Category Archives: advice

What’s trending in fiction

The annual Frankfurt Book Fair is almost upon us and even though it doesn’t actually begin until next month, there are already reports of some big deals happening. As agents, we watch what books are selling to publishers very closely, and we look at the deals coming out of these fairs as way to see what is trending in the marketplace.

A couple of things to note about these two deals they mention. First, they’re both thrillers. Seems GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN’s remarkable successes have paved the way for publishers to be really excited about new thrillers. This isn’t new news, and despite an overly crowded marketplace, the books with the right combination of elements are still working. We’re reading one now for book club, THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware, which has already sold almost 100,000 copies in hardcover, according to Bookscan, since its publication in July. Clearly, having woman or girl in your title is a sure way to the bestseller list!

Product Details

Another thing that appeals to me personally is the motherhood angle of the first book Publisher’s Weekly mentions – Gin Phillip’s BEAUTIFUL THINGS, which reportedly sold for close to a million dollars. It’s a thriller which takes place over just 3 hours about a young mom who gets trapped in a zoo with her young son and an armed gunman. I love the premise. It’s simple, but scary and high-concept, and feels original and fresh.

Something else that strikes me about the recent Frankfurt deals is that the second one they talk about, Caz Tudor’s 2-book deal with Crown here in the US, is a debut author from the UK who won a contest for the first book, sponsored by Bonnier and called Twenty7, which offers aspiring writers professional feedback on their unpublished manuscripts. It’s really amazing to see that this freelance copyeditor is now going to be a major internationally published author with sales already in 25 territories.

For now at least, thrillers are still working in the market so polish up those thrillers and send them our way; we’d love to take a look.

Books on politics

I’m guessing (hoping) many of you tuned into the first presidential debate last night, and if you’re anything like me, you probably cycled through a range of emotions from frustration and anger to despair and hope. Now I won’t get into my personal political views here—although I’d just like to reiterate that choosing between an unpredictable lunatic with the vocabulary of a 5-year-old and a history of discriminatory tendencies and zero political experience (or knowledge) and a proven policy expert with a lifetime of experience in public service shouldn’t be that difficult. But I digress.

Regardless of who you vote for in November, you have a responsibility to yourself and your country to be as informed as possible. First off, get your facts straight. It’s bad enough that politicians lie and conceal their meaning behind half-truths, but allowing yourself to be lied to is worse. Consult nonpartisan fact checking organizations to verify any and all claims. FactCheck and PolitiFact are both great resources, but there are others.

Second, read books about politics. Know the players AND the game. Here is a list of some of my favorites, in no particular order:

  • On Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Republic by Plato
  • Dark Money by Jane Mayer
  • The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
  • The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay
  • The Fix by Jonathan Tepperman (just started but so far so good)
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Two Treatises of Government by John Locke

Some of these are difficult reads, but they should give you an outstanding foundation on which to approach political discourse. (And yes, I realize some of the above aren’t strictly about politics, but they’re relevant and revealing reads nonetheless.)

So now I ask our readers: What did you think of the first debate? What are some of your favorite political books?


Tolerably well, tolerably often

Mari Andrew’s Iceberg of Creative Success

I came across this infographic from the talented Mari Andrew on social media, and although her iceberg is not explicitly aimed at authors, it works pretty well for our purposes.  Most overnight successes were (quiet, lonely, arguably desperate) years in the making, and while there are a few, charmed, fairy- godmother-type-tales out there— wunderkind author commands astronomical advance and widely praised debut novel becomes instant NYT bestseller—these shimmering breaths of fairy dust are the exceptions that prove a much less sparkly rule.

Tonight was back to school night at my son’s elementary school, so I’ve got education on the brain, but it’s worth thinking of a book contract as an acceptance letter to the college of (ideally) your dreams. Which is to say, it’s a starting point, but what happens next has a great deal to do with you. As education is far from passive, so too is publishing. And a great house and even a healthy advance do not mean that you graduate with a bestseller.

Houses large and small market and promote books along broadly predictable lines. These include creating and sending out press releases, mailing out galleys/arcs to bookselling accounts and long-lead media outlets, followed by a finished copy mailing to more of the same, bloggers, big-mouth influencers, and anyone you might have listed on the jaw-droppingly voluminous author questionnaire you struggled to complete some months earlier. Publicists will pitch and follow up with a tailored list of editors, producers and gatekeepers, the house may buy ad space, an online marketing department can help generate (or more likely amplify) buzz on social media, but unless the book starts selling like mad, this all-hands-on-deck campaign is in full swing for a finite period, typically about three months.

And while it’s true that in-house publicists have carefully cultivated connections that few among us may possess, they are no stranger to rejection or wholesale lack of response. There are, after all, many publicists, many more books, and a limited number of career-altering media outlets, or outlets, period. Frustratingly, book publicity is a field in which there can be little relationship between effort and result. In-house publicists also divide their time between several projects of varying importance to the house, and they report not to author or agent, but to the publisher. So writers are well-advised to enter into even the most dazzling book contracts with their own clear-eyed plans for promotion, ideally something more concrete than here is my book—do your magic!  A publisher’s bag of tricks can be effective, but it’s limited. While publishers generally do their level best to help their books succeed (it is, after all, in their interest as well as yours) they rarely engineer do-overs when their efforts fall short.  They want your book to be a break-out success, but you want it more.

At some point, the task of promoting the book will belong mostly to its creator, and as much as I sympathize with complaints over the indignities and puzzlements of self-promotion, it makes sense that writers invest some fraction of the effort they spent writing their book in working to connect it with the audience that very likely exists, if only they could find it. Plugging away at promotion does not sound, or feel, especially glamorous, but as the infographic shows, long marches (don’t forget sad emails to mom) are a necessary precondition to spontaneous success. My advice: see how authors whom you admire promote, create a strategy, and then choose a method that you don’t loathe.  Something you can do tolerably well, tolerably often.

In a follow-up post I’ll address specific ideas I’ve picked up–some from freelance publicists, others from savvy, dogged authors (please feel free to share your own ideas) and I’ll talk about why your connections, energy and commitment matter.


Books Aren’t and Shouldn’t Be Like Real Life

I remember the first time I attended a lecture on writing memoirs. I was expecting this lecture to tell me all the obvious things, like how to write about sad or unbelievable events and make them seem as realistic as the moment they happened. Except that wasn’t at all what I learned. Regardless of what the lecturer was actually teaching us, it all centered around the same idea—books are not real life. Who wants to read about real life? Who wants fiction mirroring exactly what they do on daily basis that they hate so much because it has no significance except to get them from point A to point B? It’s the things that are important, and the little things that snowball into the important things, that we care about.

For instance, if I told you that I woke up this morning and walked my dog, got ready for work, and then I was in horrendous car accident (I wasn’t, I’m fine), you might wonder why I even started with walking the dog. You actually don’t care about the rest of my life. That’s fine, neither do I, except maybe when my dog does something cute that I can Instagram, but otherwise, this is all just run of the mill stuff. It’s exactly what people are trying to escape when they’re reading books. Now, if I told you I went on a walk with my dog and saw a man in a red mustang staring at me, the very car that eventually comes to hit me after the memory of those creepy eyes haunted me the entire time I got ready for work, THEN the dog and the shower and the color of T-shirt I picked out can take on a whole new meaning.

A lot of you probably think this is so self-explanatory, but let’s apply it to larger things, say your male character. He falls in love with someone, gets his heart broken, and doesn’t learn anything from it. This is the same thing as me not learning anything from walking my dog (I rarely look to see if weird men are following me…though that might change now…). Why would we want to read about your male character? Most of us have had those relationships, get in, get out, some weird stuff happens, but you’re basically the same at the end, except you’re wearing sweat pants more—or less depending on your level of self-worth.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you’re looking at your story, your plot, your characters, your side characters, you should be asking, is this something that people are going to want to read in order to procrastinate on doing the dishes or cleaning up dog poop? Or am I just writing about a person doing something with no real significance?

I guess I can take out that scene where my character dreams about muffins in the middle of trying to kill his uncle. No, that was really a scene in one of my unfinished novels… Actually, I think it’d be funny if anyone can give me a more insignificant scene they wrote before realizing. Impress me.

The inside scoop on writing for kids

All you aspiring writers out there – don’t you sometimes wish you could sit down with an experienced editor and ask a book’s worth of questions about children’s book publishing? Well, your wish has been granted in the form of a new book written by children’s book editor and author Cheryl B. Klein.

Her site alone is full of good information for aspiring authors but it’s her new book, THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND  YOUNG ADULTS that is really going to give you the inside track.

In case you don’t know, the publisher she works for as the Executive Editor, Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, published a little series called Harry Potter. Arthur Levine is the genius editor who recognized its market potential and bought it for the U.S. market. Their list is incredible and it’s a very small team that acquires and edits all of their books. She’s worked on a range of books, from picture books to YA, and she even worked on the last two books in the Harry Potter series.

THE MAGIC WORDS  itself has been generating good response and positive reviews. Booklist, a trade publication, gave it a starred review.  They describe it like this:  “For anyone wishing to write for young readers, Klein’s remarkable new book will be a sine qua non, an indispensable, authoritative guide to the act, art, and craft of creation. An editor for 15 years, Klein clearly knows her apples about the writing—and publishing—process and demonstrates an extraordinary gift for analyzing it, breaking it into its constituent parts, and reducing those parts to other parts until an essential kernel of truth is uncovered.”

Seems to me it’s more than a worthwhile investment (of under $20!) to learn about the unique craft of writing fiction for children from one of the best and brightest in the business. How she had time to write this book is beyond me, but I’m very glad she did so I can share it with all of you!


The Long Road


I’ve long been a fan of the sweet, smart comedian Mike Birbiglia, whose off-Broadway solo show SLEEPWALK WITH ME was a hit and wound up becoming a movie which he co-wrote, co-directed, and  starred in. His latest film is the very winning and highly praised DON’T THINK TWICE, an ensemble piece about members of a struggling New York comedy-improv group hoping to make it big.

Birbiglia knows better than anybody what it takes to succeed in putting yourself before the public. He recently wrote a piece for the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section that offers, in no uncertain terms, his prescription for success, broken down into six key points.   There’s a lot of tough love and gimlet-eyed clarity packed into this short article.

Birbiglia’s plan need not only apply to hyphenate writer-actor-director-comedians like himself.  Everything he delineates here can be applied very specifically to aspiring book writers. The rules are not all that different.

You may feel like pouring yourself a strong drink after you read Birbiglia’s piece, but take it from him: Writing is a craft, one that requires plenty of time and plenty of hard work to perfect. He’s a great example of a guy who had to fail many times before he succeeded. In his case, it was well worth the journey, as the basic big-heartedness of his art is—in my humble opinion–a gift to all of us.


Time to edit

I’d been considering writing about the editorial process for the blog today, so I was pleased this morning to see this PW interview all about that with author Eowyn Ivey and editors Reagan Arthur and Mary-Anne Harrington. Ivey, Arthur, and Harrington talk about taking her new novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, from an outline and 50 pages to a completed book.

Editing can be smooth sailing or a minefield or, most often, somewhere in between. (For example, sometimes an editor has to tell a writer to cool it with the mixed metaphors.) I always tell authors that it’s important that they are on board with the vision for the book. Their name is going on the cover. If they don’t agree with an edit, there’s something to discuss. Editors are not—nor do they tend to want to be—dictators. And I know from experience that editing can be very nerve-wracking, because you are taking on a role of omniscient authority but everyone knows you’re just one person with an opinion. An informed opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. I encourage authors who are in very strong disagreement to come to me and talk it out, so we can figure out the best way to get them and their editor on the same page—and so they can get it off their chest, regroup, and be diplomatic, or let me handle it if diplomacy feels beyond reach so that the relationship can continue forward smoothly.

I also generally suggest to authors that they ask themselves if changes they don’t agree with are possibly bad solutions to a problem they need to tackle another way. Maybe you don’t need to change your vision, but is it possible you’ve not executed that vision as well as you thought? Or can you explain to your editor what you’re seeing that they’re not, so that they’ll understand where they lost the thread? Maybe there’s a different, unobjectionable change that will get the job done. On the other hand, maybe the editor missed something because they don’t come from the same demographic as the character and writer, and the edit they’re suggesting doesn’t actually ring true. It can be hard at first blush to sort out which edits simply sting but are a good idea and which edits are a huge misstep, a path to a different book than the author wants to write, or a misread on the editor’s part. Edits are not an edict from on high, and they absolutely can be a conversation.

One of the best keys to a strong publishing experience is to trust that we’re all in this together.  If as an author you have a concern or a problem, know you’re almost certainly not the first person to have that issue, and your agent and editor should be more than capable of being professional enough to help resolve it. And your agent makes a great sounding board if you’re not quite sure how to move forward or want to express the unvarnished truth before taking a more diplomatic tack. A big part of what we’re here for is bringing the author and publisher back onto the same page when their interests or ideas begin to diverge so that everyone can move forward together.

Platform talk

There was a blog post recently from Eric Smith that got a lot of attention around publishing circles. My colleague, Sharon, passed it around the office for all of us to see, and I thought it might be a good idea to share wider with our blog readers as well.

Periodically the conversation changes about what authors should be doing to reach their fans once they’re published or how to build up their fan base before they’re published. One of the nice things about the piece is that it gives a few examples of authors doing things that are effective.

When I’m at conferences or talking with prospective authors, I often discuss what I refer to as the “platform pie.” Years ago, you had a good book idea, you got it published and you built your platform around the book. Now, the book has to be one of the last pieces of the platform pie, with the others already in place when you sell the book. Other pieces of the pie include social media, traditional media (radio and tv), public speaking, and writing online and offline for blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines.

A good example on my own list is Amy Morin, author of 13 THINGS MENTALLY STRONG PEOPLE DON’T DO and the upcoming 13 THINGS MENTALLY STRONG PARENTS DON’T DO. Her writing career started with freelance articles, one of which, talking about Amy’s groundbreaking work on mental strength, went viral in late 2014. I sold the book that became 13 THINGS just a few weeks later after feverishly working on it over the holidays.  She then took that success and extended her platform, writing for various publications, doing radio and tv interviews, and setting up speaking engagements in front of all kinds of audiences which eventually led to a Tedx talk and many other outlets to grow her platform.

It’s the end of summer and most of us are hanging on to the last few days before the busyness of September kicks in. This is a good thing to be thinking about while sitting on the beach, sipping ice cold cocktails, all the ways in which you can make your voice heard.


“Ssh, I’m reading…”

I have a fairly handy knack of being able to tune most people out if I’m reading (or trying to otherwise work), but I know many people (my own mother included) who need pretty much absolute silence in order to concentrate and read. However, there are always some people (and situations) where you absolutely cannot tune people or conversations out, so this article from Bustle about “14 Thoughts You Have When Someone Tries to Talk to You While You’re Reading”  made me chuckle.

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it can often be very difficult to find that coveted time and space to read or write without interruption. As a general rule, our office relies pretty heavily on communicating with each other and working together to get tasks done. Any number of instant messages can pop up on my screen during the day asking for help or an opinion, emails flood in, the phone will ring, someone will wander by to ask a question, and it can often make concentration on a single project challenging. On the other hand, it would be impossible and counterproductive to shut out everyone and just focus on what I have to do—our business and our office don’t work that way; we can’t be as selfish as we might often want to be with our time. It’s a matter of figuring out how to multi-task and how to stay focused and efficient despite any interruptions.

However, as a writer, setting boundaries is often important, especially if you have other obligations and demands on your time. Some writers I know get up early or stay up late to eke out a few precious hours when no one else is awake; others set specific hours where they cannot be disturbed (and turn off phones, social media, etc.,) in order to get their writing quota done for the day. It can be challenging to verbalize the boundaries or to enforce them, but important—for example, my mom says she can’t read or do her art if she has the feeling that someone is going to come barging in and interrupt her concentration.

For me personally, I find that my best work is done early in the morning when no one else is awake or in the office and I do a lot of my reading on the subway (I’ve perfected the death glare of “talk-to-me-at-your-own-peril”). How do you eke out time for yourself at work or for personal reading and writing? Can you work or read with interruptions? What boundaries have you set?


When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?