Monday, April 28, 2008

Chasya Milgrom answers FAQ's

We here at D & G get all sorts of interesting phone calls about matters big and small. Questions about what types of books we represent, which agent you should query if you have a sci-fi middle-grade space fantasy novel, questions about cover designs and copyrights, and…well, you get my drift. Occasionally, we pick up the phone and hear a first-time author say, “I’ve just finished my novel and I don’t really know what to do next.” It is to all those who have just put that last period on the last sentence in their novel that I dedicate this blog entry.

There are countless writers just starting to learn about getting an agent, writing a query, sending a submission, sending a 25 page sample vs. sending a manuscript, and everything else that comes along with getting their book published. Once the writing is done, you may feel like the hard part should be over, but the task of learning how to get your book published is a challenge in its own right. If you’ve stumbled upon our little blog, you are already at least aware that there is a lot more work ahead.

It can be confusing, but not to worry, it’s not difficult getting started – sometimes all you need is a gentle push in the right direction. First off, you’ll want to continue doing what you’re doing now – gathering information. You may want to take a trip to your local bookstore or go to and pick up a book on publishing. You also might want to comb the internet for sites and blogs (like us, for instance). The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be. Not all the information you will read and hear is accurate but, for the most part, learning the basics can be very useful and will make the process less confusing.

Another excellent way to gather information is to sign up for a writer’s conference. There you meet with editors and agents and can learn invaluable information firsthand. Often there are pitch sessions, during which you can speak face to face with an agent and pitch your book in person and panel discussions, where you can ask questions.

Once you have as much information you feel you need to get started, you’ll need a query letter that you’ll be sending to agents. There is a lot of information out there on query letters, but as our own Miriam Goderich has said in the past, there is no such thing as a perfect query letter. For more help on how to draft a query you can visit Miriam’s post on the topic.

Once you feel comfortable enough to begin the query process, you’ll have to gear up and do some more research. There are many agencies out there and they’ve all got different submission requirements. Some ask that you only send a query letter, some will ask for a query, synopsis and sample chapter. Many agencies are now accepting queries by email, whereas others will still ask that they be sent by mail only. You’ll also want to research which agents are interested in which genres. Online guides to agents and books such as the 2008 Guide to Literary Agents are helpful in that they offer information on all of the above. You can click here for a link to our submission guidelines.

Try to avoid common query mistakes. We’ve seen many a query that are addressed to us, but made out to another agent. In other words, taking the time to proofread your query is well spent.

Once you’ve made your submissions, be patient. Many agencies have a huge volume of submissions that they need to read through and it can sometimes take a while for them to get through them all.

And lastly, if at first you don’t succeed… well, don’t get discouraged too easily. Oftentimes what an agent chooses to represent comes down to a matter of taste. That doesn’t make you any less of a good writer, and you don’t want an agent who is not passionate about your work. The more excited about the project they are, the more effective an advocate they will be of you and your project.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lauren Abramo judges books by their covers

Supposedly, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But honestly, what else are covers for but to help us judge? If you’ve never read an author before, your best friend didn’t recommend their book, and you haven’t read about their new title somewhere or seen it on the Today show, how do you know if it’s worth your time? Or whether to even pick it up? With all the books out there, you need some way to narrow down what’s worth a further look—after all, you can’t read the first few pages of every book out there before you make a choice. So you end up judging books by their covers. Everyone does. Especially with all the money publishers spend on co-op (special placement on tables, end caps, and face-out shelves), we’re all paying at least some attention to what’s on the surface.

Designing the right cover can be one of the most difficult parts of the publishing process. Virtually no authors have as much control over the cover as they want or as we’d want for them. We go out of our way to get cover consultation for our clients whenever possible, but even then, publishers are clear about the fact that a right of consultation and a right of approval are not the same thing. We advocate strongly for our clients when they hate their covers or take serious issue with an aspect of them, and we truly believe that publishers need to take authors’ ideas and thoughts into account and should work to find a cover that both sides can get behind.

The good news is that they usually do. No, you’re not necessarily going to have the cover of your dreams, but publishers want authors to be happy, so that if Oprah and the New York Times bestseller list come a-knockin’ the author doesn’t run to the competition. Cover design is subjective. However much an author might loathe a cover, the publisher never intentionally designs a bad one. Their objective is always to create a cover that will sell books.

The authors’ and publishers’ objectives are not at odds (everyone wants more readers and more money!), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the cover the sales team thinks will sell the book is going to gel with the author’s vision of what their baby will look like once it’s on the shelf. As with everything else in publishing, an author who brings a few ideas, a ton of patience, and a lot of flexibility to the table is the most likely to have a good experience.

Besides, cover design is so subjective that it’s pretty easy to disagree. I love healthy debate (as long as we all agree in the end that I'm right) and love even more a good thoroughly unscientific poll, so for fun, here are some book covers, and below, here’s what we thought of them (we meaning me, plus Jim McCarthy, Michael Bourret, and our intern Anni, who were kind of enough to participate in my IM poll). Take a look at the covers, rate them as L-O-V-E; like; meh; dislike; or, as Michael so elegantly put it for one, U-G-L-Y, you ain’t got no alibi. Then scroll down to what we thought, and tell us if we’re crazy or right on the money. And tell us what we left out—which covers do you love so much you wish your words were bound in them or hate so much you wish your poor retinas had never been subjected to them?

Of course, except where otherwise noted, we really are trying to judge the covers here and not the content--I've definitely loved books with covers I've hated and vice versa. And we know people worked hard on these and thought even the ones that we loathe were really working, so we're certainly aware of the fact that it's just a matter of opinion. We're nothing if not an opinionated bunch. It's a lot like when we argue over which actors are hot (like Jake Gyllenhaal) and which look like basset hounds (not Jake Gyllenhaal, no matter how many times Miriam says it).

  1. Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in hardcover -- 2 loves and 2 likes on this one. Definitely one of my favorite covers of last year and probably my favorite book in the last year as well.
  2. Joshua Ferris’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END in paperback -- We all liked it, but not as much as the original. For me at least, it was disappointing to see it changed.
  3. Tom McCarthy’s REMAINDER -- We're split on this one. I'd read this one first and had no thoughts on the cover (beyond that it's a pretty blue color), and Anni was similarly non-plussed, but Jim and Michael were all over the hate for it. And I know Adina, who read it for book club and didn't like it nearly as much as I did, was similarly annoyed by it. I'll grant you that the cover doesn't necessarily make sense--is it a reflection in water, and if so, why are the words not reversed?--but I still don't understand the hatred.
  4. Junot Diaz’s THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO -- Covering the spectrum on this one, Jim's indifferent, Michael likes it, Anni dislikes it, and I really can't stand it. The whole time I was reading it, the cover irked me, though I'm not sure there's any good reason why.
  5. Jonathan Safran Foer’s EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED -- I can actually remember hating this cover the first time I saw it, when I was working at Barnes & Noble in college. Nothing about it works for me, and I find it aesthetically unpleasant, but not enough to be interesting. Michael and Jim eventually settled at "meh" when they tried to take their feelings about the book itself out of the equation, though Jim admitted that maybe he'd be able to like the cover if he didn't so hate the contents. Anni likes it and was surprised that I felt so strongly.
  6. Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in hardcover -- Someone must have liked this cover, but it wasn't any of us. It gives a sense of the content, so it's got that going for it, but it's extremely awkward to look at. Was there really nothing other than this woman's braless chest and high-waisted jeans that would let readers know what to expect?
  7. Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT in paperback -- Apparently there was, because the paperback cover is very different. I think it loses the sense of time that the original conveys, but is vastly superior--yet we're all pretty indifferent to the cover itself. As Jim said, "At least the paperback doesn't make me want to avert my eyes."
  8. Don DeLillo’s FALLING MAN -- 3 loves and a dislike on this one. Anni thinks it's too boring and the words get lost in the image. The rest of us are big fans.
  9. Philip Roth’s EXIT GHOST -- This one's interesting: Jim and I dislike, Michael hates it, and Anni likes it. The three of us who came down negative all had the same objection--it's the cover to the wrong book as far as we're concerned and a pretty boring effort.
  10. Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE -- Jim and Anni like it, Michael loves it, and I...really don't. Denis Johnson is among my favorite authors, and though I haven't tackled this one yet, I'm sad to admit I just don't like the way it looks. It doesn't make me want to buy it. I think I'm definitely in the minority on that one, though. (And I didn't actually need the cover to sell me on the fact that I want to read this one.)
  11. Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION -- Jim dislikes it, Michael likes it, Anni immediately hated it but then decided it's so unattractive she likes it, and I think this cover made me not want to read the book. I love Kavalier and Clay, so I was pretty excited for this book to come out, but the cover turned me off in a big way.
  12. Amy Bloom’s AWAY -- Wow do Jim and Michael hate this cover. In fact, when I suggested that I needed to find at least one more that I disliked to poll them on, Jim shot me the link to this. I've seen it before and been totally ambivalent, but apparently it got a pretty big reaction from them. Anni's on board with that, but not as ferociously.
And which book inspired Michael's most amusing ire? Keith Donohue's THE STOLEN CHILD.

I have to say, I liked this cover when I first saw it, or at least found it interesting, but it's actually grown less attractive to me over time to the point that I now vehemently dislike it. Jim's no fan either. (I seem to have forgotten to poll Anni on this one, but I think Michael's hate was strong enough to cover two.)

So what do you think of these? And which amazing and horrendous covers did we leave out?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Michael Bourret: The long and enduring saga of the paperless-book.

The title is pretty lofty, considering that I actually have no interest in rehashing the much hashed history of the e-book. I will say that I remember electronic publishing being the talk of the town when I first started working in publishing about 8 years ago. At the time, I think the Rocket was the machine that was going to change our lives. The Rocket can now be used as an oddly shaped, plastic paperweight.

I am here, instead, to extol the virtues of the e-book and the e-book reader. Or possibly not. I haven’t decided yet. I have a Sony e-reader that I got back in October and have used nearly every day since then--not to read the latest bestsellers, but rather to review manuscripts. Though I’d wanted one for a while, I’d been reluctant to take the plunge. They’re rather expensive pieces of equipment that one can’t even play with before purchasing. But as I packed for a trip to visit my parents in Florida I realized that 1) I couldn’t fit all the manuscripts I wanted to take into one bag, and 2) even if I could fit them all, said bag would never fit in the overhead luggage racks or under the seat in front of me. It was time.

To say that my life has changed isn’t really an exaggeration. It made my job much easier and made my bag much lighter! I can now go to a conference without a suitcase full of manuscripts. It also makes for much easier subway reading, and while that’s cut into my Us Weekly time, I think I’ll survive. An added bonus is that using one is less wasteful of both resources and money. I can’t imagine how many trees I alone am saving by not having manuscripts printed.

But what about reading books on it? Honestly, I haven’t done it yet. I once tried to download a book for our bookclub (David Ellis’s Eye of the Beholder, which I recommend), but was given, instead, Eye of the Beholder by Shari Shattuck. I tried for weeks, through the atrocious online process, to get the right book to no avail. Finally, my credit card company took care of it. That experience put me off downloads for a few months, but I ordered my new bookclub pick recently. It seems that the Kindle is better suited for downloading books, what with the “Whispernet,” and all, though I can’t confirm because they’re such rare animals. Thus far, I haven’t enjoyed the browsing and buying experience for e-books, and it’s something I don’t even really like doing online. I’ll stick to the bookstore for now, thanks.

Which brings me to my other problem: I like books. Like everyone who writes about this topic, I have to lament the possible demise of the physical book. If Marshall McLuhan was right, and the medium is the message, what does that say about e-books? Are they really books? Part of my love of books as a child had to do with the physicality of the object, not just the words on the page. I can’t imagine my apartment without the wall of books (not to mention table and chairs covered with books, or all the books lurking beneath the furniture). Accumulating digital files just isn’t as impressive. When people come over, and I want to show off my authors and their work, will I soon have to pull out my reader so friends can ooh and ahh about the number of files I have? Somehow, that’s not so fulfilling...

But, I don’t worry. Physical books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The cost of the e-reader is too high for the average consumer, and I think they’ll only appeal the most avid book buyers – like those of us in publishing. I do think that e-books will become a larger part of the publishing business as time goes on, especially for text books, business books, romance, mysteries, and other mass market fiction. And maybe with remote delivery, as on the Kindle, e-readers could bring back the serialized novel in a bigger way. Something like that could even increase physical book sales.

But what do you think? I’d love to hear some other opinions about e-books and e-readers and Kindles and such. Oh, and check out this news, just released this past weekend: “Penguin to launch ebooks alongside regular releases."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Miriam Goderich chats about collaboration

Book collaborations are like marriages. When they’re good, marriages are happy unions full of mutual respect, in which both parties work together as a team to create successful projects. As Tolstoy might say (if he were around and blogging), however, no one wants to read about good collaborations. They simply just work.

Bad collaborations are another animal altogether. Each is unique in the set of circumstances that converge to make for a miserable experience for all parties involved and, like bad marriages with children involved, there is often huge collateral damage. Having spent the better part of the last week trying to negotiate among the parties of several collaborations gone sour, I thought it might be a good time to talk about what can be done to prevent metaphorical (or even literal) bloodshed once you’ve decided to write a book with your husband, sister, best friend, co-worker, or even someone you were introduced to by your agent in the hopes that you’d end up with a proposal she could sell for high six figures:

1. If you’re seriously thinking about collaborating with someone you live with (and presumably love) or are related to (and presumably love) or have been friends with for years (and presumably love), think twice, or a dozen times. Unless you have the kind of relationship that can withstand the pressures of deadlines, your own secret knowledge that you are a better writer than the other person, their idiosyncratic work habits, or fragile egos unable to take exacting criticism, this is a recipe for disaster. If you’re thinking of collaborating with a total stranger, interview them thoroughly to make sure your styles and work ethic are compatible.

2. Be clear on your role before you sign the collaboration agreement. Are you the writer who is taking an expert’s ideas and communicating them in lucid, readable prose? If so, the lead person on the project is the one with the ideas. S/he is the “Author” and you are the “writer.” Simply put, you need to check your ego at the door because while your collaborator may be a total diva, madman, and/or generally unpleasant person, without them and their idea/story, there would be no book.

If the partnership is an equal one – e.g., you’ve jointly developed an idea for a series about an Elvis impersonator from outer space – then, you must have the wherewithal to make your case at every stage of the process with conviction and respect but also to take on equal responsibility for workload, meeting deadlines, and making the appropriate representations about the work to your publisher. In this scenario, your belief that your partner is a hack while you’re a closet Hemingway is only going to cause trouble. If you wanted to show the world how brilliant you are all by yourself…you’d write your own book by yourself. This is a team effort and compromise is of the essence.

3. Work out the money terms, who the copyright holder will be, and how the cover credit will read before you even send your proposal out to agents. For one, the agent you sign with will need all of this information in order to negotiate your contract with a publisher and ultimately to pay you both. But, also, knowing that this stuff has been agreed to from the outset will mean that no one can change the significant terms once it looks like the book is going to be a huge bestseller with George Clooney trying to option the film rights. Again, less bloodshed will ensue.

4. Once the book is sold and the excitement has died down, the battle with the blank page begins and that’s where a lot of collaborations can fall apart. Now, there’s a looming deadline, money that will have to be returned if a satisfactory manuscript isn’t produced, and the dawning conviction that your writing partner, who is never up before noon, and doesn’t return phone calls, just isn’t as good a writer as you thought s/he was and will doom the book to the remainder bin within six months of publication. In other words, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to hone your patience, negotiation, and sportsmanship skills. Take a deep breath, list the reasons you respect your collaborator, give him/her the benefit of the doubt, and involve your agent as soon as you’ve determined that the project is in jeopardy. Keep the whining to a minimum.

5. If the person you’re collaborating with turns out to be (a) totally irresponsible and uncooperative, (b) morally/ethically suspect, or (c) psychologically abusive beyond the pale, cut your losses. If they won’t relinquish their rights to the project voluntarily, offer to buy him/her out or walk away yourself.

After reading this, you’re all probably thinking, “What a downer!” but in fact, most collaborations really do go smoothly, friends are made or kept, and result in good or even great books being published. It’s the bad ones, though, as blogger Leo would say, that teach us about ourselves and the business. What are your collaboration horror stories.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Jim McCarthy's reading process

Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.

Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”

At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?

Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.

Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.

“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”

I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”

“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.

The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.

At the delightful (and not just because you can gamble there) Las Vegas Writers’ Conference last year, someone asked a panel I sat on, “Would you rather have something come across your desk that has great writing or a great plot?” It’s an unanswerable question. Because I’m not looking for pieces of a good book. I’m looking for the whole package, or for someone who inspires me to believe in their ability to create the whole package.

In responses to rejection letters, understandably upset writers sometimes ask, “Who are you to judge me? What right do you have to say who’s good enough?” All I can answer is that I’m a reader. I’m an audience. And I want you to win me over as much as you want me to be won. It can’t happen always, but we hope it happens enough.