So you’ve slaved over your stories, essays, book proposal, or fiction manuscript … and now what? Ben Hess explores the business of writing with nonfiction agent Gordon Warnock, independent editor and writer Jay Schaefer, in addition to award-winning writers and teachers Gary Ferguson and Pam Houston.
- Gordon Warnock, Fuse Literary Agency - http://www.fuseliterary.com/about-fuse/
- Jay Schaefer - http://www.jay-schaefer-books.com/
- Gary Ferguson - http://wildwords.net
- Pam Houston - http://pamhouston.net
- Alan Heathcock - http://alanheathcock.com
Season One Partner, Writing By Writers - http://writingxwriters.org
Produced & Hosted By: Ben Hess - http://ben-hess.com
Story Geometry Ep4 - Business of Writing, Volume I
Ben Hess: Welcome to Story Geometry, the podcast with insights on the craft and community of writing. I’m your host, Ben Hess, and this is Episode Four, our first look at the Business of Writing.
Gordon Warnock: We don't get caught up in all the rhetoric of the self-publishing versus first traditional publishing order. This is legitimate and that's a dinosaur model or whatever. That's that's all nonsense.
Ben: This is nonfiction literary agent Gordon Warnock, partner in the Sacramento based Fuse Literary Agency. We chatted at a Manuscript Bootcamp held by my Season One partner, literary nonprofit Writing By Writers.
Gordon: I can represent the types of books that I identify with and that I can enjoy reading and really put a lot of my effort into and the books that I read on a regular basis and know.
And so that's one of the great things about the business it's not about getting an agent, it's about getting the right agent for your specific work and when that happens when you find a match, it’s amazing.
Ben: I was wondering about your first major sale and who that was and if you could go back in time and tell us about that …
Gordon: Well, I sold a few projects early on - a cookbook, a business book and various other things like that.The first one that really stuck out in my mind though, it came a little while -- called A Real Emotional Girl by Tanya Chernov and it's one of my favorite projects that I've worked on. This debut memoir that was gorgeous and literary and very striking and it took the author about, well it was 11 years from when she started writing the book to when it got published. When it came to me it needed a bit of work but I could tell the language was just amazing and so I worked with her to edit for about a year on that.
Ben: I can only imagine how much relief Tonya felt to have Gordon in her camp …
Gordon: Once we had that all good to go and then I sent it and got these glowing rejections of: “this is amazing but I can't get passed our editorial board” or you know “marketing doesn't think that this is a big enough book” and so forth and so with getting those reactions over the next two years it was um -- it was a tough situation. I ended up meeting with the author face to face - she lives in Seattle and and I was in town for a conference that weekend and so I went up a little bit early and talked to her and it basically we had the talk quote-unquote:
Ben: What a roller coaster. It’s like getting a taste of the promised published land … only to have delay after delay.
Gordon: It's like okay this coming to its end and I'm going to work on it for maybe a few more weeks and then we're going to scrap it and maybe try something else [00:08:45] and at that conference that weekend I ended up meeting the editor who bought the book … the editor fell in love with it, she was really ultimately the best possible person for that book.
Ben: After all that effort how did how did it feel … when the conference is happening and you get this glowing approval from this editor?
Gordon: Well, it never gets old. I mean that's one of those things where the ups and downs are experienced just as well as the authors do. We feel rejections like the authors do - we actually get rejected a lot more than the authors do because we pitch multiple projects for multiple authors and so we're used to being told no a lot. And when we're told yes it feels just as good …
Ben: Now to be clear, Tonya had short pieces published before … some poetry and an essay. But for Emotional Girl to take as long as it did to sell ..
Gordon: I have donated so much time into that specific book and -- you know tweaked every little thing in the manuscript and just made it as good as it can possibly be and then went through the rigorous pitching process and meeting people face to face and the emails and phones and all the rest of that I spent so many hours on that. And then when I finally went, it was just like this big relief and I knew it was you know this was something that when I first saw it, in it's rough stage, I knew it had to be a book and then for that to finally happened was glorious. It was amazing.
Ben: What a dream, right? To have an agent fighting for your book, week after week, month after month? I’m not there yet: the hard copy of my Work in Progress novel mocks me from the corner of my office and my hard drive slowly fills with short fiction and essay drafts. I save stories with FINAL in the file name, only to replace them days or weeks later after another read or new comments. More tinkering on pace or plot or description. The age old question - while continuing to improve our craft to yield a more captivating story, whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose - how does an unpublished writer not only get an agent but the right agent, as Gordon says?
Gordon: There's this whole ecosystem of writing and publishing and writers of all different levels and types and we need all of that. We need to cultivate everyone's art and everyone's voice and giving them an outlet other it's my arena with some traditional publishing and major publishing or self publishing or independent publishing or university publishing or anything other outlets that are out there and that expands to conferences as well where you have like the big major Pitchfest where you go and you're among 500 of your closest friends and you were sitting down for three minutes at a time talking to probably a dozen agents over you know, the course of the day or two. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you have those like a like a Writing by Writers and a few of the others that I'm doing later in the year that are more craft focused and they're going to take the time to meet with each individual person and talk about their specific needs and where they need to go with their own work to grow as writers and it's less of an industry focus, it’s less of a ‘this is your big chance and these next few minutes will make or break your career’ which is nonsense … it's more hands-on and my consultations here first of all they’re longer - they're longer there like 20 minutes of instead of three minutes and we're talking about their samples and what needs to be done and with ways they can improve as a writer, and it’s not ‘OK try and convince me to take me on as a writer.’
Gordon: ... it's more hands-on and my consultations here first of all they’re longer - they're longer there like 20 minutes of instead of three minutes and we're talking about their samples and what needs to be done and with ways they can improve as a writer, and it’s not ‘OK try and convince me to take me on as a writer.’
Ben: Maybe this is a novice question but just for clarity is that typically the path where if you get an editor on board then they can champion it internally with with marketing with editorial board or is it someone else in the publishing house that you're trying to pitch and ultimately get a green light?
Gordon: For most major publishers that agents work with the decision is by committee where yes you pitch it to and acquisitions editor and they're going to be the advocate for the book from the moment they receive the manuscript to you know throughout the life of the book. …. it does take enthusiasm from an acquisition editor and at some of the independent press it sometimes that's enough but at the big corporate houses, you need to convince literally every other department - from foreign rights to audio to everyone else who could have a hand in the life of this book at a certain extent they will have to sign off on it as a good decision and they'll do calculations and you all sorts of things before they end up signing the book.
Ben: Or said less diplomatically …
Jay: Publishing has always been in disarray, it's a stupid business from a business model perspective.
Ben: This is Jay Schaefer, former New Yorker, former attorney and former editorial director at Chronicle Books where he launched their mystery and literary lists. Jay’s now a San Francisco based independent editor and writer.
Jay: [cont’d] It had a lot of people of worried that the novel was dead in the 1950s so, stories of the demise of publishing and have been going on for a half a century if not longer. What’s happened today is that there are fewer publishers but more opportunities for people to publish with self publishing having been become respectable and the rise of more self-publishers. I’ll remain cautiously pessimistic about the future of publishing. It had a lot of people of worried that the novel was dead in the 1950s so, stories of the demise of publishing and have been going on for a half a century if not longer. What’s happened today is that there are fewer publishers but more opportunities for people to publish with self publishing having been become respectable and the rise of more self-publishers. I’ll remain cautiously pessimistic about the future of publishing.
Ben: I love that phrase "cautiously pessimistic". … So to dovetail off that, we were coming out of the Hachette and Amazon battle. What's your perspective on ….
Jay: I think Amazon has done done wonderful things, the Internet has done wonderful things to make books available anywhere to anyone who wants them. Publishing has always had bad guys. When I started at Chronicle Books, Chronicle in particular was aimed at independent bookstores and the theory at Chronicle was get the books into the stores and they'll sell themselves and a lot of publishing were hand selling the clerks and bookstores to the customers and when Barnes and Noble came along they were the bad guys because they were the big chain stores that were driving out the independents. Zoom ahead 20 years and now Barnes & Noble is the good guy and everyone's rooting for Barnes and Noble and Amazon is perceived by many to be the bad guy.
Jay: [cont’d] So access to the books has changed the face of publishing and that's a tremendous thing. I'm not so keen on the demise of independent bookstores. I think that the issue now is it's easy to publish, it's hard to find an audience for your book. I think that the problem for self-publishers in particular is they can get a good looking version of their book out there either in print or print on demand and/ or E-book but how are they going to bring readers to it? So that's become the big issues today and unfortunately, publishers don't do as much to promote the books as people would think. Even if you go with a big publisher, a lot of the responsibility, for promoting the book falls to the author. So the people who are in the toughest shape are writers who just like to write and not become publishers or not become promotion machines for their book.
Ben: But in the five and half centuries since Gutenberg introduced mechanical movable type with his printing press, when have writers ever been able to just write? We’ve always scraped and scrapped and struggled financially to create, publish, and distribute our stories. Even geniuses of the craft such as Oscar Wilde and Herman Melville died destitute and disillusioned. Contemporary naturalist, creative nonfiction writer, and memoirist Gary Ferguson knows the game quite well having published 23 books. TWENTY THREE! We chatted on a spring morning in Boulder, Colorado:
Of the many wonderful things I gleaned from The Carry Home, when you write about the past and even present day, professional writing is a hustle - there's query letters, there’s pitches. You wrote about being at different campsites and traveling around the country and having to pop by the mail and mail things off. Just that ongoing treadmill of pursuit of work. I'm just wondering, as a professional writer, is that the game? Is that what you'd advise aspiring writers to kind've focus on ... the business side of it, or is it more about the creativity and the craft?
Gary Ferguson: You really have to pay attention to both, because you have to have something worth selling. But to imagine for a moment that what you produce creatively and artistically doesn't find itself subjected to the same rules of commerce that everything else does is to delude yourself. So think there's some peace going in knowing there's going to be that sort of hustle. The other, I guess, good news is that if you believe in the story you've written and you think that other people would find a way into it, and would be perhaps served by it, then you go through the hustle, you go through the marketing, all the other stuff, the social media in order to allow that to happen. You know, I mean it's the belief in what you've done that keeps the energy going for the selling of it.
Ben: You seem to have rolled with the times and adapted to our self-promotional social media era, and I’m just wondering what your perspective is on today’s technology and these different avenues that people are using to share and to promote.
Gary: I think there are so many options out there that yes, we are all overwhelmed, and so that has resulted in a tendency for each person who has anything to sell to shout and I really don’t like that particular approach. However, the equivalent of word of mouth that used to happen to sell a lot of books happens now in a social media context; Facebook is our word of mouth. So I think it’s a kind of a double edge sword, there is a lot to be gained from being literate with the social media and there is also the temptation of spending so much of your time on social media talking about what you’ve done that you no longer create anything to have something to talk about.
Ben: You mentioned Facebook by name? Are there other services you’ve found beneficial either creatively or businesswise?
Gary: Right now for me, it’s Facebook and Twitter. I’m sure that there are a lot of other options that other authors are exploring. Certainly to go into a virtual community like Goodreads has been a great thing. Amazon is continuing to push, Amazon actually owns Goodreads now. But Amazon continues to offer new ways for people to come together around books and share words to them. Book clubs tend to exist not only in real life, real time real place but virtually as well. And so for every negative and overwhelming aspect of that social media I continue to think that there are advantages. It’s a matter of learning to separate the wheat from the chaff and we are all struggling to do that at this point.
Ben: What is your perspective on the traditional publishing world versus the self publishing world and speak a little bit about the eReaders versus traditional books … we’re in a shift, and I’m wondering your comments on that … shift we’re living through.
Gary: Financially for authors eBook deals are much less, I almost said fair, but I’ll say lucrative, most authors make about a third, a quarter to a third, as much as they make on an actual book, on an eBook which is odd because there is no cost of production for an eBook. But nonetheless I do think that people are always going to be hungry for story and those who produce good stories and figure out the system by which to get them into the hands of the people who need them and want them, will, will survive in one form or another; I think audiobooks is another area that’s exploding right now and so you know as an author I can really get upset and overly anxious about these shifts and these changes and authors aren’t particularly good at being ahead of the curve technologically, but the other option is do I still believe in the stories that I’m writing, do I still believe there are people who need and want them, and if so, then I sort of owe my profession and I owe my readers the willingness and the ability to figure these systems of delivery.
Pam Houston: I just tend not to think about the economics.
Ben: Writing By Writers Co-Founder, Teacher, and award-winning writer Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted.
Pam: I mean for me there is one, there is one equation and it’s I write a book and I want it to be good enough that it sells enough copies that I’m allowed to write another book and I don’t think about whether I’m making $0.79 or a $1.29, I honestly don’t think about any of that. You know my books in the world go out there, they get me invited to teach at shamani [ph] they allowed for the creation of Writing By Writers, they got me hired at UC Davis so that the reason I’ve health insurance, you know, I don’t think about the nickels and dimes of it ever. I just don’t. It’s not useful to me to think that way.
So, for me and eBooks I’ve never actually read one, I’ve held one of those machines in my hand but not for it more than half a second. I’m not interested in them but if they make it so people are reading that who wouldn’t read otherwise or they’re reading better stuff because they don’t have to settle for what’s in the grocery store, well, that’s okay with me, you know, I do know that many people download my books on eReaders, I’ve signed eReaders for people with the silver pen … I’m not anti-e reader. I thought I might get used to it because I have some back trouble and I’m always hauling 15 pounds of books but I haven’t. I’ve just decided the back trouble is worth being able to read words on paper instead of words on the screen. So I’m not interested in them, but I’m not against them.
Ben: I wrapped each interview with a question intended to elicit a rapid fire, stream of consciousness response. Where do you like to write?
Pam: I like writing in airports. I know that sounds crazy, but it was the first thing that came to me. There is this idea that you are anonymous and that there is nothing else pressing on you. So ideal writing situation, plane gets cancelled for six hours.
Ben: Editor Jay Schafer?
Jay: A quiet place, I am unable to write or a edit with any music or noise or -- and I cannot work in cafes or restaurants so, any place that is really quiet good for me. Geographically, I love Point Reyes I have been coming here for years before the conference and some uh place overlooking the hills where it's quiet sounds good to me.
Ben: Gordon Warnock?
Gordon: I like working outdoors, really and it's one of those things that if I can have connection to wi-fi or even cell reception then I can work pretty much anywhere [00:32:45] and that's the nature of the business these days. I don't need to go to an office in New York to be able to be a literary agent - I just like being out in nature, too so I'll usually -- if I'm home I'll work out on the patio or the deck or what have you.
Ben: Award winning fiction writer with his short story collection, VOLT, Alan Heathcock.
Alan: I own a 1967 Roadrunner Travel Trailer and I write in it.
Ben: And Gary Ferguson?
Gary: On the creek bank behind my house.
Ben: And I’ve struggled with this as I’m often in front of a screen for hours and hours a day, either writing, editing video or audio or retouching photos. And I’m alone. So I typically write in the company of strangers, at coffee shops or libraries with headphones on, an alternative rock Pandora channel screaming and the room’s ambient energy rooting me on.
That’s our first Story Geometry look at the Business of Writing. The episode was produced and edited by yours truly, Ben Hess, @BenHess on Twitter. Our theme music is from Mark Hodgkin and special thanks to Gordon Warnock, Jay Schaefer, Gary Ferguson, Alan Heathcock, and Pam Houston for their perspectives on the Business of Writing.
Reminder to explore all the amazing upcoming Writing By Writers events and workshops on writing x writers dot org
And lets help others find this show! Thanks for rating and reviewing the show in iTunes and sharing with at least one literary friend and we are good. Until then, may story ideas flow and bloom into a draft and then manuscript ready to sell! Thanks for listening.