Agents

Good Agents Audit Royalty Statements

5 June 2015

From agent Kristin Nelson:

Over the last decade, I really wish I had tracked how much money NLA has recovered by carefully auditing our royalty statements every accounting period. Because of some big errors found a couple of years ago, it’s probably to the tune of over $600,000 recovered at this point, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that total was actually more. Even now, nary an accounting period goes by that we don’t recover at least $500 to $3,000 owed to a client.

On rare occasions, we have even found errors in the Publisher’s favor—and yes, we do notify them to highlight the correction. Luckily, those have only amounted to several hundred dollars at any given time.

. . . .

Most errors we catch are human errors. In other words, the Publisher’s in-house royalty management staff simply keyed incorrect information into their accounting system. Also, “accounting departments” at some mid-sized publishers and small presses are staffed by English majors. Mistakes will be made.

These mistakes need to be found and corrected and the monies paid to the author client. Here is the jaw-dropping fact: A good percentage of agents do not audit their clients’ royalty statements.

Let me repeat that. Even though authors hire literary agents to guide their careers and most importantly, manage their business publishing interests (royalties being a huge component of this), many agents do not actively audit or even read client royalty statements. This leaves authors to fend for themselves regarding reading and understanding their statements.

. . . .

When I was newer to this business, I did the time-consuming auditing and analysis myself, every accounting period, and shared my comments with my client. Every accounting period. I even hired a professional book royalty auditor to mentor and read behind me to assess my competence and capability. Then I hired and trained our amazing Contracts & Royalties Manager Angie Hodapp to handle this at NLA.

And Angie took it to a level that leaves me in awe every accounting period. I imagine our clients are often in awe as well when every six months, she sends a detailed letter with my comments as well as her analysis of the statement and what questions we had to track down and if extra monies are owed.

Link to the rest at Kristin Nelson

PG agrees with Kristin that every agent should do this for every royalty report.

However, he observes, if most of the mistakes on royalty reports are human error, one would expect errors to the publisher’s disadvantage would make up about 50% of the errors instead of occurring only on “rare occasions.”

Considering the very wide range of digital change topics that should be candidates for discussion at DBW 2016

28 May 2015

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The challenge for the book business for the past decade has been rapid and less-than-predictable changes in the ecosystem because of digital. There are two underlying shifts that fundamentally alter the ecosystem: people substituting ebook consumption for print book consumption and people substituting online purchase of printed books for buying them in stores.

. . . .

1. Data. This is a wide-ranging topic. We look for original data about what’s going on in the ecosystem wherever we can find it and we have done sessions in the past (and could again) about “Big Data” and what publishers need to understand about it. With pricing of ebooks becoming an increasingly important financial consideration for publishers and data being such a crucial component of doing that well, this is bound to remain a top-of-mind subject.

. . . .

4. Authors and self-publishing. Authors didn’t used to have much alternative to publishers; now they do. As a result, authors have developed marketing capabilities and support services have grown up to help them. This all raises a host of issues for publishers. They have to learn how to capitalize effectively on what authors can do on their own, but they also need to provide great marketing support to authors and be seen as collaborative and as adding real marketing value.

. . . .

8. Agents and editors, how they relate in a mutually-supportive way. They share ownership of each author’s personal loyalty, they both might shape the book editorially, and they both will hear the author’s career ambitions and influence him or her about self-publishing and their publishers’ efforts. If publishers are going to start collaborating meaningfully with authors about marketing, that suggests agents and editors are going to be working together differently.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

Is Self-Publishing a Viable Option for Literary Fiction Writers?

27 May 2015

From  Sangeeta Mehta via Jane Friedman:

Even though it’s become quite easy for writers to use Amazon KDP or other platforms to publish an e-book—and use print-on-demand technology to create a professional-looking print book—it’s still rare for literary fiction writers to self-publish.

I asked literary agents Vicky Bijur and Ayesha Pande if and when literary writers should consider this option, how it might affect their long-term careers, and what digital trends we might see in terms of marketing literary fiction.

Sangeeta Mehta: Sales of self-published literary fiction are anemic compared to that of genre fiction, but is this a reflection of the industry as a whole—or because the success of literary writing depends on established, traditional systems that aren’t accessible to self-published writers?

Vicky Bijur: One theory: Genre fiction is read in digital form to a greater degree than literary fiction. That is, readers of genre fiction are used to reading e-books; literary fiction readers a bit less so. Also, there may be many more online blogs/websites, etc., devoted to genre fiction; it may be harder for a reader to find out about literary fiction that is available only digitally. Literary fiction is still review-driven; even though the traditional review media are shrinking, it is still really important to catch the attention of traditional critics, and I think it’s very hard for e-book originals to do that. As recently as 2008 or so a self-published author might still have been selling books to independent bookstores out of the trunk of her car. With the severe reduction in the number of independent bookstores, it much harder to get traction even if your book is in print form.

Ayesha Pande: My response here is based purely on anecdotal evidence: It seems readers of literary fiction have a bias for print books; many readers tell me they want to keep the books, put them on their shelves, read them again and share them with others—none of which is possible with an e-book. In addition, sales of literary fiction still do depend on reviews and self-published books don’t tend to be reviewed by book reviewers, mainly because there are simply too many of them.

. . . .

Many agents won’t consider representing a self-published work unless sales are in the high five- or six figures. However, very few works of literary fiction achieve such lofty sales, even with the marketing muscle of a large publisher. Do you have a sales number in mind when considering self-published works? Or would a positive review (from Kirkus or PW, both of which accept self-published books), or an award be more likely to sway you in one direction or the other?

AP: A writer having self-published their work, especially a first novel, wouldn’t necessarily deter me from considering her for representation. I would read the book and assess the merit of the work and make my decision based on that. Many excellent novels do not find publishers and there are many promising authors out there whose work deserves to be published and read. In fact I represent an author who successfully self-published his first two novels.

VB: When Lisa Genova approached me with Still Alice in 2008, which she had self-published, I didn’t care about how many copies she had sold. Here’s what I cared about: I couldn’t put down the book; my twenty-three year-old assistant couldn’t put down the book; I thought Lisa’s background as a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University provided her with an instant platform; she had the savvy and the sophistication to have hired a PR firm for her self-published book; she was writing about a topic that had a huge audience; she had already made deep connections within the Alzheimer’s community. That is, the book was spectacular, and it was clear the author was a superstar.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG suspects many sales of literary novels in printed form occur to support status-signaling on the bookshelf.

The Top Five Dumbest Business Practices in Publishing

11 May 2015

From Dean Wesley Smith:

From the real world perspective, publishing is really, really, really known for its head-shakingly stupid business practices. But inside of publishing, these practices have become so common and set in “the way things are done” as to be defended by otherwise sane business people.

So I figured I would honor Dave Letterman’s departure with a quick top five list.

I’ll give the real world equivalent of the publishing practice, then the actual publishing practice, working down to the most stupid publishing practice of them all.

. . . .

Real World: You walk up to a neighbor’s house you don’t really know, but at a neighborhood block party you met them. You ask the neighbor to give you legal advice about a legal contract you have been offered. The neighbor teaches English at the local high school and is not an attorney. Plus it is against the law in your state (and all states) for someone without a law degree to give legal advice. But since the neighbor on his last trip stayed at Holiday Inn Express (remember those commercials?) he agrees to give you advice on the contract and negotiate it for you. Would you ever do that? Of course not. You would go to a lawyer who knows the area of contracts you have been offered.

Publishing: Recent graduates of college with a bachelors in English who have a business card that says “agent” think nothing of giving legal advice to writers and negotiating the contract for them. And writers let them without a second thought. Apply common business sense and hire an IP attorney to handle your contract and negotiations. Duh.

. . . .

Real World: You hire a gardener to mow your lawn when it needs it. In exchange for that simple task, you offer your gardener 15% of your property for the life of the property, plus seventy years past your death. That means the gardener’s grandkids would be getting money from your grandkids because the gardener mowed your lawn once or twice. Would you do that? Of course not. You would simply pay your gardener by the hour or the project.

Publishing: Every agency agreement, both from agents and inside of publishing contracts, gives an agent on a project 15% of the property (remember, copyright is property) for the life of the copyright which is 70 years past your death. And often the agent gets this for a couple hours work one day and a phone call. Apply common sense. If an agent won’t work for a set fee per property, then hire an IP attorney who is licensed and who can do all the same things an agent would do, only legally. And you only pay one set fee or hourly rate. Duh.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith and thanks to Ava for the tip.

Here’s a link to Dean Wesley Smith’s books

Inside Traditional Publishing: A Tale of Two Authors (A Cautionary Story)

9 May 2015

From The Huffington Post:

In a perfect world, every literary agent would be a fearless negotiator, working tirelessly to get the best possible book deals for his or her clients. Kristin Nelson, president of Nelson Literary Agency, has written extensively on how agents negotiate a publishing deal. According to her article “Negotiation Tactics of Good Agents,”which is well worth a read for any author involved with or considering traditional publication, not only do good agents negotiate the size of the advance, they also:

* Only grant rights that are commensurate with the advance level being offered.
* Only sell World English or World rights if the subrights splits are standard.
* Don’t sell the publisher world translation rights or audio without reversion clauses.
* Only sell rights or do deals with publishing houses that offer standard royalties.
* Pre-negotiate “tricky” contract clauses in the deal memo stage.

But the world isn’t perfect. And sometimes an author’s career goes off the rails because their agent doesn’t have the knowledge, skills, or tenacity necessary to negotiate well on the author’s behalf.

Author #1 had a six-figure offer from a major publisher for the first three books of his self-published middle grade series. He also had no agent. The publisher recommended several, and the author signed with one. Sadly, the agent did not negotiate better contract terms. This meant the author now had to give the agent 15% of the exact same six-figure deal he’d set up himself.

The author hoped the agent would earn his commission going forward by advocating for the book during the publishing process. But in time, the author realized his agent wasn’t doing anything he wasn’t already doing himself. He terminated the relationship, and negotiated the next three-book deal without an agent.

. . . .

Author #2’s agent got him a 2-book deal with a well-known mass-market paperback publisher. The contract included joint accounting. Nelson explains in her “Think Like an Agent” series why joint accounting can be a very bad deal, as this author was about to find out.

When his first book published, it sold reasonably well. Meanwhile the author was busy writing the second. To his surprise, the publisher rejected the book. The author wrote another, which the publisher also rejected. The author wrote a third book, which the publisher rejected when the book was half finished.

Are you keeping count? Two and a half books written over who knows how many years in a valiant effort to deliver the second book of his contract. Meanwhile, because these two contracted-for books were irrevocably linked due to joint accounting, even though the first book was selling well, during all that time, the author didn’t see another dime.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Maggie for the tip.

Advice for an author looking for a literary agent

29 April 2015

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

Until last week, I hadn’t stopped to think about how often I’m advising authors about how to deal with the publishing business. I would imagine this is something that most of us in the industry find ourselves doing very frequently. There are, after all, a lot of aspiring authors in the world and when one’s a friend, or a friend of a friend, they ask. And you try to help them.

. . . .

Although we all know stories of self-published books that went on to have fabulous runs with a publisher (“50 Shades of Gray” being the obvious example), it seems that most agents think that most publishers see the previous publishing history as a challenge. If the book didn’t do well, they don’t attribute it to poor or non-existent marketing. And if it did well, they sometimes wonder if the audience has been exhausted.

Obviously, there are both agents and editors who don’t think that way, but I was really surprised to learn that so many of them apparently do.

. . . .

I have long had a formulation of how to recruit an agent which I passed along when asked.

This assumes the aspiring author is starting from scratch: they have a manuscript completed or in development and they need to start knocking on agents’ doors. What I suggest — not rocket science but most writers don’t know about it — is using the databased information at Publishers Marketplace to find which agents to target.

. . . .

I do know dozens of agents personally. But rarely do I have a sense of what they are looking for, what kind of author would be suitable for them. I have one friend in particular who runs a large agency and for whom I have very high regard. So, often, if I know somebody to be a good and competent writer, I’ll send them to him. But that’s a sloppy answer. I find I have no good way personally to distinguish among the dozens of agents I know. That’s why I send people to the databases at PM. I tell my writer friends that if they narrow down their search and let me know whom they’re targeting, I’ll introduce them to any targets that are in my circle. But that’s been the extent of my help and that’s as far as I’d thought it through.

. . . .

So I reached out to a very powerful travel publisher I know and asked for an agent suggestion. He gave me one name, an agent based in San Francisco and, as it happens, a person I know well. Since Rand and Geraldine are in Seattle, I thought that was worth passing along and I offered to make the introduction. That’s when I started to learn what even very smart people who know how to look have trouble finding out about how our business works. And I was forced to learn because Rand and Geraldine asked me about assumptions I had made that, it turns out, at the least required some explanation and perhaps required rethinking!

First I told Rand I had an agent to send Geraldine to if she wanted to connect with him. Rand passed me to her. She said that being in Seattle, she was as comfortable with people in NY as with somebody in San Francisco. But, she added, she had already reached out to a number of agents in New York. Some had gotten back. Some hadn’t at all. So, first she wanted to know, is that typical? Do agents often just fail to respond?

. . . .

This is yet another example of how granular publishing is: so many editors, so many agents, and then the numbers of them dwarfed by aspiring authors. In fact, they’re even dwarfed by the number of competent aspiring authors there are. Writing takes time. Reading takes time. Editing takes time. Developing a project takes time. Nobody gets paid until the reading takes place at a publishing house and a buying decision can be made. No wonder so many authors throw up their hands trying to break in and just publish themselves. Even with the best techniques and people with industry contacts to help make introductions, finding an agent is not easy for a writer.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Report

More thinking about how author and publisher marketing collaboration should change

14 April 2015

From veteran publishing consultant, Mike Shatzkin:

Because of our Logical Marketing work and our interest in author websites(admittedly just a corner of the author-marketing world, even if we think it is a cornerstone), I did a couple of recent posts, the basic thrust of which was that publishers needed to rethink marketing and the author interaction around it.

. . . .

Now, British author Harry Bingham and American consultant and indie-publishing expert Jane Friedman have published the results of a survey they did asking authors what they think of their publishers. What Bingham and Friedman found suggests strongly that the topic of the author-publisher relationship around marketing will be the subject of attention from a lot more people in the months and years to come.

. . . .

Significantly more felt their books “weren’t really marketed at all” (28 percent) than felt that the publisher made “full use of” their “skills, passion, contacts, and digital presence” (17 percent).

Although half of the respondents were satisfied with the communication they got from publishers, only 20 percent thought they got the “systematic guidance” they needed so they could “add most value” to the overall effort. It is precisely that challenge that my prior posts, in perhaps an unneccesarily roundabout way, sought to address.

. . . .

At the end of last week, we conducted a survey of our own among agents and editors, trying to discern whether self-publishing is a useful tool to get a deal. Much to my surprise, the consensus is that it is not useful. We got far more answers from agents than we did from editors, but the clear prevailing opinion is that publishers don’t know how to interpret independent publishing efforts and, most of the time, trying it does an author’s chances of selling that book to a publisher much more harm than good. Most agents responding said they really don’t want to try to peddle a book that has already been self-published unless it has achieved pretty extraordinary success.

(What’s “extraordinary”? One UK agent suggested that it would take at least 50,000 sales to get the attention of a British publisher. An American agent said in that market the number is about 100,000.)

Agents are less negative about whether self-publishing might be helpful selling anext or different book to a publisher, but, even there, they are far less than enthusiastic about the help it provides. One agent said that publishers care about the quality of the writing and very little about the author platform. (To me, this reflects the same lack of grasp of the importance of the author’s online presence that I was writing about in those recent posts. And whatever failures of understanding there are, they are more widespread among editors in publishing houses than they are among marketers.)

. . . .

So, here are a few conclusions from all of this.

1. Agents are driving the bus. They control the authors; the publishers don’t. That’s not to say that publishers don’t know this; most of them surely do. But this reality — that publisher behavior is channeled by trading partners more powerful than they are — is definitely not appreciated by indie authors and it appeared not to have entered the DoJ’s calculations when they saw collusion in the marketplace a few years ago.

. . . .

4. There are really simple things a publisher could do that would be very evident to authors and helpful to sales. Why aren’t publishers putting some lower-level marketing staff on the task of “retweeting” and “liking” author efforts online? At a slightly higher level of effort, why aren’t publishers evaluating author websites that already exist to make SEO suggestions? The author survey results suggest that doing even little things like this would help a publisher with author loyalty, which should be an objective for every publisher. Publishers should see virtue in the idea that providing authors with knowhow would make them more effective advocates for their own work. It would be very cheap to transfer that knowhow (once it was thought through) and publishers would effectively acquire enthusiastic, energetic and FREE marketing resources.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files and thanks to Jan for the tip.

Good Agents Geek Out About Contracts

2 April 2015

From The Huffington Post:

I recently watched a video of a panel discussion from the Backspace Writers Conference video archives in which Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency, Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management, Suzie Townsend (then of Fineprint Literary Management, now with New Leaf Literary), and Diana Fox of Fox Literary discussed the nuances of publishing contracts.

One of the things I learned is that publishers often change their contracts to give themselves more favorable terms. Agents who are paying attention pick up on the differences and understand the ramifications. Agents who aren’t, don’t.

As an example, the agents explained how a few year ago, Simon & Schuster removed four sentences from the end of the rights reversion clause. These sentences defined the sales threshold, which states that rights will revert to the author if the number of sales drops under a specified amount. Removing these sentences meant that if the publisher also bought digital rights, the book would in effect never go out of print, and the publisher would own the rights to the work in perpetuity.

This created a furor among agents who were paying attention. But not every agent caught the change. Some even let their clients sign the contract, then had to negate that contract and start over again. And some didn’t catch the change at all, which left their authors with no possibility of ever getting the rights to these novels back.

I also learned that agents “geek out” over contracts, as one agent put it. It’s a good thing they do, because as I listened to these agents enthuse over the finer points of contract details, my eyes glazed over. Not that the panel wasn’t interesting and enlightening — it was. Rather, I quickly realized that the nuances of contracts were so not my thing — like signing up for a study course and finding out two weeks in that you have zero interest in the subject.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post

If agents are so good with contracts, why do virtually all publishing contracts from Big Publishing contain provisions that are so unfair to authors, whether represented by an agent or not?

PG threw in the “virtually” in the previous sentence by way of being lawyerly. He’s never actually seen a contract from Big Publishing that did not include unfair provisions, but perhaps one exists somewhere. In a virtual universe.

PG must have forgotten to take his anti-cynicism meds this morning. He needs to go look at pictures of unicorns for a bit.

Authors ‘more committed to agent than publisher’

10 March 2015

From The Bookseller:

Authors are more committed to their agent than to their publisher, according to early results from a survey of traditionally published writers. However, when asked about the possibility of self-publishing, only a minority of authors were excited at the prospect, with the majority (75%), either neutral or horrified at the thought of taking control.

The “Do You Love Your Publisher?” survey was launched last week.

. . . .

[T]he survey has so far showed that authors are broadly satisfied with their publisher with 80% happy with their cover design, and 70% happy with the copyediting received. But some authors felt let down by the marketing and levels of communication. When asked if they would switch publisher if a similar house came along with the same deal, 39% said they would move, with 31% indicating that they would stay. When asked the same question about their agents, 45% of the surveyed writers said they would stay.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The Art Of Agenting

4 March 2015

From Guernica:

In Chris Parris-Lamb’s office at The Gernert Company, a literary agency where staff with shrewd cheekbones sip herbal teas while managing the affairs of some of America’s top authors, there is a small en-suite bathroom in which I discovered a minor landslide of running shoes. A couple of pairs looked completely destroyed. A couple of others had the beleaguered appearance of the soon-to-be-dead. There was one pair in the pile that seemed to be brand new—stiff tongue, clean toe-box, untainted laces—but behind their game face I thought I discerned an air of resignation. It turns out Parris-Lamb is a compulsive runner, and at well over six feet in height he must hit the ground hard. “Sixty to eighty miles each week,” he explained. “Which means I go through a pair of shoes every six to eight weeks.” His most recent marathon time is two hours and forty-eight minutes, which in 1908 would have won him the world record.

Parris-Lamb, who recently turned thirty-three, shot to prominence within the publishing industry in February of 2010. That was the month in which he sold Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown for a reported $665,000. It was his first big headline success after several years of assisting other agents while slowly building up his own list of authors. The book went on to become a high-profile bestseller, and since then, Parris-Lamb has proven himself to be an unusually reliable judge of what the market wants, or soon discovers it wants. This past fall, three books by authors of his—Christian Rudder’sDataclysm, Peter Thiel’s Zero To One, and John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van—all featured on the bestseller lists at exactly the same time, while Darnielle’s was also a National Book Award nominee.

. . . .

Guernica: When you look at your unsolicited submissions pile, what are some of the common problems you see?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I just see an awful lot of people who believe that what makes a novel is eighty thousand consecutive words. I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as of how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking “write a novel” off their bucket list. Readers don’t want to spend their $9.99, or even their $1.99—though that touches on a whole other problem—on a book that doesn’t give them something. And most of these submissions just don’t really justify their existence, or the time spent reading them. They might do something for the author—and that’s a perfectly good reason to have written it—but they don’t do anything for the reader, which is a perfectly good reason why they shouldn’t be published. Time spent writing a novel is valuable, but readers’ time is valuable too.

. . . .

Guernica: You ended up becoming an assistant at Burnes & Clegg and then moved with Sarah Burnes to The Gernert Company when Burnes & Clegg collapsed. That must have been a strange time.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Yes, very strange. Kind of traumatic, witnessing the collapse of this noble little agency, which had no backlist, and was committed almost entirely to literary fiction.

Guernica: Can you talk briefly about that period?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Well, Bill was a drug addict, as has been well-publicized. He went AWOL at a certain point and wasn’t responding to his clients at all, or to anyone. The clients didn’t know what had happened to him. We at the agency couldn’t reach him. Sarah had to do everything to keep the agency going and I had to try and help with that. All of that has been written about at great length, and there’s no need to say more about it here. But I will say that in that period, Sarah Burnes became, not just a mentor, but a hero to me, personally and professionally. A fact that goes notably unmentioned in Bill’s memoir was that she was six months pregnant when he went AWOL. She had to shut down the agency—which meant that Bill’s assistant and the Rights Director lost their jobs—then move all her clients over here to The Gernert Company, and also help Bill’s clients find new agents. Meanwhile, there were still payments coming in for authors every day and I had to process them while we wound the agency down. I was, at that time—as an assistant earning $23,000 a year—the entire financial entity of Burnes & Clegg. It was crazy.

. . . .

Guernica: It’s been a few years since you sold The Art Of Fielding, and of course you’ve had several other significant successes since. Do you have a particular group of acquiring editors to whom you now send the manuscripts you’re most excited about? What goes into deciding who comprises that group?

Chris Parris-Lamb: It happens fairly organically—insofar as drinks and lunches are an organic part of the publishing ecosystem—and you get to know people’s tastes. I guess the first thing is the natural winnowing process that happens at each agency and publisher. Not every twenty-two-year-old sticks around to become a twenty-seven-year-old with an expense account. This is a business a lot of smart people enter and which a lot of smart people leave, because it’s hard to make your way. But the people who were junior at the same time I was junior have become, largely, the group of editors I send stuff to. So most of the people on any given submission list of mine are people I’ve known for several years. We’ve grown up in the industry together and I know what they like. These were friendships forged in the early years of our careers—working very long hours, spending our evenings reading submissions, earning very small amounts of money, and wondering if we’d ever progress.

. . . .

Guernica: We talked about your disappointment with the majority of the unsolicited manuscripts you receive. Are there too many people writing, and not enough people reading?

Chris Parris-Lamb: There’s almost nothing I can say about this that won’t bring a lot of rage pouring down on me from the internet. But, to give a short answer, yes. I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? I’m being intentionally provocative there, obviously—being a good or bad writer isn’t a matter of life or death—but I’m also serious. Great writers are as rare as great heart surgeons—maybe even rarer; I don’t actually know anything about heart surgeons. But I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

To be fair, true talent—the Gift, as Lewis Hyde would call it—can come from anywhere, and if National Novel Writing Month causes one of those talented people to finally make time in their life to cultivate their gift, and something great comes of it, then maybe it’s all worth it. But I am really skeptical of the idea that, but for National Novel Writing Month, those gifts would go undiscovered. I think part of the nature of the gift is that you can’t not give voice to it—having received the gift, you must give it in turn. Which is to say, the people who really do have a great novel in them are going to find a way to write them anyway. If it’s not clear by now, I think every writer should read Lewis Hyde.

Link to the rest at Guernica and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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