My Q&A with ‘Contemporary Authors’

It’s nice when I’m reminded in small but important (to me) ways that I’m a published author.

Not long ago I was contacted by Contemporary Authors, an annual directory (print and online) that lists information about 120,000 writers in all genres. I was informed that I’ll be listed in a future edition.

In addition to checking my listing, they asked me a few questions.

Q. What first got you interested in writing?

A. I liked books growing up. I admired writers and authors, and wanted to be one from a young age but spent a lot of years thinking it was not a viable career option.

Q. Who or what particularly influences your work?

A. As an author, I like nonfiction, history, biography, a good sports story. A few of my favorite authors are Laura Hillenbrand, Rick Bragg and Roland Lazenby.

Q. Describe your writing process.

A. I do my best writing in the morning, spending a half day or so making progress on a manuscript. I try to write a clean, high-quality first draft to cut down on rewriting. My editing process is largely focused on trimming.

Q. What is the most surprising thing you have learned as a writer?

A. That I was able to navigate all the steps needed to be published by a major publisher.

Q. Which of your books is your favorite and why?

A. Only one is published–THE LONGEST SHOT–but another one is on the way, due out from St. Martin’s Press in September 2014 to coincide with the Ryder Cup. Like children, I love them equally.

Q. What kind of effect do you hope your books will have?

A. I’m more than satisfied when readers say it was a good story that was well told.

My Email from John Grisham

This morning I told my wife I got an email from John Grisham. She just looked at me, waiting for the punch line. I said I don’t know why John began the message with “Dear Reader,” but I was willing to look past that. John was obviously reaching out to me, a fellow writer and author.

Seriously, though, at some point I did sign on to Mr. Grisham’s email list, so his holiday greetings and reflection on his writing career did land in my email inbox a few hours ago. Whatever you think of his work, whether or not you’re a fan, I think John offers some nuggets for all who write for fun, work, publication and more.

I offer a few thoughts below, but first the note.

* * *

December 19, 2013

Dear Reader,

This is the time of year for taking stock and giving thanks. As I’ve said many times, I feel extremely lucky to be able to write books that entertain so many people. Thank you for buying them. I am delighted you enjoy them.

Twenty-five years ago, I suddenly found myself staring at the opportunity to walk away from a less than prosperous law practice (which I did without even turning off the lights) in order to sit alone for hours each day writing stories. I feel privileged, even blessed to have spent these years doing what I dearly love. And it is still tremendous fun. The words and ideas are flowing faster than I can write.

Through twenty-eight books for adults and four for kids, I have enjoyed every day at the typewriter (or keyboard or whatever writers call these things these days). The creating, plotting, editing, promoting, and, yes, the selling, are as exciting today as they were twenty-five years ago.

As I approach the slightly mature age of 59, I catch myself looking back, but also looking ahead. What will I be doing at 60, 65, 70, or 80? If I’m healthy, I plan to be writing legal thrillers, sports books, kids books, comic novels, short stories, maybe even screenplays. If I have learned one thing so far, it is that I cannot predict where the next story will come from.

But there are a lot of stories to be written. As long as you are there to read and enjoy them, I promise to keep writing.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy holiday season.


* * *

Obviously, John Grisham is wildly successful in a commercial sense. He doesn’t have to write another word to make a living. He has ample money to do, I expect, pretty much whatever he pleases. I imagine his wealth and fame have led to many new experiences and provided access to lots of high-profile people.

But, according to his above message, one thing John Grisham still wants and lives to do is to sit down at his keyboard and write. It sounds like John plans to write many more books because, in his words, “the creating, plotting, editing, promoting, and, yes, the selling, are as exciting today as they were twenty-five years ago.”

I saw John Grisham last March in Charlottesville at the Virginia Festival of the Book. He was on stage with Frank Deford, Jane Leavy and David Zirin. The moderated conversation focused on sports stories but veered into other topics.

I recall a few of John’s comments, or at least a few that stuck out for me. He never expected the chart-topping, head-spinning success. Never. Like many of the rest of us, he just wanted to write and hopefully make a living.

I remember this fairly distinctly. John said that when the crazy success came, he thought to himself, “Don’t screw this up,” or “I better not screw this up.” John didn’t want the money and fame to cause him to lose his way like has happened to so many others in various fields of endeavor. He was determined to keep his head down, to keep writing, to keep doing his work.

I think that’s a great mantra for all of us who write. If we follow that example, we’ll also be successful, even if we don’t make it onto the bestseller lists.

My Agent Answers: Why Is It So Hard to Land a Literary Agent? (Conclusion)

My literary agent, Rick Broadhead, specializes in non-fiction and works with the top publishing houses in North America. Rick has represented non-fiction books that have appeared on bestseller lists. His clients’ books have also been shortlisted for literary awards, translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and TV development.

By Rick Broadhead

Copyright © Rick Broadhead. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

(This is the final installment of a two-part series. Read Part 1.)

Often, a book proposal doesn’t get the past the editor’s desk if the editor doesn’t believe he/she will be able to generate internal support for the idea.

Even if an offer is made and you sign a deal with a major publishing house, you’ve still got two more major hurdles. A book isn’t guaranteed to be well-distributed just because a major publisher has acquired it. If the booksellers don’t get excited about it, orders will be small, and the book can stagnate before it even hits the shelves. And regardless of how many orders are placed by retail stores, if there isn’t sufficient publicity to generate awareness and momentum for the book, sales could be very disappointing.

Publishers are looking for books that can move tens of thousands of copies, so the bar is set very high. This is not as easy to achieve as you may think.

Keep in mind that most agents are receiving dozens or hundreds of book pitches a week. Editors are usually in the same boat. The process of pitching a book to editors, and then negotiating a contract, if an offer is made, is very time consuming. It can take several months. So agents have to pick and choose their projects carefully. It is simply not practical or possible for an agent to circulate every proposal to publishers.

I once had an author ask me why I couldn’t just send out his proposal to editors and see what happens, even though I wasn’t keen on it. Editors depend on literary agents to vet proposals and send them the most promising prospects. Even though editors and agents often disagree on what constitutes a strong idea, I have to believe in a project in order to attach my name to it and then take up an editor’s valuable time.

When an agent rejects a proposal and says “it’s not right for me” or “it doesn’t fit my current needs,” it means that the agent isn’t motivated enough by the idea to be able to pursue it enthusiastically.

That decision is usually based on multiple factors, including the agent’s current client load, the quality of the writing, what the agent’s personal interests are, what projects the agent believes his/her publishing contacts are most likely to be interested in, how much the project is going to sell for, and more.

It’s a complicated business!

Trends in Self-Publishing

I have written two books. THE LONGEST SHOT came out in 2012. My next book is going through the publishing cycle and will be released in September 2014.

Neither of my books is self-published (both are with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, which is owned by Macmillan), but I expect there is a self-published book in my future. I think it could be an interesting venture.

While away in Indiana on Thanksgiving vacation, I read a USA TODAY story about the rapid rise of self-publishing. (I love getting the free newspaper at the hotels.)

Here are a few takeaways:

  • “The number of books being self-published in the U.S. ballooned to 391,000 titles in 2012, according to Bowker, an industry research group–an increase of nearly 60% from the previous year.”
  • “According to Smashwords, which distributes many self-published authors and titles to some of the most popular e-book sites … the best-selling 1% of titles net half the sales.”
  • “‘On average, authors spend between $1,000 and $2,000 to get their books into the marketplace,’ says Keith Ogorek, senior vice president of marketing at Author Solutions.”

Obviously, few self-published authors are making big money. Authors such as Amanda Hocking and Bella Andre, both featured in the article, are among the 1%.

Many others are like Portland, Maine, author Katie Lippa. Lippa has invested $700 in editorial services and made around $1,600 in book sales.

But money isn’t the sole reason people are compelled to write and publish a book. In fact, money is fourth on a list of reasons, according to Writer’s Digest as cited in the article.

What are the top two reasons?

To build a writing career and “to satisfy a lifelong ambition.”

I can relate to both.

Author Wendell Berry Visits Floyd

Wendell Berry.

Like other small towns, Floyd, Virginia, is a quiet, unassuming place. And yet, more often than one might expect, well-known people visit this one-stoplight town, whether musicians, politicians, authors, or others.

A few years ago bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver came to town because a lady connected to our local library wrote a letter to the famous novelist. Kingsolver, as I understand it, isn’t keen on public appearances and book tours. But she came to Floyd and spoke in the high-school auditorium.

Today, Wendell Berry arrives in Floyd.

Berry is a distinguished author and writer of more than 50 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is a farmer and activist whose writings and life have focused on community, conservation and a simple, slower lifestyle. The 79-year-old Kentuckian has won many awards (T.S. Eliot Award, Thomas Merton Award, National Humanities Medal to name a few). Most recently, Berry was the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.

In the Floyd Press, Colleen Redman reported:

[Wendell Berry] will conduct a book signing at the Floyd EcoVillage on Friday, November 22 at 4:00 p.m. Berry will speak at the Floyd County High School auditorium at 7:00 p.m. and will participate in a panel of national experts on the topic of forests and community. A moderated question and answer period is also scheduled.

Berry will travel to Yale University for a speaking event shortly after Thanksgiving, but first he is spending time in Floyd with common folk.

My Agent Answers: Why Is It So Hard to Land a Literary Agent?

My literary agent, Rick Broadhead, specializes in non-fiction and works with the top publishing houses in North America. Rick has represented non-fiction books that have appeared on bestseller lists. His clients’ books have also been shortlisted for literary awards, translated into multiple languages and optioned for film and TV development.

By Rick Broadhead

Copyright © Rick Broadhead. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

To understand why literary agents scrutinize projects so carefully, you need to understand the sales process.

I’m going to be most responsive to projects that I believe are saleable to the major publishers I work with. Even if I’m interested in the idea you’re pitching, I have to believe that the editors I work with are also going be receptive to the idea.

Because of the considerable amount of time required to shape an idea, pitch it to editors, and negotiate a contract, it’s simply impossible for an agent to represent everything, even projects that are likely to result in an offer from a publisher. Literary agencies are businesses, and they are not only motivated by their personal interest in certain topics, they are motivated by projects that are going to generate the most interest (and the strongest offers) from publishers.

No two literary agents are the same. Since agents have different personal interests (one may be interested in history while another may not) and different relationships with editors and publishers, it may take awhile for you to find an agent who can be an effective champion for your book.

There are several steps in the process of getting a book published.

First, the agent has to pitch the idea to an editor at a publishing house. Second, the editor has to sell your project internally to his/her colleagues (including the marketing and sales staff) and build enough in-house support to justify an offer from the publisher to the agent. Third, the publisher has to sell your book to the book buyers at the chains and bookstores.

This doesn’t happen until about six months before publication, when the publisher releases its catalog for the upcoming publishing season and publisher’s sales reps call on bookstores (and other accounts), hoping to generate big orders from book buyers.

Fourth, the publisher (and the author) need to generate enough publicity to make the public aware of the book and in turn drive sales.

When an agent is reviewing a book proposal, he/she has to think about all of these hurdles and whether or not the proposed book can successfully clear them.


2014 Virginia Festival of the Book

Nancy Damon.

Program Director Nancy Damon (at right) takes a rare break while reviewing the hundreds of applications and books that have arrived for consideration. By January [the festival] will have a mostly complete schedule that will be on the website with frequent updates. We might have some sneak peeks in late December.

(Source: Virginia Festival of the Book)

I’m going.

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Virginia Festival of the Book. My author application was approved and I was told the festival hopes to arrange a sports book panel that includes yours truly.

Last year was my first visit to the festival, which is located in Charlottesville. The highlight was an author event at a downtown theater that featured John Grisham, Frank Deford and Jane Levy.