Before a Book Becomes a Book: Guiding a Good Idea into Print

Before a Book Becomes a Book: Guiding a Good Idea into Print

Tuesday, April 23, 1996
Forum arranged by Sara Shopkow
Our guests: Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada, literary agents
Notes by Lynn Ferar

Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada (whom Sara Shopkow introduced as the "most gracious people in publishing") are longtime literary agents and joint authors of delightful books about the Bay Area's Victorian houses, the so-called Painted Ladies. Michael has also written one of the most useful books a developmental editor can own, How to Write a Book Proposal. Elizabeth and Michael discussed the business of being an agent, interactions between editors and agents, and their take on what's new in publishing.

Michael described publishing as a fundamental tension between art and commerce, and the greatest opportunity in the world today as a clean sheet of paper. There are more and easier ways to publish and distribute than ever. Over 450 titles were published this year about Windows 95 alone. The field is always open to new ideas and is still passionate, as shown by the "endless supply of overworked, underpaid good editors/galley slaves." The Bay Area is second only to New York.

Publishing today is synergy, the concept of Star Trek as TV show, movie, book, and video. Today it is harder to sell little books to big publishers because they invest so heavily in a few titles that lend themselves to the synergy concept. Only seven publishers supply 80 percent of best-sellers. Publishers like to avoid risk by imitating previously successful ideas. Publishers are buying four kinds of fiction: genre, mainstream, literary, and commercial novelty. Mysteries of the human heart have always been best-sellers. Nonfiction is easier to sell and promote. Women buy 70 percent of books.

Writers need agents because agents

1. are objective, stable, experienced judges,
2. teach writers what they need to know,
3. absorb rejections,
4. free writers to write,
5. are a source of material to publishers, who would rather receive from agents, and
6. are better negotiators (contracts, rights, and payments are more complex).

Agents are needed more than ever because

1. there are more subsidiary rights and negotiations,
2. paperwork slows as companies become bigger,
3. agents can save writers from mistakes that cost time and money,
4. promotion is more important than content. Publishers spend 10 percent on content and 80 percent on marketing.

Elizabeth urged writers to participate in a writing group, network with other writers and professionals for publishing opportunities, and make submissions to agents "impeccable" - that is, use an editor. Big publishers will not do extensive editing. To get an agent's attention, a writer should write well and "hook" the reader. Agents' jobs depend on finding new writing, and they should want to develop their clients. Jeff Herman's Insider's Guide to Agents and Publishers (Prima) is recommended.

Michael and Elizabeth distributed helpful guidelines for writers that included a tip about the importance of proofreading: "Butt two bee ore knot too bee" is spelled correctly, according to a computer spell checker.



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