May 29 2011

A Literary Superagent’s Thoughts on Publishing

Published by at 10:15 am under The Publishing Industry

The Wall Street Journal interviewed Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie (of the Wylie Agency).  Here are some excerpts that I think would be interesting to prospective authors (and maybe some published ones).

  • “As a general rule, we find that while the strongest market is usually the writer’s home market, it’s roughly equivalent to the rest of the world. And increasingly, what’s important is getting the rest of the world right. Fifty percent of American writers’ sales should be outside the U.S. That’s vital.”  [Fun fact: Superhero Nation’s audience is ~40% international].
  • “We try to avoid people who can’t write. You can usually spot them from the first sentence, or from the cover letter. It’s a little like sitting in the audience at Carnegie Hall and watching someone walk up to a piano. If you’re trained, you can tell the difference between someone who knows how to play and someone who doesn’t. Of course, sometimes you want to work with people who have a significant achievement, which is not writing, and so that usually requires closer editing, and ghostwriting. Heads of state are not always the best writers.”
  • “Things are generally tough and getting tougher across the industry. In the U.S., publishers are continuing to pay advances at pretty much the same level as five years ago, but they’ve reduced the number of high bets they’re making… Each house has a large number of titles to publish, and with a difficult economy, fewer people to handle the publications. But publishers need to become smaller, leaner, and they will have to learn new disciplines.”  [Note: Having fewer editors per title gives publishers less flexibility to publish manuscripts that will require a lot of editing, so your manuscript is pretty much dead on arrival if it’s not proofread carefully, unless you’re a head of state or something].

36 responses so far

36 Responses to “A Literary Superagent’s Thoughts on Publishing”

  1. steton 29 May 2011 at 10:38 am

    “You can usually spot them from the first sentence, or from the cover letter.”

    That’s my experience, too. People send me query letters, sometimes, for advice, concerned about the story and the format. But the story and the format are the least of their problems.

  2. steton 29 May 2011 at 10:39 am

    And unless that’s Wylie’s son or something, it’s ‘Andrew.’ I know, because he’d never stoop to represent me.

  3. B. Macon 29 May 2011 at 11:24 am

    Ah, thanks. See, this is why we need more editors per post. 🙂

    PS: Just because he wouldn’t represent you now doesn’t mean he’d never represent you. You just need to become a head of state first. 😉

  4. B. Macon 29 May 2011 at 11:35 am

    “You can usually spot them from the first sentence, or from the cover letter.” If the first sentence has more than one typo, I’d definitely stop reading there. If the first sentence had even one typo, I’d have a nagging suspicion that the manuscript was not close to publishable, but I’d cautiously keep reading.

  5. Contra Gloveon 29 May 2011 at 12:48 pm

    You say 40% of Superhero Nation’s audience is international. How much of that is not Canada, Great Britain, Australia, or New Zealand?

  6. B. Macon 29 May 2011 at 1:18 pm

    About 20% come from countries that are not mainly English-speaking. Of those, the top 5 are Brazil, the Philippines, India, Germany and France, each with roughly 1% of our audience.

    As for the mainly English-speaking countries:
    US – 62%.
    UK – 8%.
    Canada – 7%.
    Australia – 3%.
    Ireland and New Zealand – 1% between them. (They’re #10 and #17 on the list).

    PS: One Chinese-American reader mentioned that the website was banned in China at some point over the last two years. (Probably for profanity).

  7. Contra Gloveon 29 May 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Those are reasonable numbers; after all, the site itself is in English. Although it is the lingua franca of business, science, diplomacy, and a bunch of other stuff, it is not spoken by everyone. Monolingual non-Americans abound, even in the First World countries.

  8. B. Macon 29 May 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Oh, yeah. Also, my experience (such as it is) is limited to the U.S. publishing industry. Generally, if you wanted to publish a German-language book, you’d probably get more specific advice from someone with experience in a German or Austrian publisher because that’s where the vast majority of your market is.

  9. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 29 May 2011 at 8:06 pm

    B. Mac: Yeah, that’s true, but I’m sure some rules are universal. They’d still need a gripping first sentence, they’d still have to avoid spelling and grammar errors, etc.

    This makes me wonder though, what would a Japanese spelling error look like? I think if I knew how to read it, in katakana, hiragana or kanji, I’d be making tonnes of mistakes. I’d be mixing up my words if the characters looked similar, even if they were pronounced in a totally different way.

    Haha, if I ever do reach my goal to be fluent, I’ll probably only manage verbal fluency and just have to be “that illiterate moron” if I ever go over to Japan 😉 If I went now, I’d be “that idiot with bad Japanese” because right now I can barely tell my “atashi” from my “ashita”.

    I take the advice on SN as if it applied wholly to Australian publishing – America does pretty much lead the way, so I just assume Australia will be the same, if not extremely similar.

  10. B. Macon 29 May 2011 at 9:41 pm

    “B. Mac: Yeah, that’s true, but I’m sure some rules are universal. They’d still need a gripping first sentence, they’d still have to avoid spelling and grammar errors, etc.” Ah, that’s fair. I’d expect that most of the advice here applies globally as well as in the United States, which may explain why our readers-per-capita rate is approximately the same in the U.S., Canada and Australia (although lower in Britain).

    There are some cultural aspects to the publishing industry that I think are different in the U.S. compared to those countries. For example, homosexuality is more of a taboo subject (particularly in children’s books) in the U.S. and major Asian markets and I think that having gay characters is more likely than not to adversely affect sales and marketing there in a major way. I’m definitely not an expert in Japanese culture, but my brief observations of it suggest to me that Japan publishes more stories than English-speaking markets about superpowered/supernatural characters maintaining secret identities as students in a normal high school or junior high. In contrast, I feel that most U.S. superheroes are either adults, attend a supernatural school like Xavier’s Academy or Sky High, or just seem to not attend school at all (i.e. the Teen Titans).

  11. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 29 May 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I read a lot of manga, and I’ve noticed that too. The characters tend to be teenagers or younger, but then again the audience and culture are different. Manga is usually aimed at teenagers so it tends to focus more on protagonists roughly the age of the reader. There are periphery demographics, though – a lot of girls read male-oriented manga and some guys read female-oriented stuff.

    Let’s see – I have 24 volumes of girl-oriented manga, and 37 of boy-oriented manga. I’m probably going to boost that number up a LOT at an upcoming convention – usually manga is $15-$20 in bookstores here, but at conventions the flat rate is $10. It’s awesome, but my arms always ache from the weight. XD

    I do find there are a few homosexual themes in the manga I read though. I think Japan is probably the most relaxed country on the topic out of all of Asia. Four out of eight manga series I have contain some sort of variant – one has a transgender character, another has a guy with an intense, unrequited crush on another guy, one has some very suggestive scenes between two guys (caressing each other’s faces, cuddling etc) and another has two guys who blatantly pretend to be into each other to get attention from girls. Three of these series are aimed at girls.

  12. Contra Gloveon 30 May 2011 at 5:09 am

    Seconded. I’ve read my share of Japanese comics, and supernatural characters hiding out in school* are indeed common. In case you’re wondering, “atashi” (あたし) is just a really feminine way of saying “I,” while “ashita” (明日) is the word for “tomorrow.”

    * I figure school settings are common in manga because this way, the artist doesn’t have to draw a variety of outfits for different minor characters — they can just stick them in their school uniforms.

  13. steton 31 May 2011 at 7:10 am

    I’m not even talking about typos, really. Those are sloppy, and in the first page a big flashing warning sign, but I’m more talking about style, tone, voice. About command of the language. I’m often surprised how quickly that comes across–or doesn’t.

  14. B. Macon 31 May 2011 at 1:53 pm

    I dunno. I don’t think I could reject a submission after reading only a sentence just because it didn’t feel stylish enough. That said, I’ve seen a lot of opening lines that have just completely missed anything that might be conceivably interesting. For example, “My name is James, but you can call me Jim” would really make me wonder about whether I’d want to keep going.

  15. steton 31 May 2011 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t mean style_ish_, I just mean style. Someone who puts sentences together well. Knows how to use words. I’m not sure how to describe it exactly, but I’m always surprised how quickly I can get a v. accurate sense of someone’s writing. If the first three sentences are clunky, or just lack flow, I’m in trouble.

  16. B. Macon 31 May 2011 at 3:56 pm

    “I figure school settings are common in manga because this way, the artist doesn’t have to draw a variety of outfits for different minor characters — they can just stick them in their school uniforms.” Possibly, but I’m guessing it’s more about character relatability. I’m guessing that a manga team working with (say) demonic-looking antagonists probably isn’t too nervous about working with different sorts of clothing.

  17. Crystalon 31 May 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Huh. I don’t read a lot of manga, but I like to draw it, and look at some pictures off the web to give me ideas of what people would look like in certain poses, and I’ve noticed that if the drawing is of a teenage girl, she’s almost always wearing a dress or the school uniform/pleated skirt ensemble.
    School uniforms are very fun to draw – simple and easy.
    Oh – You can’t forget the sailor suits!

  18. B. Macon 31 May 2011 at 11:12 pm

    “I don’t read a lot of manga, but I like to draw it, and look at some pictures off the web to give me ideas of what people would look like in certain poses…” I am not generally a fan of manga, but I sometimes look through Japanese-style art for visual references.

  19. Crystalon 01 Jun 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Yeah…I really like the drawing style, though.

  20. ekimmakon 01 Jun 2011 at 3:20 pm

    I’ve been trying to learn the drawing style

  21. Crystalon 01 Jun 2011 at 6:36 pm

    If you want help, Google ‘How to draw manga’, or, if you’re looking for a really good tutorial, ‘Mark Crilley drawing videos’.
    It’s really easy after you figure it out.

  22. ekimmakon 01 Jun 2011 at 7:32 pm

    I got a book on it for Christmas, and I was OK at it, but have a bit of trouble breaking out of the mold. I have trouble making new my own original work, in particular I have trouble making new poses.

  23. ekimmakon 02 Jun 2011 at 12:29 am

    Now that’s a coincidence. I checked the videos you mentioned, and I actually think I did look at them before I got the book.

  24. Crystalon 02 Jun 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Yeah, me too! My suggestion is to google manga (or anime, that’ll give you more results) images in the pose you’re looking for. Then, copy them down onto a sheet of paper. After a few weeks, you’ll be able to basically look at a pose and then come up with your own take on it. That’s what I’ve been doing.

  25. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 02 Jun 2011 at 5:52 pm

    I used to draw a lot of manga style art, but drawing is not my forte, so I’m leaving that to my friend. I used to have a whole bunch of my drawings on the wall, but I pulled them down and now I have Doctor Who posters there instead.

    I used to use a site called Manga Tutorials, it has pretty good tutorials so it may be a good one to check out.

  26. ekimmakon 02 Jun 2011 at 7:23 pm

    I have that on my favourites tab. Stange how much of this I actually looked up.

  27. Crystalon 03 Jun 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Oh! The Manga Tutorials site was the first one I used to learn to draw!
    Yeah…I’m getting better at drawing. This story originated off of a manga comic that I drew. I abandoned it after about six panels, but what I had turned out excellent. (That’s because the first six panels had no people. They were of a fire, some trees, snow, a sleeping bag, and glowing eyes in the trees, respectively.)
    This is so weird to talk to people who have the same interests as me. At school, I am in Power of the Pen, a writing group, but no one else does superhero stories. Likewise, I don’t really know a lot of people who draw manga.

  28. B. Macon 03 Jun 2011 at 1:10 pm

    “At school, I am in Power of the Pen, a writing group, but no one else does superhero stories.” If your writing group has more than one other mainstream or mass-market writer, you’re doing better than I was in high school. My high school writing group was overwhelmingly made up of poetry writers writing poems like Guyana is a Porcelain Bowl. (You couldn’t make this up).

  29. Crystalon 03 Jun 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I don’t know what a mainstream writer is, but we do have some pretty good writers. It has somewhat improved my writing skills to be on the team.
    The only problem is that we have 40 minutes to write a complete story. Doesn’t exactly leave enough time to describe your characters or setting. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to put in that your main character has brown hair and blue eyes.
    I must have done something right, because in one competition two out of my three stories ranked pretty high.
    Guyana is a Porcelain Bowl? What was that poem even about?

  30. B. Macon 03 Jun 2011 at 2:49 pm

    “Guyana is a Porcelain Bowl? What was that poem even about?” I still have no idea.

    Mass-market is fiction written for wider audiences (as opposed to more literary fiction), and mainstream is writing that doesn’t exactly fit into any other genre. Mainstream tends to be relatively mass-market. (More on the differences here).

  31. Crystalon 03 Jun 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Ohhh…Yeah, I guess it’s hard to tell what genre the writing will fall into. We respond to prompts, so I guess it depends on that.
    Although, you can twist a prompt any way you want to make it your story. My favorite so far? “Half_____ Fill in the blank and use it as the theme for your story.”
    Half full, half empty…My title was ‘Half Alive’.
    So, I guess it depends on the person.

  32. CRon 05 Jun 2011 at 11:35 am

    … In the U.S., publishers are continuing to pay advances at pretty much the same level as five twenty years ago…

    Corrected

  33. B. Macon 05 Jun 2011 at 12:50 pm

    “In the U.S., publishers are continuing to pay advances at pretty much the same level as five twenty years ago…” Haha.

    I think the situation is rosier in nonfiction, where the average advance is ~$30,000 rather than ~$5000. (Nonfiction usually sells better and there’s less competition from other authors because credentials are generally required to write nonfiction, but not fiction).

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