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Keeping it short

September is a brutal month in publishing. In theory things wind down a bit in August, then rev back up after Labor Day, though in practice that August wind down appears to be a thing of the past, so the September rev up is just adding new pressure on top of old. (RIP End of Summer Blank Slate. I will miss you.) And if you’re both a literary agent AND a rights director, the go-go-go nature of September peaks in both sides of your job at once, as publishing resumes its post-vacations speed and international publishing preps for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

So September is the month each year that I find myself incapable of squeezing in pleasure reading, something I work hard to make room for every other month of the year but now need to trade for sleep. That means that when I’m formatting highlight lists and triaging my overflowing inbox, I find myself daydreaming lists of short books I could read if I just, you know, pull an all-nighter, or convince the rest of publishing to call out sick for a day. I find my mind wandering to the slim volumes on my living room bookshelves, my eye wandering to the narrowest book in the to-take-home office stack. This would not be a great time to finally start reading that copy of Infinite Jest I bought freshman year of college, but maybe I could take a quick mental break with some middle grade or a breezy essay collection, right?

Wrong, realistically, but once I’ve powered through to the other side of the never-ending to-do list, I’m going to need a reset. And I’m going to want to speed through some not-DGLM books in October to make up for September’s big zero. So help me out: what are the best books you’ve read that are under 200 pages, or just feel like they are?

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Tolerably Well, Tolerably Often Part 2

Last go-round, I said I’d follow up my earlier post with some suggestions surrounding publicity and promotion.  First, I’ll refer you to the experts.

http://lithub.com/ask-the-publicists-but-what-about-my-book/

https://janefriedman.com/getting-ready-launch-book-start-5-questions/

http://publishingperspectives.com/2014/08/making-book-promotion-work-the-authorpublisher-partnership/#.V-3c0cm3Fdw

Agents have differing opinions on this next point, but I think it’s worth considering hiring a freelance publicist, provided you realize that hiring one does  not offer a guaranteed return on investment. But it does create a scenario in which you have a publicity professional reporting to you, in which you collaborate on/advise/help shape the efforts, where you are generally assured of the extra mile, the assiduous follow up with producers/editors etc.  Freelance publicists  rely on customer satisfaction and good word of mouth, so they have a vested interest in doing their utmost.

If hiring help is not an option, as it is not for many authors, then plan on investing some percentage of the time you spent actually writing the book promoting it. I know I’ve used this metaphor more than once, but imagine, if you will, that you are participating in the publishing world’s answer to the folktale Stone Soup.  (This version of the story is less about the potential of cooperation and collective action than it is about your soup-making acumen.)

The publisher brings the magical soup-making stone, you bring the stock, the vegetables, the diced meat, noodles or legumes, the grated cheese and the freshly baked bread (without which no soup  is complete) and ideally a crisp Pino Grigio or unoaked Chardonnay.  All the years you spent mastering soup-making, all your assembled ingredients, those represent  your platform, and most major publishers/magic stone owners will not so much as invite you into a kitchen if you’ve not got those in order.  So why then, would a competent soup chef require a partner?  Not everyone thinks they do; plenty of people self-publish. But like most folks involved in mainstream publishing, I still believe that sometimes the stone really is magical—and it can transform a single pot of good soup into a blockbuster phenomenon.  Publishers still have the editorial vision, cultural clout, and retail distribution to make bestsellers.

If you’ve just completed the marketing and promotion section of your proposal or an author questionnaire, you will have inventoried every literate, potentially book-buying person you’ve ever known and listed every plausible method you can envision to promote your book/get a blurb/call in a favor.  Think about how you’d put together your own DIY tour, whether real or virtual—I know a novelist who ran a cross country tour from his car, traveling from one independent bookseller to another, blogging all the way, and another author whose tour unfolded from her studio apartment, spanning 15 guest posts in 15 days.  Where might you go? Physically? Virtually? Who/where are your people?  Do you have connections to bookstores, community organizations, alumni groups, professional associations, clubs, writers’ leagues, bowling leagues? Can you craft a talk/workshop/presentation/video short/interpretive dance around your subject that offers something richer/stranger/more interesting than a straightforward reading? Can you team up with another author?  Where can you place essays related to the book?  If your subject is a tough or unlikely one, can you write about the process of writing? The business of publishing?  Investigate the authors/thought leaders/experts who are writing about issues that your book addresses. Engage with them online, suggest a guest post on their (heavily trafficked) website, interact via Twitter. Emulate fellow writers who seem, by your lights, to be doing it right.  Say yes to local media and podcasts, and any venue that will provide you with a good quality video of you speaking. You never know who might be paying attention, and clips of interviews or discussions are terrific tools, and should be housed or linked to on your website.  Take possession of your author page at online booksellers.  Skype into bookclubs.  Remain a pleasant but persistent presence in the life of your publicist even after you’re certain she’s moved on.   Be gracious. Solicit suggestions for what more you can do, suggest ideas for outlets and venues that might be outside a house’s usual remit.  Designate a time each week that you devote to publicizing your book, and stick with it.  Like a sustainable diet or exercise plan, choose methods that you don’t find abhorrent (or so completely absorbing that you cease to write!)

Finally, talk to your agent and be on the receiving end of an interminable e-mail a lot like this one.

What’s trending in fiction

The annual Frankfurt Book Fair is almost upon us and even though it doesn’t actually begin until next month, there are already reports of some big deals happening. As agents, we watch what books are selling to publishers very closely, and we look at the deals coming out of these fairs as way to see what is trending in the marketplace.

A couple of things to note about these two deals they mention. First, they’re both thrillers. Seems GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN’s remarkable successes have paved the way for publishers to be really excited about new thrillers. This isn’t new news, and despite an overly crowded marketplace, the books with the right combination of elements are still working. We’re reading one now for book club, THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware, which has already sold almost 100,000 copies in hardcover, according to Bookscan, since its publication in July. Clearly, having woman or girl in your title is a sure way to the bestseller list!

Product Details

Another thing that appeals to me personally is the motherhood angle of the first book Publisher’s Weekly mentions – Gin Phillip’s BEAUTIFUL THINGS, which reportedly sold for close to a million dollars. It’s a thriller which takes place over just 3 hours about a young mom who gets trapped in a zoo with her young son and an armed gunman. I love the premise. It’s simple, but scary and high-concept, and feels original and fresh.

Something else that strikes me about the recent Frankfurt deals is that the second one they talk about, Caz Tudor’s 2-book deal with Crown here in the US, is a debut author from the UK who won a contest for the first book, sponsored by Bonnier and called Twenty7, which offers aspiring writers professional feedback on their unpublished manuscripts. It’s really amazing to see that this freelance copyeditor is now going to be a major internationally published author with sales already in 25 territories.

For now at least, thrillers are still working in the market so polish up those thrillers and send them our way; we’d love to take a look.

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Are You Looking to Join a New Book Club?

 I personally love book clubs. Why?  They are a great chance for friends, family, and all book lovers alike to gather together and share their thoughts, laugh, cry, and drink a few glasses of wine. Aside from that, they help you become a better reader and an even better person. With book clubs you learn to read faster and stick to deadlines. You also learn to veer into other genres that you aren’t so comfortable with; and most importantly, you learn to express your thoughts and opinions to other people.

 I’m very fortunate that here DGLM we are a book club of our own. However, I’ve also been thinking that I’d like to join other book clubs, but where is the TIME!?! 

 This is where digital book clubs come in. If you can’t make the time to physically join a book club, or maybe you hate speaking in front of strangers, there is always another option. With digital book clubs, you get the benefits of being in a book club, but with the luxury of participating from wherever.

 There are tons of digital book clubs out there. I’m sure everyone knows about Oprah’s Book club. I very recently discovered Emma Watson’s feminist book club called Our Shared Space on Goodreads. Watson, who is a UN Woman’s Goodwill ambassador by day (Hermione Granger by night), is using this space to encourage us to have conversations, ask questions, and learn more about gender equality and feminism. There is no pressure, just an avenue to learn and make great friends.

 So if you have been looking for a book club, now’s the time to find one. And honestly, if you can’t find one you like, start your own!

 Good luck with your search and please share if you know about some amazing digital book clubs out there.

 

Books on politics

I’m guessing (hoping) many of you tuned into the first presidential debate last night, and if you’re anything like me, you probably cycled through a range of emotions from frustration and anger to despair and hope. Now I won’t get into my personal political views here—although I’d just like to reiterate that choosing between an unpredictable lunatic with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old and a history of discriminatory tendencies and zero political experience (or knowledge) and a proven policy expert with a lifetime of experience in public service shouldn’t be that difficult. But I digress.

Regardless of who you vote for in November, you have a responsibility to yourself and your country to be as informed as possible. First off, get your facts straight. It’s bad enough that politicians lie and conceal their meaning behind half-truths, but allowing yourself to be lied to is worse. Consult nonpartisan fact checking organizations to verify any and all claims. FactCheck and PolitiFact are both great resources, but there are others.

Second, read books about politics. Know the players AND the game. Here is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order:

  • On Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Republic by Plato
  • Dark Money by Jane Mayer
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  • The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
  • The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman (just started but so far so good)
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

Some of these are difficult reads, but they should give you an outstanding foundation on which to approach political discourse. (And yes, I realize some of the above aren’t strictly about politics, but they’re relevant and revealing reads nonetheless.)

So now I ask our readers: What did you think of the first debate? What are some of your favorite political books?

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Confessions of an Audio-Book Nut, Part II

 

A couple of posts ago, I enumerated the virtues of audible books.  But as much as I enjoy them, audible books are not invariably a perfect experience.  Everything depends on the narrator. So now, I’m going to gripe about some of the ones that have disappointed me.

 

I’m a big fan of Booth Tarkington, the now largely-forgotten fiction writer who chronicled early-twentieth-century America. He spent most of his life in Indianapolis, and his novels and short stories beautifully depict the social mores of the Midwest during his time.  One of his more popular novels was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Adams, written in 1921 and turned into a popular film in 1935 starring Katharine Hepburn. Why, then, does the narrator of the audible version read Alice’s dialogue in the voice of a Southern Belle, as if she were playing Blanche Du Bois? And why did the recording’s producer allow this? I was so disgusted I stopped listening after Chapter One.

 

There are male narrators who feel compelled to lighten their voices, and raise their pitch, whenever they are reading the dialogue of female characters. This isn’t strictly necessary, and it often makes the female characters sound like parodies. It does the author and the listeners a disservice.  By the same token, a female narrator can run into trouble when she tries to artificially lower her voice to read male dialogue. Whenever the female narrator of Simon Mawer’s Trapeze read the dialogue of a sexy French male spy, she dropped her voice, put on a bad French accent, and just wound up sounding like she was gargling.

 

Narrators are usually professional actors, which is appropriate, but sometimes they try too hard. I gave up on listening to Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man  when the narrator, determined to display his versatility, portrayed each character with a different exaggerated vocal tone.  An audible book is not the place for an audition.

 

Despite these cavils, most of my experiences with audible books have been terrific, and I’m grateful for them. A friend of mine recently took an apartment in Manhattan on East End Avenue and 81st Street, about as far from any subway stop as you can get. I went to visit her a few nights ago, and could not have been more grateful for the company of actor John Rubinstein, who kept me masterfully entertained during that long, long walk with his reading of Carl Hiaasen’s uproarious new novel Razor Girl.   If I lived in Los Angeles, I’m sure Mr. Rubinstein and Mr. Hiaasen would have been just as much fun on a long slog on the 405 from Pasadena to LAX.

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China!

great-wallOur trip to China was truly fascinating.  As you all know,  the country is huge, both geographically and in terms of its population.  Beijing has 22 million people; Shanghai has 25 million.  We saw so many amazing things—even a week after our return it is difficult to remember them all:

In Beijing, of course, we climbed The Great Wall.  Our guide took us to a part of the wall not visited by many tourists so it was relatively free of the hordes.  And in order to come down, we took individual toboggans—which was really thrilling. Being there was incredibly exciting.

We also visited The Forbidden City which is very beautiful and The Temple of Heaven which is both lovely and interesting. We had lunch in one of the old neighborhoods called Narrow Alley where our guide had grown up, and we rode on a pedicab.  We drove around Tiananmen Square with the huge picture of MAO still overlooking it.  I felt like I had taken a step back in history.

terra-cotta-1Then we flew to Xian—a city of nine million—where the huge number of high rises going up is simply astounding.  It was there that we viewed the army of Terracotta Warriors, a stunning archeological discovery made in 1974.

Among other things, we also had a lesson in Chinese Calligraphy which was great fun. And we saw the Wild Goose Pagodas which overlooks Xian and is simply beautiful.

Then on to Shanghai.  This city, whose modern section is no more than 25 years old epitomizes modern China—rushing headlong towards the future.  There are incredible innovations in fashion, finance, technology and transport which have helped make this a global hub with one of the world’s busiest ports.  We walked The Bund—a  famous waterfront area in central Shanghai—several times and visited both the historical buildings along the way as well as the towering skyscrapers (many over 100 stories high) just across the Huangpu River near the mouth of the Yangtze.  We explored the old British and French quarters, the Yu Garden, which is beautiful, and shopped (or tried to at least) on the famous Nanjing Road.  One of the highlights was seeing a thrilling extravaganza featuring innovative acrobatics, death defying stunts and the latest in high tech special effects.  (It was like the Big Apple Circus on steroids!)

img_2869This is an adventure we will never forget.  It was challenging in that there is a twelve-hour time difference and the language barrier prevented us from doing certain things we would have liked to do.  But we agreed that this was probably the most fantastic trip we have ever taken.

And, of course, I am thinking of some book ideas inspired by China, and hope to be able to move ahead with them in the weeks and months to come.

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Query FAQs

 

Recently I’ve done a bunch of query critiques for conferences and also did an interview on using Twitter in the query process, so I have queries on the brain! And I figured this was the perfect time to see what kinds of questions aspiring authors on Twitter are dying to have answered. I’m glad I did, as the questions I got back are smart and interesting, and a couple are even new to me! So thanks to all those who sent questions.

 

If you query a new literary agent at a reputable agency but find little about her online, any query tips to personalize your letter?

I suggest phrasing it in a way that reflects your research on the agency and your understanding of the benefits of working with a newer agent—new agents are eager to find great talent for their lists and often have more time for debuts than more experienced agents with deep lists. “I read you’re newly building your list at Tony the Tiger Literary Agency and hope that your agency’s expertise in cookbooks alongside your enthusiasm for debuts will be the perfect combination for my 68,000 book club novel, A FROSTED FLAKE LOVE STORY.

Should you start the query letter by explaining who you are or what your story is about?

My preference is for your personal details/bio to come after the story pitch. I like the query to open with the reason you’re querying me and the key info about your project: word count, category, title, comps. Then the story pitch, followed by your writing credits, associations, conferences, and any life or career experience that informed this book.

 If an agent wants trigger warnings, what’s the best way to incorporate into the query?

A good query rule-of-thumb is to keep things short and simple, so I suggest including the trigger warning in your opening, alongside your personalization to the agent and your word count, category, and comps. Perhaps something like:

“My 78,000-word psychological thriller THE GREEN LIGHT will appeal to fans of Amy Gentry and Rena Olsen. Please be aware, my manuscript includes a graphic depiction of child abuse.”

 Where do you usually stop reading in a manuscript? If you make it 75% would you finish?

It varies from manuscript to manuscript how far I get before I realize it’s not going to work for me. If I request your full after reading your query and 25 pages, that means I’m hooked on your concept and drawn in by your writing, so as I’m reading I’m hoping that that potential holds up all the way through! If the story starts to fall apart in a way that I don’t have a vision to fix, if I can’t buy in to the character’s choices, if I find my attention wandering or realize I’m just not enjoying the read, I’ll feel sad, but I’ll probably move on to the next MS. Sometimes that’s page 40, sometimes it’s page 125; once I know it’s a No, I’m not going to waste both of our time just for the sake of finishing. On the other hand, if I’m reading and editors are coming to mind who would like it, or I find myself wanting to keep reading when I get off the subway, or I get excited about how to fix plot issues, then I read looking for reasons to say Yes and position the book for success!

If you have a burning question about querying, pipe up in the comments and perhaps I’ll do another FAQ soon! And for more query advice, check out my Writer’s Bone interview here, and keep an eye on the #querytip hashtag on Twitter.

 

 

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Tolerably well, tolerably often

Mari Andrew’s Iceberg of Creative Success

I came across this infographic from the talented Mari Andrew on social media, and although her iceberg is not explicitly aimed at authors, it works pretty well for our purposes.  Most overnight successes were (quiet, lonely, arguably desperate) years in the making, and while there are a few, charmed, fairy- godmother-type-tales out there— wunderkind author commands astronomical advance and widely praised debut novel becomes instant NYT bestseller—these shimmering breaths of fairy dust are the exceptions that prove a much less sparkly rule.

Tonight was back to school night at my son’s elementary school, so I’ve got education on the brain, but it’s worth thinking of a book contract as an acceptance letter to the college of (ideally) your dreams. Which is to say, it’s a starting point, but what happens next has a great deal to do with you. As education is far from passive, so too is publishing. And a great house and even a healthy advance do not mean that you graduate with a bestseller.

Houses large and small market and promote books along broadly predictable lines. These include creating and sending out press releases, mailing out galleys/arcs to bookselling accounts and long-lead media outlets, followed by a finished copy mailing to more of the same, bloggers, big-mouth influencers, and anyone you might have listed on the jaw-droppingly voluminous author questionnaire you struggled to complete some months earlier. Publicists will pitch and follow up with a tailored list of editors, producers and gatekeepers, the house may buy ad space, an online marketing department can help generate (or more likely amplify) buzz on social media, but unless the book starts selling like mad, this all-hands-on-deck campaign is in full swing for a finite period, typically about three months.

And while it’s true that in-house publicists have carefully cultivated connections that few among us may possess, they are no stranger to rejection or wholesale lack of response. There are, after all, many publicists, many more books, and a limited number of career-altering media outlets, or outlets, period. Frustratingly, book publicity is a field in which there can be little relationship between effort and result. In-house publicists also divide their time between several projects of varying importance to the house, and they report not to author or agent, but to the publisher. So writers are well-advised to enter into even the most dazzling book contracts with their own clear-eyed plans for promotion, ideally something more concrete than here is my book—do your magic!  A publisher’s bag of tricks can be effective, but it’s limited. While publishers generally do their level best to help their books succeed (it is, after all, in their interest as well as yours) they rarely engineer do-overs when their efforts fall short.  They want your book to be a break-out success, but you want it more.

At some point, the task of promoting the book will belong mostly to its creator, and as much as I sympathize with complaints over the indignities and puzzlements of self-promotion, it makes sense that writers invest some fraction of the effort they spent writing their book in working to connect it with the audience that very likely exists, if only they could find it. Plugging away at promotion does not sound, or feel, especially glamorous, but as the infographic shows, long marches (don’t forget sad emails to mom) are a necessary precondition to spontaneous success. My advice: see how authors whom you admire promote, create a strategy, and then choose a method that you don’t loathe.  Something you can do tolerably well, tolerably often.

In a follow-up post I’ll address specific ideas I’ve picked up–some from freelance publicists, others from savvy, dogged authors (please feel free to share your own ideas) and I’ll talk about why your connections, energy and commitment matter.

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Books Aren’t and Shouldn’t Be Like Real Life

I remember the first time I attended a lecture on writing memoirs. I was expecting this lecture to tell me all the obvious things, like how to write about sad or unbelievable events and make them seem as realistic as the moment they happened. Except that wasn’t at all what I learned. Regardless of what the lecturer was actually teaching us, it all centered around the same idea—books are not real life. Who wants to read about real life? Who wants fiction mirroring exactly what they do on daily basis that they hate so much because it has no significance except to get them from point A to point B? It’s the things that are important, and the little things that snowball into the important things, that we care about.

For instance, if I told you that I woke up this morning and walked my dog, got ready for work, and then I was in horrendous car accident (I wasn’t, I’m fine), you might wonder why I even started with walking the dog. You actually don’t care about the rest of my life. That’s fine, neither do I, except maybe when my dog does something cute that I can Instagram, but otherwise, this is all just run of the mill stuff. It’s exactly what people are trying to escape when they’re reading books. Now, if I told you I went on a walk with my dog and saw a man in a red mustang staring at me, the very car that eventually comes to hit me after the memory of those creepy eyes haunted me the entire time I got ready for work, THEN the dog and the shower and the color of T-shirt I picked out can take on a whole new meaning.

A lot of you probably think this is so self-explanatory, but let’s apply it to larger things, say your male character. He falls in love with someone, gets his heart broken, and doesn’t learn anything from it. This is the same thing as me not learning anything from walking my dog (I rarely look to see if weird men are following me…though that might change now…). Why would we want to read about your male character? Most of us have had those relationships, get in, get out, some weird stuff happens, but you’re basically the same at the end, except you’re wearing sweat pants more—or less depending on your level of self-worth.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re looking at your story, your plot, your characters, your side characters, you should be asking, is this something that people are going to want to read in order to procrastinate on doing the dishes or cleaning up dog poop? Or am I just writing about a person doing something with no real significance?

I guess I can take out that scene where my character dreams about muffins in the middle of trying to kill his uncle. No, that was really a scene in one of my unfinished novels… Actually, I think it’d be funny if anyone can give me a more insignificant scene they wrote before realizing. Impress me.