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Illustrators at Dystel.com

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to use my blog time today to alert readers to a new feature on our website: illustration samples!

Over the past few years, we’ve added a good number of author/illustrators to our list. And so we thought it would be useful to have a single page where readers could see samples of our clients’ work without having to click over to a slew of personal websites. (Though of course we encourage that, too!)

Hence, please check out our DGLM author/illustrators, either from the menu on the right or directly at http://www.dystel.com/illustration-samples/. You’ll find a wonderful breadth of styles and techniques here, not to mention a whole lot of cuteness!

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Eventful

For some reason behind the book table is always my preferred spot at Greenlight readings.

Wayne Gladstone reads at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn

 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about author events, having been to four very different ones in the last several weeks: first Wayne Gladstone’s two readings for his hilarious and heartfelt debut novel Notes from the Internet Apocalypse at Corner Bookstore and Greenlight Books, then two book launch parties, one for Aaron Starmer’s new middle grade series The Riverman, which took place on a river cruise around Manhattan; the other for Christopher J. Yates’s debut, a psychological thriller called Black Chalk, at University Settlement not far from where the book is partially set.  Each event had a different spirit and in some ways different purposes, and in each case the setting of the event and the personality of the author really contributed to making it feel like it perfectly suited the book being celebrated and enjoyed.

 
I must admit, I don’t go to many author events purely as a spectator (all of the above are DGLM clients), but it’s nice to have a moment to sit back and celebrate the results of all the hard work that goes into bringing a book to fruition.  Even handier when the author, his/her agent, and his/her editor are all in the same vicinity and can do so together.

I should know which skyline that is (NJ? BK? Manhattan?), but I don't.

Aaron Starmer (in red near the right of the photo) reading from The Riverman

 
I think the logistics of book events are challenging: beyond the well-attended reading series (of which there are a number in NYC), the ones at industry conventions, and the signings for major bestsellers, they’re not terribly likely to sell many books to people who weren’t going to buy them anyway and often are populated by people close enough to the author to already have a copy.  And an event that’s more of a party than a sales opportunity is likely to get pretty costly for the author, without much (or any) chance of return on that. The conventional wisdom is that book events don’t sell books and tours aren’t worth it, and as a former bookstore cashier I know firsthand how few copies of books are sold at most signings. 

That cover photo projection is a very nice touch.

Christopher J. Yates reading from Black Chalk

But I do wonder if there are things more authors can and should do that would make book events more beneficial to them and to readers.  Certainly stores that have multi-writer reading series (like the one Wayne participated in at Greenlight) are helping to introduce people to the fans of others, and this is something the self-published author community has strongly embraced as well with very large multi-author signings.  And I’ve personally found that an author event that happens well after publication—though this is logistically tougher to justify or achieve—is likely to be more appealing to me, because I have little interest in attending author events for books I haven’t read by authors I don’t have a professional relationship with.  For example, I’ve seen Colum McCann twice, once for Let the Great World Spin well after publication, which was magical, and once for Transatlantic right when the book came out that really didn’t do anything for me.

 
Do you ever go to author events? If so, what draws you in?  If not, what’s keeping you away?  What would you like to see more of?  Have you ever been to one that really blew you away?  Have you seen any creative strategies that you’ve taken note of for yourself?

 

5

The Successful Query Letter: Exhibit A

Last week, Sharon cleverly used her post to invite reader feedback—the responses she received contained some good  suggestions and valuable constructive criticism.  Among other points, Lynn (who, it should be noted, has a fine editorial eye) suggested that instead of serving up generic advice about query letters, we post a letter that “blew us away… Write about it, post it as an example so we can see what a great query is!”

 I am more than happy to oblige.  I’ll  begin with nonfiction and follow up with a fiction example next week.

First, a brief disclaimer: I know that writers spend a lot of time working on and occasionally obsessing over query letters, but there is no single magic formula for how to put one together.  I generally suggest that writers craft a pitch that reads roughly like (good) back cover copy, gives a sense of the story arc, the characters and the voice in which the book is written, but leaves something to the imagination.  I’m not a fan of the exhaustive synopsis—too much detail can get unwieldy. Close with a few lines about who you are, where your book fits into the market and its actual or (for nonfiction) proposed length and that’s it, you’re done.  But enough with the general. Here is an example of a project that I ended up signing and selling, which came to me via a beautifully crafted query letter.  I’ve pasted the query here, and below I discuss why it so impressed me.

Dear Jessica,

 I appreciate your hands-on-approach and your interest in “history with a thesis.”  I am an academic with a background in character-driven narrative writing, and I’ve just finished a book about an extraordinary group of farmers who have given me hope for the future of American food. 

 Lentil Underground introduces readers of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” to a little-known movement in central Montana.  My book is the first to chronicle farmers who are changing our food system in the belly of the beast: the American grain belt.  If we’re going to overhaul the way our food gets to our plate, we’ll have to do it here in the heartland, and people like these colorful lentil enthusiasts will need to lead the way.

I am a Montana native and have been working with this group of farmers for five years, initially as an agricultural policy staffer for United States Senator Jon Tester and more recently as an academic.  I first ran into the story when I was touring full time as a country singer, and try as I might to corral it into three-and-a-half minutes …I ended up with a book.

 Per the instructions on the Dystel and Goderich website, I am pasting a brief synopsis below and attaching my first chapter. 

 I would be very happy to send you my full proposal and/or the full manuscript – but only if you give me permission.  I know you have a lot to read, and I appreciate your attention.

 Thanks,

Liz Carlisle

This query is brief, to the point and totally successful. I am not an agent who demands short pitch letters—I don’t stop reading after 250 words. But writing with this kind of clarity and economy of language is harder than it looks.  So what did Liz do right?

First, she showed that she’d read enough about me to know the kinds of projects I represent.  She then told me that she has academic credentials but also the ability to tell a story (two things that do not always go hand in hand) and she closed her first paragraph with an intriguing line.

Like you, I am familiar with the many critiques of the American food system—well deserved and bleak as they are—but here is a book that promises something hopeful, in the “belly of the beast” no less.   Carlisle also identified her audience via the books they read. I cannot overemphasize the degree to which it is crucial that nonfiction writers are able to accurately place their books in the context of the existing market. She showed me she has a handle on the competition and then—three cheers— promised something new. Acquisitions editors are forever in search of the new and fresh, so my ears perked up yet again. “Colorful lentil enthusiasts” is also not a phrase you hear every day. Her three lines of author bio, in which I learned she was a country western singer turned congressional staffer turned academic were so deftly and succinctly written—plus  fascinating—that I knew I’d request the proposal and the full mss.

Her book, The Lentil Underground, will be published by Gotham in 2015.

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Life (or writing) lessons from Stephen King

Who doesn’t like to take advice from a master? I’d say Stephen King falls into that category. Despite a terrible accident which almost caused him to retire from writing in 2002, King has produced a staggering number of books, including classics like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, and the list goes on. No one does it better, and there have been few that have managed to compete with his mastery of prose and plot. His category of fiction should just bear his namesake!

He’s offered much advice to many over the years, and his 2000 memoir/writing guide called On Writing is widely admired. This recent piece from openculture.com shines a light on King’s top 20 pieces of advice for writers, and it’s worth taking a fresh look at how to implement them in your writing process today.

His advice is so straightforward, and some of it is really simple. One wouldn’t necessarily think that turning off the tv would be a tip that Stephen King would consider in his top 20, but it speaks to the larger issue of a distracted culture and the need to pay attention to the task at hand. It reminds me of my parents always telling me to turn off the tv when I was doing homework as a kid. They had a point, even if I didn’t want to hear it at the time.

The suggestion to finish a draft within 3 months is also interesting. It’s like he’s in your ear screaming “Stop procrastinating!”.

And there are inspiring tips for writing here that are entirely applicable to life in general, so this list does not solely apply to writers and writing. A few to ponder: Don’t worry about making people happy (a ubiquitous but smart piece of advice that my client Amy Morin talks about in her piece “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do”), The magic is in you, Stick to your own style, and Take a break. Good thoughts for writing and life. Enjoy!

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An Immodest Proposal

My life changed forever when I came across this little piece.

Of course! It all clicked into place with this helpful little checklist.

Do I have a tendency to overanalyze things? You betcha!

Do new places and experiences give me anxiety? Uhuh.

Are my expectations too high? I’ll answer that question with one of my own. What’s wrong with holding out for that someone special who has the body of a supermodel and personality of a saint halfway through canonization, but, you know, who is still living?

Has it been said that I like neat resolutions? Well, sure. I mean, who doesn’t? The “How I Met Your Mother” series finale sent me into an absolute tailspin last night. How could they do that with

***SPOILER ALERT***

The next thing I knew it was 2 am and I was outside and cold and had apparently wandered into traffic. And I don’t even watch “How I Met Your Mother.”

How could it be, you ask, that someone as amazing as me has had a few dating problems? Simple: I’m a book lover.

Does any of this sound familiar? Has reading ruined your life or storytelling given you unrealistic expectations and the inability to cope with loose ends?

Then, for our own well being, I prescribe that we stop reading, starting now.

THE END

(Afterword for those still reading despite my proposal: if this doesn’t work we may have to eat our children. Let’s call that Plan B.)

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Book orphans

About two months ago, one of my clients turned in the manuscript for her new novel after having worked on it for several years.   She was a bit nervous but also very excited as this was the first novel she was publishing with her new publisher.  About a week after she submitted the material, I had a note from her editor that she was leaving the publishing house and, in fact, leaving publishing altogether.  She said that she would be editing the book on a freelance basis, but that the shepherding of it through the publishing process would not be her responsibility.

Needless to say, this was pretty devastating news to my client.  As I mentioned, this was a new publisher for her.  She had published five novels with her previous publisher and during those years had been edited by at least five different editors—each leaving the house or the business.  Now she was experiencing being “orphaned” again.

I made a couple of phone calls and as it happens the publisher of this particular house has promised me that he will be looking after my client himself.  Though he will not be doing the actual editing, he will be guiding the novel’s publication and so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that, with his help, this book will be a huge success.

It’s true, though, that the saga of the orphaned book is a real one and, in this age of downsizing and publishing mergers, it could well become a more frequent phenomenon.  This makes the agent’s job all the more important as we have to ensure more than ever that our clients and their work are well looked after and that their books are published well.

Last summer, another one of my clients had his book published after it had been transferred during the writing process to five different editors.  That story did have a happy ending.  The book’s final editor was totally devoted to the work and, in my opinion, his editorial suggestions made it even better.  The reviews have been phenomenal and the sales have been solid.  Equally as important, I have an author who was well satisfied with his publishing experience in the end.

But this is a tricky road to follow and it is important for the agent to be vigilant and take special care.  I found this piece in GalleyCat, which covers the topic and which, interestingly, quoted yours truly

So, I wonder, if your book were orphaned, what would you do?

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Long ago favorites

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post from earlier in the week, I thought back on my favorite illustrated books as a kid. They were mostly fairy tales (or close to), as are the illustrations in that post. I know the trends in children’s book illustrations change drastically from generation to generation—even year to year—so when I went hunting, it was no real surprise to me, that it took some more serious digging to find examples of the types of books—both in story and design—that I loved the most.

It wasn’t hard, however, to remember the titles of my top favorites, since they still hold a place on my bookshelf (albeit in my childhood home, but they did withstand all the teenage and college year purges).

I remember reading Melisande by E. Nesbit and illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Harcourt 1989) over and over and over as a girl, fascinated as I was by the artwork (and envious of her lustrous hair) and drawn in by the recognizable elements of both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a story that was an original unto itself.

 

Another favorite about another plucky, independent girl was Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Puffin 1992). Mirette has a very French Toulouse-Lautrec poster advertisement look about it and I remember thinking that I would have given anything for her outfits, hair and bravery. Similarly, I loved the Madeleine books as well, but I don’t think I need to post a reference picture for those!

 

In addition to these and the usual Berenstein Bears and Mr. Men picture books that crowded our shelves, I realized I had an odd penchant for inherently sad stories as well. Some of my favorites (when I was in the mood—otherwise I would make my parents skip them when reading to me) were stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales—most notably The Little Mermaid wherein the Mermaid must kill herself with a dagger in the end. I don’t know what attracted me to these books, but I loved them.

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The backstory

Backstory is important, you’ll agree.  It’s what gives depth and weight to a narrative, allowing us to understand motivations and giving us context.  A common error authors make is letting the backstory overwhelm the narrative.  Then, it’s pages and pages of genealogy or irrelevant details about, for instance, the hero’s years spent kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, even if the novel is a legal thriller set in DC and having nothing to do with water craft.  Well thought out and incorporated backstory, however, is a joy.

Always having been intrigued by the part of the iceberg that hides beneath the water (to mangle part of a Hemingway quote), I also like to know the interesting arcana about the books themselves.  I like to know what the author was thinking, why s/he made the choices s/he did, what weird circumstances were taking place in the author’s life during the writing of the book, etc.   Being on our side of the publishing biz, we know a lot of books’ backstories—some funny, some sad, some sexy, some…surprising—and I always feel that they add a dimension to the reading experience.

If you’re like me in this respect, check out this clever and informative Buzzfeed compilation of weird book factoids, creation tales, and trivia.  My favorite?  Nabokov, notecards and butterfly nets in hand while creating Lolita.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve learned about a book you love?

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One-on-ones

Readers, I would love to get your feedback on this one: What do you think is the most productive format for one-on-one meetings at a writer’s conference? I ask, of course, because I attended a conference this past weekend, where I spent most of my time in one-on-one meetings with authors.

Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of configurations: one-on-ones and roundtables; 5-minute slots, 10, 15, and so on; MSS in advance, no prep, 10 pages, and so on again. This time out, the meetings were half an hour, and we were sent 40 pages in advance. And as much as I hate to say it, on the whole I don’t think they were particularly productive.

40 pages is a funny length–much longer than what an author would probably send on submission, yet not really enough to give a full snapshot of a MS–while half an hour is a ton of time to talk. And with that, it seemed like the chattier authors got bogged down in a lot of details and small points, with not enough time to discuss the big picture, while at the same time, the sessions for those who sat back and listened tended to run way short, even with some question time at the end.

So, unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day, and I worry that I didn’t give the authors the help they were looking for. However, the organizers are asking for feedback for next year, so I’d love to hear what works best for you and try to change things up–any thoughts?

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Your turn.

We have a lot of fun with our blog posts around here. Whether we’re drooling over the latest book swag or marveling at the latest technology that’s changing our industry, this blog serves as a great place to share what we’re thinking.

But it’s not ALL about us, you know. And we love it when you get involved in the conversation, like the important discussion sparked by Jim’s post yesterday.

So I’m turning the spotlight on you for a minute. Let us know what YOU want to read about. Do you want more or less…

Or hankering after something else altogether that we’ve never thought to post about?!

Leave a comment below and maybe, just maybe, your DGLM blog wish will come true.