0

The Crowds at BookCon

We hear so much these days about how the book business is in turmoil. Major publishers are merging, budgets are being tightened, and author advances slashed. And we also hear that there is less actual reading of books going on, with people turning to gaming, the internet, and Tivo.

Then something like BookCon comes along and makes you feel a lot more hopeful.

Inaugurated last year as a one-day addition to BEA, BookCon is a consumer fair, not a trade fair like BEA.  It’s held at the Javits Center right after BEA as a chance for publishers to target their readers directly with booths, panels, promotional materials, and appearances by major authors and celebrities. Last year was successful beyond everyone’s expectations—over 10,000 people attended—so much so that this year’s event lasted two days, stretching over the entire weekend. The attendee total for this year is not in yet, but it looks to be even higher.

Bear in mind that all these people paid $40-45 cover charge per day to attend, and they schlepped all the way to the Javits Center, which—as any weary BEA visitor will attest to—is a long, dreary half-mile hike from the nearest subway station through an unlovely landscape of construction zones. Of course, some of this year’s attendees were there for the chance to meet show-business celebrities like Taye Diggs, David Duchovny, Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, and John Leguizamo, who were promoting their memoirs and children’s books.  But the meat of BookCon was the widely-attended schedule of panels and talks by authors known and soon-to-be known, including Rainbow Rowell, R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille, James Dashner, Tessa Elwood, and Helen Phillips. And there were panels on just about every genre, including romance, mystery, fantasy, and children’s books.

Anyone who thinks that books are a dying business, or that people just aren’t reading much anymore, should stop by Book Con 2016. They’ll come out of it knowing that reading is not going away anytime soon.

Did you attend BookCon this year? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

3

Fail Fast or Succeed Slowly?

I know that the “fail fast” mantra of the tech world is not universally accepted, but  I’ve heard it repeated frequently enough to wonder at its wisdom. In the world of Silicon Valley start-ups, a fast failure yields lessons learned, some takeaway that will leave the entrepreneur better positioned to monetize his or her next idea. But here on planet publishing (an alternate and occasionally dystopian reality peopled with fewer angel investors) I think “succeed slowly” makes more sense. Publishing is a long game–a marathon not a sprint–and good books take time. A work in progress can pass through several unsuccessful iterations before it sells, and the learning curve (though painful) is an essential part of the process. Writing is one of the few fields in which the totality of a practitioner’s lived experience counts as on-the-job training. I’ve seen writers whose first (several) attempts at authorhood flopped go on to become “overnight successes.”

Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing—the notion  that a writer should omit details in order to allow the reader to fully apprehend the whole—could just as easily be applied to the process of becoming a writer.  Most of the time, every visible published work floats atop a submerged mountain of failures, false-starts, and otherwise discarded manuscript pages sturdy enough to down a Titanic.

I’m no Luddite, but I’m skeptical of the fail fast preachers and their proselytes. Of course, the book business has little in common with the tech industry—no snack filled break rooms, no on-site dry cleaning , no  IPOS. As far as I can tell, conversations via emoji are still rare (and I dispute the notion that a picture is worth a thousand words, because really, can a winking smiley moon face ever be  le mot juste?) but here I’d say that’s just as well.

What do you think—can/should writers fail fast?

2

What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Creating Captivating Pitches

Creating a captivating pitch is arguably one of the hardest parts about getting an agent. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, agents are busy and read unfathomable amounts of queries every year. It’s difficult to stand out amongst the masses, but you would be surprised how easily a carefully crafted pitch can hold our attention.

Throughout my time reading queries, the ones that have stood out always followed these simple rules:

– Be reflective of what your book is and use a similar tone.

  • If you’re writing a middle grade novel about a blundering superhero, it’s okay to use goofy words (though, don’t go overboard and remember you’re querying an adult). If you’re writing an adult thriller, you shouldn’t use infantile language.

– Be concise.

  • You should be able to tell the summary of your story in 100-200 words. Any longer is likely to bore the agent, any shorter and you’re probably leaving out necessary information.

– Be clear.

  • Give the agent enough information so they’re not led on to think your book is something that it’s not. This will work against you when they read your manuscript or proposal. If they think they’re getting one thing and they actually get another, it will turn them off to whatever they’re reading. It’s similar to the idea of someone making you close your eyes, saying they’re going to feed you candy and then actually feeding you steak. You’re going to be repulsed. You may even seriously love steak, but because you were expecting candy, your tastes are off.

– Be exciting.

  • What makes your book interesting? That should be the center of your pitch. Don’t say in plain form, “My book is different because…” Make sure the distinctiveness of your novel is portrayed in your summary. If your character is a going to a magical school in a unique setting, make sure the characteristics of the school are mentioned in a way that makes it stand out from every other magical school out there.

 

I hope these tips help you make the best of your queries. I look forward to reading your captivating pitches!

1

Book Expo America — it’s here!


Every year at this time, the entire publishing industry converges at the Javits Center in NYC for the biggest annual bookseller’s convention in the U.S. It’s a massive endeavor, full of publisher booths that cost tens of thousands of dollars, author events and signings, an International Rights Center where our own Lauren Abramo will be meeting with publishers form around the world, and a whole lot of schmoozing and general conversation about books.

BEA Amy

The books that are the focus at Book Expo (BEA for short) are the ones that will be published the following fall, so Fall, 2015 this year. Galleys, or early reader copies, abound and many of us run around sharing stories about who scored what.

Last year, I had a couple of authors at BEA, and even had a client doing a cooking demo from his latest book (photo below, the waffle chocolate chip cookies were delicious!).

 

BEA Dan

The past couple of years I’ve waited to get signed books from children’s authors, and last year I scored a big one with a special BEA edition copy of B.J. Novak’s THE BOOK WITH NO PICTURES. One of my colleagues saw me and took a picture when I was getting it signed.

BEA BJ Novak

And then of course, there are the parties that precede and follow BEA. Many publishers host parties at their offices, and some rent out space at local restaurants. Last year’s Harper party was epic, and not just because they were promoting their epic reads teen website!

Last year, I even got to see my mom doing an event for her own book at BEA, a fun first.

BEA Mom

The past couple of years they’ve also included a consumer post-BEA event called Bookcon, which has generated enormous interest and huge bestselling authors come to events where the public can buy tickets, meet the authors and get books signed. This year the lineup is pretty outstanding, and I suspect it’s going to continue to be a big draw in the years to come.

Thought you might enjoy a sneak peek at what we’re all focusing on this week. If you can’t find us, now you know why!

Take a look at the website links, and let us know what events you’d be most interested in attending, and which authors you’d love to see at BEA. Maybe next year, you can join us.

 

1

Connections

Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?

1

Out-Amazoning Amazon

Let’s face it: Amazon is convenient. I try hard not to shop at Amazon, just as I avoid Wal*Mart and the like. I shop local and like to support independent business owners. DGLM is a small business, too, and supporting other small businesses is important to me. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go to Amazon.com every day. I use it for book research and to track clients’ sales; I’ll also use it to comparison shop prices on other goods. It’s impossible to avoid, even if I rarely purchase anything there.

One of Amazon’s most annoying tactics has been to try to capitalize on other retailers’ brick and mortar stores—releasing apps that allow consumers to go shop for something in the real world, scan the item with their phones, then buy the item for less money through Amazon. Amazon avoids pesky rent in expensive commercial areas, but gets the advantage of the showroom. This, understandably, drives business owners crazy. But now they have a way, of sorts, to retaliate: a Chrome plug-in that allows Amazon UK users to search on Amazon, but gives you the price of the book at your local shop—reverse showrooming, or some such! It’s completely genius! On the one hand, it almost works as a piece of criticism, making the shopper think twice before clicking the buy button. And on the other, it’s actually a great shopping tool, seeing as books are sometime cheaper at your local store than they are at Amazon. Here’s hoping someone gets this to work in the US, too.

2

So, this happened…

These days, it seems that everyone and their pet snake has a memoir.  The category is jam packed with offerings that range from the sublime (beautifully written literary narratives) to the ridiculous (vapid celebrity p.r. releases masquerading as books), as Sharon discusses below.  So, I don’t know how to feel about the news that the great Barbra Streisand has a memoir in the works.  On the one hand, the woman’s had a fascinating life and career and if she chose to write about it candidly (and has an accomplished ghost writer helping her) it could be great.  On the other hand, this is the lady who filmed herself through a Vaseline coated lens in The Mirror Has Two Faces.  On the other, other hand, even if the book is a panegyric  to herself, won’t it still be compelling?

All of this makes me think about memoirs I’d like to read, based on the perhaps misguided idea that these authors would knock my socks off  in the way Patti Smith and Keith Richards did with their books.  Can you imagine Jack Nicholson reliving his wild days in print?  Or Toni Morrison using her prodigious gifts to tell us about her journey from poverty to international acclaim? (In 2012, Morrison scrapped plans for a memoir, claiming her life was not interesting enough…whaaat?) Basically, it’s the people who probably wouldn’t ever write this kind of narrative whose books I would most want to read.

Whose memoir is on your fantasy bedside reading pile?  

4

Unexpected Authors

I am a longtime devotee of the Bachelor/Bachelorette dating shows, and mostly unashamed to admit it. A lot of the appeal for me is the shows’ host, Chris Harrison: though his job is to keep a straight face while the season’s star agonizes about being in love with too many people at once, he has a sense of humor about it. And he also blogs about each week’s episode and lets more of his snark out in the process. So I was delighted to discover that he wrote a romance novel. I can’t wait to get a copy and see if his long experience with reality TV romance gave him an advantage when creating a fictional one.

chris harriso

And it got me to thinking about others in the entertainment industry who have written an unexpected book. Of course celebrity memoirs are nothing new, but now several young comedians are coming out with essay collections. In addition to Lena Dunham’s much-heralded book out last year, Aziz Ansari has a book on modern love coming out this summer, and I can’t wait for Anna Kendrick’s recently-announced collection . Then there’s David Duchovny’s picture book, Molly Ringwald’s book of short stories, and can’t forget BJ Novak, who’s written one of each. Don’t even get me started on cookbooks!

Obviously publishers love celebrity authors – an author with a built-in fan base, media accessibility, and experience promoting their projects aggressively? SOLD! So it can feel like an unfair advantage to the unknown authors toiling patiently to get the attention of an agent and then a publisher, with nothing to offer but an incredible idea and an irresistible manuscript. On the other hand, more than a few celebrities have experienced embarrassment when a novel with their name on it just doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of true bookworms – naming no names, but it rhymes with Byra Tanks!

 As a reader, what do you think about celebrity authors exploring other genres? Are you more or less likely to buy a book with a Hollywood name on the cover? Sound off in the comments – and let me know if there are other truly great or so-bad-it’s-good celebrity books I should know about!

 

2

Comma sense

Many of you may have seen this last week, when it was all over social media:

 
Rachel Ray

 

I think I’ll stay away from Rachel’s meat loaf.

Call it the tyranny of the comma if you like, but that tiny punctuation mark exists for a very good reason, as demonstrated here.  Even among fine writers, it has become neglected of late, and that is a shame, because it clearly carries great power. Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is an entire book dedicated to the science of punctuation, and to the demons it can unleash when improperly used.

I recently read a Middle Grade manuscript that was truly impressive—good writing, a terrific plot, suspenseful storytelling. The trouble was, it took me twice as long to read as it should have, because the author had no conception of how to use commas. That meant that I had to go back and read nearly every sentence twice in order to grasp  its correct meaning. As an agent, I cannot present a manuscript to an acquiring editor if it’s in that state. I did take the author on as a client, because the book was superb–but I had to insist that the manuscript be professionally proofread and line-edited first, with an eye specifically on punctuation.

If you know or suspect that you’ve got problems with punctuation, have the final version of your manuscript thoroughly proofread and corrected before you show it to any industry professional. Some of us may give up after only a page or two when a manuscript is riddled with this problem. We may even give up after reading just the query letter. I have to be a real schoolmarm about this issue, because commas are as important to a strong sentence as words are. They are the pins that keep it firmly anchored on the clothesline. You don’t want it slipping off and falling into the mud. 

1

A Fantasy Craft Book You’ll Actually Want to Read

Wonderbook_Case_r2.inddI usually shudder at the thought of reading another writing craft book. I’ve read countless in my time as an MFA student. I learn something new every time I read one, so of course I’ll continue to read them, but after a few they all start to sound the same. They drone on like an eighty year old professor teaching ancient history—they lack imagination, soul. But when I heard about Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer, I was thrilled. It’s illustrated nonfiction filled with brilliant writing knowledge that’s presented in an enjoyable, easy to understand way. This book not only makes craft fun and colorful, it makes it something you want to put on your coffee table and show to all your friends. The art is unique all on it’s own, and it will stimulate rather than stifle your creative juices. You’ll also find inspiring essays from some of the most important authors in fantasy today, like George R.R. Martin, Lev Grossman, and Neil Gaiman to name a few. I would recommend checking it out at least, if the colorful diagrams don’t draw you in, you’re probably soulless—I mean, hard to please…