Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Characters, Sex, and the Characters They Have Sex With

I'm in the early stages of my first novel and I think that sex is almost needed. Writing about attraction and sexual impulses is just about the only aspect of writing that makes me uncomfortable to me. I don't want it to sounds awkward, out of place, or at all trashy. This fear is especially amplified by the fact that the first part of my novel takes place in a very conservative setting where sex means breeding, not sex. Do you have any advice concerning how I should approach "romance" portions? When do sex scenes make an auto-reject? Could you give source materials of novels that do sex well?

Oh, and do mainstream publishers care about homosexual relationships and sex scenes? I fear my chances of being published might be hindered because the plot currently involves a gay lead character.

I feel concerned about another aspect of the novel. It basically describes the ride and fall of this religion. Parts of the religion are hidden in books that the main character finds and reads. The character knows it's coming, but is it okay that I put what is contained in the book in a chapter placed before he starts reading it and when he is done? How often do you get this? Should I move these sections to the end of the novel?

So I'm going to try to answer this from the perspective of a potential publisher as opposed to the perspective of a writer. I think that would be more helpful to you.

1. As you no doubt have noticed, many many adult (and young adult, really) fiction that is not romance, erotica, or smut often contains sex. If this is a huge shock to you, go read more fiction. Any thriller with a male protagonist who has a sexy woman helping him should do. Publishers are not afraid of sex. The issue is how descriptive the sex is. Does it describe body parts using their proper medical names and in graphic detail, or is the entirety of the scene "he bent over to kiss her as he turned off the light"? Probably somewhere in between. Like in movies, how much sex is too much is generally something that's a judgment call for the editor, not because the editor thinks kids will be exposed to naughty bits (as concerns the movie councils) but because the editor might feel it distracts from the story.

2. No. The answer to your second question is no, we're not against gay protagonists for mainstream fiction. We just don't see a lot of it, because 90% of the country is straight, and straight people tend to write straight characters or disturbing mpreg slash fan fiction. There are a lot of great gay writers, some of whom don't write about being gay necessarily, or don't make it the central focus of the story but one of the plot points. Somewhere on my bookshelf is a set of lesbian detective stories, legitimate ones written by an actual lesbian who wanted to write queer thrillers. But we don't see a lot of these submissions, partially because there are just less gay writers than straight writers, and because it can be a smaller market depending on how central the homosexuality is to the story. I say, if you want to write it, totally go for it. I've had enough of smart academics solving mysteries, aided by sexy female lab assistants. There's no reason not to have sexy male lab assistants helping smart academics solving mysteries - and then, presumably, falling in love because of the intense experience they shared in that chase scene in the ancient Mayan ruins.

3. I didn't entirely follow your third question, but I think you have two potential situations: a situation where the reader knows the same amount as the character and a situation where the reader knows more than the character. (You can also have the character know more than the reader, a nifty dramatic device that can be annoying when done wrong) Whether you want to go in one direction or not is a question of suspense. If the reader knowing more than the character makes the character fall flat, then the reader will be annoyed and just start flipping through. If the reader's knowledge helps us understand the character's quest as they experience it better, go for it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Holiday Reminder

I probably should have done this last week, but if you want to get something for your agent for Christmas/New Year/Misc, which is not expected or required but a nice thing to do, do not send them perishables, like a fruit basket or something. they may not be around to receive it and it will spoil or they may not be able to to eat the food and have to give it away in the office.

I give my agent a gift card to Barnes and Noble. A present is not expected, but if you do decide to do that for your severely unpaid agent, a gift card to a store he/she'll almost definitely be at is a good idea.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Long Email

Usually I get emails with very specific questions. Sometimes I get these.

Dear Rejecter,

I have some getting-published questions for you, but I feel like you need to understand where I am in order to answer. Thank you for taking your time to read this. I appreciate any guidance you can give me.

I'm working on my first novel. I have about 35k words and an outline I feel very good about for the remainder; probably 100k to 120k words. I have no agent, nor have I ever had contact with a publisher. My only publications are a handful of heavily edited nonfiction business articles--my name is on them but the results do not represent me writing style any more.

Okay, first thing: The novel's not done yet. Go finish it. I mean, take the time to finish reading this post, but seriously, go finish your novel before you start thinking publication.

I'm having a hard time categorizing this novel. It is somewhere near Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels. Philosophy, philosophy of religion, romance, comedy, tragedy, etc... Most of the conflict is verbal. The little bits of violence are not described graphically. No eroticism. I think that my target audience is High School English Literature classes.

Man, I wish my book was picked for a high school English class. Not because it was a classic of literature (it's not) but because it would mean an insane amount of people would have to buy it every year. Ka-ching!

As you've just put yourself in every genre but not told me anything about the plot, I'm going to say "general fiction unless there's fantasy or sci-fi, in which case, sci-fi/fantasy."

I have 18 other novels in various stages of planning, from 2 to 30 pages. These stories span many different genres: hard sci-fi, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and romance. 5 of these are hard sci-fi in a related series. Some of these contain significant sexuality or violence. After collecting ideas for years I decided to focus and try to finish one, and I picked this one to finish because the plot was the most mature.

Deciding to start one at a time instead of 18 a time is probably the smartest move you've made so far.

Writing progress is slow due to other time commitments. I have to take vacation time from the office and hide at the library in order to write. I desperately want to reach a critical mass with writing (read: reliable income) so I can retire from my day job and focus on writing full time.

I hear this a lot, in query letters and from my writer friends. I also say it a lot. Man, I would love to live off my writing. I would also like to win the lottery. The writing's a safer bet, but that's because I don't actually buy lottery tickets.

All of my novels center around moral dilemmas first. I want to challenge how people look at themselves and their place in the world. I want to inspire people to improve themselves and the people around them.

I said that, too. None of the novels I wrote dealing with that stuff got published. The historical romance did. How low I've sunk.

Having said all of that, I'm starting to think about the process of getting published. I understand that I have to get the first novel "done" before I can take the next step. What should the next step be?

Finishing a publishable manuscript. It will probably not be the first manuscript you write.

Should I search out an agent first? Or should I query publishers directly first?

Agents first, though there's no reason not to hit up the few publishers who take unsolicited manuscripts on the odd chance you'll hear back from one in the next century.

I had considered printing a small run on Lulu and giving them out to friends and family to get critical feedback before I approach an agent or publisher. Would this pollute the book--having been printed in any form? Or should I stick with Kinkos? Besides the possible improvements to the quality of the work, would going through this exercise impress a potential agent or publisher?

If you're doing it to get your friends and relatives to read it (none of whom will likely give you a meaningful opinion on it), it depends on how much money you want to plunk down. You can have them print and bound at Kinko's pretty cheap, but Lulu makes THEM pay instead of you. Depending on if they're willing to pay. So, your call. Also: friends and relatives will not be honest with you, and even if they are, they do not work in publishing and probably have little to say that can help you. Or even then, they still might lie. This is why I stopped asking my friends to read my work when I was in high school. It puts both of us in an awkward position.

When querying an agent, do I focus on just the first novel or do I share my larger plans and ideas with them?

First novel.

When querying a publisher, do I focus on just the first novel or do I share my larger plans and ideas with them?

First novel.

How do I find an agent?


Do people really send query letters to addresses in Writers Market and sign contracts with people they have never met--or spoken to only over the phone? Would a potential agent be alienated if I wanted to fly out to meet them before signing a contract? Can I ask to see their office and meet their staff?

A lot of people have not met their agents. I live in New York, my agent (not my boss, my agent agent) lives in New York, and we only met once. Everything else has been phone/email/snail mail. Also, agents don't generally have staffs, nor do they have particularly spectacular offices if they don't work out of their home, so if you do meet them, it will probably be in a restaurant.

What is the process for checking a potential agent's references?

Is the agent a member of the AAR? Good, you're done. No? Check Preditors and Editors.

Do I need to pick a single genre to describe my first novel while I talk with potential agents and publishers, even if it is not very accurate? Or should I discuss the genre problem openly?

Yes, sort of, but it can be very, very broad like "fiction" or "fantasy." The most important thing is to distinguish between fiction/non-fiction, because some people leave that line blurry and we find that annoying, trying to figure out if the person wrote a memoir or made the story up.

What am I missing in the process?


Thursday, December 11, 2008

The State of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Market

Anyways, my question: What is your impression of the strength of the sci-fi/fantasy genre? With sci-fi in particuliar, which I think has a more male readership than female, has the readership base been in decline? Sometimes I get the impression that science fiction in a literary form has trouble competing with video games and movies. Maybe I'm totally wrong in thinking this way or maybe this isn't a question you can answer. But if you can, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

While this isn't a question I could give you a solid answer to, that won't stop me from posting about it.

Sci-fi/fantasy was my first great love, and still pretty much is, though I mainly read non-fiction these days for work-related reasons. In terms of the literary world, the only world where I can speak with some imagined authority I don't actually have, I would say the state of the current market is as strong as any other market: doing okay considering the economy and YA is really hot, but not as hot as people think it is, everyone stop thinking you can write YA and submit it and it'll be more likely to get published, I'm really sick of it. Sci-fi/fantasy - particularly fantasy - has been trending mainstream for a decade now, though one could easily make the argument that there were other decades in the 20th century where it was so mainstream it didn't have its own section in the bookstore. All I know is, when I was growing up in the 80's and 90's, if you read Lord of the Rings, you were a nerd. Nowadays you barely qualify unless you name your third external hard drive after a Silmarillion character. So, no weeping about the state of sci-fi/fantasy from me.

The market is very tight in this genre, and always has been. There's some argument that it's gotten too conventional. My agent shopped a post-Apocalyptic novel to sci-fi publishers last spring and it didn't sell. We got some very nice letters back about how it was very wild, interesting, etc, but they weren't sure "how it would do in the market." In other words, "We can't predict whether it will sell and therefore can't invest the money in a new author with a risky book; go write a vampire story." I imagine it's worse now than it was in May, but that won't stop sci-fi fans from submitting their crappy fantasy novels to my boss even though she doesn't handle fantasy, and they won't all be exactly the same. In fact, I'm pretty sure nothing could stop the flow of unpublishable fantasy novels into the sludge piles of publishing, and then the one you find per year that's actually great.

So, if you want to write, write. If you want to try to get published, submit and cross your fingers. If you want instant gratification and a genuine, pre-built fanbase that will totally leave you nice comments that will make your day, write fan fiction.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Harcourt and Submissions

I’ve been reading your blog on and off (congrats on becoming a Real (Published) Writer!) and I am looking at what’s going down in the publishing biz these last few months (never mind the implosion at Houghton Mifflin) and I’m wondering if I should even bother submitting a first-time novel anywhere right now? I mean, are things just too crazy what with a financial meltdown, dropping consumer sales, a lame-duck President who’s more than happy to turn over most of his duties to the current President-Elect, and no one knows if the Boy Wonder will really pull off the miracle everyone’s hoping after the takes office in January? Is any agent (and by extension, editor) going to take a chance on an untried first-time novelist rather than tried-and-true names? Or should I just say fudge it and start submitting?

So before I get to the Houghton Mifflin issue, let me answer the question.

The answer is yes. You should submit your work when it is done and polished and you think it's ready for publication. Agents are always looking for new work unless their website specifically says otherwise. Yes, it's true, it's a time of lower advances and fewer buys, but agents make their living selling manuscripts, and they can't make much of a living if they stop doing that, especially if their big earners decide not to write or write something crappy and the publishers don't buy. If you submit over the holidays, expect a longer response than usual, but the query will be looked at the same way as it would have six months ago.

Now, onto the explosion over at Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. And yes, announcing you are no longer acquiring new books does qualify as an explosion. I don't care how great their backlist is (and it is GREAT), but they are in some serious shit to stop acquiring books. Their Fall 2009 line-up is probably set, but Spring 2009, they're going to be presenting a smaller list. And there's the question of what's going to happen to books currently in the process of being bought (nothing, they said, but nobody's sure) and the senior VP of trade publishing quitting. Nobody knows the whole story, but seems the Irish company that owns them is in debt thanks to poor financial planning. Acquisitions and editorial are huge costs, in manpower and actual physical production, so if you knew nothing about publishing and were looking to shave off some costs, you might suggest halting that part of the process and living off backlist proceeds for awhile, which is a bit like living off army rations. You can do it, but it's a bad long-term plan.

It is usual in hard economic times for publishers to openly or secretly decrease acquisitions, which enables them to fire a ton of people who work on new material. Remember backlist - old material - doesn't have to be edited, copy-edited it, checked for copyright violations in references, or even redesigned in layout. Every once in a while they change the cover art, which is in the design department, but it's easy to hire someone fresh out of school for graphic design with a good knowledge of photoshop and that Mac program they all use (InDesign?) for bottom-level salary. To completely stop acquiring books is short-sited and unheard of.

You should be concerned if you work at Harcourt, in terms of job security, but I would assume if you work at Harcourt and are reading this you know more about it than I do.

Side note: I was reading the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for April 1888 for a research project in the microfilm library today, and saw an ad for a new book, I forget what it was about, published by Houghton Mifflin. The company's got history.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Submitting Short Stories and Poetry

Here's a question: how do these rules differ for SHORT STORY manuscripts? I heard that magazines still want the older style (Courier, underlines, title near the text not at top of page, etc). And how about POETRY? Scant little current info online about these things.

There are two ways for me to answer your question:

1) If you are submitting your short story or poetry to a magazine, which would be the most appropriate venue for it, carefully read their submission guidelines. If you can't find them, email them and ask for their submission guidelines.

2) If you are submitting a short story collection or poetry collection to a literary agent, don't. Unless you're really sure they accept that. As in, they specifically mention of their website or on agentquery.com that they're looking for short story collections or poetry. In which case, regular manuscript format with the different selections as characters is a pretty good way to go.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Manuscript Format Questions and Answers


If you want the best chances as a submitter (and you want to be judged only on your writing, and not the way you're presenting it), you ought to make sure your submission is in standard manuscript format. Sure, that's the rules. But lately I've seen a lot of conflicting ideas (from supposed "authorities") about exactly what constitues this Standard Manuscript Format.

The irony of standard manuscript format is that nobody really agrees on it anyway.

Naturally, these conflicts cause paranoia, because hey -- I want to get it right. I don't want to look like an outsider because of the way I format my chapter headers or whatnot. Could you please clarify these deviations in standard format?

FONT: I know you prefer TNR over Courier, but I'm of the understanding that both are perfectly acceptible and "standard" (or technically, all four variations: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, and Courier New.) I can find examples of agents and editors who prefer one over the other, but I'm of the understanding that both are "standard." Has this changed? Are both still all right?

Both TNR and Courier are acceptable. Fonts that are similar to those but have some extremely minor different are probably acceptable. Other fonts, which are harder to read (arguably) are not acceptable. Arial is generally not acceptable.

ITALICS: I've always seen them underlined in book and short story manuscripts. Some claim that they must actually be italicized now, but the editor in me says, "No way, it'd be too hard to edit the ms."

I very rarely see a manuscript these days that has words underlined instead of italics. If I did it would be annoying because if we accepted the manuscript, the author would have to go back and change all the words.

HEADERS: I've always formatted them as LastName/TITLE/PageNo and set them flush right, for either book or short story manuscripts. Some sources
are saying that they should be flush LEFT, while others say the surname goes left, the title in the middle and the page number on the right. Is there a standard way?

I've always done it TITLE - Page# - SURNAME flushed left in my manuscripts. If you flush it right, or center it, or put your whole name instead of your surname, or flip the order around, it's not a big deal and you shouldn't think your manuscript was rejected because of that. The whole purpose of the header is to tell us what page we're on and what manuscript it is if the manuscripts get thrown in a pile and mixed up.

Also, don't put your phone number in the header. It looks silly.

SECTION BREAKS: I've always denoted breaks with a centered "#" on a line by itself; the end of the manuscript is indicated by "THE END" (or "# # #" if it's a short story). But now some people are claiming that section breaks should be denoted just with a blank line. As a former editor and proofreader, I know that's just bad form.

I've heard this # thing too, but for a manuscript I generally see more regular "extra space before the scene change" that I see in books. I use the #s only when I'm doing short story submissions. I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule on this one because it doesn't affect the way we read the manuscript unless you give no indication that the scene changed at all.

CHAPTER HEADS: I've always skipped 12 lines, given the chapter name in upper-case, and then skipped a line and started the chapter. Now I'm seeing some people recommend the upper-case chapter name at the top of the page, then 12 lines skipped and the beginning of the chapter. Which way's it done?

The way I've always been told to do it is to start each new chapter 7 lines down with the chapter title after the dash for the name of the chapter. Years back, I was told this was so that editors could have a space to make chapter notes. In other words, leave some space before the start of each chapter on the first page of that chapter. We do not count how many lines you give us.

TYPESET QUERIES: While my manuscripts go out in 12-point Courier, I consider that an "editing" font, as something for manuscripts. I'd never send a letter in such a monospaced naked typeface unless I were doing a telegram. So for my query (and all other materials, such as the synopsis), I typeset the contents in the standard roman font. The query goes out on good letterhead (which is Copperplate Gothic, natch). Some people have said that your query must be typeset exactly like the manuscript. That doesn't make sense to me. Why should a letter look like the page of a manuscript?

"Some people" are not necessarily right. Generally the query is good as long as it's clear and readable.

Are the patients now running the asylum?

No, but I hear they have a controlling share in the company.


A Conscientious Submitter


The Rejecter

Update on Censorship on Amazon

So I all know you want me to stop posting about this, which is why it's not my only post today, but I got an email early this morning from Amazon.com, which briefly said it had copies of The Complex and would send my order when it was ready.

Hello from Amazon.com.

We are sorry to report that we will not be able to obtain the following item(s) from your order:

John Duignan, et al "The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert
World of the Church of Scientology"

Though we had expected to be able to send this item to you, we've since found that it is not available from any of our sources at this time. We realize this is disappointing news to hear, and we apologize for the inconvenience we have caused you.

We have cancelled this item from your order.

While this item is not available directly from Amazon.com, you may be able to purchase it from one of the many other sellers with product listings on Amazon.com. Please click on the link above to visit the product detail page. If the item is available from a third-party seller, you will see a "Used & new" link on the product detail page that will provide a list of merchants currently selling the item.

In other words: "The big bad cult told us there was something libelous in it, and rather than check or even wonder why we, as the bookstore and not the author, have a reason to care, we're pulling the concept of selling it." All the major bookstores in England have also pulled it. It is still available at Eason.ie.

The publisher of the book, Merlin, released a statement.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Stop making me angry, you censoring cult!

Believe it or not, I opened an unsolicited manuscript from a Scientologist today. It didn't say it outright, but I became suspicious when he referred to psychiatric drugs as "toxins" and the use of them on children a crime performed because the parents were "stupid." That was the thesis of his book - children are diagnosed with bogus psychiatric problems - everything from ADD to autism to pyromania - because their parents had bad marriages.

I checked his biography. He was a psychologist (not a psychiatrist) with no clinical experience and had won the Citizien's Commission for Human Rights Award in 2008. Bingo. The CCHR is that Scientology front group dedicated to discrediting psychiatry, lobbying for less screening for emotional problems in schools, and funding bogus studies to present psychiatric drugs as unsafe. Taking my compazine for nausea? NOT a human right.

(Compazine is an anti-psychotic that, in low doses, can treat severe nausea. It's also a drug Scientology spends millions to get proven unsafe even though it's been on the market for years)

I did not write anything in the rejection commenting on this. I made that mistake once for someone's incredibly racist book about Muslims and he called the BBB on my boss. Never making that mistake again.

In an update on the Complex book situation, what apparently happened was Scientology's corporate offices sent "legal letters" to all the major booksellers in the UK, who promptly pulled the book for fear of lawsuit. Whether there's any legal grounds for a lawsuit is completely unknown. Merlin, the publisher, had no idea this was going to happen (the author did, and said he's not surprised). Merlin doesn't do books internationally on its own, and is now trying to sell foreign English-language rights to places like America, where we have free speech. Just not on Amazon, where it's suspiciously completely out of stock and has been since the day it was posted.

I ordered the book from Eason, and they charged my credit card and said they shipped it. EDIT: Apparently you can still find it on their website. They're an Irish store, not UK, so who knows how long they'll have it up, but here's to the Republic of Ireland!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Moment for Grandstanding

I buy a lot of books from Amazon. I'm gonna say, 100 a year. That's a safe estimate. I do a lot of historical research and they sell used history books for sometimes 10% of the cover price. Short of hanging around in libraries a lot (not so good with my super-late schedule and the fact that I'm no longer a college student), this is my option. When the "Amazon is the big bad thing that is going to kill publishing as we know it" articles come out (they're very similar to the ones about 10 years ago about Barnes and Noble), I'm generally in the Amazon camp. So, with all the money I give them, it disgusts me when they do something like this.

About two weeks ago, I read an article on the Times Online about a book called The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology. As it looked interesting, I decided to buy it. Amazon.com didn't offer it yet, so I bought it from Amazon.co.uk. A few days later I received this email:

We are contacting you regarding your Amazon.co.uk order which included the following:

'The Complex: An Insider Exposes the Covert World of the Church of Scientology' (Asin 1903582849)

This item has been removed from sale for legal reasons. We have cancelled your order for this item and can confirm that you have not been charged for it.

This is not the first time publishing has had trouble with Scientology, or Amazon specifically. Andrew Norton's unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise was not published in Norton's native UK by its publisher, St. Martin's Press, because the UK has stronger libel laws than we have in America, and to be honest, it was a pretty libel-y book. In fact, you could make a semi-decent profit for awhile on eBay selling the book to international buyers who couldn't buy it in Britain.

Then sometime in March, there was a bit of a scandal about how all negative reviews of the Scientology bible, Dianetics, were mysteriously disappearing from Amazon's website. When some friends of mine who were users who posted negative comments asked why, Amazon told them their reviews "did not meet the review guidelines set by Amazon.com." They reposted their reviews to more specifically meet the guidelines (only discuss the book and the author, not Scientology in general), and the reviews were posted and then deleted again. Eventually some press got wind of this, and Amazon had to repost all of the negative reviews. Score one for free speech.

The Norton thing wasn't Amazon's fault; the Dianetics thing was. Anyway, I haven't read the The Complex. It's on the way from an independent British bookseller. When the publishing company (Merlin) is an Irish company that when contacted, did not know their book had been pulled from Amazon.co.uk (which no longer LISTS the book, much less claims it's out of stock as Amazon.com does). By all accounts the book isn't libelous - it's just one person's story of his time in Scientology. And it says really, really bad things about Scientology because the guy saw and did really bad things when he was in Scientology. That's not slander; that's an autobiography.

So Tom Cruise suddenly shows up at an Amazon all-hands meeting in Seattle? Does he need to promote Valkyrie to Amazon executives that badly? Is he looking for an internship for a relative? Or is it directly related to them pulling that book by that guy who said he was programmed to kill for Tom?

As if I had another reason to be angry with Scientology, which is currently campaigning to take my live-saving drugs off the market via lobbying in state legislatures through its anti-drug front group, the Citizen's Commission for Human Rights. And now you mess with the BOOK INDUSTRY!?!?

Argh. Rejector SMASH.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Response Times Based on Length

Dear Rejecter,

I sent out queries to 5 agencies on 10/10. I got a request for a full MS on 10/20 (which I was able to email the next day). How long does it usually take to get a response, either positive or negative? I write middle grade fiction and it was approximately 43,000 words long - so a relatively quick read for an adult.

I realize that even requested material has to stand in line & the agent probably has dozens upon dozens of other manuscripts to look through, but I thought that you folks could make a pretty quick negative decision based on the first few pages.

Should I take it as a good sign that I haven't yet received a rejection? Or, should I send an email to the assistant who requested my manuscript and ask how things are going & whether or not they've had a chance to look over my MS?

Just wondering.

I think most people would agree that you probably have solid material there for such a high hit rate and you should not be worried. Nervous, but not worried. Sounds like you're going to get an agent unless your query was horribly misleading.

As to response times, they vary not based on the length of the book but when we get around to reading partials. Yes, we can sometimes reject after 5 pages, but most of the time a partial was requested for a reason and unless the prose is absolutely hideous, we will read until we see a reason to stop (or if you're paid hourly, you will read the whole thing). So if there's been no response, it's because the agent hasn't gotten to it yet. Length is not a huge issue, unless it was 700 pages. Then they might put it off until all the minor stuff was done.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More on Bad Companies

Follow-up question to previous post:

Along the same lines of the question you answered in today's post, what's the best way to unearth information about any given publisher's history with regard to their treatment of authors, how faithfully they honor contracts, how spotty their promotional record is, etc.? I can certainly look them up and ask around, but I suspect many authors are afraid to speak up when they feel mistreated, out of fear that their name will be mud in the larger industry. Are there resources, online or otherwise, that you can suggest? :)

Most major companies - certainly all of the big 5 and most of the larger independents - will be serious about honoring contracts, protecting their/your copyright, and sending you reminders that you've earned no royalties this term with a balance sheet to prove it. They don't want the lawyer hassle of an author suing them any more than the author wants the hassle of hiring a lawyer. The contract is a legally binding document, so they have to obey it. How precisely they stick to every last detail (delivery dates, etc) can vary in the smaller companies, not necessarily because they're unscrupulous but because they're small and know you'll understand and you probably will (I'm talking about companies with three people on the payroll).

There are two things I left out of the above paragraph in answer to your question: promotion and editing.
(1) Editing. What's generally stipulated in the contract is that you and the publishing company both agree on the final text of the book, the one that goes to press. Failure to do - i.e. a major disagreement - usually means a breaking of the contract. This is very rare and mostly for books that might cause the publishing company to be sued, like books on scandals and celebrities. However, to GET to that final project requires editing, and how much the company is going to take the time to do is really up to them, and you're left finish the odds-and-ends. While it's in their best interest to produce a finished work without a ton of typos, misspellings, and inconsistencies, it doesn't always happen. All houses have a final round of editing that's done strictly to get rid of typos and grammatical errors, not address plot problems and factual errors. Those have to be done earlier, and how much is done by you and how much done by your editor depends on how dedicated the editor and/or their assistant is to the book. If you write a book on kingship in the Post-Classic Mayan Period, your editor might not be as much of an expert on kingship in the Post-Classic Mayan Period as you are and if you got some dates wrong, they're probably going to stay wrong.

Funny story: So there was a joke I made in my first book that had the word "Jew" in it. It wasn't an anti-Semitic joke at all, but my editor insisted that I pull it and since no harm was really done to the manuscript if I did, I decided to not argue the point and I rewrote the two lines required to remove it. You have to pick your battles with your editor. For some reason, because she's either disorganized or just a human being, she never implemented the changes into whatever master file she had open in front of her that day, and the joke made it into the published book.

(2) Promotion - This will vary hugely from house to house and book to book. Obviously, you go with one of the major houses, your book will be able to be promoted in ways smaller publishers can only dream of. On the other hand, the major house might not do much promotion, especially for a new author without too much commercial promise. You can easily fall between the cracks at the promotion department of a major house and get next to nothing done on your behalf, or you could go with an independent press that really, really wants to do more promotion but doesn't have the resources to do it. A lot of it's luck. Be very, very nice to your publicist from day 1. Trust me, this will pay off.

To finally answer your question, while you're always safer at a major house, terrible things can still happen to you at any house if someone important in the company doesn't care about your book. As to what companies you can rely on, there's not really a guide, especially with so many imprints and so many editors always moving around. This is the job of an agent - to know where to submit and, if you get multiple offers, where to accept. My boss recently advised her client to take a lower offer (not significantly lower) on the advance of a book because she felt strongly that the editor at the lower offer's house cared about the book more and the book would be treated better and look better on their list. The agent's responsibility is to know what editors are looking for what and when - that's part of where they earn their 15%. They earn 15% on royalties, too, so they want the book to succeed, and if they think it will succeed wildly at a smaller house, they'll advise you to take it there.

There's not really a website that tracks any of this. With all the movement constantly going on in the publishing industry, it would be difficult to have one even if everyone gave it a concentrated effort, and nobody's giving it a concentrated effort. But for plain ol' bad business practices, there's always Preditors and Editors.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bad Publishing Companies and Bad Contracts

So I'm not doing NaNoWriMo this year. For the second year in a row, it's because I'm in the middle of other projects. Book #2 is under contract and due, Book 10 has to actually be finished, book 3 needs revision for the end of the year, and after that I've got a novel in another genre to revise for my agent to shop around.

I know, you're all playing the world's tiniest violin. Still, there is a singular frustration of not being able to write whatever I want because I have to revise what I've already written and am now sick of. I've always found revision harder than writing. I'm sure a lot of writers, published and unpublished, feel the same way. On to the questions!

Dear Rejecter,

Sorry for hitting you with an email, but challenged as I am, couldn't figure out how to ask the question on your blog spot. Very helpful blog, by the way, so thanks.

My question:
My first novel was published by a small company is 2007. They did pretty much nothing in the way of editing, promotion, etc., and I have received one royalty statement since May, 2007. My second book, due out this year, is also signed with them. I have been considering legal action to regain the rights to both books, but I have heard this might be wasted money, as many publishers won't touch previously published books. Is this consistent with your experience?

There seem to be a couple questions buried in this, so let me address them:

(1) They are obligated to provide you with royalties as often as your contract designates. If you don't earn any money, they are still obligated to provide statements proving you made no money. Failing to do so can void your contract with them. If you are having problems getting royalties, get an agent. Start emailing around with your problem (published author needs to re-negotiate contract) and I'm sure at least 10 people will jump up to take the free-meal deal there.

(2) If the second book is due but not gone to press (meaning, they haven't started printing copies of the book for sale yet), you can back out of your contract under certain conditions. "Not paying royalties on previous book" is probably one of them. Breaking a contract means you forfeit the advance, if you had one to begin with. Get an agent.

(3) I don't know how "small" this company is or what kind of deal they actually did in promoting your book. Most books barely break even for the company anyway, and very often new authors get lost at big companies and have similar complaints. Let's assume for the sake of argument that they did screw you, and you feel that a better company could do a better job. Well, you're not in a great spot here. Big publishers do love to buy the rights to books from little publishers and are willing to shell out money to do it, on the condition that the book was doing well for the small house and the large house wants to republish it and reap the rewards on owning the rights to an already-edited novel they don't have to work very hard on. Your book didn't do well, so that's not going to happen. My advice, in terms of your writing career, is to write a third book and try to sell it another house. If you really feel compelled to get out of your previous contracts, get an agent, who may then want to edit and re-market the book to bigger companies and might have the capabilities to do that. It's not unheard of. Either way, don't bank on the first two books being the start of your career. Write another one to start your career with.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Wannabes Talk About Craft. Writers Talk About Money.

Seeing a lot of queries of novels and biographies set in Alaska right now. You can probably guess why that is.

So it seems that if you want a lot of free books, all you have to do is set up a blog saying you're going to review books and people will send you books. You can even specify genres. Then you don't even have to review the books, or just claim you're really busy and have a long list and the publisher will act all not surprised.

My publicist and I have been working together to send more and more copies to more and more blogs. Sometimes this involves me sending the book myself so it's signed, and then the publisher reimbursing me with new books (but not cash for having spent money on postage, of course). Trying to get paid is like trying to get blood from a stone - that is, if you're not Penn and Teller. Even though my second book is due on the 15th of November and the third due Jan 1st, neither have a signed contract (just a draft of one). If we signed, they would have to pay. I expect they'll drag it out until I threaten not to submit the book or something. I also found out that they pay royalties twice a year, so I won't be seeing my royalties from my first book (which have no exceeded my advance several times over, something I would be more proud of if my advance wasn't tiny) until April 2009.

I'm not whining - I love being published - but it's something you can expect when you're published. Like that famous New York Times Book Review article, "Publish or Perish." Someone in my grad program had it on her office door. Anyone have a scan of that hilarious article?

Monday, October 20, 2008

At least it's not a feel-good Oprah book. Though it seems like she likes books about incest.

Hi Rejecter,

So glad you're back. Congrats on the book doing so well!

So, I'm pitching a memoir, and in my first-draft letter, I say, "this is not some feel-good Oprah book; it's more like [name of snarky, popular author this agent represented]." Is it okay to say your work is like someone else's, or is that amateurish, or a potential set-up for failure? (ie, I say I'm like Author X, agent reads my first chapter, and thinks I'm nothing like Author X.) Should I just leave out references/comparisons to other writers altogether?


I'm not going to say, "No, never mention another author and compare yourself to them." There's very few "nevers" in publishing. That said, it's not a good idea. I know a lot of sites and books recommend it and I don't know why they do that, because it always looks tacky to us. If we work in that genre, we're probably already familiar with bestselling authors in said genre anyway, and can make the comparisons ourselves if we want. Let your summation of the book in the query speak for itself.

P.S. I'm logging off tonight for Shemini Atzeret/Simfas Torah, so don't expect your comments to be approved until Wednesday night.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Back! And On How to Write Real Good

So a combination moving/writing/Jewish Holidays/family emergencies have kept me away, but not for long! Time to answer some old and undoubtedly outdated emails!

I'm a "wannabe" working on his first novel (sci-fi if that matters).

To the point - is it all right/common to start a story with someone other than the main character?

My story starts with a woman (prostitute actually) just learning she's pregnant (doesn't know who the father is yet). Bottom line - the baby is the main character. The pregnancy won't just be backstory. The mother will learn who the father is and go on the run. My original idea was to have her attacked just before the baby is born (mugging). She dies, but the baby is saved and adopted by childless couple who [obviously] have no clue the baggage that will come with this baby.

One member of my critique group says you should always start a story with the main character and that my proposed first chapter should be skipped or a prologue.

The other dilema is that another member of the group suggested that by the end of the first chapter readers will have an investment in the woman and killing her would be a mistake.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.

There is no "right" way to write a novel, though there are plenty of wrong ways. As writers, we all have to learn an important lesson: When you are a writer, people will give you blanket advice about writing and insist you take it as gospel. It will take a long time to figure out their advice was really dumb. I will now proceed to give you blanket advice:

There is nothing wrong with any way you want to write a novel as long as you do it well.

Yes, there are some things to stay away from - bad grammar, bad spelling, plot inconsistencies, having the whole thing be one long run-on sentence, and using multiple 1st-person POVs. That said, there's undoubtedly at least one award-winning example out there of a novel that broke one of those rules. On the other hand, you are probably not going to write one of those rare award-winning novels that break all the rules. Stick to them.

I've read plenty of novels - most of them suspense or mystery - where the character introduced in the first chapter was either a side character, a character who was about to meet the main character, or whom didn't survive to see chapter 2. It was never a problem, except in one case where I found it annoying. There was one urban fantasy author - I forget his name - who would introduce murder victims by spending an entire chapter on an intricate backstory for them, only to have them fairly randomly offed by the magical serial killer at the end of their segment. He would do it at least twice a novel and it was a whole series so by the end I was pretty sick of that little trick, but I knew other people liked it. Also I bought all of his books, so he "won" in that sense.

The people in your crit group are not authorities on writing. If they were, they would be busy rolling around in dollar bills from all the money they made writing that authoritative book on writing, not hanging around in a crit group. Take their advice with a grain of salt.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Stacking Books

Moving is hell, but it's a lot worse when you have a lot of books.

After I'm settled in my new, cheaper apartment, I will be back to a regular posting schedule. Until then, I'm going to have to figure out what to do with all these books. My mother spent some time berating me today about how difficult the move was because I seemed to have about 20 boxes of books alone, and reminding me of how nice it was to move my brother, who is less of a reader and more of a "TV'er" so his life, moving-wise, is less complicated. When you read a lot, you collect a lot of books. When you work in publishing, you collect a lot of books. If you like buying books randomly on the street because they peaked your interest and they were a dollar, you collect a lot of books. All of this is great if you own a house and never plan on moving. Not so good when you move around every 1-2 years from tiny Manhattan apartment to tiny Manhattan apartment. Today I was deciding between a bookcase and a kitchen table. There wasn't really a decision to be made - the books couldn't sit on the table - so I'll be eating in my lap until I figure something out.

My books fall into these categories:
(1) History (research for my writing)
(2) History (general interest)
(3) History (gimmick)
(4) Judaica (Mishnah, Talmud, Mishnah Brurah, Sefer Yetzirah, etc)
(5) General fiction I bought with the intention to read
(6) General fiction I was given and told to read, probably by my father
(7) Books I got at a publishing fair, like the BEA, where they hand out a lot of free books
(8) Books I got during my publishing seminar
(9) Books I got at work because extra copies were lying around, filling up the office
(10) Books I bought because I thought I could sell them but I couldn't
(11) Books about writing/publishing
(12) Books about writing/publishing (gimmick)

In other words, I really need to learn to say no to, "Would you like a free book?"

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Stocking Books

So it's been awhile, much longer than I would have liked, since I've made a post. Without going all livejournal-ly on you, my life has been crazy, between trying to find a new apartment, health, my two jobs, and my book coming out.

My book did come out (no, I won't tell you what it is). And it did well. Went to second printing in the first week of publication. It's not gonna be on a bestseller list, but nobody's really on a bestseller list. But, healthy sales, beyond expectations, and books 2 and 3 in the series are in contract negotiations.

One of the little-known facets of publishing houses is that nobody actually knows what they're doing. A lot of guesswork is involved in every stop in the process. In my case, the publishing house (no, I won't tell you which one) had a good idea that my book would do better than the others on its list in that genre coming out at the same time, but still underestimated the demand, as did the buyers at B&N and Borders and whatnot. Some of this is the company's fault, for not pushing the book enough at the buying meeting. Some of it is the buyer's fault, but buyers have a really hard job and I'm a first-time author, so I'm surprised they bought as many as they did.

Unlike magazine publishing, where they'll happily print 1000 extra copies than lose a single sale, bookstores don't really like to be overstocked. The books take up space and cost money to ship back to the publishing houses when they don't sell. So it's a guesstimate. The problem is, when the book sells out and they put in for reorder (or they get low and put in for reorder), the order takes a good week to fill at best. Books take awhile to be printed, so if the publisher is clean out, you know, whoops. Which means a lost sale, because people are less likely to buy if it has to be ordered for them, and of course casual browsers aren't going to see it if it's not on the shelf in the first place.

Technically there is a policy that bookstores aren't supposed to stock the book until the actual publication date, which was never a solid date but at some point was September 1st and at another point was September 8th. Only the local bookstore in my hometown, which ordered a whole ONE copy, had it in stock but was unwilling to admit it until my mom told them I was the author, and then they were unwilling to sell it to her because it was August 29th at the time. The reason she'd gone there, other than out of interest, was that it HAD been in the closest Barnes and Noble and all 8 copies sold within a few days, so she didn't have a copy of her daughter's book.

What actually happened was the publishing house shipped the books out in a "staggered" form mid-August, and B&N, Borders, and Amazon decided to just start sellin' and filling orders. No reason to waste space in the storage room. I actually found out my book was on-sale around August 20th because someone emailed me to say they had gotten an email that their Amazon pre-order had shipped early (mine hadn't). So I went to the local B&N and damn, there it was. I have to say, I was very composed. The shouting for joy was minimal. I blame my heavy medication. Stupid dampening of emotions to prevent severe depression.

An amusing thing happened, which was suddenly the publishing thought it might be a good idea to do some publicity for the book, seeing as how it was doing so well within its little niche genre, or at least better than the other books on their list. So they called me up and were like,"So do you want to do a book signing?"

"Have you ever tried to schedule a book signing in Manhattan?"

"No." (this particular publicist hadn't)

"Well, I'm not a former President or Richard Dawkins, so good luck."

The blog tour thing is going very well, though. Basically we sent review copies to a bunch of bloggers who review books, and some of them offered to interview me, and I wrote answers to their questions. It's a bit difficult after the 5th interview or so to keep the material fresh, because there's only so many ways to answer the question, "So why did you decide to write about ___?" But since it's the internet, I figure some people are going to be surfing around and reading multiple websites, so I ought to say something different if I can. I came THIS close to talking about my sword collection. THIS CLOSE. What stopped me is that it's not a very impressive collection. Only one is folded steel and it's only apprentice quality.

I will be back to answering questions soon, as this apartment search thing clears up for me. That or my head will explode from the state of the New York real estate market, and I won't be answering questions.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vampires Who Fight Crime > Vampires Who Don't

I'm on a brief Forever Knight-fanfic-reading hiatus. Don't ask.

Well, from what I hear, 90% of these old, poorly-archived stories are better and more complex than Breaking Dawn. Publisher's Weekly had an article about people asking for their money back. Why are there so many "Well, I never!" comments in the publishing industry, like books aren't sometimes treated the same way as other products people buy with hard-earned money? I mean if I bought a TV and it didn't work I would return it, and if a book was so terrible I didn't even want it around I would sell it or donate it. Should we, a publishing industry, be surprised when people who don't like our products question our return policy?

Still approving comments. Go ahead.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Metered Mail

So we had two cases today where people had sent large reply envelopes to send back their unrequested partials using metered mail. This means that after they found out the weight and price of shipping the partial at the post office, they either had the post office stand the SASE before it went into the main envelope or they had one of those machines in their office that did it for them with red ink on the envelope based on the weight of the package.

The problem with this is, with metered mail you can't send it from a wildly different zip code than the one you metered it at. And because it was over 14 ounces, my boss took it to the post office to mail it, only to be told she couldn't, because it was metered in another zip code.

Long story short, if you're one of those people with a machine that weights and then applies a stamp via a meter and a red stamp thing, don't do it on your SASE. Find out the cost and put that much in stamps on the SASE so we can mail it back to you.

Some agencies don't make the trip to the post office or have an office person who does it for them, and just toss the returns envelopes that would require a trip to a post office because our country doesn't understand how actual postal security should work. So if you send an unrequested partial and it's heavy, don't expect it back, even if you send enough stamps to do so. Not everyone will send it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Working Experience and Vanity Presses

I recently sent off a few agent queries for my romance novel that contained the following biographical paragraph:

"[Cut for privacy by the Rejector, but basically she says she was an editorial assistant at a small press and goes into what she did there]."

Now I'm wondering if "vanity press" is really the right term to use in this case. Vanity presses are demonized by bloggers, but the company I worked for was perfectly harmless. We didn't swindle writers. In fact, we didn't accept any outside manuscript submissions at all -- we developed everything in-house with the help of the artist we were devoted to promoting. At the time that I worked there, we understood ourselves to be a vanity press in the most pure sense: a press devoted to one person's vanity.

Would you mind taking a look at [the company's] web site and letting me know what you think? I'm afraid that in misusing a common publishing term, I have shown myself to be an idiot. If [this press] isn't a vanity press, then what is it?

A side issue is whether or not my experience in publishing is even worth mentioning at all. I have no idea, and I'm almost afraid to ask.

So there are two issues I see here:

(1) You are wondering if you worked for a vanity press. Well, you didn't work for Vanity Press, which was actually the name of a major self-publishing company before the word "self-publishing" existed. When I was 14, I submitted a manuscript to them, not knowing any better, and lo-and-behold, they accepted me. I was on top of the world. Then my mom looked at the fine print and said, "I'm not paying for this" and that was the end of that.

The term has come to main places that make you pay up front for copies printed, as opposed to POD presses where there's a more complex financial arrangement that requires only a set-up fee or no set-up fee at all but takes a larger chunk from each copy and prices the copies very high. POD only exists because the technology to print books quickly exists, and it didn't when I was 14.

Looking at the website, I honestly can't tell for sure, but if I had to guess I would err on the side of "oh look, a small press" and not discriminate. A lot of small, specialized presses like this one have different financial structures (for everyone else, this is a press for books about glassmaking).

(2) I think it's OK to mention you worked for a press unless it was one of those huge, corrupt vanity presses or POD scams like PublishAmerica or Authorhouse. Saying you edited for PublishAmerica is like saying "I have NEGATIVE editing experience, less than people who've never edited." We know those houses exist to make a profit and don't edit their work. If you did legitimate work at a legitimate press, don't worry about the structure and mention it.

That said, the paragraph you sent me that you put in your query was fairly long, and I would cut it down to two lines, max. Editorial experience doesn't make you a good writer; it makes you a good editor. Editing is a useful skill for writing, but it's part of the writing tool set, not the whole of it. In other words, your book might still suck even if you were the CEO of Random House after working your way up from the mail room and through every editorial station before moving to executive positions. So give it a line or two because it shows you know how to edit (and would thus be capable of doing so if we asked) and focus on your novel.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Amazon Rankings and Ice Fishing

OK, it's time to get something out in the open.

I've noticed that all the pod-caster novelists and POD-ers have this obsession with Amazon rankings, which I can understand. That's why they all encourage people to buy the book on opening day, so it skyrockets the rankings to the top 10, if even for 1/10 of a second, but still, from then on in the promo materials you can say, "the top 10 Amazon hit..."

But does this really work? Do publishers care about gimmicky marketing tactics like this? Can you show me a case where it backfired?

I have to admit that this approach looks more respectable than begging for some 'agent' who may or may not even respond to you to take 15% of whatever you may or may not make. Seems like the new breed of action adventure authors (and it does seems to be mostly in those genres), are eschewing agents altogether, or at least until the asgents solicit them.

First I will point out that mainstream authors can be as obsessed with their Amazon rankings as POD authors. I know I am, checking it whenever I can while my book is in preorder because I know a spike equals a sale and I get all excited. POD people have even more reason to be obsessed because they are, for the most part, not in stores and rely on Amazon to sell their book.

People used to be more dismissive of Amazon. As of 2007, someone told me all internet sales were only 7% of the book market, not that big. Then in early 2008 I heard 17% from someone else, then 23%. The point is, the internet sales are climbing in proportion to stores going down, and while they won't replace stores, they can no longer be dismissed. So if your book is selling well on Amazon, good for you. Be happy about it. It's no small thing anymore.

As for the rankings system, I've been messing with it a bit myself as of late so I can talk about it a little. There have been waves of people trying to analyze the ranking system and figure out Amazon's algorithm, which is a closely-guarded secret. The reason for the waves is that Amazon occasionally changes the algorithm based on people trying to manipulate it or for it to more efficiently reflect sales. In 2005, someone wrote that she got her book into the Top 25 list by buying a book an hour (it is recalculated every hour for high-ranked books, and mostly once a day for above 100,000 numbered books). I tried that, and it didn't work. She wrote that she only bought one copy because she read somewhere else that for an individual buyer, multiple copies are reduced to one for the purposes of ranking to prevent the manipulation of rank by authors. Come to think of it, I don't know why Amazon would care - they just want to sell books, and they're selling books to you, and they're ranking the books by what's sold, so who buys them shouldn't be a huge issue, be it one person buying 100 or 100 people buying one. On the other hand, 100 people buying one indicates popularity over numbers, so again, it's complicated.

I experimented a little (and got flagged by Amazon, who called me and asked me if I wanted a corporate account, as I seemed to be buying so many books that if I had any intention of actually buying them and not canceling my pre-orders, it would be financially cost-efficient to have a corporate account and not just an Amazon credit card like I do) and here's what I found:

(1) Numbers do matter. Buying 100 copies over buying 1 multiple times over a long period of time will artificially raise your rank faster and higher.

(2) Amazon does calculate the ranks about once an hour, but it puts the calculations in effect on about the 40 minute part of the hour. I don't know when it actually does the calculations, but all I know is that the spike would always be around :35 or :40. Otherwise, my book would just slowly depreciate.

(3) Massive canceling of massive orders will result in the rank going back down (meaning, the ranking system takes cancellations into account and doesn't just track orders. It tracks sales)

(4) It is ridiculously, stupidly hard to get your book above 2000. There are 4 million books listed on Amazon, so that shouldn't be a surprise, but it seems to cap at 2000 for some reason. Despite massive orders in a short span of a few hours, I could not get my rank to reflect that.

(5) Manipulating your rank is probably a little unethical, though it's a victim-less crime.

To answer your questions specifically, I have seen ads for marketing, but and I gave them some thought but decided against them. If you have a ton of friends, you can get them to buy the book all at the same time, but it won't do as much to your rank as the ads promise. Also some people are big on "email blasts" where you email people you barely know or random people you got from a list you paid for to buy your book. Having never bought a book from an email blast (and I get a few of them every couple months at my Rejector email), I cannot say this is an effective measure except if you've written a specific book for a specific community, in which case I would just call that marketing and be done with it.

I confess I have paid a service $3/month to track my sales based on my rank, because I am curious, and also because I think it has access to Bookscan and can actually look up sales once the book goes on sale and tell me how many sold. The rank itself does not totally reflect sales - it reflects your rank relative to the other 4 million books on Amazon, so if other books aren't doing as well, your rank will not depreciate as slowly.

As for the agent thing, that's another discussion entirely, but I think that anyone with more than one book should immediately get an agent even if they already have a book contract. That 15% is well-earned, and I say that not just because I work for an agent but also because I have my own agent for my books, and she is severely underpaid for all the work she does for me in my opinion. If you have one book and have an offer, get an agent. She'll take her 15% percent for looking over the contract, but she's not there for that. She's there to sell your second, third, and fourth books, and so on.

Lastly, some people have begun to mention in query letters that they were "an Amazon bestseller." We don't pay any attention to this. It could mean they manipulated their rank to be a bestseller, and it could mean they were a bestseller in a specific category. I imagine it's not all that hard to be a bestseller in the Books ‹Outdoors & Nature ‹Hunting & Fishing ‹Fishing ‹Ice Fishing category. Or maybe I'm just underestimating the number of books about ice fishing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Dear Rejecter,

I know you've posted before your feelings about publishing on demand novels. What is your feeling about novels that the author has decided to self-publish in audio form as a series of podcasts? I'm referring to works available at www.podiobooks.com and author Web sites. A few authors (Scott Sigler and J.C. Hutchins, to name two) have landed publishing deals for their books after they gave them away as free podcasts. In your opinion, does podcasting a work before getting a publisher help or hurt the author's chances of getting published in print? Would you or your boss consider taking on a work with such a history?

Hmm. You know, I've never listened to a podcast. Just never been my thing. My boss has listened to them, when her authors were interviewed and turned it into a podcast, but those were books she already bought.

While I can't directly answer your question with a yes/no, I will say that having your book online is not a writing credential, and that those guys who got deals are probably extreme exceptions to the rules. That and that they also have really good voices and maybe some background in voicework, choral, or radio.

However, it wouldn't HURT your chances of getting into print (though be careful after you sign the contract, because the contract will include audio rights).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

...Speaking of Academic Protagonists

My boss and I have noticed a wave of queries and partials that mention the words "Dan Brown" at some point. We had a break from them for awhile, but now they seem to be back. I wonder what's up with that. Are all of the people who write academic-based thrillers submitting now because they're on summer break from their university?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fiction by Academics

Dear Rejecter,

The ground is thick with rumors that literary agents HATE novels by academics, and automatically throw queries from such creatures in the reject pile. Any wise advice to aspiring novelists inhabiting the ivy-covered groves?

I can't think of why we would have anything against a good novel written by an academic. In fact, if the subject manner is similar to your academic studies, then it's a boost.

It's true that work by academics can naturally be very dry, because that's the way papers and articles are written, and it's the way we're taught to write. I once was graded down on a history paper for being "too exciting" in college, which was part of my decision not to pursue a PhD in history and instead go into writing. However, this is certainly not true of all academics, and many who write well have sold extremely well, as the non-fiction market is very strong.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Blogs and Book Tours

Slow on the posting lately, mainly because I've been caught up in two different writing projects on top of work, and my writing comes before my blogging. So, no apologies.

If you have guest blogged for a well known publisher/ editor/ writing celeb or other notable, is it ok to include that under your writing experience?

...Not really? I would say you're grasping at straws here. Unless it's directly related to the manuscript, don't include it in the query.

On the further subject of blogs, I was compelled to start an author blog by the company publishing my first book (no, I won't tell you where the blog is). So far I've used it to post reviews as they start to come in and really nothing else. The publicity assistant also talked about a "blog tour" as opposed to a book tour, which benefits the company because it doesn't cost money, and benefits the author in that it doesn't take as much time.

This is not to dismiss the traditional book tour, though publishers are increasingly turning against them. The reasons are obvious: they're costly, they're inconvenient, and the book store has to order in the copies themselves sometimes and if they don't sell the bookstore gets mad at the publisher (which is never good for the publisher, which needs the bookstore to buy the books to sell them in the first place). Most of all, unless the author is a celebrity, people don't go to the readings and not only does it not sell books but it can turn into a very depressing experience for the author. Rarely do publishing companies make a huge effort to shield their authors from psychological trauma (especially as mild as facing an uncomfortable amount of empty chairs), so it's nice to hear them being altruistic like that.

In the movie Capote, Truman (Hoffman) gives a reading of his then-unfinished manuscript of In Cold Blood to a packed theater of New York Literati. It does make for a lot of nostalgia, and I just found it funny because he's reading from an unfinished manuscript, and later has problems finishing it, so I thought the reading was a bit premature, even for those days. But anyway, nice scene. Slow movie.

The truth is that the art of the book reading, while not dead, is certainly in some kind of state where IV fluids might be required. The only readings I've ever been to were ones I was dragged to in college or grad school because my professor knew the writer, plus one reading because it was between me and the history section at the Union Square Barnes and Noble and Jimmy Carter was the speaker so the Secret Service guys wouldn't let me through. And I didn't stay for the whole reading. Oh, and once in high school because I had nothing better to do.

It was actually a great presentation. Anne Rice was speaking the following week at the same Borders (I believe The Red Violin was coming out), and this author was a run-of-the-mill fantasy author who had written a Forever Knight franchise novel. For those of you who don't remember or never knew because you have a life, Forever Knight was a show about a vampire who was a cop and the whole show was ruined by its really, really terrible ending. Possibly the worst ending for a series ever if not for Sopranos. Anyway, this author realized there was no reason to talk about the book, as we were either going to buy it because we liked the show and showed up or we were there because that's where all the chairs were, so instead she gave about an hour presentation on the history of the vampire myth, and how it entered pop culture. It was one of the most interesting explanations of how we went from burying comatose people at crossroads to Count von Count. I was so impressed by her sheer historical knowledge that I bought the book to compliment her. I never read it. I don't even really remember why I was there in the first place; maybe we just went to the bookstore to kill time before a movie or something.

The point is, if you're a first-time author, or even just an author who is not a former President, you're probably not going to draw a crowd. I like George R. Martin but it doesn't mean I necessarily want to listen to him read a Sansa chapter. People go for autographs, but the modern autograph market has kinda bottomed out thanks to eBay. So, not going on a book tour is probably not just the publicity market being cheap (though they are undoubtedly doing that) but saving you from hassle and time that you could be spending writing your next book.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Grumpy Dragon vs. The Rejecter

I finished my first novel over a year ago. I've spent time sending queries to agents with no result. By chance last week, a friend of a friend, referred me to a small, brand new publisher, who wants to read my book. My question is, do you think going with a small, new publisher is a good idea?

Before I address the name she actually sent me, which is kind of hilarious, I will address the question at hand.

So I work for an agent, which means by all rights I should say no immediately. Agents don't like small presses. Their advances are minuscule or non-existent, and their profits are in the crazy land of "don't check the mail for a check anytime soon." Agents don't make money because authors don't make money. Also your book doesn't get a lot of distribution, meaning it has next to no chance of earning back the non-advance on royalties or becoming a bestseller. Ultimately, it's better for your career and your wallet to be with a major press.

On the other hand, maybe what you've written is very experimental, or isn't so great, or is great in a way no one can appreciate (meaning it's very experimental), or you just want to get published, damnit, and you don't want to self-publish. And small presses are legitimate courses to take at this point if you've failed to get an agent. It will count on your publication record more than a POD book. It's not the best of stepping stones but it is one.

Now the press she mentioned was The Grumpy Dragon, which has a worse page layout than the small press I started last year to republish one book, which means the layout is really, really terrible because I started the bar pretty low. I'm not great at .html at like, advanced levels. G-d, I think I even used the same color for the background. Still, I didn't have an MS Paint logo, and I had frames, so I'm up on these people in the realm of creating web pages meant for 1998. They also have an amusing "Where does the money go?" .pdf, which is more basic than anything needs to be. My first "this is sketchy, even for a small press" alarm that hadn't gone off based on the web page design went off in their royalty section. The royalties are way too high. From the looks of it, they seem to be about 35% but vary based on the sale price, which they shouldn't.

The way it works in a major publisher, your royalty rate is a set figure (usually between 7.5-10%) based on a set retail price. Whatever price they choose to set the actual price of the book at - whether it's in the discount bin or it's in pre-order or they're spending $4000 a week to put copies on the front tables at Barnes & Noble - your royalties per book remain the same. The time your royalties change, which will be carefully stipulated in the contract, is when the book starts selling in higher numbers, at which point there will be what's called an "escalation." That means the company has made back it's initial investment and at some pre-set number, usually 10 or 20 thousand copies or so, the royalty rate will jump from 10% to 20%. Other editions - audio, digital, etc - will have different rates entirely.

Without looking at my contract, I'm gonna estimate that for the first 30,000 copies of my book (if it were to ever sell that much) I'll make about $1 a book after I earn back my advance. I think my escalation was at 30k; not 100% sure, just remember it was bad because the press was an independent (but huge) publisher and cried poverty despite all those nice articles in PW about how well they're doing.

ANYWAY. The last, and more terrifying alarm was that there's one book out by the company and it's out through Lulu. Meaning, they didn't actually publish it. They might have looked it over and edited it (I suspect they did), but they didn't publish it. The real work of putting together a bound book and distributing it was done by another company, so going through Grumpy Dragon means you really should have just done it yourself and gone through Lulu yourself unless you are really a horrible editor and want Grumpy Dragon to edit you. Hopefully they won't do your cover art in MS Paint.

(This little tangent was for the general public, not the person with the question, who had a legitimate question and yes, it can be a difficult decision)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

More on Writers and Blogs

So tonight I'll be signing off until Tuesday night for the holiday of Shavout, where we study all night long and eat cheesecake and I try to go through Mishnah in its entirety. Don't expect your comments to be approved between tonight and Tuesday night.

Looking for clarification...

I understand that an author's website should never be provided in lieu of a good query--but would it necessarily hurt the author to include it?

I am building a site for my unpub. novel, because I am a designer and it is fun/easy for me. My hope is--if an agent likes my query and wants to see more, they can do so instantly.

But, is it insulting to even mention it when youre using it as a tool totally independent from your already fantastic query? I don't want it to seem like I'm giving the agent a job to do, but I want to give them instant access if they're interested.

You can include your website address under your name and other information. Directing us to the website, however relevant it is to the book, is irritating. In publishing, time = money and because it's in NY, time = not enough money to pay the rent, so the fact that we're taking some to read the letter and whatever else you sent in the envelope means we're spending money that we're not likely to get back (there's about a .05% chance). So cruising author's websites is not something we do and we don't like being asked to do it.

Aren't we seeing more and more fiction writers who do have platforms, and Mark Sarvas now being another? Aren't publishers operating out of fear and greed desperate for any promotional leg up?

Publishers realize that blog does not equal immediate and/or substantial leg up, unless your blog was already insanely popular for other things. People like to cite the very, very rare examples of people who got a book deal because they had a blog, like Diablo Cody, whose screenplay was largely unrelated to her hooker blog and whose column in EW I don't care for on a writing level, but these people are exceptions to the rule. Do not expect to be an exception to the rule.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Women's Fiction and Writing Blogs

So apparently blogger decided not to mail me my new "You have a comment to approve" emails for a few days, and I logged in for something and had 12 comments to approve. Apologies. Continue your conversations.

As to the whole "should writers keep a blog thing" I will make my own comment: I've been slow to update this blog in the last two weeks because I've just been insane with job stuff, graduation ceremony stuff, apartment lease stuff, and finally, writing stuff. The blog is really the last on the list behind "Did I get a chapter done tonight?" I feel that it's important to post regularly but I can't let it consume my writing energy, which foremost goes to my fiction and notes for my non-fiction stuff I'm working on. A lot of writers have blogs for similar reason to why anyone else does - because they want to - but since a blog requires writing, if you only have a certain number of words in you per day, don't spend them recounting the jazz festival you went to last night. Unless you want to.

I've been working on a query letter and having people in a writing forum critique it. One critic told me that chick lit was over, and to make my story look like more than just a romantic comedy. I think that women will always be interested in romance and funny stories. I planned on just calling my story "commercial fiction." What's your take on this?

"Women's fiction" is always a good way to go if the main character is a woman and it's not specifically another genre. A lot of agents like "women's fiction" because women in general are huge readers, in comparison to men and children who aren't being forced by some assignment (Not to insult the male literati here). Plus a lot of agents are women.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sending Unrequested Fulls

We don't get unrequested fulls that often, and I would say we get them less often than we used to. The reason is obvious: the cost of mail, especially media mail, has gone up considerably. Yet some dorks remain who think sending their entire 600-page manuscript overnight (with return postage) is going to impress us somehow and not be a massive waste of money.

I don't know why this is, but unrequested manuscripts are almost universally awful. It doesn't make any statistical sense, but I can't think of one that I even considered putting in the maybe pile. One arrived today. To cut down on expenses, perhaps, the author printed out the manuscript single-space and in 8-point font, only to up the weight by putting it in a really big, nice binder (which we kept because there was no return postage and she said we could keep it). The writing was terrible - just terrible. You know it's bad when a chapter is 3 paragraphs long and two of those paragraphs are single lines of dialogue.

Maybe it's a jinx or something. I don't know.