Ether for Authors: Are These the Dog Days of the Disruption?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

27 August 2013 Skiathos Porter Anderson texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. He Was Kidding. Right?
  2. Agents 1: Hangin’ With the Gatekeepers
  3. Agents 2: To What Are “Comps” Comparable?
  4. Agents 3: The Impor­tance of Pre-Orders, Rising
  5. Conferences
  6. Last Gas: Read Some­thing Your Own Age (or Not)

He Was Kidding. Right?

The writers would survive a break. They could devote new-found free time to hobbies: Will Self could pull on his hiking boots, Martin Amis sharpen his tennis serve, John Updike could have headed for the links.

Colin Robinson

Colin Robinson

While giving folks a good chuckle, Colin Robinson of course proved what makes a chuckle good—its serious aftertaste.

Robinson is the co-founder with John Oakes of O/R Books, a publisher of “a highly selective list” of work that “embraces progressive change in politics, culture and the way we do business,” according to its site’s material.

And in his essay for the Guardian, Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break, there are some very real issues being handled, albeit with the deft touch that Robinson and Oakes bring to so much of their respected work:

As the constant thrum of laptop keyboards in coffee shops across the nation testifies, nearly everyone, it seems, wants to be an author. And, according to the New York Times, 81% of Americans feel they have a book in them. New technology plays its part here. So too, perhaps, does writing’s attraction as a way of asserting one’s existence in a world where the traditional terrain for being acknowledged by others – the workplace, family or neighbourhood – is increasingly under strain.

He’s at what I call the “national kitchen table” now where, it always seems to me, whole families are gathering in loving fellowship and determined writing binges. Here’s Robinson, saying it better than I do:

The ability to write well is an attribute not widely shared. The self-assurance that coaxes many writers into seeking publication is irrigated by the supportive words of family and friends, as well as publishing professionals too busy, or lazy, to offer a critique. The misapprehension that even the poorest writers are worthy of an audience is spurred further by online retailers prepared to sell anything with an ISBN.

OR Books @ORBooksAnd on the way to his wistful conclusion, he points out another element of a glutted market we don’t frequently have a chance to ponder:

Paradoxically, the deluge of writing itself contributes to declining readership. It’s not just that if you’re writing then you can’t be reading. It’s also that the sheer volume of what is now available acts as a disincentive to settle down with a single text. The literary equivalent of channel surfing replaces the prolonged concentration required to tackle a book. Condensed capsules of digital communication are infecting all forms of reading. But books, the longest form that writing takes, are suffering disproportionately in the reduced attention spans of readers.

And his fun, if rueful suggestion:

I would like to propose a writers’ moratorium. What if everyone could be persuaded to stop scribbling for a period of, say, 12 months? Of course we would lose some marvelous work during The Year of Not Writing, and that’s not to be taken lightly. But look at the compensations: we could all kick back, take stock, and get off the spinning carousel of keeping up with the latest offerings.

August Wainwright

August Wainwright

While Robinson’s piece is savvy and satiric, author August Wainwright, in a guest post at CJLyons’ site, Why Slow Is Good, isn’t writing just for fun. He’s seriously interested in his fellow authors’ tendency to think lightning is scheduled to strike any moment now.

Statistically speaking, it’s an extremely safe bet for me to say that you will never sell millions of copies of anything you write – especially over the course of just a few weeks. But what you probably are is a good writer. You might even be a great writer. So how do you attain the success that you’re seeking?

Wainwright goes to some length to promote the idea of slow growth of a writing career built on steady effort and modest, achievable sales over dreams of the proverbial blockbuster:

Selling books is about understanding the slow and exponential growth that happens with increased volume.

Maybe not surprisingly, someone else more pointedly wants to answer Robinson’s fanciful suggestion of writers taking a year off with a bit of a telling-off:

Well, I’ve a counter-suggestion. Why don’t publishers take a year off?

Paul St. John Mackintosh

Paul St. John Mackintosh

This is Paul St. John Mackintosh, based in Budapest, writing in Teleread’s Publisher calls on authors to lay off writing: Give us a break!

His, thoughts, too, if perhaps running a bit hot, touch on some serious issues:

They could stop polluting our biosphere and pulping forests for a bit and let the carbon balance recover. They could spare themselves the stress of dealing with authors’ egos for a bit, while practicing virtuous austerity through learning how to live without their chunk of those authors’ revenues. They could raise standards by not having to over-promote mediocrities to sustain their product cycle. And they might recover a sense of humility and proportion of their own, instead of castigating hard-working and often poorly-rewarded individuals whose labors pay their rent and bankroll their promotional parties.

And in general, what we’re hearing, even in good fun, is the kind of exhaustion a prolonged siege of change like that driven by the digital dynamic imposes on any business it impacts.

Yes, one natural outgrowth of the enabling capabilities of digital is that it can seem we simply have “too many books” as far as the eye can see. Yes, it can seem that most newcomers to the business, in particular, are suffering “blockbuster fever” and anticipating the big breakthrough by 3 p.m. this afternoon, local time. And yes, it can seem that publishers are milking the vitality of inspiration from drained writers who are asked to take on more of the job of getting books out and sold daily—have you pounded out the papyrus for your print-on-demand editions yet?

There’s enough to overwhelm for everybody. And, so, enough understanding—no matter what camp you’re in—of what Robinson started all this with, when he wrote with a sigh we might almost hear ’round the world about that daydream of an authors’ year off:

[Writers] could fill the empty hours by joining us readers, immersed in the work of others, to the great benefit of their often inflated sense of self. You can almost hear the hiss of compressed self-regard being released. I might even start liking them again.

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Agents 1: Hangin’ With the Gatekeepers

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before you go to the conference, really research all the agents who will also be there. Check our their websites, their page on Publisher’s Marketplace, their recent deals. Get to know their client lists. Is there a client they represent who writes books that are similar to yours? Or a client that they have who you particularly admire?

As you can see in our Conferences listings, some of the writers’ conferences ahead of us at this time of year include chances for authors to tell agents about their work.

Jenny Bent

Jenny Bent

The tradition is to name these events for gladiatorial violence (“pitch slam”) or game-show silliness (“speed dating”). By whatever nerve-wracking moniker, they’re sessions in which authors have a scant couple of minutes to give an agent an “elevator pitch.” If all goes well, an agent likes the sound of a book and asks to read a “full” or a “partial” manuscript. Agent Jenny Bent, in Successful Schmoozing with Agents at Conferences, tries to move the topic past the fire-walking rituals and on to the logic of good business-based social interaction.

If you meet the agent at the bar, or at a meal, or outside having a cigarette…don’t automatically start pitching. Have a fun, social chat. Agents are people too, and we like just hanging out at conferences, meeting people informally, basically just chilling out and having a little break from the work stuff. Most of the time, the agent will eventually ask YOU what you write so you don’t have to pitch them first.

When the tunnel vision closes in and writers slip into that understandable must-have-agent mode, they can easily encounter a lot of paranoia about which interactions look too like toadying. Bent is aware of this and tries to ease the worry:

If the agent’s panel or workshop at the conference was useful to you, don’t hesitate to tell them. If it’s genuine, it’s not sucking up. We work really hard on our presentations, etc., and we love hearing that it was helpful for you.

She goes on to get at the fact that agents might be nervous and uncomfortable in these settings right along with the authors. It’s a good, humanizing write and checklist for the conference-bound author.

I do hear a lot about agents being snobby or whatever when they meet authors at conferences…Shyness can come across as snobbery. One of the kindest, most special agents I ever knew was painfully shy and I think a lot of people thought she was unfriendly. Not!…Most people in publishing really are natural introverts. Or maybe the agent is just a jerk. In that case, it’s probably not a good fit and chalk it up to a learning experience.

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Agents 2: To What Are “Comps” Comparable?

A good book proposal always has a “Competition” or “Comparable Books” section, and even if you’re self-publishing, it helps if you give readers a frame of reference in the form of similar books.

When pitch does come to shove—as in, when the socializing is over and it’s time to talk about your book to an agent—the “comp” can be one of the first things expected. It’s also one of the most confusing for many authors.

Rachelle Gardner

Rachelle Gardner

Agent Rachelle Gardner, in When Comparison is Good and Necessary, writes:

One of the most common questions I’m regularly asked is, “How do I figure out what books to include in my comps?” People get all hung up on it, especially with fiction. Do I look for books with the same premise or plot? Same time period? Same writing style? How do I know what to include?

Gardner’s suggestion for making it easier is to think of it this way: “People who enjoy the following books are likely to enjoy my book.” You’re off the parallel-plots hook, the matching settings hook, the same-type-of-characters hook. You’re looking, Gardner is explaining, for matching readers.

Too often, writers tell me, “I’ve looked and looked, and I can’t find anything quite like my book.” You and I both know that’s a cop-out. Think about your potential readers, and figure out what they are already reading. It’s that simple.

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Agents 3: The Impor­tance of Pre-Orders, Rising

In the changing landscape of publishing, it’s all about pre-orders these days. The actual sales racked up before release day can seriously make a difference on whether a book will land on the NYT or USA Today list or not.

Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson

And agent Kristin Nelson just had a sweet demo of that when her client Hugh Howey saw Dust, the third book in his Silo Saga trilogy, go onto the September 1 New York Times list (combined ebook and print) at No. 7.

What I like here is that in a blog entry at her agency’s site—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!—Nelson explains the pre-order concept and its apparent rising significance to readers. She writes:

Publishers are getting creative in tempting readers to buy early. And Sourcebooks is going all out for Scorched.

Mari Mancusi

Mari Mancusi

Nelson is appealing to the fiery faithful, in this case, to make a pre-order of Mari Mancusi’s Scorched, a book set for a September 3 release. The hook is that if a reader will make a pre-order, the publisher, Dominique Raccah’s Sourcebooks, will send the reader a dragon charm.

I grant you, I haven’t personally felt a fire-breathing need yet for my own dragon charm, and you may not have, either.

But the point I’m making is that the readers who do warm themselves by such toasted treats (could we coin “lit lit” here?) are being let in on the rationale behind the incentive. In this small way, they’re being engaged as author-cohorts and advocates, helping to raise the potential chart performance of an author they like to follow.

Scorched by Mari Mancusi @marimancusiHowever we like to think of the cultivation of author-reader relations and its evolving place in bookselling, such commercially informed linkage with the audience may play as much a role as more traditional content-based approaches. This sell is, “Get your dragon charm not just because you think Mancusi is swell and her book cover is really, really orange, but also because you could help her standing on bestseller lists.”

Hey, once you’ve got your own bit of winged whimsy in-hand, Nelson adds:

Take a pic of you and your dragon charm and share it with @MariMancusi or @SourcebooksFire on Twitter!

Hugh Howey

Hugh Howey

And a “programming note”: both agent Kristin Nelson and author Hugh Howey are joining us on October 8 for a special roundtable, an “Interactive Learning Lab” I’ll be moderating in the Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC Conference. Our topic in the session is “Self-Publishing and its Implications for the Industry.”

Howey, as one of the highest-profile self-publishing successes yet and Nelson, whose agency roster includes several such powerful entrepreneurial authors, will be joined by Leanpub’s Peter Armstrong; Pubslush’s Amanda Barbara; Penguin’s Molly Barton; Amazon’s Jon Fine; Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller; journalist Matthias Matting; and Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn. We’d love to have you with us. Details are below in our Conferences section.

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Conferences

A host of key players in world publishing are being brought together for the October 8 CONTEC Conference produced by the Frankfurt Academy.

A host of key players in world publishing are being brought together for the October 8 CONTEC Conference produced by the Frankfurt Academy.

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term. Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion. As a service, I also list any discount codes that might be of use to readers.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). (Hashtag: #DBWMP) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout. Register by September 8 and get a Digital Book World community membership.

Bookseller Children's ConferenceSeptember 26 London (Southbank Centre): The Bookseller’s Children’s Conference. “Building an international children’s publishing company in an internet age…current and future technologies that are driving change in children’s market…a whistle-stop overview of the market using Nielsen BookScan sales data. Are the biggest writers continuing to dominate? Are sticker books still selling? And what’s up with YA?” (Hashtag: #kidsconf13Registration is open. Early-bird rates end August 30.

September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout. Register by Friday, August 30, for a VIP upgrade.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West: “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13) Save $25 on registration with code PORTER at checkout. Register by Friday, August 30, for a VIP upgrade.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 with dateOctober 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC Conference: “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” (Hashtag: #CONTEC) Save 20% on registration with code CONTEC13KPTW20 at checkout.

Frankfurt Academy All Access TicketAnd consider the Frankfurt Academy’s All-Access Ticket, which includes unlimited access to events including CONTEC Frankfurt 2013, Publishers Launch Frankfurt, Rights Directors Meeting (RDM) 2013, First Timer Seminar, Rights Express, Digital Resume, Frankfurt StoryDrive, Experience the Exquisite, Business Breakfasts and more.

Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt: Publishers Launch Frankfurt 2013: “Publishers Launch returns to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the third year in a row, now moving to the natural pre-Fair “conference day,” Tuesday, to make it easier for you to attend. This packed event will continue and expand upon today’s key themes of scale and consolidation across the publishing world, while also looking at scaling strategies for vertical publishing – a natural way to prosper in the shadows of publishing and retailing giants. We’ll also look at the implications (and opportunities) of the explosion of digital publishing from non-traditional players and authors and agents publishing directly.

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

Books in Browsers 2012 2October 24-26, San Francisco: Books in Browsers: Among the most advanced of conferences dedicated to bringing designer and code savvy into contact with editorial  and content leaders, Books in Browsers is produced for a fourth time this year by Peter Brantley in generous association with the Internet Archive and Swissnex San Francisco, produced and sponsored by Hypothes.is and Frankfurt Book Fair. Speakers include Kate Pullinger, Baldur Bjarnason, Bill McCoy, Justo Hidalgo, Richard Nash, and more. (Hashtag: #bib13) General registration now is open.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available. (Hashtag: #fbook13)  Now open for bookings.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.” Back to Table of Contents

From VQR: More on poet Nate Pritts

From VQR: More on poet Nate Pritts

Last Gas: Read Some­thing Your Own Age (or Not)

It’d be easy to write an essay explaining why it is adults read YA, but rather than do that, I thought it’d be more fun to roundup the reasons one can find in any comments section on any “why grown ups are reading YA” piece ever. Then, of course, debunk them and tell you the actual real reason why it is adults read YA books.

Kelly Jensen

Kelly Jensen

Kelly Jensen at Book Riot leads off Ridiculous Ways the Internet Explains Why Adults Read YA with a reason for adult YA reading that I’ve heard and you probably have, too: Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence. Certainly I’ve met many adults who seemed to be cultivating a prolonged adolescence. (None of them reads this column, of course.) Jensen’s assessment:

Just because a commercial or advertisement promotes something (and let’s use, say, Twilight here since that’s a popular franchise to hate on) doesn’t mean that adults have to buy into the product! Plenty of adults — and hell, let’s just call it as we see it, plenty of adult women — loved Twilight.

Actually, I do think there’s a lot to be said for Michael Kimmel’s Guyland and its theories of an extended young manhood in some parts of our culture. But those guys may not be the Twilight-reading set Jensen has in mind. We’ll move on. BookRiot @BookRiotThe second blog-comment-promoted reason Jensen lists for adults reading YA is: YA books are escapist since you don’t have to look beneath the surface of them. They are easier to grasp. She’s having none of that, either:

There are two separate, but related, statements in this justification. First, that YA is escapist…YA isn’t any more escapist than any other type of fiction or nonfiction one enjoys reading. YA is only “escapist” to those who choose to enjoy reading YA books in their free time. Second, there’s the assessment that YA books don’t have depth to them. I think for many adults, this rationale pops up not because they truly believe it but instead, because when they were in school, YA books weren’t used in those stereotypical classroom situations where Literature was Analyzed and the Fun was Removed from reading.

And on she goes, also dismissing the assertion that Adults read YA because they aren’t able to read past a middle school or high school level because adults are getting dumber and dumber. And: YA books are about hopefulness. Their problems aren’t really problems and they can be fixed. Also there’s always a happy ending, so it’s satisfying and fulfilling to adults. The characters are likable. 

Her own assessment, we learn at article’s end, is less a reason for the behavior (adults reading YA) than an observation of the pattern. She writes:

The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to. That’s it. That’s their reason. Adults read YA books because they as adults choose to do so.

Which leaves the original “why” of the question answered only by “because they do”—and thus lots of room for you to drop in and tell us what you think.

Bowker 2012 Annual Report coverBowker Market Research—being acquired by Nielsen, of course—in its recently released  U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review, does indeed see adults reading Young Adult material in its 2012 survey results.

A very small part of the survey’s discussion on this issue includes this passage:

The growing appeal of young adult titles among older readers has continued to bump up the age of book buyers for titles in that category. Led by the widespread interest in The Hunger Games trilogy in 2012, young adult book buyers 30 years old and over accounted for 51% of units and 49% of spending in the year, compared to 45% of units and 44% of spending in 2011.

Bowker’s assessment also cautions against thinking that 2012’s results were an aberration. The pattern is traceable—and Bowker’s full report has more on this—for years.

So over to you: What do you think could be key reasons that YA is appealing to older buyers, especially in the 30-44 and 45-54 age groups? Any ideas?

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+

Main image / Porter Anderson – Skiathos

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.