Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Strange Case of "The Historian"

This weekend I picked up “The Historian” (Elizabeth Kostova’s mammoth debut magnum opus) and I wonder…since it clocked in at about 241k words…how the hell did something like this get published?!?! Don’t you literary agencies have an unwritten screed somewhere that no debut novel may be more than 100k unless it’s *really really* good and said wannabe novelist has first sacrificed a Muggle on the altar of JK Rowling? (Whose first Harry Potter book was considered quite long for the young’uns, and we hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet). I haven’t read the Kostova’s yet but obviously it’s at the top of my reading pile.

Do you have the inside scoop on whether whether Ms. Kostova bribed, threatened, wheedled, cajoled, slept with or otherwise followed a plan outside the customary novel submission process with her agent? And what did her agent think about trying to sell a mammoth tome like that by an unknown, untried novelist? Don’t editors involuntarily hurl up their last three meals if a debut novel ms comes to more than 120k? Were souls sold to a certain collector of errant same? Was the agent sleeping with the editor while Ms. Kostova was sleeping with her agent?

All right, I’m being a little silly here but…*this is supposed to be outside the realm of possibility!!!* Then again, the Red Sox finally won the Pennant so I guess *nothing* is impossible in this ol’ world…;)

Please, please enlighten us curious masses. I know I’m not the only one who wonders. ;)

So, [edit] The Historian is exceptionally long and actually is 241,021 words [/edit] Unlike Harry Potter, the publishing company doesn't make the page count longer by putting in big letters and a lot of white space (at least not in my hardcover copy).

There is some story behind The Historian that I don't happen to know off the top of my head. Elizabeth Kostova graduated with a middle-range MFA degree (in terms of prestige) from the University of Michigan. She won an award there but most MFA programs have elaborate award programs so that they can say their students have won awards. But with a 2 million dollar advance, there is some story there that I don't know. I remember reading about it in Newsweek. It may have been that the book was just considered that good.

There are two major genres for which we allow a higher word count: historical fiction and high fantasy. This is because traditionally high word count books of these types have done well commercially. They're generally involved and generation-spanning or extremely descriptive. They're not a like a mystery novel, which the reader might be inclined to just keep reading until the ending to find out the end, so the reader will be annoyed if this means staying up for three days. Mysteries and category romance are shorter. High fantasy is usually unbearably long or broken up into many books.

It is true that we get a little leery over 120,000, just because we know it's going to have that going against it when we go to sell it to a house. Also, it's going to be annoying to ship around and handle and copy-edit, because it's just going to be so large. That said, I've put many a 150k'er into the maybe pile because I thought it sounded good. Maybe one or two 200k's in my time. There was a 412,000 one, some old west saga, and we had to pass. But I don't see a reason to give up hope if you're a little over the number and you're in historical or fantasy. And remember: It's easier to trim than to pad. (Well, it's better for the story. Padding a story is something that you do because you have to and it always shows)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

This is the last question I'm going to answer before Shavous. Your comments may not get approved until Thursday night, when I come back online from the holiday, unless I get someone to do them while I'm gone. Just so you know.

Dear Ms. Rejecter,

I've been reassured at every turn that agents are bombarded with queries. Help me with the math. How many agents are there in New York City? Can we pick a safe number? Let's say 250-- who say they'll take a look at fiction queries. (Queries for fiction, not fictional queries, of which I'm sure you get a few.) If all 250 are receiving between two and three hundred queries a week-- Miss Rejecter-- that's up to seven hundred and fifty queries a week being mailed to 10010. You'd think the post office would be mad. I bet that's what the rate increase is all about, now that I think about it.

And on to the question: Who is writing all these books? I've finished two manuscripts (oh, 100 rejections on #1 and headed toward 50 on #2) and let me tell you, it didn't happen overnight. Are we to assume that seven hundred and fifty people a week finish and polish a manuscript? Do those people have day jobs? Car pool? Spa appointments? If it's fair game to query the agents over and over and over again? If you ask me, that has to be it. You're getting the same song, different verse, queries. You'd have to be. Don't you find that a little irritating? Maybe some people love those little rejection postcards. I know I don't. I sent a query last week, well, several, to an agent who had posted on her web site, "No news means I don't want your manuscript. I don't send out rejections." I like her.

Wanna-be (agented)

Let's put this into perspective. There are thousands upon thousands of businesses in Manhattan alone, many of which produce mass volumes of mail. I don't know any postal statistics, but I'm going to guess that we don't really show up on anybody's radar, and are not responsible for the postal increase. As a mailman explained in another comment, the main reasons for the price jump on stamps is the rising price of gas (necessary to drive those letters/packages around) and the rise in minimum wage, leading to a general increase in ages. Based on inflation, you can expect stamps to go up. A lot of people are mad that it was not announced very far ahead like it usually is, and a lot of us who ship books for a living are VERY mad that a lot of services (like international parcel post) were eliminated. Media mail, the main way to get books around the United States, went up by I think around 30 cents. That's huge. That's not two cents. It's 30. I had to raise all my shipping prices, as did Amazon, and everybody else who mails books, and we're all pissed. Some people over at the postal service have responded, "Well, we have so much competition now from other services like UPS and Fedex." Yeah, that's great. You know, when you have competition from another business, you're supposed to lower your prices, not raise them.

Okay, now that I'm done with the rant about the surprise raise in prices that dramatically affected my business, onto your actual question.

Who is writing all these books? Well, as the U.S. population currently clocks in at 301,902,252 people, I can safely say the answer is: Enough. There are enough people who find the time, however they can, because it's something they want to do and they make time for it.

Crossing Over (Into Fiction)

Dear Ms. Rejecter,

I just launched my writing career recently, and I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had two education books published, and I have six non-fiction children’s books coming out by year’s end. I have the prospect of several more non-fiction books on the horizon. So, of course, I’m not satisfied. I want to write fiction, which has always been my first love.

My question is, just how much leverage will my non-fiction success buy me in trying to get an agent for my young adult novel? Am I likely to be pigeon-holed as a non-fiction author? Or will previous publishing credits make agents more likely to take me seriously?

We do see a lot of people who have written non-fiction books for either a textbook or academic market and now want to cross over into fiction. It's not uncommon and it's not bad. It shows you can write. Usually it's not a huge help because these authors are authors of extremely technical texts within their field (medicine, corporate management, computer coding) and now they've written a thriller with lesbian detectives. Okay, there's only one detective, and she's a lesbian, but she has a girlfriend and therefore there's sure to be some hot monkey lesbian sex. And the author is a guy. (In other words, some people can talk all they want about how to organize a flowcart but probably shouldn't try their hand at a novel)

In your case, your background is a huge support to your presentation of a children's novel. It still has to be a good book, but if I were a children's book agent, I would definitely ask to see it.