Saturday, May 3, 2014

This past week I went to an author talk at RJ Julia Booksellers a wonderful independent bookstore in Madison, CT. Jenny Milchman talked about her experiences as a writer and her new novel, Ruin Falls, and Carla Buckley talked about hers and her novel, The Deepest Secret.

The two authors, who are friends, are on a book tour to publicize the new books. All but three of the perhaps two dozen members of the audience were women of a certain age, which says, I believe, something about who buys and reads books (or who buys and reads Milchman's and Buckley's books). While they talked somewhat about the inspirations about their new books, they spent more time talking about their experiences as writers.

Milchman wrote nine novels before she was able to attract an agent for the last, which became Cover of Snow. It took 21 months between the publisher's acceptance to publication, during which time the publishing machine was in operation: copy editing, cover design, internal design, obtaining cover blurbs, sending out galleys to bookstores and reviewers, setting up press events, etc., etc. During the 21 months, Milchman was supposed to be writing another novel so that a year after the first’s publication, another would be available for the market. Her agent thought Milchman's novel number 7 might sell based on the sale of number 8, and Milchman wrote number 9. The publisher rejected both numbers 7 and 9, so Ruin Falls is her 10th.
Their talks reinforced a lesson I already knew: publisher want to slot writers into a certain niche. No one—not publishers, not booksellers, not readers—wants to be confused over what a writer is like. This is a Jody Picoult, a Daniele Steele, a J.K. Rowling book. And a brand-name writer has an audience that will buy everything they publish without reserve. The editor's job is to find writers who will regularly produce manuscripts that are similar enough for readers to buy without being shocked by unfamiliar content.
I asked Milchman and Buckley how much editing their books received from their agents and their editors. They both said they had extensive edits from both.
I asked if they signed multi-book deals. Milchman had not. Carla had signed a two-book deal. For her second book, she created nine proposals—detailed outlines of the stories, character descriptions, back stories—all of which the publisher rejected. Almost in desperation, she came up with another idea, submitted a two-page proposal the publisher bought and which became The Deepest Secret.
I asked about titles (a subject about which I am struggling at this moment) and they were able to tell good stories about the problem of finding an acceptable title. Milchman’s editor had real reservations about Ruin Falls, but that was the working title and although Milchman suggested a gazillion other possibilities, the original became the title almost by default. Buckley had many of the same problems with one of her books. The foreign editions of that book all have very different titles because the local publishers were no more happy with the working title than the American publisher. 
After the author talk, I chatted with the bookstore staff. I asked how long the store keeps a title in stock. It might be months—or in the case of a classic, years—or it could be as short as a week. Self-published books have virtually no place in bookstores because their authors are not prepared to send books on consignment and pay the shipping to and from the stores. The stores generally have no basis on which to buy a self-published book, no reviews in Publishers Weekly, no advance reading copies, none of the marketing support that a major publisher offers. Even if a bookstore were willing to buy self-published books outright, how would the staff know what will sell?
All in all, an exceptionally stimulating and interesting evening.

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