Friday, January 30, 2009

What to give your publisher on the questionnaire

When you publish a book, you'll get a questionnaire asking you many questions about your book, and asking you to write thoughtfully about it. Many authors like to postpone this, handle it quickly, or put it off altogether until the editor all but demands it.

Here's a hot tip: spend a lot of time on this important document, fill it out carefully, and turn it in early. Why? Because the book marketing team may use much of it to create important aspects of your book, including your media kit and even the copy that will go on your book cover.

Words you write on that page could actually end up on your cover if you do a really good job. They can work as flap copy, as the book's description -- if you have talent for this sort of thing, your own words can even make it into the book's advertising.

"But isn't that my publisher's job?" some authors ask. Hmmm. Let's see. They have how many books on their list each season? And besides, who better than you to perfectly describe your own work? I'm not saying that publishing professionals don't or won't write this stuff, because they do and they will, but I urge authors who are of a mind to do so to try their hand at the art form of the questionnaire.
But when they say 150 words, they mean it!

Do you listen to music while you write?

Some writers love music, and use it as a muse. Others cherish silence. I'm usually of the silence school of writing, but lately some music has worked for me... either early baroque, very old jazz, or oh-so-occasionally some new stuff like the bird and the bee (although I wish there were versions that had vocal noises but not actual words, since actual words can confuse me while I write...).

I do think people can change in their preferences over time, and even then change back again; I do imagine going back to silence more than falling further into music.

Any thoughts?

The Suspicious Cheese Lord

This is a great quote from director Darren Aronofsky about the ending of "The Wrestler" that easily applies to books as well: "I just have too many cheese alarms. If something's cheesy I just run. I just can't do it. I'd make a lot more money if I had a little more cheese in my arsenal."

Thursday, January 29, 2009

My favorite piece about John Updike

John Irving offers a charming and offbeat story about getting John Updike's fan mail for years, and vice versa. It is the best thing I've read about Updike; the piece makes him seem engaging, human and less like the stuffed literary lion that places like the New York Times Book Review would make him out to be.

Come to think of it, the mainstream literary establishment often does this to writers. It can shape them into creepy icons. The worst was when Barnes & Noble used to have those green shopping bags with authors' heads on them... the Anne Tyler was the most sacrilegious (although the Mark Twain was pretty gross, and Emily Dickinson was just unspeakable), and I remember wondering why on earth someone as quiet and sensible as Anne Tyler would have agreed to such a thing. It's not that the art was technically poor -- in fact it was quite good -- but that if being an author meant finally getting one's oversized head caricatured on a book bag, then make me a bricklayer, please.

I'm sure there was an Updike head at some point (can anyone find an image?). So thank you, John Irving, for writing something memorable about the man.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An article in the Chronicle about university presses

Jennifer Howard published a must-read article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education about what various university presses are doing in this icky book-buying market. Sales are down as much as 13% at some shops, although others are doing better, largely because of individual successes in various books, or a core strength in an area such as economics that is more popular because of the downturn.

Losing Sara Nelson

It's funny how someone just doing their job can become a quasi-celebrity sometimes, but that's how I felt about Publisher's Weekly editor-in-chief Sara Nelson, who was surprisingly laid off this week. I've met plenty o' famous writers and never been tongue-tied, but when I saw Nelson at a party in New York, I got flummoxed and didn't approach her or say anything. It was her. (Silly, I should have piped up, but I had an easier time talking to Erica Jong... life isn't logical.)

She wrote a column for every issue of Publisher's Weekly, and while it was mostly a re-cap rather than news, I found it warm and engaging, and I read it every week. She often posed in that familiar wrap dress with the autumn leaves on it (see photo), and her expression was one of serenity and concern. Sara Nelson reminded me of the Washington Post's inimitable Marguerite Kelly, whom we fans probably read less for exactly what she says, than the unique and engaging way she says it.

Given Nelson's considerable experience in the publishing industry, I hope she writes a book about the bloodbath from her perspective without the muzzle of being a spokesperson for an industry journal.

And boo to the short-sighted pooh-bahs who laid her off. Way to demoralize an industry, folks.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Publishers in the news

The Washington Post has run an article about one of my professors from undergraduate school, and his elegant independent press. I didn't know that he occasionally typed on manual typewriters. My personal quirk is sometimes using an old IBM correcting Selectric II from the late 1970s, but an actual manual typewriter is even more startling.

In these days of print-on-demand publishing that creates good-looking books in small batches, running your own press doesn't seem like such a big deal, but he was doing this decades ago when a publisher still needed some sort of financial backing, or at least a significant trust fund (the latter being the genesis of many New York houses); it was and remains quite an accomplishment. You can visit the press here.