PONDERING PUBLISHING AND THE WORLD GONE BY

I usually say I wouldn’t want to ever work again, but I got to thinking about that. I realized if I could get back my job as editor at Doubleday? I’d do it in a heartbeat. How many jobs give you unlimited sick days, two-hour lunches, and require you to read sleazy novels during the day? And pay you for the privilege? And give you the best bunch of people as colleagues you could hope for.

We met at Doubleday!

I also had to write stuff about the books I read, but a long review was still shorter than any of the pieces I write for this blog. Even in my crumbling state of health, I think I could handle it.

The trouble is, the job doesn’t exist. Publishers are thoroughly conglomerated. Each is a subsection of some über corporation where books are one of many products — and not an important product, either.

The 1970s were wonderful years for reading. It was a tremendous period for books and book clubs — and for literature as an art. In those days, reading was major entertainment. People read books and talked about them by the water cooler. If you got excited about a book, you told all your friends … and they read it, too.


Before the internet.

Before cell phones.

Before cable and satellite television.

Before computers and many years before WiFi …

We had books.

Other entertainment? Of course there were movies, but you had to see them in a movie theater. Television was there, but it had limitations. We had — in New York which was entertainment central — seven channels. Unless you had a really good antenna on the roof, you rarely got a clear picture. There was interference called “snow.” Pictures rolled — up, down, and side-to-side. Vertical and horizontal holds on your TV were designed to help control it. Sometimes, they did, but I remember many nights of giving up and turning the set off because we couldn’t get a decent picture. Meanwhile, many of us used a set of rabbit-ear antennas that worked sometimes — if the wind was blowing due west.

I spent more time trying to convince the rabbit-ears to receive a signal than watching shows.

Doubleday in Garden City, NY

Not surprisingly, television wasn’t our primary source of entertainment. Instead, we read books — and we talked to each other — something we old folks continue to do. Sometimes, we had conversations that lasted for hours and in my life, occasionally ran into weeks. Blows your mind, doesn’t it? All that talking without a phone? Without texting, either.

Books were big business. If you wrote anything reasonably good, there were more than enough publishers who might be interested in printing it. I miss that world, sometimes more than I can say.

All of this got me thinking about how hard it is to get books published these days. So many people I know have written really good books and have never found anyone to back them. It’s rough on writers, and it’s not a great sign for the art of literature. Not only has our political world caved in, but our literary world is sliding down a long ramp to nowhere. In theory, many more books are published today because anyone can publish anything — and sell it on Amazon. All books — the great, good, mediocre, and truly awful are lumped together. Most of them are rarely read since none of them are being promoted by a publisher. This isn’t a small thing. Publishers were a huge piece of what made books great. If your publisher believed you’d written something excellent, you could count on being visible on the shelves of bookstores everywhere. You’d also be part of book club publications. People — reading people — would see your book. There were book columns and reviews — and people read them they way they read stuff on upcoming television shows today.

Of course, we are also suffering from the vanishing bookstore … a whole other subject.

A great idea followed by a well-written manuscript was just the beginning of a book’s life story. From the manuscript, publishers took books and did their best to sell them to the world. Today, all that pushing and pitching is left to authors, including those whose books typically sell well.

Can anyone imagine how Faulkner, Hemingway and Thomas Wolf would do trying to “work the marketplace”? No doubt there were writers who were able to do the balancing of writing and marketing, but many authors are not particularly sociable. A good many are downright grumpy and a fair number are essentially inarticulate. They are not naturals to the marketing gig.

And … ponder this … what kind of blog do you think Faulkner … or … Eugene O’Neill … would have written?

I miss books. I miss authors. I miss publishers. I miss carefully edited manuscripts and beautifully published books where you could smell the ink and paper as you cracked the cover open. It was a heady perfume.

THE PASSING OF ANNE GOLON – AUTHOR – ANGELIQUE (MARQUISE DES ANGES)

I just read that Anne Golon passed away on Friday at the age of 95. She was writing until the end. She inspired me as a girl and instilled the belief I could do anything a man could do. She was a wind behind my back for a lifetime.

If you read French, there is an article in Figaro located here.

“Nounou,” inquired Angelique, “Why did Giles de Retz kill so many children?”

With these words, one of the world’s greatest series of historical fiction begins. It is a translation from the French. I have been told by many people who’ve read the series in French, that much was lost in a not-very-good translation.

angelique book cover

Nothing will change the way I feel about these books. Most were written long years ago. I read the first of them when I was 13. I still have the book, though the binding is broken and the pages are beginning to turn to dust. I have since bought a newer version and I have most of the follow ups in paperback.

The first book was published in 1957 and I read it in 1960. In those days, I lived in books. I didn’t have friends. I was too different. I’ve always been out of step. Sometimes, a lot, occasionally almost catching up with my peers. But back then … I was downright weird.

Then I met Angelique.

Fifth child of an impoverished country nobleman, Angélique de Sancé grows up in the Poitou marshlands, a region known as the “Green Venice”, halfway between the ocean and the forests. She is a free child, as one with the forest and the marshes, discovering nature’s healing secrets with the help of the witch Mélusine. Her logical destiny would be to marry a poor country nobleman, have children and spend her life fighting for a meager subsistence.

Destiny has other plans in store for her. At 17, when she returns from the convent where she has been getting an education, she finds herself betrothed to the wealthy count of Toulouse, Joffrey de Peyrac. He is 12 years her senior, lame, scarred and rumored to be a wizard.

from the review by Harvey Adkins

Angélique’s life and adventures inspired me and gave me courage.

angelique pages book

Thus the story begins. In subsequent volumes, they will take you through most of the world of Louis XIV. Joffrey becomes the love of Angélique’s life. After he is burned at the stake for heresy and for being too powerful for the comfort of his enemies, Angélique finds herself in the underworld of Paris — homeless, penniless, with babies to protect. Yet she rises up from the gutters back to the glittering court of Louis XIV. Confronts him on the murder of her husband, rebels against him, leads a group of Huguenots to the New World. Builds a colony, fights emissaries of the church and King to retain her freedom. Along the way, she has children — from a variety of fathers, including one resulting from rape — and one of which is murdered.

With all the power of Crown and Church arrayed against her, Angélique finds a way through and emerges victorious. Bowed, but never beaten, her defeats are setbacks. Her triumphs change the world.

She is deathlessly beautiful. If you are a women taking on the world, it’s never bad to have golden hair and hypnotic green eyes. But Angélique doesn’t win the day using sex. When she leads, she carries a gun and a sword. She will kill in defense of her own — and she does. She will fight for her family, her home, her beliefs.

She became much more than a fictional character to me. At a time when female role models were few and far between, Angélique was a super hero from the past. Unstoppable. Tough. Smart. She suffered the worst that life could dish out. She faced down unspeakable horrors and impossible challenges. Along the way, there were more than a few casualties.

Back in the real world, author Anne Golan was fighting her publisher for the rights to her books.

Anne Golon was born 17 December 1921 as Simone Changeux in Toulon, France. She published her first novel at 18 as Joëlle Danterne. During World War II, she traveled by bicycle through France and Spain writing under various pen-names. She helped create France Magazine. Was sent to Africa as a journalist, where she met Vsevolod Sergeïvich Goloubinoff, her husband, Serge Golon.


She passed away Friday, July 14, 2017 in Versailles, Paris, France.

angelique french edition


They collaborated on Angélique. Anne wrote. Serge did the considerable research required by these surprisingly accurate books. The first book in the series was an astounding success. The books were credited to Serge and Anne Golon, (Sergeanne Golon), the names having been merged by publishers who were reluctant to print books written by women.

In 1972, Anne and Serge Golon went to Canada to continue research. Anne wrote Angélique and the Ghosts. Serge died.

Anne continued writing and raising her 4 children. Between 1972 and 1985, she wrote four more books. While battling Hachette for unpaid royalties and rights, Anne Golon lived in extreme poverty. She finally won, leaving her sole owner of the works.

These are the books which were translated into English:

Angélique, The Marquise of the Angels
Angélique: The Road to Versailles (US and the UK with the 1st volume, Angélique)
Angélique and the King
Angélique and the Sultan (aka, Angélique in Barbary)
Angélique in Revolt
Angélique in Love
The Countess Angélique
The Temptation of Angélique (In Canada as: The Temptation of Angélique 1: The Jesuit Trap, The Temptation of Angélique 2: The Downfall of Goldbeard)
Angélique and the Demon
Angélique and the Ghosts.

The English translation of this series stopped abruptly with Angélique and the Ghosts. Anne Golon’s fans — like their fictional heroine — wanted to know what had happened to the author. She was located in Paris, alive, well, and still writing.

As of August, 2009 — there were three yet-to-be-translated books already in the series:

Angélique à Quebec
Angélique: Route de L’Espoir
Victoire d’Angélique

To date, they remain untranslated, but I live in hope that they may be. Soon, I hope. I’m not getting any younger. English-language readers — like me — have waited more than 40 years. An entire lifetime during which I have gone from adolescent to a senior citizen.

Anne-Golon

I’ve read thousands of books during these long years, but never lost hope for translations of the newer Angélique books.

You can still find information at Angélique Books. It’s not easy to find intact copies of the books, but if you are interested, don’t give up. Amazon has some, off and on. ABE Books sometimes has copies. And of course, there’s eBay. Marquise Des Anges (the original name of the book in France) was made into a movie in 2013, but it has never been released to the American market and I have never been able to find a copy of the movie that will play on my DVD player. I can hope this will happen someday.

Maybe there will be new English-language copies eventually. I hope to see them republished. Soon would be good. They are available in German and of course, in French.

Fare thee well, Anne Golon. You changed my world.

RENEW NOW AND SAVE BIG!

2016 was the year that we stopped ignoring the news and began watching it with a kind of horrified fascination. At first, we thought it was funny. Ridiculous. This couldn’t be serious. It was a goof and everyone was going to end up popping champagne, slapping each other on the back and saying, “Good one!”

Except it wasn’t a joke and after a few weeks, it also wasn’t funny. The news was scary. Unnerving. Disturbing. To keep from total nervous collapse, I started reading articles by Andy Borowitz, the wit of “The New Yorker” magazine. After a while, I found I was following the magazine and reading many — almost all — of the major articles by all the writers. Not to mention loving the cartoons and The New Yorker has always had the best cartoons.

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Finally, I ponied up the money and bought a two-year subscription which came with a free New Yorker book bag in which I now keep my frequently used computer and camera accessories (as opposed to the never or almost-never used accessories). No sooner had I set up my account and started receiving both the hard and electronic copies of the magazine than Condé Nast, The New Yorker’s corporate owner, began besieging me with other magazine offers … and renewal offers for The New Yorker.

The renewal offers get more desperate sounding with each passing day, as if my subscription will make or break the entire corporate structure. Give me a break!

I started my career as the assistant subscription manager of Architectural Digest. I wasn’t there long because I got pregnant and the long commute by Long Island Railroad got to be a bit much for me … and I knew my future was not in subscriptions. I was a writer and I was going to find somewhere I could do what I do and get paid for it. But, for the seven or eight months in subscriptions, I learned a lot about the business.

The first rule of subscriptions is that unless the subscriber is known to be deceased and the place he or she lived has been bulldozed, you never cancel a subscription. Why not? Because magazines do not make money from subscriptions. They make money from advertising, Advertising rates — the cost for a full or part page in a publication — is based on the number of subscribers, so you never want to lower that number. You want to show growth. Only growth. It’s self-defeating to cut off subscribers.

newyorker-renewal

Now, with all magazines doubling up as both web and paper, the equation is a little different, but the concept remains: you set your price for advertising based on the number of people who you can “prove” read your publication … and that is done via subscription numbers. Whether the subscriber is via Internet or postal delivery, that is the only solid evidence you have of who reads you. That is why, when you follow a publication on line, after a few hits on the web site, they require you to open an account. Even if it’s free, an account is a subscription. It counts toward making up the numbers which allow the publication to set good rates.

So why all the hysteria to get me to renew? I suppose because revenue is revenue, even if it’s a trickle rather than a raging river.

The problem is that all this badgering is counter-productive. It doesn’t make me want to renew. It makes me resent that they don’t seem to appreciate I did actually pay them when I could have continued to follow them for free on the Internet. Hounding subscribers to renew when they just subscribed is not endearing. They should stop doing it.

I probably will renew … when this subscription is nearly over. But in the meantime, I’d appreciate an end to the spam. It’s annoying.

RENEWAL | THE DAILY POST

A HARD AND ROCKY ROAD: WHY AUTHORING DOESN’T PAY

I probably will never need to buy another book. I’m a popular reviewer. When I worked at Doubleday, I was extremely popular there, too. Probably because I read the books. So many reviewers don’t read the books they review. You can tell when you read their reviews that all they did was skim the first couple of pages and work from the publisher’s summaries. TV critics seem to be doing the same thing these days. Sometimes movie reviewers, too. It’s why we read a book or see a movie, then check reviews and wonder if it’s the same book or movie.

english-writersI remember at Doubleday I would discover that the publisher’s summary was factually wrong. Wrong names for major characters. Wrong relationships between characters. Incorrect plot description. It was clear whoever wrote the summary had not read the book.

So … who did read the book? Did anyone read it? That was in the mid 1970s, when most people did read, at least sometimes. Now? Does anyone read books before they are published, and have reviewers read the books they are praising or panning?

Until this year, I was a judge for a major book award. I did it for more than a decade. It started out as fun. You’d get a bunch of books, read, review, and rate them, picking a few to move on to the finals. A few years ago, they started sending me more books … so many I could not possibly read even half of them in the allotted time. Last year, I think I had almost 100 books to judge with an average of more than 300 pages per book. And just five weeks to read them all.

It was hopeless. A couple of books were more than 500  pages. These were books that needed considerable stage-setting before the story began. Depending on genre, authors may devote a couple of hundred pages to explaining how their world works. If there’s magic. Rules of the physical world. Some geography. Who and what gods are extant — or were. What languages are spoken. A bit of history, so characters don’t walk onto an empty stage.

Tolkien was a genius at world-building, which is why he remains the gold standard for the fantasy genre.

mugar_library

If you only have an hour to give each book you’re judging, how can you, in good faith, even get a sense of what the book is about, much less if it’s good? Were you to put J.R.R. Tolkien to this test, you’d never get out of Hobbiton. More than 300 pages of Lord of the Rings is geography, language, history, and demographics.

All history books require substantial background, as do historical novels and time-travel books that are historical novels in science fiction garb. A lot of writers use “the wormhole in time” to get readers to be “in the time” rather than looking back at it. It’s been a popular ploy for generations.

quill penSo this year, I said no to judging. It wasn’t fair to the authors to judge them without giving them a proper reading. I have to wonder how many other “awards” are done this way, with over-burdened judges who have too many books or whatever to review without adequate time in which to do it. I’m sure I was not the only one who got down to the wire and was unable to even skim several books before “judging them.” I wouldn’t do it again.

For all of these reasons, I’m diligent about reviewing books — or anything else. I’m not getting paid and reviews won’t make me famous or rich. They won’t even buy me a quick meal at Mickey D’s. But it is a big deal to authors. Reviews make or break books, even for established authors.

I suspect all authors are perpetually being judged. Reviewed. Each book is a trial by fire. A book doesn’t sell and suddenly, your publisher forgets your name. The industry wants nothing to do with a failing author. Even if you have written a string of major best-sellers, you are only as good as the sales figures of your most recently published volume.

I doubt any of the great authors of the past would thrive under these conditions. Can you imagine Hemingway doing his own PR? Or Capone? Can you imagine Shakespeare dealing with focus groups and fighting for his contract to be renewed?

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So I do my bit. Not for money or glory, or even for the authors, who I love. I do it because if no one cares about the quality of books being published, eventually it will all be pulp and garbage. There will be classics from days of yore and nothing new worth reading.

I have had people tell me I’m stupid for doing so much work for free, but authors don’t have money — and publishers won’t pay. Even successful authors — unless Hollywood has bought their books — aren’t financially secure. Maybe Stephen King and Michael Crichton don’t have to worry about where the next check will come from, but every other author I know — and at this point, I know more than a few — are scraping by. Many still keep their day jobs because there are mortgages to pay and kids to feed.

You have to love writing for its own sake. As a profession, authoring is a hard and rocky road. Glory and riches come to few.  Maybe publishers get rich. I hope someone is making money, because as far as I can tell, most authors don’t.

SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART III – MARTHA KENNEDY

Me in ObfeldenIs today Saturday? No, it’s Sunday. This should have appeared yesterday. Right here. Except — I thought yesterday was still Friday, but woke up very early this morning with the distinct feeling of having missed a deadline. In more than 40 years of working as a professional writer and editor — this is my first missed deadline. I suppose it was bound to happen someday, but I’m very sorry anyhow.

And so … a day late, but not too late … is the third of three posts by Martha Kennedy on getting a novel into print.

This one hits close to home for me. It’s the same process I went through. Many of us have self-published, and even more, will do so eventually. With traditional publishers thin on the ground, we find ourselves facing a choice: self-publish or keep trying to get a publisher to pay attention. At what point do you decide to stop waiting and move ahead on your own?


Self-Publishing – The Other Way to Do It

By Martha Kennedy

Some people have broken into “the big time” of commercial publication through self-publishing.

Most don’t.

There are manifestos now stating that self-published work is every bit as good as conventionally published work. That is not necessarily false, but is it necessarily true?

Lots of bad writing is published commercially. Still, I believe more bad writing is published by individuals using free, self-publishing platforms such as Lulu, Createspace, or IngramSpark.

The wonderfulness of “Indie” publishing is that anyone can publish a book, but being able to publish a book doesn’t mean the author can write. Which is why a stigma still lingers around self- or Indie-publishing. It is frequently a valid issue.

72-The Bros Path Cover PromoIn response to the problem, organizations are emerging that seek to find and reward good writing in self-published books. Since I only write historical fiction, I’m not familiar with all of the organizations but I know one.

IndieBRAG is a group of volunteers who read books that have been submitted to the organization. The books are rated on a very fine, proprietary “score card” which includes the physical presentation. If the book earns a certain average score or above, it is awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion.

Fewer than 10% of the books submitted (all genres) win this award. IndieBRAG then posts reviews everywhere relevant (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads), stating, “We are proud to announce that TITLE by AUTHOR is a B.R.A.G.Medallion Honoree. This informs readers that the book is worth their investment of time and money!”

In my own area, the Historical Novel Society publishes a review several times a year. One of the reviews is Indie Novels. Such novels are submitted to them, then undergo a rigorous test before they can be awarded an Editors Choice or short-listed for the annual Indie Book Award.

The dark side of this trend is you will find companies online who will take your money in exchange for an award or a positive review.

None of these groups – good or bad — existed when I published my first “Indie” novel, Martin of Gfenn in 2011. I paid attention, though. As soon as I learned of new opportunities for my novel, I submitted it. Martin of Gfenn has won both an Editors Choice from the Historical Novel Society and an IndieBRAG Medallion. My second novel, Savior, is also an IndieBRAG Medallion honoree.

Nonetheless, self- or Indie Publishing — whatever you want to call it – has a long way to go before they will be as well-regarded and sought after as commercially (traditionally) published books. Beyond the “stigma,” lies another hard reality: people who publish their own books are (typically) writers, not marketers. Bookstores, especially chains like Barnes & Noble, don’t stock Indie books, though they will sell them by special order.

It does not mean you shouldn’t self-publish. It does mean you should be aware of the challenges involved.

It’s Easier Than You Think

For anyone whose ability to use common software is slightly above average, self-publishing is easy. For those who do not have the skills, every platform offers expert services plus many post-publishing services, among them, marketing. For me, the offers are great, but far out of my price range. Nor am I sure how effective they are … and I have no way to find out.

There are also many independent, free-lance, people who have made a business of editing, formatting, cover design — pretty much every service a self-published author needs to make a good-looking, readable book. These free-lancers are often more competitively priced than the same services offered via the publishing platforms.

I enjoy designing book and their covers. I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. I didn’t even attempt to publish Martin of Gfenn before I’d gone through the entire process with a small test book of essays. I do invest in a good editor with whom I work well.

When The Brothers Path experienced such maltreatment at the hands of agents and publishers, I decided to fight, to bust my ass marketing this novel and the other two, as well.

These days, I get up every morning, and “go to work” marketing my fiction. I have accepted advice from everyone who has offered it. I’ve also done a lot of online research. I’ve spent $300 on a virtual book tour and $100 for an advertisement on Goodreads.  I have set up giveaways (which not free for authors) and have made a book trailer for The Brothers Path. I have a webpage (marthakennedy.co) that tells everyone about all my novels and links back to each novel’s webpage.

I’ve sought reviews, issued a new edition of my second novel so it conforms more to the third because they are, loosely, prequel and sequel — both about the same family, though nine generations apart. I’m going at it as if I this was a paid job — because it is the only way I will get paid to do it.

Internally (hopefully not eternally), I’m contending with shyness and dislike of being with groups of strangers who expect something of me. I’m beginning to accept that I need to go out into the world to make connections rather than friends. I’m trying to manage a launch of my book that isn’t just me and my pals sharing a pizza.

But … I would rather write.

Why Write?

With all the obstacles to a book getting published, it’s not unreasonable to ask the question.

The experience of trying and failing to conventionally publish a novel turns many people away from writing. Maybe that’s a good thing. I don’t think anyone should write if they have another route to happiness.

Not being published does not have to mean not writing. Give that idea a little while to sink in. For anyone who genuinely loves writing and who has stories to tell, writing is a pleasure. All by itself. The reason I’m not (currently) satisfied with simply writing (although, in principle, I am completely satisfied with it), is because of the people who have read my books.

I write serious literature. It’s readable and friendly. The characters are likable, but you don’t write about leprosy, God, depression, death, religious war, bad parenting, adolescent confusion, torture and call it “light reading while you’re waiting for the airport shuttle.” I don’t write that stuff. I don’t know why I don’t write it. I just don’t.

Our writing reflects our lives, ourselves. I know things about my life that my readers probably will not guess at which I do not completely understand. But I’m willing to follow inspiration through the labyrinth toward a good story. I’m honored by the gift.

My novels have affected people. Many readers have left reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, or written directly to me, or spoken to me, telling me what a story meant to them.

A few weeks ago some friends and I were driving to Great Sand Dune National Park. This amazing place is in my neighborhood. Both neighbors have read — and loved — my books. They understand what I’m trying to do now. Their understanding means a lot to me. We got on the subject of why I write, in passing, light conversation, and I said, “This might sound arrogant, but my books are what I have to share with others.”

My friend said, “That’s not arrogant at all.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to marthakennedy.co. Her daily blog can be found at http://marthakennedy.wordpress.com/


THE BROTHERS PATH, by Martha Kennedy

The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

Use this link for: The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.


If you haven’t read part I, you will find it here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART I 

You can find part II here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART II 

SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART TWO – BY MARTHA KENNEDY

Me in Obfelden

Welcome back!

Today’s post is the second of three parts by the Martha Kennedy as she struggles with the ever-changing requirements of marketing a novel.

Many of us have trod this path. More will tread it soon. Each of us has one or more stories to share about the perils of publishing in a market that is constantly reinventing itself.

This is for all of us who have written books, are thinking about writing a book, or are attempting to market a book in a world where none of the old rules apply.



SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART II – AGENTS AND REJECTION
by Martha Kennedy


I once heard an agent speak to a group of writers. She said, “You have no idea how difficult our jobs are. We have to read all your manuscripts on our own time. We stay up late at night to get through all that.” Seriously. She said that.

This was at a well-known writer’s conference. I was listening to what had been billed as a presentation on, “Finding the Right Agent.” Hearing her, I thought, “Listen, Sweetcheeks. Your income comes from our work. If you don’t like your job, quit, but don’t insult the goose — geese — who lay your golden eggs, your Manhattan apartment, your travel allowance, and keep you in Manolo Blahnik shoes.”

At that same writer’s conference, I made appointments to pitch a novel that had once had an agent. That agent had not performed, so I had fired her and moved on. I knew the book was a very good book (it’s since won two awards). I signed up to talk to three agents during that conference at $40 a pop. My novel is about a man with leprosy. It’s set in the 13th century. The protagonist is an artist. Each agent had confirmed our pitch session and asked for a synopsis and a chapter or two so they would be prepared.

Here’s how that panned out.

One agent was sick of being an agent and sick of talking to authors, so I never got to give a pitch. She talked to me about the problems she was having with her teenaged son, then asked me to send the manuscript and never responded.

The next listened to my pitch and asked, “Have you done any research? Lots of you historical fiction people just make things up.” She asked for the manuscript and a list of sources.

The third listened to my pitch and at the end said, “So what happens to this guy? Does he get married and have kids? Or what?” (This story is about a leper, remember?)

I’m sure there are other kinds of agents. I just have not (yet) met one. Agents are the gate-keepers. To get access to major publishers, you must be an agented writer. There are almost no publishers available who will even consider a manuscript that is not submitted via an agent … and that means the agent must see your work as a future money-maker.

REJECTION


The advice you will get is inevitably “keep trying.” With rejection, you often get a note which says something along the lines of: “We accept new clients based solely upon the current needs and interests of this agency and we simply didn’t see a good match. Given that the publishing industry is admittedly subjective, no doubt another publisher will feel differently.”

“No mea culpa” it says. Not our fault. Annoying as that is to hear, it’s also true.

It means, “The market has little or no interest in this thing you’re trying to persuade us to represent. If it did, you can bet we’d be on it like piranhas on steak.” The only lie is that the publishing industry is “subjective.” It really isn’t. You can be sure they do good market research. While some publishers do not publish, say, “self-help” another publisher might. That’s the limit to the “subjectivity.”

That rejection, by the way, came from a small press who, the year before, had wanted to publish that very book.

When I got into this game there was no Internet. We had to use paper and envelopes and send everything with a(n) SASE. I actually found one of those in my file drawers last week with a hugely expensive return stamp on it and an address for where I lived fifteen years ago. “A relic,” I thought, “of forgotten times.” Though, truth be told (and why not?) a few agents will only accept paper queries. Hassle, yes, but they are possibly more likely to read your pitch for REAL. Here’s why…

My favorite rejection (and I can’t find it now that I want to quote it) was being told that when a particular agency ran my project through their computerized manuscript screening system, the algorithm responded that my work did not have the qualities deemed necessary to be a publishing success. I laughed at first, having been rejected by an algorithm, then I realized that with online submissions, a writer’s work is likely to be evaluated by a computer program designed to measure its probable marketability.

Which isn’t to say “don’t try.” Just know the cards are absolutely, certainly, 100% stacked against you unless you are keyed into the market; you are Dan Brown ahead of Dan Brown, so to speak. The downside to success (and it might not appear to be much of a downside) is that it’s very difficult for J. K. Rowling to write anything but Harry Potter. She wants to; she has a nom de plume under which she writes other things — none of them have had much success.

When you’re work is accepted by a publisher, you can get screwed in new and amazing ways. Many are the stories. Here’s mine. Last year I did the work of submitting my latest novel, The Brothers Path, to the available pantheon of agents and publishers who might be interested. I kept a spread sheet that helped me stay on top of the progress of the queries I’d sent.

The great day and jubilation came, and my novel, The Brothers Path, was accepted by two small publishers. I had to choose. My editor said it was an “embarrassment of riches,” but I didn’t feel that way because I had no crystal ball. Most other things being equal, one was closer and offered an earlier publication date, so I chose them, but with mixed feelings.

I was sent a good contract, signed it, prepared to move forward, still with my mixed feelings and the knowledge I’d have to talk to this publisher about one thing in particular …

You see, when I looked at their list of publications I saw Richard Wagner’s face on the cover of a book about Victorian England. I love Wagner. I figured “A book about Wagner!” and I checked the book out on Amazon. The story had nothing to do with Wagner.

Summoning my courage (after all the great big publisher was doing me the honor of publishing my book, right?) I told the publisher I was worried about the cover of my novel because, well, Wagner. He said he hadn’t known it was Wagner. He’d looked for free images of faces of 19th century men, and there was Wagner. He then let me know that he had since bought face recognition software (an algorithm?) so that wouldn’t happen again.

“And really,” he said, “how many American readers would recognize it?”

To myself, said, “I did.”

Things moved along fine until he went out of business. At the time, I was crushed. He sent me the formatted manuscript (a real boon to someone who knows she will be self-publishing). I set it up on Lulu and Createspace. Ordered some copies. Got them back and saw that this idiot had changed some of the words in my novel so that one or two important passages no longer made sense. I know I should have checked earlier, but…

If he’d read my book, he hadn’t understood it. He changed the word “fall” to “autumn” when it was used in a conversation between two clerics who are discussing the Garden of Eden and the discovery of human sexuality:

“Tell me, Brother. How many men and women come to you with stories of carnal desires and sin? And how many of those are members of your own order?”

Hannes answered honestly. “Everyone does. Everyone.”

“It is our nature. The Bible tells us to go into the Earth and be fruitful and multiply.”

“After the Fall Autumn, Brother Leo.”

He had changed “After the Fall” to “After the Autumn,” thus rendering the passage to mean that people couldn’t have sex until after December 21.

Since then there has not been a day I have not felt grateful to the fates for the way things turned out. “More tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones.” St. Teresa of Avila, but hey. I read that in Truman Capote’s unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.


Jonny Geller is a literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown, the world’s oldest Literary and Talent agency, based in London looks at what lies behind some of the most successful books of recent years. He explores the patterns and trends underlying their popularity and describes what a literary agent looks for in a writer.


72-The Bros Path Cover PromoThe world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.

If you haven’t read part I, you will find it here: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART I


Come back next Saturday for part III of “So you want to be a writer.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to Historical Fiction by Martha Kennedy. Her daily blog is Where’s the Windmill? 

SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER – PART I – GUEST BLOG BY MARTHA KENNEDY

Me in ObfeldenToday’s post is the first of three parts by the fabulous Martha Kennedy as she struggles with the weird world of marketing a novel. Many of us have trod this path and even more will be treading it soon. Each of us has a story (or many stories) to tell about the perils of publishing in a market that’s been reinventing itself continuously for decades.

This is for all of us who have written books, are thinking about writing a book, or are attempting to market a book in a world where none of the old rules apply.


I write literary historical fiction, so everything I have to say is from that perspective. People who write different things, in other genres for different audiences are likely to have their own stories about this process. My novels (so far) all are set in the rather dim past in Switzerland. I suspect the ONLY genre less appealing to publishers than historical fiction might be poetry.

But that’s okay.

Before I submit a manuscript, I hire a professional editor. Then, I scrupulously follow the requirements of each agency to which I submit my project. There is really nothing more any writer can do. I write well. I know this because my work has won awards. And, strangely enough, I’m OK with the system as it is. It hasn’t worked for me, but I understand why. Here’s what I’ve learned.

YOU NEED A BIT OF LUCK

You can be the best writer in the world. Ever. Objectively the best. Yet it does not mean your work will sell to a publisher, get printed, or distributed to the public. On the flip side, you can be a not-so-good writer and wind up with a bestseller.

To detail the whole long road of what it takes to get your work commercially published these days, you have to know from the get-go that it might actually be (oh my god!) a crap-shoot.

It’s an inscrutable equation that leads to a bestseller. The right story. The right voice. The right time. Taken objectively, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” is not a great work of art. It is, as Brown himself says, “An entertaining story.” A manipulative page-turner with a provocative, captivating theme. It was exactly right for the moment it was published. Dan Brown is a good writer, but a lot of what propelled his book into the stratosphere, was luck.

Another historical novel that’s not great literature (or even good literature, or good writing) is New York Times bestseller, “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.” The author, Jennifer Chiaraverini, had a solid following based on the Elm Creek Quilts series and the book hit the market exactly as the United States elected its first Black president. There is much wrong with the book, including plagiarism, yet many people (not me) found it to be likable and readable.

This advice for authors about the advantages of being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award is telling:

Being nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards is the result of several factors:

A book needs to have gained traction on Goodreads with people rating and adding the book to their shelves. As always, getting your book into the hands (and e-readers) of as many people as possible is key. Goodreads has many tools to help authors and publishers promote their books to readers. These include our giveaways program, targeted advertising, Ask the Author, editorial interviews, and more.

Keep the moment going by sparking discussion about your book through Ask the Author.
Consider advertising the book on Goodreads to keep reminding people about the book (and mention existing ratings/reviews to reinforce how readers are loving it).

Write a really, really good book!

Writing a really good book is at the bottom of this list for a reason.

IT’S ALL ABOUT MARKETING

More important than your book is a query letter that stimulates literary agents to salivate while imagining the big bucks they’re going to get when they sell your book to a publisher. And maybe Hollywood.

Books have been written on how to write a query letter. I have written successful ones, I think. Honestly, I’m not sure if my letters were great or the person on the other end of the message liked the idea, or their boss said, “Hey, if you get a query for a book about leprosy in the 13th century, ask for the manuscript.” I have no way to know. Regardless, there are a few basics that apply:

  • It must be grammatically perfect. No typos (if you can swing it; I’m incapable).
  • It should be written with a degree of panache. You need to generate some excitement.
  • I learned to study my audience and followed instructions, skills every writer needs.
AGENTS

Love them or hate them, selling your book is a lot easier if you have one. That being said, agents are (in my experience) petty little gods and goddesses who deign to recognize the work of writers who they regard as fools.

Why do I have such a cynical view? Experience. I’ve queried hundreds of agents. Pretty much universally, I have gotten little but arrogance and rudeness in return. Lucky for me, I think it’s funny.

72-The Bros Path Cover Promo


The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later — without being baptized.

Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531.

It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America seeking the safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would to remind us why immigrants to America have always been adamant about separating church and state.

The Brothers Path on Amazon for Kindle and in paperback.


Come back next Saturday for part II of “So you want to be a writer.”

To learn more about Martha’s historical fiction, go to Historical Fiction by Martha Kennedy. Her daily blog is Where’s the Windmill?