Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Chasya Milgrom addresses "personal taste"

It’s a tricky thing, this book business. The idea that books and business could even be combined struck me as paradoxical when I first began as an intern here over a year ago. Now, as the newest full-time member of Dystel and Goderich, I find that most people are as confused as I once was whenever I try to explain to them exactly what it is that we do. Those who are not writers and are unfamiliar with the publishing industry are often unaware that literary agents even exist, and don’t quite understand our role in the industry. I am often asked such well-meaning questions as, “So, you guys, like, publish stuff, right?” or “What books have you published?” The way I try to explain it is that we’re sort of like Hollywood agents – except that we represent writers and book projects. “Ohhh,” they respond, as that wave of confusion passes them by. “So,” they continue, “umm, how do you choose who to represent?” Excellent question.

I found myself asking that same question as those first queries started flowing in, and it is still something I think about all the time. How, in this fickle and often highly subjective business, do we decide what is deserving of our time and efforts? Do we simply hold fast to our own personal taste, even if that taste can be fairly limited? I, for instance, enjoy quirky literary fiction/narrative nonfiction (a` la Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss, and David Sedaris) but to look for only those types of projects seems incredibly restrictive, and besides, there are plenty of amazing books just waiting to be discovered in other genres. It is unfair to brush these categories aside entirely, just because I didn’t read them in the past.

I quickly learned that reading for work and reading for pleasure are two different things. In a field where creativity and craftsmanship are paramount it’s important to keep an open mind – so I was going to do just that. And so, armed with this new perspective, I set out to search my query letters for projects that were fun, or engaging, or smart (or preferably all three!) and, of course, well-written; queries that had that je ne sais quoi, regardless of what genre they fell into. What I found was that it is just as exciting to spot something that you think sounds fantastic, in an area outside your expertise. A couple of months ago, when a paranormal romance query came my way, I thought the idea sounded great – something that one of our agents, Jim McCarthy, might really love. I passed it on to him, and lo and behold, he was really excited about it, and contacted the author. It felt like I had won some strange sort of lottery.

I’ll be honest, it can be hard to really get excited about something you just have no passion for, and I can’t say that I still don’t gravitate toward quirky literary fiction. But in poring over query letters in so many different genres, I am learning to recognize what may appeal to other people, and trying to develop the all important “eye” for good work in many areas of commercial fiction. And, if I really think a project sounds wonderful, but not really my thing, I do what I did with the paranormal romance query -- something that we all do around here -- and pass it along to another agent who truly does enjoy works in that genre. Because, let’s face it, at the end of the day you are going to want an agent who is as passionate about your work as you are.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Miriam Goderich talks about how "we're in the communications business...or are we?"

We’re in the communications business…or are we?

Not too long ago we received a rather hostile e-mail from someone who said he’d been waiting two years for a response to his query and was appalled that he hadn’t heard from us. Well, I’d be pissed off too if I’d waited two years for a letter or call that never came, but the funny thing is that, in all that time, while stewing about our lack of response and thinking evil thoughts about the publishing industry in general and DGLM in particular, it never occurred to this author to get in touch with us to find out whether we had even received his query in the first place. Now, it’s always possible that we misplaced his letter or that it somehow fell through the cracks (we try ridiculously hard to get back to everyone in a timely manner but it would be silly to pretend that we have a 100% track record in this area; we probably get about 150 unsolicited queries a day via e-mail or the USPS) but common sense would dictate picking up the phone or dashing off a note to confirm receipt of one’s material if one hadn’t heard back in, say, a month or two. So, you’d think this was an unusual occurrence, but our business, which is all about communicating, is full of lousy communicators, those who are unwilling or psychologically unable to pick up a phone or send an e-mail even when careers and money are on the line.

On one side of the communication chasm are the authors who either feel that their agents/editors/p.r. people should be mind-readers and are dumbfounded and aggrieved when they realize that the power of brainwaves alone isn’t enough to get their needs and desires across, or those people who subscribe to the “squeaky wheel” approach and who think that the only way to be taken care of is to browbeat, nag, and generally make nuisances of themselves because they don’t trust that the professionals they deal with are, well, professional. On the other side are the agents and publishers who seem to be allergic to authors even though they are the heart and soul of the book biz. The stories abound of authors whose agents refuse to take their calls, don’t provide information about where their projects have been and generally act martyred on those rare occasions when they have to speak to the very people who enable them to send their kids to expensive school and take exotic vacations.

Of course, there are internecine communication breakdowns as well. As agents, we spend a huge amount of time trying to get certain people on the phone on behalf of our authors. There are editors who we know exist but only because we had lunch with them once a couple of years ago. We haven’t heard from them since. Their voice mail is always full and they sit on projects we send them for six months or until a new assistant comes in and cleans house. By that time, of course, the project is already on its way to publication by another publisher. These same editors, by the way, are apt to call when they hear of a nice sale to complain that they weren’t on the submission list only to be told that if they had responded to the last 60 messages we left, they might have been included.

It’s tough, this communication thing. E-mail has made things harder. We spend so much time in those endless e-mail loops – you know, you get an e-mail and respond and before you move on to the next missive, your inbox is chiming with the reply and so you reply again and s/he replies to your reply and then you reply…see what I mean? – that we have little of it left to pick up the phone.

Then there are the psychological barriers to making the call. No one wants to speak with someone who is going to whine or yell or tell you how disappointed they are about what you’ve been able to do (or not do) for them. Being the bearer of bad news is no more appealing today than in the days when they literally killed the messenger. And, agents and editors are often the bearers of bad news.

In fact, despite the foregoing, most publishing people are hardworking types who genuinely care about what they do. We give up time with our family, hobbies, and a healthy social life to read, edit, and make books happen. But it’s a numbers game: a lot more authors than agents or editors and not enough hours in the day, week, month. So, as you rush from meeting to meeting thinking “I’m going to get killed with e-mails when I get back to the office,” or find yourself prioritizing projects because, after all, this is a business, or are in the midst of a particularly vicious contract negotiation, it’s easy to say, I’ll get back to so and so tomorrow.

The point is that we all have to get better about being in touch. Sometimes, all anyone needs is to be told that they’re on your radar screen. They may not want to wait two years for an answer but if you let them know you’re working on it, they will be more patient. For our part, occasionally we need a nudge (or a gentle shove) to be reminded that there’s something in the queue that requires attention. As Samuel Johnson says, “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.” The key is to be courteous, professional and persistent, not belligerent, angry and disrespectful. Make the call, take the call. Easy, right?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Michael Bourret discusses picture books and "Zen-like discipline"

Writing is hard. Any writer worth his (or her) salt knows that writing takes time, patience, practice, Zen-like discipline, and at least a few temper tantrums. I’m not saying that every step of the process is a Sisyphean task, but it’s inevitable that writer’s block, or difficulty finding an agent, or a particularly harsh rejection letter will produce some pain.

This applies to all kinds of writing, whether it’s the Great American Novel, a hot paranormal romance, or a searing indictment of the two-party system. And this applies, most importantly in my mind, to kids’ books, as well.

Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing children’s books is easy. Let me rephrase that: Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing good children’s books is easy. We get a lot of queries at DGLM, a fair share of them for picture books. I’m the guy around here whose world view most resembles that of a twelve-year-old, so naturally, I’m the guy who represents juvenile fiction and nonfiction. I see them all. And, I greatly respect all the writers who toil away at their keyboards day after day – even the ones I choose not to represent. But, I’m disturbed by the queries that say, “I wrote this picture book manuscript on a lark last night. Want to be my agent?”

As it turns out, writing for kids is really tough. The younger the audience, the harder, if you ask me. In a picture book, you’ve got 3,000 words or less to tell a whole story. That’s it. With so few words in a book, every word counts. Just a few mistakes – poor word choice, awkward phrasing, ridiculous rhymes – and the entire thing falls apart. Then there’s the whole issue of age-appropriate language and content; it’s easy to miss the boat if you’re not aware of the audience you’re writing for. Those issues are rather concrete, though, and I think the more adept technician can learn the rules and turn out something that won’t offend. What isn’t so easy to mimic or learn is most important, and I feel that even many published writers miss the mark on this: to write for children, you must view the world through the eyes of a child. I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely, New-Age way (for the most part). What I look for in a manuscript is an understanding of how a child sees, explores and understands the world. Not being a writer myself (I leave that to people far more talented than me), I’m not sure if this is something that can be learned. I’d be interested to hear what others think about that.

I work with a wonderful author who definitely sees the world through children’s eyes, Anne Rockwell. Through her words and illustrations, she’s able to explain rather complex concepts to children. Though some of her books have less than 300 words, they all speak volumes. More impressively, most of them would still be engaging without her (or her collaborator’s) brilliant illustrations. Though the books are short, Anne works as hard as any author I’ve met. Her research is nothing short of remarkable -- you can ask her about her sources for a book she’s doing on Toussaint L’Ouverture – and she hones and crafts a manuscript for weeks.

In my humble opinion, the literature written for children is the most important; it provides inspiration and comfort to these impressionable readers. I don’t mean, in any way, to discourage anyone from writing anything. Getting a great new submission makes my day, and I’d love to represent more picture books (despite the difficulty of the market), and middle grade and young adult fiction. But I do want to encourage authors, of every stripe, to respect the art and craft of writing. I want to represent authors who write not because it’s easy, but because they have something to say and they’re willing to work their butts off to make it happen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Stacey Glick ponders "The Death of Chick Lit"

Just like in every other area of the media, trends are prolific in book publishing. This can be a good thing and a bad thing for books. Good in the sense that when something hits and hits big, like Bridget Jones Diary, The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada, we know for sure that lots of other books in that category, now known as chick lit, will follow. So, authors scramble to write their frothy, fun commercial successes at breakneck speed, publishers rush to buy, buy, buy, and agents push to sign up clients whose books they can sell quickly and for the best deal possible before the trend subsides.

Before long, the deluge hits, and the market is saturated with books that look and sound alike, way too many for the consumer to process (it might take a year or more for this to happen since publishing is still very slow to get product into the marketplace). And so, the trend ends, and in some cases, as with chick lit, crashes hard. This is difficult for everyone involved – authors, agents, editors, and publishers. What you’re left with after the publishers move on is a pool of talented and disappointed authors whose books aren’t selling, meaning they now have a bad track record to overcome, and questions to their agent and editor like, “What should we do next?”

There’s no easy answer. Part of the problem is that chick lit in so many ways resembles its highbrow cousin “commercial women’s fiction”, an ambiguous genre that can skew remarkably similar to chick lit. So, how should we direct authors who feel lost and confused by what they thought was a category their publishers were excited for them to keep publishing in? How do you define the subtle differences between commercial women’s fiction and chick lit (“I’ll know it when I see it” isn’t an answer most authors want to hear from their agent or editor)? What I try to tell my clients is that they need to conceive of an idea that they are excited to write, first and foremost. It’s not just about coming up with a concept that’s going to fit the next trend (although if they have something really high concept, that’s not such a bad thing) or that they’ll be able to finish quickly, but rather one that speaks deeply to the author and inspires them to write a story that they love.

The best advice I’d offer for now if you are an aspiring writer looking for an agent and publisher is to refrain from pitching your book as chick lit. The words have become taboo, and while the same essential story might be bought or sold and just marketed, promoted, and packaged differently, without the chick lit tagline, authors, agents, and their publishers will all be better off, at least until the trend returns again.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jim McCarthy tells you to "keep on keeping on."

I recently found myself waiting on the sidewalk for a friend of mine when I was approached by an acquaintance who was dragging someone along. “Hi Jim,” he said. “This is Sarah. Sarah, this is Jim. He’s a literary agent.” My back went ramrod straight, and I tensed up as Sarah’s eyes went wide. This could only mean one of two things: Sarah was looking for an agent, or she had a bone to pick with agents in general. I hoped she was in the first camp. It seems every writer both wants an agent and wants to kill an agent. We’re in the business of selling books (yay), but such a big part of the process is rejecting other material (boo). Rejection will always be part of the business, unfortunate as that is.

See, as agents, we see a lot of material. A whole lot. Hundreds of query letters pour into our office every week, filling our Outlook inboxes and landing on our desks, which are already invisible under our piles of reading, contracts, catalogs and correspondence from editors, clients, etc. We do read every single query we get in the hope of finding the next big thing. We want to find material that we fall in love with. That’s why we do what we do. But an agent can only represent so many projects, and so we pick and choose, sometimes going on knowledge of the market, sometimes depending on a gut level response. Particularly with fiction, our decisions are very subjective.

About once a day, I get an e-mail from someone who is not taking rejection sitting down. They often tell me that I’ve made a terrible decision. Many point out that I’ve passed on the next Da Vinci Code. And that may be true. I don’t know anyone in this business who hasn’t regretted a rejection letter they’ve sent. I vividly remember seeing a project I had turned down displayed in a publisher’s catalog for the first time. I had a hunch when I first read it that there might be something there, but I eventually passed thinking it wouldn’t play. Oops!

Rejection is a major part of this business. Every author has been turned down by someone somewhere. And people do make mistakes in their decisions. I have a belief, though, optimistic as it may be, that the cream does eventually rise to the top, that good writing will find its way into print and that deserving books do get published. It takes a thick skin and a whole lot of patience and determination, but it can happen.

One of my most prolific clients is someone I turned down on the first go-round. I read her novel, saw the promise, but ultimately wasn’t convinced that she pulled off what she was trying for. I wrote an encouraging letter and told her that I wasn’t sure I could place it but would be happy to take a look at a revision or anything else she considered writing. Just a week later, I had a new manuscript in my inbox. Terrified that she had done a haphazard polish of the original manuscript and fired it back to me, I wasn’t particularly excited about picking it up again. But lo and behold, she had done a major rewrite. And it was good. Very good! Since then, I’ve sold eight books by this author.

Ultimately, what I want to get across is that we do know how difficult this process is. We try to make it as painless as possible, but getting a rejection hurts no matter what happens. Just keep in mind when you’re next in a bookstore that they all got turned down—the bestsellers and the prize winners alike. So try to be patient, try not to let your feelings get hurt, and keep on keeping on.