Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ten Things Never to Say to A Writer

Pages written since last post: 25

Books uploaded to Kindle:Under Cover

He was one of the most notorious racketeers on the East Coast. She was a cop who wanted nothing more than to see him behind bars. But just how far was she willing to go to get her man?

Recently I was on a panel at which one of the questions was: What do you hear most often when people find out you’re a writer? My answer was, “ Oh yeah? How come I never heard of you?” This got a few laughs, but it also caused me to start thinking about some of the other conversation-stoppers I’ve heard from people over the years. Here are just the top ten:

10. “Have you ever written anything I’ve read?”

The unsuspecting writer has only two possible responses to this. The first is, “Umm, how would I know?” and the second—more common—response is to hang his head in shame, mutter, “Probably not.” and slink off to the bar.

9. “I always wanted to write a book but I never had the time.”

My standard pithy reply to this is a heartfelt, “I know! I always wanted to perform open heart surgery, but I just never had the time.” However, people have heard this from me so often I’m going to have to start coming up with something else. The implication in this statement is that anyone who can find a moment or two to waste can write a book; why don’t you get a real job?

8. “How much do they pay you for that?”

Almost nothing.

7. “ You’ve written how many books? Wow, they must be really easy!”

Yes, someone actually said this to me. I then, as now, simply stood there open-mouthed. I have absolutely no reply for this.

6. “Listen, I have this great idea for a book. You really need to write it.”

The truth is, writers have plenty of ideas. We have ideas coming out of ears, and most of them are better than anything you could come up with (sorry, but we do this for a living, you know.) Ideas are not the problem. The problems are theme, characterization, narrative drive, research, suspenseful storytelling, evocative setting, lyrical prose… isolation, defeat, rejection. publishing, marketing, and low sales figures to name but a few. That’s why we get paid the big bucks (see #8) .

5. “But it’s not autographed!”

If you are fortunate enough to have a friend, family member, client, customer, patient ,student or casual acquaintance who has written a book, and should that person be so magnanimous as to give you a free copy of that book, please be aware that you hold in your hands not only a $27.95 retail value, but the hopes, dreams, and years of labor from the giver. The only possible reply to such an act of selfless generosity is “Thank you so much! I’m not worthy! How can I ever repay you?” (you can repay her, by the way, by writing a glowing review on There are many reasons why an author may not autograph a give-away book, but the chances are she didn’t simply forget. When you receive a book as a gift from an author and you return it for an autograph, you are returning a gift. Worse, you are putting her on the spot. She just wrote 80,000 words and that wasn’t enough? Now you want her to write more? Right now, right here, while you watch? The most important words of the whole book (since the previous 80,000 clearly were not good enough)? I know that most people consider asking for an autograph a form of flattery. But for a writer, the implication can often be something entirely different.

Of course, if you pay good money for a book at a signing or other event where the author is clearly present to autograph books, and barring extenuating circumstances (like she’s in the restroom with the stall door closed), you absolutely have the right to expect her to sign every crisp new copy you present to her.

4.“My cousin/uncle/brother/auntie/ just wrote a book. How can he get it published?”

Would you like that answer in ten words or less? This is our profession, guys. Sometimes we actually give workshops, write books, teach classes and blog on that very subject. Occasionally we even get paid for doing so. Would you ask a plumber how to remodel your bathroom—for free?

3. “I’m working on a book, too. Can you recommend me to an agent?”

If I’ve read your book of my own free will and I am so blown away by it that I want to see it published as much you do, I will voluntarily write letters to agents on your behalf before you can even think to ask me to do so. I’ll also give you a cover quote and help you design your web site. I want  good books to be published! Otherwise, agent information is readily available to anyone with an internet connection, and when I am looking for a new agent I have to go through the same laborious submission process as anyone else. No free rides here.

2. “Will you read my manuscript?”

No, no and no. We do this for a living, remember? In fact, one of the main reasons that I started offering coaching and manuscript critiquing is so that I could set a price on my time and expertise that anyone could understand. Furthermore, there is a certain liability factor involved for working writers who read other people’s work that has occasionally resulted in nuisance plagiarism suits. I have known agents and publishers who would not deal with writers who read unpublished works by amateur writers.

And the number one all time please do not ever say this to a writer but you’d be surprised at how many do, particularly if they perceive your book is successful enough to merit their invaluable criticism:

“What I hated about your book was….”

Unless that sentence ends with “it was over too soon”, believe me, no one wants to hear it. Do you have any idea what it takes to write a book? The hours upon hours upon months upon years that we labor in solitude, agonizing over every word. The rejection, the perseverance, the endurance against all odds. We have already heard what agents didn’t like about it, what editors didn’t like about it, what reviewers didn’t like about it, what bloggers didn’t like about it so often that by now that we are bruised and bleeding and barely standing. We don't need you to tell us our book wasn't good enough.  Never mind that it's been on the bestseller list for thirteen weeks, that it was optioned by Stephen Spielberg for a film starring Tom Hanks... we already know it wasn't  good enough. Yet for some reason, some people feel certain that we will appreciate the opinion of a real reader who can tell us exactly what went wrong with our latest book. This actually has only happened to be once. The lady in question invited me to a party so that she could spend the entire time telling me how my latest book was so much worse than my others, and what I should have done to fix it. I appreciated that so much that I’m still blogging about it twenty years later.

With all of this in mind, the next time you are introduced to a writer there’s really only one safe thing to say: “I absolutely love your work!”

Say it. Even if you have to lie.

Monday, May 31, 2010

But I Love New York-- Part Two

Pages written since last post: 28
Books uploaded to Kindle:

CAST ADRIFT  She was a marine biologist on a quest to find a dolphin; he was a sailor with no time for sentiment.  But two weeks alone at sea could change everything...
When last we met, I was trying to think of all the advantages to being published by a major New York publishing house.  Here they are:

1) The advance.  I think we all can agree that a  $25,000 advance from a publisher is appreciably better than $25 a month for uploading your self-published book to Kindle.  At least, it sounds better.  No, it is better, really--- at least, it would be better, if only publishers would actually pay it in advance.  Here’s the way it breaks down:
       1/3 on signing of the contract.  This means approximately 3-4 months after the deal is struck.  If you are writing the book on spec, you’ve probably completed it by now.
       1/3 on delivery and acceptance.  If you submitted a complete manuscript, one would assume that the book was accepted when the publisher actually went to contract on it, but nooooo.  Acceptance can come six months to a year later, after the editor re-reads the manuscript, sends you notes for revision, reads your revisions, approves them, forgets to put in a request for payment, you get the idea.  And that’s if all goes well.
       1/3 on publication .  Most contracts allow for publication 18-24 months after acceptance of the manuscript (see above); a semi-alert agent will change that to 18-24 months from the date of the contract which, as we have already seen, can be 3-4 months after actually selling your book.  So you’re quite possibly  looking at three years before you receive your final payment.
      $25,000 divided by 3 years equals $8,333 per year which is just about 10 self-published Kindle books a day at 2.99.
      The average advance for a first-time author, by the way, is still around $5000.  Divide that by three years.

2) The distribution.  My books are supported, published and distributed by Penguin USA, a pretty big player in the New York publishing biz.  Dave’s book is published, supported and distributed by–well, Dave.  In an informal tour of five independent bookstores within a twenty-five mile radius of where I live, Dave’s book was prominently featured beside the New York Times bestsellers in the windows of four of them.  My books were not carried.         

3)Marketing and Promotion.  The publisher’s job is to sell your book.  That’s why they get 90% of your money, right?  But so much has been written about the publisher’s failure to do exactly that that the whole thing has become a cliche, a joke that has been told so many times it’s not even funny anymore.  Bottom line: Every over-worked, underpaid publicist on staff at Big New York Publisher is responsible for 50-100 titles every campaign period (roughly 2 months before the book is published to one month after).  Dave is responsible for one book.  Only.  His whole life.  Dave has time to chase the radio interviews, the cable t.v. spot, the book signings, the reading group appearances, the blogs, the lectures.  Dave knows somebody who knows somebody who can arrange a major signing at Barnes and Noble with print advertising tie-in.  My publicist is only allowed to arrange two events for me per book.  Let’s hope someone shows up at one of them.

 3.Reviews.  It is absolutely, positively true that the one advantage a major New York publisher has is the ability to get your book reviewed in the trades.  Booksellers read the trades, and decide what books to order.  Movie producers read the trades and decide which books might be worth optioning for film.  Foreign rights agents find their next purchase in the trades.  A quote from Publisher’s Weekly or Library Journal will live on your book cover forever.  This is huge.  And huge would be the word to describe the number of books that cascade onto  the desks of trade publication reviewers every day.  Ditto the major newspapers and magazines.  It took two years for my last book to be reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly.  Nice quote, but it would have been even nicer had we been able to use it to actually sell the book.  Meantime, I get great reviews from amateur bloggers... just like Dave.

4.Okay, I’ve been sitting here with my arms crossed for five minutes and I really can’t think of Number Four.   I can think of things that should be true, or used to be true, but here is what I think is really true about the advantages of being published with a major New York publisher: If you are a multi-published, midlist author with a fan base, the difference between being published in New York and publishing yourself is so small as to be almost indiscernible, with the advantage leaning ever-so-slightly toward the self-publishing and promoting side.  If you are first-time author who takes his career seriously, I still think you need the credibility of having been published in New York .  Earn your stripes, and move on.  I think this for absolutely no reason other than the fact that I had to do it.
       On the other hand, if you just want to see your book in store windows, do book signings, radio and television interviews, see your picture in the paper, have people talking about your work, and cash lots and lots of checks... may I introduce you to my friend Dave?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

But I Love New York-- Part One

pages written since last post: 11 and 1/2
Books uploaded to Amazon Kindle:  For Keeps-- This was my first book featuring a dog as a major character.  It had to be completely rewritten to reflect modern dog-training techniques. Only $1.99 on Kindle!

So I ran into my friend the other day-- I'll call him Dave to avoid embarrassment (mine, not his)-- and congratulated him on his recently self-published memoir.  I couldn't help knowing about his recently self-published memoir because everytime I opened an e-mail, visited a shop downtown, or glanced at a newspaper, I saw an announcement.  He was very pleased with the way it was going and reported he had already sold 600 copies.  "That's great!" I told him sincerely because it was great-- for a self-published memoir that had been out less than three months.  Feeling smug, I didn't bother to  mention that, had I failed to sell less than six thousand copies in the first quarter of my book's release, my fancy New York publisher would have dumped me like toxic waste.

Still, that was a respectable number, and money in Dave's pocket that he hadn't expected.  The book sold for $25, and I happen to know he hand-sold at least 80% of the copies, so his profit was about $12 per book.  Allowing for the other 20% that he sold to bookstores and on which he only collected $5, that was roughly-- very roughly-- $6000.   Free and clear.  In his pocket.

Furthermore, Dave had finished his book at about the same time I had finished mine.  His book was already in print and he had $6000 in his pocket.  I was still waiting for my publisher to send me the money that was due to me on signing of the contract six months earlier.  Bottom line: he had money, I didn't.  Who's looking smug now? 

This caused me to start thinking-- obsessing, really-- about what, exactly, are the advantages of being published by a traditional New York publisher, and why those of us who have made that choice (or, some might say, have been lucky enough to have that opportunity) have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we're getting the better deal.  Sure,belonging to  one of the Big Six publishers is an elite distinction, and one that's becoming  harder earn every minute, but beyond the cachet is there any real value to being published in New York? 

Believe me, I'm not the only one who's giving this question some serious thought.  My conclusions, as they develop, are forthcoming.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A New Day

pages written since last post: 150

But no... getting a start on a new book is not all I've been doing since February. Like so many of my colleagues of late, I've been re-evaluating the publishing business and my place in it. (I've also been trying to get off sugar and processed foods,lower my resting heart rate and plant an organic garden, but that's another post altogether).  I've also been giving a lot of thought to books in general and the way we read them, and, frankly, how much all of these things have changed.  When I first started buying books, a paperback could be had for 2.99.  When I first started writing books, the average price of a paperback book was 4.99.  When the cost of a paperback book jumped to 7.99, and a hardcover to $20.00, some of the most dedicated readers I know swore they would never buy another book.  Well, now they're paying $35.00 for some titles, but guess what?  They're not doing it very often. 

So here's the thing.  I think books should be affordable.  I think this because I am a reader, and because I am a writer who would very much like to have her books read.  The problem is that print books are impossibly expensive to publish, so that even when every corner is cut and every middleman is eliminated, it's very difficult to price a trade paperback (that would be the size of AT HOME ON LADYBUG FARM) for less than $14.00.  Fortunately, there is a solution: the e-book.

I'm pleased to announce that as of today I have four titles available for the Amazon Kindle for $1.99.  They are:
Smoky Mountain Tracks
Rapid Fire
Matchmaker, Matchmaker
A Man Around the House

Over the next several months I will be adding at least fifteen new titles, all for under $3.00, because I believe people should read!

All of titles that I list for  Kindle will also be available on your other electronic reading devices-- I-pad, Sony, nook, etc. a week or so later.  The best-selling of these titles will also be released in print-- but, alas, at the usual 14.95 or higher price point.

If you don't have a Kindle, you can actually download an ap for your PC for free that allows you to read books on your computer or other device, like BlackBerry or I-phone, which I think is incredibly cool.

I'll keep you updated as I add new e-books, and if you enjoy any of my titles, post a review on or elsewhere, and let me know.    After all, for 1.99, what have you got to lose?

By the way, what am I reading now?  In paper, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  On my Kindle:Every Day in Tuscany by Frances Mayer .



Monday, February 22, 2010

Faster, Higher, Stronger

Pages written since lost post: 57

Okay, I confess: I’m a complete Winter Olympics junkie. I love downhill, ski-jump, snow boarding, bobsled, luge, skeleton, short track, 1000 meter, cross country, and oh yes, figure skating– men’s women’s, pairs, ice dance. Once every four years, I even love hockey. For two weeks in February, I am glued to the television set for six to eight hours a day, cheering– not for a nation or an individual– but for the best. Because when records are broken, when personal bests are surpassed, when the impossible becomes history, gateways open up for all of us to surge through.

This is what I’ve learned from the Olympics this year:

You don’t make the podium by accident.

Every one of these kids had a dream, and they believed in it enough to be at the rink at four o’clock in the morning to practice, every morning, without fail, for fifteen years, rain, snow, sleet, bad mood, heavy date, flu, birthday, Christmas , New Year’s, whatever ; to move across country to study under the best coach; to leave their families, their friends and their lives behind to perfect their sport; sometimes they even give up their citizenship– for life!– for a chance to pursue excellence. They don’t do this part time. They don’t do this half way. Greatness is not something you achieve when you get around to it. Greatness is a lifetime commitment.

When they fall down, they get up again.

Bode Miller, Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn. Need I say more? Okay, I’ll say one more thing. Shaun White, having already locked down the gold, did not have to do the most dangerous trick of his career, the 1260 Double McTwist– which just happened to result in a spectacular crash at the X Games. He did it because when you’re the best, you can’t not do your best.

It’s always harder than you think it will be.

No one likes to hear this. No one likes to even think about it. But the truth is, sometimes your best isn’t good enough. Sometimes you work for years, train twelve hours a day, spend thousands on coaches, perfect your craft, do the best you can possibly do... and still fail. You fall on the throw-quad, crash a gate on the downhill, take a spectacular spill on the Super-G, and this in spite of everything you could do. You think it’s over. And sometimes, truth be told, it is. But sometimes you get up, start all over again, and make a spectacular comeback. Because champions know it’s always harder than you think it’s going to be. And 100% is rarely good enough.

No one who came to Olympic games said, “I came here to lose.” or “I came to play it safe.” No one got there by giving the effort what they had to spare. They came for the gold, and they gave it everything they had.

How about you?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Catching Up

Pages written since last post: 267

As you can see from the above statistic, that pesky little thing called writing a book has once again interfered with keeping this blog up-to-date. Here's what you missed:

1) Favorite book of 2009 (only two months late!): The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This, friends and neighbors, is why there will always be paper books. This is a book you want to hold in your hands, savoring every word, touching the pages, marveling over the design. It's not only that the book within a book does, in fact, look as though it was painted on a cellar wall by a fugitive in Nazi Germany; it's not only the elegance of the story; it's not only the prose that makes you want to weep from the sheer beauty of it; it is all of those things that come together to make one perfect novel. This is why there will always be paper books.

Second Favorite Book :The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. This book made reading fun again.

2)My take on the whole IPad/Amazon/Macmillan broohaha

Now I know that most of you who read this blog really don't know (or care) much about what's going on in the industry, and you are probably all the happier for it. Personally, I'm getting a little tired of it all too. But because everyone assures me that the world as we know it is at stake, and because I did spend a good bit of time before Christmas posting about e-readers, and-- most importantly-- because it actually makes for a semi-good story, here's my summation: (a caveat-- I very often get things wrong. For a much more coherent, and undoubtedly more accurate, depiction of the situation, go to this post by my favorite industry blogger, Nathan Bransford)

To support the launch of its seriously cool new Ipad mini-computer (some people have made the mistake of calling it an e-reader, but get real), Apple, sensing discontent in the publishing industry over's 9.99 pricing of e-books, went to the Big Six publishers and proposed a deal whereby e-books on the Ipad would be priced at 14.95, and publishers would receive 30% of retail (Amazon pays publishers 50% of retail; i.e. the hardcover price Even I can do the math on that). Macmillan seems to have been first to publicly snap up this gem of a deal, although I understand all six major publishers are either coming or have already come on board with it as well. All fine and good except Macmillan then went to and told them they would no longer be allowed to sell Macmillan e-books under any terms other than the ones Macmillan had agreed to with Apple (14.95). Amazon said Okay, fine-- and immediately deleted all the "buy" buttons for every Macmillan title they carried! Not just the e-books, but all the books.

Now here is what I found interesting. The vast majority of public opinion seems to be casting Macmillan as the victim in this gambit. Amazon is being accused of behaving childishly, of throwing a temper tantrum, of trying to control the marketplace, of bidding for a monopoly on e-books. No one seems to have much to say about who gathered the Big Six in an alliance against 9.99 pricing in the first place. And what about the Macmillan authors? They're the ones who lost sales over the course of a very, very long weekend while their publisher duked it out with the internet's biggest bookseller. But, again to my surprise, the Macmillan authors who have spoken out on this matter seem to be supporting their publisher. As I said at the beginning, I very often get things wrong. And sometimes I just don't get things at all.

The upshot is that admits that it will be forced to "capitulate at some point" to the demands of publishers on the 14.95 pricing (gee, do you think?). And I am downloading every 9.99 book I can while I can.

And, in case anyone is wondering: yes of course I want an Ipad! It has color!!

3)Enough about that; let's talk about ME. Those 267 pages cited above represent my first completed book of the year (the first half of which was written in the last two months of last year) which was e-mailed to my editor with 5 1/2 hours to spare before deadline. Yay, me. My goal this year is to complete two more books and at least two proposals (a proposal, for me, is 50-100 pages). My fantasy also includes 1)completing and self-publishing a book I started last year, just to see what all the fuss is about 2) writing a screen play (who says I don't know how??) 3) uploading at least ten of my out-of-print and reverted titles as e-books. The latter is not such a challenge if you have actual digital copies of your books, but in my case the titles are 20 years old, exist only as bound paperbacks, and have to be scanned into my computer... page, by page, by page. This is what I do for a living, folks. I am a writer.

4) What am I reading?

On my Kindle: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
In hardcover: An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor
On my Ipod: Evidence by Jonathon Kellerman (hint: never download the unabridged version!)
On CD: 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to download more 9.99 e-books.