Thursday, September 30, 2010

More Banned Books Week

by Michael

As Jim pointed out earlier this week, it’s time to celebrate those books that others have tried to silence. I’m excited by the response that readers and authors have had to the situation with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and by the fact that the attention garnered by book-banning tends to help raise the profile of said book. While keeping a book out of a library or school is a terrible thing (especially an important and amazing book like Speak), I’m grateful that the ensuing controversy makes the book all the more prominent.

One of the bigger controversies of the past few months was the one surrounding Ellen Hopkins and the Humble, Texas Teen Lit Festival. When Ellen was “disinvited” from the festival, her fellow authors decided not to appear, and the festival was cancelled. It’s terrible for the teens who didn’t get to have the event. Representing teen authors, I’ve seen first-hand how important these authors are to the readers. I’ve seen more than one kid crying and thanking an author for what they’ve written, how their life has been changed for the better. It’s hard not to get emotional about the impact books can have. But it’s important to make a stand, and I hope the teens understood the difficult decision those authors made.

But, this post was really an excuse to link to Ellen’s fantastic Anti-Censorship “Manifesto,” which you can find here. It’s short, powerful, and well worth the read.

Congratulations, Jessica!


Our warm congratulations go out to Jessica on the birth of her son! As you might imagine, she’s got her hands a bit too full to be blogging, but you’ll see her back here soon!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ironic…and not in the Alanis Morrissette way…

by Miriam

If you’re not from the New York area, you probably are not regularly delighted as we are by the screechy, often offensive and occasionally befuddling articles and opinions featured in the New York Post. Personally, I love the cringe-worthy, punny and sometimes genius headlines.

So, this article about Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn writer, skipping town for California amused me in that “slow news day?” kind of way. The fact that Jeremy Olsham compares this footnote of an event to the Dodgers going Hollywood in 1958 is laughable (except perhaps not in the heightened emotional world of Rupert Murdoch’s rag).

Am I missing something or should I be devastated that Lethem is leaving the borough he mined for so much literary gold?

Advice from a published author

by Stacey

While reading today's AOL headlines, I came across this concise summary about getting published written by Lisa Johnson Mandell, a published nonfiction author. I don't think she says anything we haven't heard before, but it still bears repeating, and she does sum it up pretty nicely for the novice author. Plus she offers some direct advice from her reputable agent, which is valuable and right on target. The title of her piece is a bit misleading since she talks at the beginning about self-publishing a book, which she's right might be easier than you'd think, but the suggestion that going the more traditional agent and publisher route is easier than you think is a bit of a stretch. It's harder than ever in many ways with the market being so competitive, and finding an agent and publisher requires a lot of things to go write (a pun, not a typo). Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The best page you've ever written (you hope)

by Stephanie

In the interest of adding to my formal list entitled Things I Think Are Genius, I submit the soon-to-be-launched website called, as spotlighted in this piece from the Guardian. The website takes the recommendation once given by English novelist Ford Madox Ford that readers “open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you” and puts it into practice. The development of aims to examine this concept by challenging authors to submit the ninety-ninth page of their work for readers to assess.

The concept seems alternately fantastic and flawed. By the ninety-ninth page, most if not all of a book’s central characters and plot lines should be established. But at the same time, is one page enough of a snapshot to make the reader want to dive in, start to finish? It just might be that the ninety-ninth page of any given book happens to be the one page wherein absolutely nothing constructive occurs. Then what? Definitely something to ponder as your typing finally breaks on to page ninety-nine in Microsoft Word.

Better off dead?

by John

I was heartened to read Leila Sales’ piece in last week’s Publishers Weekly about the inordinate number of dead parents in children’s literature, for it’s a subject I used to bring up myself when talking to writers’ groups. My lame attempt at a laugh-line was always that if YA novels were the real world, no-one would become parents, because the chances of survival were minimal at best. Leila does a wonderful job of identifying why writers tend to kill off parents—lazy writing, instant sympathy, parents are dull—while also offering some practical solutions for how to keep the parents alive without making them major characters.

So, just to add my own two cents: if you’re a teen writer struggling with parent characters, instead of killing them off, get ‘em divorced. First, it’s more believable to kids who are typically aware of divorce issues they or their friends may have in their real lives. And second, divorce offers tons of deliciously messy plot possibilities, while death usually leads to the standard scenes of mourning, loss, regret—and a big yawn from readers.
However you handle parents, though, it’s worth putting in the effort to keep them alive not only for the health of your manuscript, but also for your success at the submission stage. For me, announcing in chapter one that dad’s in the ground almost always leads to the rejection pile, regardless of the rest of the story—it’s a pet peeve right up there with spunky, redheaded middle-grade heroines. But that’s another blog post….

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week

by Jim

Two things I love: controversy and online quizzes. As we kick off annual Banned Books Week, the Guardian has a quiz on the subject. I confess, I only got 7 of 12 right.

But it’s the Independent which has far more interesting things to say about Banned Books Week. As they note, it’s pretty easy to laugh off people who think Harry Potter will make kids Satanists or that Judy Blume will destroy the moral fabric of a nation. Boyd Tonkin, though, digs a little deeper and presents a list of ten books that make the question of book banning a little trickier: Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, racists…should they ever be banned? Or, a different way to look at it: do they deserve to be published?

For me, the latter question is infinitely more difficult to answer. Because I’m solidly on the side that no books should be banned. At the same time, there are plenty of titles I would never represent. Take Richard Howard’s Did Six Million Really Die? He had every right to publish it, but I wouldn’t have touched it in a hazmat suit. I’m curious whether that would make me, in a manner of speaking, complicit in the “banning” of books. I’m not saying I wouldn’t represent an author I don’t agree with—there are just different levels of disagreement, you know?

Would love to know your thoughts on the issue. And whether folks think they’d be able to work with authors they thought were reprehensible in order to make money on their books.

P.S.  Just after writing this, I learned that my very own client Richelle Mead has had her entire Vampire Academy series banned at a junior high in Texas. The most striking thing about this is that the sixth book in the series, Last Sacrifice, isn’t even out yet. So it’s been banned…in the future. Magical.

The "curse" of the trade paperback

by Jane

Over the years, there has been a kind of stigma attached to a book if the publisher’s plan is to issue it originally as a trade paperback. In fact, this is something I have never understood.

Sure, the royalty rate to the author is lower if it is published as a trade paperback, but if the hardcover doesn’t sell—or sells a fraction of what the trade paperback will sell—the difference between the hardcover and the trade paperback royalty rate really doesn’t matter.

And then there is the thought that trade paperbacks aren’t reviewed to the same extent hardcovers are. While this was once true, I believe this is something that is beginning to change with the rise of book blogs and online publications. Last week there was a very interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal which addresses all of this.

Interestingly, I rarely think it important that we stipulate in a contract that a book be published initially in hardcover; and that is more true today than ever before. More and more, I am finding that when the hardcover doesn’t sell up to expectations, the publisher is choosing not to do a trade paperback at all—and that really limits the book’s sales and hurts the author’s reputation overall. So, I almost always let the publisher lead the way in terms of the format they will publish a book in and when I disagree with what they want to do, I present my arguments and hope they will be heard.

One example that we at Dystel & Goderich have seen of the success of the trade paperback format after good but not spectacular sales in hardcover is Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen, which is represented here by Michael Bourret. The trade paperback has been on the New York Times non-fiction trade paperback bestsellers list for 23 weeks and has sold over a quarter of a million copies. As a result of this, Rhoda’s next book will be far more successful in the hardcover format than this one was.

So, my advice to those authors who object to having their books initially published in trade paperback is to listen to their publisher’s reasons for doing this very carefully. Beginning in this format, which always means a lower cover price, will help increase sales and if the book is successful, the author’s name will be “out there” and a hardcover publication for subsequent books will become more likely.

Of course, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to be rejected

by Rachel

Back in May, Jane asked you guys what your biggest query mistakes were, and many of you were quite eager to share your horror submission stories with us. Hopefully reading those horror stories gave you a bit of advice on how to improve your queries.

But, if you’re looking for advice on how to turn an acceptance into a rejection, look no further than the staff over at Writer’s Relief, whose sarcastic tips for failing (or, succeeding—in receiving rejection letters!) are published on the Huffington Post.

My favorite tip for rejection has got to be taking it personally. There’s nothing like an author who gets politely turned down and then seeks payback!

Going through this list, what have you been most guilty of?

Romance is not a dirty word

by Lauren

Oh, Danielle Steel! First Nicholas Sparks, now you. How can we help you make peace with romance novels? It may be true that your novels are not romance, narrowly defined by some conventions of the genre. I'm not sure I agree, but I'll grant the premise isn’t completely without merit, not least because I’m not immune to the packaging efforts of publishers. Which is not to say your books are without their conventions—I hate to judge*, but formulaic is a word that comes to mind—but perhaps in some way those conventions are quite specific to you and your prolific output, possibly distinct enough to consider them in a separate category from other titles. However, I get the impression here, Ms. Steel, that you don't want people to think of you as an author of romance because it devalues your work, which it turns out is some kind of lofty thing about the human condition, and that is a problem. (To be fair, you handle the issue with quite a bit more grace than Mr. Sparks.)

Romance novels can be totally fabulous. Not all of them are, sure, but that's true in any category including whatever category you’d each like to be in. More than that, though, if you think a different label will change how seriously people take you, you’re being a bit naive. You're both giant targets, especially you, Ms. Steel, with your shelves and shelves of bright and shiny spines branded more thoroughly than any other set of books in any store. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, you took up half a bookcase all by yourself, even without duplicate copies of anything. Trust me when I tell you that that’s a noticeable amount of gold foil and fuchsia. When people notice success, they deride it. That, my friend, is the human condition.

But you're also massively successful with more readers than you can count and dedicated fan bases who come back for more every time it's on offer. Let the haters hate, as they say, and take a look at your bank statement when you're feeling insecure about what people think of you. Not because money matters more than respect or makes up for all the world's ills, but because it proves that people keep buying your books in droves, so you're doing something right.

Oh, and, don't make us link this blog to the Ducktales theme again, because you know we will.

*I love to judge.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Crystal balls

by Michael

I love the future. Not the actual future, but the idea of the future. I love watching footage from the old World's Fairs or reading about futurists like Buckminster Fuller, and my favorite part of Disneyworld was Epcot, where I learned that the “future” would be all about maglev. Predicting the future is a tricky thing, what with all the variables that life has, but that didn’t stop us in the past, and it’s not stopping us in the future of today!

But how does this relate to books, you ask? I stumbled across this Gizmodo post the other day that contains video from a company called IDEO. In it, there are three different approaches to the future of the book, all of them interactive and social. Some of what they present is very compelling, and I could see parts of it being implemented—for instance, being able to share books and documents within an organization or group in an easy, visual manner. In fact, the second concept (by far my favorite), “Coupland,” seemed almost organic to me. How convenient! And the first concept, “Nelson,” could be very helpful in an education context, with its ability to show commentary, criticism and the connection between works. The third, “Alice,” is a fun idea, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the future of the “book.” The level of interactive storytelling described here, while compelling, exciting and definitely futuristic, isn’t a linear, immersive reading experience. And with fiction, frankly, I think that’s what a lot of readers want. It’s not that there isn’t a place for this concept (though the costs needed to develop something like this makes me think this kind of storytelling would be tough), but I’m not sure I’d call it a book.

What do you think? I fear I’m suddenly sounding like a technophobe!

The persistence of memory?

by Jessica

Yesterday someone asked me what novels I’d read while on vacation. I thought for a moment and rattled off three: Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss; Zoe Ferraris’ City of Veils; Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms. Hours later, I realized that I’d completely forgotten two others: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark. It’s true that I liked both and loved neither, but they were not so forgettable as to merit oblivion. I wish I could blame my literary amnesia on the impending arrival of a second baby (I am mightily pregnant and soon to deliver) but my ability to forget plotlines, characters, surprise endings, etc. predates the lethe-like mix of hormones now coursing through my bloodstream, and indeed motherhood period.
The year I moved to Cairo, I kept a journal that for some six months included a running tally of the books I read. Perusing the list, it is clear that the recall problem is not a recent one. It seems I’ve been forgetting books for much of my professional life. (Books I read as a child or in college/graduate school, however, have proven to be stickier.) And yet ironically, before I paused to remember all the books I forgot, I believed I had a good memory. Perhaps I’ve conveniently forgotten all evidence to the contrary.

Which is why I was so relieved to read James Collins’ essay in this past Sunday’s NYTBR, “The Plot Escapes Me.”  Like Collins, there are books I clearly remember loving, and yet when I am called upon to reconstruct the storyline, or a particular character, I’m at a loss. The good news is that at least one expert believes that the experience of reading is not so evanescent as we might fear, that the books we devour, adore and forget are not simply lost. Collins quotes Marianne Wolf, professor of child development at Tufts, who says that although we may not have instant recall, “The information you get from a book is stored in networks. We have an extraordinary capacity for storage, and much more is there than you realize. It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

I’d like to believe this is true, that some legacy of what we read persists, but rather worry that it isn’t. What do you think? Do the books we read affect us, even if we can’t remember them?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The parenting shelf

by Stacey

I get a newsletter from The Skinny Scoop about all kinds of parenting topics, and this post made me think about parenting books and how many we buy and either don't read, or read a chapter of and file it away. In our new house which is sorely lacking bookshelf space (see Lauren's photo of my book closet), I took a precious shelf and dedicated it to parenting books I've bought or received over the years. It runs the gamut from fertility books to pregnancy books to baby naming books to taking care of baby books, and finally (lucky us!) to books about having and raising twins. Many didn't make a lasting impression, and some turned me off completely with their alarmist and ultra conservative advice, but there are definitely a few I've passed on (mostly about sleep training) like The Baby Sleep Solution, which helped us get our twins sleeping through the night in a flexible way, and Twinspiration, a smart, realistic guide for parents of twins which should get a prize for most clever title.

What are your favorite parenting books, and which ones did you hate?

Stephen King breaks it down

by Miriam

Our client and friend Kathryn Casey posted a link on Facebook the other day to a blog featuring a 2005 piece by Stephen King that promises to teach you everything you need to know about being a successful writer. Now, Stephen (if I may call him that) and I have always had a troubled relationship. No, not like that! I’ve never met the man. Even though I’ve only ever seen him in person across a crowded Javits Center at BEA back when it was the ABA, like many of you I’ve followed his literary peregrinations with great interest despite the fact that I find every new book by him increasingly impossible to wade through. My feeling is that his prodigious talent as a storyteller and prose stylist notwithstanding, he just misses being one of the “greats” (you know who they are). In recent years, however, I’ve become a fan of his EW columns and I always enjoy his quirky take on pop culture. The guy’s smart and successful and he obviously has a lot of wisdom to impart but he does it in an accessible manner and never seems to take himself too seriously.

Whether you’re a fan of Stephen King’s work or not, however, you have to admit that he has fashioned a brilliant career as a writer and these tips are both amusing and dead-on. Except for #11, of course. You do need an agent to turn everything else to gold—maybe not when SK was starting out, but definitely now that the business has become a multi-headed hydra.

What do you guys think of SK’s advice? Anything that especially jumps out at you here?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brand and platform building basics

by Stacey

We talk about a wide array of publishing topics on our DGLM blog, and in thinking about what to write for my longer entry, I looked back at our marketing and publicity posts and realized there was an opportunity to cover some new ground by discussing brand or platform building for nonfiction authors. I feel like so much of my time lately is spent speaking with and/or writing to nonfiction aspiring authors who are interested in writing a book, but are working on building their brand or platform to get to the point in their career where a book is viable. We are not branding managers, but helping authors to build their brands and platforms has become an important part of our job, in particular for nonfiction authors—advising, coaching, and making suggestions about ways in which an author can build their brand effectively and across multiple platforms. I've begun describing the process as akin to making a pizza, with the book project being one piece of the bigger pie. In order for the pie to be complete, all of the other pieces need to be in place. This is a different model than it used to be. When I first started agenting twelve years ago, many authors were able to build their brand by starting with their book project if they had a great new idea, or a fresh twist on an existing one. The book then gave them the credibility and opportunity to branch out into other areas. That is no longer an option for authors and publishers. Instead, authors must present publishers with a publicity and marketing plan in their book proposals that rivals a pr firm's. It has to be professional, polished, and very, very thorough. It should list ways in which the author has established their brand or platform in three key areas: print, television, and online. Print consists primarily of magazines and newspapers; television can be anything from local or national tv segments (think the Today show) to hosting or co-hosting a reality show; and online has endless possibilities, from blogs to websites to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, there are countless online opportunities to be mined.

To give you a couple of examples of very different authors who have worked hard on their brand building, and done it with some measure of success, there's Tori Spelling, who has a new book out, which talks on her book's promo copy about being her own brand: “It’s not every Hollywood starlet whose name greets you on a Virgin Airways flight into la-la land. But Tori Spelling has come to accept that her life is a spectacle. Her name is her brand, and business is booming. Too bad when your job is to be yourself, you can’t exactly take a break.” She's a celebrity (even if most would consider her C-list), so it's easier for someone like her, but she's still taken her celebrity and used it in a numbers of ways to expand her brand. Books, products, shows, etc. and she seems to be continuing to come up with new ideas all the time.

Another author who strikes me as having done effective brand building recently is Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt Free U. Here's a brief piece about him and his book that describes how he has been doing financial writing since high school. I've been seeing him and his message in all three key categories in recent weeks since his book's publication. He's no Suze Orman yet, but he's well on his way considering he's still in college!

In my own personal experience, a mother-daughter memoir I recently sold was the result of over two years of hard work the authors undertook after a branding/platform building conversation we had when I explained to them that I thought their story had merit (it's about the daughter's diagnosis of bipolar as a young adult), but that they needed to begin to speak about their story, and become prominent figures in the mental health community. Because they are so compelling and hard working, in a relatively short time, they've been able to do just that, and are now really changing the face of mental health. Their book when it is released in 2012 will be another piece of their pie.

Another story from my own list illustrates the brand/platform building concept. Allison Fishman is a well-known and respected chef and cooking school instructor who I know from high school. For years we talked about building her platform and the best timing for a book project for her. While I was on one of my maternity leaves, I saw that she was co-hosting a Lifetime show, Cook Yourself Thin, and that the accompanying book had become a #1 New York Times bestseller. I contacted her and told her the time was right to get a book proposal out for her with that piece of the pie in place, and we ultimately found her a good home for her first solo effort, which will release next spring. Years of hard work and dedicated platform building finally paid off in a book deal.

If you find you need help to build your brand, there are resources out there and a new industry is emerging as this type of brand building becomes more important in today's marketplace. Branding agents and managers, like publicists, work with not only authors, but celebrities and experts of all kinds, to help them manage the ways in which they can extend themselves into the marketplace in a positive and productive way, building on existing coverage and relationships without over saturating any one area of the marketplace. I'm hoping even more of these branding managers pop up because I think the need is there for these services, and from what I can tell, the pool of people out there doing this for authors is still pretty limited. I'd expect it to be a real growth area in the coming years. If there's anyone any of our readers have worked with or know of who you can recommend, let us know.

To a certain extent, the brand building needs to be strategic, and looked at from a short term and longer term perspective. I often ask authors if they have a plan for the next year, three years, and five years. Once they develop their goals, the work to get there can begin. All of that said, it's impossible to follow a straight path when things come up that could change the trajectory so it needs to be flexible. For example, if you are writing for several websites and blogs and get an opportunity to do a column at a national magazine, you jump at the chance, even if it means cutting back on other areas for a short time because the opportunity to gain major national exposure is an A-list brand building goal.

There are always a myriad of ways to get to where you want to go, and these are just a few basics for what to consider if you are embarking on this journey. We are always looking to find authors who have a positive, original message to share, and have managed to build their brand to a level that it can support a book. We'd love to hear about any brand building success stories out there if you'd like to share. There's a lot to learn from those who have managed to do it successfully.

Welcome to DGLM, John Rudolph!

by John

First off, thanks so much to Jane for the lovely introduction, as well as for inviting me to join the DGLM family in the first place. It’s only been a couple of days, but already it feels like home. As you might guess, I’m very eager to dive into this new world of agenting, so let me give you a brief idea of where I’m coming from, how I got here, and what I’m looking for going forward.

Coming out of college, I had the dubious distinction of graduating with not just one, but two fairly useless majors for the professional world (classics and music). Not really knowing what to do with myself, I moved to Boston for a year and discovered two things: 1) How much I loved reading outside of the academic setting, and 2) there was this industry called book publishing where people seemed to read for a living!

Hence, I moved back to New York and somehow landed an Editorial Assistant gig at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. At the time, I knew less than nothing about kids’ books, but I figured the hardest thing about getting a job in publishing was getting the job—and that maybe after 6 months or so in kids’ books I could “graduate” to the adult side. Very fortunately for me, I discovered that children’s literature was where I belonged, and for the next twelve years I happily immersed myself in that world, moving from S&S to Putnam and eventually editing my own list of novels, picture books and nonfiction for young readers.

As to why I found the young readers department so appealing: For one, there’s a general consensus in kids’ books that no one wants to publish a “bad” book for kids—even the most commercial licensed material usually has an educational element or something positive to recommend it. Along those lines, in the darkest teen novels or dystopian fantasies, there’s almost always a sense of hopefulness to children’s literature, a feeling that in the end things will work out—and I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. I love, too, how children’s writers use the first person, giving you an intimate connection with a young character and letting you see the world through a young person’s eyes. And on the younger level, the artwork being created today for picture books is nothing less than spectacular—if you can ever make it to the Society of Illustrators annual exhibition of picture book art here in New York, you’ll see a collection that rivals the finest museums.

While I still relish editing and working with authors and illustrators, finding new talent has always been my favorite part of an editor’s job, and so I’m thrilled for this new opportunity to directly encounter fresh, distinct voices and to help authors transform their voices into books. And while my first love will always be kids’ lit, I’m looking forward to exploring the adult genres that have always interested me—perhaps not quite a “graduation” to adult, but more like a Junior Year Abroad?

For more information on what I’m looking for specifically, please check out my bio and essay on the DGLM website. And then, please query me about your projects—I know there are authors out there waiting to be heard, so let me help you broadcast your voice to the world. Looking forward to reading your work soon!

A new agent at DGLM: John Rudolph!

by Jane

Today I am delighted to welcome John Rudolph as the newest agent at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. Previously, John was Executive Editor at G. P. Putnam’s Son’s in their children’s and young adult imprints. Before that he was Associate Editor for Young Readers at Simon & Schuster. He graduated from Amherst College.

John will begin agenting in the categories of children’s, middle grade and young adult—both fiction and non-fiction—since these are categories with which he is familiar. He is hoping, however, to branch out into men’s fiction, pop culture, music, sports and humor.

I am delighted to welcome John to our staff. His profile is up on our website along with his contact information. Feel free to start sending him queries.

Please join me in saying “hello” to John Rudolph.

Monday, September 20, 2010

But Hey, Who’s Keeping Score?

by Stephanie

I found this piece over at the Guardian to be very interesting. In it, Robert McCrum considers the sometimes touchy yet seemingly ubiquitous concept of the “number one writer.” McCrum makes an undeniable point—that devising a list whereby there is always a top dog is part of the human condition. I find it interesting that the prevailing notion still tends toward nailing down a singular individual who encompasses the talent, finesse, and self-awareness to be considered top dog. To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it; this kind of thing may have been possible, and certainly more feasible, in times past. But these days, the range of literary material out there in the market is so expansive that it seems entirely impossible to make such a definitive and exclusionary selection.

But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe in one hundred years people like Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen will replace Charles Dickens and C. S. Lewis in the textbooks.

What Makes a Good Memoir?

So let’s just get this out of the way. I’m a big enough fan of Patti LuPone that I was at the bookstore on the day her memoir came out itching to buy a copy. When she was at Book Expo America (on the one day I didn’t go!), I politely texted three of our other agents asking if they might be able to get her to sign something for me (they did!). I’m a drama nerd, and while I’ve seen LuPone deliver some astonishing performances, the real reason I couldn’t wait to read the book is that she’s a bit of a…um…well, let’s say she’s a character. She has lots of personality. Lots. I mean, check her out stopping the show during a performance of Gypsy if you haven’t already.

Point is: she’s bigger than life, so she should have turned out a magnificent memoir. Right? Well, yes, she should have. So why didn’t she?

Turns out LuPone stumbled into the same traps that a lot of memoir writers do. Living an interesting life does not mean you’ll be able to write an interesting memoir. And relating facts chronologically does not an interesting narrative make. You need to be incredibly self-aware to write about yourself successfully. You need to set vanity aside: if you’re always trying to portray yourself in a positive light, you’re just posturing. You need to have a story to tell. A story. Having lots of little stories doesn’t count. There has to be something linking what you’re telling us, and we need to progress from beginning to middle to end. Otherwise, even the most interesting material can start to get dry (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton). You also need to be a great writer. People sometimes seem to think that memoirs are easier to write than fiction. They shouldn’t be. If anything, the writing should be even better in a memoir than in a novel since you can’t just change the facts to make the story more interesting (I’m looking at you, James Frey).

Long story short: memoirs are harder than they look. And remember: never bore your readers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reading in the now

by Lauren

I came across some interesting discussion in the Guardian on the use of present tense narration in novels. Apparently Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher aren’t crazy about it and are aggravated that it seems to be on the rise—and on the Booker shortlist. I’m not unsympathetic to their distaste for the technique, but it seems to me an exaggeration to say that it “does nothing but annoy.” It often does annoy, me at least, and clearly Misters Pullman and Hensher. But it also does other things, like create a feeling of immediacy and throw the reader slightly off balance. I think it’s a gimmick like any other (second person, foreign language words) that some authors use as a shortcut and few are skilled enough to employ well, but in the right hands, it’s not deadly or even distracting. I’m on record about my love of Emma Donoghue’s Room, and it’ll be Pullman’s loss if he doesn’t read it because he doesn’t like the tense. (If he already has and didn’t love it, well, I guess I won’t be matched up with him on that dating site.)

It’s easy to say that something is overused so no one should do it, but if a technique (or idea or what have you) has value, there’s no point in everyone abandoning it. Overused implies that there is an appropriate level of use, after all. It’s also easy to criticize a book that we don’t think works and blame the technique, but really, if it doesn’t work, shouldn’t we blame the technician? Room is a highly stylized novel to be sure, but the reason I rate it and Donoghue so highly is precisely because it’s stylized (noticeably, but not, I’d argue, distractingly) yet still compelling and riveting and funny and disturbing and sad and hopeful. I’d imagine the Booker committee felt likewise, about that and the other two present tense novels on the shortlist. I’m at least willing to give Tom McCarthy the benefit of the doubt here, because I loved Remainder, his previous book, and think he’s pretty talented.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, okay?

Holy Books and Dating

by Rachel

Back in May, I mentioned attempting to read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, simply because the President was reading it. I tend to be nosey and want to know what kind of book choices public figures make. So, it’s no surprise that I was interested to take a peek at the Vatican’s Secret Archives, as posted in The Guardian. Manuscripts and publications collected for more than 800 years lie within the 85 kilometers of shelving in this vault.

I thought the article on the Vatican’s archives was the most fascinating story of the week, until I saw this Wall Street Journal article by Hannah Seligson, on dating websites catering towards book lovers. For one, I don’t think partner compatibility can be based on book choices. Sure, it certainly shows you have a common area of interest if your favorite genre is sci-fi and so is your partner’s, but does this translate to a personality match also? I’m not so sure; I think a dating site for book lovers is a unique endeavor, but I think it takes a lot more than the same taste in books for compatibility.

What do you think? Do you and your partner, or friends, share the same taste in books?

Thursday, September 16, 2010


by Michael

I don’t really like excuses, as my authors know. But, I’m making one anyway! While my blog entry last week was tough because it was a slow news week, this week it’s tough because everything exploded. Ok, not really exploded, but things have gotten very busy very quickly. Just staying on top of my inbox is getting challenging, and it’s clear that all of those vacationing publishing folk are back in town. So things here are busy! And I best you’re busy, too, so I won’t bore you with a long blog entry.

Instead, I’ll point you to this fun collaborative novel that’s being overseen by the one-and-only Nancy Pearl. The really fun part? The writers (36 of them, including two clients of mine) are writing at the Hugo House in Seattle, where you can go watch them work—and can even possibly contribute ideas. They’re doing this all in six days, and then the book will be published electronically immediately afterward, with the proceeds going to charity. I have to say, I wish I was going to be in Seattle for this. Looks like a lot of fun!

On Reading Urban Fantasy

by Jessica

As my colleagues have mentioned at various points, DGLM has its own bookclub. Every couple of months we choose a general category of fiction—for example, Booker Prize winners, young adult novels, debut novels, etc.—and each of us reads a representative work, usually something fairly recently published. It’s a good way to stay in touch with the market, keep tabs on the trends, and broaden our exposure to writers we might not otherwise gravitate toward. This go-round was urban fantasy, a category that I’ve not read, and despite the fact that I had to hide the book’s crimson cover from my always inquisitive four-year-old: “Why, mommy, does that man have such big teeth? And why does that lady have blood on her neck?” I was glad to finally get a glimpse of a genre that has, as we all know, proven tremendously popular. The last vampire novel that I read was Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and before that I’d wager that it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, neither of which offer much insight into the present paranormal trend. After reading my bookclub selection, I did some further investigating—not least trying to figure out why the genre is called “urban fantasy,” which strikes me as an odd and imperfect sort of label. I’ve read a few explanations, but again: Why urban? The fantasy part I get.

So obviously I’m far from expert, but I find it interesting that the romantic tropes are fairly similar to non-paranormal romance: the heroine must discover her own heart and secure the love of a brooding, mysterious, slightly-threatening-but-ultimately-good man. The surrounding stakes, however, are a good bit higher (and where the undead are concerned, sharper). Here the conflicts are cosmic in scope. To proceed to her happily-ever-after, the heroine must dispatch demons, fight the armies of evil, and often save the planet. The domestic space that was once the usual canvas for women’s fiction is not quite big enough to contain the kind of challenges these women face, nor are these ladies simply resilient—they are physically powerful, sometimes lethal, and pretty much undaunted by gore. At risk of reading too much into the present trend, I wonder if the epic nature of the conflicts in which these fictional women triumph does not, in some small way reflect the way real women view their own less fantastical, but perhaps no less challenging, lives. Indeed, there’s something appealing about the notion of seeing myself as the action hero of my own story. In which case, I’m off to battle the forces of darkness, one pitch letter/contract clause at a time.

If you are a reader of urban fantasy, I’d love to hear what you love about it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Bestseller's Rejection Story

by Stacey

You all probably know by now how I like to share success stories on occasion from authors who have had their share of rejection. It's pretty much a guarantee as a writer that you will be faced with rejection in one form or another at some point during your writing career, and it's likely that even if you do find yourself one of the lucky ones to find an agent and/or publisher, there will still be rejection in your future. Many bestselling authors have remarkable stories to share about their paths to publication and this one from Costco's magazine highlights the path taken by Tatiana de Rosnay and her now bestelling SARAH'S KEY. I like reading this magazine's publishing section because it offers readers a peek into what the mainstream Costco buyers think their customers are looking for, so there are usually a mix of commercial fiction and nonfiction titles highlighted, and they often share a more intimate interview with an author they are promoting through giveaways (in this case, 50 signed copies of the book). Tatiana de Rosnay's is an inspirational story to tuck away for those hard days when the rejection letters feel insurmountable. If you know of any great books that were at first rejected before finding a publisher, let us know. We all like to hear about positive behind-the-scenes stories that keep us motivated too!

Boring is not a four-letter word…but it might as well be

by Miriam

This short piece in Salon (originally a letter in the Reading Club) last week got me thinking about boredom, specifically the kind of boredom that we publishing folks experience on an almost hourly basis. Of the thousands of queries and manuscripts that we sift through every year, a significant percentage suffer from a serious case of boring. The good stuff is exciting, thrilling, energizing, and…not boring. The very bad is tragic, hilarious, depressing, and baffling, but, again, not boring. Then there’s that other category of submissions: the inescapably, suffocatingly, mind-numbingly boring. For me, getting through these is the hardest part of my job. Saying “next” when it’s an unsolicited query or manuscript that’s dragging you down into the arms of Morpheus is one thing. It’s quite another when it’s a manuscript by a client or a client’s referral.

When it comes to explaining to a client why his or her novel doesn’t work, “Because it’s boring!” is not an option. You have to dig around for problems of plot, characterization, themes, etc., and that entails reading much more of the material than you can stay awake for without the aid of artificial stimulants. The biggest problem is, of course, that the book is boring, but people who will happily take eviscerating criticism about their prose style or their lack of character development would run you over with their SUVs if you mentioned the “B” word.

Which is why I was so amused by this phrase in axelrod’s letter regarding MFA workshop critiques: “If we didn't like a piece, we could talk about anything but the one thing that mattered, the awful, dreaded taboo word: boring.” Heh. I know just what he means.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Calling it as you see it

by Stephanie

Keeping it brief today, folks! It’s been a busy morning so I haven’t been able to produce an entry this week that delivers my typically insightful and sage musings on life, but I had to share this one link with you. This is writer and comedian Dan Wilbur’s genius attempt to “cut through all the cryptic crap” that one finds on those mystifying book jackets and instead get straight to the point.

So check it out. They’re hilarious and most are spot-on. Enjoy!

Sob stories

by Rachel

During my last semester of college, I took a “filler class” to complete the philosophy credits of my degree. Philosophy of Art was the name of the course, and topics such as expressionism, moral and aesthetic value, and artistic taste were studied. One question that continually arose during the course was what we really meant when we said a work of art was “good”. Some students agreed that a work of art was “good”, or held significant value, if it was simply aesthetically pleasing. Other students believed that emotion needed to be play a part when art was being evaluated. “Good art,” it was argued, held significant value if it moved an audience.

In Philosophy, there never seems to be a “right” answer to any argument, but I finished the course believing that the emotional connection we have with a masterpiece—the feelings we take away with us after watching a play, looking at a painting, or reading a book—is what gives significant value to art. That’s not to say that aesthetic value is overlooked, but in my opinion, what separates the extraordinary from the average is that extraordinary work has the ability to move us and change our ways of thinking.

Many times have I found myself sobbing like a baby while reading a tragic novel. I remember finding a copy of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood in the back of my brother’s car and reading it from start to finish with tears for every alternate chapter. Murakami was able to help the reader dive into an anxious and uneasy world by way of his young characters and touch on topics such as lost love, mental illness, and death. Other sad and memorable novels I love are The Awakening by Kate Chopin (the last page left me distraught for days), and of course, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Time and again I’ve tried to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but this novel seems to be a little too depressing for me to finish. My favorite writers are those who are able to lure me into their fictional worlds, usually by writing books that make me cry!

Over at the Huffington Post, Jason Pinter gave us the responses from a question he asked on Twitter about books that made readers cry. And although I complain that some novels may be too emotionally-charged to read, I love a good tear jerker and would love to hear what books moved you and had you reaching for the tissues.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Incoming Amish

by Jim

This blog post from Entertainment Weekly is just the latest in a series of articles about Amish romance novels that are breaking out all over the place.
I can see why the chaste world of the Amish could be a fascinating place to set a romance novel. All that restrained passion. All those longing looks. And sure enough, there are enough “bonnet books” creeping into bestseller status to indicate the beginning of a trend. But could it actually happen?

Call me crazy, but I can’t see this becoming a full-blown trend. And EW’s comparison to vampire books is off base. Part of what made that so sustainable is that the genre naturally allows for people to bend mythology and create entirely different sorts of worlds. But with the Amish...I mean, there are only so many ways to not use electricity.

My prediction: one as yet unpublished bestseller followed by a slew of copycats flooding the marketplace and never becoming as successful again.

But what about if the Amish WERE vampires….

Giving back

by Jane

Perhaps it’s because it is the Jewish New Year or maybe it’s due to a recent experience, but I have been thinking about “giving back” and mentoring.

Writing is such a solitary and difficult thing to do and when an opportunity to obtain support from an established writer presents itself, it is always very inspiring. Recently, however, I saw this work in reverse and it really made me sad and angry.

I have a client who received some good national publicity, which resulted in my signing him to do a book proposal. The publicity also attracted a well known TV personality and book author who would have been a wonderful support to my client and his project. I’ll call him Mr. P. Mr. P approached my client and offered his help, so the two had lunch. Mr. P promised that if the proposal were sold, he would provide an introduction and, based on that statement, my client added Mr. P’s promise to his proposal. It turned out this particular proposal wasn’t easy to sell, but finally we received a small offer partially based on the promise of a foreword from Mr. P. When my client went back to him just to make sure that, indeed, the promise would be fulfilled, Mr. P agreed but said he would charge a fee that was three times the advance—a totally outrageous amount! Needless to say, the client turned down the publisher’s offer and the project is now dead. What really makes me sad about this situation is that I know Mr. P well, and when he was just starting out, many, many people gave him their support—one of the main reasons he is so very successful today.

On another occasion, some years ago, I remember my client and good friend Gus Lee wanted to get an endorsement for his first novel from Amy Tan. His editor made an introduction between the two and Amy generously provided a quote for China Boy which helped the book to sell. Since then, the two have become very good pals.

I think it is so important to remember, once you are successful as a writer, that supporting others who are coming up only enhances what you are doing. It is incredibly mystifying to me when people who achieve fame and success forget where they came from.

I wonder if you have any thoughts on this subject. I would love to hear them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Check yo shelf

by Rachel

We don’t mind a bit of rap here at DGLM, as Lauren pointed out in her recent blog entry. So, if you are a fan of rap and literature also, you’re in for a real treat! Margaret Eby over at Flavor Wire has put together famous rappers and their 20th Century literary doppelgangers. From Ja Rule to Jay Z, Hemingway to Nabokov, you can see which rap artist matches up to which writer. Eby seems to hint that rap is on the rise and reading will soon be outdated by the new tech age, but I disagree—I think there’ll always be just enough space in our world for rap and reading!

So, can any of you match some of my favorite rap artists with their literary doppelgangers: Snoop, Lil Kim, Eminem?

The Good, the Bad, and the Sideburns

by Lauren

As Michael already pointed out, it’s awfully quiet out there this week, so I was pleased to stumble across this piece at The Millions on books penned by celebs. If I had a copy of Courtney Thorne-Smith’s novel, I feel like my day might be much more fun. Have none of the 90210 gang been struck by the literary muse? Surely they wouldn’t go down without a fight to the likes of Melrose Place. Luke Perry and his sideburns could write an excellent western, no?

I also really loved learning that Katie Price has a ghostwriter because she doesn’t have time to write the books herself. Yes, time. That’s the only thing standing between you and the Booker, Katie. But hey, anything that keeps her in the spotlight is OK by me, because I find British celeb culture totally fascinating, and she’s by far my favorite tabloid staple.

As for me, I think I’ll do myself the favor of not reading novels, poetry, and short stories written (or “written”) by celebrities I actually like. (Needless to say, I’m also skipping the ones by the celebs I can’t stand.) It might be awfully hard to respect someone who feels “Speak to me not of food, for I am soon to die” is reasonable dialogue, even if he’s brilliant in The French Connection.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Another outlet for a Franzen review

by Michael

It's another slow week in publishing, with Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah causing a great calm before the storm. But even in this slow week, there's big news: The Wall Street Journal will launch a weekly, stand-alone book review section later this month. With so many other papers closing down their book reviews, this is great news. The more book coverage, the better, and I'm eager to see how the Journal will compare with the New York Times Book Review.

Form rejections

by Jessica

Rejection got you down? Have a look at Judson Merrill’s post, which made me chuckle. Although JM’s waggish rejoinders to his assorted rejection letters are not, perhaps, the very model of gracious behavior, they do reflect a certain fighting spirit, plus an understanding of the absurdity of the submission/rejection process that is psychologically indispensable to any aspiring writer. That rejection is part and parcel of the writing life does not make it any less painful. Composing clever responses to form letters is not likely to advance an author’s cause or career, but it can offer a measure of comfort, humor, and a very necessary reminder that these letters, which are necessarily brief, impersonal, and devoid of actual, specific feedback, should be taken with a grain of salt.

Dear Mid-American Review,

Thank you for your recent rejection. I appreciate your taking the time to read my story. I understand how careful you must be in selecting a cohesive body of work to present in the MAR.

Your communiqué, however, did leave me with a few concerns. You write, “We have decided your submission is not a match for us at this time.” I assume this means I should submit my story again at a more convenient time. I don’t want to be a pest, though, so please provide a concrete timeline. Would you like to review the story again for your next issue or next year? Anything’s fine, just let me know.

Also, confusingly, you close that same paragraph with, “We wish you the best of luck placing your story elsewhere.” Typo?

Judson Merrill

How do you cope with rejections? How do you maintain perspective?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


by Miriam

If, like me, you’re the kind of annoying person who corrects your friends when they use a word inappropriately or find yourself taking a pen to typos in restaurant menus, you’ll have fun with this top ten list. Some typographical/grammatical errors, in fact, are so egregious that they cross the line into delightful. I don’t know about you, but I always find myself cackling at stories of misspelled tattoos. I mean, if you’re going to permanently etch something onto your body….

What are some of your favorite grammatical bloopers?

Small-scale publishing

by Stacey

This piece about the successful online magazine Rumpus becoming a publisher is pretty interesting. Because they have a built-in readership, and members through their book club, it seems to make sense to go this route for them. But my question is with such limited resources (a staff of two), wouldn't it be more efficient to go with a traditional publisher for better marketing, sales, and distribution channels? I'm not sure if they tried this and for some reason it didn't work out, or maybe they want to fully be in control of the product they are releasing, but this seems like the kind of thing that if it works for them to publish successfully on their own, traditional publishers will be knocking on their door to try to get in on their built-in audience and make the stakes even higher and the numbers even bigger.

I think as an idea, this small-scale publishing has merit, but in actuality will be difficult to manage successfully, and to build on and grow at a sustainable level. And I know that at least one of the Rumpus writers is working on her own book project, and my guess is that she, and others affiliated with the mag, will be going the more traditional publishing route. I'll be curious to see how it all plays out.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

FAHRENHEIT 451 redux

by Miriam

I was on vacation last week, trying to keep off e-mail and the internet, and failing on both counts. When I found myself needing a break from the non-stop thrills of The Hunger Games trilogy, I’d wander over to the computer and check out my favorite news sites to see what or who was going to hell now. Paris Hilton banned from Vegas? Jan Brewer smiling idiotically at the camera for an hour and a half or so in the worst debate ever? Stephen Hawking jumping on the Christopher Hitchens bandwagon and dissing God? (Well, it does seem to sell books….)

But then my pleasure reading dovetailed nicely with my need to keep up with the relentless news cycle. I was still savoring Collins’ wonderful referencing of Fahrenheit 451 in Mockingjay when I read about the Florida pastor who seems to think it a novel and fine idea to burn the Quran as a 9/11 protest and I was once again struck by the thought that it’s amazing that our civilization has managed to survive our seeming inability to learn anything from history. And, why is it that religious and political zealots always seem to vent their general hatred of humanity on books? From Savonarola to Hitler to all those crazy fundamentalists who feel threatened by the dictionary, it seems that every time someone’s pissed off about something, there’s a marshmallow roast at a literary bonfire.

Now, we here at DGLM try to stay out of the political fray as much as possible. One of the tenets of our business is the freedom of ideas and expression. Most of us who work in publishing understand that no matter how loathsome an idea it is necessary to defend its author’s right to communicate it. As readers, we can choose not to buy the book. Or, we can choose to debate and counter that author’s arguments and defeat his/her position with rational and well-conceived rebuttals. Everyone who has been a publishing professional for any length of time has occasionally had to be involved with the publication of a book whose message or viewpoint s/he did not agree with. And most of us are appalled when certain groups rally together to boycott or ban a certain title on political, religious or moral grounds.

The Florida pastor planning the latest book burning is just following in a long tradition of intolerance and ignorance. Clearly, he doesn’t understand that books, like phoenixes, rise from the flames of censorship. The Quran, the Bible, and the Torah, have survived many of these gory ceremonies and come back stronger than ever. As have Anne Frank, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Webster’s dictionary (last I heard they keep adding new words, some of them objectionable). Of course, that kind of attempted repression often (and perversely) makes for the premise of great literature.

What do you think? Is it ever okay to burn books?

Talk to me not of blasphemy

by Stephanie

Okay, show of hands: who can honestly say that they’ve read the big classics—think War & Peace, The Canterbury Tales, etc—whether assigned in school or otherwise, thoughtfully and cover-to-cover? I’m just going to assume there aren’t many hands up, and the ones that are…I think you might be lying a little bit. But only a little bit.

I nonchalantly accuse you of lying today after reading this piece at the Huffington Post. You see, there’s this weird thing that happens with the classics, where people insist on having read them, but for whatever reason never really did. Personally I find this intriguing, because if there are enough rogue scholars amongst us who insist on having read certain classics when they haven’t, does this, in some part, contribute to keeping certain titles in the literary canon over others? Maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but either way, I enjoyed looking through the thirteen titles the piece offers. As for me, I can honestly say that I’ve read Moby Dick and A Christmas Carol cover-to-cover, but that’s about it. Though I’d happily assert having read them all to impress people. See how nicely that works?

Friday, September 03, 2010


by Lauren
As we leave you for the holiday weekend, a cautionary tale:  Apparently Penguin is suing an author to recover the signing payment on a contract they've canceled for failure to meet a deadline.  It must be said, that deadline was in 2007, and there were presumably multiple extensions that got them here, so Penguin has been quite accommodating.  And that signing payment is not exactly chump change.

As a person who is ever so slightly panicked at the prospect of finishing my to do list before leaving for the holiday weekend, the notion of breaking a contract for non-delivery strikes fear into my heart, but for those of you who need that extra bit of danger before something seems real, it seems this might just be it.

But hey, a three day weekend is a great time to hunker down and write, right?

Location, location, location

by Rachel

One of the things I loved about living in San Francisco was its close proximity to Steinbeck country. No more than two hours south of the city lies Monterey, where Steinbeck set the scene for his novels Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden—the list goes on. Walking along Cannery Row while smelling the ocean and hearing the gulls, or driving half an hour inland to Salinas (where the National Steinbeck Center is located) was an exciting pilgrimage for me, because, if I haven’t mentioned it before, John Steinbeck is my number one literary hero.

So, I found it fascinating to read Alison Flood’s article from the Guardian, on literary book tours. What a thrill it is to visit locations mentioned in your favorite novels! I have a few favorite New York literary hotspots I like to visit on occasion: The carousel in Central Park (J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye); Macy’s Santaland (David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice); Pete’s Tavern (O. Henry’s Gift of The Magi), and Chinatown, Tiffany & Co., and The New York Public Library (Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s).

What are some memorable locations from your favorite books you’d love to visit?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Blogging is hard!

by Michael

Especially on the Thursday before Labor Day! I’ll admit, part of the problem is that I’m distracted getting some great submissions together for Fall and, of course, by the action at Flushing Meadows. It’s my favorite two-week stretch of the year! Sad to see Roddick and Oudin lose yesterday, but I’m happy to cheer on the many Americans still left in the draw. I actually like so many tennis players that I often get confused about who I really want to win. But today, I’ll say I’d like to see Clijsters and Fish win. Just don’t expect the same answer tomorrow.

In e-book-ish news, Samsung finally admitted what the tech world already knew, that they’ll be releasing the Android-powered Galaxy Tab tablet later this year. It looks like a nice device, with that front-facing camera (and a less interesting rear-facing one) that everyone expected the iPad to have. The book reader is powered by Kobo, and it looks quite nice. As the Engadget video review mentions, the pixel density is better than the iPad, so I’m curious to see it in person. Let the tablet wars begin!

Ok, enough of my rambling. Hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend. Enjoy!

From the Vault: A model for memoirs

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jessica

Recently I was poking about on the website for This American Life, the altogether brilliant public radio show and now HBO television show that is one of the only things that tempts me toward faithlessness--in thought if not deed--toward book publishing. (Book publishing and public radio—apparently I don’t even fantasize about career-cheating with a high-paying job). In any case, I happened upon their submission guidelines. Although these are tailored to the demands of a radio show with a very distinctive sensibility (anyone who’s never listened should give it a try) they struck me as pertinent to book projects, especially memoir.

Memoir is a tricky category, one that I love but one in which the bar for writing is high and the demand for platform still higher. If you’re not already famous, or a participant in the Real Housewives/Dancing with Stars/America’s Top Model franchises, persuading a publisher to take a chance on your own story can be challenging. Despite the ubiquity of reality shows, not every person poised to write a personal narrative has a tv deal (yet), which means that for those people brave enough to wade into a sodden market that editors politely call “saturated,” not only had you better write very, very, very well, but do so in service of a story in which the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. So how, exactly, does this mathemagical equation work?

I thought This American Life’s submission guidelines came up with a pretty good answer: They write:

"The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it's recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There's nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.”

Why yes, I thought.

Elsewhere on the site, in an amusing essay in which she talks about having her own work rejected repeatedly from This American Life, regular contributor Hilary Frank writes; “Specifically, This American Life is looking for stories with two main elements: the narrative action, or plot (in which one thing happens to the characters, and then another, and then another), and moments of reflection (where someone says something surprising about what the story might mean).”

Yes again.

Like most every piece of writing featured on the show, this is well said. They want work that has drama, that surprises, that toggles between the personal and the universal, and is also very, very well written. The fact that many of their contributors—David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Shalom Auslander—are successful published writers seems to indicate that these parameters translate well to the printed page.

Perhaps the model above is not the only one that works for memoirs, but the advice seemed to me well worth sharing. You can check it out in greater (perhaps excruciating) detail at

Originally posted in May 2009.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

From the Vault: Don't quit!

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Michael

It’s most authors’ dream, isn’t it, writing for a living? Being able to leave the grueling, monotonous nine-to-five grind for the glamorous world of publishing; sitting at home in a bathrobe, warm cup of coffee in hand, ever expanding manuscript at foot; calls about sequels and movie options; big packets about promotion and publicity arriving daily. It’s a nice dream, even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of most stay-at-home authors, many of whom will tell you that it’s often lonely, nerve-wracking, and just as soul-crushing (if not more so) as a “normal” job. (For a cheerier take on this subject, see Michael Prescott’s blog entry.) But let’s ignore the plight of those who write for a living for a moment, and focus on the other 95% of authors.

Very, very few novelists get to stay home writing all day. The truth is, many people get one book published, and then find that if the first book doesn’t work, the second becomes very difficult to sell. And, with advances for first books seemingly getting smaller every day, one book sale isn’t enough to live off of for a year, much less retire on. I know my view of things is colored by the rather high cost of living in New York, but even authors in the smallest towns can’t survive on $5,000 a year.

So what’s a first-time author to do? My advice is to keep the day job--the benefits are more than financial. Let’s go back to the writer sitting at home. Publishing is not glamorous; it’s hard work. The full-time writers I know work harder and longer than their peers. They spend much more than eight hours a day writing, thinking about their writing, wondering what their agent is thinking, pondering the loss of yet another editor, desperately trying to refrain from e-mailing their publicist again about that review in the Sioux City Herald, talking with other writers (about their agent, editor, and publicist), blogging, and generally praying that they won’t have a coronary before the end of the day. Authors who have day jobs are often able to put things in perspective: there’s more to life than their book(s). They get to leave a large part of the worrying to us agents (it’s part of what we’re paid to do – see Jane’s latest blog entry here), and that’s as it should be.

My take on this aside, I decided that I would speak to somebody who actually did leave work to write rather than just commenting from up here on my perch. Sara Zarr, the author of the forthcoming Story of a Girl, quit her job as an administrative assistant a few months after we sold her book. She had a lot to say. "If you get a book deal and are thinking about quitting your day job, there are a lot of factors to consider. Of course, it depends on what your day job is. If it's a career job, if you've invested years of time and energy into it and it fulfills some part of you that writing can't, keep it. If it's a minor job that you don't care too much about (or you hate), and you're reasonably hirable in the current job climate, quit and try the full-time writing thing. You can always go back into the job market if you need to or if you find you don't do well sitting home all day. Quitting does free you up to travel and promote your book if you need to, which is nice, but not mandatory." Her last piece of advice struck me as particularly important. "It's not necessarily all or nothing. My employer let me scale back my hours while I was working on revisions. You might be able to arrange something more flexible at your current job or find part time work."

I know it’s tough to write and work at the same time while also keeping up with family and social commitments. I understand that working full-time as a writer seems glamorous, but writing for a living is something that only a handful of people are able to do, both for financial and psychological reasons.

When that final offer comes in from the publisher of your dreams and your excitement is tempered by the fact that you can’t quit counting beans, don’t panic. Your book is going to be published, and you’ll get to keep your sanity. It’s the best of both worlds.

I really welcome comments from authors about this one.

Originally posted in November 2006.

From the Vault: Critical response

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Miriam

I hate it when I’m wrong. My type-A tendencies and absolute certainty that I know everything are not a good combination when it comes to taking criticism. Soon after I started working with Jane Dystel (sometime in the Paleozoic Era) she pointed out to me that my editorial memos were mean. I was affronted. I was trying to help authors by giving them the benefit of my brilliant insights and I really didn’t have time to soft-soap my comments! I’m sure Jane was laughing internally when she suggested that maybe I should start my missives with a positive comment or two about the work and then offer my honest opinion in a thoughtful, sensitive way without showing off or trying to make the recipient feel like a no-talent slob. She was right, of course, and I learned that if the goal is to have an author improve his/her work, I needed to be nicer when I offered my feedback. Jane made me realize that we are more likely to digest and respond well to criticism if it’s offered with kindness and sensitivity rather than relish and disdain. It was, for me, an invaluable lesson.

The fact is that a big and important part of our job as agents is to offer constructive criticism that will take a proposal or manuscript to the level it needs to be at in order to maximize our chances of selling it. All of us here at DGLM spend a great deal of time on our clients’ projects helping authors to clearly communicate their message, smooth over rough prose, beef up a weak marketing section, etc. Sometimes, it’s our unpleasant task to tell someone that their work is simply not good enough and that no amount of fixing is going to change that.

In my experience, the best, most talented authors are the ones who take their criticism neat. They knock it back with a big gulp, thank you for your time and effort in reviewing and critiquing their materials, take a little while to process what you’ve told them, and do their best to incorporate your comments and suggestions into that piece of fiction or nonfiction they thought was perfect when they sent it in to you with the expectation that you’d be able to immediately sell it for six figures. These authors put their egos and bruised pride aside (no matter how successful they are) and get to work. They ask follow-up questions and evenly discuss why they think they might or might not agree with one or more of your edits. The result, more often than not, is a much improved proposal or manuscript that has a much better shot at the big time and an author who is genuinely grateful for the help.

Then there are those authors who never get past their anger and disappointment and whose reactions range from the merely childish, “I’m taking my marbles and going elsewhere,” to the unprofessional, “You suck and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Recently, an author suggested that both his editor (someone who’d been successfully plying her craft for over a decade) and I were mistaken in our critique of his work, strongly implying that neither one of us had understood his category well enough to be able to comment intelligently on his novel. His words were offensive in a way that our criticism had not been. We were both trying to help him.

I sincerely believe that authors (or any artist for that matter) must be able to defend their vision of and approach to their work. But, they should also have the ability (and humility) to look at the manuscript they’ve slaved away on for months or years and see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review. They should also understand that in this agent/client partnership it’s in no one’s interest to purposely give bad advice and that only a sadist takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing how to take criticism with grace is an indicator of success in our business. It’s often what separates those who have thriving writing careers and those who just sit around darkly muttering over their rejection letters.

Almost twenty years after that enlightening conversation with Jane, I’ve figured out that I don’t, in fact, know everything, and so I rely on instinct, experience, my skills as a lifelong, passionate reader, and hard-earned knowledge of our business when I offer authors criticism of their work. The whole point is to sell their novel or nonfiction and to set them on the path to successful writing careers. Ultimately, we, as agents, don’t succeed unless our clients do.

Originally posted in February 2007.