Fiction

Publishers Don’t Want Good Books

This conversation has happened at every agency in the world (particularly in the kids and teen department).

Agent 1: I’ve got a new project.

Agent 2: Yeah? How is?

Agent 1: It’s good.

Agent 2: Good?

Agent 1: Yeah, good.

Agent 2: Oh…Damn.

Agent 1: Yeah.

Agent 2: *Sips martini* That’s too bad.

imgres.jpgAgents, editors, and maybe you, the author, know the curse of the “good” book. The book that’s perfectly fine, that works, that tells an interesting story, and that is, sad to say, darn near unsellable. The rejections often contain phrases like “didn’t fall in love,” or “just didn’t feel strongly enough,” leavened with genuine compliments about the writing or characterization. After years of learning the craft of story and voice, you’ve finally created a nearly flawless novelone you know is as good (heck, better!) than a lot of stuff on the shelf. And it just…doesn’t…sell.

What’s going on here? Are publishers just crass, cowardly, visionless hacks who take pleasure in crushing the dreams of talented writers, refusing to give even promising careers a chance to get started?

The answer, of course, is no. Nobody is more motivated (apart from the author) to see a book succeed with flying colors than publishers. Believe me when I say us soulless agents and our human counterparts- editors- are wishing and dreaming as hard as you for that Newbery Medal, the debut on the New York Times Best Sellers list, the book signing line that wraps around the block.

It pains me to say it- and it pains all of us in publishing, I promise you- but there typically just isn’t room for “good” books. Publishing is an increasingly competitive space. More and more people want to be published, and the standard for what constitutes a “success” gets higher every day. Publishers have limited space on their lists, and so each novel has to be more than good. It has to be something special.

Of course there are many kinds of special. Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, Chris Grabenstein’s Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s LibraryVictoria Aveyard’s Red Queen– four completely different novels, with pretty different audiences, and they all have something in common. These are novels that demand you sit up and take notice. They are more than just functioning stories. They refuse to be ignored.

images.jpgWhen I say publishers don’t want good books, I don’t mean they’re after bad ones either. Nobody is more passionate about compelling fiction than your friendly neighborhood editor, whether the novel in question is a beautiful, heart-breaking, cry-on-the-subway coming of age, or a heart-pounding, unforgettable, so-damn-sexy-you-need-a-time-out fantasy, romance, or action/adventure. Though you may have found writing on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that makes your skin crawl (in the bad way), fiction is a subjective business, and I guarantee that even if it isn’t your brand of beer, every novel published made someone, somewhere, feel something profound- whether it was excitement, intrigue, or love.

Awesome, thanks for that John. Of course I want to be better than good. I want to be special, too. So what do I do?

My advice to my clients, to all novelists (and to myself), is always the same: push yourself. Don’t settle for your first idea, or even your second. Don’t stick with a project simply because it’s written, when you know rewriting or moving on to the next thing will be even better. Can you tell a story? Great. Now ask yourself, why does my story need to be told? What about it is new, what about it pushes boundaries? What about it has, at least, the potential to change a person’s life?

Teens need you. Teens need writers. I know I did. Novels saved my life, and I am one of thousands in that club. So be fearless. When you tell someone what your story is about, what’s their reaction? You want “Wow,” you want, “Oh my goodness, really?” You even want, “You can’t write a book about that!”

We’re all striving to do something great, and most of us ultimately land somewhere between where we started and the stars. If you want to be a novelist, you have to want to be the best novelist, or you’ll never get off the ground. As maddening as it can be, I’m glad the publishing biz is so competitive. It pushes us to be more.

So get good, write a good novel, hone your craft until you are a master of structure.

Then start again.

Publishing-industries-pic.jpg

Link Roundup: Words and Music

Cool stuff from some Class of 2015 clients last week:

Rahul Kanakia, whose amazing debut ENTER TITLE HERE is coming from Hyperion in Fall 2015 (think House of Cards meets Gossip Girl. Yeah.) has two new short stories. You can read one right now at the sci-fi and fantasy magazine ClarkesworldSeeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)

(And if you aren’t following his blog, Blotter-Paper, you should.)

Then check out Tommy Wallach performing “Madeline“, a song from the upcoming “We All Looked Up” album, to accompany his novel of the same name. Both the book and the album come out on March 31, 2015. Subscribe to his channel to see more!

In other news: it’s fall! Hooray!

WE ALL LOOKED UP on Goodreads. Pre-order now at Barnes & NobleAmazon, or Indiebound.

ENTER TITLE HERE on Goodreads

Help Keep an Indie Magazine Thriving

imagesArmchair/Shotgun, as you may know, is a blind-submission, print-only literary magazine. A/S publishes fiction, poetry, and beautiful artwork, thanks in large part to the efforts of the unpaid staff (all of whom have demanding day jobs). Full disclosure- I co-founded this magazine and was a managing editor for years. But I think I can say impartially that A/S publishes amazing material, and does great things for independent literature in Brooklyn and beyond, not only by creating a venue for new voices, but by reaching out and helping to build a literary community through events like the Brooklyn Book Festival and LitCrawl.

Looking forward to the next five years, A/S has big plans, including nonprofit status, subscriptions, and expanding to new cities, but the magazine needs your help to get there. That’s why A/S has launched an IndieGoGO campaign.

The world of independent publishing ain’t easy, as many of you know, and while many “independent” magazines thrive with angel donations from large corporations such as Amazon, A/S is turning to you fine folks– the lovers of amazing writing from new and established authors– to help independent publishing continue to thrive.

What Your Support Helps Pay For:

  • Printing Issue 5, featuring the stories and poetry of Woodlief Thomas, Devin Kelly, Rob Adams McKean, Patricia Murphy, Juan Ramirez and more, plus brilliant color to show off the art of Avery McCarthy and Dan-ah Kim
  • Shipping costs to help us reach new audiences
  • Fees to aid the transition to nonprofit status for long-term fiscal health

So please, if you have a few extra bucks, kick it over to the A/S IndieGoGo campaign. A small contribution really goes a long way. And if you’re in the Brooklyn area, come out to the Greenlight Bookstore Indie Party this evening and raise a glass with us, and/or stop by the Armchair/Shotgun table this Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival to say hello, buy one of our rad t-shirts and try out our nifty typewriters.

Thanks!

“Who sets these rules anyway?” On the Merits of Innovation

Here’s an interesting piece about Chet Baker (a favorite of mine), who, according to his critics, may have been talented, but wasn’t really an innovator. Chet was a pretty boy, playing smooth, listenable, not-particularly intellectual West Coast Jazz while his East Coast counterparts where actually honest-to-god changing music forever.

Frankly, the word “innovative,” when applied to fiction, makes me flinch. It’s my wariness of writers who break the rules before they know how to follow them (or indeed what the rules are). Appearing experimental can be a short-cut to being taken seriously. It’s the emperor’s-new-clothes problem. True innovation make look like crazy crap when it first arrives on the scene, but so does crazy crap. It can be difficult to distinguish brilliance from b.s.

I often gravitate toward more formal pieces of writing– traditional story structures– when I look for new clients or pieces for Armchair/Shotgun (and let it be said there seems to be less room, market-wise, for experimental stuff in children’s literature, though this is changing, I think). It’s so very difficult to tell a compelling story that makes your reader *feel* something– to be able to do that and *also* change the medium? Forget about it.

But amazing, totally new, experimental and innovative stuff *is* out there, recognized or not, and for our medium to thrive and grow, we need it. When I first read Dolan Morgan‘s short piece Infestation (A/S No.1), I was turned off by its odd structure– but the fault was mine for being a poor reader. Morgan truly was innovating. Upon rereading, and deeper reading, I saw he’d found a new way to talk about loss, and the result was strange and beautiful.

So whaddya think, gang? How important is it to innovate, as an artist? Do you try to innovate with your own work, push the boundaries of the medium, or no? Must all artists be innovators, or at least try to be? And what is our responsibility as readers? How far do we allow an author to draw us into uncharted waters?

New Short Story! 700 YEARS IN HEAVEN

time-machine-23-2008

What if you could be with the person you love forever? Well, not quite forever, but a really long time. Like…maybe a bit too long…

A late night high school party. Some harmless flirting. And a pre-fab time machine.

Next Monday, February 11th, Y.A. Review will publish my brand new short story: 700 Years In Heaven.

I’m so excited about this one. Mark your calendars! And in the meantime, you can check out Y.A. Review’s post of Abandon Changes: A Girl Parts Story.

 

I’m Joining Greenhouse Literary!

ImageThat’s right. Beginning January 14th I am joining Greenhouse Literary as a full-time agent for middle-grade and young adult! I am thrilled to embark on this new adventure with Sarah Davies and the Greenhouse team. I will continue to represent my take-no-prisoners cadre of clients, as well as actively building my list.

I’ve enjoyed five superlative years at Scott Treimel NY, and it has been a privilege to collaborate with Scott and all the phenomenal STNY authors. I will miss them all, and look forward to seeing their work on bookshelves, e-readers, and billboards.

I highly recommend you check out Greenhouse’s website for more info about Sarah and Julia, Sarah’s blog, and submission guidelines.

What I’m Looking For: I’m especially eager for boy middle-grade (and yes, even boy y.a.!). Fast-paced/thrilling/heart-breaking stories, historicals, speculative fiction, sci-fi and fresh fantasy, villains with vulnerability, bad decisions with best intentions, boldly imagined worlds, striking imagery, finely composed and choreographed scenes, characters with history, stories about siblings, stories about middle America, and did I mention middle-grade for boys?

In the meantime, stay tuned folks: there will be more conferences, classes, talks, books, posts, and shenanigans to come!

– John

Recommended Reading: “The Kill Sign”

“I pass churches starting to fill up with black-suited people and I wonder what good that is. The mysteries of Jesus, the everlasting life, all that, what are we supposed to do with it when we can’t even figure shit in this life out? The dying won’t stop right here and now. I don’t know what heaven will do for a dog, anyway. I drive on past the steeples.”

 

 

Read this gut-socking story by Marvin Shackleford, originally appearing in Armchair/Shotgun,  featured in this month’s Recommended Reading, presented by Electric Literature. Marvin is a literary dervish, whipping up all sorts of verbal froth out on his Texas Panhandle farm. I was so thrilled to include his story “The Kill Sign” in Armchair, and double-thrilled it’s now featured in E-Lit’s awesome online program.

I highly recommend you make your day a little more spectacular, and read it.