Someone wrote to ask, “What is the author’s responsibility to the facts when writing a historical novel?” She noted she was writing about historical events, but wanted to know if she could change them. In a related note, someone else asked, “What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?”
As I’ve said on previous occasions, I don’t think there is a line connecting fiction and history. Really. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes some debt to the reader to try and get the basic historical facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that “you must have all your facts correct” or “you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations.” The author is inventing a story to entertain, or to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history.
So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake done by aliens who were looking for Hawaiian shirts and a great recipe for mai tai’s.
It’s a novel. You can choose to tie events closely to historical facts, or you can choose to recreate history as you see fit in order to entertain readers. Have a look at the Quentin Tarantino movie Inglourious Basterds — in which the patrol sent to kill Nazis take out Adolph Hitler and the entire leadership of the Nazi party in a fire they set in a movie theater. (Um, for those who
Someone wrote to say, “I’ve been offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? And if the agent accepts, should he or she still receive 15% of the deal, even if they didn’t market my book or secure the deal for me? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”
There’s quite a debate about this issue. I suppose many agents would say, “Sure — call me!” They’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But my advice would be to think long term. Is there an agent you like and trust — someone you want to work with in the long term? If so, call him or her. Talk about the situation. Explain that you’ve already got a deal. The agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. They may review the contract for a fee. They may have some insight into your situation. But don’t sign with someone just because you think you need an agent and someone is willing to say yes. If, for example, you’ve got a $10,000 advance coming, make sure it’s worth the $1500 to have the agent assist with this contract. Sure, it may be worth it — if you’ve got a complex situation, or a novel that is going to be made into a movie, or a potential bestseller… those probably call for a good agent to get involved.
That said, it doesn’t really seem fair to me to take the full comission for a book I didn’t sell, though not everyone in the industry agrees with me. You can always talk with a contract-review specialist, who will review your contract for a flat fee (usually somewhere in the $500-to-$1000 range). You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but
A regular reader of the blog sent in this question: What can a new author do to get noticed by an agent or editor?
The most essential thing you can do as someone new to the industry is to be a great writer, of course. All the agents and editors have seen wannabe writers who are anxious to get published, but haven’t put in the time to really learn the craft. We see stories that have plot problems, shallow story lines, weak characters, bad dialogue, tons of description… And the surprising thing to me is that I’ll sometimes see that from a writer at a conference who is pushing hard for representation.
It’s why I’ll frequently ask people at a face-to-face meeting, “What’s your goal for this meeting?” I mean, some people at a conference are looking for me to react to their story. Others want to show me some writing and interact a bit on it. Some people just have questions about the business or their career. But if a writer sits down at a ten minute meeting and expects an agent to offer representation, that’s probably unrealistic. A much more realistic goal would be to have a discussion about the salability of your work, and see if the agent or editor wants to take a more in-depth look at some later date. Maybe have you email the manuscript to him or her.
If you want to get noticed at a conference, show up for your appointment on time. Dress professionally. Have a brief pitch prepared, and make sure you’ve actually practiced it out loud, so you know what you’re going to say. (Your family will think you’ve gone crazy for talking to yourself in the basement… but that’s okay. If you want to be a writer, you probably already qualify as “crazy.”) Do some research on the agents, to make sure you can target your pitch. (I’ve lost
I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…
What are the three most important things you look for in a query?
A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.
How important are queries to your agency?
I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very, very low.
What experience is worth mentioning in a query?
Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.
Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?
Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.
What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?
I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)
Which genres do you think deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?
Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback, now known as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.
An author sent me a note that read, “I get a royalty report twice a year from my publisher, but I don’t really understand it. What tips can you give me for reading a royalty report?”
I swear some companies hire Obfuscation Technicians, just to try and make royalty reports hard to decipher. Remember, each company has their own format for royalty statements, so it doesn’t always pay to compare, say, a Hachette royalty report to a Macmillan royalty report. Many authors simply get confused when trying to dig into the details of the thing. Even an experienced author will complain that the Random House statements don’t look anything like the HarperCollins statements, which are different from the Simon & Schuster statements. And, unfortunately, some of the smaller companies seem to be purposefully trying to make them impossible to read. (One mid-sized publisher just revised theirs — and they are now worse than ever.)
In addition, there are some companies that do a good job of breaking things down (like Harlequin, as one example), but may not do a good job of aggregating the numbers — so you can see a book did great in large print, but you can’t actually see how many copies it has sold overall. Some companies do a wonderful job of telling you how your book did this quarter, but they fail to include life-to-date information. Ugh.
With all that crud in mind, there are about ten questions I think you need to keep in mind whenever you approach a royalty statement…
1. Who is the author?
2. What is the project?
3. How many copies sold?
4. In what formats?
5. What was the royalty rate(s)?
6. How much money did it earn this period?
7. What was the opening balance?
8. How much is being paid now?
9. Is any being held back? (a provision allows the publisher to
So a new year is here, and it’s time to make some predictions about what will happen in 2017. I do NOT have the gift of prophecy, but that doesn’t stop me from pontificating and making wild surmises, all while not really having a clue about much of anything beyond the concept that “books are good.” So with that as an introduction, here are one agent’s thoughts on what will be happening in our industry during the new year:
- We’re going to see huge growth with audio books. It’s clear that alternative forms of books are part of the growth pattern in publishing, and audio is the next big thing with the under-40 crowd. (The only downside? Amazon has bought up every audio book company, so they’ve basically cornered the market.)
- All the talk about growth potential with US publishers is going to be on rights sales. In other words, subsidiary and derivatives are going to play a MUCH more significant role in every contract negation you have this year. Expect every conversation you have with a publisher to explore dramatic rights, foreign rights, greeting cards, plush toys, and board games. Another reason to go on living!
- The Pareto Principle will be more evident than ever. Wilfredo Pareto was the Italian social economist who noted that 80% of the Italian government’s income came from 20% of the population… and thus the Principle of Factor Sparsity was born, which demonstrates that 80% of publishing income comes from 20% of all authors. Or, in layman’s terms, more and more publishers will continue promoting a handful of successful authors and ignore your book because they know where the sure money comes from. Hello James Patterson!
- Barnes and Noble will open some mini-stores that only stock bestsellers. I don’t have any insider knowledge about this, but with Amazon opening brick-and-mortar stores, B&N has to do something to try and grab
Someone wrote to say, “I got a terrible review on Amazon. I hate even going there to look at it. Tell me, what do you do with a bad review?”
You know, one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize is that once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology.
Writing is a scary thing.
I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and articles, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was stupid or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally respected. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice, or to say nothing at all.
So if you’re asked to review a book that’s awful, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love. It’s those sorts of jobs that can get you into trouble.
Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m simply asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive set of reviews, but I don’t have to
As we jump into the new year, I’ve had several people write to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”
Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.
Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.
Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s
As we wrap up the past year and move into the new one, I’m going to be back on the blog — taking a look at some of the top publishing stories, making some predictions for the future, and getting back to answering your questions about writing and publishing. But first, I’d like your input on one question:
What was the best book you read this year?
I do this at the end of every year, just so I can start to put together a reading list and see what others have found interesting. The title can be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you’ve just discovered, but I’d like to know what your best read was in 2016.
Here’s my list of the top ten books I read this year, in no particular order:
The Return, by Hisham Matar. The true story of a boy from Libya, whose father, an outspoken critic of Qaddafi, simply “disappeared” one day. Twenty years later, the boy (now a writer) goes back to try and find traces of what happened. Beautiful writing and an insightful look at politics and violence. This is the sort of book that makes you see the world with new eyes.
One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson. I love history, and this year read a long list of great history titles — Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers and The Johnstown Flood, Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and several others. But Bryson’s book, which seems to have been overlooked amidst all of his cute travel tales, offered a wonderfully engaging exploration of another time in American history. Babe Ruth, Cool Cal, the strange pilot Charles Lindbergh, the self-important Hoover, and the rest of the cast of 1927 make this a
Today’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-and-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time…
The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the African-American servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong Southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong Southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong Southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.
Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more