8

Listen Up!

Podcasting has been with us since around the mid-2000’s, but this past year the amount of podcast listening has increased by an amazing 24 percent. The highly addictive Serial may have had something to do with that, but what I feel excited about is the number of podcasts now devoted to books. Out of the hundreds of thousands of podcasts available to listen to at any time, there are plenty that focus on books and authors.

 

It’s now clear that podcasts can be a great marketing tool. Publishers have been doing their own podcasts; so have book critics and fans.Not only are authors being invited as guests to promote their books on podcasts, but social-media-savvy writers have started doing their own podcasts which they can make available on multiple platforms.

 

A regular personal podcast can really boost an author’s social media presence, even between book launches. And authors can help each other as well by inviting other authors to take part in their podcasts. With listernership on the rise, a personal podcast is something authors would do well to consider making a regular part of their promotional efforts.

 

If you haven’t done so yet, check out some literary podcasts like Dear Book Nerd, Slate’s Audio Book Club, and Lit Up.  For even more podcasts, covering not just reading but such topics as language and writing, this list from the Penguin Random House “News for Authors” site has some great suggestions. And if anyone knows of great book-related podcasts that aren’t mentioned here, by all means, please feel free to comment and let me know.

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.

1

Write What You Want

 

I was at Yallwest a couple of weeks ago, and something I heard at one of the panels won’t leave me. “Write what you want.” Of course, this seems very self-explanatory, and I’d heard it about 100 times before while working toward my MFA, but something about hearing it now, knowing more about publishing, made that statement more powerful.

 

While trying to get published, it’s easy to get lost in the idea of what will sell and what won’t. I see a lot of queries with, “My book will appeal to ages X through Y and people interested in…” Well that sentence alone tells me that the writer was thinking about the marketing of his or her book. Which, in a way can be good, but at what point does thinking about marketing diminish your ideas?

 

I then thought about how knowing about market trends has influenced my writing. I’ve seen a certain pattern in my idea brainstorming. I’ll have a new book idea only to get excited about it, and then immediately shy away from it because I know it doesn’t follow the current trends. I also know as a writer, that an idea can shape into something wholly different once it becomes a story. What I thought was a poor idea could have shaped into something incredible given my passion for the subject. I could have made something unlike the publishing world has ever seen, and my fear that this would be unaccepted, has squandered that potential.

 

So, that’s why I believe writers should focus more on writing what they want, rather than what they think others want, because if you’re trying to follow a trend, you will never be unique. Originality dies that way. My advice now will always be to write what you want, don’t follow another writer or what you think you should be writing. It may get you published, but that brilliant idea you squashed in order to follow the trend could have been the next break out novel.

 

What do you think about this topic? Do you follow the trends or write what you want?

15

How do I fill these shelves?!

When I moved into my house almost 7 years ago, I told myself I’d have to build bookshelves to store all my books. As the years wore on and the kids got bigger, the book piles did too. I now have books, both ones I’ve represented and ones I’ve bought or been given, in every corner of my home.

Finally, the bookshelf project has come to fruition (see below) and I now find myself with two very large empty built-in bookcases and a big question of how to fill them.

 

I’d love some help from our blog readers. How do you store your books? Are they organized by category, color, alphabetical or some combination? I love those photos I’ve seen of spines organized by color so the shelves have a rainbow effect, but it seems so impractical to me as someone who will likely be adding books on a regular basis.

 

 

Because I represent books in many categories for both children and adults, it seems that might be the way to go. As one of my friends pointed out, though, because this is the first thing you see when you walk in my house, the books should be for display rather than for storage purposes. My instinct initially was to cram as many books as possible in to the shelves, but I think she has a point. Maybe this is a case where less is more. Below you’ll see some of the books I’ve represented that I currently have stacked on my piano.

 

I also like the idea of doing a combination of horizontal and vertical stacks. Should there be a pattern to that?

 

Would love to know what you think and how you display your books. Please feel free to send photos along. I love the visuals. And if anyone would like to volunteer to come help with what feels like an overwhelming project, please let me know!

 

3

What’s missing in fiction?

I admit that sometimes I grow frustrated with the seemingly endless homogeneity of submissions. Then I ask myself what it is that I want to see. The easy answer is that I want to see something that hasn’t been done a million and one times before. But are there any underrepresented subjects in fiction?

Well, this was actually the topic of a recent NYTBR “Bookends” piece, and it’s one I’ve been considering for a while because, honestly, not that many come to mind. Sure, it would be nice if fiction had a smidge more joy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s underrepresented. Novels need conflict after all. Deb’s desire to see fiction about finding a place to live gave me some interesting ideas though.

Where are the novels about the exorbitant cost of high education in America, and the average college student’s struggle to pay off student loan debts while working a low-paying job for which they’re overqualified? Or the ones about aging baby boomers sequestered in nursing homes, forced to adapt to a new way of living? Those novels likely exist already, but not in the same abundance as those about dysfunctional families.

Can our readers come up with some more underrepresented subjects? What would you like to see more of in contemporary fiction?

2

Those conventional publishing rules…are made to be broken

PicMonkey CollageLast week I had lunch with one of my favorite editors and we got to talking about the state of publishing and what was working and what wasn’t.  Somewhere along the line, we began to try to identify all of those “rules” which we were taught about the business—and discovered that in this ever changing world most of them no longer held.

Here are some examples:

Green covers don’t work—and then there was GOOD NIGHT MOON.

Books about dead or abused children won’t sell—now the true crime category is back and books like Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE have become bestsellers.

Short story collections don’t do well.   And then along comes Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD.

Books about death are a “no no” but what about BEING MORTAL and WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR?

And, finally, we all know that books with unlikeable protagonists definitely don’t work, but what about those in GONE GIRL or Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS?

I guess rules are made to be broken and, I have to say, I am always delighted when those in our industry are.  It makes life so much more interesting.

I wonder whether you have any examples of what you have been told definitely won’t work…until it does.  Let me know.

The Green-Eyed Monster

I had a whole nother blog post planned for today, and then Eric beat me to the punch yesterday with his fun discussion of quarterback Andrew Luck’s bookclub for “Rookies” and “Veterans.” My first thought when I saw Eric’s post was was “noooooooooooooo!” And then I realized that was the perfect new idea right there!

That “oh no! I was going to write about that,” reaction is so common in publishing. Whether you’re a writer toiling away in the query trenches or a seasoned author brainstorming ideas for a new series, I’m sure you’ve felt that sinking feeling when you see a new book come out with a premise or setting similar to yours. You’ve been working so hard for months, or even years, on an idea you love and you worry that there’s no room left for it now. It even happens for agents and editors when we see a book announced and worry it will affect the momentum for one you’ve been working so hard on. Even if a book is not very much like yours at all, you might feel nervous, competitive, even jealous or angry (yes, it happens!) when you see another writer get a great book deal, a lot of buzzy press, or an award.

That’s a normal feeling and it’s okay to feel that way for up to five minutes. Then you gotta shake it off and go back to your work. Because that’s all you really have a hand in, right? Publishing often can seem like a lot of luck and a lot of flukes, but as my client Rena Olsen discussed in a smart set of tweets yesterday, you’ll never succeed to any extent if you aren’t working extremely hard.


And someone else’s success does not get in the way of yours!  I love the way agent Carly Watters put it in her own very smart set of tweets this morning:


After all, there are only seven stories under the sun, and Shakespeare wrote them all already. Change up your angle if you must, or get your keyboard smoking after a new idea, but don’t give up and don’t get jealous. Just get writing!

 

 

 

0

Touchdown!

How terrific is it that Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has started his own book club? And not just among his friends, but a nationwide, Oprah-style club that’s social-media based and welcomes as many members as possible?

A bookworm since childhood, Luck has always been famous among his teammates for making reading suggestions and even for gifting his fellow players with books he thinks they’ll like.  “He’s definitely well read,” says center Khaled Holmes, “and his recommendations are pretty good.” With The Andrew Luck Book Club, he’s started off with two books. For those young club members he dubs “Rookies,” the choice is the 1990 YA classic Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, an inspiring story—one that Luck has loved since childhood–about overcoming racial divides. For “Veterans,” he’s picked Daniel James Brown’s highly-lauded bestseller The Boys in the Boat, the story of the U.S. Olympic rowing team in 1936.  Readers are invited to comment on and discuss the books through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and Luck uploads frequent videos in which he talks about the books and about his enthusiasm for reading.

To me it all sounds like a fine way to get that tricky demographic, Reluctant Readers, to pick up a book. And it’s great that Luck is targeting both kids and adults.  Both of his book choices share the common theme of athletics, which is not surprising. And though I don’t expect his next picks to be novels by Nicholas Sparks or Barbara Taylor Bradford, it will be interesting to see whether he is able to push beyond sports-related material.

I’d love to see other public figures follow Luck’s lead and start their own book clubs.  Louis CK really gets social media and knows how to work it; I wonder what he might do with his own club? And Barack Obama is going to have a lot of time on his hands very soon….

Do you have any thoughts on what well-known people should start a national book club? If you do, feel free to let me know!

0

Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.

 

0

It’s never too late to start writing

What do you think about waiting until you’re almost 80 to start a new career? If you’re legendary book editor Dick Jackson, the answer is no time like the present!

As reported in a fascinating article in Publisher’s Weekly, Jackson retired from book publishing in 2005 after a long and very successful career as a children’s book editor. It was in 2013 when he was being treated for cancer that this creativity as an author was piqued and he began pitching ideas to former colleagues. He is still in treatment and his cancer is not in remission, and yet he now has 8 (yes, that’s 8!) picture books under contract! The first of which, HAVE A LOOK, SAYS BOOK, has just been published by Atheneum, where he previously had his own imprint. At the age of 81, he is making his debut as an author! And what a debut it is, with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes. Future books will be illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and Laura Vaccaro Seeger. It helps to have the kind of deep experience and relationships in children’s book publishing that he has, but even so it’s an amazing journey he’s taken from editor to author, especially given the circumstances of his age and health.

I hope this story serves as inspiration for those of you aspiring writers who might be feeling discouraged or frustrated that the process isn’t always fun, fast or rewarding. You never know when or how that might change and you will get the spark that becomes your first published book. Keep on keeping on!