Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A rose in any other language

Yesterday I received the unexpected news that THE EINSTEIN GIRL is to be translated into Bulgarian by the distinguised firm of Ciela in Sofia. Needless to say, the advance is modest; but these days every Euro helps, and there is nothing like seeing your work in Cyrillic to make you feel that you’re truly reaching out across international boundaries - like Michael Jackson embracing the world in one of his music videos, only without the surgery, the millions or the ridiculous white pajamas.

Though I’ve sold titles in Bulgaria before, I've never actually visited the place. Perhaps it’s time I did. I happen to know that aerial bombing was invented there in 1912, during a war with the Ottomans. I've also discovered that Bulgaria currently accounts for half of the world’s annual production of rose oil, according to the Ministry of Tourism. So: a case of swings and roundabouts....

Friday, March 27, 2009

Finding an agent (part 1)

One subject that comes up more than almost any other on writers’ forums, is how new writers go about finding a literary agent. Although there are many different routes to publication, it is through agents that publishing houses find the bulk of their new authors. Even when writers get into print without the aid of an agent, they usually get one soon afterwards so as to improve their chances of securing translation deals, and generally to oversee the business and contractual side of things.

Unless you’re a celebrity, finding an agent who will even read your work can be as difficult as climbing Mont Blanc in a pair of nylon fur slippers: you don’t get very far, and soon the frostbite starts to hurt. But many new authors fail – like inexperienced climbers, to stretch the metaphor – because they don’t do their research. To assume that all agents are the same is like assuming all mountains are the same. Inside information is the best information; but if, like most people, you don’t have a pal with years of experience inside the publishing business, you can still learn a lot by yourself.

Identifying which agents might be most interested in your work is much easier today than it used to be, mainly thanks to the Internet. Before the web came along, you had to do a lot of networking just to find out who was who. Today most agents have their own websites, in addition to which there are on-line directories - although these can be patchy and not very up-to-date. However, such basic tools are only useful once you know who you are after. To get that far, I suggest following this procedure.

1.) Try to identify as many books as possible that resemble in terms of subject or genre your own book. Particularly valuable in this regard are 1st novels (since that is what you are probably trying to sell); but all are useful. Focus particularly on books published during the past few years. In the first instance, the most useful tool for this kind of research are on-line books shops, like Amazon.com, Waterstones.com, Borders.com, or Barnesandnoble.com in the US.
2.) Get these books from the library, or find them in your local book shop. In each case, check to see if an agent is thanked in the acknowledgments. This is often the case, especially with 1st novels.
3.) If this is not the case, do Internet searches on each author's name adding "agent" or "agency" to the search term. This will throw up press articles or agency web sites that may tell you who represents the author in question.
4.) Having established who reps who in your list of authors, do more Internet searches on each agent so as to gather as much information as possible about who else they represent, and anything they may have written. Sometime agents pen articles about "how to find an agent", which can be pretty useful! They also talk about the kind of work they’re looking for, and – almost as useful – what they’re not looking for. At the very least you will establish if they are still alive and in the business. (I would put money on the late Pat Kavanagh still receiving scores of inquiry letters and unsolicited manuscripts…)
5.) In addition to the above, check out as many agency web sites as possible, looking for new or relatively junior agents. By and large, these will be the ones with the shortest client lists. It is often the case that these agents will be hungrier for new clients. If you find some, do as much research on them as possible. This may be harder, because they will probably be less well known, but do your best. In many ways, getting in on the ground floor with a up-and-coming young agent is the best thing for a new writer (it's what Tracy Chevalier and Jake Arnott did with Jonny Geller, and look what happened to them...).
6.) Armed with a short-list, approach each agent in turn with a query letter. Say something interesting about yourself and describe your book in a brief but eye-catching way (more on this to come). Then explain why you have started with them, of all the hundreds of agents in the world. Mentioning a successful book or books they have represented and suggesting that yours is in a similar vein is a good way of getting their attention. You are tapping into a field where they have established a reputation - and reputations are there to be exploited.
7.) If this does not work, don’t take it personally and don't panic. Just move on. Once you reach the summit (here comes the laborious alpine metaphor again), it won’t matter how many falls you had along the way.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The hardback is mightier than the sword

My 19-month-old son Leo has already learned something about the power of literature. He likes nothing better than a good session of page turning first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I'm keen to encourage this in principle, but not, I must admit, at 6.00am. Leo has learned to overcome my reluctance by simply throwing his literary selection du jour at my head until I rouse myself and read with him. These are not soft, fluffy cloth books we're talking about, but picture books with hard covers, thick cardboard pages and lethal corners. Screams of pain and terror have no effect. For Baba (my ID as far as Leo is concerned) it is a choice of sore eyes or black eyes.

I can't wait until he's old enough for paperbacks.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The literary death spiral

One of the most unfortunate developments of recent months, both in the UK and in the US, has been the shrinking or outright disappearance of book review sections. Fiction, in particular, is no longer covered by many national newspapers, and non-fiction is being squeezed too.

In America, one of the last two major, stand-alone print book sections was killed off last month, when The Washington Post published its last edition of Book World. The paper will still review books, but only The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle will continue to run a full mini-magazine devoted to books. It is a heavy symbolic blow to readers, writers and publishers.

A recent op-ed piece by Dick Meyer in the NPR (National Public Radio) newspaper in America reports on this trend, and why it matters.

He wrote: "In the cosmic sense, the same trends that threaten newspapers threaten books. It isn't just a matter of "business models" and the proliferation of alternative and cheap forms of amusement — computers, mobile, video games and everything on demand, all the time. There is an aversion to long chunks of sentences.

"And there is a literary death spiral. The less we read books, the less we read journalism; the less we read journalism, the less we read books. Reading skills atrophy or, worse, were never properly acquired to their fullest. The dire problem is that long chunks of sentences are still the best way humans have to express complex thoughts, intricate observations, fleeting emotions — the whole range of what we are...

"Newspaper critics had a special role, exposing a large, general readership to a wide variety of writers, books and genres with at least a modicum of fairness, civility and erudition... More important, the collapse of professional reviewing is just part of a cultural devaluing of books and even formally written words."

Meyer concludes gloomily that: "It is unclear whether the American attention span can support book reading for much longer. As children are reared on "Baby Einstein" and then fertilized by an ever expanding diet of fast-paced electronic stimulation, as our communication gets sliced and diced into instant messages and abbreviated e-mails, it would be unrealistic to expect our synapses to stay the same. We will simply like books less than we did.

"In capitalism, value is allocated in the form of money. That less money is being allocated to books and book publicity means that the society values books less."

You can read the whole piece here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100828803

Is this view too defeatist? Or is the book destined to go the way of the epic poem and the clay tablet?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Dutch cover story

Marga de Boer of Dutch publishers Luitingh-sijthoff very kindly sent me not only the artwork for the Dutch language edition of THE EINSTEIN GIRL (due out in September), but also the original archive photograph upon which it is based (see above). After various experiments with tinting - that balloon has been all shades of the rainbow ar various times - the final cover looks like this (see below).

Notice how the laughing girl second from the left has been skilfully airbrushed out. Still, what I can't help wondering is: who is this lady with the balloon? And what became of her? Maybe someone somewhere remembers her. It's funny to think that the only thing left of her might be an image on the cover of a Dutch edition of an English novel, published 77 years after her night on the town - funny, and just a bit sad.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The oxygen of publicity

I have just spent most of the working day writing a publicity piece for THE EINSTEIN GIRL, a task which I hate worse than a queue at the post office, but which I've come to see as a necessity. According to Waterstones.com there are still 135 days to go before UK publication, but, if anything, I am a bit slow off the mark. What is a publicity piece? It is an imaginary feature article about your upcoming title, containing as much interesting information, from a press point-of-view, as possible. The purpose of the piece is really just to present ideas (or 'angles' in press parlance) in a stimulating way to the publicity team at the publishers.

In the past, like most writers, I assumed that all I had to do was fill in the author questionaire and the rest would be up to the in-house PR experts. Authors, of course, hate summarizing their work; an activity that inevitably downplays its uniqueness in a desperate quest to be arresting and pithy. And most of them are not very good at it, especially when put on the spot, say, at an industry function. "Describe your book in 50 words or less" is a request that leaves many gesticulating helplessly as they choke on their peanuts and non-vintage Frascati.
In my case, this naïveté was especially unforgivable, because I spent years working as a magazine editor, in which capacity I received hundreds of press releases, 95% of which went straight into the bin. Which is the point. If you want the PR about your particular book to stand out, it is a good idea to lend every possible assistance to the people who are handling it. If that means doing a lot of the thinking for them, then so be it. After all, you know more about the book and about yourself than anyone else does; so it's not unreasonable that you should be asked to help come up with the angles.
There is another, perhaps even more important, side to this issue of the dreaded summary (be it blurb, catalogue entry or PR piece). And it's this: if you can't set out concisely what it is that's interesting and unique about your story, preferably before you spend a year or two writing it, how interesting and unique can it really be? A woolly, rambling idea will - 9 times out of 10 - produce a woolly, rambling book.