Monday, July 27, 2009

Give Me Your Tired, Your Confused, Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Know What the F***'s Going On...

In which you have questions... a lot of questions. Jeez, you have a lot of questions.
Q1. Given these recessionary times, are nervous publishers holding back on making decisions to take on a book? I have a legitimate, well established agent and my novel was submitted to several of the bigger publishers precisely three months ago and no decision has been made about a deal from any of the publishing houses. Q2. Is it indicative of the depressed market, taking much longer to make decisions? Q3. As agents go, do publishers give them a pecking order, and so my agent may be lower in the pecking order? I'm so frustrated right now, because my agent is not giving me any reasons as to why. Even though I asked, I'm just told they'll be in touch. I'm not badgering or taxing anyone's time by any stretch, and I'm certainly not the impatient type. Just trying to figure out what's happening.

I'm a writer from Texas and I recently signed with a literary agent. About five weeks ago, my YA fiction novel went out on its first round of submissions to a collection of major publishing houses and....I haven't heard a thing! I'm going looney. Q4. What happens once an agent submits to a publishing house? Q5. How long does it take for an editor to read a submission? Q6. Do they contact the agent if they're interested or just plow forward in preparation for an offer? Q7. Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing that I've yet to receive a response?

I'm in the exciting but wretched Waiting Place: my full MS has been requested after a query + three chapter submission. Three questions, which might be difficult to answer but here goes: Q8. From roughly what proportion of partial submissions do you then request the full? Q9. Of those fulls you request, what proportion of manuscripts would actually be acquired? Q10. Are you more likely to request a full if you met the author and got on reasonably well with them at a conference or workshop, or would that have no bearing whatsoever on your decision? Q11. Or if the author had already been published, would that be more persuasive? I know answers would vary for each editor, but I'm interested to get just a rough idea, if that's possible!
Q1. No, they're just paying a bit less for them.

Q2. Sometimes we kind of waffle about manuscripts, figuring if it's something special the agent will get in touch to tell us about the interest it's getting at other houses, and then we can put it at the top of our priority list. (We know we're being lame when we do this. We're too busy, dammit.)
It is indicative of the depressed market that some of our colleagues have been fired and those editors remaining are expected to do more with less, which, considering what we were already doing with how little, is a mathematical impossibility.

Q3. Sure. But the pecking order will vary editor-to-editor: I have a couple of agents who are very frequently on my wavelength. I love them.

Q4. Something similar to this.

Q5. Varies. A couple hours, sometimes. Overnight, maybe. Or four months from now.
Yes, that's right. Deal with it.

Q6. I'll usually let the agent know I'm interested, because I want to be kept abreast of whether I have any competition from other houses. If I know I have an exclusive, though, then I might not.

Q7. Either. Neither. Could mean nothing.

Q8. Probably 1 in 10. But that's really, really going to vary per editor.

Q9. Perhaps 1 in 10 again. I'm guessing, though-- I'm certainly not keeping a tally sheet.

Q10. Having the sense that the author is a pleasant, sane, professional person who will not be a pain in my ass during editing does buy some points, yes. Not enough to forgive crap writing, though.

Q11. Depends what they published, where, and how well it did.

Waiting is tough, I understand. It can seem like you'd need a theoretical physicist to explain why time seems to move so much more slowly around publishing houses.

But I imagine it feels the same way to the people who supply firehouses with equipment. Why haven't the firefighters responded to the new line of hoses? Are they ever going to place an order? What are they so busy with, anyway?

Authors should attempt to cope with this by keeping themselves extremely busy as well-- setting lots of deadlines for yourselves for creative tasks, errands, self-promotion, etc etc etc.

Current Events in Steampunk

I'm currently at the intern level, but have big dreams to enter the publishing industry after I graduate next spring. I subscribe to a fair amount of industry blogs, and do my best to stay current with news and trends within publishing. One of the most common pieces of advice that I read online is to always keep an eye on the NYT bestseller list or the stacks of new books at the big bookstores in order to figure out what's hot in publishing. However, I also have learned that it takes months, at the very least, for a book to go from submission to shelf.

Is it just a Catch-22 that in order to stay current, I have to be at least a year behind what's actually being accepted and published, or do you have any advice for other ways to keep up with current trends?
re: Catch-22
No. Still very much worth it.

re: Current trends in acquisitions
Steampunk, steampunk, steampunk.

Monday, July 20, 2009

This Week in Publisher Gossip: Untrustworthy Narrators and Publishers

Let's say you have a book told in first person. The narrator describes herself as black, with very short hair, and is mistaken for a boy early on in the book by teachers and fellow students.

The narrator is a compulsive liar, but unlike some of her other claims in the course of the novel, no doubt is ever cast on this description.
And the book is by an author whose protagonists are never white.

Now let's say you're Bloomsbury. Your books for ages 14-18 always have a photographic cover, but they don't always have a face on them. There are no minorities on their covers.

So what do you put on the cover of this book?

Here's the answer:
They're clearly very proud of themselves, since they also put this striking image on their catalog cover.

Well, I am appropriately stricken. And outraged, nauseous, flabbergasted... I wish I could say I can't imagine what they were thinking, but in fact I do have a guess. I just can't imagine why they thought no one would notice.

This is a very good book and an awesome author. But please, don't pay for Bloomsbury's book. Buy the Australian edition.
UPDATE: Bloomsbury has changed the cover! Yay!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Publishometer: How to tell whether a manuscript will be acquired

I am an unpublished author trying desperately to be a published one. I feel I am a good writer and follow all the guidelines. I know publishing is a business first and foremost, but when I see yet another celebrity with a children's book in the works, it's disheartening. Plus I'm really, really jealous! My question is: Would a publisher choose a mediocre book written by a celebrity over a well written book by a no-name just because it may sell better?
There are essentially three variables at work:
  • Quality of Writing
  • Consumer Interest in Topic
  • Degree of Celebrity
Editors want to weight things in terms of Quality of Writing. But editors also know that the Public -- the book-buying consumer -- cares a hell of a lot more about Topic and Celebrity than Writing. And yes, publishing is a business. So use this guide:

Quality of Writing:
  • Transcendent -- 50 points
  • Excellent -- 45 points
  • Delightful -- 40 points
  • Good -- 35 points
  • Decent -- 30 points
  • Drivel -- 20 points
  • Culpable -- 10 points
  • An abomination to anyone above the IQ of an orangutan -- 0 points
Consumer Interest in Topic:
  • I WANT that! -- 110 points
  • My kid won't shut up about that -- 90 points
  • My kid likes that, and so do I -- 70 points
  • My kid likes that, but I'm pretty tired of and/or annoyed by it -- 50 points
  • Hmm. Maybe? -- 30 points
  • No, thanks -- 20 points
  • Ew, really? -- 10 points
  • You couldn't PAY me to expose a child to this, and I'm writing to my congressman -- 0 points
Degree of Celebrity:
  • Hollywood royalty -- 120 points
  • Hollywood and widely recognized -- 100 points
  • [Other field] and widely recognized -- 80 points
  • Not widely recognized, but still a certain amount of celebrity -- 60 points
  • Not recognized by anyone outside of books, but with a good track record -- 40 points
  • Not recognized by anyone outside of books, but previously published -- 20 points
  • Unknown -- 0 points
  • Famous for something people actively want to keep their children away from -- 0 points
Anything over 120 points total is going to be published.
Anything under 90 points total is going straight to the recycling bin.
The stuff in between has a chance, but may be a long shot.

So, for instance:

Celebrity: Unknown
Topic: No, thanks
Writing: Transcendent

Celebrity: Hollywood royalty
Topic: Ew, really?
Writing: Orangutan

Feel free to play with this publishometer to your heart's content.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stolen Ideas

How Publishing Really Works is throwing an anti-plagiarism day today.

Plagiarism is easy to spot and prosecute when actual wording has been lifted from another work, but stealing characters, plot structure, and ideas is a gray and murky area.

Obviously some ideas, like "a kid who finds out he has special powers and has to go away to school to learn about them", are general enough that nobody's stealing from any particular source when they write yet another one of these. And there's no question literature is rife with repeated tropes and deliberate allusion. That's all ok.

But then there are the cases where there's really no question where the ideas came from... and no sense the author expected you to make the connection. I can think of a particular author's characters who have shown up more than once in other books... with no indication that it was "an homage" of any kind.

Over and over I get asked about the danger of writers' ideas being stolen at publishing houses, and I roll my eyes, because it's not a danger at all.
And because when it comes to stealing ideas, as heartbreaking as it is, the danger (though still not so common) is most likely to come from other writers.

Reading: Not Such Hard Work

I used to work in children's publishing and in the last few years have been in and out of the loop. I love children's books and although I am currently part of a children's reading group, I always feel like I'm not reading enough of the new stuff--which is how I felt when I was an editor! I saw that in a recent post you gave advice that a good editor has to read a lot of children's books and "speak intelligently about the books that are our current competition" and is "good at predicting reader and market response." At work, I'm trying to plan a program around children's books--can you suggest one or two good web-sites that would bring me up to date with the market/awards and help me keep current? And being outside of publishing right now, is there a way to still predict that reader/market response? I guess I'd like to keep myself "fit", if you will, regardless of whether or not I return to the industry.
Spending a lot of time in bookstores is a good first step-- not only reading, but thinking about what sections and displays they have, what books are on those displays, what books are not.

Enroll in a mock Newbery and a mock Caldecott (and possibly other mocks) in December/January. Then read the actual winners and honor books in the various ALA awards. Spend some time with the Notables Lists (there's gold in there).

Check out other awards, like the National Book Awards, the Edgars, the ODell, the Horn Book...

Watch the NYT bestseller lists and read those books, and think about what appeals to people about them (whether it appeals to you or not). Read the trends. (I am not so into zombie books, but I've read three or four of the new ones.)

Keep up. Read mostly new books. That way when you browse Booklist, PW, the Horn Book, SLJ, Kirkus, etc, you'll already know something about the books being reviewed, and you'll learn more from the reviews.

Find ways to talk to other people about books. Other perspectives and opinions about books are fascinating, and remind you to think about things in new ways. That's an important skill for editors, and it's a good skill for everyone else.

... And if all of this is sounding like a lot to do, IT IS. (Which is why only the people who really enjoy this work make it far in the industry.) It's also a load of fun. I get to the counter of bookstores with a pile of cool books, and I think with secret glee, "This is my job!"

Monday, July 13, 2009

Quick Answers (My Favorite Kind)

I am embarrassed to be asking this, but I recently heard someone use a publishing term and realized I may have been pronouncing it incorrectly for a long time. Those early copies of books that publishers send out for reviewers to read, are the A.R.C.s? Or are they arks?
They are written ARC or A.R.C., and they're pronounced both "ark" and "ay-ar-see". They're also called galleys.
My family spends an inordinate amount of time at the library (2-3 times per week) and since our library has a great acquisitions budget and tons of new books, we get a pretty good sampling of New Stuff Out There. And we notice a subclass of really annoying book cover design and want to know why? Why does the industry think that novels with absolutely NO FLAP COPY are a good idea? I can see leaving off the dust jacket for a library book--maybe it cuts down on cost, or maybe it just gets too thrashed. I can't see what is wrong with putting a short summary on at least the back of the book, saying what it is about. Sometimes there is nothing, sometimes there are endorsements for other books on the back (which kids actually don't care about), and sometimes (rarely) there is a 3-sentence paragraph from the middle of the book that tells absolutely nothing about it. Like, you can't even tell what genre it is. Nearly all of these are midgrade novels, and the majority of them are from Random House (although there are others as well).

Nine times out of ten my kids can't figure out what the book is about, and so they slide it right back on the shelf where it came from. I look at the Library of Congress info sometimes, but it still doesn't take the place of flap copy. Is there some kind of secret marketing reason for this?
Yes. Idiocy.
I had a YA manuscript shopped by a former agent. The editors who saw it generally liked the writing and the plot, and asked her to send more work by me their way. They turned it down pretty universally because they did not connect with the MC.
In retrospect, I wonder if I made a mistake when I wrote the story in 3rd person POV, seeing as this manuscript was YA and that's the preferred viewpoint in the genre.
If I rewrite this in first person -without- major plot changes, can I submit it to these editors again? I did not receive any revision requests.
No. Send it to new editors. Send new work to the old editors.
If you have the time I'd love to get your opinion on the Russian Federation ruling against a book reviewer. The original article is here.
I can't decide if it's hilariously stupid or weepingly stupid.
I am new at the children's writing process, and I have a question. I am looking to hire a children's book editor, agent, and illustrator. I am not sure where to go and how to hire someone. Do you have any advise?
Yes. Stop that.
If you want an agent, then you want to sell your book to publishers. Which means hiring an illustrator is a bad, bad idea. And only hire an editor if you really think you need one, because the publishers you'd like to work with have editors on staff who will be disinclined to work with you if the freelance editor has taken the book in a direction they do not want. (Of course if you just need an editor because you have no grasp of English grammar or punctuation, feel free. It doesn't seem like that's the case, but do note that it's "advice." "Advise" is a verb.)
My folktale novelization is clocking in at an intimidating 140,000 (it is a long, involved folktale to begin with). I know this is "too long" for YA, especially for a first book.
I expect I'll get a form rejection for mentioning that word count, so my question is, do I submit anyway and see if the writing sells it, or should I pitch it as a two-book set? Without revision for that purpose the first book would not (IMHO) be satisfying on it's own.
Should I just finish some other (shorter) novel first and try for the longer one as a second book? (I'm only being slightly sarcastic. I do have other ideas that are less involved than this one and should be shorter.)
Starting with something shorter might work better, truthfully. But you can try submitting it without a word count if you really want to. I know that unless the writing knocked me on my ass from page one, I would seriously doubt that all those words are necessary. And maybe not even then.
I'm a recent convert to your blog and love reading both your thoughts and the responses of the anonymati. You may not want to spend time on this topic, but I just had to share the following quote from a recent Newsweek article singing the praises of Kindle (March 30, 2009, "Curling up with a Good Screen," by Jacob Weisberg).
"In the future, it [Kindle] could become the only publisher a bestselling author needs. In a world without the high fixed costs of printing and distribution, as the distance between writers and their audiences shrinks, what essential service will Random House and Simon & Schuster provide? If the answer is primarily cultural arbitration and editing, the publishing behemoths might dwindle while a much lighter-weight model of publishing emerges."
Ugh, after following your blog, I can only imagine how much crappy writing is going to get "published" if we "shrink the distance" between writers and audiences! Please, please, please, give us editors who will wade through all that for us!!! Hooray for what you do, and here's hoping you can keep on doing if for a good, long time.
Regardless of the fact that statements like the one quoted above sometimes make me want to ululate in despair, the fact is that when we "shrink the distance" between writers and audiences, it means those most inclined to self-publish will be able to be ignored just as completely and at shorter range. There will still be a place for talented writers and the editors who help stop the rest of them from drawing attention to themselves. Possibly it will be an even brighter future, where the authors who are sure they don't need the interference of an editor can find out for themselves just how much the public appreciates the unedited them.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back to Front

When an agent/editor asks for the first three chapters of your fiction manuscript, does that include the prologue (prologue, chapter one, chapter two) or is the prologue optional?
If your prologue is optional to the story, then you can leave it out of your submission.
But then if your prologue is optional to the story, I'd recommend you leave it out of the book.

I get a little itchy when faced with a prologue; experience says most prologues will be better as chapter 1, or worked piecemeal into the main story, or left out entirely.

The place for backstory is not the front of your story.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: "Pre-Published"


If this continues, I'm going to lose my anonymity fast, because I will be the editor at pitch sessions singing loudly with my fingers in my ears.

It's not like "pre-med" or "pre-law", because publication is not a degree you can earn. It's not like "pre-cancerous" because if you fail to get your unsightly manuscript checked by a doctor, it won't turn into a published book.

Who needs to describe themselves like this, dammit? People with such fragile egos they can't stand not to have something to brag about yet? You're also "pre-dead," you know. And pre-my-foot-up-your-ass.

You're not fooling anyone but you.

Consistency, Thy Name Is Not Editor

Q1: Would you please explain the difference between the YA and Teen categories, and itemize the grades that correspond?
Most people I know use YA and teen fairly interchangeably.

But you're really over-thinking this. The thing to remember when you're having a little obsessive freak-out about age range terminology is this: there's no secret dictionary that book professionals have agreed upon. When someone in the business says "chapter book", they might mean ages 6-9. Or 5-10. Or 3-7. Or they might be talking about any book with chapters.

So don't worry about this stuff too much, ok? If you want to be safe, you could just reference the ages that you think are applicable. And as long as you don't think your rhymed picture book about trucks is "middle grade" and you don't say you've written a "fictional novel", we have reasonably forgiving expectations of how closely your terminology matches ours.
Q2: Would a novel with a prevented-suicide subplot (grade 9 characters) be too dark for grades 7-8? Would it fall into YA or Teen section?
No. Yes.
That is to say, yes, it would get shelved in the YA/teen section. And no, it would not necessarily be too dark for 7th- and 8th-graders. They shop in the YA section all the time.

I Won! I Won! What Do You Mean, Who Else Was in the Running?

Okay, so we all know that publishers pay around $10,000 each to have books featured on Amazon's they also pay for shelf space in bookstores, the way food manufacturers pay for prime space in grocery stores?
Hell yes. (It's called co-op.)
And if so, should an author ever bother with a small, award-winning publisher who has very little marketing budget, or is that almost as bad as self publishing, because even with great reviews, the public may not be readily able to find the book?
Depends how small and how award-winning. Some smaller publishers are still well worth your time. Some less so. I would think very hard before publishing with a house that offers less than 10 children's books per season. But if that's likely to be the only house that will take your manuscript (because of very niche topic, etc), then it's still a publication credit, and can help you a bit on your way somewhere else.

It's not the same thing as self-publishing. Anytime you get paid for your work rather than you paying for the privilege of publication means someone besides yourself thought your work had a chance in the marketplace. The difference between real publishing and self-publishing always boils down to competition.

I hear self publishers say (not infrequently), "I'm glad I self-published, because I got to do the book just the way I wanted."
A trophy won for being best in your league (whichever league that is) means at least something. But buying yourself a trophy? Even if it means the trophy looks just the way you wanted it to, that doesn't count.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bookstores and Not-Bookstores

Let's say your book is available for purchase through a number of prominent online retailers like Powells, Amazon, B&N -- even places like Walmart and Target online. Given the prominence of online shopping nowadays, is it worth sweating and fretting if Borders and B&N don't also carry your book in their brick and mortar stores?
Short answer: Yes. Sorry.

Longer answer: Not necessarily. (I know, I'm a contradictory person.)

Look, available through Amazon and B& doesn't mean much. It's the digital equivalent of being available in a warehouse-sized bookstore on a dusty shelf somewhere in the back. There's no guarantee someone will find the book.

But there's more than one book doing quite well out there --quite well by anyone's measure-- which was not picked up immediately by B&N. Which is really why you should all be shopping at independents-- they're the ones making or breaking it for a lot of the lesser-known books out there.
A book is skipped by B&N, but the independents pick it up and sell the heck out of it, and they get the ball rolling. The next time the publisher's sales reps visit B&N, they'll point out how well this book (the book B&N had no faith in) is doing at the indies, and then B&N will think, "Oh, hmm. Maybe there's some money to be made there." And then B&N picks it up.

The "sorry" part comes from the fact that a hell of a lot of America still does its book shopping at B&N, and that's the part of America we like. The book consumers we would use to wipe our feet on are shopping at Target and Costco.

And let's also remember that what "doing quite well" means for a book is not how it ranks on some cosmic, absolute scale. It's a comparison to how well the publisher expected it to do. So if your publisher is a behemoth corporation that paid $300,000 for your book, and the book sells 25,000 copies in its first year, then the book has FAILED. But if your publisher was in a more sane mood when it offered on your book and when it determined the 20,000 copy print run, then selling 25,000 copies means the book did GREAT.

Bad, Bad Author! I'm Going to Shake My Finger at You! (And then, you know, forget your name entirely)

I queried an agent I thought would be a great fit with me and my work at an agency. His assistant adored the MS but the agent did not and passed on it. Another agent at the same agency is an agent to one friend and one colleague of mine who both urged me to query the second agent regardless of the earlier rejection from the first agent. I thought this was greatly frowned upon.
Yes, generally.
I don't want cause trouble. And if I do query the second agent, should I mention the first agent in the query?
Yes, absolutely. The trouble you'll be in for submitting to the agency again (if they have a problem with that) will only be greater if they feel you've attempted to hide the fact.

Freelancing: Short vs Long-Range

I share your distaste for self-publishing, although I've never put it quite as succinctly as you do. However, at the 2-year college I attend, there's a literary arts club that produces a free, self-published journal showcasing the collected works of literary and visual art submitted by students and staff. All of the work submitted to the journal does not, by dint of submission alone, make it into the journal. Rather, the work goes through a process of review and rejection or acceptance by members of the literary arts club. The club designs the cover and layout of the book and raises the money for the publication through various activities throughout the year.

My creative writing instructor is a strong proponent of freelancing. In her classes, she'll host workshops and bring in authors who have made a living through freelance work. This particular instructor advocates submitting to the journal produced and self-published by the club because it gives the author credibility in the publishing field. So I suppose my question is: If a book is self-published by an organization that solicited for and reviewed submissions, is that quite as bad in the eyes of publishers as vanity self-publishing?
It's not quite self-publishing, so no. If you have in mind to publish that work anyplace else, be sure you understand what rights you've granted the journal (and what rights they understand you've granted them). Do also submit to other journals, etc. One publication (especially one at your college) does not a resume make.
Or, of course, you could only submit to more generally recognized journals. If the reason you're submitting to your college publication is because it's close and you haven't realized proximity doesn't matter in this stuff, or because you have the sense that the bar is lower at this publication, well... neither of those are acceptable attitudes for a freelancer who wants to be successful.

I'm Very Busy and Successful and Have Completely Forgotten You Said You Would Look at That Months Ago

There is a website - tied in with a publisher - which runs articles and short stories from their authors. I contacted them to ask if they accepted submissions or if all the short stories were commissioned.
I received a lovely response from the webmaster explaining that the stories were in fact commissioned but that the editor had agreed to take a submitted story under consideration if I felt it would fit the website.
I had a minor heart attack and wrote a short story specifically for the site and submitted it about 6 weeks after receiving the email.
3 months later, I had not heard back and I sent a follow-up mail to the webmaster - really checking to find out if it was a silent rejection.
She apologised for the delay and explained that the editor was VERY busy. She confirmed that the editor always responded to submissions but that currently there were a lot of projects happening and she could not make any promises as to how long it would take for my story to get read. She ended the email saying that there would be no hard feelings if I wished to withdraw it due to the length of time it was taking.
I responded, agreeing to leave the story with them.
It has now been 6 months. I feel I should not get in touch again unless I wish to withdraw my (exclusive) submission - nagging is clearly not helpful. I could just leave it with them forever (selling one short story will not pay my rent!) but I'm starting to worry that I'm looking a bit sad and desperate. If the editor hasn't read it by now, it clearly isn't a priority (and why should it be) and maybe I should just move on?
From your side of the desk:
* is leaving it (as an exclusive submission) with an editor who has expressed no interest pitiful?
Not necessarily. If that's really the only place you'd like to see that story published, there's no harm in letting some time go by.
And the ideal author (from an editor's point of view) is one who keeps her/himself very busy--spending time working, creating, and submitting rather than worrying. So try to be that kind, or, failing that, simply try to give the editor that impression.
* is withdrawing it after 6 months (or a year or whatever) due to lack of response acting like a primadonna when I was offered a special opportunity to submit?
No. If that's what you want to do, feel free.