Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Monday Mailbag: Tuesday Edition

After many a delay, fair readers, I've finally gotten around to answering some of your questions. Without further ado, part one of two—

Ghostfolk.com writes: What I really would like for you do is tell me exactly what to produce that a publisher simply could NOT turn down because the product (novel) is just what the market gets exicted about and every professional in the sales department of a major publishing house dreams of having assigned specifically to him/her.

P.S. Any idea for a character name?

If you are J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter #8: Harry Potter and the Endless Denouement would be great! If not, then I can't really think of anything. (In all seriousness, I don't think such a project exists, aside from aforementioned HP book.)

Character name: Longfellow J. Turing-Test III, Esq.

Anonymous @ 10:16 writes: I'd love to see you talk about what goes on behind the scenes at a publishing house when an editor decides to bid on a novel that's up for auction, particularly from an unknown debut author. We've seen the P&Ls for a normal acquisition, how does the process change when bids must be made quickly? Does sales have any input then?

I'm always curious what makes the difference between a book that gets a little deal and one that generates a major deal.

This is probably going to require an entirely separate post, but the short of it is: pretty much everything is the same, but happens, well, much faster. (I'll have a chat with some of my editorial bros in the near future to get a more specific & thorough answer for you.) Suffice it to say, major deals are usually brokered by and between major agents and authors, although there are exceptions. More to come on this.

Anonymous @ 10:26 writes: WTF is going on with art departments? Half of my books have marginally-competent covers--I mean, really deeply crappy--and my editor agrees and still can't get a new cover. I've worked with three publishers, and at every single one I started to suspect that the art department had evidence of the publisher sleeping with the interns, or something. They're unassailable. Why?

I have no idea, though I tend to think it's all bureaucracy and politics. Will talk to the art bros on this one & get back to you. As for series—again, more of an editorial question, but the impression that I get is that they're pitched as such and agents/authors generally try to go for the multi-book deal from the get-go. If a publisher signs you for three books and your first one bombs, I'm sure there are methods by which they could cut you loose, but my feeling is that if they're locking you in for three books, they're going to put enough money and resources behind the project to—in the immortal words of Tim Gunn—make it work.

Anonymous @ 11:53 writes: What is the difference in value between a big best-selling author and a midlist author? (Obviously money, but how much exactly?)

And how much value do midlist authors have to publishing houses?

It depends, and I'm really hazarding a guess here, but my theory is several hundred thousand (or even millions) of dollars in billing, depending on how "mid-list" or "bestselling" one is (there are shades of gray, so to speak). Midlist authors are the bulk of represented authors at a house and are important as such, but their titles don't get the same treatment as the Big Fancy Authors, the Hot Shot Authors, or the Celebrity Authors.

Anonymous @ 11:58 writes: I'd like to see a post on how publishing handles books with non-white main characters and multicultural relationships etc. from the percentage of such books published to the marketing to the cover-selection etc.

Though I know you may not want to because not a lot of people are comfortable talking about race, but it is a very important subject for those of us authors of colour who aren't writing the 'norm'.

It's not that I'm uncomfortable talking about race, I'm just not sure I know enough to answer your question—or even whether the data you're looking for exists. As for cover selection, apart from the recent fracas over the cover of Liar, I haven't seen anything specifically problematic with regard to books by or about people of color in general.

Fllay writes: What does it really mean to be on the New York Times Best Sellers List?

Again, this will probably require an entirely separate post, but the short answer: it means the New York Times, through a process that is considered a trade secret (so even if I knew it, which I don't, I couldn't reveal it to you), solicits data from a wide range of national book retailing chains, independent stores, and wholesalers, then uses that information to figure out whether it thinks you're cool or not. (I kid.) Seriously, though, they do their best to calculate who's really selling the most copies here in the good ol' U.S. of A., and they slap them onto the pages of the NYT once a week. (More data from our One True Lord Wikipedia here.)

Tomorrow: part two!


  1. Great post, thanks. I'm eager to learn more about the auction process, it's like the golden fleece we unpublished authors search for and dream about.

  2. great post indeed!

    though i have to say, as an author of color (though i didn't submit that question) i'm interested in hearing more on the subject of books involving non-white protagonists.

    since it sounds like you can't speak on the subject, are you aware of any publishing/editing/book industry blogs by people of color? (i'm already familiar with several author blogs of this nature, i'm looking for a perspective from "behind the scenes"). thanks again for all the info you share here.

  3. ...what to produce that a publisher simply could NOT turn down because the product (novel) is just what the market gets exicted about and every professional in the sales department of a major publishing house dreams of having assigned specifically to him/her.

    I think that changes with changing public tastes.

    I was at SiWC a few weeks ago and several agents/editors suggested it was unwise to chase trends.

    Their first reason was simply timing: it takes about three years between an author getting an idea and that book hitting shelves. If you write the perfect book for today's market, it will be out-of-date by the time anyone can buy it. Industry insiders know that and avoid books that too narrowly fit what's hot right now.

    The second reason is that readers respond to passion, and if you're trying to pander to them, they see through that and don't respond as well to the book. Write what you're passionate about, and your novel will find its audience.

  4. Quick random question!

    If you're planning for your story to be a series (3 books), do you put that into your query letter when querying the first book or do you just leave it?


    Awesome post. I'm also really interested in the author of colour thing. I'm sure the stats are out there, but if you can't answer the question, that's all right. SMR I 'll try to find more links for you later on and post them up here.

    Also please please please talk more about the auction thing. Hey, isn't it interesting that Stephenie Meyer (I think) went through the auction process, but JK Rowling didn't? In fact I think Rowling was rejected 12 times by publishers! If that's not inspiration...

  5. PS. I’ve left you a little something on my blog. Check it out :-)

  6. Many of my friends who write midlist romance have recycled covers. One's Western romance even had a heroine in designer jeans.

    SF/fantasy seems to have devolved, in some cases, to generic computer program figures and backgrounds.

    Yet another example of how publishers' idea of cutting costs always involves the creative people.

  7. Always eye-opening. Thanks for answering our questions. I look forward to tomorrow's continuation.

  8. Eric I love your blog, I repeat love your blog, but your response to the question about race and publishing was,at best, not adequate. You need perhaps to check out author Carleen Brice's blog about the aspects of race,writing,reading and publishing. Maybe have her do a guest blog on this subject for your readers because this is an important issue that is much, much more than the whole Liar book cover issue. Carleen's blog address is


    Or you can read her articles in Poets and Writers for Nov/Dec09 other magazines and newspapers.And many, many other blog.

    Thanks Karen

  9. This blog is definitely entertaining and also factual. I have picked a bunch of helpful advices out of this source. osg777 I ad love to come back again and again. Thanks!