May 08
Written by

Bookstores Are For Famous People

Overheard re the issue of book distribution: "Bookstores are for famous people."

That seemed so right. Bookstore coups by the likes of Madonna, Barack Obama, & c. But that sort of throwaway book, usually nonfiction, isn't anything new. Then there are the "famous writers," mostly of fiction, who churn 'em out, reap a fan base and dominate their genre. Some can really churn 'em out. That's not new.

Individual writers making millions by selling books, even before writing them -- that's what's new. We tend to fixate on those grotesque but interesting sums of money. Suddenly agents don't wanna represent other kinds of authors. Publishers feel hogtied by "the need" to give a few celebs huge advances. Writers who aren't among the 10 or 12 getting multi-millions say they're being pushed out of the picture.

What to do? Go to a bookstore and see if the statement is true.

But what not to do: Expect publishers to come to their senses and redistribute money more fairly. Expect bookstores to give equal space and positioning to all books. Expect things to go back to the way they were when the publishing world was perfectly sane and fair.
May 08
Written by

Why Aren't Writers Paid Like Professionals?

Most writers can’t live on their earnings. With all our skills and hard work we don’t make as much as other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, programmers, plumbers, counselors, and realtors. I was wondering why. Possibly it’s because these other professionals:

  • Pay themselves according to rates that compensate them for their labor, materials and overhead, and won’t take less.
  • Capitalize on their credentials, successes, and/or sales totals.
  • Get lots of business through word-of-mouth and referrals.
  • Are active in professional associations.
  • Dismiss as a lunatic any doomsayer who tells them that they will never make a living no matter how hard they work or how good their work is.
  • Don’t imagine that they are failures if they aren’t the richest and most famous doctor or realtor who ever lived.
  • Keep up with new trends and tools in their fields.
  • Have to pass tests to get licenses or certifications.
  • Aren't so naive as to expect to live on the acclaim and money of thousands of people they will never see or meet.
  • Wouldn’t consider as normal and desirable a middleman’s offer to pay them 10 to 15 percent of the total take.
But THEY all wish they were writers! Go figure.
May 08
Written by

Harper-Collins' Radical New Imprint

Writers: NYT reports that book publisher Harper Collins plans a an offshoot imprint that will eliminate author advances and instead directly share profits with authors; and eliminate bookstore returns that turn unsold books into pulp. It''ll be publishing cheaper books, and digital's the whole story. Don't celebrate yet: Harper Collins is owned by News Corp., owned by Rupert Murdoch. He doesn't plan to lose money.

If because Hemingway got advances, you think you should too, please know that for the past 15 years most books, records, and even Hollywood films have been officially profitless -- for the writers and artists. Publishers may give an advance, but creative accounting ensures that authors don't get royalties -- normally 10 to 15 percent of any profits. I co-authored a book that sold 6,000 English-language copies, plus a publisher in Lisbon bought the Portuguese rights and published and sold the book over there. Our publisher's advance was $3500 (you do the math); officially, our book came in $42 short of making back its advance. Figures like that will make you crazy. Hemingway was not a happy camper.

I'm all for simplifying; but more so I'm for joining the musicians in creating our own independent fair-trade imprints and beating Murdoch at his own game. If you have another idea, please share it! Transitional periods are great for seizing the advantage. We're the creative ones!
May 08
Written by

Ten Signs of "Suburban Matron Syndrome"

Suburban Matron Syndrome* attacks primarily educated white women writers or would-be writers age 40 or over (the average Writer's Digest subscriber is w oman of 53). Symptoms:

1. Formerly eager writers now consider creative writing a burden or hassle.
2. Too busy, tired, or sick to write.
3. Challenges such as deadlines are cited as sources of unbearable stress.
4. Socializing trumps writing.
5. Wine trumps writing.
6. Begins to feel one has transcended the form of worldliness known as ambition.
7. Unable to complete a 12-page essay, begin to talk about writing a book-length murder mystery.
8. Oprah is always present in word or spirit.
9. Books most often read or cited are self-help books.
10. Nobody says anything about any of this, because it wouldn't be nice!

*See also: Entropy, Spring Fever, Menopause, Gettin' Old, and Unconscious Privilege.
May 08
Written by

Talmudic Interpretation of "Poetry Cover Letter Protocol"

"Poetry Cover Letter Protocol" (below) is valuable new first-hand information. It's "new" because it supersedes information disseminated for 30 years. Take it serious.

It was once bandied about that editors cared about the work, not the cover letters -- so cover letters for poetry and fiction weren't needed unless your submission had been solicited, or you were sending it for a special issue, or if it was a simultaneous submission.

Listing recent publications in cover letters helps editors score and pigeonhole the poet before the editor sees the work. Such a list is also a clue to the poet's economic and social position, because if I'm systematically pursuing a career as a poet, working my way up through the lit journals year after year, my parents probably left me a trust fund or I married a lawyer. Thus the editor can see himself in the author, and perhaps sympathize -- because the editor is a poet as well.

Prizes prove that the poetry is the kind that currently wins prizes. (See Juvenal's Satires or St. Augustine's Confessions for a more holistic view of prizewinning poems and poets.)

Indicating that the poet is a college teacher, an editor, a curator, or librarian -- and omissions of anything else-- telegraphs the poet's educational level (master's level; probably MFA) and that the poet has leisure enough to read and to track literary trends. It also proves beyond a doubt that the poet is white. Thus the editor can see himself in the poet, and perhaps sympathize.

Enclosing an SASE implies that the poet wants the poems back, but I guess it doesn't hurt to spell it out.

Thanks, poetry editor, for your time. We apologize for impinging upon it by sending you poems. Please accept the coveted Artificial Difficulty Prize for March 2008.
May 08
Written by

Poetry Cover Letter Protocol

Address your envelope and cover letter to the poetry editor, using the correct name (forget Writers' Market, it's always out of date; check the mag's website instead) and, please, the correct gender indicator.

Start the letter by asking the editor to consider the enclosed poems for publication. If you happen to be sending the poems for a future "special" or "themed" issue of their magazine, say so.

Next paragraph: Write, "My work has appeared in. . . " and list your most recent poetry publications, a maximum of five of them. List any prizes won. If you have never published or won prizes, don't say so; just skip this paragraph.

Mention your schooling and profession only if it's related to literature. If not, skip this paragraph. Do not volunteer information such as "I am a stay-at-home mother of twin girls."

If you are "simultaneously submitting" the enclosed poems to other journals, put that in the letter -- but never say which journals they are. If not, skip this paragraph.

Be sure to say whether you want your manuscript returned or "recycled".

Thank the editor for his or her time.

Your SASE should have the magazine's return address in the upper left corner, and should be self-sealing.
May 08
Written by

We're Feeling Much Better, Thanks

Just signed a contract for an essay to appear in Are We Feeling Better Yet?, an anthology of women's essays on the health care system, accepted by PenUltimate Press. The editors had asked, so I told them I had two writer friends -- Cathy Luh and Janet Edwards -- with appropriate and darned good essays in hand. Cathy and I were co-authors on Guilty Pleasures (Andrews McMeel, 2003) so this is our second joint appearance in print. Stick with me long enough and you'll be signing some kind of contract! Look for Are We Feeling Better Yet? in October 2008. Each contributor gets $75, which among writers counts as an economic stimulus package.

I like signing contracts -- frankly, I LOVE signing contracts or (for poetry) "consent forms" -- and hope to be signing one soon on the book of interviews. I read contracts down to the last jot and tittle, and my main thing is, I want to keep the electronic rights.
May 08
Written by

Magnetic Poetry for the MTV Generation

John Ashbery's poems play with language. Rarely there's a line or two that's clear. But mostly not. It's rather like that "Magnetic Poetry" they sold a kit for. So knock me over with a feather when I heard, just recently, that "Ashbery is the most influential living poet" for the MTV generation. It's probably mostly because he's gay and has a good haircut. In fact I threw out my copy of Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror thirty years ago today.

If, like me, you can hardly believe today's young are so gullible, look here in the NYTimes where Ashbery's poems were picked for "commercials" on "MTVu" -- MTV's special station for college campuses. Poetically, college-campus popularity is the last exit to Brooklyn. In the same way, the Boomers dug Richard Brautigan. Woot. To stay sane -- and write well -- don't trouble yourself with "most influential living poets."
May 08
Written by

Dead Ends For Your Creative Writing

If you want quality readers such as literary agents, Pushcart Prize judges, famous writers, and Best American Poetry anthologists among your readers:

1. Don't submit to a brand-new literary journal. They don't have subscribers, and their newbie editors don't know enough to nominate their contents for Pushcart or other prizes.
2. Don't submit exclusively to journals edited by students in MFA programs. Because the editors change yearly, their contents are unpredictable and can be uneven, and because of this they are not taken very seriously. In fact these journals are referred to in the aggregate as "MFA rags."
3. If you win prizes from your local literary organization's contests and get that good work printed in the awards-ceremony program, or on the organization's website, that may be the last daylight your prizewinning work will ever see. Some litmag editors consider that work to have been "already published."

I think some MFA rags are wonderful, but if you're career-minded, learn to think differently. The above information from a seminar I attended last Saturday on poetry publishing.
May 08
Written by

Why Writers Don't Read Manuals

I discovered Writers Market at age 18, but was past 40 when I first read those concise and helpful articles up front, appearing in every edition, about How do I publish? and What is a query letter? and How wide should my margins be? To this day I have never bought or read a single one of those tons of books on How to Become a Published Writer, or Make Money Freelancing. Just coaxing them from the reference shelf and flipping through is distasteful. . .

On the other hand, insatiably I read myself raw on any first-person books about the writing life, like Bird by Bird, One Writer's Beginnings, and The Artist's Way. My Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath fell to pieces and I'm annoyed they don't sell it in hardback.

This would be weird if I were unique, but it seems writers at all levels, all of them dying to publish, prize those esthetic-autobio-musings-type books, but can't swallow how-to-write books, even if they can be had at any library for free. Instead writers will pay flaming cash and cross a time zone to hear a living published writer TELL them about these publishing things that seem to them so magical and mystifying.

That's because we are soulful & don't believe what those how-to books and articles say. For the majority of writers (and other people!), magic and mystery trump planning and common sense. We live in a sort of Bronze Age of the mind. We want to see and hear in person the writer who has pulled the sword from the stone. Then we believe. Maybe we hope too for a little dharma transmission.
May 08
Written by

One Whine Away From Success

Good news: "Let's see your manuscript" from the most recent book publisher I queried. That was the query letter I didn't feel like writing, had 10 excuses for not writing, that I wished would write and mail itself. Not only that, but it got a really quick response and refreshingly polite "Look forward to reading the ms."

The effort was all worth it! All worth it!

Lessons learned:
1. I should do any chore that has even a remote possibility of helping me toward my goals.
2. Fourth time's the charm.
3. If a publisher's interested, they'll respond ASAP!
May 08
Written by

Good Books with Not-Good Covers


Call me picky, but here's how I see these book covers. The darkest two of these are poetry books: wonderful poetry books. One is self-published and one is from a chapbook press. The dark covers do hint at the type of poetry within, and there is nothing wrong with dark covers, but the titles and author names are also dark, and in one case the title and author name is in script typeface, and undersized, and barely visible. CivilWarLand is a great book of short stories, but its cover is too busy. With its photographic image, multiple typeface colors (red, yellow, white), the orange oval, and the black sidebar with reverse (white) type, the hardest kind of type to read, this cover is a lot of work for the reader's eyes. You get tired even before you open the book. The publisher, a big commercial publisher, figured this out, because later printings have a different cover. A university press commissioned this folksy painting for this book of really fine short stories, on the right. The painting included the title and author's name. That's a baby in a violin case at the bottom, but it looks like The Scream to me. I would have a hard time buying a book with such an amateurish cover although the book is a prizewinner (see the golden sticker) and truly a gem. The middle book is self-published (I've removed the author name) and its red-hot cover and stark, type-only simplicity is supposed to entice me to open the book. It says it's a novel. It'd be nice if it said what kind of novel; the red and yellow, although they tried, were not enough to convey to me that it was a serial-murderer mystery. (That red isn't "blood red"; it's Soviet Union flag red and yellow.) The cover's oddness may have caught my eye but I would never take the book from the shelf; obviously a self-published effort by someone who doesn't know that covers have to inform readers, just a little, as well as attract their attention.