Friday, February 26, 2010

of writers' magazines and the art of interrogation

Venny McPulitzer subscribes to the usual raft of trade and literary magazines, and today INTERN flipped through a recent issue of Poets & Writers while eating her lunch.

INTERN has never been one for writing magazines (all those ads for MFA programs give her nightmares—always that uncanny mix of "we're distinguished and literary" and "yowza! we're so hip and rebellious Kanye West is our program director!"). Today's perusal did nothing to change her mind. INTERN was horrified to read a "profile" of an author that seemed more like an interrogation by the KGB:


Author: Fourteen years.


Author: Umm...I pitched her at a conference.


Author: I think it was a Thursday?


Author: Uh...the conference was at the Radisson hotel.


Author: What do you mean, associates?


Author: (weeps with terror)

All the attention that gets paid to "cracking the code" is downright absurd, not to mention often useless (books end up getting published for a thousand different reasons and as the result of a thousand different circumstances. You can't reproduce the same situation that resulted in another writer's book getting published, unless you come armed with some kind of time/space/memory-wiping machine).

INTERN would be interested in reading a history of the narratives and industries surrounding "creative writing" throughout the past century or so. Surely Steinbeck was never subjected to the same kind of purely technical grilling writers are getting subjected to today, or Gertrude Stein pressed to reveal her Ultimate Power Secrets to getting published in a magazine article.

Maybe INTERN is hallucinating, but surely there was a time not so far in the past when writers just wrote and good work got published—right? Where did all this magazine-style mania for "secrets" and obsessively precise numbers and details come from?

INTERN is going to investigate this Encyclopedia Brown-style. Any insights appreciated.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

of terrible titles, and hockey

INTERN is too depressed after belatedly hearing the results of the Canada/US Olympic men's hockey game on Sunday to write an actual post today, so instead please find below the shortlist for the Bookseller/Diagram Prize in recognition of the worst book title. (via The Bookseller)

INTERN's vote is for number 5 in the list!

• David Crompton's Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter

• James A Yannes' Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich

• Daina Taimina's Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes

• Ronald C Arkin's Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots

• Ellen Scherl and Maria Dubinsky's The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease

• Tara Jansen-Meyer's What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua?

The Diagram Prize was established in 1978 to provide entertainment at the Frankfurt Book Fair (thanks Wikipedia!) and the first (and possibly the best) winner was an attractive little volume entitled Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice. Results of this year's prize are announced on March 26!

Monday, February 22, 2010

In Defense of Book-Thieving: A Confession, and a Request

Word around Venny McPulitzer this morning was that Executive Ed's display on Friday was some kind of prank to see if he could rile up "the quiet intern" (humph! quiet interns are deadly INTERNS!) INTERN is feeling a little silly for taking the whole thing so seriously. However, INTERN suspects Executive Ed does have some kind of cryptic beef with the MacArthur Foundation—an estranged genius wife, perhaps?—that may have played into his response.

In any event, today is a new day, and INTERN has other things on her mind: notably, the spiritual necessity of occasionally pilfering books.

As a general rule, INTERN is opposed to book-thieving of any sort. Stealing from a bookstore is never justified (even if it's from an "evil chain") because it's like shooting a BB gun at an almost-extinct bird. Stealing from a library isn't cool because it's stealing from Society.

But now and then, when one is at a friend, relative, or acquaintance's house, or in a non-commercial public space where used books are present, one stumbles across a book (an old book! a scrappy book! a book nobody would ever notice was gone and would probably be thrown out anyway!) that suddenly becomes absolutely critical to one's continued existence on the planet.

As INTERN sees it, pilfering such a book is OK if one's spiritual need for the book vastly exceeds the need of the book's real or presumed owner, and if the likelihood of the book's absence being noticed is close to zero.

Example: This weekend, INTERN smuggled home a book about high-yield container gardening from an acquaintance's house, where it was dying a slow death in a cardboard box in the basement. INTERN's spiritual need for information about how many carrots she could grow in a Rubbermaid box was so urgent, INTERN could practically hear angels singing when she fingered its pages. To ask to borrow the neglected book would not be sufficient—like an international kidnapper, INTERN required full custody, and right away.

On another occasion, INTERN's soul was transported by a battered copy of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues she found at a hostel while hitchhiking, and in the space of fifteen seconds had hidden it in the bottom of her sleeping bag.

Sometimes, a certain book feels so necessary to INTERN's life that silly considerations about "ownership" and "not sneaking through other people's basement bookshelves like some kind of weirdo" just don't enter the picture at all.

Techie Boyfriend finds INTERN's mystical justifications for her book-thieving ways outrageous, and has suggested that perhaps INTERN should take the risk of asking for the books she feels she needs so badly.

So INTERN would like to hear from others who share her inclinations. Which books have you acquired through morally dubious means, and what emotions propelled you to do so? Confess, or INTERN will be left feel rather awkward about the whole thing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

in which Executive Ed plays mind games

So about a week ago, INTERN read a manuscript that blew her away. After sleeping on it for several nights, after which the manuscript still had not lost any of its power, INTERN put the ms in Executive Ed's inbox, as per Assistant Ed's instructions.

This morning:

Executive Ed (holding astonishing manuscript): Why was this in my inbox?

INTERN The writing is incredible, and the author won a MacArthur grant—

Executive Ed (throws manuscript into recycle with such force that the pages explode free of their clip): Do you know how many f&#^ing MacArthur grants I have sitting in my inbox right now? I don't have time for this shit!

(glares at INTERN and storms back into office)



A little while later, one of the Stepford Interns (who are all actually very nice and smart) explained to INTERN that Executive Ed's performance was actually a kind of test: Executive Ed will only read a manuscript if it's so good that someone will a) spend an hour fishing the pages out of the recycle and reassembling them and b) risk life and limb and the wrath of ten thousand polecats putting them back in his inbox after being savagely warned off.

INTERN is not sure if this kind of demand for ultimate passion and blood sacrifice makes Executive Ed a genius or some kind of deranged dictator.

Either way, things have been awfully dramatic around here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Marketeering Do's and Don'ts: A Primer

Do slyly pull your book off the bookstore shelf and prop it up prominently with its cover facing out. This is OK because it is still kind of cute, and besides, freaking everybody else is doing it.

Do not make up a dozen fake usernames on Amazon and other book-reviewing websites and post eerily similar glowing reviews of your book à la "Elsinore Periwinkle takes on the subject of alcoholism among upper-class toddlers with astounding vigor and mind-blowing insight. Elsinore Periwinkle has written the greatest book since ever." If you are ever found out, you will be shamed so mercilessly that the prick of ten thousand daggers would feel therapeutic in comparison.

Do encourage your readers to write an *honest* review of your book on Amazon or other sites. Having a decent number of reviews, even if some of them are ambivalent, makes your book look interesting and talked-about, as opposed to obscure or not worth reviewing.

Do not allow your well-meaning mother or BFF to create a dozen fake accounts on Amazon and various key message boards and post glowing reviews of your book, thinking it will help you. This is called "astroturfing" (ten points to the first person who can tell INTERN why) and while it can seem like a brilliant idea (especially to a mother or BFF who is unfamiliar with internet etiquette) it will destroy your credibility more savagely than the wrath of ten thousand polecats.

Do try your hand at writing a press release and/or press kit for your book, even if your publicist is taking care of those things. Having a book published is a great excuse to learn how to write killer sales copy, which could come in handy some day if you ever want to do freelance stuff.

Do not try your hand at any brilliant and ingenious publicity stunts without telling your publisher. The best time for them to hear you're going drunken sky-diving with a pair of alcoholic toddlers is *before* you step into that plane, not when it's front-page news and you're in jail.

Do go for the things that will give you the most bang for your buck. Two hours spent making an incredible author website are worth twelve hours spent painstakingly crafting and pitching an article that will appear in an obscure journal and be read by no one.

Do not try to promote your book in Mongolia. Mongolia doesn't like you, and is probably laughing at you right now.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

in which being kind is *soooooo* inefficient

Ever since starting at Venerable McPulitzer, INTERN has noticed a new kind of missive clucking around among the queries and proposals that clutter the inbox. Humble and self-effacing, this gentle creature would not presume to ask Venerable McPulitzer to actually publish anything little ole it has penned—no, it would faint at the thought.

Rather, this mildly-worded inquiry asks only for advice.

Like so:

Dear distinguished editor:

I just started writing a month ago after taking a very inspiring workshop at the public library, and my internet boyfriend says I have quite a talent for the postmodern sonnet sequence. I am new to publishing and am just beginning to explore the possibilities of seeing my work in print.

Would you please read the enclosed poems and discuss with me their merits and the best strategy for getting them published? Naturally, I would be thrilled if you deemed them worthy of your house, but at this stage I am mostly seeking advice. I will stop by your office next Tuesday at lunchtime, at which time we can discuss the potential of my work

This kind of e-mail goes straight to the interns, who (cold and unhelpful as it is) often reply with a copy-and-pasted “SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES” and generic sign-off.

Inquiries like this make INTERN’s heart twinge because they are often from little old ladies (or their little old internet boyfriends) who genuinely just want a kind, knowledgeable human to give them some honest advice. (sometimes, of course, these kinds of letters come from people who secretly think the Editor her/himself is going to read their postmodern sonnet sequence, be blown away, and write them a contract on the spot. But INTERN likes to believe most people are sincere.)

Either way, it results in bad feelings all around, because a publishing house is not in the business of giving out free writing advice, and drafting a kind and tactful personal reply to these letters takes about twenty times as long as turning down a normal query. So instead, the form SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES e-mail gets sent, and Venny McPulitzer looks like a jerk.

Publishers don't like responding to this kind of e-mail because:

a) It Will Only Encourage Them

b) It Takes Valuable Time

c) It Will Only Encourage Them


d) It Will Only Encourage Them

In a brighter world, every publisher would have a Bureau of Oddball Letters staffed by some kind of saint who spends all day writing heartfelt personal responses to every lost soul seeking free advice.

Until then, INTERN must heartily discourage anyone from asking advice from a publisher, ever. There are books for that, and you just make the interns feel like jerks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Does Publishing a Book Take So @$&% Long?

On the train home this evening, INTERN had a nice conversation with an older woman who, upon learning that INTERN was pseudo-employed in the publishing industry, asked the question that forms the title of this post.

It is a great question. In this age of Print-on-Demand, when you can bang out a novel over the weekend and load the back of your station wagon with boxes of objects more or less resembling books by Tuesday morning, the geologic time in which a traditional publisher cranks out a book must seem absurd. Psychotic, even. Assuming the contract is already signed and the manuscript delivered, how in hell does it take another ten months to (train-lady’s words again) just print the damn thing and stick it in stores?

For you then, dear train lady, here is a partial list of reasons publishing a book takes so effing long.

1. Publishers are working with a list, not just one title.

This is super-obvious, but easy to forget. If your publisher is putting out 20 books a season, that’s 19 other books besides yours that need wrangling. Sure, they have different release dates, but that’s a lot of projects for the production team to be working on simultaneously. Your book can only get so much attention each day/week.

2. You can’t just print the damn thing.

The damn thing needs to be formatted and coded and stuck into fancy expensive layout programs so some brilliant design person can make your words look good on the page.

3. The damn thing isn’t perfect yet.

It needs copyediting, and proofreading, and then another round of proofreading just to make sure. And after each round of editing and proofing, the manuscript needs to be FedExed to the author for checking-over, and then to the editor. Figure a couple weeks minimum for each player for each round—like playing chess with someone who takes *forever* to move.

4. The damn thing needs cover design.

Coming up with an awesome cover takes time. Rounding up permissions for photographs or artwork for covers that make use of these things also takes time. Having the proposed covers bounce around between the designer and the marketing people also takes time. Yes, using clip-art from Microsoft Word would be, like, a million times faster, but that’s just not how most publishers roll.

5. The damn thing needs endorsements and jacket copy.

Contacting fancy celebrities and imploring them to endorse your book takes time. Fancy celebrities are busy! And writing jacket and back cover copy that will make readers fling multiple copies of your book at the cashier is a task on par with painting the Sistine Chapel.

6. You can’t just “stick it in stores”.

Your publisher wasn’t born in a barn! Nothing's getting stuck anywhere, thank you very much. Someone at the publisher needs to make a beautiful and enticing catalogue featuring your book (and those nineteen other pesky books that are coming out in the same season) to woo buyers at bookstores to stock your book. Putting together a graceful and un-barnlike catalogue (and other sales-y materials) takes a lot of time.

7. Print runs are expensive.

If there’s an embarrassing typo, say if a key instance of the word “carp” shows up as “crap” in the book’s most emotionally charged scene, and you do a print run of 25,000 books, that’s 25,000 books that, if distributed, would make the publisher look very, very sloppy. Having to do a second, corrected print run would be extremely expensive and wasteful. Hence spending all sorts of time and expense making sure there are no embarrassing typos or grievous page number mix-ups before pulling the big red lever that says PRINT.

8. Publishing a book takes so $&@#@ long because everyone in publishing secretly spends all their time playing World of Warcraft and getting Swedish massages.

Oh yeah, there’s that too.

INTERN hasn't covered nearly everything that makes publishing a book take so long, but she needs to go out and find a vegan cookie, which she has been craving all day!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

in which INTERN is going to hell

This morning, INTERN had to write a curtly-worded rejection of a submission by an author whose work she studied in university while Assistant Ed stood over her shoulder, monitoring to make sure INTERN's rejection didn't come across "too encouraging."

The psychic wound will never heal.

In better news, INTERN had the chance to chat with the doorman of Venny McPulitzer's building today and discovered that not only is he a friendly and charismatic doorman, he is also secretly some kind of reggaeton star. So INTERN's feeling yesterday of being surrounded by fabulous hidden artists was re-confirmed in a most marvelous way.

Back to feelings of extreme guilt and horror!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

editorial meeting schmozamerang

Things you should be aware of for 2010-2011:

-literary writing involving women with bodies shaped like cellos is OUT

-Buddhism is IN, but only Zen Buddhism, and only if it is alluded to coyly (no more overt Zen Buddhism—GAWD!)

-Herons are no longer considered poetic and any ms with descriptions of herons are to be tossed on the aforementioned pyre.

-Titles involving "geometry words" are IN.

-Works involving unreliable narrators are IN.

-Works that are virtually indistinguishable from all the other Works on the list are OUT.

-Works by young writers who died tragically and suddenly within the past five years are IN.


In other news, INTERN had the good fortune of meeting one of her favorite youngish writers last week when he swung by Venerable McPulitzer to say hello. His writing won a bunch of distinguished awards last year. By day, he works at Whole Foods cutting up pineapple samples. Somehow, this made INTERN feel terribly excited about the world, because she realized that geniuses are lurking everywhere, that there is indeed a kind of Secret Society of geniuses working at everyday jobs, and they are all too friendly and humble to mention that their work was recently featured in the New Yorker when you ask them in which aisle to find the quinoa, but if you look very carefully at their eyes you can sometimes tell...

Thursday, February 4, 2010

'tis a big responsibility to be venerable

Venerable McPulitzer Internal Memo 04/02/10: Attn. All Staff

-Unsolicited submissions from direct descendants of Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald shall be processed and responded to expediently. All others shall be burned on the pyre.

-You may not have ever been formally introduced to the Editor-in-Chief, or seen him at all, or indeed had any evidence of his existence except for that one time you thought you heard a hearty baritone behind the door marked Editor-in-Chief making disparaging remarks about the service at the Plaza Hotel—but this does not mean the Editor-in-Chief does not exist. We assure you that he does exist, and that he is very, very busy.

-No drinking of fine whiskies before noon.

-Interns’ shoes shall be polished at all times.

-Interns’ work shall be checked over in triplicate and signed off by no less than three Authorities before it shall be considered complete.

-All staff and interns shall study the Black Book regularly for an updated list of Literary Agents we are currently snubbing.

-All staff and interns shall study the Grey Book regularly for a list of Midlist Authors whose phone calls we are not ever returning.

-All staff and interns shall study the Red Book regularly for a list of Well-Moneyed People we are currently in bed with.

-No whistling ‘pon the stairs.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

a new internship begins!

(thump of INTERN's exhausted body hitting the floor)

It has been a fast-paced and cutthroat two days, but INTERN is here to report that her new internship is off to a stimulating start.

INTERN spent her first days at Venerable McPulitzer elbows-deep in royalty statements for all sorts of famous and exciting authors, some of whom were in fact dead and whose staggering piles of cash were being forwarded to various heirs and estates (lucky. devils.). INTERN must admit it felt strange to finger financial documents pertaining to some of her literary idols—like seeing them in their pecuniary underwear, with print runs, qty sold, and royalties due stamped around the waistband in place of the Fruit of the Loom logo.

Venerable McPulitzer’s office is sprawling and cavernous, with lots of doors and hallways and a Spanish Armada of filing cabinets. The male staff are greying and humorous in an apologetic way, like highschool English teachers. The female staff are younger and more high-strung, as if making up for their dallying male counterparts. The place is overwhelmingly Caucasian, which makes INTERN feel kind of self-conscious about being yet another white female publishing intern with an English degree (cue recurring impulse to do something Tough and Gritty and Unexpected with INTERN’s life, something!)

Speaking of white female publishing interns, there is some kind of Stepford Intern thing going on at Venerable McPulitzer. There are three other interns, all similar to one another in size and shape, who today at lunchtime ate an identical orange soup from little white teacups, and stayed at their workstations typing away serenely when INTERN and half the office staff left at five o’clock. The lunch thing has a reasonable explanation—some kind of soup-sharing arrangement? But the teacups? And the way they looked so pretty and diligent at ten past five o’clock (interns are supposed to leave at 4:00) while INTERN, haggard and half-deranged after a long day of blitzkrieg royalty statement management, raced out of the office to catch the train?

INTERN will have to keep an eye on the situation.

For now, she must rest. Tomorrow will be here soon, and INTERN will need all her wits about her.