12

Meh…

So, our next office book club book is a bestselling first novel that a publisher paid a lot of money for and that has gotten the kind of publicity most authors can only dream about (and wake up weeping once reality sets in).  I’m not going to mention what it is because (a) we haven’t discussed it yet, and (b) I don’t want to prejudice you if you’re currently reading or about to read it  (I know, I know, that’s never stopped me before, but I’m trying to turn over a new leaf).

Anyway, the issue I have with this book is that it’s…fine.  It’s okay.  It’s readable.  It’s pleasant.  It’s 20 pages of interesting and I can stop and not pick it up again for days.   What it isn’t is unforgettable and unputdownable.  There’s nothing objectionable about this novel—the writing is nice, descriptive, clean, the characters are fleshed out, believable, the premise is a good one….Zzzzzz.  I just don’t find myself thinking about any of it five minutes after I’ve put it down.  And, honestly, I routinely forget to pick it back up.

When this kind of thing happens with a book as massively hyped as this one, 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.  And therein lies the biggest issue we have as agents—we’re first and foremost readers.  And, as anyone who considers him/herself a reader knows, you can objectively see the good in a published work, but you can’t make yourself love it or even care about it if you just don’t.Sherlock

Which accounts for how a DGLM agent (whose identity I will not reveal so as not to expose him to public shaming—we’ve all already shamed him in-house) passed on a first novel that went on to sell for a cool half million dollars with movie rights following for seven figures.  Turns out, he didn’t think it was all that.  And we’ve all been there.

All of this is by way of saying, yet again, that when you get a rejection letter from an agent or publisher with the cliched “I didn’t fall in love,” trust that they’re actually telling you the truth.  You should not take that as a sign that you must give up your dreams of literary success.  It just means that you need to find that one person who does fall in love or at least in enough like to get you a big honking advance and a Netflix series deal.

What are you reading and feeling “meh” about?

6

No such thing as a free lunch (of Toast)

I had a sad Friday the 13th when a quirky website I very much enjoy called The Toast announced they are closing down. The founders of the Toast had a very frank conversation about their decision to do so; I do not know much about website monetization, but I found it a very fascinating discussion of how the websites we read every day make enough money to stay afloat (or not) and pay their writers (or not).

I wonder if the digital age has taught us to expect free content. Anytime you read (or watch or listen to) something fantastic, a lot of people were involved in creating it, from writers and editors to web designers and comment moderators. We are so used to scrolling Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and instantly clicking through to interesting links, whether at new media hubs like Buzzfeed and Slate or traditional giants like the New York Times and Washington Post without thinking about who pays the people who make those sites interesting, entertaining, and reliable. I personally have known a moment of outrage when something that caught my attention is behind a paywall! And moving from journalism to publishing, e-book piracy is an ongoing problem for publishers and authors, as this handy infographic explores. Then following last week’s BEA/Book Con in Chicago, there was conversation on Twitter about why it’s awful when galleys intended for bloggers, reviewers, and librarians turn up for sale on eBay:

As a literary agent, I obviously think it’s important to protect authors and to make sure they, and everyone who works on their books, are paid for their hard work. But on the other hand, the internet can be an amazing equalizer, bringing resources to communities who wouldn’t have them otherwise. So maybe we need to be looking for the next frontier of the internet that will protect both its important accessibility and intellectual property!

What do you think? Is the explosion of internet content training us to think we should be able to read for free? What kinds of websites or other content would you be willing to pay for? What do you think the next frontier is to monetize our favorite sites and keep the best parts of the internet accessible to all users?

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!