Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Ask the Agent: Book groups and great books

March 30th, 2015 | Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 0 Comments

We’ve tried to tackle a bunch of questions quickly this month…

“I want to start a monthly fiction book club to bond members of my writing group. Do you have any suggestions? I thought about reading a book together, then critiquing it so members can learn how to write better. For example, how does a fiction writer work in a description of his characters, or how does the arc of the story change from beginning to end? Any suggestions?”

Yes. Give people plenty of time to read the book. Start with a book you know well and have studied, so that you can intelligently talk it through. Consider bringing in an outside editor or a high school or college writing teacher, who knows the book you’re talking about and uses it in his or her classroom. Choose novels that have clear strengths to them at the start, so that you don’t go too deep, too fast. If you’re reading a contemporary book, think about trying to bring the editor or even the author into your group via phone or Skype, to talk about the artistic choices they made. Let someone else lead the discussion sometime, since we all learn best when we have to teach the material.

 

“Do you know of any successful book clubs led by writers and what is the key to their clubs’ success?”

Sure – there are a lot of successful book clubs led by writers. I think some of the keys to success is to have a diverse group, rather than having it just be your close friends. Diversity will bring more life to the discussions. Figure out ahead of time what sort of group you want this to be. In other words, what is the atmosphere we want to have? Scholarly? Bonding? Social?

Pick a time and place, let the group select the books you’ll all be reading well in advance, and don’t pick super-long books. (Some groups do their meetings 100 or 200 pages at a time.) Have a leader, to keep things on track. If you want to focus on one aspect (characterization, for example, or “the hero’s journey”), let participants know in advance. Have food and drinks, since we all tend to relax and have something to do with our hands when there is a cracker and a glass of wine handy. Let everybody speak, even if they haven’t read the entire book. And have a couple takeaway activities for the writers to try and emulate, so that they’re putting to use the choices they found in the book. By the way, some book groups enjoy going to movies as an alternative, or having everyone bring a book and simply tell the others about it. Doing alternative activities to mix it up can keep things fresh.

 

“I am new to writing, but my book was just published by a small press, and I’m curious about the role of publicist. From what I have experienced so far, the publisher is doing very little to promote the book. I was thinking about hiring someone to help me, but I don’t have a clue where to start or if it is a good investment to do so. Do you have any advice on this subject?”

The role of the publicist is to discover avenues for getting your book in front of readers at no cost (interviews, articles, etc). In your case, I suggest you start by talking to your marketing connection and ask him or her what the company is doing to help promote the book. Find out what they’re already doing, then look for ways you can fill in the gaps. You might search for a freelance publicist who has worked on a couple of successful books in your genre. But that costs money, so think of educating yourself first, to see if there are things YOU can do. Publicity is a funny business – there are no guarantees. You can spend a fortune on a great marketing plan, and still not see a ton of success. There’s not necessarily a correlation between “activity” and “sales.” So if you’re hiring your own freelance marketer, don’t just interview one person. Talk to a minimum of three publicists, find out what they charge, and ask if they’ll state exactly what they’ll do for the money paid them. A good publicity person will give you the details, in writing. And by the way, I never really talk with a writer who feels the publisher did enough marketing for them. As a writer, you’re committed to your book; the publisher is committed to a list of books. So be thankful for whatever they do, and decide you’re going to step in and help wherever you can.

 

“On several occasions you’ve talked about the best classic books of all time. What do you think are the seminal works of fiction since 1995, and what makes them so? Why did these books make an impact? It would be interesting to see if they were mostly established authors or new authors.”

Wow. Love the question. In no particular order, books that have certainly made an impact over the past twenty years would probably include:

Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World

Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavaleir and Clay

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road

There are doubtless others. I think one could make a case for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, or even J.K. Rowlin’s Harry Potter series, but “popularity” and “greatness” don’t often come in the same package. Nevertheless, all three of those authors, while perhaps not having the same impact on the way we see our lives, at least inspired thousands of other writers to pick up a pen and start creating. Still, nobody is going to confuse those novels with great literature, so consider my list above. There are doubtless some titles missing (many readers would probably include Cutting for Stone as one of the best books of the past twenty years.

I’m curious what you think. What would you say are the great books of the last twenty years? 

 

Ask the Agent: If I have a contract in hand…

March 25th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, The Business of Writing | 2 Comments

Some fascinating questions have come in recently…

“I know of several agents who edit or write on the side. Is there anything wrong with that?”

I’m on record as having said, “You’ll do best if you find a full-time agent.” But I also recognize the times are changing – now we’re seeing agents help authors self-publish, or help with marketing plans, or have some other part-time position, so I know our role has changed. An agent who also edits or writes on the side has become fairly common. My feeling is that those agents need to be careful not to mix the two – and I’ll use myself as an example. While I will always go through a proposal and make sure it’s strong, editing and tweaking as necessary, I don’t freelance edit. I tell authors that my company is not an editorial service, so if they need a full-blown developmental edit, they’re better off hiring a freelance editor. I generally will give authors three or four names of editors who I like and trust… but I always explain that I don’t care which editor the author approaches, and I’m always quick to say these people don’t work for me, and I don’t get a kickback for recommending any particular editor. So if an agent wants to do some freelance editing, I think they have to create a bright line about separating the two aspects of their business (I recently saw one agent tell authors, “I’ll represent this if you’ll hire me to edit it first”). They have to be very careful that they don’t try to sell their editorial services to clients, which will get them kicked out of the AAR. Similarly, I know of a few agents who also work as freelance writers. So long as they’re not selling their writing services to clients, and basically running two separate businesses, I think they can make that work. I understand why they need to do that financially, but I think they have to be very careful that the two services don’t sell each other. The same holds true for an agent who works part time as a publicist – you don’t try to sell your marketing services to your agency clients. The bottom line seems clear to me: If I am paid to edit or write it, I shouldn’t also try to represent it. To do so is unethical.

 

“I’ve heard it said that one way to get an agent is to get a contract. Let’s say an agent was willing to look at a contract and offered representation. Am I correct in assuming the agent would take the usual cut on that first contract, although the agent didn’t shop the manuscript? Or does this type of thing even happen?”

This is a question that I am frequently asked at conferences, so I’m glad to see it come up on the blog. Yes, there are agents who will step into a deal that’s already in place. (In fact, I know of one agent who has publicly stated, “If you’ve got a contract offer, call me!”) Is that acceptable? Maybe… but if an author ever comes to me with a deal in hand, my first advice to him or her is to say, “Check out a good contract review service, or research getting an experienced publishing lawyer to review your contract.” You see, once you have a deal in hand, the hard work has been done. The agent didn’t help you concept the book; didn’t help shape your proposal; didn’t shop it to publishers. All they’re doing is stepping in to read the contract and get paid. So in my view the agent should not be taking a full 15% commission. Maybe the agent can help improve the deal, or help with the marketing of the book. Certainly he or she ought to help you with career choices. But I’ve regularly seen authors pay 15% to an agent who did almost nothing to earn the money, and that bugs me. I think authors need to check out other sources. (And I think agents need to have the integrity to recognize when they don’t deserve a full commission.)

 

“I need some advice about USA Book News Awards. Is this a legitimate contest or some sort of scam? I’m curious about them and other contests like this, where you have to pay a tidy sum to enter the contest, and there sure are a lot of finalists.”

I don’t know that the USA Book News Awards are a scam, but they are a vanity award. You pay a fee (I think it’s currently $69), you’re sent stickers to put on your book, and some unknown entity selects the winners. (For the record, the USA Book News Awards are owned by a PR firm, JPX Media.) There are a bunch of these, and have been criticized for creating numerous categories so that everyone who enters wins some sort of award. Just so we’re clear, there are certainly legitimate writing contests and awards. But if you’re paying a fee and are guaranteed an award, that’s a scam, not legitimate contest.

 

“I recently read somewhere that you don’t necessarily need an agent if you write for children, and that it might be better use of your time to submit directly to a publisher. Is that true?”

I’ve never been an agent evangelist – the type of person who insists that EVERY author have an agent. The fact is, you might be able to survive just fine as an author without an agent. Certainly there are children’s authors (as well as adult authors) who do. The children’s publishing market is its own world, quite separate from that of adult publishing. Right now it’s certainly possible to work directly with an editor with your children’s book… but in my view, it’s getting harder. If you’re simply talking to an agent to try and land a deal, you may want to simply go to a good Society of Children’s Book Writers and Editors conference, and try pitching your idea to some editors. But if you’re looking for story help, editorial direction, career advice, contract experience, and connections to the industry, an agent may be what helps you move forward.

 

“With the novel I wrote, I took on the role of a packager and hired editors, illustrators, photographers, graphic artists, and then put it all together in Adobe Indesign. I was only thinking of myself as a self published author, but your blog makes me wonder if I should try to attract the attention of a publisher. Would a publisher consider this, particularly if my novel is similar to a recent hit movie?”

If the movie you’re referencing is already out, it’ll be too late to tie your novel to it – but you might be able to reference the movie as something trending in the culture, and therefore link your novel’s appeal to that same trend. But overall, interest in previously-published novels goes up and down. For a while you couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to a book that had already been released. Then things changed, and publishers were looking for novels that had been self-published and had some success. Now it’s turned again, and you’ll find it hard to have a publisher pay close attention to your self-pubbed novel, unless it’s done very well… and the problem with that is simple: If your self-published novel has done well, what’s your motivation for giving it over to a traditional publisher and making less money on each copy sold? To do that, you’ll need to think carefully over all the issues – can a traditional publisher reach people you’re not reaching? Can they improve the product? Can they take it off your hands, and thus free you to do more writing? If not, you may not have much incentive to go with a legacy publisher.

Ask the Agent: On Memoir, Bookspan, Facebook, and Writing Resources

March 11th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Marketing and Platforms | 26 Comments

I thought this was a very insightful question: “Can you clear something up for me? You have said you thought memoir was a growing category in publishing. But you’ve also said personal stories are hard to sell. How can that be?”

 

We have to define our terms. A memoir is the thoughts or reminiscences of a writer – usually based on celebrity (Justin Timberlake is doing a book!), significant events in the culture (I shot Osama bin Laden!), or fabulous writing (Have you seen what Jeannette Walls just released?). It doesn’t have to be linear. It usually touches on a number of significant themes. In the last couple of years we’ve seen huge growth in the memoir category, in all of those areas. We’ve had good celebrity memoirs (Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, etc), good event-based memoir (American Sniper, Lone Survivor, etc), and good memoirs from writers (Ann LaMott, Annie Dillard, etc).

 

When I saw to be wary of “personal stories,” I’m talking about people who aren’t creating a memoir, but wanting to write a book that basically says, “Here is what happened to me, and it’s cool.” It’s generally linear. It might have some lessons to share, but rarely touches on many deeper themes. The writing is pedestrian – more of a prescriptive how-to book than reflective musing. These aren’t discreet categories, of course – is Lone Survivor a deeper memoir or simply a scary retelling of how Marcus Luttrell survived? But by and large we see personal stories as someone who has gone through something they found profound, and they want to tell their story because their friends have said to them, “You should write a book!” And, in my view, those books rarely get picked up.

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Someone asked, “What is Bookspan? What all do they do? And how do you get picked up by them?”

 

Do you remember the old Book of the Month Club? Or the Literary Guild? Well, Bookspan purchased and combined those companies, along with the History Book Club, the Mystery Guild, the Military Book Club, Crossing Christian books, and just about every other mail-order book club. They own 19 of those, at last count, are privately owned, and they contract with all the major publishers to produce and sell books. They have on very rare occasions contracted a couple of self-published books, but that is not how they normally acquire titles.

 

Someone sent this: “Do you think a Facebook tour can be useful for marketing your novel? I had a friend offer to post things on FB, because she doesn’t have a blog, and I wondered if it might be helpful.”

 

I want to think that Facebook can be useful for marketing a novel, but I’m not seeing much empirical evidence that confirms it (and believe me, I’ve looked). My guess is that Facebook is one good strategy for getting the word out to your friends upon your novel’s release. Used in conjunction with other marketing strategies, it probably helps. But does a Facebook-focused marketing strategy work? Not in a big way, in my view. It needs to be one plank in a larger platform. But I tell you what… I’m going to ask a couple marketing professionals what they think about this question, and come back to it, okay?FB-f-Logo__blue_512

 

And here’s one that’s a bit off the beaten path: “Do you have any counsel on how to edit systematically–with a goal of editing the same document a dozen times (or less) rather than twenty, thirty, or forty?”

 

Hmmm… I could think of a few tricks that might make the editing process easier. First, put other eyes on it. That is, get some other people to read it and comment, or simply hire a freelance editor to clean it up. That will speed things up. Second, create an editorial list of things you want to check for each time – homonyms, numbers, the use of the word “that,” circle all your adjectives, etc. Your list will be different than mine, of course, but figuring out what you need to check for can be helpful, and can speed things up.

 

A fascinating question from an author: “How do I know a good agent from a bad one? I’m unpublished, but looking for an agent for a teen girl book. Any advice?”

 

Sure. Let’s set some basic rules: First, I think there’s no one agent that’s a fit for every author. Second, you’ll do best if you know what you need in an agent, in order to find who is a “good” agent for you. So I think to find a good agent, you need to know yourself and how an agent can best help you. Do you need someone with whom you can talk through ideas? Do you most need an editor? Do you need someone who focuses on contracts and negotiations? Do you need a career counselor? Do you need a personal manager? Do you need someone who can manage things beyond book contracts – speaking engagements, money management, etc.? Figuring out who you are and what you need allows you to start doing some substantive research on the various agents out there. It can even help you decide that you don’t need an agent at all.pen and ink

 

But third, there are certainly some basic expectations every author should expect from a “good” literary agent: A knowledge of the current market. An ability to evaluate the salability of your idea. Some sort of helpfulness on your ideas and writing. Connections to editors and publishers. Experience with publishing contracts. An ability to negotiate. A willingness to take your part and handle the difficult discussions that tend to arise in every author/publisher relationship. Perspective on the big picture of your career and the current market. Integrity in handling author monies. Honesty with you about your manuscript and your place in the world of publishing. A guarantee that they won’t charge you a fee or make a secret profit from any transaction on your work. If you’re interested in this topic, I urge you to visit the Association of Author Representatives website at aaronline.org, and check out the “agent’s code of ethics” on the first page. It lays out what every author should expect (and, um… NOT every agent abides by it).

 

And this reader offers a wonderful suggestion: “I think it would be fun to ask your readers to write in and compile a ‘best of’ blog with a list of favorite books or writing resources. My favorite books on the craft of writing are Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne MaMott’s Bird by Bird, and I would be interested to hear what other informed blog readers think. For that matter, it would be fun to find out their favorite conference is.”

 

Love the idea. So to readers of this blog, what’s your favorite writing resource? And what is the best writing conference you’ve attended?

 

Ask the Agent: Are things getting better? (and other questions)

March 9th, 2015 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals | 5 Comments

This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”

 

My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.

 

And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”

 

What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t really offer a satisfying ending. It’s not impossible to start your career with a series, but the bar is set higher – the publisher is going to look for outstanding writing and a very salable story.

 

This question was a bit out of the ordinary: “Would you please tell me how to set up a proper proposal for a gift book?”

 

A gift book proposal will have many of the same elements that any other nonfiction book proposal will include: title, overview of the book, a description of the takeaway, notes on the audience, author bio, an outline or table of contents, comparable titles, and some sample text. If there is artwork or some sort of high design element, you may include some thoughts on the look of the finished project, but I wouldn’t get married to any particular concept – most gift book publishers have art directors that understand the look their audience is going for. The key questions with most gift books are “what is the gift-giving occasion?” and “who is going to purchase this book?” Gift book publishers are looking for book ideas that have clear answers to those questions. A high school or college graduation is a clear gift-giving occasion. So is a wedding or the birth of a baby. “People who might need some encouragement” is not a clear gift-giving occasion, and will need to have something special for it to merit consideration.

 

Someone came onto the website and said this: “I see that you are not taking manuscripts from unpublished authors, which I can respect. But can you suggest a place that an unpublished author can submit work or search for an agent?”

 

We stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts several years ago, when it became clear that we needed a part-time editor to do nothing but respond to the hundreds of proposals being sent our way. That isn’t cost-effective – particularly when you consider very few of the over-the-transom proposals were projects we wound up representing. So most of the people I represent were recommended by someone I’m already working with. These days, the best place to connect with an agent is probably at a writing conference or an industry event. If you write romance, for example, there are dozens of agents at the RWA national conference in July each year. Do some research, figure out who might be a good fit for your work, and set up a time to meet with them.

 

A good friend sent me this (and gave me permission to use it on the blog): “I’d love to have a bestseller, but the reality is I’d settle for a decent living… is that still within reach?”

 

Sure it is. But writing is art, and it’s never been easy to make a living at art. (How many people who can dance well make a living at dance? How many people who can sing well or play the piano make a living at music?) Publishing, like every other art form, is dominated by a few who do extremely well. You can count the number of million-selling novelists over the past few years on two hands, but I think there are more writers than ever who are actually making a living with their words. Most of them are hybrid – that is, they do some traditional publishing as well as selling a bunch of copies of their self-pubbed titles – and many are doing short form writing such as essays and articles, as well as writing books. It’s hard, and if you’re one of the people who read this blog writing fiction for CBA, it’s become exceptionally hard due to the decline of the inspirational fiction market. But that’s tidal. The tide has gone out… it will come back in, given time.

Ask the Agent: What’s the biggest news in publishing?

February 16th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 27 Comments

I’m trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent me, so let me see if I can tackle several of them having to do with current affairs…

First, a  couple of people have asked what I think the biggest story is in publishing right now. 

To me, that’s easy… Harper Lee, who wrote one of the most iconic books in American publishing history, is releasing a second book. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and thought Lee’s personal story (assisting Truman Capote with In Cold Blood, winning a Pulitzer for her only book, withdrawing from the public eye, starting and stopping but never finishing anything else) was fascinating for any writer. But her second book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before she started on Mockingbird — and Lee agreed to let a publisher produce her earlier work. Watching this play out is fascinating to anyone interested in a writing career. There’s still hope for that bad first novel you wrote years ago!

Second, someone sent in a simple question: “What’s the biggest problem facing publishers today?” 

I suppose it would be easy to point to profit margins, or discoverability, or the issues facing illegal sales and copying, but I don’t think any of those are really the biggest problem. To me, the biggest problem publishers face was made clear in the Publisher’s Weekly salary survey. Less than 1% of those working for publishers are African-American. Hispanics make up about 3%. Asian-Americans make up another 3%. Various others combine for roughly 4%. And that means 89% of everyone working for a US publisher is white. Eighty-nine percent. Yikes. That’s shameful — and perhaps the first place to look when wondering why we’re not building more African-American readers. You want to diversify your readership? Hire some minorities, fer cryin’ out loud.

Third, I had several people ask me, “What’s the biggest news in CBA publishing recently?”

And, of course, it’s that Family Christian Stores, the largest purveyor of Christian books in this country, has filed for bankruptcy. This is a company that was purchased by a small group of people in Atlanta a year ago, and “donated” to a ministry. (There’s more to that story. Being part of a ministry allows them to be tied to a non-profit group. Think “tax deductions.”) Then they shuffled the senior staff around, hiring a brand new senior exec just a week ago. Then they announce they basically owe money everywhere (reports said they owed 7.5 million to HarperCollins Christian Publishing, and almost 2 million to Tyndale), and that they’re going to re-organize. And who is going to take over? Another part of the ministry! Color me excitement. This looks like a mess, being glossed over with the veneer of “you can trust us — we’re all Christians here.” They owe big chunks of money to some smaller houses, by the way. Imagine the damage that can be done to a smaller house when one of your biggest accounts claims they can’t pay the $100,000 they owe you. This affects authors, so if you’re a CBA author, you need to pay attention.

As big news, this just beats out (1) the fact that Tyndale had to recall a bestselling book about a boy going to heaven because, um, it turns out the guy who wrote the book was a liar who made the whole thing up. (Maybe the author’s name, “Malarkey,” should have tipped them off?) For the record, I think Tyndale acted with integrity here. And (2) the fact that presidential hopeful Ben Carson has admitted plagiarizing his bestselling book (as usual, he claimed it was the editor’s fault). I’m surprised this tidbit of news hasn’t gotten more airplay. And (3) everybody finally wised up and yanked their Mark Driscoll books off store shelves in the past month, seeing as how they finally had to admit that he was a plagiarizing, scheming, bullying, misogynistic, horse’s ass. I guess the fact that there was a mountain of evidence to that for years didn’t mean much. Happy trails, Mark. Don’t let the screen door hit you on the rump on your way out the back door.

On a happier note for all you CBA writers? Religious books were up 4% last year. So look on the bright side of all this — people still care about truth. Something to smile about, as you ponder that next great book.

Ask the Agent: What’s hot and cold in publishing these days?

February 9th, 2015 | Current Affairs, Trends | 17 Comments

Whenever I speak at conferences, I get the “what’s hot?” question asked me. I generally offer what I’m seeing, but I try to always temper it with, “That’s just my opinion, of course… others might see things differently.” So I was happy to see the Nielsen folks put out some facts on publishing trends with hard evidence to support them.

In the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly, they gave a summary of the Nielsen BookScan report, which tracks the bulk of printed book sales, and a handful of things stood out to me…

First, Christian fiction is really struggling. That’s become obvious to me over the past couple of years, and I’ve discussed it with many other agents. Several houses have stopped doing inspirational fiction, others have trimmed back their lists, still others have simply put a “freeze” on new acquisitions, so it’s become evident that it’s a tough time to be trying making a living writing Christian fiction. But the Nielsen report proved the depth of the problem. Of all the categories in publishing (and BookScan tracks about 50 genres), Christian fiction took the second biggest drop. In the past year book sales were down 15%. Coupled with the previous year’s drop of 11%, we’re seeing the category shrink considerably. (The only publishing category to do worse? Occult & horror fiction, which is down 26%.)

Second, YA fantasy and sci fi is the fastest growing category in all of publishing. It was up 38% in the past year, after having grown in double digits the previous year. So yes, all those Harry Potter and dystopian (Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) readers have made their mark. And the study noted that inspirational and holiday YA novels (an odd combination in my mind) was up 16%, and YA family & health stories (hello The Fault in Our Stars) were up 17%.

Third, adult fiction overall is struggling. Romance is down 11%, adult fantasy is off 13%, suspense is down 9%, and action/adventure stories are down almost 15%. The entire category of adult fiction is down 8%. Remember, this study was just of print book sales, so perhaps much of this can be attributed to readers migrating to ebooks. Still, it’s interesting to see the declines.

Fourth, memoir and self-help are the growing nonfiction categories for adults. Sales of self-help books were up 15%, and memoir is up 12%. The sale of Christian nonfiction books and Bibles were also up 12%. I’d find it more helpful if they broke out the “Christian living” books from bible sales,  but it’s still helpful to see that memoir and books dealing with personal & spiritual growth are on the upswing.

Fifth, there’s always room for surprise in this business. That’s why I can read this and go, “Sales of books about animals are up 19%? And kids’ hobby books are up 33%? Really?” I had no idea. It’s another reminder that nobody has a lock on what the next big thing will be in publishing. We’re all muddling along, trying our best to do good books and hope that they hit.

Would love to know what trends you see happening.

My Ten Publishing Predictions for 2015

January 28th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 31 Comments

Okay, so I’m a little late… I always try to make some predictions for the coming year, just to test out of my gift of prophecy. This year it took me a while longer to put together my list, but I’m trying to squeeze this into the month of January, so it still more or less counts as a “start of the year” column. As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see…

1. Barnes & Noble will make a comeback. Honest. I think they’ve shrunk, re-focused their stores on profitable items, and I think this year they’re going to see a lot of growth with B&N.com. So while they’ve had a few tough years, I believe authors and readers will renew their appreciation for the country’s largest book retailer, and they’ll once again be seen in a positive light. (Note that I said nothing about the Nook. My crystal ball is smoky whenever I ask about the Nook. No idea.)

2. Subscription services are going to explode. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited have all been growing, as people begin to look at them as the Netflix-for-books. But the reason we’ll see even more growth this year? Google will get into this in a big way.

3. Authors are going to fight like mad over Kindle Unlimited. I have a couple authors whose earnings are down significantly due to KU. They’re not happy, and they aren’t alone. I think a number of successful self-published authors are going to pull back from the service. It’s great for helping a new author build a readership — not sure it’s as great for successful authors who watch a bunch of their book get read without earning much money.

4. The legacy publishers are going to drop their e-book prices. The research is pretty clear that low-cost e-books is the way to go, but the Big Five haven’t wanted to play along, since it devalues their product and reduces income. But I think the market will drive them to lower their prices (and that will mean another round of cost-cutting at the major houses). Look for overall lower prices from all the majors by late summer, and a bunch of very-low-priced value e-books as they all decide to mine their backlist.

5. There’s going to be an explosion of author coalitions. Most writers now see the value of being a hybrid author (some traditional titles, some small-press titles, some self-pubbed titles), so we’re going to see a LOT Of authors get involved in a coalition — authors banding together to share editors, cover designers, book consultants, and marketing experts.

6. But I think we’re also going to see a drop in the number of self-published authors. I could be wrong, but it feels like all those wannabes, posting bad novels with horrid covers, are slowing. Maybe they’ve figured out that Amazon isn’t Amway; that the mere fact of posting your crappy book on Amazon doesn’t make you an author, bring you instant recognition, and certainly doesn’t make you a pile of money. There are going to be plenty of success stories, and certainly more hybrid authors, but I think we may see a slowdown in the Tornado of Crap (as my friend Randy Ingermanson has referred to it).

7. There will be peace in our time. Or at least Amazon and the Big Five will have moved out of the era of open hostility.

8. But all the publishing houses will move to try and sell more books directly, rather than going through Amazon. Could they focus on selling through Facebook? Through Pinterest? Through Twitter? I could see this sort of thing, as well as a renewed push for publishers to market and sell through their authors’ websites.

9. Local bookstores are finally going to start working more closely with authors, particularly local authors. Your local indie store is eventually going to offer you front table space for a fee, even if you’re a self-published author. They’re going to negotiate highlighting you on their website, in their store, and through events — all for a fee. Why? Because indies need to figure out ways to generate more income.

10. And the big areas of publishing we can expect to see grow this year will include… You tell me. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to tell me we’ll see a bunch of books from hopeful presidential candidates (Hello Hillary! Hello Bush Family! Gosh… you’re back! Again… And we haven’t really missed you at all.) I have heard others say we will see a flood of Cuban literature, now that the barriers to Cuba are coming down. I’ve also heard people suggest that books on marijuana will be huge, with everyone in a rush to legalize. (The best part of that? Tokers will potentially purchase your book several times, since they’ll constantly forget they already own it!) My own prediction is that we’ll see renewed interest in travel books, since gas is now below two dollars a gallon in the US. And I think we could see several major names weigh in on racial reconciliation in our post-Ferguson world.

What do you see as the areas of growth in publishing for 2015? 

Je Suis Charlie

January 12th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 42 Comments

The shooting of writers, editors, and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week should be remembered by every writer, and everyone in publishing, because it’s an attempt to shut up people who want to tell stories and influence the culture.

I represent a lot of suspense writers. Imagine one day you’re sitting at your desk, writing the latest bomb-in-the-briefcase story featuring a con man and a bad cop, when suddenly some nut bursts in, yells something about your stories pulling people away from thinking moral, uplifting thoughts, and tries smashing your computer. I represent a lot of Christian writers. Imagine one day you’re at a signing at a Family Christian Store, when you’re interrupted by a violent atheist who wants to stop everyone from reading about God. I represent several Catholic writers. Imagine coming home to find your place defaced because some crazed Protestant disagrees with your theology. We just don’t appreciate violence aimed at shutting up someone who wants to tell a story, and we need to take a stand to defend those who are being persecuted for nothing more than writing a joke.

Look, I find several of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo offensive and immature, and would never post them on my blog. But the quality of their work is not the point. I value the freedom writers have in our culture to say what they want, to explore crazy ideas, and, yes, even to say something offensive. Humor and satire are ways of pointing out what’s wrong with the world or the government or the culture, and it’s the sign of a mature person to be able to laugh at himself or herself. Laughter can offend, but it can also offer perspective.

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show is very funny — sure, it slants decidedly to the left, and his mash-ups of Fox News clips and conservative speakers can be misleading and unfair… but so what? He’s funny, and points out the foibles of politicians and media spokespeople, and if anyone tried to firebomb his set I’d be on a plane to New York to join the crowds who would march in support of his show. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh’s program has a decided slant, and he’s sometimes funny, and I hate the thought of some left-wing nutjob attacking him simply for offering up one of his parodies.

You see, as writers we all understand that words matter. Your ability to tell a story, without government or religious interference, is an essential part of democracy, and part of what we hold dear as writers. You don’t have to get your priest’s approval to say something. You don’t have to wonder if your murder scene will offend the local government. You don’t have to make sure your thoughts on God are in line with the powers that be. The cowardly act of shooting the creators of Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of speech, and it’s exactly what America’s founding fathers intended to resist when they set up a government with no state religion. (If you don’t know your history, they were largely deists, worried about the religious and class wars happening overseas, and they made sure America would not be a theocracy. It’s why Americans need to resist sharia law, which wants the religious leaders to also be the political leaders. Do you want Pat Robertson as president? Do you want some local redneck pastor as your governor? Because that’s what they’ve got going in the Middle East these days — the Arabic equivalent of redneck pastors running cities and states.)

So I don’t care if you’re offended at Charlie Hebdo printing immature cartoons of Mary and Joseph having sex, or of the Prophet Muhammed kissing his gay lover. Offensive? Yes. Worthy of violence? No. And by the way, don’t believe the common notion that all Moslems reject depictions of their prophet. That’s just not true. It’s not in the Koran. In fact, there is plenty of art from the Middle East portraying Muhammed. What they have is a desire to not elevate any man into an idol, so they don’t want images of him in their mosques… and that has led the uneducated and the violent to make this into an issue worth killing for.

There are times I wish contemporary Christianity had something in print that was the equivalent of humor and satire, to poke fun at the Mark Driscolls and Wine Presses and the Ted Haggards. We don’t — we did have the late, lamented Wittenburg Door, but it seems like most evangelicals these days are WAY too angry to laugh at themselves. (Though if you’re interested, take a look at an assessment from Robert Darden, the longtime editor of The Door, in the Huffington Post.)  Still, don’t buy into the whole argument that “Christians do the same thing” when it comes to this type of violence. In our contemporary world, that’s bull. We’ve all watched Father Guido Sarducci, read Mark Twain on the faith, and listened to Lenny Bruce riff on the church without rioting. We’ve seen numerous depictions of bad priests and evil pastors in Hollywood films, and listened to both stupid and heretical lessons via countless TV talking heads — all without resorting to violence. The notion of killing someone for making a joke, even a tasteless or racist or heretical joke, is considered evil by any thinking person.

So the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on all writers. It was an attack on everyone who wants to tell their own story and speak their own mind. It’s why I think we need to be outspoken in our belief that freedom of expression matters — even to those who we disagree with. I’d like to see Jon Stewart, and Rush Limbaugh, and Jerry Seinfeld, and Lewis Black, and Ellen Degeneres, and others who are both funny and acerbic, get together and say, “We insist on one another’s right to freedom of expression, because artistic freedom is a key ingredient in contemporary democratic societies.” I’d like to see the New York Times and Fox News stop acting afraid and reveal the cartoons that got people killed. (For all their chest-thumping, they’ve been totally frightened by the terrorists.) And I’d like to see writers, including people I know in the industry, publicly state that, while they may not appreciate the art of Charlie Hebdo, they stand with the creators.

Twelve people died defending your right to write what you want. Let’s remember them.

 

Looking back at my predictions…

January 7th, 2015 | Current Affairs | 7 Comments

So one year ago I offered ten predictions about the future of publishing. I thought it would only be fair to have a look and see how I did. My notes from January 1, 2014…

1. I predicted that Amazon was going to finally start a series of brick-and-mortar stores. Accuracy: Moderate. They started some kiosks, and have created some pop-up stores in Seattle and San Francisco, and are exploring a store in New York. But they haven’t gone after retail stories in a big way yet.

2. I predicted Barnes and Noble would be sold, but remain in business. Accuracy: Not exactly. Instead of being sold, the original owners came back and repurchased the company from others. They bought out a bunch of shareholders, cut ties with Microsoft, and have tried to re-take control of their brand. And hey, they’re still in business, which is a good thing for writers.

3. I predicted we would see a bunch of publisher mergers. Accuracy: Pretty good. HarperCollins bought Harlequin, and Hachette bought Perseus, Hyperion, Black Dog & Leaventhal, as well as several smaller presses. We didn’t see a Simon & Schuster and HC marriage (or a S&S and Hachette marriage), but the number of players in New York dwindled.

4. I predicted huge growth for reader subscription services. Accuracy: Right on the money. Oyster, Scribd, Entitle, and Kindle Unlimited took off in 2014. Amazingly, authors participating saw sales rise, and income drop.

5. I predicted that libraries would finally resolve their tiresome debate with publishers. Accuracy: Yawn… Yeah, so Hachette finally put a plan together that libraries liked, and several smaller publishing houses started making their ebooks more available to them, but basically everyone in the industry got sick and tired of hearing about this topic. We all recognize that libraries serve an important role in our culture, and that they’re struggling to figure out how to stay in business in today’s publishing environment. I was correct in saying some publishers finally just said, “You can have our backlist for this price,” but that hasn’t really resolved the bigger issue… because the issue isn’t with the cost of content, it’s with the direction of libraries.

6. I predicted ebook prices would drop and remain low. Success: yes and no. You could basically make a case for this to be right or wrong. The overall ebook price from major publishes has gone up slightly this year. But the cost of getting ebooks through subscription services like Kindle Unlimited has meant there are a bunch of super-cheap methods for getting ebooks — and the number of authors posting 99-cent self-published ebooks has exploded. So there are plenty of cheap ebooks, though perhaps not the one you want to read.

7. I predicted the rise of publishing co-ops. Success: Meh. There are certainly a few groups where authors and agents have banded together to create successful and cost-effective organizations to get good covers, arrange for a solid edit, get the manuscript formatted and posted, and find assistance with marketing. But, um, this hasn’t really become what you’d call common yet, most authors think they can do all of this without a group of people badgering them with ideas, and small publishers have frequently stepped in to fill the gap. So while this may be happening a bit (check out Wild Blue Press, for example), it’s not exactly taking the industry by storm.

8. I predicted that legacy publishers would boost their author services. Accuracy: Ha! Are you kidding me? I was sure the fear of shrinking market share would move the major houses toward significant organizational changes. Here’s what I wrote a year ago: You overcome negativity by improving customer relations and offering better perks. That’s still true. But have we seen a significant boost in author services from major publishers? No, we have not. We’ve seen quarterly newsletters that say, “Gee, don’t we all feel like one big family?” — usually coming from the CEO whom we’ve never actually met.

9. I predicted a bunch of agents were going to get out of the business. Accuracy: Right on the nose. Lots of agents moved out of the role. It’s tougher than ever to make a living when you’ve got a handful of bestselling authors claiming, “you can do it all yourself and make millions!” (A message that is comically overdone, by the way. I get people all the time on this site telling me how fabulous they’re doing, but I notice few of them are making any real money.) At the same time, I continue seeing editors get axed by publishing houses, then announce they’re becoming agents. I always wonder who is giving these people career advice. It’s tough — and I don’t say that to whine. I love what I do, and make a good living at it. But just as becoming a full-time author is an uphill climb, so is becoming a successful agent. Simply having worked in the industry for a few years is no guarantor of success.

10. I predicted we were going to start seeing content in all sorts of new places. Accuracy: Way to go, Captain Obvious. Looking back, I could have said something much more significant, like “it will get dark at night” or “it will rain a lot in Oregon.” But it was fun to hear Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, state that he thinks eventually some young whippersnapper will come up with a new idea that will push Amazon to the curb — the fact is, we love content, and we’re always looking for new ways to find it. So whether it’s the Apple Watch or the FitBit monitor, the new fridges that have built-in TV’s or the Amazon’s new Echo speaking system, we can’t get enough information. So… I’ll try harder to not cherry pick the easy answers this next time.

Your turn: What do YOU see happening in 2015? 

Ask the Agent: What do I need to know to speak at a conference?

December 22nd, 2014 | Conferences, Current Affairs | 2 Comments

Someone wrote and said, “I’ve been asked to speak at a writing conference next year. What advice would you give to prospective conference teachers?”

Well, I’ve taught at a couple hundred writers’ conferences, and I’d probably say there are a few things to consider…

1. If you’ve only done something once, you may not be an expert. Wait until you’re experienced at your job before giving too much advice on it. My friend and fellow literary agent Steve Laube and I were at a conference once with a brand new agent. I’m sure she was a very bright girl, but her answers on the panel were awful — she was an amateur, and her responses in front of a group made her look that way. The difference between her replies and those of an experienced person like Steve were dramatic. Had she waited a year or so, in order to learn her new job, she’d have done much better. Maybe you don’t have to be in a hurry to teach. (This lesson isn’t just for agents — it’s for anyone working in an area of publishing that would be of interest to conferees.)

2. If somebody is already covering one topic, pick something else. Writing conferences have a tendency to repeat the same information, and much of it is aimed at entry-level writers. Take the time to consider some niche or alternative topics that might be of interest to that group. (Here’s an example: Most conferences these days need someone teaching a “creating an ebook” workshop. Every conference needs something on the changing face of publishing, career paths, and contracts, but few choose to cover those topics.)

3. Give participants the real deal. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of inspirational hopnoodle at conferences. Too much of the “let’s stand up and cheer” stuff, which gives people a short-term rush, but doesn’t provide them with tools they can take away and use. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of general sessions that come across more as pep rallies than reflections on the craft. When I teach my writing workshop, I have students actually WRITE stuff. When I teach my contracts workshop, I actually go through a contract. When I do my focusing exercises, people are taking the time to write their answers. You’ll find you quickly get popular with the conferees if you give them practical information. (And I’m sorry if this makes me sound like some sort of hero. I’m not. Others do this much better than I.) One example: a couple years ago, author & speaker Ellie Kay did a day-long training session at a writing conference on “how to do interviews on camera.” It was real, usable information, complete with video camera and rehearsal time, and I don’t know of anyone who didn’t come away thinking they got their money’s worth with her material. A couple years later, people are STILL talking about her seminar. That’s the real deal.

4. If you’re going to be teaching a group, make sure you’re prepared. I don’t know about you, but I HATE walking into a class and sensing that the teacher is winging it. I figure the participants are saying, “I paid money to come, this clown is getting paid to be here, and he couldn’t take the time to organize his notes?” I also hate walking into a class and seeing the teacher look like he just rolled out of bed. They gave him the schedule weeks ago — buy an alarm clock and figure out how to iron your shirt! Most of the conferees are beginners — they need a strong example.

5. Speaking of examples, I was at two conferences last year where somebody important cancelled at the last minute. Okay, I realize that things happen. Emergencies can arise. But I happen to know that in one of these instances, that wasn’t the case. The teacher was just busy and decided not to attend at the last minute, and I find that a lousy example. People have paid money to attend these conferences. Sometimes fairly big money. I realize that, on occasion, some of those people signed up because they wanted to meet folks like me, or at least introduce themselves, or maybe pitch me their idea. To cancel at the last minute, after my face has been in the ads, and after people have paid money to attend, seems unconscionable.

6. If you go as a teacher, take some time to talk to people. YOU are one of the reasons they chose to attend. Look, in reality, I’m not a big deal, and I always figure people are going to be disappointed when they finally meet me. But giving writers the  opportunity to meet a “real agent” or a “real editor” or a “published writer” is part of the reason people attend. So don’t try to skip out on actually talking to the newbies. Schedule one-on-ones. Sit and talk with people at your table. Don’t ignore the beginners — they’re paying the bills.

7. If you’re evaluating proposals, don’t tell everybody “send it to me.” Doing so officially qualifies you as a weenie. (Besides, your in-box is going to be swamped with bad proposals for weeks.) If you’re looking at proposals, find something good to say about each one, then give the writer a couple ideas for improving his or her craft. But if it’s not very good, be honest and tell them it’s not ready. If you know if doesn’t fit your organization, tell the author you won’t be publishing it. If it’s a bad or wacko idea, tell them you don’t think it is salable, or doesn’t reach a wide enough audience, or is only going to appeal to people on medication. But don’t give a bad writer the false hope of thinking that he or she is GOOD when they are not.

8. Learn to speak the truth in love. Yeah, I’ve been accused at times of being too blunt. And yes, I’ve had people start to cry because I didn’t like their book idea. I once snapped at a guy for trying to hand me his proposal while I was standing at a urinal. (Yes, that’s a true story. It was at a conference at Seattle Pacific University. And yes, I yelled at the guy. I should have just turned to talk to him…) But the goal at a conference is to help people WRITE better, not just help them FEEL better. Authors who work with me know I don’t have a mean streak — I’m not trying to hurt someone’s feelings by saying a manuscript isn’t ready, I’m trying to help them understand how tough it is to be good enough to get published. Part of my job is to help them improve as writers. We have a tendency to “nice” ourselves into accepting bad work at conferences. We see crap and call it creme brulee. But that’s lying. Learn to tell an author something isn’t great. Learn to share lessons with writers that will help them improve.

9. Go to some of the sessions. You might learn something. Even if you’re an expert. (And don’t misunderstand me… I rarely go to the big-group gatherings at a writing conference. Usually they’re at night, and I’ve been teaching and meeting people all day. I’m worn out, and I won’t be bringing any value to the big group meeting. But that’s me – you might love the general sessions.) Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t get something from some of the workshops. I always like to hear what other experts in the field are saying, and I try to make it to one or two workshops at every writing conference. At ACFW last year, I went to Cara Putnam’s workshop on contract language, and found it very insightful.

10. My friend Cecil Murphey likes to ask a good question of prospective conference teachers: “Why do you want to teach?” I was away from conferences for a while, thinking I’d said everything I really had to say, and, besides, people needed a break from me. Then a few years ago I did a bunch of conferences again, frankly because I needed to let everyone know that I had started my own agency. I wanted to get my name out there and remind people that I really do know what I’m doing, even if I got the axe from Time-Warner. But the fact is, I also find teaching at a conference a ton of fun. I enjoy speaking. A conference gives me an outlet where I’m helping people, not just pitching them. I love the mentoring side, talking to people who are just starting out. I can’t represent them all, but I can certainly take an hour to talk with them in a class, or 10 minutes to review their latest book idea. I probably won’t do very many in the next couple of years – once again, I’m feeling as though I’ve said all I have to say. But the past year or three have been a great time for connecting with newbies. You may find it helpful to think through your own motivation for wanting to teach at a conference.

If you’re a conference speaker, what advice would you share with prospective speakers?