Happy Friday, everyone! Not sure where the week went. Not sure where the month went, to be honest. Time just keeps flying along. So, here’s wishing you all a lovely weekend, productive or restful or whatever makes you smile. Meanwhile, I’ve a few fun and informative links for you to check out. Enjoy!
Ghosts Are Real, At Least in Publishing – In response to the recent discussion of the use of ghost writers for celebrity cookbooks, one ghost writer talks about the various levels of assistance these writers provide.
Yesterday, along with my five fellow agents, I took part in a Twitter chat (at #knightagency, if you want to go back and read). We called it a lunchtime chat because it took place at 12pm ET, but of course that meant for me it was more of a coffee chat, 9am being well past breakfast but certainly nowhere near lunch. And for anyone joining us from other parts of the world, well, yes, there’s math there. You get the idea.
And math is actually the focus of this post, because I was surprised at the number of questions that were, in fact, math related. Things along the lines of What are the odds of getting published as a debut author? or What percentage of queries actually result in your signing the writer?
My answers to these questions, respectively, are It depends on how good your book is and whether there’s a market for it, and I have absolutely no idea.
Here’s the kind of math I do as an agent. I look at contracts and figure out what’s a reasonable percentage of the advance for the publisher to pay on signing, on delivery, and in some cases, on publication. I read royalty statements and make sure that the numbers of books sold per market adds up to the number sold total, and that those numbers jive with the money being paid — taking into consideration that a percentage is held against potential returns. I don’t really count my submissions, unless I’m terribly behind and want to depress myself.
I realize that some agencies have a system for determining how many queries come in and how many clients they sign as a result, but in my mind, this process is completely subjective, and any numbers I could hand you wouldn’t actually tell you anything about what you need to do for me to represent you. Because I don’t say to myself Oh, I’ve read one hundred partials, I’m due to request a full-length manuscript, or I’ve read thirty manuscripts, so I have to sign one of them, or I haven’t signed anyone new in six months — better hurry up and fix that. I read until I fall in love. I read until the story and the writing excite me, until I find something that keeps me up all night and that I’m loathe to put down. I read until I find a project that clicks for me and I really, really want to talk to the writer. That can happen once or twice a year, or twice in a month. It’s the luck of the draw, depending purely on what’s appeared in my inbox.
We receive a huge number of submissions each year, just as any established agency does. Many start as queries in the general submissions folder — per our submissions guidelines. Melissa Jeglinski, our submissions coordinator, probably has a good idea how many per month, give or take. But that’s not our only source of new material. We all attend conferences where we meet with writers and request partials or complete manuscripts, and those come directly to us, bypassing the submissions folder. Existing clients and editors recommend writers to us, and they, too, will submit directly. And on occasion, we will find some bit of writing on the internet or a periodical, or hear of someone with a fabulous story to tell, and we will approach them to see if they have a book in the works or would be interested in writing one, and if they have representation.
In other words, our clients come from many sources, and approach us in different ways. We could take the time to maintain meticulous records, but there’s not much point in it, and that time is certainly better spent elsewhere. For agents where the process is much more direct — at agencies where each agent fields their own queries directly, for instance — it’s probably an easier task, but those statistics only show you how busy the agent is. Knowing you’ve read 500 partial manuscripts and 65 full manuscripts in a year — and these are simply numbers I’ve pulled out of thin air for an example — doesn’t tell the writer the odds of your signing them.
If you want to improve your odds, do the work, and I don’t mean the math. Polish your manuscript, get feedback from people you trust, find a teacher or mentor who can help you get your story where it needs to be. Then read the agency websites and see what books the agents represent — and read a few of those. Find out if an agent’s taste seems suited to your writing style. Target the professionals who love what you love, who love the sorts of books you are hoping to write over the course of your career, and who seem best suited to represent your work. And remember that, at the end of the day, you only need one.
Happy Friday, everyone! And not a moment too soon. I have quite a few tabs open this week and my browser is getting cranky with me. It will be wonderful to post the links here and finally close them all down.
This has been something of a whirlwind week, appropriate for the start of spring. I hope you all found some inspiration and energy to tackle something new, whether it was a writing project or something else entirely. Or maybe you’re saving it up for the weekend. Regardless, save some time to check out a few of these sites. Enjoy!
Writers working on a novel generally know what they need to do next, whether they’re in the thick of writing their first draft, still in the research phase, or diving into edits and rewrites. There’s generally a sense of anticipation with all of these stages — where you’re anxious to see your vision realized, to discover what you characters can become, to get that next brilliant sentence down on paper or polished until it glows. But how do you get through the less inspirational parts of writing? When writer’s block hits, or you’re on draft number six and are wishing you could throttle your uncooperative protagonist?
Edan Lepucki has an intriguing post up at The Millions on how to find and keep your inspiration, including a fun homework assignment that she invites everyone to try. She’s even asking anyone who does to email her photos of their results. It’s a creative, fun way of rekindling your spark, and well worth checking out.
Even if you are a novel writer, it can be great practice to give some other format a try from time to time, even as just a writing exercise. Limber up your brain by trying to write some poetry. It will make you more conscious of language and of rhythm in your writing. Or work on a short story for a few minutes each day before you get to your main WIP. The shorter format requires very precise writing, where every word, every scene pulls its weight and then some — a wonderful awareness to have for any type of writing. If you aren’t a blogger, try writing a guest post for a fellow writer who is. Blog posts require still a different type of writing, the tone much more conversational, the goal being to engage a broad audience in a very brief space.
There are always contests open to writers, many of which offer publication to the winners. A few upcoming deadlines include Narrative’s winter 2012 story contest and Glimmer Train’s March fiction open. Poets & Writers has a comprehensive listing of deadlines for contests, awards, and grants on their website. Put one or two small projects in your work rotation with one of these contests in mind and let the change in pace serve as a mental palate cleanser of sorts.
Be on the lookout for new places to submit, as well. One Story is starting a version of their literary magazine for teens, One Teen Story. Young adult writers interested in writing short stories geared toward teen readers should check out their guidelines, and there’s also a contest for writers who are themselves teenagers.
There’s no telling what a little experimentation might do for your creative output. Open yourself up to some new ideas, formats and venues, and see if inspiration strikes. At the very least, you’ll return to your main project with fresh eyes. Happy writing!
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of spring. As a season, spring represents new starts, rebirth, the end of a long winter and so on. Personally, I’ve always considered spring as a time to take action. It’s motivational, seeing all those birds hopping around, flowers starting to sprout, weather improving. Thoughts turn to planting a garden, cleaning out the accumulated debris of the winter — both indoors and out — and maybe starting new projects to get ready for summer. What better time to pick up an old novel-in-progress, dust it off and see it with fresh eyes? Or to step back and assess where you are with your writing goals and how you can retrench for best effect?
If any of this sounds silly or overly convenient, I’ll let you in on a secret. The key to motivating yourself to keep going through the rough patches — the writer’s block, the work crises that make it hard to steal writing time, the heartbreak in your love life that makes you want to curl up and ignore the world including your WIP — is tricking yourself into meeting the challenge for one more day. If you wake up in the morning feeling less than energetic, if you feel like writing is the last thing you want to do, scratch around for a reason to be motivated.
Today, spring is as good a reason as any to get off your butt and get to work. If you’re not a writer, I’m sure there’s something else you can do to spring into action for the new season. Pull your running shoes out of the back of the closet and go for a jog. Make an appointment to get a new hair cut, or go get your nails done in some pretty spring shade. Get online and check out the schedule for your nearest major or minor league baseball team and see if you can buy tickets for an early game. Take your kids to the playground this afternoon. Clean out your kitchen junk drawer. Do something. Energy is contagious.
If you follow the publishing industry at all, the chances are you’ve heard of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. For the uninitiated, this is the first title in an erotic trilogy that first garnered attention as a popular e-book climbing the rankings at Amazon.com. It later went on to have a small printing through an Australian publisher, and just this week sold at auction for a reputed seven-figure sum (for the trilogy) to a major New York publishing house. The original e-book version was pulled from all vendors and a new, more expensive copy loaded in its place. At this point, hard copy orders still result in the print copy from the Australian printing, though the official listing has the name of the New York publisher.
So what’s the big deal? This title has already sold approximately a quarter of a million copies, and will be receiving a reported 750,000 copy print run under the new publisher. Someone, somewhere, feels there is a market for a million copies of this book. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong, but the real question is why do they feel this is worth the gamble?
The Shades of Grey books began their lives as Twilight fan fiction, reimagining Bella as an innocent young woman just graduating college who enters into a BDSM relationship with a wealthy Seattle businessman–Edward. The combination of the subject matter, which was handled in an almost tutorial-like fashion as Edward “educated” Bella about the lifestyle, and the Twilight link, made the stories incredibly popular with their audience, which was Twilight fans interested in a more adult view of the relationship from the original Stephenie Meyers books. Subtract vampires, add sex. E. L. James gained a measure of fame within fandom and beyond, and eventually decided to pull the fan fiction version of her stories from the internet, change the details to make them completely original fiction, and publish them in electronic form. Many of her fans supported her, and sales increased thanks to word-of-mouth.
It remains to be seen how many “mainstream readers” — meaning those not plugged into the internet or fandom — will be interested in these books in their latest incarnation. While some areas of the media seem to consider it a revelation that there are women out there interested in reading about sex — and not just your standard variety, missionary position sex, either — the reality is that the erotica market has experienced several major upticks in recent years, spawned in large part by the online vendors and the availability of electronic formatting. This is the equivalent of the brown paper wrapper; naughty, sexy reading material that you can download at will and delete or store in the cloud when you’re done. Will readers embrace these books to the point of purchasing them in paperback? Do three quarters of a million readers want these books on their shelves? I don’t know.
These books are not art. They are not even particularly original or well written. What they are, is an exploration of a world that hasn’t received much public attention recently. It’s impossible to point to the market and say “this is what you need to do to sell a lot of books.” People’s interests are not that cut and dry. You can, however, analyze successful titles to see what has made them different. In this case, the author is giving the reader a tour of the BDSM world, something many of them have never read about or heard much about in their daily lives. I suspect there is also a level of curiosity about the titles for those readers who are familiar with the BDSM lifestyle — wanting to know if the author has her details right. Layer that on top of a relationship that is fashioned after one that’s already proven highly successful, and you begin to get a glimmer of why these books are doing so well.
It’s easy to say sex sells, and that the titillating aspects of the books are the draw, but the original Twilight novels included very little sex and have been enormously popular. So clearly sex alone is not the key.
What makes a bestselling book? There really is no one thing, no formula. If you look back at the vampire craze of the late seventies and early eighties, you find the novels of Anne Rice. Rice’s Lestat books were fresh and different in that they gave the reader the vampire’s point of view. Rice asked what it would be like to live so long, to be forced to keep up with history and technological advances, to see everything you knew and loved as a child or young adult gradually change and vanish — the experiences of becoming old but in the extreme. What is it like to have no one to live your life with? What is it like to have that level of power over humans? And what would it be like to be turned as a child, to age and mature over the years while your body remained undeveloped? Her approach was intriguing, her characters fascinating and multifaceted compared to the more traditional vampire stereotypes. Set against the lush backdrop of New Orleans, with Rice’s stylistic, almost baroque writing — very in keeping with the over-the-top eighties — the books became a sensation.
The Harry Potter books are another example of a fresh take on old ideas. J.K. Rowling’s series is far too popular for anyone to simply dismiss her as lucky, or the books as children’s literature that happened to appeal to a lot of readers. Statistically speaking, a huge proportion of the population has read at least one Harry Potter book or at least seen one of the films. They are well crafted, thoughtfully plotted, and packed full of details that make readers wish they could visit Rowling’s world — enough that one theme park has been built to answer to that desire, with another one in the works.
Yes, Rowling started writing about wizards at a time when fantasy was just experiencing a resurgence in literature — and she likely contributed to that rise. She also set her stories in a boarding school, a fascinating new world for readers in the US where most children attend school locally, thereby layering her intriguing worlds instead of supplying just one. But the reality is that the stories engage readers through multiple themes and age-old traditions of literature. They are packed with examples of good versus evil, practicing what you preach, being tolerant, how even the best people can be hypocritical, following your conscience, standing by your friends, and much more. At a deeper level, there are religious themes of rebirth and resurrection that tap into cultural beliefs. And of course, all of this rests under the veneer of a series of mysteries the characters must solve, not only on a smaller level — one for each book — but on a grand scale across the series. These are books that may be read for pure enjoyment, but they also stand up to rereading and to digging deeper for a greater meaning — which cannot be said of many of the Harry-inspired titles that have been published in years since.
Popular author Tom Clancy has detailed knowledge about how our military and government work to keep the country safe, and an interest in the broader political area, that allowed him to craft very in-depth action adventure books that put the reader in the thick of the action. But his sales were definitely boosted when a certain President of the United States mentioned he was reading a Clancy title. The books were well written, and worth the discovery once a reader picked them up, but they found their market through the best sort of word-of-mouth. More recently, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland received a presidential mention as well. And many books have achieved high sales thanks to their Oprah Winfrey book club listings.
The market is a strange and fickle place. It is virtually impossible to plan for success — to sit down and decide to write a particular type of book, including specific details, and know that it will fly off the shelves. Tastes change rapidly, and what is popular when you pick up your pen or sit down at the keyboard might very well be last week’s news by the time you finish your first draft. As for publicity, well, unless you know a book-minded politician who likes to name drop, or are on Oprah’s Christmas card list, the chances are good that you can only dream of your book receiving that sort of endorsement. There will always be fads, there will always be fascination based on some quirk of the times we live in, and there will always be lucky coincidences that can help a writer soar to recognition. But these are just the fates at work.
Writers can only control so much of their career and their process. You have to write, and rewrite. You have to read good books, and the occasional bad book, so you know what makes them what they are. Read the bestsellers to see what is working but form your own opinions. Just because it sells, does not mean you’ll like it — or that it is the type of material you wish to write. Write from the heart and keep at it, and know that while certain levels of success will always be a matter of luck, your talent and efforts will eventually pay off.