Tag Archives: traditional publishing

Write Now: Of Pitching and Publishing

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 11 May 2017.

Recently, I was listening to literary agent Malaga Baldi expound on the kind of books that pique her interest. What she described were not big-ticket thrillers, YA dystopian fantasies, or anything with “Girl” in the title.

She was talking about intimate, quirky books that had something unique to say in an appealing, engaging voice. As she spoke of what she finds exciting in the kinds of stories she represents, I thought, “Yes, exactly! I would want to read those books!”

Perhaps you were listening to Malaga, too, since she was speaking at the Friday night “How to Pitch an Agent” panel at the fifth-annual Books Alive! Washington Writers Conference, held at the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center on April 28th-29th.

I had the pleasure (and — I won’t kid you — sleep-depriving terror) of being this year’s conference chair. I’ve been volunteering at the Independent since I signed up at the second conference in 2014 — first as an assignments editor, then as a reviewer, a conference committee member, the chair, and, starting today, as a monthly columnist. Taking advantage of that impeccable timing, I wanted to recap some of this year’s conference highlights.

As always, the big draw of the conference was a powerful combination of pitch opportunities and publishing luminaries. When every attendee has the chance to pitch a manuscript or book proposal to several agents selected from a roster of 20, the electricity around the pitch room is palpable. Independent president David O. Stewart likened the buzz to “being by a nuclear reactor, there is so much energy.”

This year, the lucky winner of our drawing for a free conference registration — whose enthusiasm was truly infectious — managed to schedule pitch sessions with seven agents over the course of the day, and all of them asked to see a few pages or his full manuscript.

We also understand that one of our agents offered an attendee representation on the spot. Success stories like this emerge from every conference, which is what keeps both our attendees and our agents returning year after year.

But as great as the pitch opportunities are, they’re only part of the story. With Judith Viorst as this year’s keynote speaker, and panelists who included Washington Post Book World editor Ron Charles, fellow longtime Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, legendary children’s author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and 2017 PEN/Bingham prize winner Rion Amilcar Scott, attendees found themselves inspired, entertained, and motivated.

Panels this year included genre focus on ghostwriting, memoir, biography, children’s literature, and short stories, and on such topical issues as bridging racial and cultural divisions through literature, writing about war — with a focus on current ongoing conflicts — and on the use of illness or disability as a literary device.

In his discussion on “the State of Books” with author Susan Coll, Ron Charles remarked that simply keeping up with the onslaught of 150 books a day arriving at the Post is “like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory,” and, at best, the Post is able to review 1,000 of the approximately 55,000 books it receives each year. His advice is to market to women in book clubs, because that’s where the high-volume sales are these days.

On the panel “Across the Cultural Divide,” classics professor and epic poetry lover Carolivia Herron shared that her children’s book Nappy Hair is still banned in New York City and Montgomery County, Maryland. On the same panel, Neely Tucker (a white man and Washington Post reporter) noted that many people mistake his byline as belonging to an African-American woman. “One reader wrote, ‘I can tell from your writing that you hate white men.’ I thought about it and wrote back, ‘You might be right. I can’t think of a single white man I’ve ever wanted to date.’”

Kelly Kennedy, author of They Fought for Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq, told powerful, wrenching stories from her time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Jack Farrell, author of Richard Nixon: The Life, alluded to where he believes the disgraced president is spending eternity when he said, “I envision Dick Nixon looking up at us all…”

Finally, beyond both pitches and panels, one of the most valuable and enduring outcomes of the conference each year is the connections that attendees make. In 2016, for example, a writers’ group formed as a result of the conference and has been meeting all year; four of the six members were back again at this year’s conference.

Certainly, my own experience has been that the Independent encourages and nurtures a community of writers and readers from which we all benefit, and there’s a lovely symmetry to a book-review site holding a conference focused on helping authors find a path to publication.

Consider the Washington Writers Conference trifecta of an author pitching at the event, garnering a book deal, and having the resulting work reviewed in the Washington Independent Review of Books. That could be you. So between now and next year’s conference, all of us at the Independent wish you a productive year of writing!

Want to hear more about the 2017 Washington Writers Conference? Veteran journalist and conference stalwart Gene Meyer offers a great wrap-up on his website, and you can see photos on our Facebook page, where the video summary will soon be posted!


Book Review: The Book

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2016.

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Keith Houston, W.W. Norton & Company, 448 pp.

The Book is meant to be read in physical, printed form, and it promises to be an object of beauty. The galley proofs indicate that the final product will not only contain detailed reproductions of illuminated manuscripts, it will also offer samples of both papyrus and parchment. Oh, snap, Kindle! Mic-drop on you, iPad/iPhone/Android!

It’s clear that the meteoric rise of e-readers drove this project forward, since The Book itself doesn’t provide new or revelatory information. It doesn’t need to, though; it just needs to collect readers who understand the sensual and emotional dimensions tied up in this oh-so-physical object.

As author Keith Houston says in his introduction, “Find the biggest, grandest hardback you can. Hold it in your hands. Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.”

As with other quaint analog objects whose technology-induced death has been declared prematurely, the printed book doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. That we’re not in imminent danger on that front, however, doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of what is both a scholarly and light-hearted review of everything you want to know on the origins of written language, the media upon which it is captured, and its methods of illustration, reproduction, and distribution.

The Book reminds us of what we may have forgotten, or what we’ve failed to consider. For instance: Early paper was made of linen pounded from worn-out undergarments. Hence, the bragging still associated with fine stationery of its rag content. And parchment is made of livestock skin, the bloody implications of which Houston drives home with force. (Hands-down best quote: “Books are rectangular because cows, sheep, and goats are rectangular too.”)

The origin of such terms as upper- and lower-case, italics, foolscap, ostracize, stereotype, museum, protocol, syllabus — perhaps we’ve heard it all before, but it’s fun to go through it again from the beginning, and the author is a charming tour guide.

We learn that the Frankfurt Book Fair was already up and running in 1454, when Gutenberg sent samples of his printing to display at the annual event; that Charlemagne was illiterate and apparently incapable of mastering how to write his own name; and that standard paper sizes were not finally set until 1995.

What Houston’s account drives home is how stunningly labor-intensive the early production of papyrus, parchment, paper, and all the other accoutrements of writing and printing truly was. His detailed accounts of these processes leave the reader feeling sympathetically exhausted and wondering how more than a handful of books was ever produced before the advent of digital typesetting.

It was these exhausting steps that drove each successive improvement in the paper-making/printing processes, and while it’s difficult to follow the descriptions of, say, how the original Fourdrinier machine operated to produce continuous rolls of paper, Houston’s stories of the people who imagined, designed, created, failed in, and perfected each of the evolutionary steps toward the modern book are fascinating.

Readers are introduced to Cai Lun, a eunuch in the imperial court of the Han dynasty, who is credited with the invention of “thin, feltlike sheets made from vegetable fibers that had been pounded, macerated, and sieved in a pool…then pressed and dried to a smooth finish” — the world’s first paper. Producing more than a few sheets took huge amounts of labor.

Houston also explains that “Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife,” since he did not invent movable type but accomplished all the heavy lifting to make it a viable component of the printing process.

The removal of one bottleneck in the production process inevitably revealed the follow-on bottleneck, around which the next innovation would concentrate. Each innovation was aimed at streamlining paper-and-print production in order to scale it up, making it faster and more efficient.

One illustrative story recounts how John Walter, owner of the Times of London, conspired with inventor Friedrich Koenig to construct a mechanically driven press in order to secretly print the paper’s November 29, 1814 edition.

The secrecy was necessary to prevent sabotage by the paper’s pressmen, since the new press was able to produce 1,100 double-sided sheets per hour, compared to the normal output of 200 single-sided sheets on the existing Stanhope presses. Walter’s willingness to pay extraneous workers full wages until they found other employment removed some of the sting of instant obsolescence.

And here we are at the point where virtually all bottlenecks have been eliminated, including those introduced by publishers. With no physical media needed to produce a book, new ones are being pumped out at rates unimaginable only 10 years ago. There’s no arguing the wondrous convenience of e-books — anyone who has run out of reading material moments before boarding a trans-Pacific flight understands the lifesaving qualities of a Kindle — and if people buy and read more books because it’s so easy to do with an e-reader, I as an author am hardly going to find fault with that.

But Houston knows, as do those of us who keep indie bookstores thriving well beyond their predicted expiration date (1998’s “You’ve Got Mail,” anyone?), that a physical book is not a commodity but an experience, a full-on feast of the senses, a tactile joy. Try putting that in your iPad.

Direct Submissions: Traditional Publishing, No Agent Required

This blog post also appeared on the Indie Book Week blog on 27 May.

It’s hard to overstate the changes to the publishing landscape over the last decade. The doors to the gates that regulated who got published have effectively been blown off their hinges, and authors are now awash in possible avenues to get their work out into world.  For those trying to navigate their way through all the choices, the field seems to narrow to two primary options. On one end of the spectrum is self-publishing, where the author is in total control of the entire process, which can be both a joy and a nightmare. On the other end is the traditional two-step of finding an agent in order to find a publisher, in which even the first step can be a multi-year process. There is, however, a third, middle-ground, option, called direct submission.

In traditional publishing terms, direct submissions are often referred to as over the transom, when an author submits a manuscript directly to a publisher without an agent. These manuscripts end up on the publisher’s slush pile; if they are read at all, it is typically by the most junior staff with a few moments free. But there is a growing number of publishers—usually small publishers and university presses—that work primarily or even entirely through direct submissions. These presses expect to work with authors throughout the publishing process, and that close relationship is one of the best things about working with a small press that accepts direct submissions. Authors often have significant input into the design and layout of the cover and interior of their books, something that even big-name authors rarely get. Small presses are often willing to take chances on books that are outside of the mainstream. They aren’t expecting their books to be John Grisham or Stephen King blockbusters. It’s worth remembering, though, that Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October was a direct submission to the Naval Institute Press, which had never even published a novel before, and which still accepts direct submissions from authors at any time. It’s more typical for small presses to have open reading periods at set times of the year, in which authors can submit manuscripts by a certain date. Others hold contests in which the winner is published. Some publishers charge a reading fee for direct submissions, but that fee should be nominal; you are not paying them to publish your book. Literary Marketplace offers a list of direct submission small presses free to their registered users.

The downside of working with a small press that takes direct submissions is generally a lack of resources. A small publisher might help to develop a marketing plan, but the author will primarily or even solely be responsible for execution. Authors may need to find and pay for their own editing. Even at the big houses, though, it’s the new normal for authors to do a significant amount of their own marketing. As for editing, an increasingly scarce commodity, it is often the agents who do the lion’s share.

As an author, you can certainly do everything a small press would do for you, from cover design to distribution, and you could do it on your own timetable, but for a novice there’s a steep learning curve with lots of potential landmines. For me, direct submission was the right choice: it allowed me a lot of creative control and a relatively short publication timeline, while also producing a product that gets “credit” for being traditionally published, and giving me the peace of mind of knowing that I wasn’t in it alone.