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6 Secrets to Reading Like a Publisher

Publishing is a competitive business. Can you recall a writing conference that did not include overcrowded sessions on how to pitch an editor? 

Neither can I.​

As Stephen King once said...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

While conference speakers expound on the editor as "champion for your book," they pay scant attention to an editor's process of reading a manuscript. Granted, every editor is different; but, every editor is also responsible for turning a profit on the books they acquire for publication. Successful editors have a process for reading manuscripts with business acumen and efficiency.

A major part of the "hard work" King refers to means that you, the writer, must broaden your reading skills in order to think like an editor who acquires manuscripts. 

In this post, I share my 15-years of experience reading and buying nonfiction books for publishers such as HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Routledge, and McGraw-Hill International.

Talent is cheaper than table salt

Reading Like a Publisher 

Secret #1: The writer's voice is obvious in a 90-second cold read​.

I love an amazing first sentence as much as the next editor. However, I like to pick a manuscript page at random in order to start reading wherever my eye lands on the text. I do this because I know you've been trained at workshops to make the first page sing like an opera star. But can you sustain your voice throughout the manuscript? That is the question I turnover in my mind while I read on. 

Secret #2: From reading the manuscript, what other medium could showcase the writer's voice and story?

​In my General Interest Books (trade publishing) course at Pace University, I required the graduate students to read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda, now retired editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. These students represent the future of publishing. One day soon, these new editors will evaluate your manuscripts. When I opened our class discussion by asking about their first impressions of Korda's book, the first student said, "it would be a great book if it had pictures."  The rest of the class agreed.

This soon-to-be editor knows by instinct that the future of storytelling is visual. And, a good agent knows that the greatest earning potential comes from the myriad of licensing opportunities in multiple mediums for your work. The more licenses sold, the more opportunities for the publisher to sell books.

Today's editor reads manuscripts while thinking about tomorrow's new revenue sources.  

Secret #3: The market for this manuscript is ....

A book's category must be clear to the editor, the marketing and sales teams, and, most important, to readers. Editors understand the market dynamics in their list category, including the nuanced differences among authors. 

While reading a manuscript, even now as a consultant, I jot notes while making comparisons based on the subject, the market, your brand, platform, and how your book compares and contrasts to other titles. To learn more about specific categories, I recommend that you review the BISC codes. Published by the Book Industry Study Group, these codes are used by publishers and booksellers to place your title in the appropriate category on the bookshelf and to appear in reader search queries on Amazon. Like the editor, your job is to be confident where your book fits in its category. 

Secret​ #4: What is different in this manuscript and what makes this difference significant? 

Here's where your title and subtitle are critical. The main title represents the book's promise to the reader. The subtitle explains how you deliver the promise to the reader. In marketing parlance, this is your value proposition. To illustrate this point, here are three nonfiction books I'm in the process of reading.

1. ​Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura. The main title marries two evocative concepts: silence and beauty. The subtitle sends me off on a challenging journey. Suffering is a necessary catalyst in order for me to uncover, feel, accept, and transform my personal understanding of faith. 

2. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Revolution is a powerful word. What kind of revolution am I going to learn about? The Blockchain Revolution. What do these authors promise to explain to me? They are going to show me why they believe the technology behind Bitcoin is going to transform how people conduct all business and social financial transactions. 

3. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin​. Love it! The main title is slang for money. The subtitle explains who needs the money (writers) and what writers want most (after readers, of course) to make a living from their writing. Hallelujah.  

Secret #5: How has the manuscript changed and/or deepened my perspective?

It is often said that Joseph Campbell, the preeminent American mythologist and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, stood on the shoulders of C.G. Jung, father of analytical psychology and author of The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society (a must read now more than ever!). In other words, no writer is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, mentors, and the people who inspire us to pursue our passions and to share them. 

I believe this question of how the proposed manuscript is advancing ideas and conversations is a critical factor for an editor to consider when making a publishing decision. Every editor wants to believe that his or her publishing decision contributes to making the lives of people better. Another way to think of this secret is: why does the world need your book? 

Secret #6: I would recommend this book to ....​

This is the best part. After I've read the book proposal, sample chapters and/or the manuscript, I make a list of 10 people that I believe will like the book too. Within a publishing context, I consider booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, the sales reps, other authors, friends. Who would enjoy and/or benefit from the book?  Enthusiasm is contagious.

Publishing is a networking business. If 10 people do not flow easily from my pen in a stream of consciousness, ​I know I have an interesting book, but not necessarily a marketable one. This why I pass on interesting books. The standard is interesting + marketable. 

Read On and Rock On

So, we know you are talented. Now, you have a process for doing the hard work. With this knowledge, you will be able to put yourself in the editor's shoes while reading your manuscript. Raise your game and compete to win in the publishing arena. 

3 Universal Truths of Authorship

The writer's life is ruled by three universal truths of authorship. During my book publishing career, I've seen these truths play out for dozens of authors. May these tidbits help you in those moments of doubt about why you wrote a book in the first place!

​1. The Book Never Feels "Done."

Writing is your internal world.

You started with an idea. Developing the idea, you fall in love with the concept, whether fiction or nonfiction. The story is incredible and you want to share it with the world. 

Publishing is your external world.

The path to publisher is circuitous. Once there, though, the steps in the publishing production process are the same: copyediting, design, proofreading. You participate in a back and forth over many details. Finally, the book files go to press. 

The Taunting of "Perfect"

Shortly before the final copy of your book arrives, you awake in the middle of the night, sweating. You've composed the PERFECT SENTENCE that would make all the difference in chapter two, if you could just revise it one more time! But, you can't.

Your inner critic takes over. You start to doubt the entire process. Happy anticipation morphs into a gooey dread. The cure, here, is to prepare for "done."

How to Prepare for "Done"

Define what "done" means and looks like for you. Write, by hand, a paragraph about the future of your book and how your life will be different as a result of publishing it. 

Manuscript Never Feels Done

TIP: Create your own "Done" checklist. This is a great way to hold yourself accountable. It becomes much easier to let go of the final manuscript when you know you've met your own expectations. Inevitably, your editor will ask for revisions. Your checklist gives you a baseline for considering her revision suggestions. 

2. The Book is Out of Your Control

From the time you conceived the idea through the final proofread, you maintained a measure of control over the book. During the process, you may not have liked some of the decisions the publisher made. For example, almost every author I know has a horror story about how they felt dismissed about the cover choice. Trust me, you were not dismissed. Nine times out of ten, the publisher does know best. It's their business. 

When the book arrives in your hands, it is a real, physical thing. My all-time favorite example comes from the final scene of Julie & Julia. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, is at the stove when Paul Child, played by Stanley Tucci, walks through the door carrying the mail. Among the letters, there is a package. Julia opens it. It's the book. She looks at it and clutches to her chest. She is so happy. Paul is thrilled. It is a beautiful, private moment.

 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, just as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, transformed from a writing and publishing exercise to a new book in the world. At moment of publication, the editor "lets go." Readers judge books. Word of mouth is the primary mechanism for selling books. Your editor moves on to the books for the next season. 

You, on the other hand, might be feeling naked and afraid. ​The reader is a book browser you don't know personally. Think of your readers as the 10,000 people you will never meet in person. It is precisely at this moment when you need to let go and resist the temptation to "correct" readers about what you intended for the book.  

Julie and Julia Book Cover

TipJulie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell is an excellent example of a blog to book project, plus movie deal!

3. The Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Once upon a time, one of my authors contacted a book reviewer for The New York Times and told her how she obviously did not understand the book. Another author accused the host of not reading the book at all, during a live, national news show broadcast. 

In both cases, these authors were using what Albert J. Bernstein calls their dinosaur brains. According to Bernstein, ​people's irrational and emotional acts are based on primitive flight, fight, and freight responses. 

Of course, it is natural to feel you need to defend your book. You are human. But what is even more important, you are writing other books. Your career path is ahead of you. ​

As you might image, the publisher gets very angry when authors contact reviewers. Why? It is unprofessional, reflecting badly on you and your publisher.

What to do instead​

Be thankful for every review, especially the harsh reviews. It is better to have a review with a strong reaction than a tepid one.

Step back, read reviews for consistency. Are reviewers commenting on the same issues or different issues? What are you learning from the reviews? Learning is key to your future success. 

Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Tip: It's a challenging transition: moving from the publishing process to finished book. Suddenly, the 10,000 people you will never meet are talking about your book. Resist the temptation to "correct" their points of view in reviews. 

Try This Exercise to Prepare for Your Book's Publication

Make a list of the ten questions you want to be asked. Then, make a list of the 10 questions that terrify you. These are the questions you fear you will be asked in an interview or at a book signing event. From this exercise, authors discover that the questions they most fear yield some of the best stories about how the book came into existence. Facing your fears is an act of courage. Readers connect with authenticity.  

​So, no dinosaur brains. Go forward to express the best of who you are. Find your own universal truth.  

"So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing." -- T.S. Eliot #amwriting #bookpublishing

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39 Law & Order Episodes in the Arts

No matter where you are in the world, Law & Order is playing on a screen somewhere. While there are several brand spinoffs, I'm partial to the original series. When it debuted in 1990, I arrived in New York City, sight unseen, as a new editor at HarperCollins. I remember how exciting it was to walk all around Manhattan and to see different production sets on location. 

When it comes to the murder investigations, I am not surprised that in the show's twenty year run, the publishing industry leads the way with at least nine murder plot lines, followed musicians and film producers. ​

For all of you Law & Order fans who are writers, artists, and creators of all kinds, I put together a guide to the creativity-fueled episodes (1990 to 2010). 

Your thoughts on why publishing leads in the number of murder investigations?  

Paint Pallet

"Prisoner of Love"

The investigation into the death of a controversial artist reveals that he was involved in twisted sex games with two powerful figures. 

Theatre actor

"Aria"

An aspiring actress dies from a drug overdose. Investigation reveals that her domineering mother may have driven her to suicide by forcing her to act in a pornographic film.

Theatre actor

"His Hour Upon the Stage"

The frozen body of a Broadway producer is found five years after his death. Stone suspects that a show investor and producer's girlfriend were involved. 

Television

"Star Struck"

An obsessed fan is charged with the brutal beating of a soap opera actress. During the trail, he claims a voice in his head told him to do it. 

Photography Camera

"Skin Deep"

Logan and Cerreta investigate the death of a fashion model photographer and discover that the photographer's real business was prostitution.

Theatre actor

"Extended Family"

A Broadway producer's daughter is abducted from a department store. Later, she and her mother are found in a woman's shelter. 

Guitar

"Discord"

A 19-year-old co-ed accuses a crude heavy metal artist of rape. However, Kincaid fails to reveal an important detail about the accuser to Stone before trail. 

Singer

"Blue Bamboo"

A singer claims Battered Woman Syndrome as an excuse for killing her former employer, whom she claims abused her during her employment.

Books

"Family Values"

During the investigation into a wealthy publisher's death, the victim's daughter claims to be having a relationship with her mother's new husband. 

Movies

"D-Girl"

Briscoe and Curtis go to Los Angeles to question a personal trainer about a movie executive's murder. During the investigation, Curtis finds a potential romantic interest. 

Movies

"Turnaround"

Briscoe and Curtis serve an arrest warrant on a Hollywood director in the film executive murder case. Opposing counsel--Jamie's ex-husband--challenges the warrant. Jack and Jamie now must go to L.A. to defend it.

Movies

"Showtime"

The prosecution's murder case against the Hollywood director threatens to fall apart. And the case could cost Jamie her job and custody of her child, and it could cost Curtis his marriage. 

Books

"Passion"

The investigation into the murder of an up-in-coming editor uncovers a love triangle between the victim, a pretentious writer, and a jealous attorney. 

Books

"Panic"

Detectives suspect that a best-selling novelist was shot because she was having an affair with a married FBI agent who was helping her with research. It turns out that they have the right motive, but wrong suspect.

Books

"Surrender Dorothy"

The DA's office believes that a well-known psychologist/author may have driven his daughter-in-law to suicide because of her increasing rebellion against his "submissive wife" philosophy.

Paint Pallet

"Untitled"

A man claims he acted under extreme emotional disturbance after he murders the woman who sponsored a graphic painting. 

Violin

"Dissonance"

Detectives discover that a murdered concert violinist was having an affair with her orchestra conductor.

Television

"Swept Away"

A Reality Show cast member kills one of his fellow cast members during a heated argument. But was the confrontation staged?

Singer

"Formerly Famous"

Briscoe and Green suspect that a washed-up former Vegas lounge singer may be connected to his wife's murder. But they also discover that his wife has a history as a con artist. 

Singer

"3 Dawg Night"

A hip-hop star goes on trail for the murder of a night club patron who accused him of being a sellout.

Books

"True Crime"

McCoy becomes suspicious of a former police officer and current true crime writer investigating the death of a controversial rock singer, when the singer's wife is killed. 

Books

"Genius"

A promising young writer confesses to the murder and robbery of a cabbie and demands that he receive the death penalty. 

Theatre actor

"Smoke"

The child of a popular comic dies after he is reportedly thrown out of a window during a fire. 

Theatre actor

"Shrunk"

A popular Broadway composer is accused of murder. His psychiatrist blames it on a traumatic episode he had as a teenager.

Singer

"Blaze"

The leader of a rock band is accused of tampering with a flamethrower at a concert, which causes the death of 23 people. 

Movies

"Everybody Loves Raimondo's"

A film producer is killed at this restaurant known for its mob ties and celebrity clients. 

Books

"Cut"

A novelist dies after undergoing multiple plastic surgeries. Detectives believe her doctor took unnecessary risks.

Singer

"Ain't No Love"

A hip-hop performer is accused of murdering a rap mogul, but his friend testifies during the trial that he is the killer.  

Television

"Obsession"

An investigation into the death of a conservative talk show host leads to a stalker who claims to be having an affair with his wife. 

Television

"Dining Out"

The host of a popular cooking show is on trial for killing a television executive. However, the trial takes an unexpected turn when a juror is enamored with the client.

Photography Camera

"Fame"

A botched burglary ends in murder, and the apartment in question belongs to a paparazzi who may have compromising photos of a celebrity and her baby.

Television

"In Vino Veritas"

A washed up, anti-Semitic actor is arrested with blood on his clothes. Detectives later discover that a Jewish television producer he has a connection to has been murdered. 

Television

"Charity Case"

The adopted infant of a soap opera star and a relative of the baby's biological father are center to a murder investigation.

Records

"Bling"

A jeweler who caters to the hip-hop community pleads guilty to killing a female rap star. But he later claims that a violent record producer intimidated him into confessing to the crime. 

Books

"Sweetie"

While investigating the death of a former male prostitute whose memoirs have become a best-seller, Lupo and Bernard discover that the writer was a fraud. 

Theatre actor

"Church"

The death of a gay male actor exposes a scandal that threatens to bring down a powerful pastor of a large New York church who preaches intolerance.

Movies

"Melting Pot"

The murder of a film director leads to motives that include immigration and Muslim fanaticism, but picking the correct one may be difficult.

Books

"Murder Book"

Green and Cassady investigate the death of a publisher who approved a book written by an ex-athlete that describes how he would murder his wife if he was the real killer.

Television

"Reality Bites"

The father of several special needs children is accused of killing his wife over her reluctance to sign off on a reality show based on their family.

7 Keys to Changing Agents

It is mid-July and that means one thing: summer writers' conferences are in full bloom. In addition to networking, refining craft, and reading their work, many writers hope to meet the literary agent of their dreams. At these conferences, you will also meet a good percentage of agented writers who want to change agents. 

On any given day, there might be 100 good reasons to change your agent. However, to do so is not a simple decision. Making the change requires careful consideration and a strategy. Otherwise, all you are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You'll have the same frustrating experience with the new agent because you did not take the time to define your needs, goals, and communication strategy. In today's post, I cover seven questions and four tips. 

The 7 Questions You Need to Answer Before Changing Your Agent

1. At the start of the relationship, what convinced you that this agent was the right agent for you?

2. Did you sign an agency agreement? Do you know the mechanism for termination or renewal? Did you have it reviewed by a publishing lawyer?

3. What projects did you submit to the agent? What books were sold? Also, what projects did you discuss?

4. From the time you hired the agent, what are your most recent accomplishments in regard to building your brand and platform? 

5. What are your publishing expectations and how do you convey these to the agent?

6. How does the agent work with clients? When you started working together, did you agree on communication style and frequency?

7. What is motivating you to make this change now? ​

Bonus Question

If you achieve your goal of retaining a new agent, how do you envision your writing career will be different in 6 months? #womenwriters

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Okay, I know. More than seven questions. But, I what you to achieve the success you deserve. Now, let's move on to the four coaching tips. 

4 Coaching Tips for Your Writing Career

1. Do Your Homework: ​It's a tough publishing world out there. Your agent might have the most amazing reputation for the breakout books of 10 years ago. Today, publishing business models continue to change. Ask what the agent has sold in the last 12 to 24 months. How do you fit into the agent's business strategy? Why is he or she taking you on as a client?  

2. Be Clear on Business Details: A literary agency provides its clients with expert representation in the publishing industry. It is a business relationship. Therefore, before you sign an agency agreement, you would be well served to have a publishing lawyer advocate for your interests. Have your agreement reviewed. It's your career.  

3. Work from a Plan: It is wonderful to have a great agent who is working hard to place your book with the right publisher. You can check GET AN AGENT off your list. With this goal accomplished, revise your writer's business plan accordingly. What's next on the list? If you do not have a plan, I'm curious why. 

4. Define Your Working Relationship: ​Agents say "no" to projects much more often than they say "yes." Once an agent says "yes," it means the world to you. For the agent, your book represents one more selling opportunity among others in the hopper. The agent has a much broader focus than your book alone. It takes time to trust when silence means the agent has the project in hand, no news. Or, silence means your forgotten.  A conversation about communication is the key to a successful relationship.

Key to Changing Agents

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

-- Stephen King

Change my literary agent

​Please share your thoughts and any tips with this community.