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Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing

First off, we have a winner for a signed copy of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival in Jonestown by New York Times bestselling author Julia Scheeres. That winner is:


Molly, e-mail me your full name and address, and I will pop the book in the mail to you by the end of the week.

Now, I have a special treat for you. If you’re a writer, editor, agent, or publisher, you’re probably familiar with these two legendary figures in publishing: Alan Rinzler, a developmental editor who has edited classics like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, and Andy Ross, former owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley and current owner of the Andy Ross Literary Agency. Today, I give you a video of a conversation between Alan (left) and Andy (right) that runs about 55 minutes. I’ve transcribed the whole thing in case you’d rather read it (but please foregive typos. I did not proofread.) It’s a fabulous conversation that touches on everything from mistakes writers make to blogging and self-publishing. So pop in those earphones and enjoy!

Alan Rinzler & Andy Ross from Meghan Ward on Vimeo.

Alan Rinzler: I want to say that Andy and I disagree about everything, but I defer to him because he’s older than me.

Andy Ross: That is a lie. That is a vile canard.

Alan Rinzler: Fire away.

Meghan Ward: First of all, we have Alan Rinzler, legendary editor extraordinaire and Andy Ross, former owner of Cody’s Books and current owner of Andy Ross Literary Agency. We’re going to talk about publishing, writing, and blogging. First of all, can you guys talk about the changes that have taken place in the publishing industry in the last few years—Borders have closed, author advances have plummeted, new authors have turned to self-publishing, some agents are becoming book packagers for self-published authors …

Andy Ross: All of the above are true. I’ve talked to other agents and they all talk like the sky is falling. They don’t know quite what to do because agents are because agents are classic intermediaries and the world is becoming disintermediated, so there’s a lot of soul-searching going on. Because I’m a new agent, for me it’s all new and great and everything’s an opportunity. So I haven’t quite figured out yet where I belong.

Alan Rinzler: Disintermediated meaning?

Andy Ross: Disintermediated is a term of art used by Internet gurus—it’s not used much anymore because it didn’t pan out—they believed what the Internet would do is disintermediate, that people would buy products directly rather than through a publisher or a department store.

Alan Rinzler: But don’t you think that is happening now? For one thing, readers now can directly access, and authors often want them to, reach them directly. One of the biggest changes, one of the hugest changes I see—I need an editor—one of the major changes I see is that for the first time, authors and readers can have a direct contact. That’s a tremendously huge change. It changes the way books are sold and it often changes the way books are written.

Andy Ross: That’s a classic example of disintermediation, yes, that is happening. And the whole trend toward self-publishing, which is obviously the same principal. The mediator is the publisher—I don’t know if it’s being eliminated, but the writer has become the publisher.

Alan Rinzler: There was a piece in the New York Times that Perseus has started a self-publishing division, joining Bloomsbury and many other companies in offering authors a self-publishing resource where they get 70 percent of the royalties and the author is the publisher—and they provide some services if you pay for them, just like iUniverse or Exlibris or Author Solutions or Lulu or Amazon. There’s a huge industry now of people who are getting big-time authors as self-published clients. Now, the interesting thing about this article is that Perseus announced that they have a deal with Janklow Nesbitt, which is one of the biggest and most powerful agencies in New York. I’ve known Lynn Nesbitt since she was a kid and she’s had many very famous clients that I’ve published, and many that I wish I’d published. And they made a deal to allow their big-time authors to self-publish through Perseus. That’s amazing.

Andy Ross: Well, what’s happening with these big agencies is they represent a huge amount of books and many of them are out of print. There’s no other access to them and getting an e-book up and running is trivial. Essentially, if you have a Word file, you hit a button and an hour later it’s in a number of different formats. And if you don’t have a Word file—I did this the other day—for $60 I sent a book of a friend of mine—and it was not an easy book to format—I sent it to an OCR company. Two weeks later they sent it back as a Word file. It wasn’t completely perfect, but it was really good. The author had to edit it, but after an edit job, it was ready to go. It’s very easy.

Alan Rinzler: In terms of changes in the book business, just to pull back a little, when I started in the business it was kind of a boy’s club. It was a Jewish boy’s club, too. All of those conspiracy theories are true. The book business has always been controlled by Jews. The only non-Jew around was Nelson Doubleday. And he hired a lot of Jews. Alfred Knopf and Bennet Cerf and Richard Simon—and all of those guys. And they were smart, funny guys who were hustlers. They were making a living doing crosswords and cookbooks and golf books—whatever. They were not literary giants. And they were not in it of the art, although they managed to publish some great books and those hearken back to the golden age of the book business. Also there were practically no women in 1962 in any position except for secretaries. First of all, you don’t have to be Jewish anymore, although it helps. And secondly, the women are now many of the top executives. It’s preponderant. If you go to a convention or a conference, most of the people are women. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s definitely a big change besides these other changes in technology. We didn’t have computers, obviously, or calculators. You didn’t have copy machines—everything was really different.

Andy Ross: One of the things I’ve thought about is that I’m wondering how much literary fashion has to do with the social make-up of the editorial. Most of the iconic literary writers of the 60s and 50s were Jewish men and that was when most of the editors were men. And now most of the editors are women who are 30-45, they’re not all Jewish, their names are frequently Stacy, Tracy, and Jennifer. They tended to go to Ivy League schools, for some reason, Brown shows up a lot. And the great literary writers now are women. I wonder if that has something to do with it.

Alan Rinzler: It’s true. I think in many ways that’s a good thing, but the pendulum has shifted. I think Oprah Winfrey has a lot to do with that, also. Not to be snarky exactly, but there’s a whole school of memoirs and novels about women as victims and men as insensitive brutes. It really brings out the worst in me personally because I get so tired of that. And then all the sensitive men are gay guys or feminists or something, and it really is annoying.

Andy Ross: Well, I don’t feel so bad about that. When it comes right down to it, I think when it comes right down to it, men are brutes. But one of the things that I think is interesting is that if you think about literary fiction today, it is essentially women’s fiction. They call it upmarket women’s fiction, and that’s what fiction is. Men read, but they tend to read manly books, like thrillers and golf tips. Although women read more mysteries.

Alan Rinzler: The truth is, these are all speculative theories. There’s no hard data, there’s no real research on any of this, but if you look at the bestseller lists, that’s what you’re seeing.

Andy Ross: Well there is research on demographics of readers, and it’s mostly women.

Alan Rinzler: That’s true.

Meghan Ward: And recently Justin Cronin, who had won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting awards for his literary novels started writing post-apocalyptic vampire novels. What do you think of that?

Andy Ross: I think that’s where the money is. Although it’s not going to last forever. I think that train is leaving the station. I’ve been working on young adult books, and the only young adult book I’ve gotten published recently is a zombie novel, which, interestingly enough, Hollywood is very interested in.

Alan Rinzler: We disagree slightly. Science fiction has always bee popular. Some serious writers have written science fiction—Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlen and some others, and what’s called now “paranormal/ zombie/post-apocalyptic,” it’s just another term—as far as I’m concerned—for the tradition of science fiction, which has always been popular. I don’t think you can jump on a trend either …

Andy Ross: If you jump on a trend, it’s too late.

Alan Rinzler: … it’s over. But what really counts, and this is what hasn’t changed in the book business, is that a story is a story. If it’s a good story, if it’s well written, if it keeps you turning the pages, it has great characters and you become engaged in it, the mythic science fiction conventions are consistent so it makes sense within the fantasy … it’ll sell. It’s just as hard to do it now as it always was, whether you self-publish or whether you go with a commercial publisher.

Meghan Ward: More and more literary novelists, though, are turning to genre fiction. Have you seen that?

Andy Ross: I disagree with that. I think a lot of literary novelists are writing mysteries, which is one of the genres, but they write it in a literary style, and if I got one of them, and I have gotten them, I would tend to send it to a literary editor, not a genre editor.

Alan Rinzler: We should make a distinction between hack pulp genres, like Harlequin romances and serious romances. Because it’s the same genre, there’s really a difference … Margaret Atwood writes science fiction and so does Doris Lessing. That’s a little different from genre fiction or science fiction.

Andy Ross: I’ve been doing a lot of work with young adult, which is a genre, and they say not to follow trends and I believe that, but I also look at the deals that come down every day on Publisher’s Marketplace and probably two-thirds of the deals in young adult are paranormal. And almost all of the readership in Young Adult is girls. It’s very hard to get a book published about a boy.

Meghan Ward: Science Fiction used to be kind of a boy’s genre.

Andy Ross: What I’m finding out now, and I’ve talked to a lot of young adult editors, is that boys read a lot—and one of the classifications is middle grade, which is usually about 9-14—boys read a lot until they’re about 13 years old, and after that they either go straight to Stephen King or they stop reading entirely and play video games, so that the young adult genre, which is relatively new and extremely robust, about 80 percent of the readers are girls.

Alan Rinzler: Well, I loved Nancy Drew books when I was a kid. Young adult books have been around—Robert Louis Stephenson …

Andy Ross: But they didn’t call them young adult books. As a genre, as a term of art, it’s relatively new.

Meghan Ward: So you don’t think customers’ reading habits are changing?

Alan Rinzler: They’re changing to be e-books. There’s a real shift. People either have an e-book or intend to buy an e-book. It’s really happening.

Meghan Ward: But as far as the types of books people are reading, whether they’re e-books or print, do you think people’s tastes are changing?

Alan Rinzler: I recently did a post on the bestseller lists. Even the New York Times recognizes that now by having 23 or 24 bestseller lists because of that diversity. And they’re all selling vigorously within a certain plateau. The fact is all book sales are down. The first six months of the year, the AAP … APA … what is it?

Andy Ross: The Association for American Publishers.

Alan Rinzler: Yes, announced that trade book sales are down about 6 percent overall. E-book sales are up, and that compensates for something, but generally, book sales have declined. Maybe because of the economy or because people are reading free stuff …

Andy Ross: they haven’t declined that much. There was another survey that went over three years or something and it was about 2 or 3 percent. That surprises me because I think the Internet has killed people’s attention span, and reading a book requires an attention. And I think, Alan can tell you, that there’s a lot of pressure now, for people who are writing novels, there’s a lot of talk about word count. They want shorter novels because of that. I heard somebody who wrote a historical novel, where you can usually get by with bigger word counts … the UK edition of their book was a hundred pages longer than the American edition because of people’s attention spans.

Alan Rinzler: I hate to hear that because a book should be as long as it needs to be, and some books really need to be long. One of the reasons, if you’re doing an actual book, is that paper is so expensive. There are a lot of technical problems in the book business that are really making it a crazy business. Books are returnable—why are they returnable?

Andy Ross: As a bookseller, I can spend an hour or two talking about why they are returnable.

Alan Rinzler: Because no one would take any if they weren’t.

Andy Ross: That is true.

Alan Rinzer: Also, the amount of time that publishers are holding books in a store before returning them is shrinking, and that’s not good because sometimes it takes a while for a book to catch on.

Andy Ross: This is a new subject. There was a survey, which I write about in my blog when I see them—most of them are in Publishers’ Weekly—most books are not bought online. Only about 20 percent of books are bought online. You’d think with all the talk that it’s the opposite, and it is changing for sure. Just last year, Amazon supplanted Barnes & Noble as the largest single venue for books. But one of the things that is interesting, and I know Alan has written about this as well, is that—although we may not agree on this—there was another recent survey that said that only 20 percent of books bought online are impulse buys. Forty percent of books in bookstores are impulse buys, and recently I had a conversation with Chip Gibson, who is president of Random House Children’s Books, the largest publisher of children’s books in the world, and he said that 80 percent of children’s books are impulse buys. And they’re very concerned about the fact that bookstores are disappearing. They have a concept they talk about, discoverability, and it doesn’t work well online. Amazon spent millions of dollars with these books that flash on that say, “If you like this, then you’ll love that,” but it doesn’t work all that well.

Alan Rinzler: Well, you can’t browse. You can’t flip through it.

Andy Ross:
Well, they give you five pages, but it doesn’t work.

Alan Rinzler:
There’s nothing like going to a bookstore and looking through a book. You just can’t beat that.

Andy Ross: And bookstores are going out o business every day—obviously, Borders.

Alan Rinzler: Well, here’s a trend that you must appreciate. Whereas Borders is closed and Barnes & Nobles is hurting—and they are hurting—independent bookstores are flourishing.

Andy Ross: They’re closing, too.

Alan Rinzler: Some are closing, but those that are smart, that are surviving, are doing really well. I was on a panel last Wednesday at the Northern California Book Publishers Marketing Association. It’s a very lively group, and there’s a panel of independent bookstore people—the Booksmith on Haight Ashbury, Mrs. Dalloway’s, which is right down here on Elmwood, which is a great store, and, of course, Book Passage. They are really hardworking, smart people who have figured out how to make money as independent bookstores. They do events, they cultivate their community, they respond to the local interests, they are able to have an identity and a personality that works for them.

Andy Ross: Well, it is true that the smaller bookstores seems to be more robust than the larger bookstores. Stores like Cody’s had huge overhead. And the book business changed. And in a lot of ways the changes were a perfect storm. They all cut against what bookstores are good at. The smaller stores have low overhead and they ca survive and, in some cases, prosper, but I think the trends in the book business are not favorable toward independent stores … any kinds of bookstores.

Meghan Ward: And now a lot of the independent bookstores have Google e-books. Do you think that’s going to help save the bookstores?

Andy Ross: I’d like to believe that. My wife works at Book Passage, and I use an e-book most of the time just because I figured I should understand how the future works. I recently started reading a regular book. I hadn’t done one in a few months …

Alan Rinzler: It smells better.

Andy Ross: The experience of reading a regular book is much better than an e-book. You have black on white instead of dark gray on light gray, although there are some advantages to e-books as well. Reading a book was like going to Chez Panisse instead of the doggy diner. But you can get books from Google books through independent bookstores, and, for the most part, the prices are the same as they are on Amazon, which is unusual. Amazon has succeeded by cutting prices and being willing to lose money in order to gain market share. But publishers have adopted a new plan—it used to be violation of anti-trust, but it’s not anymore—where they can set the prices. So you’re in a situation where if you buy an e-book from Book Passage, it’s the same price as Amazon, so people should do it. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s having that much of an impact.

Alan Rinzler: But it’s happening. Everything is changing. I don’t think anybody can tell what it’s going to be like a year from now. A year ago, I don’t think anybody would have predicted that Janklow and Nesbitt were going to make a deal to self-publish books of their best authors whose books were out of print or who wanted to make more money on their royalties. It’s really amazing—a year ago …

Andy Ross: Yeah, I’m having a fight with another agent about it/ One of my clients has some out-of-print books and I’d like to just put them up—he wants to put them up—but he foolishly promised another agent that he had the rights to it, and they’re not doing anything.

Alan Rinzler: Well, everything is negotiable. Give them a piece of the action.

Andy Ross: Well, they say they’re going to do something, but they haven’t. Agents are very much involved in that. Smashwords and all of these new companies are setting themselves up so that agents can be a key part of the process.

Alan Rinzler: You know, what’s interesting about the big changes in the book business is that they came from the ground up. Book publishers did not plan to have e-books, to have a direct access between authors and readers so that every author has to have his own website now, and their own blog and their own self-marketing plan. All of that just happened because of the technology and because of the people figuring out. And that’s just really interesting. And publishers have been reluctant, and late, getting on board. For years, I worked for a company that shall remain nameless—actually, it was John Wiley and everyone felt the same way. They would never post anything for free. Are you kidding? A sample chapter? Forget it. And now, of course, you can get more than a sample chapter and everybody does it, including Wiley. So there’s been a lot of dinosaur thinking and fear of technology and wanting to do it the old way for publishers and agents and editors and everybody in the business because they’re not math and science majors—none of them, for the most part—they’re English majors.

Andy Ross: They went to Brown!

Alan Rinzler: They don’t feel comfortable doing stuff like converting to six different formats, even though it’s not that hard to do. Or reading an e-book where you flip with your thumb like that. And the iPad, by the way, has very good black and white delineation.

Andy Ross: I’d love to have an iPad. I have a Sony Reader, by the way.

Alan Rinzler: Aren’t they as sharp?

Andy Ross: Well, they’re like a Kindle, it’s dark gray on light gray.

Alan Rinzler: I love my iPad.

Meghan Ward: So what do you think about the e-book pricing? Because a lot of e-books now that you buy through Amazon or through Google e-books are only a dollar cheaper than the hardcover.

Alan Rinzler: A lot of them are $.99, too.

Meghan Ward: Well, those are the self-published books. But the ones coming through the Big 6 are often almost the same price as the hard cover.

Andy Ross: No, they’re not, actually.

Meghan Ward: Well, the ones that I buy tend to be because the Amazon hardcover price is already so low.

Andy Ross: Well, Amazon can no longer set the prices. That was a big breakthrough. Publishers don’t particularly like Amazon, correct me if I’m wrong.

Alan Rinzler: Oh, they hate it.

Andy Ross: Amazon is too powerful …

Alan Rinzler: They’re also starting to compete with publishers.

Andy Ross: And they’re starting to compete with publishers, and they were trying to drive down the price of books for a number of reasons, but they were driving them down to the point where it devalued the value of books. So they (the publishers) made a side deal with Apple to increase the competition and they came up with a plan where they could control the price of the book. And Amazon resisted it. They wouldn’t sell one publisher for a week, and it terrified everyone. But it also showed the power that Amazon had.

Alan Rinzler: Will you explain that? They can set the actual price? What about the discount?

Andy Ross: No, what they do and it’s legal—and it would never have been legal ten years ago—is that the publisher, instead of using a wholesale model—we sell you a book wholesale and you can price it anyway you want—they have created a system where the retailer, Amazon for instance, is an agent of the publisher. So what they do is the publisher sets a price, and the agent—Amazon—gets a 30 percent commission. The publisher controls the price of that book. And that’s happening with the major publishers. It’s not happening with smaller publishers. But now every one fo the six majors has this agency plan.

Alan Rinzler: For the actual book or the e-book?

Andy Ross: This is for the e-book. The actual book is still this wholesale plan.

Alan Rinzler: So for the e-book only. Therefore, the e-book prices are still kind of up.

Meghan Ward: They’re often $12-, $13-, $14.99. They’re not as cheap as you would think.

Andy Ross: Yeah, but the hardback prices can be $25.

Alan Rinzler: Not if they’re discounted.

Meghan Ward: Well the Amazon hardcovers are usually around $16, $17, so there’s not that big of a difference. And often the e-book is a dollar more than the paperback. You would think they’d be less expensive because they don’t have to print books, but they’re not.

Alan Rinzler: Well, I think this hasn’t been resolved yet. The story’s not over. You’re right, it’s a little bit weird, and what’s going to ultimately influence it is that readers want a cheaper price. Everyone wants the price to be lower, and the self-published e-books, which are very substantial, are $.99, $1.99, $2.99. Why go to $7.99 or $12.99?

Andy Ross: Well, I think you have to decide … first of all, a lot of these e-books are given away. One of the issues is the value of intellectual work. If somebody spends five years writing a novel, it’s probably worth more than $.99, whatever “worth” means. And this brings up another issue—and Alan has written about this, and so have I—of what is the value of the traditional publisher in the new world? What kind of value do they add? I went to New York and I was talking to … because again, there’s this philosophy of disintermediation, where you don’t need publishers anymore, they’re dinosaurs, they don’t really add value, they don’t promote books, what do they do? And I asked a bunch of editors about that, and they didn’t have very good answers about what value they’re adding. Mostly what they said—and there is something true about this—is that they provide a really good editorial experience, that a lot of these small press books are just kind of thrown up there, which is really true. It’s easy to get one of these small press books, but it’s difficult to sort out what’s good from this kind of ocean of mediocrity because, like everything else on the Internet, everyone’ san expert—it’s like Wikipedia.

Alan Rinzler: What do you mean by “a good editorial experience”? How can these New York editors say that when most of them don’t do any editing?

Andy Ross: I used to think that, but I don’t think that’s true. What is true is that they expect the book to be perfect when they get it. It has to be well edited, and that’s why agents do add value. But once it is edited, they will—some of them—will do a lot of work editing it.

Alan Rinzler: You mean edit again?

Andy Ross: Yeah, they will edit it additionally. I think if you look it in aggregate, if you buy a book from Knopf, it’s more likely to be a better book than if you buy a book from Smashwords.

Alan Rinzler: Well, this is a complicated issue because many self-published authors are seeking developmental editors. There’s a whole new freelance profession of developmental editors. You know that [To Meghan Ward], and I know that. You have Zoe Rosenfeld. And that’s a whole business. And there’s a lot of other people I know who used to be acquisition editors and who are now doing developmental editing, and they’re being hired by self-published editors.

Meghan Ward: Has your business increased since the self-publishing has grown?

Alan Rinzler: Yes, it has, substantially. However, I still don’t really believe—and I can’t prove it exactly, but I’m pretty sure—from when I talk to editors and writers, that they’re not getting a lot of developmental editing from publishers because they’re in a hurry. They’re got to fill a quota. They’ve got a window of opportunity. They’ve got a list that has to be satisfied. They don’t want to mess around with something that has to be worked with for another year or two in development. They want to get it right into production. They’re in a hurry. They want a quick turnover of their investment, especially if they pay a lot of money.

Andy Ross: You’re right about that. If the book is flawed, if the concept of the book is flawed, they’re not going to spend a lot of energy before they acquire they book trying to figure out how to make it a good book. They will edit after they get it book, though, and they’ll put some time and energy into it. Some of it’s developmental, but I’m finding I have to do a huge amount of developmental editing as an agent, and I think most of the agents who I respect are doing that—not necessarily the most famous agents, who are mostly interested in flipping contracts.

Meghan Ward: So you’re willing to take on a book that needs some work?

Andy Ross: I spend months. I just took on a novel which was really one of the best novels I ever read by a person who teaches creative writing, and we’ve been spending the last three months working on that book. You know, it’s really interesting, I’m finding that I get kind of intimidated by these people who teach graduate-level writing, but the truth is, anyone who’s been writing a novel for four years has lost all perspective. They seem to have no idea what characteristics are working for the reader or what’s just in their mind. And if you’ve read Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird by Bird, she talked about Radio KFKD, which is in your ear. One side you’re hearing the siren song of self-aggrandizement, and on the other side, you’re hearing the rap music of self-loathing. You’ve lost all perspective. My role as an agent is to edit and tell them what’s working and what isn’t working.

Alan Rinzler: But you’re very unusual, Andy. I don’t think most agents do much editing, nor should they, because they don’t know what they’re doing.

Andy Ross: I like to believe I added value to that book, and she said I did.

Alan Rinzler: I’m sure you did. And people who teach creative writing aren’t necessarily …

Andy Ross: Oh, I’ve heard horror stories.

Alan Rinzler: It’s interesting, if you read Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers, there are so many MFA programs. You’d think it was like law school or medical school—although maybe that’s not as job-guaranteeing either—but there are so many writers taking degrees as if this will ensure them of success, and believe me, it doesn’t.

Meghan Ward: So what do you think of MFA programs?

Alan Rinzler: If you need the discipline of having to write, you probably shouldn’t be a writer in the first place. You should have that discipline. I’m very skeptical of MFA programs, frankly.

Andy Ross: I’ve given panels are MFA programs, and I’ve worked with people who teach creative writing, and some of them are good and some of them … aren’t.

Meghan Ward: What are the biggest problems you see in new author’s works?

Alan Rinzler: I think Andy touched on that—a lack of perspective and objectivity on their own work.

Andy Ross: But that’s true of experienced writers as well.

Alan Rinzler: That’s true, but if they’ve never written before … You know, there’s an irony. To be a writer, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac, and you have to be a bit obsessive, in order to sit down and devote yourself and ignore your family and your job or whatever else you’re doing, and just have the discipline to write four or five or six hours a day—or two or three. So you’re a little bit crazy to begin with. But new writers, in particular, are often so swept up in their own work that they don’t see what they’re doing. The biggest problem I see with beginning writers, though, is they don’t make a plan. They think if they close their eyes, the muse will come to them and put the pen on the paper, the fingers on the keyboard. The best writers I have worked with, the very best—Toni Morrison and Tom Robinson, yadda yadda—they all really think about what they’re doing ad try to make a plan and revise . An outline even, or some kind of storyboard or some kind of clear vision of their path—about where they’re going ,why they’re going and where it’s going to wind up—all those kind of structural narrative issues, try to get at least mostly resolved, subject to change, as you go along, but mostly resolve before beginning. I think that’s the biggest problem I see in writing.

Andy Ross: Well, I think all of the writers I talk to, regardless of their experience, have no perspective. I wouldn’t have any perspective after those characters lived in my head for four or five years. What Alan does is very different from what I do, and I refer people to Alan. What I do is I come to the experience with a beginner’s mind. I read the book and try to think about how the reader would relate to that experience, because the reader is king, not the writer. And I try to give them the input as a reader—what was funny, what was boring, where I was getting lost. And it happens all the time from even from the best writers. Right?

Alan Rinzler: Oh yeah. There are a lot of technical problems. One book I edited turned out to be really good, but it started with nothing but dialogue—nothing but dialogue, no breaks, no “he got up and walked across the room,” dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You didn’t even know who was talking. Or some books have no dialogue. These are all things … too much visual description, not enough visual description, things like that. A lot of digression, a lot of unnecessary tangents, and back story problems. Like how do you tell what happened before the book started? That’s a major problem. Then you get these big information dumps at the beginning of a book.

Andy Ross: Prologues.

Alan Rinzler: Yeah. Heavy prologues. Or that formulaic opening car crash and then the big dump as to how it got to that point and then picking it up again. There are a lot of little structural problems that are very common.

Andy Ross: You know, I thought about that. I was working very closely with a friend of mine, whose book I sent to Alan. Neither she nor I had much experience writing novels, but we together worked through these problems of working through backstories and information dumps. One of the things that’s interesting is that I’ve been influenced by movies and the way they tell stories, and movies always have prologues because a film script is much shorter, and they have to find ways of getting the information out in a much simpler form.

Alan Rinzler: It’s easier, too, though.

Andy Ross: Making a movie? Well, doing a prologue solves a lot of problems.

Alan Rinzler: Yeah, because cinematically is goes much faster, and …

Andy Ross: Dealing with backstory is what I find publishers are very tough on. They just think it’s lazy writing, and they don’t like it.

Alan Rinzler: But somehow it has to get in there, and it’s not easy to feather in people’s personality or history without telling about it in an encyclopedic way—foot notes.

Meghan Ward: So, you’ve been getting a lot of writes who want to self-publish?

Alan Rinzler: I’ve been getting a lot of writers who want to take control of their destiny, who say I’m going to self-publish this book, but I know that it has to be a lot better than it is now, and I’m going to do this, but I want you to be an editor.

Meghan Ward: Do you think the quality is as high as those who want to go through the traditional process?

Alan Rinzler: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely The quality is not as high as a great writer who’s already been published, but the quality is as high as someone who says this is my first book, and I want an agent. And boy is that a frustrating experience for the most part, trying to get one.

Andy Ross: Although Alain sent me some of his clients.

Alan Rinzler: Yeah, and you didn’t take any of them!

Andy Ross: I didn’t take any of them, but you know, that happens.

Alan Rinzler: I make recommendations, but who listens to me?

Andy Ross: Yeah, I get rejected a lot. Everything is hard to get published through traditional publishing. I get a lot of people who have good experiences publishing books that I just fall in love with, and I get a lot of rejections. It’s like my social life in high school. And people who are important historical figures with original information I get rejected. Pulitzer Prize winners.

Meghan Ward: Do you worry that the agent will be obsolete five to ten years from now?

Andy Ross: Well, I was worried about that, but … it used to be they hated literature agents. I think Alfred Knopf said a literary agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat. And now it’s the opposite. They consider the literary agents the gatekeepers.

Alan Rinzler: They won’t look at a book unless it comes from an agent.

Andy Ross: And that’s where agents, good agents, add value. We do developmental editing. We work with them closely to write book proposals and in the process of writing the book proposal, which is a business plan, they have to do the developmental editing, at least in their mind, or the book proposals going to stink and I’m not going to be able to sell it.

Alan Rinzler: But here’s a change. I think everybody in traditional publishing now is much more risk-aversive than when I was a kid. They don’t’ want to make a long-term investment in their writer. They want something that’s a big hit now. They don’t want to spend a lot of time editing it. They don’t want to spend a lot of time selling it. Everything has to go faster because you’ve got those quarterly reports for publicly held capitalist companies, and you can’t just say well, this writer is going to be very successful in three years, I think. Therefore, there is a fear of failure, which is justified because most books do lose money, that causes people not to take as many chances. One thing that was true 40 or 50 years ago is that you would invest in a writer like Joe Heller because you thought his next book would be great. Or other great writers.

Andy Ross: Faulkner is the example they use.

Alan Rinzler: Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Their first books were not successful, but you did it because you wanted to get their third or fourth book. You don’t see very much of that anymore.

Andy Ross: Well, the word that comes up a lot—particularly for nonfiction—is “platform.” Everything’s platform. Essentially, what it comes down to is they want people who are famous and who have access to media. Platform for me means two different things. Number one if you’re writing a history, you have an endowed chair at Harvard in history. The other form of platform, which I think is much more persuasive, is that you’re sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser, that you have access to popular media. As a new agent, I have a much harder job because most of my clients—some of them have pretty good platforms—but most of them—I have to discover new talent. It’s very important, and publishers will tell you that it’s very important, but it’s also very hard to get the publishers to commit themselves to this new talent.

Alan Rinzler: It’s paradoxical.

Meghan Ward: So what advice do you have for new writers on how to develop their platform?

Andy Ross: Well, we’ve argued about that, haven’t we?

Alan Rinzler: No, I think we actually agreed.

Andy Ross: We argued and then agreed.

Alan Rinzler: You can develop a platform if you’re unknown online. That’s one way to develop a platform, by developing a personality, by becoming integrated into a community who have a shared interest—particularly that’s much easier in nonfiction. Although, a lot of fiction women writers and male writers develop a platform online by putting their work out and people reading it and developing people who like it and getting a following, so that by the time you get to a publisher you can say, “Hey, I’ve got 6000 hits a month.” That’s impressive.

Andy Ross: Well, I don’t know how impressive that is because I was just reading a very good blog entry about this, and it is true, publishers expect you to do social media and to develop your own platform, but what I’m finding is there are certain limitations to that, that it’s hard to develop a platform if you don’t already have platform. I think I mentioned that a blog that would impress publishers, that would make the deal, was a blog that was getting 50-100,000 hits a day—and they would agree with that. I think you contacted Daniela Rapp, right?

Meghan Ward: Yeah, but she was talking per month, not per day.

Andy Ross: Still, 50,000 hits a month …

Alan Rinzler: That’s a big number.

Andy Ross: It’s a big number. Most people aren’t going to do that.

Alan Rinzler: No.

Andy Ross: I mean, they will publish other books. They don’t just make the decision based on the number of hits on the blog, but …

Alan Rinzler: Well, there are other ways to do platform. One is to win a literary prize of some kind. Another is to get published in a magazine or a literary journal or to get a really persuasive, incredible endorsement from somebody who’s really read the book and respects the writing. That’s hard to get. You have to be a good writer. But I have this kind of naïve feeling that virtue will triumph and that good writers will always emerge, that somehow, if they keep writing, the work will appear and be seen and be read and it will connect.

Andy Ross:
Well, I agree with that. Because I’m a new agent and because I dwell in the world of new talent, the best I can do it find somebody who has talent—particularly in the world of fiction, where almost nothing gets published—literary fiction. And all I can hope to do is try to have them continue writing until something clicks—kismet or an editor falls in love with it. I was meeting with literary editors last time I was in New York and there was one who I respect a lot, and I asked her, “How many manuscripts does she read a year?” and she had a log and she said, “Last year I read about 250 manuscripts.” And I said, “How many of those ended up getting published?” And she said, “Two.” And I said, “How many of those 250 were good enough to get published?” and she said, “Over a hundred.” So that’s the kind of batting average we’re talking about. You’ve got to be good, that’s a given. You have to be good, but once you’re good, it goes into this acquisitions meeting and decisions get made that aren’t necessarily esthetic. The one book I loved, and it made it all the way to the acquisition meeting, got rejected because they said something like, “The subject was a little too dark for reading groups.” It was a marketing decision.

Alan Rinzler: Yeah, if you’ve been to a few acquisition meetings, and I have, it’s really scary how much power … here’s a change in the book business. The change is that the balance of power in the company has shifted from editorial to sales and marketing, so that now the sales and marketing people have a kind of veto. I was executive editor at Wiley, and I could occasionally push through things that were coolly responded to by the sales and marketing people, but I did so at peril because they could kill a book by simply not selling it, by not pushing it into their accounts. They have too much power because they’re bean counters … and they’re very risk aversive. They want a book from an author that the last book sold a lot of copies because there’s something called BookScan. You know what that is? The first thing that happens when a sales department, or an editor—anybody, gets a proposal is they look up the authors in BookScan. And very few authors look that good in BookScan, unless their last book did over 50- 75, 100,000 copies.

Andy Ross: You know, it’s a lot easier to sell a debut novel, where there’s no record on BookScan that to have somebody whose book bombed.

Alan Rinzler: Or just did midlist.

Andy Ross: They take books by the numbers, and I think there’s a reason for that, which is that the Barnes & Noble buyers also look at BookScan, and they do the same thing. I used to do it at Cody’s even.

Alan Rinzler: You know what you sold of the last title. You have your own numbers.

Andy Ross:
It’s the tyranny of numbers. I know some agents, if an author’s previous book didn’t do well, they’ll try to sell the book under a nom de plume.

Alan Rinzler:
That’s crazy. How can you publicize the book then?

Andy Ross:
Well, eventually the truth comes out.

Meghan Ward:
So, both of you have blogs. Why do you have blogs?

Alan Rinzler: Well, for me, it gives me an opportunity to be a grouchy old man and vent occasionally. But actually I have to keep that under control, my wife says. For me, it’s primarily a way of stimulating and encouraging people to hire me as a freelance editor.

Meghan Ward: And do you think your blog helps?

Alan Rinzler:
Oh, absolutely. I get many many queries every day, most of which are not workable. But maybe one or two are workable, and if we can work it out and if it’s good enough, it’s a tremendous source of clients for me. Its’ my primary source of clients.

Andy Ross: Well, I started my blog because my brother-in-law said as a marketing tool I needed a blog. And it turned out to be different because probably the way I am. Alan and Cheryl actually brought me in and decided to give me avuncular advice about how I was blowing it as a marketing tool. And Alan said, “What do you want to do? Do you want to make money, or do you want to sound off?” And, unfortunately, what I said is I think I want to sound off. And that’s pretty much what my blog has become. Although every once in a while I feel it incumbent upon me to provide the Writer’s Digest “9 Tips on How to Write a Query Letter.” The problem is I’m embarrassed to do it because there are only 20 tips in the world about what you need to know to write a query letter, and they seem to be recycled almost monthly in Writer’s Digest. I can’t spend my life writing tips about query letters, but I do it, and if you read my blog, you can get a lot of good information.

Alan Rinzler: But I think your blog is helpful to authors, and that’s what I try to do. There’s so much going on, there’s so many changes, that there’s stuff to write about for authors besides how to write a query letter. My advice about query letters is don’t write one, period. End of story. I think query letters are a complete waste of time. Nobody reads them.

Andy Ross: Well, I think they do read them, but I think people go around to these writers’ conferences where they charge money for how to write a query letter, and there really is only five things you need to know. They should be short, and they aren’t going to get you published, but … when I look at a query letter, I want to know three things. I want to know what’s the genre of the book, what’s it about, and why am I the right person to write that book. And frankly, why am I the right person to write that book is the first thing I’d look at.

Alan Rinzler: When I started my blog, self-publishing was pretty much still vanity publishing. It was for the lunatic fringe. And that was only three or four years ago. There’s been so much happening that authors need to hear about. I think the blog is not exactly self-serving always, but somehow a public service in some ways, which will show people that they ultimately do need to hire me (laughs.)

Meghan Ward: And do you recommend that writers trying to develop platform blog, or do you think the blogosphere is saturated at this point?

Alan Rinzler: Yes, but you don’t have to write every day. You don’t have to write what you had for breakfast. I think that that sort of Nathan Bransford model has died.

Andy Ross: Nathan Bransford has a lot of fans, actually. But it’s hard. There are a number of agent’s blogs, and they feel they have to post every day, and they run out of material. I do it when I have something to say. It’s not always every day, or even every week.

Meghan Ward: So do you think it’s worth a writer’s time to blog, even if they’re not going to get that 50,000 hits a month?

Andy Ross: I think you blog because you like to blog, because you feel you have something to say.

Alan Rinzler: And you like to write, you’re a writer. It’s writing.

Andy Ross: If you follow the gospel according to Writer’s Digest, they say you have to blog, you have to blog every day, but if you don’t have anything to say, nobody’s going to listen to your blog.

Alan Rinzler: You’re better off doing occasional blogs.

Meghan Ward: But as far as developing a platform, it’s going to make an agent or a publisher …

Andy Ross: Well, publishers expect you to blog.

Alan Rinzler: Oh, yeah. It think you really have to do it.

Andy Ross: Although if I saw something I loved, I wouldn’t make the decision on whether they blogged or not. What I would do is say they’ve got to be on social media, they ought to blog, they need to have a website, but that for me is not the make or break of the decision.

Meghan Ward: Do you take any of those things into consideration, though?

Andy Ross: Well, publishers do, and whenever I do a book proposal, I have a section on how the author is going to market themselves. And I tell them they have to have a Facebook page and they ought to blog, but that’s not going to influence a publisher’s decision. I had an author who had 75,000 hits a month on her blog, and I couldn’t get it published. So …

Alan Rinzler: One of the things that hasn’t changed in the book business is that people who are in the book business would not be happy in the oil business or selling cars or other kinds of work. They love books. You don’t make a huge amount of money unless you own the company. People who are in the book business often make decisions upon irrational passion. I think, ultimately, the decision to represent a book or buy a book for your company, is very personal, very subjective, and is based upon connecting with it on an emotional level that resonates for you.

Andy Ross:
Which is why you have to have returns, which is why bookstores need to have returns. If your new line of underwear doesn’t sell for $10, you can usually reduce it to a price where it will sell, whereas if a book was just somebody’s pipe dream, it’s not going to sell for any price. So books are returnable.

Alan Rinzler: Okay, we should finish up. Got any more questions?

Meghan Ward: What’s the last best book you’ve read, or your favorite book that you’ve read in the last six months?

Alan Rinzler: The Finkler Question.

Andy Ross: I threw that down after fifty pages. I couldn’t read that.

Alan Rinzler: I read it twice. See, we don’t agree about everything. And you call yourself a Jew? (laughing)

Meghan Ward: The Finkler Question?

Andy Ross: The Finkler Question. It won the Booker Prize.

Meghan Ward: (To Andy Ross) And you didn’t like it?

Andy Ross: Oh, I got bored very early on.

Alan Rinzler: I want to read it a third time. And all of my friends—except Andy—loved that book.

Andy Ross: Actually, my wife threw it down, too.

Alan Rinzler: It’s by a guy named Harold Jacobson in the 60s. It’s English, and it’s about Jews who don’t agree about anything—Jewish identity, Jewish anti-Semitism, that is, Jews hating Jews

Andy Ross: Hey, I can get all that at home.

Alan Rinzler: It’s very funny, too.

Andy Ross: Actually, the best book I’ve read recently is the novel I got from the slush pile. It’s a historical novel, and I love it. And the second best novel I read was also something I got—no, it wasn’t slush pile, it was recommended by another agent. Neither of them have been published, and I’m up against those numbers of 250 a year, but I like them better than The Finkler Question.

32 comments to Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing

  • anne gallagher

    What a great and fascinating interview. Thanks so much!!

  • This took way too big a chunk out of my morning, but I had to read every word. Fascinating. This is such a crazy business. I think we must all be nuts. One thing that emerges, though: Slow Blogging Rules! You have a once-a-week blog that kills with every post. And these two giants in the business only blog "when they have something to say." What a concept!

    Now to go get that endowed chair at Harvard and sleep with Oprah's hairdresser, so I can have a REAL platform!

  • Kristan

    "If you need the discipline of having to write, then you probably shouldn’t be a writer in the first place."

    Well. That's the most personally depressing thing I've read in a while…

    Great Q&A though. Loved hearing their perspectives on all these very important issues. (The yardwork threw me off for a bit, lol. I kept looking for a popup window!!) The last half was a bit more interesting me to the first half, for whatever that's worth.

    I also find it really, REALLY interesting that the strategy used to be to pick up a writer whose NEXT book (or books) you thought would be great. I mean, that's a huge paradigm change. And what kills me about this industry right now is how short-sighted it is. I get that a lot is changing, and it's hard to plan long-term. But what about investment in creativity, in artists? That's what I don't see as much of anymore…

    Anyway, HUGE thanks to Meghan, Alan and Andy for doing this!

    • Kristan – I agree wholeheartedly about the shortsightedness of the business. It's all about the bottom line today, thanks to the mega-media companies that own the publishing houses.

      As for that first quote, I think he meant that you'll never make it as a writer if you can't discipline yourself (on your own, without teachers giving you deadlines) to write. I kind of agree with that because after the MFA is over, who's going to crap the whip if you can't do it for yourself?

  • sierragodfrey

    WOW! FABULOUS interview Meghan and kudos to you for scoring a wonderful discussion between these two fascinating people. (AND for transcribing it– that must have taken forever.) I absolutely love this. Alan and Andy are hilarious and this was a real treat to listen in on.

    • Thanks, Sierra! The transcription DID take forever, but I know that it's a lot easier for me to read an interview than to listen to it at work or on a train because I don't carry headphones around with me.

  • […] Willie Osterman says. … View full post on "photography techniques" – Google NewsThe Independent WeeklyPositive images: Documenting chemotherapy with archaic photography techniquesT…cess-of-healing-willie-ostermans-vintage-photographs-of-his-wifes-chemotherapy">The Independent […]

  • […] Alan Rinzler and agent Andy Ross Talk About Publishing and especially its changes, with writer Meghan […]

  • Great interview! Thanks so much for transcribing it and sharing it with us. 🙂

  • Really enjoyed this. Loved the banter between the Alan/Andy. Thank you, Meghan. I didn't see any typos 🙂

    And, Andy, I could not get into reading The Finkler Question. I tried, really, but…

  • […] Meghan Ward has a fantastic blog about writing called Writerland. Recently she did an interview with myself and my friend (and legendary editor) Alan Rinzler. I’ve interviewed Alan on my […]

  • Great to "listen in" on Alan and Andy chatting. By the way, I'm also with Andy on The Finkler Question! Sometimes I find the concept behind a book is better than the actual book. That was one. The recent novel by Tom Perrotta, "The Leftovers," was another one.

    On author blogs: In my own experience, the blogs that reach into the tens of thousands of readers are ones where the author has information that readers NEED — really need. Agent blogs get read by writers who want to understand the publishing industry. Tech blogs get read by people who want to find out the next great innovation. Parenting blogs are read by moms who want to figure out how to get junior to sleep at night, or how not to be crazy while trying to get junior to sleep at night. The high-readership blog author has a commodity (information, expertise, perspective) that readers need.

    That's MUCH easier for a non-fiction author to provide than a fiction author. I have a general rambly-type blog about writing, Judaism, parenting and I have no delusions that it is building me a platform. I do it because it's fun, because it provides some instant gratification (unlike my novel), and because it allows me to practice a chatty, quick writing style.

    • llana – That is a GREAT observation about blogs. My own posts that do particularly well are the most informative – 20 places to publish personal essays, how to get a Fulbright, etc. I do think a fiction blogger can create informative posts, too, though. Thanks for this feedback.

  • Thanks for taking the time to put this interesting discussion together — on video, transcribed. It's a lot of work and the service to reader/writers is appreciated. The insights are very useful as I prepare to publish my first novel, because the shifting publishing landscape is scary. These guys seem to have their feet on the ground.

    • meghancward

      Kate – I'm glad it was helpful! And I didn't even notice the weed whacker in the background until I watched the video. I guess I was too absorbed in their conversation at that time to notice.

  • […] Editor Alan Rinzler & Literary Agent Andy Ross On All Things Publishing This is a video interview with a written transcription.  It’s long but well worth watching. Filed Under: Writer's Desk | Tagged: Tagged With: books on writing, excellent reads for writers, good reads for writers, literary links, the writing life, where I go for writing inspiration, writers' blogs, writing, writing a novel, writing advice, writing help, writing inspiration, writing links […]

  • […] from the 80s), that modeling books are out, that the only chance I have of getting published is to sleep with Oprah’s hairdresser. I’ll wonder if my book is too serious. I’ll tell myself that if only chapters 1, 6, 9, […]

  • Great interview! It's both hopeful and discouraging to hear how much the industry is changing and how many of us are trying to make our way in it! Thanks so much for posting this.

  • Thanks for this great ivierntew. I love your new blog, by the way! You are filling a need that was out there.

  • Jane

    I enjoyed the discussion too. Very funny. Two guys who love reading and books — & from what Alan Rinzler says there are hardly any of them left in publishing. Very good work Meghan.

  • Sumner Wilson

    Excellent. This is like watching two avid baseball fans talk over the ins and outs of baseball, stealing bases, sore-arm pitchers, home-run sluggers, and the like. But to me, it's much better. I've never heard two people discuss writing in all its facets in this fashion before. Completely captivating.


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