Interview with Laura Kinsale

Lessons in French
Lessons in French

I get to read a lot of interviews with writers, editors, publishers, and other assorted interesting people. This interview posted on Tartitude is very fun. Not just because award-winning NYT best-selling author Laura Kinsale has a new book out, but Hope101’s interview questions aren’t just the same old standards, either, and Ms. Kinsale’s answers have humor, heart, and a sense of fun that’s a joy to read.

Ms. Kinsale has more advice for writers in a Q&A posted today on Apprentice Writer, as well.

You can follow Hope101 on Twitter: @tartitude

You can follow Laura Kinsale on Twitter: @LauraKinsale

You can find Lessons in French at your local bookstore, or your favorite online bookseller.

Interview: Miriam Goderich, Vice President Jane Dystel Literary Management

By Laura A. Hazan

The song New York, New York goes something like this: “If I can make it there I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York.” That pretty much sums up the feelings of many writers, too. Breaking into the elusive New York publishing world equals success, and the highly sought after New York literary agent is the first step to making it there.

Obtaining a New York agent isn’t easy, but it is possible with concise, error-free queries, a well-written story and a professional demeanor, advises Miriam Goderich. She should know—she is a New York literary agent. Goderich, Vice President, Dystel and Goderich Literary Management (DGLM), started as an assistant to Dystel and 13 years later is her partner in the agency. DGLM has over 300 clients, between 100–150 are active.

Goderich and the three other agents at JDLM receive 300–400 queries a week. “People overdo it,” Goderich said. A professional one-page query letter with some precise details about the project and relevant information about the author, free of typos and grammatical errors, will be given proper consideration. Complete submission requirements are available on www.dystel.com.

Goderich feels that the query letter is one of the most important documents in the publishing process. She recommends having letters, outlines and synopsis proofread and critiqued just like a manuscript. Many of JDLM’s queries are unsolicited; others come from referrals and contacts made through conferences. Be patient, JDLM will respond to every query they receive, but it may take 3–4 weeks.

Goderich knows she wants to see the complete manuscript when that one letter “sticks in my mind. If I’m still thinking about the concept or the character a day or two later I know I need to see more.” Once JDLM receives the complete manuscript it may take up to 6 months for them to decide to represent it, especially for an unpublished writer.

“It is harder to sell them to publishing houses. Publishers want return on investment,” and with new writers there is little guarantee that will happen. New writers also present other challenges, such as “educating them on various aspects of the industry” Goderich explained. “Like any business, with some experience you know what to expect, what to ask and what to do.” Unpublished writers simply need more guidance.

Nonfiction works dominate JDLM’s client list (available on dystel.com). “Nonfiction is about 80 times easier to sell then fiction,” Goderich said. Most agencies survive on their nonfiction sales. As a writer of nonfiction “all you need is the proper credentials and a good idea,” Goderich explained. Fiction needs a compelling storyline, terrific characters and, to show that the rest of the novel will hold up, it “really does need a good opening. A great opening is not always about the writing, it can be about setting or characters,” Goderich said. On rare occasions if a manuscript has a strong character but a weak story or vice versa, Goderich might make suggestions and ask to see the manuscript again. She has even come across manuscripts with solid writing that don’t work for the agency at that time and “told the writer that I would love to see anything else they do.”

JDLM sells about 90 books a year. Together with their clients, JDLM agents edit and revise manuscripts to ensure that a strong project is being presented to the marketplace. They are currently marketing mainstream and literary fiction, and their nonfiction areas of interest are parenting, cooking, nutrition, politics, health and women’s issues. “The market is great, we’e done well this year. Even fiction is doing better,” Goderich stated. Occasionally “publishers come up with ideas and call us looking for a writer,” Goderich said. While this is not a common occurrence, it demonstrates the importance of a well-connected agent.

Goderich advises writers to do their homework before contacting an agent. Read the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market or check their website– make sure they market what you write, and if possible, stick with agents that are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). “AAR is a good way to weed out fly-by-night agents and those that charge reading fees. As a writer you should never pay reading fees. AAR will also answer questions you may have about an agency,” she stated.

Goderich also suggests writers read everything, to help keep current and generally aware of what is being published. She also recommends reading other recent works of fiction and nonfiction because reading good writing often benefits the project a writer is working on. “We even have a book club in our agency to help us keep up on newly published works,” she said.

“The center of the publishing community is New York. It is an old-fashioned sort of business with a lot of face-to-face meetings and lunches,” Goderich explained. That sort of networking is why a New York literary agent is so important.

Keep sharpening those queries and maybe you will find yourself represented by a New York agent and one step closer to making it there.

After years of being surrounded by books in her career as a librarian, Laura Hazan has taken a hiatus to write a book of her own. Laura is currently working on her first novel and pursuing opportunities in freelance writing.

Interview with Bill Shunn

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. 

Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at at iTunes or through your own podcatching software, where he’s serializing his memoir, The Accidental Terrorist, about his youth as a Mormon missionary. His chapbook of short stories will be published in May 2007. Visit Shunn.net for more.

You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?

Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.

And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.

What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?

I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels …

Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?

I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?

I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story

And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.

 

And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.

 

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

 

Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.

 

With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.

 

One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?

 

It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting ideah . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.

 

Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?

 

In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.

 

Watch for part two of Absolute Write’s interview with Bill Shunn in January!

Interview: Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers

Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Rudy Shur is the publisher of Square One Publishers, and the author of the book How To Publish Your Nonfiction Book, part of the "Square One Writers Guide" series. Rudy has been responsible for the acquisition of more than 1,000 books, many of which have become bestsellers. He has lectured on the topic of nonfiction publishing at numerous universities and colleges across the nation.

How did you gain the experience to become a publisher?

I began my career in publishing as a field representative for a college textbook publisher. Basically, I’d go out to college campuses and try to get college professors to adopt my company’s textbooks for their classes. Having never sold before, it was a great learning experience. My next job was at another college textbook publisher, but this time, in addition to being a representative, I was also an associate editor. That was great training. I would look for professors to write books that I thought would sell based on my own selling experience.

After several years of doing this, I had the silly idea that I could do it better on my own. In 1976, I co-founded Avery Publishing Group. Initially, we produced college textbooks. As time went on, though, we began producing trade books for a more general audience. While I had had some great experience working for other companies, it was essentially a learn-as-you-go experience that provided the core of my publisher’s training.

In 1999, I sold Avery to Penguin Putnam, and two months later, I founded Square One Publishers—and I am still learning.

As you mention in the book, small publishers usually don’t offer the kinds of advances big houses can offer. What are some of the reasons why a writer might prefer to work with a small publisher?

While big houses do offer larger advances, statistically most of their authors never see more money than their initial advance. Part of the reason for this might be that today’s large houses tend to put in minimal editorial and marketing time on the vast majority of the projects they handle.

On the other hand, some well-run smaller publishers put much more emphasis on the editorial process, so that the final manuscript is as good as it can be. Additionally, they often spend much more time promoting a title (in their own way) than do larger houses.

Another benefit that smaller houses offer is longevity for titles. Many of the large companies keep their average book in print for approximately 18 months–only 1 1/2 years. Many smaller publishers keep a book in print for years. In some cases, they treat their backlist (older) titles as though they were front list (new).

However, let me point out that all small publishers are not created equal. Therefore, before signing any publishing agreement, it’s vital to check out the publisher.

Why is so important for a writer to identify the category in which his or her book would fit?

There are many reasons a writer needs to know what his or her book’s category is:

  • Identifying a category allows writers to more accurately target specific markets and audiences.
  • By knowing a book’s category, a writer can better select potential publishers who have experience publishing and selling in that specific area. Without a clear understanding of a book’s category, a writer simply chooses publishers at random.
  • When a book does not fit into any established category, there may not be any commercial publisher equipped to sell the book. Such a situation usually leads to negative responses from publishers.

In writing my book, I found that the chapter which identifies the twelve categories of books was the hardest to write. Once completed, though, I think it became one of the strongest features of my title.

Let’s say my book has been orphaned by a publisher. Is it wise for me to mention this in future proposals, or might this work against me?

The fact that a writer has had a book in print always strengthens the author’s credibility, and should definitely be mentioned in a cover letter. It is the fact that an author’s book was accepted by another publisher that impresses an editor, not that it may now be out-of-print.

I liked that you suggested a touch of humor in the writer’s response postcard. Are there other places writers can interject a bit of “personality”or humor, or is it usually best to “play it straight?”

Many times the nature of the project provides the ground rules for using humor. If a work is serious, humor may not be appropriate. If the topic is somewhat neutral, the use of humor may be fine. I’ve been told that you never know who’s at the receiving end of a query letter, so you may not want to take a chance with humor. While that is a legitimate point of view, if the topic allows, I think a natural infusion of humor can put an editor in a more receptive frame of mind.

You surprised me with a statistic: most books only sell about 5,000 copies. At big houses, a book will typically go out of print quickly if it doesn’t sell well right out of the gates, but at smaller houses, backlist titles may stay in print for years, even if sales are slow. As a writer, what should I hope for? Is it always good for a book to be technically “in print” even if it’s barely selling, or should I hope it goes out of print so I can try to sell it again or self-publish?

This is a complicated question and I probably can’t adequately answer it in a few paragraphs, but what the heck. If writers do their homework correctly, they should have some idea of how many copies a book like theirs will sell in the marketplace. Having a realistic number will provide them with more realistic expectations of success.

Here’s where it gets cockeyed. Sometimes it is best to have a publisher hold onto a book even though its sales are low. Sometimes taking a book back from a publisher is absolutely better. Writers have to ask themselves three things:

  1. Is the market really that big?
  2. Can I do a better job than the publisher?
  3. Do I really want to become-and can I afford to be-a bookseller/publisher?

If the answer is yes, the writer should still think about it before taking the first step.

Why is it a bad idea for an author to say their book is unique?

Unique books are one of a kind. They are different. Editors hate different. Different books have no established markets. If one unique book actually makes it to bestsellerdom, there is a likelihood it is an exception to the rule. Most editors know this and avoid publishing exceptions. Aspiring authors should never say they have a “unique book” unless they enjoy the feeling of rejection.

Once I’ve been offered a contract, do I have time to start looking for a literary agent? Should I bother, if I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t budge on fees?

If your project has the true potential of selling in big numbers, it is wise to consider getting an agent. If your project has a limited market, consider reading my chapter on “The Deal.” It tells you what you can do to negotiate a more favorable contract.

What do you think about the system of bookstores sending unsold copies back to the publisher? Do you think this is likely to change? Would authors make a great deal more money if there were no returns allowed?

The system of taking back returns was started shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. During the Great Depression, it was a way publishers could keep bookstores in business. Before the crash, bookstores kept what they ordered. I personally think that the present system is terrible, but as far as bookstores go, there is little likelihood that things will change soon. If the system did change, I don’t think it would make too much difference regarding the royalty payments. However, it would eliminate the need for publishers to hold back portions of an author’s royalty due to the possibility of returns.

It seems that for better or worse, Pandora’s Box was opened in 1929 and it’s not going to close until technology figures out a better way to produce and sell books.

Let’s say I have the terrific fortune of having two publishers interested in my manuscript. Now I want to start my own private "bidding war." Do I tell Publisher 1 who Publisher 2 is? Do I get into specifics about what the other publisher offered?

As a rule, I would not tell one publisher who the other publisher is. As far as specifics about terms go, let one publisher know what the other is offering, and see if they can match or better them. Do it in a very business-like manner; do not sound as if you are playing a game. My advice is simple: Get the best deal from the best company.

As a publisher, what are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?

I love publishing. I think I even like the things I don’t like. The hardest part of the job is the amount of work required to do a good job.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Did I mention that my book is available through your website, and that my book is part of an ongoing series called The SquareOne Writers Guides, which includes How to Publish Your Poetry, How to Publish Your Articles, and How to Sell Your Screenplay? Did I also mention that all our other titles can seen by visiting our website at www.squareonepublishers.com? And did I mention that I have numerous employees who need to be fed and sheltered, and that any purchases of our books would be greatly appreciated?