Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Whoo hoo! I'm over the top!


Well, today is a pretty great day. Thanks to the incredible generosity of my client, Brent Ferguson, as well as the generosity of those who have taken me up on my offer to read an unsolicited sample chapter in exchange for a donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, I have just gone “over the top” on my fundraising for Ed Tour de Tucson, and have raised $3,300.00. My minimum goal for this ride was $3,150, though I’d hoped to beat that and told my friends that if I hit $5,000, I’d shave my head. So, if that’s something you’d like to see a picture of, please visit my website at
www.active.com/donate/tntnyc/tntnycAZackTucson and make a donation today!

On the publishing side, I’m pleased to report that it looks official. If our numbers are right, Bill Kroen has broken the 1.5 million mark on sales of his GOLF TIP-A-DAY Calendar. This calendar has been annual staple of the golf marketplace for more than a decade and just keeps going strong. Believe it or not, 2006 is just around the corner. Not to mention Christmas and Hanukkah, and this calendar is the perfect gift for the golfers in your life. You can buy it now by clicking here.

Also exciting is that requests have started to trickle in from the Frankfurt Book Fair and interest in TZC’s list is running strong, with numerous requests for various thrillers, science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as nonfiction books like Patrick O’Donnell’s
WWII titles and Mark Patinkin’s UP AND RUNNING.

In reprint news, paperback rights to Patrick O’Donnell’s OPERATIVES, SPIES & SABOTEURS have been sold to Citadel Press by Free Press. Pat’s other books,
BEYOND VALOR and INTO THE RISING SUN, are available in paperback from Free Press. Pat has also just signed a new contract with Da Capo Press for GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN, a powerful nonfiction work based on his experience with the US Marines in Fallujah, Iraq. Pat nearly died numerous times while accompanying the marines on missions. On of those missions was featured on the History Channel’s show, “Shootout: D-Day: Fallujah.” Da Capo plans to publish in fall 2006.

Speaking of Iraq, I’m pleased to announce that I am now representing retired Master Sergeant Jack Lynch II, who will be writing with his brother, Rick Lynch, about his incredible exploits with the “Majestic Twelve,” a hand-picked group of men—and one woman!—who saw more action and killed more insurgents than any unit of their size or type in the entire war. Just the sample chapter of this proposal, describing in detailed terms what it’s like to walk through the aftermath of a car bombing, left me in awe of this man and his unit. This book is sure to be a big hit and a little controversial. I plan to get this out to publishers in the next couple of weeks, so if you’re an editor reading this, call me immediately if you’d like to see it.

Okay, I’m off to ride thirty miles in Central Park this blustery evening. Thanks again to Brent and everyone else who has been supporting my efforts with TNT!

Z

Friday, October 21, 2005

Haste makes waste

Maybe technology isn’t such a great thing.  You know, they say technology makes everything faster, but isn’t there also a saying that “haste makes waste”?  Certainly in the publishing business, this seems to be true.

It seems that nearly every publisher has linked up their system to Amazon’s and/or bn.com’s system.  So what happens is that very early on, covers and copy from publishers end up on Amazon or bn.com.  The problem is, those covers are often not final and the copy is often wrong!

Just today, I ran into two examples of this:  On one book, the original idea was to enclose a DVD with the book.  But ultimately, the publisher couldn’t clear the rights to enough material to make it worthwhile.  Yet versions of the cover with a “DVD Included!” splash were posted online and in some cases remain online.  Further, today I found out that Barnes & Noble’s internal systems still show that the book has a DVD included.  Maybe that’s why B&N seems to have ordered so few?  I’ve heard accounts don’t like DVDs or CD-ROMs included, because they get stolen right out of the books.

On the second book, the title included a word that is an acronym, but at no point were periods used in the acronym.  Think DARPA instead of D.A.R.P.A.  There was prior agreement that the style with no periods was correct, but the cover proof that showed up had periods.  There have been dozens of emails and conversations—many heated—over this issue, believe it or not.  Perhaps the publisher didn’t want to go to the expense of redoing the cover?  I’m not sure.  But the reality is that this cover—the wrong cover—is now up on Amazon.com and bn.com.

Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve worked in a publishing house.  Amazon.com and bn.com were barely off the ground, if at all.  But even so, I have to say I’m stunned and amazed by the willingness of publishing houses to put covers and copy out there that’s not final.  I know, I know, they say they do it all the time.  But hasn’t anyone ever heard that you only get one chance to make a first impression?  The accounts place their orders based on the covers they receive.  (If you thought there was some army of readers out there deciding how many copies B&N ordered, you are sorely mistaken.  It’s all about the package, how much co-op the publisher is offering, and the author’s prior sales record.)  So if the publisher shows the B&N buyer a cover that sucks, why on earth would that buyer place a significant—if any—order?  And if the publisher says, “Oh, we know it sucks.  We’ll be fixing that,” should the buyer have any confidence that the next version will be any better?  I know I wouldn’t if I were in his position.

And the same thing goes for the title and the copy.  Boy, I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into with publishers over titles and copy.  And what makes it especially frustrating is that the decisions on what’s on a cover, what the title is, and what the copy is, are most often made by people who have never read the book!  One strong argument made by one publisher to me is that authors want covers and titles, etc., that make sense once you’ve read the book, and publishers want covers and titles that make readers want to pick up the book and buy it.  And I can understand that difference.  So why don’t they use more focus groups and tests to determine which cover works best?

As an agent, I’ve actually done this a couple of times.  In this fabulous age of technology, it was nothing to email over one hundred friends and family a series of titles and subtitles for a book and ask them which worked for them.  Same with the copy for another book.  With the title and subtitle, I confess the title I hated was most popular and that’s what’s on the book.  But I could live with that.  You can’t argue with the masses.  With the copy, we came up with a version that everyone loved, but the editor’s boss vetoed it, without coming back to the author for his feedback.  I read it now and cringe.

Every once in a while, I get emails from a focus-group company, asking me to take a survey.  I always do.  I’m curious to know what the questions will be.  So why can’t publishers come up with different covers and run them by online focus groups to find out which one would work best?  I can’t imagine that it would be that expensive, particularly since the rewards could be so great.  Can’t you imagine the response at the accounts to this?  “We ran four different covers by 1,000 people who viewed the images online.  This cover received 75% of the votes.  We also ran four different title options by 1,000 people and this one received 80% of the votes.  Finally, we ran the flap copy by 1,000 people and 78% said this copy would compel them to buy the book.”  Why on earth aren’t publishers doing this?!  It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

They say one of the secrets to New York Times best-selling author James Patterson’s success is that, as an old advertising hand, he gives his novels out to a focus group of readers before they are published.  This is a bit like studios running test screenings of movies, I’d say, and it’s not a bad idea.  I remember hearing once—and I mean once—that a publisher was requiring that all books have a second read in-house before they could be accepted.  I’m not sure if this was because the house thought editors were slacking and thus wanted to put some pressure on them to actually edit the books they acquired the rights to, or if it was to help ensure that the books would sell.  If the latter, I think it makes a lot of sense.  In fact, I suspect most authors (and agents!) would welcome the increased attention to their books.

The problem that I always experienced while working in-house was that there would never be a meeting where there was a “a plan.”  As an editor, I felt all I could do was whip the book into the best shape possible and try and get some quotes in as early as possible, so that they would be on the solicitation cover (the one that is sent to the accounts six months in advance and therefore the one upon which the accounts base their orders), and try to make sure the cover copy was at least accurate, if not good.  I do recall rewriting the cover copy on a book once and having a very unhappy copy chief in my office telling me, essentially, “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”  Of course, I never understood his unhappiness, since he’d never read the book and clearly the free-lancer to whom he’d assigned the cover copy had never read the book.  I just wanted to engage the reader, rather than leave them asking, “Huh?”.

And therein is a major weakness of the publishing business:  Most of the decisions regarding authors’ books are made by people who have never read the book, and therefore have no passion for it, no understanding of it, and no investment in it, other than the advance.  Of course, the latter is why agents are always trying to get bigger and bigger advances.  The general consensus is that if you don’t get a big advance, the publisher, director of sales, director of marketing and director of publicity won’t take notice.  The book will get published like cars being manufactured.  They all get roughly the same treatment.  Sure, some get leather versus vinyl, or foiled versus just printed, or embossed, but the frame is the same and the guts are basically the same.

I once told a friend that Gillette spent a billion dollars on the Mach 3 razor.  That was probably the only new product it pushed out that year.  Random House must publish a couple of hundred books per month.  How can any of those get individual treatment?  Well, if the publisher invested a million dollars in the advance for one, perhaps it will.  But that’s not even one book per month.

Author beware.  Only you can truly pay attention to what’s happening with your book.  You have to monitor Amazon and bn.com.  You have to reach out to all of your contacts, friends and family and try to get buzz going.  You have to ensure that haste does not make waste, because your publisher surely will not.

Z

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Buy this book...Please!

There’s nothing more troubling to an author than being orphaned. No, this isn’t about anyone’s parents dying. It’s about editors leaving houses. Your editor is your champion. He or she had the vision to buy your book, argued for it in the editorial meeting, worked with you on editing it, helped develop the cover, and overall made the book happen.

Now, imagine this: Not only does your editor leave, but his boss, the publisher, also. Everyone associated with the decision to buy your book has left the house. What now? Who will champion the book? Talk it up to the sales force? Argue for more of a publicity effort? The reality is that far too many editors spend their day managing authors’ expectations downward that I often fear they start to become true pessimists. And in an employment environment where editors can lose their jobs with great ease, few editors want to stand up to their bosses and argue passionately on behalf of a book. Publishing is full of idealists—we all love books and thought coming into this business was about finding the next great American novel—but one quickly learns that this business is as much about going along to get along as it is about finding good books.

That said, I’ve got a book out now that needs your support: The Dead of Winter: How Battlefield Investigators, WWII Veterans, and Forensic Scientists Solved the Mystery of the Bulge's Lost Soldiers, by Bill Warnock. This is a powerful book and one that has real relevance in today’s world, when our troops are fighting overseas and thousands of family members sit at home, wondering about their safety.

World War II ended decades ago, but thousands of soldiers who fought overseas never came home...and still lay on the field where they fell, their bodies never recovered. Now, forty-six years after the Battle of the Bulge, a group of Belgian and American volunteers joined forces to hunt for those lost servicemen and to recover their remains. The ensuing search reads like a CSI episode, while the stories of the soldiers themselves read like chapters from Band of Brothers.

This book needs your help. This is a powerful and emotional story, and one that deserved very much to be told. But this book is as big an orphan as any: the editor is gone and the publisher is gone. If it doesn’t sell, the house can blame those who are gone. So let’s prove them wrong. Please click here and buy a copy today.

Thanks.

Z

How you can simplify the query and submission process

We need to simplify, people!  I am sitting here reading a giant stack of query letters and I don’t really understand why they are so different.  My web site has a lengthy article on how to write a query letter (my favorite query today actually mentioned that article, but the query itself, well, sucked).

So, I thought I would give you a bit of feedback on how to simply format and write your query letter.  Do go read the other article also, but add what you read here to what you read there and put it all together.

Your Name
Your Address
Your telephone number
Your email address

Dear Mr. Zack:

Write no more than three sentences designed to catch my attention.  For example:  When a young, idealistic law school graduate gets the job of his dreams, he couldn’t be happier...until he comes to realize that all is not right at his new firm, and that his new firm is actually just a front for a very old business:  the Mafia.  Can he get out of the offer he couldn’t refuse?  Or will he and everyone he loves swim with the fishes?

Next, write one paragraph synopsizing the story.  Now, since I read the book many years ago, I won’t try and sum up The Firm here, but I bet you get my drift.

Next, give me three sentences about you.  Who are you?  Is there anything I should know that brings a “nonfiction hook” to this story?  Are you a lawyer?  Are you in the Mafia?  You get the drift.

Enclose a #10 self-addressed, stamped envelope, preferably self-sealing.  Don’t use a bigger envelope, please.  Do not send anything that needs to be returned.

Additionally, if you visit the submissions page of my web site, you’ll find statistics on how many queries, submissions, etc., I’ve gotten over the year.  For example, in September 2005, I received ninety-seven queries and declined ninety.  I also received twenty-two requested sample chapters (please, please, please don’t send me a sample chapter unless I request one), and rejected seven.  I also requested thirteen.  So far, for October, I’ve received seventy-eight queries and rejected twenty-nine (this would explain the giant pile of queries I am currently looking at!).  I’ve gotten in thirteen requested sample chapters and rejected thirty-three (gotta love plane and train trips for the reading time!).  I’ve requested an unprecedented four full manuscripts, of which I have received one.

Also, on the submissions page, you’ll find the following:  “If you queried us prior to June 1, 2005, you should have had a response, one way or another.  If you have not, then the response was likely lost in the mail and you should send us a new query.  If you sent us a requested sample chapter in January 2005 or later, we have likely not yet considered it.”

Why do I take the time to post all this?  So that you can check the status of your submission without following up with me directly.  Now, the truth is, I think I’m up to about March 2005.  If you sent me a requested sample chapter prior to that, and haven’t had a response, chances are the response was lost in the mail.

Now, I don’t claim my tracking system is perfect, so there may be exceptions (I recently discovered that one pile of reading was out of order and about twenty partials that were far older were buried under some newer ones; I fixed that and am now reading the older ones), but I think that March date is accurate.

Here’s a tip on putting together a requested sample chapter and synopsis:  Put a cover letter on top, reminding me that I requested it.  Next, a title page with your contact info on it.  Next, your sample chapter.  Finally, your synopsis, which should be five pages, max, double-spaced.  Don’t staple or paperclip anything.  Use a small binder clip to put the whole package together.  Much simpler, no?

Thanks so much for paying attention to these suggestions.  Hopefully they will assist me in moving through material more quickly.

Z

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The fall tv season doesn't suck, but...

My apologies that I haven’t posted anything new here in a while, but with the Jewish holidays and some travel, I haven’t been around.

Some random thoughts:

In the last week or so, I’ve found myself reading more than a few projects that I’ve rejected because they were rife with passive voice.  And this always surprises me.  The Elements of Style very briefly explains the reasons to avoid the passive voice, and I recommend that you go read it (the whole book, actually, not just the part about passive voice), but the short answer is that I do not want to read a book that goes like this:

     Once I was a boy, and then I was a man.  As a boy, I was interested in many things that were simple, rather than complicated.  But once I was a man, I became interested in more complicated things.  Like women.  As a man, I was always confounded by women.  What was it that made them tick?  Was it the heat of summer?  Was it the cold of winter?  Was it the incessant use of the word was by so many authors?
     As I walked to school, the sun was high in the sky, birds were chirping, and Mrs. O’Brien was working as the crossing guard.  That was the day I saw Cindy McAdam for the first time.  Cindy was in my fourth-grade class.  Her hair was blonde.  Her eyes were blue.  She was often late for school, perhaps because her father was a known drunk and probably made mornings difficult in her house.  I was glad he wasn’t my father.

Had enough?  Could the use of the passive voice in one more sentence physically cause your head to explode?  Probably not.  But let’s get with the program, people!  If there is one thing I know you can do to improve your writing, it’s eliminating the passive voice.

So, if you submit something to me, and it gets rejected with a specific comment on the passive voice, you’ll know why.  I hate it.  It bores me.  I have rejected projects because the first sentence started out with “The day was hot.”  They all remind me of that movie, Throw Momma from the Train.  Billy Crystal was a writer with writer’s block.  He couldn’t get past the first line.  My favorite version?  “The night was moist.”  

So, here’s a little something to amuse you.  How many different ways could “The day was hot” be rewritten?  I challenge you.  Rewrite “The day was hot.”  Make it active, make it interesting.  No prizes but bragging rights, but those can be fun, so go for it.

Different subject:  The response to my offer to read a sample chapter plus synopsis has been going well, though I wish I’d gotten a few more.  I’d like to mention that you can donate online by credit card, then include a copy of your receipt with your package.  In fact, that’s the preferred approach, I realize, as I have to forward on those checks.  Using your credit card eliminates that step.  The link is www.activecom/donate/tntnyc/tntnycAZackTucson.

New subject:  So, I’ve continued to watch the fall tv season and have to give kudos to Grey’s Anatomy.  I like it, I must admit, with my favorite episode so far being the one where Meredith’s mom is checked into the hospital.  Who couldn’t sympathize with that situation?

E-Ring, though, is a major disappointment.  With JAG off the air, I’d hoped this would be a suitable replacement, but despite some great eye candy, no one here has quite the same appeal as Catherine Bell, nor do the stories seem as fun or action-packed as JAG’s.  This is a Jerry Bruckheimer show and I’ve liked a lot of what he’s been doing on tv, but this show falls short.

Supernatural, on the other hand, fills my jones for the old X-Files fan in me.  I’m a little worried the show will become a bit too one-note, but so far I’m liking it.  But you’re nuts if you really think Jared Padalecki doesn’t know what happened to the father.  Also, I had a problem with the Bloody Mary episode.  It seems to me that there are rules with each of these creatures and if Bloody Mary crawls out of the broken mirror, who can inside there be one to talk back to her in the mirror Padalecki holds up?  I may have to watch the episode again, but unless she’s talking to herself and the image is just her in the mirror, I don’t think this works.

Smallville continues to intrigue me, though I thought introducing the prisoners from the Phantom Zone was by far a throwaway gimmick.  In fact, the Phantom Zone was never explained.  As for which one of Clark’s friends or family are going to have to exchange his or her life for Clark’s, my money is on Chloe.  After all, she’s truly been a third wheel most of the series and they already “pretended” to kill her off once.

NCIS is off to a pretty good start, but I can’t believe they killed off Kate just to introduce this Mossad agent, Ziva.  Kate showed intelligence and had good chemistry with Tony.  So what if she didn’t appeal to the 15-25 demographic.  Isn’t that Abby’s job?  And Lauren Holly?!  What?  Are they expecting the show to encounter turbulence?

South Park has once again caught my interest.  Anyone who thinks this is a show for kids hasn’t been watching it.  The parody of Lord of the Rings had me laughing nearly to the point of tears.  And somewhere Terri Schiavo must be laughing at the battle over whether or not to let poor Kenny die.

Sorry, but no, I do not watch Desperate Housewives.  I am, though, watching both Threshold and Invasion.  Threshold, despite a strong start, has started to feel stupid to me.  Invasion, on the other hand, has started to be a bit more interesting.  Small tidbit:  William Fichtner, who plays the sheriff on the show, lives down the street from me.  Haven’t met him, but have seen him around the ‘hood several times.

I’m excited that Boondocks, the comic strip, is coming to tv, and looking forward to catching that in November.

Well, my gf, Nadene, is in town and wondering if I’ll ever stop writing this, so I’ll say goodnight.  To all those who continue to read, thanks.  And if you haven’t yet made your donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, please use the link above.  I need your support!

Z