Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lawsuits and Looneytunes: DEFCON 1

Dear EA:
I have become distressed by the frivolous lawsuits brought against J.K. Rowling (as well as Stephanie Meyer) whose only crime appears to be enjoying unprecedented success.
It's not a crime to be rich; it's not a crime to be famous. But if you're both, you will be punished for it by the crazy public. Happily, millions of dollars can buy a lot of lawyers and rottweilers.
When I read that the estate of Adrian Jacobs was suing J.K. Rowling and her publisher for 500 million pounds, I thought it was a joke. And yet blogs and forums abound with readers who have compared Harry Potter with Willie the Wizard and declared J.K. Rowling guilty of plagiarism. Fewer people are speaking in her defense.
I think most reasonable people who heard that yet another person was suing Rowling for plagiarism simply rolled their eyes and reflected on the downsides of being a billionaire.
Willie the Wizard’s claim to a piece of the Harry Potter empire is ridiculous and an insult to any writer who has ever put in the countless hours of crafting a novel instead of grabbing their fifteen minutes of fame in a frivolous lawsuit.
So what I would like to know is why are so many people taking this lawsuit seriously? Why aren’t more people speaking out against it? And how can we as writers protect ourselves against such lawsuits in the future?
I haven't been following this situation at all, so I don't know who's taking it seriously (are they nutjobs?) or why (because they're nutjobs?). If you'd like to clarify in the comments, please do.

One of the lessons of working retail or waiting tables or reading the slush or being a bestselling author or in any way coming in contact with a wide range of the public is this: there are CRAZY people out there. Freelance wackos. Earnestly delusional lunatics. Vicious looneys.
Sure, there are plenty of just mildly wacky yahoos, and sometimes they're even published authors. But you want to be careful about the public at large and how much of their attention you draw, because this kind of flagrant money-grubbing can be the result.

The good news is the vast majority of authors never draw this kind of attention, because the vast majority of authors never make millions of dollars.

The bad news is that you'll never know the pleasure of setting the dogs on the idiots rooting through your garbage.

Oh, good lord. Here's some of the text from Willy the Wizard. The idea that ANYONE would have plagiarized a work like this is CRIMINALLY INSANE.

Willy sat in Ali Baba’s chair and was frequenctized into vision acute, now receiving clarity waves from the Ruby Tower.
Kentucky set the scene for the polo feast. A green green carpet appeared like a field in the sky, and the audience was enthralled as the mini polo ponies careered back and forth with their Jockies at breakneck velocity around the entire carpet lawn. … Duke plied them with the local coconut juice which spiced and blended with Bay pineapple juice, caressed their lovely day.
In Willy’s laboratory, Wizard Cricket demonstrated how a mixture’ of grounded nicket paste and paleberry juice applied gently on the eyebrows of an Aussie guinea pig would bring a marked change of appearance. Willy suffered the mixture and clumsily knocked the contents of the texture into the berry juice paste and ! The guinea pig became a winking wongo - a wonderful little chap, a cousin to the Dutch Tree Squirrels.
It was specially intimate between them and had provoked some envy as its sweet success for silent discourse. Sitting in the cove, Willy sniffed deeply and drew into his mind Breathair Oxy-Zone. He had been taught the trick by Master Wizard Onlywheness who had been blessed by Guardian Saint Lovely Lucinda. Onlywheness had shown Willy how to breathe and on outward breath to sound silent messages. It was a question of nose muscle control and delicate lacquering of the air with thought pellets. Willy concentrated hard. He was rusty for he hadn’t drawn on this secret power for decades but his patience was prized…

Thanks to JES for the link.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

So True

From the intern:

Hundreds of thousands of people want to be published. They all at least think they want our advice. Do we have time to give it? No.

(Unless, of course, we give you a contract. Then just try and get us to shut up.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lost In Translation II

I have translated a wonderful children picture book from Hebrew that addresses social and emotional intelligence and compassionate communication geared toward children ages 4-8. The book sold 100,000 copies in Israel since 1999 and now we are seeking a US publisher.
I am wondering how to find a publisher or an agent for such a topic since the books that I see in the market are very preachy, written by therapists and published by big publishers that do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
I know there is a huge market in the US for this book because the author came for a tour last December with a play based on the book and I was able to arrange many performance with almost no effort. People where begging me for books after and before the performances. I am just puzzled with how to break in the market.
Would appreciate your professional advice.
When you say that the book addresses "social and emotional intelligence and compassionate communication geared toward children ages 4-8", I cannot be sure whether you see "very preachy" as a plus or a minus. If you see preachiness as a minus, be aware that your query letter may be giving the wrong impression.

I should also mention that based on the mistakes in your question (where / many performance / children book / break in the market), your translation may be giving the wrong impression as well.

If you are talking about a book published by an Israeli publisher, then (as I've mentioned before) the answer is that usually publishers in other countries are pursuing contacts at the large publishers themselves in an effort to sell foreign rights. As a fellow publisher, the 'no unsolicited manuscripts' rule doesn't apply to them. If this is the situation we're talking about, I don't understand why you would be the one pursuing a US publisher. (And just in case: if you don't work at the foreign publisher, you can't contact US publishers and say you're "representing" the foreign publisher.)

If you are talking about a self-published book, however, or (regardless of the term you use) any "publisher" where the author takes on the burden of selling the book, then you are effectively in the same boat with any other author attempting to find an agent or publisher, and all the same rules and advice applies-- except that you must also inform everyone you query or submit to that Hebrew rights are not available.

I hope that helps. Good luck!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More Quick Answers

When I submit a manuscript to an editor, is it a good idea to include my (children's book related) blog with my contact information? Is this something an editor would be interested in?
Sure, it wouldn't hurt.
My agent is pitching my YA novel. Controversial subject. (But not chick lit or about vampires in any form.) I have received a few thoughtful, longish rejections, each with faint or nice praise. I agree with the critiques and am doing some revision. Is it best to wait for more comments or do significant revision now?
This is something to discuss with your agent. Tell her you're thinking of revising, and wonder if she should stop sending the manuscript out until the new draft is ready, or if she would rather keep pitching it while you rewrite. Whatever decision you come to should make sense to both of you.
I've received a fair number of "good" rejections from editors over the years with favorable comments in spite of the rejections. Several editors have invited me to submit other work. I have continued to submit work to them (picture books) as well as other open houses. The difficult spot I find myself in now is that I am considering trying to get an agent to open doors to closed houses. However, as I have already submitted some of my manuscripts to numerous publishers, I'm afraid that I have, in a sense, tied an agent's hands when representing my work. Should I give up on the idea of finding agent representation for some of these manuscripts or should I wait until I have something new that has not yet been submitted?
Because I'm not an agent and I don't know who you've been submitting to, I can't be sure whether your previous submissions will hamstring a potential agent. You might be able to find an agent now--as long as you're up front with him/her in your initial contact about where the manuscript you've sent them has already been shopped, and why (those personal connections sometimes make a difference). Your chances may be better, though, with a brand new manuscript.
I am writing my first YA novel; extremely to succeed. I have all these thoughts in my head and sometimes find it challenging expressing them, not only because writing genuinely is hard, but because Spanish is my native language. I just purchased two books on writing YA and quit my job to finish my novel. I know, my mother-in-law said I was crazy. Then again, "nothing ventured, nothing gained". What does it take to be a great writer? What advice you would give to someone really willing to follow it? A million thank yous from Puerto Rico.
There are different definitions of what makes a writer "great", and the ways that different writers go about being their version of great varies a great deal, too. So unfortunately there is no simple formula for greatness. But I do strongly recommend reading every day and writing every day, faithfully and persistently, and wanting to live the rest of your life that way. Greatness is not achieved through a passing interest or periodic dabbling, and most writers' first work (or works) do not get published. I can tell you at least that no one ever achieves greatness by wanting to be a writer-- only by being one.

Addendum: some great writerly advice from Patrick Rothfuss, courtesy of Maine Character.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Memoriam

Upon the death of my mom last summer, I began to help my father get organized and discovered an 18-typed-page children's book written by my grandmother, probably 50 years ago. It was never published. Some of the language has an old-fashioned feeling to it, but my cousin for whom it was originally written and I think it has potential. The story suggests some unusually good visuals - animation, in fact - though I have learned I should not bother with illustration before submission for publication.
That is correct.
Do you have any thoughts about the process or sequence of events if a cartoon series is actually a better use of the text? Do people usually start in the print medium? Are there any special considerations in publication of a work whose author is deceased?
I know nothing about the movie/TV industries. But I do know that most studios don't take submissions from unagented writers, and even if they did they wouldn't take a book manuscript. Maybe my readers have some tips.

First, I would recommend you go ahead and rewrite that manuscript, if only for the experience. You've already noticed some issues with it; I promise an editor will notice more.

The problem with a manuscript whose author has passed away is that the editor cannot work with the author to fix the manuscript. So that leaves you to work with. You should be willing to change the manuscript (perhaps a lot) in order to make it market-ready. If you are unwilling to change anything about that manuscript, I would bet the chances of you getting it published are very slim.

Second, take my advice and do not mention in the cover letter that your mom is deceased. Publishers get tons of mail referencing sick people, handicapped people, people going through a messy divorce, people being channeled from the other side, and people grieving for their 127th china doll "Miss Calliope" who was recently decapitated by their incontinent Chihuahua. None of this has anything to do with publishing. It will be seen as a play for sympathy, and even if it works, our sincere sympathy has nothing to do with publishing.

Good luck!


And this goes for reused art from Felicia Bond or Beatrix Potter, or the text of Jane Yolen's Owl Moon.

Though I must say that when I've encountered such things, I could not help sending a rather pointed letter about plagiarism and its extreme inadvisability.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Manuscript Wearing Sunglasses and a Hat That Won't Give Its Name

When I finished my novel last year, I rushed into my query with minimal research on the matter. As soon as I sent it to a small collection of agents, I knew I'd been hasty and that it wasn't the best example of my work. Kicking myself in the head, I set out to rewrite the query, and while I was at it, went through several rewrites of the novel itself. Both letter and novel are basically unrecognizable when compared to their original my question is, would it be a faux pas to query one or two of those agents again, say the ones that I was most excited about presenting with my work?
Depends. When you say "basically unrecognizable", do you mean "Oh, it's sooo different! The characters' motivations are completely changed! And that scene where Sam runs into Alexandra? Now Alexandra runs into Sam. And I took out like 15 adjectives!!"

Or do you mean unrecognizable? Because when the manuscript in my hand has a different title and different character names and roughly the same plot as the manuscript I saw four years ago, I recognize it.

Quick Answers

I am a professional illustrator, and I've just started writing my first children's book, which I plan to illustrate as well. I've seen different advice on how and what to submit to publishers and agents as an author/illustrator. Some say you should submit a dummy book, and others say you should submit a standard manuscript with a few example illustrations included. If a dummy book is the way to go, do you prepare it as closely as possible to what you picture the final book to be? (layout, typeface, design, at least mock-up illustrations on each page, etc?) And if it is preferred to submit a standard manuscript, in what manner do you include the illustrations? Do you just include a few prints paperclipped to the manuscript, or do you try and show where in the story they fit, by laying out some text with them?
I would recommend manuscript pages, a sketch dummy (don't spend time worrying about type and design), and a couple samples of finished illustrations.
My first question is, as an editor, what do you want to see in a cover letter from an illustrator? I've seen plenty of advice for writers on how to structure a query letter, but there seems to be little advice for the illustrators. Is there anything specific that should or should not be in an illustrator's cover letter? Does the illustrator need a cover letter at all?
Not really. If you're just sending illustration samples, most of those come labeled with the artist's contact information and that's it.
My other question is about formality. In sending out packages of art samples/cover letter to publishers and their art directors or editors, how important is it to have typewritten addresses or address labels rather than handwritten?
Again and again I find myself reading a book which I bought based on reading the cover blurb, only to find that the story, and sometimes even the genre, has been completely misrepresented. For example a book I bought last year had a blurb which described a story about an archeologist finding an ancient sword in Jerusalem which may have been the sword of Mohammed and that finding it may change the world, the title was even Sword of God. The sword appears on the first chapter but immediately after finding it (as in still down in the tomb covered in dust) the character is drawn into a (rather cliched) espionage adventure in which war crimes in asia are uncovered. I spent the whole book wondering when and how the sword would be worked in and it never was.
Now, perhaps this happens because, like cover artists, blurb writers read only the first chapter, but I think it has to be a deliberate marketing ploy - after all, you can't return books after you've read them (at least not in Australia) so perhaps some publishers don't care about disappointing/lying to their readers as long as the purchase is made.
Seems awfully stupid to me. I mean, sure, a publisher might farm out its covercopy needs to a freelancer, but then how does the editor not read the copy and realize it's wrong for the book?
That's sloppy, sloppy publishing. In this country, people can and do return books, but if you don't have that option you can at least stop buying books from the publisher who can't reliably tell you about the books they print.
Do you know of any mainstream publishers that accept electronic submissions? Very few do currently. Why do agents want to go green and publishers prefer snail mail?
Do you mean mainstream publishers that take electronic submissions from agents? That's everybody. But if you mean mainstream publishers that are open to unagented manuscripts and take electronic submissions, no.
Agents get a lot of email in the way of submissions. People at publishing houses get a lot of email simply generated by the rest of the company they work for. Both agents and publishers battle a stormtide of incoming email, but if publishers had to deal with the email they already get and an ocean of submissions emails, we would be sunk. (Also our computer servers can't take it.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Show Some Initiative

By staying away from our offices. Please.

Do Your Family a Favor and Talk Some Sense Into Them

My sister wrote and illustrated a short picture book for my mother as a Christmas present. Now my parents want me to bring the book to my editor and see what she thinks. I know exactly what she'd think: "No. Thank you, but no." Oh, the story and the drawings are cute and fun, but I don't think the story can be stretched out to fill 32 pages (or whatever the length of a picture book is). However... I am not an editor. Is it possible that I'm the short-sighted one?
Well... you never know. I've said 'hell no' to manuscripts that went on to thrill the socks off of another editor and were published very nicely. (I still say 'hell no', but clearly some people love that stuff.)
I don't think my editor needs another picture book submission from a) someone who thinks their relative is brilliant, or b) someone who thinks they have an in because they know someone at the publishing house.
That's true.
Then again, it would take 30 seconds to read.
But how long to say no to it, and graciously? That's the time-suck.
Am I refusing my sister a fair chance? Or, should I just tell her to re-write the story until it's good enough? Also, is there a way to let parents down gently, without making it sound like the gift was terrible?
I don't know your family members, so I don't know what will make sense to them. You should at least try to bring across to them that editors field a LOT of friends-and-family manuscripts and they don't appreciate it. So while (of course) you are willing to do your sister as many special favors as there are stars in the sky, your editor isn't.

Editors are often sympathetic, patient people at heart (though overworked), but I know they all wish that more people understood that when one asks one's author friend to do a favor and send a manuscript to their editor, one is not asking the author to do you a favor-- emailing something takes very little time, and no energy. What one is really doing is asking the editor to do you a favor, and you don't get to ask strangers for favors.

Still, your editor likes you and wants to be kind, so sending your editor one manuscript from your family is probably ok with her. You may want to let your sister know that this is the only special favor you'll be able to ask of your editor-- so is this the manuscript she wants to use her golden ticket on?

And as far as your parents: I don't understand why, but it's clear that many people can't believe something is wonderful unless everyone else agrees. Which, in case anyone reading is feeling low on logic, MAKES NO SENSE. Publishing a manuscript is about appealing to thousands of people. There are lots of wonderful manuscripts that would make dozens, or scores, or even hundreds of people happy. They can't be published. They would be cherished, and they would sell, but they would not sell enough.

Publishing is about appealing to people who spend money on books. Publishing is about appealing to strangers. In terms of the story that a daughter writes for her parents, there is simply no excuse for any conclusion besides this one: if the parents think the story is wonderful, then it has appealed to the only important people in the world.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Take Four Lefts, and Then Ask Someone Else for Directions

My husband and I have written two novels together (one MG/YA and one Chapter Book). There are no human characters “featured” in either. We’ve gotten what appears to be interest in both (“excellent writing”, “well developed worlds”, etc.), but have not been able to entice an agent. Recently, one major house, after the editor (from a conference) requested a full and responded that he loved our MG/YA manuscript and went through the scenes he liked the best, said that his “boss” did not like the idea of animals having human characteristics. We’ve gotten that response from a number of professionals at SCBWI conferences we’ve attended. When they hear that there are no human characters in our completed manuscripts, they turn us down without looking at the work. So, my question is are we just looking in the wrong places or is this a market trend and both projects should just be shelved for the time being? Alternatively, should we take this as a “sign” that the projects just need more work?
There do seem to be some people who have a bit of a prejudice against animals as main characters. This doesn't make much sense, because there are plenty of very popular books of this sort*. So you may not have found the right house yet.

But it could mean the manuscripts aren't quite ready yet, too. I think that because animals as main characters take a little extra suspension of disbelief, when it works, it works, and most people will recognize it. And when it doesn't work, when somehow it's not quite convincing enough, people fault the animals instead of the believability.

Have you ever asked someone for directions to a place, and their response was "Oh, you're lost." Yes, yes I know I'm lost. That's why I need directions.
The toughest thing about feedback is that it's subjective. The second toughest thing is that sometimes people can only tell you you're not there yet, and when they try to guide you in the right direction, they're pointing the wrong way.

*Poppy series
Redwall series
Warriors series
The Highway Cats
The Underneath
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM
Watership Down
Guardians of Gahoole
etc etc.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On the Effort Meter, This Manuscript Is Reading 'Sisyphean'

Is having a good idea for a middle grade novel enough in publishing? What I'm trying to find out is at what point is a manuscript considered to be too much work? What does "too much work" mean from an editor's perspective? Do you ever encounter situations in which your love of a book makes the "too much work" aspect not as important and insurmountable?
I'm not absolutely sure how to answer this question. If you mean, is having a good idea enough to excuse a phenomenal lack of writing ability, the answer is no.

As I've mentioned before, ideas are not everything. If everything about the writing needs work, then it's almost certainly too much work for any editor, no matter how good the idea.

That said, there is wide variety in types of writing strengths. Some writers are great at dialogue; some at setting; some at character; some at plotting; some at mood. The best writers are good at pretty much all of these, but if your writing is hitting just one of these qualities in a way that is particularly compelling to the book's audience, then that may in fact be enough. Maybe.

Every editor weighs how much she likes a manuscript against how much work she thinks it will be to edit it. Do you have a bad habit of adding adverbs to all your dialogue tags? That's irritating, but it's also EASILY FIXED. Do you simply have no idea how to show, not tell, and your fantastically plotted novel is by turns condescending and boring because of it? That's irritating, and ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO FIX.

And there's also the question of the author's ability to receive one correction and run with it. I've critiqued first pages that had a pernicious fault, like overuse of adjectives. The author thanked me kindly for my input and asked if she could send me the whole manuscript. Sure, ok. When I got the manuscript, that fault had been fixed on the first page AND NOWHERE ELSE. People like this are a long, long slog to edit.

One of the misconceptions editors meet most often among non-editors is that we can fix anything. No, we can't. We don't have superpowers. Our ability to make anything better depends on our ability to convey to the author what's working and what's not working and why, and the author's ability to apply that knowledge. In order to edit anything, it has to be the author who fixes things, not us.

If an author simply can't write, well, no one can fix that.