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

How To Fall in Literary Agent Love

2461371857_8aa8dfbd06_oIn my last post, I shared with you the checklist I used to put together my own book proposal. It contained all the building blocks I’d become familiar with when working as an editorial assistant for an academic book publisher, plus a few other tips I’d picked up over the years from former writing professors and how-to books.

So I can only assume that, by this point, you have an amazing, solid book proposal ready to go, and are already daydreaming about the book advance and lit parties in your future.

Not so fast, word nerd. While academic publishers—and some small presses—accept unsolicited book proposals and manuscripts, most traditional book publishers won’t look at your work unless it comes to them via a literary agent.Continue Reading

A Checklist of Book Proposal Essentials to Go Through Before You Start Schmoozing Agents

check-listIn my wildest fantasies, an editor from Seal Press stumbles upon that personal essay I wrote about the awkwardness of babymaking sex—or the blog post I wrote about landing a husband despite being a crazy cat lady, or that other piece I wrote about my shifting body image—and feels compelled to email me, begging me to write a book for them about being a sex writer with low libido; or about yoga and body image; or about how adorable my cats are.

And p.s. They find me totally charming.

Then they attach a book contract to the email and I live happily ever after.

However, I’ve come to grips with the fact that this will likely not happen, and as such I actually worked my ass off to put together a solid book proposal. And then I went through the process of querying agents.

I landed one, too.

And though this is no guarantee that my book (or any book I conceive of) will ever see the light of day, it’s still a huge step in the right direction.

So I thought I’d share with you the essentials worth including in your own book proposal—just in case you were also sick of waiting around for that dream email.Continue Reading

POC vs PLOT: The MFA, Chipotle Cups, and Narratives We Crave

la-ar-weigh-in-on-your-favorite-cosby-sweater--002By now it seems everyone’s read Junot Diaz’s MFA vs POC blog on the New Yorker website. Even my freshmen at Cornell these days say to me, “Dan, was it really like that?” Usually I just shrug in response. I was a notorious recluse in my MFA. I had a girlfriend—now fiancé—in New York City who I visited every other weekend, and during that time I was watching a lot of films and HBO GO, desperately trying to figure out how narrative worked.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: How Publishing Looks From the Agent’s Side

If I were forced to write a mission statement, it would be short and sweet: “Help authors. Have fun.”

It’s easy for anyone in this business to lose sight of the fact that we do what we do because we love books, and that everyone else we meet is here for the same reason. That’s why my favorite article from the past two weeks is this one from Jonny Geller. Geller is the CEO of Curtis Brown, a big British agency, and the BBC had him give his ten tips for anyone starting out in the business. But a couple of his tips are especially useful for writers, too.

nt1z7cxOf all the tips on Geller’s list, “Look for career writers” might be the toughest one for writers to hear. If an agent is going to invest time in an author, they want that author to write many successful books. That means: the less time this person has spent on some other career, the better. There are examples of bestselling authors who wrote their first book very late in life, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Geller also recommends that agents “get involved” with every aspect of the publishing process, which many claim to these days—even if few actually do. I think the way Geller describes his job is the way the industry is heading, though, and this is something else authors needs to hear. Agents ought to be doing a lot for their 15%.

“Be honest with your clients” is another great tip, both for agents and for authors. It’s better for an author to hear from me that their book idea is terrible than to hear it from the twelve editors passing on it. Still, the temptation is always there. Pretty much every client I have competed for and lost was a potential client I told “unfortunately, you have a lot of work to do before this is ready to show editors” while some other agent said, “you’re practically done!” I don’t know if the other agent really believed that, but I hope those writers came to their new agent ready to make some of the changes I recommended anyway.

It’s Geller’s last tip, however, that contains both my favorite and my least favorite advice: “Believe in your instincts and don’t take it all too seriously.” Good instincts are really useful in an agent. Good instincts backed up by research is a lot more useful. But the other point is something I’ve reminded lots of colleagues: “Try to remember what it was like when you were an obsessive reader at the age of seventeen, because that’s the person who matters—not the wise old agent who seems to know everything but doesn’t.”

Geller also inspired me to pass along a few more tips of my own for aspiring agents, and I hope they also turn out to be useful for writers.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Do White Male Editors Only Publish White Male Books?

For most of the nonfiction books I sell, the editors I’m selling to have a lot of objective information on hand to guess at a title’s potential success: the author’s Twitter following, other books on the same subject, other books by the same author, the popularity of magazine articles on the same subject, and so forth. For highly narrative books, however, especially literary memoirs and fiction, editors have to work from much more subjective criteria, and the most important factor becomes whether or not the editors really, really like it. They have to love the characters and feel moved by the conflicts they encounter; they have to find the world the writer’s created both familiar and fresh.

q349dvlIt’s no surprise, then, that writers worry about submitting to agents and editors who might come from different backgrounds than their own. Will other people like the book if they can’t recognize some of the characters from their own lives?

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the past two weeks is an important essay in Buzzfeed by Daniel José Older, an urban fantasy writer, detailing the problems he and other non-white writers have faced in this area, and urging publishing to fight for greater diversity. Normally, I would summarize the piece I link to in more detail, but in this case it’s worth hearing out Older in his own words: “My friends all have the same stories,” he says, “of whitewashed covers and constant sparring with the many micro and mega-aggressions of the publishing industry.” The gist of his article is that writers of color face a host of problems, big and small, that they shouldn’t have to deal with in 2014.

I could write tens of thousands of words on this subject, but I’d like to stick to the two questions I know the most about. How white is the publishing industry, really? Answer: it’s pretty white. How big a problem is that likely to be when you’re submitting your manuscript? Answer: that depends.

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Four Kinds of Editors (and Agents) You’ll Meet In Publishing Heaven

A rule I learned as an editor: when you look at a book’s acknowledgments, the effusiveness of praise for an editor is inversely proportional to the effort he or she put into the book. If a writer goes on and on about her editor, that editor did almost nothing. However, editors who wrote whole sections of the finished book are likely listed there as one name among many.

5cp0d0hI’ve had my name in all kinds of acknowledgments. I’ve had books I barely edited and books I waded into with a machete, a pair of hip boots, and a warning to my wife I might not make it back in one piece. I’ve also had plenty of people tell me I was an old-fashioned editor, since I still edited. That always made me wonder: Was I really alone? Was I the only one who edited?

What’s Gone Down

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was an article for The New Yorker’s website by Barry Harbaugh, an editor at Harper, arguing that yes, editors do edit:

I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.

Harbough’s article took on a new book of essays called MFA vs NYCwhich I’ve already written about here. For the most part, his piece is a testimonial: he and his colleagues edit. But it’s also an argument against the nonsensical nature of the claim. “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is,” writes Harbough, “the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”

The article takes a useful stab at figuring out where the idea that editors don’t edit came from, and why it persists; Harbough does a great job of showing how publishing really works. But I would take his analysis one step further, and divide editors into four different categories: therapists, writing teachers, producers, and visionaries. (There are also some editors who are just terrible at everything, but they eventually leave publishing.)

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Learning To Write Plot Matters

A few years ago, my cousin was just about to graduate from a small state school with an English degree. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I had never read any of his writing, so I was unbelievably discouraging. Try a job in the real world, I said, before you fill out all those MFA applications. Move to Pittsburgh, and work at a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it. A few months later, my mom told me he had finally gotten into some program, but it was only some small one in the Midwest…. Maybe Idaho?

“Can you find out if it’s Idaho or Iowa?” I asked. “It kinda makes a difference.”

Turns out it was Iowa.

dhulsddI was pretty excited for my cousin, because he’d always have that stamp of approval, and he was going to make good connections. But I didn’t tell my mother (or his) that I didn’t expect him to actually learn everything he needed to learn.

Hanif Kureishi also thinks writing teachers cover all the wrong things. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was a widely circulated article about him in The Guardian, which included the amazing quote: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

In fact, I agreed with Kureishi so much it made me realize something about my slush pile. When I get something in from a writer, seeing he or she has an MFA can sometimes make me dread reading it. 

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: Is It True You Can’t Make Any Money Writing Books?

When I was making the switch last year from being an editor to being an agent, I heard from older agents that I was making a huge mistake. Advances are shrinking, they said. Midlist authors are going without contracts, and everybody is self-publishing. The whole industry is falling apart! One suggested I should find a different line of work altogether. 4eb07epFrom where they sit, with Borders out of business and Netflix sucking up mindshare, I can see how their office starts to look like a handbasket where it’s getting hotter every day.

It’s not just agents who tell me this sort of thing. I’ve been reading for two decades about all the ways publishing is dying. In fact, the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks carries this as its subhead: “The credit crunch and the internet are making writing as a career harder than it has been for a generation.” The article, in The Guardian, draws this conclusion based on the experiences of two financially struggling British novelists, Joanna Kavenna and Rupert Thomson—and it is possibly the most wrong-headed thing I’ve ever read about book publishing.

What’s Gone Down

The article uses these authors’ declining advances to assert that few writers are making money anymore. I’m sympathetic to both writers. I haven’t read their books, but the reviews make them sound appealing. And I have a car payment mortgage and kids and I could use a new pair of sneakers. Who wouldn’t like to get paid more for their work?

However, the article leaves out the most important detail. Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: How to Make Your Book Popular

As an agent, it’s my job to figure out what’s going to be popular among readers. I’m looking not only for books that editors will like now, but that the rest of the world will like eighteen months from now. Luckily, I only have to figure this out for books, and not the rest of my life. (I was on yearbook and played tuba in high school. I’m not an expert on popularity in general.)

i was told there would be readersEvery writer has to be guided by her inner muse, of course, but it would be foolish for her not to take her potential audience into consideration. Yet knowing what readers will want can seem an insurmountable problem. Plus, what they often want seems, not to put too fine a point on it, reprehensible. (Duck Commander books? Cameron Diaz’s health advice? John Hagee’s Christian astrology?)

The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks, “How to Be Popular” on n+1, was about this puzzle, and I think we can extrapolate a few useful rules from it about how to make sure your book is popular.

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