Friday, September 11, 2009

Marketing James Patterson

The next time I hear an author whine that the publisher didn't do enough to promote his or her book, I'll send them to this Harvard Business School study of author James Patterson. Authors are usually shocked, shocked to learn that their platform is their responsibility, but the example of Patterson can offer a bit of consolation. Even rich writers sometimes put their own money in the game (Grisham did it, Patterson did it, there is nothing wrong with it), and the bestsellers get there for a reason.

Related article from, "Why James Patterson is Worth $150 Million."

If you wonder what this has to do with scholarly book and article publishing at Georgetown, the answer is "everything." We learn from the playbook of the great trade success stories in order to adapt some of their real-world savvy to our own boutique titles. And why not? A smart idea is a smart idea, whether it's for a beach read or for a book about history, biology, psychology, and more.

Handwriting at Booklab?

There's a handwriting craze going on, and I'm tapping in (accidental pun!). My own handwriting used to be pretty, but has degenerated to a scrawl over time. Apparently that's normal, and fixable. Emily Yoffe (an interesting Slate writer who may wish to explore more serious books -- she'd be great) embarked on a handwriting experiment with her eighth-grade daughter, and they both came out with a happy result. Now I want to seek out the same Maryland-based guru, Nan Jay Barchowsky, and learn more about how to have elegant, readable, italic (not the droopy Palmer loops you probably learned if you're over 40) handwriting.

Hmmm, I wonder if those skills will help me read old wills and other original documents I encounter from the 1680s through the 1710s?

If you're interested in studying handwriting at Booklab, let me know and I'll think about setting up a weekly class.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finally an audiobook my aunt might use

I love audiobooks and I listen to them all the time on my field digital audio recorder, downloaded from However, because of the tech hurdle, they tend to miss one of their most important audiences: older people who use computers rarely or not at all, but who would welcome the audible version of a story.

My aunt is a case in point. She does not read anymore because of her eyesight, but that exempts her from a computer as well. She isn't just unlikely to download something -- the act is impossible for her. So and its ilk are out, even though she has the potential to be a good user. Her grandsons might be able to load audiobooks onto an iPod for her, but she won't work the little buttons and she'll get confused about where she is in a book... she needs a large, easy interface.

A company called Playaway has a solution she might actually use. It's a device somewhat shaped like a book and marked like one, with large buttons and a headphone. You put on the headphones and press play. Instead of touting how many of the little suckers you can stuff onto one memory device, this is the opposite: one book per. It is admittedly expensive at about $40 per title, but on the other hand, it's the only way she's going to use audio, so it might make sense for her public library that serves many seniors.

Now the big question for me -- is there a way to adapt scholarly books to this? Seabiscuit and its ilk will always find their way to various formats, and that's fine. I love Seabiscuit. But what about books that aren't front-and-center in the big bookstores? Thinking... thinking...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

David Gewanter and Deborah Tannen in Fall for the Book

I just received the new list and noticed that Georgetown University poet David Gewanter and nonfiction author Deborah Tannen will be part of 2009 Fall for the Book. Also, one of my former students in a Gothic fiction class at Georgetown, the incredibly talented Jayanti Tamm, will feature Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult.

Wow, now I'm combing through the lists to see if there's anyone else I know.

Two meanings of "book plus"

For very good political reasons, Booklab does not dispense tenure advice. The first of these is a practical one -- there are too many different departments with varying standards for any individual outside of those departments to be able to guess what constellation of publications will work for a tenure or promotion bid. The second is more subjective: tenure advice is really too much pressure to put on an individual or an office. After all, what if a professor were to ask for tenure advice, and then I gave it and was wrong? Does that mean the botched tenure bid is (gulp) my responsibility? Those are just two of probably many good reasons for Booklab staying out of the tenure advising business.

Therefore what follows is NOT tenure advice, but rather a definition of how some people have interpreted the variable statement "book plus." It often means a pattern of publishing over time where books -- if they are desired in the discipline -- are accompanied by a penumbra of articles both before and after the appearance of the book. Ideally these articles will be artfully spaced over time, but the author does not always have control over this because different journals have different incubation periods (anything from 6-8 months to as much as a year and a half, and very occasionally even more).

Then there is another competing meaning of "book plus" that involves one published book and significant progress toward a second one. I have heard faculty assert vociferously that the only correct meaning of "book plus" is one or another of these. Whichever one is used, however, it is generally done so in the context of distinguishing the university or department in question from what is known as a "one book" institution, meaning a place where you can get tenure for a book on its own, without accompanying articles or progress on a second book.

So what does your university mean when it uses the term? Have you heard another interpretation of the term "book plus"?

Testing the waters

Booklab receives many inquiries from authors who would like to write thrillers, and I welcome them. Washington, DC has always had more than its share of insiders who actually know first-hand how things work at the Pentagon, the White House, the FBI, and the CIA. I have seen many realistic, this-could-have-happened thrillers from first-time authors in DC. Now and then Georgetown University makes an appearance as part of the plot (apparently a lot of high-level operatives are running around campus).

But often the aspiring author pours everything into one book, and then announces that she or he is "testing the waters" with it. If the book sells, then that's a green light from the industry that this is a viable avocation. If it fails to sell, well, there's always the day job. This attitude isn't reserved for thriller fans by any means. Numerous authors give me a version of the the story that they have everything riding on one manuscript, and often a beginner one at that.

This is stinkin' thinkin' (to quote Zig Ziglar) on several levels. First, it puts way too much pressure on a novice effort. Second, it assumes that acceptance or rejection by agents and editors reflects reality (if that were the case, then the oft-rejected A Confederacy of Dunces would never have seen daylight, let alone won a Pulitzer). Third, it assumes that this plot and these exact characters are the ones readers will connect to, when many veteran thriller writers, for example John D. MacDonald, had whole series of published stories with prototype characters that morphed over time into memorables such as Travis McGee. Finally, it exempts the potential thriller author from one of the most important things any newcomer to category fiction can possibly do -- plan an encore, and another, and another. By the time a manuscript is making its rounds, the author should have two or three more in the pipeline, with at least one ready to go within a few months.

For a sense of how to do this and succeed at it, you might want to consider Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, one of the recommended books in the link at the right. He discusses thriller writing as a career. Another book I love is by Donald Maass, and Writing the Breakout Novel. Yes, they both address mechanics, but they also discuss big-picture what the life of a series fiction writer is like, and they will back up what I'm saying here. One test-market book is not an indicator of anything. Master the profession by reading everything you can, attending classes ( has some good ones) and writing many books. One of them just might be the one that breaks through.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Question from the mailbag

Anyone is welcome to ask questions and have them answered on the blog. You can be identified by first name, or kept anonymous. Today's question:

Q: Is there a rule of thumb within the political science field regarding the simultaneous submission of a book manuscript to university presses? Is it common practice, or is it frowned upon?

A: This is a particularly timely question now, because many university presses are in transition, moving from more traditional scholarly practices to ones that resemble practices at trade houses. My answer to you is based on what UP editors have told me (I've personally visited Chicago, Northwestern, Arizona, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Oxford, and NYU, plus the academic division of trade houses Alfred A. Knopf and W. W. Norton; my publisher was Farrar, Straus & Giroux). I also ran this answer by a roomful of university press staff, including editors at places like Yale and MIT, at the Association of American University Presses conference last spring, and it received a 100% positive response.

You may send a prospectus and sample chapter anywhere. To a university press, a submission is an entire manuscript sent to an editor in the hope of triggering the peer review process, so a prospectus and a sample chapter alone do not a full submission make. Just to be sure that the editor understands this, however, I also include a very brief cover note with this package that says clearly "This is an inquiry only, not a full submission." In other words, you're just trying to gauge interest, and that's perfectly fair. You may send as many of these as you wish, as long as that "inquiry only" language is up front.

My recommendation is that you research presses respected in your field (especially important if you are up for tenure or full professor), study their catalogues, and identify books in your field you admire. From this industry-based research, make a list of 3-4 editors who might be appropriate for your work, and send this inquiry package to all of them. Once the yeses and nos come back, rank the yes responses and then submit your full manuscript to them one at a time as per the traditional approach. Everyone will feel that you played fair with them. Two good rules to follow are to only inquire at a press where you would actually want to be published, and to be transparent whenever possible so that an editor does not mistakenly think she or he has a lock on your book.

This process is a huge blessing for academic authors who want to be able to weed out the no responses early, and get on to the potential yeses. This can save months if not years of time.

The William Morris Agency at Booklab

Eric Lupfer of the William Morris Agency will be my guest for a Georgetown University faculty book talk at noon on October 15. I'll have more details on the blog closer to the date, but if you are a Georgetown faculty member and would like to attend for lunch, chat and a Q&A, by all means let us know by sending e-mail at the right or contacting me in person.

If you are not a faculty member but would still like to attend, non-faculty can participate in all Booklab offerings on an academic/course fee basis. Please contact us for more details!

The book above is one of Eric's most recent titles.

The joy of the 8 o'clock hour

The first faculty writing group of the new season met this morning at 8 a.m. Although I'm traditionally a morning person, 8 a.m. for the first meeting of the day still seemed daunting. It's one thing to be at the office at 8, but quite another to be sharp and ready to roll.

It turned out to be one of the best groups. Fortified with hot coffee (I hope I made it strong enough), we updated one another on what we did since the summer groups ended, and what we want for (1) this entire semester; and (2) just the coming week. We assessed the past, looked to the future, and set specific goals that included writing time per day and thoughts about how to balance writing and teaching. This group was a technologically focused bunch, with the majority from the School of Foreign Service conducting research with an international aspect (Iraq, Afghanistan, China, and India).

Two more groups meet today: 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. There are still limited spaces available, so please notify Carole if you would like to reserve a place.

Tasty coffee image from The Coffee Company in Australia.

Wisdom from Robert Boice

I love the research of Robert Boice, author of the 1990 book Professors as Writers. Although his research has been incorporated and stated somewhat more accessibly by Paul Silvia in How to Write a Lot, which I also love, Boice is The Man when it comes to research, data, hard numbers, or whatever else you want to call it. They make a great pair. Booklab doesn't focus as much on how we feel about writing, and neither does Boice. Instead, we care what works, and that makes Boice our go-to guru.

Today's tidbit is from Boice Chapter Five, Generative Writing, and his fondness for what he calls the "results-first approach." Boice thinks you have to write something before you can edit or perfect it, but he notices that most academic authors do the opposite, trying to be perfect on the first bounce. He isn't recommending spontaneous writing (he thinks that's a big Fail for different reasons), nor is he suggesting binge writing. Generative writing is more substantive, but it is still produced without judgment. It creates the stuff that can then be edited by a completely different part of the brain.

Over the course of the semester I'll post tidbits from Boice. A great way to read him is to buy both books, read Silvia first, and then read Boice second for backup material.

Monday, September 07, 2009

And speaking of Peeps...

Speaking of Peeps, I'm also obsessed with the diary of Samuel Pepys (yes, his last name is pronounced just like the marshmallow confection). Pepys was one of the great diarists in English history, and his diary -- written in a shorthand code as many men did in his day, both for privacy and for expediency -- forms one of the best firsthand accounts of 17th-century England. Pepys lived through both the Great Fire of London and the Plague. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and he knew Isaac Newton. His remarkable library is one of the jewels of Magdalen College, Cambridge (as a classical radio announcer I learned to pronounce that "Maudlin." It's a sideways pronunciation, kinda like Peeps.).

An English web designer and actor named Phil Gyford runs the Best Site Ever if you're a 17th-century history geek like me -- The Diary of Samuel Pepys. This is Gyford's decade-long effort to put the entire magnum opus on the internet, day by day with links. Wowie. I like it so much that I read it every day and I also sent a monetary contribution to Project Gutenberg as he requested (he also has an Amazon wish list, so I sent him Season One of "Arrested Development" at his request -- he doesn't accept money, but he'll allow the occasional DVD of Gratitude).

Above is Pepys's signature from England's National Archives.

A new take on rejection

Publishing necessarily entails the "ask," the moment where an author offers work to an editor or agent (EoA) in the hope of having it accepted for publication, or representation. One might think of this as a yes/no moment, and sometimes it is, but the closer you get to "yes," the more complicated the transaction becomes. EoAs faced with the prospect of actually accepting something go through a complex internal process of gauging what this will cost them in time, effort, and actual dollars.

Yes, publishing your work costs them money. Surprised? Don't be. Most authors think about the $ coming in, without consider what those brave souls known as publishers have to pay to produce a work, and I'll consider this in detail in a future post. Beyond the warbucks, the act of publishing you or me will require an investment of their time, and also an emotional commitment. They're not just clerks processing Halloween peeps mindlessly in a marshmallow factory. Your work becomes part of their careers, too.

Interestingly, authors tend to hear "no" when an EoA actually said "maybe." For example, sometimes an EoA will say "This would be interesting if x happened" (e.g. if if were more narrative, if it was told from an eyewitness perspective, if it was more scholarly, less scholarly, etc.), and most of the time authors will return to me with "They rejected it." Another typical EoA answer is "The author has a great background, and it would be wonderful to see a book pitch that works off of that base." Again, the author usually hears this as "No," when in fact the EoA was making a bid for a potential future relationship. "Try me again" usually means just that as well -- the EoA sees potential and wants to hear more. But the typical author simply tucks tail and skedaddles.

The next time you think you're hearing no, stop and wait through it. Instead of responding, just be quiet with it for a while, maybe even a day or two. Is it really a rejection? Did the person actually say no? Or is that the pre-recording in your head left over from the fifth grade, and was the answer actually more ambiguous, and potentially much more interesting?

Image from Sugar Shop.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Fiction and the academic author

Most of us who work in the publishing-focused realms of academia are here because we love research and scholarship. We like archives, libraries dusty books, and obscure stuff. We don't think it's dry at all, we think it's tasty! However, once the academic publishing is well underway or comfortably accepted at a great university press or a journal, many academic authors confess to me that something else lurks in their computer files or desk drawers: Novels, poetry, essays, plays and more. Fiction! Yes! I said it!

The new fiction group starts this week at Booklab, and another will begin in January. Just like the scholarly book groups, this one will run for twelve weeks, meeting once a week. Some of the fiction group members will work through the book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Since 2002 I have facilitated five groups based on The Artist's Way, and they're wonderful. Other group members who choose to work on their own (either because they've done AW or because it isn't quite their cup o' tea), will simply check in and let us know how their fiction progresses.

Each week we will also focus on a different literary journal, viewing examples and discussing how to learn more about a journal, and how to submit work to it. For week one beginning Wednesday, September 9, we will focus on Ploughshares, published by Emerson College.

This new season of book groups comes with a pledge to you, my readers. I commit to publishing at least one post per day for this entire book group season, beginning today and ending December 11. This means several things:

** A revival of The Journal Experiments (whoo-hoo!);
** Exploration of how each of the ten book groups is going. Participants will be anonymous, but the blog will feature real-life book publishing trials, tribulations and joys;
** More about my own day-to-day publishing process. Much has happened since I began a scholarly book last year based on research and writing from the past 15 years, and I'll include it in the third person under the name Fortuna.