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

April 22, 2009

What Dan Brown can teach us all (don’t laugh) about writing

Dan Brown’s follow-up to his The Da Vinci Code — which was the bestselling hardcover novel of all time —  is set to release in September.

First, let’s get the issue of writing skill out of the way because, if you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, and you’re a writer, you probably believe you can out-write Dan Brown with half your talent tied behind your back.

But, Brown teaches us that there is more to being a successful writer than having a way with words. It’s Brown’s stories that have made him a success, along with his expert use of tension.

The Da Vinci Code appeals to readers who enjoy a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. That’s what Brown delivers. He also lets readers figure out the various mysteries a page or three before his protagonists do, making the reader feel satisfied in his or her deductive skills. And perhaps most important to his success, Brown seems to reveal intriguing secrets hiding in plain sight.

In other words, he has nailed a winning commercial formula. All he left out were interesting characters and appealing prose.

– Anita Bartholomew

February 20, 2009

James Patterson gets 28 new co-authors

According to readwriteweb.com:

Best-selling crime author James Patterson will release a new kind of novel next month – one that’s been collaboratively written with the crowd. Called AirBorne, the upcoming novel will feature 30 chapters, each written by a different author except the first and last – those will be written by Patterson himself.

The co-authors each won the right to pen one of the chapters in a contest co-sponsored by Borders Australia and Random House. The book will be released, one chapter at a time, on the web, of course.

February 5, 2009

Stephen King on other bestselling authors

People are sometimes surprised when they ask what I read and I answer, everything. They assume professional writers and editors have such refined tastes that we limit our reading to authors such as Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and the occasional Philip Roth.

While I can’t speak for all of us in the publishing world, most of us probably try to read whatever we can get our hands on, especially those books, well-written or not, that have become bestsellers. We want to know why. How did the author capture such a large audience? What is it that resonated with readers?

In a USA Today interview, Stephen King, the master of horror fiction shares his thoughts about the writing gifts of some other bestselling authors. His verdict on two prolific blockbuster authors:

“You’ve got Dean Koontz, who can write like hell. And then sometimes he’s just awful. It varies. James Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very very successful.”

But here’s where I really relate to King. After pointing out that Stephenie Meyer, author of the popular Twilight vampire books, isn’t much of a writer, he shares insights on why she’s a success:

“People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

All writers of fiction should do the same kind of analysis, especially when reviewing books that are similar in some way to their own. What is it that sets the book apart and draws readers in? Rarely is it the quality of the writing. More likely, it’s something about the story or the characters or both.

January 22, 2009

From rejection to self-publishing to bestselling novelist

We keep reading (and hearing from agents, publishers and others in the industry) that it’s more difficult than ever to get a book published by a major publishing house. And that’s not surprising, given the economy in general and the publishing market in particular.

Yet, with increasingly regularity, we read stories such as this one, about a novelist who couldn’t get a literary agent, let alone a publisher, decided to self-publish, and now has a hit.

Lisa Genova, 38, was a health-care-industry consultant in Belmont, Mass., who wanted to be a novelist, but she couldn’t get her book published for love or money. She had a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, but she couldn’t get an agent. “I did what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “I queried literary agents. I went to writers’ conferences and tried to network. I e-mailed editors. Nobody wanted it.” So Genova paid $450 to a company called iUniverse and published her book, Still Alice, herself.

That was in 2007. By 2008 people were reading Still Alice. Not a lot of people, but a few, and those few were liking it. Genova wound up getting an agent after all–and an offer from Simon & Schuster of just over half a million dollars. Borders and Target chose it for their book clubs. Barnes & Noble made it a Discover pick. On Jan. 25, Still Alice will make its debut on the New York Times best-seller list at No. 5. “So this is extreme to extreme, right?” Genova says. “This time last year, I was selling the book out of the trunk of my car.”

Does this mean we should all be self-publishing? No, although it’s easier than ever to do so. What it probably means is that, when literary agents and publishers are too cautious to consider any manuscript that doesn’t scream “bestseller” the minute they read it, lots of potential hits will never get published. And, intrepid authors who have faith in their books, who understand marketing and promotion, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to get those books into the hands of readers, might as well try on their own.

The alternative is that nobody reads what you may have spent years writing.

January 15, 2009

Bestselling novelists, worldwide?

It’s not who you may think — or, at least, not who I guessed it would be (J.K. Rowling and/or Stephenie Meyer). Instead, according to the U.K.’s bookseller.com,   in a poll of Top 10 fiction bestseller charts across nine different countries , the two names that appeared most often are Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and Ken Follett (World without End).

Hosseini and Follett made bestseller lists in seven of the nine countries.

So maybe, adult fiction can compete with YA after all. (At least, outside the U.S.)

January 9, 2009

Why do Young Adult novels dominate bestseller list?

During the years that Harry Potter books were selling millions more than comparable adult fiction, we could have chalked up that success story to the charm of the teen wizard tales.

But what do we make of the current bestseller list? Stephanie Meyer’s novels about teen vampires are, by all accounts, less charming and yet,  her young adult stories of teen bloodsuckers are in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 8th positions on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list of fiction. A Harry Potter title is in 4th place while Brisingr, a dragon tale for young adults, is in 14th place.

That makes six young adult books in the top 15.

What should authors take away from this? It’s difficult to say. If you start writing a young adult novel now to take advantage of this trend, by the time you’re done, there’s a chance that the trend will be done, too. But if you’re already an author of young adult fiction, you might find agents and acquiring editors more receptive to reviewing your work, especially if there is an element of the other-worldly or whimsy in it.

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