Tuesday, January 31, 2012

playing for the house: an editorial assistant on the dangers of going agent-free

A few weeks ago, INTERN received an e-mail from an editorial assistant at a New York publishing house who had recently had a distressing—but telling—experience with a brilliant manuscript, an unagented author, and an offer that had "poor sucker!" written all over it. Unagented writers, take note...


I want to be clear—I love my job. But this isn't a post about how hard won it was to
get an editorial position or how great it is to work with authors or make decisions
that will impact a book that people will read. This is a post about the less glamorous
part of the job. This post is about the money.

It feels so long ago that I had the good fortune of finding something in slush, that
strange and hopeful pile of paranormal love and dark futures. But what I found was
a quirky memoir with an itchy, infectious voice. My boss "Steph" read the partial
and loved it. So with butterflies, I emailed the author to ask if it was still available.
I know authors feel like the wallflower at the dance but I want you to know editors
worry too.

It was still available, and the rest of it was fresh and wonderful. We got the approval
to make the offer, but it was a pittance really. New and naïve, I did the silly thing of
asking “Steph” if we could offer a higher advance. “Steph” looked at me like there
was a fly on my face and I wished I had never spoken up. Maybe “Steph” thought I
was being cute, maybe “Steph” chalked it up to my previous post at an agency. In
any case, “Steph” made it clear very quickly that we were playing for the house. In
fact, when “Steph” called to make the offer to the joyous hoots and hollers of the
lovely author I’d dredged up from the deep of the slush, “Steph” offered less than
the pittance. “Steph” explained to me that we needed to leave room for negotiation. I
almost laughed.

There was no negotiation. There were only profusely thankful emails sent to me for
that one chance that changed everything. There were lots of rants in the evenings,
empty threats to quit this moneymaking machine, shouts of indignation that were
unheard save for my poor friends who had seen me work myself to the bone and cry
on the floor for only a chance to work in publishing.

I got over it, cut my teeth on other deals, compartmentalized what I did during the
days and what I did in between—write, write, write.

A few months later, the author came down to New York and we took him out for
a fancy midtown lunch. It broke my heart when he told us he hadn’t even read the
contract before signing.

Maybe you think “Steph” is a terrible, terrible person. But “Steph” is not a bad
person. No, actually “Steph” is the kind of boss who never makes an underling
get coffee at the Starbucks down the street. “Steph” never gets mad, even when
people make really, really dumb mistakes. “Steph” is one of the best editors I
know. “Steph”’s authors, including the memoirist, adore “Steph” for “Steph”’s kind
words, endless insights, and personal touch.

If anything “Steph” is not the exception but the rule. Please get an agent. A good one
is worth it, I promise.

There you have it, straight from the mouth of an editorial department insider. It shouldn't come as a shock that the house is playing for (gasp) the house, but sometimes you need a not-so-gentle reminder. To this, INTERN would like to add: Editors seeking a lower price tag aren't any more evil than agents seeking a higher one. Everyone wants to get a really good deal. It's just how the game works.

Writers: please don't make any more tender-hearted editorial assistants cry on your behalf. Get an agent, educate yourself, and read the freaking contract.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

where INTERN lives now

Two weeks ago, INTERN and Techie Boyfriend moved to a small town in northern California, where they are renting a shadowy nook on the grounds of a failing ecovillage. INTERN has passed through this town many times on cold and wet hitchhiking trips up and down the coast, but never dreamed she would live here. Now, she's the one waving at hitchhikers, but never driving far enough to take them anywhere they want to go.

It's a very good place place to be a writer, or anyone on the lookout for stories. You can sit in the coffeeshop and listen in awe and dismay as baby-faced highschool seniors discuss their upcoming bachelorette parties, or eavesdrop on pot growers griping about how much further the price of a pound plummets each year.

You can linger in the cluttered aisles of the tiny health food store while a barrel-chested back-to-the-lander expounds on his methods for harvesting wild yeast for homemade ginger beer. You can walk down the road to drink unusually strong gin and tonics in a huge, vacant bar decked out with logging photographs, and walk home again feeling like you've really done something with the evening, even though you haven't.

One of your neighbors beats a drum every morning and leaves gifts of bundled sage on your doorstep; the other one thoughtfully informs you of the best nights to go to the casino at the rez. The local newspaper consists almost exclusively of stream-of-consciousness letters-to-the-editor from people who have grown used to having their bizarreness tolerated and even celebrated by the rest of the community. As you read them, reality peels away. If these people are OK, you think to yourself, maybe I'm not doing so bad.

It's been a long time since INTERN has lived in a place where one can feel productive just by sitting on the curb and absorbing, knowing that something interesting is bound to happen or appear or amble up the sidewalk and tell a knock-knock joke. As a writer, INTERN often feels anxious about producing enough: enough blog posts, enough chapters, enough articles, enough tweets. But simply being is productive too, or can be. At least, that's what INTERN's been telling herself over the course of many hours loitering on the street.


INTERN wants to know: What's the most interesting place you've ever lived? Why is it that the world feels so rich and observable at some times and in some places but not in others? How important is lived experience to writing?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

dinner with literary agents

Over the holidays, INTERN had the hallucinatorily good luck of being invited to dinner with an entire table full of young, up-and-coming literary agents. INTERN hardly made a squeak the whole evening, so content was she to be a fly on the wall to their conversation (she was also trying very hard not to drip tomato sauce down her shirt.) Today, INTERN would like to share with you a few observations from that delightful evening.

It's a reaaaally small world.

Everyone says publishing's a small world, but nothing brings it home more than a roomful of agents from different agencies going "Did you get that query about the time-traveling tabby cat?" "Yeah!" "Me too!" "So did I!" "I requested the full!" "What did you think of the sample pages?"

You will be pleased (and, INTERN hopes, not surprised) to know that the above exchanges never consisted of making fun of someone's query or manuscript, but were made in the spirit of comparing notes, the same way writers compare notes over requests, rejections, and offers of rep.

Publishing, by definition, is the act of making your writing public. That begins with your query. Agents read; agents talk. As if you needed another reason to put your best foot forward in everything you write.

Competition for writers is fierce.

As writers, we like to think we have a monopoly on wallflowerdom—watching our manuscript sit on the shelf while every other manuscript gets whisked off to dance. But agenting can feel like that too, especially when you're just starting out.

"I offered rep the second I finished the manuscript, but she'd already signed with so-and-so!" "We talked on the phone for two hours and I thought I had him for sure!" "The time-traveling cat manuscript went to the Paradox McBean Agency—did you hear?"

It's tempting to imagine that agents have it easy—they just sit around on velvet pillows rejecting manuscripts until something tempting comes along, at which point they simply pluck it out of the air like a ripe mango! But the truth is, there are plenty of other agents reaching for that same mango, and you can watch an awful lot of mangoes go to other agents before you finally win.

You are being scouted.

Ever post your work on AbsoluteWrite, Verla Kay, or another popular critique forum? Agents (at least the young, ambitious, web-savvy ones INTERN had the pleasure of hanging out with) scout writers from these websites more often than INTERN would have guessed. The market for great manuscripts (not "any manuscripts"—great ones!) is so fierce that some agents don't want to wait for writers to come to them. These agents use forums to find promising writing and, in some cases, request materials.

INTERN knows from experience that agents and publishers also scout non-fiction authors, although this is more likely to take place from published magazine or blog articles than from writing forums.

It's a hard game for everyone.

In the same way most writers hold down day jobs while they're struggling to make their first (or second, or third) sale, agents who are just starting out don't exactly have it easy. 15% of 1 or 2 book sales isn't very much, and until an agent has developed a strong list of clients and book sales, he or she might be working behind the coffee bar, right next to you (ever asked your fellow barista what he does on the side?)

This being said, agents have a pretty sweet job. In her next life, INTERN wants to be one. All those wine-soaked conferences! All those lunches with editors! So much tasty gossip it makes Gawker look like Watchtower Magazine! Oh, and that whole part about selling books.


So what divine secrets should aspiring writers take away from all this? Play nice. Write your best. Know that agents are just people (unusually intelligent and strikingly attractive people, but still—just people) and they truly want to discover great writing. Maybe even yours.

Monday, January 2, 2012

a very happy New Years update!

Huzzah! 'Tis twenty-twelve! INTERN hopes you all had a very happy New Year full of sparkly hats and treacherous discount champagne. INTERN had a fine winter holiday during which she went 99% laptop free. Now that she's plugged herself back in, here's the news:

1. In a few days, INTERN and Techie Boyfriend will be moving to a highly dubious "ecovillage" in Northern California, where they will be contractually obligated to engage in a weekly drum circle with their newfound "community". Said ecovillage features such eco-friendly amenities as an "outdoor shower" (actually a rusty bucket full of rainwater) and a shed full of hula hoops. Why is INTERN moving to such a place? 'Cause that's what you get for surfing the housing ads on Craigslist at 2 AM on Christmas Eve after Techie Boyfriend's mother has mixed you too many pomegranate martinis. That's why.

3. INTERN got a Nook for Christmas and so has officially dipped her paw in the e-book revolution. While riding various planes, trains, and ferries over the holidays, INTERN realized that the worst part about e-readers isn't the reading-on-a-screen part (which is actually quite pleasant), but the fact that you can't sneak a glance at what a fellow passenger is reading (no cover or spine!) INTERN never realized how much she enjoyed scoping out other people's reading material until so many people started using Kindles and Nooks, at which point it became nearly impossible. Humph.

5. In other news, INTERN has decided to reinvent herself as an obscure Language poet known only by the pen name B'nan (like "banana" but so much more experimental). Look out for hand-stapled, limited edition chapbooks by B'nan showing up at a Walmart near you (yes, at a Walmart—B'nan is nothing if not a master of irony!) B'nan will also be available for live readings provided that a dinner of poached eel and pickled eggs is made available in the green room.

7. INTERN is also contemplating writing a line of business-and-marketing ebooks under the pen name Chad B. Winning (which sounds rather businessy to INTERN's ears). Said ebooks will be mostly fluff with the occasional pull quote taken randomly from a famous-quotations website and having no bearing whatsoever on the topic at hand. INTERN will also produce a series of business-and-marketing Webinars consisting of pitches for future Webinars. You are all invited to join INTERN in the tropical compound she will invariably purchase as a result of these enterprises.

9. But seriously—ecovillage. If you thought INTERN's hair was matted before, check again in a month.

That's all INTERN's news for today. What escapades, japes, and capers did you get up to over the holidays? INTERN wants to know!