Thursday, May 31, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- We Have a Winner

The First Chapters contest, sponsored by Gather.com and (the lately much-discussed) Simon & Schuster, has declared not just one winner, but two. (I blogged skeptically about the contest last January.)

S&S will be publishing The Way Life Should Be, a murder mystery by grand prize winner Terry Shaw, and also--in what Gather.com's press release describes as a "surprise" move "due to the tremendous quality of the submissions"--Fire Bell in the Night, a historical thriller by runner-up Geoffrey Edwards. The publication date for both books is September 2007, with major promo to be provided by Borders.

Just over three months to pub date. In the slow-moving world of publishing, this is lightning speed. "Instant" books are sometimes put out that fast or faster to coincide with current events (remember the spate of books after the O.J. Simpson verdict?)--but for your typical novel, it barely allows time for editing, let alone marketing--and what about reviews, with trade journals and newspapers wanting galleys a minimum of three months before the pub date? So why the rush? I'm thinking it's because S&S fears that, if it takes the more customary year or year-and-a-half to publish, people will have forgotten all about the contest and its winners, and a valuable publicity angle will be lost. Hence the rush to print.

Sadly, the press release helps to perpetuate a particularly pernicious writers' myth. "Just before Christmas," grand prize winner Terry Shaw is quoted as saying, "I was told by an agent that it was ‘just impossible to sell a first novel, unless you're a celebrity or have the flavor of the month.'" Need I point out that this notion is easily disprovable just by reading the review section of PW on a regular basis? I'm not saying it's not tough--but debut novels certainly do get published (most without the help of gimmicks like the First Chapters Contest or Project Publish).

I wonder if that agent's name is in Writer Beware's database.

According to contest guidelines, the winner(s) must agree to sign S&S's boilerplate contract. Unfortunately, that means these two writers may be stuck with S&S's new never out of print contract language. (Although a recent internal memo by the AAR suggests that S&S may be backing down a bit, at least to the point of being willing to negotiate a revenue-base threshold for taking books out of print.)

(Note: Any snark in this post is not directed at Mr. Shaw or Mr. Edwards, whose books sound very interesting. Congratulations to both of them, and best wishes for success.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guest Blogger -- A Reviewer's Plea

Today we have a guest blogger. She's a reviewer for several major publications, including various national newspapers. For reasons explained below, she needs to remain anonymous--but if you're a writer with a book under contract, there are a few things she'd like you to know about reviews--and reviewers.

(If you're a small press-pubbed author, pay special attention to her advice about galleys. Not sending out galleys in advance of publication is one of the areas in which inexperienced small publishers often try to pinch pennies--to their own and their authors' detriment.)

---------------------------

A Long Growwwwl...

Well, BEA hasn't even started up, and I'm already being hunted…

Usually the hunting doesn't start until I walk through the door, but I made the mistake of registering on the BEA site as a reviewer. So I'm getting invites from people producing cartoons and from self-help gurus, and a lot of pings from authors of business books. I guess they're business people, and being business people feel they must be cheery and sell, sell, sell. I take my outlook on life from Eeyore, and find their smiles so much toxic waste.

I'm a book reviewer. I review for a couple of major papers and a lot of minor ones. If you're reading this blog, it's likely you've read my work. I don't know why the business writers are hunting me. I don't review business books—my areas are literature and poetry, with the occasional quirky book about history. I don't know why the publicist for self-help books and the woman writing a book about the Chinese middle class are hunting me. Maybe it's something they can take back to their bosses and say "look, I'm being proactive, I contacted a reviewer!"

Last time I went to BEA, I had an publicist actually grab my arm and pull so hard it hurt. She wanted to drag me over for a head-to-head with an author so that I'd review her book. It mangled my shoulder and made me mad. No, I didn't review the book.

So what do you have to do to get me to review your book? Well for starters, don't meet me. Ever.

Major papers in the U.S. have an iron-clad policy: reviewers can't meet the authors they review. I suspect this is relaxed a bit when major writers write reviews, but for run-of-the mill reviewers--the ones who, like me, search publishers' catalogs months before the pub dates and let our editors know what we think will be hot--it's a firm rule. Can't know you. Can't talk to you. Aren't supposed to accept gifts from your publisher.

A lot of people don't get this. As promos, I've received: cookies, a plastic horse, stuffed animals, t-shirts, and an electric tooth-brush. (I'm not sure of the reasoning behind the last gift. How is an electric toothbrush supposed to inspire me to give a good book review??)

If you're a new author, pay attention, because if your book is going to land a review in the New York Times or The Washington Post, the person who writes it will be someone like me. So if your publicist ever tries to drag you over to a book reviewer for either of these papers, run the other way. An editor is another story. You can have a bit of contact with an editor. But trying to get me to like your book by getting me to like you isn't fair play.

And it could get me in trouble.

A lot of book reviewers are also writers, so we're constantly skirting conflict-of-interest issues. Causes a lot of strange silences at parties, and the occasional ducking-into-the-bathroom. Recently, I attended a book party when I probably shouldn't have. The publicist grabbed me by the arm (ouch! again) and dragged me over to an author. Unfortunately, I was reviewing his book for a major magazine. I felt I had to tell my editor. My editor felt he had to pull the review. (He was kind enough to still pay me. A lot of editors wouldn't do that.) If you sense a nervous, slightly school-marmish tone here, it's because when a publicist or author slips up, the reviewer may lose a paycheck. I don't know if I'll ever be able to review for that magazine again—-that's a chunk of change, and a bit o' prestige, that I've lost.

So if you're an author, especially a new author, you don't want to meet me. I'm a nice person and all, and know a lot about literature and am kind to dogs and small children, but there are other nice people in the world. And you certainly don't want to ask me advice on your writing, or where to send a manuscript, or about editors or agents. If I give you advice, I really can't review your work. The New York Times, for one, specifically forbids reviewers to give advice, and I don't think it would go over well most other places either.

So how do you get your book reviewed? Well, I'm writing anonymously so I can give advice:

1) Write a good book. I got into this job because I like to tell people about good books. Personally, I’m not one for snarky reviews, and I know a lot of book reviewers who feel the same—-and we're the ones in the trenches, searching for the next great debut. If I don't like a book, or think it's atrocious, I simply won't review it. If I think that its merits outweigh its flaws, I'll still mention the flaws, but I'll spend more time on the good parts. 'Nuff said.

2) Make sure the publisher releases galleys early and that they print a lot of them. 5-8 months before the pub date is optimum, and I can think of at least one excellent book that didn't get reviewed because the publisher only put out 75 galleys. Most newspapers take book review pitches 2-3 months before the pub date, but with the crush on book reviewing, that's expanding to 3-5 months. Glossy magazines take book review pitches 5-8 months beforehand.

3) Make sure the publication date is printed clearly and in large print at the top of the publicity letter and in the galley. This seems like a small thing, but book review pitches are structured around the pub date. I've not reviewed books I thought were good because I couldn't find the pub date. The publicity letter and the galley should both have contact information for the publisher as well. Some places like Bloomsbury and Penguin are hell to get a review copy from unless you have the email for the specific publicist involved.

4) Make friends with your publicist. Mostly, they are good-natured, but horribly overworked. Learn their name, their kids' names, the name of their dog (or cat). Form a relationship with them as early as possible. I've heard of publicists who have 60 books to market in a year. Give your publicist a reason to love you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Simon & Schuster, Media Predict, and Project Publish

A bizarre service went live this past Monday: Media Predict, a self-described online game that uses a prediction market setup to rate media content (in prediction markets, people buy and sell shares based on the likelihood of a particular outcome--for instance, whether a certain candidate will be elected--with share prices reflecting the likelihood, or not, of that outcome). According to Media Predict's FAQ, "Although media companies sometimes find hits, historically most media products lose money or fail to find an audience. At the same time media companies often overlook valuable content...Media Predict uses prediction markets to identify media products worthy of investment and development." Why prediction markets? Because they have "an astonishing record of success in forecasting economic indicators, election results, sales levels and more."

Media Predict has markets for music, television, and--most relevant for Writer Beware readers and what I'll be focusing on in this post--books. Book proposals are posted by authors or their agents (subject to screening--Media Predict claims to work with "established" literary agents to vet proposals, though it doesn't say who the agents are). Traders are given $5,000 in fantasy cash to speculate on things like "Will 'Yoo-Hoo, Bunnie McFoo!' Get a Book Deal?". Trading starts at $10 per share. High share prices, theoretically, suggest future success.

Strip away all the folderol, and here's what it boils down to: in its book aspect, Media Predict is basically a manuscript display site with a twist.

What can you say about a setup where random players attempt to forecast success or failure for literary properties based on a brief four-point description (such as this one for Kate Shindle's Crown Chasers) and a no-more-than-10-page proposal/excerpt? Not much, in my opinion. For one thing, the available information is extremely limited--most notably by the fact that you can't actually read the book, and so must bet on success based almost entirely on external factors, such as the author's celebrity (Dorothy Hamill has a proposal for a children's book), or the poignancy of the author's circumstances (self-pubbed author Jason Cooper wrote his fantasy story for his kids), or just the fact that share prices are high, suggesting that other people think the project will succeed. Traders in other prediction markets--such as the University of Iowa's Iowa Electronic Markets, which often predict the results of presidential elections more accurately than traditional polls--surely have far more objective information at their disposal.

Also, the value of the predictions presumably stems from the fact that they arise from the book's potential market. But unless you have huge participation, how likely is it that results on Media Predict will have genuine market relevance? And even with a large group of speculators, how much correlation will there be between traders and potential readers for any given book? Betting that Dorothy Hamill will get a deal for Skatey Katey doesn't mean you'll run out and buy it for your kids (assuming you remember it when, after a year or two, it finally gets published). Will a strong Media Predict showing translate into actual book sales? There is only ever one answer to this kind of question: No one knows.

The law of averages alone suggests that Media Predict will flag some successes. But all in all, it's hard to see how this process will be any less like rune-casting than the more conventional decision-making methods of agents and editors.

At least one publisher seems to be willing to bet otherwise: Simon & Schuster, whose contract negotiation policy changes grabbed publishing industry headlines last week, and which is involved in another popular-pick-style contest, the First Chapters Writing Competition at Gather.com. Media Predict and S&S's Touchstone imprint are co-sponsoring Project Publish, a contest that will select a book proposal from the Media Predict website for (possible) future publication. This coming September, S&S editors and Touchstone publisher Mark Gompertz will choose five finalists from Media Predict's 50 top-scoring book proposals. "Additional supporting content" (an extra 20 pages) will be posted for the finalists, and trading will continue until October, when one grand prize winner will be announced. The prize: a S&S book contract with an "approximate minimum value" of $2,000. (Note to entrants: this is not quite the same as a commitment to pay an advance.)

So S&S is promising to offer a contract to a book of unknown subject and genre on the basis of fantasy stock trading and 30 pages of content. (What was that about casting runes?) According to Touchstone publisher Mark Gompertz, quoted in the New York Times, this is a reasonable method of book selection because "many, many more eyeballs will have looked this over, and that’s what’s intriguing about this." (This is interestingly similar to what he had to say about the First Chapters contest, which also selects finalists by popular vote: "You know that many more eyes have read the thing than if it had been seen by a single agent.")

All those eyeballs notwithstanding, Media Predict and S&S are hedging their bets a bit. According to Clause 5.c. of the Project Publish Official Contest Rules, the contest can be canceled if "an insufficient number of qualified Book Proposals are received," and also "in the event the Media Predict Web Site does not attract a sufficient number of users." (The meaning of "insufficient" and "sufficient" is not specified.) And according to Clause 8.a., S&S has "the right but not the obligation" to negotiate a book contract with the 5 finalists; and can, if it wishes, determine that none of the top 50 are publishable (Clause 8.d.). Clause 8.c. acknowledges the possibility that S&S and the grand prize winner won't be able to come to terms, and also allows for nonpublication if the winning book doesn't pass legal review.

But that's not all. Careful readers of the fine print will surely pause at Clause 7.a., which states: "If a selected author does not have a literary agent, Sponsor will contact such authors to arrange for representation." Does that mean Media Predict is claiming the right to act as your agent if you're an unagented contest entrant? This is certainly suggested by Clause 7.b., which begins: "If Sponsor is engaged as an agent for a Book Proposal..." and by similar language in Clause 8.c.: "If the winner does not have an agent other than Sponsor..." And according to an article in the May 21 edition of Publishers Lunch:

When unagented writers have their submitted work accepted for the contest, they need to sign an agreement--not posted, and which [Media Predict founder Brent] Stinski declined to provide--based on "a standard literary agreement" that he says makes Media Predict the "agent on a temporary basis." Stinksi says the company's intention is not to actually engage in literary representation itself, though. "We want everybody to have access to literary representation.... If you want to sign on, we'll put you on the site, and if you score well we'll find an agent for you."

He says the initial term of the representation agreement is four months, calling it "sort of a placeholder while the book is tested on the site." If the book doesn't score well, he plans to release rights on a shorter time-frame. If it does score well, "we'll look for a real agent"--starting with the site's agent partners, and the initial agreement can be extended for another 12 months.


This raises a lot of questions--such as why why on earth it should be necessary for Media Predict to act in an agent's role for unagented authors, especially since it won't "actually engage in literary representation." The obvious answer is that Media Predict stands to benefit financially, since presumably it will take a cut of any book deals that result. That's 15% to Media Predict, and a double commission for the author--since if she does get a book deal, she'll probably want to hire someone who will "actually engage in literary representation."

We're not quite done with the fine print yet. Media Predict's Terms of Use contain a paragraph on Project Publish that states, in part: "By submitting a book proposal, entrant waives any right of action against publisher or its successors and assigns in connection with the publisher’s publication of any book(s) in the future in any media now known or hereafter devised, or any part thereof, whether or not the book(s) contain features similar to or identical to those contained in an entrant’s book proposal." No, this doesn't mean that S&S is out to plagiarize your material (as no doubt many theft-fearful writers will assume). My concern is that it would limit the rights of contest entrants whose book proposals were selected by S&S for publication.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out over the next few months.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Contract Alert: Simon & Schuster

Just posted on the Writer's Alerts page of Writer Beware:

The Authors Guild has posted an alert about a troubling change at Simon & Schuster. Apparently the publisher has altered its standard contract to allow it to consider a book in print for as long as the book is available in any form, including the publisher's own electronic database--even if there are no sales.

Traditionally, the AG says, "All major trade publishers have been willing to acknowledge the requirement of some minimum level of economic activity in order for them to retain exclusive rights to a manuscript. Typically, such clauses obligate a publisher to sell a few hundred books a year. Simon & Schuster has been signaling, however, that it will no longer accept a minimum sales threshold." This would potentially allow Simon & Schuster to retain control of the author's rights indefinitely.


For reference, here's the clause acknowledging a "minimum level of economic activity" in my contract with HarperCollins:

If for two consecutive accounting periods neither the Publisher nor a licensee of the Publisher has printed copies of the Work available for sale in the United States, but the Work is available for sale from the Publisher or a licensee of the Publisher by some means of on-demand printing, or electronic transmission or reproduction and within those two accounting periods, the Publisher and its licensees, collectively, have sold less than 250 copies of the Work, the Work shall be deemed out of print.

So why is it important for works to go out of print?

One of the more persistent writers' myths is that Going Out Of Print Is Always Bad. Books have the shelf life of sliced bread, this bit of received non-wisdom goes; you get four or five months in the stores, and unless you sell in large numbers, you're outta there. A few months later, disgusted by your failure, your publisher will declare your book out of print, after which no one will be able to get hold of it except as a used copy. (This scenario really is a myth; even non-performing books don't go out of print as fast as that--my books sell modestly, and their average in-print life is around four years--and steady sellers can stay in print for years, even decades.) One of the supposed advantages of digital and electronic publishing is that, because there's no inventory, publishers can afford to keep books in print and available "forever."

But forever isn't good if the publisher isn't promoting the book. Why should publishers have control over books they aren't marketing and selling? If your book is no longer available for order or download, or if its availability is limited (for instance, if there are no print copies that can be ordered by stores and the book exists only in an electronic edition), or if it's still available but few or no copies are selling, you're better off if the publisher takes it out of print, allowing you to revert the rights and regain control of them. Perhaps you can do something else with them--re-sell them, for instance (this is difficult, but not impossible), or publish through a service like the Authors Guild's Back in Print program, which allows authors to bring out-of-print books back into circulation. Even if you wind up simply holding on to the rights, it's better than letting your book languish in the publisher's vault.

(This is why it's important, if you're thinking of going with a digital or electronic publisher, to look for time-limited contracts, or, if the publisher uses life-of-copyright language, to make sure that it's balanced by a detailed and specific out of print/rights reversion clause that includes provisions like the example I gave above.)

What's the purpose behind S&S's new policy? I'm guessing that S&S is gambling that electronic rights will become hugely valuable at some point in the future. Right now they aren't, and I don't believe that anyone, even the most vigorous prognosticators, knows how or in what ways they may become so. But with its rights grab, S&S is hedging its bets, retaining control of books it may be able to exploit in new ways as times change and new technology becomes available. In this situation, authors are double losers--first, because they lose control of their rights forever, and second, because if S&S does exploit the rights at some future point, it will be doing so under old contracts. As the development of the ebook market has made clear, new technologies demand new terms and new negotiations.

S&S is certainly not alone in its hopes for the future. Unless outcry by authors and agents forces a change--and there is plenty of uproar right now--look for similar policies from other publishers not too long from now.

The Authors Guild cautions authors to carefully consider their options in regard to S&S:

1. Remember that if you sign a contract with Simon & Schuster that includes this clause, they’ll say you’re wed to them. Your book will live and die with this particular conglomerate.

2. Ask your agent to explore other options. Other publishers are not seeking an irrevocable grant of rights. [Though some authors are saying that Bertlesmann recently implemented a similar policy.]

3. If you have a manuscript that may be auctioned, consider asking your agent to exclude Simon & Schuster imprints unless they agree before the auction to use industry standard terms.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Learning the Ropes

In my last post about the twin demons of denial and desperation, I stressed how important it is for writers to educate themselves about the publishing industry before they dive into it. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten several emails asking for pointers on how to do that. Here are some suggestions.

First and foremost: AVOID THE INTERNET! At least to start. The Internet is an amazing and invaluable research resource, and you will use it heavily in your search for an agent or publisher. Unfortunately, as much excellent information as there is online, there’s at least as much really really bad information. One of the most important of all Internet skills is the ability to filter what you find. Unless you have some basic knowledge about your subject, however, you aren’t going to be able to do that very effectively. That’s why I suggest you begin your investigation into the publishing industry offline.

(I’m aware of the irony here, because I’m telling you this electronically. But ideally, I’d like for people to find Writer Beware after they've learned something about agents and publishers, so they can better put our warnings and advice in context.)

So...go get a book. Yes, I know, very old school. Nevertheless, books offer many advantages. There are fewer of them, so you won’t become overwhelmed by a multitude of choices, as you might online. They’ve been authored by people who actually have credentials that qualify them to write about their subject (unlike many websites, which may have been put together by people who know even less than you), and have been vetted by an editor, who presumably has an interest in producing a product that reflects well on the publisher. They’ve also been researched, which isn’t necessarily something you can say about websites, and they are likely to be up to date--also not something you can count on with websites--which is extremely important in the constantly-changing world of publishing.

There are many books that provide a basic introduction to the publishing process. The Dummies and Idiots lines have decent general guides, as well as more specialized guides to specific markets and genres. Other examples include (for US writers) How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum, How To Be Your Own Literary Agent by Richard Curtis, and Agents, Editors, and You by Michelle Howry; and (for UK writers) From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake and The Insider’s Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Rachael Stock. There are many, many others. Go to a bookstore and spend some time in the area where books on writing are shelved, or type “getting published” into the search box at Amazon; no doubt you’ll find a book to suit you. (Oh dear. I just told you to stay off the Internet, didn't I? Now I’m telling you to go to Amazon. Let’s just agree that Amazon Doesn’t Count, okay?)

(You may notice that I'm not recommending writers' magazines such as The Writer or Writer's Digest or Writing Magazine. These are fine as supplements to your other research, but I don't recommend you rely on them as your primary information source about the publishing world. Many of the articles are puff pieces; others are superficial and shallowly researched, and often gloss over the complexities and the tougher realities of the business. And the ads can be toxic--there's a huge focus on pay-to-publish services, and any agent you find in the Classifieds sections is likely to be a scammer.)

Next: read the book. Don’t cheat. Don’t skim it, don’t dip and pick. Read it cover to cover. This kind of preparatory research is tedious, I know, especially for writers who are on fire to get their work out there--but if you decide to skip it, as many writers do, you will more likely than not have cause to regret your decision later on. Or perhaps you think you already know enough, from information you've picked up here and there, perhaps from writer friends or from hanging out online--but unless you come from a family of authors, I can almost guarantee that you are wrong. Ignorance is the scammer's best ally; knowledge is the writer's best defense. Bite the bullet. Do the prep work. It’s one of the most worthwhile investments in your future writing career that you will ever make.

Now that you have some knowedge and some context, you can get advanced. By this, I mean reading, or at least regularly checking, trade publications such as Publishers’ Weekly (US) or The Bookseller (UK). Subscriptions are expensive, but you can probably find issues at your local library. These journals will not only clue you in on the latest happenings in the publishing industry, they’ll keep you current with the books that are coming out and the deals that are being made. It’s a great way to become familiar with the names of agents, editors, and publishing houses. If you write genre fiction, there may be a magazine oriented to you: for instance, Locus or Vector for SF/fantasy/horror writers, or Romantic Times or Romance Matters for romance writers.

You can also now safely go online. There are many excellent blogs maintained by agents, editors, booksellers, and industry insiders; these provide a wealth of information, direct from the source. You can find some of these--by no means all--in the sidebar of this blog (most of the agents are US-based; agent blogging seems to be much less prevalent in the UK). There are also a number of industry newsletters to which you can subscribe: Publishers Lunch or Book Trade News Digest, which report on publishing, or ShelfAwareness, which covers the world of bookselling.

Another excellent online resource is Publishers Marketplace. A membership costs, but you get a lot for your money, including agent listings, rights listings, the full version of the Publishers Lunch newsletter, and much more. It’s mainly oriented to the US market; I’m not aware of a UK equivalent. Many people seem to swear by the online version of Writer's Market--I’m not really familiar with it, though, and I don’t much like the print version; I find the information superficial, and the listings are not always well-vetted.

Writers’ discussion forums are also worth seeking out--but this should be one of the last things you do in your self-education process, because you really, really need some basic knowledge in order to properly filter the content you’ll find at these sites. Writers’ myths (good agents aren’t interested in new writers, big publishers don’t take risks on debut authors) abound on writers’ message boards, along with misconceptions about the realities of publishing and self-publishing, and inaccurate information about complex subjects such as copyright. The reason is simple: writers’ message boards are heavily populated by writers who skipped the steps described above, and are trying to learn what they need to know piecemeal by looking for it online. Because they don’t know how to evaluate what they find, there’s a lot of parroting of bad information.

That said, discussion forums and message boards can be extremely helpful--for advice, support, even critiques of your work. This is especially true if the membership includes professional writers. Backspace is a good forum, with articles, listings, and an active message board. Ditto for Absolute Write, where both aspiring writers and professionals hang out (I’m the moderator of AW’s Bewares & Background check forum, where you can ask about an agent’s or publisher’s reputation). WritersNet is another popular forum. The John Jarrold Forum, run by UK agent John Jarrold, focuses on speculative fiction; the Mystery Writers' Forum is for mystery and crime authors. There are many, many others. Look around till you find one that suits you.

One thing I suggest--and I imagine there will be disagreement--is that, at least initially, you avoid the blogs of authors who regularly discuss publishing and the publishing process. There are a couple of reasons for this. Authors’ views of the nuts and bolts of publishing tend to vary a great deal, based on their own experiences as well as the differing requirements of the genres within which they work. The divergent information can be confusing if you don’t have a good general knowledge base. Also, some authors adopt a tough-love approach, or spend a lot of time highlighting scary or negative things under the guise of talking straight and telling it like it is. This kind of discourse can be demoralizing and overwhelming for someone who’s new to the publishing game. If you’re just starting to think about researching agents, you don’t really need to be told that you’re doomed if you don’t self-promote, or to find out about the dire things that can happen if the sales figures for your second book drop. There will be plenty of time for all that depressing crap once you actually get a publishing contract.

A final word: don't obsess. Following blogs and participating in writers' forums can turn into a major time sink; those of us with a tendency toward Internet addiction (I'm raising my hand here) need to be especially careful. The sheer amount of information available can become overwhelming rather than empowering, and there are those of us who don't find it an unalloyed delight to get a peek behind the publishing curtain. Once you're beyond the basics, there really is such a thing as knowing too much. If your Internet activities are cutting into your writing time, or if your blogrolling causes you to suffer from information overload, or if keeping up with the latest in publishing becomes less about learning and more about depression and paranoia (I've been there--it's one reason I discontinued my subscriptions to Locus and Chronicle last fall), it may be time to cut back. It's okay: you're not going to miss the Ultimate Secret to Getting Published if you take some time off.

Suggestions are welcome. If there's a book or resource you feel is particularly useful, please post a note in the Comments section.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- The Insidious Double D's

Today I got an email of a kind I often receive. These emails go something like this:

I just got an offer of representation from a literary agency. When I plugged the name into Google, all I found was negative information. Then I noticed the agency was on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agency List. Should I avoid this agency?

(Pause to allow for forehead-slapping and cries of "Duh!")

People who write me with this kind of question are in deep denial. They aren’t really looking for the truth, or for an objective assessment. What they really want is for me to tell them that despite the warnings and complaints they’ve found online, despite Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down assessment, the agency is really okay, and it’s fine for them to sign the contract. I always feel a sense of frustration in answering such emails, because I know there are good odds my advice will be ignored.

Denial is a powerful and dangerous emotion for writers. It lets us convince ourselves that the publisher who promises to match our $4,000 investment with double that amount of its own resources is telling the truth, and will market our book even though it has already made money on us. It allows us to persuade ourselves that the agent who stops responding to our questions soon after we pay his upfront fee is just busy, and we should stick it out. It encourages us to tell ourselves that any agent is better than no agent. It drives us to ignore the warnings and the cautions, the complaints and the reports, the material we’ve read about how reputable publishers and agents work. It leads us into making really, really bad decisions based on desire rather than reason or good sense.

It’s easy to say “avoid denial,” but not so easy to do. Denial is the opportunistic first cousin of that equally treacherous emotion, desperation. The insidious double D's (sorry, guys, if you were thinking of something else) go hand in hand--the closer you get to desperation, the more tempting it is to surrender to denial. If that lousy agent whose name brings up three pages of negative comments in Google is the only one who has ever shown interest in your manuscript, then, yeah, the urge to deny is going to be pretty compelling.

The best way to avoid denial is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where denial is necessary. Here are some suggestions for that. To those of you who regularly visit this blog, they’ll look familiar, but this kind of basic advice can’t be repeated too often.

- Do your research ahead of time. Plug that agency’s or publisher’s name into Google before you query, not after you get an offer. Don’t approach an agency unless it has a legitimate track record, or, if it’s new, unless the agents involved have a professional background in agenting or publishing. Don’t consider a publisher unless you’re sure it’s capable of marketing and distributing--not to mention producing--its books. Don't target a publisher or an agency unless you're sure they are a good match for the book you've written. Many of the problems Writer Beware hears about could have been avoided if research had been done at the outset.

- Educate yourself about the publishing industry. Knowledge is your best tool and your most effective defense. Acquire some understanding of how publishing works before you begin to query. Learn how reputable agents do their jobs, and what is and isn’t standard practice. Knowing this stuff will enhance your ability to recognize and avoid disreputable people by orders of magnitude.

I can’t overstate the importance of this kind of self-education. Too many writers believe they can skip it, or simply don’t want to bother with it. If every writer made the effort to learn about the industry before diving headlong into it, Writer Beware’s correspondence would be cut in half.

- Pay attention to your gut feelings. If you’ve done enough research on an agency or publisher to start feeling something is wrong, you’re more likely to be correct than not. (And because you’ve done the research before querying, it won’t be so painful to let the agency or publisher go.)