It just got easier to be a bestseller

Paperback authors, here’s some great news.  Starting next week, the New York Times will separate the paperback fiction bestseller list into two different lists, one exclusively for trade paperback fiction, and the other for mass-market paperback fiction.  And this is a good thing for those of us published in mass market, because it effectively doubles the number of slots on the bestseller list.

Because of the way the NYT lists are compiled, there’s a greater emphasis on independent store sales and literary fiction.  The end result was that the old paperback fiction list was dominated by literary trade paperbacks that got onto the list and stayed there forever, even though in reality mass market paperbacks were probably selling in greater volumes.  The September 16 list, for instance, included seven trade paperbacks — and five of those titles had been on the list for eighteen weeks or more.  According to the Times, the reason for splitting the lists was to “give more emphasis to the literary novels and short-story collections reviewed so often in the Times.”

In other words, the books they deem worthy in their review section aren’t getting enough press as it is, so they want to give them a little more attention because the public isn’t listening to their much-vaunted opinions.

The end result, though, is that mass market authors now have a better chance of being New York Times bestselling authors.  And even better news: the September 23 printed list will have TWENTY bestselling slots (with THE MEPHISTO CLUB at #7.)  Good news all around.

(And yes, I’ve got my internet back!)

“It could be next week. It could be next month.”

Yep, that’s the cheery word I get from Time Warner as to when my internet will be back.  The problem is in their system, not mine, and they need to get a maintenance man out to service the line.  It turns out all the houses on my short road are having problems, and even collectively we’re not a big enough priority for them to fix the system. 

So if you’re waiting for an email response, I apologize! I will have to drive into town to get any serious online work done.  In the meantime, my T-W voodoo doll is getting pretty darn full of pins. 

STILL waiting for the Time Warner guy

Hasn’t shown up yet.  If he and I really had a thing going, I’d be back online by now.

internet’s down again — more later …

(This message brought to you via painfully slow dial-up)

The last fix lasted about three days. Waiting, once again, for the Time Warner repairman to come back.  I’ll post when I’m back online. 

A first for me — hitting the blog delete button

Wiser people than I am have emailed me, urging me to delete all references to a certain reader who’s been the subject of my last few blogs.  And you know what?  They’re right.  I have a tendency to blog before I think, which leads to some posts I’ve come to regret.  Up till now, I haven’t deleted a thing because my posts are at-the-moment reflections of what it feels like to be a writer, good and bad.  But as my email advisers have pointed out, there’s no point giving certain people unwanted attention.

So I’m going to delete those posts.

But many writers have to deal with nasty reader letters.  I recently spent a lovely evening with another writer, and of course our conversation got around to just this subject.  She told me about the reader who lambasted her for having a character who smoked — how dare she promote tobacco use!  This writer now has her husband screen her email, just to shield her from the worst letters.  We shook our heads at how the oddest things can enrage a reader.  I, for instance, once got an angry email from a woman who said I’d given breastfeeding a bad name, all because Jane Rizzoli was having such a hard time figuring out how to breastfeed. Then there’s the acquaintance who’ll never talk to me again because I’d cast aspersions on foreign adoptions in HARVEST.  

If you’re a writer, I’d love to hear about your weird reader letters.  Email me about the most outrageous, scary, or insane letter you’ve ever gotten from a reader.  I’ll share your tales on this blog — and I promise not to name any names!

Questions about agents

 Recently I received the following email from an aspiring writer, asking about literary agents:

“It seems like the most difficult part of a writer’s career is getting the “right” agent to sell your books.  Do they get a commission if the book sells well?  Does that explain why agents are so picky about which authors they work with?  Is there any preference for authors who’ll sign a “book a year” contract vs. a “book every two years” contract?  Since the agent is attached to more than one author in similar fields, isn’t there a danger that one’s unpublished script could leak to another?  It’d be worse if the author is new and doesn’t have a foothold in the industry.”

I’ll bet quite a few people are wondering the same things, so I hope these answers help.  I’ll take the questions one at a time:

Do they get a commission if the book sells well?  Does that explain why agents are so picky about which authors they work with?

Agents get a commission from the author’s earnings, on every book that the agent has sold to a publisher.  Generally the commission is around 15%, although I’ve heard of agents who are starting to charge more.  So no matter what that book earns — pennies or millions — the agent gets her cut.  Since the money flows directly from the publisher to the agent, she will take her commission first, and then send the rest of the money to the author.  So yes, an agent wants every one of her authors to be bestsellers, because the more her authors earn, the more she earns as well.  In this way, the agent’s and author’s interests are aligned.  Since an agent can give adequate attention to only a limited number of clients, she’s going to be picky about which clients she chooses.  Earning potential isn’t the only factor.  Maybe the client is a slow, slow writer.  Maybe the client is literary, and thus has little hope of selling well.  But if the agent truly adores that writer’s work, that may be all it takes for the agent to take him on. 

Is there any preference for authors who’ll sign a “book a year” contract vs. a “book every two years” contract?

The quicker the writer can turn out books, the more money he’ll make for the agent.  But a basic level of quality still has to prevail.

Since the agent is attached to more than one author in similar fields, isn’t there a danger that one’s unpublished script could leak to another?  It’d be worse if the author is new and doesn’t have a foothold in the industry.

To my knowledge, it’s never happened.  If an agent were to receive a literary masterpiece from an unknown author, she’s not going to feed that ms. to one of her more established writers.  No, she’s going to snatch up that unknown author as her client and build him.  She’s going to assume that there are more great books to come from that author.  She’s not going to lose an opportunity to discover the next Stephen King by screwing him over and letting one of her other writers steal his work.  So that’s something you don’t have to worry about.  Really.

I’m no literary agent, but I can tell you what kind of client I’d look for.  First, I want one who’s proven he can write, and the only way to prove it is to produce a good manuscript.  Even if I couldn’t sell THAT book, there should be some sort of spark, some raw talent that shines through in the manuscript.  I’d look for a client who’s reliable, who can turn in a manuscript when he says he will.  I’d look for a client who doesn’t demand the impossible.  I’d look for a client who’s easy to work with.  And I can’t emphasize that last point enough.  A literary agent told me about a bestselling, multi-published author who wanted to switch to her agency.  Within minutes of walking into the office, the agent knew she couldn’t represent that author.  “She was demanding, she was inappropriate, and she’d be hell to work with.”  This was also an author who would have brought in a big chunk of money every year.  But the stress of dealing with this author outweighed the income the author would have generated.

So the last piece of advice about landing an agent: be a reasonable human being.  It works outside of publishing as well.