A paper book is not a dead tree: it’s a living thing. Each page whispers as it turns. Books absorb smells. The Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth I bought in India still smells of the mango pickle that came in the same suitcase. The Bhagawad Gita I picked up at the ashram smells of incense. Book have long memories. A dog-earned page will open willingly to your touch. Set a book open on its belly and the page will remember your forgetfulness. My copy of Empire Falls still chides me with its curled up pages from the time I left it out in the rain.
I love used books. They carry the territorial markings of a previous owner. A coffee spill. A pressed autumn leaf. A single blond hair. Often I find slips with scribbled phone numbers, boarding passes, business cards, grocery lists (why is it predictable for someone who reads Jhumpa Lahiri to have Hummus and Pita bread on her shopping list?) Sometime a person will leave an actual bookmark inside. Once I found a commemorative bookmark for a two-year old baby girl who had died. It just broke my heart to see her little face. I used that bookmark to read Map of the World which is about achild who drowns. Later, when I donated the book to our local library I left the bookmark inside, thinking maybe it would touch another as it had touched me.
I hate mindless highlighting and copious notes but tiny sribbles inside book pages intrigue me. I have a very old copy of the I-CHING with Heikki Nylund, Kalkata 1964 written in black fountain pen. The name sounds Finnish. I also bought an Amazon “like new” copy of The Great Gatsby. with the inscription “Marla, I look in Gatsby’s heart and see mine. Ever yours, EM.” Evidentally Marla did not care because the book is brand new. Or maybe Marla died. Maybe they both died. Romeo and Juliet. Such useless imaginings tend to eat up my day but I can’t seem to help myself.
Ah and covers….I pause in my reading to turn back to look at them. I love the cover of Angela’s Ashes. The wee boy in his threadbare clothes– so poor but with such a cheeky attitude. It warms the cockles of my heart (If you want to know what “cockles” mean – here is your trivia for the day. Go on, get sidetracked and waste more time than you are doing so already).
Book publishing is in fast-food mode. Novels are now cheaply processed and readily available. Readers are snackers and nibblers: a taste of this and a wiff of that. There is lots of unhealthy consumption, poor digestion and tons of waste. I am not sure this is doing us a whole lot of good. In an excellent article The Slow Books Manifesto on The Atlantic, writer Maura Kelly says, “In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature—to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else. “
So what happens in the era of Kindle? Will bookshelves become redundant furniture like the old roll-top writing desk. Will bookmarks become quaint collectibles? How will we hand-inscribe our favorite book to someone we love? What about those exquisite books – the kind you want to run your fingers over and kiss, simply because they are so beautiful. Books are tactile: some covers have a bumpy emboss while others feel like satin. What about rough deckle-edged pages, stylish French flaps and pages with a real papery smell? Am I the only one still craving beautiful paper books? I leave you with this excellent TED TALK by Knopf book designer Chip Kidd. He echoes my thoughts. Won’t you share your thoughts, please?
Teatime for the Firefly is my debut novel. It is a love story set in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. You can read the SYNOPSIS and the FIRST CHAPTER by clicking on the red links. I am represented by April Eberhardt Literary.
Before I signed up with April Eberhardt, I was bursting with questions for literary agents. It’s not often a writer get to bat the breeze with one. Agents are rarefied beings who live in another stratosphere. Stereotypes about them as hope-dashers and dream-crushers persist among writers. Every alcoholic writer I know is sitting on a fat pile of rejected queries. We cling to crumbs of hope. We tell our friends, “That was the best reject I ever received. Agent La-di-da said …..” That’s like George Clooney saying, “You are pretty but your teeth need fixin and I’m sorry we can’t date.” It’s thanks-but-no-thanks, right? No date and no Clooney. So why am I insanely happy and why do I run around telling all my friends? I even begin to ponder the cost of orthodontics (teeth whitening or even false teeth – hmmm) now more determined than ever to bowl over George Clooney. Just wait till he sees the NEW ME. (Mr. Clooney, you may remember me *flash, flash, smile, smile*)
But here is the sad truth, Molly, so get your hard hat on: the reason why most agents are “not so nice” is because they get hounded by needy and persistent writers (like you and me) all the time: especially the ones they were nice to.
The publishing world is fast changing: if not by the day, by the week. Relationships between writers, agents, editors and publishers are all being redefined. So Chips Ahoy Molly girl, your little boat may set sail after all. The big blue sea is waiting, the sky is limitless and there are fish a-plenty.
Here is a small Q&A with my literary agent, April Eberhardt, who is embracing the challenges in the publishing industry and exploring new alternatives for her writers. She is a front runner in this game.
Shona: Hi April, many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions on TeaBuddy.
April Eberhardt: Hi, Shona—Thanks for inviting me to be your guest! Let’s have a cup of tea and chat.
Shona: You gave a very insightful interview on writeitsideways recently regarding the current scenario of the publishing industry. I want this Q&A to focus mainly on writers and your role as an agent, so let’s cut to the chase.
My first question: Where do you find your writers? What is the best way for them to approach you?
April Eberhardt: I find writers in three ways: through referrals by my current list of authors; via literary conferences; and as unsolicited submissions e-mailed to me.
Shona: How many queries do you get in a year, of which how many do you accept?
April Eberhardt: I receive several thousand queries a year, of which I’m able to represent around 20.
Shona: Most writers, I know, are terrified of pitching in person to an agent at a conference. Why is it important for you to meet your writers face-to-face?
April Eberhardt: Meeting an author in person gives us each a sense of chemistry, as well as a chance to discuss approach and values. Like any relationship, business or personal, compatibility and “fit” are critical to making it work long-term.
Shona: What grabs you in a pitch/story? What do you look for in a writer?
April Eberhardt: In a pitch or manuscript, I like to see an original premise, a strong, fast start, and a sense of where the story’s going, as well as a compelling reason why I’ll want to stay with it—i.e. character, plot, sheer beauty of the language.In an author I like to see a good understanding of how the business works, or a willingness to learn about it. Maturity, patience, trust, and a mentally healthy outlook on things also are important.
Shona: What are the common mistakes a new writer makes?
April Eberhardt: Not editing their manuscript thoroughly before submitting it; thinking their agent will sell it quickly (sometimes it happens, but rarely.)
Shona: You are a very hands-on agent. You rolled up your sleeves and got down in the trenches to help me straighten out my manuscript. Your editorial inputs were invaluable. How often are you involved in editing a manuscript to make it submission-ready?
April Eberhardt: Thank you. I do a lot of editing on virtually every manuscript I agree to represent, some more than others. If I see high potential in a manuscript, and in its author, I’m willing to go the distance with her or him to get it just right. I actually love editing—it’s a thrill to see a story with hidden potential really blossom!
Shona: You are known for representing high-quality women’s fiction suitable for book clubs. What kind of books work best for book clubs? Can you give specific examples? What makes these books popular with book club readers?
April Eberhardt: Book club books are those that prompt lively discussion among book club members! Typically they present a situation or dilemma that readers have strong feelings about, and are eager to discuss with others to get their views and approaches to dealing with it. A couple of examples are The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain, and Still Alice by Lisa Genova. In both books, the writing was fabulous—gripping and fast-moving, with astonishing twists and turns of plot and character. In the case of The Paris Wife, I think readers liked the reimagining of what Hemingway’s first wife’s experiences and feelings were, and gaining insight into what it is like to be the wife (and the first of many) of a famous person—and in this case, of a particularly larger-than-life and admired figure–and in Paris. Who doesn’t love reading (and talking) about Paris? In Still Alice, this was a story that conceivably could happen to anyone—and among midlife readers who find themselves juggling lots, and forgetting little things, there seems to be an unspoken concern that their forgetfulness isn’t just preoccupation, but the sign of something more ominous. These are the things we as women think about, and welcome the chance to talk about with others.
Shona: You have often told me you are “besotted” with Teatime for the Firefly and the world needs to read this novel. What was it that attracted you to my manuscript? ?
April Eberhardt: The characters, the setting, the plot, the writing—all at once! It is a beautiful rendering of a young woman’s coming-of-age in an exotic culture and at an alluring time in history. I could not put it down—and that’s rare for me, as I always have a pressing to-do list scrolling away in the back of my mind, distracting me from the task at hand. Teatime for the Firefly is one of those rare stories thatcaused me to lose track of where I was and what else I needed to do. I came away feeling as if I had just been on a marvelous journey to a magical place, and had made wonderful new friends there. I missed them when it was over.
Shona: Thank you for your kind words, April! But these are challenging times, don’t you think? I see so many serious writers losing heart and getting increasingly frustrated with the crisis and confusion in the publishing industry. What is the best encouragement you can offer them?
April Eberhardt: Self-publish your work in the highest-quality way possible, and then do your best to promote it. If you have the means, or can save to hire experts in the field, by all means do so. People must be able to read your book in order to love it. Given the industry’s limited ability to publish all the authors out there, you must so some of this yourself if you want your work to be read. Self-publishing won’t preclude your being published by a mainstream publisher—if anything, market-testing your book yourself will demonstrate its salability to you and others, and will underscore your willingness to be a good marketing partner. Plus it could be a lot of fun, and might make you some money as well.
Shona: What is your advice for writers who are not social-media savvy? Are they doomed? What would Stephen King do today?
April Eberhardt: Social media is one effective way to get word out about your book. Emailing friends and acquaintances is another. When your book is released, email everyone you know letting them know it’s available, asking them to consider buying (and reading) it, and, if they like it, letting two or three other people know about it—and consider reviewing it on goodreads.com or another site where readers go to find good new books. Word of mouth is still the best sales tool! As for Stephen King, it’s hard for me to envision what’s inside of his head. I’d ask him!
Shona: Anything else you would like to add about writing or publishing?
April Eberhardt: Quality—quality—quality. And don’t be shy (or if you are, enlist the help of trusted others to blow your horn.)
Shona: Last question, tea or coffee: what do you drink? I promise I won’t hold this against you!
April Eberhardt: Both! Coffee first thing in the morning—one strong cup of Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend. Then tea in the afternoon, accompanied by watercress sandwiches and crumpets 😉
Shona: Many thanks April! I am lucky to have you as my trusty agent on the road less traveled. I look forward to our ongoing journey together.
April Eberhardt: Thanks, Shona! The feeling is mutual.
UPDATE: Following this interview, April Eberhardt sold my novel Teatime for the Firefly in a 3-book deal to Mira Books. Wooohooo!
Which writer has not felt this? That trepidation, that gnawing doubt, that awful, awful feeling: maybe I am not good enough? Good enough for who, is the question. Me? I will never be good enough for me. Friends and family? That’s the other extreme: for them I am not only good enough–I walk on water. My readers? Hmmm, now we’re talking.
At first it was just little ole me. Free-flying. Having fun with my draft. My story was taking shape, my characters beginning to breathe and once in a while I’d wake up in the middle of the night with flashes of illumination that made me want to hug myself. I kept my writing to myself– told not a soul. After all, didn’t Papa Hemingway warn writers not to share something too soon? Uncle Stephen (King) seconded that. My writing was still raw. If I cracked it open too soon, there would be no omelette.
I joined a writer’s group and allowed others to peek into my writing for the first time. My first shock came when I realized I was not transmitting my story seamlessly into the head of my reader as I had so fondly imagined. The plot had holes, there were POV shifts, undigestable chunks and bit of fluff I had shamelessly tucked into places, simply because I loved the words so much I could not bear to throw them away. Sometimes the group gave me conflicting feedback. My tendency was to feel fuzzy towards people who liked me (really liked me) and mean-spirited towards the fluff-haters. But our group guidelines (borrowed from AA) states “take what you like and leave the rest.” So I was welcome to keep my fluff (and my arrogance). But when three or more people pointed out the same thing, it made me sit up and think. (More about my writers’ group in a separate post, because we are a terrific model of democracy.)
Eventually I was forced to step out into the world of my readers. Their opinion was the only one I cared about in the long run. I went scouting for beta readers. I stayed away from the too-writerly type, rather I looked for real-world people, the kind who would gravitate towards my book in a book store. Who were they? I had a fairly good idea. They were the book club type. They leaned towards multi-cultural fiction. They were well travelled and had a high Calamari Index (in other words a taste for the exotic. Click link to read this NYT article). Most likely they were tea drinkers. I slyly interviewed them. What are your favorite books? I asked. I made a mental note when names like The Kite Runner, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Poisonwood Bible, Lisa See, Abraham Vergese and Amy Tan popped up. I tried to find people with strong opinions, those who were not afraid to mince words: the kind of reader who would make a strong advocate for my book. Then I propositioned them to read my manuscript. I offered them hard copy (spiral bound, fedexed) or electronic. I put my manuscript in their hands, swore them to confidentiality then took off like a bat outta hell for Europe because I was too nerve-racked to think about what they might be thinking about.
Three weeks later I returned home and was almost too afraid to open my email. I finally did and all seven responses were in my inbox. The subject lines made my heart sing. “Awesome!”, “Bravo!”, “OMG”, “Loved it”. Most said they could not put it down. One beta reader said she kept getting up in the middle of the night to read my manuscript and blamed me for ruining her sleep and another one forgot to make dinner for her kids. To hell with sleep and dinner for the kids, I thought heartlessly, they like– no wait, THEYLOVETeatime for the Firefly. Wow.
Somewhere I must have done something right or maybe I just got lucky because I landed my agent in one fell sweep. April Eberhardt told me Teatimewas one of the strongest manuscripts she had read and I should be proud of myself. Did that make me feel super-happy, too-sexy-for-my-shirt? Temporarily yes, but the feeling lasted no longer than a stick of gum.
I am working on my second novel now and guess what? I’m back to my old worry. I am beginning to think I am genetically engineered for self-doubt and this is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life.