Wednesday, March 5, 2014

“I am a pretty, pretty woman. But I’ll cut you.”

I have a fantasy where I’m able to employ certain authors as editors. I’ve worked with several whose strong taste and advice-giving chops would make them into formidable editors—or at least into editors whose work I’d like to read.

Tessa Gratton, at large editor? Where do I sign? I’m sure E. K. Johnston and Dot Hutchison would concur. (The emails I got from Tess about Dot’s debut will never leave my possession.)

John Hornor Jacobs would definitely be on that list too. And alas, for now, the list is a fantasy. Fortunately, though, John’s extremely entertaining (and sound) thoughts on character are available for the price of a click. A taste:

My responsibilities to my characters are (1) I should be fearless in the depiction of their character. This has very little to do with appearance, garb, physical description. I doubt any reader has one whit of interest as to the exact shade of red lipstick some ingénue wears – they care about her capacity for emotion and action. For love or betrayal. That is the essence of her character and consequently, the essence of that part of my own subconscious from which I conjured her.

Pretty neat trick, that.

I am a pretty, pretty woman. But I’ll cut you.

So click.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hiring an editor

This Gun for Hire (1942) Poster

Lots of smart people have gone over the famous Hugh Howey Report, revealing its many statistical and analytical shortcomings. I have nothing to add on those fronts (hell, I didn’t even read the whole piece). Read Shatzkin and others for detailed rebuttal and commentary.

There is one item in the Report and in Shatzkin I would like to address. (And if it has been addressed elsewhere, I’d be glad to know of it.)

Here’s the item in Hugh Howey’s Report:


And Mike Shatzkin actually echoes Howey’s position:


Allow me to say this plainly: When an author chooses, hires, and pays an editor, the author is creating incentives that are meaningfully different than the ones present in a “traditional” publishing deal.

To put it another way, if you want financial advice, you may hire a fee-based financial advisor or solicit the services of a commission-based advisor. And maybe if you’re very wealthy or your money is very interesting, advisors will pursue you. People feel strongly about both models, but no sensible person would claim they are interchangeable.

Or, perhaps an analogy closer to home: authors have long been counseled (rightly) that they should never “hire” an agent, that they should never pay reading fees, etc. to agents. Donald Maass gets tremendous criticism from many quarters from being an agent who also sells and promotes his own writing advice books. There is among authors a strong—and I’d argue healthy—awareness of the different incentives in each model where agenting is concerned.

Why, then, are so many people so quick to say “hiring” an editor is an acceptable substitute for the present model? The incentives are so clearly different.

It is not presently possible to hire me as an editor. I choose the manuscripts I want to edit, compete for them in the marketplace, and when I win them, I am accountable not to the author  but to my employer, the publisher, to make from that manuscript a book that the publisher can sell in quantities sufficient to meet certain performance goals. My incentive is to do this more often than not so I can continue to have a job.

I am not a short-sighted idiot or a sociopath or glutton for punishment, so I want very much for my authors to enjoy working with me and to find the experience rewarding and to be happy in the end. Authors are the fountainheads of my personal satisfaction in doing my job—my emotional incentive, if you will. But that doesn’t mean I want them to sign my paychecks. My primary incentive—my financial incentive—does not not come from the author. When it comes time to say what I believe will make a book successful, the pressure comes not from my relationship with the author but from my relationship with my employer—who is, pleasantly, fairly removed from the day to day work of editing. No one editorial decision has me thinking about my livelihood, thank goodness.

In the world of for hire-editors, the incentives and accountability are much . . . cozier. Or, if you prefer (and I do), you could say the incentives appear hopelessly entangled, painfully acute, and way too close for comfort. I do not want someone who is trying to do the hard work of writing a novel with me looking over her shoulder thinking about whether she’s getting good value for my fee. I don’t want “he who pays the piper calls the tune” in any author’s mind as he works on my edits. I don’t want to think about my mortgage when I suggest an author needs to scrap tens of thousands of words. I don’t want the temptation to flatter a writer whose manuscript I don’t believe will sell because he will make a good reference.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made myself clear. For-hire editing is different from the model that’s evolved in traditional publishing. Maybe it’s actually better for reasons that remain opaque to me in my vast inexperience of it. Maybe for-hire editing is the way I’ll have to go one day (may that day be very, very far off). But don’t let anyone get away with telling you it’s the same.

[Update: I will happily attach a civil rebuttal, critique, or commentary to this from a freelance editor who wants to address the question of incentives and editing. Just stick it in the comments and I’ll copy it into the main post.]

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

If I had a million dollars…

…to spend to help the ALA Youth Media Awards, I’d probably spend it like I’m about to describe. You see, I love the awards—the whole slate of them. They’re a fantastic but underutilized resource for anyone who loves books. And I want to see them reach their maximum audience. So here’s how I’d start: I’d endow a fund to finance a permanent YMA Civilian Publicity Strike Force. Here’s how it would work:

The three governing principles:

1. I would begin by stating that my goal is that the whole awards list becomes well known as the premier discovery tool for people who want to buy high quality books. The Whole List—all the Youth Media Awards--will be important even if the Newbery and Caldecott remain supreme. People on the street buying books for children in their lives should see the YMAs as guide that has value to them across a huge spectrum of needs—not just those addressed by the big two.

2. Nothing about how the awards are chosen changes. New awards are added or modified as they would naturally be

3. The one slight exception to 2 is the date of Midwinter. If Midwinter needs to move into the holiday shopping window, the ALA should at least consider that.

Given those three principles, the strike force might consider the following as first steps:

1. Every single honoree and committee member is a trained and promoted public ambassador for the list in their community—in the media, in the retail, and in libraries. If a news outlet in Topeka, Kansas wants to do a story about the Caldecott book, they should at least be aware that the a Printz honoree or the chair of the Stonewall committee lives in their city—and that those awards were chosen with equal care. There are a lot more news-worthy early morning phone call stories than are presently reported.  Hell, you could even deputize editors in this aspect.

2. The strike force will help the Newbery and Caldecott honorees to lend some of their celebrity to winners of the awards that are now less well known.

3. The strike force will disseminate the list of awards in forms and through channels that are accessible to regular readers. Apps, shareable videos, whatever.

4. The strike force will reach out to retailers large and small who could use the awards lists to help their customers discover books.

5. The strike force will annually make non-binding recommendations to the various award committees about how they might optimize the way the awards are announced, how annotations are written, and when speeches and celebrations are held. However, the strike force will remain forever mute on the subject of selection criteria.

OK, that’s what I’d do with that million bucks I could give to the ALA. You?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Simple New Year’s resolutions for authors

  1. Backup your work.
  2. I don’t care what else you resolve. See 1.

I have very few good habits, but computer backup and regular review of my backup schemes is one of them.

Here’s what I do these days:

  1. I’m on a Mac at home, so I backup to an external drive on the desk with Time Machine. Easy. This is in case of disk corruption or some other failure. I’m sure there’s some PC equivalent.
  2. My wife is a freelance writer and editor, so all her working stuff is in a folder that lives in my Dropbox folder, and that syncs to the cloud and to my work machine. In practice, this should mean her most recent working files plus a decent version history are effectively impossible to lose accidentally and are easy to retrieve from several sources.
  3. I use Backblaze to backup the whole Mac to the cloud (including things like photos, etc. that don’t go to Dropbox). There are lots of options for this service, of course, but Backblaze works well for me.

Annual cost for all my backup schemes is around $100.

If you’re a writer, you owe it to yourself to do number 2 at least. Do it right now. Dropbox’s free storage allotment will be more than sufficient for many years’ worth of manuscripts, and thus for no money at all you can have good, basic protection from lost files. Just move your manuscripts (your intricate folder structure or the mess of files in your Documents folder—however you work) into your Dropbox folder and leave it there. If you’ve got multiple machines, you’ll also have easy access to your files from anywhere.

(Yes, of course there is a tale of authorial woe behind this post.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

This is a call

Unagented debut authors of YA fiction, I will open the submission window for one week in January. I will look at any debut YA attached to an email dated between 1/6/2014 and 1/12/2014.
Some specifics:
  • I consider a debut to be a first book-length work in any category. So, if you've published a picture book, a MG novel, a work of narrative nonfiction, etc, you're not eligible for this call. Similarly, self-published books are books as far as I'm concerned. If it had an ISBN and appeared for sale anywhere, it's your debut.
  • Please take a look at what I’ve published in the past. I’m not going to set any sub-genre specifications, but you might draw some conclusions based on what Lab has done before. It’s a small list.
  • I'm open to submissions from any country, as long as the book is in English. 
  • No “New Adult.”
Warning: Ask anyone. I’m slow as hell with these, and thus I do not require any sort of exclusivity.
Submission specifics are here:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

So this happened


We are all so very, very proud of Carrie. (And we hope her pinky feels better soon.)

I obviously have a well-established soft spot for the YALSA's Morris Award, but the award really is a fantastic standard bearer for all that YA can be and for how healthy and exciting the genre is. The Morris should the high-road rebuttal of choice for every stupid HuffPo/Slate/whoeverthehell piece about how YA is just sparkly vampires, dystopias, and John Green (though it is all those things too).

Congratulations to all the nominees! I look forward to reading them all.

Friday, November 22, 2013


To win an advance copy of The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston plus any other Carolrhoda Lab title of your choosing, please do the following:

1. Follow @ek_johnston on Twitter.

2. Comment below or tweet about a book where everyone’s conveniently forgotten the important role played by dragons: “Nobody remembers the dragons in [name of book] because [pithy reason]. #heretherebedragons”

For example: “Nobody remembers the dragons in Dune because everybody wants to be a Freeman riding a sandworm not a Harkonnen on a dragon. #heretherebedragons.”

If you’re confused, go here. It might help.

We’ll pick our favorites on Monday morning.