Saturday, April 28, 2007

Annoying Clients: Don't Be One.

We writers have websites, blogs, and message boards that warn us about the scam lit agents, for example, "Writer Beware". Do agents have the same sorts of blogs and message boards about some of the unpleasant writers who query them? Sort of "Agents Beware"?

We're browsing the same internet as you are, so no. The answer is no. Plus, it would be sort of rude of us to start branding people over the internet, if not downright immoral. No one's trying to scam us - it's not as if they don't have a manuscript when they say they do and then ask us to buy it sight-unseen (and we don't buy manuscripts anyway). As for query letters that are just plain obnoxious or annoying, those are instant rejects. End of story. Occasionally, in a shared office situation, one assistant will turn to the other and say, "Did you see this?" if everyone obviously got the same letter in the same mail bag that day. "Oh yeah, that was terrible." Laugh, move on.

There are annoying writers out there, but they're not scam artists, and sometimes, they're well-intentioned. If they're not clients and they're already acting annoying (calling a lot to check on their manuscript, etc), they don't become clients. There are essentially three kinds of clients that are annoying.

1. The bestseller who thinks too much of himself. This guy will call us to complain about how he didn't like the fruit on his party platter at the post-signing launch dinner for his third book. There's not much we can do, but this guy is usually the one who is responsible for 99% of the agent's income for the year, so we put up with him.

2. The client who doesn't know how to edit. Speaking for a moment as a writer myself, editing is really, really, really hard, so I don't blame anyone for this, but it often gets to the point of severe frustration. If this is the client's first book, we probably accepted the manuscript because we loved it but said, "It has a few flaws; do you agree to do some editing?" and the writer of course says yes, because they want to be a client. So we send them a list of issues - opener is slow, this thing doesn't make sense, character's name is spelled inconsistently, etc - and they do a host of things. They don't respond. They do respond, but change nothing. They respond and change everything, so that the manuscript looks nothing like the one we liked. Editing is tricky. You can do too much. If we get too frustrated, we may end up telling the would-be client we just can't sell their manuscript, because they can't seem to get it into enough shape to be sell-able (we leave out that last part). We've lost a lot of time, and time is money, so it's a bad situation all around.

There's also the real client, the one who's already sold a book with us, and the second or third book has serious problems that the first book didn't have. The first book they worked on for years; the second they wrote in about 6 months, and you can see the results. Said client doesn't understand why suddenly we're so critical of their work, and has the same editorial problems that writers go through. Solving problems in stories is hard, especially when the problems are structure-related or involve a major alteration of character or plot. Some writers aren't up to the task. They had one book in them, and we sold it already.

3. The client who doesn't understand deadlines. It may seem like we live in a nebulous world where we take our time getting back to you, but that's because we're rushing to meet real deadlines, ones set by publishers and editors by way of contract. We need those revisions, and we need them now. No, seriously, Penguin Putnam will not be happy if it's not on their desks by 9 am on Monday morning. They might even not pay you because of a breach of contract. Get out of that fucking restaurant, go home, finish your revisions, and send us a copy. What? You hand-wrote them?!? All right, overnight them. Yes, from England. Well, I don't care, find a post office that's open; maybe you shouldn't have put this off for 6 months! Or something like that. It's very stressful when it happens, usually because big money is involved. And there's no website to warn us about that.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

That Second-Book Clause

Remember, DVC wasn't Brown's first book using church/church history. Angels & Demons came before. And that wasn't really huge until after DVC, And it was published by a different publisher. How does this work? Wouldn't the Angels & Demons guys want to keep the second book?

If you don't include a guide to dating for women that he wrote under the name Danielle Brown, then DVC was actually Dan Brown's fourth book, after Digital Fortress (1998), Angels and Demons (2000), and Deception Point (2001). None of them did particularly well.

Generally when a writer skips from publishing house to publishing house, it means that their books are not consistently selling or that the newer piece was not as good as the previous one, at least in the eyes of the publishing house. In other words, they decided not to take advantage of their second-book clause, which is a standard clause in the boilerplate publishing contract for any company. It usually goes something like this:

Option. The Author grants Publishing House the exclusive option to acquire the same rights as have been granted in this Agreement to the next full-length work to be written by the Author. Publishing House will be entitled to a period of sixty (60) days after submission of a proposal and sample chapters for the next work in which to make an offer for that work, during which time the Author agrees not to solicit any third-party offers, directly or indirectily. If Publishing House wishes to acquire the next work, the Author and Publishing House will attempt to reach an agreement as to terms during a reasonable period of exclusive negotiations. If they cannot reach an agreement, the Author shall be free to Submit the next work elsewhere, but the Author may not accept an offer from any other publisher on terms equal to or less favorable than those offered by Publishing House.

This means, essentially, that the publishing house has dibs on your next book, but if they don't want it, they don't have to make an offer. If they make an offer and you don't accept it, and you shop it around and no one makes a better offer, then you can't accept a lower offer at another house and you have to go with the original offer at the original house. This protects them from having you jump ship and protects you from having to turn down better offers at other houses because the offer at your house was too low. Generally contracts read like this; they're meant to protect both the interests of the author and of the company, sometimes leaning to one side and sometimes to the other, which is why agents like to negotiate clauses. Most of the time this is not one of those clauses.

Dan Brown's last book before DVC was Deception Point, which was published by Pocket Books, like his previous book, Angels and Demons. For whatever reason, Pocket Books took a look at DVC and said "enough with this guy already" and let him make offers elsewhere. He got a contract with Doubleday, and he took it. I'm going to guess it wasn't much, but he certainly made it up in royalties. Pocket Books has retained the rights to Angels and Demons, and reissued it in 2006, but have also sold the rights to other companies for whatever complex reasons they would have to do that. Man, are those guys kicking themselves.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How a Trend is Born

I wish there were a central location where agents and editors could post what they've been seeing too much of. If there's a run on drug books/mysteries where Jesus's clone did it/fantasies where farm boys get blipped through portals in search of magical jewels, it would be great to know about it. It would also be entertaining, because so few of the topics agents complain about are obvious to those of us who don't see the slush.

It would be cool, but it would be for amusement purposes only.

All of you unpublished writers out there, here's a message from me: Don't follow a trend or even ignore a trend. Don't think about trends. Just write the novel you've always wanted to write. Then when that gets rejected, write the novel it turns out you really wanted to write. Rinse, repeat unti; you actually get published, and then say, "Thank G-d that original novel didn't get published! That was crap."

I'll turn this into a larger discussion of trends. In this case I'll be using The Da Vinci Code, not because I have some obsession with it but because it's really the most massive example I could use, as opposed to all the little ones you might not have heard about.

When I was in college (fall 1999- spring 2003), there was a huge trend on an academia level of studying early Christianity - the gospels themselves and the people who wrote them (the gospel was probably written over 20 years after Jesus died), and the generation or two that followed immediately afterwards. There a bunch of feminist professors who were interested in women in the early church and writing about the role of women and how Paul was against women taking leadership roles in the church. The early Celtic Church, where women could be priests, had also been a hot academic topic for several years. People were publishing their materials on university presses, which is what professors do, and they would immediately go out of print, which is what happens unless there's some real non-academia interest in the topic. (Also, a lot of professors can only write papers, and their books are just long papers. This is one of the many reasons I didn't go for a PhD in history)

I have a sneaking suspicion that Dan Brown got some of his ideas from this particular academic trend, and then was inspired to make it a series of novels about early Christianity, and one of them was The Da Vinci Code, and as we all know, it became the biggest non-Harry Potter publishing phenomenon in decades. This lead to the knock-offs and academic books that followed, both of which I will discuss.

(1) The fiction knock-offs of The Da Vinci Code were not written, for the most part, by first-time writers. They were written by established writers - part of some agent's or publishing house's "stable" - who were either inspired by the success (and saw little dollar signs in their eyelids) or told by the publishing company to go "write a book about that." Generally the negotiations go like this:

Publishing House: "Do you want to write a The Da Vinci Code knock-off?"
Established Author: "How much will you pay?"
Publishing House: "A lot."
Established Author:
"When do you want it? Friday's bad for me."

There are also book packaging companies, which you've never heard of because they don't advertise to the public, who are put in charge of packaging a novel that resembles whatever the publishing house wants it to resemble. They'll get some writers to work with them and do that. It's all in-house.

(2) History books that deal with the same (or similar) subject that said novel discusses. These books are the type that appear in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble. They're not original. Chances are they're a republished version of some academic text on the subject that was published by a university press in 1971 and went out of print in 1972 and now is impossible to get. Barnes and Noble's publishing house (same name) bought the rights, which were quickly sold because the author realized their book would never see the light of day again otherwise, and then repackaged and republished the book.

The other option is that a publishing house wants to put out a history book that is accessible enough for people to read about the trendy topic, so they approach some established historical author or professor in that field of research and say, "Hey, do you want to write a book?" Then they get the book packaging company in to make sure it's readable (Remember: Most history professors can't write) and put it out as quickly as possible.

And that's where books come from.