Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Celebrity Effect

One of my pals on Facebook posted a story about how Pope Benedict is writing a children's book. This inspired lots of anti-celebrity writer comments (and some Catholic-bashing ones for good measure). 

This happens on forums every time a celeb children's book is announced.  "Real" kids book writers tend to get het up about it, whether the celeb in question is a sports star, pop singer, or in this case, pontiff.  "How dare they! They  should stick to what they are good at and leave children's book writing to people who really care about children and the art of writing books!"  Then come the insults about that celebs suitability as a role model, alleged scandals, questionable morality, looks and lack of intellect.

I understand some of the ire, particularly when the celebrity in question says something dumb like "there just weren't any good kids books out there, so I had to write one!" ... but I guess I can't get too worked up about it.

a) How do we know that celeb isn't an awesome writer? Don't get me wrong, I have my doubts, but still. I'd be bummed if somebody said I couldn't or shouldn't write a book because I have a totally different day job.  Wouldn't you?

b) Yay for selling books! The buyers for celebrity books are probably not people who buy a ton of kids books anyway, but who knows, maybe this will bring them into a store to buy something else as well. Or maybe the kid who gets that book will love it and want more books. Goodness knows, I loved the Berenstain Bears when I was a kid, and you'd be hard-pressed to find something more didactic that THAT - but my love of those dumb bears turned into a love of books, which got me to keep reading.

c) If it sells well, that publisher will have more dough with which to buy books from debut and non-celeb authors.  A rich publisher is a happy publisher.

And insulting Catholics or priests, or pop-music fans or singers, or sports enthusiasts or players, because they have an interest in these books? Poorly done. Look, many millions of people are Catholic and wonderful, many hundreds of thousands of priests work their whole lives to help children, not hurt them, and many if not most of those people care about what the pope has to say. Many millions of people are Madonna fans and wonderful, and Madonna seems to care deeply about children and their issues. Many millions of people love Michael Phelps, and he is a role model and hero for many many children.

We can assume that these people are probably not evil people. Sure, many celebs are suddenly in the writing business for some cash, just like some start perfumes or clothing lines when you know they aren't exactly chemists or designers. So what?

That means that somebody out there thinks that many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of consumers, will be interested in what that person has to say.  So maybe instead of thinking of these books as "books" the same way that your books are, think of them as merchandise.

If you don't like the pope, or Madonna, or Michael Phelps, or any celebrity, you are quite free not to purchase their merchandise, whether that be books, or perfume, or leggings.

Insulting these public figures and their fans is not actually helping you, or advancing your own career or writing in any way.  Their book being published isn't taking away your chance to be published. They are not taking away "your slot" -- that slot is the "celebrity merchandise" slot, you probably aren't a celebrity, that slot wasn't going to be filled by you anyway.

So take a spoonful of sugar, and make your book as great as it can be, so that you have a shot at one of the slots you DO have a chance to fill.

And if you are a celebrity, or God's Voice on Earth, and you happen to be reading this?

Call me.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Open Thread

I keep seeing people on Twitter use this thing "Formspring." Which apparently allows anonymous people to ask whatever questions they want, and then you answer them. It seems to me there are lots of places on the internet for such things... but whatever.

Since I don't have room for another social media site in my brain, and answering questions is sort of the point of this blog, I decided to make this my Mini-Formspring section. So, anonymous or not, feel free to ASK QUESTIONS, and I will answer either in comments (if it is a short answer) or in a  post (if it is a long answer).  You may also feel free to just randomly make a comment, tell me a joke, put a picture of kitty cats, or whatever.  Comments are moderated for spam control, but anonymous comments are fine.

Andddd...  GO!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mythbusting 101

At last week's conference, I got manymany questions referring to publishing myths as if they were truths. Many of these were mentioned multiple times. Always they were brought up by smart-seeming people speaking in earnest tones. Here, once and for all, let us destroy these lies with scorching truth-beams!

LIES: and then the truth
You can't get an agent unless you are published:  Fully half of my clients are (or were) debut authors when I signed them up.

You can't get published unless you have an agent: Plenty of people get first book deals without agents. Some people even have whole writing careers without agents and do just fine. (Though to be fair, this is generally not recommended - these folks usually have serious Type-A personalities, are highly organized and business minded, love to do research, and are control-freaks and extremely confident extroverts... a rare combo for writers, in my experience) 

You can't get published, or get an agent, unless you know somebody: As far as I know, all of my debut author clients came to me with absolutely zero connections in the publishing world. 

You can't get published, or get an agent, unless you live in New York City: None of my clients live in NYC. 

You need an agent who lives in NYC: There are great agents all over the country... even in California. You need an agent with a track record, or a newbie with a well-respected agency behind them, who has connections with publishers. Where they live doesn't matter. 

You shouldn't send your work to anyone, cause they will steal your ideas: Trust me, we don't want your ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Making something great out of them is the hard part! 

Don't query during the summer, nobody works in publishing during summer; don't query in the winter, nobody works in publishing in the winter:  The fact is, most agents and editors have to work year round, just like everybody else. We also often take a vacation for a couple weeks sometime during the summer and around the Christmas/New Year holidays... just like everybody else. And yes, this means sales slow down a bit. But that doesn't mean that you can't query! In fact, many agents use this time to play catch up. I have both signed clients and sold books during the supposed summer/winter doldrums.

Once you get an agent, you are 100% set. Get ready for easy street!:  Sorry, having an agent does not mean that your book will sell. Nor does it mean that your work is done.

A huge publisher is better than a small one:  Depends on the kind of book you've written. Some books and authors would get lost at a big publisher but thrive at smaller one. Large publishers might have more money, but small publishers might take risks that big publishers are too bureaucracy-ridden to take. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and neither one is inherently "better" than the other.

Editors don't edit anymore: They really do, poor things. Though there are fewer people to do more work than ever, and they have to go to plenty of meetings during the day, all the editors I know really do still edit. Often not during office hours.

Agents don't even read the slush, they just send form rejects:  Oh but you are wrong. Yes, we reject quickly. Think about it this way: I don't need to listen to a whole concert to know that the orchestra is out of tune. 

If you get a big advance, and your book does badly, you have to pay the publisher back:  Nope. The advance is yours to keep, unless you are in breach of contract somehow. But your publisher may well be leery of taking another risk on you if they lose a lot of money the first time around.

Picture books are easy to write. OR, YA writing is fine, but eventually you should "graduate" to writing grown-up books.  Errr... screw you.

Once you get that contract, your life will change for the better. (aka: Publishing means fame and fortune!): Selling your book is probably not going to change your fortunes very dramatically. The VAST majority of authors do not make enough money on a single contract, or even several, to give up their day job. A contract is neither medicine, nor magic. It can't transform a generally unhappy person into a cockeyed optimist, it can't solve all your problems, it won't make you more popular or prettier. Sorry.

WHEW. That was fun. Any other myths for me to bust? 

Saturday, July 17, 2010


As I mentioned in the last post, my secret shame is that I ran out of books while at the week-long conference, and ended up reading terrible romance novels that I found in the bathroom of the rental cottage.  By popular demand, a book review!

 SILKEN SAVAGE: Tanya and her gal-pals get kidnapped by a bunch of Cheyenne brutes, who savagely molest, abuse and brand them as slaves. Tanya's captor is the awesomely named (and comparably progressive) A-Panther-Stalks, who wants to "gentle her" like a wild pony, so she will be his willing slave. Tanya is fine with that. She is also stone bitch who doesn't lift a finger to help her friends, or even seem to think about them at all, even though they are being raped and beaten half to death in the tipi next door. Guess she is too busy Panther-Stalking.

She becomes A-Panther-Stalks' wife/slave, and at a certain point, the clan leader "Kettle-Black" or something says that she has to do a series of tests to prove herself as a brave or... actually, I don't really know what happened at all, it just turned into gibberish.

Takeaway: Seems extremely easy to master the Cheyenne language and folkways, since Tanya the idiot (with Mane of Lioness) managed it in less than a week. Unclear who is the titular 'savage'.  Rating: Zero headdress-feathers.

Home agaiZzzzzz

I had such a great time hanging out with the folks at the Oregon Coast Children's Book Writer's Workshop this past week!  So many thanks to conference chieftan and master chef David Greenberg and his amazing wife Susan for their warmth and awesome organization skills, to the faculty for being so terrifically smart and funny (especially my roommate April Henry, WHO I LOVE SO MUCH) --  and of course to the WRITERS, who were brave enough to 'put it out there' all week.  Plus I got to see my client LK Madigan (yayyy!) and even go to bookstore mecca Powells.

But of course, the main event was the week at the coast. This is the view from the conference center -- not too shabby:

And hey, here's a little fellow who I met this morning in our yard:

There was much in the way of nature, as you can see. Including whales, porcupines, baby and mama deers, etc. (Not to mention all the wild writers...)  There was also no phone and very little internet, and I ran out of books at a certain point, which was perhaps the scariest thing of all.  Let's just say, if you've never been stuck in a vacation cottage with nothing to read but a bunch of really terrible racist romance novels* and decade-old Readers Digests, you haven't lived. 

Now I back in California and have a backlog of about a jillion emails to catch up with. If you feel that I owe you a response about something, please don't hesitate to remind me, I don't want anything to slip through the cracks.

* review to follow

Friday, July 09, 2010

Conference Time is here!

I'm prepping for a week-long conference that I am leaving for tomorrow. I have to give two speeches at this conference. Naturally I plan to subvert the topics. As I gather my notes, I give you, the loyal blogreader, a sneak preview.  Anything that I am forgetting to talk about?  Remind me in the comments, please!

Alleged Topic: State of the Industry: I will discuss "what's hot and what's not", featuring an overview of some titles that are hugely popular right now at the bookstore level and what makes them so, along with what I am seeing as trends in the slush pile. Also discussed: Which categories are selling well and which are flat, and how writers can make their work stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Real Topic: MOAR AWESOME! Quick dismissal of "what's hot and what's not" concept. Discussion about why thinking about trends is such a waste of time. Bitter complaints about how 95% of my slush pile is exactly the same as everything else. Encouragement of authors to follow their own star and MAKE trends; examples of why they are much more likely to be "hot" that way.

Bonus: Vampire jokes, curse words.


Alleged Topic: Pitch Perfect In this session, I will read and discuss samples of actual  queries that have caught my attention in slush, and then gone on to become books.  I'll explain what works, and what doesn't, and will reveal my own 'secret formula'  for a great pitch.   Attendees will be welcome to ask questions and get involved.

Real Topic: CHILLAX & TELL ME WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT!   Why you shouldn't worry about how to pitch the book until you have a book to pitch. Why conversations about just about anything else are usually more interesting and useful than your pitch. Why most query letters suck. How to not suck.  Also, Bookstore Handselling 101.

Bonus: two words.  MAD LIBS!

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Great Big All-You-Can-Stand Super-Self-Promotion Post, part 1

So you have a book coming out. Congrats!

I'll assume for the sake of this post that you are like most authors. You got a Just OK, Pretty Good or even Fairly Great advance, but you are by no means taking gold coin baths. Your publisher may be big and imposing, or teensy and quiet, but either way they are very busy and they don't seem to have much time for little old you. 

You might be feeling somewhat useless. Strangers in NYC are tinkering with your baby and you have no control over it. You want a way to do something (anything!) useful, but you don't know what, or how, or where to start. Well... I am by no means a publicist, but I do have some tips that are not hugely difficult (and may even be plain old common sense!) but that I hope will help you:

1) WRITE YOUR NEXT BOOK. Seriously. I know it doesn't SEEM like obvious marketing advice, but this is truly the most important thing you can do for yourself. If your first book comes out to a lukewarm reception or does poorly, you will need something fantastic to follow up with.  If your first book comes out and is a smash hit, your time will become even more precious than it already is. In any case, nerves, self-doubt and exhaustion may well start playing havoc with your writing once you have that first deal. It will help if you are working diligently on a new project whenever you can, so you either have it ready when you need it or at least have something else to focus on besides your own neuroses. (And let's face it, you're a writer, you probably have neuroses aplenty.)

2) WEBSITE. In my opinion, there is NO excuse for not having a website. Whether it is something flashy that cost a ton to set up, or something simple that you made yourself using free software, or anything in between... you have to have something. Preferably something that is clean, professional, has your and your agents info, has your book info (including links to buy your books, and isbns, and reviews/blurbs/contests/excerpts etc...).  This doesn't have to be the fanciest site in the world, but it has to exist. Not having a website is like a businessperson not having a card.  Or like a retail store that refuses to have a public phone number. It just doesn't make sense.

3) MAILING LIST. Your mailing list is important, and you need to actively cultivate it. Start with all the people you know personally, right now.  Whenever you do an event, have a little notebook and get people's info to add. Get to know the folks on your alumni committee. Get the info of people you work with. Go to bookstores and make friends with the children's person. Meet the teachers at your kids school. Join (and participate) in onine writer's communities. These people will all be the seeds to start a great mailing list.  Oh it will grow when you have real fans from "the wild", but I can't overstate the importance of getting that base layer in yourself.  These are the people that are going to get you school visits, or buy your books for their classroom, etc etc.  If you get postcards, you might send them to these people, or invite them to your launch party if they are local. Make new friends, and keep the old.

4) SOCIAL NETWORKING.  No matter what anyone says, you don't HAVE to have a blog, or do Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr. You don't have to join a debut authors group or subscribe to list-servs, or anything of the kind. For many authors, these sorts of activities are a time-suck that takes them away from what they should be doing (which is of course, say it with me - WRITING THAT NEXT BOOK!) But if you do happen to want to test the waters, I think that it would behoove you to at least try Twitter and/or Facebook. There might well be new sites next month or next year that are even better, but for the time being these ones are where its at, and will help you build up that mailing list! :-)

As for blogging - if you are a natural blogger and you enjoy doing it, by all means go for it. If you find yourself exasperated or worse, please don't bother. Blogs that are a chore to write are generally a MEGA-chore to read, and will end up reflecting badly on you.

5) NICHE MARKETING. You have a book about a tween Ice Skater coming to terms with popularity vs. family? Consider promoting this book to Ice Skating groups, and Mother-Daughter book groups. Get an ad in a popular skating magazine, if you can. Give a few copies to Skate Bloggers.  Or say you have a book about a Jewish kid who explores space. Try promoting this book at the JCC, and the Planetarium. See if you can get a local Jewish neighborhood paper to write an article about your fascinating book. Befriend the Jewseum in San Francisco and the Skirball in LA. Find out when the Jewish book fests, what your local Jewish schools are, and see if you can visit them.  These smaller niche markets are generally easier to approach, less expensive to advertise in, and very likely to be more receptive to hearing about your book, than huge markets. Whereas general-interest book bloggers get a million free books, so many they are tripping over them half the time (and they'll only read a fraction of them), your local shul or skate club president may be super-excited to get a free book and blog the heck out of it and tell everyone they know.

Doesn't seem like as big a deal as an ad in the NY Times? You'd be really surprised how many sales a few super-pumped moms, teachers or community leaders can generate. (AND you'd be surprised how little people actually pay attention to the ads in the NYT!) Remember - and this is certainly common sense, but it's amazing how often people don't get it: The personal always trumps the generic.  A recommendation from a trusted source always trumps seeing an ad you have no connection with. A hand-written note to a friend is better than a press release.

'BUT I'VE DONE ALL THESE THINGS!!!'  -- well congratulations, you are ahead of the curve. This is the most important stuff. But I am positive that you guys have more great ideas that'll be fodder for TGBAYCSSSPP part 2. Care to share them in the comments?

(And yes, the fact that there will be a part 2 means that this is NOT actually the All-You-Can-Stand ... it is the all I can stand. Sick of typing!)

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The People of the Book

I've had a couple of questions recently about the difference between trade books with Christian elements, and Christian Market books.

Now I am in no way an expert. I don't represent "real" Christian books, and not just because I am a heathen, but also because I wouldn't know where to begin selling them. There is an entirely separate  group of publishers and editors and bookstores and writers (and agents!) who are "CBA", and these books are often not even found in regular trade bookstores... well, at least, not much in San Francisco. ;-)

I do see lots of trade YA submissions about teens struggling with matters of faith, and I find those very relevant and interesting. I'd be happy to see more of this kind of book. However a word of caution: it is very easy to cheat and start stereotyping people for comic or dramatic effect.  After all, it's easy to hate two-dimensional cardboard zealots. 

Most submissions with religious themes that I see show super-religious folks as misguided cuckoo-birds or worse, straight-up Evil. (Sometimes, to mix it up, they'll be Perfectly Good with no shades of gray.)

But that is not my experience of the real world, and it probably isn't yours either. Think about people who are hardcore about their religious beliefs, including most Catholic priests & nuns, Buddhist monks, Christian Fundamentalists, Mormons, Quakers, Orthodox Jews, or whatever... the vast majority are pretty cool and nice. Or, if they are jerks, their religion doesn't make them so; they would be jerks even if they were Atheists. They also generally think about lots of things besides religion, and have other dimensions to their personality, sometimes even conflicting ones. And that is actually where the drama and interest is, to me.*

(A really excellent YA about matters of faith: EVOLUTION, ME & OTHER FREAKS OF NATURE by Robin Brande)

As for the difference in picture books between the two markets, my old pal Editorial Anonymous said it best:
Christian for trade:
Santa being jolly
Jesus being born
Easter Bunnies
The spirit of giving and how you want it in you

Christian for Christians:

Santa being too commercial
Jesus doing anything else
Easter crucifixions
The spirit of God and how you want it in you 

* ETA: Also, despite popular opinion, most priests are NOT child molesters.  Seriously, you think we could give that trope a rest?