On India’s Lack of a Literary Culture and Community

February 26, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Anandi Mishra

Growing up 400 kilometers from the capital of India, Delhi, in an erstwhile industrial town Kanpur, I barely had any access to books that were out of my school syllabus. This was the early- and mid-nineties and all I had access to was a massive school library, its walls lined with books by legendary British writers. These, bequeathed to us by our colonial heritage, were a universe that kept me engaged for an entire decade. I relished in the works of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Rudyard Kipling because I did not know any other authors. With age we were supposed to move forward to reading Mills and Boon or the novels of Danielle Steel. Discovering any titles other than these would have to happen on our own time, in a different set of circumstances and perhaps with access to a different library.

After a certain age, we were just not supposed to read books. There was no time to be wasted in honor of a creative impulse. If you were seen with a novel in hand you would be berated for wasting time.

When Arundhati Roy won the Booker prize in 1997 for her debut novel The God of Small Things, it caused a tiny stirring. I was barely six years old at the time, probably reading Wordsworth and Eliot during our hour-long weekly library classes in school. Little did I know that when I would encounter the book about a decade later, it would positively change my world.

Every time I try to recall the moment when I first wished to be a writer, it’s a blur. By the age of 17, I was reading one book or another every week, buying them from expensive franchise bookstores in a mall in the university city where I now lived. Clueless about the things to read, with no one to guide I would end up buying not so scintillating titles like Conversations with God. During a vacation in the south Indian coastal town of Kanyakumari in 2008, I remember ambling alone by the beach and coming across a vendor selling two or three different books from the Chicken Soup for the Soul section. They cost a meagre INR20 each. I bought them all and polished them off during my few days there. After this, I would graduate to reading all of Paulo Coelho’s books. Within a few months, I was through with all these fancy foreign titles, but the thirst within remained unquenched. That is when I was gifted a secondhand, cheap reprint copy of The God of Small Things by an uncle. I was 19 or 20 years old then and I remember inhaling the book in a couple of days. It gave me confidence that the kind of writing I wanted to do was possible and that there were writers I could look up to.  

None of what I read before and after came even remotely close to the magic of visual imagery painted by Roy. As much as I wanted to read other writers like her, there were not many easily available. That is not to say that good books were not being written by Indians in English language. There just existed a yawning gap between them and the readers in provincial small-town India. With the advent of literary festivals, book fairs, and book talks, I expected new avenues and important resources to open for readers like me. Instead, with the proliferation of the internet, these worlds continue to exist on farther ends of the spectrum, with literary activity limited to big cities, and certain books exclusively for journalists and people with access to travel.

Cashing on this lag, opportunistic writers with MBAs, engineering degrees and finance brothers, make merry. They write simple, basic novels about banal things in the lives of people in small towns in India and market them through social media, so that these titles are eventually sold everywhere, from online stores to makeshift roadside stalls, to railway stations and newspaper stalls. They sell between INR100 and INR200, which would be less than $2 U.S., and make for comfortable reads. They sell in vast numbers and then go on to be adapted as movies. While these books thrive, there is little or no criticism of their quality. Mainstream English language book critics sit tight, waiting for the next Salman Rushdie title to drop. There is no barometer against which those writers should be measured, and so, they continue to thrive despite what is sometimes utterly below average writing.

The more famous, big publishing house authors who do care about the craft continue to write books that have no way of reaching readers. They move overseas, teach in universities, look to make life better for themselves, leaving little or nothing for their readers here. Their absence contributes to the existing lack of nonfiction and fiction workshops, classes, fellowships, mentorships and other such helpful and vital resources in the Indian literary ecosystem. Any budding writer looking to understand how to make it as a writer, or even where to start off, is faced with a vacuum. As a result of extreme apathy, general callousness and selfishness, there is a lack of a true literary community that could otherwise protect and support a writer. Most novelists are heavily online but continue to stay out of reach. To be able to even secure a famous writer’s email address one has to juggle through contacts and connections.

Earlier this month this tweet by Indian journalist and writer Annie Zaidi found me hapless. I agree with her on the fact that there is a serious lack of literary magazines in India. In my last ten months of publishing, whatever little I have interacted with Indian literary magazines, my experience has been shoddy. Most of them don’t pay, don’t edit, heck, don’t even inform when your article is up on their website. They call their magazines “a labor of love” using that as an excuse for unprofessionalism. Since a lot of readers don’t know about these almost anonymous magazines, the editors continue to exploit earnest writers for cheap labor. As writer and literary critic Kalyan Raman replied to Zaidi’s tweet, “Perhaps tangential, but we need literary zines in English to build a more participatory literary culture and to engender a critical discourse that is unafraid of the gatekeeping establishment. In other words, to show up our own entrenched mediocrities and make space for the new.”

As much as I agree with Raman, there is something to be said for the shoddiness of the existing literary culture in India. As a nation we are enmeshed in the beautiful culture of reading and writing, and a lot of kids continue to aspire and dream to be writers in a third world country like ours. Instead of making it seem like an unattainable goal or punishing them for harboring dreams, the existing literati should focus on creating a space that fosters the minds of young and existing readers and writers. A reading population is a thinking population, and is needed all the more now, in a world that is rapidly going to right-wing hell.
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Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.

Keep Your Writing Friends Close But Your Comp Authors Closer

February 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Ashleigh Renard

Last week “harsh writing advice” was trending on Twitter, spurred on by one bonehead tweet that declared that our writing friends are our competition. Well, if we think the prize in this game is winning the attention of a top agent or editor, maybe the bonehead is right.

But if our perspective expands just a tad, we may remember that all of us in publishing—writers, editors, agents, and booksellers—are tremendously outnumbered by the ACTUAL READERS. Our ability to connect with readers is what agents and editors are talking about whenever they mention “platform.” And it is those dear readers who are the most often forgotten about until we have something to sell them.

Here’s how to change that and put readers at the center of your daily writing practice.

Just as writers diligently research comparative titles for queries and proposals, we need to search out “comp authors” on social media. Comp authors are the established, published writers in our genre, who have a large following and engage regularly on their chosen platforms. Followed strategically, their social media accounts can help us determine where our potential readers hang out and what they already consume with vigor.

To determine your comp authors:

  1. If you could switch accounts with any writer in the world today, who would it be? Who shows up online in a manner that appeals to you?
  2. Choose someone you like. This should not be a hate-follow. You will be studying what they do well and why readers flock to them. Liking their work will help you get the most out of this practice.
  3. Find common themes with your own writing in their books and their presence on social media—grief, body positivity, travel, parenthood, nutrition, chronic illness, humor, etc—but your stories do not need to be identical, because of course they can’t be.

What to do with your comp authors:

  1. Turn notifications on for 3-5 accounts on your favorite platform(s).
  2. Pay attention—what do readers react to quickly and exuberantly? Are they following the account for encouragement, commiseration, or to be entertained? What types of posts inspire the most interaction? Does your target reader enjoy a quick punchline or an Instagram mini-essay. Do they want to laugh or want to cry?
  3. Engage by joining the discussion in the comments. When you feel you have something witty and supportive to add to the conversation, do. Comment and respond to comments from others. You’re not there to steal the show. You are there to give genuine support to the community your comp author has already assembled. Add value by listening, offering assistance, and being your real self.
  4. If you have chosen accurate comp authors and are really paying attention it won’t take long before you start to notice gaps in what the writer is offering, gaps you can fill with your unique experience. What holes do you notice in the support the comp writer is giving the readers? How are you positioned to fill these holes and meet these needs with the differences between you and the comp author? This is where you get ideas for your own social media content. Actively noticing the gaps in what the authors already in your genre talk about can even help you narrow the focus of your memoir, prescriptive nonfiction project, or the way you will present yourself as a novelist.
  5. Support the author and practice your literary citizenship. When you buy the author’s new book (because you actually like their writing, remember?) buy an extra copy and hold a giveaway on your Instagram or in your newsletter. On Instagram, tag the author, the editor, the imprint, and their agent. Share to your Story and tag them there, too.
  6. YOU ARE NOT AIMING TO BE FOLLOWED BACK BY THE WRITER. Please remember this is not the goal. The purpose is to focus your online offerings to become a creator who followers of your comp author would recommend to their friends as another person who offers great advice/encouragement/education online.

One pertinent and caring comment from me on an Elizabeth Gilbert post led to Liz responding for a brief conversation in the comments, 1600 new visitors to my Instagram account and 150 new followers, many of whom became beta readers for my memoir. Positioning yourself as a writer who should be read by readers who love your comp accounts comes earlier and is more in your control than whether your title will be shelved next to your comp author at a bookstore or whether you’ll be put on a panel together at a literary festival.

Keep your writing friends close. Share editing and submissions advice and support. But remember we are all of more value to each other when we prioritize growing our own readerships. Newsletter swaps, giveaways, and shared book events all have a wider reach when we actively seek out our audience, and have a finger on the pulse of what they love.

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Ashleigh Renard’s debut book SWING – A Memoir of Doing it All will be available May 2021. Follow her on Instagram for daily reflections and advice for writers, monogamists and moms.

Need more ways to connect with readers without sacrificing your writing time on social media? Join Ashleigh Renard and Brevity’s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams for Reach Your Readers, Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform.

Let’s Face It: In Search of the Alluring Author Photo

February 8, 2021 § 47 Comments

By Lisa Kusel

I.   A few years before finding a smattering of success as a writer I enrolled in a poetry class being taught by a local legend, Molly Fisk. For one of the assignments Molly asked us to write an egocentric poem; one that could be as farfetched or fantastical as we wished. “Dream big,” she’d said.

I wrote a fanciful poem describing how beautiful I would look on the dust jacket of my first book. I imagined my (not-yet-written) novel being so esteemed that my publisher would hire Marion Ettlinger, the famed book portraitist, to shoot me. Using strategic lighting and a makeup artist’s sleight of hand, the resulting photograph would capture my above-average intellect, and convey the depth of my soul much like it did for Jhumpa Lahiri:

Delusional poetry aside, I ended up having to supply the author photo for my first book. My friend Dave, who considered himself a pretty good nature photographer, volunteered to give it a whirl. I wore no makeup. He had no special lighting. I didn’t know whether I should look at the camera, or look away as if dreaming up my next brilliant story. We spent three hours in his backyard with me alternatively squatting, leaning, smiling, smirking, squirming, stretching, or gazing off into the distance. Dave gave it his all, but I was as unphotogenic as a newborn mole. Since Hyperion needed a picture pronto, I had no choice but to pick the least offensive one. I sent them a blurry shot of me hiding behind my dog.

They wrote back, requesting a picture that actually showed my face. I didn’t like any of my faces, but I’d run aground.

II.   For Book Two I asked my friend Elisa to try her hand at generating a new and improved author photo. This time I wore lots of makeup and poofed my hair. The resulting images ranged from comically come-hither-ish to just plain homely. It was as if the camera had challenged my face to a duel and my face lost.

I next turned to my friend Tim, who swore up and down that his zillion-dollar high-tech camera could not take a bad picture. I tilted my head like I’d seen many other authors do, gently touched my cheek, and let him snap away. Again, pressed for time, I provided Hyperion with the best of a bad lot.  

III.   As for my memoir, I wanted the author photo to radiate how relatable, down to earth, fun, and sassy I was. After taking a few thousand selfies in various getups and hairdos, I defaulted to an old photograph of me straddling a chair in the bathroom of our house in Nevada City. And by old I mean that the picture on the back of my new book had actually been taken TWELVE years previous.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want prospective readers to view me as an old lady author. It was just that I literally could not take a decent picture.

IV.   A few weeks ago the Brevity Blog published a blog essay of mine about the time I asked the actress Emma Thompson to blurb one of my novels. As expected, the editor requested an author photo. Up until then, I’d been using the same vague candid shot for my published pieces, as well as for my blog bio and my Gmail account.

I reconsidered the photograph. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, maybe it was time to look more professional? I decided I would send a conventional picture: one where you could see my actual visage. I looked around for something to use, but as I flipped through my social media accounts it suddenly dawned on my that I never showed my face. I am either hiding behind my daughter Loy,

or behind my cat.

Or I am looking down.

Only on Goodreads did I discover a smiling face-forward photograph of me, although, truth be told, it’s also really old (I believe it was taken at Loy’s 4th birthday party). 

V.   I don’t usually look at an author photo until I’ve finished reading a book. I try not to form any sort of preconceived judgement because, well, because we’re humans and we cannot help but judge a book by its cover—or author photo, anyway.

Right after I wrote that paragraph I wondered if that were true. Do I enjoy a book more if the author is handsome? Less so if she/he/they are not becoming? The answer is a resounding NO.  Why then do I care about how I appear to readers?  Why should it be important to be attractive in one’s photo?

According to this essay on the history of author photos, here’s why it’s important:

Today, an alluring author photo has become less a “bonus feature,” as it was for Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and more a golden ticket for literary success. “Interesting, beautiful or unusual photographs,” according to Eckstut and Sterry, “have a way of ending up in ‘pick of the week’ sections of newspapers, on the homepages of websites, or in the posts of bloggers.” Such “arresting visuals,” they tell the reader, can dramatically increase one’s chances of getting a feature or catching the eye of a publisher, publicist, or bookseller. 

VI.   As much as I hated the assumption that a comely author doth a successful writing career make, I didn’t have the time to fight it. Brevity was waiting. Because my cancer treatment rendered me partially bald, and I wasn’t about to take a selfie, I rummaged around for something akin to a “real” author photo. At the very least, I needed one a tad more contemporary. One that didn’t show me eating, or petting my cat. Knowing I would never unearth one that was interesting, beautiful, and unusual, I lowered the bar. I came across this 3-year-old picture of me standing in my friend Kara’s clothing boutique. I’d just had my hair cut, highlighted, and blown straight. I’m not making eye contact with the camera (still hiding), but the brick backdrop makes it border on interesting. My hair, at least, is attractive.

VII.  Someday I will finish writing the novel I’m working on and it will find a publisher. By then my hair will have recovered its length and the pandemic will have ended. Will I hire a professional photographer to shoot my new author photo? Maybe I will.

Maybe.   

I know that no matter how much money I spend I will never appear as clever, classy, or cunning as Lahiri (nor will I ever—no matter how much I practice—write as beautifully). But I will look at the camera, smile, and say “cheese” because it’s high time I learn to face the world, dead-on.

I might not have arrestingly photogenic features, but I know how to tell a good story. Aesthetic beauty, as social media knows it, may be in the eye of the beholder. But pure and playful beauty, as far as I’m concerned, should lie within the words on a page.  
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Lisa Kusel prides herself on being genre nonconforming. Her published books include Rash,, her wild memoir about escaping from paradise, as well two works of fiction: the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram

Mailing List Love

February 4, 2021 § 8 Comments

We’ve all heard it.

You need a mailing list.

Your mailing list is your most powerful way to reach your readers.

Agents and publishers want you to have a mailing list.

And it’s true. A mailing list is your most powerful way to stay connected to your future readers. Being invited into someone’s inbox is far more intimate than connecting on social media. Plus, most people see under 10% of everything posted in their social feeds. But most people read about 95% of their email.

Which leads to a conundrum, as a writer asked me recently on Twitter: “How, exactly, am I supposed to get all those addresses?”

Start simple.

When a writer hands you their card at a conference, they are inviting you to stay in touch. Add those emails.

Look through your address book. Any family member or friend who has expressed interest in your writing (and from whom you’re not actively hiding your memoir).

That workshop attendee list. The addresses a literary magazine fails to bcc on their email. Most of them won’t opt in for regular news, but keep their information. When the time comes, one email announcing your book launch is OK!

Broaden your reach. Make sure there’s a prominent mailing list sign up form on your website. Put the link to sign up in your regular email signature (it’s in Mail>Preferences). Each time you contact your list, crosspost a teaser to social media. More of your followers will read, and some will sign up.

You don’t need a lot of mailing list infrastructure. A way to sign up. A place to track information, like a spreadsheet or an app like Substack, Mailchimp, Tiny Letter, Convertkit, or Flodesk. Automate your subscribe/unsubscribe process—legally, it must easy to unsubscribe, and letting a machine take care of that avoids hurting your feelings. Don’t bother to check your subscriber numbers more than every other month, unless you’re actively growing your list with a campaign and need to see if it’s working on a daily or weekly basis.

How often should you be in touch? No more than weekly; ideally no less than monthly. However, most of us have actual writing to do. I personally send my newsletter every 4 to 6 months (whoops!), but the point of regularity is so people remember who you are. I do enough social media that much of my audience remembers me, but I still start each newsletter with “Hey I know you haven’t heard for me in a while…”

And what, exactly, are you writing to all these people? The same things you tell your friends about your writing. How your process is going. What inspired you today. Something cool you read and think they’d like to read, too. Entertain them, enlighten them, be of service. You’re not selling your content, you’re buying their attention.

Most newsletters focus either on service or story. Service newsletters curate information, like Erika Dreifus’ The Practicing Writer, give insider tips, like Kate McKean’s Agents and Books, or consolidate industry news, like Jane Friedman’s paid offering, The Hot Sheet. Story newsletters showcase your actual writing. Emerging writer Casey Mulligan Walsh sends part of her monthly blog to her mailing list (scroll allllllll the way down). Some people will click through and read the whole thing, but Casey’s not overloading their inbox with a giant block of text. I tend to write travel stories or quirky slice-of-life moments. Thriller writer Jessica Jarlvi combines personal moments with writing inspiration.

Nobody wants to be your “customer”; they want to be your friend. As you build your author platform—or as I like to think of it, the bridge connecting you and your readers to each other—readers opting in and choosing to see you in their inbox are placing you among their friends. Your mailing list is a gentle way to keep in touch, not necessarily with the people who’ll rush out and buy your book instantly upon release, but with those who will spread that news to their friends, endorsing you and evangelizing for your work. That warm, supportive feeling you have towards the authors in your inbox, sharing their work and their lives? That’s how your mailing list readers are going to feel about you.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Ready to start building your personal author platform? Join me and Ashleigh Renard for Reach Your Readers Keep Your Soul: 8 Weeks to Author Platform. You’ll learn better social media skills, improve your pitching and submissions, explore public speaking, write PR, discover how to reach your readers consistently, write better, and build an audience that helps you sell your book. Weekly classes and small-group coaching start March 1.

The Burrito Was a Lie: Guitars, Teen Essays and Erasure

February 2, 2021 § 11 Comments

author headshot of strawberry blonde white woman with black tank, blue cardigan and statement necklaceBy Andromeda Romano-Lax

My first freelance essays were accepted when I turned seventeen—fittingly, for the magazine of that name. The first, about my sister’s suicide attempt and my own self-blame for not having seen it coming, was contracted but didn’t run. I learned what a “kill fee” meant, and that knowledge, plus a check, was reward enough, especially since I’d written that essay for one reason only: to get the secret off my chest.

And maybe it was better that piece got killed. I’d given no thought to hiding a national publication from my mother and sisters, who weren’t aware that I was scribbling about family skeletons and sending those unsolicited pieces over the transom, learning the rules of the game from a library copy of Writer’s Market.

Seventeen did run my second essay. I still remember the agonizing wait for the issue (readership: three million) to appear. “Tear sheets” were mailed to me, but I wanted to see the real thing at my local Jewel Foods. I can still feel the tickle of sweat as I flipped past Cover Girl and Anais Anais ads searching for my name. Not bad for a kid who’d received D’s and F’s from my high school teachers.

There was only one problem with my debut article. I hadn’t written most of it.

My essay was about my experience as a punk guitarist treated dismissively by a stage manager in a small Wisconsin town. My bandmates and I were in the green room, about to go on. The manager asked me to leave, assuming I was a groupie. I bristled and strutted onstage anyway. That was my embarrassingly small story. Summed up in one sentence: Yes, girls do play guitar.

The core anecdote had made the cut, but everything else on those slick pages was false. My memory is hazy about the editing process that had occurred months earlier. Maybe I saw pre-pub drafts, but the final published piece still confused me.

In this new essay, my garage band, lamentably called Scamshatter, now had an even worse name: “Steve and the Seymours.” Stranger yet was an invented argument with a boyfriend, Gary, and his subsequent trip to the 7-11 for a frozen burrito, during which I picked up his Fender bass the first time. By the time Gary got back, he was disturbed to find I was already playing better than he could.

None of it was even vaguely inspired by my original submission. Not the 7-11, not the burrito, not the bass, not the boyfriend, not the envy, and certainly not my inexplicable, spontaneous talent.

I’m not expecting you to care about the specifics (Steve and the Seymours?); only to inhabit a young writer’s confusion that our experiences, even those we struggle to shape and make permanent with our own inexpert hands, can be so easily erased.

I still cashed the check—a year’s babysitting wages. I still held onto that issue as a prized possession. I even named my next dog after the editor. And for more than a decade, long after I quit the guitar, I kept writing and publishing essays. In 2002, I turned to writing novels. And here I am, nearing fifty, coming full circle in three peculiar ways:

I just bought a cheap guitar, intent on trying again. Can I now admit I never knew more than three chords? (I just did.)

Cover image of Annie and the Wolves, a pink book with a sepia photo of Annie Oakley aiming a gun with a mirror over her shoulderMy new novel, Annie and The Wolves, launches today. In it, a narrator’s inability to deal squarely with her sister’s suicide as well as the reason behind it—trauma, created by rape—plays a central role. (There’s that first killed essay.)

And I’m venturing back into creative nonfiction, writing essays that expose family secrets. Even though I’ve now written a novel fixated with memory and complicity, I still think there’s a place to drop fiction’s veil, if only for a thousand words, to say, “This is based on something real. This happened to my family.”

I want to invite readers to recognize their own stories in mine. But I’m also making up for that teenager’s experiences, wanting to prove it’s possible to write about suicide and incest (and guitars) without anyone killing those essays or rendering them absurdly unrecognizable.

My first publications launched me as a freelance writer. But they also taught me some lessons I’m still trying to shake off. I discovered that editors often shun disturbing, unresolved stories. My suicide essay had some logic gaps, because I was shying away from facts even darker (incest) than what was already on the page. A mature editor could have helped.

The second unfortunate “lesson” was that my unvarnished truth wasn’t compelling enough. Bad enough I received that impression in 1989. Worse still, I recently took a popular week-long memoir workshop with essentially the same message—a rejection of truth in favor of simple chronology and a more commercial story arc. That sort of simplified thinking, uncommon yet still worrisome, gives memoir a bad name.

I’m preaching to the choir here, but I think I need to. I need to talk to my people first, and hear them talk—even sing—back to me, so that I can regain membership in a world in which the truth is complicated, where Steve and the Seymours and inventive editors don’t need to save us.

I want to try again, outside the bounds of fiction, to tell my stories authentically. I want to let readers know what really happened.

I’m starting now.

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Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of five novels published in eleven languages, including her most recent work, Annie and the Wolves (Soho Press, Feb 2021), a novel about a modern historian obsessed with Annie Oakley and a desire to change the past.

A Tale of Two (or More) Agents

January 29, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

Like many of you, when I started publishing my work – mostly essays and a few short stories – I always had a bigger project in the back of my mind.  I kept notebooks and files on these ideas.  Sometimes these projects seemed like they might be books.  I even self-published a novel (historical fiction) in 2001, just as Amazon was starting to be a big player, and sold the 4,000 copies I had printed, before I decided to move on.

A literary agent in Chicago read that book, and I signed with her to represent me in order to either sell that novel to a bigger publisher, or perhaps generate something else appropriate for her list.  After a year or so of back and forth, we amicably parted ways, as it became clear that we didn’t have the same goals or vision for that book or other books I was doodling around with.

I felt freer after I was back on my own, kind of like when you break up with a nice boyfriend, but you know he’s not really The One.

I continued publishing essays and short stories, and working on ideas for longer projects.  I have always worked on several manuscripts at once.  This is just the way I work best.  I also queried various literary agents at different times, first when I put together my published essays with a similar “theme” (how I hate that word…), then when I wrote a novella.

I knew that writing a novella (it was 115 pages long) was a hard sell, unless you were Joyce Carol Oates, whose novella Black Water I had the chutzpah (idiocy?) to compare my novella to.  Then I put the novella together with my published short stories and saw that they did kind of go together in that they were mostly about women who get themselves in trouble with the men in their lives.  (The men often die in my stories, which keeps my husband wondering what I am thinking whenever I get quiet and moody.)

I meticulously researched agents who might be interested in my collection, and crafted a stellar query letter.  Some nice replies, and a few requests for the manuscript, but ultimately it became clear that a short story collection with a novella at its centerpiece wasn’t going to be the launching pad for my literary career.

Then I received an email from Jeff, a literary agent at a prestigious agency.  He had read one of my short stories in a literary journal, and wondered if I had any longer projects.  Did I ever!  Oh, my dear Jeff, how joyous I was that you plucked me out of the slush.  By the time I replied and sent him my newest manuscript (a memoir) and a few other ideas, I had us lunching in New York City (where he, of course, is based).

The problem was that Jeff didn’t want a memoir.  Could I make my memoir fiction?  It turned out that I could not.  God knows, I tried.  But then one day I figured out that I was rewriting my memoir for one person: Jeff.  And it wasn’t fun, or true, anymore.

We parted ways amicably, and I often think of him – and my trip to New York City to meet with him – fondly.

I continued to write essays and short stories, and occasionally query an agent I scouted in Publisher’s Marketplace, and that’s how Liz and I met.  She read my query and loved my memoir, and of course I signed with her.  She, too, was with a big deal agency in NYC.

We worked together for six months to get my book in perfect shape to send out.  I didn’t go to NYC to meet her, but I could tell she and I would have a blast together if I did.  We would have dinner, and toast our upcoming success, and …

I got an email one day from Liz.  She was leaving the agency, and couldn’t take her current clients with her.  I was assigned to one of the partners in the agency.  I was mad/sad for a few minutes, and then realized “PARTNER.”  I immediately Googled him, and contacted him, and once again thought, “This is a win/win.”

He was really nice, but he didn’t have the same enthusiasm for my book as Liz.  Adios, Michael, and another Big NYC Agency.

One might think that after all of this, a normal person would regroup, or perhaps find another line of work.  But, as my husband often remarks, I am one of the most stubborn people he has ever met.  (I prefer to think of myself as persistent.)

Amazingly enough, throughout all these years of elation followed by defeat, I kept my hopes for that book alive, and kept publishing essays and short stories.

Then last year I signed with another agent.  For sure Emily and I were going to be besties.  She and her partner Susan were so nice, and they loved my book, and we all had the same vision, and I signed another contract, and…

Then the virus hit, and I don’t blame Emily or Susan, but I waited a respectfully long period of time before emailing them, after checking several times to make sure they were still alive.  And there was a very long silence, during which time I had several bad thoughts, and worried thoughts, and then mad thoughts.  And then I saw that the one-year date to re-sign my contract was approaching, and I decided to break up with my agents.

It was actually a bit freeing.

Just recently though, I thought of Jeff.  I wondered how he was, and if he would remember me.  Just a short note – something chatty, yet informative.  He was, after all, my first.
___

Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications.  Her short stories have been published in several literary journals.  This is her 10th essay for the Brevity blog.  Follow on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com

Nobody Gets What They’re Worth

January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments

Emrys Fleet, ratcatcher and master negotiator

Years ago, I sat backstage at a Renaissance Festival, hot and sweaty after eating fire in the Florida sun. (What really sucks? Fire is harder to see in bright light, so I’d endangered my life to look less impressive than usual.) My partner and I were talking contracts with a more experienced performer (this guy). We were going to ask for more money. I said doubtfully, “I know the management is pretty cheap, but I think we’re worth it?”

Our wiser friend replied, “Nobody gets what they’re worth. You get what you negotiate.”

That saying stuck with me. Bad deals come from bad negotiation—not one’s inherent worth. Good deals reflect the writer and their agent’s negotiating skills as much as the quality of the book. (Good writing gets you in the door; good deals come from negotiation).

For writers, negotiating with a publisher can feel like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But a publishing contract isn’t a gift, it’s a deal. Professional, courteous negotiation doesn’t upset legitimate businesspeople. Anyone getting shirty when you ask for explanations or push back on terms is waving a huge red flag. Trust is for your mother. (Or not, as per many memoirs.)

When you receive your publishing contract, what can you (or your agent) negotiate?

Royalties. Standard royalties are 10-15%. Especially if your advance is smaller, you may be able to do better, perhaps as much as 25% on print books. Even if they won’t shift on print, you could get a higher percentage on ebooks. The standard is 25%, but I’ve seen authors get as much as 50%.

Royalties can also include an “escalator” clause: sell more books, get more money. I arranged an escalator clause for one of the first plays I published: my royalties jumped 5% every 5000 copies sold, topping out at 25%. When I signed, it was an ambitious dream. Twenty years later, the play is still in print.

Subsidiary Rights. Publishers hope to buy worldwide rights, then sell your book to foreign publishers, for which you get royalties. But if your agent sells those rights (or you do, but that’s a longer shot), you’ll deal directly with the overseas publisher and keep a chunk of middleman money. If your publisher retains foreign rights, negotiate for an expiration date. If they have bigger-deal books to focus on and yours goes unsold, you’ll want those rights back for when the opportunity arises to sell them yourself.

You may not be able to keep your audio rights, but you could get the right to audition or even a guaranteed right to be the narrator. (Many authors are terrible narrators; choose wisely!) Audio books could also be at higher royalties than print.

Film rights should always be retained (you never know!). All rights “not named” should be reserved for you, and that’s worth fighting for. Maybe your book will never be a calendar…but it might.

Marketing. In these days of mostly author-driven publicity, it’s more important than ever to get free print and electronic copies. Find out if the publisher uses NetGalley for bloggers, reviewers and the media—can you give your PR list? If you speak at conferences or events, how many copies can you buy for resale, and at what price? First-time authors are unlikely to get cover approval, but you can ask for input.

Process. How long does the publisher have for editorial feedback? What are your deadlines? When will you do last-minute corrections, and will they bill you past a certain number of errors?

Options. Do they have first dibs on the next book you write? If there’s a non-compete clause, negotiate to cover only books “substantially similar and directly competitive,” or you might find yourself unable to sell your next book to another publisher or even self-publish.

Most contracts have flexibility, and it’s always worth negotiating for a better deal. All contracts have unchangeable language about definitions and jurisdiction, but boilerplate rights and financial terms are often sweeping. Like pricing your house 30% above market: maybe someone will pull up with a dump truck full of cash, or maybe you’ll negotiate. Most clauses about money, editing, the actual publishing process, marketing and timelines can be tweaked, or at the very least, fully explained.

If you’re working with a hybrid press, that’s not a publishing deal. You are purchasing a package of services. No matter what they tell you, the costs of publishing your book and their expected minimum profit come from your money. An offer of 50% “royalties” means “As you work to sell your book, we will claim an additional half of your profits.” Make sure your contract specifies what they provide in return. Keep all subsidiary rights. They aren’t going to sell them for you, and if a movie deal drops in your lap, well, you already paid the publisher.

If you’re un-agented, you can negotiate yourself, hire a literary-specific attorney, or take advantage of the Author’s Guild’s legal review services for members (a total bargain! Join here). But you’re allowed to negotiate. You’re not rude or pushy or showing ignorance by asking for an explanation, doing some research and/or talking to your agent, and proposing a better deal. Even after negotiation, you may not get what you’re worth.

Then again? You might get more.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her Friday January 22nd for This Is the Year You’ll Finish Your Book: Goal Setting for Your 2021 Writing Life in which she will not once say “write every day.”

I Already Have a Real Job

January 7, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Joshua Diedrich

I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why the arts are so looked down upon as a career in America. I’m a classical figure and portrait sculptor, so it’s something I think about a lot, but the answer still eludes me.

It could be our Puritanical past telling us that they’re frivolous or a waste of money. It could be that there’s such a huge emphasis on the arts in early schooling, making us think of them forever as a childish activity that everyone ought to be able to do badly, but only a few are immature enough to believe they can do well.

It could just be that these careers are difficult and have no clear path to success, and thus, people don’t understand how creatives make a living, and forever carry a chip on their shoulder that we are lucky and get out of doing “real work.”
The arts are not a “real job” like construction, or warehousing, or farming. Overall, they are in fact much bigger and more lucrative than any of those jobs. The arts contribute more than five times more to the US economy than all of agriculture does. Artnet News reported in March 2019:

…the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts released a report with a stunning takeaway: that the arts contribute $763.6 billion to the US economy—4.2 percent of the GDP—more than agriculture, transportation, or warehousing.

The data, which is pulled from 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, also shows that 4.9 million people work in the arts economy and earn more than $370 billion. (Importantly, the report defines the arts broadly to include everything from jewelry manufacturing to film and TV production.)

Sixty BILLION more than construction, and 227 billion more than transportation and warehousing. The arts represent nearly 5% of the entire US GDP, and employ over 5 MILLION people.

Frankly, purely in a sense of bringing home the bacon, the arts may be a “realer” job than anything else you do.

In times like these though, when economic going gets rough, we all know that we will be left on the margins. Like sex workers, our fellow residents of the highly profitable margins, laws will be written to carefully exclude us from aid in favor of “real jobs” like fast food—an industry that the arts out-employs by more than a million workers, or coal mining, which Arby’s alone out-employs in the fast food sector, and which the arts sector out-employs by a ratio of 100 to 1. (Literally. There are 5,000,000 creatives and arts support workers in the US. There are 50,000 miners.)

I’m doing OK this year. Sculpture generally does well in times of crisis, when the stock market is gangbusters for wealthy donors, and people want to memorialize things. The romance novelists I know are doing great right now, when people need to escape more than ever. Some of us will probably be fine. Performers, musicians, circus artists, stage managers, singers, dancers, actors… much less so.

There’s been some government action to try to protect venues at least, but all in all, our low conception of the arts place in American culture and within the US economy is a lie we like to tell ourselves. With that lie, we do great damage to ourselves and our society. It’s a childish, self-aggrandizing view, based on nothing, and purely in the interests of being adults and facing facts, it needs to change.

If your broker couldn’t wait to watch Soul or Wonder Woman, if your accountant was thrilled to get a new novel to escape into, eventually, they must own up to the idea that the arts are not beneath them. If you create art, or music, or dance, or words, you, too, are part of an enormous, measurable, financial contribution to the GDP. People may spend their days in construction or finance, but the arts are what they want to come home to.

And yet, even knowing that we are a real job that matters to America very much, all of us in the field understand that there will be no government aid for us, no fundraisers, no protections, as this crisis continues. This will likely be true as much as people need us, or miss us, as much as we are an incredibly important part of their world.

One of my drawing teachers was a Japanese printmaker named Takahara Takeshi. He took us all out to his studio on the last day of that year, and showed us around, mostly making light of himself and his work as he tended to do, but at the end he said:
In your life, because you are artists, people will try to tell you that you are not dealing with the real world. You will meet lawyers and businessmen who will look down on you, and tell you that you are avoiding reality—that you should get a real job, participate in society like everyone else. They will say that you are renouncing the real world and indulging your ego. You must listen to me and believe what I tell you now, that we are not the ones avoiding reality; it is they who are avoiding reality. It is the businessmen, and the lawyers and the accountants who are caught up in a self-indulgent fantasy, but they cannot see this. They will not understand or believe it. They will never choose to see. And to go on, you will have to learn to forgive them for that.
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A classically trained sculptor, Joshua Diedrich currently runs a teaching studio in Kalamazoo where he works on public commissions and his own work, and takes on apprentices in figurative art and sculpture. He headed the Sculpture department at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts for four years, and is a Michigan regional rep for Burning Man. Follow him on Instagram @diedrichsculpture.

Yes, This Will Be Expensive

January 5, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Judith Gelt

Mine was a clever ad. The local Jewish paper has around 16,000 weekly subscribers from Denver and the surrounding area, and my story is about growing up in Denver within a Jewish family with mental illness, and how I made my way out, found my way back, and came to understand and forgive (even myself).

With Hanukkah beginning in two days, my part-time-publicist brain planned a 3 x 4 in. color ad for $900.00:

Who Needs Hanukkah Gelt?

How about Judith Sara Gelt’s

It would run on the first day of the eight-day holiday. The woman selling ads for the paper had been as excited as I was.

Ad Person—Mazel Tov on the book! This is great news and I think the readers would love to have the opportunity to purchase it.

Me—I sent over a copy last year hoping the paper would review it but never heard back.

Ad Person—Oh, let me mention that! Maybe a review can run now!

Her rejection email arrived the next day.

Dear Judith,

Thank you for your interest…

Sexually explicit and not appropriate flashed neon.

I thought, The paper is sacrificing my $900?

(FYI, there is explicit, not offensive or gratuitous, sex. It hadn’t bothered my previous reviewers.)

Then I realized I had entirely missed the mark. Sending this ad to a paper with an “explicit-sex” taboo (most likely set by the paper’s Orthodox owners), cost me time and trouble. Plus, my family had known these owners through decades. My brother still does. This cut deep into my confidence. The back of my hand still stings.

Besides, Ad Person certainly wouldn’t read it now. I actually lost one reader.

***

When my book was released in 2019, the truth—authors must be willing to promote their own books—worked under my skin, and my hackles rose. Hadn’t I already done enough?

Before publication, every protracted, onerous undertaking toward publication felt doable, even energizing. I had closed out a middle-school teaching career and was fifty-three when I began. It took fifteen years to produce the final manuscript. Writer’s block? No idea what that felt like! Paragraphs took shape eight to ten hours a day. Editing and critique? Loved it. I took a class to refine my work at the sentence level and spent the following year revising the 300-page manuscript page by page. Not hard work—hard fun.

Then I waded through warnings (Your odds of being published are 1 to 2%) and ferried myself around the country to conferences where I could meet agents. I submitted queries. Submitted. And submitted. And submitted. I waited. And waited. And waited for decisions. But excitement whirled in the possibility of a happy outcome. And there was one!

My university press did its job publicizing my book within their resources. I wasn’t completely self-marketing hostile. Here’s where I stand, well, wobble—my webpage is fairly professional. I have an Author Facebook Page. I’m on Twitter (I no longer post there) and Instagram (I’ve never posted there). I’m on LinkedIn and Goodreads. I have an Amazon Author Page. I belong to four Facebook writers groups I don’t actually follow. I began a mailing list and sent three (or four?) MailChimp newsletters. I paid for a Kirkus Review (thank god it was good), and purchased ads in Kirkus publications.

I’m still a failure as an ad agent.

There are zero indicators my book is selling or that many readers have seen its pages. I’m not unaware of where to look for help. I’m overwhelmed by the help out there. I’ve seen a bajillion notions for how to market books successfully.

Brevity’s blog and sources like it offer manageable, contained lists of steps from successful authors. In a Writers’ Bridge video chat, I heard realistic social-networking approaches broken down masterfully. (Still, my visit ended early. The pace of brilliant ideas flying by overwhelmed me.)

So, my stomach will not settle. My chest is tight as I write this, forgodssake.

If I’m ever to get my book into readers’ hands, I must accept my publicity and promotional responsibilities and either:

Hire a genius, million-dollar publicist.

Or

Hire a topnotch, million-dollar therapist.

My genius publicist, who is very expensive because they are a genius, will know what kind and where, and how often to place ads, and will arrange events and have conversations with important, connected people, and send mailings and do whatever else there is to do… Then, because they are the genius, I will do whatever they ask.

My topnotch therapist, who is very expensive because they are topnotch, will unravel underlying issues mentioned in my memoir like depression (mine), and although I’m medicated, thoughts of advertising can nudge me, TV remote in hand, downhill and onto my sofa.

Their combined top-notch know-how will eliminate my emotional weaknesses preventing me from marketing my book.

(My stomach is relaxing!)

Do you know a genius publicist? A topnotch therapist? I’m willing to pay.

Have them get in touch at judithsaragelt.com. (I may need both.)

___________________________

Judith Sara Gelt is the author of Reckless Steps Toward Sanity—A Memoir, winner of The High Plains Book Award, Debut Book. Her work has been in Nashville Review, Superstition Review, and River Teeth, among others. She lives in Denver. Find her at her webpage and on Facebook. Other social media destinations are…under construction.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm

December 18, 2020 § 19 Comments

By Lisa Kusel

A woman in one of my Facebook writing groups recently solicited advice on how best to approach a “rockstar” level person for a blurb, given that she’s a “nobody.” I laughed when I read the post, remembering a time long ago…

…It’s 2005 and my second book/first novel is soon to be released and my editor is all askew with worry that I don’t have any blurbs for its back cover. She’d sent off 30 galleys to A-list writers, but none had yet to respond. I suspected not one of those 30 authors were going to put out.

Why? Mostly because I wasn’t part of the in-crowd. Much like what goes on in Hollywood, it all comes down to who you know, and I knew no one in the literosphere. (If you look at some of the “highly praised” novels on your bookshelf there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same authors passing blurbs back and forth amongst themselves like massages in a college dorm.)

While attempting to secure my own valuations, my editor asked me to blurb a book by one of her authors. I said, “Of course,” since that was the polite thing to do. Ultimately, I found the book—a memoir about growing up on an Indian ashram—a little too self-absorbed. (This, from a writer who would go on to publish a self-absorbed memoir about living in a bamboo hut in Bali). As I needed all the good blurb karma I could round up I opined that the book was “wonderfully entertaining and wholly original.”

Once I realized that said blurb karma wasn’t going to kick in, I emailed A-list author Jennifer Weiner directly. Her (many bestselling) books had little in common with mine other than that they were both pigeon-holed as “chick-lit.” Her reply to my ask was curt, polite, and utterly forgettable. Interestingly, in an essay she wrote nine years later, she decries blurbs but goes on to say how sympathetic she is to blurb-seekers:

It’s hard out there for a new writer. It’s especially hard for new women writers who, statistics tell us, are less likely to get published or reviewed. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to help, why wouldn’t you? I believe in karma, in paying it forward, in using whatever influence I have for good.

Not having been in the path of Weiner’s forward-paying behavior, I began to look further afield. I read a news clip about the actress Emma Thompson who said she adored traveling to Zanzibar. Since my novel takes place almost entirely on the Tanzanian island, I felt it reasonable to ask a famous movie star to blurb a novel by an unknown writer.

A nobody.

As luck would have it, a writer friend of mine knew an agent who knew her agent who generously offered to send the book to her in London. Alas. She didn’t blurb it, but she did mail me a lovely handwritten note on personal stationery. She apologized that she couldn’t find the time to read my book as she was too “snowed under,” but she wished me all the very best.

By the time Emma’s (naturally we’re on a first-name basis) note arrived I’d received three good-enough blurbs: one from a local author whose reading I’d attended. The other two came from lesser-known writers enlisted by my editor. One called my book a “sexy triumph.” The other stated that my “ambitious debut novel brims with heart and heartache.” (My assumption is that they, too, were trying to garner their own blurb karma.)

Did sales of my novel suffer because I didn’t get any rockstar blurbs? Maybe. It also might have been because it’s not a very good novel (please don’t tell my agent I said that). It started out great but then the editor who bought it in the first place left the publishing house for the opportunity to edit Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The new editor eviscerated my plot, wanted more sex, and, well, that part of the story is best left for another time…

So, I will tell that woman in my Facebook writing group that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to getting attention from A-listers. I will point out that it’s not going to be easy to extract blurbs from famous people, but I will encourage her to give it a try. I will remind her that even somebodies were once nobodies and maybe, just maybe, one of them will remember that and actually pay it forward.
__

Lisa Kusel is the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the well-blurbed novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. Read more of her essays on her blog and follow her on Instagram.

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