Category Archives: optimism

1

That special something

Authors often lament—quite reasonably—that many of the rejections they receive are not specific. “I liked it but I didn’t love it,” the letters say, and offer no more feedback on why. And some of that is because there is only so much time in a day, so agents can’t offer feedback to all the projects they turn down and still actually have time to fulfill the obligations to the clients they’ve signed on. But it’s also true that sometimes that is simply the answer. The main characters seem well rounded enough, the premise compelling enough, the plot well-paced enough, the voice strong enough, the writing well composed enough. You read the book and you can imagine it being published by someone, but…you simply cannot say it’s a book that you love. You don’t have a vision for it. You don’t know what the spark is that’s missing, only that it’s missing. You don’t begrudge that book publication certainly, but you also don’t have the enthusiasm for it to tell other people they must read it, or to edit it, or to champion it in a million ways for years to come.  Even those of us who don’t read books for a living can probably think of books they felt this way about—the book was fine, you suppose, but also you didn’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone.

But the flip side of this is when an author turns in a revised manuscript, and it’s like they’ve flipped a switch. Maybe it’s one big edit, maybe it’s a million tiny edits, but that perfect, beautiful book that you thought you saw hiding inside the previous draft is right there, shiny and on display. It’s not magic, it’s the result of hard and often tedious and sometimes quite exhausting work, but that special extra spark changes everything. And as an agent, you feel a degree of excitement that it’s hard to properly convey—because now you get to go out and champion this perfect, beautiful thing in a million ways for years to come.

Fortunately for us all, whether or not a person sees that spark is completely subjective. That manuscript an agent passed on because they just weren’t head over heels? Someone else is telling every single person they speak to how much they adore it.

0

Zen writing life

I’ve been getting into yoga now that I’m inching toward my mid 40s and am suffering from a variety of aches and pains. I appreciate the deep stretching more than the deep breathing although I know the combination is what’s so good for us.

I was intrigued by this article by author Erica Black in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s online magazine that compares yoga to writing. I can see the connections so clearly once it’s spelled out. That idea of a solo practice, the intensity of serious concentration, and working hard on something that can be painful and difficult but is ultimately (for most, at least) rewarding and uplifting!

What do you think? Do you appreciate the connection between a yoga life and a writing life? Does it feel like an apt comparison? Does one help the other? Namaste, and happy writing!

life yoga balance yogi flexibility

ps – that is so not me pictured!

3

A living fire to lighten the darkness

Over the past week, news from around the world has been terrifying and heartbreaking. In times of great danger and violence, when fellow humans across the globe are running for their lives and seeking refuge for their families, we feel helpless and often turn to our favorite things – books! – for comfort and distraction. On Saturday afternoon I saw a lot of smart bookish friends on Twitter admitting to feeling very guilty for spending the afternoon cozy at home reading, with tea, chocolate, blankets, pets, loved ones. I felt that way myself.

But books are just as important in troubled times as in light ones, because reading builds empathy. A 2013 study suggested that reading actually affects the neurological connectivity in the brain – and I believe the compassion we earn from books is even simpler than that. Reading takes you to worlds outside your own, brings you inside the joys and fears and decision-making of characters totally unlike you facing obstacles you may never experience. Reading reminds you there are the human lives making up the faceless statistics from a country you may never see as well as marginalized communities in your hometown, right outside your front door. Reading gives you brave heroines to imitate and callow villains to avoid following. As Madeleine L’Engle said beautifully in her Newbery award speech, “A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”

When you see horrible things on the news – or when you see friends and loved ones responding in ways that you strongly disagree with – respond with love and compassion.  And then it’s okay to pick up a book and escape from things for a little bit – you’re refilling your empathy tank.

What are your favorite comfort reads? Any recommendations for a book that opened a new world up for you and made you a better person?

                                                                    

2

The importance of positive persistence

Last Wednesday, there was a piece in The New York Times titled “The Plot Twist”.  In it, the writer, Alexandra Alter discussed the fact that e-book sales were slipping and print book sales were rising by about the same percentage rate.  This, after the dire predictions of four years ago that e-book sales would overtake print sales in a very short time.

I remember when e-books were the topic everyone was talking about.  Many of my colleagues in the publishing business were predicting the demise of print book publishing and of the entire business as we know it.  We were all—publishers, agents and authors—frightened about what would happen.  And then nothing did.

Although we at Dystel & Goderich did begin a digital publishing program in order to help some of our clients self-publish, we didn’t panic.  We felt this was a natural alternative for those authors whose books were out of print but which could still find a readership.   In fact, the program has served us well and will continue to do so in the future.

I found that through all of the sturm und drang of the negativity of the past four years, I kept looking forward, signing new authors, adding to our staff of super talented agents, and knowing that, in the end, print books would survive.  And they did and will continue to do so.

Thinking positively during those difficult days wasn’t easy.  Everyone seemed to be shaking their heads and worrying about the future of the business.  I have found though, over the years, that worrying is paralyzing—that the only way to keep going is to think positively, to find those projects and strategies that will move us forward and to use my energy to make them happen.

Again, this idea of positive persistence is one I have lived by and will continue to do so as it is the only way to keep growing both as an individual and as a mentor to my staff and clients.  I urge you all to think about this and how this concept plays out in your lives.  I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

2

Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

6

Staying positive in a volatile environment

It’s still a relatively new year and I have been reflecting on how much our publishing environment continues to change.  Books that sold easily even two or three years ago are no longer selling, categories that weren’t selling as recently as last year are all of a sudden back in vogue, the landscape for self-published books has undergone a major shift, both for those who have been picked up previously by traditional publishers and for those who have gone back to self-publishing or who are continuing to self-publish but having much less success.  So, how are we supposed to stay positive in this ever changing publishing environment?

I started googling “how to be positive” and found the Internet teeming with articles about this very thing.  I guess I’m not the only one pondering this issue.

Among the more helpful pieces I came across was this one in WikiHow.  Admitting there are problems and identifying what they are has always been something I believe in doing and I try to pay special attention to this—especially now.  Then I set goals every quarter and I review those goals monthly.  I find it  very important to be honest with myself as to whether or not I am achieving those goals and if not, I ask myself why not.

I ask for feedback from those I respect.  It is so important, in my opinion to listen to others who are knowledgeable.

Finally, I try not to be afraid of failure.  In my career, I have certainly faced some pretty major setbacks but I have always addressed them and the reasons for them head-on, and that has enabled me to move forward.

Even writing this blog has helped me to evaluate the issue of staying positive in an ever changing publishing environment and I hope it will help you as well.  Please let me know if it has.

5

My favorite New Year’s resolution

So it’s a new year and rather than making a list of virtually the same resolutions I made in 2014, I started to think about what my all-time favorite one is.  I thought back through this year, which was, in fact, a difficult one for me for a number of reasons and what comes to mind is:

“Never give up!”

Indeed, my father, whom I lost last May, taught me that perseverance is one of the most important qualities a person can have.  I listened to him carefully, watched as he led by example and have learned through much trial and error that not giving up is incredibly important.

In my career, as in my personal life, I have always tried to achieve my best.  I have also always stuck with clients whose work I absolutely knew would find a home and just two weeks ago I learned again the real value of perseverance.

I had tried to sell a new client’s novel beginning in the fall of 2012 and finally had to acknowledge that it wasn’t going to happen about four months and dozens of rejections later.  He came back to me with a new manuscript in the spring of 2014 and finally, after submitting to 30 publishers  and on the last day I was in the office before our holiday break, I found him a home…I think a good one.  He didn’t give up and neither did I.  There were times along the way when we both thought about giving up and moving on, but instead we just kept moving forward.

So I am hoping that in 2015 we will all continue to persevere in whatever we choose to do.  That really is my favorite New Year’s resolution.

3

Could be worse (if you’re a songwriter)

Evidently, it’s music appreciation week here at DGLM–believe it or not, I actually had this music-themed blog post in the works Wednesday morning before I saw Miriam’s post. But rather than scrap it, I think it dovetails with Miriam’s question about lyrics and books, so here we go:

As book publishing is considered a media industry, you’ll often hear comparisons drawn between the book business, the music business, and the film industry. And you’ll often hear about the common problems they share–declining sales, disappearing retail outlets, fragmented audience, technological challenges, and so on. But as much as people carp about the state of book publishing, I think it’s always good to remember that when you compare books to other media–especially the music biz–things could be worse. A lot worse.

And to that point, I wanted to share this post from Wired by the musician Aloe Blacc yesterday morning, where he points out the criminally small royalty that songwriters are paid by streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora. The idea that Blacc has earned less than $4,000 for a song that has been streamed 168 million times seems crazy. Yet on the whole, the complaints about royalties for streaming services have been fairly muted–as Blacc notes, streaming provides more exposure for listeners than ever before, and it seems like artists to this point have been willing to trade earnings for that exposure.

Now, compare those muted complaints to the noise surrounding Amazon vs Hachette. With all the hue and cry about Amazon screwing authors and publishers, one might assume they’re being ripped off as badly as Blacc–and of course, it’s nothing even remotely close to that bad, partially thanks to the agents who established standard eBook royalty rates early on. But credit also goes to publishers for defending their author’s right to earn–a right that has never been recognized properly by the big music companies who’ve been screwing artists out of royalties since the beginning of the industry. And as much as I hate to admit it, credit goes to Amazon when it comes to self-pubbed authors, for whom a loose analogy can be drawn to indie musicians on services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp–again, Amazon is making indie authors millionaires, Soundcloud not so much.

So while our business has its problems, and while writers have legitimate complaints about earning power, take heart–apparently it’s better to be even a struggling writer than a famous songwriter. Though movie stars seem to have it pretty good…

 

5

Why we do what we do

With my kids finally back in school and my twins finally starting Kindergarten, I feel like a new chapter of my life is beginning. And it’s one I’m really looking forward to. The focus is more on things outside of the basic needs of keeping small children alive, which in addition to working full-time, has consumed me in big and small ways for the better part of almost 10 years.

The last couple of years as my kids have grown and our amazing nanny and my supportive husband have enabled me to step up my work schedule, I’ve talked so many times to my kids (not to mention interns, editors and authors) about what I do, answered questions about what I like about my job (a lot — the creative process; working with smart, talented people; developing projects I’m passionate about; business lunches; the flexibility of my work schedule), what I don’t like (admin; industry challenges which include great books not selling or not selling well; commuting to NYC when I go in for meetings). I’ve also had many discussions about what my kids want to be when they grow up (so far, we have a pop star, a writer, a mom or Kindergarten teacher, and an undecided). There’s so much clichéd advice out there about doing what you love and doing what makes you happy, but it’s all so subjective and hard to articulate.

Now that it’s a new school year and my thoughts are with new beginnings, I wanted to share this lovely piece of writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s not new or groundbreaking, but so much of what she has to say about writing and the life of a writer resonated with me. I especially loved the idea that you can begin a writing career at any age. It’s so true and how many jobs can you say that about?

So, enjoy the read, get inspired, and get to work on something you love. Let us know what that might be and what you want to be when you grow up, or grow old.

0

A long time coming

One of the many things I love about book publishing is that the life of a book can be much longer than one might think. Generally speaking, from a publisher’s point of view a book’s “life” runs about three years–that’s when the business office usually runs their final post-mortem on a book’s performance. Yet even three years down the line (or more), things happen that can boost a book’s sales and give it new life on the shelf, and those surprises are gratifying in so many ways.

Case in point: When I was an editor at Putnam, I had the great pleasure to debut Royce Buckingham, whose DEMONKEEPER made a nice little splash in MG circles. However, it wasn’t as big as Putnam hoped, and his next novel didn’t do so well, either. So when it came time for Book 3, Royce and I felt he had to try something different. Thus, he came up with THE DEAD BOYS, which was much darker and scarier than his previous books, but in my opinion, the best thing he’d written by far.

As you might have guessed, THE DEAD BOYS totally tanked, despite some good reviews. But then some funny things happened: first, DEMONKEEPER became a huge hit in Germany, to the point that his German publishers asked him to write sequels in English solely for translation into German. It’s hard to quantify how much this helped raise Royce’s profile stateside, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

And then, THE DEAD BOYS quietly chugged along, particularly in Royce’s home state of Washington, where he does his share of school visits and other local promotion. The result? THE DEAD BOYS just won the Washington State 2014 Sasquatch Award, for which it was nominated by local librarians and voted on by kids across the state–four years after it was first published!

So, great news for THE DEAD BOYS–validation for a book that should have been “dead” by now, and I’m sure it will be followed by the sales boost that accompanies state awards. But more to the point, it’s just one of the many examples of a book whose life was extended beyond expectations, and I feel like it’s good for authors to keep these stories in mind when faced with dwindling royalty reports or out-of-print notices. You just never know–especially if you put in the work!