Category Archives: authors

Time’s winged chariot

About two weekends ago, I found myself—as I usually do on a Sunday—ensconced in my favorite chair reading manuscripts and proposals.   I was engrossed in a novel which, despite its numerous structural problems, showed a lot of promise.  As I might have mentioned on this blog once, or a hundred times, I’m not a speed reader, so if the fiction manuscript I’m reading is any good I can kiss a big chunk of my day goodbye.

After Jane and I discussed the pros and cons of this particular novel, we offered the author representation if she was willing to do some significant revising.  (We’d had the book for about a week at this point.)  The author promptly responded that she loved feedback and was not at all averse to reworking the manuscript but she had just accepted another agent’s offer.  Fair enough, of course, and yet….

It bugged me that having plowed through the review process in near record time we never had a chance.  It doubly bugged me because I could have spent a chunk of my Sunday hanging out with my husband and son, running errands, taking that nap I’ve been needing since 2005, going for a walk outside on one of the few decent weather days in what’s been an epically bad winter…you know, what normal people do on Sundays.

I love my job and I enjoy the “development” (reading, editing, brainstorming) part of it tremendously so I don’t generally feel sorry for my lack of Sundays.  But, I also don’t like to waste my time.

This is the longwinded way of responding to those of you who ask about multiple submissions and the etiquette involved therein.  Basically, I say common sense rules, folks.    You should let agents know when you query them that the manuscript is out with others.  And, if an offer comes in, you should give everyone who has your material the chance to finish their review.  If the offer of representation is just too good to hold off on, then you should immediately contact the competing agents and tell them that the project is no longer available so that they can move on to the next thing in their piles.

In these days of electronic submissions, no one will get mad because you’ve gone to multiple agents (unless you do one of those mass e-mail things where everyone is listed; then all bets are off).  But it would be doing us a kindness if you were to keep us in the loop as to the submission’s progress.

Does this sound right to you or do you guys hold the Darwinian view that it’s survival of the fittest out there and tough noogies if you aren’t fast enough?  And, is there something you wish we’d do differently during the review process (and why)?

11

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

2

The old man and the lists

Because of a client’s Facebook post, last week I ordered a copy of The Hemingway Cookbook by Craig Boreth.  Now, most everyone who’s known me for a week or twenty years knows that my devotion to Papa Hemingway started early and has never really wavered.  It has survived the bad publicity, the parodies, the mediocre later works, the disdain of my feminist friends who think of him as a sexist blowhard who could write a little….

Thing is, I still find that despite the reams written by and about him, this author continues to surprise and delight.  Every once in a while I’ll read a book (The Paris Wife) or an article about Hemingway and his intimates and cronies that makes me think, “Man, those people lived large!”  And despite the tragic ending and the many missteps I’ve always felt that he possessed great generosity of spirit.

Many years ago, I read in the local paper about a young man who wanted to be a writer and went to Hemingway for advice.  He was given two lists of books to read.  I dimly remember that both lists contained classic titles, but one featured books Ernest considered masterpieces and the other those he considered terrible.  He suggested that the young author become familiar with both, the logic being that you can learn a lot even from a bad book.   This notion has served me well professionally and so I’m always thrilled when I come across stories of Hemingway’s reading lists, like this one.

I think great writers learn to write by learning to read and I think a properly curated list is an invaluable tool.  Do you agree?  And, what books would be on the list you make up for someone looking for advice?

BTW, the cookbook is a treasure.  I’m gonna try the burger recipe this weekend.

1

Reading makes you a better person. Really. There are studies.

Neil Gaiman is my favorite author…who I’ve never read.

I know, I know.  I can’t tell you how many people whose tastes I respect and generally agree with have told me that I have to read this guy.  But, well, time (as in, who has any).  He’s in that pile of books by my bedside that will one day collapse, killing me instantly  (which will serve me right for not having gotten around to reading all the tomes that made it lethal to begin with).

But, I digress.  Even though I’ve never read Gaiman’s novels, I have read enough about him and short pieces by him that I feel like our world views are eminently simpatico.  For instance, in this wonderful rumination on reading  he elegantly explains why books are necessary for not just the individual’s mental health and success but society’s as well.  The skills acquired and developed through reading are transferable ones.  They can be used to create the next iPad, social media site, or weapon of mass destruction because they involve opening up the imagination to infinite possibilities.  He argues that reading fiction is the best workout for these particular muscles and, of course, he’s right.

I’ve always had a strong, and probably  somewhat delusional, belief that anything is possible and I think that might date back to my early penchant for fairy tales and books featuring wizards and witches (Merlin was and is a favorite character).  What book or books turned on the creativity faucet for you?  And do you think that fiction is, in fact, more effective than nonfiction in this respect?

1

Scratch

Facebook friends pointed me to this new interview with Jonathan Franzen, which is as entertaining as you might expect. But before it gets into the usual topics of Oprah and the internet, I was surprised at how much the interview focused on money—both Franzen’s pursuit of payment (or lack thereof) and how he eked out a living prior to The Corrections. It turns out the source of the interview, Scratch Magazine, is a new e-zine dedicated to the business side of publishing, and I urge any and all writers—unpublished, debut, mid-career, indie, freelancers—to check it out.

There’s a lot of useful information for writers of all stripes, and it’s refreshing how candidly the articles focus on money. In contrast, I was at a book conference this weekend where I did a roundtable talk with a bunch of writers and editors, and while we did talk some about the financial and contractual side of things, it was very much in the abstract. So it’s nice to see the Scratch team breaking down the dollars and cents—including the subscription they hope to charge—though I do hope that in future issues they’ll offer a few more examples for writers than a life of poverty in Tijuana. Or Somerville…

4

Give and take

My seven-year-old often (inadvertently, mostly) gives me insight into work dilemmas.  He’s at an age, for instance in which he’d rather not listen to advice from his parental units.  He’s a big boy now and wants to do things by himself, his way.  He does not need his dad and me telling him how he might save himself time and trouble on a task and outright doubts that our combined centuries of wisdom are a match for his lithe young brain.   (I gather this will only get worse once the teen years set in.)  Most of the time, though, all that hard-won experience does count for something and my son, being an honest, upstanding lad, gracefully agrees that perhaps we might know a bit more about a particular subject than he thought and that maybe our advice is at least worth considering.

Such is the way with authors sometimes.  They come to us because they want to benefit from our expertise and experience yet often butt heads with us when we try to offer advice that runs counter to their goals, preconceptions, instincts, whatever, about their books.  As a rule, the more talented the author the most able s/he is to take advice with good grace and at least explore whether it makes sense for his/her work and career.   And, much like parents everywhere feel, we hate to be right at the expense of someone’s bad choices.

Advice, though, is a double-edged sword.  Whose do you take?  Whose do you walk away from?  Everyone has an opinion and there are usually kernels of good sense in even bad counsel.  Unfortunately, the internet makes things harder by providing an ocean of often unsolicited input from everyone and their kid brother.

My feeling is, take advice from people you respect, who have solid experience under their belt, and who have had some success in the area you are looking for help in.  Then, try to tune out the rest of the noise and keep in mind that advice is just that and that ultimately you have to take responsibility for and ownership of your decisions.

With that in mind, here’s William Faulkner giving some pretty good tips to aspiring and practicing writers.

1

Keeping up with old favorites

I have a not-so-great confession to make: I am TERRIBLE about keeping up with my favorite authors.

Case in point: various sources are reporting that Jim Crace’s HARVEST is the favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Now, I first came across Crace back in 2000 when his novel BEING DEAD came out. I guess something about the review in the Times struck a chord with my more macabre impulses, and I remember getting it out of the NYPL, devouring it, and then loudly proclaiming that he was my new favorite contemporary novelist.

So when Crace followed up with THE DEVIL’S LARDER, I actually went out and bought a copy on pub. And then… I totally lost track of him. Granted, it took a while for his next book to come out, but even so, he’s been basically off my radar until this week. And it’s not just Crace that I’ve lost track of, or other comparably literary authors. I’ve bailed on Michael Lewis for long stretches, David Sedaris, Walter Mosley, even John Green–one of these days I’ll get to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS!

The funny thing is, in other media I’m much more loyal—I’ll immediately download the latest releases from favorite bands, cheesy action movie sequels regularly appear in my Netflix queue, and I’m still watching TOP CHEF. But when it comes to books, for whatever reason—too many choices, too many submissions, too many faves, too little time—semper fi I ain’t.

So, the question: am I alone in this? Or do you often lose track of your one-time favorite authors? If it’s just me, then I’ve clearly got some reading to do.. starting with HARVEST!

 

4

When traditional publishing works!

With book publishing undergoing such major changes and so many of my colleagues and clients  discouraged by these, one wonders whether the experience of having a first book published will ever be as satisfying as it once was.  The answer is “yes!” Last week one of my projects, a first book, had an incredibly exciting and successful launch.

Five years ago, I read the obituary of Robert Giroux and I thought that there might be a wonderful story about Farrar Straus & Giroux and its authors during its heyday.  I thought about who might write this book and read a very good piece in New York Magazine written by a young writer named Boris Kachka.  Boris and I talked and, though he was initially doubtful about whether such a book would sell, he decided to tackle it.

The idea then became his and the result, five years later is HOTHOUSE: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux.  The success of the book, as is always the case, was dependent on a number of factors:

1)    The manuscript was well written and told a compelling story.

2)    The editing was brilliant.

3)    The launch of the book was thoroughly thought out and extremely well timed.

In fact, Boris produced a terrific manuscript which even in draft form was a real page turner.  Then his editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler did an incredible job of editing the narrative.

Finally, with Jofie’s  passionate mentorship, Simon & Schuster strategically sent out galleys to writers and independent booksellers for quotes.  Authors, including Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, and Larry McMurtry, and dozens of independent booksellers commented on how terrific the material was.

The title topped the August non-fiction Independent Bookseller Recommended list and then the publisher distributed a superb marketing brochure conceived by publishing icon Michael Korda and developed by Jofie, his team and Boris.  Check it out:

HOTHOUSE

In this day of digital distribution, the brochure was mailed out to hundreds of people and the reaction was instantaneous and incredibly enthusiastic.  Everyone who received it wanted an advance copy of the book.

HOTHOUSE was reprinted before it was published on August 6th and was celebrated at a publishing party in the Roundtable Room at the Algonquin.

Of course we don’t know what will ultimately happen in this story, but of one thing I am sure.  As I stood listening to Boris talk at his launch party, I thought, “This is why I love the publishing business!”


6

Speaking of

When I was but an intern at DGLM, one of the things that most appealed to me about the agent job was the odd mix of the solitary and the social. For me, it satisfied two very different sides of my personality: the me who wants nothing more than to be left alone with a good book, and the me who wants to tell everyone how to think, act, dress, eat, and now, read! A combination of being left alone but also telling people what I think, and what they should think, is just right for me.

What I didn’t know, however, was just how often I’d be hitting the road to go speak in front of groups of people, both large and small. Telling people one-on-one what I think is one thing, getting up in front of a room of 50 or 100 or 1,000, well, that’s another story. I have awful, terrible, painful stage fright. Honestly, back in the beginning, I had a difficult time even speaking in front of 10 people. It brought me right back to middle and high school, giving reports in front of the class. I was absolutely petrified. I tried to hold out as long as possible, but conference invitations picked up, and I had to do it. I actually don’t even think about this all that often, but I read this piece on Life Hacker yesterday and it got me thinking. The advice is really great, and it mirrors my own experiences.

The first few times I spoke were a disaster. I am not exaggerating. One time, I just had to do a short introduction in front of a large room. Name, agency, what you rep–things I could have recited in my sleep, even then. But I had to hold a microphone. I had never done this, and for some reason, it terrified me more. My heart was racing, I was sweating, and I was shaking. I started to speak, lost my way, and wound up apologizing and telling everyone that I was terrified of public speaking. The crowd, mostly women over the age of 50, went straight into mother mode and started audibly comforting me. It was kind–and humiliating. There were other less dramatic but equally painful experiences.

So, I tried to avoid it. I would go to conferences where I only had to do critiques or one-on-ones. But eventually, there was no getting around it. I probably should have sought professional help, but that’s not really my thing. Instead, I started to pay attention to what bothered me most about it, and how I might be able to mitigate the issues. I noticed, early on, that being on stage with other people made me about so much more relaxed, so I first sought out panels. And I did a lot of them. It began to feel more natural, and even though they’re often unscripted, I developed an introduction and a few somewhat-scripted answers that helped me feel more confident.

Next, it was time to tackle talking on my own. Honestly, it’s still tough for me. I get nervous and clammy. But I am prepared. I make sure to practice my material enough (but not too much!) beforehand, so I feel assured in what I have to say. I have clear outlines that make it difficult for me to get lost. And, I remind myself, people actually want to hear what I have to say. I still feel strange up there, with all those people looking at me. It still takes a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding. I often finish speaking and realize that the time has flown by, and I don’t have much memory of it–I think I get a pretty big adrenaline rush as my fight or flight response kicks in. But whereas before I rarely heard from anyone after I spoke, now people come up to thank me for my thoughts, and more shockingly, compliment my delivery. I am not, by any means, a fantastic public speaker, but I’ve overcome the crippling fear I had, and I’m able to get the job done.

I know authors also have issues speaking, and my author Nova Ren Suma did a great, very helpful post about it recently. And my author Sara Solovitch is actually writing a book called PLEASE SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, an investigative piece about stage fright and performance anxiety, told through the lens of her own battle to play piano in front of people. What about you all? I imagine the performers amongst you don’t mind, but what about all you introverted bookish people? How do you deal with stage fright?

3

Pigeonholing (sounds kinda nasty, right?)

We think a lot around here about authors getting pigeonholed into certain categories because one (or more) of their books was a success and now they are expected to keep writing variations on the same theme lest they alienate their core readership.   Of course, there are authors who are perfectly happy sticking to their comfort zone, but what about those who want to take a stab at different kinds of stories?  Just because her sci-fi novel about Jesuits in space achieved bestselling cult status, why can’t Mary Doria Russell write a brilliant Western or two about Doc Holliday and his cronies?  Why can’t the creator of thriller icon Rambo (a.k.a., David Morrell) not take us to Victorian England for a lively mystery featuring opium-addict-turned-detective Thomas De Quincey?  No reason, of course.  And both those authors (longtime clients) have done just that and found that their readership was able to fall in love with their work all over again.

But not everyone is able to switch gears so successfully.  Some authors have become so effectively enmeshed with a particular category or beloved character(s) that readers, at best, resist their efforts to branch out and, at worst, reject them altogether.  This piece in Cracked about “Books That Destroy Your Image of the People Who Wrote Them” made me laugh (see the Ben Franklin entry), but it also gave me pause.  I started to think about authors I love going off on wild tangents:  William Faulkner writing erotica?  Jonathan Franzen trying his hand at sunny children’s fiction?  Jacqueline Susann tackling literary biography (or really literary anything)?   It’s not that they couldn’t do it, I suppose, but I’d have such a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea that my skepticism would ruin the reading experience.

Do you have that problem too?  Do you pigeonhole your favorite authors?  And, what crazy pairings of authors and categories could you envision?