Friday, April 24, 2009

Ugh.

I am battling a cold and the title of this blog says it all: "Ugh." Caught it from my son, who caught it from his grandparents. The wife has it now, also. You know it sucks because I'm actually watching the clock for when I can next take something. I took straight cough medicine and not a multi-symptom product this morning and my nose is feeling left out.

On the business side, my day is a big "ugh," also. After fourteen or so months, I finally concluded a negotiation for a new deal with for one of my clients. When the final contracts showed up, I got them out to the client the same day. The client turned them around the same day. It is nearly two weeks since they were returned to the publisher and do I have a fully executed contract or the payment due on signing? Of course not.

So the question to me is, Should my client's deadline be changed? Why, after all, should he be expected to start work before he has a signed contract and payment?

An old girlfriend of mine once did some TV work for a division of Viacom, which also owns Simon & Schuster. I was complaining to her that I was waiting and waiting for a check from S&S and she said, "Why? I can get a check hand-cut the same day if I need it." My head nearly exploded. Why could one division get things done so much quicker than another? Why, for example, does one publishing company cut all of its checks from an office in Colorado or New Jersey, then send them to NYC, where they are sent out to agents? Why not send them straight out from the source? Why not source them in NYC?

Publishers blame agents for making the relationship with authors acrimonious or adversarial, but the truth is that it is the publishers' own corporate policies that more often than not earn them the anger of authors and agents. Contracts are negotiated for weeks and sometimes months. It's not like the publisher didn't know this deal was happening and that payment would have to be made. When the contracts go out for signing to the author, why isn't a check request done then, so that the check is ready when the contract comes back signed by the author? Why on earth does a contract have to sit on anyone's desk for days or weeks before signing? Your Contracts Deparment negotiated that agreement, possibly for weeks and even months. Can't you trust them and sign the damn thing?

Maybe what we need to have in publishing is "closings," like on real estate in NYC. All the parties in the room and cashier's checks drawn and ready to go. Everyone signs, the checks change hands, everyone is happy.

Z

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Guilty Pleasures and Writing Lessons

I confess I’m a bit of a TV junkie. I watch shows that don’t deserve watching, perhaps, and I should probably turn off the TV and read more, I admit. But with a young child in the house, momentum and inertia are powerful forces. Once your butt hits the couch, inertia settles in. Once you’ve watched one show on the DVR, momentum pushes you to the next.


Yet TV can be very important for a guy like me. For starters, I’m always working to get my clients’ works read by folks in TV or movies, so it’s important for me to recognize what’s working or not working.


I’ve recently been amused by the new show, CASTLE, starring Nathan Fillion, in which Fillion plays Richard Castle, a mystery novelist (think James Patterson, who actually had a cameo on the first episode) who gets “partnered” with an actual NYPD homicide detective and ends up solving quite a few of the crimes. His partner, played by Stana Katic (yeah, I’d never heard of her either, but I like her), is the classic straight (wo)man to Fillion’s Peter Pan-ish Richard Castle.


Ignoring that this has about as much potential of happening in real life as me becoming a navy SEAL, I think the characters are well drawn, including Castle’s quirky mother, played by Susan Sullivan (Greg’s mother on DHARMA & GREG), and his perhaps-too-serious daughter, played by Molly C. Quinn. So far Castle and his daughter have engaged in apartment-wide laser tag and a fencing match (aided, of course, by Castle’s humongous-by-NYC’s-standards apartment). What next? Judo?


I think authors can take a few notes from this show. The little bits of characterization are being dribbled out and they work well. Katic’s detective character has issues surrounding her deceased mom. Castle is apparently friends with everyone in NYC and is a crack shot with a 9mm...on the range, at least. The daughter would rather take her calculus test than go shopping with her mom, Castle’s over-the-top actress ex.


The actors all seem to have chemistry and the writing is solid, if a bit too fast-paced and coy in a manner reminiscent of—but not as eager as—an Aaron Sorkin drama.


The plaguing question, of course, is when does Castle have time to write? There are hints that he does it long into the night and uses a laborious outlining process. Strangely, though, the few pages shown are not double-spaced (just block paragraphs) and there has been no discussion of his agent or his publisher, which, given that Castle has just had a new book published in the first episode and is apparently as big an author as Patterson, surprises me. Where is the national book tour and obsession with the best-seller list rankings? Where is the agent calling to update him on foreign rights sales or progress with the movie deal? Where is the editor asking him what he’s going to be doing next?


Alas, as far it goes, CASTLE is certainly entertaining, but there are no lessons in how the real world of publishing works here. But there may be some lessons in writing interesting and three-dimensional characters and that makes it worth watching for you, I think.


Z

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Update for Our Troubled Times

With CNN and CNBC bringing us ever-worse news about the economy, I wanted to speak directly to our potential clients regarding how TZC is approaching these tough economic times and fairing in general.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had an excellent intern in Corrie Buck this semester and much housekeeping and updating has been accomplished by her, allowing me to focus on working with existing and new clients to polish their books.

Polishing is without a doubt the most important thing an author can do in this market. Editors are being laid off and lists are being cut back. Fewer titles are being acquired and some that were acquired are being delayed. It’s therefore not unusual for us to ask an author to revise his or her proposal or manuscript several times before we submit it.

Style is as important as substance. We provide manuscript preparation guidelines to every new client and they are on our website for potential and existing clients to reference as needed (http://www.zackcompany.com/submissions/ManuscriptPrep/manuscriptprep.htm). The cleaner and more professional your manuscript or proposal is, the easier it is for editors to focus on the content and not be distracted by funky spacing or extra tabs, etc.

Publishing is not recession-proof. What it sometimes does is lag the recession, as people move from more expensive ways to pass time to less expensive, e.g., fewer dinners and movies out and more reading at home. But libraries are a huge market for publishers and during times of budget-cutting, they take a hit, which means they order fewer books. And when the economy bounces back, it can actually take a while for it to hit publishers. Books are sold six months in advance, in general, with publishers soliciting orders and then basing print runs on those orders. Six months down the road, the economy may be great, but the books being published then will have been ordered now, when the economy sucks, and those orders will be fewer. Thus fewer copies may be sold. Fortunately, publishers have gotten better and better at doing fast reprints and I’m sure there will be competition at the printers for reprint press time eventually. Just not so much now.

If JK Rowling wanted to do publishing a favor, she’d come up with something new in the Harry Potter world quick. Harry Potter is a sure seller and bookstores could use the cash.

Publishers are going to be looking harder and harder to find just the best-sellers. Midlist, which has been writhing on its death bed for quite some time, is probably ready for Last Rites. There are truly only two markets in fiction: best-sellers and category-filler. A book better scream “KEEP READING ME!” by page ten, or editors are going to move on, which is oh-so-much-easier now that every editor seems to have an eBook reader of some kind.

The days when an editor would bring a manuscript home and might end up continuing to read because they just brought the one home are over. Imagine this: Editor brings one manuscript home and starts reading it. It’s a bit slow, but it’s the only manuscript she brought home that night. So she keeps reading. And what do you know? It picks up. Hmm, thinks the editor, if I can just get the author to cut a bit at the beginning and pick up the pace, we’ll have something here. I’m sure that scenario played out dozens of times every year. Maybe hundreds. But not anymore. Now editors have eBook readers and download the electronically submitted manuscripts to the reader. Get in ten pages and find the book slow? Move onto the next. After all, you’ve got ten or twenty on that reader. Fiction manuscripts have, it seems, become screenplays. It has long been said that a screenplay must seize the producer’s attention on the first page, and while I think book editors and agents have slightly longer attention spans, I also think those attention spans have been drastically shortened over the years. Working on eBook readers where the next book is just a Delete-key-away can’t help.

On the nonfiction side, the biggest issue continues to be the author’s “platform.” If you’ve never done so, definitely take a look at our website’s What We Want page (http://www.zackcompany.com/submissions/what_we_want.htm) where I talk a lot about platform. Authors need to build their platforms but also need to be able to QUANTIFY their platforms. Saying that you have a syndicated column is great, but being syndicated in three newspapers is not the same as being syndicated in 150. Saying you have a blog is not the same as saying you have a blog that receives 150,000 unique visitors each month. Being the keynote speaker at several management meetings per year is different than being a speaker with more than a hundred speaking engagements per year. When you write your proposals, you want to be able to quantify your platform so that publishers understand that you have an existing audience that will come to your book. Your platform has to sell the book, as the book cannot be your platform.

I cannot lie. Generally speaking, business sucks. It sucks for bookstores, it sucks for publishers, and it sucks for agents and their authors. But publishers will always need great books. They never stop buying great books. They stop buying the less-than-great books because they need to pick and choose what they present to the accounts more carefully. And agents must follow suit. Thus, I am taking on fewer and fewer clients every year, because I must truly believe in a project to put in the effort required to find it a home. The days of “Okay, let’s give this a shot,” are over.

That said, we need great books, and I confess that a few of our clients have been long silent on their next books. Marketing backlist is something we always do. And we never stop marketing unsold projects, generally speaking. Editors come and go and new publishers start up, and we continue to try and sell those projects we have not yet sold. We would not have committed to representing them if we did not believe in them. But sometimes it makes sense to strategically withdraw, to put a book on the shelf and try to sell something else, something new, something that may fit the changing marketplace better. If you are one of those authors who has been flogging the same old manuscript to agents and editors, you might want to ask if the time has come to move on.

In the coming months, we will continue our efforts to digitize contracts and royalty statements. We will continue to ask publishers to reprint out-of-print books or revert them. We will continue to suggest that backlist titles be reissued in new formats so that they find wider markets and reap both publisher and author greater profits with higher cover prices. We will continue to upgrade and develop our software and website to make them more efficient and help us improve sales of our clients' works both to publishers and the public. And we will continue to serve our clients the only way we know how: with commitment, with loyalty, and with the same persistence that has sold more than a few books after more than a few editors said no.

Z

Monday, April 06, 2009

Marketing Idiots

Gatorade has a new commercial that is as good as its commercials usually are, until you get to the slogan: "Less Calories. For More Athletes." Way to teach our kids proper grammar!

As any idiot knows, it should be "Fewer Calories."

There should be a law that all advertising must user proper grammar and spelling. Advertising is one of the most potent forces in our culture. When it reinforces bad grammar or incorrect spelling it does damage to our society and we hardly need any more.

Z

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The March Round-up

Hi, it’s Corrie, the new CEO of The Zack Company. April Fools! I’m Andy’s spring intern and I’m very honored and excited to bring you the March Round-up!

In March 2009, we…

  • Received 35 queries and declined 37
  • Received 8 sample chapters and declined 12
  • Received 3 manuscripts and declined 1

We also...

  • Requested 9 Sample Chapters
  • Requested 1 manuscript

As of March 31, 2009 we have on hand to read the following:

  • 8 manuscripts
  • 3 proposals
  • 43 sample chapters

We are also waiting to receive:

  • 3 proposals
  • 6 sample chapters

We have read all sample chapters dated before December 10, 2008. If you submitted to us before that and sent an SASE but did not hear back, you should contact us.

CB