My author on the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS this Thursday!

We’ve been working our butts off to get this book, Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq, and the author, Kirsten Holmstedt, some attention and it’s starting to pay off.  We just confirmed that she’ll be on a panel hosted by Judy Woodruff on the Thursday broadcast talking about women soldiers in the current war.  Considering the book officially goes on sale tomorrow and she has a satellite radio blitz next week this is perfect timing.  To quote a British friend of mine, WOOT WOOT!

There are a lot of factors that go into publicizing a book and most of them are unquantifiable.  When I lobbied for the publicity budget for this book there was no way to guarantee anything beyond the money we’d spend.  Being a smaller, but growing, publishing house, we don’t have a spare 100k lying around to throw at a book, so we have to think very squirrelly, ie. where to plant your nuts for the best effect.  Part of our approach was to get finished copies of the book to a lot of papers, mags, websites and other reviewers and build a ground swell of awareness.  I think it was Stalin that said ‘Quantity has a quality all its own.’  Those reviews and articles when amassed have in turn given us some leverage to go after television by showing them this is something they need to be a part of.  That’s not to say PBS didn’t figure it out on their own (we sent them a copy, too,) but we try to make that decision easier by demonstrating a strong response out in the field.  Basically, you’re trying for that critical mass, or, um… tipping point (hey, what a great term, I wonder if anyone’s used that before?)

By the way, one of the reasons I pushed hard to promote this book was because the author is incredibly energetic in helping herself.  That is a huge plus.  Her website will give you some idea of what she’s done on her own initiative  www.bandofsistersbook.com

In defence of arrogance…the good kind

You need it.  OK, I need it.  Publishing, both as a writer and as an editor, is about as subjective as it gets.  No one needs your book.  They need food and clothes and cable tv, but they don’t need books.  They have to want them.  Confidence sustains us, but arrogance, no matter how much you deny it, rationalize it, and otherwise dress it up in self-deprecation, is what pushes us…me.  No one is waiting in a store plaintively looking at the space on the shelf where your book should be.  I checked this out.  I went to a bookstore and stood near the D through F section and at no time did someone come up to it and threaten to immolate themselves over the lack of a book by Chris Evans (I partly blame the ban on smoking in all public places because it’s clearly made flammable protests that much harder.)  Arrogance, when used properly, is that (hopefully) silent drive that kicks us in the ass when we wonder why we bother.  This isn’t an argument for being obnoxious, but for recognizing that ambition and goals are fed by more than belief in oneself.  We want people to read what we have to say, and we want them to react.  Scrawled notes on tear-stained napkins are a cry for help, full-length novels are a wailing moan for attention. 

I suppose I’m doubly cursed/blessed.  As an editor my very existence is based on a certain degree of arrogance.  I don’t just believe that a manuscript will be a good book, I then convince my publisher to spend a lot of money to prove me right.  Maybe calling it chutzpah sounds better, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s all a bit Field of Dreams.  We have to believe.  Of course, therein lies the trap.  Believe, have faith, but keep your eyes and ears open and your brain functioning.  Arrogance tempered with humility.  When I was at Clarion Sean Stewart talked about the various stages a writer goes through.  At one point, you look at the books in a store and say to yourself ‘my crap is just as good as their crap’ or something close to that.  So what pushes you past form letter rejections, tepid reactions and the complete lack of burn patches in the carpet in front of your alphabetic placement on the shelves?  Indeed.

A few things that drive an editor (this one at least) round the bend

In an age of instant access to virtually infinite amounts of information it still surprises me that so many writers don’t bother to do even minimal research before contacting a publisher.  I’m sure you’ve heard this many times before, but I’ll repeat it anyway because I really want writers to know that editors are overworked, under-appreciated, convinced-of-their-genius, capricious, and generally looking for an excuse, any excuse, to reject a manuscript.  Most are genuinely nice people, too, but they save that for after hours or for writers they actually work with.  Seriously, most editors are in a perpetual state of swamped.   The quickest way to put a smile on their faces is to give them a reason to reject your manuscript…without reading it.  Yes, without reading it.  And they won’t lose a wink of sleep over it either wondering if they passed up the next Harry Potter, DaVinci Code or Kite Runner.  Personally, I will kill a manuscript in a heartbeat for any of the following:

1. To Whom It May Concern – My name is Chris, it’s on the website, it’s in the catalog, it’s in several books and web pages on publishing markets, and it’s even in many acknowledgments so if you still couldn’t find it then you really are clueless or so impatient that in either case I want nothing to do with you…but I’ll certainly have my assistant send you a lovely form rejection letter.

2. Unprofessional emails or letters – Honest-to-freaking-god you never, ever write to an editor in lower case!  ‘hey dude, i just wrote this amazing book’ would probably be rejected by editors at Surfer’s Monthly, let alone everywhere else.  Email is not an excuse for bad grammar.  You may despise me and all I stand for (which means we may have dated at some point,) but if you are at all interested in having me look at your manuscript then at least pretend to be professional and fake some respect.

3. Impatience – Do you remember sitting in the back seat of the car as a child on a long trip and repeatedly asking your parents if you were there yet?  Do you recall their reaction?  Was it lots of hugs and candy, or various threats to pull over, turn around and/or sell you to the first band of traveling gypsies they saw?  This is like that.  The more you ask, the more likely it becomes the editor will reject it and breathe a sigh of relief you won’t be hounding them for years to come about cover art, galleys, royalty statements and so on.  See, we editors can extrapolate, and if you are this impatient now, what will you be like down the road?  Going home with the gypsies, that’s where.

4. Phone calls/chance meetings – You’ve stalked me for two days at a convention, waiting for the perfect moment to bump into me and tell me about your amazing book.  Guess what, there isn’t one.  No editor wants to hear a plot described to them out of the blue.  Same thing with a phone call.  Having said that, if you bump into me and do have a book you’d like me to consider, then say that and ask how you might submit it.  That let’s me tell you I’d like to see a couple of chapters and outline by email, or you can mail me your proposal, or whatever.  You smile, thank me and walk away.  You leave thinking I’m more of a mouth-breather than you expected and armed with a direct path to getting your manuscript read.  I leave not feeling annoyed and possibly remembering the encounter without malice a week later when your manuscript shows up.  Win-win. 

5. My friends/mom/dog like it – Really?  Your second cousin thinks it’s the greatest book he’s ever read, and he reads a lot now that he’s away for fifteen to life?  Again, despise me, but play to my ego.  Let me figure out how brilliant you are then, if you really are, I take all the credit for discovering you and don’t have to share it with Uncle Norton. 

6. Just like LOTR only better – Talk about how some aspect of a best seller inspired you, or how this or that writer engaged your sense of wonder, but don’t tell an editor your book is going to be the next big thing.  Let them tell you.  And everyone else.  They’re not shy, they will.

7. Oprah – Just…don’t.  Please.  Writing the name Oprah anywhere in a query is tantamount to admitting you suffer from a debilitating and almost certainly fatal mental illness.   You will be hit by lightning, win the lottery and solve the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle before Oprah chooses your book.  Really. 

If this all sounds harsh and petulant congratulations, it is.  It’s also reality.  Editors live and die by the authors they buy, so their time and energy is devoted to them.  If you want to join the stable then give yourself a chance and remember that editors, according to recent studies, are people too.  They have bad hair days, feel insecure, wonder how they are still single and approaching 40…er, well, some of them might wonder that, and seek to assuage their fears and sorrows not by looking inward toward self-improvement, but in eating chocolate and finding the next great book.  So avoid annoying them, and include chocolate with every submission. 

Publishing is a business

Publishing is a business.  Depending on your perspective that sounds bloody obvious, bloody cold, or bloody immoral. If you write in the hopes of one day being published AND monetarily compensated for it, then it’s all of them.  If you accept this premise then you should also take this on board – you are both writer and businessperson.  That means it’s incumbent upon you to learn enough of how this business works so that you can make informed decisions.  If, on the other hand, you find writing for money  unpalatable, then you probably aren’t reading this so I’ll carry on.

I remember a time in the not-too-distant past when I didn’t have a clue how any of this worked.  That was last Tuesday.  I’m no Maxwell Perkins (and if you don’t know who he is then Google him and learn about one of the greats in the publishing world,) but I’m muddling by.  One of the reasons for that is because I have the help and support of a lot of friends and colleagues who know infinitely more about this than I do, and I know just enough to know when to ask for their help. I’ve done that now, and the results will be showing up in this blog in the near future.  Guest bloggers (writers, editors, sales people and more) will be dropping by to offer their insight into the business.  I thought I could do this on my own, but as I started to make a list of my best advice I noticed a lot of it had to do with knowing where all the exits are and always having tupperware on hand in case there’s leftover food in a conference room.  Sage, to be sure, but perhaps not the most salient.  I’m hoping my future guests will have more to offer.

Publishing is a business, but it’s an amazing business, and there’s no good reason you can’t succeed in it,  and a lot of bad reasons why you might not.  If nothing else, this blog will aim to illuminate the good from the bad. 

PS Simply knowing where the exits are isn’t enough.  Check the doors and windows to see that they actually open before pandemonium breaks out.  Trust, but verify. 

Scheduling writing and thoughts on marketing

I write primarily in the early morning, usually from 6 to 8.  It’s not an inviolable rule, but it’s what I aim for most days.  For me, this is the ideal time.  I put on the coffee, read a little news on the web, check work email and then read over notes I made previously about the novel.  At this point in the day everything is still ahead of me and all I see is potential.  No one is calling yet, no one is in the office, and the traffic outside is still quiet.  Perfect.  I write, have a light breakfast, then go out for run in Central Park, shower and clock in to work around 9.  Some days I will write in the evenings as well, but usually the bulk of my writing gets done early.  As for word count, I don’t really keep track.  I’ve tried at different times, and now that I have contractual obligations I will likely pay closer attention to my progress although I am loathe to get too caught up in that lest the word count drive the story, and not the other way around. 

I landed a big book for next summer that should find itself right in the middle of election politics.  It’ll be formally announced shortly, but I’m excited because it’s not a polemic and should shed some light on a very divisive subject that needs it.  Meanwhile, there’s been interest expressed by a national television show in Band of Sisters.  Marketing a book today is in large parts trying to create critical mass, and doing so from the bottom up.  Readers, and that’s all of us, don’t like to be told what to read.  Well, a lot of readers don’t.  They like to discover an author.   Publishers can and do spend massive amounts of money to promote a book, but the only thing that guarantees is that the publisher spent a lot of money.  Word-of-mouth is the Holy Grail.  You need people to take up your cause as if it was their own.  Nothing really new here, but it’s worth remembering because an author can and should play a large role in this.  As an editor, I judge the commercial viability of a book on more than just the written word.  An author who can help him/herself is a huge asset.