Pub Rants

Category: Publishing/Publishers

This will probably be the shortest article ever because, in short, if it were possible to sit down and write a bestselling novel, wouldn’t every author do just that? According to Google, a writer simply needs to (1) have a big idea (simple—they grow on trees), (2) write with an audience in mind (always handy), (3) package the book to sell (definitely helps), and, my favorite, (4) use a female lead character, as there is a higher number of bestselling titles with female leads (okey-dokey). Interesting, Google. So can a writer set out to write a bestselling novel? That’s probably the wrong question. Here’s a better one. 

Since I’ve represented (at this point) 53 New York Times bestselling novels, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about them. But honestly, it’s a wonderful surprise every time a client of mine hits the NYT list. (The latest was Shelby Van Pelt’s debut Remarkably Bright Creatures in May.) When talking bestsellers, James Patterson is probably the best person to interview. He has cracked the code for sure, given the number of works he has on the NYT list at any given time. But my answer to this question is no, a writer can’t really set out to write a bestselling novel. Over the years, I have observed a few things about bestsellers.

Observation 1: None of my clients set out to write one. They all began with a story that felt personal to them and that they were passionate about writing. My NYT-bestselling clients also said they started with the voice of the story. It was unique, clear, and, once found, natural to write. 

Observation 2: Not unlike what Google helpfully suggested, all NYT titles start with an original concept, so although there are no new stories under the sun, these works felt fresh and original to the readers who discovered the novels and then raved about them to other readers. Some examples: 

  • A 50-year old man searches for the woman he loved during WWII before his love was sent away to an internment camp. (Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)
  • A giant Pacific octopus helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the aquarium cleaning lady’s son thirty years ago. (Remarkably Bright Creatures)
  • A teen who attends a school for spies funnels her skills into spying on her first crush while also navigating the world of espionage. (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • A soulless woman nullifies the power of supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves with her touch and has to uncover why supernaturals are disappearing. (Soulless)
  • A Chinese American teen secretly living below a newspaper company moonlights as the anonymous but wildly popular society columnist Dear Miss Sweetie, whose articles shake up the town. (The Downstairs Girl)

Observation 3: Although publishers try to create bestsellers, for a debut novel to hit the list, there is an intersection of what readers are wanting to read and market timing. Plenty of titles can have the right ingredients, full in-house support, and marketing dollars, yet they still won’t land on the list. In the end, the reading public decides (as well as the algorithm used by the New York Times, but that is a whole other article).

For me, a better and more interesting question is this: What would a bestselling story look like for you personally as a writer? Where is your intersection of concept, passion, voice, and unique characters? Is it possible to analyze bestsellers to see what makes them tick? Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do just that in The Bestseller Code. As reviewers point out, this book won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, but it will reveal some interesting stats concerning bestsellers and what they all seem to have in common. Would that info give you a fresh perspective on your own story or take you one step closer to writing a bestseller? 

Only you the writer hold the answer to that question. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Zeroing in on Comps: Part II

Last month, in Part I of this article, we explored comps (comparable titles and authors) and how crucial they are not only to getting an agent’s attention, but also to getting your query letter’s pitch read through the right lens. This month, we’ll dive deeper into how you can choose the best possible comps for your manuscript.

First, let’s revisit the idea that your comps have one job, which is to identify an existing audience for your book by filling in the blank in the following sentence:

  • “My book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ___.”

That’s the simplest wording, and it’s perfectly fine, but you can certainly mention more than one comp. Something concise like this is also perfectly fine:

  • “My book will appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah and Jodi Picoult.”

You could take it up a notch by giving a little teaser about how or why each comp is relevant to your manuscript:

  • “My book will appeal to readers who love the richly imagined worlds of N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.”
  • “With the wry voice and deep science of The Martian by Andy Weir and the fast pace and crime-thriller elements of Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, my sci-fi novel…”
  • “This WWII-set novel will speak to fans of the heartfelt poignancy of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and the heart wrenching friendship story of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.”

The key is to keep it brief: two or three comps and, if you choose, one or two elements of each that that are relevant to your novel. Think snapshot, not photo album. Avoid the temptation to waste valuable space in your query letter pontificating about your comps.

Another pitfall is listing too many comps. More than three muddies the waters, and the slush reader will struggle to understand the thread you think connects them all. And more than three means more potentially wasted query-letter space you could have devoted to your pitch.

Yet another pitfall is comping books that have become canon. The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Harry Potter… These series loom so large they blot out the sun, and, as such, will do little to cast light on a more easily identified targeted audience. The fandoms of canonized works are so vast that they spill over and spread out across marketing and genre categories used by the book industry (publishers, marketers, publicists, sales reps, booksellers, librarians) to get the most books into the most hands of their most interested readers. It would be great if every book transcended categorization to become part of the literary canon! But canonization happens years or decades after the book is on the shelf; it most definitely does not happen at the query stage. So comping canonized titles or series is often a missed opportunity.

Let’s look at some other examples. One thing we see often and that works well is a comp mashup. That’s when a writer positions their manuscript at the intersection of two comparables:

  • “It’s X-Men meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
  • “Think Killing Eve meets Outlander.” (Or: “The sexy international intrigue of Killing Eve meets the epic scale and time-traveling cast reminiscent of Outlander.”)
  • “Imagine Ferris Bueller­ as the protagonist of an Agatha Christie–style murder mystery written for middle-grade readers.”

I’m making these examples up as I go along, and it’s kind of fun to imagine how such mashups might work in a completed novel. But I hope they’re helping you think of ways to comp your own manuscripts!

The Importance of the Reading Experience in Choosing Comps

The point of all of this—and I mentioned this in Part I—is that comps should cast a spotlight on your audience. Comps are reader focused, which means they are market focused. Therefore, strive to comp the experience of your book.

Think of your top-ten, all-time favorite books. What is it you remember most about them? Why did they make it onto your list? Because you experienced something. A revelation. A connection to a character who came to feel like a real person to you. A sense of joy or surprise or satisfaction or wonder or exhilaration or even sorrow or fear. The experience of a story is why readers return to their favorite authors and series time and again.

So if you’re writing a work of upmarket women’s fiction about a divorcée who works in a museum and finds herself talking through her problems to the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex that towers over the museum’s foyer, are you going to comp Jurassic Park? No! Please don’t! Why? Because for an audience, the experience of this novel is not going to be anywhere near the experience of Jurassic Park—the novel or the movie. The two stories are simply not going to appeal to the same audience.

When you’re choosing your comps, think first about what experience your novel will deliver to its readers. Be able to articulate that experience. Write it down on a sticky note. From there, it will be easier to think of other books or authors that have already provided a similar experience, hopefully with some degree of visibility or success in its genre’s market.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Philippe Put

Zeroing in on Comps: Part I

When you’re pitching or querying, comps are critical. But poorly chosen comps can work against you. How can you make sure you’re picking comps that increase your chances of getting your manuscript requested? Here are a few tips.

What are comps and what should they do?

“Comps” is industry speak for comparable titles or authors. Your two or three (but not more) comps should work together to do one job and one job only, which is fill in the blank in the following sentence:

“My book will appeal to readers who enjoyed ____.”

Your wording might be different, and that’s fine. We’ll come back to that next month, in Part II. For now, look at that sentence and pay attention to what it does: It identifies an existing audience who will enjoy your book.

  • It doesn’t say, “I write like Bestselling Author X.”
  • It doesn’t say, “My book is about themes of love and loss, like Bestselling Title Y.”
  • It doesn’t say, “My book features dinosaurs, like Big Blockbuster Movie Z.”

All it does is say, “There is an existing audience who loved something, and my book will appeal to that existing audience.” As such, well-chosen comps are more about the market than they are about your book’s literary merit.

Now, if your comps speak to your book’s literary merit, that’s better than not having comps at all. So don’t go ditching them yet! Furthermore, the best comps pack a one-two punch, speaking to both merit and market. That’s another thing we’ll come back to next month.

As a slush reader, I like to say that good comps give me the right lens through which to read your pitch. I can’t even guess at how many query pitches I’ve read over the years that left me completely befuddled, scratching my head and asking myself, “What is the author trying to do here and who is the intended audience?”—until I got to the author’s comps and the light went on. Suddenly, I got that the author was reaching out to the existing readership of Christopher Moore or Arundhati Roy or the Dublin Murder Squad series. And suddenly I could see the connection, and that I (having likely just read twenty consecutive YA fantasy queries) had been reading this particular pitch through the wrong lens.

What can you comp?

In the world of novels, comps are most often books, series, and authors. But they don’t have to be. You can also comp movies or movie franchises; TV shows; comic books, manga, or anime; and documentaries or docuseries. Anything that has captured the hearts, the minds, or even the voyeuristic fascination of a large group of people can be a useful comp.

Comps should be recent and relevant.

How recent? There’s no useful way to stamp an expiration date on a comp. Some books (movies, TV shows, etc.) simply live longer in the Zeitgeist than others. So if you’re going to choose an older comp, make sure it’s one that’s still exerting considerable influence on today’s story consumers—at least those within your particular niche or genre.

Relevance has more to do with why and how your book will appeal to your comp’s existing audience. I mentioned above that comping writing style, themes, or story features (like dinosaurs) might be a wasted opportunity. Why? Because those alone are not generally the building blocks of audience, and comps should be all about audience. I’m going to go deeper into what I mean here next month in Part II of this article, so stay tuned.

For now, let me leave you with this image. Think of readers’ tastes as the globs of goo inside a lava lamp. They’re constantly on the move, floating around, rising falling, speeding up, slowing down, splitting apart, merging with other globs. It’s difficult to predict what those goo globs are going to do next or how long they’re going to stay a particular size or remain on a particular course. Yet that is exactly what career writers, agents, editors, and publishers are constantly trying to do, albeit with varying levels of success and sometimes by accident. A well-chosen comp tells industry folks, “Hey, look at that glob! It exists right now! And the reason it’s a glob is because all its particles enjoyed Only Murders in the Building. I’m telling you, that glob is going to love my book, too.”

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ged Carroll

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. 

Kishōtenketsu and Non-Western Story Structures

American fiction writers are all too familiar with the Hero’s Journey and the classical three-act story structure. Or the seven-point plot structure. Or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet. These structures share a lot of features, and they are The Law; to deviate is to accept inevitable exclusion from the hallowed halls of Literary Representation and Big New York Publishing. Yet if you’re well read in recent fiction across a variety of genres (especially by non-white or non-Western authors), then you’ve probably encountered extraordinary stories that unfold in ways that have nothing to do with heroes or journeys or three tidy acts.

Such encounters might kick off a nasty bout of cognitive dissonance. If our ubiquitous structures aren’t adhered to, then these stories shouldn’t work. So why do they? The answer is simple: Because different types of stories and different ways of telling them have, over centuries, evolved all over the globe. Learning, using, teaching, or critiquing others’ work based on only one of several similar structures is painfully limiting to both storytellers and their audiences.

Let’s look at an example of an ancient, non-Western structure.

Kishōtenketsu is a four-act plot that can be traced back through the centuries to several countries of East Asia. Though the word is Japanese, the structure itself originated in China. (We’ll circle back to China in a minute.) Author Kim Yoon Mi explains that, in Japanese, Kishōtenketsu describes the four acts as follows:

  • kiku (ki): introduction
  • shōku (shō): development
  • tenku (ten): twist
  • kekku (ketsu): conclusion

She goes on to explain that in Kishōtenketsu, “tension isn’t the heart of the story…the twist is the high point. The climb to the realization point can have many shapes as long as the twist is the high point of the story.” Further, what drives such a plot is characters’ self-actualization, self-realization, self-development, and introspection, and “because the conclusion can amp up conflict or completely deescalate it into nothing, [Kishōtenketsu] gives [writers] a lot more options and allows for open endings.”

In contrast, Western structures centralize tension and conflict. American writers are clubbed constantly with the following rules:

  • You must have tension on every page.
  • You must develop both internal and external conflicts and resolve them at the end.
  • If you have no conflict, you have no story.

But with Kishōtenketsu, the writer has more latitude to explore character growth as a phenomenon not catalyzed by conflict.

How did this come about? To answer, Kim Yoon Mi cites episode 6-04 of Wes Cecil’s Human Arts podcast, “Chinese: Languages and Literature” (2015). In summary, China endured centuries of brutal famine and war, and as such, conflict was never a good thing; therefore, Chinese stories decentralized conflict. So while stories that followed the Chinese qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé structure (the precursor to Kishōtenketsu) certainly included conflict, conflict often took a definitive back seat to characters’ personal development.

Here’s another difference. In our familiar Western structures, writers are expected to wrap everything up at the end, to leave no questions unanswered (unless they’re setting up a sequel, in which the expectation is still that cliffhanger questions must eventually be answered). But of Kishōtenketsu, Kim Yoon Mi says, “the conclusion isn’t always a resolute solution to everything….It’s more like a wrap up for that particular issue, while indicating the story still goes on beyond that…often with notes about the occasional backslide.”

Will Western audiences understand a Kishōtenketsu story? That’s a good question, one Kate Krake of Three Pillar Authors tackled on their blog back in 2016. Krake writes:

Western audiences are accustomed to a central conflict that is defeated. It’s central writing advice; I read it, I follow it, I advise it. For this reason, stories written with this four-act, no-conflict structure may risk not engaging with Western audiences. They may risk being dubbed a poor story, risk being criticised as not engaging, lacking development, or some other negative criticism.

I think it’s a risk worth taking.

A judgement that all plots need conflict to engage is a judgement based on inexperience. We’re indoctrinated by this Western way of thinking. It’s insular. It creates the idea that there’s only one way to write a story.

That’s how Western stories are written. It’s not how all stories are written.

Kishōtenketsu is only one among many non-Western structures. (Please visit Kim Yoon Mi’s excellent article “Worldwide Story Structures” to explore myriad others and see examples.) I would argue that American agents, editors, publishers, and slush readers, if they are truly committed to making space at the table for diverse voices, have a duty to educate ourselves on the vast alternatives to our comfortable old “acceptable” story structures.

Examples of Kishōtenketsu

Photo by Aaditya Arora from Pexels

6 Writing Tips From My 6 Years in Publishing

I’ve worked for Nelson Literary Agency for the past 6 years, all stemming from my certain declaration that I wanted to own a publishing company. I knew nothing of what the process entailed, but I knew I loved books and wanted to be a part of putting more out into the world. I’ve thankfully had the most encouraging and admirable mentors to teach me the ins and outs. Though queries have not been my main job, I have accumulated these few writing tips up my sleeve. 

Consume what you create. “Write what you know” absolutely applies to fiction. Consuming the genre that you write in aids in your understanding of your manuscript and how to pitch it. A fast way to tell an agent you don’t understand your own manuscript is to pitch it as the wrong genre. Utilize the existing books in your writing genre.

Publishing means new coworkers. Preparing yourself to work with others and consider their constructive criticism needs to be part of your transition to being query ready. Know that every published author you know has a rough draft that needed work. 

Rejection doesn’t define you or your work. Be careful how you react in moments of rejection as it may impact your potential for moments of success. Don’t silence your story because you haven’t found the team fit for you. 

Find your identifier. Agents read an impressive number of manuscripts in a very short span of time. To maintain order in their brain, they’ll often rely on an identifier. This identifier can be as simple as “that middle grade with a diary structure” or “the thriller with the unsettlingly charming voice.” This identifier may also be recognized and utilized by your consumers, so you’ll want to know what it is.

Advice for your manuscript is not always advice for your query. Advice for writing craft can be applied in three ways: relevant for your manuscript, relevant for your query, and relevant for both. Relevant for both can be seen in the advice “show, don’t tell.” For example, in your query, you’ll want to show, but not tell the voice of your story. If your manuscript is humorous, show that humor in your query. 

Your reputation proceeds you. The publishing world has many moving parts to produce a book and then get that book to its audience. These moving parts are made up of many hardworking people who cross paths more often than you think. You gain your credentials through more than just writing.

Photo by Natasha on Unsplash

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

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.

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