Oct 29

Random House and Penguin Merge

The other news from NYC today, besides Hurricane Sandy, is that Random House and Penguin, two of the "Big Six" publishers, are merging, and the NYT article adds that the remaining Big Four are considering mergers, too.

I predict that within a few years the two publishers remaining will issue and aggressively market 6 to 12 books per season. These and any other books they issue, whether electronic or paper, will contain ads or product placements and will be bundled with a related video game. This will allow the prices to be doubled. Ebooks and video games will collect the reader's personal information, and his or her reading and game habits. To read a book you will have to sign a privacy-policy agreement. Reader and gamer information then goes into artificial intelligence which will generate new books and games based on buyer preferences. Ultimately a novel will be a video game only, and the buyer will have the option of inserting himself as a character. People will dress and act like their favorite characters and many of them, given a fiction-writing template, will ultimately write spinoff books giving themselves further adventures.

Until the day that books are written entirely by computers, most writers will work really hard to copy this year's bestseller or prizewinner formula. Ultimately they self-publish, or publish with tiny independent presses, and rather than sell the book they mostly trade books with their self-published friends. These books become a form of business card or greeting card and almost nobody reads them, especially the fiction. Your true friends will be those who have read your book. Writers who still think stranger-readers are important will pay professionals or famous people to read and mention their books.

Then, regardless of quality, education, sales figures or status, everyone will become his own favorite writer, reading his own stuff wherever he goes, and writing more. I think everyone already is his or her own favorite writer. I hear lots of moaning about the death of the industry and the writing profession and quality going down the tubes, mostly from people who want to be other people's favorite writer. The time for that is just about up.
Jul 20

Find Your Publisher in Less Than One Day

While your professional editor finalizes your book manuscript, begin seeking possible publishers. Taking one afternoon to do the following simple steps will save you days and weeks of scattershot effort.

1. Find books similar to yours in your personal library, public library and bookstore, and write down the names of the publishers. Don't quit until you have at least 20 names (there are so many publishers nowadays!!).

2. Take this list and find each publisher's website to see whether the publisher is still in business, has a current catalog, and, under "Writers Guidelines" or "Submissions," read about what kinds of books or authors they are looking for; and YOU decide whether it looks like a publisher YOU would like to work with. Make a note of your best finds.

3. While you are on "Writers Guidelines," check whether the firm likes to correspond 1) by snail mail or 2) by email; and whether your first contact should be with a) a query letter b) a query letter with sample chapters, synopsis, or table of contents ("T of C"), or something else, or c) if they want you to send the full manuscript. Write down the editor's full name so you will have someone to address your correspondence to.

4. Having now narrowed your list of possible publishers, Google each to find any news, reports, reviews, complaints, or other material confirming the reputation or economic health of this publisher.

5. Browse amazon.com or the shelves for recent books similar to yours. Make note of any books strongly resembling your own. These are "competing titles," and your publisher will want to know how your book differs from the books already available. That will be an important selling point.

May 14

I'd Rather Be Rejected

A contest notice said, "One overall winner will be awarded First Prize, $400 plus publication. Nine other authors and poets will each win publication."

Like everything else in publishing, terminology changes. One's manuscript was either accepted or rejected. Now, with writing contests so pervasive, if one finishes out of the money, one at least might "win" publication. It's really very nice of this contest to offer publication to nine -- a large number -- of also-rans. With a prize of publication they will surely feel like winners.

A truth is going bald here. "Winning" and "losing" was how writers always took the matter spiritually, although we said "acceptance" or "rejection." I am first to agree that "rejected" is a horrible name for the fact that an editor did not select my manuscript out of the 3,000 he received. But I'd rather my manuscript be "rejected" than have it labeled "a loser."

Do you prefer that too? You can still publish in periodicals without entering their contests. Publishers still accept "submissions"!
Oct 08

The Oddity of One's Own New Book

This has happened before. Something is printed and I see only its imperfections. But slowly I become proud that exists at all.

The Woman Who Values Herself is about 90 percent of what I envisioned when I set out to print a pocket-sized book of 31 affirmations for women, each illustrated with a line drawing by Sheila Kennedy. I suspect it is just as a grown child is always about 90 percent of what a parent hoped for. And of course the parent dwells on the 10 percent. What's right:
  • sizewomanwhovalues2inches
  • cover color (love the green! There is no name for such a green!)
  • most of the drawings
  • the fact that this book exists at all
  • the kindness shown to me by all the blurb contributors
  • that this is Sheila's first book and she's thrilled and she should be, she is awesome
  • that this book might be of help or comfort to somebody somewhere someday
  • pricing ($10; thank God I asked for advice!)
What's wrong:
  • They didn't add one of my corrections
  • The paper is thick and I'd hoped it would be opaque, but it's not
  • The back cover with its three colors looks better to me than the front with its two colors
  • They didn't vertically center the blurbs on the back; I mean, it's okay but it's not perfect!
  • Yes, the spine is 1/4 inch wide just as I wanted, and admittedly it is the thinnest possible size for a perfect (glued) binding, but it drives me wild when the microscopic printing on some of them is off by a millionth of an inch
That said, it is time to start getting proud of it, just as a parent finally becomes proud of simply having passed along the gift of life.
Oct 08

'Tis the Season to Rip Off New Authors

Friend had her first novel accepted by a very small press (two owners, a couple, fighting) and excitedly signed a contract that said the press would edit her work for publication. But instead it referred her to an editor they knew who wanted $450. My friend, eager to see her book published, paid it. The edit/rewrite horrified her. She called me and added that she hated the book's new title, and had paid $250 for the cover image (what?!) and more for her own author photo (that's normal, paying for your own photo), and the press was pushing her to have the book out by November 1, "in time for the holidays," and expected her to do all her own marketing and sell 500 copies by Christmas. My friend asked the press how she could possibly do that, and they said, "Hire a hall and then invite everyone you know and and sell them the book."

The owners weren't speaking to one another and one was secretly trying to establish her own separate press, and secretly asked my friend to come and be HER author, although this entailed having the manuscript edited again by another editor, with my friend responsible for the cost.

What should she do, my friend asked.

I said, "Pull out, today. Call. Tell them you don't want to work with them. Send a registered letter. They broke contract when they made you pay for an edit. They sound too penny-ante to hire a lawyer and fight you, but if they did, they broke contract and they will lose."

But oh...they'd accepted her first novel! She so much wanted to see it in print. And she knew that if she pulled her book, ahead of her lay months of submitting her manuscript until someone else accepted it, and she didn't want to go through that again, and self-publishing, well, that was death; so what should she do?


Sep 10

The Bar Code Scandal

If you are publishing your own book, you need a barcode on the back cover. The barcode, based on your book's ISBN, goes into a database and will identify the item when merchants scan it. It does not encode a price. It's simply an identifier used for inventory. If you want merchants to stock and sell your book you need a barcode.

I had paid for a barcode to be placed on the back cover of my current project, The Woman Who Values Herself, and when I got the final cover PDF it occured to me to print it and test it with a barcode reader app. It wouldn't work, although the app read other barcode labels. I kept trying, freaking out incrementally. Because the book is so small, the barcode had been shrunk proportionally and it was too small for the app to read. Online I found that there is indeed a minimum size for barcodes: 80 percent of the original, or about .825" high.

Having advised the cover designer of these facts I was in turn advised that she'd never had any problems with shrunken barcodes, but she'd enlarge it just  for me, and so it was on the next proof. The barcode scanner could not read this barcode either. Feigning great patience (THIS BOOK HAS BEEN IN PRODUCTION SINCE JUNE for PETE'sSAKE!!) I advised her of this and asked her to test it on her end.

The project manager contacted me and swore it worked on their end, and it wasn't working for me because my proofs were electronic PDFs and low-resolution (high-resolution PDF proofs are so huge they'd crash a mailbox) although they didn't look it. So I chose to just drop the issue, now  that I had his email saying it worked--in case it didn't. So ended this tiny nightmare, and I learned:

1. You need an ISBN and a matching barcode.
2. Test the barcode.
3. There is a minimum size for barcodes, and even if it is plug-ugly and out of proportion to the book's size or design, you still need one if you want stores to carry the book, and of course you do.
4. Understand that your electronic proofs are low-resolution.
5. Get written assurance that the darned thing really works so that if it doesn't, this can all be done over again at somebody else's expense.
6. Everything in publishing works far more slowly than you'd think.
Jul 21

Litmags Don't Live Here Anymore

26 February 2009

The library here used to carry a score of literary journals. Today on my lunch hour I found only five. Where did they go? I hadn’t time to ask a librarian because I had to go buy an envelope. But thereby I found out where the journals went. They’re sold single-copy in the bookstore: Boulevard, New Letters, Tin House, Pleiades, Southern Poetry Review – about 10 titles in all.

The library chucked its subscriptions because it knows no one reads these things, except maybe for Poetry and Creative Nonfiction, and those just as bellwethers. Last time I read through the latest issues of literary journals at the library – noting on index cards their names and contents, and what percentage was fiction, what percentage nonfiction, etc. (so I can discuss them in classes) -- in THREE litmags I found poems about Persephone. Whoa. To be fair, about 10 to 20 percent of the published material took my breath. But on the same round I noted two essays, in separate journals, beginning with the words “My father,” and acres of bad fiction – full of neon signs, breasts, tragic foreigners, and petty quarrels.

Some journals make impressive publishing credits if you want to rub shoulders with laureates and academics – who won’t actually read what you published. So beyond impressing each other with our publication credits, what are these journals for? I had never seriously questioned their value. Do they serve as some sort of – standard? For us? Me? Time for self-examination. And figuring out that if they're not important anymore, what is?
Jun 27

Your Skill Set and Power Blouse

Whatever you write -- know how to write something else. That's how I got lunch with the publisher mentioned in the previous blog. I know how to write public-relations materials such as press releases. The publisher wanted me for my "skill set."All writers should be able to write more than one type of thing. I told the publisher I also knew where to send the press releases and what to do after that. Normally I hate the phrase "skill set" -- it's so 1980s "corporate." But mine works in my favor. No 1980s bow-tie power blouse is necessary.

Know-how -- in something other than creative writing -- got me the face-to-face meeting with a publisher who incidentally happened to be looking for a book ms that sounded rather like mine.
Jun 27

Chapbook or Magazine Publication? Which is Best?

Real life-question: Poet has a sheaf of excellent poems, all unpublished. Should she skip ahead & enter them as a manuscript in a chapbook competition -- or first try to print individual poems in journals, and THEN do the chapbook thing?

Answer: No journal wants to publish poems that appeared first in a chapbook. I'd try first to publish individual poems in as many local print journals as possible, setting a deadline of one year; then -- no matter what the result -- I would make a chapbook ms. Local journals will further your work much faster than will national publications. How so? See next blog entry. Send to 'em all. Don't enter contests, just send the poems. And send simultaneously!

Think you have some good poems? Get a bunch of them out to your local journals by Dec. 15!
Apr 25

Rejection at 50

My first published poem appeared 32 years ago. Rejections stung only a little. (There was still time to win a Pulitzer by age 25.) Then, around age 40, when I expected more rewards, my fragility increased: Call it osteoporosis of the soul. This forced me to systematically, ALPHABETICALLY, read through literary journals and submit only to those that published poems like mine. This HATEFUL activity forced me through jungles of jealousy: "She's younger than I! And he writes better! And that's a great poem! And she's published four books! And there's my former student in a journal I failed to get into!"

Actually, I was doing the smart thing, business-wise, because publishing is a business, but it only increased my fragility. Approaching age 50, I dreaded those S.A.S.E.s even more. Now I'm ever so careful to:
1. Send only my very best poems.
2. Make sure my poems have a a ghost of a chance at that publication. (Next blog will be about that!)
3. Avoid contests, no matter how tempting -- the chance of winning, about 1 in 1000, is too remote.
4. Take long, long breaks in between bouts of sending, sometime six months or a year.
5. Keep working on more, and when those S.A.S.E.s or E-mails come back, curse or cry, feel grossly ashamed of my "arrogance" and "presumption" in thinking the world might want my poems -- and then get over it, and put poems right back in the mail.

See that list of five things? That's my new backbone.

And yesterday: **Good news! ** A long, risky poem, perhaps the longest and riskiest yet, accepted. How long has it been since a poem got accepted? Three years? Five?

Joy? No. Forehead on forearm, and a sigh of Relief.
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