I’ve had people sending me dozens of questions recently, so I thought I’d try to catch up by changing things a bit and offering several short questions and answers. So the next few days of the blog will sort of head in a new direction…
Someone wrote and noted, “I have a busy life, and I seem to spend much of it in front of my computer. How can I keep up with the industry? What do you fell is worth sacrificing my writing time to follow?”
My choices may be different from your own, of course, but I subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly (the bible of our industry), and I get Publishers’ Lunch and PW Daily on my screen every day. They offer a summary of news, with links I can go to when I want to find details. (For example, today the Authors Guild asked the government to look into the proposed Penguin/Random House merger, since it turns out there just MAY be a bit of market-cornering going on.) These keep me in touch with the industry. There are a number of blogs I like, but I’ll admit that I tend to look at the blogs of the authors I represent, and I can’t quite keep up with all the good blogs that have been created. Novel Rocket is good because it keeps you on top of a lot of titles. I still read GalleyCat. Most of the publishers have their own company blogs. I like Mike Hyatt’s excellent blog, Salon.com, bookbusinessmag.com, Digital Book World, and I belong to a couple discussion groups to talk about the business and marketing side of publishing. I’ll invite readers to suggest other good industry blogs in the “comments” section…
Someone wrote and asked, “What can you tell me about audio books? My publisher isn’t interested in producing my books in audio, though they sell well in print. Is there a way to do that on my own?”
The reason your publisher isn’t very interested? Money. There’s just not enough money to make with most audio books. Most of the New York houses will tell you that the audio book of a bestseller will only sell about 10% of what it sells in print. (So a book that moved 60,000 copies in hardcover will only sell 6000 in audio.) That’s pretty skinny, especially when you consider that it’s not like most sub-rights. If your publisher sells sub-rights for your book to a book club, or serial rights to a magazine, or excerpt rights for a gift book, all they have to do is send an electronic file. There’s no real “production” cost to the publisher. But an audio book means they’ve got to rent a studio, pay an engineer, have an editor work on a shortened script, and possibly hire an actor to read the lines (unless the author agrees to do it himself, in which case the publisher has to pay plane fare, hotel, and meals). All of that means your publisher is investing dollars, and the pay-off generally isn’t great. For books that don’t hit the bestseller lists, chances are the publisher will lose money.
An alternative is to do it yourself — keep the rights, create your own scripts, talk with a local radio station about renting you an empty studio on a weekend at a steep discount, and pay their board-op $50 to record it. But then you’ve got to produce it (free as an MP3 file, but $1 per CD plus $1 per case and label if you go that route), store it, ship it, and, above all, SELL it. Most self-published projects lose money because the person who created the product doesn’t know how to sell it. If you don’t know how to sell audio books, I’d encourage you to take a careful look at your business plan before jumping in.
Another person wrote to ask, “When do most editors draw the literary line on alliteration? Two words? Three? Four?”
A cool question, compadre. Every engaging editor eschews everyday alliteration. (Is this making you sick yet? It ought to.) Alliteration is out. It’s considered too cutesy, or too lazy perhaps. My response would be “two words.” If you disagree, feel free to leave a comment.
An author wrote to say, “A book club (not Oprah) has selected my book for this month, and asked for possible discussion questions. I felt a little like I was wandering down a dark alley. What do book clubs discuss? The stuff I sent her sounded like an English teacher created them. What are they looking for?”
Book clubs are generally looking for open-ended questions (that is, questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”) that cause readers to either (1) interact with the text, or (2) reveal their perspectives and attitudes, or (3) get reader talking about themselves and the choices they would make in a similar situation. So a text-interaction question might be, “What did you think of Fiona’s description of forgiveness?” or “What do you think motivated Beatrice to stick a finger in Daphne’s eye?” A self-revelation question would be something more along the lines of, “What would you have said when the inspector unbuttoned her blouse?” or “When you’ve faced a life-or-death situation, what was going through your mind?” I’m one who doesn’t like to see “lessons” or “meanings” imposed onto readers. Part of the fun of literature is discussing what the story means, rather than having my English teacher show up to explain the meanings to me.
Congratulations on getting selected, by the way. Maybe next time Oprah will show up.
Another author sent a note that included this: “I’ve written music reviews for weekly newspapers, been published in a mid-sized daily paper, pen a monthly column about our local music scene, and have published educational material in a quarterly booklet. Some of my work has been picked up by other sites, used in organizations, and put in newsletters in at least seven states. Is all that worth mentioning in a non-ficiton book query, since queries need to focus on the writing at hand?”
You may not want to give your entire publishing history in a query letter, but you should certainly offer a short summary of your writing experience so that the agent or editor reading your query letter grasps the fact that you are an experienced writer. The purpose of a query letter is to get someone interested in YOU and YOUR IDEA — so by deleting all the references to you, you’d be relying strictly on someone falling in love with your idea. That would be a mistake. A query letter is a sales tool — sell them on yourself as well as your book idea.
The Last Word: A good friend tells me she was reading a bottle of juice recently and found this: This ambrosial smoothie begs thoughts of faraway beaches and lush tropical islands… Just think palm trees and scantily-clad natives. When it comes to juice, we understand your need to get naked…” Uh, when it comes to JUICE? Good grief. And here I’ve been drinking grape juice while clothed all these years. Who knew?
Got a publishing question? Let me hear from you.