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.

The ARC thing

I’m getting some push back in email and elsewhere about this post so I’d like to set the record straight1:

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking a publisher for an ARC (advance reader copy) of a book.

ARCs are created solely to promote the book in question. The hope is that the ARCs will go out to bloggers and reviewers and librarians and booksellers and generate excitement and enthusiasm for the book ahead of its publication date. That’s what ARCs are for.

My sole purpose in posting was to let people know that I’m not the person to contact for Liar ARCs. I was not saying that you should not try to get hold of Liar ARCs. Or ARCs of any other book you might want to talk about on your blog. Just that I personally don’t have any. (My publicists are the people to ask. Their contact details are on my contact page.)

If I’d thought about it a bit more I would not have published that post. Because, of course, the people who read my blog are not the people who’ve been bugging me for ARCs. Isn’t that always the way?

Publicists are not bothered by people asking for ARCs. On the contrary, it helps them figure out which books have a lot of buzz. If thousands of people are all asking for the ARC of Maureen Johnson’s Weasel, for example, that lets her publicists know the buzz is very strong indeed. And if no one is asking for early copies of Liar then my publicists realises that more work has to be done.

Publishers may not give you a copy when you ask. There are lots of reasons for this which mostly have to do with the limited print run of ARCs. But there is zero harm in asking. Just be preparted to tell them where you will review the book in question (i.e. explain about your blog) and how giving you a copy will help the word get out about the book.

Just, you know, make sure you’re asking someone who actually has ARCs. Very often that’s not the author.

And one last thing: I am absolutely thrilled and delighted and basically over the moon that there’s so much interest in Liar. I’m not complaining about that one little bit.

  1. Wish me luck with that. []

The Australian cover of Liar

Because I don’t write graphic novels or cheat like Scott and get one of my regular novels illustrated1 the only art I get is the cover. I think that’s part of why we authors are so obsessive about the cover. And also why we get so very upset when it’s not what we were hoping for. Well, that and the fact that a cover can make or break a book.

Well, this year I’m lucky enough to have two different covers from the get go. Two pieces of art! Yay!

Why am I so lucky you ask?

Because 2009 marks the first year in which I have a book coming out at the same time in Australia and the US of A. Hence the two covers.

I never truly feel that a book is real until it has a cover. Since Liar has two it must be realer than most.

Without further ado here is the Allen & Unwin cover designed by the incredibly talented Bruno Herfst:

I love it more than I can say. It captures the book so perfectly. I asked for something spare, iconic, cool and dark. Possibly a typographical treatment. Bruno exceeded my expectations by miles. I keep staring at it cause it makes me so very happy.

There will be embossing only on the title, Liar. Won’t that pop?! Awesome.

I also think it will cross over most excellently well into the adult market. I’ve been told by several grown ups that they were a little embarrassed to be reading How To Ditch Your Fairy in public. Not a problem with this cover.

I hope youse lot like it as much as I do.

I’ll reveal the USian cover on Friday.

  1. Yes, Scott’s next book, Leviathan—out in October—is fully illustrated. Best. Art. Ever. And the rest of the book’s not bad either. []

Agents and Rejection

Last week writers were invited to vent about agents at the Bookends literary agency blog. I assumed it would be published writers ranting about their bad agent experiences. I have never experienced bad agentry, but I have heard some scarifying stories. However, it was mostly unpublished writers. Some of their complaints were totally legitimate and made a lot of sense. But many of them were, um, somewhat astonishing.

They mostly boiled down to aspiring writers not understanding what it is that agents do. They seem to think an agent’s job is giving them feedback on their work and teaching them the ways of publishing. That isn’t any part of an agent’s job. Agents who provide that kind of feedback are doing it out of the goodness of their heart.

Even more aspiring authors seemed to be convinced that the main part of an agent’s job is finding new clients.

No, the main job of any agent is to look after their existing clients.

Which involves negotiating deals in multiple territories, for audio, media, electronic rights etc etc. That’s a LOT of contracts. Then they’re dealing with problems that come up between publisher and author. Bad edits. Bad covers. Late payments. Late manuscripts. Inaccurate royalty statements. Client’s editor being laid off. Their imprint dissolved. Book remaindered within less than a year. No paperback edition of hardcover. Author going crazy and turning in a book written in crayon on vellum. Editor going crazy and demanding all characters be changed into echidnas. Etc etc and so on.

My agent, Jill Grinberg, starts work early in the morning and keeps going till late at night. I’ve sent her emails at 10pm her time and she’s gotten back to me instantly. She’s had phone calls with me at all sorts of ungodly hours because I am in Sydney and she in New York City. Remember, I am just one of her many clients and no where near her most successful.

Yes, agents want to find the next big thing. But their pre-existing clients come first and take up the majority of their time. Trust me, when you have an agent you will be glad that’s how it works.

I get how much rejection hurts. It took me twenty years to get published. There was a lot of rejection on the way. It frequently made me furious. I was enraged by form letters. (I am not just a number!) I was enraged by personalised rejections that detailed what was wrong with my work. (Why are they so stupid and blind?!) I was enraged when the rejections took ages to come or didn’t come at all. (Why are they torturing me?) I was enraged by quick rejections. (What? It takes seconds to decide my work sucks? They can’t have actually read it!)

But really I was angry about not getting published. I saw lots of crap on the shelves. My book’s better than that! Why wouldn’t they publish me?!

It’s great that I believed in my writing even in the face of all that rejection. I encourage you, too, to believe. But I also know that many of the people rejecting me were right. My writing wasn’t ready. One of the rejections that hurt me the most was by an agent who said they thought I had talent and originality but they just weren’t enthusiastic enough.

Reader, I cried.

I know now that that agent was right to pass. I have writer friends who were signed by agents who weren’t enthusiastic enough about their work. In each case—after much unpleasantness—they wound up with a different agent. Ever been out with someone who wasn’t really into you? Not fun was it? It’s even worse when you’re with an agent who’s not that into you. Because they’ve got your dreams and hopes in their hands and they don’t really care.

An agent who passes cause they’re not sufficiently in love with your writing is DOING YOU A FAVOUR.

I know that’s hard to believe. But a good agent is going to be with you for the long haul. You want them to believe in your writing as much as you do. That’s what I have with my agent. It is a wonderful thing. When you find an agent that’s what I want you to have too.

Going freelance, an embarrassing tale

I’ve been writing stories since I first learned how to write a sentence. But I did not become a full-time writer until 1 April 2003.1 In those many many years before I became a full-time writer I wrote in between doing other things. In between going to primary school, high school, university, and my various jobs. I’d always have at least two documents open when I was at uni. One was the essay I was supposed to be writing and the other was the story or novel I was writing on the sly. When the going got tough with one I’d switch to the other. Writing was something that I snatched time to do. It was my secret joy and I never had as much time to do it as I wanted.

A while back I solicited opinions on whether a friend of mine should go freelance or not.2 One of the interesting things mentioned in the comments was how hard the transition from part-time to full-time writer can be. Hope said:

She might find, disaster of all disasters, that when she quits and has all the free time in the world, that she can’t get any work done. If she is writing successfully now, it might be because the structure of her life encourages it. Sometimes, we get more done in 15 minutes, when we know that that is all the time we have, then we would if we had all day.

Garth Nix chimed in to agree:

When I first became a full-time writer in 1998, I actually wrote less over the next year than I had when I’d been incredibly busy with my day job.

Diana Peterfreund agreed:

Oh, and tell your friend that if she *does* quit, expect it to take a year or more to get into a professional schedule. It’s been that way for me and for a lot of writers gone freelance I know.

The rhythms of writing full-time are entirely different from writing part-time. When I went freelance the same thing happened to me. Suddenly I had all the time in the world and my writing came to a grinding halt. Procrastinatory habits of a lifetime scaled up to unprecedented levels. To the point where all I did was faff about. It was insane. I didn’t write a damn thing.

I did try. But I just couldn’t. I’m not sure what was stopping me. But it felt like fear. Here I was doing what I always wanted to do. But I was so completely terrified that I’d blow it that I . . . well, froze. Thus leading to the very strong possibility that I would fail at doing what I’d always wanted to do.

But then through pure luck I had a chance at a ghostwriting gig. Scott encouraged me to go for it, seeing as how I was doing nothing on my own projects. He thought it would be a good learning experience.

It was. But not in the way he was thinking.

Dear readers, I blew it.

I continued to faff. I missed deadlines. I wound up having to write the book in a matter of weeks. It was as good as a book can be that took two weeks to write. Hint: Not very.

I was given a kill fee, which was less than the advance. As in, I had to return part of the money I’d been paid.

My first professional writing gig and I blew it.

Not long afterwards I was given the opportunity to pitch my Magic or Madness idea. Miracle of miracles, Eloise Flood went ahead and bought it from the proposal. The ghostwriting debacle had left me ashamed and demoralised. This was my chance to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete washout, that I could do this full-time thing. I had grave doubts.

I wrote the first draft of Magic or Madness in eight weeks and turned it in six months ahead of the deadline.3 It was a vastly better book than the ghostwritten one. At least partly because I’d written that poor broken shell of a book. I’d had a practice run at writing a YA. I told myself that the ghostwriting disaster was ultimately a good thing. Without it Magic or Madness probably wouldn’t have been as good.

That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that I blew my first pro writing gig.

It’s taken me a lot longer than a year to learn how to write full-time. I think it wasn’t really until last year—2008—that I’ve exhibited anywhere near the kind of discipline necessary for this gig. I still faff but in a more controlled manner. I’ve not missed a deadline since Magic’s Child in 2006.

More importantly I’ve never again experienced the paralysing fear that almost nuked my career before it began. By the time I finished that first draft of Magic or Madness in January 2004 I knew I could do this full-time writing thing. I’d also learned it was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

I’m still learning. When I’m in writing mode very little can distract me. However, getting into writing mode remains a struggle. I seem to have lost the ability I had when I was a part-timer to write in between other things, to get a useful amount of writing done in short bursts. Now I need at least three clear hours and the first hour is often spent pushing past my resistance to writing. But it’s so much better than that first year. I’ll take it.

Happy sixth anniversary to me!

  1. Wow, this is my sixth anniversary. How bizarre. []
  2. She didn’t. []
  3. Which tragically meant they just moved up the publication date. []

Hardcover versus Paperback Redux

Recently I observed that back home in Australia, the vast majority of books are published in paperback. Hardcovers are exceedingly rare. But here in the US of A there’s a huge emphasis on hardcovers.

When I first asked about it I was told that paperback originals don’t get reviewed. Thus the hardcover is more prestigious because it generates more attention. Many good reviews can lead to awards, and best book of the year listings, and lots of sales. A paperback original goes into the world unheralded and unreviewed and thus disappears into oblivion.

I’m not convinced this is as true as it once was or that prestige is as important as people think it is. I believe that fewer and fewer buyers of books are paying attention to what old media reviewers say. Partly this is because the book review section has been disappearing from newspapers all over the USA, just as newspapers have been disappearing.1 And partly because there is such a long lag time for reviews of YA in old media. Whereas there are blogs, whose reviews I respect and trust, reviewing YA before the books are even out.

How To Ditch Your Fairy is my best selling book. It had very few reviews in old media venues. It’s won no awards, nor been shortlisted for any, and has made precious few best book of the year lists. Magic or Madness won awards, was shortlisted for others, had starred reviews, and was very widely reviewed in old media places and made lots of best book of the year lists. HTDYF has already outsold MorM in hardcover even though it’s been out for five months and MorM‘s been out for four years.2 I suspect (hope!) that HTDYF will do better in paperback.3

What HTDYF has had more than any of my other books is a smart publicity and marketing campaign4 that has generated plenty of word of mouth. I’m convinced that the word of mouth has especially been pushed along by all the blog coverage5 While HTDYF didn’t get much old media coverage, it was extremely widely reviewed in new media places. There are so many online reviews I’ve lost track of them all.6

The majority of bloggers don’t care whether a book debuts in hardcover or paperback. They are not going to refuse to review a paperback original because it’s not prestigious enough. They don’t think they’ll be sullied by its mere presence. They just care whether they like it or not. I suspect this partly because that’s how I feel— after all I’m a blogger who sometimes reviews YA—but mostly because I’ve seen it in action.

Debuting in paperback can be an enormous start to a series or a career. Off the top of my head I can think of two series that got a massive kick in the pants because they were paperback debuts: Scott’s Uglies series and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books.7 At US$10 or less the first books in these highly addictive series were cheap, attractively packaged, and there was a less-than-a-year wait for the next book in the series, which was also a cheap paperback. Readers got hooked—at which point the evil publisher switched to hardcover.

Which leads me to the second reason publishers like hardcovers: the profit margin is higher. In order for a paperback to be profitable it has to sell vastly more copies than a hardcover book. How much more? An average royalty for hardcover is 10%, and for paperback 6%. So pbs are a smaller percentage of a smaller amount of money, which means on average you have to sell three times as many to earn out. Let me show you the maths: Say you have a $10 pb, that’s 60c per copy. If the advance was $20,000 you’d have sell more than 33,333 copies to earn out. If your hc retails for $17, you’d only have to sell 11,764 hardcovers.

That’s a huge difference and a big incentive for both publisher and author to want hardcover. In fact, I think this is the only solid argument for going with a hardcover.

However, you’ll only earn out faster if the hardcover sells. When a hc costs close to twice what a pb costs people are less likely to buy them—especially in the middle of a recession.8 Book sales are down across the board in the USA. I predict that if sales keep going the way they are9—hardcovers down; paperbacks down a bit, steady or, in some cases, climbing—we’re going to see a lot more paperback originals.

Overall, that’s probably a good thing, especially for debut authors. And also for series where the books are already written—that way the books can come out cheaply and in quick succession. This has long been a successful formula for romance and mysteries. I won’t be surprised if the USA winds up like Australia and the UK with very few hardcovers at all.10

Here’s one reason it can be a good thing: Guess what frequently happens to books that don’t sell in hardcover? They aren’t published in paperback. They don’t get their second shot. This has happened to many wonderful books, which despite awards and glowing reviews didn’t sell, and thus the publisher decides that a paperback version is not viable. Holly Black’s first book Tithe didn’t sell well in hardcover, but sold spectacularly in paperback. What if her publisher hadn’t taken the risk?

On the other hand, if a book is a paperback original that’s typically the only chance it gets. If it doesn’t do well then that’s it. At least with hardcover a book has a pretty good shot at a second life as a paperback. And often it will go from hc to trade pb to mass market pb. Three chances to go out there and sell.11

As you can see it’s a complicated set of decisions a publisher has to make when they’re figuring out whether to go hardcover or paperback. You have to sell way more copies for pbs to make a profit. But expensive hcs can kill a book. Keep in mind that the majority of books do not earn out.

I’d love to hear what youse lot think. I’m especially interested to hear from those making this decision and from those of you who’ve had different experiences in one format over the other.

  1. And, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing. []
  2. Remember though surpassing Magic or Madness‘s sales is a very low bar. []
  3. Especially with it’s fabulous new cover. Hint: look at the top of the left-hand side bar. Or go here for a bigger view. []
  4. Thank you, Bloomsbury! []
  5. Bloomsbury was excellent at spreading the ARCs of HTDYF far and wide. []
  6. Which, let me tell you, is a marvellous feeling. []
  7. Being a paperback series had a lot to do with the success of Gossip Girls, A List, etc. []
  8. Or depression or whatever you want to call what the world is experiencing right now. []
  9. I know this link leads to an article on sf book sales but all its links go to reports of sales across the board. It was the most recent round up I could find. []
  10. Judging from the foreign language editions of mine and Scott’s books I’d say most countries in the world are predominantly paperback. []
  11. Though usually the third life in mass market pb is because it sold well in trade. []

Productivity Commission draft report

Some of you have been writing to ask me what I think of the Australian Productivity Commission’s draft report. I’ve been trying very hard to put my thoughts into words, but frankly I’m too depressed and angry. But now Michael Heyward of Text has a most excellent opinion piece in The Age:

THERE’S a lot at stake in the world of books and writing and publishing. Our industry is blossoming. We’re selling great books at home and exporting our writers in unprecedented numbers. We have a superb retail environment, with a dynamic independent sector, and a competitive printing industry that generates significant numbers of skilled jobs. There’s never been a better time to be a writer or publisher in Australia.

He’s spot on. Publishing in Australia is doing great. It’s making money and employing people. Unlike, say, the car industry, which the Australian government has been bailing out for years, we’re not asking the government for a handout. We’re not asking for a single dollar. We just want to retain a law that has helped the Australian publishing industry thrive since 1991.

Introducing parallel importing is not going to reduce the price of books in Australia. One of the book chains most heavily in favour of it already charges above the recommended retail price for bestselling books. If they really cared about making books cheaper would they do that? Removing parallel importing will increase their profit margin with little or no benefit to book consumers like myself.

The draft report’s proposal for the publication territorial copyright to expire after a year amounts to a stealth introduction of parallel importing. As Heyward says many books do much better in their second year than their first:

At Text, many of our best backlist titles have their biggest sales after the first 12 months. It’s a typical pattern. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River sold five times as many copies in its second year as in its first. We published Peter Temple’s masterpiece The Broken Shore in August 2005 and it has now sold 10 times as many copies as it did in its first year. Both of these writers are bestsellers in Britain.

It’s true for books that aren’t bestsellers. Magic or Madness sold better in its second year than its first, so has every book in the trilogy, and I sure am hoping that will also be true for How to Ditch Your Fairy.

I want my books and those of all Australian writers to be as protected as our British, Canadian and USian colleagues’ books are.1 I really don’t think that’s a lot to ask.

There’s information here if you want to submit a response to the Commission’s draft report.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, but are a little bit interested, you can find more info here, here and here.

  1. I’d also like to point out that it’s not just Australian authors who benefit from Australia retaining its territorial copyright. Australia is a very strong book market, I know many non-Australian authors who earn more from their Australian editions than from their UK editions. We Australians love to read. []

Make it the best book you can

There’s a certain misery in the air right now. I’m reading it on other writer’s blogs. I’m feeling it myself. Seeing it in tweets. Hearing it in late night conversations in bars. It’s kind of everywhere. So many writers I know, or who I follow on line, or in interviews, are grappling with their own self worth as writers. If I’m not selling am I still a writer? If I can’t get published am I still a writer? If my contract got cancelled am I still a writer? If my next book doesn’t do as well as my last book am I still a writer? If I don’t win awards am I still a writer? If reviewers hate my books am I still a writer?

I myself have thwacked a few writer friends with pep talks in the last few weeks.

Actually, it’s just the one pep talk and it goes like this:

You can only control the book you write.

You can’t control whether you sell it. You can’t control how big the advance is if you sell it. You can’t control how much is spent promoting it. You can’t control how many copies Barnes & Noble takes or whether they take it at all. You can’t control whether punters buy it when it finally appears on the shelves. You can’t control the reviews. You can’t control the award committees.

Spending time and energy angsting about any of that stuff will only do your head in.

All you can do is write the very best book you can.

It will get published or it won’t. It will find its market or it won’t. It will sell or it won’t. It will win awards or it won’t. None of that matters if you’ve written the best book you can.

Books with huge advances and the biggest marketing and publicity budget in the world sink like a stone. Books with nary a sheckle spent on them take off out of nowhere. Books you think are terrible do great; books you worship sell fewer than a thousand copies. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Do not let it do your head in.

Because if you believe that your worth as a writer is tied up in how well your books do even success won’t help. Do not be gloating that your book is doing better than so and so’s. That you can write full-time while they need a day job. Tables turns. So what if your current book is the hugest hit ever? What happens if the book after that isn’t? What happens if your biggest success is already behind you? Does that mean you’re not a real writer? That you’re a failure?

Elizabeth Gilbert touches on all these issues in her recent wonderful talk on genius and creativity. If you haven’t already, you really must check it out for she argues that you cannot let your sense of self get tied up in how your books do and also that it’s a pernicious myth that a creative person must be insane or damaged or both and that ultimately your art will destroy you.

It dovetails neatly with my thinking of late. Because I’ve been wondering if all the angsting that I and so many other writers do is fueled by a belief in those myths. Do we angst because we think we should? Because that’s what we’ve learned writers do? Deep in our subconscious do we believe that we’re not a real writer if we’re not suffering?

I believed it growing up. When I was young I obsessively read and re-read Katinka Matson’s Short lives: Portraits in Creativity and Self-destruction and the work of all the writers included in that book. I honestly thought that in order to be creative I would have to suffer and be self-destructive.

It bewildered me that any time actual bad things happened I found myself unable to write. I was not inspired by them, I was devastated. I have always written more prolifically and better when I’m happy. Later, much later, I could make sense of the bad things, but never at the time. Conversely I am always much happier when I’m writing a lot. When the writing is going well I’m way happier than any award or review or book sales have ever made me.

I have also discovered no correlation between how emotionally fraught it is for me to write a book and the book’s success. How To Ditch Your Fairy was the easiest and most fun book to write, thus far it’s been my most successful. Despite my struggles on the rewrite of the liar book it’s still been a much easier and more fun book to write than Magic’s Child, which was (other than my PhD thesis) my most unhappy writing experience. Rewriting the liar book’s been hard, but it’s also mostly been pretty enjoyable. Sometimes I’d really like not to be in the narrator’s head, cause, well, she’s a compulsive liar, but the tricky structure has been an excellently brain stretching experience. I’ve learned so much writing the book; I think I’m a better writer because of it. That’s very happy making.

If the liar book does well in the real world that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, I still know it’s the best book I could possibly make it.

I will admit that I have talked about writing the liar book as though I were suffering. Because I kind of thought I should be. Which is nuts.

The myth of the suffering artist is very pervasive.

But Liz Gilbert is right: it’s a stupid myth. We should forget about it. Write because you love it. Write because it’s your job. Write to produce the best books you can and to be happy with them. No matter what happens after they’re out of your control you will know that you made them as good as you knew how.

That’s the part of being a writer that is in our own hands; that’s the part that truly matters.

Maureen’s Most Excellent Rant

There’s a wonderful rant from the fabulous Maureen Johnson over on her agent’s blog. Maureen’s responding to the notion that a bunch of agents giving free advice on Twitter was unprofessional. Here’s my favourite bit where she responds to a comment upstream that claims that they don’t read street signs so why should they read agent submission guidelines:

Yes, you have to read all the guidelines. I don’t even know what to say to someone (I refer to a comment above) who doesn’t think you have to read street signs and says that likewise, you do not have to read guidelines. This is, I’m sorry, I have to say it . . . perhaps the worst example I have ever read. Not only should you not be writing, you should probably not be driving. I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s not nearly as harsh as the impact of your car as you go careening through stop signs and into school zones. Do you skip all instructions? Do you just stick food in the oven because who has time to read directions and then wonder when it burns?

What Maureen said. Times a billion. So many of the rants I see about agents boil down to this:

Why do I have to follow the rules?

I don’t see people ranting online about the outrageousness of having to go to university and study and pass exams in order to become an engineer/doctor/lawyer/architect etc. Or how incredibly unfair it is that you have to train and play regularly over many many many years in different competitions (high school, college, overseas) and be picked up in the draft in order to play in the WNBA or NBA. Why can’t I just rock up to the New York Liberty unannounced and be their next point guard? Why do I have to jump through all these hoops to prove that I’m talented and smart and disciplined enough to be their point guard? It’s outrageous!

Get a grip.

No one owes you publication. No one owes you a place on the New York Liberty. You have to earn it. AND you have to get lucky.

It took me twenty years to get published. I did many other things during that time including earning a BA, a PhD, living in different countries, as well as writing two novels and a million short stories. No matter where I was living or what I was studying I worked really hard on my writing. But in those twenty years the only success I had were a few short stories and poems published unpaid in university magazines.

Yet it did not occur to me to rail at the system. I was sad and disappointed no one wanted to publish me, upset that they could not recognise my genius,1 but I read the guidelines, jumped the hoops, and submitted as I was asked to. Why would anyone who seriously wants to be published not do the same? There are so many obstacles in the way of getting published why would you set up more for yourself?

I really don’t understand it.

What Maureen said.

  1. I was young, okay? []

In a dancing kind of mood

Everything today was wonderful. Just everything. Especially my book launch. Thank you, all! Especially Lili and Jodie for your blush-making speeches, and Readings in Carlton for hosting, and all my wonderful friends for coming along to cheer HTDYF‘s official appearance in Australia. And all the people I don’t even know. Bless!

Thanks to everyone who’s written after my Melbourne events. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to reply. Hopefully on my return to Sydney but more likely when I’m in NYC. But I just wanted to let you all know that I SO appreciate your wonderful letters. And, no, being a good speller is not necessary if you want to be a writer. Though it’s not a bad thing either!

For those who were asking, HTDYF should now be available in book shops far and wide across this fair land. And if they don’t have it—demand to know why not! Or alternatively buy Simmone Howell’s Everything Beautiful which rocks.

I leave you with this Alien Onion post on parallel importation, which links to many profound, beautiful, and smart submissions on publishing in Australia. You should especially read Tim Winton’s piece.

And now I will dance towards bed.

Tomorrow = Perth.

Questions I have been asked lately

These questions come from my email and from this blog. Cause I’m short on time I thought I’d just answer ’em all here:

Q: Don’t you think it’s wrong that Stephen King attacked Stephenie Meyer?

A: No, I don’t. I also don’t think he attacked her. Writers are allowed to not like other writers’ books. We’re even allowed to say so out loud. Saying you don’t think much of someone’s writing or their books is not an attack on them. Writers are not their books.

The only reason I don’t blog my opinion of books by living people is because I am a coward. Why I even got into trouble for admitting my hatred of Moby Dick and of a certain famous detective series. It’s not even safe to hate books by dead people!

Writers are crazy. And fans of writers are almost as lunatic. Truly. See what happens if you say anything against Angela Carter on my blog. Hint: I WILL KILL YOU DEAD.

Since I know just how bad we writers and fans are I do not engage. But I do not object to others’ bravery in doing so.

Sash asked: Sorry if you’ve already answered this somewhere, but are there any Brisbane appearances coming up??

A: No, there are no Brisbane events for me. You can find all my confirmed appearances here. I update it as soon as an event is confirmed. And I always announce any new appearances here on the blog.

I don’t choose where I go. All my appearances in Australia are organised by my wonderful publisher here, Allen & Unwin. My appearances in the US are organised by Bloomsbury. If you want me to appear in your town or city you need to bug them. Go to their websites and find the contact email address for publicity. Then write and tell them why you think I should go to your neck of the woods.

Q: I’m a published YA writer but many of my friends are literary writers and they sneer at me for writing YA. How can I get them to read my books and realise that YA is not crap?

A: You can’t. Just give up now. Nothing you can do or say will change their minds. Unless you start publishing capital L Literachure and win the Booker. And even then they’ll think it’s a fluke cause you’re really a YA writer. Or they’ll be impressed and congratulate you for finally having grown up as a writer.

What you really need is new friends. Preferably ones who read and write YA.

Jessica asked: “…the Australian press sometimes has a strange habit of always being about 15 years behind everyone else when it comes to realising that things like children’s books, graphic novels or genre fiction might actually have some validity or even readers.” I was curious about the Australian publishing industry in general. And since sometimes you talk about it (or Australian authors), I thought you’d be a good person to ask!

A: I guess my response would be: show me a mainstream press anywhere in the English-speaking world that’s realised that children’s books, graphic novels and genre fiction are important. The mainstream coverage of those areas is pretty woeful everywhere. I don’t think Australia’s any worse than the US or the UK. It’s just smaller and thus has less press so it probably looks from the outside like there’s less coverage. Thanks to Jason Nahrung The Courier Mail in Brisbane is especially good on covering all those areas.

Q: Are those birds on your blog real?

A: Yes.

Q: Whereabouts in Surry Hills are your new digs?

A: In the good part of Surry Hills where all the rainbow lorikeets are.

Ally asked: How easily are they [rainbow lorikeets] scared? (Like are they used to people)

A: They’re pretty used to people and being handfed. I don’t because there are signs all over the Botanical Gardens explaining why that’s a very bad idea.

Kelsey M. asked: Are you thinking of making the books [Magic or Madness trilogy] into movies?

A: Typically, writers do not make their own books into movies. I don’t know anything about how to make movies so I leave it to the experts. If a movie maker wanted to make my books into movies they’d have to negotiate with my agent for the right to do so. Currently no movie maker has been given the right to make a movie of the trilogy.

Q: From your blog it sounds like you’d prefer to stay in Australia and never go back to America. Is that true?

A: I cannot answer that question on the grounds that it will make my USian friends upset with me. Er, I mean, of course not. I am very lucky that I get to spend so much time in two such wonderful countries.

Q: Why aren’t you going on the Irish castle retreat with all those other YA writers. I thought some of them were your friends?

: Many of them are indeed friends of mine. I’m not going because I’ve heard the food in Ireland is really bad and that the castles are cold and damp. I fear that my friends will get pneumonia and die. If they haven’t already been killed by scurvy from eating nothing but potatoes.

No, I’m not jealous. Why would you suggest that? I’m sure they meant to invite me. The email probably got lost or something . . .

JWAM reader request no. 15: Copyright fears

Michelle Madow Says:

A lot of my friends have been asking me to email them what I’ve written so far, and it’s started me thinking about copyright. I want to show my friends what I’m working on so I can get their input, but don’t want to hurt myself in the end by doing so. Also, if I ever get published, I don’t want to have to deal with copyright lawsuits! How do I go about obtaining copyright, and how does copyright work for an unpublished author??

Kt Says:

I’m finding that its incredibly difficult to write fiction that theoretically occurs in a “real” world, that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the timelines and reality of said world. Sometimes i feel like it would be so much easier just to create an entirely imaginary world even though realistically that is a lot harder to develop. I can think of several writers who have done well by anchoring a “fictional” town in a “real” place. I’m debating between if i need to do that or if i can just fictionalize real places to be what i need them to be. i don’t even know if there are legal issues with that, i remember being very confused reading pride & prejudice with all the ____shires etc to avoid naming actual places. What do you find to be the best way to deal with this when there really is a need to anchor the story to at least a specific area?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not an intellectual property lawyer.

But my gut response is that neither of you has anything to worry about. I’ve been in the writing game a long time. As an amateur unpublished writer I showed my work to gazillions of people and as a published writer I’ve shown it (pre-publication) to even more and no one has ever stolen a single idea, or character, or setting of mine. Nor have I ever heard of it happening to any of the other many many many writers I know.

I’ve seen cases where one person was inspired by the story of another writer in their crit group to write a story in response. In which case they told the writer what they were doing and asked if it was okay. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. Writers inspiring one another!

I’ve also seen unpublished writers posting published work and claiming it as their own fan fiction. This has happened to Scott’s Uglies and many other writers. Here’s the thing though, it had zero effect on Scott or his sales, because fans recognised it instantly and began harrassing the plagiarist to take it down, which they eventually did.

And just to repeat what I said in this post and many others: ideas cannot be stolen. They’re there for the taking. Plagiarism refers to the theft of words, not ideas. Did I mention that ideas can’t be stolen?

It depresses me that there’s so much worry about copyright nowadays. I’ve had kids as young as twelve ask me how to protect their writing from being stolen. Maybe I’m completely sheltered but I’ve never had anyone try to steal my work. Unless you count this kid who tried to copy my maths homework when I was in year seven and boy did that go horribly wrong for him. (I’m innumerate.)

Perhaps that’s part of the copyright concern? Cheating by copying other people’s homework?

But I think it’s more likely that it’s because there is so much misinformation about copyright. I keep coming across people who think that ideas and plots can be stolen. No, they can’t. Many people think that Eragon violates copyright because of its similarities to Star Wars and the Anne McCaffrey Dragon books and Lord of the Rings.1 No, it doesn’t. Paolini may have been influenced by those books—and, please, show me one published novel that is uninfluenced by previous novels—but his words are his own. You can accuse him of being unoriginal, but not of being a plagiarist. Ideas, plots, even character types, can’t be stolen.2

Let’s say a novel is published that’s a relatively original take on, for example, uni***ns, and then a couple of years later someone else writes a very similar book about uni***ns, and for some reason, even though it’s not as original or well-written as the book it was inspired by, the second book does much better than the first.

So not fair! Fans of the first book are really pissed with the author of the second. But unfairness doesn’t make it plagiarism. Words were not stolen, ideas were borrowed. There’s no copyright violation.

And what often happens is that the first book gets a lift in popularity on the back of the first one’s success because fans of it are desperate for more cool uni***n books. I call that win-win. (Of a sort.)

Not to mention that what’s imitation and what’s an original riff on an existing book is in the eye of the beholder. I know people who find Eragorn refreshingly original and are appalled that anyone could think otherwise. People read differently. Why, I know readers who do not acknowledge that Angela Carter is a genius. Insanity!

Michelle, you should send your work out to your friends. First of all, if they’re anything like me or my friends, most of them won’t get around to reading it. Secondly, the more people who see your work the safer you are from theft because all your friends will know that you wrote it and will call the thief out. But I have to emphasise that I haven’t seen this happen. The fear of someone stealing your work is WAY out of proportion to actual instances of that happening.

Feedback is crucial

When you send your work to other people or post it online, you get critical responses that not only helps that piece of work, but all your subsequent work. The benefit is real, immediate, and lasting. The chances of having your work stolen are, in contrast, vanishingly small and apply only to that one piece of work.

If someone is so uncreative and unoriginal that they have to steal someone else’s words eventually they’re going to get caught. (The intermanets has made it much easier to uncover plagiarism. Witness the Kaavya Viswanathan case.) Whereas you, who are creative and original, will continue to write wonderful stuff. The more you write the more evident that will be. The way of the plagiarist is unsustainable.

Scott puts it this way:

    You are the goose that lays the golden eggs, and you’re just getting started at the whole egg-laying thing. Don’t worry so much about what happens to every single egg at this point; worry about getting better at making eggs.

    As Cory Doctorow likes to say, the problem for the artist is not piracy, but obscurity. If you hide your work, you’re making yourself obscure.

    Art is a conversation. By keeping your work from other artists, you are cutting yourself off from that conversation. The costs of losing that feedback and those connections with other artists are about a million times greater than the risk of plagiarism.

Copyrighting your work

As I understand it (and remember I’m not a lawyer) copyright only applies to completed works. So it’s not something to worry about until you have a finished work. And even then I wouldn’t worry. I have never applied for copyright. It never occurred to me to do so. Once a publisher buys your novel they apply for the copyright and get your ISBN numbers too.

When you start submitting your work to agents and editors. DO NOT put a copyright sign on it. That makes you look like an amateur. No reputable agent or editor will ever steal your work. The internamanets allow you to thoroughly check out any agent before submitting. Writers Beware and sites like it are your friend.3

And now for Kt’s question about whether you should set your book in a real place or not:

My first novels—the Magic or Madness trilogy—were set in the real world. In parts of the Northern Territory, Sydney, New York City, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok and Dallas to be precise. It never crossed my mind that could be a problem. The vast majority of novels published every year all around the world are set in the real world using real names of streets and places, as well as made-up ones. Some of the restaurants and cafes in the trilogy are real, some are not. I bent things to suit my needs. That’s one of they joys of novel writing—no footnotes. As far as I know there are no legal issues involved in setting your book in a real place. (But remember I’m not a lawyer.)

When it comes to institutions like universities and specific businesses I think the common practise is to be a bit cautious. Especially if you’re writing a book where some of your characters are thinly disguised real people and it’s pretty clear your novel is an expose of the dirty world of Princeton or Vogue magazine or Harvey Norman or whatever. But I believe simply renaming them takes care of that. Any intellectual property/copyright lawyer want to step in here?

I have no idea why Jane Austen and many of her contemporaries did the whole ____shires thing. Though I’ve always wondered. But I have too much on my plate to start googling around to find out. Any of my genius and well-read readers know?

My main message is that you don’t need to be overly concerned about copyright. Put those thoughts aside and get on with your writing. Focus on writing perfect sentences, coming up with cracker plots, and crafting unputdownable novels. Trust me, getting that right is much more of a worry than being sued over setting your story in a real place or one of your friend’s stealing your ideas, (which CAN’T be stolen, did I mention that?)

One last thing: I am all for copyright. Its existence means that I am able to make money from writing. My copyrighted work has sold in ten different territories, earning me extra money in each one. Copyright is a very good thing indeed.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Disclaimer: I have not read any of Paolini’s books so I have no idea if that’s true or not. []
  2. Anyone who tries to start a flamewar pro or con Paolini gets deleted. []
  3. I have a bit more to say on how to check whether an agent is legit here. []

JWAM Reader request no. 4: On getting published (Updated)

I’ve had a couple of questions that are about publishing, not writing. I have disqualifed such questions from this month’s advice though I might run a publishing questions month later in the year.1 But since I’ve already gotten two such questions I’m grandfathering them in.

But I will answer NO OTHER publishing questions! From now on: questions about the process of writing only. Thanks!

beth says:

I’d be interested in looking at the differences in submissions from when you were first starting to now. Could you share your query letters? Could you show us a real-life synopsis that you used when publishing one of your books? As someone with a complete novel and complete lack of success in publishing, I’d love to know more about the nitty-gritty of publishing, what it looked like for you when you sought publication, etc.

And, of course, I’d love to see your zombie attack plan

Beth, I can’t answer your second question because this is not zombie questions month. Save it for later.

Mitch Wagner says:

The one that’s really got me stumped: How do you sell a first novel? Does you really need to get an agent first? If so, how can you tell who the good agents are and who are the crooks? There’s so much writing advice out there, it all sounds authoritative, and I don’t believe any of it. I have friends who are established writers, and I don’t even believe THEM, because all they can tell me is how they got started 10 or 15 or 39 years ago, not how to get started today.

These quessies are variants on how to get published. Please take into account that I am not an editor or an agent and have, in fact, never worked in the publishing industry except as a writer. Thus I am not the best qualified person to answer these questions.

Like, for example, I have never written a query letter. Although I spent twenty years trying to make my first professional sale, I was trying to break into the genre short story market. The markets I was submitting to didn’t require a query letter more complicated than “this is my story it is x words long”.

By the time I started to shop my first completed novel in 1999, I had made enough contacts in the publishing industry that three agents and two editors agreed to look at it without my querying them. They all passed on it. That novel remains unpublished. So does the novel I wrote after it.

My path to publication was accidental. Eloise Flood listened to me pitch the Magic or Madness trilogy and then bought it from the proposal2. It helped that she’d read an early novel of mine so she knew I could write a complete novel. It also helped that she had a brand new imprint at Penguin, called Razorbill, and was desperate. I learned later that she was very nervous about the risk. Lucky for her and for me it worked out.

That is not the usual path. When I tell unpublished writers my story they tend to respond by saying. “Oh, so it’s not what you know it’s who you know.”

Which bewilders me. They seem to not hear the part about spending twenty years trying to get into print. TWENTY YEARS, people!

Or the fact that my contacts turned me down flat. Having contacts might3 get your work looked at faster, but it still has to be good, and they still have to love it enough to publish it.

I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t relied on my scant contacts, if I’d done it properly and queried lots of agents and editors, instead of just five. Maybe I would have gotten published faster if I’d tried the old fashioned way?

The vast majority of pro writers I know found their agent and got published by doing a lot of research to figure out what agents suited them best and then sent out query letters. Scott did it that way and he did it in the days before the internet made the search for an agent easier with site likes Agent Query. Maybe you should ask him about query letters? Though that was back in 1996.

I do know a bunch of people who’ve debuted in the last few years or about to in the next few. Every single one of them sent out query letters to get an agent.

I’m not sure if there are any big NYC houses left that officially accept unsolicited manuscripts. I do know though that they all have slush piles made up of the unsolicited manuscripts. I hear that very very very very very occasionally some plucky editorial assistant finds gold in them there hills. But it’s probably the most difficult way to get published. A manuscript from a reputable agent gets read much much quicker. My agent, Jill Grinberg, started getting responses from editors about How To Ditch Your Fairy less than a week after it went out.

Reputable agents make things happen faster. When you get an offer they protect you from signing a pernicious contract. I did not have an agent when I signed with Penguin for the MorM trilogy. That deal was much less favourable to me than the one brokered by Jill for HTDYF and the Liar book.

How do you know who’s a reputable agent and who isn’t? The easiest way is to check who their clients are, and what their sales record is. Here’s a random agents’ site and look it’s not even based in NYC. (Yes, there are good agents who are not based in New York City.) But who are their clients? Why New York Times bestseller Ellen Hopkins is one of them. Well, I’ve heard of her. A quick check on Publishers Marketplace reveals that it’s quite a big agency with a lot of agents and many recent sales.

AgentQuery allow you to find agents for your specific genre. If an agency doesn’t have any writers you’ve heard of in your genre be concerned. I assume that you are very familiar with your genre. How else could you write a book in it? Writers Beware is a great place to check if you think an agent might be dodgy. Never query an agent who charges fees of any kind. Reputable agents don’t.

It’s also a good idea to check out agents’ blogs. Kristin Nelson‘s is a particularly good one and has links to many other agents’ blogs. She often shares her clients’ successful query letters and explains what it was about them that attracted her attention.

It sounds to as if Mitch and Beth above have already been down the querying salt mines without luck. Trust me, I know how much it sucks. I’m about to get all my stuff out of storage here in Sydney and one of the things I plan to do is go through my dispiriting collection of rejection letters. Even now that I’m published and have a wee bit of a career just the thought of them gets me down. I’m not yet ready to celebrate them the way that Shannon Hale does with her long roll of laminated letters. Being rejected sucks and publishing is a world of no.

My biggest piece of advice is not about agents or editors. It’s to keep writing. Beth and Mitch appear to have written only one novel. Beth says “a completed novel”. Mitch says “first novel”. A while back Tobias Buckell ran a survey and discovered that only 35% of published writers sold their first novel. I suspect if he’d gotten a bigger response that would be an even lower percentage.

My first two novels remain unsold. I have friends who sold their tenth first. Selling your first novel is the exception, not the rule.

There comes a time when you need to set your first novel, your baby, aside and move on. Doesn’t have to be forever. I still have hopes that one day my first will find its way into print. But you have to shift your focus to the next novel. If you get no where finding an agent for it, write another.

Keep writing novels. You’ll get better with each one. It’s okay to take a break from submitting and sending out queries. You can even stop altogether. Getting published is not the thing, writing is.

Yeah, I know. That was said to me during my twenty years of trying and it was annoying as hell. But, you know what? I kept writing. And if my career comes to a grinding halt, which statistically it’s likely to, that won’t stop me either. I will always keep writing. I can’t not. (Though I’m really good at taking long breaks from it.)

I guess the other advice—which I really wish I could take myself—is to not take rejection personally. The agent isn’t thinking about you at all, but about whether they like your book, and whether they think it’s saleable.

I realise that I did not touch on synopses. My quick and dirty advice is to think of the synopsis as an advertisement for the book, not the book itself. Though you should really ask Diana Peterfreund for synopsis advice. She is much better at them than I am and claims to love writing them. I do not.

Update: Bless Diana for she has now written a post on writing synopses. And it is very good.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January, but I will not be answering any more on publishing.

  1. Though I am far less qualified to answer publishing questions. []
  2. Which consisted of the first three chapters, a detailed synopsis, and bits of back story []
  3. It doesn’t always—one of my contacts never got back to me. []

Hardcovers versus paperbacks

I found this article on whether to go hardcover or paperback for a debut novel dead interesting. It’s a debate that doesn’t happen much in the Oz market where the vast majority of books are paperback orignal.

I prefer reading paperbacks because I find hardcovers are usually too heavy and unwieldy.1 The books I love best I like to have in hardcover (first edition, natch) but I usually have a paperback reading copy as well. Um, yes, I can be a bit compulsive about my fave books. What of it?

How many of you buy hardcovers? How many wait for the paperback? Are there some writers you’ll buy in hc and others you only get in pb?

  1. Though, I confess, I adore little hardbacks. They’re so cute! []

The efficacy of book tours

I know some people are getting up in arms about Kevin Baker’s article in the Village Voice on book tours and sundry other matters but I think he makes some good points. For instance this bit:

For the likes of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, for the writers of certain detective fictions, romances, teenage-vampire series, pet horoscopes, Star Wars novelizations, dog-buddy stories, celebrity memoirs, novels that have recipes in them, and other peculiar genres, the book tour is indeed a triumphal, rock-star road trip, complete with lines out the door and readers dressed up in costumes. For the rest of us, for those of us who just write, the book tour can be a lonely, disorienting experience, one that will tempt you to do any manner of ill-advised things.

Leaving aside the snotty implication that there are real writers and not real writers—it’s definitely true that book tours work much better for some genres than for others. Writers of YA and children’s books have a much better time of it because even if the book shop events are sparsely populated the school visits never are. Every time I had an event with five or less people,1 the next day I’d spend talking about books and writing with a few hundred keen students bursting with excellent questions.

For the writers of that endangered genre of adult literary fiction there are no school visits—from what I’ve heard it’s book shops or nothing. No matter how many times you told yourself it was building your career, a tour of nothing but tiny audiences, or no audience at all, would get very depressing.

I have a friend who writes in that genre. On one of her tours, when her latest book was on the New York Times bestseller list, she had several events where no one turned up. Not a soul. This boggles my mind. On Scott’s tour the lowest turn out was maybe forty. All the YA bestsellers I know who tour get crowds. Which makes me agree with Mr Baker that perhaps book tours just don’t suit his rarified genre. For some reason teenager readers will turn out while adult litfic readers won’t.

I wonder why? Do the readers of his genre dislike going to events at book shops? Do the writers of his genre insist on doing readings? Which really are—except for the most gifted readers—the most boring way of interacting with a book-loving crowd. In my experience of attending and doing book shop events, punters are much more interested in hearing writers talk about how they came to write the book they’re promoting, than hearing a chunk of it read out loud. They prefer to hear us tell stories rather than read them.

I read a lot of publishing blogs. It strikes me often that those who write and publish the litfic genre are way more depressed than those of us in other genres. Readership seems to be way down and they suffer from a conviction that their genre is the only important genre thus this loss of a “serious” readership strike them as a sign of end times. Maybe that’s another reason they have less successful book tours? They’re too depressed and thus too depressing.2

I don’t think the success of a tour is entirely about genre though. All the writers who tour well have had more than one successful book whether they’re Libba Bray, Ian McEwen, or Nora Roberts. They have a body of work that’s attracted a big readership. If Stephen King had toured for Carrie I’m guessing the turn out would not have been that impressive. One big book does not a fan base make. Several big books do.

So, yeah, the book tours which draw big crowds are all tours of big-selling, popular authors, who’d probably sell a lot of books whether they went on tour or not. It may be that single-author book tours are an outmoded way of promoting less well-known books and authors. Maybe it would work better to send a bunch of authors out together, especially if they know each other. Some of the most fun events I’ve seen have been like that.

Or maybe as Mr Baker suggests there are better, less soul-destroying, more innovative ways to get the word out about an author. I’ve been very interested in the various book trailers and so on. I have no idea how effective they are. I’m yet to buy a book on the basis of a trailer.

Seems to me that the tried-and-true method of getting large numbers of ARCs to influential people is still best. If they love it and start talking then bingo! you’ve got most excellent word of mouth. Which remains the most effective way to sell books, no matter what your genre. I mean isn’t a book tour just an expensive manner of trying to get word of mouth going? Isn’t that what all promotion of anything tries to do?

Now if only there were a little shop in Schenectady that sold “word of mouth” as well as “ideas” . . .

  1. Though truth be told some of the small events were the best of the tour cause they were made up of die-hard MorM or HTDYF fans or readers of this blog who had excellently curly questions. []
  2. Okay, my tongue’s a wee bit in my cheek on this one. []

One more thing

One more thing that I think some wannabe published writers don’t understand. Being a professional writer means having homework ALL THE TIME. (Thanks to Jennifer for pointing this out.) And when your homework comes back covered in red you have to do it over. Sometimes you have to do it over multiple times. And then your homework gets checked again by several other people (copyeditor, proofreader) and then you have to look at it again.

It’s like the worst homework ever. Homework that NEVER EVER ENDS.

I’m just saying . . .

Black Wednesday

Well, yesterday was crazy. People I know lost their jobs or are now in danger of doing so. Some author friends lost their imprints. It’s all scary stuff. But publishing is not the only industry in convulsions. We’re in a recession. It’s bad all over.

To answer those asking if I still stand by Tuesday’s comments. I do. Things are bad, but they’re less bad for children’s than for adults’. Publishing is going to change a lot over the next decade.

But here’s my main source of comfort: People are always going to want stories.

My sympathies to everyone who had a really bad day yesterday.

Publishing doom and gloom

Here in the USA’s publishing capital, NYC, there are many signs of a publishing downturn: reports and rumours that books sales are down and that the big chains are ordering less books. A few of the big publishing houses are laying off staff, cutting expenses, not acquiring books, and various agents are seeing a slow-down in their sales, especially for debut novels.

Of all the genres children’s (which includes YA) seems to be the least affected. Sales have slowed but not nearly as drastically as in adults. The Times reports that while parents are curtailing their own spending they’re still buying their children presents. It’s interesting that the recent Times article that covered Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s freeze on acquisitions did not mention that the freeze does not apply to children’s books.

Children’s books are relatively inexpensive. Especially compared to adults. An average YA hardcover is US$16 while an average adult hardcover is US$24. Quite a difference. Adult books are also given higher advances (on average) and earn out slower, if they earn out at all. Several people told me that way more of their children’s list earns out than their adults. You hear that? We are profitable.

While sales are down, every single children’s division has at least one bona fide hit. Not all of those hits are as insanely huge as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, which have earned every employee at Little Brown a bonus, but they’re still doing very nicely. Not to mention that Meyer’s books have also benefited other authors by creating a demand for “more like that, please!” I’ve gotten quite a few letters from Twilight fans telling me they turned to the Magic or Madness books because they’d run out of Meyer’s. I am very very very thankful to Stephenie Meyer. She and J. K. Rowling are a huge part of why children’s is as profitable as it is. Bless you both!

That said, we are in (at the very least) a recession. Libraries are seeing big increases in traffic and more and more people are borrowing when before they might have bought (which as I argued yesterday is far from a bad thing for authors). Like I said, sales are down. They’re down all over and for many things not just books. (Unless you make Spam, that is.)

So am I worried?

Well, sure. But not that much more than usual. Publishing is a risky business even when the economy is booming. Genres go in and out of fashion, as do authors. I know writers who were doing brilliantly in the 1980s, who are now only published in the small press world. How many of the super popular children’s writers of the eighties and nineties are popular and publishing now?1

Most writers don’t make a living writing even in the best of times. Unpublished writers who are freaking out that they’ll never break through in such tough times are forgetting that their odds aren’t great anyway. It’s not just the unpublished who have trouble. The vast majority of authors with one published book never publish a second. Even long established writing careers go into decline.

Publishing is a tough business no matter what the economic climate. But at least we’re in the strongest part of our industry, and at least we’re not on Broadway, or making cars.

  1. Judy Blume, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, J. K. Rowling and, um, probably heaps of others I’m not thinking of right now. []

Fun was had at BookPeople

Last night’s event in Austin went splendidly. The folks at BookPeople—Mandy, Topher and Emily were wonderful hosts. Emily mc’d brilliantly and we were asked lots of very smart questions. Many we’d never been asked before. I really like the Actor’s Studio format, which meant there was no awkward oh-noes-there-will-be-no-questions-tonight moments. It was a lot of fun to do an event with Scott again which we haven’t in ages.

And then there was this:

<br />

Rebecca’s superb anti-uni***n T-shirt. Doesn’t she look fabulous? She made me one too! Thank you, Rebecca, it fits perfectly. I’ll be wearing it here at NCTE.

Texas is always so good to me.

Money, writers don’t have none, Part the millionth

I keep coming across wannabe writers who believe that writing is an easy way to make heaps of money. Nope.1 Your odds of being paid good money to write novels year after year are vanishingly small. Most published writers aren’t.

I cannot emphasise this enough: If you don’t love writing don’t try to get published.

Let’s get specific:

While on tour I was asked how much money I make. Since I’d done my taxes not long before I was in a position to say exactly how much I made in the US financial year of 2007:2 $29K. And that’s gross.3

It’s also the most money I’ve ever made from writing. But there’s no guarantee I’ll have as big a year this year or next or the year after that.

Twenty-nine thousand dollars doesn’t put me in the top percentage of earners in the US or at home. But it does put me up the top for writers. Like I said, most published writers don’t earn enough money to make a living. They’re lucky to make $5k a year from their writing. That’s why most published writers have other jobs.

Writing is an insanely tenuous profession. Even when you’re published there’s no guarantee that every bookshop will stock your books. I’ve had chains skip various books of mine. But even if every bookshop in the universe has your books on the shelves there’s no guarantee anyone’s going to buy them.

Every single day the vast majority of people are busily not buying my books.

That’s a writer’s life right there.

Forget about the latest six or seven figure deal some debut novelist scored. They’re the exceptions, a teeny tiny fraction of all writers. Odds are that those highly paid debutantes won’t earn out. The reporting about their huge deal may well be both the first and last reporting about their publishing career. They won’t be alone in not earning out: lots of writers don’t.

Did I mention you have to really love writing to be in this game?

Just as well I do, eh?

  1. On both counts but I’ll focuss on the money today. []
  2. Note to Oz readers—their financial years are calendar years. []
  3. In both meanings of the word! []

In which I agree with a commenter

Pixelfish had this to say in comments. I could not let it languish there:

At what point did publishers start getting anal about the usage variations between the US and all other English speaking countries? Because my original copies of the Chronicles of Narnia had English spellings, but my new ones don’t and are in the wrong order. My Canadian copies of Harry Potter have the Britishisms intact, even though they don’t use all the slang, but the US ones don’t. I liked it better when US YA publishers let me find out MORE about the world instead of LESS. Part of the reason I read was to get away from my perfectly safe little Utah neighbourhood. But I digress . . . oh boy, howdy, do I digress.

I have no idea when that started. But it is a Very. Bad. Thing. I disapprove. HEARTILY.

Back at home I grew up with books with Commonwealth spelling and also with USian spellings. So Enid Blyton & Patricia Wrightson = colour. Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys = color. Though sometimes the punctuation would be changed.

I really hate the way many US publishers USianise things. I was just reading the US edition of an Australian book set in Oz with Oz characters. Except that the characters compared things to the size of a dime. (We don’t have dimes in Australia.) They discussed each others height in feet and inches. (Australia is metric.) The distances they drove were in miles. (Ditto. We have kilometres.) They used no Aussie slang. Everything that could be even a tiny bit confusing to a US reader was changed.

It drove me crazy. I stopped reading the book. I’ll read the Australian edition when I go home.

How stupid do publishers think readers are? We can figure stuff out from context. If we don’t know stuff we can look it up. Part of the fun of reading a book set in a different country is learning about the differences. Changing the spelling, adding “dimes” and “quarters”, removing all the local slang, wrecks the flavour and rhythm of the book. I think it’s a dreadful editorial decision and I wish they’d stop doing it.

Er, what you said, Pixelfish.

What Ally Carter said

Ally Carter has a wonderful post on asking the wrong questions about writing.1 She is a HUNDRED PER CENT correct! Go read her!

I’ve been asked every one of those questions many many times and I always struggle to answer them but I couldn’t figure out why exactly. Thank you so much, Ally Carter, for figuring it out for me.

So many beginner questions at writers conferences are more concerned with marketing than they are with writing. This is putting the cart so far in front of the horse it ain’t funny. Questions like—How long should a YA novel be? Should I blog to promote my book? (NO! Blog because you enjoy it.) How do I find an authentic teenage voice?—are coming at things from the completely wrong direction. (Read Ally Carter’s post for the right questions and excellent answers.) Especially when these questions come from people who haven’t finished a novel yet.

Write the book first.

Write in a genre you know and love and understand. Do not attempt to write a YA novel if you’ve never read any YA novels. My first novel is an adult historical. A genre I know and love. It didn’t sell. My second novel was YA. Another genre I’d read obsessively for years. It also didn’t sell, but it was seen by an editor who took a risk on buying an unwritten trilogy from me because she loved the concept. She’d seen that I could write a good novel so she trusted me to write three more.2

As I wrote the Magic or Madness trilogy I did not think about word count. I just wrote the book and it was as long as it needed to be, which happened to be 65 thousand words. I have never worried about the length of any of my books. They’ve all been the length they needed to be. YA novels range in length from as little as 40k words to as long as—what was Libba Bray’s The Sweet Far Thing?—25 billion zillion katrillion words? Right then. But they were good words. The book is unputdownable even though it’s so heavy it could break your wrist.

When you’re writing your first novel your job is not to worry about word count, or any of those other irrelevancies, like how it will be marketed, your job is to write the best book you can. If it’s a billion zillion katrillion words long then fine as long as those words aren’t boring and crap.

Writing comes first. Always.

I have said this many times and sometimes I get the response that I must be lying because that person sent their extremely long novel out and it was widely rejected. The reason given was that it was too long.

I doubt very much that the agent/editor was saying that the book was too long for YA. There are many very long YAs.3 What they probably meant was that the book was too long for the novel it was. I.e. it wasn’t well-paced. The book needed cutting—not because it was YA—but because it was boring. If you’re getting that same comment over and over again then it’s time to stop sending the book out and go over it to see if they’re right. Are there sentences/chapter/sub-plots that could do with cutting and or trimming?

Or is it time to let that book rest and move on to the next one?

I’m always astonished by the people who say they want to be a writer who stop at one book. Well, it didn’t sell, they’ll tell me. THEN WRITE ANOTHER ONE. If you’ve written the book and it’s as good as you can make it then move on to the next one. Rinse and repeat. One of my friends wrote more than a dozen novels before they finally sold one. I sold my third novel. My first and second remain unpublished. It’s just how it goes.

It could be that your first novel was not ready to go out. It could be that now is not a good time for it. There are many many reasons books get rejected. Ninety-five per cent of the time it’s because they suck. Don’t worry, if you’ve been paying attention to the criticisms you’ve been receiving, and reading lots of really good novels, and working on your rewriting skills as well as your writing skills then your next novel will be much better. By the time you get to your tenth you’ll be rocking out loud.

Did I mention that it’s the writing that’s the thing?

  1. Via PubRants. []
  2. Which is a good thing to keep in mind. Sometimes even when you’re being rejected the editor/agent remembers you, because while they may not like that particular book, they see a glimmer of talent and hope that the next book might be more to their taste. Editors and agents are always looking for new and exciting writers. It’s a big part of their job. []
  3. By the likes of Libba Bray and Cassandra Clare. []

Accuracy in titling

I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace cause I like to see what deals are going down in publishing land. Every so often an announced book sounds awesome. This one recently caught my eye:

Michael Printz Honor winner Marilyn Nelson’s CONJOINED TWINS, the story of Millie/Christine McCoy, a 19th century African-American conjoined twin stolen at birth and sold into slavery to a showman, who became fluent in five languages and as an accomplished pianist became known as “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” performing with the Barnum circus, and a narrative about Seneca Village, a significant community of African American property owners in 19th century Manhattan, whose homes and identity were erased with the creation of Central Park, to Lauri Hornik at Dial, by Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency.

Doesn’t that sound like a fabulous book? I can’t wait to read it. Seriously I want to read it RIGHT NOW. That’s one of the most intriguing books descriptions I’ve seen in ages. And like I said I read Publishers Marketplace pretty much every day.

I do, however, have issues with the title: Conjoined Twins? That’s yawn-inspiring. It sounds like the title of a medical text book, not an historical novel. Here’s hoping it’s just a place holder and they’ll come up with something amazing.

As a general rule I like my novels to have intriguing titles. Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is one of my favourites. As soon as I heard the title of Carrie Ryan’s debut novel, Forest of Hands and Teeth, I knew I had to read it. (And it’s every bit as good as it’s title. But you’ll have to wait. Not out till next year.)

But that’s novels. Non-fiction should have descriptive titles like, well, Conjoined Twins. When you’re searching the shelves of Modern American History for books about the Depression, titles like A Time of Burning or A Witch, Her Dog and the Bats of Hell are the opposite of helpful.1 They could be about ANYTHING. Why not call your book, I don’t know, The Great Depression or America in the 1930s or The Life of FDR or something else that will let people know what your stupid erudite book is about?

Heh hem. I have become overheated. To sum up: Fancy names for novels are fine, just try to avoid the boringly descriptive unless it’s someone’s name or is funny.2 Actually novels can get away with lots of different titling strategies. Non-fiction must be more careful. Boringly descriptive is PERFECT for your non-fiction tomes. Non-fiction writers, you must avoid AT ALL COSTS the urge to get fancy!

That is all.

  1. Don’t worry I made those titles up. []
  2. Emma is a most excellent title. And I know it’s a movie but Snakes on a Plane is a good one also. []

Not up to me

It’s so lovely to have you writing and commenting here on the blog asking me to come to your neck of the woods. I’m dead chuffed and flattered. Thank you!

Tragically, it’s not up to me. My tour is organised by my publisher, Bloomsbury. More specifically the wonderful Deb Shapiro is the tour boss. She’s the one who spends ages finding out which book shops/trade shows/schools are interested in having me show up. Then she had to check all the possibilities, check my availability, and then line up all the places and dates to make it all fit together. Having fans in an area is not enough to guarantee an appearance.

According to the venerable agent, Molly Friedrich, being a publicist is the hardest job in publishing. I don’t doubt it, watching Deb at work. Because she’s not just organising publicity for my book, but for all the other Bloomsbury Children’s books. I suspect Deb is the hardest working woman in publishing in the entire world. I do not know when she sleeps.

Most writers set up their own appearances. Both Scott and me did. We volunteered for reading programs like the NYRSF, which has been going for many years now. We organised events where we lived: Sydney or New York City. Or at cons we attended. I had a book launch at a con in Melbourne and one in Madison, Wisconsin. Early in our careers we didn’t have the resources (time or money) to set up a book tour of our own. We didn’t have the contacts a publicist has and we couldn’t afford to hire one. Also there was no demand. When you’re unknown it’s hard to get people interested in hosting you.

Basically, if you want me to come to your town you need to badger your local book shop to badger my publicist to get me there.

I hope that explains how it works. If I wind up not going to your town or city it’s not because I don’t love you, but because no book shop or library there wanted to host me. Or because there was no way it could be made to fit into the tour schedule.

And remember, I don’t have the full tour schedule yet. There will be more places and dates added in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

They is bad person. I’m not reading them

Ever since I was aware that writers were actual living breathing people, I have heard readers talking about discovering how putrid the politics/personality/hygiene/habits of a particular writer is and deciding that they can no longer read that particular writer, or give them money by buying the books they once loved.

I always respond by pointing out that when I discovered that Knut Hamsun was a fascist, who thought Hitler was the best bloke ever, it didn’t stop me form loving his fabulous novel, Hunger. Writers are not their books!

As a writer, it freaks me to think that some people will stop reading me, not because of my books, but because of something I’ve said or done. I feel all defensive every time someone tells me they’ve stopped reading Orson Scott Card because of his homophobia. Or John Green because he supports Barack Obama. I love Elvis. Is someone not going to read me because of that? Should I shut up and keep my opinions to myself for fear of offending potential readers? But why should we writers have to shut up? We are not our books. They is independent of us. You make them yours, dear reader, when you read them.

And yet, I must admit that there are a few writers I have met and disliked so much that I have never read any of their books again.1 How is that any different? Am I being a hypocrite?

Yes, I think I am.

Why should a reader keep reading the work of someone who pisses them off? Sure some readers can make the distinction between the writer and their work. Like me still being able to read Knut Hamsun. But it sure does help that he’s dead and that I’ve never read anything but his fiction. I haven’t read his online frothing at the mouth outpouring of Hitler love. It’s a lot harder to achieve that distance with a writer whose offensive views are all over the beastly intramnets. And worse when you’ve been subject to their unpleasantness in real life.

Some readers can still manage to make that distinction between book and author, but many can’t and, really, why should they? There are so many great books out there which makes cutting your choices down a bit of a relief. I’m pretty sure there are enough books on my TBR pile right now to last me till the end of time.

I’m not going to censor myself either. Elvis haters are never going to like my work. I’m cool with that. Their loss.2

What do you lot think?

  1. Or at all in the case of writers whose work I hadn’t read when I had the misfortune of meeting them. []
  2. Not having the Elvis love, I mean. []

In which I answer a question (Updated)

Lotti asks:

I would be rather happy right now to get a rejection letter. It would at least be a start, because I have never plucked up the courage to go down the publishing road. What inspired you to get published?

The answer to this question is long and requires backstory.

My earliest publications required no courage at all. The first one came when I was nine because my mum sent a poem of mine to the local newspaper. I have mentioned elsewhere that this kind of horrified me because kids at school teased me for many weeks afterwards demanding that I show them how to fly. The poem was called “I can fly”.

But I also loved seeing my name in print and the approbation I got from the teachers. As a kid I was more often in trouble than not so it was a refreshing change.

After that I was published in school magazines and lots of other youth publications. My parents or a teacher would send my stuff in. Or I would be asked for something cause I now had a reputation as the kid who wrote. The pinnacle of my juvenile career was having a poem in a great big hardcover book called Our World by the kids of Australia, which was published for the International Year of the Child.

As you can see when I was first being published I never had to pluck up any courage except to deal with teasing from my peers.1 Thus the transition to me actually sending my own stuff out did not seem like a big deal. I also fully expected to be published. Because that’s what had happened up till then.

I was not.

From the time I first submitted to an adult market until 2001 I did not have a single story accepted. Every rejection was a crushing—and in the beginning totally unexpected—blow. I was too stupid to realise that some of those rejections were quite encouraging and asked to see more work. All I could see was that my work was being rejected and they clearly thought I sucked too.

That’s when I learned to dread sending stuff out. Indeed, for large chunks of time—years even—I didn’t. The only people reading my writing were family and friends and no one was reading my attempts at writing novels until I got talking with a relative stranger many many many years after I first started writing novels.

So I kept writing, but only rarely sent my stuff out. Sometimes a friend would push me into. Sometimes I’d come across a new magazine that I thought was cool and that would fit my stories.

Every single time I sent a story out would require a ridiculous amount of courage. And the whole time that story was out there I’d be thinking about it and worrying about it and waiting for the rejection and finding it really hard to write something new. Or, you know, sleep.

To be honest I’m still a bit like that and I still get rejected. How to Ditch Your Fairy was sent to many publishing houses. Only two of them made an offer, which means all the others rejected it, which is obviously MUCH better than none of them wanting it, but there’s still a sting. And to this day no publisher in Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country has wanted any of my books, which breaks my heart because it’s the only language other than English that I can read.2 Not to mention Lichtenstein. I don’t know what it is with Lichtenstein hating me so much, but I’ve noticed, guys, and it hurts.

Rejection is a huge part of this business whether you’re published or not. I know some people say that if you’re neurotic about rejection you shouldn’t try to get published. But I can’t think of a single writer I know who isn’t neurotic about it. Obviously, some more than others, but we all feel the sting of rejection. We all fear it.

It’s just the way things are.

I hope that answers your question, Lotti.

I have shifted the FAQ stuff to its own post as it was getting lost here.

  1. Which is a LOT of courage. You all know what that was like! []
  2. A little. Not that well. []

The problem of being a small English-speaking country

Some more thoughts on yesterday’s post:

Australia, like New Zealand and Canada and Jamaica and South Africa and many other mainly English-speaking countries, has had a long battle to publish its own stories by and for its own people. The majority of the books we buy and read are not by Australians but come from the UK and the USA. Creating our own publishing industry, which published Australian books was a struggle and to this day many Australian books are subsidised by the Australian government.

But despite all the obstacles and expenses there is an Australian publishing industry and it publishes many wonderful Australian writers. Peter Carey, now an internationally known writer, was first published by the University of Queensland Press. Well-known Australian YA writers like Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Garth Nix, and Marcus Zusak were all first published in Australia and that’s where they established their reputations. Their success in other markets came later.

If parallel importing had existed when they were first establishing themselves would they have been nurtured in the same way and gone on to the same kind of success?

I also wonder about the writers who are successful at home but have never made the transition to broader markets. What will happen to them under parallel importing? Will they no longer be published at all? Or be published by such small presses that it will be impossible to find their books?

And what about the Australian classics that are rarely, if ever, published or read overseas? Books like Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies, Sally Morgan’s My Place not to mention the works of Banjo Patterson, Ruth Park and Henry Lawson. What overseas publishing house will be interested in keeping them in print?

It’s also important to remember that those writers who are published overseas have to change their voices in order make sense to non-Australian audiences. As Nick Earls points out in his letter to Prime Minister Rudd against parallel importing, foreign editions of Australian books are not the same as the homegrown edition:

Also, it is common for changes—sometimes substantial changes—to be made before a book is published in an export market, particularly the US. Many Australian references are lost and idiomatic language is altered. These are compromises we make in order to be published in the US, and to communicate specifically with US readers.

Parallel importing must not be adopted.

Preventing the destruction of Australian publishing

Garth Nix is full of wisdom. He has written a very smart and wise and passionate argument against parallel importing. I agree with every single word.

Basically there are plans to allow booksellers to import foreign English-language editions of books into Australia without restriction. The argument is that this will bring down the heinous price of books. Australian books really are insanely expensive. I’ve seen mass market paperback for more than AU$20.1

However surrendering the Australian market is NOT the way to fix that problem. As Garth writes

I am surprised there is support for an “open” market in Australia because it would be no such thing. It would actually be a “surrendered” market. The entire publishing world still works on the basis of territorial copyright and it will do so for a long time to come, despite electronic editions and the Internet, of which I will have more to say down the page. This is particularly the case with English-language publishing. The USA and the UK have actually been strengthening their respective book copyright regimes, not surrendering them. What is “open” about Australian-published books not being able to be sold in the USA or the UK, but American, British or any other English-language edition from anywhere being able to be freely sold here?

Internet retailers would be able to sell books much much cheaply than real world booksellers because they don’t have to worry about attracting passing customers and thus can have their operations out in the much cheaper boondocks. Unlike the real world booksellers who not only pay higher rents but have to make sure their book shops are well-kept and inviting to customers. They also have to pay more staff. And the bigger the internet retailer—like Amazon—the easier it would be for them to sell books cheaper and wipe out all competition. Parallel importing would be a disaster for local booksellers. Just as it would be a disaster for local publishers.

It would also make it a lot harder for Australian writers to get published:

But besides the Australian publishers and booksellers, you know who would really be affected by a Surrendered Market? Beginning authors, like I was, twenty years ago, when my first book was published by an Australian publisher, and sold by Australian bookshops. That same beginning author, in a brave new world of a Surrendered Market, would likely have only small presses to go to here, or needs must go straight into competition against every English-speaking author in the world who wants to be published in the USA or the UK.

The majority of Australian writers will tell you how difficult it is to get published overseas. The introduction of parallel importing means that will be their only option.

Like Garth I am not speaking from narrow self-interest as the introduction of parallel imports is unlikely to have much of an affect on my career because I am primarily published out of the USA. But Australia is my country and I care passionately about developments that will dramatically reduce the number of Australian books in the world.

I have friends who have not been picked up by publishing houses in the US and the UK because their books are “too Australian” and not sufficiently “universal to have appeal outside Australia”. Whether that’s true or not (I can think of any number of extremely Oz books that have been published to great success in the US) it is true that if you are mainly submitting to a foreign market it will affect how you write. Killing off the local Australian publishing industry is going to kill off many uniquely and wonderfully Australian voices.

I think that will be a disaster.

  1. The US and Australian dollars are approaching parity. []

Post-a-Rejection-Letter Friday

Tempest Bradford links to Shaun C. Green who has declared today post-a-rejection-letter Friday. Tempest also links to an INSANE rejection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant Left Hand of Darkness which is one of my favourite books of all time. The person who wrote that letter clearly read an entirely different book. Possibly one by Ayn Rand.

My rejection letters are in a filing cabinet in Sydney. The only bit I can remember from them is from a rejection I received in the 1980s that included the following PS:

If you insist on writing under a pseudonym it is best to also include your real name. Thank you.

The crazy outlandish pseudonym I used? Why, that would be “Justine Larbalestier”. I know! What was I thinking?

I do have a few rejections from Strange Horizons—they do everything electronically—but they’re all super nice and encouraging so that’s no fun. Sidenote: If you write sf or fantasy short stories I strongly recommend them as a market. They publish great stories, they respond promptly, and their rejection letters are really nice even when they clearly hated your story.

I just remembered another one, which came from an English magazine. It went something like this, “You write beautifully but this story is completely pointless. Please don’t waste our time again until you learn to plot.” Ouch! They were right though. Sigh.

Post a rejection letter of your own! The club of those who have received them is a very very very big one.

The Art of Writing Blurbs (updated)

NB: The Alchemy of Stone is not a YA book.

I have just read a splendid book, Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone, and now I must blurb it. I am realising once again that blurbing a book is really hard. As you may have noticed from this blog, I am not naturally succinct. I fail at all forms of writing that are on the short side: blurbs, pitches, haikus, summaries. They are all nightmarish to me.

I am so crappy at pitching my own books that Scott uses my feeble attempt to pitch Magic or Madness to a Sydney bookseller as his standard example of how not to pitch. (After hearing me out the bookseller put on a forced smiled and said, “Hmm, that sounds really complicated.”)

I wish I could just say:

Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone is rooly good. Read it!

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Or do as Quentin Crisp used to, which was to respond to blurb requests with the following:

You may attribute to me whatever words you think will assist in the marketing of this fine work.

On this occasion my problem is that The Alchemy of Stone is a really complicated book and I love it but I don’t know how to describe it and thinking about it is hurting my head.

Maybe that should be my blurb? Hmmm.

The Alchemy of Stone is a really complicated book and I love it but I don’t know how to describe it and thinking about it is hurting my head. Buy it! Read it!

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Blurbing a dense, original and smart book like Sedia’s is especially hard. There are so many things to say about it. I love the alienness of the protagonist, Mattie, who is an intelligent automaton in a world in which automatons are dumb: they can neither talk nor think and are used as servants. How she grapples with being the only one of her kind and with actually knowing and talking to her creator is the heart of the book. She never once reads like a human being and yet she is a compelling character. I like her. I want her to succeed.

I love, too, the stone gargoyles who watch over the city, the power struggles between Mechanics, Alchemists, and the hideously oppressed miners and farmers, the subtle yet brilliant worldbuilding, the quasi-myth like though also fairy tale-ish feel to the language. Oh, yes, the language! Sedia’s a gorgeous maker of sentences. Not in an obvious show-y off-y way. Many of her sentences are sparse and unadorned. Yet several times I had to back up and re-read in order to savour and relish the implications of a particular word or phrase.

You see my problem? And I haven’t even really begun to describe why I enjoyed the book so much. Or mentioned the Soul-Smoker or explained why I don’t think it’s steampunk, which leads me into a long rant on why I don’t find “steampunk” a very useful term for describing books.

Stupid blurbs. I kick them.

How about:

Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone bursts with inventiveness from its robot heroine to the Soul-Smoker and stone gargoyles that watch over the city. The book is full of explosions both literal and metaphorical as well as being a gorgeous meditation on what it means to not be human. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book.

—Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness

Or something. Did I mention that I hate writing blurbs?

Alchemy of Stones is rooly good. Read it!

Update: Here’s what the publisher decided to go with:

“A gorgeous meditation on what it means to not be human. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this beautiful book, from its robot heroine to the Soul-Smoker and stone gargoyles that watch over the city.” —Justine Larbalestier, author of Magic or Madness

The selling of books and complications therein

Justine Musk has an excellent essay on her career as a novelist in the mass market paperback salt mines and it is very good. It involves numbers and market realities and other concepts that make the writing-is-art! crowd nervous and/or cranky.

Note: I do not think writing-is-art and publishing-is-a-business are mutually exclusive notions. I think that in order to do the one it really behooves you to understand and get your head around the second. Even if in doing so you conclude that you’re better off self-publishing. Or writing your novel in a series of haikus on the back of Anzaac bickies and floating them out to sea at dusk each night for the next ten years.

Have I mentioned that it took me many many years to make my first professional sale? I seriously thought about doing the floating biscuit (cookie) thing. If only I weren’t so bad at writing with icing.

I has no ARCs so please stop asking

In the last few week I’ve had several people asking that I send them a How To Ditch Your Fairy ARC so they can blog about it.1

While that’s a lovely offer, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that so many of you are keen to read the book, it so happens that I do not have any ARCs of HTDYF. Truly. The tiny number I was given were handed out to local Big Mouths.2 I also swapped with a few writer friends for their ARCs. I have none left. Not even my parents and sister got a copy.

The person to ask for an ARC (of any book) is the publicist of the company that publishes it. But in order to get one you’ll have to show that giving you the book will help spread the word about. That is how it works.

The reason that a number of reviews have appeared of HTDYF recently is because 500 ARCs were handed out at BEA. A decent number were also sent by my publicist to key Big Mouths all over the USA. I have sent no one an ARC. It is not my job to do so. That’s why the author is given so few in the first place. We’re usually not the best placed person to get them into the hands of the most important Big Mouths.

So the person you should be bugging for ARCs is not me, but my publicist. And, no, I will not give you her email address. With a wee bit of googling you will find it on your own.

Besides, do you really want an ARC? They’re full of typoes, they fall apart easily, and they don’t even smell as good as a real book. And guess what? HTDYF will be a real book very very soon. While the official pub date’s in September I’m pretty sure it’ll start showing up in shops in August. August! That’s mere minutes away.

  1. I also remain many months behind with email. If you wrote to ask me for an ARC this is my reply. Sorry not to respond more personally. []
  2. Isn’t that a quaint term? It refers to the booksellers and bloggers and librarians and journalists who are well known in the YA world and are very good at getting the word of mouth flowing. []

In Which I am Irritated by a Review

Did anyone else read this review by Laura Miller of Leonard Marcus’s Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature? I haven’t read the book, but I have read Leonard Marcus’ edited collection of Ursula Nordstrum’s letters, Dear Genius, and his biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon, both of which I found fascinating. What little I know about the history of children’s book publishing industry in New York City I learned from those two books.

So I was excited to see that Marcus has a new book out and read the review eagerly. And, well, it was my least favourite kind of review, one that bitches about the book under review not being the book they were hoping for:

What probably strikes many people as the most fascinating aspect of the history of children’s literature in America—the children, and the literature itself—takes a back seat to editors and reviewers, printers and magazines, libraries and bookstores.

Lucky Miller to have her finger on the pulse of what strikes people as the most fascinating aspect of the history of children’s literature in the US. Even with the modifier “probably” she seems pretty certain. But whether her supposition is true or not—and I have no idea how you’d prove it—it’s a bizarre thing to complain about given the book’s subtitle: “Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature”. Seems to me that the words “entrepreneurs” and “shaping” are a pretty clear indication that Marcus’s book is going to be about the children’s book publishing industry and the “editors and reviewers, printers and magazines, libraries and bookstores” who made it happen.

Miller says the book will mainly be of interest to “historians and people in the industry”. I’m guilty of both those charges, being a publishing geek who’s part of the (broader) children’s publishing industry, as well as an ex-academic who did history, I am this book’s target audience.

Like I said, I have not read Minders of Make-Believe. Perhaps it is as off the mark as Miller claims; I’ll find out when I read it. But I will not find fault with the book for doing exactly what it sets out to do.

One of the theories

About why YA is so big right now is that there’s been a demographic bubble—a mini baby boom—and that it was all those kids who made Harry Potter huge and are now making YA huge. Suzanne mentions this theory in the comments to this post.

I have no idea if it’s true or not. As I mentioned, I’m feeling really research lazy this week.

But let’s imagine it is true for a moment. What happens when these mini-baby boomers grow up? Is that the end of YA? They move on to adult fiction and the field contracts just as the picture book and middle grade fields have contracted. And a whole bunch of us start trying to crack into other genres. Just as a whole bunch of writers are now busily switching to YA.

On the other hand, the current YA boom seems to have brought in many adult readers and quite a few of the teen readers seem to keep reading YA even as they hit their 20s. So maybe the good times will roll for a little while longer. If not the forty years I’m hoping for.

Riding high (Updated)

The rest of the publishing industry may be in the doldrums but according to The New York Times we are riding high:

Juvenile books overall, including paperbacks, were up 3.1 percent, to 900.9 million copies. Net revenue in the juvenile segment, the largest of all categories in terms of copies sold, increased to $3.66 billion, from $3.4 billion.

Perhaps surprisingly, sales of children’s books, which includes the rapidly growing young adult segment, are not expected to rise strongly over the next few years. “If it weren’t for Y. A., this sector would be in worse shape than it is,” Mr. Greco said.

Given that picture books and middle grade are doing crap,1 the article leaves me wondering how fast Young Adult sales have been growing? I suspect the answer may be google related or I could just, you know, ask the people in the biz I know, but, well, I’m lazy and there’s this book to be writ.

So I’ll settle for going YAY! And hoping those sales remain strong for the next forty years.

Update: Gwenda reminds me that this excellent Newsweek article cites growth figures of 25%.

  1. Though I hear middle grade is about to start improving. []

Types of crazy writers

Because I am myself barking mad I feel moved to share my four varieties of insane writers with youse lot. This is different from the run of the mill craziness of every writer who writes differently to me. This is the down-to-the-bone craziness.

I just shared my list with a bookseller friend and we agreed as to the unadvisability of ever blogging them.

So here they are:

    1. The unpublished writer who can barely string a sentence together yet is convinced that the reason they are not published is because of a conspiracy. “Those evil New York publishing houses only publish crap, deliberately keeping me from being published! They are fools and cannot recognise my genius!”1

    2. The newly published writer who believes they have the keys to the kingdom and know everything there is to know. “I am published! I am real! I have met my editor and thus acquired all publishing knowledge ever! All bow down to me!”2

    3. The midlist writer whose career is not where they wish it was and blames it on everything and everyone in the entire world. Especially all those foreignors who are gobbling up all their publisher’s attention and winning all the prizes that are rightfully theirs.3 When in fact success or failure in publishing is almost always a matter of luck. This is the most common form of madness simply because success in this game is such a crapshoot. If by success you mean “can make a living at it” then not that many published writers are a success. Maybe five per cent of them. Tops. If you mean “has written a book that they’re proud of” then many writers are a success. Guess which definition I prefer.

    4. The super successful writer who believes that they are so important and such geniuses that they should never be edited again. Or questioned. And that their fans should lay down at their feet as if before a god. In fact, so should everyone.4

Of course, there are all sorts of temporary insanities that hit every writer. Not just crazy outlining and writing books backwards and burning the first version of the book, there’s also:

  • Amazonomancy5 the obsessive consulting of the Amazon tea leaves to see if your book is selling despite knowing that Amazon tells you nothing. Absolutely NOTHING.
  • Furtive facing out of your books in bookshops when the clerks aren’t looking in the largely mistaken belief that they won’t notice and that in the fifteen minutes it stays like that your book will sell.
  • Conviction that your book is tanking even though it’s only been out for a week and the only evidence you have is Amazon numbers and a note from someone in Delaware/Dubbo saying they couldn’t find a copy in their local bookshop.

There are many many more. Seriously, I could go on forever listing them.6

In fact, I would argue that attempting to make a living writing is a sign of total insanity, which may be why the part-timers tend to be much more stable.

  1. I definitely suffered from this one during my twenty years of not being published. How could they publish HIM and not me?! []
  2. I confess that I went through this stage. I’m so sorry! []
  3. This is where I’m headed. Best to buy LOTS of copies of my next book to prevent me from winding up there. I’m just saying . . . []
  4. Let’s all hope this never happens to me for I would be a MONSTER. []
  5. The term comes from the briliant Hal Duncan []
  6. You may have noticed that I am a big fan of lists. []

Ever wondered

What a Director of Production at a small press does? According to Yanni Kuznia who holds that position at Subterranean Press they do a lot:

My work starts after the publishing arrangements with the author, agent, and/or original publisher (if applicable) have been made. The computer file for the book is sent to me and from there I must: prepare the file for the designer; approve the initial book design, proof the book (either myself or send it to somebody else), find artwork, choose the materials the book will be printed on, and bound in, and send everything off to be printed.

Sometimes I think writing is the easiest gig in publishing. (Except for when it isn’t . . . )

Thank you, Scalzi (updated)

He has just written the post I had just started tappety tapping in response to this post by Cory Doctorow. 1 Adult science fiction and fantasy is not the centre of the genre right now—YA is.

Go read it. What Scalzi said. Bless!

Update: Ron Hogan over at GalleyCat has fleshed out the numbers Scalzi cites. To put them in perspective—and share some wifely pride—Uglies was first published in 2005 and is still selling more than two thousand copies a week and that’s just according to Bookscan, which does not cover all sales. Go, Scott!

It’s also wonderful to see Erin Hunter’s series doing so well, seeing as how well-written and smart it is. The latest book just came out and is selling like gangbusters!

  1. Disclaimer: Both gentlemen are friends of mine. []

Wee explanation

Of the current poll on whether you write more than you read. I came across a claim by a published writer (who I will not name) that they write more than they read. I was incredulous. Even if you were to count every jotted note, every letter, every form filled in, it still seems extraordinarily unlikely that would outweigh all the reading. Think of all the cereal packets, instructions, words on tickets, buses, clothing labels. We read every second of every day even if you never open a book.

This writer, however, was specifically talking about books, not even newspapers and magazines. They claimed that they wrote more books than they read by a large margin. This was because a) they wrote a great deal and b) they tried to read as little as possible so that it would not overly influence their writing.

Reader, I boggled. I boggle still.

Books—fiction, non-fiction—are the biggest influence on my own writing. Reading as little as possible is my idea of hell.

I don’t imagine the people who who checked “yes” to the question were talking just of books, but I’d be dead interested if any of you would like to explain what you meant in the comments. Ta!

And now we are in Paris

Which I can report is wonderful though cold. Great food, great gorgeousness, great people. Thank you, Luis and Maude, for showing us such a great time!

Several people have written to ask what on Earth we are doing galivanting about Europe. I could have sworn that I mentioned why at some point. But here it is again for those what missed it:

We are here to do research for Scott’s next book part of which is set in the European alps. As it involves air ships we went for a ride on a Zeppelin. We also came to attend the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, to launch Extras in the UK, to get some writing done, to catch up with some of our European-based friends such as Coe Booth, David Moles and Ben Rosenbaum who are all in Basel at the moment, and to eat lots of wondrous food (see poll to your right).

Things learned on the trip so far:

  • Dutch publishers hate fantasy, but they love Maureen Johnson.
  • Germans ones love fantasy.
  • Stephenie Meyer is a Scott Westerfeld fan and has been going out of her way to tell her foreign publishers how much she loves his books. Thank you, Stephenie Meyer!
  • Switzerland is INSANELY expensive for tourists. Every menu I looked at I thought there had been a series of bizarre numerical typos. Surely the soup couldn’t be twenty dollars in an ordinary cafe?
  • Ben Rosenbaum’s kids are fabulous.
  • You can get great vegetarian food that isn’t cheese and noodles anywhere in Europe that isn’t German speaking.1
  • Zeppelins are quiet and smooth and the best form of transport other than a bicycle or shank’s pony. You would not believe the views.
  • Free wifi is the best thing in the universe. Why are posh hotels so allergic to it?
  • Paris remains the most beautiful city I have ever seen.2 Though Bolzano’s pretty gorgeous too. As is Rome and Bologna. And Buenos Aires. And, um, oh nevermind.

And now I must return to having fun in Paris. As you were!

  1. Oh, okay, I can’t speak for the whole German-speaking world, but Austria was pretty dire. And what’s with all the smoking everywhere? []
  2. Other than Sydney. []

Vicious dogs and other joys

The main reason I haven’t been blogging (or answering email) much on this trip is that even when we have internet access there’s been no time. We has been busy with appointments and meetings and research. Almost all of which has been most excellent fun, but away-from-computer fun.1 This has been the best trip ever. I don’t see why we ever have to go home.2

One of the most excellent things we did in Bologna3 (other than meeting with many of our publishers and agents at the Book Fair) was grabbing a cab up to San Luca, the gorgeous church that looks down on the town.

The view is indeed stunning but my crappy phone camera was not up to it. Instead it managed to capture this encounter between Scott and a vicious dog. First the dog tried to tear apart Scott’s trouser legs with its teeth. Scott valiantly resisted. Sadly that part of the battle was not captured, but I did catch the maneater pretending like it had never even seen a trouser leg:

Next Scott set about slowly disarming his enemy:

Until it was putty in his arms.

Or is that a puppy? Once again man conquers nature. Or something . . .

After we’d recovered from that searing encounter, we headed down the hill into town. Conveniently there is a very very very long set of porticoes that run all the way from the church back into town. The porticoes mean it is impossible to get lost as you walk back. Even those of us who are directionally impaired.4

Once back in Bologna we returned to work at the Book Fair. Where en route to our next appointments we checked out the wall of amateur art, all vying to capture the attention of publishers. Some of it’s amazing:

We also had a squizz at the official exhibition of Argentinian illustrators, which was stunning. This is my favourite though stupidly I didn’t note down the artist’s name:

I also got one of the roaming book model robots to pose for a photo. Not really a coup given that that’s their job, but still I’d never seen such life-like robots before:

Doesn’t she look nice? I’m all for robots. Well, unless they start writing books, that is. Only humans can write books!

More next time we get a window of time + internet access. Maybe I will share our Friedrichshafen zeppelin adventure. Or possibly the world’s largest Tyrolean bathroom.

Who knows? Bye till then.

  1. Who knew such fun even existed? []
  2. Why, Scott? []
  3. Wow, that seems a long time ago now. We are now in Friedrichshafen (Germany) and have also been in Bolzano (Italy) and a gorgeous Tyrolean spa just outside Innsbruck (Austria). []
  4. I’m not, but a certain person I spend a lot of time with is. Not naming names or anything. []

Five years of freelancery

Another year, another anniversary. Once again I mark 1 April not by being silly like some I could mention but by saying, “Oh my Elvis. I’ve been a freelance writer for exactly five years! And I’m not starving! How on Earth did I manage that?”1

For my own benefit some stats:

    Books sold: 72
    Books published: 53
    Countries books have been sold in: 104
    Countries said books have been written in: 65
    Published words: 372,0006
    Books written and unsold: 27
    Ideas collected: 372,4568

Lots of fun had at fair today. Much publishing gossip and wisdom attained. Will share with you when not exhausted. I sleep now in order to make it to the drinks, dinner and party appointments that lie ahead of me today. Yes, my life continues to be gruelling!

  1. Luck. []
  2. One non-fiction tome, one anthology, five young adult novels. []
  3. 6 in September []
  4. In order of sales: USA, Australia, Taiwan, France, Thailand, Germany, Brazil, Italy, Japan and Indonesia. []
  5. Argentina, Australia, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and USA. []
  6. Guestimate. []
  7. One I hope will be some day. The other NEVER. []
  8. As of 16:32 Bologna time. []

D&D? Not me.

I have never played Dungeons & Dragons. I had never heard of Gary Gygax until he died last week.

I write fantasy and I have never written a novel that was secretly a book version of my D&D campaigns. That’s because I never had any. What’s more none of my writer friends have ever done that either. Even those who do play D&D.

I do not dispute that Dungeons & Dragons has had a huge influence on role playing and video games. I’m less convinced of its impact on fantasy books. So unconvinced that the next person who claims that all fantasy writers—really? all?—are deeply influenced by Dungeons & Dragons gets violence committed upon their person by someone mean and cranky I will hire for the purpose.

It’s simply not true. Fantasy is a huge field. Vast and wide. I’ll buy that some High Fantasy has been influenced by D&D, but not anywhere near the scale of the J. R. R. Tolkien influence. That man made High Fantasy. I’ll even go as far to say that D&D is more influenced by Tolkien than High Fantasy is influenced by D&D.

I am not knocking D&D. Some of my best friends play it. I’d even let my sister marry a D&D player. But me? I’m not a role-playing kind of girl. I’m just saying that the people making these vast claims for D&D are the ones most influenced by it and perhaps don’t have sufficient perspective. There really are plenty of fantasy writers who’ve written books entirely outside the land of D&D. Oodles of them!

Not all fantasy writers are geeks.1 I even know a few non-geeky science fiction writers. Shocking, but true.

  1. And not all geeks play D&D. []