Rags to Riches

In the words of those old poets, the Backstreet Boys – “Oh my god, I’m back again!”

That’s right, friends. I am back from my hiatus – and a little earlier than expected, no less. Thank you for bearing with me during these busier-than-usual weeks. I’m very happy to be back!

Actually, there’s a reason I came back early. See, there’s been a rash of self-publishing stories recently and for the most part, I don’t really have much to say about them except, “Hey, good for them.” But then I read something that made me want to respond in more than 140 characters, and I didn’t think I should wait to post it for the sake of waiting.

Future (current?) publishing superstar, Meredith Barnes, recently wrote in a blog post (which you should read), “Agents today, if they have one forward-thinking bone in their body, consider self-publishing a viable option.” Very, very true.

Much like online dating, self-publishing is no longer attached to the stigma that it should be only considered as a last resort. There are many reasons why I’d suggest taking the traditional publishing route. Self-publishing means you will be unedited, unmarketed, and generally only sold via a few retail outlets – among other problems. If you’re fine with this or you are willing to put in a LOT of work in addition to writing the actual book, then who am I to stop you?

Like I said, there have been a lot of self-publishing success stories lately, especially in this past month. I think this is a great boon to this often chastised method of publication. But it’s also dangerous to writers who may not have the same resources or popularity to make their self-published book rank up there with Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath.

That’s why when I read this post on Mr. Konrath’s blog last week, I felt that the self-publishing rags-to-riches stories needed to be addressed. (I had been letting others, who are much smarter than I, handle this ’til now.) Like I mentioned above, there are TONS of blog posts about how self-publishing is hard and that you probably won’t be as successful as the authors who are benefiting from it. Most writers know this and will still turn to self-publishing because they just want to see their book in print.

This is perfectly acceptable, writers. And it is especially fine for the writer who wanted to thank J.A. Konrath for “saving her life.” Sometimes all we need is to retain our creativity in order to feel we still have self worth. This writer was frustrated with rejection and became depressed because she did not see a point to keep writing if it could not be her career.

I feel for this writer. I do. And I’m happy she found peace again by releasing her book on her own terms. But there is more to this story. Or at least, there is more to this blog post.

More than the writer’s own feeling of rejection, what’s referenced several times here is the lack of money in traditional publishing. She laments that with “rock-bottom advances,” she saw no point to keep writing. Mr. Konrath also admits that he had been counting on his next advance to “feed his family.”

Now, writers. I don’t mean to cheapen anyone’s financial concerns here, but… seriously?

I will elaborate.

No one – I will repeat: no one (not agents, not editors, not publicists, and not booksellers) – goes into the book business for the cash. Writers are a huge part of this business; they are not excluded from this list. All books, even ones destined to be bestsellers, are passion projects. We do this because we love it. We love writers and we love the written word and we love stories. Despite our four-walled offices and health care, we are all just starving artists who believe you can’t place monetary value on what we do. Hence the lack of money being passed around.

But on a less idealized level, we already know about the notoriously low wages in publishing and the dwindling advances that have only gotten lower since 2008. The fact that our cups do not exactly runneth over is not news, which is why published author, J.A. Konrath should not have relied on an advance to avoid malnourishment.

If publishing is a business, which we constantly remind people that it is, then debut writers are our entry-level employees. For those of you with day jobs, try to remember what your entry-level salary was. Sucked, right? Well, whatever that salary was will probably be more than your debut advance. People like Amanda Hocking exist, of course, but if you are expecting publishers to play tug-of-war with two million dollars over you, you might as well just play the lottery.

I will take this opportunity to pause once again and say I’m sorry if this comes off harsh. I hate playing the role of the realist because rags-to-riches stories are supposedly what “the American dream” is all about. Crushing dreams is not fun for me. Plus, I like you.

Moving on.

If you are a writer waiting for your advance to “save you,” remember that publishing takes forever (as we learned in more detail from Jennifer Laughran). If you sold a book (yay!), you might receive half of your advance upon signing the contract. This comes relatively quickly. When the advances are split like this, the rest of your money could come after the publisher receives the full manuscript (most common with sequels in a series or nonfiction projects) or upon publication. Friends, publication might not happen until two years after you sign the agreement.

Ask yourselves if you’re financially secure enough to wait that long in between paychecks. If you have a day job, you may want to keep it until you no longer need to worry about when your next royalty check is coming. If you don’t have a day job, and are impatiently waiting for an advance, it probably wouldn’t hurt to call a temp agency. 

The reality of this situation is sad for those who want writing to be their career. That’s why I get self-publishing. It’s a way to avoid inevitable disappointment. Plus, it is awesome to see your book in print. I get that too.

But I guess my point is this – why be disappointed in something you already know to be true? Most jobs won’t pay you enough in your first year. You’re expected to prove yourself and work up the ladder and break ceilings. Then, usually, you’re able to get a raise, some extra perks, and eventually a summer home. So why should your first year in your new career as “writer” be any different?

Restless employees can go on to do great things. Biz Stone left a sweet gig at Google to help create a silly little start-up called Twitter. Pretty much everyone drops out of Harvard and becomes gazillionaires. And Barry Eisler can walk away from half a million dollars in traditional publishing to go rogue.

When these things happen, they are newsworthy. And the reason they become news stories are because they are rare and they provide hope. The millions of writers who continue to do their jobs well and stay loyal to their companies (i.e. publishers and agents) aren’t reported on so much because, well, they are the norm. Likewise, the millions of writers who go directly to self-publishing and don’t make a million dollars by far outweigh the writers who do make millions, so they tend to go unnoticed in the media too.

Like in any career, you want to get paid for what your work is worth, but rarely is that reflected in your paychecks (aka: royalty checks) when you are new to the game. Just because a system should change doesn’t mean it will change. At least not any time soon. Publishing is not Wall Street. Most of us (writers included) won’t be able to retire after our rookie year. If you were expecting to, then maybe you are in the wrong business. But if you’re willing to accept the realities of most new employees, advance on your own merits, and continue to be awesome at what you do, then we’d love to have you.

What I Learned Over Christmas Vacation

Welcome back, friends! After a blogless week and a half, I’m very happy to be back, well-rested, and ready for another year of Glass Cases submissions. Last year, I took an extended break from NYC and many life lessons were learned. This year, even though I was back in good ol’ Queens after Christmas, I’m again sharing my top five points of self-discovery and interest.
I can consume a lot of food:
After weeks of eating nothing but cupcakes and various cookies that were brought into the office, I went upstate to my parents’ house and ate for pretty much four days straight. I should also point out that nothing I ate was a vegetable, unless you count the ones that were baked in heavy cream. I think I saw a strawberry once, but I was distracted by the cheesecake underneath it. I was simultaneously disgusted and happy, but it made me appreciate living in a close proximity to Trader Joe’s, where I can go to fill my cupboards with flax seed chips and edamame once again. 
I am a fairly decent bowler and awesome at board games.
Life upstate is a simple one, and I think I’d win at it. Too bad I like living somewhere eight million times more complicated. (Remind me why that is, again?)
Whatever happens in the future, there will always be a way to say “fuck.”
I read a book over the holidays. I know, I know, what else is new, right? But, this book was different…. this was read FOR FUN. What a concept! The winning novel was Across the Universe by Beth Revis. It was a disturbing and beautifully written YA sci-fi novel that you all should definitely buy. (Some might classify it as a dystopian, but I’m not.) While enjoying the concept, characters, and strong romance, I was also pleased to learn that in whatever future/parallel universe we live in (whether we’re frexing on Revis’ ship, Godspeed, or killing frakking toasters on the Battlestar Galactica), we’ll have a fun, new replacement for our most diverse curse word.
The radio is a wonderful thing.
As someone who doesn’t drive or have an ipod, listening to music while commuting isn’t something I consider a necessity. But the radio is amazing – mostly because in my hometown, it is always 1996 and my favorite local DJs of yore are still employed, crankin’ out those hits from such newcomers as Days of the New and Oasis. Never underestimate the power of singing by yourself while behind the wheel, especially if you intentionally pull up to the car next to you so they can judge/admire you.
Change should happen naturally:
Perhaps this is a more passive view on life, but much like my former colleague, Nathan Bransford, my word for 2010 was “transition.” Many a-changes were made in 2010 and I think I’m all the better for it. But if anyone follows me on Twitter, you may remember that I decided to take this “whole new Sarah” approach to life a step further and try to intentionally do things I’d rather soon ignore. With only a few days into the new year, I am already putting an end to this plan. See also: unless you’ve spent your year in a ditch, on crack, beaten, and without friends, then you probably don’t need to be so adamant about change.
I’m very excited about 2011 and the work I can do as an agent, a writer, and as your humble blogger. Thanks for entering another year with me and don’t forget to submit those stories!

What John Lennon Teaches Us About Writing

No story this Wednesday because, instead, I want to pay a bit of tribute to one of, if not my absolute favorite, artist, John Lennon. Thirty years ago today, a man hid a gun underneath a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and murdered the man who brought us The Beatles, and some of the best written songs of all time.

I can remember listening to The Beatles since I was able to form memories. My parents played them so often in the house that it was like growing up in the ’60s. Then, I discovered John’s solo career. As someone who was influenced and inspired by a man who was dead before I was born, I know that John’s lessons are as relevant today as they were in the ’60s and ’70s.

From the words of a writer, here are some of my favorite, relevant quotes from John that will make you better writers as well:

“I’m singing about me and my life. If it’s relevant to anyone else’s lives, then that’s all right.”
– John said this to a fan who couldn’t believe, and was actually hurt, that he personally wasn’t in John’s mind when he and Paul wrote Abbey Road. Matter-of-factly, John told him all he thinks about when he writes is himself, and maybe Yoko “if it’s a love song.” Lesson learned: you’re the only person who matters when it comes to your own work. Forget the trends, what you think audiences want, and what emotions you hope to evoke in others. If it doesn’t come from you, it won’t work anyway.

“When I was a Beatle, I thought we were the fucking best group in the goddamn world. And believing that is what made us what we were. It was just a matter of time before everybody else caught on.” – If you don’t believe that what you’re doing is worth sharing, then no one else will. Next time you’re in doubt, just tell yourself that you are the fucking best writer in the goddamn world! And if audiences still don’t catch on, at least you’ll have produced something you’re proud of.

“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”– This is one of the best lessons you can hold onto as a writer. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but good writing transcends agenda, always. If your writing is honest and is a reflection of the world you are trying to convey, then a message will happen naturally. You do not need to preach to anyone. They will see through you and reject your message out of spite.

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” – Not unlike the message above, remember to be honest in your writing. Whether you’re writing contemporary fiction or world-building fantasy, human emotion connects readers to your work. People are complex, and if your characters are just as dynamic, readers will find different ways to connect with them, leaving their own take from your story up for interpretation.

“There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.”  – Taken out of the context of John’s time, think of this quote as a “there’s nothing new under the sun” colloquialism. There will always be someone with your idea and there will always be those writing in your genre. It doesn’t matter that there are eight million novels out there about a rugged, just shy of retirement, detective who needs to solve this one last case. Or that there seems to be a never-ending supply of spies kicking the asses of terrorists. All that matters is how you write it, and that will make others want to rediscover “what is known.”

And finally…

“You’re all beautiful and you’re all geniuses. “

Thanks, John.

No Sleep Til: Part 2

Yesterday was the Brooklyn Book Festival, which is a massive gathering of literary folk in Brooklyn Heights. It’s sort of like a mini-BEA, or like a literary state fair. This is my third year going to the BBF, and like last year, there were lessons to be learned:

1) I am even older this year. Like last year (see link above), there was a party to attend in Brooklyn the night before the BBF, but unlike last year, I opted for a quiet night in instead. Likewise, I ended up leaving the festival earlier than planned because I was too tired to go on. I hope both of these decisions are just signs of an oncoming cold instead of the alternative – being spent by 3:00 at the age of twenty-six.

2) Book nerds are like happier postal workers. Rain and wind are no match for them. The weather at the BBF this year was pretty dreadful, but hoards of people still gathered at Borough Hall, ready for literary fun.

3) Children do not grow up any faster in NYC, except when they do. In a YA panel called “Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made Of” (!), three YA authors discussed setting their stories in NYC. Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me) grew up in New York, and assured a Q&Aer that kids in New York don’t grow up any faster than those in the suburbs. This completely contradicted a point she made earlier, which was that one of the things she loved most about growing up in a city was that it forced kids to mature earlier. Despite the conflicting messages, I know what she means. Certain sensibilities, such as being cautious and aware of your surroundings, are slightly more beyond-your-years than children who know all of their neighbors by first and last name. However, the nature of being a child – unsure, trusting, ideological – remains intact. The city doesn’t take that away from them.

4) Air Supply is terrible. As Steve Almond pointed out in a “It’s Only Rock n Roll (but I like it)” panel, a true music snob is able to completely de-lust himself or herself after discovering the object of their affection listens to, say, Air Supply, un-ironically. I feel the same about others’ literary tastes. Also on this panel were Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead, both of whom I enjoyed tremendously.

5) I didn’t hear or see the word “Franzen” once. OK, this isn’t so much a lesson as it is something I found reassuring. My love of Freedom and appreciation of Franzen aside, it was nice to know that literary people are able to talk about something else. Then again, I did leave early.

6) “No Sleep Til” refers to Astoria (Queens), not Brooklyn. The Beastie Boys must have never slept.

Sadly, I did not get to see two panels I had been looking forward to. One featured Ben Percy, whom you should all be reading. He’s like a Gen-X version of Cormac McCarthy and his new novel (The Wilding) is just as amazing as his short stories. (And I’m not just saying that because he’s a CB author.) The other panel was a humor discussion that involved John Hodgman. “Discussing” humor, in general, is not funny, but anything involving John Hodgman usually is.

Lastly, my client Feliza-Rose David is awesome and so is her blog, which is where I found this jem of a Ke$ha parody called Writer’s Blok by author Jackson Pearce over the weekend. Enjoy, writer-friends!

What Writers Can Learn from Betty White

On Saturday night, through the sheer power of a Facebook group, 88-year-old actress, Betty White, hosted Saturday Night Live. I loved Betty as Sue Ann on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and as Rose (the original Charlotte) on The Golden Girls (the original Sex and the City). Betty White has worked consistently since then, but for some reason, from a time I can’t exactly pinpoint, she has become a geriatric equivalent of a rock star. 
Sure, the golden gals had long ago reached Cher and Gaga status in the gay community, but when did Betty Mania take over the rest of the world? It wasn’t from her work on various David E. Kelley shows, was it? Her appearances on Ellen where she swore all the time? Perhaps it was her role as Ryan Reynold’s grandmother in The Proposal. Or was it that awesome Snickers commercial? 
My point is, she wasn’t resurrected from obscurity. She didn’t have to become a parody of herself (a la Shatner) in order to get noticed again. She didn’t dance alongside “stars” or get lost in the jungle with Heidi & Spencer. All she did, as an actress, was keep acting. And she’s more popular now than she’s ever been throughout her six (!) decade career.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. 

In fact, there are several things writers can learn from Betty White:

  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Surprise your audience and your peers, but, more importantly, surprise yourself.
  • Stay humble.
  • Don’t let others tell you when your time is up. The next great series or pivotal novel can be just around the corner, even if you’ve already had a storied career.
  • Stay true to yourself and your style, but remember to stay relevant to the times.
  • Being classy, funny, and genuinely nice is timeless.
Remember these lessons and perhaps, someday, you will be able to say the literary equivalent of “Jay-Z is here, so stick around. We’ll be right back!”

Things I Learned Over Christmas Vacation

Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope you all enjoyed your holidays. Due to New Year’s/life plans falling through, I ended up spending a whole extra week at my parent’s house in upstate New York. It was the longest amount of time I’ve spent there since the days of college breaks. Intensity. But now I’m back (!) and here are some bits of knowledge I’ve gained about myself and life in general:

When I’m away from New York for too long, I get twitchy: After the excitement and overall family craziness of Christmas wore off, it took me all of a day to begin pining for NYC. Parental home is all well and good; I just feel better when I’m in New York is all.

When I leave city limits of any kind, I get twitchy: My hometown is technically a city, albeit a very small one. However, compared to its surrounding towns, it might as well be Paris. I crossed the border exactly twice, once with me driving and once a friend drove, and both times I stared out the window with equal parts confusion, awe, and terror as the streetlights became fewer and farther between and bars that look like houses appeared more and more alongside the road. Call me a city wuss, but that much darkness and open space scares me.

More Human than Human by White Zombie is the greatest song of all time: The single best moment of my week, and possibly life, was driving by myself on the NYS Thruway blasting this song and singing along when I could. Now I know what Tom Cruise felt like when he did that ‘Free Fallin” scene in Jerry Maguire.

Craig Ferguson is funny: Has this always been the case? Was I blinded by Conan that whole time?

I don’t read when I’m away from home: I know; it’s a travesty, but apparently I need the ever-relaxing quiet of the New York City subway system to enjoy a good book.

Coffeehouses make everything better: On a lazy day off, I usually head to my local cafe, sit down with a book, and hang out for a few hours. Having to ask permission to use the car made this luxury a little harder to satisfy, but I managed to support my favorite local business and get some much-needed coffee breaks at the same time. For me, going to a coffeehouse isn’t so much about drinking a cup of coffee as it is a lifestyle choice essential to my mental survival. I’m not exactly sure how I became this way, but I will guess that the “favorite local business” I speak of was directly responsible.

The gift that keeps on giving is definitely a nook: Seriously.

Well, folks. I guess that’s about it. It’s good to be back. I’m excited for sharing some new stories, seeing more of YOUR work (that’s right, I’m talking to you, people who haven’t submitted yet!), and starting a new decade!