Saturday, October 06, 2007

If your booth is about your readers, they'll love you

Book Fair at the National Press Club is coming up on November 1! Given the recent post about BookExpo America, I thought I'd take this opportunity to issue a public service announcement to published authors. If your booth is only about you, it's boring! The typical booth is a "Hooray for me" or "cheer for our press" or "look, aren't we wonderful" affair that seems egotistical, and also fails to move copies.

So what goes into a successful booth? Plenty for the visitors! After all, a book is all about its readers, and a press is about these readers times several hundred. Readers buy books, review books, recommend books, and award authors. Every critic, every contest panelist, every bookstore chain buyer, every sales rep, and every customer is first of all a reader. If your booth is about your readers and their interests, they'll love you.

Vicky Moon, the author of a book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's life as an equestrian, gave out horseshoes at her table. Elin McCoy, who wrote a biography of ubiquitous wine judge Robert M. Parker, Jr. offered communion-sized wine samples. Humorist Art Buchwald told jokes and posed for photographs, always focusing on his visitors rather than himself (and his humor was often self-deprecating). My friend Eleanor Herman, author of bestselling books about royal paramours, dresses in full Elizabethan costume at her book events, and makes sure everyone goes away entertained.

It's also great to have conversation starting ice breakers at your table. Haul in some artifacts from your book, especially if you have something visually captivating. Pietra Rivoli brought the actual tee shirt that her book was about. Even though a hundred conversations probably started with "Gee, is that really the shirt?", so what? It was a great way to give otherwise shy Book Fair patrons something to talk about. (NB on booth gifts: think beyond typical convention junk. The old, inexpensive standbys such as bookmarks and keychains are rarely as interesting as food and drink, or something the visitor can handle and talk about even if you aren't giving it away. Giveaways can be highly effective, as long as they avoid the trap of being cheesy or too cheap.)

Pre-conference planning, How We Closed a Deal

(This is the fourth in a series of posts on fun ways to work an academic conference in advance rather than just going there to ambush editors and probably coming away disappointed)

Here's the scenario: a professor I worked with was panic-stricken. She had a contract with a prestigious university press that fizzled after her editor left. The contract had all sorts of loopholes in it, including that pesky "time is of the essence" phrase that I advise authors to strike. Anyway, she was now contractless before tenure.

Fortunately, BookExpo America was going to be in Washington, DC for the first time in 17 years, so I suggested to her that we put together an amazing promotional package for her book and go trolling the University Press Pavilion for a new deal.

Before you roll your eyes, I know that everybody in the book world knows that selling your manuscript is not actually what BookExpo is for. It is primarily a showplace for publishers' wares. Reps and bookstore buyers go there to see what's new, hot, different, or (more typically) just the same as last year and the year before. But over the years writers started glomming on, so much so that BookExpo started its own pre-Expo writers conference just to give them something to do besides bother the publicists. I also figured enough actual editors would be hanging around the booths that if we were lucky we would charm the dickens out of 'em. We also e-mailed all of our target presses and editors ahead of time to get that all-important "Sure, I'd be happy to say hello" response that makes pre-conference planning so powerful.

Reader, it worked. I canna' fully believe it even to this day, but we took a stack of about 20 artfully prepared packages (including a masterful-if-I-do-say-so prospectus, and two beautifully prepared sample chapters, plus the whole thing on CD in case the editor preferred -- as most do these days -- electronic), and we went to the booths of our correspondents. We made sure to be friendly, funny, and willing to end each conversation before any editor had to start humming and looking over our shoulders for salvation in the form of a plausible distraction ("Oh look! An eagle!")

The professor landed an amazing publisher (it was one of these -- Stanford, Duke, Penn, MIT, Cambridge -- but I won't say which for fear of creating a stampede) from one of the editors who had previously responded to our pre-conference e-mail with a friendly note.

Pre-conference planning is the best. So is a warm and engaging attitude, humor, and the big-picture understanding that while getting a book deal is certainly important, it is not exactly high up there on the list of international human rights priorities... so we relaxed about it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

While we're obsessing about money, what's up with David Sedaris?

I don't necessarily have a problem with this, but I'm curious how an author on book tour manages to command $35-$40 a head just to read, answer questions, and sign books. Apparently David Sedaris will be at Lisner Auditorium tomorrow night doing and charging just that. Meanwhile, uptown, you can see Chris Matthews at Politics & Prose for free, and the National Press Club book events -- where I've met Michael Crichton, John Irving, and Sebastian Junger, among others --are always free. Now the head-scratcher for me is whether I think these events should all be free, or if it is ever appropriate to charge moola.

One of the great things about living in Washington, DC is that every famous author -- including all the good ones you'd get in New York -- comes here. It never fails. If an author is smokin', Washington is on the list. We may be late getting movies, and we may usually have to settle for the touring cast of interesting plays (although I'd rather go to NYC for plays anyway), but dagnabbit, we get authors while they're hot.

So hmmmmm. Is it worth that much just to see another barbaric yawper? And how many people will show up?

Quiz: Name the famous author on Craigslist who doesn't want to pay a college student intern.

Here is an dryly diverting tidbit from last week's Craigslist. I regularly check the writing jobs there, and sometimes post them. On September 28 this appeared:

NYT bestselling author (currently on hardcover fiction list) needs an intern to assist for winter semester with editing and research. This is an unpaid internship but a wonderful resume item. We will work with your college, if applicable, to make sure the internship benefits your program of study. Must own computer, cell phone, have email and AIM, and be adept at research. We will consider covering cell phone and internet access fees, if needed. (Emphasis added)

I just have to ask: what NYTimes hardcover fiction bestselling author can't manage to scrape together enough to pay a college student to work for him or her? This office always pays students, and we always will. If anyone has any guesses as to who the supposedly cash-strapped bestseller could be, by all means let us know!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Flash! (Although this shouldn't be news...) Many editors don't do their own manuscript screening.

An article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education confirms what I have known anecdotally but have never before seen admitted in print: some university press editors do not screen their own manuscripts. The article writer describes her duties thus: "[M]y job was to read manuscripts and write reports giving him reasons to reject." This is someone who is comfortable telling us that her sole preparation for this extremely sensitive task was a bachelor's degree, and some previous experience at other publishers. (And lest you think this is unusual, I'm seeing a lot of it at university presses... people who worked their way up in the ranks, but do not have education beyond a bachelor's degree, and yet are paid to judge the work of specialists with doctorates.)

The next major quote brought me up to a full stop: "Once I felt that I understood what the author was trying to do, and where the work fit into the scholarly terrain, deciding whether or not to recommend publication was an even greater burden. After all, these were manuscripts that had been toiled over for years by professors at the top of their fields who taught in some of the best universities in the country. Was this breaking new ground or was it just filling another post hole? Would the book get trade review attention? Would it 'back-list' and end up selling for years in the course adoption market? Would the author's second book be the one we really wanted to publish? I was a fresh-out-of-college English major. What did I know?"

Sigh. Extremely heavy sigh. I'll post my opinion here, in print, for anyone to read who happens upon these pages. Fresh-out-of-college English majors have absolutely no business judging the work of trained specialists, and I strongly, profoundly, and specifically disagree with any university press editor anywhere who uses this method of culling manuscripts. I applaud this article's author for going ahead and saying in print what many of us in literary consulting know is true, but I'm also horrified by it. How many worthy manuscripts didn't make this young English major's cut, because in her infinite wisdom she deemed them an insufficient contribution to a field of which she is happy to tell us she knew nothing?

I recently visited a university press in the Midwest where I asked to meet the person who opens the mail. He was 19, and still an undergraduate student at the university for whose prestigious press he toiled. I asked him what he did when he opened the manuscript submissions. He explained that he sorted them into three piles. One was for manuscripts addressed to individual editors. Those got sent through to editorial assistants for a screening process like the one above. The second pile was for manuscripts addressed to the press, or to "submissions" that he considered worthy to assign to an editorial assistant for pre-screening. It was up to him to decide what editor got what submission (and if you have ever dithered over which of two editors to choose at a publisher when your field has elements of each, you'll know what skills this actually requires).

"And the third pile?" I asked, afraid of what I might hear.

"Oh," he replied, "those are for the obvious rejects. You know, not very good English, doesn't even know what we publish, that kind of thing. I put rejection letters on them and send them right back."

I shuddered as I thought of the brilliant scholar for whom English is a second language who would not make his cut, or for the author who submitted work that a trained editor might be willing to consider, even though it was beyond the specifically stated publishing needs of the press (and yes, presses publish outside the lines all the time). All of these authors would receive one of this kid's thick stack of form letters. None of their submissions would ever see an editor's desk, or even an editorial assistant.

In this office we work together to skillfully avoid such front-desk weed outs, and yes, to get past the fresh-out-of-college editorial assistants, too. It usually involves personal contact with a talented editor long before you're ready to make your submission. The better an editor knows you as a scholar, the less chance that you'll wind up in the hands of someone who means well, but just does not -- and I believe cannot -- understand.

Pre-conference planning, Three Things to Do

(1) Get the conference brochure and study it. Figure out the short list of who you want to meet at that thing, and more important, why. Get copies of their publishing catalogs ahead of time and study them, finding out what individual editors have done. It's one thing to say that you'd like to meet the biggest editor in your field. It is quite another to stand there in real life and think quickly why this person should speak to you. Coming up with the why is the most challenging part of all of this. HINT: A really good why will have to do with that individual, not you. As a well-known career coach recently said when counseling a job seeker before a meeting, "Remember, it's all about them!" Can you pre-arrange a speaking invitation at your campus? Did you learn enough about the books on their lists to congratulate them on specific awards, or to ask on-target questions about why that editor's recent bestseller did so well? Does your research dovetail with their publishing interests to the point where a post-conference follow-up (initiated by you) would be genuinely beneficial to the editor? If you are interested in publishing a book similar to others on their lists, can you think of a way to express it that sounds flattering rather than competitive?

(2) Once you have a list of these people, a collection of their catalogs (at least three per publisher), and a smart set of whys, think about how you can meet without trying to corner a poor editor on an elevator. One easy and time-tested method is to send a pre-conference note asking for a meetup in the bar either for coffee or a drink (on you, of course). Depending on the star wattage of the person you're trying to contact and the importance to that person of what you have to say, this could be quite successful. Oddly, some of the biggest names are the most approachable simply because everybody assumes they're booked. If the person claims to be too busy, it's probably true, but if you query enough target editors, you should have at least two or three meetings lined up, perhaps more.

(3) Understand the powerful problem of shyness and conferences. Even the most outgoing professionals can feel awkward at conferences. There's just something about all that mingling and all those strangers . . . sometimes really warm people seem cold, rushed, and even snobbish. Many quiet people get unfairly categorized as aloof or arrogant anyway, and conferences only make it worse, so don't assume there's an attitude problem if someone acts distant. Instead, go to the conference with simple ice breaker techniques that will get people talking. My favorite one went over fabulously at a particularly dull conference where a panel offered mis-information about book publishing. I photocopied a simple handout with a skull and crossbones that said something to the effect of "We renegades will hoist the pirate flag and hold our own mini-conference in the bar. Meet us next to the fireplace, 5:30 p.m." I announced a topic (counterintuitive facts about scholarly book publishing), and said that the first round was on me, and arguments and contrarian opinions were welcome. Then I gave it to several dozen people who looked powerful and/or interesting. Eleven people came, and we had a wonderful time together. One of them was a major publisher at the conference! Person after person thanked me for offering that oasis in the lonely desert.

Pre-conference planning, A Better Way

If you read the two previous posts, you'll know that I consider a cold approach to an agent or editor at a conference to be the hardest way to meet someone, not the easiest. A simple e-mail at a non-conference time is far more efficient!

But if you do want to make personal acquaintances (which can be powerful if done right), a better way to approach agents or editors at conferences is to make yourself an insider before you arrive at the conference gates. Conference organizers are almost always overwhelmed, and if you volunteer your services several months in advance (for example, handling a mass e-mailing from your office, offering to pick up dignitaries at the airport and escort them, or hosting a reception for a select subset of attendees), you'll become known to the top people quickly. This is triply important if the conference will be in your city or especially on your campus, giving you even more opportunities to assist. By faithfully performing these limited duties in service of the conference, you will stand out in a dramatic way. As a "friend of the conference" (or -- if you can swing it -- one of the organizers who gets your name in the program), you'll enjoy access that the sheep can't muster. You'll get the conference equivalent of the backstage pass, and you'll be able to have conversations with visiting editors in a more casual way before the conference proper begins.

I usually get much more out of the pre-conference setup time and the night-before cocktail events than out of the panels themselves. Conferences -- for me -- are simply grand excuses to meet people in person and bond without the distance of e-mail or "Dear Dr. so-and-so" letters. For example, I go to the Wiley-Blackwell seminar at the National Press Club every year, and I've learned a great deal about journal publishing because of it. But the very best part is always the reception the evening before at the Marriott next door, where I can chat with journal editors in person and find out what's on their minds. They love to tell me about their own particular preferences, their goals, and their dreams for their journals -- which are rather like their children. In a very real sense you could say that at any given conference, my "office" is in the restaurant or the bar.

There are three great tricks that I use to encourage people to open up at these events and talk to me about what they do. I'll discuss them in the next post.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pre-conference planning, Part Deux

The basics of pre-conference planning came to me one of the first few times I spoke at a conference. I greatly enjoyed meeting scholarly authors who were in various stages of book manuscript preparation. Afterward, however, attendees rushed up to me, forming lines and attempting to give me portions of their manuscripts to read and evaluate. This was especially interesting, as I am not a literary agent and I make that clear, but they didn't seem to mind. They just wanted help... desperately. I felt overwhelmed, ending up with an armload of submissions -- so many that one of the conference organizers kindly offered to take them out to my rental car during a break.

For the most part, the submissions were extremely professional. Authors usually gave me either an envelope or a folder with the usual stuff those how-to-write books tell you to provide: a cover letter, a writing sample, and a proposal of some sort, followed by that cursed self-addressed, stamped envelope that hasn't been necessary for almost two decades, but people usually enclose anyway (why the heck would anyone want a dog-eared pile of papers back?). Even though I prefer electronic submissions, I was touched that people would try so hard.

There were only two major problems with this scenario if you set aside the fact that I really did not want to lug home a pile of manuscripts from would-be authors, and I'm not an agent anyway (I do consult privately -- for money -- but that's not what they were asking). First, it was flattering, but simply too much. Everyone wanted a connection, and they wanted it now. People tried out their "elevator pitches" on me (and yes, even in the elevator), they gamely recited their matchbook-cover-sized synopses, and they sang and danced through all the moves those silly writers books tell you are smart things to do when you meet editors or agents in public places. It was ever so sweet, but impossible to navigate. I couldn't wait to get to the bar and sit quietly with a nice glass of wine, either alone or with someone who wasn't trying to sell me something. Second, 95% of these submissions were not right for me anyway. I haven't any guess what to do with a fantasy manuscript, for example, and ditto your mystery series. No notion. My area of professed expertise is nonfiction, period, and even then you have to have a substantial scholarly or professional background in a field related to the book in order for me to know what to do next.

So who were the winners? Of all the people who approached me, who made the strongest impressions? Whip out your parents' dog-eared, musty copies of Dale Carnegie, folks, because the answer will either surprise you or not, depending upon how closely you have attended to his timeless words. (If you haven't experienced his mid-20th-century widsom, do read How to Win Friends and Influence People forthwith!) The answer is simple: I responded best to people who showed friendly interest in me and my work, rather than insisting on talking about themselves and their books. I met with folks who wanted to hear more of what I had to say about publishing, and who were happy to buy me a glass of wine and offer an interested ear. The people who were the most memorable were the ones who took the time to understand what my philosophy is, what kind of books I can help with, and then where their efforts fit in. Out of the scores who approached me over two days, I can count the members of this worthy and interesting group on one hand. Some of them I continued to correspond with for months after the conference ended. To this day I would be happy to help any of them in any way I possibly can.

In the next conference post I'll write more about how you know who will be at these conferences, and how you can set up helpful opportunities to get to know them very well beyond a handshake and a hurried "Will you read my manuscript?" You'll be amazed how many publishing professionals would be delighted to know you -- and help you -- once you master the right conference approach.