Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

Band-Aids for rejected writers

December 5, 2011

One way to salve the wounds of rejection by publishers or literary agents is to read rejection lessons received by other, far greater writers. There are numerous collections of these, but I recently stumbled across a small, new compendium of rejection letters on the web site Flavorwire.

It includes rejection letters received by Kerouac, Plath, Gertrude Stein and others, but here is my favorite. The Left Hand of Darkness won the 1969 Nebula Award and the 1970 Hugo award, and established LeGuin as one of the most respected sci-fi/fantasy writers of her generation.

 

(Of course, what we don’t know is what kind of manuscript LeGuin had turned in! Maybe it was “hopelessly bogged down” and she rewrote significantly before it was eventually published.

Then again, maybe not.)

At Squaw

August 9, 2011

This place is like Disneyland for writers. Only with Disneyland, you have one, maybe two, days of hyperventilating dawn-to-dusk overstimulation before your parents stuff you back in the car and make you go home. And here it goes on for a week.

I’m up in the Sierra at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, day three out of six. As my husband put it in an email, “Sounds like your idea of heaven.”

The view from the conference / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

There are maybe 160 writers here, many from the Bay Area but also many from as far away as Boston and Atlanta. It’s a conference, not a retreat. From 9 in the morning until 10 at night we are talking writing.

The days start with a round-table workshop from 9 to 12.  A dozen of us read and critique short manuscripts from two people each session, led by a different staff person each day – a professional writer, agent, or editor.

The afternoons are filled with three hour-long talks or panels on different aspects of craft. Yesterday we heard Diane Johnson (“Le Divorce”) talking about endings. Then came a panel that included Mark Childress, Dagoberto Gilb, Louis B. Jones and Leslie Daniels talking about creating characters. The previous day there was a fabulous talk by Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”) on dialogue.

Panel with Janet Fitch, Malcolm Margolin, Joy Harris, Andrew Tonkovich and Ben George / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Then there are more talks, or readings. Dinner. An evening presentation on still more aspects of writing; two evenings ago it was Childress and Anne Lamott in conversation about the life and craft of writing.

And did I mention that the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is in Squaw Valley? Meaning we are in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by great grey knuckles of Sierra peaks. I’m staying in a rented house with three other participants, and every morning Iook up from my bed to see pine trees.

There are a couple of outstanding and unusual things about this gathering. I suspect it is not an accident that it is called the “Squaw Valley Community” rather than “Squaw Valley Conference.” The atmosphere is friendly, supportive, collegial rather than competitive, pretentious, one-upping. Pretty different from what I remember of my undergraduate writing classes at Harvard!

The level of both critique and writing has been impressively high. In my workshop, people have commented on the work with both insight and respect. No bloody knives. It’s interesting how people writing in vastly different styles (experimental hard-boiled crime; light-hearted coming of age while travelling in Italy etc.) are able to see the other’s work for what it aspires to be, and offer helpful, supportive criticism.

We heard from two panels of agents and editors talking about the publishing industry today, but on the whole the focus is much more on the craft of writing rather than the business of writing.

Tomorrow my own chunk of novel gets the spotlight in our workshop. The next day, I have a one-on-one critique session with writer Elise Blackwell.

But even without anyone having said a word yet about my work, I’ve already learned a ton about dialogue, setting, etc. Just listening to our group critique other people’s chapters that first day allowed me to look at my own chapter in a completely new light. I could go home right now and have fodder for weeks of rewriting.

And this is just day three of six….

The valley of Squaw Valley / Photo by Jennifer Murvin Edwards

Smashwords, self-publishing and self-awareness

May 11, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was starting to educate myself about the emerging world of e-book self-publishing.

As part of that, I wrote a freelance piece for the Chronicle’s business section this week on Smashwords, a Silicon Valley company that has become a leader in enabling writers to easily self-publish e-books.

You can read my Chron story here.

Meanwhile, I had a great session with my writing group last night where they offered some on-target criticisms of a section of my novel. It clarified some significant problems with it that I need to fix.

This is such a tricky judgment to make when dealing with rejections: Is the problem with “the system” or with my work? Them or me?

You look at your work, over and over, and it really looks fine, and it’s so easy to blame others.

The fiction marketplace sucks these days…. the publishing industry is too focused on blockbusters…. or whatever.

When in reality, you need to do another rewrite.

What did I just say? “You” need to do another rewrite?

I mean: Me.

Self-publishing becomes an option

April 10, 2011

The timing has been interesting. Just as I’ve been collecting rejection notes for my more recent novel, there have been a spate of news stories about the increased profile and viability of self-publishing.

You probably know the old image of self-publishing. It was called the “vanity press,” and people paid a lot of money to publish a hundred copies of a book that was too lousy for anyone to want to read. The image was like going to the high school prom with your brother as your date — in a word, loser.

But technology — in particular, e-books and print-on-demand books that can be sold online — are changing that.

Two events that recently made headlines in the publishing world, and even rippled out into the broader media:

One of Amanda Hocking's e-books

  • Amanda Hocking, a 26-year-old unknown writer from Minnesota, started selling her paranormal young-adult novels online in March 2010. She priced them really low, from 99 cents to $2.99, and sold them primarily as e-books through Amazon and other sites. By the end of 2010, Hocking had sold 164,000 books. In January 2011, she sold 450,000. Last month, she signed a deal for over $2 million with St. Martin’s Press for her next four books.

Barry Eisler's new e-book

  • In March, best-selling thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 deal from a conventional publisher to self-publish his own books. This was a man-bites-dog story: In the olden days, someone would have self-published with hopes of moving on to a conventional publishing contract. But here someone with a solid track record in conventional publishing was leaving a six-figure contract to go the solo route.

What’s happening with all this? Basically, the development of Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other devices for reading digital manuscripts has created a viable market for e-books. And when people can download books rather than buy paper copies, it  cuts out a lot of overhead and middleman costs — printing, distribution, etc. — and allows authors to sell directly to readers through sites like Amazon.

The economics change. Former literary agent Nathan Bransford has a good blog post on this, where he notes that in traditional publishing, an author typically gets 10% of the list price of a hardcover or 7.5%  of the list price of a trade paperback. By contrast, e-books that are self-published and sold on Amazon give the author a cut of 70% if the list price is between $2.99 and $9.99, or 35% if the list price is above or below that window.

So say you go the traditional route and publish a hardcover book that lists for $25. You would get $2.50 for every copy sold.

If you self-publish that same work as an e-book on Amazon for $9.99, you would get $6.99 per copy.

That difference adds up. Selling 10,000 traditional hardcovers would give you $25,000 in royalties. Selling 10,000 self-published e-books would give you $69,900.

That’s just a random example — there are of course lots of details that vary by publisher, price point, format etc. And the self-published author has to pay costs such as copy editing, book jacket design and marketing that would be covered by the publisher in a traditional arrangement.

But even so, there’s the potential for a lot more profit with self-publishing. There’s also more room for an author to exercise control over the design and publishing process. And in reality, authors have to do most of their own marketing these days — even with a big, respected publisher — so in that area, at least, there is less of a gap between self- and traditional publishing than there used to be.

There are of course a zillion mucky, tarry pits that one can fall into with this. The folks out there shouting “Huzzah! Now anyone with a keyboard can be a successful author!” are being either naive or duplicitous. The two big hazards of self-publishing are quality and marketing.

Quality: Without agents and editors to vet and polish manuscripts, it’s possible to publish things that are not quite ready for prime time — or are just plain garbage. Most of the self-published stuff on the web right now is badly written, cliched, and filled with grammar mistakes and typos. Even Amanda Hocking: I’ve only glanced at the first pages of a couple of her books, but I hope that one of the things she gets from her $2 million contract with St. Martin’s is a good editor.

The upside of self-publishing is it gives authors more control over the final form of their work. The downside is that some authors really should have less control over the final form of their work.

And then marketing: So you self-publish your book, list it on Amazon, create a lovely web page for it, hold a book party with 40 of your dearest friends and… then what? How do any readers ever learn about your book as it swims little circles in the vast Pacific Ocean of published and self-published stuff?

There are more than 100,000 books put out by conventional publishers each year, and probably hundreds of thousands more being self-published now. So anyone contemplating self-publishing better enjoy marketing and have a darn good plan to make their work stand out.

Where does this all leave me? I’m still in the investigating-and-learning phase, trying to figure out what is involved in doing a good job of self-publishing. I recently joined a self-publishing group at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, where a bunch of writers bring in a guest speaker each week to talk about some aspect of the self-publishing process.

I’m also not sure how to determine if/when my novels are ready for self-publishing. Over 20 years of newspapering, I got used to having editors — some authority figure who reads what you turn in and says “yup, good to go,” or “nope, go back and re-work that lede.” I can certainly hire a freelance editor to go over my novel manuscripts, but there’s still no one in charge other than myself to say “good enough!” and give a final thumbs-up.

I’ve spent the past year trying to be self-critical as part of  revising my work. How do I know when it’s time to shift from the self-criticism of rewriting to the self-confidence of publishing?

So there are lots of questions, both for me personally and for this nascent industry as a whole.

But the main point is — self-publishing is now a viable option.

It may not be the equivalent of going to the prom in a limo with the high school quarterback, but it’s no longer going with your brother.

————————————–

P.S. Want more info? Check out this excellent interview of both Hocking and Eisler by San Francisco literary agent Ted Weinstein.

Best rejection ever?

March 26, 2011

For the past two months, I’ve been steadily throwing stuff at the wall – um, I mean, mailing out queries for my newest novel.  Mostly I’ve been met with silence. Sometimes that means the agent hasn’t read the query yet. Sometimes it means they’ve read it but get so many queries that they can’t bother to respond. That’s annoying, and Miss Manners wouldn’t approve, but I can understand it.

I’ve also gotten a few rejections. Some are form letters: “Dear author….” Some are nice, personalized rejections along the lines of “You’re a very good writer but I didn’t fall in love with this.”

But this one — I have to share it.  From an agency that shall remain unnamed, it takes the form rejection to a new pinnacle. (Or should that be nadir?)

To Whom It May Concern,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. Unfortunately, we did not feel your project was a right fit for our agency. But we do wish you the best of luck.

Please forgive the form letter, but the enormous volume of inquiries we receive obliges us to respond in this manner. Thank you, and again, best wishes in your future endeavors.

What sets this one apart is its To Whom It May Concern.

To Whom It May Concern!

It’s like they’re writing not to an individual author, but to an entire Department of Rejected Novel Production. Gosh, I hope I can route the rejection to the appropriate person or persons in the department, since there are so many of us here. Let’s see, there’s Rejected Adverb Writer. Rejected Pronoun Writer. Rejected Curator of Themes and Metaphors. I’m not sure if this should to go to our nice Rejected Help Desk people in Bangalore, or directly upstairs  to the V.P. of Global Rejection Sourcing….

And may! And concern!

It “may concern” me that I can’t sell the novel I’ve been working on for two years.  It just possibly may, a teeny little bit. Then again, maybe not! Maybe I am on so much Prozac that I am not the least bit concerned. Maybe I’ve left  this project behind already and am investing in thin-film solar arrays. Maybe I have received so many offers from so many publishers — oh yeah, from a couple of film studios, too, and then there’s that upcoming dinner with Michelle and Barack — that I won’t even notice that this agent is rejecting my work.

Okay, have I vented enough? Any more venting and I will be sitting in a thatched cabana, not a home office.

Despite my spleen, form rejections like this bother me less than when someone has read the entire book and rejected it.

I’ve actually had a good, busy week with some interesting ideas starting to percolate about the publishing world. But I’ll get to those in a future post.

Throwing stuff at the wall

January 28, 2011

There’s that old saying about “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.”

I’m not quite sure what is being thrown there —  mud? spaghetti? Jackson-Pollock-style paint? a toddler’s mashed peas and carrots?

But whatever it is, that’s what I feel like I’m doing with literary agents.

A little background: I’m just starting to send out query letters for Novel # 2.  With Novel # 1, I queried about 15 agents. They were carefully selected, almost all of them people with whom I had a second-degree connection. So I could say in my query letter, “Hi, I was referred by your client so-and-so.” And almost all of them gave me personalized responses. They asked to see a full or partial manuscript. When they rejected it, they sent me nice rejections. Sometimes they offered constructive criticism. A lot of the time it was simply, “I didn’t fall in love with this.”

Novel # 1 is now sitting in the corner, nursing its wounds and sulking. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put the final touches on Novel # 2 so it too can go out into the world. And this time I’m trying a different approach.

This time I’m sending query letters to a larger number of agents — some that I queried before, but a bunch where I don’t have a personal referral. This is more of a long-shot effort. Because email makes it so easy to submit queries these days, agents often receive 50 or more unsolicited queries per day. Fifty per day! This is known in the industry as the “slush pile,” and the vast majority of such submissions go unanswered or get form-letter rejections.

But one thing I’ve learned over the past year is that fiction publishing is subjective — more subjective than non-fiction. Editors won’t buy a novel unless they are really in love with it. Agents won’t represent a novel unless they are in love with it. And love is famously subjective — one person’s Romeo is another person’s Caliban.

I am hoping that Novel # 2 is more marketable and doesn’t have some of the structural issues that made life hard for Novel # 1. But even so, even if it is a perfectly viable novel, there may be 24 agents who simply aren’t grabbed by it. Then there may be the 25th who “clicks” and loves it.

Finding an agent and publisher has always been a bit of a numbers game, as attested by those wonderful rejection stories like Gone With the Wind being turned down by more than 25 publishers.

But the current economics of fiction publishing — where publishers are reluctant to take chances on anything that doesn’t look like a blockbuster — make it even more of a numbers game.

So…. out comes the mud/paint/spaghetti/peas. 

She winds up, pulls her arm back, releases the pitch — no, make that a dozen pitches —  no, two dozen pitches….

Will it stick?

What not to do as an aspiring writer

August 11, 2010

This morning I ran across two very funny (and very on-target) takes on what not to do as an aspiring writer.

One is a blog of daily excerpts from really bad query letters to literary agents. The blog is called SlushPile Hell. (For those who are happily ignorant of the world of publishing, “slush pile” refers to the gazillions of unsolicited manuscripts and queries received by agents.) Here are a couple of examples, followed by SlushPile Hell’s comments:

  • A little bit about myself:  I have a joyous personality, I love to make people laugh and enjoy laughing myself.  I consider myself compassionate and generous.

Wait, is this a query or an eHarmony ad?

  • Please consider my memoir….I know that my family and friends will, without reservation, pay at least $19.95 to make sure they have not been unfairly exposed or defamed.

Eureka! A brilliant new marketing angle! Publishers, take note: henceforth please be certain to include these taglines on all memoir covers, “Are you sure you haven’t been slandered in this memoir? Isn’t the cost of this book a small price to pay for your peace of mind?”

  • I have the first 5 chapters written. I know first-time novelists are supposed to present a finished work, but I think it would end up a much better piece for having had an editor’s guidance during the last draft.  He, in turn, would have an excuse to ask for a reduced price.  

Brilliant! Or wait, better yet, you should write just one page, let the editor finish writing it for you, and he can buy it for almost nothing. Then I, as your humble servant, shall be KING OF ALL THE AGENTS!

  •  I have attached my manuscript to this email in WordPerfect format, which I’m assuming is okay with you.

Um, the ’80s called. They want their software back.

 The other post that made my morning was by Nathan Bransford, a San Francisco literary agent who writes a blog about the publishing business. His entry today describes various “writing maladies” that people suffer such as:

Yoda Effect: Difficult to read, sentences are, when reversing sentences an author is. Cart before horse, I’m putting, and confused, readers will be.

Chatty Cathy: So, like, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but OMG teenagers use so much freaking slang!!! And multiple exclamation points!!! In a novel not a blog post!!! And so I’m all putting tons of freaking repetitious verbal tics into totes every sentence and it’s majorly exhausting the reader because WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.

Repetition: Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they’re repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers.

Shorter Hemingway: Clipped sentences. Muscular. Am dropping articles. The death. It spreads. No sentence more than six words. Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death.

Right on target! Of course, ahem, um, I would never be caught dead displaying symptoms of any of these maladies.   

Well, except maybe every teeny once in a while. When I might get a little repetitive, just a touch repetitive.

Chutes and ladders, and book writing

August 2, 2010

Remember the board game Chutes and Ladders? Where landing on some squares whisked you up a ladder and toward the finish line, while landing on others sent you plummeting down a slide back toward the start? 

I feel like I’ve just gone down a chute back to start. That’s not terrible, and I’m not feeling bad about it. It’s just a way of visualizing where I am in this process. 

Down, down, down...

This is about the path to publication and finding a literary agent. When I began focusing full-time on fiction writing a year and a half ago, I assumed I was well along the road to publication. I had published one non-fiction book already, and I had an agent who had represented me on that book. 

Combine that with nearly 20 years of newspaper writing, and I felt miles ahead of all the poor souls who stumbled about sending cold queries and collecting boilerplate rejection letters from dozens upon dozens of agents.

Well, here we are 18 months later. After sharing a couple of versions of my manuscript with my prior agent, it became pretty clear to me that she wasn’t going to take on this project – at least not without changes that were bigger than I wanted to make. Last winter I approached a few more agents with whom I had some personal connection and got similar rejections. 

On the bright side, most were lovely rejections – personal, thoughtful, even offering some praise. On the not-so-bright side, there was always a “but.” (“Your writing is lovely and has a good voice BUT…”) 

My main conclusion was that I had some more rewriting to do. My secondary conclusion was that selling fiction is damn subjective – much more subjective than selling nonfiction. 

With nonfiction, there seems to be more of a logic to getting your book sold. Agents and editors ask: Is this an interesting and new idea? Who are the potential readers and how big is the market? Does this writer have the right background and “platform” for this project? These are all questions that can be anticipated and answered. 

With fiction, there’s some of that, but there is also this big subjective element: Does the agent or editor fall in love with it?  

Do they like your characters? Do they want to keep turning pages? Do they feel a burning need to tell their friends about it? Does it make them want to laugh/cry? Does it strike some chord with them personally? 

Do they like it enough to passionately fight for all the additional layers of approval – the senior editors, marketing mavens, finance folks – needed for publication? 

In short, do they love it? 

And love is so personal, so subjective. That’s daunting, but it’s also encouraging. It’s encouraging because it means that five rejections is not definitive. Even ten rejections is not definitive. All it takes is one person to say yes – so you can slog through 57 rejections and then find one person who falls in love with your book and then yeah! you’ve got your agent or editor. 

Now, with my latest round of revising pretty much done, I’m ready to send the manuscript out again. 

But this time I’m down the chute, back at “start” with all those zillions of wannabe authors sending out cold queries and hoping to be noticed in the slush pile. 

To put it in terms of my husband’s beloved Tour de France: I thought I was in the breakaway. 

But I’m really in the peleton

And that’s okay. I just have to keep pedaling.


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