See You In September.

Jeff Drew PW

See you in September? No, I’m not going anywhere.

But that is the title of a recent Publishers Weekly lead article from Vice-President, Editorial Director Jim Milliot reporting on NYC publisher surveys regarding plans on when and how their offices might reopen. Like so many businesses there and in other cities nationwide, the “Big Five” plus Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Norton, Scholastic and others responded with cautious and flexibly phased plans, none of which involved employees returning before Labor Day. Till then, work-from home, Zoom conferencing, digital manuscripts, galleys and review copies will remain the norm.  In some cases, senior management is even reassessing long term office space needs, anticipating that some portion of their staff will continue with WFH at least in some capacity. To a degree, it may be less about reconfiguring office spaces and work schedules, and more about the logistics of getting to and from work, those challenges all too apparent to any city dweller. Bus, subway, El and train commuting are still scary prospects. Further, how will crowds navigate elevators up and down hi-rise office buildings?

The following week’s issue included the first in a series of independent publishing columns, that one by past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association, Peter Goodman, who speculated that the pandemic’s impact will likely reshape independent, hybrid, micro-press and self-publishing with increased adoption of e-books, a regrettable but likely inevitable shakeout among indie retail bookseller accounts, and the growing influence of distributors and their print-on-demand capabilities. Myself, I’m all for that last one, a crucial component in keeping indie press and backlist titles available, particularly if retail bookstore upfront orders are publication go/no-go criteria. Goodman also acknowledges what many have fretted over or even joked about: The sheltering-in’s sudden proliferation of budding writers. “…A lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books,” Goodman states. “Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between ‘real’ and ‘hobby’ publishing.” Will retail bookstores – indie or chain – get serious about stocking some of these self/hybrid/micro published titles, or will the nearly non-navigable and overpopulated online maze remain their only marketplace?

stef van der laan marie claire france 2015 by robert nethery

A second entry in this series the following week, this one from Ed Nawotka and Claire Kirch, reported a mixed bag of business results and planning among independent publishers. Topline: Nearly all endured a brutal March and April with drastic drop-offs in orders, though sales have steadily picked up since. Back to normal? Not exactly. Nor are independent and smaller presses racing to get back to their offices just yet, even if they aren’t in the same types of workplaces the majors are.

Along with Publishers Weekly, a number of book sites/blogs I follow have been reporting on the plight of booksellers throughout these sheltering-in months, now transitioning to updates about their slow and cautious re-openings. But the entire industry hit pause back in March or thereabouts, and if publishers and retailers aren’t up to speed, then agents won’t be either, so writers will have to make their own individual decisions about queries and submissions. Myself, I hate to think of sitting on my hands till Autumn (though Summer has always been considered a notoriously bad time for querying/submitting anyway), but I’d already concluded it might be prudent to do so, and reading reports from industry insiders simply reinforces that.

Oh well, Fall’s always been my favorite season.

Publishers Weekly cover illustration: Jeff Drew; Bookstore photo: Stef Van Der Laan by Robert Nethery, 2015.

Funny You Should Ask.

Funny You Should Ask

No schmoozing high profile agents here, just to be clear.

Veteran literary agent Barbara Poelle of NYC’s Irene Goodman Literary Agency writes the “Funny You Should Ask” Q&A column in Writer’s Digest magazine, and has compiled 100+ writers’ questions in her 2019 book Funny You Should Ask – Mostly Serious Answers To Mostly Serious Questions About The Book Publishing Industry. This Writer’s Digest Books 200+ page trade pb, with a foreword by Holly Root of the Holly Root Literary Agency, might look like a trifle at first glance when you see it on shelf. Don’t be fooled. Poelle’s lobbing zingers in an overall smartass-but-friendly tone in most of her answers and the introductions to each of the three main sections, but the fun (and it is genuinely fun) is there to make serious, no-nonsense and sometimes downright depressing information go down easy. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” …right?

Face it: Writers aren’t special. Writing isn’t a sacred endeavor. Like all creatives – painters, photographers, dancers, sculptors, actors, musicians, etc. – writers face astronomical lottery-like odds in their effort to elevate a hobby to a vocation and a vocation to a profession. You get it. I get it. Even if we all occasionally forget it. That’s precisely why we need easy to digest books like Poelle’s Funny You Should Ask (and her column of the same name in each WD issue) to make us confront the pragmatic issues artsy-smartsy scribes so easily lose track of. If the book compiles Q&A’s from Poelle’s column, is all original material or a mix of both, I couldn’t say. And couldn’t care less. It’s not like I’m about to dig through Writer’s Digest back issues to check. But I can say that it was fun to read from front to back and really helpful in many, many spots. Any writer’s book that gets down to business about the nuts and bolts of the query/submission process and provides inside peeks into what really goes on inside literary agencies and publishers is invaluable. That’s not to say that books on craft (and Lord knows, there are a lot of them) aren’t useful. But to a degree, the craft will refine itself in the doing. But once a project’s ready to share (and if it’s really ready to share) is when the really befuddling stuff begins for most writers. Trust me: You could pick worse writing books to read, and you could certainly pick less entertaining ones.

This was the perfect pre-day-job morning coffee-in-the-car book, knocked off in three such mornings (each of which got extended a bit because I didn’t want to close the book and head to the office). Frankly, I was kind of bummed when I reached the end and got to Poelle’s backmatter, a couple dozen pages of charts and exercises. If she’d wanted to include another hundred chuckle-worthy but worth remembering replies to common writers’ questions, I’d have been all-in for it.

And yes, for the record, I did previously query Barbara Poelle at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, and quite early on (maybe too early, in hindsight, my project’s many and deep revisions coming later). I received a courteous auto-reply to confirm receipt of the sub (which I wish more agencies did) but nothing more, and we all know that in the querying process, silence isn’t golden…it’s a rejection. Oh well. Funny you should ask, but there were more than a few good Q&A’s about precisely that kind of thing in the first section of Funny You Should Ask.

New York: 1959

The Best of Everything Main

There’s a scene in AMC’s Mad Men where we spot ad man Don Draper reading The Best Of Everything, just one of so many period-perfect details that series got right (juxtaposed with a handful of anachronisms they didn’t).

Like Valerie Taylor’s 1959 pulpy novel The Girls In 3B, Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything played a part in helping me to settle on the year 1959 to start my own work. Okay, technically the novel came out in September of 1958, not 1959, but its hit film adaptation was a 1959 release, and notably, the first novel bought by Hollywood before publication and while still in editing. Note: The original hardcover release actually depicted author Jaffe on the cover…that’s her right below on the right.

The Best Of Everything Montage

More polished and ‘big time’ perhaps than Taylor’s comparatively pulpier paperback original The Girls in 3B, Jaffe’s novel is a classic mid-twentieth century soap opera, foreshadowing many more books just like it, including the comparatively sex and drug-filled Valley Of The Dolls just 8 years later. Three young women seeking adventure and romance in New York meet in Fabian Publishing’s typing pool, where they report to icy editor Amanda Farrow played by Joan Crawford, lecherous old editor-in-chief Mr. Shalimar and handsome, honorable-when-he’s-not-drunk (which is nearly always) Mike Rice played by the somewhat wooden leading man Stephen Boyd.

Montage 1

Fashion’s reigning supermodel of the time, Suzy Parker, plays aspiring actress Gregg Adams, Diane Baker is naïve small-town rube April Morrison and Hope Lange is the lead, Radcliffe-educated and happily engaged Caroline Bender. Parker’s glamorous veneer crumbles when she falls hard for a director, then falls harder and right out of a window to her death. Diane Baker winds up with an oily playboy, gets pregnant and tricked into an abortion, but miscarries in a car crash en route to the operation (at least in the movie…not sure that’s how it went down in the novel). Fear not: She winds up with the handsome doctor caring for her after the accident. And ‘smart girl’ Caroline Bender played by Hope Lange moves up Fabian Publishing’s ranks, gets dumped by her hometown fiancé, is later propositioned by the newly married rat, ultimately takes over retiring Joan Crawford’s editorial position, but may or may not trade that for marriage with Stephen Boyd in the end.

Montage 2

It’s all melodramatic and sometimes groan-worthy stuff, but both the book and the film are like reference manuals for the period, from the clothes to the dialog, the workplace settings and the make-you-cringe office interplay, all wrapped up in the restrictive 1958/59 social dynamics. The novel’s still a terrific read, overdue for a re-read and it’s going onto my to-be-read stack right as soon as I get a chance over the next week or so. The movie’s a genuine guilty pleasure, and for someone writing in a 1959 setting, almost demands note-taking while watching.

Here’s To Another Hundred.

The First Hundred Words

The January-February 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine is a meaty 100 pager (if you count the covers) which is fitting, since this is the first issue of the magazine’s 100th anniversary year. After a tumultuous 2019 that saw the venerable publication’s parent company dissolved and its magazine/website and publishing divisions split up, Writer’s Digest is still at it and raring to go for the next hundred years.

Writers Digest Jan Feb 2020

There was a lot to digest in this issue, from features and columns both familiar and new, including Dima Ghawi’s IndieLab on self and hybrid publishing timetables, Kara Gebhart Uhl’s Meet The Agent profiling John Talbot of the Talbot Fortune Agency and more. Articles included a good one from Steven James: “Now Where Was I?”, addressing how writers can reactivate stalled projects and return to the keyboard after an extended absence…and Jane Friedman’s “Turn The Beat Around”, listing some all-too-common newbie writer mistakes, like rushing to submission or relying on family and friends’ for input instead of industry pro’s and writing associates.

But my favorite by far was Arthur Leeds’ “The First Hundred Words Are The Hardest”, in part because this was a reprint of an article that appeared in the October 1921 issue. The more things change the more they stay the same? You bet. With some minor tweaks for dated book and publication references, Leeds’ article could’ve been drafted today. My takeaway? Whatever the artistic medium, the tools or the venues may evolve but the fundamental challenges remain largely unchanged. In a way, I found that kind of reassuring.

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel?

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel?

Fay Weldon’s Why Will No-One Publish My Novel? A Handbook For The Rejected Writer was a library find from this past weekend, but I’ll get my own copy now to keep on shelf beside the very few other writer’s how-to books I cherish like Stephen King’s On Writing (my favorite), Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel From Plot To Print To Pixels, Elements Of Fiction by Walter Mosely or Writing Mysteries edited by Sue Grafton.

It would’ve been easy to browse right past this little gem of a book, only 4.5” x 7” with extra-heavy carboard covers like a children’s book. But I’m so glad I spotted it. Weldon’s book is a quick read, compiling a series of essays addressing the many, many reasons a writer’s projects are rejected (or simply overlooked), including all the common mistakes writers make from manuscript through submission, while also probing publishing industry issues that inevitably work against writers. The tone’s light-hearted and chatty, particularly in the first third of the book. Weldon’s wise words will get their share of knowing nods from writers in the trenches, cruel truths relayed along with more than a few chuckles. I challenge anyone – writer or not – not to laugh at Weldon’s imaginary literary agency meeting in her sixth chapter.

Fay Weldon Books

I often forego writer’s books that I probably ought to read, in-store skimming suggesting the content’s the same ol’ stuff and not worth the money, or just as often, unsure what I’ll learn from a how-to book’s author with a skimpy resume of their own (no shortage of those among Kindle and e-books). Maybe that’s why I keep returning for re-reads with King, Block, Grafton, Mosley and a few others. Fay Weldon may not be as familiar a name in the U.S as in the UK, but she’s been at it since the 1960’s, with thirty novels to her credit along with story collections, children’s books and non-fiction titles, all those following a career as an advertising copywriter and work in serial fiction, radio and teleplays. Oh yeah…and she was made a CBE, which makes her a Knight or a Lady (not sure which, but then we did fight a revolution over here so wouldn’t have to worry about those things). Suffice to say she’s been at it a while, knows what she’s talking about, and is generous with anecdotes throughout this book.

Why Will No-One Publish My Novel – A Handbook For The Rejected Writer came out in the UK in 2018, but took a while to pop up on my library’s shelf. (Technically, a nearby library. My library only has half a dozen writer’s books, if that.) I’ll be glad when I get my own copy – this one’s a keeper.

Maybe Next Year…

Maybe Next Christmas

No, The Stiletto Gumshoe won’t be in anyone’s Christmas stocking this year, least of all mine. Perhaps I spent 2019 being naughty when I should’ve been nice. Still, I’m thinking positive thoughts for 2020, and am one of those naive types who truly believe that diligence pays off (even if I’ve been proven wrong in the past). So I know what I hope to find under my tree next year: Not baubles or bangles. Just a book, and one book in particular…

This Is Getting Complicated.

Steven Meisel 2009

John Warner’s “Give A Gift That Supports Small Presses: Skip Amazon And Buy Direct” ran online in the 11.25.19 Chicago Tribune (link below) and reappeared in Sunday’s print/online editions’ Biblioracle feature, putting another spin on the whole ‘where to responsibly buy books’ thing.

For many, the Seattle big boy’s the bad boy, and I get that. For others, it’s their primary link to civilization. Chain booksellers have largely vanished. The noble independent booksellers may not be ‘round the corner, but need our support, and if their inventory doesn’t include the titles we’re looking for, they’ll be happy to order them. (Well, the owners are happy to order them…not so certain about some of the clerks.)

Warner’s Tribune piece notes that Amazon is reducing its publishers’ 2019 holiday season orders as a way to deal with ‘congestion issues’ in its warehouses. In some cases, independent publishers have reported devastating order reductions up to 75%.

We often forget just how much (or how little) publishers – small, micro and indie publishers in particular – make on each individual book sale. That $15.95 trade paperback was probably sold at a 45% to 60%+ trade discount. There may be additional co-op ad/promotional funding deducted from the wholesale price. Plus, the publisher pays the freight to distributors’ designated warehouses (Ingram, for example, has several regional distribution centers). And the publisher will have to accept and provide credit for returns later, when booksellers purge their shelves to make room for new books or simply to convert inventory into much-needed cash. Those returns are rarely (if ever) re-salable, often too shopworn to be remaindered and may only end up pulped for pennies.

So, John Warner’s article prompts book buyers to consider buying direct from indie publishers. More cumbersome than a Seattle-session? Sure it is, and possibly a bit more costly too. But, those publishers will make full price on your orders. Some may even offer online coupons, discounts and incentives of their own. Warner highlights several independent publishers like the University of Chicago Press and Coffee House Press, and points out just how easily and happily lost an avid book buyer can become in their online catalogs.

It’d be nice if buying a book didn’t have to be such a morally weighty endeavor, but it is. We want to support everyone: Authors, publishers and retailers alike. If it sometimes feels like too much to grapple with, I understand and agree. My own approach is to spread my book buying dollars around. With holiday gift buying season here, it should be no surprise that many books are on my shopping list. But after reading John Warner’s Chicago Tribune article, I’m definitely going to some small press and independent publishers’ sites to order direct.

I don’t know if it really helps, but it can’t hurt.

Photo: Dorothea Barth Jorgensen, Madisyn Ritland, Viktoriya Sasonkina and Nimue Smit by Steven Meisel for Alberta Feretti, 2009

https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/books/ct-books-biblioracle-1201-20191125-arlmpbtvjfd5rayrxelxnnqs34-story.html

Pulp Fictioneers

Pulp Fictioneers John Locke

I suspect that many had-boiled crime fiction fans – readers and writers alike – tend to romanticize the legendary writers from the mid-twentieth century pulp and paperback originals era. I know I do. We have this image of a grizzled wordsmith in a dumpy third floor cold-water walkup, street noise and curbside trash smells wafting through an open window and rattling the yellowed venetian blinds, a second hand desk or wobbly card table with a pint of no-name rye whiskey on one side, a pack of unfiltered Luckies beside an overflowing ashtray on the other, and a temperamental Underwood in the middle, the writer pounding away some first-draft-is-the-only-draft tale of murder and mayhem oozing with just-sexy-enough-to-get-by eroticism, the wrinkled pages headed for Startling Detective or Women In Crime magazine.

And then you think about what that all really would’ve been like, and have to wonder what’s so damn good about the imaginary scenario.

Pulp Fictioneers – Adventures In The Storytelling Business edited by John Locke (Adventure House, 2004) goes a long way to dispelling some of the nostalgic romance. This intriguing read collects over one hundred articles, letters and miscellany from Writer’s Digest, Writer’s magazine and Author & Journalist from the 1920’s through the 50’s which provide a real-life glimpse of the pulp era from both the writers’ and publishers’ perspectives. Low per-word pay rates, production snafu’s, fly-by-night publishing scams, story rejections, puzzling writers’ guidelines, declining newsstand sales and much more – the pieces all make for a compelling read about sides of the marketplace that have nothing to do with The Shadow or Dan Turner Hollywood Detective. One thing’s clear here: Writer’s groused about editors and the markets then as much as they do now, and like all creatives, felt the world was treating them most unfairly. For those of us so entranced by the garish H.J. Ward and Norm Saunders covers and the shoot ‘em up stories, Pulp Fictioneers provides a healthy antidote to romancing bygone eras.

Will Write For Shoes

Red Shoes

Don’t let a site name like “The Stiletto Gumshoe” mislead you. No, I will not write for shoes, and no, I don’t want to write a “Chick Lit” novel. I’m not even certain that anyone uses that term any longer, though the formula remains a general fiction staple, that’s clear enough.

Will Write For Shoes

Will Write For Shoes – How To Write A Chick Lit Novel by Cathy Yardley was a library read grabbed off the shelf on a whim, and a surprisingly entertaining and informative book at that. In particular, I found it illuminating to see how a sub-category can be rigidly ruled by its formulas and templates, while enterprising writers will inevitably circumvent them, which is something on my mind right now as I work through increasingly substantial revisions on my own projects (see my prior post “Tiptoeing ‘Round The Templates”, link below).

Seattle author Cathy Yardley has several steamy looking contemporary romance novels to her credit, along with urban fantasy, traditional romance and, yes: “Chick Lit” novels, plus a couple writing how-to books. This book includes a history of the Chick Lit subcategory, an overview of the formula, writer’s tips and more. Naturally, the FAQ’s, agent and publishers directory lists are outdated, this being a book from 2007. Still, it was an interesting read, even for a noir-ish mystery writer like myself.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/02/05/tiptoeing-round-the-templates/

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