Chip MacGregor

February 14, 2008

The Four Best Words


Today marks the four best words in the English language… And I don’t mean "Happy Valentine’s Day, Darling" (though there’s nothing wrong with those sentiments — I got engaged on Valentine’s Day way back in 1982). No, the four best words are these: "Pitchers and Catchers report." You see, for those of us who are diehard baseball fans, today marks the start of a new season. Nobody has any losses, everybody has hopes for the future, and there are people across America who believe that this could be our year. (Not everywhere, of course. My apologies to the people of Kansas City.) So on this happy occasion, I thought we should take a bundle of new publishing questions people have sent in…

Rhonda wrote to say, "I had a book published several years ago with a small press. It’s now out of print, but I’d love to get it back into print. Do you think that’s possible?"

The hard truth? Unlikely. I’m sorry, Rhonda, but the facts are there’s almost no market for books that have been in print once before. Publishers have a tendency to look at them and say, "Um…if that other publisher couldn’t sell this, what makes you think we could?" It happens occasionally, but most often with a successful author revisiting an old book, or repackaging a book that can now be tied to an event in the newspapers.

Keep in mind that a book is like a man’s suit. It’s in style for a while, maybe even a long while, but eventually it seems dated. The culture isn’t static — things are moving forward all the time. The world is changing. It’s why parenting or relationship or health books that your parents read won’t speak to our contemporary world. So when your book releases, assume it’s going to be in style about as long as a new suit. In a while, it will start to show some wear. With time, it’ll seem dated. In a few years, it’ll be well out of date. And, most likely, out of print.

On a related note, Rachel asked, "Have you noticed how authors seem to lack staying power? A few years ago, some people were the biggest names in Christian fiction. Now they’re gone. What is it about contemporary writers that keeps them from sticking around?

If you think it’s bad for writers, consider the fate of musicians. Their music is all the rage one day, and the next day it’s considered a joke. I once heard a fading pop-star say that "nearly every successful musician has about a three-year run — anyone who stays longer than that is an icon." (Note: It was David Cassidy who said that. Anyone remember him? He fronted for The Partridge Family, then did sort of a bad single act. Three years and out. Yet he still performs, and still wears groovy sunglasses…even though he’s roughly the age of your grandfather.) But just so you know, publishing has always followed a similar pattern. An author will become all the rage for a few years, sell a lot of books, then suddenly find himself published but not popular. There aren’t many Charles Dickens or Mark Twains. And that means many of the popular novelists today may be a bit out of fashion in a few years. The culture is always looking for what’s new.

Ralph wrote and asked, "Is it ethical to have a short quote from another author at the start of my book? I have a quote from C.S. Lewis at the beginning of my new techno-thriller I’m about to market. Do I need to get permission?"

Um… you’re using a C.S. Lewis quote at the start of a techno-thriller? That’s not a combination I’d normally put together. Okay, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving you legal advice. But fair use laws allow you to cite portions of another author’s work without getting written permission, so long as you provide an adequate reference to the original source. There are some limitations: You can cite prose, but not poetry or song lyrics. And you can’t repeat the author’s core idea (for example, if I wrote a book entitled "The Biggest Secret to Investing," you would not be allowed to quote the one sentence that reveals the one big secret). You also have to keep it short — there’s flexibility here, but you generally want to stay under 100 words or three lines of text. Anything else and you really need to write the publisher and seek permission — and they will charge you for the privilege of using someone else’s work. But no, there’s not generally an ethical problem with doing so.

Ami wants to know, "What do you think of creating a website for a novel that’s in progress? I’m also thinking about links to the main character’s blogs, and maybe having the characters post entries and leave comments on other blogs."

I think you’re asking two different questions, Ami. First, you want to now what I think about authors who establish a blog as a way to sell their unpublished novel. I guess I’m not a huge fan of that practice — who really visits those blogs? I haven’t seen them create a stampede of readers awaiting the book. I doubt agents and editors read them very often. But second, it sounds like you’re tossing out a marketing idea — could you have your characters create blogs, and pretend to visit other sites? That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know if it would work, or if the creators of those other blogs would simply find it annoying. (I often have people pretend to leave "comments" on this blog that are really nothing more than advertisements for their sites and services. I hate that, and I generally race to delete them.) Still, it’s certainly a creative idea. Maybe you could pull it off successfully.

Patty writes to say, "I have a submissions question. Let’s say I submit a query to an agent, who responds favorably and asks for three chapters and a synopsis. Two months later she says she’s read the first chapter and will get to the others soon. Three months after that, there’s silence. Do I take that as a rejection? I’ve followed up, and even had a couple email conversations with her, but I’m puzzled by her lack of communication because she seemed to like my story."

Well, if an agent has had your proposal for months and isn’t saying "yes," then he probably isn’t enamored with it. You’ve got to admit, if he loved it, he’d be talking with you about it. (And if he hated it, you’d have already heard the rejection.) This sort of thing happens — I’ll read a proposal, think it has merit, and set it aside to ruminate for a while. Later I might come back to it and realize I was out of my mind that day. So… a thought. Maybe the agent, who no doubt sees hundreds of "pretty good" proposals crossing his desk every year, sees that there are good and bad parts to your writing. Maybe he’s trying to talk himself into it. Maybe he likes you but isn’t crazy about your writing on this piece. Maybe he is sitting on a half-dozen "maybe’s" and is trying to figure out which ones to say yes to. The best thing you can to do is to keep working at it. Make your proposal better. If the agent suggests revisions, try them out. Keep the dialogue going. If the agent is continuing an email exchange with you, he obviously has some interest, Patty. (And if the agent is female, feel free to go back and replace the word "he" with the word "she" in this answer. I try to use non-sexist language, but when I did so in this response, it was almost unreadable. Sorry.)

Tony sent me this: "I’m a published novelist, with my third book coming out soon, and suddenly I find myself bombarded with requests for endorsements. It seems as though every author or author-wannabe is sending me their manuscript and asking me to read it and say something nice. Help, Chip! What do I do?"

Lots of successful writers get these requests. When you think about it, the answer really isn’t that hard, because you’ve only got a limited number of responses. First, you can simply say, "Sorry, but I’ve been encouraged not to do any endorsements." That may not win you any friends, but it certainly offers a ready answer. Second, you can say, "Because of the number of requests I get, I can only endorse a handful of novels each year. This year I might do three or four, and I’ve already committed myself to a couple friends’ books." Third, you can do what I tell my authors to do: "I ask that all these requests go through my agent." Then simply tell your agent which ones you want to endorse, or that you don’t want to endorse any at all — that saves you from having to deliver the bad news, and forces that deadbeat agent of yours to finally earn his keep. Fourth, you can do the hard thing: You can say something like "send it to me and we’ll see," and then force yourself to look at a bunch of manuscripts. Many authors do this. But make sure you warn people up front that you aren’t guaranteeing an endorsement. Because you need to hear a work of caution: Don’t endorse anything you haven’t read fully, and don’t endorse anything you don’t really like. If you’ve agreed to look at someone’s manuscript, only to find it’s not any good, you’ve got to go back to that author and say, "I’m flattered that you asked me, but I just don’t think I can do this after all." Hard words to say — but much better than endorsing some stupid book and having your readers feel you swindled them into buying something bad.

And let me close with something fascinating that my buddy Dennis Hensley discovered. He found that The Astrological Magazine had ceased operations, which isn’t a big surprise to me, since I think people who follow horoscopes are a bit weak in the bean. However, this one must have really scraped bottom. On their web site are these words: We regret to announce that, due to unforeseen circumstances beyond our control, the publication of The Astrological Magazine will cease with the December 2007 issue." Uh… shouldn’t their star sign have revealed that something was up? I’m just saying…

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