
3. Use 11pt font or 1.5 spaced lines to make it 5 pages long and hope the agent doesn't care/notice. Or better yet, if it's an email query, just send the text as part of the email and pretend it's 5 pages.
4. Send all seven pages, but be up front in the query letter ("I've sent you the first seven pages of my novel along with this query..."), and hope I don't get tossed aside for not following the specific instructions

Which of these options seems the most viable? Are any of them
completely idiotic and suicidal?

Actually, you've got a number of options open to you, but please use 12 point font. Our eyes, our eyes!

You can:

(1) Bite the bullet and send the first five pages, because those are also pages the agent will have to eventually like anyway, and if they aren't dramatically different from your general writing style, and your writing is good, that shouldn't be a terrible worry.

(2) Send seven pages. We won't really care if it's actually seven. On the other hand, we might not make it to page 6.

(3) Punch up the first five pages of the prologue.

(4) Send the first five pages of the novel proper, if they're understandable without the prologue. This makes a good deal of sense in many cases, when the prologue is a literary device or an informational device and doesn't actually look a lot like those overworked, perfect pages you mean to be your opening. We won't get mad at you. If you get a request for the actual manuscript afterwards, you might want to say something like, "There is now a prologue" so we don't get all confused. We get a lot of partials, and sometimes we forget who they're from or what they're about during the wait.

Note to all authors: When an agent requests the first five, he/she generally means the first five; this is the only case where he/she doesn't. Don't send the first five of the eighth chapter because you think the writing is the best in the beginning of the eighth chapter. The writing should be great everywhere.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Scams Upon Scams

When you expose a scammer, they don't learn their lesson unless they go to jail. They just find a new way to do it. Agencies that charge fees are now established to be evil thanks to the good people at Preditors and Editors and many other organizations, but that doesn't mean people aren't after your money and will find a way to get it.

Recently my agency received a letter that was a promotional pitch for a service by a company that would provide us with (for a very small fee, or no fee at all; I can't remember) rejection letters, or even stamps with our agency's name so we could just stamp the rejection line onto the author's query letter. It's essentially free paper and ink, but the catch was that all the rejections would include a link to their website, which coaches people on how to write novels (for $$$). Not only was this preposterous (no agency can't afford to type out one form rejection and photocopy it a bajillion times), it was also a scam - not for us, but the people who got rejected. We didn't dignify them with a reply.

Here's another one:

Rejector, I seek your opinion on:

1) having a freelance editor review/edit your book before sending it out to agents (I write non-fiction, so I'm usually in the "proposal" mode)


2) author representatives who "connect you with agents and publishers." (one i just stumbled on: authoronestop.com) isn't it just as effective to do research on your own, and submit to specific agents who represent your genre?

(1) Having a freelance editor review/edit your book is not a bad idea, provided they are legitimate. To an a normal eye, it is very hard to tell if people are legitimate, or if they are, if they're any good. Follow up on their references and see where that leads, first

(2) Instead of playing scam agents themselves, it seems the trend now is to pretend there's some kind of intermediary between you and an agent, like an agent is an intermediary between you and a publisher. Well, there isn't. We don't generally have people sending us stuff on behalf of new writers unless they are (a) our clients and friends or (b) other agents we know and trust and got drunk with at Frankfurt. I've never heard of Author One Stop.com, which is bad enough sign that I would discourage having anything to do with it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Book Titles

Dear Ms Rejector

Do you have any insights on book titles, and if they affect the way you respond to a query?

The answer to your second question is no, they do not affect the way we respond to a query. We'll probably only notice the title if it's especially cool. Most of times it's just a regular title or an especially bad one, but that doesn't bother us. The title can be changed throughout most of the book-publication process. I'm not particularly sure if the right title has to go on the contract or if it can be changed later, but I think it can be changed as late as final editorial.

Titles are also deceptively hard to come up with unless you're writing a thriller. We don't expect you to nail it the first time.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

E-Books! Did I do this already?

So, two people emailed me with questions about e-Books. Generally I trim long emails, but I'm going into ultra-pruning mode for the sake of time.

You should sell an e-book. Figure a five percent sell-through and 98 percent profit. If you get 500 visits per day and you're making $4.80 per unit, it works out to about $3,600 a month, possibly enough to rent a dumpster behind the Port Authority.

No, I wouldn't. Even if I sold 500 books per day, which bestsellers don't even do, Amazon would take 55% of my profits - or more. I'm not sure what their commission rate is for e-Books. I imagine it's high because they (and B&N.com, to be fair) are the only real vendor.

[Deleted section: This guy likes reading e-Books] Every-now and again though, for the same reasons I went to used bookstores and bought the most random title i could find, I nab stuff that is e-book only. Like before, most of it is pretty horrible and a few of them are worthwhile reads. One in particular was the best read I've had this year(since then its being picked up for print, which makes me very happy). Anyway, my question is this, where in the world are the reviews for this part of the industry?

Don't get me wrong - I'm a technocrat. My teenage years were spent on ultra-slow Prodigy Online and then on slightly faster local network. I shamelessly download an entire TV series that's either too expensive or not available for retail in this country (I like Japanese feudal dramas). That said, I hate reading books online. I'm willing to read fanfic because it's free and I already know the characters, so I'm more likely to like it, but I can't remember the last time I read an e-Book, even for free, that had no relation to some fandom. Why? Because most people feel that reading a book on a computer screen sucks. And most people make up most of the consumer market (though it's all right to feel special).

When hand-held devices that you could actually read on came out, there was a whole lot of press about how it would change publishing industry and we would all be switching to reading off our tiny, poorly-lit Palm Pilot screen like the guys in Prelude to Foundation. Remember when Stephen King did that chapter-by-chapter/pay-as-you-go posting of a novel? Or I took that course on hypertext fiction? (No, you don't because you weren't there. Well, I did. I needed more time to spend with my Playstation so I opted out of another history course.)

Even some ten years later, industry professionals are scratching their heads, trying to make a way to make e-Books profitable. As the person in charge of the digital division at I think it was HarperCollins explained to me this summer, "e-Books and internet files are being published by the major companies, but it's still basically R&D." (research and development) And she was a person willing to read a novel on her little novel-reading device, but she admitted no one understood her, even her co-workers.

As with any new thing that comes along unexpectedly and alternately revolutionizes/threatens your entire industry, it takes time to figure out how it's going to work. With the internet it's especially hard because things are constantly changing, as are the devices we buy to keep us hooked to that digital IV while we're away from the computer. What publishers have discovered, for the most part, is that e-Books are unprofitable. You put it up for $5.95 (dumb companies charge more), Amazon takes half, and then the author gets a cut. Also, people don't buy it, especially if it's a new author and/or it's also available in print form. In the end the result is easily less than $50 a month - for the company.

Not that the industry has given up. They have figured out that it costs almost nothing to create an e-Book other than editorial, especially if you've signed the author for a print run and you're doing the editorial anyway, so they don't really lose money; they just don't make money. The advantage is in time: it takes a book a year, at absolute best, to go to press, between the contract signing and the day the books appear on shelves. e-Books can go up whenever the editorial is done and someone's put some cover art together. Some companies are using the e-Book as a promotional tool while they're waiting for the book to come out, and even then, that's promotion restricted to people who spend a lot of time on Amazon. I do, but a lot of people don't. The point is that it's free promotion, and promotion is rarely free, so that's why you're seeing e-Books.

(Also you're seeing them because some people like them, but those people remain in the minority until our computer screens don't make our eyes want to bleed after a 12-hour session)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Rejection Timeline

Hi Rejecter-

Here's my question: sometimes query replies (in my case rejections so far) come like lightening, and other times it takes several weeks. What I guess I'm wondering is, if it a case of "the longer it's out, the better your chances are" because it's actually being considered, or does the fact that the query is still out just mean it's in a pile somewhere? Is this a total toss-up or is there a "usually" answer?

There are very few hard truths in this industry, and this is definitely an area in which a million things could be going on in the other side. I can tell you this:

(1) The "pile" (referring to the snail mail pile) stacks up based on how often the agent checks it, or if the assistant is in charge of that and if so, how often they come in. Sometimes I only come in once a week and do the whole pile. I used to work three days a week, so the pile didn't build up as much, except over the weekend. We do not go through it in any kind of order based on how much you spent on postage, so don't waste your money. What I do - and it's not always done this way - is go through the whole thing to make sure nothing's a bill or a royalty check or a bank statement, then stack it back up from largest to smallest envelope because it stacks better on the table. Then I do the whole stack.

(2) It's true that we reject instantaneously while we might take more time to think about a maybe query, but this by no means universally true. Generally I make a pile of maybes, and my boss looks at them, picks up the one she likes, and sets them aside. Then when she gets a chance, she emails the person. It's probably within the day because she's polite, but that's not true of everyone. They might let it sit on their shelf for a couple weeks (even a letter) if they are extremely busy. Agenting stuff like contract negotiations, publisher-set submission deadlines of final manuscripts, proof approval, and any kind of conference to get ready for (like the BEA or Frankfurt) are really more demanding and is what the agent does all day. In fact, hope that they do, because it means they're working hard for their clients, and if you become one, you'll want the same treatment.

(3) Partials and fulls can take a long time. This is true. I have had agents get back to me really quickly, generally with a rejection. Or if it's a partial, the agent can take a quick look and say, "Eh... I'm not sure. Need to see the whole thing" and request a full very quickly as well. If you have a full or a partial and it's been 6 months, give them an email. If something comes up, like an offer from that publishing house you sent into a year ago, call them and tell them. They will drop everything and read the manuscript. If they don't, they're definitely not the right agent for you.

(4) Some agents do not feel the need to respond to email queries if it's a rejection. I think this is rude and I'm glad my boss takes the time to reply to her emails, but that's the way some people feel. It's slowly changing as e-queries become more common, but some agents still just ignore it if they don't like it. The paper query with the SASE is a little harder to toss in the trash. There's some guilt factor there.

Beyond that, I can't say. Every agent works differently, and they work differently from week to week depending on what's going on that week. If they're busy badgering an author to get the final manuscript copy into the publisher by the deadline because it's tomorrow, then they won't be reading partials.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Covers!

I haven't posted much from a combination Jewish internet-less holidays/illness, but that'll be over in a week (the holiday part and hopefully the other part). Please know that if you post a comment past 6:15 pm EST tonight, it might not be approved until Saturday night.

Every once in a while, we get someone who's made their own cover. Either they've self-published already and are sending a copy or a copy of the cover, or they just designed a cover for what they hope will be their published novel. Let me say this: We love it. Why? Because they're so hilariously bad that we get a chuckle before moving on to the query, which is the only thing that concerns us anyway.

No, you do not get to design your own cover. I remember long before I worked in publishing and was submitting manuscripts (none of which were accepted), and I had wild dreams of designing my own cover. I even went into Photoshop, but at the time I wasn't very good at it and didn't come up with anything. I thought I could do a better job than those awful people who make covers using stock images (i.e. public domain) and something to make the author's name look shiny. Well, I was wrong. Unless the author has a master's in artistic design, with a speciality in commercial design for the book market, the cover will suck. So hard.

Oh man do I love them. There's the memoir covers made using a personal picture with the title written over it using Microsoft Paint. There's the self-drawn fantasy covers with the woman with impossibly large breasts standing beside the hero. There's the person who thinks a photograph of an empty building would look nice as long as they went a little nuts with the bevel/emboss function of Photoshop. And, last but not least, the person who pasted some photographs and newspaper clippings and drawings to a piece of paper and did a color photocopy, so it looks like some kind of collage.

Yes, you can not like professionally-done book covers. Many authors and readers don't. But you probably couldn't do better.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Joy of Low Advances

For those of you who don't know Anon 7:55, check out the replies in the previous post. As he actually asked a valid question, I'll answer it here.

Unpleasant Anonymous Poster said...

I concede. As far as it is possible to discern talent by prejudice alone, your book has every possibility of success. Although, I have a few more questions, just to show I'm not affected by the fact that everybody has turned against me. (They always do that, so I'm used to it. I actually think it makes a man stronger to have lots of enemies and no friends.)

This may just be my interpretation of it, but generally having lots of enemies and no friends means that you have poor social skills, not any particular kind of character-related strength. It's a negative thing.

Why would you accept such a small advance, even for genre fiction? Back to the subject of self-respect: If it's that good, then it deserves more money. At least the same amount as the average book of its category. And in response to all my enemies, I apologize for expecting more from you, The Rejecter. Are you just hoping it will earn out the advance? And if it sells only a few thousand copies, will you be disappointed? Are you taking commercial success into consideration? If you're so good, you should want to make all kinds of money, so you can write another one, where you won't be distracted by any preoccupation.

Why did I accept such a low advance? Aren't my years of patience and time and money spent honing my craft worth some kind of reward, preferably in the form of a pool filled with dollar coins that you can swim in like Scrooge McDuck? I deserve compensation for the hours I spent at the computer when I could have been out drinking and partying and being a normal, functioning member of society and not a shut-in.

Fortunately I paid enough attention during the first submission attempts to learn that that wasn't going to happen. The market is hard on new fiction writers; you're lucky to get in at all. I got an offer, I got an agent - I had it all. Except money, but that seems to concern my agent more than me. Sure, I could have taken that risk and walked away from the initial offer to hunt for a higher one at other companies, but had that attempt failed, I would be back to square one. And you know what? Square one sucks. I want to be published.

That said, there was a more practical reason to accepting a low advance. If you're offered a good one, man, reach for that star. But you probably won't be offered a good one, and if you're hopig to be a career writer like me, that might not be a bad thing.

For those unfamiliar with the term, an "advance" is what it is - an "advance" on future predicted royalties you will be earning from the book. The good news is that even if the book doesn't sell enough copies to earn that amount of money back for the company, you get to keep the advance money. The bad news is that the company does detract your first royalties and keeps them until you "earn out your advance" and go into royalty territory. The company has seen its investment returned, and you get paychecks again.

"Earning out" is an important thing to do if you have the intention of trying to sell future books to that company or other companies, because they will look at your sales record and see not only how many copies sold but how much money the book actually made for the company. If I had a half-million dollar advance, man had my book better be a bestseller, or I'll have a poor record as an overpaid author. Considering I've written something that is a niche genre, that's unlikely.

With a low advance, I'm more likely to see royalties because there isn't that much to earn back. When I go in with the second novel, they're more likely to buy it - and for a decent amount of money. Hopefully.

This is a practical concern. If you don't make enough money, you can't afford to spend all your time focused on developing your talent, getting better, which is all any serious artist cares about. Genius is eternal patience. You need unlimited free time to have eternal patience.

Are you writing from some kind of alternate dimension where eating, sleeping, earning money, and the normal spectrum of human activities don't consume most of your time, and you find yourself sacrificing your free time for just a few hours of writing a day? If so, where is this dimension and is there a bus from the NYC Port Authority that goes there?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Who's On Your Side?

But one question--is a publisher LIKELY to pull something like that if it jeopardizes their relationship with an author? Or does it all depend on just who that author is?

Yes. No. Maybe.

This summer at the publishing institute I got to hear from a lot of editors. Most of my contact, aside from at the BEA, has been with agents. Sometimes they're on the same side of the field, sometimes they're not. Sometimes it seems like one's on your side and the other isn't, but you may be wrong. Or it may not matter. I'm being very helpful, am I?

Everyone involved in the publishing process obviously has a vested interest in having the author succeed. They also have a vested interest in making sure that they are compensated for their time and avoid any legal issues while doing so. So everyone is sort of working together but sort of not. I got a first-hand taste of this this summer, when I was offered a book contract by an editor and ran off to find an agent. It was a long and complex process that I don't want to get into because it involves specific people, but the point is, suddenly after many years of rejection, the spotlight was on me and my commercially viable manuscript. I didn't mention it at the time on the blog because I was having the argument with Jill about her book contract, and I was sure it would just confuse the issue, which was unrelated. But anyway, yes, G-d willing, I am going to be published sometime in late 2008.

Despite having worked for an agent and taken an publishing course, picking an agent was a maddening process. The editor didn't want me to get an agent. Some editors simply don't like working with agents; they feel they drive up the price. They don't like the middleman. (These editors accept unsolicited manuscripts) On the other hand the advance was very low even for genre fiction, and the agent wanted to threaten to walk away and take a chance with other publishers, while I wanted to take the offer on the table (with some re-negotiations and revisions that I needed an agent to do) because damnit, I wanted to be published, and I knew a lot about the publishing company and I knew they would do a good job and probably eventually pick up the whole series. I called around to former bosses and co-workers and they all gave me different advice, and really wondered what the hell I was doing, and then wondered, "Wait, I work in publishing. How do I not know what I'm doing?" A lot of guessing and going with gut feelings was involved.

Currently we're in contract revisions similar to the one in my previous post. A lot of people who knew me asked me why in the world was I looking for an agent who would just take a cut of my pay when I knew all about the job and already had a book deal. Couldn't I do it myself? I decided to let someone else do the nitty-gritty of the contract, which turned out to be a big deal, which is why I'm relieved and heavy on the "you need an agent" recommendation for most authors.

That doesn't mean that the publisher was trying to "screw me." The publisher presented a contract that would give me an advance and future royalties if I earn out my advance, and they would get a lot of rights. It wasn't bad; I just knew I could do better.

Take the example of the previous post to this one. The publisher has a valid reason for not wanting to have to contact the author prior to revisions. Revisions are expensive, so chances are they would be minor anyway, and what the publisher is trying to avoid is a situation in which the author disappears (dies, moves to another country, etc) and the publisher is unable to contact them to inform them of revisions, so they're not able to republish. The publisher could very well have had every intention of informing the author prior to publication with the old wording, but wanted to safeguard themselves against extreme cases that could become a legal mess. Or, maybe they just really didn't want to be hassled and were being sort of sneaky.

No one's really evil, but no one really wants to be hassled when they're trying to do their work. Agents don't want to be hassled by their clients when they're in a waiting period and can't do anything for them anyway, publishers don't want to be hassled by agents demanding every last word be changed in some way, and nobody wants to hassle the author too much if they're an earner because they might jump ship with the next book and/or fire their agent.

So, it's one of these. (waves hands up and down like a measuring scale)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why You Need An Agent

I'm logging off for Rosh Hoshanah/Shabbos, so your comments won't be moderated for a while, unless I get someone to moderate them for me while I'm gone (Don't offer; I would have someone I know do it). Before I go, this story.

So my boss was on the phone the other day because she wanted another contract revision. In this case it was one word that she wanted inserted.

The original contract language said something like, "If revisions are made by the Publisher to the Work for a new edition, the Publisher must consult the Author."

She wanted it changed to, "If revisions are made by the Publisher to the Work for a new edition, the Publisher must first consult the Author."

Otherwise, the language is murky enough that technically revisions could be made, the second edition could be published, and THEN the author would be informed. In the original wording, no time frame is given to "consult."

I never would have thought of that.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Querying Agents in Same Agency

Dear Rejecter:

From what I've read, it's okay (and recommended) to query several agents at once. However, what about querying agents within the same literary agency? I have a friend who assists two agents at a very well-known agency and if I should query the two agents for whom she works in the future, would that be frowned upon? (I am speaking generally as I know my friend's opinion.) How much do agents within an agency "gossip" about us unpublished writers? Would they pass on a query sent to everyone in the house (even though several of them represent my genre)?

It is considered fair to query different agents in the same house, but space it out over a few weeks, because it might be the same assistant reading (or at least sorting) the mail, and when a bunch of letters with the same handwriting come in on the same day it looks tacky.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Anyone Want to Help?

Dear Rejecter:

I have a friend who is a professional book reviewer (www.bookwormsez.com) read by millions through the U.S. and Canada. She's promised to blurb my book when it's published. Is this something I should mention in a query letter?

I'm very skeptical of people I've never heard of. After all, there are a lot of places that basically just give everything a thumbs-up because a publishing company pays them to. Anyone heard of this person?

PS: Why have all the best bloggers in the publishing industry cut so far back on their blogging?

We're busy/on vacation.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Revisions Without A Contract

Hi there. I don't want to take up too much of your time, so I'll get straight to the point. An executive editor at a major publishing company requested my manuscript. During the process of waiting, her editorial assistant was kind enough to tell me the executive editor loved the book and that she was just as adamant about working with me as I am with her. Her editorial assistant even asked me to critique a piece of her work, which I did.

The editor sent me a list of revisions she would like to see, which don't seem impossible to make, but my question is whether or not it's a good idea to make revisions to a manuscript that hasn't been accepted or rejected.

I've been in this situation a couple times with agents and been burned a couple times, so I'll give you my advice.

From your description, she seems pretty interested. Also if she recommends revisions and is very specific about them and they seem sensible to you, you should probably be making them anyway. That said, she hasn't made you an offer yet, so don't be surprised if you turn around and she says no after you did the revisions. On the other hand, you come out with a better manuscript for other editors based on what was probably good feedback, so it's not necessary win-win (i.e. this might not immediately result in a publishing deal) but I would make the revisions and resubmit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bad Sign: Genres I've Never Heard of

What are your thoughts on stories using anthropomorphic fantasy? Is this a sub-genre all by itself and is it popular enough to be marketable?

Anything that is good enough can be marketable. That said, it is not to me knowledge an official sub-genre, so you shouldn't say that's your genre in your query.

What is an official sub-genre? It gets a bit hard to tell. Genres are actually pretty much determined these days by in what section the bookstores places them, and a lot of things get lumped together. Why some things are in sci-fi/fantasy and some things are in fiction & literature (i.e. general fiction) are a mystery to me, but that's why I'm not a Barnes and Noble buyer. As for sub-genres, they're only really relevant in certain cases particular to the genre, and generally they're not worth thinking about in the query because we can probably figure out the sub-genre from the summary. If it's about elves in New York, it's urban fantasy. If it's about a small-town amateur detective who solves crimes, it's a cozy. If it's a fictionalized account of the last days of General Custer, it's historical fiction. You don't really need to tell us that; we know the business, plus we think it's hilarious (in a bad way for you) when you get your sub-genre wrong, or list multiple genres in the hopes that you will convince us that it will be a crossover hit. (Man, I've done that. I was such a dork)

A good way to tell if your genre is "popular" is to go to a large bookstore and see how many titles on the shelves would fall in the same category as your work. I'm guessing in this case it would be very few, and I'm even counting the Dragons of Pern stuff.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Things That Make Me Laugh #2

The funniest book title I've ever read in a query was "The Mask of Nudity."

The book was about an unrelated subject, as far as I could tell.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Authorial Beauty Contests

Recently I was asked to give my opinion on this article on authors and beauty. I advise you to read the article and form your opinions before hearing mine.

July 16, 2001 — What if the only way a magazine would run a short story by Eudora Welty was if she agreed to an accompanying photo in which she posed as the protagonist of her story — a "'Sex and the City'–type woman," say, "wearing a bright red spaghetti–strap dress and sandals"?

What if Nadine Gordimer had to agree to a shot where she's wearing a low–cut blouse and "kneeling on crushed velvet"?

What if Philip Roth had to pose "staring blankly while holding a fat pug inside a Bulgarian restaurant"?

No self–respecting editor would propose such insulting childishness, of course, to such esteemed writers.

I don’t know. Is this their first time getting publishing? Now? And they were young and relatively attractive people with no other publishing prospects?

But in a move that's generated considerable comment — the first description above comes from a Washington Post report, the others from the New York Observer — the New Yorker just made three younger writers model those exact poses for its "Debut Fiction" supplement to its annual fiction issue: Jonathan "Bulgarian Restaurant" Safran Foer, Nell "Crushed Velvet" Freudenberger, and Erika "Spaghetti Strap" Krouse. A fourth twentysomething, Gabe Hudson, was made to pretend he was writing at a picnic table beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Manhattan skyline behind him.

It’s not clear here whether the New Yorker gave them an option to say “no” to various aspects of the photography, such as how revealing the clothing was or how ridiculous it made them. As much as I don’t care for the New Yorker, I imagine they would be somewhat willing to deal with my own religious modesty requirements.

"They told me what clothes to bring," said Krouse. "I had to embody the main character, which made me uncomfortable because she's a bitch."

Well, yes, silly, because young writers generally do not know how to dress for a photo shoot unless they happen to work or have worked in fashion or magazines. If the New Yorker called me up and said they wanted to do a photo shoot, my first question would be “What am I supposed to wear?” I’d ask them for details. Maybe a book with colored pictures. Otherwise I might show up dressed in a Snoopy T-shirt because it was the thing not in the laundry basket and a flannel over it because I dress like I’m still 13 and Nirvana is fresh and popular. Generally people do not know how to dress outside their sphere of “what events do I attend that require a certain style of dressing?”

As for her being unwilling to identify with the main character, I have some sympathy for that. Score one for you. Unless you wrote some piece about someone who's your age bracket, has the same job as you once had, and generally looks like you. Then you shouldn't be surprised.

"It's the book jacket principle," New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford told the Observer.

A principle that only applies to young writers, apparently — E. L. Doctorow, also featured in the issue, was not pictured along with his story.

"If anything, [the photos] contribute to the culture of authors being good looking or young in order to receive attention," Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares, told the Observer. "That's the aspect I find of it that's a little bit disturbing."

Or, as reporter Linton Weeks put it in the Post, "Looks sell books. It's a closed–doors secret in contemporary American publishing, but the word is leaking out.

My problem with this segment is not that it says that looks sell books and if you’re hot, chances are the publisher will put you on the back cover or even the front cover where they otherwise not have. And young writers are more likely to be hot, because our society tends to favor people between the ages of when you turn legal and 30, so that’s going to skew it.

The problem it isn’t universal, as these people imply. Most writers are only featured on the inside back cover of the book jacket, if at all, because they might not want to be pictured or they might have a disfiguring grape wine stain. And hopefully the authors who are featured are intelligent enough to have their photo done by a professional photographer. I was once reading a Victorian-type fantasy book by a poor fellow, who shall be unnamed because I’m insulting his looks. For the first book, his wife took the photograph in their basement, and let’s just say that it was less than flattering. Also, 300-pound men should not have acne or ponytails. By the third, he’d figured out to have someone else do it, and not in a basement, and maybe he shouldn’t be wearing a T-shirt for it.

Leaking out because, if for no other reason, the rookies in the New Yorker "Debut Fiction Issue" often reap the kind of astonishing rewards that earn headlines. After he had a story — and his photo — in last year's issue, for example, David Schickler signed with the Dial Press for what was reported to be a $500,000 two-book deal. Z.Z. Packer, who also had a story in that issue, sold her story collection to Riverhead for $250,000.

Their writing probably was also probably of some quality, at least by the standards of literary short stories that the New Yorker likes and I hate. And hey, look – a new author just got $500,000 for two books! It CAN happen to you! That’s a success story more than anything else.

But this year's issue generated an even more stunning deal. No sooner had the "Debut Fiction Issue" hit the stands than Nell Freudenberger — you remember, crushed velvet? — found herself in the middle of a "clamor for a collection of her short stories," as Inside magazine put it. She signed with New York's most powerful literary agent, Binky Urban of the ICM agency, and within days, Inside reports, had "received at least one preemptive offer of $500,000" for that collection of stories.

I want to highlight this. Amanda “Binky” Urban (and I hope that she wanted that name) is not New York’s most powerful literary agent. Or maybe she is, but probably not. Yes, yes, she’s with ICM, the agency with triple offices in New York, Los Angeles, and London, so Mrs. Freudenberger is definitely in good hands, and Miss Urban has an impressive client list of young authors.

That said, she is not New York’s most powerful literary agent. Or maybe she is. I don’t know. No one knows. How exactly do you rate “most powerful?” Is it the person who does the most deals per year? Or the person who does the least deals for the most money? Or some 60-year-old living entirely off his 15% of the royalties of a deceased author still in copyright, and who only has to take the yearly check and send the other 85% on to the estate of the author to make a living? We don’t know. Agents don’t even try and guess at this, unless it’s at a party and there’s an open bar.

There was just one seeming hitch: the 26–year–old — who happens to be an "assistant" at the New Yorker itself — hasn't written any other stories. But nobody seemed to care. Publishers continued to make offers for the kind of money that not even the best short story writers — John Updike or Alice Munroe, say — would get for a collection.

That is pretty damning evidence, if she didn’t write any other stories. Nonetheless I will mention that John Updike, one of the best living short story writers in the world, probably did not get $500,000 for his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Rabbit is Rich. Why not? Because he wrote it in 1981. Maybe today, he gets that kind of advance, even for novels like Terrorist, but certainly not in 1981.

All of which sadly proves what the Washington Post's Weeks says about looks selling books. There was, after all, little else to sell in this instance.

And all of which sounds nuts. Are an author's looks alone worthy of a half-million dollar advance? Do people really buy books — or magazines — because the authors are young and skinny and resemble movie stars?

Well, if it’s more likely to sell, it probably will get a bigger advance. That’s just business sense.

There’s another issue I want to address here, which is that the article’s arguments are against the New Yorker, which is a magazine. It is generally in a magazine’s best interest to have good art and pictures of beautiful people, because people do not like to look at blank pages or pictures of ugly people. (And Newsweek, please, please stop running those ads for donations to the organization to treat cleft pallets. I know it’s a charity, but I need a warning before I see those pictures!) What probably happened here is that the editor, for whatever reason, decided that the “Debut Fiction” issue was going to feature author pictures instead of art, and then someone else said, “And let’s make sure they look decent. Hire a photographer.” If the ensuing brouhaha resulted in some shady book deals and some young authors got rich off poor material, that’s not great, but “authors getting rich” is not a phrase I hear very often.

Well, they may get what they pay for if they do: Schickler's book — named after his New Yorker story, "Kissing in Manhattan" — came out last month and has been getting uniformly dreadful reviews.

This is why I don’t read short story collections by authors with only one publishing credit: They’re usually bad.

But as the Schickler case also shows, people may not be as shallow as this kind of marketing takes them for — his book isn't selling near well enough to make back the phenomenal advance. In fact, according to Inside, the entire Barnes & Noble chain — which includes B & N, B. Dalton, and barnesandnoble.com — has sold only 1,222 copies of his book nationwide.

Of course, there are numerous other bookselling outlets, but B & N is the coutnry's biggest, and those stats may be telling. They may indicate how tired of this kind of marketing people have become, not to mention how devalued the New Yorker's imprimatur has become to savvy readers.

Go readers! Yay! In the end, quality triumphs hotness. Though, some writer got rich. I want to be that rich writer. I want to sell out. Please! I will! Just give me half a million dollars and I’ll do a photo shoot, but I won’t wear something that exposes my shoulders. That’s my line in the sand.

None of which is to say that Freudenberger's book, or Z.Z. Packer's, which isn't out yet, won't be good. And none of which is to say that reading first fictions isn't exciting in itself.

But certainly, this kind of marketing is an indicator of the major shift that has occured in the book business, where just a few short years ago editors still judged books by contents and not covers.

It's also a mark of how far the New Yorker has fallen. The fact that the magazine exploits the younger writers, but doesn't include a photo of Doctorow, speaks clearly to the nature of what's going on, and it's insulting to writers and readers, both.

You don't need a picture to see that.

My argument with this argument is that the shift happened 15 years ago (not three), when Tina Brown was hired as editor of the New Yorker. That’s sort of the benchmark we use for the decline in the short story and literary fiction.

While most of the facts checked out for this article, it's important to view it within context. Yes, some sketchy things happened here, but trust me when I say this is not why your manuscript about a small-town grocery store owner stopping terrorists from blowing up the Vatican didn't get accepted. They are separate issues. Plus, let's give the writers who appear in the debut fiction issue some slack. They probably had to sleep with someone important to get in there, and that's more than I would do.