Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Writing (page 1 of 8)

Jamie Oliver and the economics of publishing

Jamie's Italian restaurant

This little factoid in the New York Times profile of Jamie Oliver stood out for me:

Books, however, remain the engine of the Oliver machine: He has sold more than 45 million of them — $7.4 million worth just last year, according to Nielsen Book Research — and is the country’s best-selling nonfiction author. For a time, only J.K. Rowling outsold him.

Mr. Oliver, who has dyslexia and what he says is an unusually short attention span, likes to dictate his books rather than type them.

There was a Jamie’s in Cambridge when my wife and I were there on sabbatical, and we went once or twice. It was a nice place.

At Jamie's Restaurant

Dog is my coauthor

A typical early morning writing. Davis gets up on the couch, insists on being petted, and eventually settles down and goes back to sleep. It’s very nice, even if it’s a little distracting on some mornings.

Dogs with jobs

When I was on my travels, I met several dogs who were helping people I interviewed. There was this dog doing graphic design:

Normally, with dog

Then there was this very good dog who joined us for a meeting.

Meeting the team members.

I was thinking about these dogs yesterday morning when I got up early to write, and had to deal with this:

Not a productivity enhancement.

There are worse problems to have. Still, it does make typing a challenge!

Book sales and “the slow death of the literary novel”

The New Statesman has a piece on “The slow death of the literary novel,” and how lower advances and royalties are making it harder for authors to make a living.

a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.
The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013….
It is the “midlist” authors – once supported by publishers despite modest sales – who are most vulnerable, especially when it comes to advances. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, tells me of a writer who had an advance of £60,000 for her last book and is being offered £6,000 for her new one – a not unrepresentative slump.

Dealing with rejection is a writer’s most important professional skill

Well, maybe it’s not more important than having something to say, a command of their language, and the ability to edit and improve, but still, the ability to tolerate rejection and keep going is absolutely critical to anyone who wants to publish. Anjali  Enjeti’s Atlantic essay “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years” does a nice job of making this clear.

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade….

Today, six manuscripts languish on my laptop—two nonfiction books, two novels, and two picture books. My older children are now teens, and my youngest, the one I was pregnant with when I started this journey, a fourth grader. In the meantime, I’ve managed to forge a rewarding career as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. My essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in publications I could never have dreamed of writing for: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian, and NBC. Despite all this, I’m no closer to getting a book deal.

Stories like these aren’t that uncommon among well-known writers: Ray Bradbury, for example, spent ten years writing before he finally created a story that he knew was good. And who knows how many person-years are spent on never-published works: every published author has a book or two that they spend some time on but abandon, and there are countless people who never get that far.

And Enjeti isn’t someone who hasn’t been able to publish other work: she’s got lots of articles in magazines, book reviews, and the like. Again, this isn’t so unusual: in her essay she talks about a fellow book reviewer and editor who hasn’t been able to get his book represented.

I’m starting to work seriously on the proposal for my fourth book, and while I have a great relationship with my publisher, there’s always the chance that this could be a long, drawn-out process. At least a dozen editors rejected Rest out of hand, and I had interviews with half a dozen who passed on it; and it’s not that they were dumb, or cruel, but that their calculation was that the book wouldn’t work in their list, or sell enough copies.

However, ultimately I ended up at Basic, with a great editor, and that made up for all the rejections. I learned two things from the experience. First, you’ve gotta be able to accept the rejections, learn what you can, and keep going. Second, this is like getting married. It’s flattering to get five offers; but all you need is the one great one.

Enjeti ends on an upbeat note:

Despite not getting a book deal after 10 years, I’m happy with the career I’ve built. Rejections still flood my inbox, but my smaller successes go a long way toward offsetting the disappointment…. My dream of seeing one of my books sitting on a shelf in a library will never fade completely. Maybe in a few months I’ll ramp up my submissions again. Maybe I’ll maintain this slower approach for the rest of my life. But for now, I’m doing what works for me. It’s not the ending I’d hoped for, but it’s a happier, more balanced path.

This sense of balance is essential. If you invest really heavily in your identity as a certain kind of author, you’re likely to end up disappointed. Books aren’t like professional degrees; they’re more like 500-page lottery tickets. There’s a chance you’ll hit it bit, but it’s a small chance; and if you accept that at the outset, and have other things in your life, you’re going to be able to be a lot more philosophical.

My new writing desk

In my garage office I have a standing desk (actually a shelf in my Ikea bookcase). Most of the time it’s awesome, but sometimes I do like to sit down. To support this I’ve slowly added wireless devices that I can use while sitting– a repurposed keyboard from an iPad, and a trackball. Today, I discovered the perfect lap desk to put them on: a bamboo cutting board, liberated from the kitchen.

New lap desk: a bamboo cutting board from the kitchen.

It’s just the right size, and if I end up being both more productive and a little hungrier, I can live with that.

My next book, REST, is off to the presses

This weekend I finished reviewing the index and page proofs of my next book, REST. It now goes off to the printer, and the next time I see it will be December 6, when it hits store shelves.

Final REST cover

For those of you who are interested in the process of revising a book, I explain the process of copyediting and reviewing page proofs on my Deliberate Rest blog.

Of course, there’s plenty more to be done before the book hits the shelves: promotional campaigns to be designed, influencers to be tapped, journalists and producers to be approached about doing pieces about the book, and so on. New books aren’t finished the way, say, the Parthenon was finished; they’re “finished” the way a really good meal is finished when the cook puts it in the serving dish. It still needs to be brought to the table and served; the table has be set; and the restaurant needs to be decorated.

This work is something I knew nothing about the last time I published a trade book, and I’m really going to try not to underestimate it this time!

A thought on Jonah Lehrer’s new book, redemption, and writing

So Jonah Lehrer has a new book coming out, and there’s some snark around it. Lehrer has admitted that he cut corners, self-plagiarized, and made stuff up, but lots of people don’t feel so forgiving:

The clearest expression of this “not convinced” view is Gawker, who explains that “Notorious Fabulist Jonah Lehrer Wants to Apologize (So You’ll Buy His Book).” Given Gawker’s recent legal troubles, I would say that they’re maybe not the best publication to be criticizing others for being fabulists; but I think that they’re being way too cynical. But even if Gawker were (a little) correct, I have to wonder: this is really wrong?

It seems to me that a system that allows people to admit their mistakes, explain how they’re making amends, and submit to greater degrees of public scrutiny in exchange for an opportunity to recover their reputations and livelihoods, is… pretty fucking just. Isn’t this the way things are supposed to work?

Lehrer isn’t seeking PR by any means necessary, or trying to turn his notoriety into a calling-card. I don’t think he’s playing by the Kardashian (or Farrah Abraham) playbook: he calculates that it’s better for him to talk about his previous misdeeds because for the time being at least they’re unavoidable, and at this stage in order to rebuild his credibility it’s necessary to be clear about the steps he’s taking to assure that he’s not making stuff up. Nor did he go the Boris Johnson route, playing the charming self-deprecating buffoon as he slides away from charges. I get the sense that he wants to put this phase behind him, not use it to sell more t-shirts.

We need avenues for rehabilitation, because people make mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily cost them their lives;  otherwise we have no incentive to do anything other than double down, or pull a Trump-like Ponzi scheme with the truth. With Donald Trump, there’s an eternal danger that his latest outrage will make you forget the last 20 terrible things he’s said— and Trump knows that and is counting on you to do exactly that. Unless he’s playing some serious eleven-dimensional chess, it doesn’t seem to me that Lehrer is trying to distract your from future misdeeds by addressing his previous ones, nor is he one of those psychopaths who feels the need to cheat people to prove his own intelligence.

Of course, you can question whether Lehrer’s success is deserved. Fame is weird and fickle and profoundly un-meritocratic. There are tons of great, thoughtful books that never find an audience, and plenty of wise people who get crowded out by louder or more telegenic figures.

And ultimately, my instinct is that Lehrer is a serious writer, and wants to be a serious person. He certainly can write with flair and style; he seems to me to take the craft seriously. You don’t write as much as he has without being driven, and that’s an impulse that should be channeled for good, not disparaged.

Personally, from what I’ve heard about the latest book, I’m not sure it’s that compelling a project, but that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily: after he got out of jail, Robert Downey Jr. did a stint on television, rebuilding his reputation before going on to Iron Man. Maybe that’ll happen with Lehrer. Just so long as he doesn’t compete with me.

On the experience of shopping a book proposal

Following my piece on agents and why you want one, a brief note on shopping a proposal.

Rejection is inevitable.

You know those stories about how Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 37 publishers before someone finally saw its potential? Before I pitched my first trade press book, it seemed incredible that such books wouldn’t be snapped up; now, I hear those kinds of stories and think, Yeah, that’s how it works.

For each of my books, my agent sent out copies of the proposal to a couple dozen editors. (They go out to a bunch at once; pitching a book is like being on Tinder, and no one should have any expectation that they’re the only one you’ve expressed interest in.) In each case, we had a couple serious expressions of interest, and managed to land excellent deals for both books.

But that came after lots of rejections. The book is too vague. The book is too specific. The book is really a magazine article. The author’s an unknown quantity. The last book didn’t sell well enough. It’s not a good fit. Ariana Huffington’s book covers  the same territory. Gladwell already talked about this on p. 137 of The Tipping Point. Easily a dozen rejections.

Getting rejections sucks. You know it’s not personal, that most editors read the first couple pages and make a gut decision (they hardly have time to do more than that)— but it still feels lousy, and as they pile up, they can press on your confidence. It requires real effort to have faith that you’ve done good work, and that someone at some point will recognize it.

But getting an offer for your book is like getting a marriage proposal. You only need one good one to restore your faith in yourself, and to move forward with your life.

One of the other interesting things is that rejections tend to be kind of offhand, as very few people take the time to explain in any great detail what they think is wrong with your book and how you could make it right, expressions of interest are more detailed and specific. An editor may just have a feeling that a book’s not for them, but they’ll be able to explain exactly why they like a proposal.

However, if you get a couple publishers interested in the book, you move on to the auction phase.

How auctions work.

This will be designed and directed by the agent. As I understand it, based on the level of excitement around your proposal, an agents will decide how many rounds of bidding there will be, what kinds of rights are up for sale, and how long publishers have to make offers and counteroffers. In general publishers don’t know who they’re bidding against (though I’m sure people talk, and for some specialized books you can guess who else is going to be interested in it), or who has submitted the highest offer.

Not everyone will make exactly the same kind of offer. Publishers can offer an advance paid out of three or four installment; they can ask for just domestic rights, or world rights (which they’ll then sell on to other publishers, in order to offset their investment); there’s some wiggle room in electronic rights or audiobooks. I think the domestic versus world rights is the biggest variable. If you think your book has international potential, and if your agent has a good network of foreign agents they work with, you might take a lower offer and keep the international rights, and try to sell them yourself; or you may sell all the rights and take the higher advance.

Even if you get a nice advance, you’ll get it over three or four payments, spread out over the life of your project. For example, a $100K advance— which is really great— will probably pay out over two or three years. You’ll get a chunk upon signing. You’ll get another installment after final revisions are approved. Another check will come upon publication. Sometimes there’s a fourth milestone— turning in the draft, for example. Take six figures, spread them out over a couple years and over several checks, and it gets smaller.

And don’t forget that you have to deduct taxes and commission from that, so $100K is really more like $60K.

Finally, don’t imagine that you sign and the money is transferred instantly into your account; expect a delay of somewhere between a couple weeks and a geological epoch. I don’t think publishers are intentionally slow, but they’re also not high frequency traders or PayPal.

A couple other pieces of wisdom.

First, you’re not going to get a life-changing quantity of money. Life-improving, certainly; but unless you live very frugally, it won’t be enough to let you quit your day job. (Many writers don’t seem to do that until they’ve published three or four books, anyway, and many never do. It’s simply a fact.) However, it’ll help pay off some bills, or kids’ tuition, or a vacation after you’re done. Which is not bad given that you’re doing something that you probably would do anyway.

Second, in the marketplace, the value of your next book is mainly determined by sales of your last book. An editor might see you as having potential, or evolving into an outstanding author with a devoted following. (And that does happen. Alan Furst, for example, wrote four books before Night Soldiers, the novel where he discovered his voice as a World War II espionage writer. He didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list until his sixth World War II book, Kingdom of Shadows. I’m sure his publisher is glad they held on through Dark Star and The Polish Officer and the other books.) But advances aren’t like salaries: raises are not inevitable. They can go down as well as up, or disappear entirely.

Finally, when you write a book, you think you’re building the Parthenon, a timeless work for the ages. You’re not. You’re making dinner for friends. Odds are your book will generate a flurry of excitement, which is awesome; then after a while, the season will end, and it’ll fade, and next year it’ll be another book’s turn. Don’t be deceived if your book gets lots of attention when it first comes out. Enjoy it, by all means, and do everything you can to keep the book in the public eye. But as the Roman said, all glory is fleeting, and ultimately writing is going to be a great opportunity to acquire new reserves of modesty and humility.

Your book might get a stable readership after that, or it might not. It’s not only the good books that have a long tail. There are tons of really terrific books that go out of print, that never quite find a critical mass of readers, that don’t have the good fortune to get one really excited review in the Times. No one can predict whether your book will be a best-seller, or will stay in print for a long time; there are things you can do to nudge the odds in your favor, but no one controls that process.

Why you, first-time author, need a literary agent

I had a long call today with a friend who’s just finished a book and wanted some advice about literary agents. I’ve gotten this question a couple times, mainly from fellow Ph.D.s who are trying to learn about the trade press world. So here I’ll explain the value of literary agents. In another post, I’ll talk a little about shopping a proposal.

So in an age of digital self-publishing, why even look for an agent?

Agents know the market better than you ever will.

The trade press world is quite different from academia, just as the academic and trade marketplaces are different. In fact, I worked in reference publishing, and that didn’t teach me much about the trade press world. Your agent can serve as a guide through this world.

Not only do they have a high-level view of the market and the development process, a good agent has a lot of very specific, timely local knowledge as well. They know which editors are most likely to be interested in your book; what other projects publishers have going, and whether your book would be well-paired with them; who is well-disposed to first-time authors, or your kind of project. They’ll know (more or less) what kinds of deals similar projects have gotten recently.

Finally, if they’re good they’ll be able to help you apply this local knowledge to your own situation. They’ll have a perspective on how your book will differ if you go with X House rather than Y Inc.; help you weigh the pros and cons of working with (for example) a more business-oriented versus a serious nonfiction press; give you a sense of whether you’d be a better fit in a bigger publisher that’s part of a global conglomerate, or a smaller more independent house.

Agents negotiate better deals than you could yourself.

Unless you’re pitching an account about your life as a trade negotiator, your inside view of car dealerships, or your memoir as a door-to-door salesman, odds are you’re better at writing than negotiating advances, or making deals. I’m terrible at talking about money; heck, I’m even not very good at filing reimbursement forms to get back freaking money I’ve already spent and am completely entitled to. What I am good at is writing (or at least it’s what I like to do). Unless you’re a professional deal-maker, it’s better to leave it to the professionals.

And yes, agents take a percentage (normally 15%) off the top; but 85% of what they’ll get you is probably a LOT bigger than 100% of what you’d be able to negotiate for yourself.

Not only are they more experienced, the fact that they work on commission means that their success is directly related to yours. An agent is like a Ph.D. advisor who only gets paid if you get a tenure-track job. Just sit with that idea for a minute. I’ll wait.

Agents help develop your book proposal.

You can write a proposal on your own: the book proposal, like a sermon or scientific article, has a well-articulated structure that anyone can learn about. But like a sermon or scientific article, you’ll write a better one if you’ve seen lots of examples of the craft, and have a smart reader who can look at drafts and give you advice.

A good proposal explains to overworked editors who seen a million of these things every year why your book is special, so you need it to stand out, to grab the editor’s attention from the very beginning. It’s also a demonstration of your professionalism and your ability to write; it signals your commitment; and it provides some early proof that you can get it together enough to turn your white-hot creativity into actual product. The process of writing a proposal can also serve to clarify your ideas, and force you to think hard about what the book is really about, and what you care about.

So a lot is riding on the proposal, and if you have help, you can get a lot out of the process of crafting it.

For me, the proposal is also valuable because it’s like a contract. I love to play around the structure and try out new ways of organizing books; the outline I provide int he contract puts a brake on all that. It says, I’m going to write this book this way, forces me to do the very best job I can within the confines of that structure, and reduces the amount of energy I spend playing around with alternate ways of organizing the book.

It doesn’t eliminate that work completely. Neither of my books follows the proposed outline exactly, but they’re pretty close.

How do you choose an agent?

It’s a subjective process, and it’s a bit like getting married. You should have a sense of what you need, and can describe some of your reasoning; but your decision will also be based on instinct, and that’s fine.

The most important thing is to feel that you can trust your agent’s judgment, and to be willing to take it and act on it. For example, I have a very simple relationship with my agent: she tells me what she thinks I should do, and I do it. It’s worked so far. I’m sure she’s going to give me the best advice she can, that she’s plugged into the publishing world in a way that I’m not, and that there’s a perfect alignment of her interests and mine (remember, her success is directly connected to mine).

Ask friends who’ve written books who represented them. My sense is that a lot of the business is relationship driven; I got introduced to my agent by a friend who was already her client. This doesn’t guarantee that someone will sign you; it’s just a way to get the process started.

Look at authors you like, and see who represents them. And no, don’t just look at who represents Malcolm Gladwell and JK Rowling. Conversely, look at the authors an agent already represents. If they’re people you’d like to like— and not just in terms of sales or success; if their books are the sort you’d want to write— that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you write historical novels and they represent doctors who write self-help books, then you might not be great together.

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