The agency contract, Part IV: Show me the money

Did you think I was going to sign off on my series on contract explanation without addressing the issue most on the average agent-seeking writer’s mind? Perish the thought.

Yes, Virginia, the agency contract will specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. And no, abiding by this is not left up to the goodness of your heart: if you are represented by an agent, your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agents’ percentage deducted from it.

Typically, in literary agencies, this percentage for is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%. In either case, the contract may either be on a yearly (or longer) basis or a per-project basis: find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you are planning to write more than one thing, do be sure before you sign that your agent will want to represent everything you want to write.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so the point of examining your contract is not to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it willsubcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well. So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convolutedexplanation. Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. (This situation is not at all beyond belief: HARRY POTTER is, I am told sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis.

However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author. Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 6 months, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do not assume, however, that you will ever see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy – yes, even before the agent has countersigned it – so you may refer to it later.

I know that this series has occasionally read as if agents are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae when dealing with them. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to you.

On to cheerier topics tomorrow, thank goodness! Keep up the good work!

Titles that are, um, catchy

Yesterday, I started to answer a multi-part question from loyal reader and excellent question-asker MooCrazy, but I ran out of time before I could get to one of its constituent parts. To wit: “Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying..?” Today, I would like to tackle this good question, and the issue of title malleability in general, at my characteristic great length.

As anyone in the industry will tell you, a good, eye-catching title can be a real selling point for a book. Rather like a Hollywood hook in a verbal pitch, it can grab the query-reader’s attention memorably in a very short space of time. Not to mention the fact that an interesting title indicates the author’s inherent creativity far better than, “I hope you will be interested in my as-yet-unnamed novel…”

Someone might mention the latter point to the fine people who title movies for a living. Stealing the title of a pop song from thirty years ago (I’m looking at YOU, PRETTY WOMAN) doesn’t exactly scream out Macarthur genius-grant levels of creativity, does it?

There are plenty of formulae out there for constructing a good title — gerund + name, as in JUDGING AMY (or CHASING AMY, come to think of it) has been popular for far too long, in my opinion — but to be absolutely honest with you, this is yet another of those areas where most industry insiders cannot give you any clearer direction than anyone you might meet browsing in your neighborhood bookstore. Like the famous Supreme Court dictum about pornography, almost no one in the industry can define precisely what a good title is, but they all know it when they see it.

Personally, I favor arresting titles over merely descriptive ones or puns: given the choice amongst Bob Tarte’s titles, for instance, I would go for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS over FOWL WEATHER every time. Why? Well, I dare you: just try to forget ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.

In fact, an excellent test of a good title is to tell it (ONCE) to a non-literary friend, then ask her to repeat it back to you an hour later. Better still, tell her all of the titles you have brainstormed for your book, and see which she remembers an hour later. Because — and this is a HUGE difference between how writers think of titles and how the rest of the industry does — from an agent or editor’s point of view, THE TITLE’S PURPOSE IS MARKETING, NOT BOOK DESCRIPTION.

Pause for a moment and let that one sink in. In the minds of the industry, the title exists solely to cajole readers into buying it. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but they don’t consider naming a book an art.

So the more memorable your working title, the better. If you can work an apparent paradox into your title, for instance, it is more likely to be remembered. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is catchy, because of the contrast between a scary word (poison) and a comforting one (Bible); THE MALTESE FALCON, by contrast, is merely descriptive — something you would remember about the plot after you read the book, certainly, but not an arresting enough image to make you snatch the book from a shelf.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of a title as external to the book, but when you’re querying, marketing your book needs to be your top priority, alas. A title that requires further explanation, as most that are content-specific do, will probably not catch an agent’s eye as well as one that does not. Thus, while CATCH-22 is actually an extraordinarily apt title for the novel — the concept repeated at least a hundred times throughout the course of the book — in order to query the book in the current publisher’s market, you would have to EXPLAIN what a Catch-22 was before the title seemed apt. And poof! There goes a paragraph of your query letter.

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I notice that every single one of that list I have run before, the five immense bestsellers that were each rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, all had titles that required further explanation! Lookee:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

You can just hear an agency screener muttering, “Who the heck is Auntie Mame?” can’t you?

So if you go for a descriptive title, make sure it conjures up some pretty powerful mental images in the observer. You might not know instantly from the title what SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS was about, but it evokes a lovely mental picture, doesn’t it?

Inserting a strong image also hedges your bets. If you go for image, rather than just the rhythm of the words, you can sometimes make your book stick in the head of an agent or editor who does not remember the title per se: not everyone necessarily remembers the entirety of the title of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, as such, but trust me, they do remember that both a Buddha and water are involved.

All that being said, as most authors who have seen a first book of theirs go through the wringer of a publishing house know to their sorry, the title the author picks at the manuscript stage is almost NEVER the title that ends up on the published book. Often, an agent will switch a title to something more likely to catch a particular editor’s eye, but in general, it is the publishing house’s marketing department who gets to title the book — and if that happens, the author is usually contractually barred from changing it back.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. Knowing this in advance can help you keep your equilibrium when the inevitable happens, and not fall so in love with your title that it’s a deal-breaker.

Allow me to share my own tale of woe on the subject. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held more than my share of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed, so although I was fond of the original title of my memoir — IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, I certainly did not expect it to stick. I knew that my title likely to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, in short, to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not even vaguely adequate to deal with the situation when my publisher decided to change the title of my book. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to alter my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

So how did I end up with a title I positively hated? Well, my memoir is about my relationship with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and at two distinct points, my publisher planned to release my book to coincide with the filmed version of one of his books, A SCANNER DARKLY. The instant that decision was made, my fate was sealed: the marketing department decided within the course of a single closed-door meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of the movie.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I had been looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means? Yes, it deals with dark issues, but it’s a funny book. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, an adverb can’t be used to modify a noun.”

My editor was unsympathetic to my concerns. “It was the marketing department’s idea. They think it’s, um, catchy.”

The succeeding scintillating discussion on matters logical and grammatical lasted over six months — and no, I still haven’t found out what the title means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed. Even after the movie had been released, and the book still had not, I was stuck with a title that I could not possibly justify if somebody asked me about it at a book reading.

And at no point in the process did anyone affiliated with the process every give even passing consideration to what I think would be ANY author’s main complaint in the situation: the title had nothing to do with the content of the book. The marketing department would never know that, however, because to the best of my knowledge (avert your eyes, if you are easily shocked), no one involved in the titling decision ever read so much as a page of the book.

Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, bless them, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question heavenward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology, rather than marketing. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it without overt protest: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers? And didn’t you wonder why I had such a weird title for my memoir?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer my ostensible handicap of postgraduate degrees.

Let me tell you, this is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: an author who doesn’t like the title imposed upon her book is an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to her publishers, and a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to her friends. All anyone can agree about is that she is ungrateful beyond human example. Sorry about that.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. At the querying stage, pick an eye-catching title, but try not to fall too in love with it. Maybe you should hold your actual favorite in reserve, for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks, when they ask you in belligerent tones, “Well, do you have a better idea?”

Something tells me that you do — but don’t worry; I won’t say a word about it to your prospective publishers. Keep up the good work!

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery, Part II

When I left off last night, I was initiating you into the mysteries of how advances work, working up to an answer to Jude’s excellent question, ““How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” Today, I want to talk about how the general rules governing advances might apply to you, and how you can prepare yourself for your first publishing contract.

An advance, as I told you yesterday, is essentially an unrepayable loan against the author’s future royalties for a particular book. (Unrepayable in the sense that if your book sales are slow, and your royalty percentage does not reach the amount of the advance, you are not obligated to return the difference to the publishing house.) The more copies the publishing house expects to sell, the higher the advance — with certain exceptions, of course, because this is the publishing industry, and there are exceptions to most rules.

Royalty rates vary, based upon what your agent negotiates into the publication contract, but generally speaking, first-time authors get a lower percentage of the cover price than better-established ones. Also, the author typically gets a significantly higher percentage of hardback sales than trade paper, and trade paper endows a higher percentage than paperback. So the anticipated format of release — which is utterly beyond the author’s control — will have a significant impact upon the amount of the advance a publisher offers.

Everyone with me so far? Okay, let’s get down to dollars and cents.

I could sugar-coat this, but I’m not going to lie to you; if you’re serious about your writing, you deserve to know the truth. The plain fact is, these days, it is EXTREMELY rare for a first book by a non-celebrity to attract a large enough advance to allow its author to quit her day job (yesterday’s first blog to the contrary). Buy a car, maybe — but for fiction, it might not always be a NEW car, if you catch my drift.

Why so low? Because the advance will be a reflection of how the publishing house thinks the book will sell, and a first-time author is usually not walking into the deal with an already-established readership. This is why, for those of you who read Publisher’s Weekly , bloggers tend to command higher advances for their books than other first-time authors, even when those books are simply the blogs repackaged into book form: there is an already identified, preexisting audience for such books (who have, presumably, already read everything the book except for the introduction and Library of Congress number). Unfortunately, while there are quite a few fiction blogs out there, they tend not to command immense readerships, so this route to self-improvement is not available to all writers.

Also, for a first book, the planned print run is generally small. For the purposes of illustration, let’s assume that you’ve written a beautiful, lyrical literary fiction book that the publisher anticipates will sell 3,000 copies. You do the math. If it comes out in hardback (and, increasingly, first novels are being released in trade paper, which automatically means a lower royalty percentage for the author), it might retail for around $24. Let’s assume you got a good contract, and you’re entitled to 10% of the cover price. That’s $2.40 per book, less your agent’s 15%, so $2.04 per book is yours. If every single copy of the initial printing sells, your share would be $6,120.

And at most publishing houses, they would assume that the first print run of LF would not sell out; they’d be banking on readers of your second and third books coming back and buying it after you are better established. So your advance might be in the neighborhood of $2,000 — less, of course, your agent’s 15%.

I heard that gigantic collective gulp out there. Well might you gulp. If only one publisher is interested in a book, there is little incentive for the advance to be larger.

A small advance can be quite a shock to those new to the game, especially if the acquiring editor makes a ton of manuscript revisions a condition of the sale — which is far from uncommon — or with a nonfiction book, where the book is sold not on the finished manuscript, but upon a proposal and the first chapter. Ideally, if you write NF, your agent will fight to try to raise the advance to a point where you could be writing full-time in order to finish the book, but it does not (and I hate to tell you this, but it’s my job) always work out that way.

There is a huge difference, from the writer’s point of view, between being paid a month’s salary to make major revisions and being expected to take an unpaid vacation or use up all of your accrued sick leave to do it. Or, still worse, NOT having benefits and needing to take the time off anyway, or not being able to take any time off at all. How to pay for revision time can be an issue even if the advance is relatively large: even if the sum offered is princely, it’s not as though the author gets the entire amount in a single chunk when the ink is still fresh on the publishing contract.

Was that primal scream I just heard the sound of 500 of you crying, “Wha-?!?”

That’s right: the advance is paid in installments, either in two (one upon contract signing, the second upon the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript) or three (one upon signing, the second upon acceptance, the third upon publication). To burst even more bubbles, some publishers are notoriously slow in coming up with the dosh; yet another excellent reason to affiliate yourself with an agent, so you have someone fighting hard to extract your money from sometimes recalcitrant publishers’ pockets.

Which continues to be true down the line, incidentally. Royalties are not typically paid to the author as soon as they come in: most publishing contracts specify that they will be paid every six months. So even if your book is selling extremely well, you might not see your share for quite some time.

Have I depressed you into a stupor? Or motivated you to get started on that second book?

The latter, I hope, because the good news is, this is a business where your efforts may be slow to pay off initially, but when they do, they can pay off for decades. Most writers who make a living at it are receiving royalties on multiple past works, not living from advance to advance. So if you’re in it for the long haul, remember, your first book is the Open Sesame to the publishing world, not to the room with the heaps of gold in it.

The Open Sesame is the first necessary step, however, and by being aware that a big advance may not mark the occasion of your first book’s sale, you can concentrate on the achievement itself, rather than the up-front monetary award. I know too many authors who were so intent upon the advance that they were disappointed — disappointed! — at their first publishing offers.

As I’ve said before and shall no doubt say again, if you’re planning a lifetime of writing, it is VITAL to recognize your achievements along the way. Yes, there are overnight successes in this business, but usually, those overnight successes have been toiling for years in obscurity first, either having trouble finding an agent or publisher, or writing books that sold only a few thousand copies each. (Again, you do the math.)

But those small books were successes, too, as was finishing each manuscript, landing an agent, and yes, signing with a publisher for a tiny advance. All should be celebrated, and heartily — because, frankly, are any of us in this ONLY for the money?

That being said, I hope all of us make a lot of money at it.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this topic, talking about ways you can find out what first books in your genre are attracting these days and how to talk to a prospective agent about it without sounding greedy and/or unrealistic. Also, I will discuss how agents’ submission strategies can affect the probability of your book’s being the object of competitive bidding, which is the best means to a larger advance.

Keep up the good work!

The great advance mystery

Okay, I didn’t want to leave bad feelings hanging in the air, so I’m posting for a second time today. I hate not feeling upbeat about the publication process, even for a few hours. Onward and upward, as I always like to say.

Thank goodness, then, that intrepid reader Jude wrote in this weekend to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind: “How much does a first book usually garner in way of an advance?” I was shocked — SHOCKED, I tell you — to realize I had NEVER done a post on the subject. So thank you, Jude, for reminding me to do it.

We’ve all heard the stories, haven’t we, of the struggling author plucked from obscurity by the sale of that first book? How Stephen King misheard how many digits were in the advance for CARRIE when his agent called to tell him about it — and then dropped the phone when he finally understood how much money was involved? How Jean Auel’s THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, garnered what was at the time the highest amount ever commanded by a first novel at auction? How occasionally literary novels wow ‘em so much at Farrar, Strauss that the advances run into six figures?

And on a more modest level, how, referring to my last blog, authors get large enough advances to take extended leaves of absence from their day jobs in order to write and revise?

Before I launch into a description of how the average book’s experience is different from these, let me ask a few questions to those of you new to dealing with the publishing industry: are you sitting down? With a cool drink in your hand, and perhaps a teddy bear to clutch? Have you taken any necessary medication to ward off heart attack or stroke?

If the answer to all of these questions is yes, let’s back up a little and define our terms, so we can discuss the first-time author’s advance productively.

For those of you new to the biz, it’s called an advance because it is an up-front payment of the author’s future royalties, a percentage of the cover price of the book. Essentially, the amount of the advance is the publishing house’s very conservative estimate of how many copies they expect to move. Why conservative? Because if your book does not sell as well as they think, you don’t have to pay back the difference.

Sort of like THE PRODUCERS, isn’t it? An author could conceivably make more money on a heavily-hyped failure — defined by the industry as a book that was expected to sell 100,000 copies but only sold 10,000 — than on a sleeper that was originally expected to sell 3,000 but actually sold 10,000. What a world!

Actually, that doesn’t happen all that often, since (a) a large advance usually means that the publisher will invest more resources in promoting the book ,and (b) the advance calculations are ALWAYS intended to fall on the short side, so the publisher will not be out of pocket much.

How do they calculate it, you ask? Well, it’s sort of as if your parents sat you down a year before your wedding and said, “Here’s what we expect the cash value of your wedding presents to be. If you will sign the rights to any future presents over to us, we will pay for the wedding — gown, invitations, food, everything — and pay you, say, 7% of the cash value of the first 50 gifts, 10% of the second 50 gifts, and 12% for gifts #101 on. We will give you now, at this very moment, a check for 2% of what we think the ultimate cash value of all of your gifts will be, in return for signing our contract. We’ll pay you the rest of your percentage after the gifts have rolled in. Of course, if you would prefer to pay for the wedding all by yourself, you don’t have to agree to this, but we can afford to throw you a much, much bigger wedding than you can possibly throw for yourself — with invitations sent out to thousands of people on your behalf — which may ultimately translate into many more presents.”

Welcome to the world of publishing. A heck of a lot happens before the author gets to toss that bouquet around.

Tomorrow, I shall go into why it actually is good for you to be aware of the norms of the industry, and how you can go about making yourself a savvier hoper. The more you know, the better you can work the system, and the more of a joy you will be to the agent of your dreams!

Onward and upward, everybody. And keep up the good work.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

I don’t normally get all Biblical on you fine people, but on this particular Sunday, I’ve just had some rather startling news: a writer friend of mine, someone whom I have helped until I was blue in the face, has just landed a rather large publishing deal. With a big enough advance that she can take months off her day job to finish the book — since it’s a NF book, she only has a chapter and the proposal written.

She has, in fact, just achieved the writer’s dream. So why am I not dancing and singing and inviting all of us to celebrate her success?

Normally, I would. You know me — usually, I am the first to jump up and down when someone hits a home run in the publishing game. Especially a friend. And even more especially someone I have helped along the way — not only did I spend a month and a half going over her book proposal with her, but I more or less bullied my wonderful agent into first talking with her (when’s the last time a powerful NYC agent gave you twenty minutes of phone time mid-project?) and then into reading her proposal toute suite.

Nor was that all. 100% of my friend’s information about how to write a book proposal came from this very blog and my in-person assistance. Heck, I once edited one of her proposal drafts when I had a fever of 102 — as her friend, not as her hired editor — because she was in a panic about a deadline.

I seriously believed in this writer, in short.

I don’t like to toot my own horn, but considering that my friend had NEVER queried before, these boosts probably took at least 3-5 years off her road to publication, conservatively speaking. I am not exaggerating — she knew so little about how the industry works that she didn’t even know that I had hooked her up with one of the best agents in the world for her type of book until AFTER she had signed — and then only because other writers in her area gasped when she told them who her agent was.

Yes, you read that right: my friend was so new to the process that she hadn’t even bothered to do ANY research about an agent before signing with her. That should make those of you who have been conscientious in your querying faint.

But hey, I try to be as supportive of other writers as I can; I’ve been working hard to be happy for her, even though, strictly speaking, she hasn’t paid her dues. She’s a good writer, and a lot of people forget in the early stages of the process that kind authors like me who are willing to help those earlier on are not simply public utilities provided by the universe for their assistance, but human beings who might conceivably like to be thanked every once in awhile.

Okay, so maybe it was a little overly-trusting of me to teach someone I had known less than a year to make Mediterranean recipes that have been in my family for generations (had I mentioned she was writing a food memoir?). Perhaps it was overly-tolerant to let someone who really didn’t want to get published any more than any of the other writers I knew hijack what was supposed to be my Christmas vacation to teach her how to do a book proposal. But honestly, there was really no graceful way I could whack her over the head and say, “Um, would you mind learning enough about the business to be grateful for what you HAVEN’T had to go through?”

So I held my tongue, even when she started speaking about parts of the book that had been my suggestions as her own unaided ideas. Even when she implied to her blog readers (she’s a fairly successful blogger) that she had gotten her agent through a magical process of networking set up by the universe, apparently without any individual human being having made any exceptional effort on her behalf. (It made me feel like a telephone operator, not a friend.) Okay, I put my foot down when she started stealing my recipes (and my godmother’s, while she was at it) for her book, but other than that, I just was supportive and waited for more experience in the business to teach her that it’s a bad idea not to give credit where credit is due.

Then her book garnered offers from two major publishing houses — and she didn’t even bother to pick up the phone or drop me an e-mail to let me know.

I had served my purpose, I guess. The only reason I found out that she had sold the book at all was that I had sent her an e-mail about something else. Yes, dear readers, I honestly did find out about her first book sale as an, “oh, by the way.” After she had informed other friends, evidently. As nearly as I can tell, I was pretty much the last in her circle of acquaintance to know — after I had given her such a boost in her career that from the beginning of the proposal-writing process to book deal was 10 months.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I don’t know how much the publisher is giving her. I am not going to ask. I would rather not know to the penny how much my friendship is worth.

I am writing about this not just to vent (although that’s feeling pretty good, too, of course), but as a double-sided cautionary tale — no, make that triple-sided. First, since publishing is a business that thrives on personal connections and writers believing in one another, it is — as I expect I have pointed out before — an environment where we’re all better off if we are eager to help other writers.

If I did not believe that we all have an ethical obligation to help and a need to be helped, I certainly would not devote so much time to this blog. I genuinely hope that the advice I give here will help you succeed, and that as success builds upon success, you will help others in your turn.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t understand that generosity should be reciprocal; writers like my former friend, who will grasp at any connection they can to clamber more quickly up the proverbial ladder to success, are not all that rare, alas. Do bear this in mind the next time you meet an established writer and ask for advice or a recommendation: that hesitation you see will be a direct result of having been used before.

The unappreciative make it harder for everyone else.

Second, it is very, very common for those of us with good agents to be asked by writers we barely know to show material to our agents, to lobby for representation. This is a more substantial favor than most aspiring writers realize: most of us will NEVER ask such a large favor of our agents without reading the manuscript in question first, at least in part, so the request generally entails investing a fair amount of our time. And since a well-known writer might get four or five of these requests at any given writers’ conference, that’s a substantial charitable donation to the arts.

Why must we read it first? Well, if the requesting writer turns out NOT to be very talented, it will make it significantly harder for us to make similar referrals in future. If the requester is talented but turns out to be hard to work with or just a jerk, that will necessarily reflect badly upon us, too.

Which is why it is considered very, very rude within the industry to walk up to someone you’ve never met before and hand him a manuscript. No matter who he is. If you want to enjoy a good reputation, NEVER force a ream of paper upon someone who hasn’t asked for it.

Pitch as often as you like, but don’t penalize busy people for being too polite to say no. (Oh, yes, sometimes they will take the manuscript — but the ones that do are usually authors new to the game who are afraid that they’ll get a reputation for being mean if they do not say yes to all comers. It’s really not fair to take advantage of that fear: if your first book had just come out, and you were promoting it while still working your day job, wouldn’t you resent being handed 500 pages by a total stranger?)

Third, don’t leave all of your gratitude to grace the acknowledgments of your first published book. If people are kind enough to help you now, express gratitude now — and no, just saying, “Gee, thanks” is not always sufficient for a major favor. For heaven’s sake, send flowers every once in awhile.

And remember, no one in this business (or any other, for that matter, outside the clergy) is under any obligation to do favors for people they don’t know. Bear in mind that you ARE in fact asking a personal favor if you ask for advice or assistance, a time-consuming, genuine drain upon a generous person’s limited time. Please don’t treat any author, agent, editor, or writing teacher’s having been nice to you once as an invitation for further imposition.

Trust me, you don’t want to be the person about whom someone in the industry says, “Wow, I should have said no three favors ago.”

Above all, try to place yourself in the shoes of the person you want to help you. Treat them as you would like to be treated — because, in the long term, being considerate can only help you in this business. Not only does this make abundant ethical sense, but this is a business where people have long, long memories: it is certainly not unheard-of for an act of over-eager imposition to catch up with its author years later.

As for my friend, well, bless her for landing the book contract. I’m glad she’s making money for our mutual agent, and I hope her book is very, very successful; as I said, she’s a good writer. I even sincerely hope that she becomes a major writing star. And I wish for her the best gift of all: that she will come to realize that in this industry, as in life, other people don’t just exist to bring her benefits. In a generous universe, we all need to help one another.

There endeth today’s lesson. Keep up the good work, and be kind to one another.

Manuscript revision IV: I’m running as fast as I can

Hey, good news, readers: as of today, ALL of my 2006 blogs are now available on this site! That includes the old ones from the PNWA Guest Writer series, as well as the new — and on this site, they’re sorted by topic! That’s 892 pages of bloggy goodness all ready for you, my friends. Quick, how many words is that in standard format, Times New Roman?

“Why, 223,000 words, of course,” I hear those of you who have been visiting my blog for a while say. “What else would it be?”

My heart swells with pride. See, we’ve all been learning. (And if the calculation above is mystifying you, you might want to go back and check the blogs under SUBMISSION and FORMATTING A MANUSCRIPT, to learn how the pros calculate word count.) I’m adding a few more every day, traveling back in time, so eventually, my whole magnum opus will be available here. Hooray!

Back to business. I have been writing over the last few days about how to make your submissions more compelling to agents and editors. Today, I would like to talk about running order.

Ask two-thirds of the querying writers in North America if they have considered rearranging their running orders to make their books easier to market, and they will stare at you as though you suggested including a small live piglet in their submission packets. Sure, it COULD be done, but who in his right mind would want to do such a thing? Naturally, the story needs to be told in its current order.

But know this, submitters near and far: professional readers, as a general rule, do NOT consider a submitted book’s running order inviolate. In fact, while they are reading, they frequently question the wisdom of authorial choices on the subject with wild abandon. Would the story have been more compelling told in a different order? they ask the pages in front of them. Did the narrative stop dead because of the insertion of a paragraph of background information? Is the author telling too much, or too little?

You may, in short, be asked to rearrange the whole darned thing, even if they like it.

And when I say MAY, I am perhaps understating the probability. Switching the running order of a book is one of the most common of editorial requests, right up there with “lose the feminist best friend,” “cut the gay brother,” and “does this character really have to die?” I know it is horrible to contemplate slicing up your baby and rearranging its bits for the amusement of people in New York, but in the long run, you will probably be happier if you start considering the reshuffling possibilities of your novel as early in the composition process as possible. It will help you respond more quickly — and less angrily — when the call comes.

And that will earn you a reputation as a professional writer who can take serious criticism. (As opposed to that other kind, who ends up serving 5-7 for going after her agent with a hammer after the 47th revision request.)

Oh, the stories I could tell you about editorial revision requests… but I’m fond of you people; I don’t want to induce nightmares. I shall limit myself to one. A good friend of mine — let’s call her Sheila — had her first novel bought by a major press as part of a package deal with one of her agency’s major clients (yes, Virginia, this does happen from time to time). But as the minor player in the deal, she did not have a very strong bargaining position; in fact, I strongly suspect that the first set of editorial advice that she received from the publisher was intended to make her curl up in a ball and disappear forever. It amounted to this: lose the first third of the book, beef up the familial relationships, and while you’re at it, cut the rape.

Well, naturally, Sheila called me in tears; she had been working on this book for years. I was a good person to call, as it turned out, because being an editor, I think like one: when I had read the first version, I was already thinking of the possibility of changing the running order in order to strengthen the essential plot line. So, as soon as she stopped sniffling, I told her the five rather simple changes that I thought she could make to transform the book into what the editor at the publishing house wanted.

She was absolutely silent for a full 45 seconds. “But that could WORK!”

Why was Sheila so incredulous? Because, like most novelists, she had never seriously considered the possibility of rearranging the running order of her plot. In her mind, as in so many writers’, the book WAS its running order. But novels — good ones, anyway — have a whole lot of elements; if the characters are strong, they can move in different directions. Not that a plot is a stack of Legos, precisely, that could be put together in a million different ways, but some modification is usually possible.

Well, Sheila took my advice, and rearranged the book. The editor was pleased, and the book moved closer to publication. Happy ending, right?

No — it turned out that the book’s flexibility (and Sheila’s) was even more important to its survival. Shortly after Sheila completed rewrites, her editor moved to another publishing house. (Don’t gasp too sharply; it happens all the time. My memoir’s editor was laid off three months after I delivered the manuscript.) In comes a new editor, with a brand-new set of expectations — and none too pleased to have inherited this particular book. Sheila was asked to change the running order again.

“But how is that possible?” I hear some of you cry. “Wasn’t there a contract? Weren’t there limits to how often the author could be forced to revise?”

Publishing contracts are notoriously flexible — at least, where impositions on the writer are concerned. The editor in charge of the book is the editor in charge of the book — unless she is no longer employed there. Then it’s a totally new ballgame. You know how I have been hammering on the fact that agents and editors are not a group of people with monolithic tastes? Well, nowhere is it more evident than in a situation like this.

So what could Sheila do? She revamped the book.

Just before it was scheduled to go to press — you can see this coming, can’t you? — a higher-up at the publishing house decided that the ending wasn’t happy enough. And was that interracial marriage really necessary?

All and all, Sheila changed the running order of the book four times, at the behest of different people at her publishing house. (They also changed her title, just for good measure.) And when I saw the final version of the book, it bore so little resemblance to the draft I had originally read that I, for one, have often wondered if Sheila could have her agent shop around the first version, as a totally different book.

Now, naturally, this does not happen with every novel; this many editorial turn-overs on a single book is rare. However, please note: there was a point where if Sheila hadn’t been able to think about her running order creatively, she would have lost an already-signed book deal. And that point was when the first editor first suggested changing it.

Cultivate flexibility now; you’re less likely to break in two when you really need to stretch.

And this kind of editorial request is not limited to novels, I tremble to report. In a nonfiction piece, running order is even more important than for fiction. The questions for NF are slightly different, but tend to the same end: are the planks of the argument presented in an order that makes sense, where each one builds on the one before, leading up to a convincing conclusion? Are the examples frequent and appropriate enough? Did the author slow down the argument by over-emphasizing points that could have been glossed over quickly, to move on to more important material?

And so forth. It’s important for you to know in advance that agents and editors read this way, so you won’t be shocked to find half a chapter of your manuscript marked in red link, with a barely-legible scrawl in the margin, “Move to X, three chapters back.”

At the risk of sounding like your 9th-grade English teacher, if you are in ANY doubt about the running order of your NF argument, take a blank sheet of paper and sit down with your manuscript. Read it straight through. As you make each major point in the text, write a summary sentence on the piece of paper, in order. After you finish reading, go back over that list: from the list alone, does the argument make sense?

In a fiction piece, it is significantly more difficult to ferret out problems for yourself, because after all, YOU know all of the backstory on all of your characters, right? An extra pair of eyes — in your writing group, from a trusted first reader, from a freelance editor — can be very helpful in catching logical leaps and running order problems.

However, if you are left to your own devices, try outlining the plot, just as you would for a NF argument. On a blank piece of paper, not dissimilar to the one described above, write down all of the major plot points in order. Not the subplots, mind you — just the major scenes. After you have a complete list, go back and ask yourself about each, “Why did this happen?”

If the answer is along the lines of, “Because the plot required it,” rather than for reasons of characterization, you might want to recheck the running order. Something is probably amiss. Would the plot make MORE sense if you switched Point 8 and Point 22?

Now you’re thinking like an editor.

You may also use this technique to edit for length and relevance. After you have ascertained that your plot’s order makes sense, place your list in front of you, close your eyes (best not to do this while driving or operating heavy machinery, obviously), and bring your finger down on a plot point. No peeking, now.

Cover that plot point, and read through the list again. Does the plot make sense without the listed point?

If the answer is yes, you might want to spend some time pondering whether that particular plot point is necessary — or whether your perception of what is integral to the plot is absolutely accurate. If you’ve stuck to the major plot points, the summary SHOULDN’T entirely make sense with a plank missing, should it?

Editors spend a LOT of time knocking extraneous scenes out of books. If you can save them the trouble, you’re already one step ahead of the game. Oh, and your submission will look better to them, and to agents.

Keep up the good work!

The small press dilemma

For those of you who missed it, excellent and faithful reader MooCrazy wrote in a few days ago about a concern shared by many writers: the dilemma about how to handle desirable career transitions when dealing with a small press. Quoth Moo:

“Would you please speak to the issue of finding an agent after an author has published a first book through a traditional publisher without one? I love my current publisher, a small regional press. They claim the feeling is mutual. (I make a point of being very easy to work with.) However, I want to make sure my next book – a romp through a farm, similar to Bob Tarte’s “Enslaved by Ducks” – is represented by an agent because it is possibly national, even international in appeal. Should I stick with the publisher I love but try to interest an agent anyway? Will my publisher think it is bad manners to bring an agent in? They’ve already invited me to submit again. I don’t want it to appear that I don’t appreciate and trust them. Of course, there’s always the chance they won’t even like this book. It would be presumptuous of me to assume so.”

Moo, I hear you, and I’m glad you brought this up. I have heard some version of this concern from practically every author I have ever known who went through a small press. You don’t want to ruin the relationship, naturally, but you don’t want to limit your future books a press that may not have the distribution capacity to help your career grow in the long term. You want to be loyal to people who have been nice to you, but you would like to have your future books make a bit more of a splash. You don’t want to alienate those who may be your best chance at publication for the next book, but you are well aware that that prime face-out space on bookshelves and very visible table displays at the major bookstore chains are leased by the big publishing houses.

Here’s a short answer to the dilemma: last time I checked, Bob Tarte was represented by the recently-visiting-in-this-neck-of-the-woods Jeff Kleinman; his clients speak well of him. I have no idea if he would like your book project, but I suspect he would respond with sensitivity to a query letter that began, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference.” (Don’t say this if it isn’t true, of course.) Since you so ably represented Bob Tarte’s excellent ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, I believe you will be interested in my book. While I already have an ongoing relationship with Small Publisher X, who printed my last book, I am eager to seek a broader audience for my work.” Why not test this supposition by sending off such a letter right away?

Before I go into all the reasons that this might be a good idea, let me run through why such an opening might be effective. That, from an agent’s point of view, is a pretty alluring opening paragraph to a query letter. It says that you’ve already taken the time to do some professional development for yourself as a writer, by going to a conference; it recognizes him for his past professional efforts, and ties those efforts to your work, and last, but certainly not least, it tells the agent that you already have publication credits. What’s not to love?

Yes, I know: this reads as though I am evading the central issue, which is whether small publishers get annoyed when their authors try to agent up. But in order to understand the prevailing industry attitudes about this, it’s important to understand why an agent would not see ANY ethical problem to picking up a writer who already has a self-negotiated contract with a small press.

Why? Well, in industry terms, there honestly would be no problem whatsoever: it’s understood that career writers often begin with small presses and move up to big ones. It’s also understood that to deal with the large presses, a writer will need an agent. Just as no one in professional baseball would expect a very gifted minor league player to remain with his original team when a major league club beckoned, it would actually surprise most publishing professionals if a serious writer DID stay with a very small press purely out of loyalty.

So from an agent’s POV, all your having a pre-existing relationship with a small publisher means is two things: first, that you have a successful track record of pleasing an editor (which is a selling point that he can use to try to pitch your work to the majors), and second, that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work (which means his job will be easier). This is going to make you a very attractive client prospect.

But will your publisher become annoyed if you shop your next book around to agents before you show it to them? Well, there certainly are unreasonably jealous people out there, but people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent. Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward.

They know, in short, that your wanting to find an agent is not a reflection upon your relationship with them, but merely a practical attempt on your part to enhance your work’s visibility. If they are a credible house (and it sounds as though they are), this will have no effect upon your reputation whatsoever. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book. Everybody wins.

Yes, I know: there is a LOT of talk on the conference circuit about writers being blacklisted, but actually, it doesn’t happen very often. In my experience, there are only three situations where presses tend to become mortally offended if their authors seek representation for their next books — and generally speaking, the mortally offended and the genuinely sociopathic are the only people you need to worry about bad-mouthing you. (I’m tempted to digress into diagnosing the motives of the people who have been threatening to sue over my memoir here, but I shan’t.)

What are these terrible instances? First, if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers. If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

When such a publisher becomes annoyed with an author for seeking representation, it is only because he was counting upon making more money on any given author before she moved up to the majors. But if a major press where you want to be, it just doesn’t make sense to stick with a press with that kind of policy anyway, does it?

The second instance is where the publication contract for the first book contained a right of first refusal clause over your next book. This is a fairly standard contractual provision, so you should check for it. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

If you have such a clause in your first book’s contract, it would not prevent you from sending your next book out to agents. All it would mean is that any agent who did sign you would be legally obligated to show the book to your publisher before shopping it around. It just means that you would have to be honest with the agent about the obligation. You would land the agent, the agent would approach your publisher, and everyone would be happy.

The third situation — and honestly, one hears about it anecdotally far more than it occurs in real life — is where the editor who handled the first book has already heard about the next book and loved it, or has become friendly with the author to the extent that it never occurred to him that you might move on to another press, or who had just assumed that all of their authors are there for a lifetime, or who has fallen so deeply in love with you as to be beyond the reach of ordinary common sense. In short, these are instances where there is either a personal relationship between the author and the editor or publisher — or a dementia on someone’s part that there IS a personal relationship strong enough that it would transcend the norms of the industry.

Truly, there is absolutely nothing you can do about other people’s assumptions. If people at your press decide to be offended at your serving your work’s best interests, though, you might want to give some thought about whether this is the best place for your work in the long term. As an author, your top loyalty needs to be to your books, not to your publisher.

Since you say that you have a good relationship with the fine folks at your publishing house, though, you probably do not need to worry about this. If they’re reasonable people who know the industry, and you’ve been a dream to work with, chances are that they will be pleased if you do well with your next book.

However, if you are seriously worried, here is a close-to-foolproof method for avoiding insulting even the touchiest publishing type: flatter him or her by asking for advice. Send your editor an e-mail, saying that while obviously you would LOVE to have Small Publisher X print your next work, you’ve become aware that for the benefit of your overall writing career, it would make sense for your to seek an agent. Since ideally the editor will be working with any agent you might find, does the editor have any suggestions about whom to query?

This method has two benefits: it diffuses the situation (after all, you ARE being honest, so if the editor want to snap up your next book, s/he knows that s/he will have to take action, pronto) AND it potentially gives you that opportunity to send a query beginning, “Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book…” Editors often have agents with whom they prefer to work, and vice versa. A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage.

All that being said, I do think that writers worry too much about offending agents, editors, and publishers — or rather, that the writers who DO end up offending publishing professionals are seldom the ones who sit around worrying about it. The really offensive authors are the ones who don’t meet deadlines, or are rude about editing suggestions, or disappear for a year under the pretext of a rewrite, or don’t live up to promotional obligations, or who call their agents (or prospective agents) three times a week for updates. Trust me, nice writers like you who do everything in their power to be helpful and provide good books are not the ones whom editors and agents curse behind their backs. It’s the other ones, the ones who (I like to think, anyway) do not read my blog.

Remember, your publisher did not do you a FAVOR by publishing your book – your publisher published your book because the staff there thought it could make money and serve art doing it. However cordial your relationship with everyone there, it is in fact a business relationship. These are people who make their living off the talent of writers like you. Most of them are aware of it.

So why do almost all of us tiptoe around these people as though our very existence were cause for apology, although THEY live on OUR work? Well, it’s a pretty common reaction in a situation where one person holds disproportionate power over another.

Of course it is true that an offended agent tends not to sign the writer who offended her, any more than an affronted editor will rush to work with an agent with whom he’s just had a screaming fight. And naturally, you don’t want to impress an agent you want to sign you as a worrywart who will require constant attention from the moment the ink is dry on the contract. But as long as you are polite and respectful both before and after ink is put to paper, doing your job well and allowing them to do theirs, you will usually be fine.

Hope this helps, Moo. And keep up the good work, everybody!

Time after time

Hello, readers –

Happy Walt Whitman’s birthday, everybody!

I’ve just been out having a lovely confab with my friend Suzanne Brahm, a wonderful YA writer who signed recently with a great agent and is just on the point of having her work sent out to editors. Well done, Suzanne!

Our talk got me thinking about all of the delays inherent in the publishing game, and how little control the writer has over the timing of her own work being seen. As is the case for most newly-agented writers in the current market, Suzanne spent months revising her (already very good) book to her agent’s specifications before the agent was ready to send it out. I went through the same type of delay with the book proposal for my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK (and no, it has not been released yet; here again, the timing is beyond the author’s control). When you’re in the midst of it, those periods of pre-submission preparation seem endless.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you will be a substantially happier human being in the long run if you just accept that this process is going to take one heck of a long time, even after you find the perfect agent.

I’m speaking from experience here – yes, even me, whose memoir was snapped up by a publisher after only a month on the market. Not to frighten those of you who have been paying attention, but does anyone happen to remember my Novel Project, first mentioned in the blog of February 23rd? In case you don’t recall, that was the day I spent frantically scrabbling together the requisite perfect copies of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to send in a box the size of a Labrador retriever to my agent. The Lab has been sitting in a corner of my agent’s office ever since, occasionally thumping its tail impatiently, waiting to be taken out for a walk. My agent is sending the individual copies to editors this week.

Brace yourself: this is not an usually long lag time between a manuscript’s leaving the author’s printer and the agent’s passing it along to editors.

Okay, take a deep breath and let that sink in, because most aspiring writers assume, wrongly, that the only lengthy part of the road to publication is the seemingly interminable search for the right agent. If you’re in it for the long haul, though, it’s important to be prepared for the waits AFTER signing: the revisions, the time to convince editors to read the book, the time for editors to get around to reading it.

And then, once it is finally sold, there is typically at least a year between contract signing and release, often more. Knowing that is important, not merely for the sake of pacing yourself (hey, worrying takes energy), but so you do not make immediate plans for spending the advance: under most publishing contracts, the author does NOT get the entire advance all at once. Usually, the payments are broken into thirds: one-third upon signing, one-third upon manuscript delivery, and one-third upon publication.

Why, you may be wondering, am I making such a point of telling you all this just as we are heading into writers’ conference season, when you will be talking to agents and editors? To try to scare away the fainthearted? To diss agents? To convince you to start buying five-year calendars to track your writing career?

Not at all. I want you to be aware of all this before you sit down and have a conversation with an agent about your work, so your expectations about what that agent can and cannot do for you are realistic. Too many writers look at agents and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, which can blind them to the fact that there is a great deal more than money at stake here. You will be committing irreplaceable time to these people if they pick up your book, years of it, and they to you.

Being aware that you will be committing time, as well as talent and pages of text, to any agent or editor with whom you sign is useful, as will prompt you to listen differently to what they have to say. If the agent you ranked as your first choice for an appointment strikes you, when he speaks at the agents’ forum at the conference, as someone with whom you could not happily have conversations several times per month over the next few years, run, don’t walk, to try to switch your appointment to someone you like.

I’m serious about this.

The best way to avoid having to switch at the last minute, of course, is to find out as much as possible about the scheduled attendees BEFORE you make your appointments. If you want to know more about the agents coming to the conference, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 12; for the editors, May 18 – 26.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Editors, Part III: Boys and their toys

Hello, readers –

I’m going to begin on a personal note today: thanks to all of you who have been writing in to congratulate me about my memoir’s coming out, but no matter what Amazon is saying about the book, it has NOT been released. Not even a little bit.

To the best of my knowledge, the review copies haven’t even gone out yet, so I’m not sure why Amazon is saying otherwise (as, I’m told, are some bookstores). I’ve asked my publisher to look into this, but to be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea when the book is coming out. Really. I wouldn’t kid about such a thing.

And if it surprises you that the author might not be kept in the loop about that sort of information — welcome to the publishing industry, baby. The author is often the last to know about major decisions about her own book. I did not even see the book cover prototype before it was posted online — which I discovered by accident — featuring a title that I had thought was still the subject of spirited debate. Not only have I been left out of the loop, I’m not even sure that the loop has ever visited my time zone.

When it does come out, trust me, my readers will be the first to know. Or at any rate, the first to know after I know it myself.

Okay, that off my chest, we can get back to business. Welcome to the third installment of my series on the editors scheduled to attend this summer’s PNWA conference. (If you are looking for information about the attending agents, in order to make your ranking choices wisely, please see my postings for April 26 to May 17.)

I’ve heard a little grumbling out there after last week’s posts, where I broke the news that since most of the major publishing houses have firm policies specifically precluding the possibility of acquiring unagented work, it is highly unlikely that even an editor who ADORES your conference pitch will attempt to pick up your book directly. It does happen, from time to time, with editors from smaller houses with less draconian policies, but generally speaking, the best an editor from a major house can do for a conference attendee is provide a sterling recommendation to an agent to handle your book.

It is very, very easy to lose sight of this fact at a conference, especially when you’ve just heard a fabulous speech at the editors’ forum by an editor who seems perfect for your work. Once they start waxing philosophical, editors tend to sound very much as though they are at the conference SOLELY to acquire books, but history tends to show otherwise. If you find yourself starting to doubt this when you hear them speak at the forum, shoot your paw in the air immediately and ask point-blank how many of them acquire unagented work.

Then listen to the dull, unconscious moan that rises from the crowd after the answer.

At conferences past, both locally and elsewhere, I have seen the responses to this question clear an editor’s appointment schedule faster than an earthquake sends people scurrying under the nearest table. But, as I said last week, there are a number of very solid reasons to go ahead and make a pitch to an editor from a major house. Just do not go into the meeting expecting to be discovered, and you can get a great deal out of it.

”Wait just a second,” I hear the more conference-experienced of you out there murmuring. “I’ve been at editorial appointments where an editor from a major house asked for my first chapter. In fact, I’ve been to appointments where the editor asked everyone at the table to send him something. If the majors don’t take unagented work, why would he do that?”

An excellent question, and one with a very, very simple answer — or rather, with one nice public answer and one less nice private one. The public answer is that conscientious conference organizers like the PNWA’s generally extract a promise from attending editors that they will be open to having SOME writers send them submissions. This is why — and we’ve all seen this happen — sometimes editors will just ask everyone at the meeting table to send the first chapter. Some editorial assistant will read it, and the promise will have been fulfilled.

Don’t be surprised, though, if the promise takes months to be fulfilled, or if you do not hear back from the editor at all — because, you see, the major houses are simply not set up to receive submissions from unagented writers. Thus, without the well-regulated pattern of nagging, “Have you read it yet?” calls a good agent provides, conference submissions tend to fall through the cracks.

It is completely legitimate to ask an editor at a conference what kind of turn-around time to expect, but don’t be floored if it is expressed in months, rather than weeks. A couple of years ago, right after I won the PNWA Zola award for best NF book, I was in a group pitch meeting with an editor from St. Martin’s. As I have both friends and clients who have published through St. Martin’s, I was aware of their policy about unagented work (con), so I asked the editor what kind of turn-around time my tableful of colleagues should expect from him.

”Three to six months,” he answered, straight-faced.

Readers, I couldn’t help it: I started to laugh, with rather annoyed the gentleman. He was probably just being honest. We subsequently had a rather interesting little conversation (which I’m not sure mollified him much) about how conference-going writers often hang their hopes on the implied editorial promise to read their submissions, and thus (unwisely, I think) don’t continue sending out queries while they are waiting to hear back from the editor who seemed so nice at the conference. The editor professed not to be aware that writers did this: “It’s a business,” he scoffed. “They should know better than to spend that much time on a single prospect.”

You will forgive me, I hope, if I heard this as a pretty explicit directive not to bother to send him anything at all.

So why, I hear you wondering, would an editor at a major house bother to have an assistant read conference-gleaned submissions in the first place? For one very simple reason: because your book may be the next DA VINCI CODE, that’s why. Nobody wants to be the editor who had the chance to buy the rights to a blockbuster for a couple of thousand dollars and blew it. No, everybody wants to be the editor who recognized the embryonic talent and directed it to an agent with the implicit understanding that no other editor would see the work and bid it up before he acquires it himself.

Hey, I’m just the messenger here.

Again: think about what else you can get out of your editorial appointment, and walk in determined to make such a good impression that you will be laying the groundwork for a possible future discussion, years from now, about your work.

On to our editor du jour, David Moldawer, who works at Riverhead, a division of Penguin. Mighty big publishing house, Putnam, with policies, I believe, similar to others of its size. Here’s what Mr. Moldower had to say about himself in the blurb he gave to the PNWA:

” David Moldawer (Editor) is an editorial assistant at Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). David is looking to acquire nonfiction books on pop culture, science, technology, the internet, and psychology. Secondarily, he is seeking smart, funny fiction targeted at a younger male demographic.

” Prior to Riverhead, David worked at W. W. Norton & Company and Arcade Publishing.”

Okay, those of you who have been following the whole series, let’s see how well you have been paying attention. Mr. Moldawer has told you something VERY important in this blurb, but you would have had to be pretty familiar with the preferences of the agents coming to the conference to notice it. Any guesses?

One of the major patterns yours truly noticed in this year’s crop of agents is that an unusually high percentage of them were explicitly looking for books aimed at young men. This is surprising, because young men (and men in general) are not the biggest buyers of books in North America, outside of certain genres. So when I see an editor express an interest in them as his ONLY fiction preference, I begin to suspect that he may, let’s say, be open to back-room at the conference collaborations with those agents who share his preferences. I would suspect, perhaps wrongly, that he might have remotely considered the possibility of hooking up authors of these kinds of works with those agents on an informal basis. If I were being very conspiracy-minded, I might draw the conclusion that he has already talked to these agents about it.

So here is how I read the tealeaves on this one: if you write for men under 50, and your work is even vaguely humorous: find a way to score a seat in one of Mr. Moldawer’s group
pitch sessions. Otherwise…yes, it’s a chance to practice your pitch, but you might want to make an appointment elsewhere.

If you are unsure if your writing would interest Mr. Moldawer, check out his rather hefty web presence, starting with his personal website. Here’s what he says about himself there:

“David Moldawer is a writer, playwright, and videographer living in New York City. A Manhattan native, he graduated from Amherst College with a B.A. in Theater in 2000, and has been writing and making videos ever since. His plays have won teeny little awards and notices here and there, and his story, Scotty Buys a Pair of Scrubs, was published in the Portland Review…David works in editorial at a prestigious publishing imprint, and lives with his girlfriend and their dog.”

He sounds like an interesting guy, doesn’t he? He’s a short story writer in his own right (so he should have known better than to introduce characters with so little character development: what KIND of dog? Who IS this girlfriend, and is she in the videos?), whose personal tastes in fiction run to SF – he regularly writes reviews of new SF releases. But please, SF writers, don’t get your hopes up: I could not find one scintilla of evidence that Mr. Moldower is in a position to acquire SF books, alas. (Riverhead’s list focuses on literary fiction, narrative NF, memoirs – none of which are noted for being the reading preference of those sporting Y chromosomes, I might point out. They also publish spiritual texts — seriously, the Dalai Lama is one of their authors.) This confirmed my gut feeling on the subject: in one of his many personal blurbs floating around in the ether, Mr. Moldower reports that he “unleashes his inner geek writing reviews of the latest scifi (sic) books.” (As those of you fond of the genre already know, insiders have never called it sci fi, however spelled: amongst the cognoscenti, it is always SF or not abbreviated at all.) But then, he is quite young (he’s only been out of college for 6 years), and junior editors move around a lot: he might well end up editing SF some day.

If I were going to spend half an hour of my life, sitting around with an editor from a major publishing house who is not going to buy my work and listening to other people’s pitches, I have to say, Mr. Moldower sounds as though he would be a good choice for a table companion. I’m always a big fan of publishing professionals who have the personal guts to keep writing and sending out their own work, so they know what the process feels like from both sides. And Riverhead, from all I hear, is a good place to be a first-time author – although their reputation for that rests in their literary fiction, which he is apparently not seeking.

So would I pitch Mr. Moldower a literary novel, memoir, narrative NF, or spirituality book, since he did not specify that he is looking for these strengths of his imprint? Personally, I would not schedule an appointment in advance to do so, for as I said above, I think he’s coming here looking for something else. However, if I liked him at the editors’ forum, and if some spaces in his group pitch sessions opened up (possibly after some of his scheduled appointment-holders ask whether his house takes unagented work?), I might make the effort.

More editors to follow tomorrow – I really do want to finish up this week, so I can move on to discussing other conference matters, like how to construct a pitch. And for those of you who haven’t yet done so, mark your calendars now: on June 24, I shall be teaching a Writing Connections class on getting through your pitch without fainting or screaming. If you live within driving distance of Seattle, I would love to see you there!

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Taxing experiences

Hello, readers –

Hey, I just realized – this is my 150th blog posting for the PNWA! Who’d have thought I’d have so much to say about getting work published, eh?

I promised to talk about what tax time is like for a working writer, and I shall, but first, I would like to address a few words to the very kind souls who have been e-mailing me lately about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, slated to come out next month.

First, I really do appreciate your support; it has been a long process, and an unusually emotionally trying one. I would hate to have any of the NF writers out there think that my experience has been typical. As my longtime readers are already aware, the Dick estate has been threatening my publishers with legal action since last July. Nine interminable, stressful months. To add to the festivities, even though I do write this blog virtually every weekday, with the specific brief of filling you in on what it is like to be a writer in the throes of bringing a book to publication, I have been advised to comment on the specifics of the case as little as possible here.

To this end, I have been quite circumspect — which has been hard, as there is much in this situation that would be of real interest to aspiring writers. I’ve written about it when I could, and as I could, which is to say: not very much, considering how much of my time and energy it occupies. This has apparently generated quite a bit of curiosity amongst my readers, which I can certainly understand. I honestly don’t mean to tantalize you, but I am operating under constraints here.

For the same reason, I have been avoiding visiting the Dick estate’s website and fan forum during these months, although nice friends do occasionally fill me in on the debate about my book that has been going on there on and off since September. However, a number of you have e-mailed me this week, to ask about a formal statement that “the family” has posted about my book. In the interests of giving a fair view of what is going on, here is the link.

It is difficult to address this statement without going too far into the specifics of the case, but because people have asked, I am going to give it a try. First, it is a little strange that the estate is defining Philip’s family as excluding my mother. My mother was married to Philip K. Dick for 8 years; they were a couple for 10, and this period happens to be when he first started writing professionally. Their marriage, in fact, lasted longer than his three subsequent marriages combined, and she is obviously the best living source for information about Philip from that period.

Second, Philip remained a dear friend of both of my parents for most of his life, and he and I were also close, so he was a major force in my life until his death when I was 15. It would have been completely impossible to write a truthful memoir about my childhood or adolescence that did not include a fairly extensive depiction of our interactions, and the suggestion that I did not have the right to write about my own life is logically absurd. And even if it were not, Philip’s daughters gave me written permission to write the story of my interactions with their father from my own perspective. Where’s the problem here?

Third — and this is important — the Dick estate has never, as it claims in this statement, provided my publisher with a list of factual errors they believe to be in my memoir. They provided me with such a list last June; this list most emphatically did not include any request that I remove any section of the book dealing with my personal interactions with Philip. They were mostly extremely minor points, including demands that I change individual words that they did not like. I made the requested changes immediately, despite the fact that the people who conveyed them to me refused to answer follow-up questions on these points or provide me with evidence of any of their contentions.

The estate’s response to this cooperative attitude has been to send my publisher a series of attacks on my character, not requests for particular changes in the book; indeed, the only book-specific objection in the threats has been to the use of a particular photograph. I have asked three times in writing for a list of additional line changes they would like to see, and the estate promised twice to provide such a list, but it has never materialized. To this day, I remain mystified as to why the Dick estate considers this book so harmful, aside from the fact that I knew Philip and I wrote it.

I hope this sets some minds at ease. I honestly do appreciate the good intentions of the people who have written in, suggesting that I just go ahead and make the changes in the book the Dick estate wants in order to remove the problem, but honestly, the situation is far from that straightforward. Believe me, I spent months last summer trying to come to some sort of reasonable accommodation that would have made everybody happy without sacrificing the truth.

Okay, on to the topic du jour. Working writers — which is to say, those of us who actually get paid for doing it — usually treat their writing as a small business, for tax purposes. This means filing a Schedule C with one’s federal tax return — a lot less intimidating than it sounds, if you keep good records of your writing-related expenses — and, if one makes enough, a schedule SE, to pay self-employment tax. You should talk over what you need to file with your tax advisor, of course, but do make sure to find one with experience in preparing artists’ tax returns, because the common wisdom on what we can and can’t claim is not necessarily always accurate.

One very common misconception is that a writer must have made money from writing in a given year, or at any rate have made more money than she expended in toner cartridges and reams of paper, in order to claim writing as a small business. This is not true, and since the rules governing this have changed fairly recently, a non-specialist tax advisor might not be aware of it. As I understand it (but again, talk to a professional before you file, please), the fine folks at the IRS now recognize that writing a book can take a long time, and that it is legitimate to regard the writing time as business time, as long as the writer approaches the project AS a business: writing on a regular schedule, engaging in professional development to increase the likelihood of commercial success (such as attending conferences and taking classes), networking with other writers (another perq of joining a writers’ group!), etc.

It may seem a little silly to file a small business return when the totality of your writing income was $15 for a 400-word article in your local community newspaper, true, but personally, I have always found it empowering to write “Writer” on the occupation line of tax forms, even when, in the interests of strict truth, it was necessary to write in the occupation that actually paid the bills that year as well.

Think of it as getting in practice for when you hit the big time. This is not just wishful thinking; it is practical advice. Some of the deductions are counterintuitive. Since the writing life is unpredictable (unless you have published a perennial seller, a book that remains in demand consistently for years), a writer often does not know early in any given year whether she will be generating writing income by the end of it. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of keeping track of your writing expenses now, so you are prepared for the day that you suddenly sell a book in December.

It also gives you good ammunition when you are negotiating with your partner(s) about setting aside dedicated writing space where you will not be disturbed. (Hey, I said I was going to be practical here.) I believe that every serious writer should have a writing studio, someplace where she can close the door on the outside world and concentrate for significant chunks of time. Yes, plenty of wonderful books have been written on computers wedged between the refrigerator and the kitchen table, but most of us work better in a committed space.

And what do you know, the tax people can help you out here: in order to deduct the costs of a home office for your business, it has to be used ONLY as a home office. No using it as a guest room for relatives, a place to dry flowers, or a place for your sweetie’s seldom-used power tools; it must be dedicated space.

I can feel some of you out there smiling already. “I’m sorry, dear,” I hear you say as you close the door gently but firmly upon your kith and kin. “The federal government says that you’re not allowed into my writing space during my writing time.”

And you thought I was kidding about how you fill out a tax form’s being empowering!

As it turns out, an awful lot of what a writer spends is tax-deductible: the percentage one pays one’s agent, for instance, is completely deductible; there’s actually a line on the Schedule C for commissions and fees. There’s also a space for legal and professional services, so if you hire a freelance editor or consult a tax advisor who specializes in artists, you can deduct that, too.

Ditto with office expenses, so make sure to save all of those receipts for paper, toner, and computer repair. Any supplies (including postage for those SASEs) you use to query agents or editors are potentially deductible, as are long-distance phone calls for the same purpose. If you decide that you would like to send your queries out on nice custom letterhead, or hand out snazzy business cards to everyone you meet at writers’ conferences (you should and you should, if you can afford it; it makes you appear more professional), save those receipts, too.

And, not to plug my boss, but what about professional memberships, such as joining the PNWA?

I’ve noticed, in both myself and my successful author friends as we’ve made the transition from being people who write to people who make a living writing, that the realization that professional development expenses are usually tax-deductible makes a subtle difference in how we choose which writers’ conferences, seminars, and retreats we attend. Frankly, I think it gets us out of the house more. The expensive ones are sometimes worth it, although it’s been my experience that cost is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the quality of a professional development experience. (Oh, the conference stories I could tell you!)

Don’t forget, too, to save receipts for those cookies you bought when your writing group met at your house, because that is a writing-related entertainment expense. So is meeting a writer friend for lunch to discuss which agents you should query. Heck, I’ve been known to dispense publishing advice over a cup of coffee and keep the receipt. Just make sure that you write on the receipt RIGHT AWAY who was there, what you talked about, and how it related to your writing. You’re not going to remember the specifics come next April.

And what about market research? Do you buy WRITER’S MARKET every year? Subscribe to POETS & WRITERS magazine? (As you should, if you are interested in entering contests; they are good at screening out disreputable ones from their lists.) What about buying books in the area in which you hope to publish? This may seem a trifle far-fetched, but listen: how are you going to know what’s selling in your area unless you read what’s coming out now? How else would you learn what the industry standard for your genre is, or find an agent who represents exactly the kind of work you write, without buying and reading a few books?

Get the idea?

Do force yourself to keep impeccable records, however. It is something of a myth that freelance writers get audited more than most people (1% of the filing population is always audited every year, regardless, so the probability of being audited is higher for everyone than most people think), but hey, better safe than sorry, eh? Grab the nearest shoebox (even if it still has shoes in it), label it “WRITING EXPENSES, 2006,” and get into the habit of tossing every relevant receipt into it as soon as the money is spent. I even track my writing hours on a weekly basis, so I can show, if necessary, hard evidence that I approach writing as my primary business.

Again, when in doubt, consult a tax professional, and it’s actually not a bad idea to have a an experienced professional walk you through the Schedule C and SE step-by-step before you file them for the first time, to make sure that you understand what is a legitimate expense and what isn’t.

But, please, don’t let doubts about your own professional status make you hesitate about whether you are really writer enough to declare your efforts as a business. It is not sales that make a real writer, but talent and industry, regardless of what insensitive friends may tell you. If you are writing regularly on specific projects, with specific markets in mind, and taking logical steps to make your work more professionally viable (such as reading a professionally-oriented writers’ blog on a regular basis for tips, for example), technically, it isn’t just a hobby.

Don’t take my word for it; the government says so, too.

Happy 150th, everybody. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Practical exercises in keeping the faith. Hypothetically.

Hello, readers —

Well, after spending all week writing about ways for writers to keep their spirits up while slogging their way through the long path to publication, I got a perfect opportunity today to put it into use. Surprise, surprise, once again, all is not well with my book on its meandering path to publication. Not because of the book itself this time, but how it is being marketed.

PLEASE NOTE: due to the many complex and contentious issues swirling around the publication of my memoir, I must tell you that the story that follows is ONLY HYPOTHETICAL. It is merely the type of thing that might happen to any memoirist with a book headed for publication, and thus of educational interest to my readership. Any similarities between this scenario and my actual life are purely coincidental, and should not be taken as indicative of the really very interesting behind-the-scenes story that I’m dying to tell you. Really.

Everybody got that straight? Okay, then, on with the story. Hypothetically:

Picture me this morning, groggily making tea after a late night spent working on the new novel. Yes, I already have a novel at my agent’s, ready to be sprung upon editors everywhere, but hey, I’m not one to allow grass to grow under my creative feet, as it were. I keep moving forward from project to project — thus staying up until 4 a.m. writing on the new project.

So there I am at 11 a.m., peacefully trying to decide between orange blossom oolong and lavender Earl Grey, when my phone rings. It’s my agent, asking me excitedly if I have received her e-mail. Well, no: I’ve just gotten up, but as East Coast people always seem astonished that folks out in our time zone aren’t up early enough to catch the sunrise and witness the opening of the NY Stock Exchange, I don’t admit that. I just tell her I was writing — she knows by now that writing time means I’m oblivious to the world around me, anyway.

Well, she says (hypothetically), she has bad news. After 6 full months of silence, the fine folks who spent the summer threatening to sue my publisher over my memoir have abruptly sent another letter. Still no list of what they want changed in the book, of course; instead, this threat complains about — brace yourselves, because this part really is going to read like utter fiction — the marketing blurb on my publisher’s website (which has appeared there in its current form since July, 2005, I believe, with scarce a hypothetical murmur from the current complainers) and a picture used on the cover (ditto).

I am beginning to wonder if I am still asleep. I gulp my ultra-hot tea with unwise haste, to try to wake myself up. “Wait,” I say with hypothetically scalded tongue, “I didn’t write the blurb, and I had absolutely no say over the jacket design. Why is this my problem?”

Alas, it is, my agent explains, because in the post-James Frey environment, even the hint of a problem with a memoir can send a publisher running for cover. Memoir sales in bookstores remain strong, but just try selling a memoir to an editor at a major publishing house these days. He’ll look at you as though you have asked him to stick his hand in a vise.

So once again, my project is, in theory, on hold. Picture my hypothetical anguish.

I’ve told you about my memoir, right? A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK was first supposed to come out this month, and then got pushed back to May, due to a threatened lawsuit. Hypothetically, the people who are suing, the estate of the late lamented gentleman of the title, have never specified what in the text they want changed; or rather, they did specify about a dozen minor changes they wanted, but immediately AFTER I had made them, they threatened to sue my publisher. Go figure.

To this day, I am (hypothetically) not sure what they hate so about the book, since up to the point when they started threatening (and thus we had no further direct contact), they had never breathed a word about not believing I was telling the truth. (If you would like a bit more background on this saga, check out the one and only interview I have given about it. If you want to hear the other side’s version, you could also go to the estate-owned fansite; hypothetically, I am told, one of the claims there is that I have given many interviews on the subject — and written extensively on this blog about it. You could also, in theory, see there the claim that this blog is not even vaguely useful to aspiring writers. Or so I am told.)

Like so many memoirs out there, mine for virtually the entirety of the writing process ostensibly had the full support of the very people who are trying to block it now. (Shortly after I sold the book, they sent me a lovely bouquet of hypothetical flowers, in fact.) I am writing about my own experiences with someone who is no longer living, so technically, I did not need anyone’s permission to write it, legally — especially as in this case, all of the still-living people concerned have been yakking their heads off to biographers and reporters for over two decades now. I’m actually the only one who has held her tongue to date. Hypothetically.

It’s not as though the prospective suers haven’t had a chance to tell their side of the story, or indeed, haven’t been telling it pretty industriously. If you’re giving interviews to national and international magazines, chances are that you are a public figure, and thus available for scrutiny by other writers. You can’t write a book about your relationship with a celebrity, or give extensive interviews on that relationship, or maintain a website that presents yourself as the public spokesperson for that celebrity, and then claim that your privacy has been violated if someone mentions your existence in passing. Or so I’m told by people who follow the law.

That’s part of what gives this situation its rich, ironic hypothetical undertones: to the best of my knowledge, the Philip-related part of my storyline has been written about in at least a dozen books, including ones by Philip himself AND a memoir by one of the currently complaining parties’ mothers. The continents positively ring with versions of stories about my kith and kin.

I guess I didn’t get the memo that said I was the only person on earth not entitled to write about it — or about my own life story. The funny thing is, hypothetically, I DID have permission from the two primary complaining parties to write this book. In writing. Which might be difficult for them to explain should this eventually come to court. (Of course, I speak only of theoretical possibilities here.)

Of course, anybody’s statements are open to interpretation. Let’s try a little exercise, to sharpen your wits for the practical application of the theory we have been discussing here. Hypothetically, let’s say after you had told some affected parties that you had a book contract, they sent you an e-mail that said something like:

…we both really appreciate your offer for our thoughts on “challenging embroideries in print” in your PKD bio. However, both of us feel that this should be your PKD story and that we should not influence your creative efforts in any way. We believe you need to be as free as your predecessor biographers to approach your project in your own way. That’s not to say that we don’t care because we do of course, but it wouldn’t be fair to you for us to in any way hobble your efforts.


Would you:

(a) take this statement at its face value, and believe your book had the senders’ support?

(b) instantly stop writing the book, because a lawsuit is clearly imminent?

(c) thank the senders for the sentiment, but make many copies of the e-mail and cling to it like a leech, in case the senders later changed their minds about the value of freedom and creative efforts?

If you chose (c), you are better prepared than most to write nonfiction; alas, it is only in theory that such promises provide protection. It is a myth that releases from people mentioned in a book will protect the writer; they are only a deterrent as long as the signers believe them to be. There is absolutely no way that anyone can legitimately promise never to change his mind. Most of the sued memoirists of my acquaintance (and many published memoirs generate at least one lawsuit threat on their way to publication) had obtained such releases; the paper those releases were written upon later made useful handkerchiefs and kindling.

Hypothetically, more or less until the moment now-condemners started threatening my publisher, they were overtly supportive of the project — volunteering material for inclusion in it, even, and praising the only draft they ever read — but ultimately, all of that comradely vim did not make any difference in the long term. Because this is the post-James Frey environment, where anyone who wants to derail a book project need not produce any actual proof that the author is not telling the truth, or even any legally-demonstrable reason that the complainer would be harmed by the book’s being published. They need only threaten; they need only have money enough in their pockets to make that threat credible. And publishers quail.

Hypothetically, however, truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. Hypothetically, any writer has the right to tell her own life story, the complete freedom — how did they put it? — “to approach the project in your own way.” And hypothetically, a publisher who has tangible proof that a writer is telling the truth will stand by her book.

I have no idea at this point how this theoretical tale of publishing stop-and-start will turn out. Maybe the hypothetical publishers will stand by the author; maybe the hypothetical complainers will remember that they sent the author a whole lot of e-mails, confirming the truth of quite a bit of what’s in the book. And maybe the author will turn the whole thing into a novel, where she can tell the absolute truth without fear of reprisals. That’s the trouble with hypothetical people: you never can predict to a certainty what they will do.

Oh, dear, I am looking forward to the non-hypothetical day when I can fill you in on what is really going on with my book. It really is quite a story; perhaps some day, I shall write about it.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

Time is not on our side

Hello, readers —


I’m posting a little bit late today; I’ve been spending the afternoon wrestling with a doozy of an editing problem. Seems one of my clients’ publishers has moved up her revision deadline by a few months. Not weeks, months. As in it’s practically now.

She was informed of it blithely, in the context of an e-mail about something else entirely, as though the news weren’t of completely-rearrange-several-people’s-foreseeable-futures importance. And, like so many writers, the author thought that the fact that she and I were going to have to drop everything and work like demented fiends for the next few weeks changing the book from front to back was HER fault. HER plans were disrupted, and she apologized to ME.

As I’ve said before, writers tend to be very sweet people.

But isn’t it lucky that the publication date on MY book has been pushed back to May? If everything had gone as planned with my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK, I would have started a book tour in February. (It most emphatically did NOT go as planned: the acquiring editor was laid off at the end of August; my publisher and I spent months living under threat of a groundless lawsuit — long story, but the short version is that it’s perfectly legal to tell the truth — and the release of the movie version of Philip’s wonderful novel A SCANNER DARKLY was pushed back from winter to summer, throwing off marketing schedules entirely.) The mind boggles at how I would have managed to be promoting one book and crash-editing another simultaneously.

But that’s the reality of the publishing world. The writer is left to wait in nail-gnawing suspense for weeks or months at a time, while decisions are made behind closed doors that are usually, from the point of view of those of us writers who call the PNW home, 3000 miles away. Then, BANG! All of a sudden, the writer is presented with a short deadline, and panic reigns supreme until the need of the moment is met. Then that eerie silence returns, until a few days before the next deadline.

I wish I were making this up. I also wish that more aspiring writers knew just how different the sense of time is in Manhattan-based publishing houses and agencies than it is, well, here. Agents and editors’ attitudes and beliefs necessarily affect writers’ lives profoundly; when a fledgling writer doesn’t know what is common practice in her new-found profession and what is not, it is all too easy for her to blame herself, her book, the market, anything but an alternative sense of time for the fact that she’s either ignored or badgered, with little in between.

The Manhattanites themselves would be the last to explain it to you. It just wouldn’t occur to them. Constant rush, being too busy to attend to anything but the most pressing matters on their desks, and living in constant danger of falling behind schedule are all normal; what calls for elucidation?

So if the hapless West Coast writer asks why, for instance, a revision assignment could not have been given a reasonable amount of time in advance, rather than a week before the book goes to press (yes, it happens; I once had a client whose work was actually yanked out of the print queue at the last moment for because her editor decided that the running order needed to be changed, a snap decision that ended up delaying the release of the book by six full months), agents and editors will just repeat the question, puzzled. “Why don’t we plan things in advance?” they echo. “We don’t have time for that.”

Now, this is frankly foreign to most of us PNW-based writers, isn’t it? 150 years ago, Seattle did not even exist; the pioneer spirit still lingers in the air enough for us to appreciate starting a project from scratch and staying with it for the long haul. After all, you don’t chop down a huge tree with a single stroke of an axe (don’t worry; I’m picturing a farmed one, not old-growth), any more than you write a whole book in a single week. We have long, languid, misty winters: for half the year, staying inside to revise makes a lot of sense. What’s the rush?

Try to explain this to your NYC-based agent or editor, and she’ll instantly picture you laden with love beads, dancing around with a tambourine to some old Cat Stevens tune at a love-in. Or possibly on a beach, playing hackysack or tossing a Frisbee to a golden retriever with a blue bandana tied rakishly around his neck while your friends sing “Sunshine On My Shoulders” from atop their surfboards.

It’s not going to be pretty, that image, and it’s not going to make you look like a professional — which is to say, like a New Yorker.

But we’re adaptable people, we Pacific Northwesterners — another legacy of the pioneer days — and when in Rome, we keep time as the Romans do. So most of us try very hard to adapt ourselves to NYC-based agents and editors’ hyped-up senses of time. Presented with their expressions of urgency, we overnight manuscripts — then wait, perplexed, while they gather dust in agency mailrooms. We will lose sleep for days on end in order to complete the chapters that editor at a conference asked to see — and then convince ourselves, when the editor doesn’t respond for months, that something about the chapters caused the delay. We will use up all of our sick leave at our day jobs to revise our novels radically in accordance with our new agents’ requests — and then, the following season, talk ourselves out of calling the agency to ask why the revised version has not been submitted to any editors yet. We don’t want to seem pushy.

All of these are real examples, by the way, the actual experiences of good writers I know. And all occurred within the last six months.

I think there’s a translation problem here, frankly. In our neck of the woods, when someone says he needs something now, he generally means NOW. It’s considered a little rude to demand instant responses when there’s no imminent threat. Perhaps this is another pioneer holdover: when confronted by a hungry coyote, for instance, or a surly mountain lion snarling in one’s back forty, one’s sense of urgency in requesting assistance tends to be genuine. Vigilante “justice” tended to be rather prompt, and “Timber!” implied the hope that the hearer would, as the expression went, hightail it out of the path of that tree. Otherwise, our forebears, like us, preferred to take their time.

From the POV of those who inhabit the NYC publishing industry, however, such attitudes imply a certain lack of vim. Laid-back tends to translate, in their eyes, to “I really don’t care about what’s going on.” Because on their own turf, expressions of temporal urgency tend to be indicative of either eagerness or general stress levels, rather than actual imminence of disaster.

In short, “Timber!” there means that a tree might fall eventually.

So that agent who asked you at last year’s conference to overnight your entire manuscript (at a cost that, if it did not make you mortgage your home, at least made you reconsider your children’s college prospects), she actually meant it as a COMPLIMENT. “I am excited about your work,” this request said, “and because I, like my compatriots, believe that anything worth having is the object of fierce competition, I need to impress you with the intensity of my enthusiasm. Thus, while I do not plan to clear my schedule tomorrow — nor, indeed, any time soon — in order to read the work I am asking you to overnight to me, I am conveying that I am serious about wanting to see it.”

This is why I — and my clients, when they listen to me — never, ever overnight anything to NYC agents or editors unless THEY pay for it. There have literally never been any negative ramifications for this stand. Priority Mail always works just fine, at a fraction of the cost. Plus, USPS’ standard small boxes — which the post office will give you for free! — provide lovely protection for tender manuscript pages.

This is not to say that I ignore last-minute editorial deadlines, or advise others to do so — I don’t, and you shouldn’t. I am in fact a regular user of my publishing house’s FedEx account. But I do try to negotiate, to make the deadlines a trifle more reasonable — and whenever I have an opportunity to set my own deadlines, as does happen occasionally, I automatically add anywhere from two days to two weeks to my estimate, just to ward off last-minute nagging while I’m polishing off the piece. (Trust me, no one ever objects to receiving work BEFORE a deadline.)

And I do keep in mind that the sense of urgency I am hearing over the phone or reading via e-mail may or may not have ANYTHING to do with the project at hand. Instead, I try to remember that the “I need it NOW!” being barked at me may well be a function of the stress levels of an underpaid assistant’s being yelled at by an overcommitted boss working in a building of similarly rushed people in an environment where a state of constant deadline panic is considered normal. In a town where being ultra-busy is considered an indicator of success, I tell myself, the people demanding that I drop everything are just paying me the compliment of assuming I have a life successful enough to disrupt.

So I take a deep breath, look out the window, and remind myself that from my studio, I can see more trees than there are in the entirety of Central Park. I center myself, think what a privilege it is to be asked to share my thoughts (or, as today, to midwife my clients’) for publication, and feel grateful that I had the foresight to invest in a good ergonomic set-up.

Then I punch a sofa pillow viciously seventeen times, clear my schedule, and meet the damned deadline.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

What’s in a name?

Hello, dear readers —


I’ve been holding a client’s hand (she says hello, by the way) for the last two days while she struggles to come to terms with her publisher’s throwing out her (quite good) title for her novel. Yes, I know that the subject of the week is agents, but her plight reminded me to pass along something I have been meaning to tell you about the post-contract world: contrary to popular belief and writerly preference, authors seldom get to name their own works; we’re seldom even invited to the baby’s christening, metaphorically speaking. And for the author, the shock of seeing her own work branded with a new title can be very keen.


Since some of you are, I hope, going to be picked up by agents and sell your books to editors this fall, I think the time is now ripe to speak of titles, and the author’s relationship to them in the current publishing environment. Simply speaking, they’re like the names given to a newborn kitten: the tyke may have been a perfect Cuddles in her infancy, but as an adult, she is probably going to transmogrify at some point into a Chelsea.


As we all know, titles are crucially important to the success of a book. A good title intrigues potential readers: it has good meter, isn’t a cliché (and don’t we all wish the people who title movies understood THAT?), and feels good in the mouth. It is memorable, catchy, and ideally, has something to do with the content and/or tone of the book. Knowing this, if you are like most authors, you have probably spent months or even years agonizing over whether the title you have selected for your baby is the right one.


Please do not be too disappointed if the title you picked is not be the one that ends up on the published book cover. The author’s choice seldom is.


This is not, I’m told, a reflection upon writers’ ability to tell readers succinctly what their books are about so much as a practical demonstration that marketers control many ostensibly creative decisions. Even great titles hit the dust all the time, because they are too similar to other books currently on the market or don’t contain catchphrases that will resonate with the target market or even just don’t please the people who happen to be sitting in the room when the titling decision is made.


In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all.


I’ve seen it happen too many times.


My memoir was originally titled IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, but I certainly did not expect it to stick. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held a lot of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed from above. I was expecting my title to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, then, to be humble and bow to the inevitable. I was prepared to be spectacularly reasonable.


This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not adequate to deal with the situation. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to change my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.


As it happens, outside forces intervened, sealing my fate. Philip’s work is, as you may already be aware, currently popular with moviemakers: one of the selling points of my memoir was that two movies based upon his works were scheduled to come out within the next year and a half: A SCANNER DARKLY in the fall of 2005 and THE GOLDEN MAN in the summer of 2006. Only, movie schedules being what they are and animation being time-consuming, A SCANNER DARKLY’s release date got pushed back to March, 2006. And THE GOLDEN MAN (retitled NEXT) was pushed back to 2007


This could not have been better news to the folks sitting in marketing meetings, talking about my book. IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN? was already scheduled to be published in the winter of 2006. In the blink of an eye, my nebulous publication date gelled into almost instantaneous firmness, and the marketing department decided within the course of a single meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of SCANNER.


“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I was looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means?”


Thereupon followed much scintillating discussion — and no, I still haven’t found out what it means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed.


“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”


An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question skyward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.


Get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.


Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer the handicap of postgraduate degrees.


This is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?


Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: you’re an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to your publishers, and you’re a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to your friends. All anyone can agree about is that you are ungrateful beyond human example.


I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.


I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. For my next book, I’m going to give it my SECOND-best title, and reserve my first for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks.


Keep up the good work!


– Anne Mini

The shape of things to come

A moment of silence, please: my editor is moving on from my publishing house. He will be a mere wistful memory long before my memoir hits bookshelves near you. In fact, in all likelihood, he’ll be gone before the book is print-ready.

“Wait a minute,” I hear you cry, insightful and empathetic creatures that you are. “Does that mean the book deal is broken?”

A fine, fine question, and one that richly deserves an answer: no. The contract is with the publishing house, not the editor — even though the author’s primary personal contact at the publishing house is the editor. In fact, other than a single rushed howdy-do with the head of the publishing house at a writers’ conference several years ago (we argued over cocktails about whether women have jowls, as I recall: he said we don’t, the dictionary and I say we do), my editor has been my ONLY contact so far with my publishing house.

Which renders his departure slightly nerve-wracking.

In practical terms, his taking a powder means that rather than a single editor’s carrying my book all the way through the publication process, I may be dealing with several. Or — and this prospect frightens me even more than being ruled by committee — none at all. Since the book is already available for presale on Amazon (at a SIGNIFICANT discount, I might add.) It is possible that as of now, it’s the marketing department’s baby.

Just so you know, I have not been singled out by the gods for special punishment: editors move around so much these days that it is not uncommon for several editors to have say over the same book. Not to mention the marketing department (who picked the title for me, but that’s the subject of a whole other blog) and money folks. Gone are the days when a single editor guided a writer’s entire career.

Now that I have broken this news to you, I hear discontented noises out there — and no wonder, if you’re one of the many who have screwed up your courage to pitch to an overworked editor at a conference. “We expend all of this energy,” I hear you murmuring, “trying to blandish a particular editor to fall in love with our books. And then, just as soon as I’ve found someone who will treat our babies with respect, she disappears, and I’m left with someone I’ve never met before? AAAAAAAAAH!”

This is not how you were told it was going to be, is it?

The writers’ world has been surprisingly slow in adjusting to the realities of the ever-changing publishing market. You can hardly throw a piece of bread at the average writers’ conference without hitting some publishing professional who will tell you that he is looking to form long-term working relationships with talented writers; you can hardly pick up any publication designed for the edification of aspiring writers without seeing a list of tips on how to target and appeal to the perfect editor for your work, one who will bring out the best in your prose, as if every editor were Maxwell Perkins.

Good writing, we have all been told a million times, will always find a home.

This view is charming, but rather dated. I think it reflects writers’ desires for editors who will cherish their work more than publishing realities. Of course, we all want an editor who will adore our every semicolon — writers tend to be shy people who take umbrage when someone tells them to hack their work apart and reconstruct it, so ideally, the editor-author relationship should be based upon implicit trust. A truly fine editor becomes steeped in her authors’ style, lives it, breathes it, loves it – and believes in it too fiercely to allow the author to get away with the kind of shortcuts, clichés, and lazinesses to which even the best of us can fall prey from time to time.

What writer worth her salt wouldn’t walk across the continent barefoot to embrace an editor like that?

While this Platonic editor was always, I’m afraid, more prevalent in authors’ imaginations than in practice, in earlier days, such symbiotic relationships were not uncommon. Thirty years ago, if a respected editor moved to another press, he often took his authors with him; once established, editor-author relationships sometimes lasted for decades. Obviously, it wasn’t always idyllic — you have only to read anything written by any member of the Algonquin Round Table about their relationships with their publishers to realize that it wasn’t all cocktails and urbane chatter — but often, the relationship was pleasingly symbiotic, the proverbial well-oiled machine, with each party playing his necessary and indispensable role in the publication process.

Nowadays, however, the process resembles one of those Rube Goldberg machines where toast is made by a squirrel eating a nut on a string, the string in turn yanking the doormat out from under the bowling ball, the bowling ball falling on the teeter-totter, sending the fat lady flying into the air…you get the picture. Now, the individual parts of the publishing machine are so autonomous that, from where the author is sitting, they sometimes seem unrelated.

Realizing this can help you market your writing more efficiently. Now, instead of an editor’s falling in love with your novel or NF book and snapping it up as his personal project, a rather large group of people, all performing different functions within the Rube Goldberg machine, need to agree that the world needs your book badly enough for them to publish it.

Here’s how it works. In order to be acquired, your work needs to appeal first to the editor, who then takes it to the editorial meeting. Everyone at the editorial meeting, however, will also have a pet project which he wants to acquire; squabbling ensues, and the competition can get pretty vicious. (I have been assured by a reliable source that a novel of mine once engendered so much controversy at an editorial meeting that a chair was thrown. The publishing house decided to pass on the book, for reasons of furniture preservation.)

Once your book has cleared this significant hurdle, it also has to be approved by the finance department, the marketing department, the legal department, and all of the other cogs in the publishing house’s machine. The input of these non-artistic entities, in case you are interested, is the primary reason that the formerly common advice to “revise and resubmit” has more or less fallen out of editorial vocabularies; editorial tastes are now not the only ones being consulted.

Thus the relative ease with which high-concept books pass through the publishing process: as my learned father used to say, complex people tend not to be popular. The same is true, alas, for books. The market appeal of MEMOIRS OF A MONKEE! can be grasped far more readily by a disparate group of people than a tender novel full of gentle symbolism about growing up in rural Washington, even if the novel’s writing deserves the Pulitzer Prize.

This structural shift is both very good and very bad for the first-time author. Good, insofar as a multiplicity of enthusiasts within the publishing house helps protect an author whose editor leaves mid-project – if your book bounces from one desk to another, the probability is much higher than in previous years that the eyes it falls under will be sympathetic. Now, once a book is acquired, it does not have a single cheerleader, but a squad complete with pom-pom girls and school administration. It’s bad, however, insofar as many more people need to fall in love with your writing, your story, your platform, your target demographics, etc. before you see a book contract.

And, as you may have noticed, it’s significantly harder for a new author to get published than it was even twenty years ago. So when an agent you’ve queried says, “Gee, I could have sold your book in the ‘80s, but now, I’ll have to pass,” she’s not just being nice. The way publishing decisions are made really has changed radically, and in ways that pose a significant disadvantage to the non-celebrity author trying to break into the biz.

If it makes you feel any better, the current environment is harder on editors, too. The average tenure of junior editors at major publishing houses is quite short, and, as those of you who read Publishers Weekly are no doubt already aware, editorial staffs are constantly being rearranged and streamlined. It’s not a job where you unpack your storage boxes before you have a corner office.

Occasionally, the editorial cast at a publishing house changes radically enough between when a book is acquired and when it is published that the cheering squad is rooting for another book. We’ve all heard horror stories about the hot new novelist who gets a big advance, only to find at the last minute that the publicity budget for his work has been shifted to another project. Believe it or not, the promotional budget is seldom specified in the book contract, so the author is very much subject to publishing house whim.

Now, all of us have a choice about how to respond to this change in publishing. We can sit around and sigh for those good old past times when writers formed lifetime working friendships with their editors, or we can eschew romanticism for the present and try to adapt ourselves to current conditions. Personally, I have only so much energy – given the choice between expending it in resentment, however well-founded, and in getting my words and ideas out before the public, my strategic sense tells me that I don’t have the luxury of sitting around and wishing I had F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor. (Well, okay, not to sit around for more than a few minutes at a time…) I am a working writer, and it is my job to be realistic about the challenges I face.

We are traveling down an arduous road, my friends, one replete with fresh pitfalls every few feet; don’t let the tireless romantics of the conference and writers’ guide circuits convince you otherwise, or you’ll end up screaming in the night, wondering where you went wrong in a kindly world that’s eager for your work. Make your work as perfect as possible, by all means, but do be aware that the more people who are involved in the acquisition process, the less control — and even knowledge — you will have over how your book fares at even your dream publishing house.

We can all learn from the example of Louisa May Alcott, the author of that perennial YA favorite, LITTLE WOMEN, who struggled for seventeen years before she got her big break. Louisa wrote every day, mostly for ill-paying newspapers, primarily under pseudonyms, because she needed the money to support her family. Her first two books were, to put it kindly, great big flops, and she flailed about from genre to genre, trying to find her market. In a rejection letter, a publisher who declined her romance novel (which was, incidentally, quite good) mentioned that they would be willing to take a look at a book for girls. Louisa, by her own admission, didn’t like girls much, but as a writing professional, she gave it the old college try.

LITTLE WOMEN has never been out of print since. In the midst of her struggle to find her voice, she wrote, “I shall make a battering-ram of my head, and make my way through this rough-and-tumble world.”

May we all have her tenacity and permanent in-print status, my friends — although perhaps with swifter guardian angels, ones willing to whisper in the ears of the small army of people who need to approve each acquisition: “Buy this book.”

Now that I have depressed you all into a stupor, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

How to Write a Book Proposal, Part III: The Marketing Plan

I have already gone through the overview and the target market in previous postings. Now on to the marketing plan, the part of the book proposal that both strikes the greatest fear into the hearts of first-time proposers, as well as the part that most often gets a cursory treatment. Agents and editors see a LOT of rather lame marketing plans, ones that make it absolutely clear that the author deeply resents having to do this vital research at all.

In practical terms, this is a mistake, because today, even a very enthusiastic reception from an editor and a big advance do not necessarily equal a publisher’s commitment to promote a book. Most potential authors still assume that their publishing houses will set up personal appearances and readings for them. Many small houses still do, but nowadays, most large houses only set up tours for their top sellers. So you need to demonstrate that you are perfectly capable of marketing this book yourself, if they cannot spare you any publicity resources.

So what is a marketing plan? At its most basic level, it is a few pages that explain how the target audience of readers could be reached. For most first-time proposers, this section is largely guesswork, but you need to do it anyway. Don’t think of it as yet another instance of telling publishing professionals how to do what they already do so well: think of it as your single best opportunity to demonstrate to prospective agents and editors how VERY committed you are to this project.

The most direct way to demonstrate that commitment is to fill your marketing plan with activities that YOU intend to perform just before and just after the book comes out. Yes, you want the publisher to book you into speaking engagements and book signings, but what will you do on your own? Editors love writers who will commit to spending serious time on book promotion. Are you a member of any large organizations that might allow you to send promotional postcards to their mailing lists, or allow you to write a piece on your topic in their newsletters? Are there magazines that you could query with articles broken out of book chapters? If so, which chapters? Does your college alumni magazine publish book reviews? Remember, every clipping counts toward sales, in the long run.

Some standard means that don’t get mentioned much in proposals are:

• — Contacting regional independent bookstores yourself to arrange readings and signings.

• — Giving seminars at regional writers’ conferences or other gatherings devoted to either writing or your subject matter.

• — Creating a column for a magazine or newspaper (tell them this is already in the works; it sounds better). Even if you do this gratis, it’s good promotion.

• — Meeting with book groups to discuss your work.

• — Establishing a website to promote your work.

• — Creating a professional press kit and sending it to potentially interested news sources.

Make sure that in addition to standard marketing techniques (such as author readings and signings), you list at least a couple of means of reaching your target group specifically. Mention any regional or national groups to which members of your demographic belong. If you are pushing a book on bass fishing, will you speak at organizations of bass fisherfolk? Name these organizations, and say how many members they have. Will you haunt independent bookstores, accosting anyone who smells of fish? Tote copies of your opus to fishing holes, and give away free flies with every copy?

Think broadly and creatively. Don’t be afraid to be a little wacky; ideally, you would like your dream editor to chuckle while reading this section, murmuring, “Wow, that’s a great idea.”
Do be aware that the publishing house will actually expect you to perform what you promise here, however, and whatever you do, don’t make the common rookie mistake of limiting your marketing plan to pointing out to publishers the astonishing fact that bookstores occasionally allow authors to give readings. I promise you, they are already aware of that phenomenon. Tell them something they don’t already know, such as the fact that you have been a teacher for the past 26 years, so you have a wealth of public speaking experience, or that you belong to an organization where the members lunch together every Thursday nationwide, listening to speakers like you.

Be creative: what do you have to offer as a marketer? This is the place to mention, for instance, if you have given a magnificently successful reading at one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events. (Plug, plug.) You’d be astonished at how few prospective authors are bold enough to read their work in public – it’s invaluable experience that will serve you well at book signings down the road.

If you feel that this section looks a little thin, pull out the stops and tell them you are willing to hire a professional publicist yourself, if necessary. This is becoming a more common practice than you may think. And even if you ultimately decide not to hire a professional, remember, paying a high school student to stuff envelopes for you on a Saturday is technically hiring promotional help, if push comes to shove.

Tomorrow, we move on the comparative market analysis. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini