Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Exact Formula for Success

So over my vacation I decided to put my money where my mouth was and read up on how the publishing industry works from a more general and financial viewpoint. I've never worked in a publishing house, but I thought, "Well, I have a web log about it; maybe I should find out how it operates."

This was a last-minute decision and I just went to B&N and picked up the publishing book that looked the most professional - The Art and Science of Book Publishing by Herbert S. Baily, Jr. It had a certain air of distinction that the other books on the shelf ("How to Get Published in Thirty Days") didn't quite have.

Five pages into this book, I realize: I do not understand anything about book publishing. This book was so amazingly technical that I don't understand who would possibly read this other than an experienced manager in a publishing house looking to verify his numbers. For example:

What? Man, I'm glad my job is just to read query letters and edit manuscripts. Fortunately the book enables me to answer this question:

I have a question for you. Just something I've been curious about, particularly with the continued "chick lit" craze. It seems if you write about a twenty-something in PR/fashion/event planning/publishing, there is no end to the crap that can end up on the shelves (although let me say, I do read quite a lot of it when trapped in an airport...). So here it is: In your experience, when it comes down to why a book is published, what percentage is based on "good writing" and what percentage is based on marketability?

Since there's no way for me to answer the actual question (I would just have to make up a number - it's to abstract a concept), I'll just reinterpret the question as, "What determines why you choose a book? How can you tell it will be profitable?"

Well, folks. Here it is. The actual formula to determine the profitability of your coming-of-age yarn or your Vietnam memoirs. Are you ready?

...You sure?

Here we go.

I think that should answer any questions anyone will ever have about publishing.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Working Hours

Every once in a while, on a bank holiday or a national holiday like MLK Day or Columbus Day, someone asks the question on - Are the agents in the office today?

The answer is: Yes. No. Maybe.

An agent's schedule is an increasingly nebulous thing. Certainly, almost nobody works the traditional hours of 9-5pm, Monday through Friday. There's no particular reason to do that. Queries can be read at any time, email means agents can reply at night, and a lot of the business isn't in the office anyway. It's on the cell phone, on a portable laptop, or shuttling from lunch meeting with editor to lunch meeting with publicist to lunch meeting with author. Many agents work out of their home a lot of the time, and have various services where their work phone is redirected to their cell or home phone. Some agents don't have offices at all - or have offices for postal purposes, but they don't really exist. Downtown offices are expensive (easily $1400 a month), but many corporations offer services like providing a mailbox and a phone forwarding service and use of a conference room, so it appears your letter is going to a traditional office setting, when instead it's just being picked up by the agent and brought back to Brooklyn.

The only reason to keep a somewhat normal schedule at all (besides not being a vampire) is because publishing houses do "officially" keep more normal hours. That is, unless the agent knows the editor's private line number or his/her home number. Which the agent probably does.

My first boss used to come in at 11am after working at home for an hour or so. She would check her messages, make a couple important calls, and then leave at 12:30 for a three hour lunch with an editor, which was really little more than a business meeting with food involved and a bill at the end. She would show up again around 3pm, then still be working when I went home at 7.

My current boss has a kid, so sometimes she'll leave if school gets called off (for a snow day or something) and finish her work at home. Other times she'll come in early, go to yoga for two hours in the middle of the day, and then work until about 6.

What I'm trying to say is, you have no way of knowing when we're in the office or not, but it's not really all that relevant. The only time work fully stops is usually Sunday, or a major holiday like Christmas, when even if the agent is available, nobody else in publishing is and the mail doesn't come. The reason we're not answering our phone is not because we're not there. It's because we screen all our calls because most of them will be people pitching their novel on the answering machine, and if we picked up, we might have to listen to them. Send a query.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Writers' Conferences

Reading through a few agent blogs, I notice that one or two mention the helpfulness of attending writer's true is this?

I'm looking around and haven't found any in my area and even if they were, they are expensive. Is it worth several hundred dollars (plus hotels) in hope that an agent might recognize my query letter a few weeks later?

Writers' conferences are good for a lot of things - mainly, hearing agents talk. Generally, they will not be a huge help in getting you an agent unless you are exceptionally lucky. Seeing as how agents have live journals and web logs these days, I would say that it's not worth your money.

Of course, that's also because I find sitting in a room with a group of fellow unpublished, desperate writers to be the world's most depressing experience. The second is reading any issue of Writer's Digest.