Pulling back the curtain on the translation process

I've been fortunate enough to have my novels translated and published in more than 25 countries around the world. Just this week I heard from readers in Mexico, France, Brazil, and Australia, including two students who are reading Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend in school and one woman who strongly believes that Something Missing must be made into a film.

It was recently optioned again for film, so perhaps she will be proven correct.

But when it comes to the actual translations, I have almost no say over specifics, including the cover art. In the past ten years, I've spoken to translators two or three times in Germany and France when they had questions, but for the most part, I receive a check, and most of the time, I eventually receive the foreign edition of the novel. 

It's a process very much out of my hands.

This is why I enjoyed this video so much. It sort of pulled back the curtain a bit on the process of turning a book written in English into one that can be read by people in countries around the world..

While I have not sold quite as many books as JK Rowling, I'd like to think that translators are making just as many thoughtful decisions as the translators of her novels. 

Can I re-write a book from my back list the same way Def Leppard re-recorded songs and now owns their rights?

Def Leppard, a band that provided much of the soundtrack of my youth, has re-recorded its backlist in an effort to regain financial control of their music.

With newly recorded "forgeries" of "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and "Rock of Ages" now available, the quintet has begun a series of re-recordings of its catalog material and "wrestled control of our career back" from the Universal Music Group, which frontman Joe Elliott says the band refuses to deal with "until we come up with some kind of arrangement" over compensation, especially for digital downloads.

I had no idea that this was possible, but apparently, it is. A record company pays musicians for the master recording of a song but not for the song itself. If a band wants to record a new version of the same song (or attempt to record an identical version of the same song), then the band retains complete financial control over their new version and can do with it as they please, including allowing it to compete for sales with the original version of the song.

I find this fascinating.

Curious about the results, I purchased the re-recording of “Pour Some Sugar On Me” in order to assess the performance. Though it’s a creditable rendition of the song, it’s clearly not the same song that blasted from the windows of every car in the summer of 1987.

I think I’ll be sticking with the original.

But this led me to wonder:

Would this strategy also work in publishing?

Could I re-write my first novel, Something Missing, either word-for-word or perhaps slightly differently, adding or subtracting from the story as I wished, and create an entirely new work in a legal sense? 

Unable to read my books after publication because of my preternatural sense of perpetual dissatisfaction and an incessant need to revise, a strategy like this might allow me to take a book that I wrote a decade ago and refresh it, making the necessary changes that are now obvious to me thanks to an improved skill set and more finely honed authorial instincts.

I’m not necessarily interested in doing this, but is it possible?

Could I publish the new and improved Something Missing that would compete against the original version of the novel?

Is one book a year enough?

Julie Bosman of The New York Times published a piece over the weekend discussing how writing one book a year might no longer be enough in this age of the digital book and instant media gratification.

The push for more material comes as publishers and booksellers are desperately looking for ways to hold onto readers being lured by other forms of entertainment, much of it available nonstop and almost instantaneously. Television shows are rushed online only hours after they are originally broadcast, and some movies are offered on demand at home before they have left theaters. In this environment, publishers say, producing one a book a year, and nothing else, is just not enough.

Bosman identifies novelists who specialized in mysteries, thrillers and romance as being specifically impacted by this new demand, whereas “literary novelists like Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen can continue to publish a new novel approximately every decade and still count on plenty of high-profile book reviews to promote it.”

A few thoughts on the subject:

  1. If I was not also teaching and engaged in a myriad of other occupations, writing two books a year would be quite feasible, and I would probably enjoy it a great deal. I have a pile of story ideas just waiting to be written, so the thought of committing them to paper at a more rapid pace appeals to me a great deal.
  2. In terms of my current publishing schedule, I published my first novel, Something Missing, in 2009, my second, Unexpectedly, Milo, in in 2o10 and will be publishing my third, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, this year. But my third novel was actually ready for publication last year. A combination of switching publishers and delaying the release of the book for marketing reasons created the two year gap between books. I also have a unpublished novel put aside for a rainy day (written last year) in addition to the book I am finishing this year.
  3. Determining if this trend might one day apply to me is a question I find difficult to answer. Bosman indicates that the writers of mysteries, thrillers and romances are feeling the pressure associated with trend, but I don’t write those types of books. Nor do I write the literary fiction typically associated with writers like Franzan or Eugenides. As always, my genre is difficult to define (quirky fiction?), leaving me somewhere in the middle, wondering where I might stand on this matter.
  4. I think it’s a shame that given the chance to cite literary authors for her piece, Bosman chose with Franzan and Eugenides and did not mention a woman.
  5. While I can certainly see the value of a well-timed novella positioned a few months ahead of the release of a book, it seems to me that this only works for authors who are writing about already established characters from a series of books. I can easily think of several short stories and novellas that I might write in preparation for the launch of my next book, but without an understanding of the characters and the world contained within the story, the novella would mean little to a reader and would also spoil aspects of the book itself.

On the topic of book covers: Recommended listening and recommended viewing

If you love books, you should already be listening to the wonderful Books on the Nightstand podcast:

Books on the Nightstand

But if you haven’t started listening yet, this week’s episode features a discussion about my recent post about book covers that is worthy of a listen, and hopefully it will get you hooked on this outstanding podcast.

Host Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness also discuss New Cover, a blog where graphic artist Matt Roeser redesigns book jackets after he’s read the books. It is very much worth a look.

My recent NYC visit included a fibrous hymen, a visit with a fictional character and a heart wrenching betrayal by a friend.

I spent last Thursday in New York City. Oftentimes a single day in the city feels like three by the time I leave, and Thursday was no exception.

When I am in the city, I like to get a lot done. 

A few notes from that day:

1. My first stop was MacMillan Audio, where I teamed up with my friend and colleague, Donna Gosk, who also happens to be a character in my next book. While attempting to create a fictional teacher who my protagonist would love and respect, I decided that I would simply use Donna, who is one of the finest teachers I have ever known. As a result, I have transformed Donna into a nonfictional-fictional character, at least for the purposes of the book (though many who know Donna might say that she is a bit of a fictional character in real life as well).

After learning that Donna is a real person, the good people at MacMillan decided to interview the two of us for a segment that will be placed at the end of the audiobook. It was a brilliant idea on their part, and I think listeners will find it very interesting.

How often does a reader get to hear a fictional character speak in real life?

2. Donna and I joined my editor, my editor’s assistant, and author Ann Leary for lunch following our interview. I eat lunch everyday at work with a large group of women, and this lunch turned out to be no different.

Having spent the last thirteen years teaching elementary school, I can’t remember the last time I had a weekday lunch with a man.

There was much talk around the table about 50 SHADES OF GRAY, the recent bestselling book of erotic fiction, which naturally led to even more talk about sex. When this happens at school (which it does quite frequently), I am able to step away, claiming to have papers to correct or a lesson to plan. On Thursday, however, I was stuck with nowhere to hide. I remained quiet for much of the conversation, eating my cheeseburger and learning that, among other things, there is an exceptionally steamy sex scene in the second book of the CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR series that every woman  should read.

3. Donna and I also visited the offices of The Daily Beast, where her daughter works on the social media side of the business.. I receive most of my news via The Daily Beast, so it was exciting to see the organization, which is larger than I would have ever imagined, in action.

4. I was joined by friends for a Moth StorySlam performance later that evening at Housing Works in the East Village. This is the couple who we have chosen as godparents of our next child, yet I learned over dinner that the husband, a man who I consider a close friend and is a member of our book club (so we at least occasionally reads), has never read either of my books. Needless to say, I was stunned and look forward to the moment when my wife unleashes her wrath upon him.

5. I was lucky enough to have my name drawn from the proverbial Moth hat (it’s actually a tote bag), so I was able to take the stage on Thursday night and tell my story on the topic of Armor. My story centered on the time I rode my bike off our barn roof in a feeble attempt to garner some much-desired attention of my neglectful parents.

It’s ironic that I took the stage and told a story about my inability to get the attention I needed as a child to an audience that included a friend who has failed to read either of my books.

I should have worked that into my story. 

Nevertheless I did well, finishing second in a field of ten storytellers. I was beaten by author and former StorySlam winner Diana Spechler, whose story about losing her virginity (which included the difficulties in dealing with her fibrous hymen) was quite deserving of the win. When Diana finished telling her story, I think there was little doubt in the room that she was going to be the winner that evening.

Though I always want to win, the fact that I had already secured a spot in the GrandSlam championship with my StorySlam victory last month made second place slightly less frustrating.

But only slightly less.

Anatomy of a book cover

I am very fortunate. I love the designs chosen for both the US and UK editions of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.  Both are very different, but I like them almost equally. image    image

To be honest, my preference wavers constantly. There are days when I like the UK version better, and there are days when I think the US version is far superior.

Either way, I like both designs a lot.

Below are two earlier proposals for the UK edition that found their way onto the Internet.

image image

While each design appeals to me in some way, I think that my publisher made the right choice in passing on both.

The first design seems to target the young adult market rather than the adults for whom I was writing. While I would be perfectly happy (ecstatic, even) to see my book cross over into the YA market, it is a book first written for the adult market, and I would expect the cover to reflect that.

The second design is eye catching, and I love its graphical underpinning, but I can’t quite figure out who the two figures on the cover are supposed to represent.

When the author can’t make that distinction, there is probably a problem with the design.

I have yet to see designs from the dozen or so other countries where the book will eventually be published, but I will share them with you when they come my way. It’s been a lot of fun to see the way in which various markets around the world have interpreted the cover of my first novel, Something Missing.

Looking for a literary agent? Have you tried this strategy yet?

Last summer, I conducted a workshop designed to help writers find a literary agent. Most of the workshop was centered on the strategies that I used when finding my own agent.

If you’re curious, I wrote about the path that I took to finding my agent a couple years ago. It’s important to note that my path included a start in the slush pile and did not rely upon any connections in the publishing industry.

For those of you still looking for an agent and feeling like it will never happen, take heart! It can be done!

One of the pieces of advice that I give to writers in search of an agent is to do your homework. Thanks to the Internet. a writer can find out a great deal about the agents to whom they are querying, and this information is invaluable when choosing a specific agent at an agency, as well as crafting a query letter that targets that agent. I refer to this as “stalking the agent”, and that descriptor isn’t far from the truth.

Knowing as much as you can about an agent before initiating a communication with him or her can make all the difference, and in some cases, it can actually open from previously sealed doors.

Ralph White is a writer who attended my workshop last summer, and he has taken this advice to heart. He recently wrote to me:

Still slogging away trying to find an agent for Riding the Tiger (formerly Asian Gold).  It's with Miriam Goderich, of Dystel & Goderich now, awaiting a response.  I followed your  prescription and discovered that she received both her undergrad and graduate degrees from Columbia, where I run a critique group.  I invited her to speak to our group and she accepted.  In the course of her talk, she invited any of the twenty of us who had completed manuscripts to submit them to her.

Ralph is still awaiting a reply, but I couldn’t be more impressed with his creativity, inventiveness and willingness to go the extra mile. I have not read Ralph’s manuscript, but if it is good (and I suspect that it might be), he will eventually find an agent to represent him, even if Miriam Goderich ultimately passes.

You can’t keep a creative, persistent, grab-the-bull-by-the-horn kind of guy like Ralph down forever.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: An audio preview

The first two chapters of the audio version of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend are available for preview here. The book is narrated by Matthew Brown, which seems apropos considering my UK pseudonym is Matthew Green.

I was initially worried that I would not like the narrator, especially given that the story is told in the first person, but the team at Macmillan has done a tremendous job in casting the role. I couldn’t be more pleased.

And I will have a chance to listen to the whole book soon. Macmillan is producing advanced listening copies of the book for distribution to booksellers, reviewers and at Book Expo America, so I’ll be able to give the book a listen before it’s actually published.

This will be helpful considering I never read any my own novels after they have been published. It’s too painful. I cannot help but continue to revise sentences and word choice in my mind.

I live in a tragic state of perpetual dissatisfaction.

But I am able to listen to my books on audio and enjoy them without the inner critic sounding off in my head, which is important considering how easily I can forget what I’ve actually written. Recently I was asked a question about a minor character in my first book, Something Missing, and I could barely remember who the character was or what role her served in the story.

It was a sign that it was time to give the audio version of Something Missing a listen again. I can’t tell you how embarrassing it is to realize that a reader has more knowledge about your novel than you do.

Insightful and hilarious confirmation that my publisher and I are a perfect match

In a recent meeting with the sales, publicity and marketing team of my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, I was asked about the decision to publish in the UK under the name Matthew Green.

I explained that my British publisher, Little Brown UK, felt that my last name might serve as a hindrance to book sales and a new, less potentially offensive last name might serve me well.

Thus Matthew Green (Green is my wife’s maiden name) was born.

I was not so sure about the need to change my name, but in most things related to publishing, I am keenly aware that my expertise does not extend beyond the ability to write clear sentences, so I tend to defer to the professionals on all other things.

The St. Martin’s team found this situation amusing, and this morning a member of the sales team sent me this list of authors who have all published books with St. Martins at some point in the past.

He indicated that this list was clear evidence that I had found the right publisher for me, and while I knew this well before seeing this list, the confirmation was both validating and hilarious. 


Unequal footing and a first peek into St. Martin’s Press

Prior to performing at The Moth last Tuesday, I stopped by at the beautiful Flatiron Building for a meeting with my editor, her assistant and the social media director for St. Martin’s. It’s always slightly surreal to meet someone who knows me through Twitter and my blog but who I do not know at all. Paul, the social media director, had clearly spent a good amount of time reading my blog, my Twitter stream and my Facebook fan page in preparation for our meeting, and so there was an immediate imbalance in our relationship as I sat down at the table.

I was meeting him for the first time, for example, yet he already knew how I might feel about his watch.

“Hi, I’m Paul,” he said. “And my watch cost 80 bucks.”

Last week I met with a DJ client in my home, and the bride-to-be told me that she already felt familiar with the layout of my house based upon her faithful reading of my blog.

Again, a slightly surreal imbalance of the relationship.

Last week, my wife had lunch with a friend who reads my blog, and she told Elysha that because she reads it so regularly, she feels that she knows me intimately.

Again, an imbalance.

This is probably a good thing. I write my blog simply because I desire a venue to express my thoughts and ideas, and I use Twitter and Facebook for many reasons, but one is to connect to people.

Apparently all this is working.

One of my friends likes to say that I “live loud.”

Paul was exceedingly helpful in terms of social media. He had a list of ideas to fine-tune my use of Twitter and Facebook, including the importance of remembering that my Twitter followers and Facebook fans are probably two distinct audiences with differing interests and needs, so I should be catering my posts more specifically to each one.

Very true.

He also reassured me about my scattershot approach to my blog. There are competing theories when it comes to blogging. Some people believe that it’s important to find a niche and become an expert on a specific topic, and that this is the way to draw an audience.

Others (like me) use blogging to express thoughts and ideas and share aspects of my life with others, and I believe that as an author, this is the best use of blogging. Rather than focusing my blog on subjects like writing or teaching only, I attempt to achieve broad appeal while giving readers and fans a peek into my life.

It is what I wish some of my favorite authors would do more often.

And Paul approves.

Paul and my editor also suggested that I share more of the inner workings of the publishing process with my readers, since this is an area that many people are curious about and have no access.

And since I have a new book coming out next year and am in the process of writing the next, and I am now with a new publisher, this is a good time to share the process with readers.

Thus this post.

As my next book, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, begins its way through the publishing process, I’ll be sure to share as much of the process with you as possible, and if there are any questions that you might have about the publishing industry in general, please let me know!

A couple other random thoughts from my afternoon at St. Martin’s included:

  • I discovered that it is exceedingly easy to read the body language of my editor, Brenda Copeland. Also, if slightly pressured, she is willing to be photographed wearing a red cowboy hat.
  • I sometimes worry about the structural integrity of the Flatiron building based upon the sheer number of books contained therein.  Our meeting with Paul took place in a room that was wall-to-wall books, and I have yet to leave the building without new books under my arms.
  • I want an assistant. Brenda has an assistant named Laura, and I am jealous. I forget that an assistant isn’t just someone to help you get things done. It’s like having a second brain working for you.
  • I like the look of my printed manuscript. I never get to see it in actual page form unless is has a bunch of red marks all over it. It looks so nice, sitting on its shelf, so clean and presumably perfect.

Introducing Matthew Green

My last name has caused me problems before. And many, many more that I have yet to write about.

Despite the burden that a last name like Dicks has carried, I never imagined giving it up for a new name.

It may not be pretty, but it’s my name.

I have never been able to understand or respect someone who changes their last name just for the sake of preference. I’ve known a few of these people during my life, and each time, I have continued to use their original last name whenever possible.

I can be a real jerk sometimes.

But my last name hasn’t been all bad. Thanks to Dicks, I learned at an early age that the best place to punch someone is between the eyes and never in the mouth. The stomach is pretty good, too, but only if you know you can get a off a solid punch.

I know lots and lots of people with beautiful last names who would be useless in a fight, so there is something to be said about a name like Dicks.

It toughens you up.

I have two uncles named Harold and they both go by the name Harry Dicks.

My father’s name is Leslie, and he goes by Les Dicks.

You have never met three tougher men.

I like to think I am following in their footsteps, even if my first name is slightly more palatable than theirs.

But after forty years, it turns out that I will be changing my name after all.

We have sold the rights to my next book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, to nine different countries so far, including the UK. One of the terms in the contract with my UK publisher, Little Brown UK, is that I change my last name for the British version of the book.

While Dicks might be an amusing name in the United States, it is apparently quite offensive in England.


At first I was admittedly taken aback by the request. I was annoyed, disappointed, and a little flummoxed. While my previous two books had not been published in the UK, I knew that the US version of the book had made it across the pond and been read by many, many people there without any complaint.

So why the need for a change now?

After some research into the matter, it turns out that this is not an unusual request, and many authors from the US are asked to change their names for British publishers. Randy, for example, is a first name that is changed quite often in the UK, and there are others.

The British are apparently a sensitive people when it comes to these kinds of things.

Thankfully, my disappointment over the news was cushioned significantly by my introduction to a wonderful editor at Little Brown UK who will be working on my book, as well as a serious commitment from the publisher in regards to the novel and my future career.

It would appear that they love everything about me except my last name.

So came the process of choosing a new last name. My initial thoughts were names like Phallic or Shaft, and had I not already had great respect for my editor at Little Brown UK, I may have forwarded these choices with a glad heart.

But instead, I decided to get serious and choose a more fitting name.

Since I was able to choose anything, it was suggested by a fiend of mine in the publishing business that I opt for a name that would place my books on eye-level shelves in bookstores.

Apparently authors with last names beginning with W often change their name to improve their book shelf position.

Ultimately I sent two names to my publisher and asked for them to choose what they preferred.

The names were Green and Mandeville.

Green is my wife’s maiden name, and Mandeville was my mother’s maiden name.

Either choice would pay homage to someone I loved, and both seemed fitting.

The publisher chose Green almost immediately, liking the single syllable match with my real name, Dicks, as well as the simplicity of the name.

Matthew Green.

While my mother’s maiden name would have been nice, this choice made my wife quite happy, and I have always believed in the phrase:

Happy wife, happy life.

So after forty years of mild-to-moderate suffering with the last name Dicks, it has finally been changed, at least in one country, and on at least one book.

It’s a strange feeling, having a new name.

I can’t believe that women do this every time they get married.

My first date/arranged marriage

On Tuesday I had the pleasure of meeting my new editor for the first time. About a week ago I accepted an offer from Saint Martin’s Press to publish my next two books, including Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend.  I was on my way to Vermont for a book retreat when we stopped off at the in-laws house in the Berkshires to drop of the munchkin for the weekend.  After depositing diapers and baby dolls, I called my agent and learned that the final offers had been made on my manuscript and it was time to make a decision.

Since the terms of the offers were very similar, the decision came down to choosing the editor, and after much debate, I chose Brenda Copeland at Saint Martin’s Press, mostly because we had spoken during the previous week about the book, the publishing house, and my career, and I had liked what I heard.

Still, it was a difficult decision, and my agent was uncharacteristically unhelpful during the process. Both editors are highly respected in the publishing industry and both work for prestigious publishing firms, so Taryn felt good about whichever offer I chose and was therefore less decisive and less certain than usual.

Essentially, she left the decision to me.

Though I felt good about my decision to go with Brenda as we left for Vermont, I worried that I would always doubt my choice and be forever consumed by what-if questions for the rest of my career.

Those doubts were quickly put to bed on Tuesday.

Meeting your editor for the first time is like going on a blind date.  You know the basic facts about one another but have no idea if there will be any chemistry between the two of you.

It is a nerve-wracking process.

This was going to be the person most responsible for shepherding my next two books (and hopefully many, many more) from their humble beginnings to bookshelf glory, and in many ways, she would responsible for dictating the course of my career.

Also, there would be no polite parting of the ways if our first date went bad.  No throwing away of phone numbers and forgetting the date ever happened. We would be stuck together regardless of the success of this first date. It’s sort of like first-date-meets-arranged-marriage, except I did all of the arranging, so if things did not go well, I only had myself to blame.

Happily, there was no need for blame.

The nearly three hours that I spent with Brenda were divine. Though we hit it off almost immediately, I actually think she and Elysha hit it off even more, often speaking a language of home décor and food that I could not understand. I’m happy to report that I found myself in the presence of someone who is experienced, energetic, creative, forward-thinking, and interested in investing in my career as the author as well as the books that  I will write.

In short, she is terrific. I know we are going to do great things together.

I couldn’t be more pleased.

And after breakfast, Elysha and I had the pleasure of visiting the Saint Martin’s offices in the famous Flatiron Building, and the day only got better.

We had the opportunity to meet key members of the Saint Martin’s team, all of whom were kind enough to take a few moments out of their busy day to say hello and get to know me. It truly feels like a team at Saint Martin’s Press: one large organization pulling on the same rope.

I immediately felt at home.

And the day ended in what must be one of the finest offices in all of Manhattan, located at the tip of the Flatiron Building on the eighteenth floor.  Wall-to-wall windows look straight up Fifth Avenue to the Park and include stunning views of the Chrysler Building, The Empire State Building and more.

And so my career at Saint Martin’s Press begins.

I already find myself wanting to do them proud.

Guest blogger: My agent, Taryn Fagerness, explains her life in the foreign rights world

Greetings from Matt’s literary agent! When I opened my own agency in 2009, I decided to specialize in the selling of foreign rights (along with selling domestic rights for authors like Matt). Matt often complains that he never understands what I do, and that my Twitter posts are mysterious and indecipherable. I suspect he’s referring to this one:

And because of the complications with the NEOM, I have to create a special catalog just for the Brits. Gah.

Yeah, that IS mysterious.

And my chosen profession is, admittedly, rather mysterious in general. People at parties tend to glaze over if I go much farther than “I’m a literary agent, and I specialize in selling the translation rights to books that are published in the US.”

But for every book sold in the US, there are a host of other “subsidiary” rights that can be sold. Film rights, audio rights, e-book rights, merchandizing rights, and, of course, foreign rights. Newbie authors tend to forget about these important rights, which can sometimes rake in even more money than the US sale.

So, what, exactly do I do?

Well, I work with foreign co-agents all over the globe. These fine people know the ins and outs of their specific markets. Knowing the publishing scene in ALL territories is just too much for one person, so I must count on my co-agents to be savvy, smart and aggressive on my behalf. In addition to relying on the expertise of my co-agents, I also know about nine million foreign publishers from Norway to Germany to Thailand (ok, maybe not quite that many, but sometimes it feels like it), and sometimes I contact publishers directly, or I suggest publishers for my co-agents to contact. It’s a huge, global matching game of sorts. Get the right book in the right hands…and then get the person on the receiving end to actually read it, and buy it! Relationships are important!

A BIG part of what I do is collect, organize, and then disseminate information about the books I represent to my foreign co-agents, foreign scouts, and foreign publishers. All these foreign folks need information, but it has to be the right information. I use the manuscript, the physical book (I’m an expert in mailing packages overseas), reviews, cover art, author bio information, author photos, magazine and newspaper articles, “blurbs” from other authors, catalog copy, and my own opinion to help sell books to foreign territories. Getting all that information in one place is a bit like herding cats. Getting the best of the best of that information into catalog format (I create four catalogs a year or more) is like herding cheetahs.

I also attend two or three book fairs a year. The biggest one is in Frankfurt, Germany each October. Last year, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, over a period of six days, I had 78 meetings (18 with foreign co-agents, 14 with foreign scouts, and the rest with publishers from 17 different territories). Scheduling for this monster fair starts in July. Again, I’m just one person, and I can’t possibly meet with everyone I need to meet with. It’s very stressful trying to figure out how best to spend those six days. But going is also a bit like summer camp! The foreign publishing community is relatively small, and people stay in it for years and years. It’s wonderful to see the same friends each year at the Fair.

After sending out a book, disseminating all kinds of relevant information about that book, “pitching” the book at book fairs, madly trying to create “buzz,” and a good dose of good old-fashioned finger-crossing, some foreign publishers might actually buy the book. At that point, I negotiate offers and contracts, deal with foreign tax forms (yuck!), make sure the foreign publisher has everything they need, answer any silly questions the publisher may have (and they tend to have a lot), and generally keep things moving. It can take up to two years from the time a book is sold to, say, Italy, for it to be published. But, as I mentioned before, it can be lucrative.

Example: I once sold a debut thriller for one million dollars collectively to something like 19 different territories.  The US publisher only paid around $25,000.  That’s a particularly awesome example. 

In the case of Matt’s UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, I’ve so far sold German rights and hope to sell a few more territories. That’s a more realistic example.

So what about that mysterious Twitter post?

And because of the complications with the NEOM, I have to create a special catalog just for the Brits. Gah.

Let’s just say, every single territory has its own strange stuff going on.  Turkey pays advances on printing rather than on sales like everyone else. Germany likes subsidiary licenses to run two years past contract expiration. China censors certain material.  And England often exclusively wants extra territories besides just the UK (like India), and I can’t always grant them (because the US publisher wants India too, but on a “non-exclusive” basis).  This fight over what territories are exclusive or non-exclusive causes endless problems, hence “because of complicates with the NEOM—the “non-exclusive open-market”—I have to create a special catalog just for the Brits.”

Did any of that make sense? It did to me, and it’s these weird intricacies of foreign rights that I love. So now you know the truth: 

I’m a foreign rights geek.



Tick tock

This is the worst part of the writing process for me:

The waiting.

The manuscript is done, and it’s in Taryn’s hands.  I sit and wait, usually for about a week, hoping to hear that it’s absolutely perfect. 

Expecting to hear that it’s absolutely perfect.

That’s a long week.  A frustrating week. A hair-pulling, gut-wrenching week, and sometimes, it’s more than a week. 

Can you believe it?  More!

And even if the manuscript is perfect, then there’s the submission process.  The manuscript goes to my editor and publisher for review, and so begins the agonizing wait for an offer, which can take another month or more. 

Sometimes I feel like screaming, “I just spent a year writing those 100,000 words, people!  And you’re going to make me wait more than a month to find out it’s fate?  C’mon!  No eating or sleeping until you’ve read the damn thing!”

I secretly wish that Taryn, my editor, and the suits at Doubleday would just read along with me as I write, sentence for sentence, word for word, like some giant, interconnected video game, so that just as I type that final word of the book, my phone would ring.

“Hi, Matt.  It’s Taryn!  I love the way you ended the book.  So much heart!  So much humor!  And your editor loved it even more.  We were sitting here, watching you finish it together.  Doubleday’s offering a four-book, seven-figure deal.  What do you think?”

I don’t know what’s less likely: the read-along-with-me scenario or the seven-figure offer.

Probably both. 

How I found my literary agent

I spent this past week visiting the Lucy Robbins Welles Library in my hometown of Newington and the Portland Library in Portland, CT.  Both events were very well attended, and I had the chance to meet many readers who enjoyed SOMETHING MISSING and are anxious to get their hands on UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO. One of the most interesting comments made at both appearances came when I described the means by which I found my agent.  After being asked to describe the process, I explained that after finishing the book, I spent the summer identifying 200 potential literary agencies using the THE WRITER’S MARKET before winnowing the list down to the top 100.  From there, I began researching each literary agency, trying to identify the specific agent to whom my book would most appeal.

Using the Internet, I scoured the names of agents and then cross-referenced them on other websites for any information I could find that might tell me what their interests and preferences were.  For example, I identified Taryn, my agent, from more than half a dozen agents at her previous agency (she’s since gone on to start her own agency) using a number of factors.

First, she was young.  I knew I wanted to find someone who was new to the business and hungry.  At almost every agency, I addressed my query letter to one of the youngest agents on staff.

Second, I looked at the books that she had already worked on with other authors.  In Taryn’s case, there were two:  A book on compulsive hoarding and a book written by a woman who managed a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat.

Both books appealed to me.

I knew that my protagonist, Martin, was obsessive-compulsive and excessively methodical, and I thought that he might appeal to someone with an interest in and knowledge of compulsive hoarding.  The two seemed to fit together well, occupying the same space in a person’s mind.

I also liked the sound of a book about a woman rowing solo across an ocean.  Since so much of SOMETHING MISSING takes place in my protagonist's head, my manuscript was very light on dialogue, and I assumed that a book about a woman alone in the rowboat might also be dialogue-light.

Lastly, I liked the look of Taryn.  I found a photo of her online and thought that she looked like the kind of woman with whom I tend to be friends.  I know this is the least logical of my reasons for choosing her, but I believe that gut reactions are important.  I took one look at Taryn and thought that I might have a chance with her.

I followed this process for every one of the 100 queries I sent out that summer.  In many ways, it became a fulltime job for me.  It was two months of researching, tracking, analyzing, writing and assembling exactly what was requested by each agency.  A query letter and the first fifty pages to one agent, a query letter and the first three chapters to another, and a brief synopsis of the story to a third.  Each agency has its own specific requirements, and I catered each query letter to the agent I was addressing.

I described this process to the people who attended last week’s library events and received a similar reaction from both audiences:

People thought that my persistence, determination and attention to detail were remarkable.

I do not.

As I explained to one woman, I had just spent three years of my life committing 120,000 words to the blank page.  I had a story that I liked a lot, and I had always dreamed of becoming a published author.  Sending those letters in the manner that I did, maximizing my efforts in every way I knew possible, was simply a reasonable and practical approach to the challenge of finding an agent to represent my work.

To have done any less, I explained, would have been stupid.

Sadly, I have met many people who fail to work hard once their manuscript is complete.  A few months ago, I met a rather angry man who had sent out twelve query letters and had them all rejected.  I explained to him that I sent out 100 queries and was preparing to send 100 more when Taryn’s call finally came.  I told him that of the 100 queries, I received about 80 rejections, 10 non-responses, and 10 agents expressing some form of interest, albeit quite mild in most circumstances.  Ultimately it came down to about three agents who expressed some serious interest in the book, and Taryn’s call came on the last day of my summer vacation, which had been the target date that I had set for finding an agent.

I offered to help this angry man by offering some advice and proofreading his query letter, but he was hell-bent on having me walk his manuscript through the doors of Doubleday and plopping it on my editor’s desk.

If only it were that easy.

Ultimately I told the man that I would be happy to offer more advice once he sent out 88 more queries, thus matching my own total.  Not surprising, I have yet to hear from him.

When someone asks me for advice on finding a literary agent, I tell them this story, and more often than not, they tell me how they simply don’t have the time to undergo such a process.

Somehow, these people manage to find enough time to write a novel, an accomplishment in itself, but are unwilling to find the time to go the last mile.

My goal at book appearances like the ones I did last week is to present myself in as ordinary a fashion as possible.  I want aspiring writers to know that there is nothing special about the way in which I found my agent and ultimately got my books published.  It was good old fashioned hard work.

Nothing more.

Invariably, however, some member of the audience will raise a hand and attempt to refute my remarks as needlessly self-deprecating or silly, but I always do my best to swat those hands away.  If you’ve written a book and you think it’s good, do everything you can to get it published.  Send out 100 query letters, and be prepared to send out another 100 if needed.  Eventually, you might want to look into self-publishing, a means by which many authors are getting their work into the hands of readers today.

But please don’t spend months or years writing a book and then give up after twelve rejections.

Pressing on after hundreds of rejections demonstrates persistence.

To do any less demonstrates nothing more than a lack of desire.

The price of an e-book

While I continue to wonder why the six major publishing houses don’t get together and produce their own game-changing e-book reader that they control, I also think it’s critical that they do a better job of explaining the finances of of the e-book to the general public.  

The industry cannot survive if readers believe that an e-book should cost a dollar. More has to be said about the true cost of producing a book, electronic or otherwise.

The New York Times did a decent job of explaining it about a week ago, but the publishing houses must take the lead in promoting a better understanding to the average reader.

Sometimes it feels as if the publishing industry is akin to the music and automotive industries.  Rather than embracing technology, investing in the digital age and getting ahead of the story, they seem to be more interested in clinging to outdated models.  In discussions with various people in the industry, I am constantly surprised by their lack of understanding when it comes to social networks, online media, and technology in general.

Just three years ago, I was copyediting SOMETHING MISSING by hand, using a green pen.  When it came time to edit UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO, I was doing so digitally, but this was something new for my publisher.  Prior to a year or so ago, hundreds of pages of manuscript were still being shipped between editors and authors, full of red and green marks. 

This struck me as utterly bizarre, especially considering my friends and my agent had already made their revision suggestions digitally and had been doing so since I had begun writing the book.  Beginning the editing process with my publishing house was like stepping back into the Stone Age.

In a perfect world, or at least in my perfect world, my publisher would hire me as their chief technologist, responsible for informing and infusing the business with the technology required to push them into the forefront of the digital age. 

I think I’d be pretty good at it.  But perhaps they already have a well-qualified individual working hard on this. 

I certainly hope so. 

A question in need of an answer

I was talking to a friend about publishing today, and once again I found myself proclaiming my fondness for the ancient but still highly effective technology known as a book.  I have nothing against e-books and know many happy Kindle owners, but for me, I would rather not carry a device that I would need to worry about getting wet, damaged or stolen.  For me, the book, made from pulp and ink, works exceptionally well.

And honestly, I don’t need a thousand books at my fingertips, just a click or two away.  One at a time is fine by me.  And while being able to download a book and begin reading it in seconds sounds great, my reading doesn’t work this way.  I read a book, and if I’m close to finishing, I have another with me, ready to go. 

Many of the benefits of the e-book just seem more style than substance to me.  

My friend scoffed.  “The industry is changing, Matt.  You’re going to have to accept it.”

I hate statements like this.  “How profoundly obvious of you,” I should have said. Of course the industry is changing.  What industry isn’t?  In fact, what industry in the history of industry has remained stagnant?  Publishing is no different than computers, cars or turkey basters.  There’s always change.

But I’m also reminded of the Buggles’ song Video Killed the Radio Star and the certainty in the early 1980’s that music videos would be the primary source of music consumption in the future.  Twenty years later, MTV barely shows videos and it’s the song that drives the industry.  More music is consumed on the radio than on television by a wide margin.

The demise of the pulp and ink book seems greatly exaggerated to me. 

But I have no doubt that e-books are here to stay, and this leads me to an important question:

Why have the Big Six publishers not designed their own electronic book reader?  Why are they allowing Amazon, Apple, and Sony to dominate a market that they should control?  Couldn't these corporate behemoths get together, invest a pile of money and design a rival device? 

I’m sure there’s a reason why this has not happened, but could someone please tell me?  It would seem to me that investing in the design and development of an e-reader would make much more sense than waiting for someone like Apple to to provide the necessary competition in the market. 

Think about it.  The publishers collaborate on a great reader, sell it online and in independent bookstores, and set up a system by which e-books could be downloaded online for a price that the publisher sets or inside an indie bookstores at a discount, with a portion of the proceeds going to the store where the download takes place.

Why allow a company like Amazon to yank your product from their shelves when you can build and manage your own virtual shelves?

Someone please explain.

For those of you who didn't hear about this weekend’s kerfuffle between Macmillan and Amazon, this post and this post and this post summarize the incident especially well. 

And Molly Wood of CNET has an especially good rant on the subject. 

I hope he’s right

Sometimes I worry that I might have entered the publishing world at the wrong time.  Falling book sales, an unsettled eBook market and the decline of the independent bookstore have caused massive upheavals in the industry.

Add to this experienced and respected authors like John Irving, who suggests that new novelists have a tough road and Phillip Roth, who has declared the novel to be dead, and I find myself a little worried.

Will there be anyone left to buy my books in twenty years? 

Will books like the kind that I write even exist?

Voices of optimism are difficult to come by, which is why I treasure video clips like this a great deal.