Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: genres

The Value Of A List

STATUS: Heading into the final week of meetings and boy the days are packed.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BIG TIME by Peter Gabriel

Here’s my advice for the day. Don’t read too much into these lists I post. I do it because writers are so interested in knowing what editors want (or don’t want in this case). As if there is some magic formula embedded in their “want” list.

The actuality is this. There are certain trends in publishing. Right now in YA it’s the paranormal element—be it a zombie, vampire, werewolf, witch or what have you. Basically, editors end up seeing so much in this genre, they get weary of it. Only THE best projects will stand out in the crowd. Only a really unique story will grab the attention of the sales force in an editorial meeting. In fact, editors contemplate their spin (how they’d pitch it) before they are even willing to make an offer to buy it. If they don’t have that new spin, they’re passing. Market is crowded.

Logically, you guys all know this. So when I say that editors aren’t buying epic fantasy, is that true? Sure. Until I put an amazingly written, wholly original epic fantasy in front of them. Suddenly, they are open to buying.

But what I’m trying to point out with my lists is what editors are seeing too much of—so those books are going to be a much harder sell for the agent. That’s it.

Today I spent the morning at a wonderful literary house—Grove Atlantic. They don’t have mandates. They don’t follow trends. They buy brilliant writers who write screamingly well. (So hard to find I might add…)

They did a title called BROKEN FOR YOU that I wish I had sold. In fact, I’d love more submissions in that vein—literary novels with emotional heart. Oh, that’s so hard to find. The level of writing matched with the emotional complexity of character… A lot of times writers will have one or the other fabulously done. That’s what upmarket commercial fiction usually encompasses. To have both together, well, that’s the trick.

As an agent, I’d love more of that. I’d love to do a book with Grove Atlantic. I waited five years for a book like Hotel On The Corner Of Bitter And Sweet. I’m willing to wait another five for a title like Broken, but I’m hoping I don’t have to.


What They Don’t Want

STATUS: I’m always an optimistic. It’s no longer morning (shoot, it’s almost dinner time) but I am going to blog today. TGIF!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT YOU NEED by INXS

Sometimes it’s just as interesting to find out what editors don’t want. I’ve perused my notes to come up with this little list to share with y’all.

1. Thrillers where the conclusion is obvious.
2. Police procedurals that try too hard to be multicultural rather than authentic.
3. Romance that is too soft and fuzzy with no real meat to the emotional story.
4. Romance set in the Regency ballroom. Let’s mix it up some.
5. No stories about women over 40 starting a new life. Seen this too many times. Even if well written, it’s going to be too hard to push.
6. In YA and MG, taking popular trends and trying to make the story deep and literary.
7. MG fantasy that is too average and with the regular story tropes.
8. Epic fantasy—unless something really unusual or phenomenal writing.
9. Chick litty YA with no substance.
10. A bad story poorly told

Just wanted to check that you were really reading…

And just to top it off, in film, dark stories with no happy ending are a tough, tough sell.


Just Like New York But Denver

STATUS: All my appointments are set for the weekend. It’s going to be busy.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FRIDAY I’M IN LOVE by The Cure

ALA officially began for me tonight as I had my first editor dinner with Susan Chang of Tor. I must say I love it when conferences are held in my home town. It’s like a trip to New York without the travel!

I’m very glad we met up though because most of you know that Macmillan has gone through a large restructuring over the last few months. The biggest change is in how the children’s divisions will operate. Before, each imprint was a separate entity with its own publisher, sales force, marketing dept. etc. Now all the children’s divisions are gathered under one umbrella and will be sharing things like the sales force, marketing and promotion people, reporting to one publisher head rather than six. Although, I’ve been told, each imprint will keep its own publishing vision and imprint identity even though they are now all one big family called Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

All except Tor, which was news to me. Tor is still considered a completely separate entity with Susan and her children’s imprint reporting directly to Tom Doherty.

To quote Frontier Airlines, Tor is still a whole other animal! Interesting. In general they have always been known to be less corporate (which can fabulous in some respects—such as creative vision and the embracing of new talent—and frustrating in other ways—such as long response times on submissions). But they’ve always been known to be independent, slightly quirky, and with smart editors.

So far, that hasn’t changed. Go Tor.

Susan and I also got into an interesting discussion about SF and young adult. Both of us agreed that SF in the young adult world works best when the novels aren’t labeled SF.

Seriously. One look at the Uglies series and The Hunger Games rather proves that out. Those books are basically SF but never called so. I can name a host of other examples as well.

We also talked briefly about the popularity of fantasy in the children’s realm and why they didn’t seem to translate to fantasy readers in the adult world. We didn’t play with any theories but it’s an interesting conundrum. What happens to those avid fantasy readers as they age?

There’s probably an essay waiting to be written there if it hasn’t been tackled already.


Creep Factor Anyone?

STATUS: Back at my hotel early enough to blog.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SO MUCH TO SAY by Dave Matthews Band

Sorry for the radio silence yesterday. I flew in to New York on Sunday and it’s been a whirlwind of meetings.

I have to say that the mood is a little somber in publishing. I heard a rumor of some layoffs at Random House which did indeed happen. I think people in general are nervous about the economy and that’s no less true in publishing.

However, there’s still lots to get excited about. I had lunch today with two editors from Little, Brown Children’s and even though we did spend a good portion of the lunch lamenting the loss of MY SO CALLED LIFE (Gosh, I loved that show and I’m so glad I’m not the only geek missing it…), we did spend some time talking about what we’d love to see.

Both editors are convinced that werewolves might be the new vampires (and that Zombies are almost over). Never thought I’d put those things in a sentence together! And although paranormal, vampires, and werewolves have been hot in the adult market, the children’s field hasn’t really caught up and there might be lots of room for that. I can see it.

We all agreed that we’d love a story that could creep us out. Horror hasn’t been hot in children’s for a long time and the timing just might be right for that. This summer I looked at a YA horror that I really, really wanted to work but the writing/story just wasn’t quite there yet.

And here’s an interesting tidbit. I just sold a steampunkish fantasy in the adult world earlier in the year (SOULLESS) and these children’s editors could really see a steampunk YA working… (yeah, you probably saw that recent Scott Westerfeld deal too…)

I was at a couple of other children’s publishers yesterday and let me tell you, all the editors eagerly asked if I had anything for middle grade right now (which, sadly, I don’t). Lots and lots of room in the MG world.

In the adult world at Little, Brown, one editor mentioned that she would really love to see a big woman-written and women-oriented thriller. A literary thriller wouldn’t go amiss either.

I’m sensing a theme….


P&W’s Interview With Editor Chuck Adams, Algonquin

STATUS: TGIF and I’m off to take my nieces birthday shopping. Can’t wait to see what the hottest things are for the under-15 set.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHY CAN’T I BE YOU? by The Cure

Links are fixed! Sorry about that.

I have to say that the interview series done by Jofie Ferrari-Adler for Poets & Writers is just hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Jofie just has a way of pulling the great stories out of long-time publishing folks that as a reader, you feel like you are absolutely getting the most inside look at the industry that you can.

And his interview with Chuck Adams does not disappoint.

Here is a venerated editor who has edited nearly 100 books that have gone on to become bestsellers and yet, as Jofie mentions, “like many editors of a certain age (and pay grade), Adams was rewarded for his years of service with a pink slip.”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? But Mr. Adams gives wonderful insight as to why that had happened and how much he enjoys being at Algonquin. Chuck Adams is also the editor behind the mega-successful WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and he tells the story behind that acquisition. That, in and of itself, is a good education about this biz.

Other Highlights:

Jofie: Let’s talk about agents. There are a lot of them, and I’m curious about the factors that you would look at if you were a writer, knowing what you know, and had your pick of a few.

Chuck: I would want them to ask certain questions. (click here to read on). He also highlights two young agents that should be on everyone’s radar (and one is a friend—waves to Dan).

But here’s my favorite quote from the interview. You’re preaching to my choir, Chuck, as so many people like to turn up their literary noses at commercial fiction.

“There’s a tendency of publishers to pooh-pooh books that are really commercial. You get this at writers’ conferences sometimes. “Oh, how can you edit Mary Higgins Clark?” People just shiver because they think she’s not a great writer. I’m sorry, she’s a great storyteller, and she satisfies millions of readers. I’m all for that. Again, Harlequin romances—give me more of them. A lot of good writers have come out of Harlequin romances: Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, Barbara Delinsky, to name three right there. I think literary fiction is great, and the ideal book is one that is beautifully written and tells a great story, but if it’s just a great story that’s written well enough to be readable, that’s good too.”


Is It Cold Outside In The World of Publishing?

STATUS: I’m finishing up for the day and blogging fairly early.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? IN THE MOOD by Glen Miller

Maybe it’s me but I read this article in the New York Observer today and I pretty much wondered why the points raised in the article were considered news. Dire predictions might be interesting to include in an article as a side note relating to a publishing news story but seemed a little lacking in substance to be the focus of this entire news bit. Maybe this is an Op Ed piece? I’m not a regular NYO reader but it didn’t look to be presented so on the website.

With quotes such as “the ecosystem to which our book makers are accustomed is about to be unmistakably disrupted” and “Soon, though, people [editors] may find themselves compelled to be more wary,” I was really expecting some cold, hard facts to back up the pronouncement that books are going to become significantly harder to sell in the next year.

Yes, I certainly can agree that the economy is in the tank and a lot of industries, including publishing, will be tightening their belts. Even with this I’m not sure I’m worried that I won’t be able to sell a new author in the next coming months. I’ve had an enormous success with a lot of debut writers.

I quirked an eyebrow at this quote: “Only the most established agents will be able to convince publishers to take a chance on an unknown novelist or a historian whose chosen topic does not have the backing of a news peg.”

Perhaps they are not referring to genre fiction? There did seem to be a bit more focus on literary fiction and I certainly have to agree that literary tends to be a much harder sell–with or without a bad economy.

Well, since I don’t include myself in the realm of “only the most established agents,” I guess I’m duly put on notice. What do you blog readers think?

As for debut sales getting harder, I’ll let you guys know as the year unfolds. Meanwhile, let me get back to my auction…


YA Is All About Asking The Right Qs

STATUS: It’s time for sleep I think.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LOVE SONG by Sara Bareilles

I didn’t start this blog week with the thought it was going to be an all Ally Carter litfest but it’s really turning out to be.

Maybe because I’ve got Ally on the brain. You see, I just finished reading the final copy-edited version of book 3 in the Gallagher Girl Series. Yes, it has a title but I don’t think that has been revealed as of yet so I’m not going to share.

This might sound odd but when an agent has a hugely successful author, one of our greatest fears is whether the author can live up to her previous books. For my part, there will always be a special place in my heart for LYKY because, of course, that book was the first. Kind of hard to top–especially when I think of the scene where Macey comes to the rescue in a golf cart. Truly, one of my favorite YA scenes of all time.

But then for book 2, there was the whole Josh versus Zach and it’s hard to top the dance scene.

And then there’s book 3 in the series. All I can say is that hands down, this is Ally’s best book. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the agent. It really is her best work. And just to be a tease, you might want to go out and rent Cary Grant’s North By Northwest. I’ll say no more.

But my blogs don’t tend to be pointless so why am I waxing poetic about Ally tonight? Because I was just over at her blog reading about the wrong questions aspiring young adult writers were asking at a recent conference Ally attended and I couldn’t help but think about my own YA workshop at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers this past weekend. I, too, thought the attendees had good questions but ultimately they were asking the wrong questions. They were focused on the minutiae. How long should a YA novel be? What is and what is not allowed in novels for this audience? How do I write a novel that will be a bestseller? (And the truth is there is no way to answer that question—as I’ve discussed this week).

For me, aspiring writers often want the magic bullet point list—as in if they do XYZ, that will guarantee success.

I’m here to tell you that there is no magic list. Sorry to disappoint. But there are the right questions to ask. So go and find out what they are and what the difference really is between writing for adults versus young adults.


Where’s The Rise In The Mass Market Paperback?

STATUS: TGIF! Lots to do still over the weekend. One of these days I’ll get caught up and I’ll feel less guilty.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DO I DO by Stevie Wonder

Here’s an interesting monkey wrench to throw into our whole discussion concerning hardcover versus paperback.

Many of you mentioned that that the price point on HC is just too high—you wait for the paperback release, which often happens about a year after the HC release.

In recent articles I’ve been reading in Publishers Weekly, it has been often mentioned that sales of the mass market paperbacks have been on the decline. In other words, the pocket size versions that usually have a very nice price point of $5.99 or $6.99.

Now I have to wonder why that is. If price is the issue, then that certainly solves it so the reader can buy the book. It’s only a couple of dollars more than a fancy Starbucks latte. (That’s putting it into perspective!). Yet, sales are down over previous years.

What’s causing that do you think? Is it aging baby boomers who can’t (or don’t want to struggle) with the smaller print? I’m not there yet but soon I’ll be able to relate.

Trade paperback (same size as HC) is a bit on the rise—but not in huge numbers. (I really wished I had saved that article or articles so I could reference it here. I’m too lazy to look it up right now as I only have a few minutes to blog before I head out of the office.)

If price is the issue, than folks should be buying more mass markets rather than fewer. That doesn’t seem to be the case…

Have you seen the slightly over-sized mass market versions some publishing houses have been experimenting with for their big name authors? They aren’t as big as the trade pbs and not as small as the regular mass market. I know they were experimenting to see if that would draw readers. I haven’t seen any statistics on those yet. They are priced a buck or two higher than the regulars.


Hardcover vs Original Trade Paperback

STATUS: It’s been a bit of a long day. Right now I’m just reading as I’m still a bit behind on client material and requested manuscripts. I don’t think it’s actually possible to get ahead so a perpetual state of being behind is pretty much normal.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ALL I WANT by Toad The Wet Sprocket

Basically the conversation about whether to publish a debut in original trade pb versus hardcover relates to literary fiction or commercial literary fiction.

Why? Because there are many genres where original trade or even mass market publication for a debut is widely acceptable and the issues of support really aren’t in question.

For example, publishing romance, thriller, and debuts in SF&F often happen in the mass market version without too many blinks of an eye. In fact, in these genres, it’s often a reverse process. An author can start in mass market and move “up” to trade or hardcover.

For those of you who are confused, mass market is the pocket size publication of a work. Trade paperback is the same size as a hardcover (for the most part) but simply has a soft cover rather than the hard (and a lower price point).

Lots of terrific women’s fiction and commercial mainstream projects are published as original trade pbs and work great.

The trick is deciding about a debut in the literary realm. Do you go for hardcover with all the “prestige,” the marketing/pr backing and the reviews (but the higher price point—which lots of readers perceive as too high) or do you go for the trade pb? Right now there are still vestiges of reluctance to fully support an original trade pb in this realm.

Thus the dilemma. Forgo the higher price point and the stronger royalty percentages to satisfy reader desires (and if you do the math, authors earn less money with trade pb until the tipping point), or go for the hardcover, get more support and have a higher chance of earning out that advance (or the greater risk of failure if it doesn’t work).

See the issue?

Now I think publishing is evolving because so much good new literary stuff is coming out in original trade pb and succeeding but yet, there are still these hesitations (as the failures loom greatly)—and for good reason.

If we are going to revolutionize the industry and move more to this format (which I’m certainly not opposed to), then let’s re-examine all the facets of it—including the marketing/pr, the print runs, the royalty structures, and gasp, even maybe the advances paid for works that will be pubbed in original trade pb.

I’m lobbying for a holistic approach to the question—rather than simply examining individual facets. Publishing, traditionally, doesn’t work this way. By examining recent history, this is not a nimble industry which makes it interesting for agents to navigate and thus why the BEA panel was so fascinating to attend.


The Email That Started It All

STATUS: Blogging late. No particular reason other than it has been a rather busy day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THICK A** STOUT by Skankin’ Pickle

It never gets old. When Wednesday comes and the NYT bestseller list for the next week is released and Ally Carter is still on it, holy cow. You’d think the thrill would die down but it really doesn’t.


And this is what gets me. Three years ago, I didn’t even represent young adult or anything in the children’s world. In a sense, Ally has my author Jennifer O’Connell to thank for starting me down the children’s world road (which I absolutely love, is totally a natural fit, and I can’t imagine why I didn’t rep it to begin with).

Jennifer was the person who started it all when she wanted to write for the YA market and asked me if I could sell it. Of course I said sure (even though I didn’t know any children’s editors at the time), and got on the phone immediately with a good agent friend who only reps children’s books to get the scoop. Then I went to New York to meet the people I needed to for Jennifer’s submission. And that’s how my repping YA began.

Her first young adult, PLAN B, sold at auction in less than a week. Thrilled, all I could think of was that I love YA and where could I get more to sell.

That inspired an email to all my current clients asking if any of them had ever thought of writing for the young adult market.

Ally immediately emailed me back with a list of ideas—which I promptly shot down (Ally tells a more colorful story on her website if you want to check it out). But it inspired her to come up with 3 more ideas and I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILLYOU was the second on the list. It hit me immediately that that was the novel she had to write so I called her to tell her so.

She did. And here we are on the NYT bestseller list for 14 weeks running.

So thank you Jennifer! I think it’s her turn to hit the list so mark your calendars for June as LOCAL GIRLS and RICH BOYS hit the shelves and these two books seriously rock. It’s her best stuff yet (and I want that girl’s abs…).


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