Category Archives: truth


On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?


The reality of publishing

Yesterday we had yet another successful Q&A lunch with our interns. At least from my point of view it was a success, but I was curious to hear what the interns thought. Here’s their reaction, courtesy of Brianna:

Today all of the interns at Dystel and Goderich had lunch with the agents and we learned some very eye opening things. All of us came to the table with a romanticized idea of what working in publishing would entail. This idea included, but wasn’t limited to, having a wooden desk with piles of manuscripts to read at one’s own leisure, talking on the phone with authors, and dreaming up brilliant ideas that will lead to surefire future bestsellers. Today, however, the agents taught us that there is much more to the process, and it involves a lot of work one wouldn’t necessarily expect.

First, we learned that there is a big difference between being an editor and being an agent. An agent’s number one job is to represent the author, first and foremost. They read query letters and sift through manuscripts to find projects worth pitching to editors at publishing houses. In everyday life, they communicate with their authors, and essentially have no higher-level “boss.” For the most part, agents work independently and have the freedom to reject manuscripts if the story just isn’t for them, or they can choose to help authors edit their work if he or she thinks it will make the project better and more saleable.

On the other hand, an editor’s primary loyalty is to the publishing house. Sure, editors edit, but they also act as a liaison to the agent, who represents the author, and the publisher, who ultimately rolls the book out to the public. And that sounded frustrating. I never thought that one of an editor’s jobs would be to convince the right people in house that they should spend X amount of money on a book proposal.

In both positions, though, most of the day is spent on the phone, conversing via email, or completing paperwork. It is key to be organized in all fields. Regarding the actual reading of manuscripts, reading projects usually happens outside of the workday—nights and weekends. That came as possibly the biggest shock of all.

In the end though, whether you think you might be interested in agenting, editing, or another job altogether in publishing, gaining invaluable work experience via internships, publishing programs, and informational interviews is key. I learned a lot today, and for me personally, it has only solidified my desire to learn more and fully immerse myself in the industry.


The Publishing Summer

Between vacation and three day weekends and the like, it’s been ages since I’ve dropped in to blog. I’m sure you all missed me terribly and are much relieved that I’m back in the rotation.

And since the Dystel vacation rotation is in full swing, I thought I’d take the chance to chat about one of my favorite publishing myths: nothing happens during the summer.  It’s all lies.

Let me just do a little boasting here for a second (I loooooove to flatter myself): I got back from vacation last Tuesday and since then have submitted three projects and closed two deals. I know, I know. I’m awesome. But this happened in the season when publishing is supposed to shut down so we can all jaunt off to our summer homes and sun by the pool.

Spoiler alert: most of us don’t have summer homes.

The reality of the situation is that things in summer may be quieter than other seasons because most people take their vacations at this time of year and as an industry we embrace the incredibly rewarding concept of summer hours, aka half-day Fridays. Again, this is presumably so we can get to our beach houses. In practice, when I leave early on Fridays, it’s to go home or go to a park and do reading. I told myself I was actually going to head home and nap last Friday, and I ended up getting through two manuscripts in a row.

In any case, the bottom line is that things slow down the slightest of bits in the summer, but people who aren’t on vacation are probably working just as hard as ever. I know there are authors who really panic about the timing of material going out and convince themselves that if they don’t have deals in place by the end of May, it’s going to be a slog to September, but as far as I can tell, nothing changes all that terribly much from season to season. Much as we might sometimes want it to.


Slow summer

My inbox of unread queries is always in flux. It constantly ebbs and flows, the number of submissions on any given day ranging from only a handful to dozens. Either way, it’s something that I am continually immersed in, always reading and looking for the next great thing.

But lately, it seems things have hit a slump.  In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages. In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.

This is not to say that every query I’m reading is an automatic rejection, not even close. But I guess I wish that something would cross my computer screen that not only makes me instantly excited and interested, but also shows that the writer is doubly excited and practically tripping over themselves to tell me.

Maybe this is asking a lot, and I know that putting together the all-important query can be daunting, but if you want me, or any agent, to be interested in your book, be excited about it, let it show, and get us excited about it too.


Fears and hurdles and send buttons

In my daily swim through queries, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in opening sentences—something to the effect of “I feel that now is finally the right time to send this your way,” or “I’ve been sitting on this novel, too afraid to send it out until now.” Which leads me to believe that as many people as there are that email me telling me they’ve gotten over the fear of reaching out, there are just as many–if not more–who are still hesitant to hit the Send button. In past blog posts I’ve talked about the query process, but today I wanted to dig a bit deeper and reach those who haven’t yet cleared that first hurdle.

My question is: what’s holding you back? Maybe it’s timing, maybe it’s perfectionism. And I’m willing to guess it also rests in that highly inconvenient fear we all experience throughout our lives of rejection.  But I won’t deny that you also probably feel the odds—technical, rather than emotional—stacked against you.  If you’re keeping yourself informed and involved, reading blogs, and doing whatever you can to learn more about the industry, there’s no doubt that you’re hearing different advice from different sources: “do this” or “don’t do this” or “text attached” or “text included in the body” or “spell check.” Everyone remembers spell check, right?

The fact is, it’s competitive out there, and a realistic attitude is an imperative. And expectations are inevitably high because we want to see the absolute best that you have to offer. It’s a tall order, I won’t deny it.  But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tune out the noise and dive in. Of course you want your work to be as perfect as it can be, but you also can’t wait forever for that perfection to happen.  At a certain point, you have to go for it, because you never know what could be waiting for you on the other end.

Are any of you out there are feeling this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Is a story just a story?

Recently, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, addressed the W&L Journalism Ethics Institute for its 48th anniversary. This prompted a debate around the water cooler and on blogs and made its way to discussions on news programs. For, if you remember, Blair resigned from the New York Times in 2003 following an investigation that found he had plagiarized and fabricated a lot of the stories he had written for the paper. Some of his reporting was on the Iraq war and the Beltway sniper attacks. It was understandable that people were surprised that Blair would be addressing the Journalism Ethics Institute because we trust reporters to tell us the truth. We don’t expect them to fabricate or edit stories to make them more entertaining, as Blair did.

What about memoir authors who fabricate stories? James Frey and the debacle involving A Million Little Pieces comes to mind. Frey received a lot of attention from his book when it was published–Oprah praised him, A Million Little Pieces was in a million little bookstores, everyone talked highly of this new talented writer. But upon investigation, Frey’s story was proven to be inaccurate in parts, and some readers who had once been fans of the memoir wanted their money back.

Some authors don’t really care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. A story might just be a story. But is it unfair to truthful memoir writers when an author, such as James Frey, fabricates tales to sell books? Does it prove that Frey is a talented writer that we believed his tales? Or is it infuriating to have loved a book as a memoir and find parts of it to be complete fiction?

How much tweaking should be allowed in memoirs to make them entertaining these days, and do you care about the difference between fiction and nonfiction storytelling?