The getting-a-book-published basics, part XV: the rapidly-changing face of self-publishing, or, objects in motion may not look the same as objects at rest

sunshine-moving-in-trees

This, believe it or not, is a photo of something exceedingly straightforward: a wind-blown stand of trees alongside a rural road in Oregon, shot as I was driving by at sunset. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — my camera has an annoyingly stubborn propensity to assume, contrary to all empirical input, not only that any object I might choose to photograph is going to be stationary, but that I am as well.

News flash, camera: I move occasionally. So do objects in the material world.

(And I don’t appreciate how judgmental you’ve become lately, camera. Yes, I am a writer, and like so many of my breed, may generally be found in front of my computer, day and night. It’s my natural habitat, but I’m not a mushroom. I’ve been known to uproot myself and walk around. Look, I’ve just wiggled my toes. But did you bestir yourself to capture it? Not a chance.)

To give the camera creative credit, sometimes the clash of logically-exclusive presuppositions can lead to unexpectedly interesting results. Since both the trees and I were moving, the camera elected to move from the realm of realism, its usual forte, to impressionism.

Keep this heavy-handed (and tree-filled) metaphor in mind as you read merrily through today’s post, please: clinging too rigidly to preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work may lead to a distorted view of what’s actually going on. So can taking a brief preliminary peek at a process in motion and assuming that momentary snapshot is in fact representative of the whole.

I assure you, forests in Oregon don’t really look like that. My camera’s opinion notwithstanding.

That observation should feel at least a trifle familiar by now: throughout this series, we have seen a number of ways in which the prevailing wisdom about how books get published is, to put it charitably, a tad outdated, if not outright wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, sheer speed of landing an agent or garnering a publishing contract is not a particularly reliable indicator of how good a manuscript is, presenting a manuscript or book proposal professionally does make a difference in how agency screeners respond to it, and advances, particularly for first books, are seldom so large that the writer can afford to quit her day job and live on it, unless she happens to have an unusually developed capacity for deriving nutrition from the air she breathes. If it was ever true that the instant a brilliant writer wrote THE END, agents and editors magically appeared on her doorstep, clamoring to represent and publish, respectively, the just-finished book, well, let’s just say that it hasn’t happened recently.

To be precise, since the days when Cinderella’s fairy godmother was still making regular house calls. If you catch my drift.

At least, it doesn’t work that way for writers who weren’t already celebrities in another medium. If you happen to have won the Nobel Prize in economics, spent your formative years starring in movies, or are the recently-deposed dictator of some interesting small country, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find guidance somewhere else.

For the rest of us, getting our writing recognized as marketable by those in a position to do something practical about it — like, say, an agent with connections to editors who regularly handle your book category — is darned hard work. And, as I pointed out earlier in this series, all of that nerve-wracking labor and waiting doesn’t stop once one lands an agent to represent one’s manuscript. What the work entails may change, but the imperative to produce one’s best writing, presented in the best possible manner, never goes away.

It’s part of the job description of the professional writer. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But if I don’t, who will? Last I heard, the fairy godmothers’ guild was still on strike. Must have been all of those house calls. )

But that does not necessarily mean that someone else will be calling the shots.

Which brings be back, thank goodness, to the matter at hand. Last time, I touched upon several reasons that an aspiring writer might decide to bypass the traditional agent-to-major-publisher route to publication in favor of other options such as approaching a small publisher directly or self-publishing. A writer might conclude that his life was too short to spend querying every agent in the last three years’ editions of the Guide to Literary Agents, for instance; rather than shooting for the big publishing contract, he might be thrilled to see his book in print, even sans advance, through an indie press.

Or, to borrow the rather more poetic rendering of the late, great Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it may be said, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Strategic reasons might weigh into the decision to go indie as well. A writer might feel, for example, that a regional press would be a better bet for her book on migratory waterfowl of the Mississippi delta. (There must be some, right?)

Or the writer might just find the prospect of an agent’s having the right — nay, the obligation — to dictate changes in his manuscript, changes that may well be countermanded by the editor who acquires the book. Even that’s not necessarily the end of the revision road: since editors come and go with dizzying frequency at the major houses these days, the editor who acquires the book may not be the editor in charge of the project when it’s time for the writer to deliver the manuscript, or when she’s finished making the changes requested in the initial editorial memo. Or in the days before the book goes to print.

Yes, it’s been known to happen. So have requested revisions — sacre bleu! — after the review copies have gone out to the advance reviewers (i.e., the one that review books before distributors get them, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly). If those reviews are dismal enough, editors have been known to get a mite nervous, and the editorial memos start flying.

The moral: what a writer regards as a finished book — which is how most aspiring writers think of their books prior to submission, right? — often isn’t. In the traditional publishing world, a whole lot of people have the right to request changes, right up to the point that the spine is about to be pressed against the pages. And sometimes even after.

If I haven’t already hammered this particular point home throughout this series, let me do it now — and since it’s a truth that long-time readers of this blog should find familiar, feel free to open up your hymnals and sing along: in the eyes of the publishing industry, no manuscript is beyond revision until it is actually sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

Some writers find this rather trying, as you might imagine. Being a writer, Lawrence Kasden wrote, is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

I am hardly the first to point out that art and the business of promoting it have not invariably been on the friendliest of terms, historically speaking. One of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing.

Don’t roll your eyes, those of you dead-set on traditional publishing — it’s an increasingly attractive option, especially for nonfiction. These days, you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a respectable-sized writing conference without hitting an aspiring writer who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of the major houses, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means, working with the usual suspects.

Yet if you wander into a writers’ conference and ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing, you’re likely to receive a dismissive, if not overly scornful, answer. Often, agents and editors will act as though self-publishing was purely an act of vanity reserved for those who couldn’t hack it in the big time– unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

Which does indeed happen — not often, but from time to time.

In case you were wondering, exceptionally well in this context usually translates into something over 10,000 books, give or take a hundred or two depending upon book category. That’s not only good ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you new to the Author! Author! community); that’s a statistic that an agent can carry to an editor at a publishing house as evidence that there’s already a demonstrated readership eager for your next book.

Those are the exceptions, though. The last time I checked, the average self-published book was selling less than 500 copies.

Yes, even the ones posted on Amazon. Just as the mere fact of throwing up a website doesn’t automatically result in the world’s beating a path to one’s virtual door, having a book available for sale online doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. The web is, after all, search-oriented: if a potential reader doesn’t know that a particular book exists, s/he’s unlikely to be Googling it, right?

Someone needs to give that reader a heads-up. Increasingly, that someone is the author.

The many, many obstacles facing the self-published book
There’s a reason for the comparatively low sales statistics, of course: self-publishing generally means that the author is solely responsible for promoting his own book — and placing it in bookstores. At a traditional publishing house, large or small, while authors are increasingly expected to invest their own time and resources in hawking their writing (it’s fairly common now for an author to be responsible for setting up her own website, for instance, and to handle virtually all web promotion), but the publisher will handle getting the book to distributors and book buyers.

A self-published book, on the other hand, almost always has a promotional staff of one: the author.

In practice, this can make self-publishing a pretty hard row to hoe, unless the author happens already to have her pretty mitts on some hefty promotional credentials, a mailing list of thousands, or connections at bookstores nationwide that would make the late Jacqueline Susann weep with envy. (Any writer seriously considering self-publishing, or even promoting her own book, should run, not walk, to rent the uneven but often very funny Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great?. It has some problems on a storytelling level, as real people’s lives often do, but there’s no denying that it’s a great primer on how to promote a book, based upon the undisputed mistress of the art. Seriously, she would stop in every bookstore she passed, sign every copy of her books they had, and send individual thank-you notes to everyone who worked in the bookstore afterward. The lady worked for her sales.)

Also, as I mentioned yesterday, self-published works (as well as POD books) currently face some pretty formidable structural obstacles in a literary world that is still very much oriented toward traditional publishing. Most US newspapers and magazines won’t even consider reviewing a self-published or POD book, for instance; even the standard advance review sources won’t do it.

So there goes the standard source for free publicity. But what about distribution?

In practice, anti-review policies mean it’s harder to convince a library or bookstore to carry a non-traditionally published book. And since fiction is traditionally more review-dependent than nonfiction — it all depends on the writing, right? — almost anyone in the traditional book selling or buying biz will tell you that self-publishing a novel is just a poor idea. (Which isn’t necessarily true anymore — as tomorrow’s guest blogger will be here to attest. But shh; I’m not letting that particular cat out of the bag just yet.)

Then, too, since bookstores must purchase self-published and POD books up front, they don’t have the option to return them to the publisher if they don’t sell. As a result, it can be substantially more expensive for a bookstore to carry them than books from a traditional publisher. So both big chains and small indie stores tend to shy away from self-published books; the author tends to have to talk his book into some shelf space, venue by venue.

And then there’s the conceptual barrier
As if all that didn’t present an intimidating enough obstacle course for the self-published writer, there’s also quite a bit of lingering prejudice against self-published work — an attitude still strong enough in literary circles that an author’s already having brought out even a comparatively successful self-published book will not necessarily impress an old-school agent or an editor.

Yes, really. Despite some notable recent successes, reviewers, librarians, agents, and editors still remain, at least overtly, relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself), and print-on-demand (which refers to how the books are actually produced, rather than who is footing the bill to produce them).

Why would any reasonable human being lump all of those quite disparate categories together, you ask? Well, practical reasons, mostly: as I mentioned above, the average self-published book does not sell awfully well, so the whole species tends to be dismissed by those who sell books for a living as irrelevant to the book market as a whole.

Interestingly, the prevailing opinion on this point hasn’t changed all that much over the last decade or so, despite the fact that many POD and self-published works have proved quite profitable. Remember what I said above about rigid assumptions sometimes leading those who cling to them to misapprehend reality?

The other reason is philosophical: they just don’t think self-published books are inherently as good as those produced by traditional publishers. If the book in question were genuinely of publishable quality, they reason, why didn’t an agent pick it up? Why didn’t a mainstream publisher bring it out?

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely correct: this logic is indeed circular. However, that doesn’t mean the argument doesn’t have any merit — we’ve all seen dreadful self-published books that have only too obviously never passed under the eyes of a reasonably competent proofreader, let alone editor. — or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves.

Like so much of reality, it’s substantially more complicated than it appears at first glance.

So what precisely do they have against self-publishing, other than that it’s not what they do?
In essence, the underlying objection here is that for a book to be self-published, only its writer has to consider it of publishable quality — which is to say, it has inherently violated the rules by which traditional publishing operates. Breaking into print via single person’s say-so is, as we have seen throughout this series, a far, far cry from how mainstream publishing works. Traditionally published books must jump through a rigorous series of hoops before hitting print, hurdles intended (at least ostensibly) to sift out the manuscripts that are not yet up to professional standard by passing them through an increasingly fine set of mesh screens, as it were.

A trifle startling to think of it that way, isn’t it? To try to understand the traditional publishing industry’s view of self-publishing, let’s take a gander at why they might consider it their selection process akin to panning for gold:

The querying stage: agencies evaluate hundreds of thousands of queries and verbal pitches in order to weed out book projects that don’t fit easily into an established book category (if you don’t know what that is, I implore you to peruse the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right without delay), concepts that have been done too many times (every bestseller spawns thousands of copycats), premises that are unlikely to sell well in the current literary market (which changes all the time), and works by writers that cannot write clearly (I’m sure that all of my readers are sending off gems, but you’d be amazed at how many query letters border on the incoherent).

Based upon these assessments — and other criteria, of course, but we’re thinking in generalities for the moment — the agent (and her Millicents) select a small fraction of the queried or pitched projects to read in manuscript form. In theory, then, any book project that makes it past this stage is considered to be conceptually acceptable and in accordance with professional querying standards.

The agency submission stage: Millicent and her boss agent remove from the pool of possible manuscripts that exhibit grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, formatting problems, storytelling difficulties, pacing angst, a not-very-compelling voice, and a whole host of composition problems. Not to mention those that just don’t grab the agent’s interest or he doesn’t think he can sell in the current market.

By this point, the initially immense applicant pool has been narrowed down to just a few thousand of any year’s queriers — or, depending upon book category, possibly a few hundred. Ostensibly, the manuscripts that make it past this stage are all professionally formatted, grammatically impeccable, are written in a voice and style appropriate to the chosen book category, and are stories well told and/or arguments well made.

Yes, yes, there are other criteria at play, too. Keep picturing those sieves and prospectors panning for gold.

The editorial submission stage: agents take manuscripts and book proposals to editors (and their assistants, known here at Author! Author! as Maury, Millicent’s cousin; their aunt Mehitabel is a veteran contest judge) who assess the submissions for voice, content, and pacing appropriateness for the audience the imprint or press is already targeting (like agents and editors, imprints within major publishing houses specialize, right?), potential marketing pluses and minuses, cost of publishing (one of the primary reasons too-long manuscripts have a hard time making the cut), and what the publishing house’s powers that be believe readers will want to buy a year or two hence.

The miniscule fraction of the original querying pool that clear the hurdles of this stage AND impress an editor more than books by already-established authors (whose books always make up the overwhelming majority of releases in any given year) will then move on to the editorial committee. Every book that makes it to this stage should be of publishable quality by professional standards; in theory, the selections from here on are amongst the best the current aspiring writers’ market has to offer right now.

The decision-making stage: editors pitch the books they have selected of an editorial committee and/or higher-ups at the publishing house who will make the ultimate decision about which books to publish, possibly after consultation with the good folks in the production, marketing, and legal departments. By now, the original querying pool has usually been narrowed so much that the group of accepted first-time authors in a given year could fit quite comfortably into a good-sized movie theatre.

Contrast all of this to the process of self-publishing a book, as an agent or editor might conceive it:

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

Step 3: receive a stack of books with one’s name on the cover.

Of course, there’s far, far more to it than that, but you can see their point, right? Unless a self-published book really wows the market, the streamlined road to publication itself more or less guarantees that the mere fact that it is in print is not going to impress those who work in traditional publishing.

Again, sorry to be the one to report that, aspiring self-publishers. But wouldn’t you rather know the pros and cons up front, rather than finding out about them after you have already invested in bringing out your book yourself?

Criminy.
Yes, yes, I know: I could feel many of you slowly going pale throughout that last part. I’m sorry to sadden anybody, but if we’re going to understand the odds that render self-publishing attractive to many aspiring writer, it’s vital to bear in mind that in traditional publishing, it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States.

That statistic, by the way, is from before the recent economic downturn.

Try not to let that depress you into a stupor. Instead, take a deep breath and remember what we learned earlier in the series: draconian winnowing-down techniques are not the result of agencies and publishing houses being inherently hostile to promoting new voices, but the flat necessity of narrowing down the avalanche of book projects to the relatively few that publishers, even behemoth ones, can actually publish in a given year.

When you’ve recovered sufficiently from the shock, I would invite you to consider two possibilities that fly in the face of some of the prevailing wisdom floating around out there. Time to squint our eyes and try to pick out some trees.

First, in the unlikely event that none of you out there has noticed, it’s been getting harder and harder for a new writer to land an agent, much less get a first book published. The hurdles a first book (particularly a first novel) must clear are high and numerous enough that at least considering self-publishing is a fairly rational response to a difficult situation, if one happens to have the resources to pull it off.

Second — and this one is going to challenge some of the prevailing notions floating around the writers’ conference circuit — those who work in traditional publishing honestly do have legitimate reason to regard their acquisition process as literarily rigorous. Yet as recent literary history has shown, that does not necessarily mean that self-published books are invariably less polished than their traditionally-published counterparts.

Which is to say: just because traditional publishing types sneer at self-publishing doesn’t mean that it might not be the right route for your book. Believe me, if you have the gumption, push, and creativity to sell enough copies, they might actually be more impressed than if you’d sold the same number via a traditional publisher.

And then there’s the control
Many self-published authors report that they’re quite happy that they grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and released their books themselves. Nowhere in the publishing world can a writer enjoy such complete control over what will and will not appear on the page; as most first-time authors working with traditional publishers can tell you to their cost, marketing departments change book titles all the time, and while authors sometimes have consultation rights over their book’s covers, it’s rare that they enjoy much actual input into the finished image.

By contrast, such decisions lie entirely in the hands of the self-publishing author. (Go ahead, take a moment to bask in the glow of that mental image. It’s a pretty one.)

While many presses that cater to self-publishers do offer design services (at a price, of course), the final call is the author’s. If a writer was absolutely married to a particular typeface — something that would be utterly beyond his control at a traditional publisher, right? — it’s his for the asking. DItto with the cover art, or the title.

Heck, if he wanted to have each character’s dialogue appear in a different font, while a press might try to talk him out of it, it would be up to him.

But how might an interested writer get started?
As always, tread with care in pursuit of your dreams. This is yet another area of publishing where it genuinely pays to do your homework.

As with any other aspect of publishing, it really does behoove a writer to think very seriously about what she wants out of the publishing process, which type of publication is most likely to meet those expectations, and to do her homework very thoroughly before committing to any route to publication. Never having self-published anything myself, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have collected advice from a number of happily self-published authors under the SELF-PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right. These posts do not constitute an exhaustive how-to by any means, but they will give you some tips on what to expect, how to get started, and ways to avoid getting burned.

Remember, not all presses are equally reputable, and the range of charges can vary wildly. While there are many presses that work very well with writers for a reasonable per-copy price, there are also many that operate on the assumption that self-published books should be glossy, high-cost personal calling cards. So even if you don’t have your heart set on leather binding, you’re going to want to inspect very carefully what you’ll be getting for your money.

Ask lots of questions. Not only of any press that you’re considering entrusting with your work, but of successfully self-published authors as well. Don’t be shy — trust me, if you’re willing to show up for a book reading she’s set up at great trouble, she’ll be more than happy to tell you all about her experience with her press.

But please, be kind: if you ask her for advice, buy a copy of her book. She’s probably hand-selling each one.

As a first step toward learning more about self-publishing — and as a reward for your virtue in sticking with this series to close to the bitter end — I’ve recruited a successful self-published author, the erudite and charming James Brush, to give us the low-down on what he wishes he had known before plunging into the wonderful world of doing it for himself. I’ve taken an advance peek at his guest post, and trust me, each and every one of you who has ever given a passing thought to self-financing a book is going to want to see what he has to say.

So don’t forget to tune in this weekend — same Author! Author! time, same Author! Author! channel.

I’ll be wrapping up this series next week, you’ll probably be delighted to hear, and then be moving on to that topic most vital to submitters, how to format a manuscript. Yes, it’s not a very sexy topic, but as long as I have the energy to blog, not a single one of my readers is going to get her submission rejected because she didn’t know how professional authors present their work to agents.

Besides, after all the forest-gazing of recent weeks, I thought it might be rather refreshing to zero in on some individual trees. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIV: and then there are the alternate — dare I say more scenic? — routes

to the village center

We’re nearing the end of our crash course on how manuscripts do — and don’t — move from the writer’s fingertips to publication, you’ll be glad to hear. And boy, have we covered a lot of territory over the last few weeks! Admittedly, I could conceivably have guided you over this trail with a somewhat speedier step, dwelling a bit less on the important details, but I consider a working knowledge of how the publishing industry in general, and agencies in particular, function an absolutely essential prerequisite for any aspiring writer intending to market her work.

If by some chance I hadn’t already made that abundantly clear. If I had my way, every writers’ association in the English-speaking world would regularly offer free weekend seminars on this stuff, to discourage any talented writer from walking into the querying and submission process blind.

Heck, I’d love to see this information taught in high schools, along with the basics of standard manuscript format. Now that would be one great English composition course.

Glancing back through the posts in this series, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days. Even a week, if I need to do background research.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if the professor misunderstood the question, but after all, this is a learned man; no need to insult his intelligence. Slyly, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that most of the posts in this series are approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently. But there’s more to it than that: I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at writers’ conferences and online.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, often expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts. Or as single-page, bullet-pointed to-do lists cribbed from a handout from another conference lecture or website.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s hardly best tool for explanation.

Trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as is often the case for advice aimed at writers, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple.

That’s why it’s both difficult and profoundly important for aspiring writers to come to understand that the much prevailing wisdom you hear glibly passing from mouth to mouth is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

And frankly, the easy availability of bouillon can lead good writers astray. The combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly can (and frequently does, alas) prompt an aspiring writer to conclude, wrongly, that the process should be easy for a genuinely marketable book. Because all that’s necessary to land an agent and/or editor is to have talent, right? So why bother to learn how to format the manuscript professionally, or to figure out the book category, or even to proofread? Isn’t it the agent and editor’s job to ferret out talent despite how it’s presented?

Um, no. It’s their job to discover writers who can reliably produce marketable prose, adhere to industry standards, and have talent. Even then, the writer’s going to have to take direction well.

Other aspiring writers who have imbibed the bouillon assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away at the query stage, the problem must be in the quality of the writing. If true talent always gets spotted, then why even speculate that an unprofessional query letter might be the culprit?

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught many aspiring writers to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Some of you are scratching your heads, aren’t you? “Hmm,” you muse, “is Anne being profound, or is she merely hungry?”

A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now. Just the facts, ma’am.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about the difficulty of taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. You’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, allow me to suggest something the bouillon-mongers seldom remember to mention: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds. Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly.

Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious than usual in what they acquire.

At the risk of repeating myself: hang in there. To recycle some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, is completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Although a few wheelbarrows full of money would be nice, of course.

Which is why — to return to yesterday’s topic — it might make perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal.

Seriously, it happens all the time. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If these last two paragraphs sound like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years and years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Authoring only one book is a publishing strategy that often appeals to aspiring writers, particularly memoirists: you have a story to tell, and you tell it. Done. But that’s a career strategy that might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice.

There’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question before the ink is dry on the representation contract, after all. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers, by definition — agents tend to be on the lookout for career writers, ones ready, able, and eager to keep launching fine books into the marketplace. From their perspective, planning to write several marketable books is simply very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

But that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal, is it? Is it?

Okay, so it is for a whole lot of aspiring writers. But if getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off.

And that’s not the only reason a reasonable writer might have qualms about pursuing the standard major publisher route, either. Some might balk at all of the hoops through which large or mid-sized publishers expect first-time authors to leap, up to and including landing an agent first, for instance, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors. Still others might feel, and rightly, that the time for their books to reach readers is now, not some dim, uncertain time several years hence.

The good news is that, contrary to the underlying assumptions of the bouillon trade, writers do have options other than the big publisher route. And I imagine those of you who have spent much of this series muttering, “Oh, God, NO!” will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the next two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Typically, indie houses offer relatively small advances — or sometimes no advance at all — but that’s a calculated risk for an author. Sometimes, it can pay off big time: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, a writer should approach a small publisher precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query.

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

By the same token, it’s just as important to do a little research on an indie publisher as on an agent. A well-stocked bookstore is a great place to start; see who is bringing out books like yours these days. Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers. So does Preditors and Editors, a fine source for double-checking that the press whose website looks so appealing is in fact a traditional publisher, and not a printer of self-published books for pay.

Hey, you’d be surprised at how often their websites look similar.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important it is to doing your homework, and not merely to avoid being presented with a printing bill. Many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected.

How can a savvy writer tell which is which? Check the copyright page of a published book — you know, the one on the flip side of the title page — to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house. If it’s affiliated with a major, the copyright page will say.

Select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion. And remember how I was telling you that their advances were usually small or non-existent?

Another cost-cutting move: the author usually ends up arranging — and financing the book tour himself. If, indeed, there are public readings at all. (For some useful tips on posts about how writers can set up their own readings, check out the guest posts by FAAB Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that the archive list was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book.

More on why that impression might present marketing problems follows next time. For now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

Just something to keep in mind when you’re rank-ordering your list of indie publishers for querying purposes.

On the bright side, an author often has significantly more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor who genuinely loves the book, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage for book #2: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; I tremble to report it, but not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might even become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. (Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers — again, see that earlier comment about advances.)

Don’t be scared off by a presumption that signing with them would that you’re committing to a lifetime relationship. It doesn’t. Small publishers are aware their authors may HAVE to leave them in order to pursue larger markets. Consequently, they expect it. Also, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s not at all unheard-of for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent.

Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision for publishers of any size, large or small. It means that when you sell them the first book, you agree to let them look at next before any other publisher does.

That can be very valuable to a small publisher, if your first book takes off. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category, too. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this response probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than what they call mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might enjoy a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor, as well as their respective Millicents, never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States. My agent boasts that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the hospital where he was born (and if you want to keep on his good side, learn from my sad example and don’t instantly exclaim, “Oh, you poor thing. You really need to get out more.” Trust me on this one.)

The moral: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher, singular — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan; an incisive novel on the domestic trials of a Newfoundland fishing village might well make more sense to a Canadian editor, or at least can at least find Newfoundland on a map on the first try.

Unless, of course, that last book is by an author who has already won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, you have THE SHIPPING NEWS, and its interest is global. Name recognition is a great dissolver of borders.

Just because a regional press’ editors are more likely to understand the market appeal of your book, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, regional presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion.

What they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Again: calculated risk.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reproduced at the beginning of this section, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books. But so few have published novels within the last ten years that I am always astonished when a NYC-based agent implies that they do.

Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit. At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder over the last couple of years. So much so that agents who would have huffily rejected the very notion of taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher just a few years ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed of late.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and more polished competition. In other words, an unagented writer’s book usually has to be even better than usual to land a spot in the print queue.

Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers. In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books?

Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges authors fees.

Which a traditional small publisher should not. But if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route owes it to herself do extensive research on the subject. So hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

And then, who knows? Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one its writer never sends out.

I just mention. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

under the rose alaya covermilk-of-almonds-cover-alayareconciling-catholicism-coverunder-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

milk-of-almonds-cover-alaya

I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

reconciling-catholicism-cover

But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

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And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

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Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

flavia-and-husband

FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part II: show me the money!

pile-of-money

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: thus the skipped day between posts. I honestly hadn’t planned it that way. Let’s see if I learned my lesson sufficiently to keep today’s within a more reasonable range.

Stop your chortling, long-time readers. Perhaps it’s unlikely that I’ll be terse, given my track record, but I’ll give it the proverbial old college try.

For those of you who happened to miss Tuesday’s epic, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed yesterday, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine its having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few little matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Great gifts for writers with great gifts, part IV: research and other tools you can use to narrow (and, ideally, shorten) your agent search

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the strategic desirability of keeping abreast of what’s being published lately in the book category in which one has chosen to write — in particular, what first-time authors in your area are managing to get into print these days. While what hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble last week isn’t necessarily an infallible indicator of what agents and editors want to see right now — it’s often a year or two between a manuscript’s sale to a publisher and when it comes out, and often a year or several before that when that manuscript got picked up by an agent, so what’s new at B&N is reflective of what these discerning folks wanted then — reading the current releases can give you a strong general sense of what these folks consider good writing in your genre.

Besides, how else are you going to figure out how your book is different and better than what’s already out there, an essential set of information for pulling together a stellar query, pitch, or book proposal, if you aren’t familiar with what iS already out there?

Gaining familiarity with, say, the last five years’ worth of first releases in your category will also enable you to glean a working impression of what’s old hat and what’s hot, what might be considered fresh and what just weird in a new submission. Agents see a LOT of queries and submissions that seem derivative of the latest bestseller in a book category — or, even more commonly, a bestseller from two, five, or even ten years ago. And the sad thing is, in many of these cases, the submitting writer didn’t even borrow on purpose; they just knew so little about the current market for that category that they thought the bestseller was the category.

Don’t laugh — plenty of writers stumble into seeming derivative by accident. Independently writing a book that’s very, very similar to something that’s hit the market and failing to mention its uncanny resemblance to that book is a mistake that’s scuttled many a good query.

Or, to put it as uncharitably as critics as long ago as Samuel Johnson (who probably didn’t actually say this; it’s been attributed to a whole lot of editors over the years) have: “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that’s good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Ouch.

Frankly, it used to be easier for fledgling writers to follow their respective markets than it is now. We hear about the potential bestsellers, of course, but smaller books garner less attention than in days of yore. Publishing houses have been cutting down on promotion in recent years, particularly of first books, and many newspapers have been cutting way back or even eliminating their book review sections.

Why, I read only the other day that even National Public Radio is planning on cutting one of its fine book-discussion shows. When even NPR and PBS start to doubt the future of the book, the barbarians are not only at the writer’s gate; they’ve pulled up chairs and are sharing our dinner.

Now, I happen to believe in the future of the book — yes, even the book that isn’t a bestseller. Mid-list books, the ones that sold not spectacularly but consistently, used to be considered the backbone of the industry, after all. I just think — and admittedly, this is a lulu of a just — that the combination of a slow economy and the rise of the Internet means that the traditional means of selling books aren’t working as well as they have in the past.

But that doesn’t mean that the book is dead; it’s perfectly obvious that people haven’t simply stopped reading, any more than folks like us have stopped writing. The rise of the blogosphere alone proves that. Publishers are going to need to figure out new ways to convince readers to buy their products — or to change how readers pay for it. (There have been some exciting experiments lately in sponsorship for serialized e-books, for instance.)

While they’re figuring that out, I’ve a modest proposal: the English-speaking world is rife with aspiring writers, and the vast majority of us are inveterate readers. Millions of us. We may not be able to change profitability trends by ourselves or overnight, but if all of us bumped up our book-buying habits just a little and kept at it, the cumulative effect could be considerable.

Or, to put it bluntly: if you want to live in a world where it’s profitable to sell books, buy some. And if you want to live in a world where publishers, and thus agents, are willing to take chances on first-time authors of books like yours, buy books like yours by first-time authors.

Admittedly, however, this practice can add up into some serious dosh pretty fast — which is why, in case you were wondering, so many professional writers regard buying recent releases in their own books’ categories as market research, a legitimate business expense, and claim it as such on their Schedule Cs. (Word of warning: I am not a qualified tax advisor and I don’t know your particular situation, so do have a nice chat with someone who is and does — ideally, someone with experience in artists’ taxes — before you start deducting anything.)

So why not, as I have been suggesting for some days now, place the relevant volumes on your wish list so that those who are just aching to buy you presents (like, say, our old pal, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver) can help float those authors’ boats, too? Everybody wins — including you, because it’s just about the least costly means of getting your mittens on the books you really should be reading in order to market your writing effectively.

But enough of the more depressing reasons that investing in books in your category is a good idea. Let’s move hastily on to another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, one much dearer to the hearts of most agent-seekers than any I mentioned yesterday.

It’s a great way to identify agents to query. Better than that, it’s also a great way to find out what warms a particular agent’s heart.

Because while, as I spent the late summer and early fall arguing in this very forum that there’s no such thing as a query or submission that will please every single agent on the planet, there is substantial empirical evidence that every agent on the planet is at least a little bit flattered by queries that begin,

Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…

Obviously, to pull of this particular bit of strategic flattery, it helps to be familiar with Unknown Author’s work. If only there were a way to do that…oh, wait; I’ve just spent the last couple of days discussing that very issue.

Fortuitous, eh?

Note that I’m suggesting mentioning a less-known or first-time author upon whom the agent took a chance, rather than merely finding out who an agent’s best-selling client is and praising her to the skies. They are far likely to be buttered up, I’ve found, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients.

It’s not very difficult to use this pervasive quirk to your advantage in a query letter. Perhaps because, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”

(Had I mentioned that I still have a backlog of apt quotes to use up?)

To slather on the butter with an even more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. According to Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”

Naturally, the buttering-up process is going to be a whole lot easier to pull of if you have actually read the book in question. Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…” even if your sole contact with this impressive volume was seeing it on a list of Mssr. Reeves’ agent’s clients.

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy (or urge your FNDGG to buy for you), all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Don’t even think of formulating a substantive praise for an unread book, even if you lift that praise directly from The New York Times Review of Books. Too many would be butterers-up have found themselves being asked, “So, what did you like about that book?” by an agent who devoted years of her life to promoting it.

Trust me, she’ll be able to tell if you’re faking an opinion.

If you can at all afford it, do try to buy these books, though. Indirectly, it’s in your self-interest: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers, right? And while agents’ literary tastes do vary widely, they do inexplicably all share a taste for readers actually purchasing their clients’ work.

Must be the effect of close proximity on the collective mind, much like that strange phenomenon often noted by conference-attending writers where the mere fact of sitting on a dais with other agents and editors will apparently cause them all to tell an expectant audience of the would-be published exactly the same things about querying and submission, rather than emphasizing how their tastes differ, which would actually be far more useful to attendees trying to figure out which of the throng to approach for pitching purposes.

Perhaps famous salonnaire Marguerite-Louise-Virginie Chardon Ancelot was presciently thinking of the collective opinions of those who promote books when she wrote, “It can be said of the society of salons that not one person exactly resembles another. Nevertheless, there is so little difference, it being like the leaves of a tree that are not exactly the same, yet seem all alike.”

Another reason to buy books written by the agent of your dreams’ more obscure clients is the good karma factor. As I MAY have pointed out earlier in this very post, the world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often.

Who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn’s 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, I know that some of you will need to rely upon the library for your pre-buttering-up research. That can be pretty time-consuming — and not always sufficient, because although the print-on-demand market is becoming increasingly important, both for self-publishers and small presses, many libraries still refuse to purchase POD books at all, as a matter of policy.

So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders or hiding from its staff while you carefully read books for sale without bending their pages. As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”

First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) As I mentioned at the top of this post, what you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not necessarily what is selling NOW.

And, as I sense dimly that I may not be the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, if a bit depressing at the moment, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

How does one pull this off, you ask? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Neither subscription is very cheap — but hey, isn’t that what hints to one’s FNDGG are for?

A fringe benefit to reading either source habitually: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth in the happy event that you do sell a book in the current market. (Spoiler alert: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is. Especially these days.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

If any or all of this seems anti-artistically practical to you, consider what George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.”

Hard to argue with that.

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time — a phenomenon which, I am sad to report, is not always reflected promptly in the standard agency guide listings (which often remain un-updated for years on end) or even on agency websites (which tend to be updated seldom). Acquiring the laudable habit of comparing what these sources say particular agents are looking to represent with the same preferences as the agents themselves are currently describing them at writers’ conferences and their blurbs in conference guides will also help you keep on top of who to send what when.

The more current the information you can dig up, the better.

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery:

Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…

Yes, learning to be this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks aspiring writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention in a tight market, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. Asking for these books might not have been your first impulse when you sat on Santa’s lap this year, but it would be a good, strategic second thought.

Speaking of gift lists, I shall be moving on to a new section of mine next time — and you’ll be happy to hear that I’m all quoted out for now. Keep up the good work!

What does standard format look like, anyway? Part VII: my memoir is WHAT?

Hello, campers –

Okay, I am officially annoyed: someone has had the temerity to write a bad Amazon review of my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. Which would be a little less odd if the book had ever been released, but as far as I know, not even review copies were ever available.

And I certainly never sent this person a copy of any draft of my manuscript. So what can she possibly be reviewing? The blurb on the Amazon page — which, like pretty much every marketing blurb, was written not by the book’s author, but by the publisher’s marketing department?

Yes, yes, I know: Amazon lists my book as being out of print — limited ability, not as still to be released, which implies that there are a few copies running around out there. Their assertion is technically true, because it was never IN print, but factually inaccurate.

So how did it end up with a listing on Amazon at all? Well, as long-time readers of this blog already know, Carroll & Graf was supposed to publish it in February, 2006 — then May, 2006, then September, 2006 — before the project was permanently put on ice, due to a series of nebulous threats from the Dick estate. Although to the best of my knowledge, they never asked my publisher to make any changes in the book whatsoever, the figure two million dollars was bandied about menacingly.

A right about the same time as the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke. That the publisher would balk was inevitable.

I’ve come to peace with all that, mostly: I have faith that the book will eventually come out, even if I have to outlive the naysayers to do it; it’s not as though the audience for it is going to disappear. I know that my memoir is honest; someday, a larger audience will see the story.

In the meantime, I have a life to live and books to write.

Still, it rankles me that someone who apparently hasn’t read the book should review it — and that the review should have come (evidently) from one of Philip’s ex-wives — to be precise, the one three wives after my mother. I don’t even understand why Amazon would ALLOW her to review it, when for over two years now, it apparently hasn’t permitted others who HAVE read drafts of the book to post reviews.

You HAVE already lined up fellow writers to tap out Amazon reviews for you when your first book comes out, right?

What makes me think that this review didn’t filch a stray draft copy to pass judgment upon, you ask? Because her sole stated objection to the book is that I couldn’t possibly have spoken with Philip on the telephone, because, she claims — brace yourselves, because I think this is going to come as a shocker to those hoping to make a career writing science fiction — she and Philip were too poor to afford a phone during their very brief marriage.

Interesting claim. She is presumably referring to the early 70s, when Philip had been publishing his writing successfully for over 15 years, including a little number called THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. It won a Hugo Award in 1963, not an achievement typically associated with a writer’s book sales declining to the point of penury, especially one as prolific as Philip was throughout the 1960s.

But even he had been reduced to living in a treehouse in a public park, my memoir isn’t ABOUT the early 70s, as those happy few who have read the manuscript could tell you. It takes place mostly in the late 70s and early 80s, when Philip and I were indeed talking on the phone a great deal (as were others, some of whom seem to recall having picked up the phone a few years earlier and calling…well, never mind), and the 1950s, when Philip and my mother were married. (The same period when, not entirely coincidentally, he was working with my father, my science fiction-writer uncle was giving him marketing advice, and my godfather was dropping by to play chess…well, you get the picture.)

In other words, I’ve been writing what I know.

In fact, for this critique to be remotely apt, my entire memoir would have to have been devoted to ages 5 to 8 — years which, if memory serves, take up only a small handful of pages in the manuscript at all. Why? Well, I was a precocious child, certainly, but if I was slandering anyone mid-elementary school, it’s news to me.

Even if there were an honest difference of recollection here (which I don’t think is the case), why this review should wait to bring this up until more than two years after the book in question was supposed to be released mystifies me. Unless she’s planning to write a book of her own?

And don’t even get me started on the irony of someone who has ever been married to an SF/fantasy writer using the term fantasy as an insult about a piece of writing.

Okay — deep breath. I don’t need to get upset over this. But I have to tell you, it did give me a turn to be accused of slander on an Amazon discussion board. (In an apparent effort to leave no stone unturned in discrediting me, the reviewer evidently started a discussion thread. Thorough of her, no?)

Now, to set all of you memoirists’ minds at ease, this is a pretty empty accusation — the dead have no reputations, my lawyer tells me, and thus cannot be libeled. Also, rumor has it that truth is an absolute defense against both libel and slander, and so far, no one who has objected to the book’s publication has shown me — or, to the best of my knowledge, my publisher — any evidence whatseverthat my memories are not grounded in fact. It’s all just been assertions of different points of view.

Which, strange to say, has been hard to get the relevant parties to understand. Contrary to criticisms leveled at some popular memoirists lately, few people’s lives are documented down to the last second. How would you, for instance, prove that everything that happened on your first date actually occurred, in the absence of the other party?

You couldn’t, of course. Welcome to the dilemma of the present-day memoirist.

I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I am of all this — I’ve been defending this book for over three years now, without anyone ever having produced a single tangible reason it shouldn’t be published. Yet until today, as far as I knew, no one had ever even implied that anything about my memoir had broken the law.

Prior to this review, the issues of alternate points of view and who owns personal memories, if not the person herself — both subjects upon which Philip Dick wrote frequently, as it happens — dominated the discussion of my memoir. Now, it seems as though my very memories are being called libelous.

I can’t explain it.

In fact, I wouldn’t be bringing it up at all, except the only reason I found out about this puzzling review at all was that I was double-checking a link in the post below, a little gem on standard format from last December. To be precise, I originally posted it on Philip’s birthday.

Don’t ever say I didn’t do anything for you people; I may never double-check a link again. Enjoy the post.

Many thanks to all of you sweet souls who forwarded me links to the many literary and SF sites out there that commemorated what would have been my good old friend Philip K. Dick’s 79th birthday. This was the first year that I received a whole boatload of these messages, so it was great fun — rather like receiving a flotilla of birthday cards in the mail.

I needed the cheering up, I’m afraid, as usually, I throw a little dinner party on this particular day. Not only out of respect for my first serious writing teacher, but also as a birthday shindig for some of the other great artists born today: Beethoven, Sir Noël Coward, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001 and CHILDHOOD’S END fame), and of course, Author! Author!’s own beloved, wise auntie, Jane Austen.

You could do worse than to raise a glass to that crowd. But this year, I’ve just been too wiped out to allow anyone but the postman to drop by — and some days, I’m not even up to seeing him.

Thus, no dinner party this year, more’s the pity. I did a little too much last week, so this weekend, all I did was sleep and make groggy suggestions about how to maneuver the Christmas tree in order to make it stand up straight. (Which actually is necessary in our household: due to a truly spectacular bracken-and-cat interaction a few years back, we now tie the top of the tree to a ring firmly attached to the ceiling, so the tree does not need to be completely vertical in order to keep from toppling over.)

But enough about me; let’s talk about you.

While I was incapacitated, a group of my wonderful readers was holding down the fort here, trading tips on how to deal with that pesky problem, how to add a second space between sentences if a writer had mistakenly typed the whole thing thinking there should only be one. If you have even a passing interest in this topic, I implore you, check out the comments on the last two days’ posts; it’s well worth it. (Here’s a link to the first and here’s one tothe second.)

We have only few rules of standard format left to cover in this series, so my first instinct was to use the text of one of Philip’s short stories for the examples. (Seemed appropriate, given that he used to mark deviations from standard format on stories I wrote for school and send them back to me for correction. What 11-year-old girl wouldn’t have loved THAT?) But since fair use permits only 50 consecutive words in a quote without explicit permission from the copyright holder, and the copyright holders in his case have a nasty habit of waving $2 million lawsuits in my general direction (and my quondam publisher’s) every time I so much as breathe his name, that didn’t seem entirely wise.

So I thought, in honor of the day, I would use a little something that I am undoubtedly entitled to reproduce here. Here is the first page of Chapter Six of my memoir:

Every chapter should begin like this: on a fresh page, 12 single lines (or 6 double-spaced) from the top.

As with the first page of text, the only reference to the author’s name or the title should appear in the slug line, located in the upper left-hand margin. (And in answer to reader Janet’s intelligent question: the slug line should appear .5 inches from the top of the paper, floating within the 1-inch-deep top margin. I can’t believe I never mentioned that before.) The page number belongs within it, rather than anywhere else on the page.

The slug line confuses a lot of aspiring writers; until you have seen piles and piles of professional manuscripts, it looks kind of funny, doesn’t it? And when you’ve been told over and over again that a manuscript should have a 1-inch margin on all sides, it can seem counterintuitive to add a line of text, even such a short one, IN that margin.

But I assure you, it’s always been done that way. And why? Followers of this series, chant it with me now: BECAUSE IT LOOKS RIGHT.

Yes, that logic IS tautological, now that you mention it. If you have a problem with that, I would suggest taking it up with the powers that rule the universe. I, as I believe the reference above to my memoir’s troubled path makes abundantly clear, apparently do not rule the universe.

If I did, today would be a holiday for every writer on the planet. Especially the ones who are having trouble getting their work published, like, oh, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jane Austen all did at the beginning of their fiction careers.

I just mention.

Back to business. Placing the slug line in the header (located in Word under the VIEW menu) also enables the writer to take advantage of one of the true boons of the advent of word processing, pages that number themselves. Every so often, I will receive a manuscript where the author has, with obviously monumental effort, typed a slug line onto the first line of TEXT of each page, so it looks like this:

See how pulling the slug line down into the text messes with the spacing of the page? An entire line of text is sacrificed to it — and let me tell you, that line is not going to go quietly.

Why not? Well, what’s going to happen if new writing is inserted on a page formatted this way? That’s right: the author is going to have to go back and move each and every one of those slug lines to match the NEW pagination.

I’d show you a picture of this, but it’s just too ugly to contemplate. Trust me, it would be a heck of a lot of work.

See any other problems with this page? How about the fact that the slug line includes the word PAGE? Shouldn’t be there; just the numbers will suffice.

Did I just hear some huffs of indignation out there? “But Anne,” I hear the formatting-ambitious cry, “it’s kind of stylish to include PAGE before the page number, isn’t it? It’s just a matter of personal style — who could be hurt by including it, if I like the way it looks?”

Well, you, for starters. And why? (Chanters, ready your lungs.) BECAUSE IT JUST WOULD NOT LOOK RIGHT TO A PROFESSIONAL READER.

I’m quite serious about this; I’ve seen screeners get quite huffy about this one. “Does this writer think I’m STUPID?” Millicent is prone to huff. (Don’t answer that question; it’s rhetorical.) “Does she think I DON’T know that the numeral that appears on every page refers to the number of pages? Does she think I’m going to go nuts and suddenly decide that it is a statistic, or part of the title?”

Don’t bait her. Do it the standard way.

Okay, did you spot any other problems? What about the fact that the first paragraph of the chapter is not indented, and the first character is in a different typeface?

The odd typeface for the first letter, in imitation of the illuminated texts hand-written by monks in the Middle Ages, doesn’t turn up all that often in manuscripts other than fantasy and YA, for one simple reason: books in that category are more likely to feature this it’s-a-new-chapter signal than others. But once again, what an editor may decide, rightly or wrongly, is appropriate for a published book has no bearing upon what Millicent expects to see in a manuscript.

Save the bells and whistles for someone who will appreciate them. Hop in your time machine and track down a medieval monk to admire your handiwork, if you like, but in this timeframe, keep the entire manuscript in the same typeface and size.

The non-indented first paragraph of a chapter is fairly common in mystery submissions, I have noticed. I’ve been told by many mystery writers that this is an homage to the great early writers in the genre, an echo of their style.

But you know what? Almost without exception, in Edgar Allan Poe’s time all the way down to our own, the EDITOR has determined the formatting that appeared on any given printed page, not the author. To professional eyes, especially peevish ones like Millicent’s, a manuscript that implicitly appropriates this sort of decision as authorial might as well be the first step to the writer’s marching into Random House, yanking off a well-worn riding glove, and striking the editor-in-chief with it.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s sometimes seen as a challenge to editorial authority. And while we could speculate for the next week about the level of insecurity that would prompt regarding a minor formatting choice as a harbinger of incipient insurrection, is the manuscript of your first book REALLY the right place to engender that discussion?

Exactly.

If you want to make Millicent and her bosses happy — or, at any rate, to keep them reading calmly — indent every paragraph of the text should the expected five spaces. It just looks right that way.

While we’re at it, how about the bolded chapter number and title? Nothing in a manuscript should be in boldface. Nothing, I tell you. Uh-uh. Not ever.

Well, you could get away with the title itself on the tile page, but frankly, I wouldn’t chance it.

Nor should anything be underlined — not even names of books or song titles. Instead, they should be italicized, as should words in foreign tongues that are not proper nouns.

I heard that gigantic intake of breath out there from those of you who remember constructing manuscripts on typewriters: yes, Virginia, back in the day, underlining WAS the norm, for the simple reason that most typewriters did not have italic keys.

If you consult an older list of formatting restrictions, you might conceivably be told that publications, song titles, and/or foreign words (sacre bleu!) should be underlined. But trust me on this one: any agent would tell you to get rid of the underlining, pronto.

And why? All together now: because IT JUST DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT THAT WAY.

All right, campers, do you feel ready to fly solo? Here are two pages of text, studded with standard format violations for your ferreting-out pleasure. (I wrote these pages, too, in case anyone is worried about copyright violation or is thinking about suing me over it. Hey, stranger things have happened.)

How did you do? Are those problems just leaping off the page at you now? To reward you for so much hard work, here are a couple of correctly-formatted pages, to soothe your tired eyes:

good example

Whenever you start finding yourself chafing at the rules of standard format, come back and take a side-by-side gander at these last sets of examples — because, I assure you, after a professional reader like Millicent has been at it even a fairly short time, every time she sees the bad example, mentally, she’s picturing the good example right next to it.

And you know what? Manuscripts that look right get taken more seriously than those that don’t. And regardless of how you may feel about Millicent’s literary tastes, isn’t a serious read from her what you want for your book?

Keep up the good work!

So you’re considering self-publishing, part V: a few more practical details

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I’ve taken the last couple of days off, not so much in recognition of the holiday associated with the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (a.k.a. Santa) as in response to the fact that in these dark days, long-term illness is apparently not generally regarded as sufficient excuse to absent oneself from festivities. At least, not if one has established a reputation as a good cook.

In other words, there’s no place like home for the hollandaise. (If you decided to co-opt that groaner, please give me credit. I’m rather fond of it.)

But now I’m back in the saddle, eager to polish off our special holiday treat, a discussion about self-publishing with two authors who have taken the plunge this year, fellow blogger and memoirist Beren deMotier and novelist Mary Hutchings Reed. Today, we’re going to dig our teeth into the meaty issues of inspiration, promotion, and just what happens after an author commits to bringing out her own work.

So please join me in welcoming back both. To begin, let’s remind ourselves what they have published and where an interested party might conceivably go to buy it.

marys-photo-jpeg.jpgMary Hutchings Reed, if you’ll recall, is the author of COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, which is being described as the ONE L for women lawyers. It is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

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Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.

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Beren deMotier is the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but because I always like to plug a good independent bookstore, here’s a link to the book’s page at Powell’s, too.

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The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.

Anne: One of the aspects of self-publishing — or private publishing, as you like to call it, Mary — that most appeals to aspiring writers is not having to compromise one’s artistic vision (or political vision, or style, etc.) in order to adhere to someone else’s standards. The other, I think, is the comparative speed with which a writer can see one’s work in print. After you committed to your press, how long was it before you actually held your book in your hand?

Mary: I was in the hands of a pro. (Suzie Isaacs at Ampersand.) The process was fast and smooth — I think less than 75 days.

Anne: I remember being stunned at how quickly the book showed up on my doorstep — and how spiffy the production values were. What about you, Beren? From how well put-together the book is, I would have assumed a lengthy turn-around time.

Beren: It was really fast. I think I submitted it on about March 2nd, and it was listed online on April 25th.

Anne: Criminy! Is that a normal turn-around rate for iUniverse?

Beren: I’d asked for an expedited schedule so that I could submit it to the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards, and iUniverse worked with me to make it happen. Of course, that meant that I had to do my part of the bargain quickly, too; if there were proofs to check, I did them right away.

Mary: There’s no reason, in private publishing, for there to be any delays. Suzie believed in the book and that it should be published, and she kept my spirits up. Every time you write a check—and my total, including 2000 copies, bookmarks, cards, advertisements, posters, etc. was around $20,000 — I needed her affirmations!!

Anne: That sound you just heard was half of my readers’ jaws hitting the floor, I suspect. How close to the actual printing date were you able to make changes?

Mary: On the galleys…I think I had the books two weeks later.

Beren: For me, it was about ten days. I was waiting for a blurb from a famous comedian and hoped it would come before publication. It did, and was able to be fitted on the cover with days to spare.

Anne: Oh, the very idea of that makes me drool. I’m used to dealing with traditional publishing houses, where it’s a year, minimum, between commitment and being able to put one’s hand upon a physical book — after weeks, and often months of discussion between departments on everything from the title (which, for a first book, the writer rarely gets to set) to structure to content. It was especially weird with my memoir, where I kept receiving editorial memos telling me that this or that part wasn’t important enough to include, but that I should add a lengthy section on something that didn’t particularly interest me. It felt as though my life were being edited, not just my book.

What was the editorial process like for you? Were the decisions entirely yours?

Beren: Ultimately, the decision is mine, but they have the right to not brand it as one of their better books should they choose. If I wasn’t able to get positive book reviews, the book wouldn’t be eligible for becoming an Editor’s Choice or Reader’s Choice book, which leads to standard wholesale terms.

Anne: That’s interesting. So if they like it enough, it’s more like going with a traditional publishing house.

Beren: So either it has to be darned good, or you have to pay them big bucks to edit it for you, which takes weeks.

Anne: What about you, Mary? Who got to decide on the book cover, typeface, final edits, et cetera?

Mary: All decisions were mine, but I’m glad that she engaged a top-notch designer who proposed several appropriate options. As to the cover—she did ask what concept I had in mind, and I was a little stuck. My husband came up with dressing up the Lady Justice statue in heels and pearls—the first draft was a bit Betty Boopish, and the graphic designer responded with the modern, sleek image that now is the cover.

I have to say I love the cover, and it does help to sell the book. Yes, people judge the book by its cover, and in this case I really hope they do!

Beren: I’m happy with the outcome, too.I did a lot in creating the look of the book. My spouse took the photo on the cover, and I was able to influence the design, font and colors used in the final product. It became a group project when we shared the photo and necessary copy with friends who all had an opinion on how it should look.

Anne: Did you find having so much control over the final product more empowering or stressful? Or did it depend upon what day it was?

Beren: Hmmm, how about both empowering and stressful?

Certainly knowing that the book would rise or fall based on my work and almost solely my work was a lot of pressure, but I went into it knowing what to expect and had educated myself about the expectations. I feared that the final copy would look photocopied and kind of pathetic, but that didn’t happen.

It seems like it would be nice to hand over a manuscript to a publisher and get a lovely book in return, but I know it isn’t that simple. However, that is my goal—I do want to have a traditional publisher for subsequent books so that there is immediate distribution potential to brick and mortar stores. I consider this my “spec” book, one that I can point to as an accomplished work, as well as eventually sell to a traditional publisher.

Mary: It’s a bit stressful. Even on the galleys, I found a place where I think I had the character approaching the court twice in the same scene.

Anne: But that happens in traditional publishing, too.

Mary: How many people over the years had read these couple of pages, including professional editors, and not noted that? It could drive you crazy. You do need to adopt a certain tolerance for imperfection—we call it being human.

What was the most stressful, however, was the worry that in my acknowledgements I may have failed to mention someone who thought they were important to the work. (I think I did get everyone—at least no one has complained yet.)

For me, the other stress factor is the “autobiographical” accusation: naturally, the book draws on my life experience, but there is no one-to-one correspondence between me and Kathleen Hannigan or any other character and any of my present or former partners or associates.

Anne: And then when you write a memoir, people want to believe that you made things up. It’s as though the fiction and nonfiction labels get mixed up.

Let’s move on to the next stage of the process. Most of us have heard that the biggest hurdles a self-published book has to overcome lie in distribution and promotion. Is that true?

Beren: Yes, I’d say those are the toughest parts. While most self-publishing companies have wholesale channels like Baker & Taylor and Ingram, bookstores are much less likely to buy the book if it isn’t returnable or on standard discounts.

Online, however, the book was readily available fast. It was on Amazon three days after being published, and more online bookstores keep adding it.

Mary: Ampersand set up the Amazon.com, Borders.com and Barnesandnoble.com distribution. I joined the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs in order to have the book listed on their website (and their click-through to Amazon, which benefits the Association if someone buys through that portal.) I also fulfill orders through my website.

Anne: How widely are your books available in bookstores, and how hard was it to set up those venues?

Beren: Locally, I was able to get about six bookstores to carry it, which is a good beginning. The local library bought 13 copies and it has been getting multiple holds.

Anne: Oh, just in case some of my readers are not aware of it, librarians will often order a book if it is requested often enough. I grew up around many, many well-respected authors who would recruit their kith and kin to call their local libraries using different voices to request their books.

I just mention. It also really, really helps authors if enthusiastic readers write reviews and post them on Amazon and B&N. Or in bookstores, to turn the books face-outward, rather than spine-out; a browser is far more likely to pick it up.

Now that traditional presses have shifted so much of the responsibility for promotion onto the author, I’ve been wondering how much more work you’ve had to put into promotion than an author of a similar work at a traditional press.

Mary: I put a fair amount of work into it. I’ve taken charge of sending out free copies to “opinion makers”—something which maybe a traditional publisher would do. I set up speaking engagements, with some help from my publisher.

I have a friend at the Star magazine, and he helped me get listed as the HOT BOOK in one of the October issues. That was a great boost to sales!

Anne: Are you solely responsible for the promotion of your book, or has your press helped you?

Beren: I am solely responsible for the promotion, though occasionally I get offers to pay for co-op advertising through iUniverse, or for them to feature my book at an event. So far, I’ve turned the offers down.

Luckily, my book does have current event appeal, so I’ve been able to get reviews online and in newspapers and magazines. (Gaywired, Mombian, About.com, Just Out), plus a couple of interviews in print and on the radio.

Anne: I’m glad you brought up reviews, Beren, because that’s something that agents and editors always bring up as a serious drawback to self-publishing: most print periodicals in the US, including the vast majority of daily newspapers, have policies that preclude reviewing privately published books. The Internet has really been a boon in terms of getting the word out there.

Your book has also been reviewed, hasn’t it, Mary?

Mary: I was featured in an article in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and will be featured in a special Leading Lawyers publication of women lawyers in Illinois.

Anne: Have you come up with clever ways to promote your book that you
might want to share with us? No matter what press produces your book, ingenious marketing always helps.

Mary: Every time I sell a book, I include 3 postage-paid postcards (of the cover of the book) with a little sell copy on the message side, and ask readers to sign them and send them to 3 friends who might be interested. It’s my version of a viral marketing campaign.

I’d love a couple things: for Hillary or Michelle to carry it around (and I’ve put it in their hands through friends); for women’s studies programs to pick it up for a course on women in the professions—I sent it to Anita Hill and proposed a reading for the National Association of Women’s Studies Programs; for law schools to do the same.

I’ve sent it to some book club leaders, hoping they would recommend it. And a friend is working on the movie option. I sent it to the abovethelaw.com blogger, hoping he’d get interested (he’s a Yalie also). I’ve volunteered to speak at a Brown colloquium at my 35th reunion in May.

Anne: So you’ve been very proactive. What have been your clever promotion schemes, Beren?

Beren: Gosh, well, getting to know cool writers like Anne Mini is always helpful!

Anne: Shameless friends who love one’s writing belong in every writer’s toolkit. I’m constantly being asked by bookstore staff to stop moving my friends’ books to the bestseller tables. But seriously, what else?

Beren: I think contests and awards are a good bet for many writers. I’ve entered about nine for this book, so we’ll see in the spring if it turns out to be a good investment of time and money. With the contests, it involved a lot of copies sent to judges; I just have to trust that they will pay off eventually through wins, word of mouth, getting on the used bookshelves or sheer karma.

I sought out every review I got. I aimed for the specific markets that I knew would be interested in my book, and sent review copies out first thing when I got my 30 free copies. I used every single one for promotion. Eighty percent of those will never be reviewed (and there is a thriving used copy market thanks to me), but enough have that it has helped establish creds for the book, and jumping-off points for other avenues.

I also did a reading and talk at the local library, which was heavily advertised by the county library—there’s nothing like walking in looking for a book on tape and seeing your face in front of you on a poster. I also send out regular e-mails to friends about events and readings.

I did get contacted by an OPB radio interviewer and that was a thrill—she tried to find me!

I could do a lot more, but I’m also balancing freelance work, portrait painting, and raising three kids (two teens and a preschooler with special needs), so I’m kind of busy, though I count my blessings that I’m not also digging ditches eight hours a day on top of it all. I suspect that with a traditional publisher I’d have to do just as much, if not more, but that there would be more tools in place for contacts.

Anne: I’m perpetually in awe of writers who can be productive while caring for small children — possibly because I was for many years a small child being cared for by writers.

Beren: I’ve read several books on finding time to write as a mom, but one of them should address how to stay sane and really write when you’ve got a kid who can’t be out of your sight for a second, really can’t “play quietly” while you type away, and takes every ounce of creative energy to keep growing up uninjured! I’ve yet to read one that recommended a daily dose of Nyquil for the active, irrational tot. Maybe that’s my third book.

Anne: So you don’t have time to have writer’s block? Rats — I was going to ask about your strategies for overcoming it.

Beren: Oh boy, writer’s block — and I just gave up Diet Coke, too, so I can’t recommend guzzling it while at the keyboard. (Have you ever seen a room full of screenwriters at a conference? They all have a can of Diet Coke at their elbow.)

I helped myself get over writer’s block by creating a column with a deadline. It was great training. You have to edit yourself down and cut out your darlings, and you can’t just wait for inspiration to strike.

I do have a fair amount of discipline because I have to to be a writer. Choosing to have three kids and be a writer means jumping in whenever you have the time, or getting a lot done in a short time or taking opportunities as they arrive. These days I sit in my car and write while our youngest is in preschool for 2 hours four days a week, and get up at five for an hour or two before the mob is up.

Admittedly, I’m ready to collapse at eight o’clock at night, but that is how it has to be to get anything done. I’m hoping to have a social life in about five years.

Anne: At the risk of swerving into trite interview territory, what gives you the most inspiration as a writer?

Beren: Well, it is inspiring to know that my grandfather, David Duncan (best known for his screenplay for the 1960 The Time Machine), supported his family of five as a writer.

Anne: That’s a real advantage to being from a family of writers: knowing first-hand that it IS possible to make a living at it. It’s just rare. (And that was a very good screenplay, too, I thought.)

Beren: I also think of author Alice Bloch, who gives herself half an hour a day before working as a technical writer, and got a memoir done that way. I’ve read (Anne Lamott’s) Bird By Bird several times, and love Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington.

Sometimes you care about something so much you have to write about it, and other times (like after walking through a bookstore full of other writers’ work) pride keeps me going: “If they can do it, so can I!” I also keep a file full of nice comments about my writing so that I can look them over if I’m feeling like chucking it in. Every positive thing about my writing that comes my way I grasp onto, to keep me swimming until the next buoy.

Mary: There are, of course, writers I love, but the best resource for me is life itself. I love being active, encountering new experiences, meeting new people, sharing with other writers. I think I actually get the most inspiration from my fellow writers—people like you, Anne, and my friends Julie Weary, Patricia McMillen, Lucia Blinn…the list goes on—all of us next to make it big in the commercial world.

Anne: Oh, I agree 100%: having writer friends in whose work you believe is SO important to keeping yourself going. You can get an incredible boost from a friend’s progress, and you can talk about the hard parts with people who honestly understand. If you don’t share your hopes and fears, they can so easily turn into the demons of self-doubt.

Which leads me to ask a totally unfair question that I think will be wildly interesting other writers: what was your biggest fear in embarking upon self-publishing, and did it actually come to pass?

Beren: That bookstores would laugh in my face if I came in with my book to sell on consignment. It only happened once (she didn’t actually laugh, but the condescending note was very present), though after talking about it with her, she admitted it might be a book they wanted to carry and took one new copy. Since then, they’ve sold several used copies, and carry it online.

Anne: I love it when the fears turn into triumphs. What about you, Mary?

Mary: My biggest fear is that I would end up with a living room full of boxes of books—that my friends would each buy one and that would be it.

I never expected that at a reading someone I’ve never met would march up to the table and buy 10 copies for her friends—and be sending them to friends in India and Pakistan and England! I do have a few boxes in my living room, but sales have been brisk.

Anne: So your demon of fear mutated into a triumph, too. That’s great.

Mary: I was also afraid that people would assume that because it was self-published, it wasn’t any good. But people don’t “get” that it is self-published. They just know it IS published.

Anne: That fascinates me, because we’re so often heard the opposite asserted at writers’ conferences. But then, I suppose agents and editors at traditional publishing houses don’t often have much contact with self-published authors — or at any rate, didn’t until fairly recently. I’ve keep meeting authors who published their own first books and were picked up on their next because the first sold so well.

Okay, I’ve been holding off on this next question, because I try not to deal in superlatives; life’s all about the gray areas, after all. But here it goes anyway: so far, what has been the best thing about the self-publishing
process for you?

Mary: It’s been fun! I’ve heard from people I’ve lost touch with—like I hadn’t spoken to them in 12 or 13 years, and they’d write and call and thank me for writing the book and say that they could totally relate to it.

Beren: The best thing was that it was fast, and I learned a lot about book creation and publishing. The more I know about the artistic and business aspects of writing, the better I will be (I trust), and no effort was wasted.

Anne: What has been the worst part?

Mary: The worst — sorry, N/A.

Anne: I’m really pleased to hear that.

Mary: My own worry, my own bruised ego.

Anne: Which are endemic to the querying and submission process, too. What do you think, Beren?

Beren: The worst part is that there are limitations to a self-published book in terms of wider wholesale distribution unless you self-publish yourself as a small press, or sell a certain amount of copies already (as in the case of iUniverse). Getting books in bookstores on a big scale is challenging.

Anne: I already asked Mary this last time, but if you had only a minute to give advice to someone who was thinking of self-publishing, what would you say?

Beren: Do your research, know your goals for publication and work very very hard at making your manuscript the best it can possibly be. On one writing weekend, after the book was essentially finished, I worked at making it the very best it could be, sentence by sentence, word by word, and in two long days I got forty pages done. But they were much better pages.

Work with the editor at the press or hire an editor, take your work seriously. It is important work.

Mary: Yes, invest in a manuscript editor so that you will have the confidence that your work is ready and deserving of being in print.

Anne: To sound like an agent for a moment, congratulations on your current success — what’s your next project?

Beren: I am currently gathering a collection of humorous stories about life in the lesbian mom trenches, reworking some old favorites and putting them together as a book I’m calling Maggots Before Breakfast, and other Interesting Adventures in a Cozy Liberal Enclave.

Anne: Literal maggots or figurative ones?

Beren: There is a story about maggots, and the original piece is on my website. I plan on pitching it to traditional publishers, using the kudos The Brides of March has garnered, as well as the platform I’m building through appearances, blogging, and articles.

Mary: I have a shopping bag full of novels. My most recent was a short-list finalist for the William Wisdom/William Faulkner Prize, and I am actively looking for an agent for that one. I do think it would be harder to self-publish a novel that is “just a literary novel” which is less directed to a particular audience. I would self-publish again, if it comes to that.

My most immediate “next writing project” is the made-for-television version of my musical Fairways, which will require some rewriting for the pilot (to be filmed in April/May), and finishing the script for my next musical, “We’re Cruising Now, Babe!”

Anne: Well, please come back and tell us all about these projects down the line.

I can’t thank you enough for sharing your insights with us — I’ve truly enjoyed hearing aobut your experiences. Best of luck with your books, and as we like to say here at Author! Author!, keep up the good work!

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Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.

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Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 56, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties
Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

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Book Marketing 101: surfing the sea of book reviews, or, free the bound periodicals!

Earlier in this series, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Yesterday, I suggested an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

As I signed off yesterday, content with a job relatively well done, I heard faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention to the Book Marketing 101 series. “Um, Anne?” I heard you saying, “wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game, with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

One reason, in case you were curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists. Professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed: to take a couple of famous recent examples, the same agents who were clamoring three years ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY at the height of the show’s popularity have spent the last year and a half insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that in the United States, generic queries don’t work, gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold, and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of change. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways over the last couple of weeks, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although it only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, the book review method, is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing.

Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit lately, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t THAT the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming.

Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair.

Or – and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial – if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Keep up the good work!