Monday, August 31, 2015

City That Works: Our New Imprint

It may be a quiet time for publishing as summer winds down, but we have not rested.

Newcastlewest Books is growing.

Our focus has been on historical fiction, but as we reviewed manuscripts submitted for consideration we realized that history is being made all around us. Society is changing, and are we missing something by not including history making in our catalogue?

We are pleased to introduce "CITY THAT WORKS", an imprint that will house contemporary fiction. Still with that Irish influence, of course, but we will publish fiction that explores issues that will be discussed far into the future.

The imprint name is a salute to the city of Chicago, where so many Irish found homes over the centuries. The novels we plan to release may largely be set in Chicago, the city that works, and will feature characters who work. Ordinary people in extraordinary situations will feature in books published under the CITY THAT WORKS imprint, but the situations could explore such divisive issues as gay marriage or dealing with the disabled.

All in all, it is an exciting new venture that we are sure will resonate with readers looking for quality fiction.

More news will come as we move forward, with our first release planned for the 2015 holiday season.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A 'No Response' Is A 'No Longer An Agent' Rejection

Have you been waiting for new literary agent Cara Mannion to respond to your query?

Wait no more.

Ms. Mannion has left the building, as they say. Less than a year into the ruthless world of publishing, and she's gone off to be a lawyer.

She started at Harold Ober Associates at the beginning of 2015, having fallen in love with the industry. Or perhaps it was just a powerful infatuation that took hold after a summer at New York University. Summer publishing camps can do that to a mind, bend it into odd shapes that snap back as the weather cools.

Former agent, still loves books
For two years she worked in the editorial department of Entangled Publishing, where romance is always in the air. It's no surprise, then, that a young woman might fall in love with words. Some of those words get pretty steamy over at Entangled, and there's that mind-warping business taking hold. All those lovely stories coming across her desk, and at some point the notion dawned. Why not become a literary agent and champion authors who write such things? Find all those golden nuggets in the slag heap, polish them up, and sell them to publishers, work around authors, be in the midst of all that least that was the image pictured.

In reality, a literary agent is more of a salesperson than a finder of hidden gems. An agent might fall in love with a manuscript, but if that agent can't convince an editor at a publishing house that the manuscript is worthy of adoration, they aren't going to make much money. Not everyone is good at the marketing angle, lacking the ability to convince another person to do something that they may not really want to do.

Apparently, agenting was not all that it appeared to be, and Ms. Mannion decided to call it a day. She isn't completely off the word game, however, because she's decided to pursue a career in copyright law. Given the amount of online piracy these days, she'll be kept very, very busy.

You should always be on the look-out for new agents to query because they are looking for new clients and are often more open to reading your pages and considering debut fiction. We all have to start somewhere, after all, and what agent wouldn't want to find the next big thing? Develop a strong relationship with some unknown writer who is on the way up and financial success is all but guaranteed. Those writers who are already successful sure aren't in need of some newbie agent just developing relationships with editors.

Agents come and go. Sometimes you query one and they go. Keep moving forward, find another rookie, and write a new novel while you're waiting to hear from someone who may or may not be there in a year.

Life's a gamble. Take a chance.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Premise Of A Thriller

Don't know what to write about? Looking for the core of a plot but coming up empty?

Blackmail is a good starting point for a thriller, but who might blackmail whom and for what? Well, doing something illegal is always a good start. You need a character whose done something that might get them some jail time, or a hefty fine, and then you get your villain discovering the act. What better villain could you have than a lawyer, right?

Your next book could be, as they say, ripped from the pages of current events, but you'll have to use your imagination a little to make a really exciting book. The real-life incident turned out to be rather ordinary, in the end.

Copyright law is not the stuff of legal thrillers, but a clever lawyer in Chicago managed to play the game in a way that could be the inspiration you need to get that novel written. Mr. John L. Steele (sounds like a porn name, doesn't it?) and his law firm was hired, or so he claims, by porn movie producers whose content was being illegally downloaded. It doesn't take much to acquire the ISPs of computers used to download the smut films without paying. Mr. Steele then took those digital signals and backtracked, finding the owner of the computer in question. And then he fired off letters from his law firm, Prenda Law.
Eyes as cold as steel --or is it Steele?

Who doesn't get nervous when they see a letter from an attorney? You don't want anyone to know you're looking at porn, let alone stealing it, so when Mr. John. L. Steele, Esq., threatens you with litigation if you don't come up with some cash, you pay up and hope that it all goes away. By all accounts, millions of dollars passed hands in an effort to wipe the record clean.

But what if the person who stole the movies was an Outfit boss doing what hoodlums have always done, which is steal from others and then sell it on as their own?

Write that story, imagining the twists and turns as the lawyer discovers he has tangled with the wrong miscreant. It will take all your talent to turn a Don Corleone into a sympathetic figure, unless you found a way to insert a third character to be the hero in the story who brings the entire evil empire down. A whip-smart female detective, for example, would be a great addition to the tale, and offers you several potential subplots to flesh out your novel of skulduggery and danger.

You wouldn't want to use the actual event as it unfolded because there is little that is thrilling about the conclusion of Mr. Steele's little profit center. The Feds caught on when someone complained about being shaken down by an attorney, which is going to happen when someone gets a threatening letter about illegal porn downloads when they didn't download anything. Tracing ISPs is not a perfect science, and many who own computers know that just because a computer was used it doesn't mean they did the crime if others have access to that computer. Like your housekeeper, for example, or someone who knows how to hack into your computer because your firewall is inadequate.

And of course, not everyone is cowering in a corner, afraid of their secret getting out. Some would rather be exposed than part with a penny.

Prenda Law is, of course, no more. Mr. Steele was charged with extortion and various other crimes related to the shakedown. He's fired back, as lawyers will do, in an attempt to use the courts to his advantage. At the moment, he is facing a disciplinary hearing that could strip him of his law license, which is pretty dull stuff if you compare it to your fictional version in which some Mafia hit man is hunting him down. What's the loss of a law license as compared to the loss of your life by drowning in Lake Michigan?

So there's your writing prompt to take you through the last days of summer. You should have a polished manuscript all ready to go by the start of next summer, when you can query the agents before they drift off to their vacation homes and ignore the pleas of would-be authors seeking representation.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Christmas Comes But Once A Year

All year, in some locations. It's starting to feel that way.

Brown Thomas is going to open its Christmas store on Thursday. If you check the calendar, you'll see that it's August, which is generally considered to be summer. Christmas, of course, is part of the winter scene. Unless you happen to be a retailer, in which case, Christmas is all year round.

Will we really buy more things if we start early, or do our purchases just get spread out over time if there is more time to make those purchases?
Back to work already? It feels like I just finished my rounds

There is something to be said for ginning up the enthusiasm for decorating as soon as you can. Those keen to feather their Christmas nest will browse and plan, and then start in to saving up. They'll hold off on buying other baubles, or find things to eliminate from their lives so that they have more money to spend on a single holiday. If all the Christmas-y items were only to appear on the first of December, there'd be no time for such careful financial planning, and that's just lost income for the shop owner, right?

So you're out and about getting the back-to-school kit in order and you're met with a reminder that in a few short months you'll be needing some spare change to cover the holiday traditions. Will you feel resentful towards Brown Thomas for reminding you of a sorry fact that causes you worry and sleepless nights?

Possibly. But we're all human and we can't resist a shiny object. Maybe in our prehistoric brain segments we think we have found water or something when we spot a display that glistens. There might be some neurological positive re-inforcement that follows, telling us to move forward and reach that which glitters. A blast of a morphine-like substance triggers the pleasure sensors and the thought of Christmas intruding too early is eased.

But honestly, do we need to drag Christmas into the late summer?

Can we not hold off until September at least?

At this rate, it's just a matter of time until Brown Thomas or one of their competitors decides that August is grand but July would be better, to get a leg up on the other shops. And then it will be June, and give it a few years and Christmas will indeed come once a year, but it will be all year.

And then it won't be so very special at all, will it?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Only The Protagonist Is Gay

Tipping the Velvet: Can it be a one-off for an author?
What makes for literature aimed at the non-straight crowd? It's a question for those who write novels that feature ordinary people as characters. The sort of people you know, or the sort you encounter in everyday life. If you put one of them into your manuscript and that person is gay, does it make your book something more LGTB than general fiction?

If you are looking to be published by one of the Christian houses, it's quite straightforward. That is to say, everyone must be straight if you want to see your book in print. Maybe they would accept someone converting from the homosexual lifestyle to happy heterosexual marriage, but not everyone writes fantasy.

Those who use New York City as their setting can toss in the requisite gay character with ease, and never consider the genre dilemma. For these novels, the homosexual character is part of the wallpaper, a bit of scenery to add authenticity or show support for the equality movement. See, here's high-end New Yorkers socializing with the owner of the art gallery. So hip. So trendy.

But what happens when that art gallery owner is made the focus of the story? Do you have something of LGTB interest? Can you query agents who say they are looking for such things?

It is always best to check the agents' websites to help clarify a murky situation.

Some will tell you that they are looking for that piece of erotica featuring two studly males, and that would mean your romantic comedy isn't at all what said agent is seeking. Others will include LGTB as a genre they accept, and there you are. What do they mean, exactly?

You don't want to be pigeon-holed and become the popular author of LGTB fiction if you have other stories to tell that don't include a subset of society. Sure it's grand to land a publishing contract but do you want to be squeezed into one particular box when that box does not fit your long-term plans for your writing career? Sarah Waters has done well with lesbian historical fiction, but not everyone wants to write about the same types of people over and over again.

Traditional romantic comedies can be given a fresh perspective if told from the point of view of a lesbian couple, but in reality you are still writing general fiction aimed at women. The plot is essentially the same, if it's girl meets boy or girl meets girl and the formation of a couple runs through the narrative. There's no need for hot steamy sex in such books, which are not romances in the mommy porn vein. The characters are just people facing some challenge to be overcome. Bridget Jones could have kept a diary about Ms. Darcy as well as Mr. Darcy, and the story would have been essentially the same.

Would such a small tweak make such a big difference to an author trying to figure out which agent to query?

Ask literary agents that question and you'll likely get as many answers as agents responding. It's all so subjective, isn't it?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Book Donald Jensen Would Have It Written If He Wanted To Write About Putin

Thinking about writing a book about Putin
The Internet has brought us many thing, and plagiarism is one of them. Publishers are monitoring cyberspace to find sites that sell stolen prose in an ongoing battle against theft of intellectual property.

In Russia, oppression is rife and no one dares to speak their mind for fear of being executed. When your country is run by a former KGB agent, you assume that your death would be easily arranged and made to look like an accident, so you tend to keep yourself to yourself, head down as you move through another miserable day.

So let's combine these two seemingly unconnected events and what do we have?

For Donald Jensen of the Institute of Modern Russia, we get a raging case of identity theft, his name, reputation, and work co-opted.

Mr. Jensen is an expert on Russia, and if you were to find a book written by him, you would expect to find factual information, the result of careful research. You would believe what he writes because he knows what he's going on about.

What if you were a Russian whose publishing company was known for putting out controversial works and you wanted a big series of books about Vladimir Putin but you didn't want to be gunned down while walking down a Moscow street? How about publishing a book under Donald Jensen's name, using his old articles as material?


The book is in Russian so who in America would figure it out? And while you're at it, why not borrow the names of some other well-respected types and really flood the Russian market with books critical of Putin. Bring the words of the West to the oppressed East and make some money from those thinking they were getting the real thing.

Algoritm is the Russian publisher that created a series of books that were ascribed to Western writers, including Luke Harding of the Guardian. On the surface, a reader would assume that the publisher went about its publishing work and released this collection of anti-Putin material in the usual way. Books by noted Russian scholars have that certain cachet of authenticity, and when you are a Russian citizen you look for things produced by outsiders who are not feeling the Putin heat.

Except, of course, it was not Mr. Harding or Mr. Jensen creating the books, but someone looking to cash in on their fame and the things they had written previously. Algoritm wanted to produce a collection of books on Putin, but did not want to go to all the trouble a publisher usually goes through to get permission and then come to a financial agreement. Why, that's less money in the publisher's till if he has to go and pay an author.

Mr. Jensen has stated that the book being touted in Russia as his own is likely nothing more than a collection of articles he has written. He did not give Algoritm permission to use his work, however, and you can be sure that he is not receiving a ruble in royalties.

Now that the scam has been exposed, Algoritm's Sergei Nikolayev says that Mr. Jensen can come to him any time and they can work out a fee for the stolen work. And the same goes for American journalist Michael Bohn, who found his name on a book filled with his prose that was reprinted without his permission.

Not all pirates fly the Jolly Roger or look like Jack Sparrow. Modern pirates sit in front of computers and stroll through the Internet in search of content that they can steal. Are the authors any more likely to recover their intellectual property than our ancestors were able to recover their stolen cargo?

Not likely. How do you stop a pirate if his home country is making a profit from the thieving?

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Place We Knew Well: A Book Review

The Cold War era is now far enough in the past to be considered historical, making A PLACE WE KNEW WELL a work of historical fiction.

Set in Florida during the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the novel puts us into the heart of a single family that lies in the crosshairs of those Cuban missiles, portraying the stress and madness of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The book opens with the only child of this family, Charlotte, making a last visit to her father's garage in the present day. There she finds some odd treasures in his safe, and with that author Susan Carol McCarthy pulls her readers into the story. What do the keepsakes mean, you'll wonder, and you'll turn the page.

The story then returns to the past, to the very beginning of military manuevering at a nearby army base. The locals realize that something unusual is up. Charlotte's father Wes, the proud owner of the garage, fought in the Second World War and flew over the remains of Hiroshima. He's fervently against war, you see, and if you don't see it at first you'll get the point repeatedly. The novel gets a bit preachy about the anti-war message.

Charlotte's mother Sarah is teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, the stress of her very existence numbed by prescription drugs. Mother's little helper, the Rolling Stones called those pills. It's a touch of authenticity, to have Sarah popping little yellow pills to deal with her disappointments in life. Those miseries are many, from crushed dreams of a musical career to infertility and misguided medical treatment.

The book starts slow as the military build-up escalates, but most of the action revolves around the ordinary activities of this Florida-based family. There are school functions, business matters to attend to, dresses to buy and meals to eat. Halfway through the author introduces a surprise character from the family's past, and suddenly a deep dark family secret is thrown into the mix. Will the new arrival blow up the family's peaceful existence, and will the Russians deliver those nuclear warheads to Cuba?

The tension ramps up and the novel moves at a more enjoyable pace through the second half. Personal interactions become more complex and the character of Wes develops very nicely as he notices things that the average man did not notice in the early 1960's, like the fact that his wife is falling apart mentally.

After the slog through the first half I was not sure that I liked the novel all that much, but the second half was well-written and held my attention. The book is a short one, a nice weekend read that I would recommend to anyone. The emotional core of the story is fleshed out with incidents of madness as the local populace react to the possibility they could be vaporized at any moment, and the author does a fine job of presenting the atmosphere through which her characters move towards a fitting resolution.

By the way, I received a copy of the book from Penguin's First To Read programme. In case anyone should ask.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

I Identify As A Man

There are more male than female authors.

You can explain the disparity in the population of writers in any number of ways. Men have more time to write, what with the supportive wife managing the house while they slip off to their writing place and focus on words. Women have more to balance, and are less likely to have a husband who will mind the children so they can have an hour or two to compose brilliant prose.

Or maybe it's nothing more than unintended bias.

Catherine Nichols had a feeling that maybe that was the problem she was experiencing when she could not get a literary agent to pay her any mind. She did the querying to no avail. No one asked to read her manuscript. Then she thought that her sex might be the problem, not her writing.

She submitted the same query she had been submitting, only she signed the letter with a man's name and sent it from a gmail account that matched. From the very first, the agent would have assumed the querier was male.

It should not have made any difference, but Ms. Nichols was shocked to discover that agents suddenly wanted to see more of her writing.

After --- or if an author, before
Not only did she get a response, but she had requests for pages from five of the six queries she sent. From nothing to excitement, and all because she tried something different. A good scientist knows that you need a decent data set to draw conclusions, so she fired off fifty queries as a man and found that seventeen garnered positive responses. Under her own name, which would be the control group, she never did better than one request out of twenty-five.

After the story hit, literary agents took to Twitter and denied that they were biased at all.

But surely the hypothesis is worth further testing.

Is it true, that literary agents have an unknown prejudice towards male writers? Is there some unconscious thought lurking, telling them that more men are authors than women so it will be easier to sell a man's manuscript than a woman's? After studying literature at university, do they have a preference for masculine writing, even though they tell themselves that it makes no difference?

Look, if Bruce Jenner could identify as a woman and be accepted, why can you not identify as a man and be equally celebrated for bravery? Query as a man, and gather some data. How much better of a response do you get as compared to your queries you submitted as a biological female?

Let's experiment, and see if there is a bias in the minds of literary agents. And if they call you out on it, well, there's Caitlin Jenner to fall back on as an example. You self-identify as a man. Does the agent have a problem with that? Are they prejudiced against those who self-identify as something they are not on the outside?

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

My Invitation Must Have Gotten Lost

When a publisher is keen on some new author, they will put money into promotions to generate buzz. Those who get six-figure advances are expected to become money-makers for the publisher, and the publisher will therefore invest in that author. Get them out there to meet the public, sign books, be interviewed about the book, etc. etc., and hope that the reading public sees the brilliance that the publisher did.

Not every author on a book tour gets to attend a special dinner party, however.

I am assuming my invitation to the recent Dinner Lab fest was lost in the mail. Fell out of the mail plane or something.....

Viking is heavily promoting KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST as it is laid down, and so author J. Ryan Stradal is on the road to hawk his prose. The book is food-oriented, with the protagonist described as a woman with a unique palate who becomes an acclaimed chef. Further adventures follow, which I will have to wait to discover as I cannot afford brand-new books and did not win one when Viking held an ARC giveaway.

At any rate, due to the theme of fine dining and chef-dom, Mr. Stradal ended up at a dinner in Chicago. Not in your normal restaurant, but in a temporary space that exists just long enough to create the one meal. His novel reflects this notion of pop-up dining, so it was appropriate that he be in attendance to discuss his novel. Living the fiction, in a way, and so the members of Chicago's branch of the Dinner Lab were treated to a unique menu that reflected the cuisine described in KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST.

Those with the financial means to become members of the select group are also those who could afford to buy a novel. They are also the types to belong to book groups who will talk about a novel, and generate buzz amongst themselves which then vibrates through their social circle. Like ripples in a pond, as they say, news of this exciting new book spreads and Viking's parent (the Random Penguin) doesn't have to pay more for the added publicity.

Perhaps it is just as well that I missed this particular get-together.

No matter how acclaimed the chef who does the preparation, I cannot believe that anyone can make lutefisk palatable. Mr. Stradal may have been demonstrating the classic Minnesotan tendency to be very nice and polite when he later claimed that it was the best lutefisk he'd ever had. All things considered, it may not be all that much of a compliment.

But what's a man to do after a food-centric group sits politely through his sales pitch? The chef used the recipes mentioned in the novel as a starting point for his menu creation, bringing fact and fiction together in an otherwise delicious blend of tastes and textures.

I could have skipped the fish course. If I had been invited.