The Art of a Great Book

Alice and The Caterpillar by Joni Harvey-Brown

Often the time and energy and money required to produce a book is under-appreciated. The average reader imagines a scene in which the lonely writer sits atop a far-away mountain, banging away at the keyboard. The writer is often blocked by some outside force, until a flash of inspiration occurs and viola, a masterpiece! And thus the reader holds the masterpiece in their hands, quietly devouring the inked pages.

What is rarely discussed in reader circles, and even in writer circles, is the other half of the puzzle. The multitudes of people and teams that also had a hand in the work, and with whom without, that masterpiece of a book would never have reached the readers. The blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. In this modern climate of self-publishing and DIY attitudes, people often ask: what is the point of a publisher? Or an agent? Or even, an editor?

This questioning haunts me as a literary agent. I see many writers on forums talk about agents as if we are lowly serpents trolling on the talents of writer. They spew venom about the fat-cat editors in New York (whose salary is probably barely above minimum wage). It’s frustrating as no one would ask that in film. No one would ask why a script needs set-designers, or directors, or producers. As a self-published author I fully support the advent of a new publishing paradigm. But I do believe it is important to acknowledge the amount of work that it takes to produce a beautiful book whichever publishing path one chooses to take.

I do hope this will perhaps change a few minds about the people who work in the field of publishing, because believe it or not, most of us are in this because we love books. 

The Windmill by Joni Harvey-Brown

Everyone in the literary world, from publishers, agents, editors, designers, and writers are all working toward the same goal; to produce a good book. No, to produce a great book. A book that shines on the shelf, calls out to potential readers. A book that captures you with its first sentence, whose story draws you in, and whose plot keeps you up all night reading. A book that makes you excited, anxious, and sad as the amount of pages left gets slimmer and slimmer. A book that makes you sigh with satisfaction with its last sentence. A great book.

The writer spends late nights and early mornings to create a story out of 80,000 words. They edit those words for months. Their beta-readers critique it, each comment a stab to the heart, but the writer bravely endures and edits it again, and again, and again. Then months to years later, when they have what they believe to be a finished project, they send it out to the terrifying gatekeepers, the agents.

The agents read hundreds of email queries, tens of writing samples, 2-5 manuscripts a week. They endure angry authors-rejected suitors and demanding writers whom feel they deserve the agent’s time over all else. They read through the slush of manuscripts, the wanna-be bestsellers, the overwritten literary prose, the un-edited sloppy writing to find that gleam, that rough gem that catches their attention. They find out if the gem is available, comb through it and ask for edits. They edit the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. Finally they take the gem, which now sparkles, and send it out to the impossible judges, the editors. Editors with whom they have spent years developing relationships with, learning their likes and dislikes, so that one day when the right ms for the right editor comes along, they know exactly who to send it to.

The editors slough through the agent queries, requesting too many manuscripts. Their desks are piled with submissions, with current manuscripts, and with books they need to read. They read and read and read. They find a book they want to sign, fight over it with other editors, capture it for their own. They deal with demands of the overbearing agents, and with stubborn, pretentious, or diva authors. They work under deadline from the publisher, the pressure always on. They edit, and edit, and edit some more. Finally it is ready to go to design production.

The designer keeps an eye on every book that gets released, they keep tabs on design trends, they know if Lucinda Grande has gone out of style and that vertical stripes are serious but horizontal are playful. They read the manuscript and have a brilliant concept for the cover. They create a first proof of the cover. They love the cover. The next time they look at it, they hate it. They redesign the font, change the image, adjust the hues. They tweak something a centimeter to the left, something else a half inch up. That one shape should be circular. And blue. No, cobalt blue. They create something beautiful. The author wants something else, the agent doesn’t like it, the editor thinks it’s okay, the publisher doesn’t care. They tweak it some more. This time it is perfect.

The publisher gathers the items needed to publish the book. The ISBN number, the Library of Congress data, the copyright, the price, the mega data, the whole sale price, the royalties, the contracts, the marketing copy, the distribution, the costs of production, the marketing and promotion. They work with book buyers and book stores to get the final book out there on the digital or physical bookshelf. The final push so the book is out there, a book that shines, a book that calls out to potential readers.

And all of these people take a deep collective breath and hope that they have given the potential buyer something special.

A great book.

Pandora’s Box by Joni Harvey-Brown

Rejection and Publishing

Rejection, it’s a word all writers loathe and fear. I myself have been rejected as an author by zines, agents, editors, workshops, and readings. It’s a difficult road, and I feel for the thousands of writers that pass through our slushpile everyday. It’s hard not to take each rejection like an arrow to the heart and I’ve seen writers who have become bitter, angry, sad, and then broadcast it online. They vent their frustration, believing they have been wronged, calling publishers, editors, agents alike nasty names and blaming them personally for the rejections.

One of the most important things I have learned since entering the other side of publishing is that rejection is not personal. Publishing is first and foremost, a business. The people within publishing love books (they have to, for it is rarely a lucrative career), but they are not artists per say, so they are looking at each submission with a practical eye. For example, as beautiful as your prose may be, if the book is hundreds of thousands of words long, an agent knows that a publisher will not probably not pick it up because to publish a book that large costs more money. No one is saying the writer is a bad writer for having a long book, it just means the writer probably doesn’t understand the business side of publishing and is likely inexperienced.

So if you are like the average writer and wish to have a financially successful career, do your research, know the business and understand that it’s similar to any other job. Your first project is your entry-level resume. You’re going to have to submit it to as many places as you can, be rejected or ignored, and even if you do get hired, you won’t be the CEO within the year. But if you keep honing your craft by going to school or workshops or conferences, doing online research, critical reading and practicing writing, just as you would invest in another career, your odds of success become much higher.

And you will see that rejection is just business as usual.

Happy Thanksgiving and Almost End of NaNoWriMo!

Happy Turkey Day All!

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For all of you writers out there participating in NaNoWriMo and sweating your way to the finish line this Sunday, you can do it!

I am majorly impressed with anyone who wins NaNoWriMo as here I am attempting to keep my focus with my official writing hat, and I’m only at 20k. (No I will not pull all nighters trying to get to 50k in 4 days.)Mary_C_Moore.JPG.jpg

As you can see I’m not getting a lot of writing done. On the plus side, I have managed to respond to many waiting queries, so some benefited from my procrastination.

Cheerleading aside, please remember to edit your NaNoWriMo novels come December. The last thing an agent or editor wants to see is a manuscript that was banged out in a month. Revise, rewrite, reread.

Write on.

On Faculty at the Whidbey Writer’s Conference

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Hello all you wonderful peeps. I will be on faculty at the Whidbey Writer’s Conference this year! Packing my bags as we speak and preparing for a lovely weekend here:

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…where on Friday I will be speaking at one of their infamous “Chat House Sessions” with the talented agent Margaret Bail of Inkling Literary. We will attempt to cover what an agent can offer an indie author and what an indie author can anticipate when trying to get an agent. On Saturday I will be listening to author pitches and hopefully finding some gems. As I am not open to unsolicited queries, conferences are a great way for authors to get my attention.

If you are there, say hello!