Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jim McCarthy on what makes a memoir publishable

Listen, there are a whole lot of memoirs out there--memoirs of abuse, addiction, recovery, disease, divorce, religion, race, parenting, and just about anything else. Lots of them are great. And lots of them aren’t. But what makes a memoir publishable?

Since it came out a few weeks back, Barbara Walters’ autobiography has sold about a jillion copies. Give or take. I bought one. I ripped through that bad boy like it was a Harry Potter novel and I didn’t want anyone to give away the end. I DVR’ed all of Baba’s press appearances and saved them for after I finished the whole tome. Why? Let’s face it: Babs isn’t the best writer in the universe, but you know what? She doesn’t need to be. Sure, she repeats herself a bit here and there, and she’s a bit overly straightforward. Did that slow me down? Please. This was a book I cancelled plans for. Barbara Walters is one of a very few people who could write their memoirs in Pig Latin, and it wouldn’t matter. The woman has led such an astonishingly fascinating life that once she starts dishing, there’s just nothing better.

Most people, of course, haven’t led quite as fascinating lives, so they need to try a little harder. Memoirs almost always work best when two particular things are going for them: the story being told is incredibly unique, but also, the author is someone you are able to relate to on some level. Take one of my favorite memoirs of the past few years, Jeannette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE. Walls grew up with vagabond parents roaming the country before ending up in a shack in Appalachia that she eventually left to move on her own to New York and support herself through college. Other than eventually ending up at a university in Manhattan and, uh, having parents, my story and Walls’ bear essentially zero resemblance. But she writes with such grace and accessibility. More importantly, she can work her narrative from two sides: she is able to step far enough away to look at her own life with impressive clarity, acknowledging how it will be perceived by readers. But she also is able to recall (and express) the emotions of those years, the connections to her family, and how she made it through some really tough times.

The risk with all memoirs is how self-indulgent they can become. I was actually shocked into laughter recently when I saw an ad billing Augusten Burroughs’ THE WOLF AT THE DOOR as “His first memoir in five years!” Really? Five whole years?! How have we made it so far without more personal stories about a guy who…um…what has he done again? Considering Burroughs also writes personal essays for one of the lad magazines and has pumped out about three or four other memoirs about his first forty or so years on earth, it’s particularly distressing that he is only now working his way around to the topic of his father. If he keeps churning out memoirs as fast as he does, I’ll keep an eye out for his incisive take on a grandparent or cousin in five more years.

Of course, Augusten gets to keep writing memoirs because people keep buying his books. I personally don’t understand why. James Frey seems to write with more credibility. But what can you do? The first Burroughs memoir, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, worked because it was a fascinating story, well-contained, and fabulously written. I still didn’t like it, but that’s irrelevant.

So remember: it’s not enough to just be talented, and it’s not enough to just be interesting. If you want to write a memoir, be both. And be relatable. And make sure you can find enough distance from your own life to write objectively. No pressure…

Memoirs really are just about the toughest things to do well. Which just makes it that much more thrilling when they work. Some of my favorites include Lily Burana’s STRIP CITY; Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS; Jean-Dominique Bauby’s devastating THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; Ann Marlowe’s HOW TO STOP TIME; and Paul Monette’s BECOMING A MAN. I’d include a list of my least favorite (I’m looking at you, Dave Eggers), but why start a fight?

Any of you out there working on memoirs? Have any favorites to recommend?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Jane Dystel on publishers that think outside the box

A number of our blog posts over the past months have dealt with agents and authors thinking outside the box as they pursue their book projects. Today, I would like to discuss what I hope is the beginning of a trend on the publishing side: Publishers dealing with authors in non-traditional ways whereby ultimately both Publisher and author establish a more lucrative and satisfying relationship.

A number of years ago, I heard of a CDS Books which had been founded as a distribution company but which, after a number of successful years in business had begun a publishing program of one or two books a season. They had a very unusual business model: CDS would not pay any advances to their authors; what they would do however was to “buy” only North American book publishing rights and pay a royalty beginning at 20% and escalating up to 35%. They would also commit to spending a minimum of six figures for promotion, publicity and advertising. They allowed the author to retain serial, book club, audio, video, multimedia, electronic and all translation rights so that he or she could sell these rights themselves.

One of our new clients whose sales had been falling due to a lack of attention on his previous publisher’s and agent’s part agreed with me that being published by CDS might well be an interesting and successful experience. As it turns out, we were correct. That author has enjoyed increased sales of his last two books in all arenas. Since he was first published by this company, it has been sold, and its two founders have gone off to pursue other ventures. Now known as Vanguard Press, the company is beginning to publish more books and my one fear is that it will morph into a traditional publishing organization and will stop paying as much attention as it has in the past to each individual author and book – thereby losing its distinctive advantages in the marketplace.

And now another company is being formed, this time as a division of HarperCollins. Bob Miller has left Hyperion, after almost twenty years as founder and President, to start up an as yet unnamed “publishing studio” at HarperCollins. He will begin this new gig with a very exciting business model. It is a bit different from the Vanguard model, but it is still distinctive and shares an “out of the box” philosophy.

In this case the author will receive an advance of no more than $100,000.00 for book rights which will almost always include the author selling many of the traditional rights – book, serialization, book club, audio, foreign and translation rights. The royalty on book sales however will be 50% of the profits. This will enable the author to ultimately earn far more money than he or she might have with even a significantly higher advance and a standard 10%, 12.5% and 15% royalty rate.

Admittedly, neither of these formulas will work for every author; many require money up front in order to finish their books; others believe that the success of their books is tied to the size of the advance they receive (I am not a believer in this theory having seen it disproved too many times).

I urge all authors, however, to consider these new “out of the box” publishing formulas for their books; I, for one, hope that more of my colleagues on the publishing side will strike out with adaptations of these new and creative business models.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Adina Kahn advises on the do's and don'ts of pitch sessions

Recently I attended the Maryland Writers’ Association Conference and met some wonderful aspiring authors. One thing many writers take advantage of at conferences is the agent pitch session, where you have the opportunity to discuss your material, gain advice and ask if they’d be willing to accept a submission. The only problem is that in many cases you have only ten minutes to explain to the agent who you are, what your project is about, and why your book will undoubtedly be a success. The following are some recommendations on how to make the most of your ten minutes with an agent:

Don’t bury the lead. Don’t hold off on boasting about how you’re considered an expert in your field, or about the awards you’ve won, or how well your recent interview with Ann Curry went. Agents often have back-to-back meetings scheduled and we meet a lot of people at these conferences, so you want to make sure you share all the information you have that would make you stand out from the crowd before your time is up.

Practice reciting a succinct synopsis of your work. You should not take this valuable time to share every single plot point or divulge information about each minor character in your novel. If your story is too complex to explain in less than ten minutes, then agents will lose confidence that they will in turn be able to convey to editors what the story is about. Same goes for non-fiction: your idea should not be so convoluted as to make it impossible to express what you’re writing about.

Do your research. It’s a good idea to know a little bit about the agent you’ll be meeting with before your pitch session. There’s no point in wasting your time talking about your self-help book if the agent you’re meeting with only represents fiction. It’s also a good idea to know what books their agency has represented in the past. I was impressed at the conference I attended at how many people had taken the time to check out our website before meeting with me.

Ask questions. Most conferences will have a variety of panels, lectures, and seminars to choose from that are aimed at guiding you through every stage of publication. But not everyone gets called on at the panels, and not every subject can be covered in the lectures, so you will most likely have some questions that will remain unanswered. Now is your chance to get these questions answered so don’t be shy!

Relax. If an agent has taken the time to attend a conference that means that they are eager to meet new authors and share their insider knowledge about the publishing industry. We are not there to criticize your work, we are there to give you honest and helpful answers and feedback.

Well, I guess my ten minutes is up. Do any of you have additional tips to share about attending pitch sessions with agents?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stacey Glick chats about publicity (and the lack thereof)

The book business has come to rely on authors who can essentially sell their own books. Celebrities and previous bestsellers get top billing, and a large percentage of marketing and publicity dollars. Publishers have limited resources across the board and while they work very hard to implement smart, savvy PR campaigns for all of their books, the truth is there are just too many titles and too little manpower for all their projects to get enough attention.

So, when I’m signing up a new nonfiction author (fiction is another story when it comes to publicity), I generally tell them they should be prepared, and many of them have heard this elsewhere before they even get to me, for a minimal amount of support from their publisher when it comes to both marketing and publicity. I try to set the expectation level in a realistic way so that they are not disappointed or surprised later. Often, publicity departments are stretched to their limit, and new authors are assigned very junior publicists with limited experience. And the turnover is very high. I’ve had many authors go through two or three publicists in the course of one book campaign, which makes for a challenging and frustrating experience on so many levels.

I like to recommend early in the process that my authors consider putting away a piece of their advance, depending on what the numbers wind up looking like, to hire an outside publicist who can help them launch a full-scale promotional campaign before, during, and after the book’s publication. These publicists can be very expensive, several thousand dollars a month or more, but the key difference between them and those who work in house is that outside publicists work specifically for their client, so they are bound to get a lot more attention and support. Authors also have a chance to interview and research publicists who they feel are a good match, something that isn’t an option from the publisher, who assign publicists without discussing it with the author first. There are a number of ways to approach hiring an outside publicist, and I like to suggest my client do some preliminary research first on what kinds of pr firms might fit with their particular type of book. I also think it’s a good idea to speak with your editor or publicist (if one has already been assigned) to see if they can recommend some outside publicists who they have worked well with and who have had successful campaigns launched. If the author decides they are able to support this type of endeavor financially, and they feel they will be able to launch a stronger campaign with this kind of help, it can wind up being successful all around

There are exceptions to every rule, and I’m happy to say that I recently experienced a level of support from a publisher unparalleled to anything I’d seen before. The book is called THE ULTIMATE CHEAPSKATE’S ROADMAP TO TRUE RICHES by Jeff Yeager, and Broadway published it as a trade paperback original in late December. The author had made some previous appearances on the Today show where Matt Lauer had referred to him as their “resident cheapskate,” so he had some nice media experience already in his back pocket. Plus, his broad message of finding happiness by spending less money is one that hit at just the right time, in a down economy where people are not necessarily interesting in making more, but in focusing on how best to spend what they have. Jeff also happens to have a great voice, and uses a smart but humorous approach, which makes him and his message very accessible on a wide scale. Out of the gate, there were opportunities to help Jeff stand out from the vast array of competition, including an innovative book tour on a bike (he is currently on a brand new leg of that tour) that the author and Broadway developed. Broadway was able to capitalize on the positive publicity that resulted, and it’s now gone back to press several times with 47,000 copies in print. Plus, I just did a deal for his next book, THE CHEAPSKATE NEXT DOOR, which will extend the brand that Jeff and Broadway are working so hard to build.

It’s wonderful when the publisher is able to get behind a book in this way, but it’s not always possible. Authors have a very small window when their book is published in which to maximize opportunities for publicity and spread the word as widely as possible, so it’s critical to use every effort and resource available to both the publisher and the author to make for a successful book launch.