Saturday, January 10, 2009

Are you sure "your field" is really your field?

This interesting conversation happened with a pre-tenure faculty member who was having trouble placing her manuscript. "There's just so little understanding," she said, "of what it is that I do." She kept referring to "my field," but when I asked how she defined that field, she launched into a complicated explanation of a how it was a cross between two distinct areas of historical research, with a third cultural component thrown in. The mix made not-so-much sense to me because both of the historical aspects were from the Dutch late-1600s, and her literary/cultural monkey wrench was from France in the 1920s. Both were fascinating eras, but also much-studied yet oddly tacked onto one another in a "see if you can follow my logic here" way that felt both obscure and culturally disjointed. I soon found myself mentally humming "One of these things is not like the others..."

Call me old-fashioned, but I think if you're going to refer to an area of research as a field, it should probably have more than just you in it. Otherwise you risk being just another lonely laborer out standing in his field. Sure, you can define a field, and that's bold and important work, but it's also usually best done post-tenure. In fact, her field wasn't really so much an area of research as the resulting mashup combining what she had studied in graduate school with what she liked to do now.

I asked her whether she had considered writing about something a bit more accessible. Something -- perhaps -- that a university press might actually be able to list in its catalogue and sell. She sighed. "But this is what I'm trained in. It's my expertise." She held on to her topic, and who knows? Maybe she will find a home for it, though I don't see how. But what I do question big-picture is how hard it would be to take some post-doctoral courses at (for example) Johns Hopkins that is just an hour away, and branch into a second area of expertise that more clearly connects her to a recognized field. I'm not saying she needs to give up what she loves, but rather it seems she is defining "her field" so narrowly that she can't quite imagine doing anything else. And is she really an expert? Her qualifications at present are quite slim -- just a few graduate courses, and a dissertation. Why can't this change, expand, grow?

Many scholars choose a number of areas in which to educate themselves as experts. A doctorate is hardly a badge of perfection in any field. As some of my advisors liked to say, it's just a union card.

Photo above of a woman out standing in her field taken from Somebody's blog.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Since when are an author's lies the editor's fault?

I grow weary of armchair critics who blame editors and fact-checkers for bold, audacious falsehoods by authors. "What happened to editing?" these critics cry. "Where are the fact-checkers?"

They're right where they've always been, stupendously overworked and underpaid. Do these critics seriously believe that a busy editor with 50 nonfiction books on her list is also personally responsible for making sure that every one of them is absolutely true? Or that an underpaid fact-checker who works for an entire publishing house, not just one editor, can possibly think of and then catch everything in every manuscript?

I'm not talking about having a basic fact-checking procedure. Some of that is routine, and if my own experience at FSG is any indication, it does happen. Not only did I have to provide evidence of certain facts to the publisher, but I also had to spend a couple of hours on the phone with a lawyer going over the potentially actionable parts. All fine, all good, but (I would add), all my responsibility as an author. The fact-checkers and lawyers were there to advise and instruct, not to police. Even if they were there to be the truth cops, if an author has the deep-seated, pathological ability to fabricate things that happened years ago in a place that no longer exists, how would an editor or fact-checker ever know?

If you think you're so smart and no one would ever pull one over on you, take down any major nonfiction bestseller from your shelf and ask yourself how you would start proving that the important, big-picture aspects of the book are true. Where do you begin? Someone says, for example, that they should have checked to see if James Frey ever went to prison. Really? Okay, but if you don't know that's the suspect fact, where does it fall in a list of maybe 2,000 other facts that need to be checked? Now multiply the book in your hand by dozens of books, piled up all around you. They all need fact-checking. Where do you start? How long will it take? Whom do you hire, and what happens when most of the facts do check out? At what point do you stop and conclude the book is true?

Sure, it would have been nice if somebody knew that a young woman in starving Eastern Europe in wartime couldn't hide a stash of apples to toss over a fence to a boy in a concentration camp, and that her beau couldn't have made it to the fence in the first place. But that fact amid all the other checkable facts becomes a needle in an amazingly complex haystack. In retrospect we know a lot of things that are not at all evident in the moment.

I believe the critics should give editors and fact-checkers a break. The responsibility for telling the truth rests with authors.

Vanity, thy name is option clause

The author was ecstatic. Not only had she been offered a publishing contract, but they wanted her next two books as well! Oh glory! Whoo-hoo!

Slow down.

I made her a cup of my amazing fresh-brewed coffee with lemon zest, and I convinced her to sit by the fire at Booklab a minute and take a breath. Yes, it sounds flattering when a publisher includes mention of your future works in a book contract. But dear author, this is what is known as the dreaded Option Clause, and it always benefits the publisher, not you.

The clauses are generally written in tricky ways. You usually have to show your publisher your next work of the same genre (for example, your next work of nonfiction), and give them right-of-first-refusal. Doesn't that sound innocent and also flattering? It does, but it isn't. First of all, it gives them a chance to bid on the book with no competition, so they can "buy" you on the same terms as your first book, even though presumably you're worth more on book two if you are angling your career the right way. Second, it prevents you from shopping book two around when it is in the earlier stage of proposal and sample chapter, a stage at which many publishers may want to give you a deal. This option clause won't be satisfied if you show your current publisher that same amount of work -- you still owe them a look and a bid on the whole manuscript. The overall effect is one of squelching healthy competition.

There is an old gentleman's agreement in New York publishing (although it is rapidly falling by the wayside along with such niceties as job security) that says if authors are bound by option clauses to publishers even in a manner that they can technically wriggle out of, other publishers won't bid. The general thought was -- and sometimes still is -- that you should satisfy your obligation to the publisher by producing the books that the option clause stipulates before you are free to go elsewhere, and other publishers would expect the same, so they back off. Would this hold up in a court of law? Of course not, but publishers know that turnip-poor authors aren't usually going to go crying to the judge over such matters. They can't afford to.

There are two ways to handle an option clause if you don't have an agent. The best way is to get the publisher to strike it out altogether, and if you do, that's a complete victory. Then the publisher can bid just like anyone else for your next book. But most publishers won't do this, and unless you are valuable and they're nervous about losing you, I don't blame them... why would they? What you usually can get, however, is a time limit. I prefer sixty days, but you can negotiate and perhaps settle at ninety. Once you close the loop by giving the option clause an expiration date, you at least render it into a gentler thing, if not completely harmless.

The book image above comes from the University of Nebraska Press.

Was your editor really angry in that e-mail?

Or were you being just a wee bit sensitive? I ask, because authors forward me correspondence from editors quite often, asking me to read between the lines and tell me what s/he was thinking at the moment they hit "send."

Almost always the e-mail is much tamer when I read it than it was in the mind of the nervous-nellie author who sent it to me. Sometimes the note is neutral, completely harmless. Other times it has a little bit of what I call "New York cheddar" to it, but nothing to worry about (New Yorkers can snap at each other when they're happy, let alone when they're not... it is getting better, but unnecessary snippiness is still their collective worst habit). Some of my authors have over-interpreted a simple "No," or "I don't think so," as "Go away and never come back, I'm canceling your contract you worthless excuse for an academic professional."

For the most part, everyone got up this morning thinking about themselves, not you or me. Most e-mails are just language, and the typical professional is careful not to put genuine anger in writing. Even if there was a major issue between you and your editor, you'd hear about it in a different way than casual e-mail.

Authors will continue to send me these e-mails, and I'm always happy to read them and try to help if I can. But your editor is probably not angry at you, and you won't lose your book deal just because you asked questions about it, even if you do get a sharp taste of New York cheddar in return.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

As you resolve to write in 2009, does Dad's voice from 1967 still echo in your brain?

I want to have a word with dear old Dad. Not mine. Everyone else's. In 1967 He sat one of my authors down for a talk, when the then-adolescent was going through a particularly writerly phase that in those days involved wearing turtlenecks and playing guitar as well as scrawling his deepest feelings in notebooks. Dad said that writers starve, and He advised His college-bound son to major in something that would get him a job. Even though son eventually switched his major from Dad's choice, accounting, to his own preference, history, and even though he succeeded in graduate school, became an assistant professor, and eventually earned tenure, every fricking time he sits down to write he re-lives the scene from 1967, with my author's scruffy hair, the scent-memory of Dad's annoying aftershave and all.

Dads have "counseled" their offspring into fields for which they are poorly suited, while steering them away from that which could have made them famous, since forever. Songwriters, painters, dancers, actors all hear the same drivel from Dads coast to coast. Moms are guilty, too, but for that echoing voice that just won't go away when you're trying to go for it as a writer, there's nothing quite like the tuneless horn-honking of dear, old Dad to really lock things up.

In 1982, another Dad told one of my authors she should use her writing skills for something practical and go to law school. She did, and now she is a law professor (I'll bet if you scratch a thousand of those you'll find someone underneath who compromised between family expectations and inner pull a different way). Dads have told my authors that writers don't earn money, even though of the Forbes top 100 earning celebrities, 12 are writers.

Much of my job involves doing battle with a succession of Dad-voices from ages and places past. (Does that make me a kind of superhero?) I'm not saying that all fathers give bad advice. I'm just saying that many fathers push their kids away from the arts and toward business, and that is often not the right thing for the kid.

There are a number of quite successful strategies for making His voice go away, and they don't involve either electroshock therapy or drugs. My personal favorite is self hypnosis, but there are also good books you can read. Can you change your mind and your thought patterns? Absolutely! Here is my reading list of effective Dad silencers for 2009:

Loving What Is by Byron Katie. She is the queen of helping you shrug about what you can't change, and living fully in spite of it.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Kinda heavy on the righteous anger and the twelve steps, but she'll help you figure out who you really are. I love to work with her book in groups, and I have led five to date.

Hypnotherapy recordings by Lyndall Briggs and Glenn Harrold. You can find these at In my heyday with the self-hypnosis I was listening to one or another of these every afternoon for over a year, and they did a remarkable job and changing the internal chatter from negative to positive. Both authors have fascinating accents. Briggs is a strong variant on Australian, and Harrold's possibly comes from within the sound of London's Bow Bells (I'm no Harold Higgins and can't quite tell). To me that's charming, but it can also be something to adjust to if you're used to listening to the BBC. I love both of them.

And yes, I realize that the man above speaking to Ben Braddock in "The Graduate" is Mr. McGuire, not Mr. Braddock, but it's just such a perfect image for this post.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

More about not using your longsuffering partner as your unpaid editor

Georgetown University's Matt Maples, one of the seven readers of this blog, brought a recent New Yorker article to my attention. Actually I had already read it, and with great jealousy, because it expanded on a theme about late blooming that I mentioned in my book about adults returning to college some years ago and never had the focus/drive/whatever to shape it into an article or book of its own.

"I was reading your booklab blog, and came across your post about advice columns, where you touch on the topic of spouses and authors. It reminded me of a recent New Yorker piece by Malcolm Gladwell about Ben Fountain and other late bloomers. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it already. It's a great story. And talk about your supportive spouses! Here's the link."

What he refers to is the story of Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award-winning author Fountain's wife, who was certainly not his unpaid editor. Instead of being forced to read and critique his manuscripts, she did what spouses can more appropriately do for one another -- she earned a living and supported him while he wrote (he had been a successful lawyer, but he quit to become a writer and it worked). Gladwell notes that she was far more than his tireless supporter, she was, to use an old-fashioned-but-accurate term, his patron. “Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

Romance author Debbie Macomber has a similar story. Her husband supported her while she wrote, long past the time when many spouses would have hung it up and said "Quit typing and get a real job." Now she (and he) are multimillionaires.

I'm not saying every partner has to spend years as the breadwinner while the other one gets to renovate the attic as an office and type away. In many ways that isn't fair or reasonable. But I am saying that partners should believe in one another. If you love somebody and they love to write, total honesty about your assessment of their talent (if it is low) is not the way to go. Love means support, usually more of the emotional and spiritual than the financial kind, but if the latter is possible, so be it.

One of my favorite books is self published

Occasionally I blog about self-published books, pointing out that they have a distinguished history, and that there is an enormous difference between publishing a book yourself and "vanity publishing." Self publishing can be practical for all sorts of reasons, especially if you have a built-in audience for your book.

That's the case with Kyra Alex, the owner of Lily's Café on Deer Isle in Maine. I have never met her, but one of my best friends in the world now lives in Maine, and he has vacationed there for about 15 years. He discovered her café, and in 2001 he brought me back Lily's Café Cookbook as a gift. It was a slim little thing, well-designed and full of happy photographs, yet still obviously self-published (no publisher colophon, just the mark of Thompson-Shore, a book manufacturer). I could see, however, why this kind of publishing made perfect sense for this author, as a way to share recipes and her outlook on food and life with her guests. Money from the book itself is probably secondary to the strong relationships it builds.

My habit with cookbooks is to write a little note next to each recipe with the date I first made it, my experience with the recipe, and a word about whether or not I would make it again since it is easy to forget five years later how each one worked. For some reason this book captivated me and I started writing notes all over it. For Barbara's Pumpkin Muffins: "Oct. 12, 2002. Amazingly good, and they freeze well. Made 1/2 recipe for six nice-sized muffins." For Banana Pecan Scones: "Nov. 21, 2003. Made for Artist's Way group, cut w/a heart-shaped cutter. Followed recipe exactly." For Lily's Café's Most Requested Chocolate Layer Cake: "Better than Martha Stewart's one-bowl chocolate cake, and easier!"

I ignored my other cookbooks by James Beard and Marcella Hazan in favor of this modest volume from a chef who to my knowledge has never been on TV, and who paid to publish her own book.

So what did I get for Christmas this year from the same friend up in Maine? Cooking in the Moment: Four Seasons of Cooking on an Island in Maine by none other than Kyra Alex. She signed it "For Carole, Here's to a decadent bite of chocolate cake and the wonderful moments it brings! Kyra Alex." I was as thrilled that she knew my name as if she had been M. F. K. Fisher or Julia Child herself (and yes, Kyra Alex has cooked for Julia Child... one year she made her official birthday cake!).

Imagine, all this excitement over self-published books from an author who doesn't even have a website, let alone a Food Network deal or her own line of kitchen knives. If you want to buy one of her books, I recommend the first one for now, until I see how the second one goes... but something tells me it will be just as wonderful.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Scary headlines

Friends and family have been sending me sure-to-terrify articles from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to point out (in case I hadn't noticed) that book publishing is shaky at the moment. Drudge Report screams it: CUTBACKS AT PUBLISHING HOUSES SPELL END OF GLAM JOBS..."

Glam jobs? Right, whatever. Publishing has always paid modestly, except for its titans. In that way it is similar to academia. And yes, it is going through upheaval right now. I thought most houses were mindless and monstrous for scheduling their bloodbaths right before Christmas, forcing their staffs to compete for the same jobs during a financial crisis (way to stick together, teams), but that has nothing to do with the fact that "glam" hasn't described typical book publishing for a long, long time.

Tweedy? Yes. Goofy? Often. But glam?