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.
Anandi Mishra is a Delhi-based writer and communications professional. She tweets at @anandi010. You can read more of her writing here.
February 2, 2021 § 11 Comments
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.)
My 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.
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.
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
January 14, 2021 § 10 Comments
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.
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.”
January 7, 2021 § 11 Comments
…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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.