Archive for February, 2006

Looking for Gold

February 9, 2006

Tomorrow the 20th Winter Olympics begins in Torino, Italy and a great deal of attention will be focused on athletes who are seeking a Gold Medal. While admittedly, I’m not the most athletic person you will ever meet, since the last Winter Olympics, I’ve learned a bit about this procesRunningOnICEcovers. In a six-week crash course, I learned about the life of Vonetta Flowers. This much decorated collegiate track and field star believed her quest for Olympic Gold was over with the Sacramento trials for the 2000 Sydney Games.  Vonetta’s husband, Johnny, spotted a flyer encouraging the athletes to try out for bobsled.  Living in Birmingham, Alabama, the Flowers only connection to bobsled was the Disney movie, Cool Runnings about the Jamaican bobsled team. With little faith that anything would happen, Vonetta tried out for bobsled and discovered her years in track and field paid off. She had the perfect set of skills for bobsledding and has become a top brakeman. Vonetta became the first African American to win Gold in the Winter Olympics.  That first-person story is captured in Running On Ice, which I wrote for Vonetta.  I had the opportunity to actually hold Vonetta’s Gold medal for an unforgettable experience. On television, I’ll be watching Vonetta and her teammate Jean Prahm attempt Gold on February 20th and 21st at the women’s bobsled races.

The search for gold isn’t only in an Olympic setting.  It is actively happening in editorial offices. Editors are actively looking for the next bestseller or at least a book which will find it’s audience. Some books are slow at first and then become bestsellers for the publisher.  These books may or may not appear on a “bestseller list” but their regular sales are a key part of the publisher’s goals.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Michael Korda’s Making the List: A Cultural History of a Bestseller. The Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster examines the bestseller lists from the last century. There are surprising results on the list. Yes, publishers do the best they possibly can do and look for the best projects. They use their experience with past books to create plans and publicity campaigns. Their sales reps present the books to the stores and try and sell them into the stores. The search for gold or bestselling books is long and hard.

This week, I’ve been sorting through recent fiction proposals. Like normal, most of them are going back to the author or the literary agent as rejected. I dislike sending back these proposals but it’s part of the business—and always remember that it’s business and not personal. I understand it’s hard to recall because you get so much of yourself wrapped into your project.

As an editor, I’m constantly gathering information about publishing, books and authors. That information comes into play as I sort through these proposals. Yesterday I read an excellent proposal from an author who has sold over 500,000 novels. This type of sales history catches an editor’s attention combined with an interesting plot premise.  One of the hardest things to see in these proposals is something that isn’t there. It’s the same with proofreading and other parts of this business. Missing elements are glossed over and often ignored. For this fiction author, I recalled her extensive personal marketing efforts for her last novel. This author organized her own author tour with book signings and media events in numerous cities.  None of this effort appeared in her proposal. I picked up the telephone and called her agent who confirmed my memory of this effort. The agent is going to have this author prepare some details about her personal marketing efforts which I will use to supplement her proposal. This supplemental material will be important when I pitch the project to the publication board. It will show some additional information not in the current proposal.  In general, a literary agent simultaneously submits these proposals to different publishers. If I’m able to add something to a presentation or a proposal, it presents the project in a completely different light to my publishing colleagues. It’s one of the ways as an editor, I’m looking for gold.

What can you take away from this story for your own writing life? With your proposals, make sure they are complete. To the best of your ability, make sure each line sizzles and snaps with the irresistible siren that says, “Publish me.” It’s not easy or simple. It involves a lot of work and effort. But it is possible.

Leave No Stone Unturned

February 7, 2006

If you’re looking for some inspiration and lessons on persistence, then you’ve come to the right place today. While I was reading Putting Your Passion Into Print, I found this inspirational story.  As you read it, notice the energy and effort Bob Nelson poured into the marketing.  First, you have to create a great product which meets a felt need—and Bob Nelson met this criteria and more.Putting-Your-Passion-cover

The Man Who Left No Stone Unturned

“There’s no better poster boy for the benefits of doing your research than Bob Nelson, author of, among other books, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. To learn more about the book business, Bob went so far as to work as a shipping clerk in a bookstore. And that was just the tip of his research iceberg.

After figuring out how bookstores work, Bob researched publishers to suss out who would be best able to package, market, publicize and sell his book. He approached one that had never published a business book because he was impressed by their marketing prowess and their dedication to making every book successful. And once he signed an agreement with the publisher, he didn’t sit back and watch. For example, he drafted a 50-page memorandum on what he was planning to do to help make the book a success. He continued researching throughout the entire publishing process as to how he could augment the publisher’s efforts.

When 1001 Ways to Reward Employees came out, Bob traveled to more than 500 bookstores to see what makes people buy a book and what makes them pass it by. He also wanted to understand how and why bookstores order books and what he, as an author, could do to help influence their decision. In each city he visited, he did a follow-up postcard to all bookstore managers, informing them of the media he had done in their market, groups he had presented to, national promotions, and so on. Sound crazy? Then perhaps selling nearly a million and a half books will sound equally insane. That’s right. Bob sold way over a million copies of a business book about how to reward employees. Considering the incredibly small number of books that sell over a million copies, this is amazing. But, in Bob’s case, it’s not even that surprising.

When he hit the one-million-books-sold mark, his publisher threw a party for him. At that party, the president of the publishing company held up a thick file folder filled with information Bob had accumulated about his book in Indianapolis alone! For most publishers, Indianapolis is just a blip on the map, but Bob had done enough media and marketing in that one city to fill a folder larger than what most authors compile for an entire book!

Bob’s philosophy? “Leave no stone unturned.””

Excerpted from Putting Your Passion Into Print Copyright © 2005 by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry
Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York All Rights Reserved

Each of us are facing different challenges. As you look at what’s ahead for your writing life, are you leaving any stone unturned?

A Fascinating Glimpse at Gladwell

February 5, 2006

Writers have a certain amount of mystique around them. No one exactly understands the process of publishing nor how some books become bestsellers. It’s something I’ve discussed in the past in these entries about the Writing Life.  Some times articles will add to our understanding and I wanted to point out an article in today’s New York Times about Malcolm Gladwell.

Possibly you’ve read one or both of Gladwell’s bestselling books, The Tipping Point or Blink. I’ve read a number of Gladwell’s articles in The New Yorker magazine and always gained some interesting insight from those diverse articles. In particular, I was fascinated with Gladwell’s insight into John Grisham’s success in this short article from 1998 on Slate. It will give you a glimpse at his skill as a writer, thinker and communicator. Here’s a key sentence in the article, “So why is Grisham so successful? The answer, I think, is that his books proceed from a perspective radically different from that of his competitors.” If you know anything about John Grisham’s background, you will understand his radically different starting point. Malcolm Gladwell picked up on it and explicitedly told the reader about it.

Rachel Donadio’s article in The New York Times helps us learn a bit more about the writer. I recommend downloading three-minute MP3 file on this article. It gives you a chance to hear Gladwell’s voice but also listen to his philosophy about business books. Frankly he’s surprised that his books are categorized as business books—because they aren’t in the strict sense that a business book helps you with a specific aspect of your business. Yet in another sense, Gladwell’s books are business books because people in business want to glean from his cultural insight about how things work.  Here’s a key paragraph in this profile on Malcolm Gladwell: “And that is because beneath the social science data, Gladwell is selling something for which there’s always a market. “I’m by nature an optimist. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a story which could be described as despairing,” he said. “I don’t believe in character. I believe in the effect of the immediate impact of environment and situation on people’s behavior.”

The article provides a fascinating glimpse into Gladwell and his work.

Set A Word Goal

February 4, 2006

There is an old saying concerning goals, if you shoot for nothing, then you will be sure to hit it.  It’s surprising the number of authors who determine to write—yet they have no specific production writing goals for their day.

Last week I was interviewing a bestselling fiction author for a forthcoming magazine article. I’m not going to tell you the specific author but it’s fair to say most people would recognize the name and books. She was telling me about her writing habits for her novels. In advance of writing, this author prepares with research on her theme, the characters and an outline of the events in the story. Then she goes into her office, blocks all distractions and pounds out the story. The experience is intense beginning at 9 a.m. with a half hour for lunch and goes until 5 p.m. Occasionally depending on the her writing stretches into the evening. Her word goal is 2,000 words an hour.  While she is writing, this author doesn’t repeatedly count those words or focus on the word goal but this mark is in the back of her mind.  Her overall goal for a single day of writing is 10,000 words. If you are looking for a page count, if you consider about 250 words per page, that accounts for 40 doubles paced typed pages.

OK, I can hear the skeptics out there saying, “Yeah that’s her first draft.  What about all of the hours of rewriting?” For this author, the art of storytelling is a much practiced craft. Yes, she has editors who work over her material but for her last eight books, there hasn’t been a lot of rewrite work. In other words, the manuscript comes out fairly clean from the beginning.  If this author is in her “writing zone,” and her typical novel is 90,000 words, then she can complete it in nine days. Now that’s pretty remarkable or so it seems to me.

Now this author didn’t instantly arrive at this type of storytelling production schedule. It has taken many years of writing experience to arrive at this point in time.  A trained journalist, this author has written stories with a deadline for a long time.   I could understand the training aspects as she talked.  I studied journalism in college and the training was invaluable for my own writing experiences.   There is something about the news room and their necessity for quick writing that teaches invaluable lessons. There is no time to make coffee or sharpen your pencils or do research on the internet.  A tight deadline is present and you have a very limited amount of time to crank out a story for the afternoon newspaper.  In my case, I recall having story meetings at 7 a.m. and picking up our assignments. Our story material had to be turned in at 11 a.m.  Each of us had four hours to interview and create our news stories. That sort of pressure doesn’t allow much time for rewriting, new beginnings or reworked endings.  The story has to be organized in your mind then rapidly proceed to your fingertips and on to the paper. Our stories appeared in the afternoon newspaper which hit the streets at 3 p.m.

As I listened to this author talk about her word goals, it re-emphasized the importance of setting these types of goals.  When I am in the process of writing a book, I have these goals in mind and focus on attempting to reach them. Your goal will probably not be 10,000 words for a day. It might be 200 words a day or 1,000 words a day. Be reasonable with yourself and realistic about what you can actually accomplish. I’d encourage you to keep track and gradually increase the word count. 

It’s something to consider for your own writing life.

Great Agent, Good Agent or Bad Agent

February 2, 2006

It’s an ongoing discussion within the book publishing community—literary agents.  Various online groups will discuss it. When they get together on the phone or in person, editors will talk about agents. Even this week, I was talking with one long-time literary agent who mentioned a common misconception. Agents do not work for a particular publishing house. An agent may have a lot of dealings with a particular publishing house if the publisher acquires the books from their clients.

I’ve been writing about the book, Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The chapter on “Locating, Luring and Landing the Right Agent” is loaded with insight and wisdom. Why? Arielle is a literary agent with the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency and in fact she runs their Bay Area office.  From that vantage point, this chapter describes the qualities of a good agent, then what makes a great agent and what are some of the characteristics of a bad agent. Also they discuss whether you need an agent in the first place and how to determine the answer to your situation. 

The great agent is a true partner with the author and as Putting Your Passion Into Print says, “Great agents are part wizard, midwife and guide dog. They’ll show you the tricks of the trade, manage your career, introduce you to all the right people, and guide you and your manuscript through the messy maze of the modern book world.”  My experience matches these characteristics and I’ve worked with some great agents who know how to carefully guide me through the various land mines of publishing.  As I’ve mentioned before in these entries, anyone can become a literary agent—whether they have experience in publishing or not. It’s the responsibility of the writer to follow a principle emphasized repeatedly in this book: research, research, research.

I completely understand how writers land bad agents. We are insecure about our writing and the merits of our idea or book proposal. Yes, our family loves it but what about the publishing world? No one enjoys getting rejected but it’s a key part of this world of ideas. Some ideas find a home and others are repeatedly rejected. This chapter includes sound advice about how to find the right agent for you and where you are in your career. It’s different for each person and the relationship is one that the writer has to seek and cultivate. Here’s a principle never to forget: good and great agents work for their authors—not the other way around.  Often a writer is thrilled to snag a top agent and reluctant to evaluate whether that agent is a great agent for them. I’ve seen several authors who stay in a poor agent relationship for this reason.

OK what characterizes a bad agent? According to Eckstut and Sterry, “Bad agents…won’t return your phone calls and sometimes even steal your money. Like bad travel agents, they can send you on some really bad trips, or worse, not even get you off the ground. Naturally, there are many more bad agents than good agents. Sadly, when you meet them, it’s often hard to tell the difference. But once you’ve experienced their incompetence, sloth and/or idiocy firsthand, the distinction becomes painfully obvious.”

One of the best articles about searching for an agent is this one combined with the principle of sound research.  I have no doubt the discussion about different agents will continue through the ages.  I appreciated the counsel and wisdom in this chapter from Putting Your Passion Into Print.