Ask The Editor

May 26, 2009

If you’ve been turned down by publishers, should you beome a publisher yourself?

We live in interesting times.

Advances are half or even a third of what they were a year or two ago. I’ve heard reports from colleagues who are accustomed to high five-figure advances for their non-fiction narratives and how-to books getting offers in the mid or even low four figures. And that’s if an author can even get an offer.

Fiction seems to be particularly difficult to sell at any price right now.

Filmmaker John Sayles’ agent failed to get a single offer on his latest novel.  Sayles has previously published acclaimed novels and is among Hollywood’s most accomplished directors and screenwriters.

The rejection of his latest manuscript drives home just how depressed the market is.

“This is really astonishing,” says Ron Hogan, senior editor of Galleycat.com, a website devoted to publishing news. “I mean, this is John Sayles! You’d think there would be some editor who’d be proud to say, ‘I brought the new John Sayles novel to this house.’ “

Anthony Arnove, Sayles’ literary agent, sent the novel out on a first round of submissions last fall, and recently sent it to another group of editors. His goal is to land a deal with a deep-pockets publisher who can promote the sprawling, epic tale about racism and the dawn of U.S. imperialism.

Sayles’ 1977 novel, “Union Dues,” was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “The Anarchists’ Convention,” his comic short story about aging Jewish lefties, has become an American classic.

But Sayles’ earlier novels weren’t bestsellers and traditional publishers are looking for sure things. Nevermind that, as anyone who has ever browsed a remainder table knows, the sure thing doesn’t exist.

So, what should an author who has a good manuscript do? In my opinion, as traditional publishing opportunities shrink, and non-traditional opportunities expand, the best thing an author who is willing to bet on his or her own prose can do is become a publisher. I don’t mean that authors should send their manuscripts off to iUniverse or Lulu, pay a few hundred bucks, and keep their fingers crossed. That may seem an inexpensive option but it’s probably going to get you exactly nowhere. The cheap solution is actually an expensive one if nobody knows your book exists or wants to buy it.

Become a real publisher, if you have the time, money, marketing understanding, and willingness to work as you never have before for your book’s success.

More on what this means in terms of budget, planning, and everything else, in subsequent posts.

- Anita Bartholomew

May 25, 2009

The problem with Dowd’s plagiarism, Andrews’ omissions, Friedman’s fees — and The NYT Public Editor

In The New York Times yesterday, Clark Hoyt, the paper’s public editor, minimized several ethical lapses by Times’ writers.

First, Hoyt responded to revelations by Megan McArdle of The Atlantic about serious omissions in Edmund Andrews’ piece on his financial troubles, this way:

“On Thursday, [Andrews] came under attack from a blogger for The Atlantic for not mentioning in his book that his wife had twice filed for bankruptcy — the second time while they were married, though Andrews said it involved an old loan from a family member. He said he had wanted to spare his wife any more embarrassment. The blogger said the omission undercut Andrews’s story, but I think it was clear that he and his wife could not manage their finances, bankruptcies or no. Still, he should have revealed the second one, if only to head off the criticism.”

Andrews was writing about his and his wife’s dire financial situation. That’s the whole story. If he failed to tell the story accurately, then it’s, at best, a fudge and at worst, a fictionalized account. We can’t possibly know how much of the rest of the story to believe, given this immense omission. And, as several of those commenting on Hoyt’s column pointed out, Megan McArdle isn’t just “a blogger” as Hoyt chose to identify her (and thereby, diminish her importance). She’s probably better known than Andrews as a writer on economic issues.

Of Maureen Dowd, who in a recent column (apparently, unintentionally) plagiarized a post by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, public editor Hoyt wrote:

“I do not think Dowd plagiarized, but I also do not think what she did was right.”

Dowd appears to have believed she was plagiarizing the email of a friend and not the blog post of Josh Marshall. But how is that not plagiarism? She passed off someone else’s words as her own. It doesn’t change the behavior to claim that she was mistaken about who she was plagiarizing.

Next, Hoyt tackled the high speaking fee that Thomas Friedman recently had to return:

“When Friedman accepted $75,000 — his standard rate — for speaking to a regional government agency in Oakland this month, he ran afoul of a Times rule that staff members may take fees ‘only from educational and other nonprofit groups for which lobbying and political activity are not a major focus.’”

If this is Friedman’s standard rate, how much effect might getting such a rate have on what he chooses to write about for The New York Times? Or, what positions he takes in his writing?

Hoyt doesn’t appear to see this as relevant. The primary concern he raises is that the group did not qualify as either educational or nonprofit. He also points out that the paper requires reporting of speaking fees above $5,000 but has been lax in enforcing the requirement.

If you read through the 90 (to date) comments on Public Editor Hoyt’s column, you see a pattern of anger and distrust. Hoyt seemed to be explaining away the lapses of his colleagues. And maybe, that’s the problem.

They are his colleagues.

If The New York Times wants to promote itself as having a “Public Editor” who is advertised as “the readers’ representative,” it may need to find someone to take on the role who is a an independent journalist or academic, or another member of the reading public, rather than a member of the club.

- Anita Bartholomew

May 17, 2009

A gift from Florida’s prison guards to Carl Hiaasen

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 12:56 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Those who enjoy Carl Hiassen’s wacky novels about crazed doings in Florida probably think he’s got a wild imagination. And he does. But, folks who live in Florida also know that he gets plenty of help from the politicians, developers, crooks, liars and civil servants of our state.

The headline this weekend in The Miami Herald just begs to find its way into a Carl Hiaasen novel. And those who don’t read about it today will assume, when they see how he spins it in a year or two, that Mr. Hiaasen has to be making this stuff up because it couldn’t possibly happen. And yet …

A total of 43 children were directly and indirectly shocked by electric stun guns during simultaneous ”Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day” events gone wrong at three state prisons, according to new information provided Friday by the Florida Department of Corrections.

Also, a group of kids was exposed to tear gas during a demonstration at another lockup.

… In nearly every case, the guards had permission from parents or grandparents to administer the ”electronic immobilization devices,” McNeil said.

”I can’t imagine what these officers were thinking to administer this device to children, nor can I imagine why any parent would allow them to do so,” McNeil said. “This must not happen again.”

All that said, Mr. Hiaasen has so many screwball Floridian antics to choose among, he might not consider the above worthy when compared, say, to this item:

A parachutist landed on a beer vendor at a coleslaw wrestling match during central Florida’s raucous “Bike Week” celebration.

- Anita Bartholomew

May 13, 2009

Is Amazon becoming a publisher — or simply promoting its self-publishing options?

From its press release, announcing the new venture:

Amazon customers raved over “Legacy,” a self-published novel by 16-year-old Cayla Kluver, with customer review titles such as “loved it, loved it,” “rich lyrical tapestry and story” and “breathtaking in scope and execution!” Despite winning several prizes from literary groups and accolades like this from readers, Kluver’s debut novel achieved only modest sales. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) today announced a new program, “AmazonEncore,” to help readers discover exceptional books from emerging authors, such as the program’s first book, “Legacy.”

AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers. This summer “Legacy” will be revised by the author and re-issued as an AmazonEncore edition in print on Amazon websites around the world, in physical bookstores, as a digital download from the Kindle Store in less than 60 seconds, and via spoken-word audio download on Audible.com.

There’s no word on what Amazon means when it says it “partners” with authors. Amazon may, indeed be acting like a traditional publisher and offering advances, royalties, etc. But AmazonEncore may, instead, be a re-branding or expansion of Amazon’s current self-publishing tools. It’s not clear yet. But, what if Amazon is merely selecting certain self-published books for more favorable design, distribution and marketing treatment? And what if it’s using this as a marketing tool to promote its self-publishing arm?

That seems more likely to me — and, if so, appears to be a smart marketing move.

I hate to be a cynic but, stay tuned for the details.

- Anita Bartholomew

May 6, 2009

Speaking of Edgar Allan Poe …

The New Yorker has a fascinating piece about the man who is said to have invented the mystery novel (but who is probably better known for his horror stories). It paints Poe less as a visionary and more as a writer who made a point of capitalizing on the genre that was selling well in his day. He wanted to make a living as a writer of fiction and, as today’s writers often discover, that sometimes means compromising about what to write and how.

Here’s a snippet:

Poe went to New York, but, unable to support himself by writing, he left the city within three months, returning to Baltimore to live with Mrs. Clemm and little Virginia. He published his first story, “Metzengerstein,” about a doomed Hungarian baron, his gloomy castle, and his fiery steed. He won a prize of fifty dollars from the Baltimore Saturday Visiter for “MS Found in a Bottle.” One of the editors, who met him, later wrote, “I found him in Baltimore in a state of starvation.” In these straits, Poe wrote “Berenice,” a story about a man who disinters his dead lover and yanks out all her teeth—“the white and glistening, and ghastly teeth of Berenice”—only to realize that she is still alive. It has been claimed, plausibly, that Poe wrote this story to make a very bad and long-winded joke about “bad taste.” Also: he was hungry.

May 5, 2009

Mystery Writers of America celebrate Poe bicentennial

Edgar Allan Poe would have been 200 in January. The Mystery Writers of America were in New York City at the end of April to hand out Edgar Awards for the worthiest mysteries of the year while (belatedly) celebrating the birth of our first mystery novelist.

May 4, 2009

With all the buzz about e-readers, is anyone e-reading?

The headlines shout that there’s a new Kindle in the works, said to be larger screen to accommodate textbooks, newspapers and magazines.

But wait, say other commentators, that’s so ho-hum. The real news is that Apple is developing a tablet reader that will knock off the competition.

Maybe, say yet others, but just wait until Plastic Logic comes out with its own e-reader. Or Hearst. Or News Corp. These technological advances may just save the newspaper (without actual paper, of course).

This is all very exciting, but … what percentage of the reading public either has already adopted the new technology or expects to in the next year or so?

We know this is the future. What we don’t know is when, exactly, we expect this future to be embraced by significant numbers of readers. And, if it isn’t embraced by significant numbers of readers, and soon, technology is unlikely to do much for newspapers.

- Anita Bartholomew

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

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