Monday, May 23, 2016

Why You're Not Getting Your Novel Published.

My pal Larry over at The Nonfiction Novelist has a good entry about why you’re not getting your book published. There are plenty of reasons that could be, but many times it has nothing to do with the quality of your work. Give it a read and check out Larry’s other entries.

Five Reasons You Can’t Get Your Novel Published – And Why It’s Not Your Fault

By Larry Kahaner

Dear Author:
            Thanks for sending us your manuscript. The plot is unique, the characters are compelling and the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best books we’ve ever read.

Unfortunately, it’s not right for us.
            Best Regards,
            The Publisher

What the…?

As an author with long-term success in publishing non-fiction books, I can tell you that publishing is not an easy game. It takes talent, perseverance and luck. Even more so for fiction writing. And missives like the one above seem to defy logic and common sense.
Let’s first dispatch the most obvious reason why you can’t get your novel published. Your book stinks. It’s poorly written, the characters suck and the plot is ridiculous. Assuming that’s not the case, that your book is just as good as, or better than, anything else out there, here are the top five reasons why a publisher won’t touch your novel.

1 – “We don’t have room on our list.” Legacy publishers are limited in how many books they publish every year. With so many good authors around they’re often booked solid for this year and maybe the next year. Some of their list is taken up with their perennial money-makers (think the James Patterson writing machine) and editors at these large houses are allowed a few new authors each year that they’re permitted to bet on. There’s not much room for others.

2 – “It’s not our kind of book.” Authors hear this a lot. You might be thinking “but I thought you published mysteries; mine is a mystery.” Your book may be just outside their comfort zone for many different reasons  – like there is a kidnapping and the editor doesn’t care for snatch jobs. Romance publishers often are sticklers for their own particular ironclad rubrics that can seem to outsiders as frightfully picky.

3 – “We’re not accepting any new books.” This is related to reason #1 but applies mainly to small, independent publishers who may publish only a handful of books annually. I’ve been a business reporter for decades and I’m often amazed at how companies (not just publishers) are reluctant to grow revenue by producing and selling more products – often out of fear of making it big or sacrificing quality control. For some smaller indies, producing more books and thus more revenue, might upset their cozy way of doing business. Again, this always strikes me as small-minded. Many industries are hamstrung by not having enough raw materials. Not so with publishing, If you have good authors clamoring for you to publish them, why not hire part-time or gig editors and production people who are willing to go with the ebb and flow of things?

4 – “It’s not a book that we know how to sell.” Publishers often will be blunt in saying these exact words or they’ll couch it by saying something similar to #2. In other words, they’re saying that your book doesn’t fit nicely into a genre that they recognize. For example, your protagonist might be an intergalactic PI. The publisher may know how to sell alien novels or PI novels but put them together and, ummm, we’re flummoxed. I find this shortsighted, too, because bestsellers often break these rules and do well for the publisher that takes a chance. Best example: When John Grisham tried to sell his first legal thriller publishers shied away because it was a new genre and it didn’t fit in with what they knew. Count how many rejections he received and how many books he’s written that have been blockbusters.

5 – “Right place wrong time.” An author friend of mine sold a book to a publisher that hadn’t been active in his particular non-fiction genre. As luck would have it, they were interested in expanding into this genre and were looking for a book such as his. Lucky guy. But it works the other way, too. A publisher may have just decided that they’ve had enough of one genre and are getting out of it for any number of reasons.

All of this should not discourage you. In fact, it should bolster you because these turn-downs are not under your control. You’re probably doing all the right things.

Here’s a last thought: The publishing industry is becoming more and more like the movie industry. Moviemakers are relying on the blockbuster film to help them turn a profit. Instead of making money on smaller movies throughout the year, they focus on only a few films and market the hell out of them to protect their expensive investments in exorbitant actor fees and promotion. When they fail, and they do, backers can’t complain too much because, ‘hey, it has George Clooney in it.’ It’s classic CYA.

On the other hand, we’re seeing this model get bashed by cable and streaming video companies like Netflix, HBO, Amazon and others who are producing lower cost films and making money doing it.

In the same way, I believe that e-books will disrupt the current book publishing model by lowering some production costs and taking book roster  constraints off the table for solid, hardworking and talented authors.

After the dust settles it will be a better time for authors and publishers.

It’s only a matter of time.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Copyeditors: Why We Love Them

Gather around Little Ones, and let Thriller Guy tell you fantastical stories of days of yore, back when giant publishers ruled the vast book markets and special stores sold brightly colored paper objects stored on shelves and tables, where “readers” would stand happily thumbing through these objects, buying them and going home to spend hours in comfy chairs as time flew by. But how did these objects appear in the stores? Certainly not by magic, though it might have appeared so, no, there were hundreds of intervening steps that these publishing houses went through, painstakingly inching these books through a traditional pipeline that took eighteen months from the time the writer signed the contract until the books ended up on the shelves.

There were many people along the way who participated in the process. Some, like the sales department, were a pain-in-the-ass to deal with; they always had too much influence on the final product, influence that never related to sales, as far as TG could tell. The marketing department was always manned (womanned?) by an endless series of young women, all recent graduates of one of the Seven Sisters Colleges, all named Jennifer. (email: ”Hi, this is Jennifer, I’ll be handling the marketing for your book. We’re all really excited here and know that this is going to be a really fun project! I’ve attached a three hundred page questionnaire and we’d like to have it completed and back in a week. I know that’s pretty quick, but we just can’t wait to get started!”) Jennifer was always gone in six months, replaced by another Jennifer who would have the same in-house life span. Nothing good ever came from these Jennifers.

But many months after the project was turned in, the manuscript would be returned to you, the writer, and it would be marked up by the copy editor. These copy editors -- always young ladies in TG’s experience -- were brilliant. They would take your manuscript, which was shitty, you just didn’t know how shitty, and correct all your misspellings, typos, and ignorance, gently pointing out your stupidity, always in a pleasant manner, never accusing you of incipient moronness, and attaching a list of rules and suggestions at the end for future reference. TG always pictured them as looking like Audrey Hepburn, with or without the cigarette holder, curled up in a comfy armchair working on a pile of pages, your manuscript. TG loved these women. They made your writing sing. And now, alas, they’ve mostly all been let go by publishers, who suggest you hire one freelance and pay for it yourself. Unless you’re Stephen King, of course.

The thing is, this is very doable. There’s a bunch of really great copy editors and editors of all stripe out there, just waiting to take your manuscript under their gentle wing. Many of them used to work for big publishers and have now been “let go” because those same publishers are floundering around trying to figure out their own industry in the brave new world of the Internet. It was a stupid decision – fire everyone that doesn’t directly influence the economic stream of the best sellers they are looking for – but it doesn’t surprise me. When a person, or a business, is in trouble and in danger of dying, lots of stupid decisions are made.

I was reminded of this recently as I needed a good editor to copyedit the memoir I have been working on. I first put it up as a blog, and when the reception of the material was overwhelmingly positive, I decided to expand it into a regular book. I can stand to make some mistakes that aren’t totally egregious when (like this blog) I’m putting something on the Interweb for free, but when I ask folks to pay for my work I expect to give them clean copy. I found my expert, Bev Weiler, close to home, in that she had written me back when I put my last time travel book, TheTest of Time, up on Amazon. Bev is a fan of the series, and noted that while she liked the most recent entry she found there were plenty of mistakes in the copy. She suggested that in her free time she might go through and edit the book for me so the Kindle version and any later paper editions would be clean. I gratefully accepted her offer.

The copy she was referring to, The Test of Time, had been rewritten seven times, edited and copyedited by a number of my friends, and I still did not doubt that there were plenty of mistakes that made it through uncaught. Any writer will tell you that this is so in almost anything written for publication. And the longer the piece is, the more difficult it becomes to ferret the gremlins out. Here’s where you need a professional.

So, vowing that I would not send out another piece with errors, a hired Bev to do her professional magic on the memoir. An author can tell how good an editor is by how terrible they feel when reading the edited manuscript. Bev was brilliant, and I was the lowest piece of writing scum that was ever dragged inside on someone’s bootheel. I’m an idiot, a moron, a writer so pathetically inept I shouldn’t be allowed within ten feet of a keyboard. But Bev worked with the same patient, gentle demeanor of her clan, and fixed my book so I don’t have to be embarrassed about it when it comes out.

So here’s to you, Bev, and all your brothers and sisters toiling away out there, fixing the broken manuscripts, from the unreadable to the just-not-quite-right, with your quiet courage and steely resolve. May you and your tribe live long and prosper.

If anyone else out there wants to put up a product they can be proud of, even though they think that they can do the editing themselves, Bev can make you look really good. Send her an email – And stick a finger in the eye of Big Publishing when your book -- clean, sleek, error free -- sells a million copies.

(P.S., Bev, don’t bother copy editing this blog, it’s too late.)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Murder, He Wrote

Thriller Guy is off at some undisclosed location doing God knows what. I, in the meantime, have been rattling around in that particular writer hell known as What’s Next? That’s when you’ve finished a major project, in my case a memoir of my early years, and you don’t have any idea of what you’re going to write next. This didn’t use to be a problem for me as I had a fiction series I was writing and after finishing one I would just move onto the next. After six of these books (you can find them on Amazon here) I am reluctant to continue the series, mostly because publishers aren’t interested in buying a new one nor are they interested in taking up the cause of the extensive backlist. So unless there’s a groundswell of buyers, I’m going to stick with Johnson’s famous sentiment about only fools writing if there is no money involved. Or at least the possibility of money.

Many kind folks have asked that I extend my memoir, but many of those who I would be writing about are still alive and, frankly, I don’t really want to piss anyone off, which my writing about them surely would.

Those of you who read this blog know that I have spoken about the What to Write problem before. My usual prescription is to settle down with a bottle of gin and drink until I come up with an answer. That doesn’t seem to be working this time, though I am valiantly soldiering on in this direction.

Recently, by accident, I stumbled upon a Wikipedia site that I believe might well spur a solid plotline. It’s an extensive collection of unsolved murder cases in the United States, and it makes for fascinating reading, falling in the I’ll-read-just-one-more catagory. Once you start, it’s tough to stop. Here are a few edited-for-length, interesting examples.

On May 28, 1911, the body of Belle Walker, an African-American cook, was found 25 yards from her home on Garibaldi Street in Atlanta. Her throat had been cut by an unknown slayer, and the crime was reported in the Atlanta Constitution under the headline "Negro Woman Killed; No Clue to Slayer." On June 15, another black woman, Addie Watts, was found with her throat slashed, followed on June 27 by Lizzie Watkins. The search for the serial killer, called "the Atlanta Ripper" by the press, found six different suspects, but no convictions were ever made, nor was the crime ever solved. By the end of 1911, fifteen women, all black or dark-skinned, all in their early 20s, had been murdered in the same manner. The "Ripper" may have had as many as 21 victims, but there is no conclusive proof that the murders were carried out by one person.

6 to seven dead, 6-7 injured from 1912 to 1919
The Axeman was not caught or identified, and his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it
had started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed. On March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in newspapers saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19, but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans' dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night.

He was born Gaspar Griswold Bacon, Jr. Born to a life of privilege and wealth, David Bacon graduated from Harvard. He summered with his family at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, where he became involved during the early 1930s with the "University Players." There he met then unknown performers James Stewart and Henry Fonda, with whom he later shared accommodations while he struggled to establish himself. He moved to Los Angeles where he met and married an Austrian singer, Greta Keller. In her later years, Keller disclosed that Bacon was homosexual, and that she was lesbian, and that their lavender marriage partly served as what she referred to as a "beard", allowing both of them to maintain a respectable facade in Hollywood, where they were both attempting to establish film careers.
In 1942, Howard Hughes met Bacon, and signed him to an exclusive contract, with the intention of casting him in The Outlaw (1943) as Billy the Kid. Though Hughes later decided not to use Bacon in The Outlaw, he kept Bacon to the terms of his contract, casting him in several smaller roles. Hughes did lend out Bacon for a role in the Republic serial The Masked Marvel (1943). The serial was produced with a low budget, and marked a low point in Bacon's career, with Keller recalling that he was completely humiliated. Today it remains his best-remembered work.
On September 13th 1943, Bacon was seen driving a car erratically in Santa Monica before running off the road and into the curb. Several witnesses saw him climb out of the car and stagger briefly before collapsing. As they approached he asked them to help him, but he died before he could say anything more. A small knife wound was found in his back – the blade had punctured his lung and caused his death. Keller, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, collapsed when she heard of her husband's death, and later her baby was stillborn.
When he died, Bacon was wearing only a swimsuit, and a wallet and camera were found in his car. The film from the camera was developed and found to contain only one image, that of Bacon, nude and smiling on a beach. Police theorized that the photograph had been taken shortly before his death by his killer. The case attracted publicity for a time and remains unsolved.

These are just three examples chosen at random from the extensive list. As a historical novelist, these older examples appeal to me more than the current ones, though they are interesting as well. I could imagine writing about 1911 Atlanta, or the Axeman of New Orleans. Imagine the fun you could have writing that scene where all of New Orleans played jazz one night to keep the Axeman from killing again. Fabulous. And I am particularly drawn to the failed actor, circa Hollywood, 1943, stumbling out of his car with a small knife wound in his back as the air leaked out of his lungs while he begged for help. What a story.

Hmmmm. Maybe I’m on to something here. Let me get my gin bottle. Time to do some heavy thinking.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Jim Harrison

This week’s Reaper Report features, sadly, Jim Harrison, who dropped over dead at his desk a few days ago while working on a poem. The world is a less interesting place without him writing about it. I have to say, while I devoured his non-fiction, especially the stuff about food, and I was a fan of his poetry, I admired rather than loved his fiction. I knew it was good, certainly literature of a high order, and his descriptions of the natural world were lyrical and often beautiful, but I found his stories slow and his characters, even though they were often different, or not so different, versions of himself, not very compelling. I understand this is a lack of something in me, rather than a lack of something in his work.

I recently read a long interview with him, I can’t remember where, at the end of which he learns his wife of many years was dying, and he said that he didn’t know if he wanted, or could bear, to go on living without her. And he didn’t, so I guess he had made that decision.

His first famous book, Legends of the Fall, came out when I was under the influence of writers like Harrison who were putting out big, powerful books, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, strong books that impressed young men. I read Legends and understood why it was important, but I fell by the wayside when others, many others, followed. But now I’m an old man, not quite Harrison’s age but getting up there, so maybe it’s time to go back and read him again. Maybe I’m smarter now, wiser. Or maybe not. We'll see.

Here are some random quotes from some of the books, and random thoughts from Harrison. R.I.P.

“If you added it up, without her there was nothing--but with her even the simplest of gestures of walking a bird dog in the desert, or selecting the ingredients for a meal for two rather than one took on an ineffable charm.” Revenge

“His own life suddenly seemed repellently formal. Whom did he know or what did he know and whom did he love? Sitting on the stump under the burden of his father's death and even the mortality inherent in the dying, wildly colored canopy of leaves, he somehow understood that life was only what one did every day.... Nothing was like anything else, including himself, and everything was changing all of the time. He knew he couldn't perceive the change because he was changing too, along with everything else." The Man Who Gave Up His Name

“After dinner the Texan invited Cochran to accompany him to a whorehouse but he declined saying he'd feed, walk and water the horse.
'Strikes me you had a big day and some poontang might ease your mind.'
'Nope. Killed a man I hated today and I don't want to mix my pleasures. I want to lay in bed and think how good it felt.'
The Texan nodded and lit a cigar. He was no man's fool.”
Legends of the Fall

“Perhaps swimming was dancing in the water, he thought. To swim under lily pads seeing their green slender stalks wavering as you passed, to swim under upraised logs past schools of sunfish and bluegills, to swim through reed beds past wriggling water snakes and miniature turtles, to swim in small lakes, big lakes, Lake Michigan, to swim in small farm ponds, creeks, rivers, giant rivers where one was swept along easefully by the current, to swim naked alone at night when you were nineteen and so alone you felt like you were choking every waking moment, having left home for reasons more hormonal than rational; reasons having to do with the abstraction of the future and one's questionable place in the world of the future, an absurdity not the less harsh for being so widespread.”  Legends of the Fall

“Death steals everything except our stories.”