September 2, 2010

The Most Important Letter in Publishing

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

but it keeps them on my knife.

–Colonial ditty

However you eat your peas, know that P is the most important letter in the alphabet stew of publishing. Here is a taste of Ps that drive publishing for you to digest:

  • Publishing: The art of transforming black lines of words into a green bottom line and an industry with an unknowable future.
  • Problems: What publishers have always had and have always figured out how to solve. When you’re using a publishing system that goes back a century to sell a technology that goes back five centuries, problems are inevitable.
  • Progress: Technology is 

              * transforming writing and publishing

              * creating profit, turmoil, uncertainty

              * forcing us to be creative and improvise

  • Power: Publishers have the power to say no and make decisions about the commitment they make to a book and how to publish it. Agents with potential bestsellers, bestselling authors, and major customers have the power to make demands. Writers have the power to be publishers.
  • Profit: What publishers must make to survive and pay authors. Authors survive on hope and a paying job.
  • P&L: A computerized profit-and-loss form editors prepare for books they want to buy guesstimating how the books will be profitable enough to justify buying them.
  • Price: An evolving number determined by costs, competition, powerful customers, the need to maximize profits, and what the traffic will bear.
  • Print on Demand: Behind the explosion in self-publishing because publishers only produces books when there are buyers for them. An alternative for new writers, if only to test-market their books, and for established authors who can reach their readers. Publishers are using it for backlist books, and booksellers are starting to use Espresso Machines in their stores to produce and sell books they can’t stock.
  • Privishing: the premature demise of most books that are deprived of the time and other resources they need to succeed because of the plethora of books published every year that prevents publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and book buyers from doing justice to them.
  • Process: From deal to bookstore, publishing a book at a big or midsize house can take two years, a process that’s hard to accelerate if you’re publishing hundreds of books a year.
  • Prose:  Style, voice, and impact determine readers’ responses to a proposal or manuscript for which the writing is crucial. Prose must be as effective as it needs to be to satisfy readers. How well writers string words together to embody their ideas will, sooner or later, determine a book’s fate, regardless of how it’s published.
  • Passion: Publishers yearn to be passionate about every book they publish, a luxury only small houses can afford. Authors have to be passionate about their work.
  • Pitch: The brief description of a book that must excite agents, editors, sales reps, booksellers, the media, and book and subsidiary-rights buyers
  • Proposal: A 35-to-50-page business plan for a nonfiction book that must convince a publisher to gamble on it. For fiction, a synopsis as  much of the novel as agents’ and editors’ guidelines request.
  • Platform: Continuing visibility, online and off, with potential readers. Authors of  certain kinds of books need one to sell books to big and midsize houses.
  • Promotion: Online and off,  marketing is vital for success, and authors do more of it than publishers. Authors and publishers can only be as effective as their books enable them to be. Promotion can’t sell a book that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
  • Publicity: Free time and space in the media are more cost-effective than touring and advertising. The Web empowers authors to publicize their books without leaving their desks.
  • Perseverance: What it takes to see publishers (and authors) through the complex, creative, time-consuming challenges of writing and publishing books, despite the hurdles involved the process.
  • Pride: Like authors, publishers want to be proud of their books. Only your best will do.
  • Promise: Publishers are perpetual optimists who let themselves be seduced by their hopes for a book and an author’s potential.

I hope this pot pourri of Ps has given you a perspective that will push you to persist in getting published.

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Overcoming Publishing’s Problems

August 26, 2010

A Sipress cartoon in The New Yorker shows a medieval prison cell in which a terrified prisoner is on a rack with his hands and feet bound. His hooded tormentor is saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.”

If you’re a writer, mental suffering comes with the calling. The anguish of finding the right word, completing and revising a manuscript, hearing what’s wrong with it, finding an agent or publisher, promoting the book. All of these challenges involve effort, uncertainty, and mistakes. Getting them all right the first time only happens in heaven.

One goal of this blog is to help ease your burdens. But thanks to Steve Piersanti, publisher of Berrett-Koehler, the list that follows won’t make you any happier about your profession. But the more you know, the farther you can go. Steve recently updated

The 10 Awful Truths About Publishing.

Awful they are, but if you know them, you can overcome them. Thousands of authors do it every year, and they’re using technology to create new ways to help them. After the list, Steve offers seven ways to help you do it. Previous posts have also discussed what it takes to succeed in the brave new whirl of publishing.

To see Steve’s list, visit www.bkpub.com, click on Resources, then on publishing documents. (You can also subscribe to BK’s outstanding newsletter.) Here are the list’s highlights:

* Publishing produces more new products per year than any other industry.

* More than a million books were published last year, but bookstore sales are declining.

* More than 7 million books are available.

* The average nonfiction book sells 250 copies per year, 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

* A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

* It’s increasingly difficult to make any book stand out, in part because other media are claiming more of people’s time.

* People are reading only books that their communities make important or mandatory.

* Authors do more marketing than publishers.

* Technology is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales, and e-profits are slimmer than print profits.

* Technology, small profit margins, the complexities of the business, competition from other media and publishers guarantee change and turmoil.

Steve’s 7 Strategies for Responding to These Truths

1. The game is now pass-along sales, people buying books for other people.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5. Master new sales and marketing channels.

6. Build books around a big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

As earlier posts suggested, reading, models, goals, craft, a series of related books, platform, promotion, commitment, and communities to help you are the keys to your career. Armed with them and your share of luck, nothing can stop you.

Next up: 13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing.


Winning the Showdown on Page One

August 19, 2010

In an old New Yorker cartoon, an angry writer sits at his desk before a battered typewriter pounding out a note to a publisher. The caption goes like this: “I find your rejection slip mealy-mouthed, turgid, and totally lacking in style, and regret that I must reject your rejection slip.”

Rejection slips will never be models of style, and they never bring good news. Read on to learn one way to help avoid them. Our assistant Claire Cavanaugh, an outstanding editor, and Robin Perini–both are romance writers–did a workshop at the Romance Writers of America Conference. To prepare, they asked a group of agents, including Elizabeth Pomada and Laurie McLean at our agency, seven questions about fiction and nonfiction books.

In response to one question, agents replied that 90 percent of time, they can tell from page one if a manuscript was not salable. This was the follow-up question:

4. What are the most common reasons that you can tell a manuscript will NOT work on page one?

  • Poor writing, incomplete sentences, lots of adjectives each sentence.
  • No hook. Not enough dramatic tension. Too much like so many other plots.
  • Misspellings & poor grammar.
  • Lengthy narrative (usually “setting the scene” with too many details); dull opening with no change (change can be subtle but something must be happening); writing style that doesn’t engage; writer is telling and not showing the story
  • Bad writing, cliché opening, trite character names, poor grammar.
  • Bad prose, wrong word choices, bad grammar and punctuation. Boring, flat, no voice
  • You can’t tell on the first page unless the topic is impossible

The survey has a lot of helpful information. Do yourself a favor and check it out at Robin’s blog: http://robinperini.wordpress.com. Read the post called “Hooks and Opening – Inside Scoop,” click on the helpful handout which has sample openings, and on the last link for the “Inside Scoop Complete Survey Report.”

Agents and editors have a hair-trigger response to bad prose. If you’re telling a story, you can win the showdown on page one by showing up with a killer first page. Let your best words win. It beats having to reject rejections.


Lighting the Night So Your Readers Can See

August 17, 2010

Once you’ve seen your face on a bottle of salad dressing, it’s hard to take yourself seriously.

–Paul Newman

You have to take your work, your career, and your life seriously. Everything you think, say, and do is either making you a better, more productive writer and person or it isn’t.

And yet, you also need to balance the importance of your efforts with a sense of perspective about your place in the universe. Elizabeth and I saw a few sprinkles of the Perseid meteor shower last Saturday. Shooting stars are an apt metaphor for our existence, a fleeting burst of light with a long tail. The tail is our trail, what our light leaves behind us when it burns out.

As a writer, you have the chance to leave behind a trail of work that can continue to illuminate life and the world for your readers. What a gift and privilege it is to be able to transcend the confines of our own life and communicate with present and future readers around the planet.

Mel Brooks once said: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” So are drama, information, and inspirational writing. Stories and ideas that help us come to terms with the world and ourselves will have lasting value. Your work–long and short, online and offline–is your legacy, your gift to future readers.

So be gentle with yourself, but devote yourself to fulfilling your readers’ expectations. Light up the night for your readers and you will have fans for life.


5 Ways to Get Rave Reviews

August 10, 2010

What do writers and doctors have in common? They both need patience.

The Galley Cat blog (a must read–galleycat@mediabistro.com) picked up on a tweet by One-Minute Book Reviews editor Janice Harayda listing the most overused put-downs in book reviews, three about character, two about plot:

  • Cardboard characters
  • Thin plot
  • Cookie-cutter characters
  • The book falls apart at the end.
  • I just didn’t care about the characters.

As a reader, you spot these failings immediately. How can you avoid them as a writer? Follow the steps I’ve mentioned in previous posts:

Know the territory: read as many books as you can that can serve as models for yours in terms of style, plot, tone, theme, length, structure, characters, and setting.

Be authentic: absorb what you can from the books that you love, but don’t be the next anyone; be the first you. My resistance to books that smack of commerce, that were written to cater to a market instead of telling a story that the author must tell, is growing. Write the books only you can write. Editors love to find promising books and authors, but they love finding something promising and new even more.  As agent Jessica Faust suggests, don’t explode the boundaries, but push them.

Write and rewrite: professional writers expect crappy first drafts. They rewrite until every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter are the best they’re capable of producing.

Share your work: even if you get feedback as you write, you will be too close to your manuscript to judge its literary or commercial value. You also need eyes for your revisions. Only capable, objective readers can tell you when it’s time to find a publisher to help you give birth to your baby.

Honor the process: Like reviewers, readers can spot lack of effort immediately; writers who accept nothing less than their best are praised accordingly.  Assume it will take more time that you would like to

  • Write your book.
  • Get it published.
  • Build your platform.
  • Promote your book.
  • Build your career.

The more patient you are, the more likely your efforts will be justified by the rewards and recognition they receive.

Nothing can stop an idea, a book, and a writer whose time has come. Persevere and your time will come!


Saving Your Self for Yourself

August 5, 2010

Did you hear about the proposed merger of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? The new company is going to be called You Twit Face!

In an insightful article in the New York Times Sunday magazine (8/1), Peggy Orenstein, author of the fall book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, wrote about Twitter. At her publisher’s urging, she is trying to raise an army of tweeple to help promote her book. She feels that tweeting about one’s personal life to please others makes us actors in a reality TV show.

She enjoys Twitter’s “infinite potential for connection” and the “opportunity for self-expression.” But she writes: “The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create and alienates us from our own humanity.”

When the world shares our personal and professional lives, what becomes of privacy and intimacy? This conflict will be the basis for thousands of fiction and nonfiction books. But it brings up the challenge of separating “person and persona, the public and private self.” You can appreciate this tension as a source for writing, but how do you forge and maintain two lives—one online that’s personal and professional, and one that’s private, that’s yours and you share only with those closest to you?

Creating a Living and a Life

A song from  A Chorus Line, which is about actors auditioning for a show,  begins: “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” There are more ways to live, write, and get published than ever. (There’s a book to be done about the vast range of lifestyles we have to choose from.) Who you are determines the choices you make, and they become part of your identity.

As a writer, you need to be able to adapt faster than ever in response to changes in culture, technology, the economy, and the growing number of options you have as a writer as your craft, promotability, and career grow.

Out of this large evolving melange of possibilities, you have to continue to figure out who you are clearly enough to create a living and a life. And you don’t have a moment to waste. Devote your time to developing your talents, skills, knowledge, and relationships. You will need them.

Life, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere. Good thing writers always have a pen handy. May fate elevate you from the literary chorus line to a starring role, yet enable you to disappear as soon as you leave the theater. Become a bestselling author, if that’s your goal. But if you do, you’ll need a private life even more.

(My thanks to our brilliant colleague, Laurie McLean–www.agentsavant.com–for passing on the humor at the beginning of this post.)


Writing for a Time Capsule

August 3, 2010

“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

That was the response of a producer to an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! Audiences, however, were delighted. The program noted that the show went on to become Broadway’s longest running show for thirteen years.

Oklahoma! was the first modern musical because the songs and dances didn’t just entertain, they served the story. The show was based on a straight play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which wasn’t a hit and to which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration added music and lyrics.

Elizabeth and I just saw a summer stock version of the show at the Sacramento Music Circus. More than ever, I appreciated the show as a time-capsule musical, the inspiring, quintessential play about the hope and promise of America. A century from now, if people want to watch plays that capture the American dream, Oklahoma! will be one of them.

Dreaming Big

The show also suggested a wonderful literary goal: writing books that will be read in a hundred years. Are there stories–long or short, true or fictional, American or foreign, successful or obscure–that you can re-imagine for today’s and tomorrow’s readers? Whatever narratives you choose to write, remember a simple criterion for every word: serve the story.

The Web gives you to tools to create in any medium and link your work to your e-book as well as link to anything else on the Web. This makes enhanced e-books that enable you to build a community of readers first modern books. They vastly extend your creative potential as well as your ability to reach readers. Old ideas, new techniques—the arts evolve, but the needs and desires of people and artists don’t. Seize the chance to tell the stories that only you can in the way only you can tell them.

Expect out-of-town rejections. In his outstanding keynote at the San Francisco Writers Conference, Steve Berry said that before he hit the bestseller list, he received 85 rejections on five novels before selling one. (His talk is available at www.sfwriters.org.)

Only time will tell if you’re right, and if you dedicate yourself to your craft and your career, you will be.