Friday, April 29, 2011

Shaun Tan on Growing Pains

For anyone who still has doubts about the literary merits of writing for children, I challenge you to read this interview with Oscar winner Shaun Tan, author of The Arrival and Lost & Found, a collection which includes the story "The Lost Thing." (For those of you who don't have doubts, I still challenge you to read it, because it's Shaun Freaking Tan.) He has some wonderfully brilliant things to say about narrative, film, and illustration. But even more striking are his thoughts on adolescence and growing pains:

The Millions: There is a deep melancholy in The Lost Thing’s conclusion that feels even stronger in the book than in your film. It sounds like a meditation on the pain of growing older. I wonder if that pain is particularly acute in childhood, during which so much changes so quickly and so much is quickly lost.

Shaun Tan: That’s a good point: yes, I think that’s true. For adults, personal childhood objects tend to evoke a mixture of joy and sadness, which is a combined feeling that I really like, it feels very “full” and well-rounded. I don’t think you can really have one without a bit of the other, they define each other like complementary colors.

TM: How much are your books about adults? How much are they about children? Is there a difference?

ST: They are about both, given that every adult was once a child, and every child is heading, unavoidably, towards adulthood. I think too much is often made about the differences between age groups. For me the ideal state is to take the best of both worlds, something that every artist tries to do I think: the open-mindedness and innocent eye of a child, combined with the wisdom and experience of an adult. I think art and literature are such a great means of examining that intersection, and getting us to pay attention to all “lost things,” whatever that might mean.

**Also, my friend Julie is competing for the chance to fly to New York to be in the audiobook cast for Neil Gaiman's American Gods. If you love fantasy, check out her entry and consider voting for her! You can do so here.**

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Publishing After Barry Eisler: What Will the Industry Look Like When Its Bestsellers Go Rogue?

So, we all remember that a month ago Barry Eisler turned down a $500,000 deal in favor of self-publishing, right? He certainly wasn’t the first author to have the idea that he could make more money by taking his books’ publication into his own hands, but the numbers made his announcement, as Joe Konrath said, “one for the Twitter Hall of Fame.” It stopped the publishing world in its tracks for a moment. And it got me thinking about the future of publishing.

In conversation, Barry told Joe:
…The new generation [is] looking at self-publishing differently... The question—“Should I self-publish?”—[is] going to be asked by more and more authors going forward. And… over time, more and more of them were going to be answering the question, “Yes.”

This is exactly what’s happening now. I’m not the first example, though I might be a noteworthy one because of the numbers I’m walking away from. But there will be others, more and more of them.

In all honesty, I think Barry’s right—there will be more and more authors who choose to self-publish as time goes on, and especially as digital sales continue to rise. As he and Joe agreed in their interview, it’s a matter of numbers: by self-publishing digitally rather than publishing traditionally, an author makes more money on every single copy sold.

Before you scrap your query letter completely, though, let’s take a look at those numbers. As Nathan Bransford explained in an essential blog post on the math behind publishing decisions, in order to make from self-publishing exactly what he would have made from that six-digit deal, Barry Eisler is counting on selling at least 71,633 ebooks. Can he do it? Probably. Assuming he’s already selling that many copies (if not more) of each of his books, it’s a safe bet that his large readership will stick with him and keep his numbers high.

Well, that’s all well and good if you’re Barry Eisler, or Stephen King, or Dean Koontz, or Jonathan Franzen—especially if you can count on your day of Twitter fame to sell copies of your book for you, the way I bet Barry Eisler can. But what about the little guys?

See, Joe and Barry agreed in their interview that publishers aren't needed anymore. But, as a great many writers and editors alike will tell you, there are some definite benefits to working with a publishing house.

Perhaps the most important, especially as writers’ need for help with cover design, layout and printing decreases, is the benefit of a devoted marketing force. The average writer doesn’t go from a debut novelist to a household name on his or her own. Sure, it happens—you need look no further than Nathan Bransford’s post and his numbers for Amanda Hocking. But it doesn’t happen frequently, or without the author (or a devoted team close to the author) having a very special skill set.

Publishing doom-and-gloomers will tell you that it’s only a matter of time before all the publishing houses go under, that the internet will eliminate the need for "gatekeepers," and that anyone can and will be discovered through the internet. But really, I don’t think that e-publishing is going to save every writer from obscurity. It will certainly increase the number of writers who have access to publishing, but will it increase the number of readers, or even distribute existing readers evenly among all the writers being published?

I don’t think so. If anything, e-publishing makes good marketing and curation all the more important. With more and more books vying for attention, it’s going to become that much harder to stand out. Editors, "gatekeepers" if you must call them that, who have a strong eye for what will appeal to people, and marketers who know how to reach those people will become more important than ever. It’s a hard, hard world for the as-yet-unknown.

So when I think about the future of publishing in the digital era, I wonder not about what will happen to the New York Times bestselling author, but about what will happen to the debut author, the writer of literary fiction, and the quiet novel with a niche audience. Publishers have, for so long, financed their operations through bestsellers and hesitated to take on a riskier project with a potentially small or difficult to reach audience. But if the bestsellers break away from traditional publishing, will the industry fold, or will it redefine itself?

Perhaps the strength of publishers in a new era of publishing will be their ability to devote time and attention to niche audiences, to find new talents and voices, and to develop literary projects for the devoted reader. The profits would be smaller, and the industry would change significantly. It’s hard to imagine that the big four could make this transition smoothly. But it may be that small, independent houses are in the perfect position to consider it.

I don’t really know what form publishing will take in the digital era. I agree with Joe Konrath that “paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm,” whether that takes one year or ten. I certainly don’t want to see my job disappear, or the good work of editors, marketers and designers all over the world become valueless. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that publishers need to be flexible and adapt to their evolving roles as technology changes the media it delivers. And I think, if finding and promoting new talent and literary voices were to become the new role of publishers, I could be okay with that.

But that’s just one theory—what’s yours? What do you think will become of publishing in the digital era?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Crossover Fiction: Making the Jump from Adult to Children's Publishing (Thoughts from CityLit Festival)

Thanks to everyone who came out yesterday for my panel at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival! I had a great time talking about publishing in the digital era, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my thoughts spurred by the panel with you. First, though, I want to highlight some of the great events I attended at the festival. One of the more interesting panels was the Women and Words reading featuring Elissa Brent Weissman, Amy Stolls, and Jessica Anya Blau. Of course I’m always keen to hear from women who write, but one of the things that interested me most about this panel was that all three writers had written for young adults or middle-graders, but only one had done so intentionally.

Amy Stolls made her debut with a young adult novel, Palms to the Ground (March 2005), and will follow it this May with a novel for adults, The Ninth Wife. Jessica Anya Blau’s The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was released in May 2008 for adults but also found a niche among teen readers; her second book, Drinking Closer to Home, was published in January 2011 and is aimed at adults. Elissa Brent Weissman was the odd one out as the author of three middle-grade novels: Standing for Socks (March 2009), The Trouble with Mark Hopper (July 2009), and Nerd Camp (April 2011).

Unlike Amy and Jessica, Elissa writes for middle graders and has never had any intentions of looking for a different audience. “I wrote Nerd Camp because I used to teach at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, which I affectionately called nerd camp. There was this funny moment when I was sitting in a classroom full of new students, and they were all very quiet and awkward and not saying much until one boy asked how many digits of pi everyone else knew. They were all chiming in, ‘I know six!’ ‘I know fourteen!’ ‘I only know three.’ And that was how these kids related to each other.” She shared a funny, poignant, chapter in which a group of Nerd Campers discover that one of the campers can answer math problems—and maybe all the questions of the universe—in his sleep.

When I asked Amy Stolls to share some insights on crossing over between teen and adult fiction, she chuckled. “I didn’t write my first novel for the young adult audience; I just wrote it.” It was after writing the book, when she was seeking publication, that she learned that it was best suited to teen readers. “At first, I have to say, it felt a little junior varsity,” Amy said. “But I’ve come to love the genre. Young adults really interact with their writers. They write letters, they blog about the book. I sort of felt like I was a young adult author all of a sudden, living among all these other young adult authors who really knew their audience. I felt kind of lost. But I really liked it.”

On the other hand, Jessica Anya Blau wrote her first novel for adults and saw it marketed to them initially. “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties was published as a crossover novel,” she said. “We got it out there and got all the major reviews in and everything, and then a few months later we started pushing it towards young adult sources and publicizing it that way.” Though the book was written and edited with adults in mind, HarperCollins made the most of its potential audience by putting it out there for teen readers as well.

It’s interesting to me that the initial push towards two different audiences didn’t occur simultaneously at the start. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is common with crossover books, especially in light of controversies over books for which the crossover is surprising, like the debates that arose when Stitches was nominated for a National Book Award in 2009.

“It was a bigger deal five years ago, when we were selling my first book,” Amy said. “Back then you had to figure out where to shelve it. If it was for young adults, I had to worry that my friends walking into bookstores wouldn’t see it. Now, even though it hasn’t been that long, it’s not as big a deal to cross over because Amazon doesn’t separate books that way, and people are buying books online a lot more often.”

Still, will Amy or Jessica ever write another crossover book, or a novel specifically for the children’s book market? It’s hard to say. Neither of their most recent books are intended for teens, but it’s clear that both authors could cross over again if they wanted to. “With any luck, this author will continue writing young adult novels,” Jeffrey Hastings said of Amy Stolls in a School Library Journal review of Palms to the Ground. And maybe someday she will.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The League of Illustrious Interns Unites!

Hey writer friends, have you landed that dream internship yet? Or perhaps you already have a dark and twisted past in internly toils.

If so, waltz on over to THE INTERN's blog and sign yourself up for the League of Illustrious Interns. I did. And shit is about to get tight.

This week, four super-awesome current interns and myself shared their advice to writers, their insights on the industry, and their hopes for the future. Check it out here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Favorite Passages: Yann Martel on Suffering, Faith, and the Universe

photograph by Dominic Kamp

Often during the most difficult times in my life—bleak nights when I realize that whatever outcome I've been fighting against is inevitable, and I fall out of myself, helpless—my mind wanders back to this passage from Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

It's one of my favorite passages from all contemporary literature, in part because it reminds me of what I have always known: that this world is wild and unpredictable and enormous and ultimately beautiful and good. Oddly, in reminding me that I am insignificant, it makes me feel powerful enough to carry on.
The moon was a sharply defined crescent and the sky was perfectly clear. The stars shone with such fierce, contained brilliance that it seemed absurd to call the night dark. The sea lay quietly, bathed in a shy, light-footed light, a dancing play of black and silver that extended without limits all about me. The volume of things was confounding—the volume of air above me, the volume of water around and beneath me. I was half-moved, half-terrified. I felt like the sage Markandeya, who fell out of Vishnu's mouth while Vishnu was sleeping and so beheld the entire universe, everything that there is. Before the sage could die of fright, Vishnu awoke and took him back into his mouth. For the first time I noticed—as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next—that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was all right.
What quotes do you return to again and again?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Baltimore's CityLit Festival Presents Publishing in the Digital Era: A Panel for Publishing's Progressive Thinkers!

Dear illustrious readers! It is nearly time for Baltimore's CityLit Festival at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Which means it's nearly time for our panel, Publishing in the Digital Era. The festival is one week from tomorrow on Saturday, April 16th. Exciting events will go on all day, but my event is at 3:30 pm in the library's Poe Room.

In case you've forgotten, here's a quick description of the hour-long event:

E-books. Vooks. iPads. Technology is altering how we read and deliver literature. Co-sponsored by BackList, this timely panel, composed of local writers and publishing professionals, will explore and discuss the ever-changing face of publishing—and what it means to writers—as we move further into the digital era.
I'm excited to announce the full list of panelists, which includes:
  • Charisse Carney-Nunes, Award-Winning Children's Book Author (I Am Barack Obama) and Founder of Brand Nu Words (digital publishing)
  • David Drager, Poet, Entrepreneur, Software Engineer, and Founder of
  • Allissa Richardson, Knight Foundation’s Institute for Interactive Journalism Grant Recipient for cutting-edge mobile journalism (“MOJO”) lab at Morgan State University
  • Myself, Rachel Stark, Freelance Editor and Editorial Assistant, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
  • and Moderator Felicia Pride, Professional Writer, Book Blogger for AOL, Publishers Weekly Contributor, and Founder of BackList, an organization that specializes in producing engaging and interactive content across platforms
I can't tell you how excited I am to meet and share a stage with all of these fabulous Baltimore creatives and entrepreneurs.
I hope you'll join the audience in asking smart questions, enjoying with rapt attention, looking on in awe, or throwing vegetables from the back row. Bring your iPads, Nooks, Kindles, and more for what's going to be an awesome discussion!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How to Get an Internship in Publishing: Michele Daly, Human Resources Manager at Scholastic, Tells All

Michele Daly began her career in human resources in January 1981 at Newsweek, and she’s been hiring and developing talent in media ever since. She's worked with companies like Hachette and Conde Nast and acted as a consultant for Simon & Schuster and Random House. As Scholastic’s Human Resource Manager, she’s seen the best—and the worst!—in applications for Scholastic’s summer editorial internships since 2008. Last week, I called Michele to pick her brain on what you can do to make your application stand out from the crowd.

When she picked up the phone, the first thing Michele said was, “How are you? Where are you living now, and what are you doing?” She remembered that I began my publishing career as an intern at Scholastic and wanted to hear all about my current job. That’s one of the things I love about the publishing industry: everyone is deeply invested in the people around them. And it's never so apparent as when you talk to the people who are actually reading your applications.

When I started asking Michele the questions I had for her, it was clear just how interested Michele is in all of you! “Personalize your application,” Michele said when I asked how aspiring interns could improve their chances. “Write from the heart; give me a sense of who you are and what you can contribute to the field personally.” On top of that, she said, “show how much you want it. Tell me honestly why you’re interested, and mention that you’re willing to work hard and make all the administrative contributions—filing, sorting mail, and making copies—in order to have that experience.”

“I’ll never forget the candidate who wrote to me about how she first became a reader,” Michele said. “She told me a story about how much books meant to her when she was a child growing up in the rural Midwest. I knew as soon as I read her letter that I had to call her in for an interview.”

On the other hand, what turns Michele off to an application? “I recognize that it’s going to be difficult for out-of-state candidates to be a part of the program, so that’s always a consideration,” she says. But she also offers a way to get around that: “Think about how you’ll be able to house yourself in New York City ahead of time, and include that information in your cover letter if you’re applying from out of the state.” If you know the address at which you’d be able to stay—maybe a relative’s house in commuting distance—include it alongside your regular address in your letterhead. “Even just the sentence ‘I will be living in New York City from this date to this date…’ on your cover letter can be enough to ease our worries about that,” she suggests.

And, while publishers look for candidates with strong technical skills and a flare for social media, she cautions aspiring interns to be careful about what they put on the internet. “Make sure whatever’s in your Facebook profile or on your Twitter account reflects well on you,” she advises. “We’re a little more understanding of this in interns, but it’s just good advice in general.”

So aside from helping the company get to know you personally, what else is important in an internship application? “We look for a serious work ethic in every department. In editorial, where I specialize, we like to see that your major is related to publishing—you know, Communications, Writing, English Literature… or maybe something broad, like Education. And in our educational division, we’re always looking for teaching experience and the ability to sell.”

But if you aren’t an English major, or if you don’t have a lot of publishing background, there are other ways to show that you’ll succeed as a publishing intern. “Highlight your personal pursuits in your cover letter if they’re more relevant than your professional credits,” Michele says. That could mean your blog, your writing endeavors, past publications, your participation in a critique group, or your experience on the staff of a yearbook or school paper.

Most publishers value social responsibility, so Michele recommends including volunteer experience on your resume, even if it isn’t publishing-related. And if you’re interested in interning in children’s publishing, take advantage of whatever experience you have working with youth; “If you’ve worked at a summer camp, taught after-school programs, or even spent a lot of time babysitting, we look for that,” Michele says.

“But most of all,” Michele stresses, “let your personality come through. Tell us what your long-term goals are. Let us know what you want to do after the internship. We’ll want to hear from you afterwards.”


Scholastic’s summer internship program provides one of the best publishing experiences in the country, offering its interns a chance to make meaningful contributions and get firsthand experience, whether that means reading manuscripts or discussing revisions; fact-checking art or writing marketing and cover copy. Interns spend eight weeks working closely with mentors in their departments and networking with each other and the company’s key players—not to mention reading incredible books hot off the press!

This year’s application process closed early due to an incredible volume of applications, but you can still keep an eye out for internship opportunities during the semester by bookmarking Scholastic’s career website. Or, try some of these fabulous publishing companies in need of interns right now:
Thanks to everyone who tuned into this series on How to Get an Internship in Publishing! Don't forget to share your insights and comments. Was this series (or this post) helpful? Do you have more questions for the people who will be looking at your applications? Leave them here and you never know what might happen!