Category Archives: competition

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Notes from the kid lit conference front lines

I was asked this past spring to join the council for the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL.org), a group that has been in existence for forty years. RUCCL is known for putting together each year an annual conference where aspiring authors and illustrators send in samples of their material which are then evaluated by published authors who also sit on the council. Those whose work gets the highest scores are admitted to the conference and paired with industry mentors who volunteer to spend the day meeting with these authors.

I attended the conference for the first time Saturday, October 18th. It was a wonderful day, full of positive energy and hard-working authors, illustrators, agents and editors all coming together with a love of children’s literature. A highlight for me was meeting the author Collen O’Shaughnessy Mckenna, who has been out of the business for many years, but who brought with her and signed for my girls a copy of her book FOURTH GRADE IS A JINX, published by Scholastic in 1990. I happen to have a fourth grader, so all the better!

The two main components of the conference are the Five-on-Five session where five (or so) authors who work in similar categories sit with agents and editors at a round table and talk about anything the attendees are interested in hearing or learning more about.

Then the grand finale is the One-on-One session where the author or illustrator meets for a full hour with the industry professional they’ve been paired with. It was great to walk around and see pairs of people in every corner of the campus. The feedback we got from the attendees was really positive and that hour spent with an industry professional is priceless.

In between the two events is the key note speaker. This year it was the lovely Nancy Werlin, who spoke about the many ways to find joy in the writing life.

As far as takeaway advice for authors, one of the things that struck me was how prepared so many of the authors were for the conference and their meetings. Many had attended the conference before, and even those who did not seemed to have a good working knowledge of the industry and of the editors and agents who were in attendance. No matter what level of the writing game you are at, it’s so important to do your research and know your audience. I can’t tell you enough what a difference it makes to be prepared.

I’m looking forward to planning and attending again on October 17, 2015. For all of you children’s authors out there, please send in an application. I’d love to meet you there!

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)?

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Friday musing

Dastardly co-worker that he is, Jim introduced me to this game presented by National Book Tokens. The kind of girl that pored over pages and pages of rebus puzzles as a kid, this is exactly the kind of thing I jumped at the chance to solve.

It took some creative thinking and a little bit of ask the audience, but in the end we figured out all the book titles. I’m always a fan of puzzles that seem completely absurd and impossible at first glance, but when, after some real thinking and concentration, become glaringly obvious—the thrill of an answer becoming clear in the mind can make anyone feel like a genius.

It’s funny, these literary puzzles, games, checklists and whatever else is out there on the internet that I haven’t yet discovered. Whenever I solve the entire thing, I feel validated in my choice of major in college, career path, declared passion, but then I look back and realize that I’ve maybe only actually read about half to three-quarters of the book titles that are the answers. Whether it’s a cover recognition test, a match the characters to the book, or a crazy fun rebus-esque enigma, much of my knowledge comes from who knows where, but certainly not personal experience from having gone through the books myself.

Sure, I can pick out the cover of Catch-22 anywhere, can tell you that Hester Prynne is the leading lady in The Scarlet Letter or that In the Name of the Rose was written by Umberto Eco, but I have never read any of those books (all three of which do happen to be frequent answers on these booky-type quizzes). It’s a similar bank of knowledge that I dip into for solving crosswords—four letter word for architect Saaranin? That’s EERO, and I’m 100% positive of that every time even though I have absolutely no other knowledge about the man.

It’s the kind of knowledge that’s dangerous, can make you believe you know more than you actually do—nay, understand more than you actually do. Sometimes I have to really think to figure out whether I actually have read a book or whether I’ve just heard so much about it and know enough of the basics to trick myself into thinking I have.

Before I get too down on myself, it’s good to remember that there’s a whole giant bunch of books that I have read (though still not that many architects that I’m intimately familiar with) and there are a great number of authors whose oeuvres I have devoured. It’s impossible to get through everything, I promise, so I suppose I should be grateful that the stories and titles that have somehow wedged their way into my referential knowledge are ready and available when I need them and I don’t have to worry about never having read them.

And, really, knowing the answers, no matter how you do, is the fun part, so enjoy your Fridays and take a crack at the puzzle!

4

Spousal envy

A lot of authors are married to or in relationships with other authors.  Who better than another author understands the need to jump out of bed in the middle of the night in order to write down the solution to a tricky scene in your novel, or the misery of staring at a blank sheet or screen and feeling like you’ll never have anything to fill it with, or the fugue state you enter when the characters are racing you through the plot at breakneck speed and it’s all you can do to keep up with them, never mind eating, showering, or answering the phone.   So, yeah, we see a lot of authors who live together and work together and share the ups and downs of the writing life.

And, I’ve always wondered how it must feel to be the less successful half of one of those relationships.   Because even if both authors are supremely talented (Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne…) you know there’s always one half of the couple who garners the greater acclaim critically or commercially (sometimes both).  And, given how fragile creative egos can be, it’s gotta smart a little no matter how much you love your significant other when her book is the talk of the town while yours is languishing in the remainder bins.

This piece by Niall  Leonard, EL James’ husband, is delightful precisely because it is snarky and meanspirited in just the right proportions.  On the one hand, Mr. Leonard is doubtlessly enjoying his wife’s success (and, we hope, if theirs is a good marriage, rejoicing for her).  On the other, he’s a wee bit cranky that her blockbuster is taking over their lives and that all anyone wants to talk about is Fifty Shades of Grey when he’s got his own book to peddle.  He doesn’t come across as unduly bitter and clearly has a sense of humor about the whole thing.   Or does he?

How hard would it be for you to watch your spouse hit the literary jackpot while you’re toiling away in obscurity?  Would you be noble and selfless in your support or would you secretly be drawing mustaches or devil horns on his/her author photo?

Moneyball, Amazon and the end of publishing as we know it

In this week’s death watch, the publishing business is going the way of the Edsel.  E-books have won.  Traditional publishers don’t know what to do with themselves or their lists.  Agents are unnecessary.  Anarchy reigns among authors.   And, oh, yeah, Amazon is getting closer to world domination (tricky bastards).  There is no leadership.  The darkness is encroaching.  The center cannot hold!

Let’s see, that about covers it, I think.  Except, does it?

The afore-linked-to New York Times article contains a quote from Russ Grandinetti (whom we’ve met a few times at Amazon seminars we’ve attended and whom the Times refers to as “one of Amazon’s top executives,” leading me to believe they don’t know exactly what he does) which I actually loved: “It’s always the end of the world. You could set your watch on it arriving.”  It also mentions some other shady (unnamed) Amazon characters twirling their mustaches while claiming that “publishers [are] in love with their own demise.”  As wary as  my colleagues and I are about Amazon and their plans to expand into publishing, I tend to agree with their assessment that traditional publishers can come across as a self-indulgent, hand wringing bunch who’d rather blame the big bad corporate entity for poaching their authors and re-drawing the battle lines than take effective steps to compete and prosper.

Enough, already.  If the model is broken or the times have changed and there’s a new model out there, then learn it, adapt your systems, and make it work for you.  Publishers are sitting on gold mines of backlists.  They seem to be unable or unwilling to competitively price and promote the e-books  they are putting out.  They’re still paying too much for that “sure thing” Jane was talking about earlier this week.  Most of all, they are loath to innovate at the speed the new paradigm requires.

Gerry Howard writes movingly in this week’s PW about how you really can’t apply the principles of Moneyball to publishing because you’d be ripping out its heart and doing away with all that wonderful serendipity that made The Bridges of Madison County, Tuesdays with Morrie, The DaVinci Code and countless other “small” buys into huge bestsellers.  I agree.  But, the thing I take away from Moneyball (the book and the film) is that you’ve got to look at your game differently if you are up against a rich behemoth who outpitches, outhits, and outfields you because they can buy all the talent out there.  Whether you’re talking about the Yankees or Amazon, I think the lesson is the same:  you can win playing smart small ball too.

Thoughts?  Comments?  Angry rebuttals?

5

World domination

When Dan Slater of Amazon, a longtime friend of DGLM, was visiting last week, I jokingly asked him what new steps his company was taking toward its ultimate goal of world domination.  Discreet as Dan is, he did not let on about the new Kindle Fire announcement (although we’d all heard buzz) but he definitely did not deny that Amazon was in the process of taking over the universe (at least the publishing universe).

Well, as the HuffPost live blog of today’s announcement by Jeff Bezos about the new tablet shows, the Amazon juggernaut rumbles inexorably on.  Not having seen one of these babies in person, I’ve no idea whether I’m going to rush out and buy the new KF instead of the iPad I’ve been thinking of gifting myself for Christmas.   On the one hand, I use my current Kindle quite a bit and, given how lame the Apple book store is, I expect that I’ll continue to get most of my online reading from Amazon anyway.  On the other hand, it’s hard to root for the prohibitive favorite in sports or big business.  I’m not sure I want to live under an Amazon dictatorship, no matter how benign.

Is it as dire as all that?  Or is this all just healthy, good fun on the part of the superpowers?  Are they just giving us all more options even as we have less and less time to avail ourselves of them?

10

Jealousy is all the fun you think they had*

Personally, I think jealousy is a great motivator.  Who hasn’t experienced a moment of jealous rage so virulent that it’s propelled them  to action?  Whether it’s romantic or professional, this base and vile emotion can force you to get off your keester and make things happen.  Okay, sometimes, it lands you in jail—not so good.  But, when we are jealous of someone’s accomplishments and able to see the effort and talent behind them, we can parse the elements of their success and try to apply them to our own circumstances.  Also, there have been some epic feuds born of jealousy that make for great entertainment—Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer; Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck….

The kind of jealousy we encounter on an almost daily basis is creative and professional.  Why is so and so getting bigger advances than me?  Why did she get a better review from the Times when everyone knows she’s a hack?  Why did [fill in the publisher’s name] give him an eight-city tour when they can’t even get my books in stores?  And so on.

Our response, in soothing, zen-like tones is something along the lines of “Be patient, grasshopper.  Unimaginable success will be yours.”

Uh…yes…well…more often it’s “Stop whining and stay focused on your own work.  No one can write your book better than you and being jealous of other people’s success is just distracting you from doing your best work, not to mention meeting your deadlines.”

So, this piece in Writer’s Relief made me think about the uses and misuses of jealousy and wonder whether it is, indeed, a motivator?  Can you keep it in check and make it work for you? Or is it just a corrosive, soul destroying thing you wish you could banish from your creative life?  Who are you most jealous of?

*Erica Jong

UPDATE:  I love the link Tamara posted in the comments so much, that I thought I’d share it with you here:

http://therumpus.net/2011/03/dear-sugar-the-rumpus-advice-column-69-we-are-all-savages-inside/

5

On nepotism

by Lauren

Trolling the internet for a blog topic, I stumbled across this Gawker piece by Richard Lawson on why one shouldn’t hate Simon Rich just because nepotism probably accounts at least somewhat for his success (and recent book-to-film deal).  I’ll admit that I had missed this deal announcement, but I probably would’ve at least scoffed had I first seen it out of this context.

Lawson sums up my (and perhaps the average person’s) gut reaction to such things thusly:

But still, in a country where so many doors are closed to so many people, that a twentysomething born into a life of ease can just saunter in and get exactly what he wants on the first try seems to fly in the face of our noble belief in the meritocracy.*

But he also goes on to say that sometimes, we really ought to just suck it up and put all that aside.  As he points out, why bother to wish that other people struggle because we do?  Is it a belief in merit or just envy?  Sometimes geniuinely talented people get an easy in, not because it’s the only way they can succeed, but because it’s not sensible to reject the easy in on principle.

The piece is well argued, and I think a good reminder not to fall into the trap of begrudging someone success.  In publishing, I think it’s especially easy to get caught up in looking for someone to blame.  There’s celebrity memoirs; a publishing system full of gatekeepers; bottom line thinking; all the people taking the supposedly (but actually not at all) “easy” way out by writing something trendy or very commercial; and yes, too, the well connected.  But even if the system is imperfect and quality isn’t always the deciding factor, where does bitterness get you? 

It’s natural to be annoyed, but don’t let that drive you.  Sometimes we can all use the reminder to breathe deep and worry not about everybody else, but instead about how to achieve our goals independent of whether anyone else achieves theirs. 

via The Awl

*I learned from the comments to that Gawker post that the term “meritocracy” was coined (satirically) by Toby Young‘s father, which seems delightfully a propos.

6

Sizing up the competition

by Jessica

 

“Know your market” is surely one of the Publishing world’s commandments—the “Though shalt” omitted but implied. When I go to conferences, when I read query letters, when I speak to writers about their books, I am always keen to get to the comparison titles, and understand from the author where she sees her book fitting in to the present marketplace. (FYI: Comparison titles, “comp titles” for short, are the books you come up with in answer to the question: “Readers of what books/writers might enjoy your work?”) I encounter such a wide variety of responses to what I believe is a softball of a question that I thought I’d pass on a few thoughts.

 
  • When looking for comp titles, choose successful books. Pointing out books similar to yours that had low or disappointing sales is the best argument against your project. Most houses will interpret the cluster of bad sales as a commentary on the weakness of the category/subject matter.
  • But not so monumentally successful that their track record is sui generis. For example, EAT PRAY LOVE is so often used as a comp that it has become meaningless.
  • Be cognizant of the delayed publishing timeline. I run into many writers who, after studying the competition, tell me that their own writing is at least as good as (insert name of published author here) and if that (name of book sold) surely their own can too. Unfortunately, such reasoning seldom works. Bear in mind that what is being published today was likely acquired the better part of two years ago, and the lackluster reception/performance of the titles in question may be the very reason that your book (or query letter) is rejected. For example, memoir is now an exceedingly difficult category, thanks in part to the sheer quantity of memoirs that have been published. Booksellers are being very, very, choosy about what they buy. So a cursory survey of recently published personal narratives is not necessarily going to tell you what publishers are buying now, and in fact, may reveal why your book faces an uphill battle. For this, you need a subscription to Publishers Marketplace. Remember, most books do not earn back their advances, or sell in any significant numbers, so the odds are stacked against you from the get-go.
  • I thought that name sounded familiar.  Pay particular attention to who the author is. Even in narrative (as opposed to prescriptive non-fiction, where the emphasis is on the writing as much as the information) platform is all. All things being equal, a publishing house is far more likely to take on a book from someone with an established public profile than an unknown author. In some cases, understanding the author’s marketing abilities helps explain why a particular book was bought.
  • Think twice when there’s no competition at all. Every so often, I hear a pitch in which an author is absolutely correct when she tells me that there is no book like hers out there. This may be a terrific opportunity, the oft-looked for “hole” in the market. But it also may be because publishers are convinced that a particular subject won’t work. An editor I know recently bought a book on dealing with bedbugs, a widespread and awful scourge about which no book had been published. It may be that the book will go on to sell thousands upon thousands of copies to the itchy and unhappy victims of bedbug infestations, or it might be that this is info that people can get from the internet, or via their exterminator—I suppose we’ll wait and see.
  • Too close for comfort? In surveying the competition, be mindful that a book need not be exactly like yours to constitute competition. Despite the fact that you have your own distinct take on doing business in China or parenting oppositional children, baking vegan cupcakes or greening the work-place, houses with similar books under contract or on their backlists see little reason to cannibalize their own lists. If you are wading into a crowded marketplace, then it is incumbent on you to: actually read the competition; make certain that your book is both different and better; communicate that difference; and bear in mind that most consumers rarely but multiple titles on a single subject. (Note, this applies almost exclusively to nonfiction).
12

Nothing out there like it?

In working on prescriptive non-fiction, I’ve noted a phenomenon among authors that I’ll call the “there’s nothing out there like it” fallacy. Interestingly, it seems to affect a disproportionately expert population—physicians, nutritionists, psychologists, trainers, counselors, and attorneys—writers with professional credentials whose proposed book emerges from a considerable knowledge of their target market. Indeed, the fact that these people come in daily contact with their would-be book buyers should mean that they have a better sense than anyone of the information their patients/clients lack. In theory, these experts are ideally positioned to perceive a book-shaped hole in the market. But interestingly enough, this is not always the case.

There are a few reasons; because the general public may be demonstrably in need of information (or perhaps just reluctant to implement it) it does not always follow that there’s a dearth of books on the topic. In my experience, experts may know their audience inside and out, but they don’t necessarily have a clear sense of the competition. Acquiring editors, meanwhile, have an overdeveloped sense of the books in the field; usually they’ve published them. (Agents do too, which, apropos of the recent discussion, is another reason why we’re handy). Busy professionals, even those who assiduously keep up with the relevant journals, rarely have the time to read books aimed at a general audience. They do, however, hear their clients/patients complain that there is a shortage of reliable information “out there.” They field the same questions again and again. They rightly perceive their clients’ points of confusion, and may be especially gifted at untangling complex information, or perhaps they’ve created a program that gets amazing results. It is not so very difficult to therefore imagine that all this would merit, even demand, a new book.

Maybe so. But in order to test this premise, writers need to do significant research, not only on Amazon.com, B&N.com, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, or Publishers Marketplace, but also in multiple bookstores and libraries. No single source is especially reliable: on-line searches may be too broad or too narrow; looking at the bookstore shelf may not give an accurate sense of all that’s actually on offer; libraries don’t necessarily reflect all the newest entrees. Ideally, aspiring authors should read, or at least skim, the likely competition, with a dispassionate eye (does the world really need another book on this subject) and in hopes of spotting an opening. If “nothing out there” really means “there’s nothing out there written by me,” bear in mind that publishing houses find this a persuasive argument only insofar as the “me” in question has one or more of the following: a national platform; a media profile; conducted groundbreaking research; a fresh approach to the subject at hand. It is this last aspect that is most tractable. It is true that most nonfiction is platform driven, but it is also concept-driven, and teasing out a hook—which is not so much a gimmick as a clever, easily-grasped, organizing principle—is essential. Finding a way into your subject that has not been done and done again is difficult, but not, I think, so difficult as acquiring the MD, MBA or PhD to begin with!

-Jessica