Monday, March 22, 2010

Sound bytes from the SF Writers Conference

It's been more than a month since I attended the SF Writer's Conference, and nearly a month since I've blogged my principal posts about what I learned. This past weekend, I hung out with a writer friend for the first time that wasn't virtual since the SFWC (that is, we saw each other in-person), and I tried to remember all the important stuff I hadn't already blogged about ... to share the wealth, as it were. The exchange made me realize that it's high time I go through my notebook scribbles once more to mine what's left unposted.

So here it is in categorized bullet points, with apologies to paraphrased presenters for whatever I've lost through poor listening or note-taking.

[Some of my notes have specific attributions, others are 'somebody said this on a panel' attributions. While some of the information given may be contradictory, I only included notes from presenters who I judged to be well-informed and articulate -- which, I should say, was a resounding supermajority of those who spoke at SFWC.]

About writing, for new novelists:

  • Why isn't it easier to get published? Well, it's hard to write a good book. Tom Robbins took 5-6 years and 4-5 drafts to write his. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • It's the content. Most of what's written is not very good. (Katherine Sands, Literary Agent, Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency)
  • Expect revision -- perhaps radical revision -- at both the agent's and editor's stage of engaging with your work. Authors must be prepared to respond professionally to suggestions. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • A platform is helpful, even in fiction. But. Craft first. (Laurie McLean, Literary Agent, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency)
  • It takes two years to get from a completed manuscript to a published book. Trends are really hard to judge into the future. Write what you need to write, not what you think is today's trend. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • The reality of advances for new fiction writers? Don't dream bigger than $20,000, especially if you're going to a small press. Publishers will not risk a lot on new ideas. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • How polished is a manuscript when it's "done"?
    • The first 100 pages have to feel really good. Solid. An agent is the best judge of whether a manuscript is done enough to be sent to an editor. (Jeanette Perez, Editor, HarperOne)
    • Characters and plot have to be solid. The basic structure, framework, vision. If your readers group says they'd buy it for $25, that's a good sign. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)

About getting an agent:

  • Make yourself the object of an agent's chase. Publish wherever you can (quality on-line 'zines are absolutely a legitimate venue). It's about producing work. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • You owe it to yourself to submit simultaneously to agents. Just tell the agents to whom you are submitting what you're doing. (Non-fiction agents panel)
  • First novels must be complete and polished before submission to a literary agent. (Paul S. Levine, Literary Agent)
  • Agents in the current market need to deliver a mss. that is very close to 100% perfect before going to a publisher. Editors no longer have time to edit. (Non-fiction agents panel)
  • Will agents shy away from older writers? Maybe. It depends on the project. But writers in their 50s get a first book published all the time. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • Literary agents are dousers. Most often it's a voice that compels interest. (Katherine Sands, Literary Agent, Sara Jane Freymann Literary Agency)
  • An author's job is to write. An agent's job is to know the business and sell. (Ken Sherman, Literary Agent)
  • Know what you want from a literary agent, and -- only after s/he has expressed interest in representing you -- ask whether they will give it to you. (Cameron McClure, Literary Agent, Donald Maass Literary Agency)

About the publishing industry generally:

  • 80-90% of books don't make money. Too many books are published; it's cheap enough to publish and see what happens. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • Pre-orders significantly influence a publisher's decision about how many copies of a book to print. Higher numbers means a greater footprint in stores, more visibility, and possibly higher sales. But higher numbers also risk a low 'sell-through' which makes publishers very unhappy. A publisher's initial announced print-run of a book is usually inflated, significantly. Reprint decisions depend on the velocity of sales. There's about a two-week window to establish a toehold that keeps a book in the stores. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • Debut novels are booming. Not having a track record is an advantage. Every publisher is looking for the next big thing. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)
  • Publisher's don't have huge promotion budgets. An author's professional engagement is core. You can buy professional publicity for $500-$15,000, and this can be the right strategy when a publisher isn't stepping up; an agent can advise. (Elise Capron, Literary Agent, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency)
  • No one gets book tours. Yes, of course there are exceptions; but this is the rule. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)

On what makes a "successful" book:

  • Best sellers sell 100,000s fewer copies than they did even 10-20 years ago (Kevin Smokler, CEO,
  • If success is defined as books that earn out their advance & the publisher didn't "spend too much" producing it, maybe 65% of books are successful; and 25-35,000 copies in "a certain time" would be a best seller; a flop is a print run of 5000 of which 4500 come back. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press)
  • The NY Times doesn't sell books (necessarily). Buzz sells books. (Alan Rinzler, Executive Editor, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons)

Memorable lines:

  • An author's enemy is obscurity, not piracy. (Mark Coker, [quoted earlier]
  • Guys don't buy books. (Daniela Rapp, Editor, St. Martin's Press) [quoted earlier]
  • Publishers are running out of money. The model is broken. Celebrity publishing is really a series of desperate Hail Mary passes. (Dan Poynter, self-publishing guru & author of 126 books)
  • Web 3.0 is video. (Philippa Burgess, Creative Convergence, Inc.)
  • Everything happens for a reason, but not necessarily a good reason. (Jacquelyn Mitchard, author; quoting her brother)
  • Don't give away the end before we care about the story. (Advice given at SFWC's Friday evening "Pitch Contest")

1 comment:

  1. Cool post. I'd kill for 20K, by the way. I've always figured "enough to buy a new PC and take a vacation" would be cool. Yes, every year = lowered expectations!