Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Guest Post: The Training-Wheels Novel

I was mid-way through reading an interview with Amy Bloom in The Guardian when I ran into a line that stopped me short. I had to read it twice.

She was in her mid-30s when she started to write, her 20s having been spent raising three children and working fulltime. She would write late at night and first produced a mystery novel, which, after it was accepted for publication, she bought back because she didn't think it was good enough.

Let me repeat that in case you didn't catch it the first time, either. She bought it back. From the publisher. Because she didn't think it was good enough.

I dug a little deeper into this anecdote, and might have even tried to interview Amy Bloom myself if I were not raising children and writing and, let's be honest, if this were a paying gig that justified the further reporting time.

Instead, I googled for an earlier interview that might mention this bought-back book. I found one in 2000, in the literary magazine The book she'd yanked back had been a mystery novel, titled Them There Eyes.

She had this to say about it: "It was my warm-up... It wasn't anything of which I had to be deeply ashamed. But it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. Once I saw that, then I wanted it not in print."

This fascinates me.

So many writers talk about the proverbial novel in the drawer, but like many clichés, it's there for a reason. It seems everyone has a novel in the drawer.

When I first started writing fiction and heard writers talk about the one that got (put) away, I couldn't imagine it: all that creative energy, the characters trained to say just the right thing, the heartache and carpal tunnel syndrome, moldering somewhere in a computer file and chalked up to experience. Those years of late nights and middle of the nights and early mornings, all just training wheels for the big ride to come some other day.

Those are the phrases I hear to describe these first novels: Warm-up exercises. Limbering stretches. Training wheels.

Just the other day, I was talking to my husband about this from the slough of revisions of my own first novel, which my agent plans to sell soon. I was comparing it to the bike my daughter rides, pink and white with Dora the Explorer on the side. In a prolonged metaphor that amused only me, I told him I'd tinkered with this manuscript for so long that I'd pushed it to the starting line through the sheer force of my stubbornness. Whether or not it was the soundest vehicle, my Dora bike was now lining up for the Tour de France, its tall plastic flag flapping in the wind and little metal bell going brring-brring-brring all the way.

Is there something wrong with publishing your first novel? Should I have stood up after finishing it, cracked my knuckles a few times, then sat back down to a new blank document? All writers want to come out of the gate with their strongest work. So I suppose the real question is, how do you know when you're doing your best work, and since that's an ever-changing benchmark, can you embrace yourself as a work in progress? I once read about a well-known author, someone quite old and established, who said he never went back and read his old work because the desire to change it was too strong.

We are all so critical of ourselves, we writers. Though it seems to me the greater danger would be to keep pulling back, always measuring your work against some elusive voice you dream someday to express, which may not in fact be your own.

At times when I'm spinning my wheels, I wonder to what extent it's possible ever to be completely satisfied with your work. To hand it over with a confident Fini!, and maintain that certainty all the way to publication and beyond.

And I wonder too if Amy Bloom ever reads her old work and hears a little brring-brring-brring herself, and can love it anyway.

Nichole Bernier is a Contributing Editor (and former staffer) at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and a member of the literary blog, Beyond the Margins ( Her first novel is soon to be submitted to editors by her agent, and according to her kids, a bajillion people will buy it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Guest Post: What Not to Get for a Day Job

I accepted long ago that first novels don't vanquish the day job, with average first advances covering a few month's expenses at best. But I'm still surprised when I hear of authors with multiple titles out—even some who win awards—who still have a day job. Day jobs are here to stay, it seems, so we had best find something that allows us to both pay the bills and get some writing done.

I'm in a good spot now, but that's not what this post is about. It's about what not to get for a day job. I've had a few:

Writer. After a brief stint waiting tables, my first real job was as a writer. I thought I had it made. Only problem: the writing wasn't really mine. I was ghost writing huge tomes on stuff like tax legislation and investment advice. It drove me bonkers. Each book got significantly more difficult to finish than the last, and I soon realized that I only have so many words in me each day. Once I'd finished my paying gig, there was no juice left for fiction. It was a thrill to see my words in print, but aside from developing the discipline to sit down and write every day—which is huge, admittedly—I learned nothing about fiction.

Bookseller. Once I realized that I'd rather beat myself to death with one of my books (they were heavy) than write another one, I got a job in a bookstore. I worked part time, and got health care. This was grand for a little while, and I got tons of writing and even more reading done. Only problem: no money. As splendid as the picture of the starving artist is, it isn't all that much fun in practice. Even worse, I started to see myself as a failure, some guy who dreams about publishing a novel, but works retail. My fiction became responsible for my happiness. On days when it went poorly—and there are always these days—my whole life was a shambles. My writing crumbled under the pressure, and what began as a productive phase ground to a halt.

Proofreader/Copyeditor. Following this, I entered the corporate world and got a gig as a web proofreader, then a copyeditor. My writing came screaming back. Yes, I was much busier working full time and writing, but who needs sleep? Only problem: I started to hate the work. I felt, maybe even correctly in a few cases, that the work I was copyediting was vastly inferior to my own. I could do so much better than this! How dare they treat me like an underling?! Ultimately I ended up making the same mistake I made right out of college, and got back into a writing gig—this time I wrote book and toy reviews for both online and print media. This would be different, I thought, since I would be writing about something fun. It was fun, but no different, still there were only so many words in me per day.

Mini Poobah. It was shortly after this that I gave up writing entirely. I moved up at the same company, got a gig managing a small team. My day job soon overflowed into nights and weekends. My cell phone rang whenever I wasn't in the office. My inbox always had a thousand unread mails waiting for me. I made decent money for the first time in my life. I bought a small house. All seemed grand. Only problem: I had nothing else. When I realized that I was screaming at the walls of my house for a half hour after coming home each night, I knew it was enough. I quit, and didn't come to understand how unhappy it all had made me until many months down the road. If you are indeed a writer, you can run away from writing, but it'll only come and find you.

I'm now hooked up with a day job that gives me a comfortable living, fantastic benefits, and my nights and weekends to myself. I write for work, but only a bit. Yes, my day job is sometimes boring, but it's not so boring that it tires me. It's also sometimes engaging, but not so engaging that it overpowers me. And I'm writing again, and happy with it. After a five year hiatus, I'm back at my computer each morning before work.

Who needs sleep?

For his day job, D.J. Morel currently manages a small slice of a big web site for an even bigger company. Prior to this, he published book reviews with The Seattle Times and ghostwrote tomes for a small press, the most notable of which was by a "longevity expert" who died before the book came out.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Guest Post: Alpha, Beta, Cappa… Oh, Hell, I Was Never in a Sorority

There’s that saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the same thing holds true for a book. Every writer has beta readers. They might be tied to you by blood or marriage, and you might extract their services through guilt or friendship or payment in baked goods, but if you're writing, there's a good chance you've asked someone else to read your stuff. You're desperate for feedback. You bite your nails and send your baby manuscript off to preschool, hoping the little guy remembers to say please and thank you, and doesn't end up being the kid who tears his pants off and pees in the potted plant in the corner.

You want the best for your work. You want it to shine.

And that's a scary thing.

It's easy to forget how scary it is when the shoe's on the other foot. Beta readers come in all shapes and sizes. You get your fantastic ones, the ones who do a line edit, give you a commercial vision for specific scenes, and brainstorm plot points or character traits. The ones who want to help you along. You find your crappy ones, with an ax to grind, who hate you for using words like "was" or anything resembling an adverb. The ones who make you long for a match and a bottle of kerosene.

Sometimes, both the writer and the reader come away from the process feeling unpopular and outcast, the kid who's been sent to the corner of the class when it was really someone else who ate all the paste.

I love being a beta reader. I did it before I had an agent, and I still do it. I might not be fantastic, but I care about the advice I'm giving, and I always try to give it my all. I wouldn't have an agent without the amazing support of my own beta readers. This writing process is a journey, and I'm definitely not out here on my own.

So here are some tips from both sides of the fence:

For writers:

1) Say thank you. Even if you disagree, even if your reader agreed to read your entire manuscript and they only read one page. Even if you think the reader is an idiot. Say thank you. It was their time. They gave it to you. Appreciate it.

2) Know what you’re asking for. Beta reading isn’t like sitting down with the latest John Grisham. If you want a line edit of a 100,000 word manuscript, that's going to take a lot of time. It takes 6 – 8 uninterrupted hours to read an average-length novel, period. That right there is a full day of work for most of us. That doesn’t include time to offer insightful comments throughout your manuscript or reading more slowly because you don't want to miss a crucial word. You wouldn't ask a complete stranger to give up an entire day to come weed your garden for free. Start small. A few chapters at a time.

3) Polish. Polish, polish, polish. Or, if you don’t want to send a polished manuscript, be up front about it and state your expectations. It's not fair to say something is ready for submission and then shock your reader with a manuscript that looks like it was written by a third grader on a bender.

For readers:

1) Say no. Seriously. Most of us want to help people. Most of us want to say yes when something sounds appealing. But if you don’t have time, you don’t have time. I have a toddler, a full-time job, and I write. (That’s not a complaint, just a reality.) It breaks my heart to say no to people. But I know it would break theirs if I said yes and didn't deliver. Even beyond that, if you get into a project and it's not for you, say so. I had one guy send me a sci-fi manuscript that might have been the greatest thing since the work of Isaac Asimov himself. I don’t read a word of sci-fi, so I'm absolutely the last person who should judge it. I didn't let it sit in my inbox for months, feeling guilty that I didn't feel comfortable going through it. I just told him it wasn't for me and explained why. No hard feelings.

2) See the forest for the trees. Take off the professor hat and really think about what you're reading. Is it possible that passive voice worked for that sentence? Did that adverb bother you just because it’s an adverb, or was it really inappropriate? Is that really a POV switch, or is it just a stylistic way of writing? As writers, we're desperate to latch onto something concrete, because so much of writing is judgmental and subjective. But because it’s so subjective, the rules don't matter all the time. Try not to act like they do.

3) Don’t beat a dead horse. If you're seeing a recurring problem throughout the manuscript, send it back to the writer and ask if they'd like to revise and resend. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration ("Gah! Stop making your teenagers talk like it's 1934!") and you’ll offer the writer a chance to improve without reading the same comment 400 times.

4) Be nice. Enough said.

5) Be honest. This one is a little more complicated. It's easy to say, "OMG, this is amazing"—even when you don't mean it. It's hard to say, "You have three hundred pages of beautiful writing, but not one lick of plot." You think you’re being nicer by saying the first. You’re not.

My beta reader has been my critique partner for four years. We met on a writing forum, and started small. Now I can't imagine writing a word without planning to let her read it. It's a fantastic partnership, built on trust, respect, and a shared desire to get published. In case you're wondering, she read this blog entry.

And now it’s better because of it.

Brigid Kemmerer is an urban fantasy author, represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. She finds time to blog in between her day job and her son’s diaper changes, at

Friday, June 25, 2010

And The Winners Are...

Brigid Kemmerer posting on Monday, June 28th

D.J. Morel posting on Tuesday, June 29th

Nichole Bernier posting on Wednesday, June 30th

JL Wilson posting on Thursday, July 1st

Kathy Crowley posting on Friday, July 2nd

In a surprise twist, I'll also be out the week of August 16th, so I've selected an additional five posts to run that week:

Audrey Beth Stein posting on Monday, August 16th

Jacqueline Windh posting on Tuesday, August 17th

Henriette Lazaridis Power posting on Wednesday, August 18th

Chris Abouzeid posting on Thursday, August 19th

Kim Wright posting on Friday, August 20th

Thanks to everyone who submitted, and congratulations to the winners!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Advance! (Retreat?)

Yesterday (à la Twitter), the topic of advances came up; specifically, how authors and publishers would be affected by a switch to a no-advance model. The question intrigues me, so I think a little exploration is in order.

The advance is, theoretically, payment for services rendered; after all, you've already written the book*, so you're essentially being paid for the legwork you've done so far. Oftentimes the advance will be paid in installments, with the last installment being paid out when the final manuscript is received and deemed ready for publication (or, occasionally, on or shortly after the date of publication).

In my estimation, you're unlikely to get much more than $10,000 for a first novel (though some genres and writers average slightly higher, perhaps $20,000 or even $30,000) and the royalty rate will probably work out to somewhere between $1.00 and $3.00 per book. If we assume a $10,000 advance on a $20.00 book for which, when all's said and done, the house earns a $2.00-per-copy profit, that house will need to move 5,000 units to break even, which is about right for your average début. Many books, however (up to 75% by some estimations) do not move sufficiently well through the register, and therefore do not earn out the advance paid to the author. Good (in the short term) for the author, bad for the house; in the long term, a string of unearned advances can have a negative impact on an author's career and is also pretty bad for the house.

There are many arguments for and against the no-advance model, but I think it's best summed up as follows: publishers will be much more willing to take risks on new authors if they don't need to pay an advance, but since this removes the "we paid for this and we have to make it work" pressure, many a publisher may reduce the amount of time, money, and effort spent on marketing these books. While a no-advance model would likely result in a higher royalty rate for the author, it won't do much good if net sales are damaged by a reduction in in-house support.

This may be an overly pessimistic view of things, so I'm curious to know what you think. What say ye, readeurs and readeuses?

*This isn't necessarily the case for non-fiction, in which case the advance also theoretically covers research costs.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More Notes on Rejection

My apologies, meine Autoren, but the quantity and the quality of your guest post submissions have made it impossible for me to narrow them down to five finalists by this morning. I'm truly sorry to delay the results, but they'll be ready (for real this time!) on Friday morning. Scout's honor.

Unrelated news: rejection is hard. It's hard when you get a form rejection, it's hard when you don't get a rejection and have to follow up to get an answer, it's even hard when you get a nice, personalized "almost, but not quite." My record is four rejections in one day; I'm sure some of you have had even more discouraging high scores. All told, I've probably received hundreds of rejections in the short time I've been submitting work for publication, and again, I'm sure that those of you who have been looking for represenation for years (whether or not you've since found an agent) have had more than your share of the same.

Keep at it.

Because here's the thing: if you're truly horrible, agents will auto-reject you faster than you can say "form letter." If after thirty years and a million rejections you still haven't gotten beyond the query stage, it may be time to consider a new direction (hint: you're either a terrible writer or simply unsalable). If you're pretty good, you'll start getting personalized rejections and requests for partials, and so long as you keep reading and writing and learning, you're going to get better. And if you're good and you know it, keep on keepin' on: all it takes is time.

Sometimes more time and sometimes less, but if you're getting personalized rejections from literary magazines for your short stories, or three or four agents have told you they loved the writing but the project wasn't for them, or you've been a finalist in a couple of contests, you're at least on the right track. Do your research, keep submitting, and don't get bogged down by rejection. Everyone who has succeeded has been rejected at some point, and even the best and most successful authors probably, all told, have far more rejections to their names than acceptances.

You need a thick skin to work in this industry. If you want to be a writer, you'd better get working on it now.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Internet Counts

Imagine you're a painter.

Further imagine that everything you've ever drawn or painted—even bar napkin sketches, canvases you've painted over, torn-up first drafts and designs—you keep in the same room in your house. You keep the good stuff there, too, but it goes without saying that the incomplete works far outnumber the completed ones.

Now imagine that, somewhere in the mid-90s, everyone on Earth could instantly go into that room whenever they wanted and browse through all your material, finished and un-.

That's how the Internet works; everthing you've ever committed to its more-or-less infinite memory is still there. Blog posts you've taken down are probably cached somewhere, as are defunct websites, message board threads, self-published short stories/novels, and the like. Writers need to be mindful of what they post on the Internet—not only because that material, no matter how rough or polished it may be, reflects on their abilities as writers, but because as we move further into the Age of the E-Book, more and more publishers and literary magazines are considering work that appears on-line "published," and therefore either ineligible for submission or subject to copyright restriction.

The good news is that, unlike in decades past, it's relatively easy to reach an extraordinarily large audience. As long as you're careful about what you post, send via e-mail, comment on, &c, you can pretty much go nuts with building a (hopefully successful) media platform for yourself in the comfort of your own living room. Blog it up, post small excerpts (if you have an agent, be sure to consult him or her), self-publish if that's your thing (though we all know how I feel about it), and tweet to your hearts' content. Just know that everything you say is, effectively, on the record.

Tomorrow: guest post contest results!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Do You Own an E-Reader?

I like to keep track of trends in the industry, mes auteurs, especially ones associated directly with consumers. Sure, it's nice to know what agents and editors are buying, but it's often more interesting to see what people like you and me are, by and large, bringing to store registers or purchasing on-line.

That said, prithee, inform me: do you own an e-reader of some type?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Round Up Day

Friday round up time, with Laura from Combreviations:

Happy belated Bloomsday! Not so surprisingly, as the summer picks up speed publishing news gets really thin. So a short (but sweet!) round up, for you, my favorite people who read round ups. First, and probably most important, is all the Twilight news. Yes, I know, there is a lot of it for whatever reason. Psychologists are analyzing Edward Cullen (among other fictional characters) as training now, which really does give some insight into insanity. Also insane is the debate over the movies showing the violent, gnawing birth of the blessed were-sparkle demon or whatever. Stephanie Meyer explains her mental conception of Bree Tanner, which I like to imagine went something like this: "Gee, I could use another vacation house. Novella it is!" There could also be a secret foodie message, which, you know, not bad. Sometimes you really have to wonder: who's really winning here, Twilight or Jesus?

Outside of Twilight, the rest of publishing does exist. The Millions came up with their own list of 20 writers under 40, and there's a compilation of the 100 best travel books ever. And some seriously wonderful cranky human being has put together a Tumblr of Slushpile Hell. If only these queriers knew to include barking dogs! They'll never be a part of the billionaire book club. Maybe they can get Moleskine Kindles though, for optimal smarm.

Sometimes you just need to ask, before you query: are you sure you're ready to publish? Of course, flowcharts help. Unless you're Karen Armstrong, in which case you can just put out your Vook and be done with it. Or you can always just get (or be!) a ghostwriter.

Well, my link hopper has run dry (I swear, there just wasn't much out there that didn't deal with Canadian sexual harassment). See you guys next week, besos all around.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Titles and Covers and Sales, Oh My

Guest post submissions are in, mes auteurs, and now the time-consuming (yet thoroughly enjoyable) task of selecting five of them to run the week of Monday, June 28th falls to yours truly. Results will be in soon!

In yesterday's comments, the question of how titles and covers play into the sales discussion came up. Let me, for educational purposes, present the following (entirely fictional) one act play featuring sales rep #1, sales rep #2, marketing guy, and art guy.

sales rep #1, sales rep #2, marketing guy, and art guy are all gathered around the conference room table with myriad other publishing professionals.

sales rep #1: I don't know, art guy. This cover just screams romance to me, and Dudes and Bros and Explosions is a thriller.

art guy: True, but one of the main characters is a woman who tries to be "one of the bros" but then falls in love with the protagonist, yeah? We figured it was more of a romantic suspense.

sales rep #2: No, we're aiming for a male audience. We need to take the clinch off the cover and throw in some dudes. Maybe some bros.

sales rep #1: And some explosions.

sales rep #2: Definitely some explosions.

marketing guy: Also, what about the title? I mean, yeah, it's kind of intriguing, but what about the title we launched with?

sales rep #1: You mean The Huzenlaub Effect?

marketing guy: Yeah, that! I'd pick that up in a book store.

sales rep #2: We thought it sounded too academic. Plus, it turns out it's pretty similar to the Huzenlaub process, which is...

sales rep #1 (reading from BlackBerry): "...a form of parboiling designed to retain more of the nutrients in rice."

sales rep #2: Yes. That.

art guy: Okay, we stick with Dudes and Bros and Explosions. But I'm not sold on cutting the clinch. I mean, hot women on book covers sell. And the dude has one arm around her and he's holding a grenade in the other. I don't see what's not to like.

sales rep #1: You made the protagonist look like Fabio. He's described in the book as more of a Kiefer Sutherland type.

sales rep #2: With an eye patch.

sales rep #1: Yeah, an eye patch.

marketing guy: Eye patches don't sell.

sales rep #1: Eye patches totally sell. Boy Wizard with an Eye Patch sold three million copies in hardcover.

marketing guy: Boy Wizard with an Eye Patch was written by J.K. Meyer. She could have written the character with two eye patches, leprosy, and a daytime job on FOX & Friends and it still would have sold.

sales rep #2: All right, what if we foil emboss the title? Shiny things sell.

art guy: Too expensive.

sales rep #1: What if we make it a trade paper original and drop the price point to $16.99?

sales rep #2: That might work.

marketing guy: You know what? I think I like Bros and Explosions and Dudes better.

The curtain closes as everyone at the table tries to speak at the same time.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Again!

Reminder: the deadline for guest post submissions is 11:59 pm tonight!

It's that time of year, cats & kittens. Tell me what you'd like to learn more about: the nitty-gritty of co-op, the lead title phenomenon, covers, market share, &c. Anything and everything is fair game.

To the comments!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kindle Me This, Kindle Me That

It's time for more book recommendations, mes auteurs!

At Jason Black's request, I'll share the Twitter recommendations I've received so far (and be sure to tweet me your own, or leave them in the comments here). I'll throw in a few of my own as well!

Dan Krokos recommends Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper;

Jason Black recommends Natalie Standiford's How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, and D.M. Cornish's Monster Blood Tattoo series (books one and two, respectively);

Terry Odell mentions (jokingly, I'm sure, but I'm happy to spread the word) her own list of romantic suspense/mystery titles (I'm sure they're fantastic, but have yet to read);

Alexis Lampley recommends The Harvard Lampoon's Nightlight (a parody of Twilight);

and Joseph L. Selby is amped for Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn to come out in November.

As for me, I'm recommending Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, Rae Armantrout's Versed (the paperback is due out in August), and Best American Short Stories 2009 (edited by Alice Sebold and Heidi Pitlor).

You can also check out this recent interview I did with The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog... Period for some titles on my to-read list.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future Will Be Better Tomorrow

Last week, the inimitable Nathan Bransford wrote a post about the future of publishing in which he envisions a switch from the current "top-down" model (i.e., books are funneled through publishers to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff) to a "bottom-up" model (i.e., everyone and his mom who wants to publish a book will publish that book—electronically—and consumer demand will do the separating for which publishers are currently responsible). In case you missed it, we had a #blogduel over the issue on Twitter. I'm calling it a draw. For now.

First, I agree with Nathan that as e-books come to comprise more and more of the market, electronic self-publication will become more popular. I also agree that this "sudden deluge" is, in fact, already here, and that it's not going to substantially impact anyone's reading or book selection habits. At least, not yet.

I disagree with Nathan on the point that these extra books will continue to float around in the ether forever without impacting your reading experience (much as all those physical books you never think or care about do). Without an organizing force or infrastructure behind them, I don't think the e-book market will self-regulate any more than than Internet discussions or chat rooms do. The e-book market needs the equivalent of threads and moderators, otherwise I think the loudest (not necessarily the best) voices will win out and the consumer will have a difficult time finding material that, for lack of a more tactful turn of phrase, doesn't suck.

To be fair, there is sort of an organizing force already at work in the book world (p- and e- alike), and that's the consumer review/word-of-mouth. I do think that consumers, by reviewing e-books and participating in a system that rewards well-received books and does not reward garbage—or at least, material considered unsalable by the majority of people—will be able to give a semblance of order to the electronic market. To be honest, though, that's only part of the equation.

A recommender system relies on participation from members, and while I'm certain there is no shortage of people with opinions on the Internet, there are some genres and topics that are more likely to draw reviews than others. Additionally, the more niche the topic of the book, the smaller the audience and the fewer reviews, meaning a bad review or two by an unhinged reviewer could sink an otherwise promising title.

As in the physical book stores of today (rapidly becoming the physical book stores of yore), I think there's going to have to be an organizing force on the part of the larger publishers; that is, a system by which they use their extensive marketing budgets to ensure that their titles are given prominent placement in electronic venues operated by companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google. A system that is already in place in the physical book store and beginning to grow in the analogous electronic environment. That is to say: co-op.

In short: I think Nathan is generally right about the future of publishing, but I think any kind of democratization implied in the "infinite book store" is illusory (though it's totally possible I inferred a kind of democracy in Nathan's vision that isn't there, and if so, I apologize for having misunderstood). Yes, the electronic book stores of the today/the future are/will be orders of magnitude larger than the stores of today, and yes, they will be full of a lot of great books and a lot of crap. I think that future depends on better methods of differentiating the two and communicating that information to the reading public.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Round It Up, Little Doggies

This week around the web, with Laura from Combreviations:

In life, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and you get helped in either direction by two things: scams and hacks. When the world finds a way to get ahead of you, you've been scammed, and when you find a way to get ahead of the world, you've found a hack. This week had a lot of especially pronounced scams and hacks. A big scam was Bloomberg's [thanks Timothy for the correction! -ed.] attempt to sweep massive royalty changes for Wiley authors under the rug. The Kindle is still tracking your highlighted passages and aggregating that data, which seems like a privacy scam—but hey, Dan Brown is beating out the Bible (although the most highlighted passages in the Bible are choice). And I know we've all looked at the New Yorker's list of 20 best young writers, but is 40 really the cut off for youth? The Guardian's book contest is scamming small publishers out of cash, and big publishing houses are scamming authors out of cash for author copies. Book prices keep rising, even as quality suffers. Is there no justice?

On the other hand, sometimes we can hack the system and make life easier for ourselves. The Daily Beast put together a list of summer literary festivals, so you can plan your vacations around them, and eBookNewser wants to help you turn your phone into an e-reader. Golden boy John Grisham can get his book for kiddies to sell as well as his adult books (although this might be black magic more than a hack), and Google can help you find long-lost documents that the Americans stole from France. I'm sure it was deserved. Paper industries are using genetically modified trees, it turns out book piracy might not affect revenues, and Seth Godin might convince the universe to put out a cheaper, "paperback" e-reader.

Sometimes the world gives you a little push in the happy direction after you've put in your time. Barbara Kingsolver just won the Orange Prize (and $30k!), which happened after she did the hard parts of writing and publishing. Nelson Mandela scored a forward to his next book from Obama, and all he had to do was go to prison for his beliefs and run a country. Both of these should be on your reading lists. If you need help fleshing out your summer reading, never fear: in addition to the reading list links I compiled at Combreviations, you can check out the LA Times' list of 60 titles for summer, or NPR's best historical fiction. You can even get these books to read in the bathroom. Sure, book recommendations can be troublesome, and you have to be careful about being a title misogynist, but you have to read something.

Have a good weekend, I'm off!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name

Sad but true, author-amigos: sometimes the title you pick for your book is terrible.

Sometimes an author selects a title that simply doesn't work for his or her genre (e.g. titling a romance Guns and Bros and Explosions). Occasionally an author unwittingly (or worse, wittingly) gives his or her book a title that's uncomfortably similar to the title of a very different, much more widely known work (e.g. naming a memoir about directing a summer camp for disabled youth in Germany Mein Kamp). Once in awhile the name of the book is just straight-up terrible (My Summer Running with the Werewolves and My Bitchin' Winter with the Vampires Also There are Zombies) and needs to be changed in order for the book to sell.

Editorial changes are often a thorny subject with writers, and changes to a title can be especially hard to take. Remember, though: this is your novel, not your child. And if you can't remember that, remember this: if you name your son Boonswoggle, he's going to get beat up in school. (Editors will make fun of your terrible title in meetings. Trust me.) So: don't give your children or your books awful names.

What makes a good title? Well, I'm glad you asked. The following (in tried-and-true Bullet-O-Vision™) may be of help:

· Give your book a title appropriate to its genre. Read widely and do a lot of research in that genre to ensure this.

· Unless you're trying to capitalize on a trend (which I discourage you from doing), try to pick a title that stands out a bit from the crowd. If your book is about the albino philanthropist daughter of a fighter pilot, I'd rather see The Albino Philanthropist than The Fighter Pilot's Daughter.

· Don't try to riff on the title of another book unless you're writing a parody/satire (or some other comic work).

· Google your title (or run it through Amazon) to be sure no one else has used it (or something uncomfortably similar). If someone used your title for an obscure book written forty years ago, it's probably safe to use.

· Pick something that will stick in readers' heads. To borrow from the above example, The Philanthropist might not stick very well. The Albino Philanthropist will.

Whatever you end up choosing for a title, mes auteurs, try not to be offended if the publisher suggests you change it; if they make such a recommendation, they're doing it for a good reason, and you'd do well to seriously consider anything they (or your agent) recommends.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Terms to Know: Lead Title

All books are created equal.

Some books are more equal than others.

When publishers talk about a lead title, they're referring to a book (often, but certainly not always, by a début author) that they believe has the potential to blow out in terms of sales. These aren't the books by established hot shots or memoirs/self help books by celebrities; these are those front-of-store, gotta-read titles that seem to erupt out of nowhere. But nay! They do not appear ex nihilo, cats and kittens, but rather, they are built and designed: they receive six-figure marketing budgets, co-op dollars, aggressive publicity, additional sales materials. In short: the works.

Now, to be fair, it's not possible to engineer a bestselling title without the reading public's participation. A Big Six publisher could throw millions into marketing and co-op and not come anywhere close to breaking even if the consumer doesn't participate (i.e., purchase the book). That said, we all (as consumers, anyway) are much more easily manipulated than we would like to believe, and there is a direct correlation between the amount of money, time, and energy that a publisher puts into a book—a lead title—and that title's performance in the market.

Some lead titles flop terribly. Most, I think, break even, depending on the amount of money sunk into the endeavor. A few (far more than the average for books in general, but still not a huge number) become major bestsellers, and I'm inclined to believe they wouldn't have had they not had the big budgets and know-how of a large publishing operation. When the publisher pays for those big stacks of books at the front of Borders or Barnes & Noble, lines up interview after interview with major media, and advertises in magazines and locations you're likely to read and frequent, aren't you going to pick up that book and at least read the dust jacket? That's half the battle, friends: getting you to pick up the book. The publisher believes the content is enough to win the second half of the battle (getting you to bring the book to the register), but first they have to spend enough money to make it easy for you to find.

Not all major titles are/were lead titles (Harry Potter—the early books, anyway—being a good example), but classifying a book as such is a way of allocating funds and marking which books are believed to be wildly successful before they even ship out to stores. Is it fair? No. Is it practical in this industry? Absolutely. And by no means are the non-lead titles of the world doomed to failure—they are, as I said, "equal"—but they're not as equal as the titles that receive substantially larger investments of time, money, and effort, and the odds of their doing as well sales-wise is very slim indeed.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: What's the Best Writing Advice You've Ever Gotten?

Mine was from a former college professor, who told me: "There is no thinking except in the writing. There is no writing except in the rewriting."

Share yours in the comments!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Death of a Format

As we progress further into the Most Glorious Digital Age, mes auteurs, I can't help but feel that some book formats and practices are going to be made obsolete. Now, before anyone gets started with "Kindle-this" and "iPad-that," I'm not suggesting that 1.) these changes will render print books in general obsolete, or 2.) these changes will be specific to any one e-reader, company, or file format.

They are as follows: large print and audio books (as they currently exist) are goners.

Large print books are going to fold relatively soon simply because e-readers offer something that physical books don't and can't: resizable font. If the characters on your Kindle or Sony Reader or iPad or what have you are too small to read, you can zoom in; no such luck with a paperback. And as more and more older folks begin to adopt electronic readers, the market for paper-and-ink large print books will continue to dwindle. Eventually, everyone who used to read large print books will have either converted over to e-books or will have died, leaving only those who grew up with electronic books as the norm.

How long will this process take? Beats me, but I know that large print book sales have been on the decline for a few years now and their profit margins are shrinking. I'd be surprised if large print books are still sold by major New York publishers five years from now.

Audio books are a different animal altogether: they're not being directly threatened by e-readers like the Kindle or the Nook, but their audience is dwindling as libraries (major customers in the audio market) are closing and downward pressure on pricing in the music industry means fewer and fewer people are willing to shell out $40 or even $50 for an unabridged audio book.

In my opinion, the future of the audio book lies in the paid download (à la the iTunes store model or a subscription model like Amazon's Audible). As we move away from physical media for everything from books (Kindle, iPad, Nook) to music and movies (iTunes, Audible, Netflix's "Watch Instantly"), I think the physical, compact disc audio book is going to go the way of the dodo. Unlike the print book market, which will actually continue to thrive for awhile in the YA and children's segments (chiefly because most parents can't or won't by a $200+ device for accident-prone children to read on), audio books haven't taken hold with that demographic because its constituents either haven't bought a CD in years or are unsure as to what CDs actually are.

What do you think, gentle readers? Am I right or am I right?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Round Up Day

Round up time, with Laura visiting from Combreviations:

Look me in the (metaphorical) eye, reader types, and tell me you don't want to become a writer, at least in part, for the celebrity. Selfish, selfish ends. But then you can join the ranks of Evangeline Lily and her children's book, or Peaches Geldof and her not-children's book. You could score Bridget Jones' Diary like Lily Allen, or revel in cliches like Kazuo Ishiguro. You could talk fiction, like Jeffrey Eugenides, or rank 20th century gothic fiction, like Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Your senior thesis could be published, like David Foster Wallace! Or you could encourage college students to be nice, like Jeff Bezos. Hell, you could be popular for all time, like James Bond.

Now, to be fair, most writers don't become famous (not like Laurell K. Hamilton, who gave a great interview). But sometimes you can still get access to the secret Vatican archives, or respond to Israeli news. And you're always free to judge the New Yorker's list of writers under 40, or make your own list of writers over 80. Or discover yourself as an element on the periodic table of writers. And even if you never make it, don't be sad—you can still be part of storytime with B&N.

Plus, hey, if you're here, you're probably literate, which says that you had good access to books as a child (and maybe no live music in your library). So don't go fret to your therapist, especially if it turns out reading poetry is more beneficial than therapy. Everything is probably your sister's fault anyway. So read your Guns N' Roses vook, pull out your e-bible, become the mayor of your local bookstore, be sure to retitle your book for maximum click through, and we'll see you next week!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Query Theory

I've oft wondered, meine Autoren, what your tips, tricks, and techniques are for writing query letters. Do you personalize every one? Do you mention a book or two from the agent's list you particularly enjoyed? Do you start your queries with rhetorical questions or pleas for leniency?

Whatever works (or hasn't worked!) for you, please share in the comments!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The [Your Name Here]'s Daughter, Revisited

I've covered the topic of The [Your Name Here]'s Daughter (a.k.a. The [Adjective] Wife) before, but as the trend (to my continual consternation) continues, I figure it bears revisiting.

Publishing is fraught with trends. This is for two reasons: one, would-be authors (who are also readers) see successful books and want to write similar books in the hope that they will also be successful, and publishers (who always want The Next Big Thing™) see successful books (either theirs or their competitors') and want to publish similar books in the hope that they will also be successful. (It's a vicious cycle.) Unfortunately, only a small percentage of these books catch on and become bestsellers, the rest fail to earn out their advances, authors and publishers everywhere are confused, and the process begins again when a new trend starts to catch on.

I generally advise you, gentle readers, not to play the trend game because 1.) the trend will likely be exhausted by the time your book comes out, and 2.) even if it isn't, there's no guarantee your book will be one of The Chosen Ones that readers everywhere simply MUST HAVE. Which trends in particular do I think are nearing their ends? Well, I'm glad you asked.

· The [Your Name Here]'s Daughter/The [Adjective] Wife. Archetype: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. I recently mentioned my personal grievances with this trend to a colleague, who simply responded, "Yeah, but The [Your Name Here]'s Wife sells!" (The trend, not any title in particular.) Which is true! At least, it's true for now. As the market becomes saturated with this particular variety of women's fiction, however, I think more and more consumers will turn elsewhere for new reads.

· Vampires/Werewolves. Archetype: Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. No, really. Authors who have already established themselves as brands with this subject, like Meyer or Charlaine Harris, can pretty much continue to write vampire novels until the turn of the century. You, who are just starting out, do not have this luxury. Vampires and werewolves will always be cool, but they won't be as cool as they are now for a long time. Putting werewolves in space or making vampires fallen angels will not increase their coolness. Trust me.

· Mash-ups. Archetype: Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. More or less the exclusive province of Quirk Books, this relatively short-lived trend probably won't survive long after the publisher's release of Android Karenina later this month.

· Anything based around the world ending in 2012. Archetype: Too many to count. As you might expect, this trend will cease to be cool on or around January 1st, 2013.

While I don't want to tell you what to write, you might notice that the women's fiction and YA crowds are well-represented here. This means (as usual) two things: first, they're bigger markets, so you're more likely to sell a greater number of copies if your book succeeds, and second, they're bigger markets, so there's a lot more competition. O, the cruel double-edged sword of publishing!

Incidentally, it also might mean we need a few more non-YA bro-oriented books out there. Just saying.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Terms to Know: Billing vs. POS

Reminder: the deadline for guest post submissions is 11:59 pm on Wednesday, June 16th!

As I've mentioned before, one of the strange nuances of the book publishing industry is that virtually all stock is returnable; that is, almost all the books we ship to retailers can be returned for full credit if those retailers are unable to sell them. There are some exceptions: for example, most mass market paperbacks are "stripped," not returned, meaning the retailer only returns the torn-off covers to the publisher (hence the "if you bought this book without a cover" warning found on the first page of many paperbacks). There are also some markets, dubbed "special markets," for which stock is almost always non-returnable (e.g. museum gift shops, home shopping networks, home goods/cooking stores).

Because books can be (and so often are) returned, publishers need to make a distinction between sales to the retailer ("billing," or gross sales) and sales to the customer ("POS" [point of sale], "through the register," or net sales). The difference between these two numbers is the returns, and the ratio of net sales to gross sales is known as sell-through (expressed as a percentage).

For most brick-and-mortar affairs (especially the large chains), sell-through of roughly 80% is considered very good. Much less than that, and it's clear the account took more books than it can sell; much higher, and the account will probably consistently run out of stock, which means both the publisher and the retailer will lose sales while time is wasted in reordering, shipping, and restocking. (In case you're curious, on-line retailers like Amazon generally maintain a much higher sell-through rate, somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 – 95%. This is because 1.) they don't need to maintain those big piles of books at the front of the store, and 2.) Amazon doesn't offer the same instant gratification for physical books as a brick-and-mortar store, so their shipping delays allow them a sort of buffer zone when it comes to reordering and restocking.)

Ideally, each title will have good billing and sell-through, but occasionally you see titles with abnormally high return rates, distressingly high sell-through (sounds crazy, doesn't it?), low billing (or no billing, in the event of a skip), and so on. The sales game is a tricky one, and it's doubly true for book sales. Half the battle is getting the book into the store; the other half is getting customers to bring it to the register.