A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

Do You Need a Developmental Edit, Or a Copy Edit? What’s A Pitch?

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blackwingNovelists contact me with manuscripts in hand. I’ve got 80,000 words, they say. Can you quote me on a copy edit, or a developmental edit? You use these edits in a different order. Developmental edits are different from a copy edit. The copy edit only takes place once you’ve chosen all of the paths the story will take, and the scenes that will remain. Developmental edits help you make those choices. What’s more, it’s better to have an outline, with not all of your book written, before you purchase a developmental edit.

(If you’re ready to see how copy editing looks — just to get an idea of whether you and your editor will be a good fit — a good editor should be able to edit a 500-word sample for free. It’s just a couple of pages worth, but you get the idea.)

How ready are you to pursue a publisher? One very important part of breaking in with publishers is your summary paragraph about your book. In about five sentences, tell me the most important things about the story.

Your entry to the whole process is your pitch. You use a pitch to get the attention of an agent, or an editor at a smaller press. It’s the one sentence you say when people ask, “So what’s your book about?”

Pitches for novels should contain setup, hook, and resolution:

When <character> discovers <catalyst>; s/he must <overcome problem> before <impending doom>, or else <stakes>.

Donald Maas (agent-book developer) had a good deal to say about stakes during the seminar I took with him in San Francisco. They are crucial, and the higher the stakes, the more compelling your story will be. They go all the way up to mortal stakes (your character will die, or someone they love will die.) You can even go beyond those mortal stakes. For example, in my novel Viral Times, millions of lives are at stake — because if Dayton Winstead cannot find the source of the MightyHand virus, then tens of millions of millions will be infected with HIVE-5.

At some point in the near future, you’ll have a chance to deliver the story you’ve written, perhaps by telling a pitch in person to an agent. That’s what conferences can offer you. What you do between now and then will give you a better opportunity to find someone who’s the right person to represent you.

You do research. Which books are like yours, not just in subject but in tone and style? Who agented them?  Use online resources like Publisher’s Lunch to sort through the known universe of agent submissions. Learn as much as you can, and start a list. Rank agents in order of likelihood of love match.