The early manuscript

Early copy

Early copy

My agent called me a while ago to say, to my great delight, that he had re-read my manuscript over the weekend and loved it even more than the first time. Also to my delight, he said that my publisher, Riverhead, is doing fantastic (even in this economy). And then–this made me laugh–he said that the reason they haven’t got around to processing my manuscript yet may be that I’ve done something unheard of, something shocking.

Apparently, in the entire history of book publishing, going back to Sumer, if not earlier, no author has ever handed in a manuscript on time.

I, however, delivered my manuscript several months before the contractual deadline. The entire management of my publishing house, we are speculating, is temporarily stunned, incapacitated, by the cognitive dissonance.

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Mid-fives, low sixes, mild sevens


That is how, according to Michael Meyer in the New York Times, authors talk about their advances.

Amounts are coyly described like cigarette brands – the “mid-fives,” the “low sixes,” the “mild sevens.”

Thankfully, I already know my advance, which was negotiated when I got my book deal with Riverhead, and have the first installment. But it’s always fascinating to get a peek into the world of other people’s advances.

Meyer says that 7 out of 10 books do not earn back their advance. That sounds familiar. I have compared publishers to venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road, who back ten start-ups, expect to break even on two, and make their killing on one. As an aspiring author, I never cared about the advance for its own sake, but I did want it as high as possible to make the publisher “bleed” early on so that they would feel more compelled during the launch to spend even more in order to make it back.

The blockbuster advances get the press, but, says Meyer,

most publishers I talked to cited $30,000 as a rough average. In standard contracts, the author receives half up front, a quarter on acceptance of the manuscript and a quarter on publication, though that model is changing, said the literary agent Eric Simonoff … “Now we see advance amounts being paid in thirds, fourths and even fifths.

He quotes a publisher saying that

It used to be that the first book earned a modest advance, then you would build an audience over time and break even on the third or fourth book… Now the first book is expected to land a huge advance and huge sales. The media only reports those, not the long path of writers like John Irving, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison. The notion of the ‘first book with flaws’ is gone…

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One week in the drama of the printed word

Just a quick alert to those of you who may not follow these matters as obsessively as I do: This is a cacophonous week even by the standards of the echo chamber that houses the pundits who hold forth about “the future of the newspaper” and such matters.

For once, I cannot really weigh in until The Economist‘s next issue is out (on Thursday night), because I am writing on one aspect of this. But I wanted at least to point you to various angles at whose intersection you may independently find … a thought:

  1. Amazon yesterday announced its Kindle 2 (ie, its electronic reading device for books*). I have been trying the Kindle 1 and am on the list to get the Kindle 2. I cannot say more for now.
  2. Google is making available over one million out-of-copyright books for reading on your mobile phone, thus joining many others apps, such as Stanza, that let you do that already.
  3. In case it’s not obvious*, the Kindle lets you receive (wirelessly–yucky word) and read not only books but also newspapers and magazines. In fact, I am about to unsubscribe from my last remaining print newspaper, the New York Times, in order to read only the Kindle, iPhone and web versions.
  4. Into this maelstrom, Walter Isaacson (whose biography of Einstein is in the bibliography of my forthcoming book) has written a cover story in Time Magazine in which he argues that “micro-payments” will save the journalism industry. (Here he is kidding around with Jon Stewart about it.)
  5. Other stalwarts of the industry, such as Michael Kinsley, are already busy dismantling every part of Isaacson’s argument.
  6. To summarize, for those hibernating in an igloo without WiFi: We were confused at the beginning of the week, we are confused in the middle of it, and we will be confused at the end of it.

As I said, I will today try to make sense of at least one part of this mess, and you can read the result in The Economist on Thursday night. It’s one of those rare occurrences when my private interests as a writer and aspiring author overlap with my day job of covering my beat. Yesterday, for instance, I was interviewing the boss of Penguin, John Makinson, about the topic–we began by kidding around, because Penguin, of course, owns Riverhead, where an editor is right now looking at my manuscript.

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Kafka vs Hosseini: writing vs re-writing

Listen to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both best sellers, talk about his writing process, and in particular the role of first and subsequent drafts:


Writing is largely about re-writing…  So I use the first draft purely as a frame… I understand that it’s going to be lousy…. the heart of the story has to be there in the first draft… I abhor writing the first draft, I love writing subsequent drafts.

This is the exact opposite of the way that Franz Kafka apparently did it:

… it took a single night. On Sunday, Sept. 22, 1912, the day after Yom Kippur, the 29-year-old Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote “The Judgment,” his first masterpiece, in one all-night session. “Only in this way can writing be done,” he exulted, “only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul.”

My first reaction is to place Hosseini into the catagory of “old masters” and Kafka into that of the “young geniuses”, using David Galenson’s theory. Remember what that means: Some writers see the creative process as a search, as discovery, as learning; others see it as a finding,  as the execution of a bold idea. Cézanne was the first, Picasso the second, and so forth.

And my second reaction? Well, it was to wonder, once again, whether I am more of a searcher or more of a finder. I certainly could not do a Kafka and write my book in one single night. But I did start with one simple idea and the book is hewing closely to it. As I approach the end, it turned out pretty much exactly as planned.

On the other hand, I proceeded exactly as Hosseini did, by racing through a sloppy first draft in order to erect a skeleton which I have since been putting flesh on. And, of course, there were plenty of discoveries along the way.

So perhaps Galenson’s categories are better thought of as poles, with a spectrum between them.

Incidentally, in the same interview, Hosseini talks about how he first got started selling the book.

I cold-called a bunch of agents through mail. I just sent them three or four chapters with a query letter and a synopsis, … I got rejected more than 30 times … I still have the manila folders of all of the rejections that I received from agencies. I didn’t take it personally, I knew that you have to have a thick skin, that rejection is part of the game…

The rest, of course, is history. He ended up being published by Riverhead, which happens to be my own publisher. Let that be an omen!

Book publishing: dead or just resting?

I’m beginning to keep a mental laundry list of reasons to be pessimistic about the book industry. Admittedly, an odd thing to do as I prepare to enter that industry with my own book.

Among the hypotheses already advanced by others (some of them already rebutted, others contradictory):

1) people don’t read anymore,
2) publishers are crap,
3) the marketers of publishers are crap,
4) people don’t have time. And now
5) people still read but they’re cheapskates bent on ruining authors and publishers.

This submission comes from David Streitfeld in today’s New York Times. He begins with the usual wrap-up of angst–Houghton Mifflin Harcourt not accepting new manuscripts, bookstores closing, and so forth–and then assigns the blame:

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes

For readers and collectors, these resellers, as they are called, offer a great service. Lost in the hand-wringing over the state of the book industry is the fact that this is a golden age for those in love with old-fashioned printed volumes: more books are available for less effort and less money than ever before. …

There is, he says,

no longer a set price for a book at any one time. If you want it during those first few weeks when it is new, you will pay a premium. If you can wait, it might be only a pittance.

The book industry is thus in the bad company of 1) the music industry and 2) the news industry. In music, the people who do the most listening are the young, for evolutionary reasons, and they have been sharing music free for years, because they can. In news, they have been doing much the same.

I think there are angles missing from this analysis, so more to come.

All those gushing book reviews

Joe Queenan in the New York Times has an amusing but stirring piece on ridiculously over-the-top book reviews–in short, most reviews:

The least-discussed subject in the world of belles-lettres: book reviews that any author worth his salt knows are unjustifiably enthusiastic. …

the vast majority of book reviews are favorable, even though the vast majority of books deserve little praise. Authors know that even if one reviewer hates a book, the next 10 will roll over like pooches and insist it’s not only incandescent but luminous, too. Reviewers tend to err on the side of caution, fearing reprisals down the road. …

such reviews are unfair to the reader, who may be horn­swoggled into thinking that Philip Marlowe really would tip his hat at the author, or that the author has gone toe-to-toe with Joseph Conrad and given the ornery old cuss a thrashing. Books are described as being “compulsively readable,” when they are merely “O.K.”; “jaw-droppingly good,” when they are actually “not bad”; “impossible to put down,” when they are really “no worse than the last three.”

I found myself smirking and cringing all the way through his essay, depending on which of my various “book” hats I was wearing in a given sentence.

Hat Nr. 1: Occasional reviewer

In The Economist, of course.

The first thing to remember about a book review is that there is not only an author somewhere hoping for a good review but also a reviewer hoping to be told by his editor that he has written a good piece (ie, the review). And how boring is a review full of (to take examples from Queenan’s paragraph above) “O.K.” and “not bad” and “no worse than the last three.” Realistically, the editor would spike the entire piece.

So, the reviewer reverts to standard journalistic methodology: “Simplify and exaggerate.” (Before you foam with anger at all journalists, consider the alternative: “Complicate and obfuscate.” Right. Thought so.)

So now the review being written becomes “stronger”. The book is really good or really bad. Next question: If I make it really bad, can the author or anybody allied to him take revenge, now or later? Maybe? Well, perhaps I’m better off making it really good. But not all the time, because then I would lose credibility. Maybe make it really bad (to use Queenan’s ratio) 1 out of 11 times?

At The Economist we try to get around this in two ways:

1) We don’t have bylines, which protects the writer to a large extent. (Authors could in theory find out who trashed their book, but in practice are too awkward and self-conscious to inquire.)

2) We don’t allow conflicts of interest, and stopped reviewing books written by staff a few years ago. (I’m amazed that not all newspapers do this!) In those situations, the reviewer can only lose, and the author usually too.

I leave it up to you to decide whether this addresses all the subtleties of human nature.

Hat Nr. 2: Aspiring author

As you have noticed, I’m writing a book. And when the time comes, I am hoping that it will get fair and tough glowing and drooling reviews.

Seriously, I already dread the entire process that apparently comes next. Prostituting myself for blurbs (the moratorium I support is unlikely to come soon enough to be helpful), then again for reviews, then again on Jon Stewart (if I’m lucky).

Hat Nr. 3: Reader

God. It’s really annoying when the review does not, quickly and easily, tell me if this book is worth two weeks of my night time or not. I mean, really.
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Editors are human

This is an old-ish piece, from 2001, but it gives a rare peek into the book world from the … editor‘s point of view. In it, Geoff Shandler at Little, Brown, keeps a diary for one week. He gets outbid, he has health problems, he sees the promise and problems in books, he sits through meetings and gets outbid again. He is, in short, refreshingly human. Authors forget that.

A few gems:

Public mention is, for a book editor, like sunlight to a vampire. We don’t want our names on the jackets. We don’t want to go on television. If we’ve been noticed, we’ve failed….

… my least favorite task: beg other writers for blurbs.

(This is becoming an anti-blurb theme.)

Autobiographies are popular, many of them proving that while life is amazing, most life stories are not….

A lot of people go into book publishing because they think they’ll get to read all day. What they don’t realize is that so much of what you read is junk….

A bad review hurts, but a sloppy review infuriates…

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“How” books vs “Why” books

This is apparently a widespread distinction in the book industry, at least in non-fiction. I actually think it’s useful.

My book is definitely a Why book.

I don’t think much of How books. I know that some sell well, just as junk food sells well, but neither genre is good for you. How books are like slot machines: they make a fake promise of sudden insight or wealth to the weak-willed and vulnerable, and then don’t deliver. They can’t deliver. The world is too complex for one How book or even a thousand. The best we can do is to try to understand Why and then use our instinct and experience.

A genre closely related to the How books is the List book (or List magazine-article). The formula is simple: If you have nothing to say, no story to tell, no central insight, just make a list! Ten steps to this, seven habits of that, one hundred answers to this, and so forth. In magazines, the one hundred most powerful women, the fifty richest men, the twenty greatest innovators, etc. It’s a mediocre writer’s dream: You don’t actually have to go out and find a story, you just sit around and rank some celebrities or quirky one-line teasers and let the audience debate.

As with everything, there are exceptions that prove the rule. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, is an intelligent book that is also a list and appears to be a How book. But it’s not. It’s really a Why book, cleverly disguised as a List/Why book.

But my basic point stands. Write Why books. Read Why books. That is challenging and rewarding enough for a few lifetimes.

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The end of book publishing? Part III

Just as I was running the risk of ecstatic optimism–my book is coming along great and I’m writing it much faster than I had expected–a long but worthwhile article in New York Magazine comes along to remind me that I should really be … dejected.

I have opined on the end of the book business before. In that post, I struggled with the question of whether or not anybody still … reads.

Now New York Magazine cheers us up by asking, among other things, whether or not anybody still sells (book stores), pays (book publishers) or markets (ditto). I’ve pulled out the choicest quotes:

Lately, the whole, hoary concept of paying writers advances against royalties has come under question… [The] money has to come from somewhere, so publishers have cracked down on their non-star writers. The advances you don’t hear about have been dropping precipitously.

(Fortunately, I’ve already got my advance.) Next, publicity:

Traditional marketing is useless. “Media doesn’t matter, reviews don’t matter, blurbs don’t matter,” says one powerful agent.

(I wonder if that “powerful agent” was this one.)

But that’s not enough. Borders Group, which controls about 12% of the entire book-selling market all by itself, is apparently “on death watch”. And then Amazon, the industry agrees, is poised to exert total, Big-Brotherish  domination of the market.

Oh vey, oh vey, oh vey…

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