Guest Post: YA From a Marginalized Young Adult’s Perspective

A few weeks back @bysshefields was being really smart on twitter about being a young adult excluded from conversations about Young Adult literature. This is something that has often annoyed me, that the go-to “experts” on the genre for the mainstream media are almost never young adults themselves, that we only rarely hear from the people at whom the category is purportedly aimed. I asked Bysshe if she would write a guest post on the subject for my blog and happily she said yes.

All the words below are hers:

——–

My name is Bysshe and I’m a 19 year old aspiring author who lives in Brooklyn, NYC. I spend most of my time reading and writing.

Two different conversations led to my tweeting about the way YA voices are being ignored. I was talking to a friend (who is also a writer) about how no agent will want to take on my manuscript because it deviates too far from “the norm” (aka straight white girl protagonist being a badass and defeating the government). Both of us know that the audience for our stories is out there; if we and our group of friends, and THEIR groups of friends, and so on and so forth want to read about queer girls of color, then someone out there is lying about what’s actually popular in YA (particularly speculative fiction).

The second conversation occurred when my friend and I were discussing high school trauma, and how we felt that we couldn’t turn to YA because there weren’t representations of kids in our situations. Instead, we were reading books like The Godfather and Fight Club and who knows what other adult-marketed books because there was nothing heavy enough in YA to match how heavy we felt.

In what I’ve written below, I know there are misconceptions about how YA publishing works but I’ve left them in because I think they represent how little communication there is between those who market YA books and their audience. That also ties into what the idea that it’s harder to sell books about non-white/non-middle class/non-straight characters.

I truly, deeply don’t think it’s that they’re harder to sell, so much as people aren’t working as hard to sell them. Social media has taught me that the market is there. My own existence has taught me that the market is there. In my experience, the only people who truly think that diverse books might be harder to sell are people who wouldn’t buy them.

I’m certain that if Sherri L. Smith‘s Orleans got the same explosive blockbuster treatment as, say, Divergent, it would sell. Thinking that it wouldn’t is another example of young adults being underestimated because it suggests that we’re incapable of handling differences, which just isn’t true. I think that if publishers, or whoever’s in charge of properly exposing books, put the same effort into exposing diverse books, we would see a change in how they sell.1

Young Adult is defined as the ages of 15 to 25. By this definition, I’m about four-ish years into young adulthood. So far, it feels like a lot of things. It’s stifling, frustrating, exhausting. Sometimes I feel like I won’t make it out of these years alive. As a young adult, a lot of my decisions have already been made for me (if not by an adult, then by circumstances that were generated under adult influences). What little freedom I have has been cut down almost to the point of nonexistence (again, if not directly by adults, then by systems that adults put in place long before I was born).

In spite of the release that reading is supposed to give me, I’ve noticed a trend in mainstream2 YA literature: it’s exactly the same as reality, in that I have close-to-no input with regards to what happens in it.

There are a lot of teams on the playing field of the YA lit scene. Out of everyone, I feel a lot like Frodo at the Council of Elrond as I struggle to assert my voice over the Big Folk who seem to think that only they know what’s best for Middle-earth.

Just like Middle-earth, the world has become an increasingly toxic place for people my age to navigate. And basically, the parameters for the books we turn to for empathy and escape are shaped and defined by people who have little to no idea what we’re going through; people who make laundry lists of what YA is/is not, or what YA does/does not need. People telling us what we can/can’t handle, what we are/are not ready for despite the amount of things we’ve already been through. As we write our own stories and seek publication, I’ve had my own friends go over YA parameters they disagreed with but feel the need to adhere to. They’re always something like this:

  1. No blatant sex, drugs, violence, or cursing.
  2. Nothing too complex.
  3. No adults.
  4. Stick to characters and themes that are easy to understand.

Otherwise, the book “won’t sell”. Won’t sell to whom?

I’d sure as hell buy something that went against each and every one of those points. You know how that list translates to me?

  1. Sex, violence, and so forth are not a part of adolescence.
  2. Young adults are unintelligent.
  3. Young adults have no adults in their lives.
  4. Young adults don’t have real problems—never mind the harsh and diverse realities of abuse, rape, deportation, international terrorism, identity crises, mental health, the trauma of high school, etc. Let’s dumb this down, then turn it into a blockbuster film series. The end.

Have the majority of editors in YA publishing houses ever actually spoken to a young adult? If you have, have you asked them what they needed to read? What they needed empathy for? Have you, as an adult, tried to think back on what you needed to hear when you were my age or younger? Because if yes to any of those, then it isn’t showing. None of the Big Folk seem to have ANY idea what I needed to read at the age of 16, and what I still need to read now at the age of 19.

When I was an even younger young adult than I am now, I needed to read about sex. I can already visualize a bunch of mainstream authors pulling on puppy faces and gesturing to copies of their novels: “But what about my—?”

Stop right there. As a young, queer girl of color, I needed—no, NEED to read about sex. Heroines of my race having sex in a way that isn’t hyper-sexualized. Heroines having sex that isn’t just romanticized rape. Heroines having sex with multiple partners over the course of a series, because the first-boyfriend-only-boyfriend model is a dangerous misconstruction of reality.

I wanted heroines who know that it’s okay to fall in love multiple times. Heroines who know that it’s okay to leave relationships. I wanted to read about queer kids having sex. Period. None of those fade-to-black sex scenes between straight characters have ever taught me anything about safe, healthy sexual relationships. Sure, I could go to Planned Parenthood for that, but that’s embarrassing and terrifying for a kid to have to do and I’d rather just access my bookshelf like I do for everything else.

You know what? Sixteen-year-old me wanted to read about sex because she wanted to read about sex. Period. Good portrayals of sex are something that sixteen-year-old me desperately needed, and that nineteen-year-old me desperately needs now. Good portrayals of sex help kids to learn the signs of abusive, coercive relationships. “But that’s too explicit” my ass. The virgin, white-girl heroine never taught me anything except that my version of adolescence was dirty and needed to be kept off the shelves.

I needed to see violence—not some sick gore fest or anything, but something that subverted the violence happening around me. I grew up in Detroit—America’s capital of violent crime and murder. If you know anything about Detroit, then you know it’s closer than any city in America to becoming a modern urban dystopia. And yet the only message I’ve managed to pull from half the dystopias on shelves is that “the government” is “after me”.

How is the government after me? Is it the devastating impact of capitalism on the working class? Is it the fucked up education system? The school-to-prison pipeline? The military industrial complex? The ever present hetero-patriarchy that many, YA writers, editors, and publishers included, are complicit in? Because after taking a long list of classes and reading a long list of essays, I’ve finally figured out that, yes, those are the problems. But somehow my books couldn’t tell me that. Interesting.

Surprisingly, I need to see adults. I’m really curious about this one. Why do adult writers of young adult books tend to write adults out of the picture? Or else portray them as flat, villainous characters?

Throughout high school, I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, and definitely needed to see people my age communicating effectively with their parents. After having endured many mentally and verbally abusive teachers, I learned to neither trust nor respect adults, but to fear them. Even though I was going to be an adult soon, I hated all of them and had no idea how to approach them.

Reading about abusive adults in YA lit hasn’t done anything to heal me from that. I definitely needed to see that it was possible for someone my age to have a connection with an adult that wasn’t full of miscommunications and didn’t border on abusive. At this point, I’d say that stereotyping adults as vapid villains does more harm than good.

More than anything, I need a spectrum of issues—a whole rainbow of characters and themes to match my identity, and the identities of the many people I know. This is probably more important to me than any of the above.

Adults in the publishing industry are currently responsible for the devastating and, frankly, embarrassing lack of diversity in the YA canon. Publishers and edits and basically everyone else who’s not writing what they see for a living, don’t seem to think we’re capable of handling a catalog of diverse narratives—which is complete and utter bullshit.

Don’t project your racist, sexist, transphobic, queerphobic, xenophobic, and otherwise marginalizing overview of reality onto my generation. Our realities encompass racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, disability, abusive relationships, poverty, immigration. The list goes on and on, and we need to see people with complex identities and narratives in our fiction.

We need to see people coping with racism. We need to see queer and trans people coming out of the closet. We need to see queer and trans people doing things OTHER than coming out of the closet. Seriously. There’s always been more to my life than queer angst. There is more to my queer life than the closet, than simply telling people that I’m queer.

We need to see queer kids breaking out of the established set of queer tropes. We need to see people ending unhealthy relationships and forming newer, healthy ones. We need to see all the issues that the Big Folk think they’re hiding from us because these issues are not exclusive to adults. These things are happening to us, too, and censoring in our fiction only makes us feel more alone. We need to see these things happening to people like us in the books that we’re supposed to be able to turn to. Even if the character’s problems aren’t solved, just knowing that someone with the same issues means the world to people who feel trapped in their lives.

I don’t think this is an issue with authorship. I don’t think this is an issue of editorship, either. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of issue it is. All I know is that I am very, very frustrated with the lack of complexity and diversity in the mainstream catalog of books for my age range. I think that there are plenty of authors I haven’t heard about writing just for me, but for one reason or another, I can’t access them.

Justine provided an excellent insight, which is that it isn’t that things aren’t being published, but because they’re not being promoted as heavily as the big books like Divergent. Or they’re being published by smaller publishers with a smaller reach. Or they’re not being published at all.

Is it that adult-operated publishing houses are telling adult writers what they should/shouldn’t be writing for the YA audience, without first consulting the audience itself? If so, this is blatantly disrespectful not only to authors, but to me, because a large portion of the industry that wants my support doesn’t respect my identity or my intelligence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve given wide berth to the young adult bookshelves while I sit back to write the series I’ve always wanted to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I eventually want to be published, I might’ve quit altogether.

But I don’t want to quit.

The books I’ve needed to read are out there. They’re just few and far in between. Orleans by Sherri L. Smith follows a young, black rape survivor navigating a hostile post-deluge New Orleans, where people are hunted for their blood. Coda by Emma Trevayne follows a diverse group of teens operating within a dystopia fuelled by music. Pointe by Brandy Colbert features a black girl protagonist with an eating disorder and deals with a multitude of heavy issues that teens in her situation might normally face. Last year’s If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan is a f/f love story set in Iran. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina features an Aboriginal Australian protagonist in a supernatural dystopian future. These books are all immensely important, but they’re under-marketed, and even then, they’re not enough.

YA lit is too important to be given up on, and instead needs to be worked on. Many of the criticisms of YA are baseless and frivolous, such as the notion that adults should be embarrassed to read YA because, according to Slate, it’s all “written for children.” Bullshit.

If after the age of 25, I can only read the Adult Literary Canon™ for the rest of my life, I may as well just sign out now. It’s easy enough to address all these problems: cut down on the Big Folk vs. Hobbit mentality. Publishers need to start treating their young adult audiences like growing, developing human beings, or else the industry runs the risk of ending up as dystopic as half the books on the shelves. Stop telling us what we need and ask us instead.

We are more than just a market. This should be a partnership.

  1. See also: #weneeddiversebooks []
  2. Heavy emphasis on the word mainstream. There are definitely books out there that do a good job of things like this. But why are they so hard to find? []

What’s Real?

In the much-discussed, so-called resurgence of contemporary realism1 there are several recurring themes. One of them is how wonderful it is that teens are finally being provided with books they can truly relate to, books that are “real.”

The mostly unstated corollary is that fantasy and science fiction and all those non-realism genres aren’t real and can’t be related to in that soul-searing, I-recognise-my-life way that contemporary realism provides. They are merely escapism.

I call bullshit on several different fronts:

Firstly, many readers do, in fact, relate to fantasy, science fiction etc.

They recognise themselves in the characters. They recognise the experiences and the emotions. Because no matter what genre, or where a book is set, or whether the characters are talking animals or alien creatures from a different planet, the stories are all about people, about us. If they weren’t we wouldn’t be able to make sense of them and we certainly wouldn’t enjoy them.

The most vivid, “real” depictions of my high school years I’ve ever read were in Holly Black’s Modern Faery Tale books, Tithe, Valiant and Ironside. Yes, as I read them I recognised my own teenage life. Holly captured the angst and depression and love and friendship I experienced back then more closely than any other books I’ve read, realist or fantasy. Those books feel so emotionally real that when I read them my teen years come flooding back and along with them tears, buckets of tears.

Secondly, what exactly is wrong with escapism?

I don’t know about you but I have zero interest in reading any novel, no matter it’s genre, that isn’t going to open a window onto a different world; a book that doesn’t give me a few hours away from my own life. Because even if a book is set where I live, with a character my race, class, and roughly my age—they’re still not me. Their life is still not my life. Reading about them is still an escape.

Thirdly, how exactly does contemporary realism not provide escapism?

I mean, come on, you can call it “realism” till the cows come home but most people’s lives do not fit into the arc of a novel with all the right beats, with no boring bits, and a climax that leads to the neat ending.2

Novels have a structure; life doesn’t.3 Reading contemporary realism, or a memoir for that matter, is a total escape from most of our lives. When I was a teen books were a wonderful escape even when they were contemporary realism written by the likes of S. E. Hinton.

Fourthly, whose reality are we talking about?

Many of these acclaimed YA contemporary realist novels are set in all-white worlds, where everyone is heterosexual, and speaks English. My world is not all-white, not all-straight, and every day I hear languages other than English spoken.

In most of these YA contemporary realist novels people rarely have discussions about politics, or their favourite tv shows, or who to follow on twitter, or any of the things that most of the people living in my particular contemporary reality talk about every day. How is not writing about any of that realistic?4

Way back when I was reading S. E. Hinton in Sydney, Australia, her books might as well have been science fiction. Nobody I knew talked like those teens or acted much like them either. It was a whole other world she was describing. I had no idea what a “greaser” or a “soc” was except from the context of the book.5 Yet I still loved those books. I still related. Much as I related to Pride and Prejudice, Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Nargun and the Stars. Three books that had almost nothing in common with my everyday life as a white teenager in Sydney, Australia.

I have nothing against contemporary realism. Why, I even wrote one and am currently writing another.6 But give me a break. They are no more “real” than any other genre. They’re fiction. They’re definitionally full of stuff we writers made up. That’s our job! It’s pretty insulting to writers of realist novels to imply that they’re just holding up a mirror and writing down what they see, that they have no imagination unlike those crazy writers of fantasy and science fiction. We’re all in the story telling business no matter what modes and genres we choose to tell particular stories.

Besides which sometimes dragons and vampires and zombies are as emotionally real as the supposed reality of those books that are classified as realism.

Trust me, readers can relate to dragons and vampires and zombies every bit as much as they can to teens with dysfunctional families. Shockingly such teens appear in both fantastical and realistic novels.

TL;DR: Your reality may not be other people’s reality. All stories, no matter their genre, are about people. People relate to other people even when they’re disguised as dragons. Contemporary realism does not have a monopoly on what is real. Nor do fantasy or science fiction or any other genre have a monopoly on imagination.

  1. Read this lovely post by Karen Jensen on what YA is and how contemporary realism never went away. []
  2. And endings are always neat and tidy even when ambiguous or unhappy. []
  3. We are born; we work; we die is about as structured as it gets. When you turns someone’s life into a book, be it a novel or a biography, you must edit and leave loads of stuff out and rearrange it so it makes sense, so that it’s readable. []
  4. Unless, of course, your contemporary realism is totally different to mine, which it more than likely is. []
  5. Until I saw the movie I’d thought “soc” was pronounced like “sock.” Embarrassing! []
  6. I would not let my sister marry contemporary realism though. Marrying a literary genre is weird. []

My Next Published Solo Novel: RAZORHURST!

My next novel, Razorhurst, will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin in July. That’s right, its publication is a mere five months away! Which is practically right now.

I’m delighted to be working with Allen & Unwin on Razorhurst. They have published all but three of my books of fiction. Razorhurst is my fifth novel with them, which means they are now the publisher with which I’ve had the longest association. It’s really wonderful to have such a great home for my books in Australia.

Meanwhile in the USA Razorhust is going to be published by Soho Teen (an imprint of Soho Press) in March 2015! Which is only slightly more than a year away, which is basically almost tomorrow. Time moves very, very quickly these days. Especially in North America. I believe the Time Speed Up was caused by the Polar Vortex. Or something. *cough*

Soho Teen only publish twelve books a year and they put their full promotional weight behind each one. I’ve been hearing great things for awhile now and am very excited to be working with them.

Here is the Australian cover of Razorhurst:

RazorhurstOzCover

Pretty fabulous, isn’t it? I think it screams pick me up and read me.

What is Razorhurst about?

Here’s how Allen & Unwin are describing it:

The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.

Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.

Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.

When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .

Razorhurst is my bloodiest book with the highest body count.1 It was a very violent time in Sydney’s history and my book reflects that. There’s also loads of friendship and love and, um, rose petals in it.

Why is it called Razorhurst?

Razorhurst was the name Sydney’s tabloid newspaper Truth gave the inner-city Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. However, the crimes that outraged the paper also took place in Surry Hills, King’s Cross, and other parts of inner-city Sydney. Here’s a little snippet of Truth‘s September 1928 cri de coeur for tougher anti-crime laws:

Razorhurst, Gunhurst, Bottlehurst, Dopehurst—it used to be Darlinghurst, one of the finest quarters of a rich and beautiful city; today it is a plague spot where the spawn of the gutter grow and fatten on official apathy . . .

Inadequate policing and an out-of-date Crimes Act are the fertilisers of this Field of Evil. Truth demands that Razorhurst be swept off the map, and the Darlinghurst we knew in betters days be restored . . .

Recall the human beasts that, lurking cheek by jowl with crime—bottle men, dope pedlars, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers, gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite. What an army of arrogant and uncontrolled vice!

As a result of what goes on daily—thanks to the Crimes Act, thanks to under-policing—Razorhurst grows more and more undesirable as a place of residence for the peaceful and the industrious. Unceasingly it attracts to its cesspool every form of life that is vile.

Isn’t that fabulous? Such rabble rousing fury. I could go on quoting Truth all day long. It’s the most entertaining tabloid I’ve ever read and certainly the one most addicted to alliteration. Sample headline: Maudlin Magistrates Who Molly-coddle Magistrates.2 Doing the research for Razorhurst meant reading quite a bit of Truth. And even though it’s only available on microfiche, which means you have to squint and constantly readjust the focus, it was still so much fun to read. Tabloids are not what they used to be.

What inspired you to write Razorhurst?

I moved to the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills and started learning more about its notorious history.3 Our home is around the corner from Frog Hollow, which was once one of Sydney’s most notorious slums. And we’re only a few streets away from where crime boss and Queen of Surry Hills, Kate Leigh, once lived.

I read Larry Writer’s Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, a non-fiction account of inner-city Sydney’s razor gangs in the twenties and thirties. Around the same time I came across Crooks Like Us by Peter Doyle and City of Shadows by Peter Doyle with Caleb Williams. These are two books of Sydney Police photographs from 1912-1960. The photos of crime scenes, criminals, victims, missing persons and suspects are extraordinarily vivid black and white pictures which evoke the dark side of Sydney more richly than any other resource I have come across. You can look at them here. Or if you’re in Sydney you can go see them at the Justice and Police Museum. The exhibition is on until the end of the year.

TL;DR: My next novel, Razorhurst, is out in Australia and New Zealand in July 2014; and in the USA in March 2015. There is blood.

  1. Mind you, that was not hard to achieve given that no one dies in my trilogy or in How To Ditch Your Fairy or Team Human and the death in Liar takes place before the book starts. (Or does it? And was there really only one death in Liar? I could be lying but only because I’m contractually obligated to do so.) So, really, a body count of one means that Razorhurst is bloodier than my other novels. []
  2. Truth, Sunday, January 3, 1932. []
  3. It’s very much not like that anymore. Check out this little characterisation of Surry Hills these days. As a resident I would like to point out it’s not entirely like that either. []

Writing Under Different Names

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my writing career it would be to sell How To Ditch Your Fairy under a different name. And then Team Human would also be under that name.1

Justine Larbalestier would be my author name for my older, less funny, scarier YA and Something Extremely Catchy would be the author of my lighter, funnier, younger books.

All too often fans of HTDYF or TH pick up Liar and, well, it does not go well. But usually it goes way better than the other way around. The people who read Liar first tend to run the gamut from Huh? to THIS IS THE WORST BOOK EVER when reading HTDYF or TH.

When people fall in love with Liar and ask me what they should read next I suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly or any of these books. I don’t suggest any of my own books because none of them are like Liar.2

Most readers like their favourite authors to stick to writing within the one genre. When they pick up a book by Favourite Writer they like to know what to expect and they get annoyed when they don’t get it.

Yes, there are also readers like you, who love the writers who do something different with every book. But you are a rare creature. I know you’re thinking, “But different names will just make it harder for me to find all your books and read them!”

Not so. The kind of readers who read all my books, sometimes even my scholarly ones, are usually the kind who read my blog and follow me on Twitter. You can rest assured when I start writing under another name this website and my Twitter feed will loudly proclaim it. It will also be noted in the bio on the books: Awesome Pen Name also writes as Justine Larbalestier. Rest assured I will not make it hard for anyone to find all my books!

Think of Nora Robert who also writes as J.D. Robb. It’s not exactly a secret, is it? Or Seanan MacGuire writing as Mira Grant. In fact, the only writers who try to keep their pen names secret are the likes of Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. Super famous and popular already. Lucky bastards.

I cannot judge these readers who want one kind of book from their favourite writers because I am that kind of reader. When I first picked up one of Heyer’s detective novels I was horrified! I’d expected a bubbly and delightful regency romance, not a leaden, predictable, detective novel. It was a nightmare.

I like knowing which writers to turn to when I’m in the mood for something very specific: smart, feminist, sexy Victorian romance (Courtney Milan), being scared shitless (Stephen King), erudite, treacherous, complicated historicals (Hilary Mantel), having my heart broken (Jacqueline Woodson). Etc.

So, yes, I wish I had managed my writing career as my reader self would have liked it. Justine Larbalestier for my older books, a different name for my younger ones. If I ever start writing adult romance or adult crime, you can bet I’ll be using a different name.

Writers, readers, publishers what’s your take on this?

  1. Different Name and Sarah Rees Brennan, obviously. []
  2. Though that will change in July when Razorhurst comes out, which is definitely closer in feeling to Liar than anything else I’ve written. []

Ten Years of Writing YA Novels For A Living

It is now TEN WHOLE YEARS since I became a freelance writer.

I know, right? How did that happen? Ten years!

And one more time because truly my disbelief is high:

I HAVE BEEN A FULL-TIME, FREELANCE WRITER FOR TEN WHOLE YEARS.

I know it’s also April Fool’s day but I truly did begin this novel-writing career of mine on the 1st of April. What better day to do something so very foolish? Back in 2003, having sold only one short story, I took the plunge. The first year did not go AT ALL well, but since then it’s mostly worked out.

Here is my traditional anniversary post writing and publishing stats:

    Books sold: 9: One non-fiction tome, two anthologies (one co-edited with Holly Black), six young adult novels (one co-written with Sarah Rees Brennan)
    Books published: 9
    Countries books have been sold in: 15 (Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and USA.)
    Countries said books have been written in: 6 (Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA.)
    Published words of fiction: 450,000 (Roughly.)1
    Unpublished words of fiction that aren’t terrible: 530,000
    Unpublished words of fiction that are so bad to call them bad would be insulting bad: 1,900,045 (Guestimate.)
    Books written but not sold: 2 (One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER.)
    Books started but not finished: 32 (Guestimate.)
    Books about to be finished: 1
    Books started that are likely to be finished: 4
    Ideas collected: 4,979,934 (Precise measurement. I have an ideaometer.)

For six years I published a new book every single year. In 2006 I even had two books out, Magic Lessons and Daughters of Earth. Not lately.

I’ve slowed down. A lot. There will be no new novel from me this year. And probably not next year.2

Years and years of loads and loads of typing pretty much every single day takes a physical toll.3 I suspect most writers wind up slowing down. Either through injury or just because they’re getting older. Or because they’re so rich they don’t have to write anymore. Ha ha! Just kidding.

I’m not only a slower writer I’m also a writer with a different attitude to writing, to publishing and the whole business of it. I look back on ten-years-ago me and well, I cannot believe how giddy I was. How naive.

Actually I can totally believe it. I totally remember it. I still have many of those feelings including the sporadic disbelief that I’m a working author. It still fills my heart with joy that I can make a living by making stuff up and writing it down. I mean, seriously, how amazing is that?

But so much has changed since then.

My Career, It Has Not Been How I Thought It Would Be

For starters, I am now a cranky old pro.4 *waves walking stick at the young ‘un writers* I wrote this piece eight years ago about how I had no place in the room at a discussion for mid-career writers because back then I had only one published novel and didn’t know anything about the struggles of writers further along with their careers.

I do now.

Wow, have I come a long way. I have had books remaindered. That’s right someone could gleefully recite Clive James’ brilliant poem, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered”, about me.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, are out of print in Australia. Only the first volume is available as a paper book in the USA. (You can get all three electronically in the USA but nowhere else in the English-speaking world.)

Obviously, I knew ten years ago that not all books stayed in print forever. But somehow I couldn’t quite imagine my own books going out of print. The truism that every book is out of print at some stage hadn’t sunk in.

It has now.

Though at the same time the ebook explosion means that fewer books are going out of print because they don’t require warehouses the way printed books (mostly) do. Unfortunately, this non-going-out-of-print of ebooks raises a whole bunch of other issues. Such as protracted arguments over precisely when an ebook can be deemed out of print.

I’d also assumed I would have the one editor and one publisher in my main markets of Australia and the USA for my entire career. That I would be with the publishers of my trilogy, Penguin Australia and Penguin USA forever.

Um, no.

I am now published by Allen & Unwin in Australia. They’ve published my last four books. All with the one fabulous editor/publisher, Jodie Webster,5 and I have high hopes it will stay that way because I love working with her.

In the USA there’s been no such constancy. I have been published by Bloomsbury (Liar and HTDYF) and Simon & Schuster (ZvU) and Harper Collins (Team Human). I’ve worked with several different editors. Only one of those editors is still with the same publishing house. The others have moved to a different house or left the industry altogether. Constant flux, thy name art publishing. I have no idea which US house will publish my next book or who my editor will be. I have only fond wishes.6

Every one of these editors has taught me a great deal about writing. Yes, even when I disagreed with their comments, they forced me to think through why I disagreed and how I could strengthen my book to address their concerns. Being well-edited is a joyous experience.7

Back then I assumed that foreign language publishers having bought one of your books would, naturally, buy all of them. Ha ha ha! Books of mine have tanked all over the world leading, unsurprisingly, to no further sales. My first novel, Magic or Madness, remains my most translated book and thus also the book that has tanked in the most markets around the world.

It also means that some of my books have different publishers in the one country. I’ve had more than one publisher in France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Taiwan.

Australia and the USA are the only countries to have published all my novels. And that is why I am a citizen of both those fine nations. *hugs them to my chest*

The USA is the only place in the world where my non-fiction is published. And, interestingly, those two tomes remain in print. Bless you, Wesleyan University Press. I hope that answers those darling few who ask me if I’m ever going to write a follow up to Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. My desire to continue eating and have a roof over my head preclude any such future scholarly efforts. Sorry.8

The constant professional relationship in most writers lives is with their agent. Jill Grinberg has been my agent since early 2005. She is the best. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through some moments of the last eight years without her. Thank you, Jill.

YA Publishing Has Changed

Back in 2003 almost no one was talking about ebooks, self-publishing was not seen as a viable or attractive option by most novelists, and very few, even within publishing, had heard of YA or Teen Fiction as it is also frequently called.9

Money

Back then I didn’t know a single soul who’d gotten a six-figure advance. The idea that you could get one for a YA novel was ludicrous. I remember the buzz and disbelief around Stephenie Meyer’s huge advance for Twilight.10 Many were saying back then that Little, Brown had overspent. It is to laugh.

There’s more money in YA publishing now than there was back in 2003. Back then only one YA author, J. K. Rowling, was on the list of richest authors in the world. On the 2012 list there were four: Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Rick Riordan.

They are still outliers. It’s just that YA now has more of them than ever before.

I received $13,500 per book from Penugin USA for my first three novels. At the time I thought that was an amazing advance. And it was. Most of the people I knew then were getting less. I know first-time YA novelists who are still only getting between $10,000 and $15,000 advances. And I know many YA novelists with many books under their belt who have never been within coo-ee of a six-figure advance.

So, yes, there is more money around now. But it is unevenly spread. The difference is that back in 2003 aspiring to be a millionaire YA novelist was like aspiring to be a millionaire garbage collector. Did they even exist? Now, it’s like aspiring to be a millionaire rockstar. Still very unlikely but, hey, at least they’re a real thing.

YA Has Changed

I caught myself fairly recently launching into my standard speil about the freedom of YA: how you can write any genre but as long as it has a teen protag it’s YA . . . when I stopped.

That’s not true anymore. The Balkanisation of YA has kind of taken over. You walk into Barnes & Noble in the USA and there’s Paranormal Romance,11 then there’s the Fantasy & Adventure section, and then there’s the rest of YA. It’s not just the big chains either. Over the years I have seen many smaller chains and independents move towards separate sections within YA. Usually it’s Fantasy & Science Fiction separated out from the rest of YA, which gets called a range of different things. But I’ve also seen separate Christian YA, YA Crime and YA Romance.12

(Of course, the rapid increase of people who purchase their books (ebook and print) online makes the physical weight of these categories less of a problem. It is one of the beauties of online book shopping. If you buy one book by an author you are usually hit with exhortations to buy other books by the same author. I appreciate that as a reader and as an author.)

For those of us who write a variety of different genres it’s alarming. We worry that each of our books are winding up in different sections from the other. So if a person loved one of our books and wanted to read another they can’t find it. Or that they’re all in the one section, which is misleading for the books that don’t belong there. It is a sadness. But apparently many customers find it useful.

New writers wanting to break into YA are being advised they should stick to just one of the many subgenres of YA. That doing so is the best way to have a sustainable career. No one was giving that advice when I started out. Back then advice like that would have made no sense.

I hope it’s terrible advice. But I worry that it’s good advice.

Many in my industry argue that the huge success of the big books by the likes of Collins, Rowling, Meyers and Riordan, (a positive thing which is why YA publishing keeps growing every year), coupled with the rise of ebooks, and the general THE SKY IS FALLING freak out by big publishers because of the emergence of Amazon as a publishing threat and the increasing viability for big authors of self-publishing is leading to many more “safe” books being purchased and less books that are innovative and don’t have an obvious audience.

I heard someone recently opine that the big mainstream publishers are only buying two kinds of YA books (and I suspect this might be true of most genres):

  • commercial high-concept books they think will be bestsellers
  • gorgeously written books they think will win prizes

Best of all, of course, is the book that does both.

Of course, neither of those things can be predicted. So the publisher is taking a punt as publishers have always done. They just seem increasingly reluctant to take a punt on the majority of books because they fear that most books are unlikely to do either.

This means that it’s harder than ever to get published by mainstream presses. Fortunately there are far more options now than there used to be. The mainstream houses are no longer the only show in town.

Decline of Non-Virtual Book Shops

There are also, of course, far fewer physical book shops in both Australia and the USA than when I started my career. Almost every one of my favourite second-hand bookshops are gone. However, so far most of my favourite independents are still with us. Abbeys, Better Read than Dead and Gleebooks are still alive and well in Sydney. Pulp Fiction in Brisbane. Readings in Melbourne.

But several big chains have collapsed in both countries. Angus and Robertson is gone, which had such a long and storied history in Australia. As is Borders in the USA.

I fear there will be more bookshop closures in our future. Ebooks are becoming more and more popular as are online retailers of physical books.

I admit that I’m part of the problem. While I am buying more books than ever, most of them are ebooks. I only buy physical books when that’s the only edition available, when it’s a research book, and when I loved a book so much I want a physical copy as well. Who knows if I’ll be able to read all these ebooks five, ten years from now when the formats and devices for reading them have changed?

I do think bookshops are going to survive for many more years but I can’t help looking around and seeing how few music stores are left. The ones that have survived often specialise in vinyl records and cater to collectors.

It Was Ever Thus

I sound depressed about my industry and my genre, don’t I?

I’m not. Publishing has always been in flux, or crisis if you want to put it more strongly. There have been countless booms and busts. There have been paperback booms. The horror boom of the 1980s. In the 1990s the CD-Rom was going to doom publishing. Spoiler: It didn’t.

I’ve done a lot of research on the 1930s and, wow, was publishing convulsing then. What with the depression and the complete absence of money and like that. Lots of people in the industry lost their jobs. As they also did in the 1980s up to the present with the takeover of publishers by big media conglomerates and with the merging of the big publishers.

There have been hysterical claims that the advent of radio and television and the internet would kill reading as we know it. Um, no.

In fact, in the USA and Australia and elsewhere, more teenagers are reading than ever. And every year YA grows with more books, more sales, and more readers. It’s the adults we should be worried about.13

Right now publishing is more exciting than it ever has been. We authors have alternatives in a way we never had before. Electronic publishing really has changed everything. We don’t have to stick with the mainstream publishers. We can rescue our out of print backlists with an ease that a decade ago was unimaginable. We can publish those strange unclassifiable projects of ours that publishers so often baulk at.

Every year new and amazing books are being published in my genre. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s The Summer Prince published this year truly is unlike anything else out there. It’s a daring, ambitious, beautiful, addictively readable book and it’s published by a mainstream press, Scholastic, who also publish the Harry Potter books. If you want a one-book snapshop of where my genre is at right now that’s the book I’d recommend.

Writing

But for me the writing is the thing. I love writing stories even more now than I did ten years ago. I’m better at it and happier doing it now than then. Though perversely I find it much harder. It takes more work to get my novels to a standard I’m happy with than it did. I think that’s mainly because my standards are higher and because with every new book I give myself harder challenges. Can’t get bored now, can I?

All the sturm and drung of publishing expanding, shrinking, freaking out, is just noise that on many levels has zero to do with what I write. Or to put it another way the more time I spend paying attention to YA publishing trends—Crap! Should I be writing a book about a kid with cancer?!—the less able I am to write. When I write I am much much happier than when I am angsting about what I should be writing.

Back in 2003 I knew a lot less about publishing but I was also a lot more nervous about it. I was hearing the tales of publishing’s demise for the very first time. Foolishly I believed them! I was hearing that the Harry Potter fad was over and YA was doomed, that nobody wanted [insert particular subgenre that I happened to be writing at the time here] anymore.

At the beginning of my career I was terrified I would never sell anything. That fear was so paralysing that for the first year of freelancery I barely wrote a word and I blew my first ever writing gig.

And even after I sold the trilogy there were so many fears. What if these books are my last? What if I don’t earn out? What if everyone hates my book? What if publishing collapses around my ears?

Now I’ve had books that haven’t earned out, books that have been remaindered, books that haven’t won awards or even been shortlisted, books that have received few reviews,14 books with scathing reviews.15 I have had calendar years without a new novel by me. I have missed deadlines with my publishers.

All those things I had been afraid of? They have all happened and I’m still standing and I still have a career.

None of that matters. It really is just noise. What matters is that I write the best books I possibly can. And if injury means that I can’t deliver that book when I said I would then so be it. My health is more important.

My writing is more important.

I have in the past rushed to get books in on time and they were not as, um, good16 as they could have been. Luckily I had editors who demanded extensive rewrites. That’s why I have never had a book I’m ashamed of in print. But I could have and back then I believed that wasn’t as big a deal as not having a book out every year.

I was wrong.

Now I believe that is the worst possible thing that could happen to my career.17 To have in print a book with my name on it that I am not proud of. A book that is not as good as it could have been.

Now, I don’t care about the market.18 I don’t care about supposed saleability. I no longer sell my books until they are finished, which is much kinder to me. Racing to meet a deadline when you have shooting pain running up your arms is less than optimal. Selling my books only when finished is also better for the publisher who wants to know when to realistically schedule the book. I am, of course, extremely lucky to be able to wait to sell my books.

I write what I want to write. I have a backlist, I have a reputation, I am known for writing a wide variety of books. So when I turn in an historical set in the 1890s from the point of view of the first telephone in use in the quaint town of Shuberesterville no one’s going to bat an eyelid.19

If they don’t want it, well, brand new world of ebook self-publishing, here I come! I know just which freelance editors and copyeditors and proof readers and cover designers I’m going to hire to work on it.

To be clear: I’d much rather stay with mainstream publishing. Wow, is self publishing hard work. I have so much admiration for those self-publishers, like Courtney Milan, who do it so amazingly well.

Community

Being a writer can be a very lonely business. Just you and your computer and an ocean of doubt. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have never been alone with my writing. My mother, father and sister have always been supportive and proud of my writing. Without Jan, John and Niki as early readers and a cheering squad, well, I don’t like to think about it. They are the best.

One of the great pleasures of the last ten years has been discovering the YA community both here in Australia but also in the USA. I have met and become friends with some of the most amazing teens, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, parents, agents and others in this fabulous community like the publicists and marketers and sales reps and folks from the art department, and of course editors and publishers. They’ve all made me feel welcome and at home and they all care about YA even more passionately than I do. Protip: You want to talk to a real expert on YA? Don’t talk to the writers, talk to the specialist YA librarians.

The relationships that have been a huge source of strength for me in this strange career are those with other writers of whom20 there are far too many to name.21 Honestly, without other writers to gossip and giggle with, to ask for advice from and, lately, give advice to, this would be a lonely, miserable profession.

Our conversations and arguments have led to the creation of whole new novels and Zombie versus Unicorn anthologies. You are all amazing. I love youse. Even when you’re totally wrong about certain best-selling novels or the importance of the word “effulgent”.

My best writer friend is Scott Westerfeld. It was he who suggested I go freelance ten years ago even though we were stone cold broke back then. Even though I’d only sold one short story. Even though I was really scared. Mad man! It’s he who looks smug now at what a great suggestion it was. Thank you, Scott. For everything.

Here’s to another ten years of writing novels for a living. Here’s to YA continuing to grow and be successful! Wish me and my genre luck!

  1. Or one of Cassandra Clare’s books. Just kidding. Two of Cassie’s. []
  2. I have, however, been writing a lot. I’ve almost finished the Sydney novel. It’s only a few drafts away from being ready to go out to publishers. And I have several other novels on the boil. Including the 1930s NYC novel of which I have more than 100,000 words. Sadly I also seem to be no more than a third of the way into that story. Le sigh. []
  3. Obviously the typing dates back much longer than a mere ten years. []
  4. I have many novelist friends who are laughing right now. Because they have been doing this for twenty years or more and consider me to still be a baby neophyte. []
  5. Those job titles work differently in Australia. []
  6. And in my experience the editors last way longer than the publicists and people in marketing. []
  7. Even when you want to kill them. “But, but, but, I meant the ending not to make any sense. Fixing it will be hard!” *swears a lot* *stomps* *fixes ending* []
  8. Not really. Writing Battle of the Sexes was a TOTAL NIGHTMARE. But I’m genuinely happy that the book has been useful to so many. It was my PhD thesis written for an audience of, like, three. []
  9. Within publishing houses almost everyone calls it YA. But I’ve noticed that many booksellers call it Teen Fiction. []
  10. Twilight was published the same year as my first novel, 2005. []
  11. I’d never heard the word “paranormal” when I started out. []
  12. There are, of course, even more YA categories for books at online book shops. I’ve seen Substance Abuse, Peer Pressure, Dark Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic etc. etc. But somehow online they seem less restrictive than they do in a bricks and mortar book shop. []
  13. Just kidding. A huge number of adults read YA. []
  14. In the trade publications, that is. The blessing of the internet is that these days somewhere, somehow your books are going to be reviewed by bloggers or on Barnes & Noble/Amazon/Goodreads etc. (Though, um, aren’t Amazon and GoodReads the same thing now?) A book receiving not a single review is a rarity these days. []
  15. That would be all of them. Every single one of my books has had at least a handful of this-book-sucks reviews. Turns out this is true for all books ever. []
  16. She said euphemistically. []
  17. Worst thing I have control over, obviously. No one can stop a falling piano. []
  18. Which isn’t to say that I’m not fascinated by it. My name is Justine Larbalestier and I am a publishing geek. I’m very curious to see if the big swing against paranormal and fantasy I’m hearing so many people predict really does happen. I’m a bit skeptical. []
  19. Okay, they might blink. []
  20. That’s for all my grammar nazi friends who freak out at the thought that the mighty “whom” will not be with us for that much longer. []
  21. Though I’d like to point out to said grammar nazi friends that the contortions needed to use “whom” made for a way ugly sentence. I’m just saying . . . []

On the Differences Between Publishing Houses

My mate Diana Peterfreund had an excellent post on some truly terrible publishing advice doing the rounds at the moment. In passing she mentions that “as someone who has now published with four NY publishers and the aforementioned small presses—every publisher does things a little differently.”

I have not seen that pointed out very often. I’ve seen oodles of folk point to how writers all write differently. That there are as many ways to write a novel as there are novels. But in most discussions about publishing the assumption is that all publishers are the same. Or at least the only differences is between small presses and big presses. Between the Big Six1 and everyone else. Between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

What Diana says is so so so so true. Let me repeat it: every publisher does things a little differently.

Like Diana I’ve published books with several different publishers in the USA: Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Wesleyan University Press. I also have a close working relationship with Allen and Unwin in Australia.2 So that’s six publishers I’ve been through the whole publishing process with.3

The biggest shock for me was going from Penguin to Bloomsbury. So many things I assumed were standard to all publishers turned out not to be.4 Fortunately Bloomsbury has5 a welcome letter for its new authors where it lays out how it does things. Most useful document!

One of the biggest differences between houses is their culture. Some are far more corporate than others. Some are more like families. It takes a while as a new author to get a handle on your new house’s culture, which of course, also varies within publishing houses. A big publishing house is not one entity. There’s also variation between the adult and children’s divisions and between the various different imprints within each publishing house and how those imprints interact with sales, marketing, and all the other departments. Some publishing houses are more like a feudal country than a corporation or a family.

Every publishing house has different procedures for editing, proofing and copyedits. Some do hard copy, some electronic, some a mixture. Some are done in house. Some not. Some allow quite a long time to get those edits done. Others want a two-minute turn around. This is related to how big a lead time the house has, which also varies widely. It also varies a lot from editor to editor.

Each publishing houses has a standard contract. In which their preferences on various thing are laid out. Stuff like how advances are divided up. For some publishers the standard split is into thirds. Some advances are split into sixths. And there are other variations depending on the house and how negotiations go with the agent. Some houses offer bonuses (to some of the books they sign) if they list in the New York Times or USA Today or win certain prestigious prizes. That’s only happened to me with one deal and boy did I feel fancy despite none of those bonuses ever coming into play. I’m sure there are further variations I’ve never heard of. For those of you who don’t know what an advance is I explain in this post.

Then there’s the speed with which publishers pay you, which also varies a lot. There’s one house that used to be notorious for having the slowest contracts department in the known universe. There are other publishers whose accountants departments have been equally notorious. I know of one publishing house which sometimes pays its authors within a week or less of signing them.6 Any freelancer in any trade at all will know how this goes.

Some publishing houses have separate marketing and sales departments. But the sales department at one house doesn’t always do the same things as a sales department at another house. Many of the smaller houses have one person doing all the sales, marketing, and publicity. Over the last ten years or so the majority of publishers have been getting smaller and their sales, marketing, publicity and other departments have been contracting. So who handles what has been changing.

Every house I’ve been with has had its positives and its negatives. But given the speed with which publishing has been changing and contracting. What I know about how, say, Penguin, operates probably isn’t true anymore since I haven’t been published by them since 2007.

The growth of ebooks and Amazon and independent publishing and the disappearance of so many book shops both here in Australia and in the USA—though ebooks are still a much bigger deal over there—has transformed publishing in ways I could never have imagined when I sold my first novel back in 2003. What I know about publishing is mostly about the Big Six New York City publishers, who are not as dominant as they once were.7

The internet is so much more important to publishing now than it was back in 2005 when my first novel came out. I remember being asked back then, by someone quite senior in publishing, “What’s a blog?” These days the idea of a publicity campaign without the internet is, well, inconceivable.8

All of this is why, I suspect, so many discussion about publishing between those who work for or are published by the Big Six and those who are part of the independent, self-publishing explosion so often go awry. Our publishing worlds are different so our assumptions are different. But I’ve also seen authors published only by one house have conversations at total cross purposes with other authors who’ve published with more than one mainstream house.

Publishing is big and confusing no matter which part of it you live in. When I became an author I had no prior experience in publishing. My friends who worked in publishing first have a much better understanding of how it all works than I do. But even they are frequently confused. Coming from editorial doesn’t mean you understand how other departments operate and vice versa.

In conclusion: Publishing is complicated! Not everything is the same! Things change! Boxing is awesome!

  1. Hachette; Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan; Penguin Group; HarperCollins; Random House; Simon & Schuster []
  2. Although Penguin Australia published the Magic or Madness trilogy they bought it from Penguin USA so all the editing was done in the USA. []
  3. While I’ve met some of my non-English language publishers and have occasionally been consulted about translation questions and so on I mostly hear very little in between saying yes to the sale and the translated book showing up. []
  4. Going from Wesleyan University Press to Penguin was not a shock. I assumed a big fancy publisher would be different from a small university press. I was right. []
  5. Or maybe had? I don’t know if they do that anymore. []
  6. Yes, it’s a small house. []
  7. Though they’re still pretty dominant. []
  8. And, yes, I do know what that word means. []

The Supposed Power of Reviews

In the wake of the most recent author meltdown over a critical review I’ve been trying to figure out why it keeps happening. What is it about reviews that drives so many authors to momentary craziness?

(Though must be said: public author meltdowns about reviews are actually pretty rare. The vast majority of writers know to keep the crazy to ourselves.)

What is it about reviews that drives certain authors to public displays of rage? To attempting to bully reviewers into changing or deleting their reviews?

Is it in the belief that bad reviews effect sales? Let’s examine that shall we?

Bad Reviews Have Little Impact

If bad reviews had an impact then Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey would not be bestsellers. They have racked up an astonishing number of bad reviews. Many of which are absolutely savage. They are amongst the bestselling books of all time.

Bookseller after bookseller in the USA has told me that a bad review in the New York Times, for instance, has about the same impact on sales as a good review in the NYT. I admit when I first heard that I was shocked. But booksellers kept saying it. On top of that I’ve been hearing from booksellers that these days a review in the NYT doesn’t have as much of an effect on sales. Not the way it used to.

Given that reviews in the most venerated of book reviewing venues in the USA, i.e. the New York Times don’t have much impact on sales than what kind of an impact is an individual reader’s review on Amazon, or Goodreads, or wherever going to have?

I’ve also heard internal research at Amazon showed that customers’ reviews of books had very little impact on sales. Whereas their reviews of items like toasters had a huge impact.

This makes sense to me. What makes a book work can be very individual. “I only read books where the hero explodes in a ball of flames at the end.” But most of us want basically the same things from a toaster: toast cooked the way we like it and the toast to pop up when finished so we don’t have to dig the toast out with a fork and get electrocuted. Stuff like that.

As far as I can tell the impact of reviews seems to be more about their volume. Chances are if your book is getting loads and loads of reviews all over the place than it is selling. Part of why books like Da Vinci Code etc have so many bad reviews is because they are so much more widely read than other books. But who knows whether the reviews are the main driver of those sales, or whether they are more of an indicator of those sales, or a bit of both.

Whether negative or positive, more reviews means more people talking about your book. So why aren’t we authors happy our books are being talked about at all?

Most Books Do Not Sell

Most books published by mainstream publishers do not sell in huge numbers. If your novel has sold more than 2,000 copies you’re selling way above average. Go, you!

Of course, if your publisher paid $20,000 for your book and it sold 2,000 copies you’re not feeling like a huge success. You’re wondering if any other publisher will ever buy a book from you again. You’ll be wondering what you could have done to make your book sell better.

There are several factors needed for a book to sell. People need to know it exists, they need to be able to find where to buy it, they need to not be repulsed when they see it. I.e. a book needs good publicity, distribution and packaging. And, yes, that last one is mostly about the cover.

Authors with mainstream publishers, even the ones who don’t sell that well, have way more power than a random reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook on their blog. We have the might of our publisher behind us, getting us into stores, online and offline, getting us widely reviewed.

Also we’re published. Our books are a bigger platform than a review on Amazon.

So Why Isn’t My Book Selling?

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out why a book isn’t selling. Book stores didn’t pick it up. Or only some did.

The publicity was minimal. There were no advanced readers’ copies or very few. So reviewers and librarians and booksellers didn’t know about it and thus didn’t review it or order it in.

It was hideous. The cover was so repellent small children ran screaming when they saw it.

But the lack of success of a book is almost never due to bad reviews. To very few or no reviews? That’s not a good sign. However, the lack of reviews is not the cause but a sign of crappy publicity/distribution/cover.

My worst selling book, Magic’s Child, had no ARC going out widely, had a much worse sell in and fewer reviews than any of my other books.1 When it came out fans of mine struggled to find it anywhere. Never a good sign.

Most of that was because it was the third book in a trilogy, later books in a series always sell the worst, even if your series is Harry Potter. Uglies is by far Scott’s best-selling book, and although every book in the series sells well, and they’ve all made the New York Times bestseller list, they’ve all sold less than that first book.

Even the most popular series loses people after the first book. At the same time, every time another book in a series comes out, it reminds people who haven’t read the first one yet that they should get on to that.

There were fewer signals to the reading public that Magic’s Child existed than any of my other books and so it sold the least. For what they’re worth, the reviews the book received were largely favourable. There just weren’t many. Reviews were the least of my worries.

While the first book of that trilogy, Magic or Madness remains in print. The next two books in the trilogy are only available in ebook form.2

Sometimes, however, it’s really hard to figure out what went wrong

Over the years I’ve heard gazillions of publishers talk about books they really thought were going to go gangbusters that didn’t. Books they spent big money on promoting, that received great reviews everywhere, that had a package many considered to be gorgeous, that did not sell anywhere near expectations.

They have no idea why.

That’s why they start concocting theories about covers: never have a green cover, non-photographic covers in YA are a no-no, ditto for covers where people are laughing. I’ve heard that book titles with punctuation in them never sell, nor do novels with footnotes. That you should never launch a book in [month] because [random seasonal reason]. And so on and so forth.

There are numerous examples of books succeeding despite these supposedly insurmountable obstacles. I’m sure you can name some of them.

So Why the Fixation on Reviews?

Books don’t sell for a whole bunch of reasons but not because of bad reviews. So why are we authors so upset by them?

I suspect we fixate on reviews because they’re visible. They’re the first signs that the book we slaved over for so long is out there in the marketplace being read by people we’ve never met.

We want those people to love our creation. Not matter how hardened we are. No matter how many books we’ve already published there is always a moment of disappointment when people don’t, in fact, love our creation. There’s always a moment of Waaaaaah!!!

Egos, we’ve all got them. We all want to be loved.

Then there’s the whole magical thinking that reviews are an indication of whether we’re selling or not. Surely if the book gets several starred reviews from the major trade magazines that is a sign that the book will be a success?3 Staring fixedly at our Amazon numbers is another kind of magical thinking.

We resort to magical thinking because many authors don’t have ready access to our sales figures until we get our twice-yearly royalty statements. Even though I have many friends with access to Bookscan numbers I’ve long since learned for the sake of my sanity not to ask for my numbers. I’m better off waiting for my royalty statements because they capture all my sales, unlike Bookscan.

And, really, I mostly care how close I am to earning out.4 Does the royalty statement come with actual money or not? Yes? Then it is dancing time. No? Weeping and wailing.

Reviews have zero predictive power over whether that book will earn out or not.

Perhaps for some of us authors it feels easier to rail against reviews than to rail against our lack of distribution, or publicity, or our hideous cover, or the fact that Oprah didn’t pick our book (or whoever anoints bestsellers these days).

When we’re feeling insecure about our careers—and this happens to all writers whether they’re bestsellers or not—
it may feel like reviewers wield all the power. They certainly have the power to make us feel bad. But that’s only because we let ourselves care what some random stranger on Amazon thinks of our book. And somehow think their dislike of our book has something to do with us. Most readers aren’t thinking about the author. So why are we wasting so much time thinking about them?

We need to quit already.

Or, you know, at least restrict our whingeing to the ears of those who love us.5

  1. Sell in is the number of books a bookstore orders. Sell through is how many they actually sell. []
  2. In the USA. In Australia the entire trilogy is out of print. []
  3. Maybe. Maybe not. It does seem to be a sign that your odds are better of being shortlisted for one of the major prizes. There are several literary prizes that absolutely do increase your sales. []
  4. Though it’s been cool to see the number of ebook sales going up with every statement. And will remain cool until those numbers start going down. []
  5. Poor loved ones. How they suffer for the mistake of loving a writer. []

Pro Writer versus Pro Academic (Updated)

Hmmm, I wonder if Holly Black would be interested in editing an anthology on that topic? It’s almost as catchy as Zombies versus Unicorns. *cough*

@ronnidolorosa said that she’d “be really interested to read about your experiences in academia, and how it compares to being an author.”

I was raised by two academics. Two lovely, smart, politically engaged and engaging, argumentative and enthusiastic academics. They both have PhDs. I kind of thought everyone got a PhD when they grew up. It’s the main reason I have one. The majority of adults I knew when I was little were academics teaching and researching in universities around Australia and sometimes the world. I don’t know when I first realised there were people in the world whose jobs were not to teach and argue and write about ideas. But it was a bit of a shock.

All I ever wanted to be was a writer of stories, not of academic tomes, but I didn’t know anyone who was a full-time, professional, could-live-by-writing alone writer. Thus I didn’t believe it was possible. But I knew plenty of people who were academics and wrote on the side. They’d use their long summer holidays to write. It seemed like the ideal solution. I like reading and researching and arguing and writing. And that’s a huge part of what you do as an academic. At least so I thought.

What I hadn’t factored in—despite having lived, for many years, with actual academics working in actual universities—is that reading and researching and arguing and writing are not, in fact, the biggest part of being an academic. Administration, politics, grovelling for money in the form of applying for grants,1 and teaching are what takes up the lion’s share of most academics’ lives. I really hate administration, politics, meetings, grovelling for money, and teaching.

Okay, I don’t hate teaching. It’s just that I’m not very good at it. Let me recalibrate, I’m a good teacher if you’re enthusiastic, smart and engaged with what I’m teaching. I’m absolutely terrible if you’re not. Someone who’s only good at teaching the people who want to be taught, the people who are not struggling with the subject, is not a good teacher.

As a professional writer my life consists of writing and reading and researching.

It’s everything I loved about being an academic with almost none of the stuff I hated. There are very few meetings in my life. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had even one this year.2 The admin is a pain but not nearly as bad as when I was an academic and it’s mostly taken care of by my agent. I don’t have to write any grant applications. On those rare occasions when I teach it’s people who want to learn more about writing and/or publishing.3

Back when I was an academic money was a huge issue. Funding was going down, class sizes were getting bigger, tutorials were being phased out. It was a really depressing time to be an academic. In the many years since I quit it’s gotten worse. Money is even tighter, class sizes bigger. The morale of staff is worse than when I left. And it was pretty bad back then.

In contrast Young Adult publishing is booming and has been booming for more than a decade now.4 It’s an exciting business to be part of. Morale is mostly pretty good. Even with all the seismic shifts in publishing caused by the beginning of the ebook boom and the concurrent growth of Amazon and various forms of independent publishing. Publishing in ten years time is not going to look much like it does right now. Even so most YA writers are happy and enjoy what they do.

I mean, yes, we get angsty and doom laden, but we’re WRITERS. Writers are neurotic. However, compared to the academics I know. Well, there is no comparison.

So, no, I don’t miss the world of academia because I’m doing all the stuff I loved about it plus no ENDLESS MEETINGS.

I’m also aware that I’m incredibly lucky. The vast majority of writers of novels, no matter what they’re genre, cannot do so full time and still pay their rent etc. If not for my extraordinary luck I would probably still be an academic, writing on the side. It wasn’t really that bad. It’s only in comparison to my ridiculously fortunate life now that I’m so down on it. I’m sure when the YA boom ends and I go back to being an academic I’ll remember everything good about it.

Update: I forgot to mention that before I became a full-time novelist being an academic was BY A HUGE MARGIN the best job I’d ever had.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there are happy, content, non-angsty academics out there who get all the funding they need and teach very small classes. I’m talking only about my experiences. I only really know how things are in Australia and the USA and only at a handful of universities therein.

  1. Of all the genres I am absolutely terrible at, the grant application is right up the top. []
  2. Unless you count me and Scott over dinner and wine discussing the novels we are working on. []
  3. Occasionally a few of those people will want me to tell them that they’re geniuses and should be published without any editing or further work on their manuscripts. But even those tend to get over themselves. []
  4. I’m not stupid though I know the YA boom will end. Just as every other genre boom has ended. E.g. Horror in the eighties. []

Writing to the Market

Last week I very much meant to respond to Sam X’s comment on my post about becoming a brand versus writing what you want to write but last week was crazy busy. Plus I soon realised my thoughts were many and it was going to have to be its own post.

Here’s part of what Sam X said:

Still, I think there is a bit of a complication in wha t you wrote. “…whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.” Writing as your job does require at least a token thought to the story’s marketability, and perhaps some changes to the overall story you’re telling so as to buttress that marketability–in which case it’s not purely the invention of your imagination, but a combination of that and market concessions.

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, simply a factor that needs to be understood when critiquing stories. Yet it does take a little away from the romantic notion of simply writing what you want. But you’re a working writer: Maybe you can illuminate this for us?

What I didn’t make clear in that post was that I was largely addressing people who aren’t published yet. As it’s mostly amongst aspiring-to-be-published writers that I see these conversations taking place. I truly think it’s a total waste of time for any writer—published or not—to be worrying about whether they should concentrate on “being a brand” but it’s especially pointless for those who haven’t found their own voice and writing style. Before you’re published is the time to be experimenting and exploring and honing your craft and figuring out what kind of writer you are.1

Once you’re published, yes, there are ways in which you do have to think about the market and whether what you’re writing is commercial or not. If you write a romance with an ending in which the hero and heroine do not get together no romance imprint is going to buy it. But maybe a non-genre fiction imprint will. There could still be an editor out there who adores your book. It’s just that what you’ve written is not a romance.

Which is to say that once you’ve written your book or proposal and it’s as good as it can be is when you and your agent should start thinking about who will be a good fit for it. If it goes out and no one bites then you start thinking about whether you can change it to make it more commercial. Maybe you can engineer it so heroine and hero get together at the end and thus find a home for it at a romance house.

When I say “commercial” I simply mean “will sell”. What is or isn’t commercial is not a static thing. When I was writing Liar, which has a deeply unreliable narrator, who keeps changing her story, and is, um, prickly and is a book that does not have a clear-cut ending I was convinced it was deeply uncommercial. I worried that my publishers were going to hate it and would end the contract and demand the advance back. To date it’s my bestselling novel. So what do I know?

Zombies versus Unicorns was done as a lark. I never thought it would sell as well as it did. Anthologies notoriously don’t sell well and are more a prestige kind of publishing project. I suspect the draw of Holly Black’s name had a lot to do with ZvU‘s success. Not to mention the unbelievably great design and fine array of contributors.

My point is that no one knows what’s commercial. Not really. So if someone, even a published writer, is advising you too change x or y about your unpublished novel to make it more commercial and you feel in your gut that those changes will make the book worse? Don’t do it. So often we authors are the last person to know whether a book is commercial or not. We’re plague to all sorts of doubts and second guessing. It’s much better we get on with the writing and worry about that stuff later.

Also often people will tell you they’re passing on your book for reason x. When the real reason that they’re passing is that your book is not a strong enough example of that particular genre/storyline/whatever. If they had liked your book more than reason x would not have been a factor.

And, of course, too weird, too left-field, too unclassifiable is only one of the reasons that a good book can fail to find a publisher. More often books go unsold because there’s a glut of that particular kind of book.

When Team Human was being shopped around by our agents both Sarah and I were nervous that it wouldn’t sell because so many in the industry are convinced that the most recent wave of vampire obsession is over. And, indeed, some publishers passed on it citing that reason.2 Or that they already had too many vampires on their list already. So far Team Human has not sold in many non-English language markets. Often the reason given is that they have a vampire glut. Or that their market doesn’t like funny vampire books. Personally, I don’t think vampires will ever completely lose popularity no matter how over them editors might be. I cite this n-gram as proof of the continued demand for vampires.

It’s really hard to plan for gluts given that for most of us it takes at least six months to a year—if not longer—to write a book. Say when you started there were no dystopian books around but by the time you finished half of the shelves in the YA section were now dystopian novels and all the editors were groaning and saying, “Send me anything but a dystopia!” It sucks but there’s nothing you can do but write the very best dystopia book you can. Often there’s still space in even a saturated market for a truly excellent book about whatever the done to death thing de jour is. Just write the very best book you can.

I have twice changed a book to make it more commercial. I wanted How To Ditch Your Fairy to have a shot at being picked up by the Scholastic book club so after I had a first draft I took out all the swear words. I did this because the book had no sexual content and it skews younger than any of my other books. I reasoned that if it was what the Scholastic book club considers to be “clean” than it would also be clean enough for middle school libraries in the USA and other swearing-averse markets. Given that I had already invented slang for the book it was dead easy to get rid of any real-world swear words and replace them with invented ones. Frankly, I think it improved the book. How To Ditch Your Fairy was picked up by the Scholastic book club. I was right about it skewing younger too. Most of my fan mail about that book is from 9-14 years old.

Given that experience, when we were writing Team Human, I was insistent that we also avoid strong swearing. Again the book had no sexual content and I thought it would work for some younger readers. (Though it doesn’t skew quite as young as How To Ditch Your Fairy does.) It hasn’t been picked up by Scholastic’s book club but it still might. HTDYF had been out for over a year before it was picked up.

Contrary to what many believe, the cleaner a book is the greater its chances of being more widely sold and/or purchased by places like school libraries—especially middle school ones—and certain book clubs as well as by various retailers like Walmart and Target.3 One of the questions that librarians and teachers and parents often ask booksellers is whether or not a book is clean or suitable for younger readers. It was important to me that they be able to say yes about both those books.4

I have no problem taking out swearing if it doesn’t stuff up the book. For instance, there’s no way I would clean up Liar because that’s Micah’s voice. She wouldn’t be her if she wasn’t using real world swear words. The book I just finished the first draft of, ditto. It’s dark like Liar and skews older.5

I do know some writers who consult their agent before they start writing their next book. They run their different ideas past them and the agent will tell them which ones intrigue them most. I’ve heard of a few agents who will adamantly veto some of their clients’ ideas. My agent tells me all my ideas sound great, which is lovely, if not totally necessary in my case given my tendency to bounce around genres so much.

However, although I have written urban fantasy, science fictional, realist, comedic and not-remotely-comedic books and have just finished the first draft of an historical—every one of those books is YA. I think it would be a lot more difficult if my books were marketed to adults. But even then there are ways around a penchant for writing different genres—like using a different name for the different genres a la Nora Roberts and J. D. Robb.

Do remember though this is just my experience within my genre of YA having published books with a handful of publishers in Australia and the USA. I’m sure writers working within other genres or across them and in other countries will have had different experiences.

To answer Sam X more succinctly, thus far I have been able to write what I want to write with some minor swear word removal to make two of my books more saleable.

Who knows if that will continue? There could stop being a market for my YAs. At which point I would switch to writing books marketed at adults or at children. I’m fortunate in loving almost every genre. I’d happily switch to writing thrillers or romances or historicals or westerns or whatever. I’d have no problem with doing so under a different name if my own name developed a sales track of doom.

Just as long as I got to keep writing. And, yes, I would keep writing even if every publisher under the sun rejected my work no matter what name I wrote it under. I wrote for almost twenty years before I made my first sale. Been there, done that.

For me—like so many other writers—writing is the thing that I can’t not do.

  1. You continue to do those things after you’re published but it’s much easier to veer across genres when you haven’t sold your first book and there are no expectations. []
  2. Though remember they could also have simply not liked Team Human and being over vampires was just the excuse for passing. []
  3. Though those two have cut down massively on selling books in the last year or so. []
  4. Though, of course, there were people who did not consider HTDYF to be clean because there are gay and lesbian characters. To them I can only stare in disbelief. I will never ever pretend only straight love exists. []
  5. Yes, I did it again. I followed up a light, funny book with a nightmare stab to the gut kind of book. I am a marketing genius! Sarah, the co-writer of Team Human has been much smarter. Her next book, Unspoken, which is out in September is pretty much the perfect follow up to Team Human. Featuring another Nancy-Drew-like sleuth, who is every bit as wonderful as Mel from Team Human. If you loved Team Human, you’ll love Unspoken. And, no, that wasn’t Sarah being all calculated about the market. She got the idea for her Unspoken trilogy years before we got the idea for Team Human. []

Becoming a Brand Versus Writing What You Want to Write (Updated)

This is a discussion that comes up every so often. Is it better to do what you can to make yourself a brand name author, i.e. write books that are very similar, say like Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, or that are all set in the same world, like say, the Left Behind books, or have the same characters, like pretty much every popular crime series ever from Sherlock Holmes on. Or are you better off writing what you want to write from urban fantasy trilogies, to realist crime, to fantastical comedies, to historicals to whatever.

The argument is that you are much more likely to build an audience and keep them if your audience knows what they’re in for when they pick up one of your books and you deliver it. An author who is all over the shop in terms of genre and mood: fantasy one minute, realist the next; comedy, followed by tragically serious—a writer like that is only going to be able to build the kind of audience who doesn’t mind surprises, and will happily read across genres and moods. That is a much smaller audience.

I look around at my genre, YA, and I can tell you that argument is absolutely true. The brand names in my genre are writing books that are, mostly, recognisably like their other books. And when they write something that is very different from their regular books they don’t sell as well. They do much better with books that are, *cough*, core to their brand.1

But here’s what such discussions leave out: Most of the so-called brand name authors didn’t start out by sitting down and deciding what their “brand” would be and then writing accordingly.2 Most of them were not instant successes. Many wrote varied books before the book or series that became their brand took off. No one chooses to be a brand. It just happens.

If it were that easy than how do we explain all the series that did not succeed? I began my writing career with a trilogy. The first book, Magic or Madness, sold quite well. The two books that followed did not. Had I tried to persist in building my brand by writing more books in that series I suspect they would have sold even worse. No one was asking for more of those books, not my publisher, not my agent, no one.3

Most series do not take off. Unsurprising given that most books don’t take off either. The vast majority of us writers who have written more than one book set in the same world or telling the same story do not become brand names. Instead we watch with sinking hearts as each successive book sells in fewer numbers than the proceeding one. The sad fact is that more series get cancelled by their publishers than turn their writer into a brand name.

So if you have staked your career on writing this one kind of book over and over and no one wants that book you’re in a pretty bad place. Those writers who have lots of other books they want to write can move on from an unsuccessful series to something new and different.

Or to put it more succinctly: Very few writers become brand names. Building your career around the expectation that you will be one is kind of, um, not sensible.

So let’s scale back expectations. Let’s be realistic. When I look around me at the YA authors who I consider to be successful4 i.e. their agent is able to sell each book they write, which is to say there is a market for their books, even if it’s small compared to the big name brand writer, I see writers who have mostly written the books they want to write. Sure, for some of them that means writing all comedies, or all sf, or all fantasy, or all whatever. But that’s because that’s what they like writing and what they’re good at writing not because they are hellbent on becoming a brand.5

Most writers do not want to write books in every single genre in a wide variety of styles and modes. Most writers, like most readers, tend to stick to one or two genres. Now I know you’re all going to chime in and say, “Not me! I like all sorts of different books!” That’s awesome. I, too, am a varied reader. But we are the exceptions, not the rule. Trust me on this.

And those brand name writers? Most of them are also writing the books they want to write.

So, yeah, in the great becoming a brand-versus-writing-what-you-want-to-write debate I’m suggesting that those are not either or propositions. The first one, becoming a brand name, is an extremely unlikely hit-by-lightning thing that there’s nothing you can do to engineer. Might as well plan to win the lottery. But the second is something that you might build a career on.6

Because frankly why would you want a writing career that meant you were stuck writing novels you didn’t want to write year after year? This is such a tough business, it’s so hard to sustain a career, why would you make it any harder for yourself than it already is?

Update: Okay, I seem to have done a piss-poor job of making my point with this post. As I’m getting many responses from people saying, “Oh noes! I could never write the same book over and over again. I am doomed.” That is not what I was trying to say. So let me try again:

Most writers that we’ve heard of in all genres have had a fairly uniform body of works. Jane Austen’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, William Faulkner’s, Georgette Heyer’s, Dawn Powell’s, Sylvia Plath’s, Jackie Collins’, Stephen King’s etc. etc. Writers have particular styles and preoccupations which lead to writing particular kinds of work. They do not necessarily do this in order to build a brand but because that’s the kind of writers they are.

There also exist writers who write across genres and styles. Within my genre off the top of my head I’d name Libba Bray, M. T. Anderson, Robin Wasserman, myself. Although we’ve written mostly YA within that genre we’ve been all over the shop writing realist, fantastical, science fictional, historical.7 But we’re not delivering the same kind of book each time. We’re writing what we want to write and we’re making a living at it.

You do not have to stick to writing the same kind of books to have a successful writing career. You can write what you want to write. That’s what I do. I may never be a brand but for almost ten years now I’ve made my living as a writer.

Besides that is also what most of those authors who from the outside look like brands are doing: they are writing the books they want to write.

In other words whether you’re writing for yourself or writing as your job: write the books you want to write.

The end.

  1. Please forgive me for that phrase. Though I’m not sure I’ll be able to forgive myself. []
  2. I suspect none of them did. []
  3. Okay, except for some of the fans of the Magic or Madness trilogy, for which, BLESS YOU! []
  4. In the sense of career. Not necessarily creatively. []
  5. And occasionally when broke, they’ll ghost write books for other people. But it’s not under their own name so it doesn’t count. []
  6. Remembering that a huge percentage of writers who publish a first novel never publish a second. []
  7. I’d argue that you can also see similarities across our body of work. []

Writers & Editors

Last month I got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. Crusie thinks NOT AT ALL and I completely agree and said so, which led to a back and forth with a good editor friend of mine, Juliet Ulman, who said she rewrites her authors. I happen to know many authors who’ve been edited by Juliet and love her editorial style1 and it became clear to me that we weren’t talking about the same thing.

There were also many folks commenting on Jennifer Crusie’s blog and on twitter who were like NO ONE CAN TOUCH A WORD OF MY WRITING EVER. And I was pretty sure that we weren’t talking about the same thing either.

What I think was going on is that we all seem to mean something different by “rewriting”. So I’m going to write about what I mean by rewriting and about how I view the writer/editor relationship.

Let me start by saying: a good editor is worth their weight in whatever substance it is that you love most.

Every single one of my published books have been rigorously edited. They have been vastly improved by working with an editor. Without all those editorial interventions they would be much, much crappier.

Editors have improved my books by pointing out where the story bogged down, pointing out things that made no sense, suggesting I cut characters/scenes/story arcs. They’ve also argued passionately to see more of particular characters and story arcs. They’ve made me expand scenes, add scenes, add chapters, strengthen characters’ story arcs. They have made me rewrite the endings of several of my books many, many times until we were both happy with it.2

Editors have improved my books in ways that I’m not even thinking of now. But they have never done it by replacing my words with their words. That is what I mean by editors not rewriting my work. Every word in every novel I’ve published is there because I wanted it to be there, because I wrote it. Or because Sarah wrote it.3

Now this does not include micro edits of the “their” for “they’re” or “there” variety. I have a tendency towards misspelling my own characters’ names as Sarah Rees Brennan can attest. While working on Team Human I kept writing Frances, when I meant to write Francis. I have to be watched like a hawke!

Nor does it include editors deleting redundant words like “just” and “really” and “actually.”4 Or supplying missing words. Sometimes I type so fast words don’t make it onto the page. Or words come out as homonyms “no” for “know.” Or more bizarrely I’ll type one word but mean an entirely different word “flirt” for “razor,” “quokka” for “effulgent.”5

This kind of editing is done not only by the editor but also by the copyeditor and the proofreader. The goal is that the final book will have no such mistakes in it. Alas and alack a book with no mistakes in it is rarely if ever achieved. Best to think of those last few typos as the flaw in the Persian carpet.

I have had a few editors write their own words as a suggestion to try and get across what they want me to do with a particular passage in a book and I have had pretty much the same reaction Jennifer Crusie described. I really hate it. Get your hideous words off my book! The horror! The horror!

But most of the editors I work with don’t do that. They’re more likely to write something like: Do you really think they would be quite this passionate given that they’ve only just met? Seems a bit quick. Rather than Alfonso should say . . . Basically I want my editors to tell and not show. Those editors I’ve worked with that do show only do it rarely. Over the years I have learned to simply not see those words. My brain looks at the suggested wording and goes: Editor no like this bit. Me fix.

I hope that’s made what I mean by “rewriting” a bit clearer. But if not please demand further explication in the comments.

However, I do not believe that every word, every phrase, every sentence I write is a precious, precious thing that cannot be fixed. I think everything can be improved. SHOULD be improved. And that working with a good editor is absolutely vital in that process. However, the editor’s role is to suggest, my job is to do.

Which is why every published novel of mine has gone through multiple drafts.

In the course of the twitter discussion Peter Mattessi requested that I “mention things like whether editors should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” Peter comes from the television side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing.

The process of editing one of my novels kind of goes like this:

Editor reads sends writer editorial letter which usually focus on the big picture stuff: stuff that doesn’t make sense, pacing, character likeability etc—>
I read and make changes (where I agree with them) based on editorial letter + stuff I’ve noticed that I want to fix—>editor reads this version—>
Editor writes next ed letter which is usually pushing me further with changes I’ve already made: be less subtle. As well as finer detail and more small picture stuff: this character use the word effulgent too much, why is everyone grimacing—>
I read ed. letter and make changes I agree with + other stuff I want to embettermerate6 —>
Editor reads this version and asks for further changes or passes it along to the copy editor.

It would be lovely if Peter and/or Sarah Dollard, who is also a TV writer, could write in the comments about how that’s different from what happens to produce finished TV scripts.7

To answer Peter’s questions. Yes, I actually do think editors should be credited. But they mostly are. It’s a very rare author who doesn’t thank their editor in the acknowledgements. It helps other writers figure out who they want to work with.

What am I thoughts on the relationship of Raymond Carver to his editor, Gordon Lish? I’m not really the right person to ask because I’m not a huge fan of that kind of minimalist writing. By which I mean I have never finished a Carver story. I find them unemotional, flat and unengaging. Yeah, I know, blasphemy. However, I’ve never compared the edited-by-Lish version with the pure Carver version. So I don’t know if he improved them or not.

Personally, I would loathe working with an editor like Lish. My gut reaction is that someone having their ego that tied up with someone else’s writing is more than a bit off. From the little I have read about the relationship, basically this New Yorker article, they seemed to have a pretty dysfunctional relationship. But many, many, many people love those Carvers stories so who am I to say?

It sure is an interesting relationship.8 And there are examples, though for some reason I’m failing to think of a single one, where a male writer’s work was supposedly largely written by his wife. Or at least edited by her in a Gordon Lish kind of way. Should they have gotten credit? I would think so. Lish should probably have been credited. It’s inarguable that he had a HUGE impact on those Carver stories to the level of being a near collaborator. But, on the other hand, those stories would never have existed without Carver. None of the stories Gordon Lish wrote on his own have had any where near the impact of the Carver stories.

So, um, actually I have no idea.

In conclusion: Good editors, I love them. But don’t ever agree to changes you don’t want. They are your words, own them.

  1. I had my editor submit my one adult novel to Juliet because I’d heard such good things. It didn’t work out but I mention this because I want to make it clear how much I esteem Juliet’s editorial acumen. []
  2. Endings are the hardest part. Always. []
  3. Truly we became as one while writing Team Human. Every word in that book is our word. []
  4. No, they’re not always really redundant just most of the time. Actually. []
  5. No, I don’t know why. Brains are really weird, okay? []
  6. Yes, that is too a word! Damn you, copyeditors! []
  7. In their ample spare time, I mean. []
  8. Further to what I said above: any editor worth their salt would tell me to delete this sentence because it adds nothing. They would be correct but I’m leaving it there to make this point. My blog posts are not edited, except by me, which is seriously not enough, and that’s why they’re not as well written as my books. This post is full of redundancies. There aren’t enough commas and etc. []

Team Human as an Ebook in Australia

I’ve already had a few people ask me why Team Human is not available via iTunes. My ANZ publisher, Allen & Unwin, does not yet have any books available for sale via iTunes but they’re working on it.

In the meantime my publisher says that Team Human is available for Apple devices via the Kindle app and the Kobo app.

Or you can purchase Team Human through Booki.sh where you can buy the ebook AND support your local independent bookshop at the same time! Readers whose local indie is Gleebooks (Sydney), Readings (Melbourne), Fullers (Hobart), Mary Ryan (North NSW/Qld), Avid Reader (Brisbane), or The Turning Page (Blue Mountains) can buy Team Human via the links provided.

I hope that helps.

I’ll Know I’ve Made it as a Writer When . . .

. . . I finish a whole manuscript.

. . . I learn how to rewrite that whole manuscript.

. . . I get five/ten/fifteen/one hundred/etc rejection letters from real-life agents.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book again. And again. And again. Etc.

. . . I get a request for the whole manuscript from a real-life agent.

. . . I get an agent.

. . . I get five rejections from publishers.

. . . I get ten rejections from publishers. (Would you believe twenty rejections? How about thirty? One hundred? One thousand? One million?)

. . . I start writing my second/third/fourth/fifth/etc book despite the fact that the first/second/third/fourth etc book hasn’t sold yet.

. . . I get an offer from a publisher.

. . . the deal is announced in Publishers Lunch.

. . . I get my first real editorial letter.

. . . I have my first hissy fit about my first editorial letter.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book.

. . . I get my second real editorial letter.

. . . I have my second hissy fit about my second editorial letter.

. . . I knuckle down and rewrite the book. Again.

. . . (And repeat. Or not. Depending.)

. . . I get my first copyedit.

. . . I have my first hissy hit about my first copyedit. (Only robots speak without contractions! “Me and LJ” is how my character would say it NOT “LJ and I” because my character is not the FREAKING QUEEN OF FREAKING ENGLAND!)

. . . I get my first ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of my very own book with my name on the front and EVERYTHING. Oh my Elvis! It’s real, people. Book by me! *faints*

. . . I get my first page proofs and am overwhelmed by the urge to completely rewrite everything and make the book, you know, ACTUALLY GOOD!! (Also notice that I use the word “actually” way too much and that is BY NO MEANS the only word I use WAY TOO MUCH. Wonder if I have also overused CAPS and italics and exclamation marks!!! Consider getting publisher to cancel book. Actually.)

. . . I get my first good review.

. . . I get my first bad review.

. . . I get my first meh review.

. . . I am enraged by an eleven year old who enjoyed my book but wished it was as good as [redacted]’s bestselling piece of [redacted] about [redacted].

. . . I get my first box full of my own finished actually TRULY REALLY book what I have written MYSELF!!!

. . . I open said book on a page with a typo of “actualy” and the CAPS and italics in the wrong places.

. . . I realise that it is the last book in the entire world I wish to read.

. . . I go to my local bookshop and there is my book in a real actual book shop.

. . . I get a query from my publisher wondering where my next book is.

. . . I miss a deadline.

. . . I miss two/three/four/five/etc deadlines.

. . . I get my first query from Hollywood which goes nowhere.

. . . I am sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I bitch and moan about being sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I am not sent on tour.

. . . I bitch and moan about not being sent on tour to promote my book.

. . . I get my very first fan letter. Someone read and enjoyed my book enough to write to me! Best. Day. Ever.

. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so moving.

. . . the fan letters I get make me cry because they are so illiterate.

. . . I get more fan letters than I could ever possibly answer.

. . . I become a New York Times bestseller.

. . . I am disappointed when my next book only reaches no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.

. . . I am not a New York Times bestseller.

. . . I think about killing those entitled bastards who whinge about their books only getting to no. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list.

. . . I quit my dayjob.

. . . I can live off my advances.

. . . I can live off my royalties and don’t have to sell books on proposal anymore.

. . . I have to live in a garret and eat ramen in order to keep writing.

. . . all my friends are writers.

. . . I don’t have to hang out with writers anymore.

. . . I win the Nobel Prize.

. . . I do an event and half the crowd is dressed up as characters from my books.

. . . one of my books is optioned to be made into a movie.

. . . my book becomes a movie.

. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to complain about how Hollywood destroyed it.

. . . my book is made into a movie and I get to go to all the Hollywood parties for it and stand in the corner because no one’s interested in talking to a writer. Even a nobel-prize winning New York Times bestseller who can live off their own royalties.

. . . all my books are optioned to be made into movies.

. . . all my books are made into movies.

. . . my first book is remaindered.

. . . all my books except the most recent are remaindered.

. . . I fire my first agent.

. . . I move to a different publisher.

. . . even people who don’t read know my name.

. . . only people who read my genre know my name.

. . . only some of the people who read my genre know my name.

. . . I have to change my name and genre in order to keep being published.

. . . I write a book that I am truly happy with.

Last Day of 2010

This is my annual post where I sum up what happened in my professional life in that year and look ahead to what’s going to happen in 2011. I do this so I can have a handy record that I can get to in seconds. (Hence the “last day of the year” tag.)

For reasons I’ll explain in more detail below (but are mostly I was not online much) 2010 was ridiculously productive for me. I now have more than 100,000 words of my 1930s novel. Most of it written this year. And I declare those words to be good.1 I have not enjoyed writing a book this much in I do not know how long. I never want to finish. Which is fortunate because I suspect that I’m not even half way finished. Likely not even a quarter. Possibly not even a tenth. Ooops. I may well not EVER finish. But, hey, at least I’m having fun.

For those of you who actually like to read words I write do not fear! I also wrote (with someone sekrit) a whole other sekrit (but hopefully not for much longer) project about which you will hear much next year when we’re allowed to tell you. Writing it was just about the best fun ever. I adore collaborating it turns out. Or maybe I just got lucky with the smartest, wittiest, fastest-writingiest collaborator of all time. Whatever the reason the two of us finished that project and sold it in two different countries.2 And now we get to do it all over again. Colour me, excited.

Such a productive year was particularly wonderful because in 2009 I stopped writing for many months. In that year all I did was rewrite Liar, a few thousand words of the 30s book, and about the same on two other unfinished projects. It was my least productive year since I became a professional writer and it scared me. For a while there I was worried I wouldn’t write again. So, phew! Despite annoying injuries 2010 has been my most happy and productive writing year ever. Here’s hoping 2011 will bring more of the same.

But this is my what-happened-in 2010 report, I shall continue:

Books out in 2010

This year I had only one new book: Zombies Versus Unicorns which I put together with Holly Black. It was published in the US (Simon & Schuster) and Australia (Allen & Unwin) with one of the most perfect and gorgeous covers any book of mine has ever had. I cried tears of joy when I first saw it. Josh Cochran is a genius and so are the design team at Simon & Schuster. The book has had wonderful reviews and even won an award for the audio edition and sold way better than anyone expected.

It’s a publishing truism that anthologies don’t sell.3 Well, this one sure does. Yay! Thank you so much for reading ZvU, buying it, and telling your friends and librarians about it. Much appreciated.

There’s also an audio edition by Brilliance, which features me and Holly reading the introductions. Well, sort of reading, we got more and more ad-libb-y as the day went on. Let’s just say we had a great time. I would happily record audio books with Holly and the Brilliance team whenever they want.

ZvU also sold into France (Pocket Jeunesse), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag) & Brazil (Editora Record).

Liar came out in paperback in North America. It was also published for the first time in Denmark (Hoest), France (Gallimard), Italy (Salani) & the Netherlands (Mynx). I had the great pleasure of meeting the Gallimard Jeunesse team in Paris and they were all wonderful and work in the most gorgeous building complex I’ve ever seen. They even have a sekrit garden!

There will also be editions of Liar in Brazil (Editora Record), Germany (Bertelsmann Jugendbuch Verlag), Taiwan (Sharp Point Press), Turkey (Artemis, an imprint of Alfa Yayin Grubu) and Spain (Ediciones Versatil).

Reception of Liar

It’s been brought to my attention that some people don’t feel Liar has gotten the recognition it deserves. While it’s lovely that people feel passionately about the book I want to point out that Liar‘s gotten a tonne of recognition. Liar was more widely reviewed than any of my other books and almost all of those reviews were extremely positive. It also made a gazillion different best book of the year lists. Liar was shortlisted for eleven different awards and won four of them:

  • the Davitt Award for best Young Adult Crime Novel 2010, which particularly thrilled me because I deliberately wrote Liar as a crime novel and the Davitt Award people were the first to notice,
  • the WA Premier’s Literary Award, Young Adult Prize 2009. In Australia the Premier’s awards are a huge, huge deal and even come with a big old fat cheque,
  • the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Christina Stead Award 2009, which is an award for best novel of the year regardless of genre—Liar was the first YA novel to win. I could not be prouder,
  • and the fourth award has not yet been officially announced but the 2009 Carl Brandon Kindred Award. When I found out I screamed. I think the wording of the award will explain why this means so much to me: “The Carl Brandon Kindred Award is given to any work of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; nominees may be of any racial or ethnic group.”

So there you have it Liar is by a country mile my most successful book by whatever metric of success you want to use. It’s the best reviewed, won the most awards, generated the most fanmail and discussion,4 and has sold better than any of my other novels in Australia and the USA. On top of that it’s a book I’m proud I wrote.5 I’m stoked.

Read These Books!

My favourite YA book of 20106 was Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves. Dark, weird, quirky, full of unexpected turns, fabulous world-building, and gorgeous writing. It’s not like anything else I’ve read. Well, other than her second book, A Slice of Cherry, which comes out in 2011. I highly recommend both.

Onto next year:

Books out in 2011

    The paperback edition of Zombies versus Unicorns

7

and, um, nothing else . . .

That’s right for the first time since 2005 I have no new book out. But I promise you there will be something new (see above about my sekrit project) in 2012 and in 2013. Truly.

My Silence this Year

You might have noticed that this is my first post in six months. For someone who used to blog every day that’s a huge change. A weird one. Yes, I do miss blogging. No, this is not the beginning of me blogging frequently again.8 I won’t be blogging much for the foreseeable future. Sorry. But thank you so much all of those who wrote to let me know how much you miss this blog. You made me all teary, you did. As did you lovely people I met at ZvU events this year who told me ditto. Bless!

I spent the year dealing first with an acute injury that kept me from writing but that healed relatively quickly. Then I discovered that I had RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) i.e. shooting pains in my arms and neck because of having typed a vast deal for about thirty years.9 I still have RSI. I cannot type for more than twenty minutes at a time or more than four hours a day without pain. I spent 2010 learning how to deal with it.

I tried many, many, many different things but here’s what worked for me:

RSI management:

  • My computer is for writing novels. I only tweet or blog or IM or email or any other non novel-writing keyboard activity on days when I don’t write. I also make sure I have at least one or two days a week completely away from the computer.
  • Most days the internet is switched off on my computer. Ah. The calm and ease of concentration with it gone. I honestly don’t miss it.
  • I am very strict about writing only in twenty minute bursts with stretching in between and not for more than four hours a day.
  • I use an ergonomic split key board, two trackballs with writst rests—one for my left hand and one for my right, my screen is at eye level, and I sit on an exercise ball forcing me to use my core muscles at all times.
  • Weekly massage and physical therapy. Accupuncture has also helped. I have tried other therapies but those are the ones that have given me the best results.
  • I work out five times a week with a trainer.10
  • I do pilates once or twice a week.

So, yes, I am doing much better than I was—most importantly I’m able to write—but it’s a continuing thing for which there is no magic cure. I hope those of you at the beginning of your writing life pay attention and start developing good habits now before permanent damage is done. I wish I had! /lecture

Being offline a great deal of the time does mean I’m harder to contact than I was. My apologies. If you wish to contact me the best way to do so is still via email. If I don’t get back to you and you deem it urgent contact my agent, Jill Grinberg. (Her details are in the automatic reply.)

In conclusion

This time last year my writing was not going well. I was in a dither about what to write next and was working on four books at once. Obviously, see above, I concentrated on the 30s novel, which is not finished, and the sekrit project, which is.

I said my goal was to be happy writing and I was. That’s my goal for this year too. And for the rest of my life. I declare it to be a most excellent goal. I commend it to you!

Thanks everyone who wrote me letters of support and letters about my writing this year. Those letters were wonderful. I treasure them and I’m very sorry I haven’t been able to respond. I don’t think I’ll ever stop being moved by the different responses people have to my work.11

I hope 2011 shapes up beautifully for all of us.12

Happy new year!

  1. I’m sure when I re-read them I’ll be less thrilled but right now I think they’re fabulous. I’ll stick with that feeling, thanks. []
  2. Well, our agents did. Thank you, Jill! []
  3. Take that, smelly publishing truisms. I bet green covers aren’t the kiss of death either. []
  4. And, no, I’m not counting discussion generated by the cover controversy. []
  5. I don’t care what anyone says I think that’s the most important thing of all. []
  6. Not written by a friend or husband of mine. []
  7. And this was not, in fact, published in 2011. Current rumours are that it will be out April 2012. []
  8. You do not want to know how many days it took me to write this. []
  9. This is a very common condition. I know gazillions of writers in the same boat. []
  10. Yeah, I’m one of those people. Sorry! []
  11. Yes, many of your letters made me all teary. What can I say? I’m a sook. []
  12. Even the Australian cricket team. Not that I’m holding my breath on that one . . . []

Guest Post: Bernice McFadden on the Writing Life

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

I do not know Bernice McFadden, but when she wrote to me about possibly doing an exchange of blog posts, I decided to invite her to guest post here because I have been hearing wonderful things about Sugar for years, and because her story is both unique and very common. Many starry-eyed wannabe and debut authors seem to imagine that all you have to do is get your first novel published and then rose petals will descend from on high and you will llive the glorious life of an author forever. Sadly, not so much. Even if you manage to write and publish a second novel (which most first novelists don’t) there’s no guarantee of a career. Even if your books receive great critical acclaim and are bestsellers—nothing is guaranteed. Publishing is a fickle, cruel and deeply unfair business as the wonderful post below amply illustrates. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.

– – –

Bernice L. McFadden is the national bestselling author of six award wining, and critically acclaimed novels. The classic Sugar is celebrating its 10th anniversary in print. When it was first published in 2000, Sugar was hailed by Terry McMillan as “One of the most thought provoking novels I’ve read in years.” Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, called her sophomore release, The Warmest December, “Searing and expertly imagined.” Her sixth novel, Nowhere is a Place, was chosen by The Washington Post as one of The Best Books of 2006. McFadden has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, twice short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Literary Award and is a two-time recipient of the Fiction Honor Award from the BCALA. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter R’yane Azsa where she is at work on her next novel.

Bernice says:

This mystical, magical life of mine began on September 26th, 1965 in Brooklyn, New York and then it began again exactly two years later to the day on a stretch of highway between Michigan and Ohio. It was there in that I was involved in a near fatal car accident. I always cite the day as a turning point in my life. I was on the brink of death, teetering on that invisible line that separates the here and the hereafter, floating in that white light our ancestors inhabit. I believe that during that ethereal moment I was given an assignment, a purpose—a gift—and then sent back.

For me the process of writing is similar to channeling—I am not only of the story, but often find myself in the story experiencing it—even if only from the sidelines.

I won’t deny that some part of what I write comes from my own imagination, but I do feel that at least 80 percent of what I pen is being shared with me by people who have been dead and buried for years.

Many of my previous novels have historical references, but Glorious is the first, purely authentic historical novel I’ve written. I so enjoyed the feeling of fulfillment that I experienced creating a story that bore witness to history, that I have started another one, entitled Gathering of Waters.

For me, a great story provokes the heart of the reader, causing them to question what they thought they knew, and/or how they thought they felt about a certain place and/or people. I believe that Glorious does just that.

While all of my books hold a special place in my heart, I have a special relationship with this, my newest novel, for on reason in particular. The road Glorious traveled was almost identical to the journey my debut novel, Sugar, took a decade earlier. A book that naysayer’s claimed had no audience, Sugar received 73 rejections letters—Glorious received about forty and with that, publishing declared my career to be dead, but I knew different.

Back in 1999 I told myself that If I did not have a publisher for Sugar by the time my birthday rolled around, I would self-publish. But the universe stepped in and in February of that year, a literary agent took the project on and within a week I had a two-book deal.

Between 2000 to 2008 I wrote and published a number of books to critical acclaim, but because the books were marginalized, my sales numbers began to slip and I soon found myself without a publishing deal.

I had to begin from scratch.

In January 2009 I repeated the promise I made to myself in 1999—“If I do not have a publisher by the time my birthday rolls around, I will self-publish this book.” And once again the universe stepped in. But this time the experience was mystical in a way that not even I could have conjured up.

A significant portion of Glorious takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. In the book I mention literary icon Nella Larsen, I also thank her, along with Zora Neale Hurston, in the acknowledgements section of the book. It was Nella Larsen’s grave I went to visit just days before I received the email from Akashic Books, stating that they would be more than happy to publish Glorious.

You see . . . everything that should be, will be.

Like I said, my life is a mystical, magical one . . .

Writer as Career v Writer as Identity

Tessa Kum is a wonderful writer. She does not write full-time. She has not had any novels published. Like the vast majority of writers she finds time to write at the edges of her paying job. She knows, however, many career writers and sometimes winds up in conversations where they tell her what a real writer is:

Various people at WFC (World Fantasy Convention) told me what it is necessary to achieve in order to be a ‘writer’. You must make this amount of money per year from your writing, or you must sell this many stories, or you must be able to live solely from your earnings as a writer. Most of these people shot me down when I disagreed. Perhaps, “a writer writes,” came across as naïve.

There was some confusion, I think, in what was being discussed. Writer as career versus writer as identity. Choosing to write with an exterior goal in mind versus the act of writing. I have harped on enough already about my relationship with fiction writing. I write because my mind is wired that way. Anything that looks like a burgeoning career is an afterthought (and, increasingly, an accident).

That confusion happens a great deal. The two conversations—one about writing as identity and the other about writing as a career—are very different. So different that I have come to use two different terms for them. When I’m talking about writer as identity I (try to remember to) use the term “writer.” When I’m talking writer as career I (try to remember to) use the term “author” or “novelist.”

I have been a writer since I first learned how as a small child. I have been an author since I sold my first novel. There was a thirty year gap between the two. During the time that I was a writer-not-an-author I wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, and beginnings of novels, and two novels. That writing was a huge part of who I was. When I didn’t write I was miserable.1 When I was writing a lot I was joyous.

If my career ended tomorrow and all my publishers stopped publishing my work I would not stop writing. Like Tessa, I’m one of those people for whom writing words is the cornerstone of my sense of self. When I’m not able to write words down for any length of time I’m not sure I know who I am.

Not being published would not stop me writing. Which does not mean I cannot be stopped. As mentioned earlier I’ve been battling an injury that’s put a crimp on writing time. You can read about Tessa Kum’s much worse injury—RSI in her hands—over at her blog. I strongly encourage you to do so. Click on this link and go back to the beginning of her “hands” posts. It’s a very moving account of her very difficult journey with bonus happy ending! The mere act of writing can lead to debilitating injury. Almost every writer I know has had to battle various forms of RSI. The good news is that in many cases there are solutions. I know lots of writers whose RSI has been cured or at least lessened.

Writing as a career can be brought to an end by many different factors almost all of which are outside our control. No switching to trackballs or writing standing up or working out or going to pilates has been able to ressurect a blighted publishing career. Though sometimes a change of name or genre can do the trick.

That’s why it’s always been so important to me to keep my sense of myself as a writer separate from my career as a novelist. All I have to do to believe in myself as a writer is to write the best I can. If I depended on getting published for that then my sense of myself is at the mercy of other people. Sure, I’m published now, but I wasn’t for twenty years and who knows what the future will bring. Not all writers get to have careers as writers. Not all writers who have careers have particularly long careers. I know of people who’ve published one book and never had another one accepted.

If I depended on all the bibs and bobs that are tied up with a career as a novelist—good reviews, accolades, awards, big advances—to feel good about myself, well, I’d be lost. That stuff doesn’t mean anything. Emily Dickinson was not published during her lifetime. The early critical reaction to William Faulkner was not particularly good. He’s now considered one of the most important USian writers. Jim Thompson is now considered one of the great crime writers of the twentieth century. Not so when he was alive. Patricia Highsmith’s critical standing in her own country is much, much, much greater now than it was when she was alive. And so it goes.

You are the best judge of your worth, not publishers or award committees or your fans or anyone else. If you feel good about your writing then you’re golden. Even if you don’t you’re still good—as long as you’re writing.

All it takes to be a writer is to write. A career as a writer is a whole other thing. Don’t get them confused.

  1. Hello, HSC year. []

How to Get Published? Don’t Ask Me

There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2

Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?

Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.

So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.

Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.

That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.

I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.

I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and brand new YA authors and from those on the verge of being published.

  1. Before you yell at me for this statement you should know that I spent twenty years trying to break into mainstream publishing. I know how it feels. Also very few of those unpublished writers are bitter about it and decide that the big publishers are evil. Most suck it up and keep trying. []
  2. No, the way to break into YA is not to publish short stories first. That may apply to science fiction (though not nearly as much as it used to) but there is no YA short story market except for anthologies that you don’t get invited to submit to you unless you’re already published. I got my first anthology invitation after having three novels published. []

Guest Post: Ask the Alien Onions

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest bloggers are two Allen & Unwin editors. Allen & Unwin publish me in my home country1 and I think they are absolutely wonderful. One of the two editors might even be my editor there. They are based in Melbourne2 and have generously said that they’re happy to take questions. You could ask them what a design brief is for instance. For contrast I recommend you also read USian editor, Alvina Ling’s post and the comments, to get a sense of the different approaches to editing childrens & YA books in the two countries. Keep in mind that Alvina works for a very big US publisher, Little, Brown. Allen & Unwin is a much smaller operation.3

– – –

The Alien Onions say:

Every day is different at the House of Onion. Different, yet the same. Every day is all about the business of editing, publishing and championing fabulous books for children and teenagers. Books we are very proud to publish. Including the extremely funny How to Ditch Your Fairy and the incredibly brilliant Liar.
 
The process of taking a book from manuscript to wonderful shiny new book on the shelf has many stages. In order to demystify this process somewhat, we have been posting an occasional series on our blog Alien Onion entitled What do Editors Do All Day. We have tried to accommodate those who thrive on visual learning as well as those who have a preference for text-based information acquisition.

So far our series has covered copy-editing and structural editing. Stay tuned for future entries on design briefing, blurb writing, correction checking and cake eating.
 
Today for our guest post on Justine’s blog we are providing a different kind of insight into life at the House of Onion. A sneak peek into the days of two of the Alien Onions whose roles in the House are different, yet the same.
 
ANY GIVEN FRIDAY at the HOUSE OF ONION
  
Susannah
 
7.45: Leave house, walk to tramstop reading excellent MS4 on iPhone.
7.47: Narrowly avoid lamppost.
7.50-8.00: Wait for tram. Spy on reading material of stylish lady waiting nearby. Spy on shoes of stylish lady waiting nearby.
8.01: Hop on tram, find seat (miracle!), continue reading MS.
8.20: Arrive at work. Discover work keys not in bag. Chastise self.
8.21-8.55: Sit on front step and read excellent MS on iPhone until colleague arrives with keys. Praise iPhone and colleague. Praise MS to colleague.
8.56-9.09: Read excellent MS on iPhone while waiting for computer to boot up.
9.10:  Receive coffee delivery from tall designer. Praise tall designer.
9.11-11.00: Copyedit, Copyedit, copyedit.5
11.03: Congratulate self on being excellent and efficient copyeditor.
11.05: Ask for opinion from colleagues on recalcitrant sentence.
11.10: Copyedit.6
11.15: Scramble to find the per-unit cost of a recently reprinted book so the Rights Department know if they can make a special overseas sale.
11.20: Copyedit.
11.25: Give opinion (solicited) to colleagues about matt lamination versus gloss and how it will effect the colour of already dark artwork.
11.35: Copyedit.
11.37: Give opinion (unsolicited) to colleague on e-book revolution. Ask opinion from colleague on same.
11.40: Copyedit.
11.45: Stare out window. (Where I can just catch a glimpse of the light towers of the MCG. That’s the Melbourne Cricket Ground for you USians. Where they play the cricket, you understand.) Chastise self.
11.47-12.30: Copyedit, copyedit, copyedit.
12.31-12.50: Eat lunch. Noodle around on favourite kid lit blogs (also Cakewrecks). Formulate an idea for Alien Onion post.
12.56: Advances of picture book arrive in reception. Squeal. Gallop downstairs.
12.57-1.20: Rip through 17 layers of packaging to reveal advances. Squeal. Admire. Congratulate self. Gallop upstairs to show publisher. Squeal, admire, congratulate selves. Ring author. Squeal down phone. Congratulate author.
1.21: Return to desk. Too het up for copyediting.
1.22-2.00: Write design brief for YA cover.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Update publicity/advertising/marketing copy for three books.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Sigh with relief that no books have to be sent to the printer today.
4.03: Panic that three books have to be sent to the printer next Friday.
4.04: Keep panicking.
4.05: Argue with tall designer over the relative merits of hyphenating a word at the end of a line of text and thus making it difficult to read, versus keeping word whole and having too much white space in the line.
4.10: Reach compromise with tall designer.
4.11: Read email reminding everyone that 4.15 on Friday afternoon is a good time to archive some of that paperwork from now-published books.
4.12: Look at towering piles of paperwork.
4.13: Place head on desk.
4.15-5.10: Resign self to Fridayafternoonitis and resume reading excellent manuscript. Do internal happy dance.
5.11: Confer with colleagues about readiness to downtools and have a small glass of wine.
5.11 & 30 seconds: Retrieve wine and glasses while colleague emails office.
5.15-? : Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
Eventually head to tram stop, hop on tram and read excellent MS all the way home.

 
 
 
Jodie
 
7.45: Look up from laptop rested on knees to discover it is well-past time to stop checking emails and GET OUT OF BED. Chastise self. Continue with email management.
8.01: Narrowly avoid tripping over pile of unread ms beside bed.
8.41: Arrive at station. Discover train not due for ten minutes. Procure caffeination from conveniently located coffee emporium.
8.52: Lean against train doors, juggling coffee and e-book reading device (which is MUCH easier to juggle than coffee and unwieldy ms—praise Mothership for facilitating test-drive of e-book reading device).
9.12: Walk through Fitzroy Gardens enjoying lovely morning while making mental to-do list.
9.22: Arrive at office. Transcribe list of to-do items into notebook while computer boots up.
9.27: Consider list. Hyperventilate. Highlight in orange items that truly need to be completed today. Hyperventilate.
9.30: Refine blurb for graphic novel design brief. Compose email to designer explaining both design brief and why so many elements of design brief are still to-be-confirmed.
9.45: Save design brief email as draft in hope that to-be-confirmed items are confirmed by afternoon.
9.46: Consider next item on list. Hyperventilate. Compose replies to backlog of emailed author enquiries instead. Save replies as drafts to allow thinking time.
11.20: Respond to Rights colleague about request from Korean magazine for editorial article to accompany Korean publication of book.
11.25: Solicit opinions about the matt lamination. Ruminate on responses.
11.30: Check over contract to ensure all details of accepted offer are correct before sending to agent.
11.37: Engage with colleague, who has taken up residence in comfortable chair in office, about imminent e-book revolution.
11.40: Return to contract checking.
11.46: Catch sight of to-be-read ms pile. Try to keep guilt at bay.
11.47: Consider second coffee. Will tall designer to have second-coffee craving too.
11.49: Send draft-agreement email to agent.
11.50-12.48: Open New Book Notes template to complete so assistant can enter details of three new books into production database. Become distracted by recollection of MS number one. Email author to gush about brilliant, heart-wrenching ms. Save New Book Notes as draft.
12.49: Email colleague to say she is genius and should upload clever, funny Alien Onion post immediately.
12.50-12.55: Check next item on list. Hyperventilate. Open Publishing Proposal template and compose pitch for fabulous picture book ms to be presented to publishing acquisitions team. Save as draft.
12.56 : Hear squeal from colleague’s office. See colleague gallop downstairs. Hope colleague doesn’t trip.
12.57: Catch sight of ms to-be-rejected pile. Fail to keep guilt at bay.
12.59-1.03: Admire colleague’s GORGEOUS brand new advance copy of picture book. Squeal over endpapers.
1.03-2.00: Return to desk. Consider pros and cons of publishing fabulous picture book proposal while eating lunch. Do costing for fabulous new picture book proposal. Hyperventilate. Open PDF to reacquaint self with fabulousness of picture book proposal. Do happy dance. Complete Publishing Proposal and send to publisher colleague for comment before distribution to wider team.
2.05: CAKE CAKE CAKE!
2.20-4.00: Check over long-lead information for October 2010 books. Meet with editor to hand over ms for February 2011. Relay editorial discussion with author so far, enthuse about vision for book, confirm specifications and suggest cover ideas. Confer with colleague about titles to be pitched at Bologna Book Fair.
4.01: Wonder if it’s wine-time yet.
4.02: Check in with editor about progress of three books scheduled to go to the printer next Friday.
4.03: Confirm specifications for exciting new box set project.
4.05: Send replies to authors after adding ideas that have percolated over day.
4.15: Ignore email reminder about archiving.
4.15-5.10: Open New Book Notes template with aim of completing notes for second and third new book projects before overwhelming Fridayafternoonitis sets in. While writing pitch for new teen fiction, get distracted by recollection of how good ms is. Do happy dance. Save New Book Notes as draft. Congratulate tall designer on short-listings in Book Design Awards (Link is pdf).
5.11: Confer with colleague about readiness to downtools and have small glass of wine.
5.11: Email office to inform all that it’s time to celebrate successes (or drown sorrows) by gathering in reception with conveniently chilled wine.
5.15-6.30: Drink delicious cold wine, talk delicious shop, trade delicious gossip, moan about less-than-delicious printing error, enthuse about delicious authors, smell delicious vanilla beans that colleague has ordered on the internet which have been delivered vacuum-packed.
6.30: What happens after 6.30 on a Friday stays after 6.30 on a Friday . . .

  1. Which is why they say lovely things about my books. []
  2. You can tell from the frequent mention of trams. Sydney is tram-less alas. Also the mention of the MCG. Here in Sydney we have the SCG. Both are most excellently wonderful places. If I had a view of the SCG from my office I would get no work done. I have a view of the lights of the SCG from our deck and that’s bad enough. []
  3. Just reading the two posts you’ll notice terminology differences such as in Australia a “blurb” is what they call “cover copy” in the US. In the US a “blurb” is a quote recommending the book from a reviewer or author that appears on the book jacket. []
  4. Manuscript. []
  5. *GASP* ON SCREEN? Yes on screen. Always on screen. On screen is my friend. *Drowns out cries of, ‘The horror the horror’ with the efficient clacking of the keyboard.* []
  6. Clearly, this is a copyediting day. Anytime the word ‘copyedit’ appears in this timetable, it could be replaced on any given day by: structural edit, structural edit, structural edit, or check corrections, check corrections, check corrections, or meetings, meetings, meetings, or photo research, or blurb writing, or permissions chasing, or proof checking, or manuscript reading, or author/illustrator phoning/emailing. You get the idea. []

Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

– – –

Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

Guest Post: Ask Editor Alvina

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have an editor, Alvina Ling, who’s more than happy to take your questions about her job of editing. Remember, that she’s writing specifically about what it’s like to work in publishing in the USA. The job of editing is different in different countries. I’m hoping to be able to bring you a post by some Australian editors to give you a sense of some of those differences. Enjoy today’s wonderfully informative post.

– – –

Alvina Ling is a Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she has worked for over ten years. She has also been a bookseller for Barnes and Noble, and interned at the Horn Book and in the children’s room of the New York Public Library. She edits children’s books for all ages, from picture books to young adult novels, with some nonfiction mixed in. Some of the books she has edited include Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin; Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young; The Curious Garden by Peter Brown; Eggs by Jerry Spinelli, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, Geektastic by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci, and the upcoming Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey (April). She can be found at her blogs bluerosegirls and bloomabilities as well as her twitter feed.

My job as a children’s book editor

Hi all! I’m honored to be a guest blogger here. Justine has asked me to give you folks an idea of what the job of a children’s book editor entails. Warning: this is not going to be a short post. But I do hope it will be an informative one.

I’d say the job of a children’s book editor consists mainly of:

Emailing, project management, acquisition of book projects, meetings, preparing for meetings, cheerleading, reading, selling, networking, juggling, negotiating, more emailing. Oh yeah—and editing.

Basically, the role of an editor in terms of the publishing process is that of a project manager, with books being the “project.” Publishers generally publish their books according to lists. Little, Brown has two lists a year: Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. I generally handle five to eight titles per list, or ten to sixteen per year. As the editor, I’m involved every step of the way. I also think of the editor as being a juggler—we have to keep multiple projects moving at the same time. And if you imagine juggling objects that change each time they reach your hands, that’s kind of what the publishing process is like. For example, we review a first draft of a manuscript, and then a second, and then a third, and eventually a final draft. Then it goes to copyediting where it changes again. Then it goes to Design and Production and it changes again. I review each stage of the project until we end up with the final book, working closely with copyediting, design, and production. My duties also include things such as writing catalog and jacket copy, presenting my books at Sales meetings, coordinating with marketing and publicity, and in general just being the go-to person for my titles.

Right now, I’m working on editing the novels on my Spring/Summer 2011 list, while at the same time reviewing 1st-pass pages (this is when the book is designed and typeset so it looks like the finished book will look like) of novels on my Fall/Winter 2010 list. I’m also reviewing color proof of my Fall/Winter 2010 picture books, and manuscripts and sketches for my Spring/Summer 2011 picture books. And while I’m doing all of this, I’m reading submissions and looking to acquire books for future lists.

If you’re curious about what my typical workday is like, check out this blog post.

Okay, are you back? I hope that didn’t make you too tired.

I’d like to talk a little bit more about the two jobs of an editor that everyone knows about, the two roles that are perhaps the most “glamorous.” The first is the acquiring of books, and the second is the actual editing of books.

How I acquire a book:

Little, Brown is a closed house, which means that we only accept agented submissions. However, I’ll also sometimes approach authors directly—for example, if I’m a fan of an adult author I may write to him or her and ask if they’ve ever wanted to write a children’s book. I may write to journalists who have written an article I’ve liked. I might also pitch ideas to established authors that I want to work with (an example of this is the project I recently acquired from Barry Lyga, I HUNT KILLERS. Read more about this book here.) I’ll also go to writers’ conferences and invite the conference-goers to submit to me. But mainly I’m continually getting to know agents and making sure they know my taste in books so they’ll send the appropriate submissions to me.

So, let’s say I read something I love and want to acquire—I’ll need to bring it to our editorial meeting to get additional editorial reads. If it gets positive reads, then it also needs to be supported by our editorial director (for novels) or editor-in-chief (for picture books) before it goes to our acquisitions meeting. This is the meeting run by our publisher and attended by all the directors—Sales, Marketing, Publicity, School and Library Marketing, and so on. Sure, sometimes I pine for the old days when editors can decide on their own if they want to acquire a book (and this certainly is still the case at some publishing houses, although it’s rare), but I do think there are advantages to this so-called “Publishing by Committee.”

There are a lot of materials that have to be prepared for this meeting a week in advance, including a profit and loss report (P&L—basically shows us if we’d make money if we publish the book), our cover letter with a summary of the project and my pitch, selling handles, competitive titles, etc. It can take my assistant and me anywhere from two hours to days to prepare the materials for this meeting. I also spend about an hour the day of the meeting preparing for how I’m going to present the project, writing down my “speech” and key points. I try to anticipate what the objections might be to a project and be prepared to counter them.

At the acquisitions stage, I always have two hats on: my editorial hat, and my sales hat. Because projects are never completely ready for publication at acquisitions stage, I have to make sure that the committee understands my vision for the project. I’ll oftentimes include some basic editorial notes with the proposal so they can see the types of things I hope to work with the author on before publication. In terms of my sales hat, I try to come up with a sales pitch, like someone would pitch a TV show or movie. A couple of real pitches I’ve made for books are “Juno meets Stargirl” (SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick, pubbing in May) and “Donnie Darko meets Charlie Kaufman meets the Matrix.” (FADE TO BLUE by Sean Beaudoin) I also pitched WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON by Grace Lin (which just won the Newbery Honor—yay!) as the Chinese Wizard of Oz.

I also have to think about things like, “where would this be shelved in the store?” and “who is the audience?” I try to think of as many selling handles as possible, such as “perfect for holiday promotions” or “author’s blog gets 1,000 hits a day.” Sometimes they’re silly, like, “Ninjas are the new Pirates!” and sometimes serious, like “tackles the important topic of verbal abuse, an issue that is not widely known about or understood.”

How I edit:

Once a project is under contract, the first step is to actually edit the book and work on it with the author. The legendary editor Richard Jackson, who edited Judy Blume, Paula Fox, and Virginia Hamilton, said this of editors: “Editors aren’t nobodies. They are of use; they should be goads, good listeners, and allies—though invisible in the published work.”

Basically, I believe that the role of the editor is to act as the reader–a very careful and discerning reader. Over my ten years as an editor, I’ve developed my own editing process, which is basically a five-step process. I’ve already written about this on one of my other blogs, so if you’re interested in reading more about my process, read this.

One thing that complicates this process is that at the same time I’m editing one novel over and over, I’m also editing all of the other books on that same list. And because I may have up to eight books on one list, it’s a real juggling act (gee, I wish I actually knew how to juggle!). Edit, send letter, get in revision, edit, send letter, get in revision of other novel, edit, send editorial notes for third novel, get in revision of second novel, edit picture book text, review sketches for picture book, read, edit, send letter, review revised sketches, lather, rinse, repeat, review final art for picture book, review third revision of second novel, etc. etc. Final manuscripts are due to copyediting about a year before the pub date, so in April for Spring/Summer books, and October for Fall/Winter books. As you can imagine, the two months or so leading up to those months are especially hectic.

This editorial process repeats until the manuscript is “done.” Generally, the first editorial letters are more general, and as we go I get more nitpicky about the little things, and the last edit is just “clean-up” of all of the little things that are left. I’ve never taken less than two rounds, and on average it takes three or four, oftentimes more. And I put “done” in quotations because sometimes it feels like it’s never really done to the author–they want to keep tweaking and revising.

I love the editing process—I love diving into a meaty novel with an author, I love how we work together to make the novel stronger. However, I would say considering the scope of my job, the actual editing part is probably only 10% of my job. The reading submissions part is also just about 10% of the job. I remember thinking that as an editor I’d just be reading all day. Nope!

This is getting long, so I’ll wrap things up. As I said earlier, the editor is the project manager. Or if you compare it to the movie business, my job would be closest to the director/producer. I’m also sometimes the casting agent, as on occasion I have to choose illustrators to match with a picture book text. As an editor, I have to wear many different hats—a marketing hat, sales hat, designer hat, business hat, and more.

There are things I dislike about my job: I hate negotiating contracts. I hate not having enough time to do everything I have to do in a timely manner. And most of all, I hate having to decline manuscripts and stomp on people’s hopes and dreams. If you’re interested in becoming a children’s book editor as a career, be prepared to do all of this. Be prepared for the job to take over your life—I’m constantly struggling with my work/life balance. Be prepared to work nights and weekends, and for not that much pay. But also be prepared to love your job, to be fulfilled. I love working with books. I love working with others who love books. I love making people’s dreams come true. I love helping to create books—love holding the finished book in my hands for the first time. I love working with authors and illustrator and agents. I love being the cheerleader for my authors and books. I love knowing that children and teens out there are reading books that I’ve edited. I’m awed by the responsibility, and hopeful that the books I edit are affecting readers positively.

Children’s book publishing is my life, and it’s a good thing that I love it!

I’m happy to answer questions. My apologies if my answers are delayed . . . I have a busy workday, after all!

Thanks for this opportunity, Justine. Thank you all for welcoming me!

Guest Post: Ask Agent Jennifer

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have Jennifer Laughran, with whom I have spent many hours IMing about Very Important Matters. She’s pobably the best handseller of books in the land both as a bookseller and an agent. Truly she is phenomenal. Pay close attention to what she says. (Except about what the next big parnormal thing is. Clearly it will be werequokkas!)

– – –

Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent for children and YA books at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her clients include the legendary Daniel Pinkwater, the 2009 Morris Award winner LK Madigan, and #1 New York Times bestseller Calef Brown. She’s also been a bookseller basically forever and can play “You Are My Sunshine” on the musical saw. If you want to follow her on Twitter, you can: @literaticat

Jennifer says:

Justine asked me to stop by and answer some questions about Literary Agents. Because I am one. And because she knows I am a sucker for procrastination transparency. Ahem. Anyway, this will be a sort of FAQ, and I will be happy to tackle additional questions in comments.

I can only speak for myself, of course, so please remember that these are my opinions only — don’t take them as gospel, do salt to taste. And if I am using jargon or being mysterious, feel free to ask me to clarify. Also remember that I’m an agent for children’s books and YA specifically, and may not be able to speak to other segments of the industry.

SO, WHAT DOES A LITERARY AGENT DO?

A literary agent is an authors advocate. We act on the authors behalf to present and sell their book, negotiate their contract, get their money, and sometimes be a bully for them. Some of the things that come up on a day-to-day basis:

Read/Critique/Edit client manuscripts

Write pitch letters and/or create compelling proposal packages

Keep up relationships with editors (We have a database about about 350+ editors that we do business with that needs fresh info to stay relevant, so we have lots of meetings in person or by phone/email/etc to keep abreast of publisher needs/interests)

Pitch projects to editors

Follow up with editors (sometimes again…and again…and again)

Negotiate favorable advance, royalties, subrights etc for clients

Read contracts and re-negotiate finer details. (We have hundreds of contracts on record and we’ve worked with every big or mid-sized publisher, so we can compare older contracts, see what the best deals are we’ve ever gotten – as well as what the publisher won’t budge on – and use those terms as precedent when we are negotiating.)

Act as fiduciary — we hound the publisher (sometimes again…and again…and again) for the checks. When the check comes, it comes to us, then we pay you less our commission. Tax forms come from us.

Act as intermediary between author and editor if there is any unpleasantness — terrible cover for example, or author is running late on a due date, or whatever. (This is important – author/editor relationship should be all about the lovely books. The upsetting business stuff is for the agent to deal with. Basically we want them to see you as a wonderful artist, not a whiner or a jerk.)

Help shape your career — help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t, what might be a good next project, if you have multiple projects, what good timing would be for them, etc.

Talk to you about whatever you need advice about. Publicity woes, sales figures questions, revision crisis, general neurosis, etc etc. I don’t talk to all my authors every day, of course, but I do talk to at least a different 2 or 3 of them every day, either by email, phone or IM. (Some are deep in revision or doing other stuff and won’t emerge for months — some need attention now. I don’t necessarily chase after them, but I do respond immediately when they ask for me.)

Read and translate royalty statements, and follow up on discrepancies.

Get rights reversions on older works, or help client to do so.

Sell foreign/film/subrights with the help of co-agents. Follow up on those sales/checks etc.

Deal with permissions (ie, some acting company wants to use your story as the basis of a children’s production, or some testing company wants to use a paragraph of your story in an SAT test, or something – each of those people has to pay you or get the payment waived depending on the circumstances).

Read slush and fulls – discover new talent! This happens AFTER work.

WHY ARE YOU A LITERARY AGENT?

Agents can come from any sort of background. Agents at my agency have been editors, business-women, professors of literature, literary scouts and more. Personally, I started out and worked for over a decade as a bookseller, buyer and events coordinator for several wonderful independent bookstores in the USA. Because of that background, I have lots of great author and publisher relationships, and know quite a bit about the publishing world. Plus I’ve read about a million books, which definitely doesn’t hurt.

But really, I am a literary agent because I love working with my favorite authors and getting evangelical about my favorite books, and I am very good at selling things. (And modest!)

WHY DO I NEED A LITERARY AGENT?

Most publishers – particularly large and mid-sized publishers – are closed to unsolicited submissions, and only work with agents.

Of course, there are loopholes to this. if you are a tough cookie and you don’t mind doing a lot of footwork, submitting on your own, getting tough with editors and negotiating contracts on your own behalf, you can certainly get published without an agent. It definitely still happens. But I think that most authors like having an advocate in their corner, and prefer to be able to focus on the writing rather than the often-daunting and time-consuming submission and business side.

HOW DO I FIND AND CAPTURE ONE OF THESE CREATURES?

So you want an agent. First of all—is your book finished? Not just “I have enough pages to basically make a book . . . sorta”, but seriously finished, polished, like you could see it on the shelves of a store? OK. Now you figure out what sort of a book you’ve got. This can be general—like, is it a kids book, a science fiction book, a horror book, or what?

Now ask some of your author friends about their agents, and look in the acknowledgments of books you think are similar to yours in tone, and see who is listed after Thank You. Start a list. Then, go on Agent Query or QueryTracker or similar site. Look up agents by type of book they rep. Add more to your list. THEN, take your list and go to the agents actual website and make sure that the info you have is still accurate. THEN, if you’ve established that they are a real agent that is still taking submisisons and has books that are your “type”, follow the submisison guidelines on the agents website. Presto.

WHAT IS THE NEXT VAMPIRE / ZOMBIE / MERMAID / ZOMBIECORN?

I think that if people spent the time it takes to ask dumb questions like this actually WRITING, they’d be a lot better off. JUST WRITE AN AWESOME BOOK. Awesome never goes out of style.

Guest Post: Ask Publicist Lauren

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for the next week or so. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have Lauren Cerand, who is a freelance publicist. I know that many people are confused as to what exactly a publicist does. (I know I frequently am.) It took me ages to realise that there are basically two kinds, freelancers like Lauren, and in-house publicists who work at publishing houses (or record companies or what have you.) Read on and Lauren will tell you more.

– – –

Lauren Cerand is an independent public relations representative whose current projects include Barnes & Noble’s “Upstairs at the Square” series. Lauren has been described as one of the “cultural gatekeepers in the literary world” by Time Out New York and as the “Best of New York” by The Village Voice. She is often asked to share her perspective with audiences, such as at Book Expo America in New York and Penguin Books in London, and will appear next at the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference (June) and Squam Art Workshops Readers Retreat in New Hampshire (September). Lauren writes about art, politics and style at LuxLotus.com. She serves on the board of directors of both Girls Write Now and The Writers Room, and as an advisor to Fictionaut. Lauren is a graduate of Cornell University.

Lauren says:

I am a freelance publicist. My clients pay me by the month, the project and sometimes by the hour to create new media opportunities that engage and expand their natural audience. My main areas of interest are online media and events. I also consult with creative professionals on how best to capitalize on their existing resources to generate some buzz around a forthcoming project. Some ways to generate buzz are: learn how to use social media effectively, contribute to a website you read regularly, and support your scene.

In-house publicists at a publishing house send out books to reviewers and work to “place” reviews and features about an author (Noted: that is the verb we use because, as a publicist, I do not actually generate any content myself. Rather, and this is a major point, I convince others that my projects are worth covering in their publications and on their programs). They have many books per month and a very tight schedule. The best way to coordinate your efforts is to have a very honest conversation six months in advance where you, with grace and acceptance, understand exactly what your publisher is able to create and commit on your behalf. And then you come up with your own strategy. Why? Because your publisher is going to promote your book for about a month, max.

What do I think? You should give it a year. After all, it’s your career and this book’s success will make or break the next one. How can you extend that brief window, created by external pressures you have no control over? By committing some of your own resources to online ads that reach your audience, nominating your book for awards, booking events, and continuing to generate buzz per above.

A typical day in my life: 9 or 10am, wake up, answer urgent emails (about 50). Talk to clients on the phone. Noon – 2pm, lunch meeting with a journalist or colleague, discuss projects and possibilities. Afternoon: repeat all of the above. Evening: manage or attend event. 24/7: cultivate the relationships that will lead to premium exposure for my clients when the opportunity presents itself.

Questions? I’d be delighted to answer them.

What Scalzi Said

Most of you will know that Amazon has stopped selling books by Macmillan authors. (If you don’t know about it read Scott’s take.) John Scalzi has just called for people to support the affected authors:1

So rather than focus on what should happen to Amazon or Macmillan, here’s an idea, and here’s my point: let’s us focus on the writers, who are getting kinda screwed here. None of this is their fault, it has nothing to do with them, and they don’t deserve to lose sales and their livelihood while this thing goes down. If you want to make a statement here, don’t make it against a corporation, who isn’t listening anyway. Make it for someone, and someone who will appreciate the support.

Support the authors affected. Buy their books.

What Scalzi said.

To find out which authors are affected go to the Macmillan site. They have several imprints publishing YA and childrens books, such as FSG, Feiwell & Friends, and Henry Holt.

It’s always a good time to buy a book, but maybe now’s an even better time than usual.2 I know I’m going to.

  1. If you’re wondering, no, neither Scott nor I are directly affected. The bulk of our books are not with Macmillan publishers. []
  2. If you’re broke see if you can get your library to order in some new books or bully your rich friends into spending some of their riches on books. []

Unsung YA

There’s a wonderful project out in the blogosphere to sing the praises of YA that has flown below the radar and not gotten the attention of, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Books, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, or my own Scott’s Uglies books. I think it’s a wonderful idea. All hail Kelly for coming up with it.

I was unfamiliar with about half of the books recommended on these unsung lists, which to me means the lists are doing their job.1 Many of the book descriptions sound irresistable. So my list of books to read just expanded. Again. To which I can only say, excellent!

Some of the comments about these lists, however, got me thinking on the differences between how authors and readers think about success. Some folks wondered if such & such a book counted as unsung because it had won an award or because the author’s other books are so popular. We authors tend to measure our books’ popularity in terms of sales. We know what our sales are because once every six months (typically) we get royalty statements. Thus we know all too well how little impact most awards have on sales. This makes us painfully aware of which of our books has sold the least. So, yes, we think books can be unsung even if they’ve won awards, been critically acclaimed, and all our other books are the bestsellingest books in the universe.2

Those outside the industry don’t have access to sales figures, so they’re mostly judging popularity by how often they hear about a book, by how big the piles of it are in a bookshop, and in this case by how many people have it on LibraryThing. Before I became part of this crazy industry, I paid zero attention to bestseller lists. The only way I knew if a book was bestselling was if that fact was trumpeted on the front of the book. I guess I would have assumed that Stephen King and Colleen McCullough were bestsellers, but I didn’t really know for sure.

It’s amazing how different my relationship to books is now that I’m an author. These days I keep an eye on the big bestseller lists, which is why I was suprised to see Lisa McMann’s Wake listed as unsung. It’s a NYT bestseller. But I suspect the only people who consciously track whether a book is a bestseller or not are the authors and the people in publishing.

The other thing I noticed were comments about how hyped a book was. One book I’ve seen talked about as overhyped I happen to know has been selling poorly. The correlation between being talked about online and sales is not one to one. Not even close. Some bestsellers seem to barely get a mention online, some poor sellers are talked about all over the internets. I’ve seen Liar described as a bestseller because of all the online talk. It’s not. Trust me, if Liar were a bestseller or even close to being one, I would know.

We authors have a very different relationship to our books than readers do. Which is why some of us have had odd reactions to being called unsung or sung. For example, when I saw that How To Ditch Your Fairy was on an unsung YA list my first reaction went pretty much like this: “Unsung! HTDYF‘s my bestselling book so far!3 It sold more in six months than Magic or Madness sold in hardcover in almost five years!” I know that compared to actual bestselling books HTDYF‘s sales are as a grain of sand, but for me they’re large and happy making.

My second reaction was to be dead pleased that the blogger in question had such lovely things to say about HTDYF, which, while it has sold better than my other books has had the least positive critical attention.4 Poor lamb. *pets How to Ditch Your Fairy* Though, truly she’d rather have the sales than good reviews.5 You can’t eat good reviews.6

What are sales after all but a reflection of how many readers a book has? The more sales, the more readers. Every author wants to be read as widely as possible. And every reader wants the same for their favourite books so they have more people to talk about them with. (I speak as both author and reader.) Isn’t the whole point of the unsung books meme to get more people reading and talking about these books?

But even my least-read books have their fans. I treasure the letters written to me about those books every bit as much as I do the letters about HTDYF. I treasure the letters from readers for whom my books have had a real impact even more. The ones who tell me that my book showed them they weren’t alone, that there’s hope, that my book got them through a family crisis, the loss of someone they loved. Because that is what so many books have done for me over the years. That is the real point of being a published author, even if my books have that impact on just a handful of people. It’s so worth it.

  1. Quite a few of the ones I’d heard of I hadn’t read so the lists will probably kick me into actually reading them. []
  2. Not that I know for sure on that last one seeing as how I’ve never had a bestseller. One day . . . []
  3. This does not include Liar. The earliest I’ll know how it’s doing will be my second royalty statement of this year. Due in October. []
  4. Which has kind of led me to wonder if there’s an inverse correlation between the two. []
  5. Yes, I think of my books as female. []
  6. Not that books eat anything other than souls. []

Covers

The most discussed aspect of a book, other than whether it’s any good, is its cover. But looking around online and off- at gazillions of different cover discussions the cover’s main function is sometimes forgotten. Thus I’ve decided to devote today’s post to talking about what a cover is and how they’re made.

When a publisher buys a book one of the first things they start thinking about is how to sell it. Who is its ideal audience? How can they position the book so those readers will find it? How can they position it so they expand beyond those readers? These discussions quickly wind up with ideas for the cover. That’s because the most important function of a book cover is

To sell the book.

That’s right, folks, a book cover is an advertisement. Typically, ads don’t go after the existing customers, they go after new ones. A cover that’s totally true to the book might make the author’s heart go pitter pat and please mad-keen fans, but if it works only for author and hard-core fans, it is not a successful cover.1 A successful cover calls out to people who’ve never heard of the book or the author and says, “Pick me up! Read me! Buy me!”

A successful cover expands your audience. Other than word of mouth, the cover is the most important factor in selling a book. Often it is the biggest and best, or even, only advertisement for the book.

Uglies is Scott’s most successful series. The first book in the series, Uglies, was an original paperback that went out into the world with little fanfare. But, wow, did that cover attract a lot of attention. Scott has had countless letters from fans telling him that they picked the book up because of the cover. That it called to them from across many aisles. That cover is a huge part of why Uglies did so well.2

How is a cover made at the big publishing houses?

Typically3 the first step is for editorial to put together a cover brief and send it to the art department. A cover brief is a description of what they’d like the cover to look like and/or the element of the book they’d like to see reflected in the cover.

The artists who design the covers tend not to read the books they’re working on because they don’t have time. They’re working on so many books in a year and their deadlines are so tight they barely have time to read the cover brief. On top of that sometimes the book they’re working on hasn’t been written yet. (Or, at least, not finished.)

Next a series of rough ideas are sent back to editorial. There is discussion and one or more direction is pursued. Then editorial okays one and the art department completes it. Sometimes editorial changes its mind and sends art in another direction. Once editorial likes the cover it’s sent to sales and marketing to be approved. Sometimes it isn’t and the process has to start over. The next important approval comes from the big accounts, the stores that order the books. Sometimes if they don’t like a cover it gets redesigned.

Something else to remember: all of this starts a long time before the book comes out because—have I mentioned this already?—the cover is the single most important part of advertising the book. Sometimes the book isn’t even finished and the cover is. The cover of Magic’s Child was completed before the first draft of the book was, which was weird, though it gave me time to add more butterflies to the text.

Another important consideration that you can’t actually do anything about is how the book will look when it’s in the bookstores. I.e. will the cover pop. You can design the most gorgeous eye-catching cover in the world in luscious golds and browns and rusts and then have it disappear on the new releases table because guess what? Every book that season is a a luscious blend of golds and browns and rust. But that book in the white and teal that everyone was worried about? Pops like you wouldn’t believe. You can see that book the minute you step foot in the store.

See how random that is? And because of such randomness no one really knows what makes a cover sell. Lots of books fail utterly despite everyone—from author to publishing house to the big booksellers to reviewers—believing the cover to be utterly gorgeous. There are last-minute, emergency covers that everyone’s nervous about that sell like gangbusters. Sometimes you’re sure a cover’s going to sell great and it does; sometimes it does not. The unpredictability leads to all sorts of superstitious nonsense in publishing houses. Green doesn’t sell! Illustrated covers on YA never works! Never put a chicken on the front of a middle grade! A skeleton on the front means the book is doomed! Etc. etc.

There are also house styles. Publishing companies that have had a lot of success with a certain kind of cover are keen to keep using that look and loathe to experiment. Especially if past experiments have failed. Now, with the recession, publishing companies and the big accounts are being more cautious and conservative than usual with the result that are an awful lot of same-same covers out there. But many of those covers are selling.

I’m sure I’ve missed some important aspects. Remember that I’m an author, while we’re part of the publishing industry, we’re also at a remove from it. There are authors who’ve published multiple books, who still don’t understand how their royalty statements work,4 or what co-op, or a P&L is. Yes, I am also a publishing geek and have spent the last decade asking questions, but I’ve never worked in a publishing house. Actual people who work at publishing houses no way more than I do about this.

If you have any questions or information to add fire away!

  1. Ideally you want a cover that works for those who know and love the book as well as for those who’ve never heard of it. But such covers are rare and wonderful beasties. []
  2. Initially, that it keeps on selling is due to its own goodness. []
  3. It varies from house to house and book to book. []
  4. I’ll admit I’m one of them. []

In Istanbul

I have fallen in love with yet another city. Istanbul is glorious. We have met with our lovely agent here, Asli Ermiş, who took us to meet our publishers, Omer Yenici at Epsilon (who will be publishing Leviathan) and Ilgin Toydemir at Artemis (who will be publishing Liar and already publish Midnighters). They in turn took us out for fabulous lunches.

In Istanbul we have eaten.

A lot.

Borsa
First course at Borsa restaurant.

baklavaci
A baklava shop, which sells many sweet and wondrous things. Yes, we bought and we ate.

EgyptianMarket
The Egyptian spice market.

amenities
I am of the school that finds Turkish Delight delightful. In fact, even Scott liked the Turkish Delight here and he claims to hate it on account of its grandma soap taste. The Turkish Delight in Istanbul is the best I’ve ever had.

Ciya
Ciya, my favourite restaurant so far. So many things I’d never tasted before in my life. All of it really good. If I could live at Ciya, I would. A multi-course meal for the two of us cost under forty USD (that’s together, not each). And we ate an INSANE amount of food, and drank mulberry and other fruit juices of wonder.

FourSeasonsBrunch
Brunch at the Four Seasons. This is the dessert station.

Once again my apologies for not posting or responding to mail and comments. We are too busy eating and seeing the glorious sights. This is the first real holiday I’ve had in a long time and I’m enjoying it muchly.

Hmm . . . is it lunch time yet?

Ebooks of My Novels

This year I’ve been getting more and more people asking about ebook editions of my novels. This is my general response to that query.

First of all: you’re asking the wrong person. My publishers are in charge of the electronic rights to my novels. If you’re curious John Scalzi has more to say on this question. If you’re desperate for ebooks of my stuff bug my publishers, not me. That will be much more effective.

But here’s what I know: Penguin has made electronic editions of Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child available. But for some reason not the first book in that trilogy, Magic or Madness. Apparently they’re working on it. That’s all I know.

Bloomsbury, who publish How To Ditch Your Fairy and Liar, are also working on making them available as ebooks. Possibly it will happen by the end of this year. Again that’s all I know.

I suspect one of the big reasons that my books are not available is that very few teens are reading ebooks and they are the biggest part of my audience. (Bless you all!)

There’s also the fact that those who have converted to ebooks are still a very small part of the market. Tiny even. So there’s no great urgency for my publishers to make my books available. It’s a very new thing for them. Many of the big publishers are still figuring out their approach to ebooks, especially YA and children’s publishers. I’m sure in the next few years, as the ebook market expands, all of my books, and everyone else’s, will be available as a matter of course. But we are just at the beginning of the ebook revolution.

And there you have it: bug them, not me.

Don’t Panic About Blurbs

When I was a brand new about-to-have-my-first-book-published baby author I freaked out entirely about blurbs. I was sure I needed them. Or rather my brand new baby book needed them. I panicked and decided I needed to ask every single published writer friend I knew. But then when it came to actually asking them I froze. It was so icky and embarrassing.

“Hello, oh lovely writer friend of mine, so, um, I know we’ve known each other for years and, um, gotten drunk together, even though getting drunk is wrong and neither of us plans to ever do it again, and, um, where was I? Did you hear about them Sparks? Suck, don’t they? Er, why did I phone you? No reason. I was just thinking about you . . . ”

So after several conversations like that I finally screwed up the courage to ask Karen Joy Fowler, who I knew had actually read and liked Magic or Madness and she blurbed it. At the time her wonderful novel, Jane Austen Book Club, was everywhere. Also Karen is not only a dear friend but one of my favourite writers so I was over the moon. The book was published with her blurb on the back.

To this day I’ve never heard anyone tell me they picked up my book because of Karen’s blurb. The paperback went out with a quote from Holly Black on the front. And ditto. No one has ever told me they picked up one of my books because of a blurb.

Here are the reasons people have given for picking up one of my books:

  1. Their sibling or best friend told them they had to read it.
  2. Their librarian or teacher recommended it.
  3. They liked the cover.
  4. They read about it on Boing Boing or Whatever.
  5. It was the only book around.
  6. It was on their course list so they had to read it.

The only time blurbs have been mentioned to me was when a sweet girl wrote to thank me for blurbing Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. She told me it’s now her favourite book on the planet and she only picked it up because of my blurb.1

There are some blurbs that make a difference. If Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King or J. K. Rowling loves your book and wants to tell the world about it that is a Very Good Thing. But I’m unconvinced that there are many other writers who have that kind of clout. Not in book blurb form though there are plenty who have the ability to move a book when they mention it on their blog.

If you’re a brand new writer and you’re freaking out about blurbs, and you don’t know any published writers, or you do and are too embarrassed to ask, I think you can relax. Scott’s biggest selling book, Uglies, went out into the world unadorned with blurbs and several gazillion copies sold later it continues to sell.

Plenty of books sell great without blurbs.

If you have the time, energy, or inclination, go after blurbs from famous authors but it truly won’t make much difference if you don’t get them. Don’t sweat it. I really wish someone had sat me down way back then and told me to calm down. Would have been a big weight off. I honestly thought blurbs were one of the most important aspects of getting people to pick up a book. Even though I had pretty much never bought a book because of a blurb myself.

My latest book, Liar is my first book without any blurbs on it. And I gotta tell you it was a huge relief not having to ask people to blurb it. Even after five books I still find doing so excruciating. I really hope I never have to do so again.

Blurbs schlurbs! Worry about your next book. It’s far more important to your writing career than any blurb is.

Hmmm, best I get back to doing that myself . . .

  1. Which was replaced on the paperback by a blurb from Stephenie Meyer. As if her blurb will sell as many copies as one from me! What? Oh, she’s the one who wrote Twilight? Never mind. []

The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. []
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. []
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. []

Very Wrong Questions

Currently I am at the Melbourne Writers Festival and thus I am fielding many questions about writing and publishing. I noticed again that many of the questions unpublished writers ask are coming at it from the wrong end of the stick. Ally Carter calls this asking the wrong questions.

For instance, after yesterday’s event an adult came up to me and explained that they are an aspiring writer working on their first novel. They said they wanted my advice but the questions they asked really confused me:

What’s the best way to get started writing fan fiction?

How do you build up a following?

Should I be using wordpress, livejournal or blogger?

It took me awhile to realise what was going on. They wanted to know what to do to get a publisher’s attention. And they had decided the best way to do that was to reverse engineer other writers’ successes. Two of their favourite writers had started out as fan fiction writers and developed big followings. Another of their favourites was a blogger who had sold a novel they had first posted on their website.

The problem with that plan1 is that there only a handful of writers in the entire world who got published that way. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets.

Besides which, none of those writers did it on purpose. They wrote fanfic because they loved it. They blogged for the same reason.2 Because they loved it and were good at it they developed a following. None of them blogged and wrote fanfic in order to develop a following.3

I stood there, mouth agape, trying to figure out how to respond to these wrong questions. Should I tell this aspiring writer that they had the cart so far in front of the horse that the two were never going to meet?

Instead I asked AW a question:

Justine: “How many novels have you written?”

Aspiring Writer: Silence.

Justine: “Have you written one novel?”

AW: “Well, um, I’m halfway into my first one.”

Justine: “You don’t have a finished draft?”

AW: “No.”

I told the AW about how I started at least twenty novels before I finally finished one. I did not sell the first novel I completed. Or my second. I sold my third novel. I know many, many writers who sold their fifth, eight, or twentieth novel first. The majority of published writers did not sell the first novels they wrote.

I explained how bad it is for you to start thinking about marketing and promotion before you’ve even learned whether you can finish a novel. It will do your head in. It’s bad enough angsting about all that stuff when you do have published novels.

I think I got through to AW. I think I finally know how to get other wrong question asking aspiring writers back on to right questions. From now on I am going to ask them how many novels they’ve written.

  1. Okay, there are MANY problems with that plan. Starting with it being insane. []
  2. Many of them still do both. []
  3. How do I know? The writers in question are friends of mine. Yes, I know everyone. []

Laura Atkins’ White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books

Laura Atkins recently gave a paper, “What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books,” at the IRSCL (International Research Society for Children’s Literature) congress. She’s calling for comments and suggestions from people involved with children’s publishing.

Her paper is here. You can leave comments and suggstions here.

Please don’t go over there to deny that white privilege exists because a) that’s simply not true and b) you’ll be derailing what’s already turning into a very useful conversation. Thank you.

Ain’t That a Shame (updated)

In the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.

Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

As it happens I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian cover, which I think is very true to the book.1 I was lucky that my Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with my vision and that the wonderful Bruno Herfst came up with such a perfect cover image.

I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,2 which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!3

The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.

I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.

I haven’t been speaking out publicly because to be the first person to do so would have been unprofessional. I have privately been campaigning for a different cover for the paperback. The response to the cover by those who haven’t read Liar has been overwhelmingly positive and I would have looked churlish if I started bagging it at every opportunity. I hoped that once people read Liar they would be as upset as I am with the cover. It would not have helped get the paperback changed if I was seen to be orchestrating that response. But now that this controversy has arisen I am much more optimistic about getting the cover changed. I am also starting to rethink what I want that cover to look like. I did want Bloomsbury to use the Australian cover, but I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to have someone who looks like Micah on the front.

I want to make it clear that while I disagree with Bloomsbury about this cover I am otherwise very happy to be with them. They’ve given me space to write the books I want to write. My first book for them was a comic fairy book that crossed over into middle grade (How To Ditch Your Fairy). I followed that up with Liar, a dark psychological thriller that crosses over into adult. There are publishers who would freak. No one at Bloomsbury batted an eye. I have artistic freedom there, which is extraordinarily important to me. They are solidly behind my work and have promoted it at every level in ways I have never been promoted before.

Covers change how people read books

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”

Both responses are heart breaking.

This cover did not happen in isolation.

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them.4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

Update: Because some recent commenters haven’t heard that Bloomsbury have changed the cover here is a link to the new cover.

  1. I didn’t see the Australian cover until after the US cover was finalised. []
  2. Yes, another protag of mine who looks like a WNBA player. What can I say? I’m a fan. []
  3. If you’re interested, I imagine another character in the book, Sarah, as looking like a younger Rutina Wesley, who’s not a WNBA player. []
  4. And most of those were written by white people. []

How Do You Judge Your Work?

Yesterday Maureen Johnson posted most excellently on the topic of judging yourself by numbers. She paraphrased a graduation speech by Bill Murray:

“Look, people thought I was going to be a huge failure, but then I got kind of lucky and made it. And I had and have lots of amazing friends, and we’ve seen each other’s careers go up and down. Take my advice: don’t go comparing yourself to other people. You will go insane. It’s pointless. Your fortunes may rise and fall, depending on all kinds of things you have no control over. Keep your friends. Never compare all the outward markers of success. Do what you love, because that’s all you really get and that’s all that matters and that’s all that will ever really work. And don’t be an as$h&^e.”

It’s doesn’t matter what game you’re in, judging yourself solely by external measures will do your head in. You are not a good writer because you get good reviews or because you’re a bestseller or a prize winner.

You can continue to work hard and write your best and yet stop getting good reviews1 and prizes and spots on bestseller lists. If you depend on those measures to determine your worth you are in for a world of pain.

As Mr Murray and Maureen say you have no control over that external stuff.2 Forget about it. You are not a better person cause you sell more than your friends. You are not a worse person because you’re never short listed for prizes. Concentrate on doing the absolute best you can in whatever field you’re in. Because if your eyes are only on the prize, all the joy and pleasure in writing (or whatever) will disappear.

If you do get lucky and your work is recognised, make sure you thank the people who gave you the time and space and support in order to do your absolute best: your family, your friends, your colleagues etc. etc.

Thus endeth the sermon.

  1. Or any reviews at all, which is much worse. []
  2. And if you did have control and could give yourself prizes and good reviews and huge sales, what would be the point? []

Agent Websites are Irrelevant (updated)

I keep seeing new writers in search of an agent get hung up on the fact that many agents don’t have much of an online presence.

Newsflash: an agent’s website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are. Some of the top agents in the business barely have an online presence at all.

Think about it for just a second: what is an agent’s website for exactly? It’s not for editors, i.e. the people agents sell to. Good agents already have relationships with editors at all the big houses and many of the little ones too. Editors don’t need to look up agents’ websites. The people who most frequently visit an agent’s site are writers looking for representation. And the good agents do not need to advertise for clients. Thus they do not need a good website.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, doesn’t blog and has a website that’s been under construction since 2006. Yet somehow she manages to be an extraordinarily good agent. I am very very happy and grateful to be with her. Trust me, Jill does not lack for clients.

Time and time again I see newbies comment about how if an agent doesn’t have an uptodate website they must be a crap agent who’s clearly still using messenger pigeons to communicate. So not true. The vast majority of my communication with Jill is done via email. I send her all my manuscripts as attachments. She is entirely in the 21st century. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t communicate with their agent in the same way.

When I see newbies saying they’re not going to submit to Jill because of her luddite ways I have to laugh. The only person they’re punishing is themselves.

I think what many many new writers searching for an agent don’t get is that new clients are not the majority of agents’ priority. Newbies are so focussed on the searching part that they sometimes don’t think about how what they want from agents will change when they actually get one.

When you have an agent you don’t care about their website or how clear their submission guidelines are or whether they take electronic submissions. You care about how fast they get back to you about your problems and how good the deals they make for you are. The stuff that was hugely important when you were looking for an agent disappears from view. You don’t think about it again.

The top priority of an agent is looking after their existing clients. When a new writer finds the perfect agent they’re going to be very grateful for that. They won’t be giving much thought to the state of their agent’s website.

Update: I am not saying agents should not have websites. Or that agents with websites are bad agents. Merely that the fact of having or not having a website is irrelevant to how good an agent they are.

I am also saying that what seems important when you’re looking for an agent won’t be once you have one.

Why Does it Matter?

Seems the authors v critics/reviewers thing just won’t go away. Today I was asked why I think it’s so important that authors not respond to critics. Basically what the question boiled down to was: Why does it matter?

A close friend also demanded that I explain why I am so keen on silencing authors.

I’ll take the second one first cause it’s so laughable. The very idea that I’m trying to silence anyone. I am an author. I am full of opinions. I share them here every single day. There’s nothing I don’t have an opinion on. Seriously. Ask me about anything at all and I will have a large loud opinion.1

I am not saying that authors shouldn’t have a response to bad reviews. I’m saying they shouldn’t share that response with the intramanets. By all means bitch to your friends. I sure do. Scream your anger and woe and hurt feelings. Print the review out and burn it.2 Do whatever it takes.

But do not go after the reviewer.

Because you will look like a thin-skinned, self-obsessed doxhead.

Because most of the time reviews are not about you. All you did was write the book. The reviewer is engaging with the book you wrote, and their relationship with it. They are bringing to bear their entire reading history as they do that. They will see and feel things you did not intend them to see. But you are not your book. If you can’t make that separation you are in for a world of pain.

Because if the reviewer is going after you specifically that’s their problem. Ad hominem attacks disguised as reviews are not hard for readers to spot. The problem is they’re very difficult for most writers to identify because so many of us cannot make that separation between ourselves and our books. Many of us authors feel that any criticism of our books is an attack on us. Rarely is that so.

Because it may well hurt your sales. I can think of several writers whose books I will never ever buy because of the way they attack anyone who disagrees with them. Because of their constant insistence that everything is about them. A blogger uses cover copy from their book jacket to discuss class and how it affects who does and does not get published and down they descend like an avenging angel in order to talk about the injustice done to them. When the blogger was, in fact, opening up a discussion about class and the politics of publishing. That author has revealed that they are a total doxhead.

Because you’re a published author. You have heaps of power. You have a right of response. In your books or on your blog or in an article or essay. I think it’s always wisest to address the criticisms generally rather than respond to a specific review. I’ve had a few people be upset about certain events in books 2 & 3 of my Magic or Madness trilogy. I have responded to their complaints and explained why I wrote them the way I did. I did this because they came to me and asked for an explanation. By all means talk about your motivations, explain the bits people have problems with. But there’s a big difference between doing that and attacking someone specific for giving you a bad review.

See? I’m not saying authors should be silent. I’m saying we shouldn’t behave like lunatics. If you scream at every reviewer (on blogs, goodreads, amazon, the NYT, wherever) who doesn’t worship you, exhort your fans to tear out their entrails, you not only look like a thin-skinned crazy person, you’re wasting your own time and energy. Write another book already.

It matters that you not behave like a lunatic because there’s no percentage in it.

Here’s my newsflash to you:

No matter what a genius you and your fans think you are not all readers are going to agree. There is not a book in existence that isn’t hated by someone. Me, I loathe Moby Dick. I have ex-friends who hate Pride and Prejudice. That is how the world is.

Get over yourself already.

I am now done and dusted with this topic.

  1. Corks are an abomination! Jack Nicholson is a tosser! Don’t Ask Don’t Tell must be abolished! Radio National is the best radio in the world! Mangosteens are the best fruit! Ugg boots are hideous! I have to stop this! I could be here all year! []
  2. Though not very environmentally sound that. []

Pontificating About How Writers Get Paid

John Green’s been posting about what he sees as the broken way in which most writers of books get paid in the publishing industry. He’s proposing smaller advances and higher royalties.

Go over there and read what he has to say. Otherwise nothing I say in this post will make any sense.

Finished? Okay then.

First up, I agree with John that his model could be better for the industry. I would love to have higher royalties.

However, the only agents I’ve known who’ve asked for them have not had much success. I don’t have as much faith as John does that it’s a possibility for writers like me i.e. for solidly successful mid-list writers who have never had a six-figure advance. I’d love if he was right and that was about to change.

I have much less faith than John does in the rationality of publishers. (I’m not saying writers are particularly rational either. I happen to think that most people aren’t rational and that’s what’s wrong with most economic models.)

Here’s the only way I would agree to be paid under John’s proposal:

  1. There would have to be a minimum of four royalty payments per year. Though I’d prefer six. Under the current model authors get their royalties twice a year. That’s a very long waiting time. Hard to pay your bills without a decent advance when money’s only coming in twice a year.
  2. Publishers would have to guarantee up front that they’d put money into sales & marketing as well as publicity for my books. My getting a higher percentage of royalties means the publisher has given up some of its cut and thus has less invested in my books selling.

The problem with no. 1 is that royalties paid twice a year is a very convenient arrangement for the publisher. Pay outs to gazillions of authors twice a year is way less of a headache. I can hear the accountants screaming at the very idea of having to do that four or six times a year. Two payments also means they get to hang onto the money for much longer, accruing interest. I can’t imagine publishers being in a hurry to change that arrangement.

The problem with no. 2 is that publishers frequently make promises about publicity and sales and marketing when they’re bidding on a book but sometimes they do not do what they said they’d do. I’ve been extremely lucky on that front. Bloomsbury and Allen & Unwin have done every single thing they promised they’d do for my books. I trust them to do well by my books. But there are publishers who don’t stand by their promises. Sometimes that’s because the person who made those promises is gone. Sometimes it’s because there was a misunderstanding about what they were promising. And sometimes, well, sometimes it’s hard to come up with a charitable explanation for the behaviour. (Just as it can often be hard to come up with charitable explanations for some writers’ behaviours. People aren’t rational.)

I have seen many writers get huge advances and in almost all cases the publishing house put a lot of muscle behind those books to promote them. I have also seen publishing houses put a big push behind a low advance book but no where near as often. And usually the publisher doesn’t do that until they see external signs of enthusiasm for the book, such as a strong reaction from big accounts and big sell-in, great word of mouth and reviews etc. I have also seen publishers see all those strong signs of enthusiasm for a low-advance book and STILL not get behind it. Whatever John may say, big advances do concentrate the minds of publishers most powerfully.

Also many of the big advances I’ve seen have not been irrational. Paying a six-figure advance to a proven bestseller is not a huge risk. I’ve seen many six-figure advance earning out. I think publishers are being totally rational paying a known earner a big lump sum to write books. It works for the author; it works for them. And that big lump sum gives the author breathing space by taking financial stresses away thus allowing them to write more.

Where I think publishers are nuts is when they pay crazy money to unknowns or non-writers (think all those failed books “by” Hollywood stars). That so rarely works out that it bewilders me that they haven’t learnt their lesson.

But, hey, I keep sticking my fingers in electrical sockets. We’re not all rational.

Some More Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

My last post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some people seem to be under the impression that I was saying authors shouldn’t reply to any reviews at all. In my capacity as lord god of the internets1 I only forbid responding to negative reviews or reviews the author perceives as negative.2 I have yet to see an author respond to a bad review in any way that didn’t make them look like a petty loser. Responding to positive reviews is a whole other thing and as Diana Peterfreund points out can lead to very interesting discussions.

Though I have seen authors respond to positive reviews in comment threads and unintentionally shut the conversation down because everyone panicked on realising that the author was watching. That’s why I no longer drop in to thank a blogger for a positive review. But I definitely don’t think it’s a terrible thing.

Walter Jon Williams talked
about how annoying some online amateur reviewers can be:

Some of them are just bad readers. They miss major plot points and then complain that the plot makes no sense, or they say that something is impossible when it’s something I’ve actually done, or they complain that a plot twist is unmotivated when I’ve foreshadowed it sixteen dozen ways . . . these guys I’m sometimes tempted to respond to. Not in abusive way, of course, just by way of information. (”If you would do yourself the kindness to reread Page 173, you would realize that your chief complaint is without foundation.”) That sort of thing.

Sad fact: most readers are crap at it. We read too fast and carelessly. We judge books by what we expected to read so often don’t see what is actually there. We get mad at books for not being the book we wanted them to be. We read when in a bad mood and blame the bad mood on the book. Most of us suck at noticing all the carefully laid foreshadowing, backstory, clues that the hardworking authors wrote for us and then we have the gall to blame them for our own stupidity in not seeing them. Damned readers!

Sadly, there’s zero percentage in going after them and pointing out their stupidity no matter how much we writers ache to do so.3 Because this is the biggest power imbalance of all. Amateur reviewers on good reads or Amazon or Barnes & Noble or on their almost zero-trafficked blog are the least powerful criticism that can be made. Sometimes authors do attack them. I heard from a blogger who wrote a negative review of [redacted well-known author] and had said author set their fans on the blogger who was inundated with hate mail for months. Authors, DON’T DO THAT!

And reviewers please don’t do the opposite. Adrienne Vrettos said:

Once I had a reviewer who had written a not very nice review in a widely read trade magazine approach me at a crowded event to tell me – in detail – what exactly she didn’t like about my book.

I had *no* idea how to handle it. I stammered out a ‘thank you’ for reviewing the book, which now sounds suspiciously like ‘thank you sir, may I have another?’, and hurried away.

How extraordinarily rude. While I’ve never (thank, Elvis!) had anyone tell me in person about their hate for my books I’ve had reviewers write me with their lack of love. I have no idea what these people want from us authors. To make sure that we read their review? Why does that matter to them? Reviews of books are not for the authors, they’re for potential readers. So leave us authors alone! Thank you!

Robin Wasserman said:

I have to admit that I miss the era of loud, passionate, messy literary feuds, so have been pretty entertained by this whole mess. Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe vs Updike/Mailer/Irving, Dale Peck vs everyone…those were the good old days. (Authors — and it seems important to note that Hoffman’s reviewer is also an author in her own right — still have plenty of books and authors that we despise, we just do our despising behind closed doors.) And this morning I discovered that after Alice Hoffman published a horrible review of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter,” Ford got a gun and shot a bunch of holes through Hoffman’s latest opus. (http://s7y.us/uqr) So maybe she can be forgiven for her misunderstanding of “appropriate” behavior!

Sure. Feuds can be extraordinarily entertaining. I enjoyed those spats mightily. You’ll note that most of them were between equals with roughly the same reputation and access to media. Most of the flare ups in the past few years have been well-known author going after much less well-known reviewer and/or punters on Amazon. Which I happen to think is flat out awful.

And while I enjoy those stoushes between equals, I enjoy them in the same way I do seeing what hideous outfit Chloe Sevigny or Gwyneth Paltrow are wearing right now. Fun for me, sure, but embarrassing for them. I enjoy their sartorial mistakes mightily just as I enjoyed Mailer and Vidal etc posturing. But I still think they’re arrogant self-obsessed drop kicks. I will always advise other authors not to follow their lead.

  1. Yes, that is a joke. []
  2. And that’s a whole other thing. I have seen authors go berko over a starred review that had one negative phrase in it: “while occasionally overwrought”. []
  3. And, boy, do we. []

Some Incoherent Thoughts on the Author/Reviewer Relationship

Recent events have gotten me thinking once again on why I feel so strongly that authors should never respond to bad reviews. I think I’ve previously talked about it in terms of politeness, and of not looking bad, stuff like that.

But what I think I really mean is that most authors have more power than the reviewer. Often reviewers aren’t as well known as the person they’re reviewing. So when the disgruntled writer says, “What about my rights? Why can’t I respond?” The answer is that you can. But what will it gain you? Besides you already have a reply to your critics: your books. Your last book, your current book, your future books.

Why does an established writer with an army of books feel the need to go after a critic who happens to not like their latest book? They have a much bigger audience than that critic does. Many more people will read the book in question than the bad review. It’s madness.

Even when the author is brand new and has only one book what will they achieve by going after a critic? They’ll make themselves look small and petty minded and incapable of taking criticism. If you’re irked by a bad review respond by making your next book even better.

I have yet to see anything good come out of an author turning on a specific critic.

Fan v Pro

The discussion in the fanfic post got me thinking about the differences between writing to make a living, as I do, and writing solely for fun.

Many people in that thread talked about how writing fanfic was a learning experience that prepared them for becoming a professional writer. And there’s no doubt that that’s how fanfic has worked for many pros. However, the vast majority of writers of fanfic not only don’t become pros, they have no desire to do so. They write fanfic for a variety of reasons: fun, community, because writing is something they can’t not do and so on—they don’t do it as some kind of apprenticeship for becoming a “real” writer.

I know professional writers who also write fanfiction. So clearly it’s fulfilling a need that their paid writing isn’t. I also do a lot of unpaid writing. You’re reading some of it right now. Often I enjoy writing posts here more than writing novels.

Or, rather, I have a much less stressful relationship to this writing than I do to my novel writing because there’s not much riding on this blog, whereas my ability to pay my rent, buy food, stay in the profession that I love is tied up in the novels I write. Sometimes it takes awhile to push that stuff aside and just write. For me blogging is a relaxation; writing novels is an economic necessity.

Which is not to say that it can’t be fun. It can. I wouldn’t swap my job for any other job in the world. I love it. But it’s still my job and comes with all the stresses that any job has, including anxiety about losing said job.

Not everyone who spends a lot of time writing wants to be a professional writer. Frankly, I think that’s sensible. It’s very hard to make a living as a professional writer. Even if you do manage it’s just as hard to make it a sustainable career. I know lots of writers who’ve been able to support themselves for a year or two or four or ten but then demand for their work dwindle, fashion in the publishing world changes. In the 80s horror was huge, now not so much. YA’s big right now but who knows were it will be in ten years. Romance is pretty much always the biggest selling genre and yet it has the lowest advances. I know of romance writers with multiple bestselling books who only get around 20k per book.

The majority of pro novelists, who are making a living, write a book a year. Many write two or three or four a year. For many writers that’s an impossible pace to sustain and it can suck the fun right out of the writing. There are lots of reasons for not making writing your main profession. Most of the published writers I know are not full-time. Many of them claim to be happier that way.

When writing becomes your full time job it completely changes your relationship to writing. It becomes a business. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to force it when you’re not in the mood. You have to meet deadlines. You have to think about whether there’s a market for what you want to write. You can’t just write whatever you feel like unless you happen to be lucky enough to have a market for what you feel like writing.

In which case you’re probably Nora Roberts. Lucky duck!

An Open Letter to All Publishers

Dear Publishers,

There are two things you keep doing that affect my reading pleasure. Well, okay there are lots of things you do, but I don’t have time to go into detail about all your cover sins, and your back jacket copy lies, misinformation, and bad writing, which frequently keep me away from genius books. Thus I will limit myself to two complaints:

Complaint the first and smaller of the two:

Please do not place spoilery acknowledgments at the front of a book. Actually, please don’t place un-spoilery acks at the beginning of a book. Acknowledgments belong at the back of the book. They are back matter. It’s only after we’ve read the book that we understand what the author is thanking people for and what it means.

Complaint the second and hugest:

For the love of all that is wondrous, do not place an advertisement for another book on the page facing the final page of the book.

This is the worst thing in the world.

I just finished Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate.1 It’s a wonderful book that’s intense and involving and made me totally forget I live anywhere but in the world of Blood and Chocolate until I turned to the last page and there facing it was a whopping great big ad for another book by that publisher.

Aaargggh!!!

Way to break the spell, publisher people. Why would you do that? You just destroyed my reading experience. You just ruined thousands of people’s reading experience. A curse upon your house. A really nasty curse. One that means you never publish a profitable book again. You will lose all bidding wars, your publicity campaigns will crumble to dust, your most successful authors will leave you.

What should have been on the facing page was nothing. A blank page. There should never be anything facing the final page of a book. EVER. I do not understand how publishers don’t understand this.

Readers want a moment of quiet in which to savour the end of the book. Do not worry, we will eventually turn the page and find the back matter. We’ll read the acks, peruse the ads, and the opening chapter of the next book by the same author. That’s when we’ll be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to your blandishments to buy more of your books. There’s absolutely no need in the world to SHOUT at us to do so before we’ve finished the book.

Stop it immediately.

Yours sincerely,

A lover of books2

  1. I know, I know, everyone else read it years ago. Once again I am way behind the curve. []
  2. Of the ones that don’t suck that is. []

Foreign rights/Liar Sells to Brazil & Turkey

Late breaking news: Liar has sold to Editora Record in Brazil, who are also the home of the Magic or Madness trilogy. And for the first time in my career a book of mine has sold in Turkey! Liar has found a home at Artemis, an imprint of Alfa Yayin Grubu. Yay! Liar will now be published in seven different countries: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Taiwan, Turkey and the USA. Not bad for a book that isn’t out until October.

A couple of readers have asked me what this means exactly. How do books get sold to other countries? How does it all work?

Basically the world is divided up into various different territories for publishing rights. Those territories (more or less) correspond to different countries. Though notoriously the UK is under the delusion that many other countries are part of its territory. Newsflash to the UK: Your empire crumbled decades ago. Get over it!

When my agent, Jill Grinberg, sells one of my books the first rights she sells are North American (USA + Canada) and ANZ (Australia + New Zealand). Those two rights are sold directly. Thus my agent gets 15% and I get the rest.1

Translation rights to my work are sold by my agent working with different sub-agents around the world. Which means that they split the agents’ commission, with both my agent and the sub-agent taking 10%, and me getting 80%. Some sub-agents handle more than one territory. I know of one who handles Spanish and Portuguese language sales in multiple countries, but most sub-agents work only in one territory, which is usually their home country, and thus they know it really, really well.

The larger commission is no big deal because without agents working on your behalf you would not sell in other countries. The sub-agents are the people who know which publishing houses are after what kind of book, and who has the best translators. They’re the ones who sort out the labyrinthine tax laws and tax arrangements between your home country and the country you’re selling into. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not fluent in any of the languages spoken in any of the countries I’ve been sold in other than Australia and the US.2

I became very interested in foreign rights after my first visit to the Bologna Book Fair, where I met some of my foreign publishers, and saw the world-wide business of buying and selling rights to kids and teen books up close. I was totally fascinated to learn that the Netherlands is not big on fantasy, Brazil loves chicklit, and most of Eastern Europe loves science fiction. The US market is notorious for buying almost no translation rights at all. I wonder what the Australian YA market is known for buying?

I hope that helps you understand a bit more what I’m talking about when I jump up and down because Turkey just bought my book. Did I mention that I just sold in Turkey?

  1. Well, minus the taxman’s cut. []
  2. I’m still working on my USian []

Why Being a Writer is Better Than Being a Pro Sportsperson

At BEA there was much speculation about the end of publishing as we know it. How fewer books will be published and less money spent on them thus it will be harder for writers to make a living. I’m not actually convinced things are as bad as all that. Besides I don’t think it matters that much to most pro writers’ chances of making a living. It’s just as hard to make a living as a writer in good economic times as it is in bad. I know plenty of brilliant writers who make very little from their writing and only a handful who make anything close to a living wage.

But it’s not nearly as tenuous and fraught as being a pro sportsperson.

As some of you may know I’m a fan of the New York Liberty, New York’s Womens National Basketball Association team, and I follow the entire WNBA closely. This year there’s one less team than last so those players were dispersed to the remaining teams. At the same time all the teams have to reduce their roster to 11 players. That means that the transactions page looks like this:

    May 31
    The Seattle Storm waived La’Tangela Atkinson and Kasha Terry.
    The Atlanta Dream waived Chantelle Anderson.
    The Phoenix Mercury waived Murriel Page.
    The Chicago Sky waived Jennifer Risper.

    May 30
    The Minnesota Lynx waived Kamesha Hairston and Aisha Mohammed.

    May 29
    The Chicago Sky waived Liz Moeggenberg.
    The Atlanta Dream waived Marlies Gipson.
    The New York Liberty waived Abby Waner.

Those are all players being let go. They’ve had a couple of weeks in the pros and now it’s over.

There is a chance of being picked up by other WNBA teams. But there are fewer places—only 143—and more players than ever competing for them. Many talented amazing players are not going to make it. Some of them will find places on overseas teams, but most won’t.

Those are just the players who got picked up by a WNBA team in the first place. There are many many many college players who weren’t drafted in the first place. Some overseas players are also trying to break into those 143 spots available in the WNBA.

And if they do make it onto a team they can be traded at random to another team in another city. Often the press finds out that they’re now going to be living in San Antonio before they do.

Pro basketball players are lucky if their career lasts into their thirties and almost never into their forties. They rarely make it through without at least one serious injury resulting in surgery. When they’re older they wind up with arthritis.

I’m sure as with writing the rewards of doing what you love most for a living outweigh everything else, but, well it looks crazy hard to me and it makes me very glad I’m a writer not a basketball player.

Book Expo (BEA)

I spent the last two days at BEA. A few people have written me going, “What now? What is this BEA thing?”

BEA is the biggest publishing trade show in the US of A. It’s basically a giant hall full of publishers showing off their Fall (Autumn) books and trying to get booksellers and librarians to order lots and sell them in vast quantities to their customers. BEA allows booksellers to meet publishers and authors all in the one place and find out as much as they can about upcoming books all in the one place.

The first time I went to BEA I was completely overwhelmed. I hadn’t realised how many publishers there were in the US. Each had giant piles of ARCs to give away as well as fancy lanyards and bags and whistles and bubble gum and all sorts of other promotional stuff. This year there were way less of everything. Fewer publishers on the floor, fewer ARCs, fewer knick-knacks, fewer people. Not once did I feel claustrophobic. Many of the publishers had no piles of ARCs at all and were only giving them away at signings. I must admit it felt weird to see all the booths that were just shiny wall displays and no books. They looked naked.

There was much talk of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and how it was affecting publishing. Many predict a future of fewer publishers and fewer books, which sounds grim, but a surprising number of people thought that was a good thing. They argue that there’s been a glut of books for too long. Way too many publishers put out books that they don’t support, that disappear without a trace, make no money for anyone, and wind up being pulped. Surely, fewer books properly supported is a much better business model. The counter argument is that many publishers will opt to publish only what they consider to be commercial, which is a huge shame because many of the biggest selling books have been totally unexpected hits that were not deemed commercial.

This was my third BEA but the first time I’ve been there officially with a badge that has my name on it. W00t! I even had a signing down in the official autographing area1 I was worried that there would be no one in my line. There is no sadder sight than an author surrounded by free copies of their books that no one wants.

In case you think I’m being silly worrying about no one wanting ARCs of Liar: trust me, it happens. There are HEAPS of books being given away at BEA—all at the same time—you have to pick and choose what books you want. A tiny line can and does happen to authors much better known than I am. A few years ago a friend was witness to a very well-known author having with an empty line for free paperback copies of their excellent prize-winning and best-selling book. These weird things happen. One day an author has a line around the block, next day there’s no one. Depends on timing and location and how well the signing was publicised and etc.

So my fears of no one wanting my book were entirely rational. Though fortunately on this occasion not realised. A healthy number of people showed up for Liar. Many of them I didn’t even know! Quite a few had read my other books.2 They all promised not to spoil Liar. Bless them all.

So a huge phew on this occasion: signing a success!

In my corner of the publishing world, Young Adult, the hottest galley to get hold of by far was Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, which is the sequel to Hunger Games. I hear her signing was nuts. Scott’s Leviathan was also in big demand. His line was so long that when his hour was up they had to shift him to the overflow area where he kept signing for another half hour. I think Leviathan is Scott’s best book so far. Can’t wait to hear what other people think.

How was you BEA?

  1. Many call it the cattle corral—on account of how it massively resembles cattle pens. []
  2. Yes, I am still amazed by people who’ve read my books. Nope, don’t know when I’ll get over that. []

The Goodness of Bad Reviews

Daphne over at the Longstocking blog was talking about the Worst Review Ever blog and mentioned her shock at the meanness of some of the reviews:

I’m actually a reviewer for Publishers Weekly and while I’ve read some things that were kind of poorly constructed, I’ve never had even an urge to be even half this harsh, not even secretly if I strongly disliked the book. Too much work goes into a book for anything to warrant this kind of nastiness and seriously nothing is so bad it deserves to be called “a candy-coated turd.”

I have condemned books in stronger language than that. When I hate a book, I really hate a book. I totally get writing such vicious reviews. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I don’t write reviews and only discuss books on this blog if I love them: the knowledge that were I to write an honest review of a book I hate I would most definitely hurt other writers’ feelings, alienate their fans, and lose friends. Also the YA world is small and writing a bad review of another YA writer’s book leaves you open to charges of sour grapes. Life’s too short.

I say that as someone who has received very mean reviews. I know exactly how much it hurts. Reviews have made me cry and scream and kick my (thankfully imaginary) dog (poor Elvis, he knows I love him). But I believe people are moved to write such nasty reviews because of the intensity of their relationship with books. That’s awesome!

I feel that too. When I read a book I was expecting to love and it sucks I feel betrayed. When I read a book in a beloved series and the characters are suddenly transformed beyond recognition and there seems to have been no editing at all and the writing has gone to hell, I am OUTRAGED. I want to kick the editor and the author. On the scale of things, I think writing a mean review about the book is way better than assault.

Passionate reviews, good or bad, are fabulous. It’s great that people care enough to rant or rave about a book. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to vent your spleen at a book. Some eviscerations of books are wonderfully well written and a total pleasure to read. And some passionate raves about books are appallingly badly constructed. One of the reviews of my books that embarrasses me the most was a rave. An extraordinarily badly written rave in a professional location1 which so mischaracterised my book that it was unrecognisable. The reviewer clearly loved the book. They also clearly didn’t understand it. No review has annoyed me as much as that one.

On the other hand, my favourite review ever remains the one written by a punter on the B&N site which said Magic or Madness was like a bad Australian episode of Charmed. Makes me laugh every time I think of it.

An unprofessional review is one that attacks the author directly. But the problem is that most writers conflate themselves with their books so that many consider an attack on their work to be an attack on them. It’s really hard for us writers to be clear that the reviewer is calling our book “a candy-coated turd” not us. But learn it we must! Part of this job is having your work assessed by people who are not going to be kind. No one owes you a good review.

A site like the Worst Review Ever is an excellent place for authors with bruised egos to vent, but I really hope it doesn’t have a dampening effect on online YA reviewers. If you hate a book, say so. Figure out exactly what it was that bugged you about it and let rip. You’re doing all of us readers a service. Even if we totally disagree with you. One of the most useful parts about Twilight‘s success has been the vigorous debate all over the intramawebs about the book’s worth and effect on its readers. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’d really hate for reviewers worried about an author’s feelings to dilute their passion. Bugger the author’s feelings. You’re not writing reviews for them, you’re writing your reviews for us readers.

Readers, you (we) have the right to hate!

And also the right to change our minds at a later date when we read the book and discover it didn’t suck after all. Or vice versa.

Authors, you know what’s worse than a bad review? No reviews at all.

  1. I’m not saying whether it was online or off. []

Management skills

As some of you know my next book is set in New York City in the early 1930s. I’ve been reading many accounts of the Great Depression, learning what happened. The why it happened is a lot harder to understand than the effects. But the current world-wide financial crisis means that there are many people speculating about what happened back then and how it relates to now. Great for my novel!

I was fascinated by Background Briefing’s recent documentary about the emergence of business schools and their effect on corporate culture and its relationship to the current crisis: “MBA: Mostly Bloody Awful“. This program is genius and you must all listen to it!

It’s always struck me as strange that someone could walk into an industry, like say publishing, armed with nothing but a degree in management and start managing people without knowing anything about that industry, or what it is the people in publishing do. Why, yes, I have seen this.

I came into the publishing industry knowing a lot about books and reading. I’d even hung out with authors and editors and other publishing folks for many years before I sold my first books. And, yet, I knew almost nothing about the industry. And frankly five years later I’m still learning. So colour me skeptical that a total newcomer to the industry can walk in and start running it. Selling books is not the same as selling sprockets.1

Ditto for any industry. In the olden days people used to start at the bottom and work their way up. It made for bosses who knew everything about their company and their industry. It made for good management. According to the doco bringing in people trained in “management” with no hands on experience has been a disaster.

Which is not surprising—most people in most industries learn how to do their job on the job. A friend of mine’s a doctor. She said she learned more in her first year as a resident than in the many years of her medical degree. And she’s learnt buckets more working in ER and as a GP over the last few years. So is some wet-behind-the-ears MBA type going to suddenly know how to manage a business in an industry they know nothing about?

How does all of this apply to my book? The 1930s is the beginning of the era when business schools such as Harvard’s were beginning to make inroads into general business culture. Okay, slightly tenuous. But, trust me, is all grist to my mill.

Or maybe I just like ragging on MBAs . . .

  1. That goes either way. Of course, now I’m wondering what a sprocket is. []

Writing tickets

There’s a very fine line between promoting your books and writing tickets on yourself. It’s a moving line. What one person finds overly self promotery other people think is fine.

For instance, I was once told I had crossed the line because my Livejournal icons were of the front covers of my books. I thought that was nuts. I like the covers of my books. Why can’t I make icons out of them? Too pushy, I was told. It’s like you’re only on Livejournal to get people to buy your books. Someone else told me I shouldn’t mention my books on my blog because it sounds like I just want people to buy them and that’s the only reason I blog. On the other hand someone wrote wanting to know why there are no links to buy my books on this site. When I told them it’s because I think that’s pushy they said I was weird. (A definite possibility.)

I find it icky when authors blog about what voting awards (Hugo, Locus etc) they’re eligible for. To me it reads like they’re asking you to vote from them, which I find tacky. I mentioned this to some friends and they told me I was being crazy. That it is remiss of an author not to do that since the people who vote for these kind of awards often have no clue what’s eligible and like to be reminded. That it’s not about being self-aggrandising; it’s about giving readers information.

All these different takes on what constitutes being too self-promotery has led me to the conclusion that the only way to handle it is to do what you’re comfortable with. I am comfortable with icons of my covers. I am not comfortable blogging about good reviews of my work. (Or bad reviews for that matter.) Or skiting about being shortlisted or winning awards. (Not that it happens very often.) Because I honestly don’t think any of that has much to do with me. Reviews and awards are for readers not authors. I think the most important thing they do is help people find books that might otherwise have been overlooked. For me to engage with them is beside the point. So I no longer do.

I am comfortable (actually I’m ecstatically happy) blogging about the process of researching and writing my books, about the different markets my books have been sold into, the different covers the books get. All that fascinates me. As this is my blog I gets to write about it even if others think that’s too self-promotery.

What’s your take on all of this? I’d love to hear from authors and readers. What do you find too much? Are their authors you wish promoted themselves a bit more?

YA/kids book sales are up

Via Sarah Weinman the latest stats on book sales in the US of A:

The Children’s/YA Hardcover category rose 62.1 percent for the month with sales of $67.1 million, and sales for year-to-date were up by 46.4 percent.The Children’s/YA Paperback category was also up by 13.4 percent in February with sales totaling $41.6 million; sales increased by 17.4 percent for the year.

YAY! W00t! *dance of joy* I am especially fascinated by the big jump in hardcover sales. Runs contrary to the idea that pbs will sell better in a downturn. I wonder what’s going on there? Interesting . . .

On the other hand:

The Adult Hardcover category was down by 0.9 percent in February with sales of $77.8 million; year-to-date sales were down by 17.7 percent. Adult Paperback sales decreased 38.8 percent for the month ($79.7 million) and decreased by 29.5 percent for the year.The Adult Mass Market category was down 18.3 percent for February with sales totaling $48.8 million; sales were also down by 14.7 percent year-to-date.

I wonder how much the increase in kids/YA book sales has to do with the lower price point? Standard YA hardcovers are at least $5 cheaper than adult hardcovers. Could it be that the rise in YA/kids is at the expense of Adult? I.e are a growing number of people (teenagers and adults) realising that there are fabulous books being published in YA and buying them in preference to Adutl? Or is it simply that teenagers read way more than adults? Or is it solely the Stephenie Meyer effect?

Anyone else got any thoughts?

Whatever is going on it does feel like very good news for my corner of the publishing world. Fingers crossed it will continue for some time. Or at least until my mortgage is paid off . . .

Why I never want to be an agent

Nathan Bransford has a typical agent’s blog. He talks a lot about the business and answers questions from his readers, most of whom are unpublished writers. Recently he ran a competition to give aspiring writers an insight into one aspect of an agent’s job: reading query letters. He ran 50. Three were for books that went on to be published. Readers got to pick five.

Reading the query letters was the least interesting part of the exercise for me. I didn’t finish a single one. I hate reading queries almost as much as I hate writing them. I think they’re a form designed to breed clunky, cliched, boring writing. It’s close to impossible to write an elegant and engaging plot synopsis, which is essentially what a query letter is. Yes, I always skip the plot synopsis when I read reviews.

But I was fascinated by the rejection letters in the comments threads. The majority of participants took the competition seriously and gave fairly standard rejection or please-send-me-more letters. But there were a few who took the opportunity to get a weird kind of revenge by rejecting the queries as viciously as they could. I admit I was shocked. I’ve accumulated more than twenty years of rejections and I have never been rejected anywhere near as nastily.

My only explanation is that the mean comments were coming from trolls1 and/or people who were translating the emotional impact of their rejections. When you’re rejected even though the actual wording is something like “not suitable for our needs at this time” or “while well written I did not fall in love” or “it’s not you it’s me” or “why don’t we just be friends?” it always sounds like I HATE EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER WRITTEN. YOU SMELL LIKE DUNG. I WISH YOU WOULD DIE. I think some people were writing rejections closer to how rejections feel than how they actually are. Because professional agents, unless they’re off their meds, don’t write those kind of letters. They just don’t.

The next fascinating part was seeing participants realise that it’s hard to read and process 50 query letters in a day. Because, as mentioned above, they’re the most boring things to read in the world. But also because you’re not reading them with regular eyes you’re reading for potential sales. Not just Do I like this? But how saleable is this? Will I find it a home? Do I love it enough to keep on pushing?

When my agent, Jill Grinberg took me on, it was because of my already published trilogy and an adult novel I’d written. She was very upfront that while she loved the adult novel she thought it would be a very hard sell. A few other agents I’d seen talked as if selling it would be a cinch. Since the reactions I’d been getting from friends who’d read it were so polarised (with some loving it and the others saying it was completely unreadable) I had great difficulty believing that and it was one of the many reasons I signed with Jill. Call me old-fashioned but I value honesty and realistic expectations. Turns out Jill was right. Despite all her best efforts the novel is still not sold.

I’m not alone in having written an uncommercial novel. Jill is not alone in taking on a client with an uncommerical novel. But publishing is a business and only taking on clients whose novels aren’t commercial (no matter how much you love their work) is not sustainable. Every so often an agent can place such a novel and every so often that novel can surprise everyone but selling well. But it’s rare.

So many of the people who aren’t published and blame agents for their lack of success fail to understand that publishing is a business. Agents have to understand that business and know which editors are looking for which kind of books. It’s specialised knowledge that you can only learn on the job. Agents can and do take on uncommercial books that they love but they have to balance it with more commercial projects.

For those wondering: I am not sneering at commercial books. I am a commercial writer. My published novels are commercial and fit without question into their particular genre. (The unpublished adult novel was an aberration!) Many of my favourite books are extremely commercial. You also have to remember that what’s deemed “commercial” changes over time. It’s not a fixed term.

I think its wonderful that this contest gave so many people a sense of the decisions an agent makes when taking on a client. Remember, though, reading queries and selling books is not even close to everything an agent does. Which is why it’s just about the last job I could ever do. It’s way too much hard work, requires you to be extremely organised, tactful and a strategic thinker and, well, basically you have to be good at everything I’m crap at.

I guess that’s why I’m a writer.

  1. And let’s not talk about them, shall we? []

Quick quessie for authors

A friend just emailed to ask me what the pencil capital Ps all over her manuscript mean.1 How many of you knew what copyeditor’s marks were before you sold your first book?

Those of you who did know was it because you’d worked in publishing before you sold a book?

I had no idea what I was looking at when the copyedited manuscript of Battle of the Sexes arrived. Fortunately, the ms. came with a guide explaining the marks. I guess uni presses are used to newbie authors who know nothing about publishing. Doubly fortunately I’m married to someone who worked in publishing for years and had published three books.2 Bless you, Scott!

I still turn to Scott to explain the obscurer marks to me.

Is there anything else you didn’t know before you sold your first book that you wish you had known?

  1. New paragraph. []
  2. At that time. He’s now published so many I’ve lost count. []

Books not earning out (updated)

Ever since I first started learning about publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of the books published by legitimate publishing house don’t earn out. But I’ve never seen any concrete evidence to back this claim up. Since I started learning about children’s & young adult publishing I’ve been hearing that the majority of their books do earn out. I’ve heard the same about the romance genre.

As far as I know no publisher releases what percentage of their books earn out. All we have to go on is anecdotal evidence.

I’m starting to wonder whether this oft quoted stat—sometimes it’s 7 out of 10 don’t earn out; other times it’s 9 out of 10—is solely about adult publishing. Because the same people who’ve told me (at several diff imprints and publishing houses) that the majority of their kids books earn out, look at the adult half of their businesses and roll their eyes. “I don’t know how that’s sustainable,” they’ll say.

Does this mean that it’s the majority of adult trade publishing that fails to earn out and not the majority of all books?

I would love to hear from people in the publishing industry. Do the majority of the books you publish earn out? If they don’t are the majority of them profitable for you even though they aren’t for the authors? And what about agents? What percentage of the books you sell earn out?

I totally encourage anonymity.

Update: For those asking what “earn out” means: Typically when a publisher buys a book they pay the author what’s called an “advance.” Say, the author is paid $1,000. They will not get any further money from the publisher until the earnings of the book are greater than $1,000. For each book the author gets a percentage of the book’s sale price usually somewhere between 6-15% (depending on what format and some other factors). So at 10% of a $20 cover price the author has to sell 500 copies to earn $1000. For every book sold after those first 500 you’re earning $2 a book. Hope that makes sense.