Posted by: Chris Kepner | June 25, 2010

Revamping The Writer’s Advocate

One of the (many) reasons I’ve been inconsistent with my posting lately is that I’ve been working on a new design for the site. Check it out: The (New and Fancier) Writer’s Advocate

(Go ahead and click it. I’ll follow you, and so will all of the words below. Here, one more time: The (New and Fancier) Writer’s Advocate)

I’ll keep the old site up briefly to give readers a chance to change their bookmarks. (New URL: http://www.thewritersadvocate.org) If you’ve subscribed to this blog through email or RSS, please visit the new site and use the icons in the very top right to update your subscription. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

For those who don’t know much about WordPress, there are two versions: WordPress.com and WordPress.org. Blogs built on the .com platform are hosted for free by WordPress and have limitations as far as the types of extras you can offer visitors. Javascript widgets, for instance, are not supported by WordPress.com. I made the move to WordPress.org, and I now pay for hosting myself through GoDaddy. This gives me a lot more flexibility with the design of the site, and I’m pretty excited about it.

I recently discovered GoodReads, and totally fell in love with that site. They offer javascript widgets like the one in the top left corner of my new site, which shows twenty titles randomly selected from my all-time bookshelf (not comprehensive yet, but I’m working on it.) I should note right away that my rating reflects my own personal response to each book, and is not meant in any way as a critical assessment of the book’s quality or relevance. My goal was to give readers of my blog and potential clients an inside look at my taste in reading.

Below my GoodReads all-time shelf excerpt is another widget powered by Amazon, which displays some music recommendations. It’s mostly jazz, my favorite type of music, and it’s generally pretty modern stuff. I encourage you to listen while you’re reading my posts, and who knows? Maybe you’ll find something you like.

Finishing off the left side of each page is another GoodReads widget—this one showing the twelve books I’ve read most recently. Along with a star rating, this nifty little widget includes a very brief review that I’ll write for each book. If you’re looking for representation, one of the best ways to find out if we’re a match is to pick up a couple of the books that I’ve rated highly. If you’re not looking for representation, well, hopefully I’ll help you find some great new books to read!

The home page features my Twitter feed on the right side, but this will disappear when you expand one of the posts. Also notice the Share button at the top and bottom of each post, and feel free to use it to spread the word if you like something I’ve posted.

Anyway, there’s my very quick rundown of the new site. I’d really love to get your opinion on it, so please, please submit a comment and let me know what you think.

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Posted by: Chris Kepner | June 5, 2010

The End of Facebook Freedom

I was recently asked to do a guest blog appearance, and below is the piece that was originally published on May 29, 2010 at…

I’ve lived twenty-five long years now, and certain things become apparent to one who is lucky enough to make it this far. Being one of the “old-timers,” I believe I have license to reminisce on days gone by, things we enjoyed once that have faded into the ether, or changed beyond recognition.

Facebook, for instance. Boy, in my day that sure was something.

It was the autumn of 2004, the time of the carefree and the exuberant. I happened to be studying abroad in London that semester, but the ubiquity of the Internet ensured that the blue Facebook wave crashed on our shores as well. I remember it like it was yesterday—I was in a computer lab with one of my roommates checking fantasy football stats, when he turned to me and asked if I’d heard of “this Facebook thing” yet. I replied that I hadn’t. He told me to check it out, though qualified his endorsement by saying it was in fact pretty stupid, just to save face in the event that he was on the wrong side of a lame fad. He urged me to just try it, that it was addicting and I would soon be hooked.

And I was.

Most everyone in my undergraduate class of 2006, as well as the other pre-baccalaureate classes of 2005, 2007, and 2008, was either already on or joining by the hour. It was like Woodstock for the tech generation. We were free to document the debauchery of our formative years through text and photos (and soon videos as well.) It was one great shadowbox homage to liberty and youth.

But, as all things tend to do, it ended.

Somewhere around the autumn of 2005, the beginning of our senior year, one of my friends announced that he was closing his Facebook account because he’d heard that potential employers were looking at applicants’ profiles as part of the hiring process. Well, that just started a frenzy of untagging photos and adjusting privacy settings. And shortly after that it was announced that our beloved site was to be opened to the public. Our wonderful little island on the web was being threatened by outsiders, and it was like the lights turning on at the end of the party of the year.

Pretty soon people started using Facebook to market themselves. This was appalling to me, and I raged against the dying light of the site’s ideal. For it wasn’t supposed to be about money or fame—it was supposed to be about friends and fun.

I guess we all have to grow up eventually, and now that I’m in the publishing industry (and I’ve accepted that the Facebook I knew and loved is gone for good) I can see that there is real value in utilizing the site to connect with and build an audience. I’m an “old-timer,” as I said, so it’s been difficult for me to make the transition from a fun-based Facebook experience to a business one.

Posted by: Chris Kepner | January 13, 2010

“Real careers are built stepwise.”

I want to share an excerpt from Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s interview with Jonathan Galassi, part of the brilliant Agents & Editors series in Poets & Writers. Mr. Galassi is the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

If you agree with what Mr. Galassi is saying below, you’re the type of writer I want to work with. Either way, I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comment section.


You’ve lamented the blockbuster mentality that’s arisen in publishing, where it’s become easier for a publisher to sell a first novel and harder for an author to build a career over a number of books that sell modestly. Can you speak to that for writers?

Suppose I had written a first novel that five publishers wanted to publish and the range of offers was from fifty thousand dollars to four hundred thousand. I probably wouldn’t go with the fifty-thousand-dollar offer, and I might well go with the four-hundred-thousand-dollar offer. But I hope that I would think through how the publisher was going to try to make that money back. What’s the publisher’s idea of what to do with my book? Of course if you’re a young person who has never made a penny and all of a sudden somebody offers you a lot of money, you’re going to take it. You need it. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the right thing to do.

Why?

Because if your book doesn’t do well and earn that money back, or make a credible showing, you’re going to have a harder time the next time. That’s why I think the old system was better. Forty years ago, your agent would likely have sent your book to editors one at a time, but even if it was done as a multiple submission, the differential between the offers would not have been as great. The choice would be made on other bases. I know that this may sound self-serving, but I do think that real careers are built stepwise. I still believe that. And I haven’t seen a lot of careers built the other way. I think a lot of agents, especially younger ones, feel that the commitment the big advance represents is what’s going to bring the author success. But I don’t think that’s true.

On the flip side of the world of huge advances is the midlist writer, who is really struggling today because of the computer and the sales track. Put yourself in that person’s shoes and, knowing what you know, tell me what you’d do to try to change your fate.

Most books have to be midlist because only a few can be best-sellers. If you’re a serious writer, you should be writing the books you’re going to write.

But what if you have some ambition, as all writers do, and really want a readership and think that you deserve one?

If they deserve one, they’ll get one. I believe that. I believe that eventually they will get their readership. Now, I also think there are way more people writing books than are going to get a readership. But I think that the books that really make a difference are going to have a readership. It may not be immediate. There are many examples of writers who have labored in relative obscurity for a long time until their ship came in. Look at Bolaño. His great success is posthumous and not even in his own country.

Writing is its own reward. It has to be. I really believe that. This is a part of publishing that’s really hard to come to grips with. But publishers can’t make culture happen the way they want it to happen. They can stand up for what they believe in, and they can work to have an impact, but in the end it’s like the brilliant thing that Helen Vendler said about poets. She was asked, “What’s the canon?” and she said something like, “The poets are going to decide what the canon is. The poets who poets read are the canon.” I think that, in the end, that’s true about all literature. The books that people read over time, and keep reading, are the books that matter. We can huff and puff and pay money and advertise and everything else, but in the end, if the readers don’t come, we can’t do anything about it.

A few years before FSG was sold, you said the company was doing well because it wasn’t able to play “the money game.” Now that you are able to play the money game, and sometimes do pay big advances, why would you say you’re doing well?

I think we’ve stayed pretty close to our mission. I think we’ve become more focused as a publisher. With regard to big advances, I’ll tell you a dirty little secret. I think that very often the big advances you pay, at least for a company like ours, don’t end up having the result you want. Sometimes you just have to pay them. But the real successes, which make the difference in our business, don’t come from the books for which we pay big money. When we pay a big advance our job is to earn back what we gave the author so that we come out clean—basically break even or make a small profit. Whereas a book where we start much lower, and go a big distance, is much more mutually profitable. That model is also much more what we ought to be about, I think.


Read the interview in its entirety here. I definitely recommend a subscription to Poets & Writers.



Posted by: Chris Kepner | December 18, 2009

Books Are Great Gifts

The Association of American Publishers is celebrating the second year of their Books Are Great Gifts campaign, and if you don’t know about it you should definitely check it out.

Why, you ask?

I’m going to go ahead and assume that if you’re reading this, the success of books in general is, in some way, important to you. If you’re in publishing, your job depends upon it. If you’re a writer, your ability to make a living doing what you love is at stake. Perhaps you are simply someone who loves to read.

In any case, now is the time to take some action to ensure books have a place in our culture for generations to come. You may think your individual effort is meaningless, but I assure you, it is not.

Fellow book lover, I implore you:

1. Think books for the people on your shopping list. This extends beyond December, to birthdays and other holidays throughout the year.

2. Gently remind the people you know that books make great gifts. Add the image above to your email signature. (They have other colors at the Book Are Great Gifts website.) Update your Facebook status. Tweet. Blog about it (like me!) Just get this message out there somehow, ideally in a permanent way as opposed to one that will be forgotten or ignored after New Years.

They’re currently having a contest on Facebook that ends at midnight on Sunday, December 20th. You can win some free books, just for becoming a fan and posting one of the best reasons why books make great gifts.

Last year for Christmas, I bought everyone in my family a book and it was a great experience. The trick is not to give them something you like, but something they will like. It forces you to really consider your loved ones’ interests, as opposed to thinking along the lines of what they “need” (new socks, a tea kettle, etc.)

Anyway, I’m very thankful for all of my new readers and I wish everyone a blessed holiday season. What are you all planning on reading over the next couple of weeks?

Posted by: Chris Kepner | December 7, 2009

UPDATE: Is this really the end of Oprah’s Book Club?

Last week’s issue of Publishers Weekly ran what was essentially an obituary to Oprah’s Book Club.

I still don’t understand why people are assuming that the Book Club is ending just because Oprah’s talk show is ending. My last post explains in detail why I believe this to be a misconception, and it spurred some discussion amongst my fledgling readership. I’d love to continue the conversation, and perhaps get to bottom of this issue.

I’m operating, of course, under the assumption that there has been no announcement about the end of Oprah’s Book Club.

Am I missing something?

Posted by: Chris Kepner | November 24, 2009

Is this really the end of Oprah’s Book Club?

Late last Thursday night, The Wall Street Journal implied that the end of The Oprah Winfrey Show is, to the publishing industry, a nuclear bomb set to detonate on 9/9/11.

Now, setting aside this absurd metaphor, which GalleyCat weighed in on Monday morning—has anyone out there even heard for certain that Oprah’s Book Club will end with Oprah’s daily talk show?

It seems to me there’s no reason why it should. Oprah is certainly bigger than her show, having built a multimedia empire that will add her OWN cable network in January 2011. The talk show is ending, but Oprah is not going anywhere. And she makes no mention of ending her book club.

But then, don’t you remember? She already ended the book club seven and a half years ago. (Be sure to read the comment at the end of that article, and let me know if it sounds like anything you’ve heard in the past few days.)

It’s more than a little disappointing to me that the ubiquity of corporate influence has us bemoaning future dollars lost, when in reality the publishing industry will live on with or without Oprah’s Book Club, as revered as it is. As publishing professionals, I wish we would all take a cue from Ms. Winfrey, who doesn’t think of herself as a businesswoman. The New York Times argues, and I agree, that she is chiefly motivated by passion, not money, and this is what makes her so influential.

Will that influence fade with the move from network to cable television? It’s possible that some of her legions of fans will be saying goodbye to her for good, but I’m willing to bet that number is negligible. Associated Press points out that The Oprah Winfrey Show’s viewership has already declined by more than half from its peak of 12.6 million viewers a day in the early 1990s. But I would argue that, gradually, many of those viewers have simply been choosing a different way to receive Oprah’s message. Instead of watching her hour-long show every day, they are visiting her website—which receives about 5.6 million pageviews a day according to valuatemysite—and prominently features, yes, Oprah’s Book Club.

And let’s not forget the 2.4 million subscribers to O, The Oprah Magazine. While it’s had its share of problems, word from The New York Post on Saturday was that Oprah’s magazine “is in the midst of a sweeping redesign that will be unveiled as part of the 10th anniversary issue next May.” The magazine also has a prominent books section, whose online version is even richer. (Again, the lower circulation numbers are probably the result of more readers choosing to get the content online.) The savvy September hiring of Sara Nelson, former editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, shows a commitment to books going forward.

Now, will all those people who regularly read Oprah’s magazine and the content on Oprah’s website—the operative words being regularly read—suddenly stop buying the books she’s given no indication she’ll stop recommending?

I think not. I think we should all take a deep breath, in and out, and get back to work.

But what do you think?

Posted by: Chris Kepner | November 18, 2009

Book Bloggers Rock!

This is my response to “Book Bloggers Rock!” by Fauzia Burke over at The Huffington Post. Be sure to read the full article by clicking the picture below.


Book bloggers are wonderful people who are adding something of great value, as their primary goal in blogging is to promote the exchange of ideas, which is the oft-overlooked soul of publishing.

I think the publicity departments at publishing houses do a great job, but there is always more that can be done. It seems an impossibility to exhaust every outlet for promoting a book (or anything, for that matter). It’s my understanding that they are doing their best to branch out to bloggers and other new media outlets, but are operating on a traditional set of priorities that places major media first. The publicists are wonderful people as well, and they work incredibly hard (often too hard). This is why I think companies like yours (FSB Associates) fill an important role in book promotion, and at our agency we’re getting more involved in the publicity efforts for our clients’ books. We’re not trying to interfere with the work that the publisher is doing, but rather trying to supplement their efforts.

Read more on publishing at The Huffington Post.

Posted by: Chris Kepner | November 1, 2009

Scared of the Query

Plenty of things are meant to frighten us on Halloween, but for many writers like Kelley, nothing is scarier than the query letter. (I feel like there’s an opportunity for a great costume there. If anyone out there has pictures of someone dressed up as a query letter, please send them my way.)

Kelley: “What would you say would be the most important part of a Query Letter? I have to say, I hate writing them. I seem to always put off the query letter because it scares me. As confident as I am about the stories I write, I admit to being scared of the Query. I’ve done them for short stories before and apparantly done something right, but they still loom over me.”

There’s no doubt that query letters can be a major source of anxiety, but they’re a necessary part of the process of getting your work published (if you decide not to self-publish, of course). The best thing you can do is educate yourself, and then try to stay calm. I believe that good work will shine through a marginal query in most cases.

So many people have expressed their thoughts on this topic, which is easy to see if you Google “How to write a query letter.” Most of this information is valid and perfectly useful, but beware of reading too much of it. There are differing, often contradictory opinions about the fine points of a successful query, so if you try to read everything out there you’ll drive yourself crazy. AgentQuery has a very detailed explanation of what goes into a successful query letter, and I recommend starting there.

It’s a good idea to solicit feedback on your query from friends and family, assuming they can be impartial and give you constructive criticism. Take this criticism with a grain of salt though, as the main thing you’re looking for is whether or not the letter holds their interest and/or gets them excited to read more. For useful criticism on how to shape your letter, send it to a place like Query Shark, or to other writers who blog and offer advice.

Once you’ve got a draft of your query letter that you’re happy with, the other important aspect of educating yourself is researching the agents you plan to reach out to. If an agent offers any specific guidelines—the way Victoria Sanders, Nathan Bransford, and Rachelle Gardner do—customize your letter to that person accordingly. This is a far more effective method than sending out the same letter to a huge list of agents. Focus your search in small bursts of 5-10 agents whose interests are in line with yours. And for Faulkner’s sake, don’t be this guy.

The obvious truth is that the most important part of a query letter is the writing. It should be the best writing you can possibly do, so it’s simply going to come down to whether or not the agent is a good match for your voice and subject matter. If you’ve done your research, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance.

I realize that I’ve generalized a lot here, but to be fair it was a pretty general question. Please feel free to use the comment section to ask more specific follow-up questions.

I used my extra hour from daylight savings to write this post. What did you do with yours?

Posted by: Chris Kepner | October 24, 2009

Getting Started

Thanks to Patrick Egan for posting the first comment on this blog!

Patrick: “I am about halfway finished with the first draft of a fiction novel, and have neither an agent, nor publisher, (I know ~ lucky me, huh?). One question I have is, at what point should I begin the hunt? Do I wait until I have a final draft that I am comfortable to present, or should I start earlier, pitching the idea before the novel is fully written?”

A great question, and certainly a common concern for aspiring writers.  Non-fiction projects are often submitted when they’re incomplete—a proposal generally consisting of a chapter outline and several sample chapters, with plenty of variations on this theme.  Since you’re working on a novel, however, you should wait until it’s complete before querying agents.  I’ll go a step further and say that you should revise your entire manuscript at least once, probably at least twice, before you try to find an agent.  You put a lot of work into that stack of papers, so be sure to get it into the best shape possible before you show it to the person you want to help you get it published.  In the meantime, your best course of action (aside from pressing forward with the novel) is to look to peers for feedback on your concept.  There are so many other writers out there who blog about their experiences and are more than willing to share their thoughts.  I recently discovered BlogCatalog, and you might want to check it out.

Blogs like this one and those listed at Publishers Marketplace are good options if you want to try to get the opinion of someone in publishing—just go in with the expectation that you may not get a response, as some of these blogs get hundreds of comments a day.

Patrick: “Another question is, and I’m sure you’ll be bombarded with this one in no time, are you taking on any new clients? If not, can you give any advice on how to find one? Are there any tips on how a ‘new’ writer can make himself more attractive to an agent?”

We are actively looking for new clients at Victoria Sanders & Associates. Be sure to read the bios for our agents. If you think Victoria Sanders or Tanya McKinnon would be a better fit for your project, read these submission guidelines and send your query to queriesvsa[at]hotmail.com. If you’d like to send me a query letter, email it to ckepner[at]victoriasanders.com. I prefer writers include the first three chapters pasted into the body of the email.

A fantastic source of information for writers of all levels of experience is Poets & Writers Magazine.  We have a subscription, and I especially love their Agents & Editors series.  The current issue introduces readers to Jonathan Karp, the publisher and editor in chief of Twelve, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.

If you’re looking to stay abreast of the publishing industry, Publishers Weekly is another great resource.

Additionally, I encourage you to visit some of the other agent blogs listed at Publishers Marketplace.  If you don’t have a membership yet, I highly recommend getting one.  You can also subscribe to this blog, as I’ll be adding my own tips over time.

Posted by: Chris Kepner | October 16, 2009

Introduction

I envision this blog as a place to communicate with writers, as well as my colleagues in the publishing industry.  I should make it clear from the outset that I am not an expert in my field, but rather a young professional with plenty to learn.  In a sense, I think that’s what will make this journey so exciting.

I welcome questions and comments, and really look forward to establishing an engaging dialogue.  Let’s get it started!

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