Friday, June 8, 2007

Sara Nelson's talk

So I started yesterday off with a 9:00 a.m. writers' conference on the upper eastside, which is the most difficult part of Manhattan for me to get to by pubic transportation (so I was up at 6:30).

Three of the scheduled agents didn't show, but there will still three of us.

I think there were about 75 people in the audience asking the usual questions - what are you looking for, how do I query, do I really have to finish my novel before I send you a query and why don't I hear form you in 24 hours?

This conference made me realize again that many of the established NY agents (who do very few writers' conferences) are still so paper oriented that they actually prefer snail mail queries. They feel it shows that the author took extra care to single them out, write a letter, print and sign it and add an SASE.

I think it shows that someone is working with an out-dated communication method. Email is faster, therefore email is better as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway, after the agent panel, I sat in on Sara Nelson's talk. She explained that when her book SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME was finally published, she worked really hard to promote it, paying out of pocket or piggy-backing promotion on business travel (she is the editor of Publisher's Weekly responsible for dragging it kicking and screaming into the 21st century) for book signings and readings that she set up herself. And still the book did not change the world or her economic bracket.

She said that writing is the only thing that everyone thinks they can do well enough to earn a comfortable living at, when we all know that you can't be a successful painter or a musician without years and years of study.

In reality, being a successful writer means a) getting published by a house that pays you and b) selling a few thousand copies which does not translate into enough extra income to quit your day job. Only a fraction of books (she thought 10%, but I actually think it's more like 1%) make enough to bring in a livable income (because you can live on a writing income in a trailer park in Arkansas, but that's not the fantasy most wanna-be writers have in mind). She also mentioned that at last count something like 200,000 books are published each year, and about a third of them are by the self and on-demand publishers. [FYI about another third are textbooks, so that leaves about 66,600 for what we call trade publishing, which is only 10,000 more than what was being published 20 years ago when I started in the business - and I would bet that that extra 10,000 is composed largely of YA and children's books, which is the one part of the trade publishing industry that does seem to be growing].

It was both an upbeat and reality-based talk, so I was glad to have caught it.

Then I went back to the office for five hours before I taught my class how to write query letters.


Anonymous said...

I actually prefer snail mail myself, but I do very little these days. With publishers like Alyson Books it's almost always electronic. The only thing I get in the mail is the contract and the check. And, recently, with Cleis Press, I actually did the contract as a word doc. I can remember when everything was snail mail, but the changes in the past seven years or so are astounding. I just think the evolution will continue and even those who now refuse the change won't have a choice.

As for the second part of this post...I guess it is what it is.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog. Three agents were no shows? Did they call or just not show up? That seems worse than using snail mail queries to me!

Anonymous said...

So... as a college student/ studying novelist, my intuition to get a real job is correct?

I'm young enough to worry about selling out, especially since I'm contemplating a second career I could really love.

BernardL said...

Thanks for the update. Those figures on books published per year is really interesting. I won't quit my day job. :)

Williebee said...

I guess the question is/are: Who is reading the YA and children's books?

And, if it is, in fact, mostly kids, how do we hold on to them in order to grow more adult readers down the road?

Anonymous said...

In reference to: writing is the only thing that everyone thinks they can do well enough to earn a comfortable living at.

I love to tell children stories and they love to hear me. This is one audience where I lose my inhibitions and gain confidence. I've even had parents ask me if I'm a professional. What I wanted to say though was that there is always one child who thinks he or she can be just like me if he or she could get the floor. Inevitably I give it to them and we wait as this child stumbles, thinks, says something that makes no sense, and eventually the kids get restless and I start to lose control. The moment I grab the audience back this child will start shouting again that he or she wants to tell the story. These are children. Unless the child is obnoxious this behavior doesn't bother me. What struck me though in connection with the quote was that some children never grow up and realize they can't tell a story.
These are the people who seem to think that all they need to do is write something and it will automatically be publishable and make them rich. I remember one man who was quite proud of the fact that he never went back to read what he wrote. He wasn't published but he taught writing. There's a subtle body language I wish I could put into words, you know that tone of voice that says I'm too good to go back and read my work, the lift of the chin, the slight roll of his eyes. It makes me wonder at the human condition that creates delusion. We all need it and I suffer from it too but there's a point when the delusion is not beneficial.

Anonymous said...

I would LOVE to know what the numbers are for poetry. Talk about a dead art form.

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