by Pat Holt
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE: THE BROWSING EXPERIENCE
After my interview with author and former Wired Online columnist M.J. Rose (see #374), I was invited by Rose and Publishers Lunch founder Michael Cader to appear as a guest in one of the many forums that Cader's website, Publishers Marketplace, sponsors online at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com.
It was fun to subject people other than Holt Uncensored subscribers to windy answers about book industry issues, and the big bonus for me was permission to roam around Publishers Marketplace to see what real insiders (as opposed to observers like me) are discussing in private.
Like many addicts of Cader's indispensable daily digest of publishing news, Publishers Lunch, I've sampled the free trial he offers to explore Publishers Marketplace. That was a while ago, however, and at the time I thought the site a better place for agents and publishers to check out each other's sales, book reviews and deals-in-the-making than a source of juicy news for the rest of us dillettan - I mean, observers.
But this time I realized what a gold mine the publishersmarketplace.com has become, and still can be. Here are literary agents (not just a list but full webpages complete with interests, background, titles sold, authors represented), editors (ditto), publishers (mostly independent; many discoveries here), packagers, writers (what a range!), editorial services, designers, publicists (still building), consultants, technology companies, services providers and others.
An Announcement Board has just begun to showcase events that are too regional or esoteric to make Publishers Lunch. And the Job Board appears to be a godsend in the making.
But the chat rooms are the most volatile, offering a kind of backroom confidentiality that keeps everybody out of everybody else's business - in other words, writers talk to each other away from editors; editors talk to each other away from marketing people, and so forth. Various subcategories break off as needed, so Cader keeps adding to the site. I came to believe the fee of $15 a month is cheap for the multitude of services offered.
Meanwhile, as I was peeking around, the give-and-take of my own guest appearance got to be so heady (even for me) that I asked Cader if I could run the whole thing in this column. I know he wants to restrict these discussions to people who pay to be members, but heck, consider me a "loss leader," I said to Cader. I've certainly been called worse in my life, and it's a good way to spread the word about subjects of concern to everybody in the book biz, including readers.
So that's what we decided. I appeared on Publishers Marketplace to talk about editing within the context of the massive convulsions that have hit the publishing industry over the past couple of decades. References range from of my own niche service, Manuscript Express, to more formal institutions in which manuscript consultants, literary agents, editors and marketing departments play key roles.
M.J. Rose her very own self starts off the Q/A, and I've cut up and parcelled out subsequent Questions and Answers to make for easier reading. Some of this information will sound familiar to readers of this column, but keep scrolling for subjects of interest I've never touched upon before.
QUESTION: What's wrong with publishing that a service like Manuscript Express is needed? What about editors at houses? Isn't this what they are for? (I have an idea, but want to hear your answers.)
How does your service differ from the traditional $5000-$7500 book doctor? How is it the same?
Who needs manuscript express? Who doesn't need it? How can someone best use it?
ANSWER: I think it's no secret any longer that in mainstream publishing, it's the rare agent or editor who has time to work closely with authors in the traditional (but long-ago, I'm afraid) capacity as editorial nurturer or mentor. Too often acquiring editors are pressured to move on to buy more and more books, especially those that will return a hefty profit. So the author of what we call a "mid-list book" (and believe me, that only means a book that hasn't yet become a bestseller or won a prestigious literary prize) is handed over to editorial assistants, some of whom are energetic but barely out of college. The person who used to be the last-gap for quality control, the copyeditor, has been stretched so thin that a manuscript can lurch through the publishing process without any editing at all.
So what is an author going to do? Years ago (well, decades ago, I'm sorry to say), it used to be that literary agents offered strategic editorial guidance. But then came that "exodus of the '90s" in which dozens of very good editors left mainstream publishing houses because their decisions about choosing good books were repeatedly overturned by marketing departments, which said in effect, we won't buy this book, and this book, and this book, because it won't sell. Many of these editors have joined literary agencies because they have the talent to provide key assistance to up-and-coming authors, but the nuts and bolts of agenting and the pencil-thin margin of profit that literary agencies must face have pressured these editors-turned-agents, too, to leave the nurturing behind - and the promising author along with it.
For many years, while at the Chronicle and before that with PW, I encouraged authors to seek out manuscript consultants who would tell them - not if the book is publishable but if they as writers have talent enough to continue, and, if so, how they can work with the consultant to make their manuscript the best it can be. Thus when those marketing folk ask the author to make certain compromises - for example, to make Chapter 1 "less depressing" (no kidding); to get rid of this or that character; to shorten paragraphs to a few sentences; to change the AIDS to cancer (honestly) - the author will know exactly how strong the integrity of the book is and how much he or she is willing to change.
I still hope authors seek out manuscript consultants, and I still recommend these indefatigable veterans of the writing trade. But I've come to realize over the years that even before you seek out a manuscript consultant, you can grapple with fundamental issues about your book - as well as grammatical ones, such as where to put a comma (believe it or not, this is a huge problem with many writers), that will save a lot of time and energy - and money - early on.
So Manuscript Express was started as a niche service that offers a quick turnaround and attempts to answer the following questions authors are always asking themselves:
I don't try to answer all these questions, but they're rolling around in my mind as I read the manuscript, and I try to gear the answers so that once you as author are ready to show the ms. to a manuscript consultant or submit a book proposal to a literary agent or editor, you won't waste a lot of time and money rewriting. I include thoughts about marketing because these days agents and editors want a marketing plan.
Because it's a quick turnaround, I don't require anything near the $5,000-$7,000 mentioned that "book doctors" or manuscript consultants charge. These guys are in it for the long haul, it seems to me - they are going to help authors through many rewrites and long discussions, and, I hope at that price, they are on call for crisis-management conversations when clients find themselves staring at the blank screen or can't get a character out of the taxi and on to the next scene.
So my basic fee ($750-$1500) covers a detailed and lengthy report (about 10 single-spaced pages), plus a lot of editing thoughts and grammatical suggestions, as well as pencilled commentary on the first 50-100 pages. I like to say that I read the manuscript until my head is exploding with ideas and I have to sit down and write you a longie. Sometimes I grab the tape recorder and go through the ms. page by page to talk candidly about every angle of every approach I see.
It takes about 10 hours, and that's it. Authors have re-hired me to read a 2nd and (once or twice) a 3rd version, but by then I have to admit, I'm rooting too much for them to be objective and have to step out of the loop. (Ergo the manuscript consultant, who really IS a pro when it comes to keeping the eye fresh, the emotions out of it and the nurturing hand unbiased and steady).
QUESTION: Can you give us two or three scenarios of what has happened with books that have come your way so far?
ANSWER: Here are three:
QUESTION: What made you decide to do this service? And how do you feel about the state of publishing these days in regards to what authors should be thinking about and doing?
ANSWER: Obviously, I find this work a joy, and it turns out there's a big bonus: It's all part of the "author revolution" that is currently turning the publishing world on end. Here's how it looks to me:
Years ago, all I heard were horror stories about authors getting dumped, one way or another, by publishers - jackets ruined, editors left, tours were cancelled, print runs delayed, autographings sabotaged because books never arrived. Who wouldn't despair?
But these days, I hear more about authors preparing for the worst - learning how to find and approach the best agents and editors around; hiring their own manuscript and publicity consultants; offering jacket ideas from the outset; taking special sales to their local bookseller (who provides a discount) instead of waiting for the publisher's (sometimes nonexistent) Special Sales department; and, most of all (this I've heard from M.J. Rose and boy, this is at the heart of it), being ready NOT to publish until conditions are right.
I feel that very good people who know what they are doing and respect authors as the center of the publisher world still exist, bless them, in mainstream houses. But after - gad - more than 30 years working with books, I have to say that I've never seen an industry turn against the very people who pay all our salaries, in the way that publishing has turned against authors (and in an off-handed, you-should-be-grateful manner to boot). So it's an honor to not only see authors rebounding but to be a part of the revolution that they've inspired.
QUESTION: I'm really taken with the idea that since you spent so many years writing reviews - wouldn't it be smart for a lot of us who are already published to give you our books after the house has approved the first draft and have you read the book and give us a read? Tell us what the reviewers are going to say so we can fix what is missing or what is there that shouldn't be?
It's a bit different than what you describe above. Some of us don't need as much as you offer - but I'd love to get a final read like that.
And boy, are you right - more books are going out without hardly any editing. More and more I hear stories from writers who get their final copy edited draft back from BIG houses only to discover there are dozens if not hundreds of new mistakes or typos.
And also - you say: "I've never seen an industry turn against the very people who pay all our salaries, in the way that publishing has turned against authors (and in an off-handed, you-should-be-grateful manner to boot)."
Right. Right. Right. What should we do? ANSWER: Well, here's the problem with giving a person like me the first draft after the house has approved it.
QUESTION: Actually Pat I didn't mean after the editor had approved it - even if I wrote that. I wasn't thinking through the process - what I really meant was after the house bought it before the author turns in the first draft to the editor.
I think I was mixing up two things in my head. The mess authors are getting back from really lousy copy editors and the lazy jobs so many editors are forced to do because of time constraints and too many authors.
So. Would it make sense to give it to you before one gives it to one's editor. Sort of a pre editorial confab. Sort of doing part of the editors' job for them to prevent the catastrophe of so many authors not getting edited.
Plus it would alleviate a new problem I'm hearing about. ARCs are being made from authors final but pre edited and pre copyedited drafts so the reviewers are seeing books that don't just have a few typos in them but are full of problems. This is being done, I've been told, to save time and money, but I know several reviewers who have thrown books across the room and not reviewed them for all the faults only to discover they were reading an ARC that had been made from the author's manuscript pre edit.
Nice, huh? I've heard about five of these in the last month.
ANSWER: Here are two general answers from my point of view:
QUESTION: Is $2,000 a reasonable fee for book editing?
ANSWER: Yes, $2000 is a "reasonable fee" for book editing IF you agree with the editor you hire beforehand about exactly what the service will entail.
QUESTION: How do you recommend authors find the person who has the right skill match-up for their kind of work, and make sure that for whatever fee they're paying, they are getting high-quality professional advice that can make a big difference?
ANSWER: I would say in the range of $2000 to $10,000, you can expect the consultant to look at the manuscript first and give you a pretty clear idea of a timetable and the precise ways he or she will work with you on the particular needs of the book. At this point, you've got enough evidence in that little report to get a feel for the person and whether he/she can do the work. After that, I would say, let your gut rule: If you like and trust the person and the proposal sounds good, do it if you can afford it. This is why I think a lot of niche services like Manuscript Express will be popping up all over the place very soon. If you're not sure the manuscript is going in the right direction, or that you have writing ability that's worth spending $2-$10,000, a quick-turnaround analysis like Manuscript Express could save you a lot of money in the long run - and help you best utilize the veteran consultants who are worth the dough, if and when you get to that stage..
QUESTION: I think writers often struggle with the "matchmaking" aspect of publishing--finding the right agent, the right editor, the right publisher, the right publicist. As the independent editor becomes more critical, that's another important search.
At what points in the process do you think a writer should turn to services like yours, as well as the other services offered by independent editors? (You've answered the question about when it's too late -- but is there a too early?) Should you get an agent first; experience agent/editorial rejection first; etc.
ANSWER: Whether there is ever a time when it's ever too early to hire a writing consultant, yes, there is. In the early stages, the author needs to work through all the bugaboos, and explore many different writing possibilities at once. From the first sentence to the overall construction, you can sit in front of your keyboard killing yourself over decisions that one day will come to you more organically as part of the process. If that's the case, you might do well to join a writers' group. Check bulletin boards on the Internet, at your local bookstore, on a college campus or coffee house for notices and try to find the hardest-working, firm-but-supportive, no-nonsense, regularly meeting handful (not too much more) of like-minded writers in your neighborhood. Over time, you can work out the toughest, thorniest problems that afflict you as a writer in these confabs, and then, once you've "graduated" (you'll know and they'll tell you when this happens) to the level of showing your manuscript outside the group, you'll be ready for the next stop, which might be a manuscript consultant. Writers' groups are always a crap shoot, though, so you have to be flexible and seek out the kind of constructive criticism that truly helps. (I don't think writers' groups that only listen to an author read out loud are as valuable as those groups that read and critique the author's work, on the page and in detail, before the group meets. Just a thought.)
QUESTION: When an author is looking for a book doctor, what questions should be asked? Not just the good questions, but the bad ones. I'm a great believer in asking people I'm considering hiring things like: What is the worst job you ever did for someone and why did it happen? Or what kind of person should never hire you?
How can an author make sure that he or she is really getting the best bang for the buck - ugg what an awful expression - but you know what I mean?
ANSWER: The big problem for a book doctor like me is that all work is confidential, so I can't show potential clients any of my Reports to previous clients. (There's no hope of disguising these Reports by changing plots and characters because every book is unique - or at least my comments try to help the author address problems unique to that particular book - so removing or renaming identifying characteristics would only make the Report sound vague and bland, the opposite of the book doctor's goal.)
Thus when persnickety potential clients like MJ ask such a book doctor like me to name-that-worst-case-scenario, I frankly feel the exercise is kind of a waste of time. My general letter of intent, which states the questions I think need to be discussed, pretty much stands for itself, and I assume most book doctors provide something like that (the questions are stated in an early post here, by the way).
But now that you've asked about the worst-case scenario, MJ, and I've sat here for many valuable minutes thinking about it, here's an answer that might show you why I feel it doesn't really help to get into this:
One time I was writing one of my voluminous Reports when I happened to say to the author, "Maybe you aren't cut out to be a novelist (so many of us writers aren't!)." I then went on to explain why, for this book, the requirements of fiction were not working, that other options were available, and yadda-yadda - clearly, it turned out, the author was too shocked to take it all in. My comment had proven so painful that I received a very long email not only criticizing my insensitivity and pure inaccuracy (the author had published fiction previously), but also lining up reasons to demonstrate why the author thought I was wrong.
Well, I will forever kick myself around the block for not editing the original comment out of the Report - it had been stated in the midst of my enthusiasm for making a different point, but what an inexcusable thing to say to a budding author. Even worse, I could see that the very reason this author had sent me a check in the first place (to hire me for a *helpful* critique) had been compromised and, if I didn't act quickly, would end up lost forever to this writer.
So I apologized all over myself immediately in the hope of taking all of the blame and all of the burden and thus, I also hoped, to clear a new path so the Report would again be of value to the client. Luckily for me, the very gracious author got past it and wrote back to accept my apology and continue with our discussion about other remarks in the Report that did turn out to be useful.
But this what I learned: As a professional advocate, I want to see what you *can* do as a writer, and if I really think you aren't cut out to be published I'll tell you in a manner that befits the professional *you* are. That is, by answering the questions I set out in my general statement at the beginning, not in some off-hand way that could send you into shock.
In any case, the reason this kind of exchange seems to me a waste of time as mentioned above is that it mires us in negativity, when by this time I could be knee deep in the early pages of your manuscript. Granted, it's not easy to know if the match-up is going to work, but no easy way exists - no answer to probing questions at the outset is going tell you what kind of editor I am on the page. I have to stand on the statement I send out, and you have to take the chance.
End of discussion. Whew.
A LAUGH AND A LESSON
I rarely reprint those humorous and chewy letters that circulate on the Internet, but if you haven't seen this one, take a look. The truth of the message left me a'ponderin' for some time.
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the first and last ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef, but the wrod as a wlohe
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding MJ Rose's first print run, it wasn't POD. MJ told me (via email some time in late 1999 or 2000) that she had a traditional print run done. She definitely invested something around $5000. Pocket could not have bought "the remainder of Roe's (sic) POD copies to use as advance readers' copies" if the book was POD because they would not have existed to buy. They would have been printed one by one "on demand."
Rose survived being self-published, nothing more. The unfortunate thing is that POD is just a printing technology. It's been co-opted by vanity publishers to such an extent that all books printed POD get tarred with the same brush. There are some fabulous books out there printed POD--and they come from all kinds of publishers--vanity, co-op, traditional house and on and on.
Just keeping you accurate.
Mary E Tyler
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One fix in the article - I self-pubbed "Lip Service" in 1998 and sold it to Doubleday and Pocket in early 99. So it's been four years.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Your article about M.J. Rose was a thing of beauty. As an author who struggles with the same issues - how much time should I devote to promoting and peddling my last book instead of writing the next book - I greatly appreciated it. As an admirer of the Holt style of writing... I greatly appreciated it.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
One of the really incredible things about M.J. Rose is that I knew, when I first read "Lip Service" to review for Rendezvous Review Magazine, that she was going to be not only big, but BIG, BIG, BIG, and I said so at the next Rendezvous staff meeting. I was astonished nobody in NY would give her book a chance, because "Lip Service" had every earmark of a book destined for stardom. Why didn't they see that, if I could?
I've reviewed all of M.J. Rose's books to date, and watched her grow as an author. I've also closely watched the way she promotes. She deserves every single break that's come her way because she took on the odds and won big.
But first, before any of the promotion began, she wrote terrific, highly commercial books. What on earth were those people who rejected her thinking?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You quoted M.J. Rose: "I've loved the publicists I've worked with, but they've been given their marching orders. They have the bestseller in the house, and that's their job."
Hear, hear, M.J. Rose. The most dismaying tidbit I uncovered at Book Expo this year, while discussing with many big publishing house publicity departments the possibility of their purchasing my PR book, "The Publishing Game: Bestseller in 30 Days" in quantity to distribute to their C-list writers (for whom they freely admit they have no time and less money) was from one large publisher (whom I won't publicly embarrass by naming) who told me frankly, "We don't want our C-list authors to know too much. It would screw up the book distribution, the staffing, everything. We want a C-list -- but we want these authors to stay C-list. We dont want them to all become bestsellers--it would be a nightmare."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About your comments on FCC chair Michael Powell's commission to judge the value of various radio stations' coverage of local news:
Broadcast stations use a very limited resource which is very valuable as is demonstrated by the prices that radio and TV stations get when sold. The situation is not like publishing which seems to be almost unlimited and has a low cost of entry if not success. These resources were given to the owners of the stations and until President Reagan there was a requirement that some public service be given in exchange. While I would not choose Michael Powell to determine the level of performance it doesn't seem unreasonable that some level be required as before. The owners would like to confuse some payment in kind for censorship as the time they would have to give to public service can be sold for advertising at high prices and they obviously, given the quality of most network shows, prefer the money. I think they are duping you when you consider any requirements to be censorship.
Holt responds: I didn't believe I was talking about Public Service Announcements , though - or do you think I was without knowing it? - I *thought* was talking about government agents making arbitrary decisions about which stations were covering local news adequately and which were not. Powell never said local news was the same as public service announcements - or did I miss something?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
LeAnn Ralph sounds like every publicist's dream: a smart, savvy, well-credentialed author and well-connected, writing on a topic she knows intimately to create a book with many possible markets--or at least my dream client, the kind of person for whom it's incredibly easy to design a marketing plan or write promotional materials. I would think after she very quickly chews through her POD run, she should think about rolling out an offset edition that would bring the unit price way down. If she can find even one hour a day to do marketing, and her marketing is as effective as the telling of her story to you, she will make the book a success. For my own new self-published book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, an hour a day has already landed me several major reviews including PW and ForeWord, extensive mention of the book in front of several hundred thousand carefully targeted readers of various Internet zines, and a bulk sale of 1000 copies--and I'm only just beginning the marketing campaign; I haven't even notified past purchasers of my other related books or sent out the initial press release.
Writer/publishers like LeeAnn can go a long way toward burying the stigma that has too-often accompanied self-published books. With Principled Profit, publishers were courting me, but I chose to do it myself (with professional help from designers, an indexer, and a copy-editor, and a distribution arrangement with another small publisher).
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Some conclusions from the lengthy exchange with LeAnn Ralph: You can't self-publish unless you have a lot of spare income, and commercial publishing ain't all its cracked up to be. In the end, I think we all write because we HAVE to do so, the industry sucks and always has, and Emily Dickenson probably had the right idea for a writer's lifestyle.
One of those writers
Dear Holt Uncensored,
You wrote: "So she searched the Internet for websites that would attract the kind of reader she had in mind, and in 2001, a motherload awaited her ...."
The mother of all loads? Oh, you mean "motherlode."
Holt, that load of all mothers, responds; Holy cow! My apologies to Rose and everyone on the planet.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Hey, if you have an interest in "sex panics," a new term to me, you'd love Barbara Fister's "On Edge." A burnt-out, suspended cop in Chicago gets in his car and keeps driving, till he reaches the Atlantic, parked by a Maine dock, which turns out to be in a town still quivering from a sex panic a decade ago. A moving mystery, a stunningly written PBO. And she isn't my cousin or anything--I didn't know her until I sent her an e-mail thank you note for writing the book.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This is not exactly on your beat but it is a remarkable story. Thought you should know about it and might want to signal the URL to your readers about the article, "The West's Secret Marshall Plan for the Mind" by John P. C. Matthews, the text of which is available at:
This account tells the unknown story of a secret cold war operation that, in the 37-year period from 1956 to 1993, sent over ten million books and journals to individual scholars and professionals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. With the cooperation of more than 500 publishers in Europe and the United States, this massive free distribution of books and magazines to intellectuals in the communist countries emphasized professional communication, avoided propaganda, and was conducted on a truly cultural level. This is an amazing story of book publishing involvement in the cold war and the effectiveness of books as "weapons of mass inspiration" in cross cultural conflict. Now that the information has been made available to the general public, it is a story not to be missed by anyone with an interest in the history of book publishing in the Twentieth Century.
I'm hoping for the widest broadcast of this information in the book publishing community.
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
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