Round-Down: The High Sales vs. High Quality Debate

painterOne of my truly terrible habits is a reflexive desire to pour salt on a wound. Tell me your troubles, and I’m likely to say, “Oh, this is so much worse than you think.”

For example, many editors and agents have said to me over the years, “I loved this book. I can’t believe it tanked.” Without thinking, I nearly always reply, “Well, there’s no correlation between sales and quality.” I’ve yet to meet the person who welcomed this advice.

In each of these cases, I was referring to the quality of the prose. These were books that were easy to read and seemingly easy to edit, but clearly that’s not the only way to measure quality. A good book isn’t just well-written. It might be inspiring, gripping, enlightening, depressing, or a dozen other things. It might win awards or have high sales figures (though both are entirely debatable, especially since awards rarely go to the biggest bestsellers).

The debate, between advocates of sales and advocates of literary quality in determining the success of a book, had a new entrant last week in the form of Ursula K. LeGuin’s National Book Award speech, where she urged the publishing industry to remember that the point of this is art, not commerce.

I admit that as a regular purveyor of depressingly specific marketing advice, I neglect to mention this salient fact: the way to good sales starts with great art.Continue Reading

The Abstract Mathematics Behind Freelance Writing

Marey_-_birdsAbout two and a half months into new motherhood, looking to get back into the swing of things, I applied to several blogging gigs. The editor at one publication, with whom I had been in contact in the past, emailed back almost immediately, saying she thought the rates might be a bit low for me. She did want me to know, however, that they were hiring for another position that paid a bit more.

What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth—10+ emails—in which I asked about rates, frequency, word count, the proportion of pitched pieces to assigned pieces, etc. I agonized for days over what I should do. In the end, I decided against the gig I’d initially applied for and took on the alternative the editor had suggested to me.

But I swear, it wasn’t about the money.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Publishing Isn’t Dead

PublishingThere’s an old joke in publishing about consultants, though it’s probably rooted in truth. A new executive hires a prestigious firm to spend months on an expensive deep dive, and they come back, excited, with one key insight: “You should publish more bestsellers, and fewer books that aren’t bestsellers.”

Why didn’t we think of that?

All of the biggest houses need bestsellers to make their annual numbers, and those numbers are big. How big? To pick a random comparison, HarperCollins generated about $1.4 billion in their last fiscal year. That’s “billion” with a “b.” That’s just a bit less than, for instance, The New York Times over their last fiscal year. And HarperCollins did it while generating a bit less in expenses.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Ebook is Dead. Long Live the Ebook.

First computerOne of the best parts of being a book editor is that it gives you a magic power. You take a Microsoft Word file, wave your hand over it and say, “Now it’s a book.” And it’s a book. Up until that moment, it’s just words and ideas, and they could be changed, tweaked, or buried, never to see the light of day. After that, everyone, including the production department and the printer, believes it’s a book.

The creation of self-publishing has done little to erode that magical power. If you tell someone you’ve written a book, you can watch their eyes narrow as they wait to see what you might mean. Did you write something the length of a book? Or has a professional editor waved her magic hands over it and transmuted that into a book?

A book, the futurist Umair Haque once said, is already a perfected technology. An ebook has some advantages, but not enough to eliminate print books. It turns out the invention of ebooks is less analogous to the invention of the automobile and something more like the invention of shorts. Shorts are great, but they didn’t make everyone throw away their pants.

I thought of this late last week when I read about the closing of Atavist Books. Investors had put big money (by book publishing standards) into this startup, which was supposed to disrupt the book industry. The company only lasted for a little over two years before pulling the plug. For this to have happened, a lot of very smart people had to have completely misunderstood why readers read, and it’s worth figuring out what their mistakes were.Continue Reading

What’s Done is Done is Done Again

yawnAs a creative writing instructor, I get asked two questions more than any others. The first is easy enough to answer: “How do I find time to write?” There’s no secret here—set a schedule and get to your desk. The second question, however, continues to stump me, both as a writer and as a teacher. “How do I know when I’m finished?” This question seems as open as it is insoluble, and yet we writers need to tackle it if we’re ever to move past our first attempts.

During my stint teaching academic writing at a university, my undergrad students never asked me how to know whether their essays were complete. The answer was quite simple—they’d work until the deadline, hand it in, and that was it. My students worked hard, and they cared about the success of their arguments and the grades they received. They just didn’t have the luxury of worrying whether or not their papers were complete.

Still, they learned the necessity of revision and how to diagnose the effectiveness of their arguments. To help them do so, I devised a list of five aphorisms to consider before turning in their work. The list aimed to help identify lazy thinking, which inevitably leads to lazy writing. We memorized them as a group and used them as we provided feedback for rough drafts throughout the semester. I’ve found these truisms equally helpful for my own creative work, and I hope they’ll do the same for you. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round Down: Short Stories as a Path to Literary Success

Throes of Creation by Leonid PasternakI’m going to let you in on a little secret about the submissions in my slush pile. When one comes in, the first thing I do–before I have even read the first sentence of the letter–is skim it for the name of a publication I recognize. If I don’t see one, I go back and start reading the pitch, looking for a reason to reject it.

The main thing I’m looking for in new clients is an existing following clamoring for a book from this writer. If the writer has a great idea, however, and understands what it means to be a professional writer, I might still be interested. That’s why I’m looking for the names of publications I like in the author’s bio. If you had twenty-five submissions to read, which one would you start with? I’ll be you’d start with the guy who’s written for Ploughshares and then move on to the staff writer from the Boston Globe, too.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Stop Fearing the Business of Writing

don't fear biz Last week, Guernica published an interview with art critic Ben Davis, which begins with Davis questioning the premise that “the central tension of the art empire is that between creativity and money.” Davis says there can obviously be tension between what sells and what an artist wants to express, but he argues that money also funds innovative creative work. “If things were as simple as the equation ‘success = corruption,’” he states, “then you wouldn’t need [art] criticism.”

The same misguided equation has long haunted the writing world. It’s with trepidation and/or resignation that writers dip their toes into Literary Business, and it’s often with suspicion that readers observe the marketing tactics of writers we love. Why? Mainly because we’ve been told for ages that financial success implies selling out, and that any desire to make money from literature (or even to amass readers!) is indicative of having devalued Lit for the sake of consumerist advancement. We assume that “business”–a fast-paced, bottom-line-focused enterprise–is fundamentally opposed to the slow-paced, journey-is-the-destination mentality required of deep reading and serious literary engagement.

Fortunately, none of this is necessarily true.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Lena Dunham’s New Book is Worth $3.5 Million

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena DunhamWhen I talk to a new potential client, one of the things we go over is potential advances. Most nonfiction writers get between $25,000 and $75,000; fiction writers, a fraction of that. Everyone who gets more than that did something remarkable to get there.

During this conversation, many writers have joked to me that they’re hoping for Lena Dunham money. Dunham, the driving force behind the show Girls on HBO, received a reported $3.5 million dollars for her book, Not That Kind of Girl. The advance made headlines, and so did the proposal, which was leaked and linked to all over the internet.

The book could fairly be called “hotly anticipated,” and with the book releasing today, the reviews have started pouring in. Those reviews are generally positive, if not overwhelming. And for the publisher, they do something important: They are all written by people who had assumed that the book would be a cultural phenomenon. Because that’s what Random House paid millions of dollars for–a cultural phenomenon.Continue Reading

Indy Spotlight: Hobblebush Books

hobblebushtypecaseHobblebush Books, founded in 1991 by author, editor and publisher Sidney Hall, Jr., is a small press in southern New Hampshire known best for its Granite State Poetry Series and its eclectic list of prose titles. While its poetry series only publishes authors who live in or have a strong connection to New Hampshire—most recent titles are the dark and playful Talismans by Maudelle Driskell and Falling Ashes by James Fowler, a collection primarily of haiku and haibun on “war and love and the rest”—prose offerings are slightly more wide-ranging.

For prose at Hobblebush you’ll find Poor Richard’s Lament, a fascinating novel by Tom PRL_DJFitzgerald exploring the what-if scenario of Benjamin Franklin plunked into the twenty-first century; you’ll discover Creating the Peaceable Classroom by Sandy Bothmer, a wellness guide for educators, parents and students; and finally, you can pick from an assortment of memoirs that take you anywhere from the top of Mount Washington to the ports of New Orleans and Nova Scotia to the plains of East Africa.

For the Ploughshares blog, Sidney Hall, Jr. discusses Hobblebush’s mission, acquisitions, and its increasing public presence in the region (let’s just say they have a reputation for throwing great readings).

Continue Reading

An MFA for the Rest of Us

mfa 2

Needless to say, we will all dress like this

I’m in that small and shrinking group of writers who don’t have MFAs. Which I think makes me uniquely qualified to start my own MFA program. Haven’t most education reformers come from outside the system? My program will, for starters, involve napping and swimming pools. And the course offerings will be much more practical than “Problems in Modern Fiction.” We’ll cover the things you need to know. (The writing part you can figure out on your own.) I herewith present my 2015-2016 course catalog.Continue Reading