I’m proud to introduce Michael Solana of Tarcher, an imprint of Penguin Books USA. In addition to acquiring and editing books, Michael blogs, writes fiction, and is active on Twitter. His second ever acquisition, The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius by David Thorne, recently reached #4 on the New York Times Paperback Nonfiction list. More information on that title will be available at the end of the interview, but I can tell you that it is hilarious. If you live in New York, you may see my fiancée, Nicole, laughing so hard on the subway that she’s crying. Plenty of curious looks have been directed her way in the past week or so.
Michael, is there reason to be optimistic about the publishing industry’s prospects over the next few generations?
You know, Susan Peterson Kennedy once gave a speech that framed this pretty well. There’s this tendency that people in the industry have to go on and on about the Internet and the literary apocalypse. Well, Susan quoted an article. The writer went on and on about a lower readership, less talent, higher production costs, and rapidly changing technologies. Things did not look good. They were terrible, in fact. This was Red Alert. Abandon ship! The sky is falling! He said the industry would be dead in less than a generation.
The article was published over a century ago. There’s more than reason for optimism; this is the nature of the beast. People have been saying that the publishing industry is about to die for roughly as long as there has been a publishing industry. It’s not dying.
But it’s certainly changing. It will change tomorrow, in fact. It changes every day. Our success in this business correlates exactly with our adaptability. Are you scared of eBooks, the iPad, that crazy computer paper that stretches, or does all of this excite you? Does the competition that the slew of small presses and self-publishers are about to come charging through the marketplace with intimidate you, or are you looking forward to welcoming what is undoubtedly going to be a broader, more interesting environment for literature? The only people who have anything to worry about are the people who romanticize our grandfathers’ industry. That’s long gone, it’s never coming back, and quite frankly I’m glad. We’re living in the future now, and it’s really, really cool.
How would you respond to people who argue that, while eBooks may expand the market in terms of sales volume, the amount of royalties that authors receive is shrinking along with advances? How can authors remain optimistic when facing this reality?
I would simply say that they’re wrong. Standard royalty rates are the same, and advances are adjusting across the industry to reflect the current publishing reality.
Don’t mistake the tenor of my last answer; there is a very tough road ahead of us. I’m positive because I believe in the people at the helm of the ship, but if we’re not smart, and if we’re not willing to dig hard and reach for the new ideas, then the reality your authors are upset in the face of is going to get a lot worse.
You’ve used Twitter for a while now. How do you think authors can best utilize it?
The thing about Twitter is, it’s a great marketing tool if you aren’t using it as a marketing tool. I love Twitter. I think it’s probably the most interesting thing that’s appeared online in the past six or seven years, but it’s a conversation. It’s a bunch of people sharing and debating news, posting random thoughts, insights, ideas, and linking to videos of cats with myotonia congenita or whatever other crazy thing. But they’re building legitimate friendships grounded in common interest. If you approach Twitter with one goal in mind – to sell books – you’re going to look like that guy who sells glow sticks and lighters in crowded bars along 14th street at two in the morning; nobody’s going to trust you, and nobody’s going to follow you. You’ll fail.
The best thing an author can do is approach Twitter earnestly, craft a voice that’s relevant to his or her genre or field, and blog about the things that they find interesting, because that’s the only way to build a real audience. Twitter needs to be an end, not a means. Once you have that – followers who you interact with, and who look to you specifically for your opinion – a book or event plug every now and then will actually be welcomed. Hell, it might even be retweeted.
Psst. P.S. Follow me @micsolana!
You’re a writer yourself, in your spare time, and you’ve had some experience with the process of searching for an agent. From the perspective of someone who has been on both sides (an editor at a publishing house and a writer seeking publication), can you offer any advice to writers out there who are as yet unpublished or unrepresented?
Yes, actually, I can. Your query letter is important. I mean, it’s really important. Actually, consider how important you believe it is — seriously, right now, take a second and think about it. Now multiply that by like a factor of ten. If I’ve learned anything while working in this industry, and pitching this industry, it’s this: there’s a lot of noise out there and not a lot of signal. Editors and agents have been conditioned, simply for experience, to expect a majority of work in their inboxes that ranges from terrible to legitimately insane. You may think that means you have an edge. You’re probably thinking, as I once did, well, score! I’m not a crazy person! My stuff’s at least good. It will stand out, right?
Unfortunately, what actually tends to happen is your work, regardless of quality, is assumed guilty of bad, simply for being in the slush pile, before the first word of your query is read. So you need to make that first word shine. You need to write the best paragraph of your entire life and show it to me and make me think my God, if I don’t read this right now someone else will and it will be amazing and I will lose this project and I can’t do that because HOLY CRAP! LOOK AT THIS! You need to write as if your life depended on it because trust me, the deck is stacked against you and this is not your first impression. This is your only impression. No one’s reading through your first twenty or thirty pages to see if things get better. If you work isn’t immediately, self-evidently great it’s assumed that it will never be. That’s an almost impossible judgment to recover from.
Also, I mean, you just have to write, right? Writers should just write. And read! Read all the time. Read everything. But that can’t be my advice because, well, duh.
So query letters! Yes! Make them glow!
So, now that you’ve crushed the spirits of every aspiring writer reading this, I should tell you something about myself as an agent. I ask writers to send me the first 25 pages or so of their manuscript along with their query, and when I’m going through my inbox I generally skip past the query letter and look at the writing sample first. What do you think about that?
Ha! Different strokes for different folks? But I do think you’re an outlier.
Let’s talk a little more about dual roles. As an agent, I have to both receive and dole out plenty of rejections, and it’s predictably not a fun thing in either role. You have experience in both roles as well, as an editor and a writer. This is essentially a three-part question. What can you tell writers about the role of the rejector? What about that of the rejected? Finally, do you know any tricks for coping and moving past rejections?
This is a great question.
My God, have I been rejected. About five years back I took to covering my wall in letters from houses and journals. A lot of writers do this, and for a while I thought it was clever. It made me feel like I was chipping away at this seemingly insurmountable obstacle – publication – one “no thanks” at a time, as if it were a necessary right of passage; a lot of people say that it is. But, at the risk of going all The Secret on your readers, what it actually did was lend my rejectors a higher position of importance in my life than they deserved, and it filled my life with, well, rejection. How could it not? Every day I woke up and looked right at it.
This is wildly insane. In the first place, most rejection letters are form. Do you know where a form rejection letter belongs? In the trash can. Do yourself a tremendous favor and throw it the hell away. Get it out of your life. I can guarantee you that it didn’t come from a negative place. Some editorial assistant or agent was really just trying for a polite “no.” But I’ve spent many hours of my life that I will never get back wondering what “it didn’t immediately grab us” meant. Should I change my opening? I can make it exciting, I’d think; should there be a fight? A talking cat with an important message? An explosion?! Well, maybe. Probably all of those things, actually. Who doesn’t love a good explosion in a tortured literary masterpiece? It was Tolstoy, after all, who said that nothing good would ever come of omitting giant alien robots from the first page of a novel (I’m paraphrasing). But maybe not. Maybe your opening is fine. Because do you know what that form rejection letter really means? What Peter Rich-White-Guy-Sounding-Last-Name over at Knopf is really saying to you? It’s this: I don’t like it.
So screw him.
Screw you, Peter!
Look to the few really thoughtful letters you receive. There are going to be agents and editors who liked your characters, or your story, or maybe just the quality of your writing, and these are the people whose advice you should take to heart. Force your friends and coworkers to read your stuff. Join a writing group. Let the real-life-actual people you’re surrounded by tell you what worked and what didn’t work for them because they’re your audience, and their opinion is just as important as mine. It’s more important, actually.
But what is the role of rejection in an author’s life? This is pretty subjective, I guess. For me, rejection used to matter a lot. The letters said something about me. They were my only real ties to the publishing world and so I cared about them a great deal. But lately I couldn’t care less, and my life is better because of it. The letters are white noise. I hardly even read them anymore. I just kind of skim to get the gist, and I move on, because every moment you spend worrying about not being published is a moment you’ve just stolen from your writing, and from immediately sending your work back out to be rejected, rejected, re – hey! Success!
In the seminal words of 3LW, “haters gonna hate.”
Be sure to check out The Internet is a Playground: Irreverent Correspondences of an Evil Online Genius by David Thorne, a New York Times bestseller that’s available now.
“There is usually a fine line between genius and insanity, but in this case it has become very blurred. Some of the funniest and most clever writing I have read in years.” (Terrance Fielding, WIRED magazine)
“I laughed so hard and uncontrollably I could hardly breathe. Reading this on public transport is not a good idea.” (Penthouse magazine)
“Brilliantly funny.” (Jezebel.com)
From the notorious Internet troublemaker who brought the world the explosively popular “Next Time I’ll Spend the Money on Drugs Instead”, in which he attempted to pay his chiropractor with a picture he drew of a spider; “Please Design a Logo for Me. With Pie Charts. For Free,” which has been described as one of the most passed-on viral e-mails of all time; and, most recently, the staggeringly popular “Missing Missy”, which has appeared everywhere from The Guardian to Jezebel to Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, comes this profoundly funny collection of irreverent Internet mischief and comedy.
Featuring all of Thorne’s viral success, including “Missing Missy”, The Internet Is a Playground culls together every article and e- mail from Thorne’s wildly popular website 27bslash6.com, as well as enough new material, available only in these pages, to keep you laughing-and, indeed, crying-until Thorne’s next stroke-of-genius prank. Or hilarious hoax. Or well-publicized almost-stint in jail (really).
David Thorne is a humorist, satirist, Internet personality and author. His website, 27bslash6.com, typically receives several thousand hits a day, he has more than 60,000 followers on Twitter and Facebook, and his work has been featured on the BBC, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He now lives in the United States.