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Books with a side of awesomeness

I recently stumbled upon an Instagram account called @bookbento, that’s run by Read it Forward, and then fell in love with its content. It satisfies pretty much every part of me that loves books, good design, pretty knick-knacky things, and the many Instagram filters available. Essentially, @bookbento pairs a book (recent ones include THE ASSISTANTS by Camille Perri, THE GIRLS by Emma Cline, A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara, and ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes) with items that match elements of the book, set against a striking background. For example, THE ASSISTANTS was paired with a typewriter, a day planner, two pencils, and a cup of coffee. This Instagram makes me want to go out and read all of these books immediately, proving that good visuals can be important!

With social media becoming an ever important way to reach an audience, I think something like @bookbento is an incredible way to draw readers in and maybe convince them to go out and buy a copy of the book. It’s aesthetically pleasing enough that viewers might stop for a closer look, and the elements surrounding the book hint at what might be inside. There were a few books that I certainly Googled afterwards, to see a summary, and then put on my “to-read list.”

What other clever social media accounts about books have you found? What effect do you think they have on both avid readers and readers who might only pick up a book or two a year

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Your platform (not your book’s)

Readers, by now I’m sure you’re all aware of the importance of an author’s platform (and probably sick of hearing about it), nevertheless, It’s a message that authors thankfully seem to be hearing from the start of their writing careers. Case in point: at a recent conference, I led a workshop on query letters and when I brought up how to cite one’s platform, the collective groans from the audience told me they were all well aware of the platform mandate!

Yet even so, I read a blogpost this morning on platform by fellow agent Eric Smith that raised an excellent point worth sharing: Make sure you’re building your platform for you, the author, and NOT for your book. In other words, when you set up a website/blog/Twitter feed, it should be in the service of your career as an author, not for the specific book or project that you’re trying to promote. It’s a particularly important distinction for writers looking for representation, because while we’re obviously interested in the specific project, we’re just as interested in you as an author whose career we can build with multiple books.

Lest you think the advice here is obvious, like Eric, I’ve seen writers make the mistake all the time, particularly thriller and fantasy/sci-fi writers. Fortunately, Eric provides an excellent list of authors that have done a great job of building their author platforms. If you’re struggling with how to set up that author platform, especially if you only have one book in the works, check them out for sure.

One Book, Two Book, Red Book, Blue Book

Long weekends like the one we just had are the perfect time to take a break from queries and client manuscripts and catch up on some regular ol’ published books, so I churned through a few recent bestsellers that have been waiting on my nightstand. Naming no names, I found myself underwhelmed by a couple of them.

Now, this is a common side-effect of working in publishing – you hear so much buzz that by the time you actually read a book, your chances of coming into it without expectations are practically nil. And it’s also a side-effect of agenting – our brains are trained to look for flaws and pick apart ways to improve, and it can be really difficult to turn that engine off for pleasure reading.

But I was most intrigued to compare these books – let’s call them Red Book and Blue Book to protect the innocent – to books I read and did love. Red Book came out from the same publisher in the same season as a title in the same category – we’ll call it Green Book – that I devoured and have been recommending non-stop! To me, Red Book was tired and unoriginal, Green Book was twisty and unforgettable; yet Red Book has been tremendously outperforming Green Book in both buzz and sales! And coming from the same publisher, with similar marketing campaigns going into publication. Grrrrrrr, I say to myself, but it’s not fair! Green Book is so much better than Red Book!

I had similar feelings about Blue Book, the editor of which had passed on a manuscript I submitted, Yellow Book. I liked Blue Book fine…but Yellow Book is so much better! Yellow Book would appeal to the same readers now buying Blue Book in droves, and is strong in places that Blue Book is flawed. Ugh, wtf, editor!

So you see, agents are not immune to rejection and confusion. As Miriam recently discussed, the “I’m just not loving it” excuse is as valid as it is frustrating. Miriam described the feeling when you don’t like a bestseller: “I always wonder what’s wrong with me as a reader and then, because I’m judgy and have the power of my convictions, what’s wrong with all the other readers.” I too am judgy, with an unshakeable faith in my own taste, so a case like Red Book and Green Book where there are so many similarities makes me think on the X Factor in publishing. You never know what unseeable details of timing and taste are working for or against the story elements and marketing muscle to make one book a bestseller and banish another to obscurity.

So what’s the takeaway? Embrace the lack of control! Just kidding. I love control. And what you CAN control is being as loud as possible for the books you DO love, especially if you see them missing from Best Book of the Whatever lists! Talk about books you love on Twitter and Facebook, leave a copy in an airport, suggest them to friends in book groups and coworkers with free time.

Don’t waste your energy worrying about books you don’t like –keep yelling (or whispering, if you’re in a library) about the ones you can’t forget.

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Being There

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being the guest of the Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA, along with fellow agents Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown, Ltd. and Mark  Gottlieb of Trident Media. We spent two days meeting with writers both published and aspiring, hearing their pitches and helping them hone them, answering their numerous questions on writing and publishing. We also participated in panels and led workshops tied in with the areas in which we specialize.

It’s very much of a two-way street, because if we’re lucky, we agents come away with a new client (or several). But at this particular conference, I also came away with something I hadn’t really expected. Not to get all gooey here, but I was moved by the sense of support that flowed through the entire weekend. It started at the top, from the organizers who put it together and are dedicated to helping their membership attain their dreams of being published. And it was palpable among the writers who attended, this feeling of them being there for each other.

Friday evening’s keynote speaker, the bestselling Bram Stoker Award winner Jonathan Maberry, doesn’t always get to attend a lot of conferences with his busy writing schedule. But he explained to me that this one has always been special to him for the key reason of its ongoing sense of support. “The Pennwriters staff stays in touch with the conference attendees year round, BETWEEN conferences, and is really there for them,” he said. “And a lot of the writers also stay in touch with each other.”

As we know, writing can be a lonely pursuit. And if you’re trying to establish a literary career in a state as big as Pennsylvania, with its vast, sparsely populated regions of farmland and forest separating its beautiful cities, fellow writers might not always be easy to find. Organizations like Pennwriters do a terrific service in bringing writers together, virtually and in-person, for the feedback and coaching they need.

The sense of encouragement at the conference, and the lack of schadenfreude, were an indication to me of why the Pennwriters conference is entering its 30th year. As author John C. Houser, one of its regulars,  said to me over lunch, “One of the best things about this conference each year is seeing so many members get published.” There’s a place for healthy competition, certainly, but this is a great place for a sense of fellowship as well.

So, on that note: Reach out to your fellow writers with encouragement. You’re likely to get some flowing right back to you.

Some Things I’m Looking for:

While developing my list, I keep having these desires for books I’m not seeing. Although my interests aren’t limited to this list, I wanted to give a few examples of the things I’d like to see:

  • YA/MG where the character is growing up in a foreign country, whether he or she just moved or lived there all his or her life. I’m particular interested in settings where the character lives in a rural village or town. I’d love to know how difficult it is to milk cows or use an outhouse every day of your life while simultaneously trying to understand the ins and outs of a new country.
  • YA/MG fantasy with human characters set in rich worlds not anything like Earth. I’m very fascinated when an author can create an understandable world with its own physical rules and composition. Think Dune and some of the worlds described in His Dark Materials. I grew up reading these books and would love to see more of them on my bookshelf!
  • Mystery novels with atypical detectives. I want characters that by all means should not be a detective, but against all odds they’re actually really great at the job. When I was younger, I loved The Cat Who… series. I thought it was hilarious that the cats did all the work. Whether it’s adult, YA, or MG, I’m all in.
  • Women’s fiction where the conflict lies outside of marriage or kids. I’d love the family unit to be the crutch the wife/mother relies on. Perhaps this is because I’m newly married and want to believe in all the good of it!

If you have a book like any of the above, please query me. You’ll have my full attention.

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Books that spark joy!

As many of you might already know, I’m a bit of the office optimist. I love stories that inspire, delight, and enlighten. I also am a huge fan of Ann Patchett, both her writing and her overall persona. I love that she opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, and I also love that she periodically writes for their blog.

I was pleased to see this post she wrote about books that spark joy. The list describes books she personally finds joy in, and then she gives some suggestions from her staff so there are a lot of good suggestions.

Patchett  got the idea from another employee at the store who had written about books that make you cry. The reason we all read is ultimately for the emotional , spiritual or intellectual response elicited from a writer’s words. Depending on your place in life, the books that have meaning at that time can make a lasting impact.

As a child, Judy Blume did this for me, as well as Torey Hayden’s books about troubled kids. In college, it was fiction like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History that made me want to get into the world of books. I remember walking to campus in Boston reading while I walked because it was so good. This was long before distractions were digital!

When I started working in working in publishing, I worked for Polygram Filmed Entertainment  in development and read Sleepers by Lorenzo Carcaterra overnight after faxing the ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT to LA. Then I found joy and solace in writers like Ann Patchett and Annie Proulx. I loved The Shipping News.

Today it’s more about narrative nonfiction like Brain on Fire and When Breath Becomes Air and psychological commercial women’s fiction from authors like Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn. And of course the children’s books I read with my kids. The Harry Potter series is an overall favorite, mostly because my eleven-year-old is obsessed with it, and two out of four are loving Wonder right now. They all loved my client Cecilia Galante’s upcoming touching and heartwarming The World from Up Here.

The idea of books that spark joy, and elicit that positive response that makes us feel good is such a coveted pleasure of reading that I love thinking about it in those terms.

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?

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Taken for granted

Last week, The Wall Street Journal did a story about a publisher taking an award-winning author it had published for years for granted – and what that author did in response.

Several days later, one of my best-selling authors received a marketing plan from her publisher which was a boilerplate document—with nothing in it pointing to a strategy for marketing and selling this author’s newest book in a creative and unique way.  I immediately contacted them and asked that they come back to us with a plan tailor made for this particular book.

Two months ago this same thing happened with another publisher and another one of their best-selling authors.  They presented a publicity plan to us that was filled with things that we had already learned weren’t working as well as rubber stamped ideas.  In that case, my client demanded (and received) a much more creative plan for her latest book, which is now being implemented.

And then there is the publisher who is putting together a small focus group to find out how they, as a publisher can be more effective.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard in a long time and I truly wish everyone would introduce such research into their publishing agendas.  I am willing to bet that they would learn a great deal about how they are perceived and how to improve their publishing practices.

I wonder how you—especially those of you who have been with the same publisher through a number of books—perceive the way your books have been treated over the years. Is each title dealt with uniquely?  Or, have you found yourself being taken for granted?

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Getting the spark back

I recently picked up Leslie Jamison’s stunning collection of essays, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, which I haven’t been able to put down. It’s one of those books that changes how you see the world, how you approach the motions of everyday living, and how you treat others. It is also a book that makes me want to think about writing and the craft of writing more.

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I know it can be tough to find inspiration—and time and energy—to write when you have a full-time job, are in a committed relationship or taking care of a family, when you want to find the time to also create and maintain sustainable and meaningful relationships with other human beings. It can be tough even if your full time job is to write. There are so many other things to be thinking about, to be concentrating on. Yet, Jamison’s essays remind me that it is exactly in these moments—full of activity and ordinary—that are so ripe with writing material. It’s little, intimate, ordinary details that can make a character truly stand out on the page and make us go, “Oh yes! I know exactly what he/she is feeling/thinking” or “I’ve been in that situation before too!” Her essays remind me that writing is essentially about people and the stories they carry with them—and so going out and observing, spending time with friends and family, people-watching in a restaurant or bar; these are the beginnings of characters and plotlines and settings.

Is there a book or collection of essays/poetry that you always turn to when you’re feeling uninspired? Is there an activity you like to do for inspiration or to get the writing juices flowing again? Who are your writing muses?

Pitch, pitch, pitch!

I’ve had pitching on the brain recently in all Its forms. On the baseball side, my son Henry has been obsessed with the fact that the Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman can throw over 100 MPH. And I’m dreading the fact that I have to pitch Saturday morning for my son’s little league team, having been a terrible pitcher all my life. Overhand, underhand, I just can’t seem to get the ball consistently over the plate…

But MUCH more relevantly, I ran a workshop at the SCBWI Northern California conference a couple of weeks ago on querying and pitching, and I found the results fascinating. After walking the attendees through the elements of a basic query letter, I asked them to take five minutes to put together an elevator pitch for their work. Immediately, hands went up to remind me that SCBWI does NOT allow unsolicited pitching at their conferences. To which I countered that writing a pitch is an important exercise for writers, because it helps to summarize one’s work and identify the key selling point of a story—plus, if anyone ever asks you what your book is about (which never happens, right?), you’ll have a clear answer ready to go.

So, once I convinced them it was a worthwhile exercise, I shared with them Thrillerfest’s “What if… so what?” method, which I highly recommend as a starting point. Basically, you want a pitch that’s 25 words or less that describes your book as a “what if” question so that it makes the listener respond with a “so what” question, i.e., so what happens next? And I shared a few kid-specific “What if” pitches that I thought would get most listeners to ask “so what?”:

  • What if a cat with a silly hat causes mayhem trying to entertain two kids on a rainy day?—Dr. Seuss, 19 words
  • What if an orphan discovers he’s a wizard and is sent to a secret school for witchcraft?—JK Rowling, 17 words
  • What if a naughty boy sails away to where the wild things are?—Maurice Sendak, 13 words
  • What if a teenager risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend?—Stephanie Meyer, 12 words

After their five minutes were up, we went around the room sharing what they came up with, and I have to say, I was absolutely blown away—virtually every pitch made the books sound intriguing and well-developed. And for those that didn’t quite get it, they were able to revise on the spot and come up with something more effective.

Now, whether their manuscripts live up to their pitches is another question. But I will say that the queries I’ve received since the conference that lead with their pitches have certainly gotten my attention. So if I may, I highly recommend checking out the Thrillerfest formula and working out a pitch that sings—even if you never use it in public!

And if I can make a final pitch to you, wish me luck pitching on Saturday. Regrettably, I’m going to need it…