Pub Rants

Category: Agent Kristin

Interview with Shelby Van Pelt

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Shelby Van Pelt, author of the debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures.

In your new novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures (Ecco, May 3), an unlikely narrator—an octopus—steals readers’ hearts. While his wit and charm appeal to readers, Marcellus doesn’t talk. How did you decide the limits of his voice?

Figuring that out was one of the most challenging things about writing this book! At various times while drafting, I played around with allowing him to write (could an octopus hold a pen?) or perhaps chat with the other sea life at the aquarium. But, eventually, I realized I needed his communications to flow one way to reflect his loneliness.

There’s also the matter of where readers would draw the line. An octopus narrator is already weird, at least in a book that’s otherwise realistic. I knew I was not writing a fantasy novel and didn’t have much latitude with world-building; rather than creating a world where octopuses can communicate, I needed to create a communicating octopus that felt at home in the real world.

In your recent LitHub article, “Lessons Learned from a Year Listening to the Fictional Octopus in My Head,” you remind us that “you write…therefore, you’re a writer.” Why is this mantra so important when writing your debut novel?

For anyone who produces any sort of creative work, writing or otherwise, I think there’s this leap when you go from having it be a private hobby to sharing it with others. To selling it, even. To me, at the time, it all just felt so presumptuous. Maybe I even felt a little like Marcellus with his journal entries, firing off words into some sort of void, not sure anyone would ever receive them.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is already making waves since its release earlier this month. What advice would you give to authors hoping for the same result?

Well, I do realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been! But I can’t tell you how many times I really doubted even querying because my book didn’t seem to fit neatly in a marketable category. Finding comps was challenging. It’s an odd book!

So, I guess my advice is: write the odd thing. Or rather, write the you thing, whatever that happens to be. And plan to invest time in your query letter! I spent more hours writing (and rewriting, over and over) my query letter than I did drafting the last several chapters of the book. Capturing the essence of your story in a couple of paragraphs is a huge challenge, and it can take a lot of work to get it just right.

Do you critique or beta read for other writers? What is the value in that?

Absolutely! I would never have finished this book without my critique partners.

There’s this image of a novelist as a solitary creature, sitting in a cabin with a beautiful view, pounding out pages. They’ll emerge at some point with a finished draft, ready to serve up to beta readers. And honestly…that sounds amazing! But as someone with two young kids, that’s not going to be my reality anytime soon. And I’m not sure it would suit me, honestly. I tend to do a lot of critique in real time with my beta partners, exchanging a couple of chapters a week, discussing, then taking time to pause and course-correct as needed. If I did a whole draft without feedback along the way, that thing would be a mess.

I also really enjoy beta reading shorter pieces for other folks in my writing communities. Learning to give and receive feedback is so important, and it’s a skill I try to practice as often as I can.

Finally, what tools in the literary space/community have been the most helpful in your writing process?

I’ll put my plug for writing contests here! Sometimes, a frenzied weekend with a bizarre set of prompts is just what I need to shake off a writing slump. Many competitions also offer formal feedback and/or have a space, like a Facebook group or forum, where you can swap critiques with other participants. It can be a good way to find a writing community.

Classes are also great. I’m a big fan of continuing-education courses, library writing groups, and the like. I’ve participated in several of those over the years. I’m a deadline-driven person, so having regular pressure to prepare material gives me a needed nudge. As a bonus, they’re often reasonably priced, and since anyone can join, there’s usually a nice variety of folks from differing backgrounds and stages of their writing journey.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt was released May 3, 2022. Order your copy today!

This month, NLA interviewed Kristin Nelson’s client Luke Smitherd, author of the recently released novel The Stone Giant.

Your latest novel, The Stone Giant, is book three of your Stone Man series. How do you get readers caught up on what happened in books one and two? How do you gauge when to introduce new antagonists and when to return to past ones?

I wanted the fates of the surviving characters from The Stone Man to form part of the mystery of The Empty Men for the reader…but I also knew I wanted to bring the survivors back for The Stone Giant once the new stakes were well established and answers were required (that, and I’m a sucker for a team-up). The backstory, or in this case the five-year gap between books one and two, is a huge part of the plot of The Stone Giant, and I had a lot of fun dropping the various reveals into the story. Books two through four were heavily plotted out before work was started, and keeping the past-and-present continuity tight over the three or four years I was working on these books isn’t something I particularly ever want to do again! 

Which of your characters have you had the hardest time leaving behind once the novel was complete? Which character was the easiest to pick back up?

Maria was probably the hardest to pick up again by far, because the events of The Empty Men change her so much; likewise with many of the other protagonists. They’re very different people now. (But Brigadier Straub was easy as pie.)

How do you get to know your characters?

I get to know my characters—as cliché as it many sounds—as I go on. Then on the second draft I lean into the elements that have come out organically through the first draft.

Describe a scene from one of your novels that was particularly difficult to write. Why was writing it so difficult?

The scenes that are difficult for me to write are always logistical issues, especially with sci-fi. I know what I want to happen, and the effect required, but how do I describe something magical or otherworldly in a grounded way? I’m a real stickler for detail in that regard so it has to be right.

When editing, what aspects of critique do you apply to your novel? What aspects do you feel require the context of the whole manuscript? 

As you can probably tell by this interview, I talk too much. Editing is all about trimming for me. After that it’s all about checking that the characters appear on the page the way they do in my head, and—to answer the context element of the question—that the way they change (or don’t) through the text is consistent with the (usually awful) events and/or crazy things they’ve encountered.

The Stone Giant by Luke Smitherd was released March 29, 2022. Order your copy today!

Interview with Stacy Stokes

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Stacy Stokes, author of the recently released novel Remember Me Gone

What challenges did you face writing about memory and memory loss?

I love keeping secrets from readers, so I had a lot of fun sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout the story for the reader and [the protagonist] Lucy to discover together. The novel is told in first-person present, which allows the reader to experience things with Lucy as they happen. But it also presented a unique challenge—there are moments in the book when the reader knows more than Lucy. Finding the balance between Lucy’s discovery and the reader’s knowledge was tricky at times, but also fun to navigate. 

What inspired the family business featured in the novel?

The inspiration for Remember Me Gone and The Memory House came from an episode of True Blood, the HBO series based on The Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. In the episode, someone hires a vampire to erase her husband’s memories in the hopes of curing his PTSD. I started wondering what it might be like to run a memory-taking business, and, boom! The idea was born. Sans vampires.

The first line of your novel, “People come from everywhere to forget,” is so great! What advice would you give authors on nailing their first line?

A good first line should not only suck readers in but convey something unique about the story that sets the stage for what’s to come. Think about the key elements that make your story special and try to work at least one of them into the opening line. For Remember Me Gone, I wanted to introduce the concept of memory-taking while also working in the remoteness of [the town of] Tumble Tree.

A good way to find inspiration is to look at the opening lines of your favorite books. My all-time favorite opening line is from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scopio Races: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” She manages to tell the reader so much about the story to come in just a few words—it gives me chills every time I read it.

Did you write this story in a linear fashion or skip around as Lucy uncovers answers?

I tend to write linearly, but I always have a few scenes in my head that I’m writing towards, kind of like an invisible road map. It’s also a good motivator for me—there’s a sense of accomplishment when I finally make it to one of the scenes. Without giving away any spoilers, there were three scenes I knew I was building towards—the scene with Lucy’s father at the end of chapter six, the scene with the Oklahoma woman in chapter thirty, and the scene with the mirror in chapter thirty-three. I also had a fairly clear sense of how I wanted the story to end. The rest of the process was connecting those dots.

Finally, has being a novelist changed the way you read novels?

Absolutely! For starters, I have immense respect for anyone who completes a novel. Now that I’ve been through the process, I know how hard they’ve worked to not only get their words on a page, but to get them published and out in the world. 

I also often use the books I read as textbooks to make me a better writer. When a story is working well, I can’t help but ask myself why the plot and narrative are so compelling. What is the writer doing well that I can learn from? The same holds true if I’m reading something that isn’t working—thinking about why helps me improve my own craft.

Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes releases March 22, 2022. Preorder now!

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Richard Chizmar, author of recently released novel Gwendy’s Final Task.

You have an incredibly fascinating perspective in the literary space. You are the founder of both the horror and suspense publishing company Cemetery Dance and the magazine of the same name. As a publisher, author and a reader, which of these perspective do you feel is the most helpful when writing your novels? Using that perspective, what advice would you give to a writer in the query stage?

I feel like they have all contributed invaluable experiences that (hopefully) have helped to make me a better novelist. Being a publisher has certainly helped me to better understand the reality of today’s publishing landscape: from packaging and marketing to selecting cover art and working with stores and distributors. Editing the book imprint and magazine has helped me understand the basics of what makes a story work and what doesn’t. Whether that be poor characterization, dialogue, pacing, etc. It’s also forced me to focus on the nuts and bolts of writing such as grammar and rhythm. Of course, the most helpful experience has been just sitting down and writing. Finding my voice as a writer. Finding my confidence and learning how to write honest, personal prose instead of pretending to be something I’m not. When I began to write stories that really mattered to me, that’s when I began to find an audience that cared about what I was creating. It took years and years of practice to get there. That’s one thing I always tell newer writers: there are no shortcuts in this business.

In a previous interview with Nightmare Magazine, you mentioned that you do still choose most of the Cemetery Dance published books. When reading for publication, how do you tether the line between a book you personally enjoy and a book you want the publication to represent?

As an independent publisher, those lines are blurred much of the time. Mostly, I tend to publish stories and authors that I personally enjoy. Publishing is such a grind of a business that I’ve never seen the point of promoting folks I don’t like or stories I don’t believe in. Now with that said, there have been times when the business side of publishing has entered the picture and affected such decisions to some degree. I have a handful of regrets, but I’ve learned from them. Still learning every day after almost 35 years.  

The Washington Post writes, “Chizmar’s voice and sensibility dovetail neatly with King’s own distinctive style…” in reference to your recently completed trilogy, concluding with Gwendy’s Final Task (Cemetery Dance, February 15). When working with another author, what does that collaboration process look like? Are there moments in which you each create individually and come together to piece together the final book, or do you communicate and collaborate throughout the entire process?

Each experience is different. For instance, when Steve King and I wrote the Gwendy books, we simply played a game of email ping pong with the manuscript—each person sitting down and writing a chunk of pages, then sending it on so that the other could write his own pages. Back and forth it went with minimal communication about what we thought should come next. We gave each other complete freedom and confidence to do what he wanted with the story. It was creatively challenging and exhilarating, and most of all, a lot of fun. 

On the other hand, when my son, Billy, and I wrote the supernatural novella Widow’s Point, we worked a lot closer together, often times sitting next to each other and each of us contributing sentences to the same paragraph. This was also fun and challenging.

Finally, is there a novel that you find yourself drawn to read again and again? If so, what about it draws you in to come back? 

Stephen King’s It for inspiration and sheer storytelling and a reminder of why I do what I do for a living. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life for much of the same reasons. And Lord of the Flies for nostalgic reasons. 

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception and there is one positive note in the number of manuscripts requested that also received offers of representation. This is good news for writers! Find out what else was positive for writers in 2021 (hint: across the pond). 

13,932 : Queries read and responded to. Up 371 queries from 2020 [which had a total of 13,561]. This looks like a close match…but it’s not. The agents of NLA, collectively, were closed to queries about 47% of 2021, as opposed to in 2020, when we were collectively closed to queries for only 27% of the year. So our average number of queries received per month actually increased 29% in 2021 over 2020.

353 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (down from 430 in 2020): 95 requests for Kristin, 161 requests for Joanna, and although no longer with the agency, 97 requests for the other agents. 

111 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (up from 106 in 2020). This is good news for writers in the query trenches. 

22 : Number of referred manuscripts KN read and considered during the times she was closed to general submissions but open to referrals only. The total for number of referrals read is 34 when including the other agents. 

3 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (0 for Kristin—which is first in her career; 3 for Joanna)

37 : Books released in 2021 (down slightly from 41 in 2020).

2 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Joanna. Extra congrats to her client Kate Baer!

51 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 48 in 2020). Marie Lu hit the list again this year, while Stacey Lee and Richard Chizmar made it for the first time.

5 : TV and major motion picture deals (almost on par with the 6 from previous year)

1 : TV show in production (Wool Saga coming on Apple+ in 2023) 

126 : Foreign-rights deals done (up from 70 in 2020). Wowza. This is great news for writers, as foreign markets are another great source of income. 

0 : Physical conferences attended. Thanks again, Covid. 

2 : Virtual conferences attended by Kristin (Story Brook Children’s Lit Fellows, Virtual Stoker Con). 

103 : Physical holiday cards sent (up one from 102 in 2020—we still only sent to clients during this Covid year).

736 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down from 837 in 2020 as a lot of editors left and we did a much needed cleanup of the list).

0 : Eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because Starbucks didn’t offer. Huge sad face.

Lots : Of wonderful days reading and appreciating creators. 

Photo by Black ice from Pexels

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

Piecing It All Together

This month, we asked two NLA authors about outlining.

Do you outline before writing a new novel? If so, how closely does the finished novel resemble your original outline? If not, what is your process for piecing it all together?

“This is a process that has evolved over time with me. Early on, I never outlined, preferring the freedom of following where the story took me. I quickly learned that my brain doesn’t naturally follow a story arc this way though, and my drafts were jumbled, very long, and in need of some painful cuts. For a while after that realization, I began outlining in detail, but that inhibited a lot of freedom for my characters to express themselves. Now, I do a skeletal outline: I make note of the bones of the novel—the turning points, the climax, crucial character changes in each act, etc.—and then allow the story to play out in the space between.

“My stories almost always closely follow my outlines to the three-quarter mark. Then, inevitably, one of my characters has to reveal something HUGELY IMPORTANT to me, and after some groaning and a lot of chocolate, I have to backtrack and layer it all in.”

—Kristen Simmons, author of the Vale Hall series and Set Fire to the Gods

“No, I wish I could! I have tried, but whenever I have outlined, even if I’m already at the halfway point trying to figure out how to get to the end, the finished novel never bears any real resemblance to what I’ve planned.

“I’d like to call my process organic, but really it’s perilous—let’s not even talk about time-consuming. I do my novels in several exploratory drafts, basically writing each draft until I realize that I’m doing something fundamentally wrong—or that so many things need to be changed that I might as well go back to the beginning to incorporate everything I’ve learned so far about the story.

“For example, at the moment I’m writing a mystery set on a steamship. I’m 30,000 words in and I’ve just now had to stop and make a choice about what my main characters were doing when the murder took place. That is, what is their actual purpose for being on the steamship in the first place? 

“Not that I didn’t have a rough idea earlier—more than one rough ideas, in fact. An outliner would have figured out the specifics sooner, probably. But for someone like me, I simply don’t know what should happen until I’m at the point where I absolutely can’t write another word unless I first make a number of story decisions, from the very broad to the very detailed. 

“I’m no good at knowing what should happen ahead of time, but usually my gut has a pretty good sense afterwards if I’ve arrived at the correct story decision. I get the feeling of something clicking into place, of inevitability, of, ‘Ah, so this is what it should have been all along.’

“Now if only I can achieve that in outline form one of those days!”

—Sherry Thomas, author of the Lady Sherlock series and The Magnolia Sword

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Rebecca Tozia Tyszka

When I attend conferences, the most popular question at agent panels is this: “Where is the market going and what will publishers be buying?” I would love a crystal ball to predict the future and answer that question. This week, a realization hit and I may just have a glimpse into that crystal ball. Although it sounds contrary, writers looking for the next market trend in publishing need not look any further than to publishing trends of the past. Oddly, what is old might just be new again. Here’s why.

Last month, my brilliant client Gail Carriger was a keynote speaker at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Ensconced at the hotel bar, as people often find themselves at writer conferences, Gail and I chatted with several attendees who came over to hang with us. Gail made a brilliant observation about a pop-culture show just sweeping the world. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that Squid Game was Battle Royale for a new generation that had never seen that original show. Huge realization moment for me. In the last couple months, I’ve been reading deal announcements for so many stories that just feel familiar to me. Bam! Of course. Old stories can always be expressed with a new angle or twist and made new again for a new generation. So even though I’d seen similar concepts previously—hey, I’ve been agenting for two decades—those concepts are totally new for agents and editors who have arrived on the scene in the last couple years. 

Back in the early 2000s when I got my start, the industry was in the throes of a chick-lit trend. (That term hasn’t aged well, but that’s what it was called then.) I argue that we are in that trend again (sans the term), this time with even more fantastic stories that are diverse and inclusive. Think Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, A PHO Love Story by Loan Le, The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory, The Bride Test by Helen Hoang, Girl Crushed by Katie Heaney, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. This trend is back and, dare I say, better than it was twenty years ago. What is old is new again. 

Another example: Back in the mid-2000s, in the young-adult space, paranormal was all the rage. Editors couldn’t buy enough vampires, fallen angels, and werewolves. Then the market became saturated. Now here we are a decade+ later and this trend is cycling back around. We here at NLA are seeing a lot of paranormal elements creeping back into queries. Stories are hitting shelves again in this space as well. Think The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh, Crave by Tracy Wolff, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, Payback’s a Witch by Lana Harper, and The Coldest Touch by Isabel Sterling. The genre is being reinvented by a new generation of storytellers for a new generation of readers.

Is it worth doing a little research on the old world wide web (I cracked myself up typing that phrase) and diving into what might have been hot in the mid-2000s to see what could be coming back around as a trend? I say why not. There are no new stories under the sun, but there are always, and I mean always, new ways, new twists, new perspectives on how to tell those stories. Happy researching. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Mic JohnsonLP

This Month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Josh Malerman, author of recently released novel Pearl and New York Times bestselling novel Bird Box.

In your new novel, PEARL (Del Rey, October 12), an unusual suspect—a pig—might just be responsible for the grisly havoc on Walter Kopple’s farm. How do you give a voice to non-human characters? How do you keep the voice consistent?

I’m interested in what I’ve come to think of as the space “between intelligences”, the idea that we are no smarter than animals and animals are no smarter than us, that our minds work in different ways and so therefore there’s a canyon (or a distance anyway) between how we process, how we exist. Now, that space between those intelligences… that’s fun. Not the differences so much as the irreconcilable differences. So, Pearl, to me, is a living creature that finds himself capable of traversing that space, of experiencing both states of mind. His entire life he’s been “elevated,” but today, the day of the book, is when he finally glimpses the full potential of his mind. To me, because it’s day one of discovery, there must be a sludginess to how he’s handling it, even to how he’s evolving. And it’s in there, in that sludge, that I found his voice. It’s atonal. It’s half-right. It’s brilliant. It’s simple. And as he grows? As the day grows long? He can (and must) change, too. Because that’s what today is for Pearl: the day he rises above.

Besides an “un-put-down-able thriller,” Kirkus calls PEARL “part twisted fairy tale, part animal rights protest, part PTSD drama, and part Triumph the Insult Dog.” I love that! What’s your response to that endorsement? Is there anything you’d add?

Well, I’m glad they liked it. That’s for sure. And I like all that. But I definitely see Pearl as more akin to Joe Dante’s segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie, in which the little boy Anthony has God-like powers and lures people into his mental web. Pearl to me is more Carrie than Charlotte’s Web, more slasher, too, than fable. As goes the animal rights part of things: I’m a vegetarian and I was more than happy to see Pearl gain power by the minute, especially over those who dismissed him as product. In some ways, I really relate to Pearl. Insomuch as he’s ambitious: he had a glimpse of what he is capable of and I’m not sure anything can stop him from reaching that mountaintop. At the same time? I wouldn’t want to drive too close to Kopple’s Farm. I’m the exact kind of persuadable person who would be sucked right up into that telekinetic web without knowing I was.

With PEARL, you took a wild and maybe tough-to-take-seriously premise and succeeded in making it an acclaimed work of slasher horror that’s twisty, dark, and truly chilling. That’s not easy! Was that a challenge you set out for yourself with this project? Or is this a story that took on a life of its own as you wrote it?

Let me tell you! While working on the books, any time I was talking to friends and they’d ask what I was up to, it was nearly impossible to explain this story. The second I started to do it, I’d feel like, “WHAT am I talking about?” But Pearl is one of those books where the actual book itself is better than the “pitch” and I think we’d all rather write books like that in the end. But from my angle, it wasn’t a difficult book to write because, like the river in Bird Box or the Trail in Unbury Carol, Pearl’s evolution is something of a straight line, right? A clean path upward and outward, his “web” stretching out and out to all the locals in town until almost everybody is stuck in his design. In other words: it grew, on itself, and it wasn’t hard to “top” the scene before it with each day’s writing because Pearl got more powerful as the book grew, too. Then again, all the books take on a life of their own, in a way, especially when you don’t outline. And I almost never do! 

It feels like horror is really opening up right now and making space for storytellers to explore new concepts and themes in unique ways. What story-development advice do you have for writers who might be working on finding their niche in this expanding horror space?

Well, trends scare me. They always feel like moving targets. At the same time, I’d already written some 14 books by the time my first came out and so now I’ve got a back log of twenty-four books or so and sometimes it’s tempting to choose one of them to come out next if the horror-verse seems to be leaning its way. I guess my advice would be this: you think you have “your” voice and there are voices you believe are more elastic, more far-out, than your own. You can equate this to music. And a young musician might think, could never be as expansive as David Bowie, as St. Vincent, so I’m not going to try. But the thing is, you’re not David Bowie (and thank God for that! David Bowie is David Bowie, you are you), so if you try to stretch like he did, you’re going to end up with a different result, but you will still have stretched. Am I making sense here? What I mean to say is: go for the idea that feels a little outside your idea of yourself, and once you do it? Then that book is now part of your style, your voice, yourself. And if you do this enough times, you’ll end up closer to the artist you want to be than if you never make a move to stretch at all.

Finally, because inquiring minds always want to know, tell us about your writing habit. Any charms or talismans hanging around your writing space? Any rituals you do to get you into the creative headspace? Or can you just sit down anywhere, anytime, and write?

It used to be I wrote novels in a bus, in a van, touring America. I wrote in bars, restaurants, people’s homes that were housing us. Dad’s basement and all-night coffee shops. Everywhere. These days I’m mostly in my office, with a horror movie soundtrack playing on the record player. But I’m still game for doing it anywhere, and maybe I should. Maybe your question will prompt me to write another one freehand. I love doing it that way. One thing I’ve noticed is this: while there isn’t an overall routine to how I write books, a routine does exist for each book in and of itself. Bird Box was written from around 8AM to 11:30AM every day, about 4,300 words a day. Ghoul n’ the Cape was usually in the afternoon, 1000 words a day. So those experiences were totally different, but consistent in and of themselves. And there is one weird thing I do (that I can’t believe I’m telling you): I wink at the page or the screen when I think I nailed a scary scene. Yep. I actually wink at the book like, “Yeah, we did it. We did it.”

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels