Tuesday, August 30, 2005

MORE ... On The Elusive Publishing Business

If you aspire to publish a book, or even are vaguely interested in the publishing business, hurry over to the website of Miss Snark, an anonymous literary agent in New York.

Since coming back from vacation a mere two days ago, Miss Snark has been critiquing the first pages of manuscripts sent in by her loyal readers. She’s examined 34 writing samples so far, running them through her Crapometer and commenting on the merits.

Miss Snark loves George Clooney, gin, and good writing, probably in that order. Her comments are incisive and blunt, but never boring.

Send in your own first page and see what she says.

On the subject of writing and publishing, I heard about a book 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh. I thought it was a silly title and had no intention of reading it.

But then I started to hear great things about the book: it’s a no-nonsense guide to writing and publishing, Walsh’s voice is witty and light, etc. The blog Slushpile recommended it and it turns out Walsh was the editor who acquired Michelle Richmond’s book Dream of the Blue Room. Plus his agent is Amy Rennert. And he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle at one point. And he was an editor at MacAdam/Cage in San Francsico. All those factors convinced me to get the book.

And it’s good. Very good. It’s a quick read full of tidbits about how to determine if you are a serious writer, one who can crack the barriers put up by the publishing industry.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Titles I've Gotta Have

The San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday ran a long list of promising new releases for the fall. This is the publishing industry’s big season when a flood of serious novels and narratives crowd the shelves of bookstores, almost like a tonic to summer’s light topics. I love the promise of all these new books; I can see nights and nights of reading pleasure ahead of me.

Surprisingly, I found myself most intrigued by the non-fiction list, in part because it’s hard to tell if a novel will be interesting just by reading its description.

Here are the top five fall books I want to read:

Lynn Freed's Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page. Harper’s published a controversial excerpt, “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag,” about Freed’s attitude toward writing programs. It infuriated a lot of people . It will be interesting to see if this collection of essays redeems Freed or makes people even angrier. Released in September.

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. I loved "Nickel and Dimed," which explored the difficulty of living on blue-collar wages. This book examines white-collar unemployment. A September release.

Julie Powell's Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen This one has been getting a lot of buzz. Powell cooked every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and then blogged about it. I don’t think she got fat, but she got a book deal. September.

The Grotto’s own Mary Roach will publish a sort-of sequel to her bestselling Stiff. This one is called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Roach already wrote about being dead; now she writes about whether we can expect anything in the world beyond. An October release.

Nell Bernstein's All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. I’ve always wondered how tough it must be to have a parent in jail. Bernstein, a Berkeley journalist, focuses attention on what prison does to families. She provides this sobering statistic: more than 2.4 million children in the U. S. have a parent in jail and half of those male children will one day go to jail themselves. The book has a starred review in Publishers Weekly.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sean Penn, Cub Reporter

Sean Penn, the infamously famous irascible movie star, has filed a five part series on Iran that is running in the San Francisco Chronicle this week. His star power attracts, and the first day story drew 350,000 hits on the paper’s website.

But what is it like editing a star known for his quick temper? Jon Friedman of MarketWatch wrote a story about the series and he asked the executive editor Phil Bronstein and Datebook editor David Weigand about the experience.

“Bronstein said Penn proved to be an accommodating correspondent. "It was a very collaborative process - all peaceful," Bronstein said.”

Not everyone is pleased, according to Friedman.

“Still, the word going around San Francisco is that some journalists in the city (including, I hear, a bunch at the Chronicle) have muttered that Penn's reporting from Iraq represented a cool one-off shot for the paper, but the current series has questionable journalistic value. Maybe they're just jealous of Penn.

When I asked Bronstein if anyone would confuse Penn with, say, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist David Broder, he replied evenly: "We're not presenting him as David Broder. He is an actor and director who is presenting his perspective to the readers in a diary form."

Bronstein waved off the carping that a movie star can't be a serious commentator. "Particularly in this age (of) citizen journalists and blogs, it's pretty silly criticism," Bronstein said.”

(via MediaBistro)

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bay Area Tidbits

San Francisco Chronicle Jane Ganahl has been writing about her life as a single middle-aged woman trying to make sense of this cool, strange world. Her words have garnered notice, according to Publisher’s Marketplace:

“San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jane Ganahl's NAKED ON THE PAGE: My Unmarried Midlife in the Sunday Paper, a humorous and heartfelt memoir about the "dating at midlife" column she began writing at 49, to Ali Bothwell Mancini at Viking, in a very nice deal, by Ellen Levine at Trident Media Group.”

Another Bay Area writer, Matt Warshaw, whose has written two well-regarded books on surfing, scores another deal:

"Matt Warshaw's SURFING: A History, a comprehensive illustrated history of surfing from its Polynesian origins to the on-going pursuit of the 100-foot wave, to Sarah Malarkey at Chronicle, in a good deal, by Wendy Burton Brouws at For a Small Fee."

If you are in the stage I’m in – with a contract but an unfinished manuscript – you might find this article by Media Bistro’s Elizabeth Spiers helpful. It’s called, “How to be the Perfect Author.” (Via Welcome to the Hinterlands)

“The editor-author relationship is a collaborative one that inherently demands a willingness on the author's part to be receptive to feedback, open to re-thinking the material, and open to (as the title implies) editing.

"The best sort of author is someone who sees the benefit of editing and outside criticism," says Simon & Schuster Executive Editor, Geoff Kloske. "And the worst kind is the author who is going to argue with your every attempt to make them a better author."

Editing is implicitly a form of criticism and authors who don't take criticism well will likely find the process difficult and perhaps even antagonistic. But an author who views criticism as an arbitrary attack on the material is wasting the potential value of a good editorial suggestion.
"The worst sort of person who, when they give you a manuscript, is so exhausted and spent by it, they're upset by any sort of changes you want to make," says one editor. "They accuse you of not liking their book despite the fact that you paid money for it. They view the editor-author relationship as sort of a customer service relationship."

Naturally, I accept all criticism.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

A Tale of Two Davids and Some Books

Gosh, a girl can’t go away for a few hours around here without missing something big.

In the "too bad" department (at least for readers of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review) David Kipen is giving up reviewing to become the Director of Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. On second thought, maybe it’s a good thing because his intelligent observations about literature and culture can be applied on a national scale.

From the press release:

"Among his new responsibilities, Kipen will design and lead national leadership initiatives, develop partnerships to advance the literature field, and recommend panelists and manage the review process for literature applications. He will assume his new responsibilities on September 6, 2005."

On the same day, David Ulin was appointed the new editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. His credentials are impressive: his last book, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, was selected as a best book of 2004 by ….. the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s too bad California is loosing one reviewer with a solid knowledge of the state’s history and development, but it looks like the other David is well grounded in that area as well.

Congratulations, Davids, and good luck.

(via California Authors and LA Observed)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

MFA Programs

It must be the end of summer, since I've spotted a number of articles in recent days about MFA programs. The application season officially opens after Labor Day, shortly after the end of the writers's workshop season.

The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine ran a long piece Sunday by Janet Wells on the pros and cons of programs that offer a master’s degree in creative writing. While she focuses on Bay Area schools, her article also takes a look at the best-known programs, such as the one at the University of Iowa.

I’ve been reading the blog The Daily Pick for a while now, but never knew it was written by Tom Kealy, a former Wallace Stegner fellow who teaches fiction writing at Stanford. Tom has written a guide to MFA programs that will by published in 2006, but in the meantime he’s started a new blog about them. Kealy is soliciting questions about the programs. A little advice might be helpful, for these programs are tough to get into, according to Wells.

“Getting into a writing program may be the hardest part. The creative- writing MFA (usually an offshoot of the English department) now has the largest number of applicants in the field of English graduate studies. The Iowa Writers' Workshop gets more than 1,000 applicants for 50 spaces. San Francisco State University, the most competitive program in the Bay Area, got nearly 400 applications for 20 spots in fiction, 20 in poetry and eight in playwriting this year”.

Of course, for a true, uncensored look at MFA programs, read Bay Area writer Michelle Richmond’s fabulous essay in the anthology, “Bookmark Now,” edited by Kevin Smokler. It’s not online, but here’s a taste:

“What I remember most vividly about my first year as an MFA candidate are the parties. First came the welcoming party at the home of a beloved bear of a professor, whose backyard contained a little pond in the shade of some big green trees. That’s the first time I remember taking my clothes off as an MFA. There we were – a bunch of would-be Zeldas sans the fame and the old family money – frolicking in our underwear in a pond in the moonlight less than one week into our graduate school experience.”

Richmond must have learned something, because she just sold her third novel.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Movie poster for Everything Is Illuminated Posted by Picasa

Books Into Films

I saw the trailer for Everything Is Illuminated on Saturday night and the movie looks good. It is directed by Liev Schreiber and stars Elijah Wood as Jonathan Safran Foer , the protagonist who goes to the Ukraine to find a woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.

The cinematography looked hyper real and bright colors abounded. The film appears to capture the book’s whimsy and integrate the various story lines. I definitely plan on seeing it. I didn’t love this book (the various voices felt contrived) and have always felt guilty about it since everyone else in America thinks its one of the best first novels ever written. But since I didn’t love it, I don’t have to worry about its destruction by Hollywood and can enjoy it for what it is. It will be released Sept. 16th.

I am one of those readers who generally avoids seeing my favorite books adapted for the screen. But that’s very hard to do for today’s kids. My youngest daughter saw the movie version of so many classics before she read the books – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, Cheaper By the Dozen, Tuck Everlasting. Now those will never be books that permeate her soul and reside deep inside her.

However, when she got a chance to read the book first, she inevitably didn’t like the movie. Such was the case for Because of Winn-Dixie and Harry Potter.

It’s a choice of medium. While movies are entertaining and often movie, their effects only linger for a few hours or days. Books, on the other hand, which take much more time to read, can remain with you for a lifetime. When I was a kid I read and reread all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series a number of times, and to this day I can cite plot summaries and dialogue. I may live in an urban area, but on some level I still see myself as a prairie girl.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Friday Tidbits

It’s been a busy week for me, so busy in fact I haven’t had time to post. But I’ve been reading, both the blogosphere and books, and these things have caught my attention:

For a developing catfight between an Internet heavy and a wannabe, check out the posts put up by Tao Lin Reader of Depressing Books. Apparently, he applied for the vacant blogging job on MediaBistro’s GalleyCat, felt rebuffed, and ranted on-line. Elizabeth Spiers, his would-be employer, weighs in on the posts (look at the comments on Ed’s site) and says in no uncertain terms the job WILL NOT be his.

And I thought the best part of blogging was its commercial-free, ambition-free aspect.

I love to spy and peek in on writing conferences. Last week, it was Mark Pritchard at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. This week it’s Laila from Moorish Girl at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. Ginger Strand has been sending postcards from the McDowell Colony to Ron at Beatrice.

M.J. Rose of Buzz, Balls, and Hype has been running a great series by Barry Eisler on marketing your own books. It turns out you need to be a entrepreneur, not writer, to make it in the publishing business.

Monday, August 15, 2005

How Many Books Does it Take?

More writing books Posted by Picasa

The shelf of writing books Posted by Picasa

Book Addiction

You know that phrase: a sucker born every minute. Well, it fits me in one particular category: how-to books about writing.

One of the shelves in my library is stuffed with writing books in every permutation: how to write well; how to get an agent, how to write a book proposal, how to write narrative non-fiction, how to be a writer, how to sell your writing, how to ….. well you get the idea. At last count, I owned 38 books on writing-related subjects. Some are paperback, some are hardback, and if they average out to $15 a book, that’s a $570 investment. Plus, I’ve taken out dozens of others from the library.

What is it about these books? I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years so you would think I know what I’m doing. And I usually do. Sometimes, though, reading about writing inspires me, makes me reach higher, makes me push to be the best writer I can be.

Sometimes the books just satisfy my urge to shop.

At the Books by the Bay festival in San Francisco a few weeks, ago, I stopped by the Book Passage booth. The store was featuring writing books, so naturally I had to have one. I bought “The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories from Authors and the Editors, Agents, and Booksellers Behind Them,” by Brian Hill and Dee Power.

Now, I am writing a book. I’d like it to be a bestseller. Who wouldn’t want their book to be a bestseller? But is that something that a writer can calculate? After wasting $20, I am certain the answer is no. I am not the only one:

Here’s one of the questions the authors pose to “A Very Nasty Agent.”

Q: What is the most common reason you decline to represent an author?

A: They can’t write. You are asking the wrong questions, so it is hard to see how your book is going to be new, different, or helpful

My husband chides me for wasting my time and money on these how-to books. “Go write!” he says. “Stop thinking about it.”

Still, I have found some useful books. Here’s a short list:

Best Books for Writing a Book Proposal:

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction – and Get It Published, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

Writing Books that have inspired me:

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, A Guide to the Craft of Fiction (good for non-fiction too) by Stephen Koch

Follow the Story by James B. Stewart

Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Creative Non-Fiction by Peter Rubie

The New New Journalism by Robert S. Boynton

On Establishing a Writing Practice:

Unstuck: A Supportive and Practical Guide to Working Through Writer’s Block by Jane Anne Staw

Writing can be a lonely business. I guess writing books do what all good books do – make the reader feel connected to a larger world.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Agents Speak

The agents’ panel at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is even more popular than the editors’ panel. This year’s group was New York –centric, with Michael Carlisle of Inkwell Management, Leslie Daniels of the Joy Harris Literary Agency, and Peter Steinberg of Regal Literary. B.J. Robbins, who has her own agency in Los Angeles, was the only West Coast representative.

Carlisle opened the panel by reading a truly atrocious query letter that was flowery and obtuse at the same time. His agency gets a batch of those kinds of letters each week he says. There are five commandments to getting an agent, said Carlisle.

1) Thou shalt be original
2) Thou shalt be smart
3) Thou shalt be resilient
4) Thou shalt ask questions
5) Thou shalt not pay reading fees

Carlisle and the other agents complained about mass mailings to agents, ones that begin, "Dear Mr. Agent." It’s important to research the kinds of books and authors an agent represents to find one that reflects your project.

“Every agent is limited by their taste,” said Daniels. “As you read books that you feel are aligned with your own tastes, look in the acknowledgements and find out who that agent is and query that agent.”

Just like everyone, agents like to know that their work is respected, that an aspiring author has done her research and knows something about the agency she is querying. Target the search; don’t blanket the market, said Robbins.

Well-written query letters are the key to capturing an agent’s attention, although Steinberg says he usually peruses them quickly and then turns to the manuscript. A letter should show that the writer’s work is going somewhere and the writer knows what she is doing.

“You’re inviting someone to jump on the bandwagon of your career and your work,” said Robbins. “I want to have the sense if I don’t jump on, Michael (Carlisle) is going to get it.”

Don’t come to her door to offer $10,000 for representation, which happened last week, said Robbins.

Carlisle emphasized the importance of having an original voice, or writing about material that hasn’t been flagellated to death.

“There are editors in this room, (referring to the lecture hall at Squaw Valley) publishers who flew out here. They’re looking to find new original writers. What we’re looking for is not something that has already been published.”

Steinberg has his own list of dos and don’ts:

1) Don’t send out work before its ready. A writer is only going to get one shot at an agent’s attention. “Agents are very busy. It’s very rare you’re going to consider something a second time.”
2) It’s a mistake to send to just one agent. “It doesn’t do you justice. Agents are busy. Months might go by before they can look at something.”
3) Don’t necessarily send it to the top agent in the agency. A younger, less experienced agent probably is more interested in finding new clients.
4) E-mail queries are a mistake. “There’s something to be said for hard copies. They take up space. You have to move it around. With e-mail you can delete it in a second. I can intend to get to it but then more e-mails come in and it gets lost. With a hard copy I have to kick it back. It’s there is front of you and you have to deal with it.” (Robbins did not agree with this; she does much of her work through e-mails, including accepting queries and sending proposals to editors)

Everyone hears how busy agents are, and the panelists talked a little about their responsibilities. Carlisle called himself a juggler. He’s always got a list of things to do and he tries to attend to the most critical, while not dropping the ball on other issues. He does a lot of troubleshooting. Recently, a client wrote a book but did not hold the copyright. The books printed in the U.S. reflected this, but the books printed in the UK said the copyright belonged to the author. Carlisle had to correct this problem.

Steinberg spends time trumpeting clients’ work. If one of his author gets a good review in Kirkus, he’ll call around to make sure people know.

All of the agents spent time talking about what they like and how they choose a new project. They all had eclectic tastes and sold a variety of books, from first-time novels to narrative non-fiction. Daniels said the hardest books to sell are second novels. With the first, the author has no track record. With the second, the publisher can see exactly how many novels sold. That’s why it’s critically important for first-time novelists to get as much attention as possible the first time out.

But it’s clear that an agent can be a writer’s true champion. Robbins said she has represented a alumnae from Squaw Valley for more than 10 years. She wrote 3 novels, 2 of which came extremely close to being published, but were never picked up. Just recently, Robbins sold the author's fourth novel, which will be the first to be published.

Said Steinberg: “It’s not as hard to sell as it is to write.”

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The View of Editors

I just spent two days in Squaw Valley in a quick visit to the Community of Writers conference. I wasn’t enrolled this year, but went to visit good friends and sit in on some of the afternoon panels open to the public.

The panels on editors and agents are among the most popular, since most of the writers attending Squaw are just starting out and want to learn the best way to get attention from the top literary magazines and publishing houses. The editors and agents who come to Squaw are there to share their knowledge and to troll for clients, but it is clear they often feel besieged by the sheer number of people who approach them. They are generally friendly, but promise little more than a willingness to consider work in the future.

Still, the system works. Every year, beginning writers find representation. Alumni come back to read from their published books. In its 36 years, dozens of people who became well known have attended the Community of Writers, including Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch and Alice Sebold. Everyone finds support and encouragement.

The editors panel this year featured Pat Stachan, a senior editor at Little, Brown; Cindy Spiegel, the publisher and vice-president of Riverhead Books, Elissa Schappell, the author of Use Me and editor at large for Tin House Magazine, Joy Johannessen, a freelance editor who has worked with Dorothy Allison and Arthur Miller; Tom Jenks, a former fiction editor at Esquire; Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House books, and Andrew Tonkovich, the editor of the literary magazine the Santa Monica Review.

The odds of getting published are small. Rob Spillman said he gets 1,000 manuscripts a month for Tin House and only publishes 8 in any given issue. However, one of those eight will be by a previously unpublished writer. “I reject a lot of good stuff,” said Spillman. “There are things by very good writers that don’t get in.” He’s looking for manuscripts “that make me miss my subway stop.” Still, Spillman encouraged everyone to get their work out there, to keep trying because editors are looking for new work and new writers.

Cindy Spiegel serves as both a publisher and editor at Riverhead and says she gets stacks and stacks of proposals from agents. Even though some of those come from well-known literary agencies, she often doesn’t get a chance to look at them. So the verbal pitches from agents are critical, because their enthusiasm makes her take notice and set aside time for reading.

Spiegel told the story of how Riverhead came to buy The Kite Runner, which has sold more than one million copies. An agent whose taste Spiegel respects (Elaine Koster) sent her the manuscript right after the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. Riverhead specializes in presenting new voices, and Spiegel was intrigued by the idea of a novel set in this land that suddenly was the center of attention.

Spiegel took the manuscript home – which she usually doesn’t do – and stayed up late reading it. The next morning she went to a Barnes and Noble and sat there until she had finished the book. She then preempted the novel for a lot of money.

“It may not have sounded sexy to other people – a novel of Afghanistan – but to me it sounded different, something that hadn’t been said before.” To create buzz on the book, Riverhead sent copies to people outside the usual literary crowd, political people like Diane Sawyer, Karen Hughes and the George Bushes.

A strong beginning is crucial to attracting an editor’s attention. Pat Strachan knows by page two whether she’s interested in a book.

Elissa Schappell, one of those people whose most mundane statements come out in a witty manner, bristled when someone asked about the future of chick lit.

“I find the chick lit label demeaning and a little bit appalling,” she said. “If a woman had written The Corrections (by Jonathan Franzen) it would have been labeled a “domestic novel.”

A new phase to counterbalance “chick lit?” How abut ‘Pr*ck lit.”

For another view of the Squaw Valley conference, visit Mark Pritchard at his Too Beautiful Blog.

The conference also sells some DVDs of its panels called The Path to Publication. Buy it here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Calling All California Writers

Rick Wartzman, who wrote the acclaimed narrative, King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, with Mark Arax, will be taking over the Los Angeles Times Magazine later this year. He plans to revamp it completely and make it a leading voice of the west.

“It’s going to be rooted in place,” Wartzman told the writers gathered this week at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers at Lake Tahoe. “That place is California, of course.”

Wartzman is actively soliciting writers to examine all aspects of California -- the mountains, the deserts, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the Central Valley, design, fashion and music. He wants narrative pieces that illuminate what makes California distinct from the rest of the country.

“I want stories that are provocative, told from the inside out, not the outside in,” said Wartzman.

In addition to narrative pieces, Wartzman plans to run short fiction each week. He is looking for 2,500-word pieces that aren’t necessarily about California, but use California as a setting. Memoir is OK , too. His fiction editor? None other than Amy Tan.

In the past few years, many newspapers have eliminated their Sunday magazine because they rarely turn a profit. The San Jose Mercury News killed West, also known as S.V. during a lean period around 2000. The San Francisco Chronicle still has a magazine, but it is paper thin.

The relaunch of the Los Angeles Times Magazine is set for late this year or early next year.

Monday, August 08, 2005

A Look To The Past

I’ve been in hibernation for much of the past week, a combination of child sickness and a push to finish some research at one of the best archives in the state, the California Historical Society. The organization has archives that reflect the history of California, from Gold Rush diaries to letters from those who died in Jonestown to priceless photographs, like the ones by Eadweard Muybridge now on display in the society’s lobby.

The California Historical Society is a step back in time in a modern world. Even its building reflects its backward/forward outlook. The Society is located in an historic, two-story building on Mission Street in San Francisco, right around the corner from the Museum of Modern Art and Yerba Buena Gardens. To raise money, the society sold its air rights to a developer, who erected a 30-story building next door that completely dwarfs the place. Modern/historic once again.

I’ve been reading through old letter books, which is the way businessmen used to keep track of their correspondence. They are books of business stationary with carbon inserts, so businessmen could keep copies of the letters they sent.

These carbons tear easily and ink, after 135 years, tends to blur, making these letters difficult to decipher. I spent Thursday and Friday reading the letter books, and I only covered the years 1881-1884. I have about 40 more years of letters to review. This is the nuts and bolts of historical research; it’s not for everyone, but I love it.

I’m off to Tahoe for a few days to drop in on the Squaw Valley Community of Writers writing conference.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Business of Books ..... Again

This is from the blog of Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of Freakanomics, the #1 best-selling non-fiction book in the U.S. They’ve just completed a tour of California.

“Earlier in this space we asked if book ads work; now we are led to the next obvious question: how about the author's tour? Can it possibly be worth all the money and time it takes to fly two people across the country and put them in hotels and drive them around and feed them? We aren't complaining (last night was the first night in ages that one of my kids didn't pounce on my bed before dawn), but in this day and age, it's hard to imagine a less-efficient means of promotion. Maybe HarperCollins will let us see the resulting California sales data as well as the final expense reports. I'm guessing the cost per sale will rival the cost per vote of most Congressional elections.”

If authors with true word-of-mouth success feel this way, imagine how regular mid-list authors feel. (via Shelf Awareness)

This is another description of the publishing world that made me shake my head in amazement. It’s a quote from Nicholas Sparks from the book, The Making of a Bestseller, by Brian Hill and Dee Power.

“Tell us how you got started with your career as a novelist?”

“I may be somewhat different from other authors because I’ve focused on the business side of publishing ever since I first began writing. Even before I’d written a single page, I knew that I wanted to write a book that would reach a large audience, but we all know that’s easier said than done. But in the hopes of raising the odds of success, I began studying the publishing market, to see if I could discern any patterns that might be beneficial.

I used the USA Today Top 50 bestseller list – because it lumps all types of books together on a single list….. Essentially, I came to understand that genres could be broken down into subgenres – for instance thrillers could be legal thrillers, techno-thrillers, etc. And EACH SUB-GENRE COULD SUPPORT THREE MAJOR AUTHORS.

If you looked at techno-thrillers, you had Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, and Dale Ellis. In horror, you had Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz. In legal thrillers, you had John Grisham, Scott Turrow, and Richard North Patterson. In political thrillers you had David Balducci, Robert Ludlom, and John Le Carre. There were, of course, other successful authors in the subgenres but not quite at the level of the Big Three.

Once I realized this simple fact, I SET ABOUT FINDING A SUBGENRE THAT, AT THE TIME, DIDN’T HAVE THREE MAJOR AUTHORS. I came upon love stories. In 1994, only Robert James Waller was writing them, and I decided to give that subgenre a try. From there, I drew upon the loves of my wife’s grandparents and told their story, one that I hoped readers would enjoy. That book became The Notebook.

Once completed, it sold for $1 million up front.

And I thought writers felt compelled to tell a certain story, not approach it from a business point of view.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Yiddish Books and More Yiddish Books

I just finished Aaron Lansky’s memoir, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. It’s an entertaining tale of a 20-year old graduate student who recognized that Yiddish culture was dying, and determined to help save it by rescuing the books that detailed its rich and varied culture. Lansky’s story includes many wonderful descriptions of old Jews once steeped in radical politics, journalism, and literature. He also reveals the richness of Yiddish culture and language, and points out how important it is to save a past.

My biggest complaint about the book is that Lansky is very veiled about his personal life. Unlike most memoirs, there is no transformation of the main character, no emotional growth that captures the reader. Lansky lived on practically nothing for 10 years until he won a McArthur Fellowship, then got married, and later suffered a brain hemorrhage. He mentions those life-changing moments in almost a perfunctory way.

I loved learning about Yiddish culture, loved knowing that Lansky and his group, the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts saved a culture once headed for extinction, but I still am not sure why he turned his life over to this mission.

Speaking of Western Massachusetts, a Northampton psychiatrist and his family are suing August Burroughs over his best-selling memoir Running with Scissors. In his book, Burroughs talks about going to live with a family he renamed the Finches, and now the family is claiming the author presented them as ''an unhygienic, foul, and mentally unstable cult engaged in bizarre and at times criminal activity."

I guess you can get too personal in a memoir.

The blog of Miss Snark, the anonymous literary agent, is a titillating place to lurk these days. She has invited readers to send in their query letters and novel excerpts. In her usual snarky tone, she analyzes these pitches for everyone to see. It’s am illuminating look at the way an agent thinks.