Wednesday, May 27, 2015

WRITERS BECOME WRITERS IN THEIR OWN GOOD TIME

My wife and partner, Judith, and I have known Howard Owen for 22 years; since we published his first novel. With his forthcoming mystery The Bottom, we will have published ten of his thirteen books. In the process we’ve also become good friends with Howard and his wife Karen—one of the great perks of being a publisher. His blog goes beyond writing, for it also talks about the benefits that accrue from having been a journalist most of his adult life, and the benefits of time itself.


“Writers become writers in their own good time. Some set their course early and never deviate. They major in English. They opt for the MFA instead of the MBA. Maybe they starve in Manhattan toiling as serfs for publishing houses, trying to get known. Others raise families before they bloom. Some are grandparents already. A friend, approaching 80, is seeing his first novel published this year by The Permanent Press. I’ve known others who wrote their first novels around the time they started collecting Social Security.


“One thing is universal, though. We all knew we were writers. It’s just that some of us got distracted along the way. I fall somewhere in the middle. I was 43 when my first novel, Littlejohn, was published, first by The Permanent Press and then by Random House.

“Early on, I knew I could see and feel things that didn’t seem to register with others, and I knew I could make others see and feel them through the printed word. I knew that before I was out of junior high. But I majored in journalism, because it was sensible. Capital-W writers might starve, but when I got out of college in the early 1970s, you could get a job at a newspaper if you had a J-school degree. My parents, who never had the chance to go to college, would not have wasted all that money. To them, college was where you went to move a rung or two up the socio-economic ladder. I’m sure they would have been happier with a business administration major. And I could write for the paper and keep dreaming about creating something that had more shelf life than a 300-word story about a high school basketball game.

“Newspaper journalism does two very good things for writers:

It teaches them to write something. It might not be Pulitzer-worthy, but there’s always another day. Writer’s block is not allowed in the newsroom. It will get your ass fired. And, it teaches them to write cleanly, with a minimum of grammatical errors. That’s a simple thing, but the publishers, editors and agents of my experience don’t have the time or patience to deal with sloppy copy. Submitting a clean manuscript shows that you are serious, that you didn’t just wake up one day and say, “What the hell! I think I’ll write a novel.”

“At 39, I started putting the pieces of that first novel together. I’d known I was going to write a novel for a quarter of a century, and I knew that it would be set in rural eastern North Carolina, because that’s where I grew up. That’s what I knew.


“Journalists live on deadlines, and I gave myself a couple. I’d go at it for one hour a day, every day, either before or after work. (I have never taken a sabbatical and have always worked in small bursts, maybe two pages in an hour).  And, I’d give it five years. If after five years I didn’t have some indication that this was leading somewhere, I’d give it up. All writers aren’t published writers. (Well, they weren’t before the Internet made vanity publishing easy and respectable.)

“The first draft of Littlejohn took about 100 days. I polished it for six months. It took another three months or so to find an agent. It took the agent a year to sell it. Random House and 11 others turned it down. The Permanent Press took a chance and, when it started getting great reviews and support from independent booksellers, Random House bought it, giving Marty and Judy Shepard and me a nice payday and assuring that the other things I’ve written since would at least be taken seriously. My 13th novel will be published in August. Other than a manuscript I threw together while waiting for someone to buy Littlejohn, I don’t have any unpublished novels moldering in my file cabinet or computer.

“My last four novels, Oregon Hill, The Philadelphia Quarry, Parker Field and (coming in August) The Bottom, are all mysteries, all set in Richmond, where we live, with a night police reporter as the protagonist. Oregon Hill won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for excellence in crime literature in the United States and Canada. That night cops reporter, Willie Black, appeared when I was asked to write a detective noir short story for a collection called Richmond Noir. I liked him, liked his voice, and knew I could use him in a novel or six.  (That’s the other thing being a print journalist has done for me. It has introduced me to a lot of Willie Blacks; old-school guys who drink too much, smoke too much and marry too much, perfect noir antiheroes who are, by their job definition, there when crimes are committed.)

“Being a writer has taken me from journalism to literary novels to mysteries. It could take me places I don’t even know about yet. One month into retirement from the hard-pressed newspaper business, I am reveling in the luxury of time.

“Often over the years, speaking at writers’ conferences, book clubs and elsewhere, I’ve heard people say that they’re going to write a novel when they find the time.

“If you know you’re a writer, I tell them, you will find the time.”


If you want to reach Howard you can contact him at howardowenbooks@gmail.com and also post your comments on this website.


COMING NEXT WEEK: A blog from Jon Jordan, the co-publisher of Crimespree Magazine.

Marty

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

KILLER NASHVILLE AND VOLUNTEERISM: MY PATH TO PUBLICATION

I needn't embellish Jaden (Beth) Terrill's blog as it’s so solid and comprehensive that it speaks for itself. But what it does do—which no other blog before has done—is take you into the world of mysteries and mystery conferences, which is particularly timely since half of our 16 annual titles are usually mysteries and the writers we've published have won far more awards, percentage wise, than whose of any corporate publisher, with Beth’s Racing the Devil herself being a finalist for the 2013 Shamus Award. Her fourth mystery with us, A Taste of Blood and Ashes will be published in 2016. You can contact Beth at bethterrell@comcast.net


“When people ask me about the best thing I've done for my writing career, I have to say the first thing is actually finishing and submitting the first book in my series. But the second best thing was volunteering with the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference founded by Clay Stafford. I met my agent, Jill Marr, there, which led to being published by Marty and Judy Shepard of The Permanent Press, which in turn led to a Shamus Award nomination and two more Jared McKean novels. I've made more industry contacts than an introverted writer like myself could ever hope to meet, and I've been blessed to be a part of something bigger than myself, something that helps other writers and which, even if I never made a single book sale as a result, is something I will always be glad I've done.

“I first met Clay in 2006 at a one-day workshop I was helping host for the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. He was teaching a session on how to turn your novel into a screenplay. I was arranging freebies on the book table and helping move chairs. He told me about Killer Nashville, which he was launching just a few weeks later, and said he could use someone like me. I liked him, I liked his vision, and I ended up speaking on a panel and helping with registration.

“Nice conference. Small, homey, but content-heavy, with knowledgeable speakers on a variety of interesting subjects.

“About six months later, I got a call from Clay. “I have the perfect job for you,” he said. “I need someone to monitor all the conference rooms, make sure everybody there has paid, and if they haven’t, make them either pay or leave.”

“I said, ‘You don’t want me in that job. You’ll have homeless people sleeping in the halls and drinking all your coffee.’

“Okay, I have another job. It’s handling people’s payments for—”

“Oh, no!” I said. “I don’t handle other people’s money.

“There was a long silence. Finally, he asked, “What can you do?”

“We settled on volunteer coordinator, then executive director, and—a few years later—special programs coordinator. For months on end, we’d email back and forth, then talk on the phone until the wee hours of the morning, planning, brainstorming, always looking for ways to make the conference better. We went from one agent to an agent and an editor to three, then to five, and this year to eight. We went from speed-dating-style pitches to round tables, from three tracks to five. We started the Claymore award for unpublished authors and the Silver Falchion for published works. We opened a forensic track, and Clay enlisted Dan Royse and Mike Breedlove, two friends from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, to create a mock crime scene like the ones they use to train their agents.

“It was exhausting at times, even overwhelming, but the man had a vision, and I felt honored to help him make it happen. “Killer Nashville is a family,” he’d say. “A community. A place for writers, agents, publishers, and readers to come together and help each other.” His goal was to help aspiring writers become published writers, published writers to become better and more successful writers, and readers to discover new authors to love.

“This past February, with the help of several interns and a new Vice President of Operations, Pulitzer Prize winner Maria Giordano, Clay launched the Killer Nashville E-Magazine (with a monthly column from yours truly). An anthology is also in the works, and this year’s conference, held over Halloween weekend, will also feature a book fair open to the public. “That’s the prong we needed to shore up,” he said. “We’re doing a lot for the writers and the publishing community, but we need to bring in more readers. Without them, there is no publishing community.”

“People ask me sometimes what I get out of my relationship with Killer Nashville. It’s certainly not the pay. There is none. But from Killer Nashville, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America to a blog (http://crimereaders.com) that features fellow authors, volunteerism has been a rewarding way to raise my visibility as an author. Promotion through service, I call it, and I’d recommend it for any writer who’d like to build name recognition while creating something meaningful in the process.”


NEXT UP: A blog by another mystery writer, Howard Owen, who won the 2012 Hammett Prize for
Oregon Hill, His title? WRITERS BECOME WRITERS IN THEIR OWN GOOD TIME.


Marty


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A SCOUTING REPORT


Judy and I met Iris Hsieh two years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair and I was taken by her buoyancy, brightness and her love of good fiction. Upon returning to Sag Harbor I started sending her electronic files of manuscripts I was high on (the latest being Charles Davis’ Hitler, Mussolini and Me which will not appear until 13 months from now) and review updates and subrights sales after they were published. Invariably she would send back an upbeat response. I teased her recently saying that she could add new clients abroad simply because she is such a good “unhurried” listener and a pleasure to spend time with. Given that, why wouldn’t any overseas publishers want to sign on as an Aram Fox client? It was both tease of course, and homage. Ever since then I’ve become one of those North American publishers who routinely sends her titles. Here, now is Iris’ story:


"After graduating with a Master’s degree from SUNY Binghamton, I worked as a rights assistant at various literary agencies for six years, starting at Greenburger, then on to Trident and finally as an associate at Scholastic.  

"A few of my friends were working as scouts, and even in casual conversation they just seemed to know everything—it was like they were in the white, hot center of publishing.  There's no other job within the industry that has the same kind of bird's-eye-view of publishing.  How did they know about everything before anyone else did?  How could I be like that?  


"When I heard that Aram Fox, Inc. was hiring it just seemed like the perfect opportunity and I’ve now been there for two years.  The company is more of a boutique scouting agency, because Aram's focus is on providing as much specific advice as possible for our clients, which means being more selective about the clients we work with.  Right now we have 10 clients, all of whom everyone in our office of five engages with daily and who we meet when attending Book Fairs in London, Frankfurt, and Bologna.


"Aram’s willingness to train me has been quite helpful since being a scout is all about being able to make the right judgment calls within the matrix of often fuzzy logic. And I still have a lot to learn.


"Being a literary scout is being hired as a consultant for publishers in other countries who are acquiring translation rights for books originating from North America. True, we read a lot, but there's much more to it. We're also talking to editors and agents every day, trading notes on what we're reading, what's trending, which buzzy books are jumping out at us, and which books are hidden gems.  


"Having recently returned from the London Book Fair, I can tell you that it is a whirlwind of activity: scheduling appointments for our clients and ourselves four or five months beforehand. In the last month before a book fair everyone I know begins trading tips on how to beat the seemingly-inevitable pre-fair and post-fair colds. In between talking about books we talk about whatever combination of vitamins, gym superstitions, and homeopathic remedies we're testing for that fair cycle.  Since fairs have evolved to become more and more about building relationships, it's the perfect opportunity to finally get face-time with someone I haven't seen in six months. After all the excitement brewing around a fair, it's almost a bit disconcerting when it all ends.  Of course, that's when we begin planning for the next fair. 


"Scouts have a bird's-eye view of publishing that I find fascinating.  We're talking to editors, agents, and rights contacts all the time, bouncing ideas off each other about books.  It's exhilarating to hear about books from the beginning of the process and to rediscover them two years later in a bookstore.  We also have the pleasure of working closely with our clients, international publishers, and developing a deeper understanding about their lists and their unique publishing trends.  Being able to have this global approach to publishing makes scouting exciting for me.


"There's a certain satisfaction that comes with being able to walk into a bookstore and recognize the titles on display are the books that I loved back when they were still manuscripts, and now they are on the bestseller shelf.   But there's also the inevitable sinking feeling that comes when manuscripts I loved haven't succeeded.  There are so many people across the world who have poured their hearts and souls into the making of a book, and at the end of the day all you can hope is that someone outside of publishing will see what we saw in it too.


"As scouts, it's our job to be decisive about books, which means that our process is quite a subjective one.  It's important to have an opinion and make judgment calls every step of the way, and sometimes I worry about making the wrong decision, for there's no magic formula to making the right call!"



I look forward to your feedback both on this blog and or by email. Next week, on May 20, I’ll be posting a blog from mystery writer Jaden Terrell who, over the last 10 years, as a volunteer, helped put Clay Stafford’s Killer Nashville on the map as a major regional Mystery Conference.


Marty

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF SELF-PROMOTION



Chris Knopf is a jack-of-all-trades. He studied creative writing at London University for a graduate degree arranged through Antioch College, returned to the States and, for the past 35 years, worked as an ad man with Mintz+Hoke which he and his wife have headed for many years. In 2005 we published his first mystery, The Last Refuge, which impressed me as much as the 24 thrillers I’d read by Elmore Leonard, my favorite writer in that genre. Chris’ mysteries impressed critics as well, with his being a finalist of several mystery awards, winning the Nero Award two years ago, and having multiple subright sales in 11 countries. His 13th   mystery, Cop Job (the sixth in his Sam Acquillo series) will appear in November. Last year he joined Judy and me as an equal co-partner. Working with Chris and sharing input is like working with a brother. He’s also a musician, masterful wood-worker and house designer, a seasoned sailor, shares our taste in books, knows lots of stuff and is the perfect person—16 younger than we are—to continue things here as time goes on. His blog entry comes at a perfect time, when print reviews are disappearing and much of the work of promotion falls to the authors themselves.



 Therapy for writers confronting the horrors of self-promotion
There’s a highly-successful negotiator named Herb Cohen who’s famous line is, “I care about you, but not that much.”  His point is that he’s great at negotiating for you, because his emotional connection only goes so far.  And thus, when negotiating for himself, he stinks. 

I feel that way about publicity.  I’m much better doing it for others than for myself.  I’m part of an ad agency.  Guess who stinks at advertising for themselves.  Ad agencies. 

So, I feel great sympathy when I hear authors lament the difficulty of self-promotion.  The technical aspects are challenging enough, but the emotional barriers often seem insurmountable.   Here’s how they might be overcome:

A friend of mine named Sean Cronin writes books and songs.  He’s also a behavioral psychologist who knows something about doing things that give one intense discomfort.  He loosely describes the approach as mythotherapy, by his definition modeling your behavior on someone you admire who does it very well.  In other words, become that person in your own mind, and act accordingly. 
   
You’re a writer.  You’re very good at making up believable characters.  When you’re writing them down, doubtless you become them in your own mind.  This is my prescription –   create the character of a crack publicist and self-promoter and become that person when called upon to perform the function.  There’s nothing disingenuous about this.  People do it all the time in their daily lives.  Who hasn’t become the effusively positive art critic when a child hands them a Crayola scrawl?  Actors do it for a living.  The best ones find elements of their creations within their own psyche.  They call upon a latent storehouse of observed behavior and transient emotions and bring them to the fore.

Thus, in many ways, your imagined press agent is truly you.  It’s just a version of you configured for a specific role.

This is how you can avoid committing the hazards you most fear about self-promotion, that you’ll come across as bombastic, spurious, or even worse, narcissistic.  These are important things to avoid, and we know people who’ve failed to do so.  But the problem isn’t in calling attention to themselves, it’s a failure in the relationships they should be nurturing with their audience.

And that’s the other key lesson in successful self-promotion.  As hackneyed as it sounds, it works best when you build healthy relationships – with your peers, people in the media, editors and agents, fans, librarians, bloggers, tweeters and friends on Facebook.  You do this the same way you build your personal relationships – by being the best version of yourself, with honesty, sincerity and good humor. 
    
Writing is hard.  Getting published is harder still.  You’ve had to overcome immense emotional impediments to get this far.  Learning to overcome the horrors of self-promotion is just another stage in the process. Start with deciding which part of the legitimate you would best be recruited into the mission.  Picture that person in your mind.

I’ve been picturing George Clooney.  Let’s just say it’s a work in progress. 


I look forward to hearing from you on this website. Chris can be reached at 860-305-3535. His personal website is www.chrisknopfmystery.com.  NEXT UP:  Stay tuned for another Inside the Publishing World blog from Irish Hsieh, a scout at the Aram Fox Agency. 

Marty

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

THE ART OF MAKING A LIVING



Blackstone Audio, operating out of Ashland, Oregon, was started in 1987, and Haila Williams has been there for the past 16 years, opening a New York branch office in 2010.  Ten years ago she took Chris Knopf’s first thriller, The Last Refuge (which went on to be a PW Best Book of 2006), and has been generous with taking innumerable titles from us ever since, increasing the audience for these artists’ works.  Once she arrived in New York we’ve seen her there, and out in Sag Harbor as well. She has a special sensitivity for quality fiction and, having seen some of her paintings, a special quality as an artist plus a good sense of humor in describing her journey. We both wanted to be visual artists: Haila studying at Indiana University and elsewhere, my being an art major at Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art. Instead, our most significant careers are in the book business—Haila in audio, myself in book publishing—and we have much in common. With this, let me turn you over to my friend Haila, who has this to add:  “I’d say we have a mutual admiration for each other,” to which I say “Amen!”

I wanted to be an artist. I was a Fine Arts major at Indiana University, Ringling School of Art, and Harrington Institute of Design in Chicago. I graduated fairly well versed in the arts, with the exception of one—the art of making a living.


Because I couldn’t support myself as an artist, I chose creative jobs—interior designer, caterer, restaurant cook, astrologer, general contractor, and marketing consultant.  So when I answered an ad in the paper to be a part-time copywriter for Blackstone Audio, it was just to have a paycheck so I could continue to be a member of an art gallery.


I learned the business as assistant to Craig Black, the founder of Blackstone Audio. There were only about thirty people there then and many of them were related to Craig. It was the direct opposite of the corporate environment—everybody wore jeans or shorts, there were a couple of cats that lounged on the desk, and a dog that may or may not have been part wolf. Craig’s kids sometimes visited and placed stickers on everyone. Over time the company grew to be the largest independently owned audio publisher in the US, with Craig’s nephew Josh Stanton as CEO.


I’m now one of three full-time acquisition editors. I license all genres based on submittals from agents or publishers. The great advantage of being an audio editor is  that anything I review has already been deemed publishable. We publish over a hundred books per month so I get several submissions on a daily basis. For nonfiction, I look for a new perspective, a lively writing style, clarity, and solid author credentials.  When it comes to fiction, I want to have a sense of trust in the writer’s observations and command of style so I can relax and go on the ride, as opposed to being a distant observer, noting plot devices. I look for an authentic voice and originality —something that makes a particular manuscript stand out among the hundred other ones on my desk. If I can describe a book in one sentence and make you want to read it, then there’s likely a great hook.


The only downside to this job is walking into a bookstore and feeling the pang of remorse for missing a good one or wanting to read books off my list without feeling guilty. One day I will return to reading without caring whether the audio will sell or not.

I’m extremely grateful for my life in audio publishing. It’s a little ironic that someone who wanted to be a visual artist ended up in an area of publishing that was started for the blind, but what I learned is that it’s
all art.  Life is art. I love the relationships I’ve made with my co-workers, the narrators, the rights agents, the publishers, the studio engineers, the sales people, and of course, the authors. All of us working to bring the work to the art and art to the work.

COMING UP: Chris Knopf, who has spent decades in advertising and promotion. will address the issues of how to call attention to  books.


Do sign on as a follower of these weekly blogs—which started on April 2—in order to be alerted when each new one is posted.


Marty

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

HOW I BECAME A BOOK CRITIC


Most everybody in the book business is a critic, from bloggers to agents to scouts, to audiobook editors, to writers, to judges for various literary and mystery awards, to publishers and even to independent bookstores who, at the ground level, have the opportunity to hand sell titles they are impressed by. Then, of course, there are professional book critics who are salaried and whose reviews invariably appear in newspapers and magazines.

As publishers, we receive about 5,000 queries and submissions a year, and doing 16 titles annually, have to say “No” 4,984 times. This is relatively easy to do, for our critical judgments are private, whereas professional book critics have to contend with authors, publishers, and publicists whose books are unfavorably reviewed or ignored. That can be a negative side, of course, but there are also gratifications.

With that, Ron Charles, Editor of The Washington Post Book World, was kind enough to discuss his work. I was impressed with his opening remark even before he responded to some questions I posed.


I’m flattered that you think anyone would care about my responses to these questions, and I think you’re wrong. But what the hell.

How did you get started as a book critic?

Out of graduate school, I started working as an English professor in one of those idyllic liberal arts colleges you’ve heard are dying across the country. I taught American lit and critical theory (the Women’s Studies Department even wheeled me out once a year to teach feminist criticism: “See? Men can do this, too.”). It was a lovely place—Principia College, high on the Mississippi River bluffs—but I began to grow restless and so switched for a few years to teaching at a ritzy private school in .St. Louis (The John Burroughs School; Jon Hamm and I were always carousing around town together. Not entirely true, but he really was in the Drama dept. during my time there). That school was pretty much the kingdom of heaven, but the paper grading wore me down, and when an old student’s mom told me I should try writing book reviews, I went to Library Ltd. — now, alas, gone—bought a book off the New Fiction shelf, read it, reviewed it and sent it off to the Christian Science Monitor. Lo and behold, they bought it and asked for more.

What attracted you to it? And what motivates you now?
Book reviewing was not so far from what I was already doing—explaining how good books work—so it was a chance to try something new that still fell within my limited skill set.

Now, almost 20 years in, it’s still a great pleasure to read such fine books—or, sometimes, not so fine—and write about them for interesting, interested people.

What are your thoughts about the role of the critic in general, and your own philosophical beliefs?

Oh, those questions make me tired. . . . It’s such an invitation to climb up into the attic and bring down some brittle Christmas tree decorated with profound thoughts.

But…. I do, honestly, think that insightful, respectful and elegant book reviewers can encourage talented writers and draw a few good readers to them. Such critics can also serve as a (very weak) brake on a culture careening through inanity and dullness.

My philosophy of reviewing is nothing particularly original: Try to judge a book according to how successfully it accomplishes what the author seems to have intended.  

What do you look for in choosing a book to read?

First, I always hope I’ll enjoy the books I choose. Beyond that, a number of considerations come into play: I’m always trying (not always succeeding) to review a variety of books in hopes of reflecting the wide interests of The Post’s readers. Some giant authors (Morrison, Franzen, etc.) are unavoidable, but I’m also on the lookout for debut writers that sound promising.

Does being a critic have a downside as well as an upside?

The upside is obvious: I get paid to read great books and talk about them. The downside is shallow: I’m always, always, always behind. Every minute—even asleep—I know exactly where I am in a book and how many pages I’ve still got to finish that day. Sometimes, when conversations run long, I catch myself thinking, “That’s nine pages right there I could have read.”

How that’s for a start? Anything else?


This concludes Ron’s comments, But in a postscript, he added these words, as refreshing as his opening remarks: “Feel free to quote any of this so long as you correct my notoriously bad spelling and brush up my grammar.”

I invite any of you to ask Ron “Anything else” you cared to know. Send me your questions by email or post your remarks on this blog and I shall send them on to him.

Next week Haila Williams, Acquisitions Editor at Blackstone Audio, will take a well-deserved turn in these weekly “Publishing: The Inside Story” discussions.


Marty