Archive for June, 2005

More Straight Talk

June 16, 2005

In yesterday’s entry, I talked about straight talking and the challenge to find it in the editorial world. This morning on Publisher’s Lunch (the free email newsletter that you should be getting), it connected to the entry saying, “MacAdam/Cage editor-in-chief Pat Walsh (whose notable books included Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea) is also leaving, after seven years at the publisher.” The world of the editor is in continual motion. To me, it’s a reminder of our need to maintain relationships—no matter how small.  

I’ve continued reading in Walsh’s book, 78 Reasons Why Your book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Penguin Original, June 2005). As I mentioned yesterday, the book has no religious or spiritual connection.  Some of you might be offended by a bit of how Walsh expresses himself—but it is unvarnished straight talk about publishing. His first reason: The Number One Reason Your Book Will Never Be Published Is Because You Have Not Written It.

How true is that statement? I’ve met a steady stream of people who dream of writing a book yet never get their fingers on the keyboard and produce an excellent manuscript. It’s no excuse to say, “Not yet” unless you are moving toward the goal. You might move in incremental steps. For example, you can write a series of magazine articles to learn about the business before you jump into a full-length book project (highly recommended).

And if you dream of earning a big financial pay off from writing, then Walsh brings more straight talk to the writer saying, “Given the amount of time it takes to write a good book, working at McDonald’s makes more financial sense. In a nutshell: Getting published requires an unholy amount of work and a great deal of time. It is often closer to the culminating of a career rather than the beginning of one. If you are looking for a hobby and enjoy writing, then by all means, have at it, but know that being published is a long shot in the best of circumstances.”

The truth of his statements ring loud to me. Yet don’t get discouraged and feel dashed from this straight talk.

Each of us have to find our own journey in this business called publishing. Pick something short (like a basic magazine article) which you can accomplish today (or at least begin). When you do it, celebrate. Then keep moving ahead the next day. It works for me.

Unvarnished Truth

June 15, 2005

Most of us don’t want the unvarnished truth about publishing—especially if it comes to our own writing.  We can’t find it with family members. They will often gush over anything that you give them.

Critique groups are another possibility. It’s a great place to get some feedback from fellow writers about your latest work in progress or magazine article or children’s book. The quality of the feedback will depend on the skill of the other members of your critique group. You will have to learn how much to take and not take from that feedback process.

Some times you get some glimmers of unvarnished truth at a writer’s conference. I’m thinking about those one on one meetings with an editor. Yet again you have to use caution about the feedback. I’ve been in those meetings repeatedly—and I know if I’m too honest I could hear about it from the evaluation forms and the conference director. Besides people invested a lot of their financial resources to come to these conferences—mostly for encouragement—not to be discouraged.

You can’t give the unvarnished truth in rejection letters. It’s why editors and agents have carefully crafted rejection letters that say something about “it’s not right for their needs” (whatever that means in terms of the real truth). I was interested when one of my agent friends said she learned the hard way not to give too much personal information in a rejection letter. If you give too much, it encourages the writer to try again. Or it encourages the writer to get into a dialogue and almost argument with you about your insight. And what agent or editor has time for such dialogue—especially with unpublished writers? They don’t.

So the gentle rejection continues and the flood of material coming our direction as editors and agents for consideration.  I attempted to do a bit of the unvarnished truth in Book Proposals That Sell, 21 Secrets To Speed Your Success. Particularly in the introductory chapters, I clue writers about the busy life of the editor and help them understand why editors don’t immediately return emails or phone calls (in general). I want to give the writer the best possible chance for consideration and help them be professional in the process.

Despite what people think about editors, we are not God nor do we have the final word on your writing. One editor’s pleasure is another editor’s poison to reject. You are looking for an editor to champion your cause internally in the magazine or publishing house and bring your writing into print for the general public. It’s a difficult relationship to locate—for anyone.

If you can’t find the unvarnished truth about your work, what do you do? You continue to hone your craft. Learn more about the publishing business and how it works and continue writing.  As another step in my learning process (yes, editors and writers have lots to learn), I’ve started reading a book from Pat Walsh (not a Christian writing book) called 78 Reasons Why Your book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Penguin Original, June 2005).  Here’s what intrigues me about the promise of this book—unvarnished truth for writers. Yes, the truth hurts but often we need to hear it. Walsh is the founding editor of MacAdam/ Cage, an independent publisher of nonfiction and fiction.

As Betsy Lerner, author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (another excellent writing book) says, “Three reasons to buy Pat Walsh’s book on getting published. It’s a punch in the gut, a slap in the face, and a poke in the eye. In other words, a much-needed wake-up call about the delusions of the literary life. Buy one for every struggling writer you know.”

Not all of us can handle the unvarnished truth about this publishing business. For the little I’ve read, I’m going to learn a lot from this book. I’m always eager to find the unvarnish truth because it’s the only way I can take steps toward improvement.

Books & Tie-Ins

June 14, 2005

It happens more often than you would think—and especially with first-time novelists. They negotiate hard with their contract about the movie and film rights to their novel. Why? They believe they can do something with them or believe they can have someone else do something with these rights. It’s a rare day for anyone in book publishing—especially book publishing where a novel becomes a movie. It’s something to keep in mind next time you are involved in one of these matters. Hundreds of novels are published each year (more all the time) and few of them become movies.

It’s even more rare for a nonfiction book to become a movie. It does happen. In the last few days, I completed Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaaps. It’s an excellent sports book and I have little background in the area of boxing. It is a moving story about the life of James Braddock. The writing is crisp and the story moves with fascinating anecdotes. While the movie has received a lot of recent attention in the media (because of the director, Ron Howard, and the starring actors Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger), I found the book is the in-depth way to learn about the subject. Very little of the content of a book is able to be captured on the movie screen and it’s an excellent way to learn more information.

I was interested to read what Bob Miller, president of Hyperion Books said about tie-ins (in particular the article was about television tie-ins) in this week’s issue of Publisher’s Weekly.  He said, “I wish there was a science to it—a way to predict the success of TV tie-ins, but you can’t, no matter how popular the show is…You have to look at the show, figure out what’s driving its popularity and come up with a book that offers something beyond what they might already know.”

So next time you think about squabbling on your contract negotiations to keep the film rights for your novel. I’d encourage you to consider whether you have the possibility of doing anything with those rights or not (rare), then make your plans.

And if you have no contracts to negotiate or film rights to consider? Keep writing. Persistence is the name of the game in this business. In the meantime, keep learning all that you can about the various aspects—including how books are connected to movies and TV tie-ins.

Develop A Query Checklist

June 13, 2005

One of the most difficult things to proofread is something which isn’t on the paper.  It’s a skill that editors need to develop when they work on books or magazine articles.  For example, as a magazine editor, many years ago, I recall leaving a critical bit of information off the cover of the magazine—probably the month of the publication. Despite several of us proofreading the publication at various stages of the publication process. It was overlooked because it wasn’t on the page. Imagine our chagrin at printing 200,000 mistakes. The only redeeming factor is that in general, magazines are not kept for a long period of time (particularly the organization magazine that I was working on at that time).

This skill isn’t only for editors but an important skill that writers need to acquire as well. As the Fiction Acquisitions Editor,  I receive a steady stream of query letters in the mail as well as online.  You would be surprised how often the writer leaves off a critical detail for the editor. Here are a few things to make sure you include in your query letters:

1) Double check the query before mailing it or before emailing it.

2) Do you have the editor’s name spelled right? Despite my photo across the Internet, I regularly receive query letters addressed to “Ms. Whalin.” Wrong! Or “Terry Whalen.” Again wrong!  If you make this mistake, it makes an instant impression on the editor and they think, How many other details are wrong? It’s not the impression you want to leave with the editor.

3) Did you have a title for your manuscript? A compelling title? A number of queries for book ideas don’t include a title. It’s a mistake and an oversight from the writer.

4) Do you include the length of your manuscript and whether it is completed or not? Again many writers leave off this detail. If I want to know the detail, I will ask the writer—or maybe it’s easier to reject it (something writers don’t want to happen). If you leave out this detail, then you’ve set yourself up for the easiest answer for an editor to give you—no.

5) Did you include a way for the editor to respond? An email address or an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope)? It happened again last week. I received a large priority mail package from a first-time novelist (a manuscript I asked to see more detail) yet it included no SASE or instruction about what to do with the novel if rejected. As I process this manuscript, I will have to initiate correspondence with the author about what they want me to do with their material if rejected.

Also I’m amazed at the writers who short-change the publisher on the return postage. If it costs $11 from your house to the editor. Why would it cost $7.50 from the publisher to the writer? Is the publisher going to kick in the missing postage? Doubtful. That postage is an unbudgeted and unexpected expense that when multiplied by thousands of submissions could amount to a great deal of postage. And the experience makes an impression on the editor—and not one that you want to leave with the editor.

Another common query that I receive in the mail has no SASE nor an email address to respond to the writer. At times, it is obvious from the printed letter in the mail, the writer found my information on the publisher website—yet they give me no means to respond. It is the writer responsibility to give the editor a means to respond (at the writer’s expense). It is not the publishers responsibility to respond to a query with no SASE and no email address. Writers who send out this material are probably the loudest complaining about the lack of response from editors. I tend to have pity on writer—and stick a stamp on the envelope with my rejection—and a note about it. I suspect that I’m a rare editor to make this type of gesture.

You will have to develop your own checklist before you send your query or manuscript. I’ve been discussing purely mechanics in this entry on the writing life. I’ve said nothing about compelling material which is targeted exactly to the right publisher (another key).  Your responsibility as the writer is to give the editor something they have to publish. 

The Emotional Connection

June 12, 2005

Yesterday in the dark theater, my wife leaned over and said to me, “I’m glad you’re the type of guy who likes to see these types of movies. Thank you for bringing me.” 

I love the action movies as much as anyone else—but I found the recent over-hyped Star Wars movie boring in spots and pure dullness (and yes I like fantasy and have seen all of these films multiple times—before I get blasted from the Star Wars fanatics).

You don’t have to read these entries about the writing life long to understand my love for books but also movies and the theater. Each of these venues, I process in a variety of genres and types. Yesterday we went to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Before going to the movie, I read the reviews and knew about the bestselling teen series from Ann Brashares (her first novel)—but I knew little else.  There were other men in the theater—but it was mostly packed with teenage girls.

If you haven’t seen it, four lifelong 17–year-old girls are apart for their first summer. They keep connected through a magical pair of jeans. Before they split up to different places, they try on a single pair of pants. While each is a different build, the same pair of pants magically fits each girl. They decide to share the pants through the mail and each girl takes a turn wearing the magic. As Ann Brashares writes, “I’ve always liked the idea that clothing can hold emotions and memories or connections to other people, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine a pair of jeans could be a physical repository for a living friendship.”

This coming of age story connects with the audience in a remarkable way. We fall in love with the characters share their joys and heartaches. The scenery is beautiful in the film—particularly on a Greek island. Be prepared if you go for an emotional rollercoaster that I didn’t expect. Suddenly I was watching a section and tears are rolling down my cheeks (good thing the theater is dark). It was like I was transported back to a teenage memory and the heartbreak of the experience. And it wasn’t just me. Many people in the theater were also reaching for a Kleenex. As my wife later told me, the teen girl beside her uncontrollably sobbing so much she felt like putting an arm around her to comfort her—but she didn’t since it was a complete stranger.

As writers, we can learn a great deal from how these movies and books are constructed. In some regards, it’s a bit of magic but in other ways it’s a technique that you and I can learn. If we understand and make the emotional connection.

What Motivates Your Writing

June 11, 2005

When each of us sit at the keyboard or pore over a manuscript, we have a certain motivation. It might be to simply get it done for a deadline. It might be the material itself and its potential impact. Or it might be simply a job to make money. For me, it’s always been about the impact—much more than the money. Compensation is good and necessary but not my primary reason for moving my fingers on the keyboard.

I’m thinking about motivation today in light of some news I received this morning. It will resound today around the world—the passing of Dr. Kenneth N. Taylor. While the director of Moody Press, Ken and Margaret Taylor had small children at home. At one point they had five preschoolers and three in diapers. Ultimately the Taylors had ten children. As they read to their children, Ken lamented the fact there was no book that covered the entire Bible for children. When their children brought home Sunday School papers, Taylor handwrote stories to match the pictures. Encouraged with the responses, he submitted that material and ultimately Moody Press published The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, an all-time bestselling children’s book.

While few people remember it now, at that time, the King James Version of the Bible was the only Bible. Today we have numerous modern day versions. Ken Taylor wondered if he could paraphrase the entire Bible for adults as he had for children. Each day he commuted on the train from his home in Wheaton to the Moody Press offices in downtown Chicago and he used this travel time to modernize the Scriptures. It took him seven years to paraphrase the New Testament Epistles. He was unable to find any publisher interested in printing this material so Ken took a $2,000 loan and privately printed the book. It didn’t take off in terms of sales until Billy Graham recommended Living Letters from the pulpit. The success of this first book led to the founding of Tyndale House Publishers and the completion of a much loved book, The Living Bible.

His motivation wasn’t money—which eventually came—but to capture the Bible in a readable way for everyone. It was my privilege to interview Dr. Taylor several times for magazine articles. I was writing a round-up article on children’s Bibles and I caught up with him on the floor of the Christian Booksellers Convention. This huge trade show had rows of publishers selling books to retailers. I pressed him saying, “Dr. Taylor, don’t you feel the competition? Look at all of the different products which have come out just this year in this area.”

The gentle man shook his head and smiled, “Oh, Terry, if it’s the Bible and people are reading it to their children. That’s all that matters.” May each of us find such a pure and simple motivation for our writing.

Look At the Dark Side–Returns

June 10, 2005

Writers practically never think about this aspect of the book selling business. I guarantee publishers think about it constantly—but rarely discuss it with anyone outside of their company circles. It’s the area of returns.

When you walk into a big box bookstore (Borders or Barnes & Noble) and see all those bargain books? They are remaindered or discounted for a reason.  Those titles have been slashed and in many cases returned to the publisher—then shipped back out to be sold inexpensively. It’s a tale-tell sign the particular book is on the way toward going out-of-print. Or maybe the book was initially a hardcover and the publisher is about to release the paperback edition. The publisher will want to clear out their remaining stock of the hardcover.

Often I’ve asked publishers about a particular title. Maybe their publicity is touting a large print run (say 50,000 books). I will hear things like, “Yes, we sold it deep into the stores (a good sign) but we don’t know about the returns.”

Returns?

Yes, if you read Michael Korda’s Making The List you will learn that after the Great Depression, retailers told publishers they couldn’t absorb the risk of buying all these new titles. They started a policy which continues today. After a period of time (different for each book and each store), the retailer can return the book to the publisher for a refund.  So writers need this reminder: in traditional publishing situations who is absorbing this risk? It’s not the writer. It’s not the retailer. It’s the publisher.

According to Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Time Warner Book Group has two warehouses near Indianapolis. One building is called the “happy warehouse” and another the “sad” warehouse. Trachtenberg’s article is fascinating and can be part of your ongoing education about the bookselling business.

So what can writers do about this dark side of publishing? Again, they can actively enter into all the various marketing aspects for their books.  They can produce stellar book proposals and include marketing sections. Most importantly, they can write remarkable books that everyone wants to buy and talks about.

Run Out of Gas

June 9, 2005

I’m sure you’ve read these types of novels. They roar in the opening chapter yet somewhere in the middle portion, they go into a stall and almost a tailspin. The story engine has run out of gas. If you have this happen to your novel, the alarm bells should be ringing in your head. Danger.

Some readers will put down your book and never finish it. It’s sad to say it but it’s true. I used to be one of those “gotta-clean-your-plate” readers. You know these types of readers. They are the one who have to keep reading the pages (even if it’s boring) until they reach the final page.

In recent years, I’ve changed. I don’t mind leaving a little food on my plate and feel no compulsion to finish the novel. If the writer hasn’t pulled me through their fiction or nonfiction or book proposal until the final page (and I have no other compelling reason to finish such as an assigned article or book review), then I will often put it down and go on to another book. Life is too short not to respond in this fashion. There are way too many books getting into print. Our challenge as readers is to find the good ones. It’s the same challenge for every acquisitions editor and literary agent.

If your novel or work-in-progress has gone into stall, how do you get your story engine running again? I recommend you check out what Jim Bell advises in this article. It may be just the fix you need to keep from running out of gas.

Map for Novel Lovers

June 8, 2005

From interviewing a number of creative authors, I’ll make a general observation—a number of them are directionally challenged.  My sense in this area seems to fall somewhere in the average area. I’m not absolutely terrible—but I’m not like some men who are able to tell you if they are headed north (or whatever direction).  I love maps and try to use them often—particularly when I’m in a new city or a different location. It helps me arrive to my meetings on time and without the general panic that comes from being lost.

In honor of last week’s Book Expo in New York City, The New York Times Book Review put together a fascinating Literary Map of Manhattan. A great deal of mainstream publishing transpires in the towering structures on the island. If you love novels, then you will enjoy this interactive literary map of Manhattan which is subtitled, “Here’s where imaginary New Yorkers lived, worked, played, drank, walked and looked at ducks. By Randy Cohen and Nigel Homes.” The printed version is in last week’s Sunday Times. In this case, the online version has some interactive advantages of reading reviews and learning more about these classic books—besides seeing their Manhattan location pinpointed on this map.

As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.”

Enjoy the experience.

A Dirty Little Secret of Publishing

June 7, 2005

The proposals and manuscripts come into my office almost daily.  Many of these proposals are from new and unpublished authors. They expect the publisher to do all of the marketing for their books and their task is simply to write. It’s true you have to write a great moving novel or a dynamic, can’t-put-it-down book. Yet you also have to learn everything you can learn about the way books are marketed. Today I’m going to focus on one of those secrets.

This past weekend publishers poured into New York City for the Book Expo America trade show (now over).  In preparation for the event, The New York Times Book Review included some fascinating articles about the business of books. If you don’t read the online version of The New York Times, then you need to be doing it. It’s free but you do have to register.

Randy Kennedy, a New York Times Arts reporter, investigated one of the open secrets of bookselling—the fact that publishers purchase display space in major bookstores.  The article admits that almost no one would talk about this practice—even off the record. So when you walk into your local big box bookstore (Barnes & Noble or Borders) and see those three tiered racks with a new hardcover or paperback, you should know the publisher has purchased that advertising space. Does it work? Kennedy talked with one publishing executive who said a book with sales of about 800 copies a week when the book was placed in one of these racks instantly increased to 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week. It’s a substantial increase and these displays occur in every store in the country—as an advertising/ marketing expense.

Two paragraphs jumped out as I read this article, “While publishers disagree about the merits of paying for display, one thing about the arrangements is clear: they further concentrate money and attention on the books that need it least.”

“The phenomenon, which has been called a reverse Robin Hood effect, happens because publishers pay huge advances to star authors and then feel they must support that author’s book with substantial promotion money. Of course, this was happening well before bookstore display emerged as a force. But publishers say that display arrangements have made promotion budgets even more lopsided in favor of the Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels of the book world, meaning that new authors or less prominent books are given increasingly little advertising or display help.” (I added the bold).

I encourage you to read the entire article for your own education about the book business.  It will give you some more motivation to include a stellar marketing proposal in your next submission to a publisher. Whether you write novels or nonfiction, you can gain more of my insight in Book Proposals That Sell. If you read the book and following the advice in it, it might help you look at publishing with a different vision and fresh insight.