Say your book is scheduled for publication and your editor sends you a note that it’s time to seek out blurbs. “Come up with your dream list,” she says.

How cool is this?! You start a list that begins with Oprah and goes on to include your literary heroes. You list bestselling authors whose books seem to tap the same themes, and hopefully the same audience, as yours. Then you pass the list back to your editor and cc your agent, feeling like a pampered celebrity.

In a little while, carefully-worded, enthusiasm-suppressing emails come back to clarify what is really meant by “dream list”. “Are you friends with Oprah?” “Do you have connections to this person and that person?” “Are you comfortable contacting them?”

Sometimes you are a slow learner, and what is only beginning to sink in is that the publishing house doesn’t actually get these blurbs for you. You’re expected to find Oprah’s email and ask her yourself. You: the writer who’s still a nobody, the person who hates to ask anyone for anything.

You look at the list again and cross off Oprah, Harper Lee, Ellen Gilchrist. And you build a new list consisting mostly of friends-of-friends—writers who are still stellar but not yet unlisted.

Staring at this new list is no less intimidating. You feel like a nuisance—a telemarketer about to make a call. And how do you even ask for a blurb?

You say something like this… “Um, hi. Sorry to bother you. You don’t even know who I am and I’m going to be asking you to do me a favor which will take up a lot of your time. It’s for my book, the one you’ve never heard of. If I’m bothering you, please just tell me to go away and I will do it this instant. In fact, I’m already going.”

Perhaps you asked so pathetically that you made it easy for the writers to say no. Still, you wait. You wait as you did in the center of the cafeteria, holding your lunch tray and hoping for a seat. You wait as you did at the edge of the gymnasium, hoping someone might walk over and invite you to dance. And in the world of begging for blurbs, rejections sound like this: “I’m sorry, I have a no-blurb policy.” “Hello, I am so-and-so’s assistant and while he’s flattered, he just can’t respond to these kinds of requests.” Sometimes a writer says he doesn’t have the time, though you see him horsing around all day long on Twitter and Facebook. And some say no with such guilt and so many reasons why they can’t do it that you realize even your question has burdened them, just as you feared.

But some people, bless them, will say yes. Quotes begin to trickle in from one author at a time, and it strikes you: This person read my book. She really got it. And she said this beautiful thing about it. How amazing is that? And this one somehow distilled the essence of my book into a single sentence. It’s a generosity that brings you to tears. You love these people! You feel an almost fierce desire to make sure something really good comes their way.

And then you learn another truth about blurbs. Some writers, particularly those extraordinarily talented writers from groundbreaking indie presses, aren’t always valued by your publisher, despite their glorious and generous words about your book. And the same is true for writers who have a track record of poor sales, even if those poor sales were not the fault of their writing. And these blurbs, these kind offerings, are simply cast aside. It’s a business decision, one you have no control over that leaves you feeling rotten.

Soon, many things will be out of your control—what reviewers think of your work, what bloggers post about it online, whether your book rises up the bestseller charts or falls away into obscurity. So you commit to things that will always be in your control—working hard on your craft, remaining grateful for those who came through for you, and keeping an eye out for opportunities to send good their way.

Have an opinion about blurbs? Jump on in!

Getting your book published is a big deal, regardless of the advance or the publisher.

Why? Look at the hoops you’ve jumped through! You finished the book, you found an agent, you interested an editor at a publishing house. That editor then shared your manuscript with colleagues, who also gave it a read. After that, he took your manuscript to a meeting where others on staff debated its merits and marketability. The meeting was full of other editors fighting for their own manuscripts, and when a writer tells you his manuscript had a close call it means it survived until this part of the process.

Yours made it! Congratulations!

So what happens next? In all likelihood, the editor who chose your manuscript will call you to say hello and to discuss any changes he imagines the manuscript will need.

About a month later, your editor will send you more detailed thoughts for revision, perhaps a several page letter talking about any of the bigger changes he’d like to see—for example, he may have ideas for making the book clearer, faster-paced, or more marketable. If no big changes are needed, you’ll simply get line-edits, meaning the editor’s ideas of how to correct, tighten or clarify specific sentences.

Once the final edits are in, things get very, very busy—emails will be flying with potential book cover designs, style sheets (sample pages of the font they’ll use inside the book), the infamous author questionnaire (a loooong form which is vital for those who will be helping to sell your book), and requests for a dedication (who you’re dedicating your book to), acknowledgments (a chance to thank all of the people who helped make the book happen), and blurbs (those happy little comments from well-known authors that are listed on the front and back cover). The publisher will print up uncorrected proofs of your book known as “galleys” (see the photo below) and send them to reviewers, book bloggers, and anyone who might blurb the book. You’ll be assigned a publicist, and you may receive an invitation to attend a marketing meeting, where everyone brainstorms about the best ways to get the word out about your book.

As all this is happening, you’ll get two more chances to make corrections to your book, which is now with the copy editor. First-pass is your chance to read the manuscript with its new, pretty font in order to catch any errors. If you have a patient editor, you might even be able to slip in a few more compulsive changes that go beyond actual errors. Second-pass is your very final chance to catch typos. The next time you see your words, you’ll be holding the real book!

So this was my experience of the editing process, and if yours is different or if you have questions, feel free to jump in. Soon, I’ll talk more specifically about blurbs, marketing, reviews, and book tours….

Today, I’d like you to meet Ann Kingman, a book lover, blogger, and District Sales Manager for one of the major publishing houses. We’ll be talking about what she does with your books in that window of time between turning in your final edits and seeing your book for sale. She’ll also share her opinion about the current crisis in the publishing industry and the important role of independent bookstores. And by the way, as they say on NPR: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the subject and not of her employer or its affiliates. 🙂

I hope you enjoy our conversation and find Ann as lovely as I do. And after the interview, be sure to check out her two blogs: Books on the Nightstand, a blog and podcast about books and reading that she does with her colleague, Michael Kindness. And Booksellsers Blog, where she shares what she learns about social media and online marketing with independent bookstores.


First, tell me about you as a reader, and how you happened to make your career about books.

Like so many of us, I can’t ever remember not reading. Both of my parents were readers and that must be where I picked it up. One of my earliest memories is my mother banging on the bathroom door to check if I was all right. I guess I had been in there a long time. I was fine, I was just really enjoying the biography of Juliet Low (founder of The Girl Scouts) and some peace and quiet.

I definitely took refuge in reading in the years up to and after my parents’ divorce, when I was 9. Reading is what got me through those times. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique story, which is why I believe so strongly in the power of literature to inspire, to comfort and to heal.

I was a Magazine Journalism major in college (among other things), and my dream job was to work as a features editor at a well-known magazine. But magazine jobs were very difficult to find, and when I did get an offer, the pay was not enough to live on, especially in New York City. I was working with an employment agency, who sent me on yet another interview, this time to Dell Publishing. I knew them primarily from their puzzle magazines, and I wasn’t all that excited, but I went on the interview anyway. I still remember the feeling when I stepped into the Personnel Office: on the wall was a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dell Yearling Books. And pictured on the poster were many, many of my favorite books from childhood — the ones that got me through so many bad times. I knew at that moment that I just had to work there, even if it meant sweeping floors. Luckily, it was an administrative job in the sales department, and it paid quite well because I was one of the few people who had computer skills at the time. I didn’t know anything about how books were sold, but I was willing to learn. My plan was to move to the editorial side of the company after awhile, but I soon fell in love with the sales side of the process, and that’s where I’ve stayed. Twenty-two years and four mergers later, I’m still basically with the same company, though it has changed in name and location many times since I was hired.

What exactly does a bookseller do? What are the best and most difficult parts of this kind of work?

My actual job is really that of Sales Representative. We think of “booksellers” as the people who work in the bookstores putting books into customers’ hands. My role is that of liaison between the publisher and the bookstore. I work with approximately 30 independent bookstores in New England. I meet with them several times a year to share with them the books that we will be publishing in the coming seasons—we usually work about 6 months ahead. For instance, it is now February and I am talking to them about books that will be published in July and August. I work with the buyer at the bookstore to decide which books they should stock, and how many copies of each they should buy. Much of my advice is based on my knowledge of the store, what their customers buy, and what their booksellers like to read. One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to the booksellers who work on the sales floor. I try to get to know them and know what they like to read, so that I can give them Advanced Readers Copies—these are “preview” copies of books that we will be publishing in the future. I try to get the booksellers to read them early and tell me what they think about them. Our hope is that they will love the books I give them and recommend them to their customers once the books are in the store.

The most difficult part of my job is really remembering what time of year it is! As I said earlier, I am currently selling the books that we will be publishing in the summer. However, I am also working with my bookstores to make sure that they have enough copies of the books that are out right now—the books that are selling, getting review attention, and getting good word of mouth from booksellers and readers. In addition, I am now starting to read manuscripts that will be published in the Fall. I’m always working at 3 points in time, and trying to keep it all in the air without dropping any of the balls is a feat that challenges me on many occasions. It’s not exactly difficult, but there is definitely the feeling that our work is never done. We work the books throughout their whole life cycle to make sure that every book finds its readership.

So, walk me through the process, if you would. An author finds out, Yay, Big Publishing House bought my manuscript! When do you come in?

The timeline differs at each publisher, but the general process goes something like this: Author gets contract, and the book gets put on the publishing schedule (so far out in the future that the author likely believes that they will not live to see the publication, but the long process is a whole ‘nother story).  About 6 months before the publication date, the editorial, marketing and publicity departments present the title to the sales reps at a meeting formally known as the “Sales Conference.” These conferences happen 3 times per year. There is a marketing and publicity plan mostly in place, and the cover may or not be finalized.

Prior to the Sales Conference, the reps have received manuscripts or manuscript excerpts, and information about each book on that season’s schedule. At the Sales Conference, the reps talk about the books with the publisher, editor, marketing and publicity departments, learn more about the content of the book, the marketing plans, etc. Then we reps go out and sell the list to our bookstores.

On our sales calls, we talk with the buyers about titles that might be comparable to the books we are selling, we look at previous books by the author and how they’ve sold, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who at the bookstore is the right reader for each book. We also talk about how the store will promote the books they are most excited about: in their newsletter, by putting a stack at the front of the store on a table, a window display, etc.

We know that not every bookstore can carry every book, so we work with the store to determine which ones their customers will most want to buy. The staff at most of our independent bookstores know their clientele extremely well, and with the help of computerized inventory systems can determine which books are the best for them to bring in. Often a bookstore will start with a small quantity, just 1 or 2 copies, but if a bookseller on staff reads and loves the book, they will order more. Many bookstores are so passionate about the books that the staff loves that they can sell hundreds of copies of a favorite book simply by recommending it to their customers.

Fascinating! Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of this process, but, finally, I have a coherent picture. And I never knew bookstore owners gave their customers so much consideration.

With your more than 20 years in the publishing business, you’ve seen companies grow and buckle and merge before. Does this current publishing crisis feel different to you? And would you call it a crisis?

I’ve been through many “crises” and though it’s a cliché, it’s true that in publishing, the only constant is change. That being said, we are definitely in a time where there are many challenges to keep us all on our toes. During my career, the challenges have previously come basically one at a time, with most of them being a new outlet for book sales threatening the survival of existing channels. This time we have that, of course, with online bookselling, but we also have the rise of the e-book, print on demand, various formats, a recession… and they are all happening at the same time.

Is it a crisis? I don’t think I’d label it as such. This feels more like an evolution. Certainly things will change, and the uncertainty makes people uneasy. It’s a personal crisis to those who have devoted their lives to the industry and find themselves out of work with few opportunities to stay in publishing. But as an industry, publishing will always exist.

I’m such a fan of your bookseller’s blog because I think it’s really at the forefront of trying to rethink how publishers and booksellers might adapt to the changing habits of readers. Talk to me about the types of changes you’re making (or thinking about making) to stay competitive.

I think we all have to change our definition of “customer.” As publishers, our customers are not only the retailers and wholesalers who pay us directly, but the booksellers on the front lines, and the consumer who purchases a book at retail. The industry is great at speaking with their retail and wholesale customers, but not so good at talking with the others. This needs to change. Booksellers have to get up to speed on the technology, and probably make some significant investments in their websites and e-commerce systems.

A website is no longer “nice to have,” and a robust e-commerce system will allow them to stay competitive. We are in a time when the idea of supporting local businesses is nearing a groundswell, and local bookstores stand to benefit if they can keep the customer experience at the top of mind. Many customers will happily support a local business, and even pay a bit more, if it is convenient for them to do so. Booksellers need to make sure that ease of use is there, as well as continue to educate the public about the benefits of shopping locally. They also need to work with other local businesses to help drive that message home. And it’s more important than ever that booksellers create relationships with their customers to better serve their market.

As publishing becomes easier and less expensive, the number of books will increase. And I think that there will be an even more important role for people to act as curators for the volume of content that will come.  When faced with an infinite number of choices, we will still need someone to put a book in our hands (or the virtual equivalent) and say, “Read this, it’s fantastic.”

Last question. How could you convince a chronic Amazon user like me to buy from one of your independent bookstores instead? Here’s my reason for using Amazon: They already have my credit card, I always find what I’m looking for, and I can shop impulsively—the moment I hear of a book I want, I’m seconds away from placing an order.

Yes, let’s talk about bookstores.

I think people should feel free to shop at whatever business best meets their needs.  When you shop at a locally-owned and operated business, $68 of every $100 will stay in the local community. Shopping at a business that is part of chain will retain $43 in the local community. As the economy continues to falter and more of my friends and neighbors are losing their jobs, this has become even more important to me. I want to keep local businesses vital in my community, as they are what keep my community vital.

The second reason to support independent bookstores is one that should be of supreme importance to writers. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores listed on Indiebound.org. Each of those bookstores determine for themselves what books will be sold in each of their stores. Pretend that there are no more independent bookstores. Imagine you are an author. What if the Romance Buyer at the big chain store decides that he does not want to carry your book in their stores? Now your book is not in any physical bookstore location. Worse yet, it’s possible that the publisher will not be able to proceed with the publication of your book. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, as I always think that there will be some thriving independent bookstores. However, leaving the decision of what will or will not be published in the hands of just a few is a dangerous path to take.

But let’s talk about you, the customer, for a minute. There’s no arguing the convenience factor of Amazon. Independent bookstores are working diligently to get up to speed with technology, and some stores have done brilliantly. Powells.com is the most well-known because they were there early. I do believe that independent booksellers need to make it easy for their customers to support them. So I would ask this: if you, the customer, want to support your local bookseller, but there are specific reasons why you don’t or can’t, have a conversation with the bookstore owner. Let them know what they could do to get your business. I know that it’s not always price that causes readers to choose another option. Often there is no price difference, or it’s just $2-$3.

This conversation will of course work better if it’s constructive and not just a litany of complaints. The bookseller may not be able to accommodate your wishes, or move as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important for them to know. In my experience, I’ve found that most bookstore owners love to talk with customers about what they can do better. A healthy independent bookstore is more than just a place to buy books—it’s a community center, a gathering place, and often an important anchor to a town’s retail center.

Ultimately, you should feel free to shop wherever you choose. Seeing the larger picture and understanding the ramifications is important, and may influence your choice of where to spend your money, but in the end, it’s all about choice.

One more thought: I cannot imagine a world where children cannot experience the joy of wandering around a bookstore, taking in all of the colors and pictures, touching everything, and pulling out a few dollars to buy a book that they picked out themselves. I witnessed this scenario in a bookstore yesterday, and it made me smile the rest of the day.

You’re lovely, Ann. Thanks for being here!

These days, it can be hard to believe in corporate publishing.The proliferation of pink-covered chick-lit beach reads, of C-list celebrity memoirs, of “literary fiction” seeming to have morphed into “morally inspirational books that appeal to middle-aged-lady book clubs”—well, it’s enough to all but make a girl give up on the galleys she receives from the Big Boys of New York publishing.I mean, sure, the occasional intimidatingly-smart, ultra-hip book by a twenty-or-thirtysomething white boy with shaggy hair still slips in among the drivel now and again to give us all a thrill; sure every year or so one or two foreign-born writers get championed as that season’s exotic thrill . . . but these moments can seem not only fewer and further between, but somewhat repetitive in and of themselves.Is there, for god’s sake, anything new and daring happening at the big conglomerates these days?

Belle Yang has created a story that is both personal and multigenerational in her illustrated memoir, FORGET SORROW. We’ll talk about her story of fleeing abuse, of seeking shelter with her Old World Chinese parents, and the dedication required to see this book to publication. Please welcome Belle and feel free to join the conversation in the comments section.

Belle, your graphic memoir is stunning, and I know it took quite a long time to create. Talk to me about the process, and I’m curious about your endurance—the faith and the patience you needed to see this project through to the end.

I was a good sprinter but not a long distance runner. In my writing/painting, I’ve always told myself I have to run an emotional marathon. Forget Sorrow took 14 years to finish. And, yes, I worked 14 years, beginning the year 1996, because each time I received rejection and revision notes from my agent, I reworked the entire book, originally meant to be a prose novel with full color illustrations. My agent, who has a very strong personality—god bless her—the very person who gave me a chance at publishing nearly 20 years ago, became problematic, sending me off to find the holy chalice. Every time I received a NO from the world, I’d pass out on my bed for a day or two and then rose to begin the task of revision all over again. I was also ill for a couple years, from 1998 through 2000, but all the while I was in the hospital or at home in bed, I did not give up on this project. On the night I returned from the hospital, my great grandfather came in a dream as if to say, You have no excuse to be in bed. You have not sent my story out into the world. So, I got better and began rewriting the manuscript for the umpteenth time. Ultimately, I had to leave my agent and went to the East West Agency. I contacted my first editor, Alane Mason, who is now at WW Norton, and she suggested I turn the prose manuscript into a graphic novel. I spent a year drawing the first few chapters. Norton gave me a contract in the fall of 2007, and I finished the bulk of the work by the fall of 2009. And here we are, less than a week to the official pub date. I must say my former agent was very gracious. When she saw the starred Kirkus Review, she emailed me her congratulations.

Another aspect of my process was the boiling down of the prose into near-poetry, and I refer to poetry in words and pictures. I thought I’d lose a lot in the transformation, but what I learned was that the more I condensed, the more powerful the story became.

How is it to write a memoir? Because I know it’s one thing to reveal personal things about yourself, but a memoir requires you to also reveal personal things about family. Did you feel free to write whatever you wanted, or did you feel a duty to protect those you were writing about?

I had no trouble revealing family warts, because my father is ultra critical of his own family, especially of his dad. And then most of the people of his father’s and grandfather’s generation are long dead. As for me, tragedy plus time equals humor. The fights I used to have with my father have become family comedy, so I played on that in my graphic memoir. My father is currently reading my book with a Sharpie to make annotations. He is setting down his feelings about re-encountering the past.

So your story begins when, at nearly age 30, you must flee from an abusive relationship and find yourself living with your parents again. They are living a pretty traditional Chinese lifestyle, and you are westernized, used to your independence, and potentially trapped in this role of being the child again. But what I think is so unusual about your memoir is that it very quickly becomes a multigenerational story. Your story becomes an extension of a family fighting oppression and trying to weigh personal desire against family duty.

We forget that being staunchly independent is a particularly American phenomenon. Even in Italy, adult men live with their parents until marriage. In Eastern cultures, this is the prevalent way of life for men and women. I loved my independence, but returning after 3 years living with an increasingly cruel man, who expected me to run his business, be his gofer, truck building material throughout LA, move him out of his apartment, be his cleaner, washer woman and cook–boy oh boy–did becoming a child again feel like I’d died and gone to nirvana. Now I am parent to my father and mother. The roles have switched considerably over the course of 20 years. I am glad I am growing older right alongside of them. There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from elders through listening to old stories. I’ve learned to take a good care of myself, emotionally and physically, and how to intuit dangerous situations.

I was particularly moved by the story of Grandfather. Can you talk about what the label of “Capitalist” did to him and the family?

The label, in my great grandfather’s instance, was a sentence of death by ostracism. No one wanted contact with a former Capitalist. My great grandfather was evicted from his estate, the home he had built from decades of hard work, rising from the lowly position as an apprentice to the owner of his own grain brokerage (really, a bank of yore). Strangers and neighbors took over the units of his estate and abused him verbally and physically. Some stood up for him, recalling he was generous to the poor and the unfortunate. He was allowed to roam a beggar, but where was he to live when the populace at large depended wholly on the State for food and shelter. He sought warmth and a roof over his head with his spoiled Fourth Son and wife, but they rejected him time and time again. His favorite Third Son had been sent to a labor camp and had subsequently died for ill use. My great grandfather finally ended up at the doorsteps of his estranged First Son, my grandfather. He came feverish by train, and the railway workers pushed him to my grandfather’s house in a wheelbarrow. He was wanted here, taken in by all and comforted by my grandmother. But my great grandfather died within a week from hunger and disease.

Your story moves almost effortlessly between the stories your Baba tells of his ancestors and your relationship as you share this house together. And sometimes his actions are loving—planting prickly pear around the yard to keep Rotten Egg (the abuser) from coming close. And other times, he’s critical. We see him looking at your first attempts to write down this story and he says, “Here, illogical. This wrong, too.” Tell me about that tension and how it was to write about it.

By the time I was writing and drawing the graphic memoir, my father and I had become comrades-in-arms, best buddies. We’ve been “talking” stories for twenty years, so we had left the fighting far behind us. In fact, when I was typing up the script and then drawing the comic panel, I was often giggling, and impatient for my dad to see how I depicted him, depicted us. I was laughing, because I know he’d see the sense of humor in the steam blasting out of our ears. Dad recently asked for his very own copy of “Forget Sorrow” in which he could make annotations in pen. He laughs when he comes to the scenes of our flare ups. He’ll tease me about my immaturity and bad temper in my teen and twenties, and I’ll tease him about the things he would rather “tear off his head” than do, like turning one spare room into my studio. I am sitting in that very studio as I type.

There’s such detail and texture to this book. Some moments are as brief as a single drawing panel but stayed with me to the end: the children poking the swallow’s nests, the cut down maple trees, the short life of Little Autumn, the coat burned with cigarette ash, the husband putting up his wife’s hair after she sprains her wrist, and the young son whose duty it is to direct his mother’s soul to nirvana. Would you choose a single panel that is particularly important to you and tell the story behind it?

The panel I would choose is the entirety of Page 11, where Rotten Egg is peeping into our house, while my parents and I are paralyzed and trapped inside. When my friend, the journalist Fred Hernandez, told me the image of the stalker looks like a big fat baby, I realize that I had indeed drawn the stalker as a baby. It was a moment of enlightenment: After 25 years, I had finally seen through this person, who once seemed much older, worldlier, and more powerful than me. In retrospect, I see that he was a big, bawling baby. When business went sour, when he was having trouble in the world, he’d take out his anger on me with his fists. Isn’t that what some misbehaving children do? They take it out on their mother? I think Rotten Egg was a big fat baby who needed a mother and a spanking.

You write in the book that you have tried to heal your father’s pain by telling this story. How so?

If you have ever been wronged—and I think all of us have—the telling of the pain and suffering is vastly therapeutic. It is a bringing of evil to justice. My father has nightmares. He mumbles. Sometimes I can make out words like “Execution!” or “You ate the best and gave us only sorghum.” I hope his nightmares have decreased, but I know he still has bad dreams about cruelty suffered as a neglected but a sensitive and intelligent child in a huge family. And there was the war he walked through and out of as a young man at the age of 17-18.

You managed to heal something in yourself, as well. How are you different from that time you spent in hiding? How has telling your story healed you?

I am wondering if other published authors feel the same empowerment I experienced in being able to send my words into the world. I feel protected by words, by my ability to cry out for help through the written language, to cry out against unfairness in society. I EXIST through my words and stories, whereas in the time of hiding, I was made so very small. Through the experience of writing to the sheriff, to the D.A, about my plight, then in getting proper responses from the world through the writing, I acquired a sense of my own solidity. I am gentle, polite, helpful, but if you are going to mess with me, I am someone who will surprise you in my strength to take the fight back to you.

I do understand about the empowerment, and even the sense that the words somehow mean that you exist. Thank you for being here, Belle. Xie xie.

I promised to answer your publishing questions so here are some thoughts about agents.

The first step to getting your book published is finding a literary agent. Why do you need one? Because agents know how to judge if your manuscript is ready to send out, and they know the editors and the publishing houses that are the best match for your work. Most of the big houses won’t even consider looking at a manuscript that does not come via an agent, so this is the place to begin.

So how do you find an agent?

The first thing you do is find the books (hopefully successful ones) that are most like the manuscript you’re trying to sell. Are you writing humorous essays ala David Sedaris? Are you writing literary fiction with Jewish themes ala Nicole Krauss? Are you writing teen vampire stories ala Heather Brewer? Once you find a stack of books that are most similar to your manuscript (i.e. you think you would share readers with that author), then turn to the Acknowledgments page. Sometimes it’s at the front of the book and sometimes it’s in the very back. This is where the author very likely thanked his agent for all of her help. Write down the name of the book, the author and the agent. And keep doing this until you have a list of 5 to 15 names.

Another way to develop this list of potential agents is to join PublishersMarketplace. I think it costs $20 a month, and that fee is definitely worth it at this stage in the game. Once you sign in, you can look up any author you want and find out which agent represents them. You can also see who else that agent represents and what they’ve sold.

Okay. You have your list of potential agents, so now what?

Now you send them a very short letter that gets them excited about your book and about you. Think about how you’d describe your book in a single sentence. And if asked for more detail, how would you describe it in, say, four sentences?

Here’s an example of a letter:

Dear Ms. Agent X,

I thought you might be interested in my newest manuscript because my writing has often been compared to your client, Christopher Marlowe.

I’ve just finished a tragedy called ROMEO AND JULIET about two teenagers who fall in love despite the fact that their families hate each other.

Set in Verona, Italy, young Romeo and Juliet fall in love against their family’s wishes and are secretly married by Friar Lawrence. Later, Romeo interferes in a fight between the warring families and ends up killing Juliet’s cousin, which results in his banishment. Friar Lawrence sets up a plot for them to get back together by helping Juliet fake her own death. Romeo thinks she’s died and kills himself. Juliet wakes up and sees that he’s died and kills herself as well. Their deaths unite the feuding families.

I run a theatre group. I have strong interests in ghosts and sword fighting. And I’ve published my poems in the local newspaper.

Thank you so much for your time, and I hope you’ll allow me to send you my manuscript.


W. Shakespeare

Is it the best letter ever? No. In fact, it’s all off the top of my head, and I should sit with this for a week or two until I get it right. But it’s short and to the point, and it contains the elements that an agent needs to make a decision.

If you’re really good at these pitch letters, you’ll be able to capture your writing style in the letter. Someone trying to sell satire should have a punchier letter. If you’re trying to sell a horror story and manage to write a summary that gives the agent chills and makes her turn around to see if something is stalking her from behind, then you’ve done well. If you’re like most writers and your letter undersells your manuscript, then include the first two pages of the book in the letter. It won’t hurt, since it may be the poetry and the iambic pentameter that brings the agent to her knees.

And that’s it. You send out these letters, and see what happens. If agents start asking for partials (the first 50 pages), then you know your letter is working. If after reading the partials, you are asked for the entire manuscript or you get detailed rejections, you’re on the right track. If you hear nothing or you get form rejections, that’s a sign that either your letter or your manuscript (or both) need some more work before you continue.

Want to know more about agents? I interviewed mine here. Want to add to the discussion? Jump in!

So I’ve been doing this series called Evolution of the Book, which has primarily focused on the emotional process of writing, editing, and trying to sell my novel. Thanks to those who’ve stuck with me through the ups and downs, the rejection letters, the unraveling that happened to the book during the editing process, and the scary move of buying the book back from its first publisher.

Now, as many of you know, my book sold to HarperCollins and will be published September 21st of this year. Here’s the pretty cover:

I want to continue to make this series useful or interesting to you, and I’m happy to describe what happens behind the scenes. But there’s so so much… from pitch letters to titles to covers to blurbs to edits to copy edits to galleys to foreign rights to marketing to good and bad reviews. So I’m going to ask you for questions.

What would you like to know, either about this book or about what happens behind the scenes of a book getting published? Leave your questions here in this thread and I’ll answer them in upcoming posts. My hope is to take some of the mystery (i.e. terror) out of the process and to pass along any information that will help you make better decisions along the way. Thanks, as always, for being here!

M.J. Rose has one of the most inspiring stories in our business. From a self-published first book to a television series on FOX based on her latest psychological thrillers, she woke up the publishing industry to expand their thinking of defined genres, electronic books, and how they conduct their marketing. In this interview, we’re going to talk about that transformation, her new book, THE HYPNOTIST, as well as her work helping other authors through her blogs, Buzz, Balls & Hype and Backstory, as well as her company, AuthorBuzz. Please welcome M.J. and feel free to join the discussion in the comments section.

Your newest thriller series was just made into a television show (congratulations!!), and I think where I want to start is to have you look back at your career and describe the journey. Where did you begin? And what choices did you make along the way that you think helped you the most?

Thanks for having me.

Goodness, where did I start? I wanted to be a painter and went to art school. Then I got into advertising and started writing screenplays. That somehow led to a novel, a great agent and rave rejections.

Editors loved it but didn’t know how to position it or market it since it didn’t fit into any one genre.

My agent asked me to write another novel that would fit into a [specific] genre. I tried. She took it out. Same rave rejections for the same reason.

She asked me to write another. And I tried but it was still cross genre.

I had an idea. I’d been the creative director of a big NYC ad agency and I knew how to market stuff. What if I went online, set up a web site where readers could download the book for $9.95, and then seriously marketed the novel on the Internet? Maybe I could figure out if this kind of cross genre thing could sell. It was a marketing experiment, that was all. In no way did I intend to self-publish and bypass publishing forever.

My agent told me not to do it. That I’d never live down the stigma, and it was a mistake. But I couldn’t figure out what else to do.

The book’s website went live in December of 1998. The book, LIP SERVICE, did pretty well. After selling over 2,500 copies online, it was discovered by an editor at the LiteraryGuild/Doubleday Book Club. It then became the first e-book (back then it was called an electronic downloadthere really weren’t e-books yet) and the first self-published novel chosen by the clubs, as well as being the first e-book to go on to be published by a mainstream New York publishing house.

As for my choices. I guess I have to do it my own way, and while that’s hurt, it’s also helped. It’s easier for some reason for me to see the things I did wrong and how my career has suffered. I’m really an optimist but also a realist and I’ve made just about every mistake you can make in a career.

Isn’t it interesting how the same actions look so different to another set of eyes? You see the mistakes, but to me, your story shows resilience, creative prowess (how many people can just “write another”?) and pure bravery.

So tell me, did this send you into despair for some time? And where did you draw the strength and belief in your work to keep at it? Why was giving up not an option?

There were so many times in all this [that]I was in despair. And so many times I did give up. I just didn’t give up for all that long in the end.

Here’s what happened, time-wise.

When my then-agent asked me to write that third book and try to fit into a genre, it sent me into a real depression for about six months. It started in the summer, and I was a real mess. I’d been writing at that point for about six years, and it seemed a stupid and impossible goal after all. So I gave up and wound up getting divorced instead. And then I met someone. And that was heady. And then just when I was settling down with that, my mom got sick and then died. I spent a full year mourning herwe were incredibly close. At the end of that year, the man I’d met and was living with almost died.

During all thiswhich start to finish was three years, from the time the agent asked for a new book to Doug getting sickwriting was in the background. I’d failed at it. I knew I eventually I’d have to figure out what to do next, but I couldn’t. I could barely do the advertising work I had to do.

It was in that year, 1998, while Doug was sick and waiting for an organ donor, that the idea to test market LIP SERVICE came to me. I don’t think it was for some lofty reason. I just didn’t want to leave the house. I remember thinking that if I could  get the book published, finally I could make my living without having to leave him.

You know what they saynecessity is the mother of invention.

Well, I have so much respect for your ability to weather through and then stand up full again. It’s easier to talk of this kind of pain when you’re on the other side of it and you can see what you were able to accomplish. Six months in the big picture sounds like something you can live through, but when you’re in it, each day can be so very painful and you don’t know when (or if) it’s going to end, or if there’s any point.

Which brings me to this question. There must have been something inside of you (your story, your voice, your vision?) that was stronger than the pain you were experiencing, stronger than the discouragement, stronger than the cruel reality of the publishing business. Tell me about the part of you that yearns be heard.

You ask great questions. More than that, you are making me think about things I’ve never thought about before.

This one was hard. I’m not very conscious of myself as a writerI’m too busy trying to make it all work and deal with surviving as a writer. Your question really stumped me, and it’s taken a while for me to figure it out.

My parents and my grandparents were very creative. My mom was a photographer, my grandmother a painter, my grandfather was in advertising and one of the people who helped turn brainstorming into a formal construct, and my father was in the toy business inventing and creating new toys.

I had all that around me and can’t remember not reading or painting or making dolls’ clothes or writing poetry or keeping journals. Expressing myself was who I was. At the same time, I was one of those kids [who was] happier with adults than other kids. I didn’t fit in, and books were my friends. They were my delight, my escape, and my salvation.

As I said before, I didn’t set out to be a writerbut a painterthen wound up in advertising. And while I was in advertising, in my late 20s, I started writing a novel. This was not an effort at art. This thing I was writing had one purposeit was the only way I could think of to communicate with a man who I wasn’t with anymore but was still very much and very desperately in love with. I thought that if I wrote it and it got published, he would read it. And read between its lines. That I could reach him that way.

Yeah, a phone call would have been easier. This was a crazy, lofty, romantic, 19th-century way of reaching out to him. To be with him. On paper if I couldn’t be in life.

Well, in the process something clicked. When I was writing, I was gonemy reality was on the page; I was lost in the story. And I loved the feeling. More than that, even when I wasn’t writing, when I was just thinking about the story, I was happy. A better kind of happy than I’d felt in a long time. Being lost in a novel, I discovered then and it’s still true, is when I am the least unhappy, least neurotic, least worried about life and the people I love.

Writing, like reading, became an escape for me. And a drug.

Getting published wasn’t ever the original goal for me. To keep writing was. But being an ambitious person, getting published became part of the goal. And then, once I have any goal, I’m too stubborn to let go. So I had to keep trying.

Voice? Message? My stories? Nothing so lofty. I was reaching out to a man I was in love with and had lost; and in the process, saved myself and found a way to stay sane.

I’m absolutely choked up with this idea of writing a book to try to let a man know you love him. There’s a vulnerability and a guardedness about it that’s so very tender and moving to me.

Okay, so being a stubborn person myself, I’m still determined to find this “thing” that drives your writing. Think through your body of work. Are there themes or issues you keep coming back to? Because my own impression is that you have a willingness to embrace characters who are often ashamed, consumed with regret/guilt, or living with secrets. You walk the reader into the dark and slowly bring light into that space.

Another question I’ve never deliberated for any time.

Anyone who knows me knows I am forever asking too many questions. I’ve always been fascinated with people’s psychology. For a while there, I thought about leaving advertising to be a therapist. I think my characters are all people who’ve cut themselves off emotionally for one reason or another. As a result, they’re not living complete lives and haven’t individuated. My novel starts with them in that place you so poetically call the dark, and then by the end of the story they have been brought into a place of some light. I am consumed by secrets—I want them like chocolate. I hate knowing someone only on the surface and not knowing who they are underneath. As a result, I’m very bad at small talk and cocktail parties.

I think that’s something all of my favorite writers do. They drop you into a world of secrets—not just the things people won’t share in regular company but the kinds of secrets people won’t even share with their closest friends. I love when an author isn’t afraid to take you there and to slow down enough to unpack those secrets and those feelings, because it’s when they’re brought into the light that you discover the humanity there, and it’s suddenly not so easy to judge a person.

And so let’s talk about your newest book, THE HYPNOTIST. You’ve truly created a world full of secrets! Describe this world a bit. And I’d also love to hear you talk about your moody protagonist, who’s haunted partly because he can’t shake an event that happened years before.

Lucian Glass is an FBI criminal art investigator. He surfaced as a minor character in my last book and I fell in love with him. I realized half way through that book he deserved one of his own because his damage was so very deep and disturbing to me. As a college student, he and his girlfriend were involved in a robbery. She was killed and he was brutally stabbed as he was trying to save her. It was the defining event of his life and changed the course of his future. He gave up on the idea of creating art in order to try and save art.

Now 20 years later, he’s called in by the Metropolitan Museum in New York City to investigate the mutilation of a stolen painting, and that sets his story and the plot of the book in motion.

The world of this book is one I’m intimately familiar with—which isn’t always true in my work. But I grew up in New York City, across the street from the Metropolitan, and then moved back to that same neighborhood as an adult. The museum has been almost a temple to me my whole life—certainly a refuge and place of inspiration—and it was wonderful to write about it in such detail. I once figured out that, except for the years I was in college, I’ve never gone longer than six weeks without visiting the Met.

I love knowing that about you and the Met. And that you’ve taken your love for art and placed it right at the heart of the book.

But let’s stick with this idea of being haunted by past events for a bit. Because the sense of haunting extends beyond this lifetime. Reincarnation is also at play here and adding a layer to the urgency and the grief of your characters. Certain souls, it seems, remain connected across time, and events in past lives press upon today. Talk to me about your understanding of reincarnation. And I’m curious if you have a sense that you were once someone else?

I don’t have any actual past life memories. I’ve been hypnotized quite a few times while doing research but never cold dredge up a cohesive memory. The only thing that ever happened was a flash of walking on a stone path, walking toward a house on a cliff that might have been in New England. I could see my feet and [I] was wearing pilgrim shoes. All I learned was, even in my past life, I was a shoe whore.

But I believe I had past lives because of certain connections I’ve had to people and places. Deep, deep meaningful connections that were immediate and spontaneous in a way that would be impossible to explain if not for reincarnation.

It’s been a lifelong fascination, and early on in my life as a writer, an area I always though had amazing dramatic possibility and resonance. And I started doing research into reincarnation when I was in my late 20s and trying my hand at screenplays.

When I write, I often feel I’m channeling other people and their lives… I suppose, in a sense, that has some roots in the idea of reincarnation. But you’re being more thoughtful about all this than I am. I overthink everything in the whole world except why I write, what I write, and how I write. All the things you’re asking me to look at.

Already in the two days we’ve been going back and forth with this interview, you said something that gave me a great insight into a character I was having trouble with. So I think I’m getting way more out of this than you or your readers, and for that I apologize.

\"This is a photo I have over my desk - its so much a writer\'s world  - the way I picture what goes on in our heads. Its by Jerry Uelsmann - one of my favorite photographers.\"

I’m thrilled that our conversation gave you insight into a new project. It’s done the same for me!

I’m on the fence about whether having flashes of a past life would give me a wonderful feeling of connectedness to another time or if it would be more of a frustrating, Alzheimer’s-like feeling—a sense of something important that is always out of reach. Although I suppose that emotional conflict is what makes it such a powerful thing to write about.

Do you know if there’s anything in the real world that’s the rough equivalent of The Phoenix Foundation, the organization dedicated to the study of reincarnation?

The Phoenix Foundation doesn’t exist but I was inspired by the amazing Dr. Ian Stevenson who did past life regressions with over 3,000 children at the Division of Personality Studies, which he founded and ran for 40 years at the University of Virgina. When Stevenson died in 2007, Dr. Jim Tucker took over.

Stevenson traveled and researched extensively for most of his adult life, investigating cases that suggested to him the possibility of past lives. He believed reincarnation was the survival of the personality after death.

I just wiki’ed him. Fascinating stuff about perceptual studies, psychosomatic illnesses, and the locked cabinet!

So, I find this interesting that you have a series of books featuring this mythical Phoenix Foundation. And you have another series featuring the mythical Butterfield Institute. Typically with thrillers, the reader follows a particular protagonist from one book to the next, but with your series, the continuity seems to be thematic. Would you talk a little about that choice?

To answer that I think I need to first explain that I don’t think I write true thrillers. In fact I don’t think I clearly fit in any one genre—which is great for me creatively but bad for me, sales-wise. The business works in genres and I don’t make things easy for my publishers. So I wind up in thrillers because I fit better there than anywhere else.

And the reason I don’t quite fit in thrillers is similar to the same reason I didn’t choose to write a continuing character.

My books are as character-driven as they plot-driven. And when I write about a character, I work out their issues with them over the course of the novel. Each novel has a lot of symbolic therapy sessions in it. The therapist in me would feel like a failure if my characters didn’t evolve and find some resolution.

But with that resolution comes a cessation of a lot of the kinds of conflict that lead to great drama. Or it leads to a continuing character who strains my credulity in book after book when they attract personal crisis after personal crisis without ever evolving.

So I chose to create a worlds which give me the freedom to bring in new main characters full of angst, needing help in finding a new path.

A good example of great characters who can sustain a series are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Carol O’Connell’s Mallory. Interestingly, in both those situations, we’re reading about deeply damaged characters who are frozen in their psychosis. I love those characters as a reader—but as I writer I would need to help them work out those issues, and then I’d ruin the series.

Yes, you’re definitely straddling genres with your books. I find that exciting as a reader, but I know publishing houses are often concerned about things like what shelf to put you on at the bookstore. Pull the curtain back, if you don’t mind, and show us something of the business and the marketing from behind the scenes. How, for example, did they decide to position this book, and how do you know your book is being “marketed” rather than simply “printed”?

I wish I could share what goes on behind that particular curtain but I don’t get to see it. I’d give my right arm to sit in a positioning meeting with the sales force and really understand the choices that are made.

As for how to know if you are being printed or well-published?

There are so many levels of being well-published. Just being published by a quality house will get you more attention by booksellers and librarians and reviewers than you will get if you are, say, self published. Yes, in some cases, all an author will get in terms of marketing is co-op [i.e., table space at bookstores]. But co-op is expensive and it’s critical. So even if it stops there, you are 100% ahead of at least 750,000 other writers a year. (That’s the number of self-published books there were in 2009.)

The real issue here is expectations and how to manage them.

I think our jobs as writers is to keep writing the best books we can until we write the right book at the right time—the one the publisher can get behind and give that magic push to.

For some of us that will be our first novel; for others, our 10th; and some of us will never get it—not for lack of trying or talent, but rather, because our timing just doesn’t sync up.

So I don’t think we should compare ourselves to each other. That’s just inviting madness. Who gets the push is all too often not about talent at all but rather the fit of the book and the market and what the stores say they want and the fads and foibles of the day.

That said, usually if you are getting a good push, you know it. In fact, I’ve never met an author who was getting it who didn’t know it. But I have met hundreds of authors who weren’t getting but didn’t know what was happening.

The business is a strange one. We, the writers, are treated in so many cases, like children. We’re trained to feel lucky we have contracts at all, that we should be grateful and quiet and let the grown-ups work it out. We’re left out of most conversations about the fruit of our labors. That’s fine conceptually—I love the idea of just sitting in a room and writing, or being the “artist” and letting everyone else worry about everything else.

But all too often, if you do that, you wind up wishing you hadn’t. I’ve tried it both ways, and not knowing has seriously screwed up my career more than once.

No one in publishing, it seems, wants to tell the writers the truth. But editors will tell agents the truth—or at least most of the truth. So I believe the key relationship to having a successful career is having the right agent. And I think your agent is the best person to ask whether you are being printed or published—if you are being treated right or not.

All that said, here are some signs that signal you’re being published versus printed. Please understand, too, that this varies house to house.

Are there a sizable number of ARCs being printed? (And sizable has to be compared to other books at the house.)

Is there a serious effort to get reviews?

What kind of pre-pub marketing is being done to the trades? Ads in PW? Shelf-Awareness? Bookselling this Week?

Are you getting to meet any of the players in marketing, sales and PR at the house?

Going to any trade shows or library shows?

If the house does actual tours, are you getting one? If not, are you getting an Internet tour? How big?

Are they giving you and your agent a marketing plan? Sharing advertising? Is there advertising at all?

If the house sends authors to meet accounts, are you going to meet them?

What kind of bells and whistles are going to surround the book?

What kind of co-op is the book getting? Will the book be on tables at the superstores? End caps? 20% off?

Is there a publicist working with you?

I’m sure your answer is setting off all kinds of anxiety for the authors who don’t see that happening as their books move toward publication. And we all know that excitement from the publishing house and, then, word of mouth is what sells books. So let’s talk about what authors can do beyond what they’re given from their publishers. And would you describe your company, AuthorBuzz, and how you think it can help a writer?

I was in the unique position of being the creative director of a top ad agency before I got published and then got into the business at a very strange time. A friend joked it was like becoming a Russian princess on the eve of the revolution. Books were suddenly in competition with the burgeoning Internet, cell phone, and video/CD market. It was harder than ever to get attention for a book and it’s only gotten more difficult in the ensuing ten years.

Once in publishing, I realized that for the most part, no one really had the time or money to do serious advertising for most of their titles; and so when they did, they didn’t have a great grasp of its potential.

85% of all books published by traditional houses get less than $2,000 in ads/marketing, outside of co-op. To put that in perspective, it’s not unusual for a top-10 NYTimes times book to get $250,000 and up in marketing. And to put that in perspective, the last product I advertised was a new perfume. Our budget to introduce it was 40 million dollars.

It’s not that publishers don’t want all our books to succeed. Of course they do. They wouldn’t buy our books if they didn’t. But they simply don’t have the time and the money and the manpower to treat every book the same way. It’s not personal. And, again, it’s not even about talent. It’s about being the right book at the right place and at the right time.

I realized early on that there were things I could do as an author to help my books. Not to make them giant bestsellers—you can only do that with a publisher behind you—but I could help keep myself alive and keep my sales solid enough so I could keep getting published until the day I had that right book, right place, right time.

I started writing articles about the things I was seeing and what I was doing about it and speaking out at conferences.

In 2000, I teamed up with my friend Doug Clegg—a brilliant author, marketer, and idea person. We started teaching a class called Buzz Your Book—all about what we can do to help our books, especially with things publishers can’t do for us even if they want to. The class led to us writing a book, Buzz your Book. And then that led to consulting work. (I still teach an online class at Backspace.org every January for six weeks.)

And then two things happened almost simultaneously.

I’d always said that the day a publisher or agent suggested I change what I was writing to meet the market I was going to go back to advertising where I could make money without compromise. That happen in 2004. So rather than change what I was writing, I started looking for a day job.

At the same time, I was noticed while teaching Buzz your Book that even though there are a million things authors can do to help our publishers market out books, most of our students don’t have the time or the inclination or the spirit for it. Many had day jobs and/or families and/or too many books to write. They wanted to do something for their books but not do it themselves.

So I came up with Authorbuzz. The first ad agency for authors. Marketing solutions at reasonable prices for authors. Solutions publishers would feel comfortable about their authors buying because I’d market in places where publishers would be comfortable. So I made deals with Shelf-Awareness.com and DearReader.com to market books to booksellers, librarians and readers.

Since 2005, we’ve added Bookmovement.com for bookclub readers. And we added ad campaigns and creative consulting, as well as KidsBuzz.

Even though the service was created for authors, we do about 50% of our work with authors and the other 50% with publishers—some publishers use us as their ad agencies.

But the thing that I’m really proud of is that over 70% of our business is repeat business. Authors and publishers come back all the time. And we keep hearing how our authors’ books have better sell-through—that more titles go back to print than expected—and occasionally we even help someone make a bestseller list.

What we do isn’t magic.

Going back to your question, nothing sells books like word of mouth. But how do you get word of mouth started? How do you get the first 300, or 500, or 2,000 readers?

No one ever buys a book they never heard of. No one walks into a bookstore or a library and says “I want to read a book you never heard of and I never heard of.”

So how do you get people to know about your book?

There are many, many ways. Authorbuzz is one of the easier and more affordable ways.

I feel like I just completed a master class in publishing, and thank you for this—for sharing your vast knowledge of this business and what your journey as a writer has been like. But most of all, I’m glad to now know you as a painter, as the young girl who made dolls’ clothes and had books for friends, and as a writer who finds her characters in the dark and can’t stand to leave them there, damaged. Thank you for all of that, and for being here.

Well, here’s a picture I should be too embarrassed to post:

This is me having a big old time at patrol camp. This is back in the days my dad still cut my hair on the kitchen stool, and obviously I didn’t bother to dry my hair for the photo. Maybe you can tell by the Billy Idol sneer how I take to dressing up in paper headbands and feathers.

I went to patrol camp the summer before sixth grade to become “an officer.” This selection means I was misunderstood to be a child who would not light her patrol post on fire or try to send kids across the street when they were most likely to get run over.

In the mornings, the girls stood near the flag pole outside of our cabins to do exercises. All the excercises had accompanying chants, and the one I did with great seriousness was the “we must increase our bust” exercise, when we all stood with our arms like chicken wings and tried to touch our elbows behind our backs. “The bigger, the better, the tighter the sweater, the boys depend on us.”

When you look at least four years younger than your classmates and people regularly mistake you for being a boy, camp is just one more place to feel different and alone.

By the end of my week there, it seemed camp had improved some. I’d kissed and slow-danced with one of the camp counselors and was glad to finally be noticed and included. Okay, sure, this sounds like pedophilia now, but I didn’t know better at the time and spent the rest of the summer searching for his phone number so I could hear his voice and then hang up.


All these years later, as I do readings and meet with agents and editors and marketing teams, I still feel like I’m the kid with the feather on her head, just wearing a nicer t-shirt. Maybe that’s why I like hanging out with other writers so much. I prefer to spend my time with fellow misfits.

Here’s what I like best about our community: You can take off your mask and let down your guard. And when you discover you’re still accepted, and that some of your peers dare to think more of you than you think of yourself, you start to dream bigger dreams, take risks, create bolder art, and care about others’ work and success as much as your own. I can’t help but imagine what a better summer I would have had if we’d all been at camp together, but at least we’ve made our own camp right here in the present.

Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”

I used the Animal stamp, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.

Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put his or her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare you for those single-star Amazon reviews once your book is published.


Like my recent LitPark guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little letters can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.

When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Donna Tartt, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.

What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.

With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.

I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.

Lac Su left his homeland of Vietnam under gunfire, and at age five, began his life in America in an apartment teeming with drugs and prostitutes. His memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE*, tells the story of his search for a sense of worth and belonging from a violent father and local gangs. It’s a harrowing story, but told with heart, humor, and wisdom. I’m glad to have Lac here to discuss his book, and I hope you’ll leave him a comment at the end of the interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.


Your wife was pregnant with your first child when you decided to write this book. Talk to me about what it’s like to have the pain from the past collide with your hopes for the future.

It feels like I’m running in place, like someone fashioned a rope around a boulder and tied the other end to my waist. The only way I can break free from this rock is to cut the rope. The only way I can do this is to face my past, come to terms with the baggage I’ve been carrying with me for so long and learn from it. Writing I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE—plus therapy—helped. I sought therapy for the first time in my life while writing the book.

I was half way through the third chapter when reliving my childhood turmoil became unbearable. Gentleman Jack found his way onto the table beside my computer during my late night writing sessions. The book was dragging me back into a dark place where I didn’t want to go. I tried to convince myself that my life was different now. My hard work was beginning to bear fruit—all the blessings that would make a man feel content with life. But my soul had not rest. Unresolved issues left me like an agoraphobic trapped inside his home; he looks out the window, sees a beautiful spring day, but is unable to set foot outside and enjoy it. It was dangerous and unhealthy to continue living this way.

So, I tried therapy. The biggest thing therapy taught me was that I’d been living my life in denial. I always figured if I didn’t think about my past, it would just go away. But on a subconscious level, old memories that were out of sight and out of mind affected me far more than I realized. The embers of pain were still smoldering deep inside me.

“Please make him smarter so he doesn’t have to endure any more beatings. That’s all we ask, great ancestor of ours.” She looks desperate and distressed. I try to make her feel better by staring straight down at my paper, with my pencil poised. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 63)

You were raised by a survivalist—a father wanted by the communists, who once had to eat insects and tree bark to stay alive. How did his perspective on the world shape you?

My world still revolves around this tiny man. In spite of 25 years of bad health, he’s still alive and kicking. He’s even smaller now—doesn’t stand more than 4’ 8”. He molded and shaped the man I’ve become. It was in college that I first began to challenge his perspective on life. College taught me a lot of things that contradicted what my old man had plastered onto me through the years. At first, I didn’t trust what the professors or books were telling me—they were all lies. I remember reading in a child development class about the importance of demonstrating affection. In my father’s house, I love yous are for white people.

My father is a hard man; he’s lived through a lot. Many of his lessons contain grains of truth, as long as you can sift through the twisted parts. Let’s see…a perfect example of this is in the Alhambra chapter when he decided as a 13-year old it was important that I know that, “Money and women are the two most wicked things in the world. The sanest person you know will become lost and irrational the moment he sees cash or smells pussy.”

I walk into the kitchen to tell Pa I’m home. The four beating sticks on the table are various sizes and shapes. One of them is new—a three-foot section of eucalyptus tree branch that’s a good inch thick. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 194)

Talk to me about what it’s like to live in a country when you don’t understand the language or the culture.

Overall, it was a fun experience. The confusion and frustration that I carried bred curiosity, which forced me to look for answers. My parents didn’t provide answers for me, so I had a lot to figure out on my own. People-watching is still a favorite pastime. As a kid, I would sit by the window or on my porch and just absorb the happenings of street life. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles—there was never a dull moment on Sunset Blvd.

English was my fourth language. My father spoke two Chinese dialects to me, and my mother spoke to me only in Vietnamese. I had friends who spoke Armenian, Swahili, Spanish, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Yes, it was perplexing at times. I learned quickly to read body language. Sometimes, words that I understood didn’t have to fall from my friends’ mouths for me to know what they were saying.

Our trips in Pa’s little red Chevette are conducted in the bike lane on the far right side of the road. They are marred by a merciless barrage of honking cars. Pa yells and curses back at them, convinced that he’s done no wrong. He stops every few blocks to check his map—a tattered little number that’s dotted in the red ink he uses to earmark the route. Pa can’t read the English street signs, so the map isn’t much help. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 134)

So much of what’s happened to you is devastating. But there’s a surprising sense of humor in this book (albeit bittersweet)—a little boy chewing on thrown away condoms, the inevitable teasing of Phat Bich, scamming the YMCA Santa, and your uncles—just having emigrated to the U.S.—breaking the necks of geese down at the local park and bringing them home for a feast. When did you start to find the humor in your story?

I started to see the humor in these stories when sharing them with a white friend of mine. As I said before, many of these events I’d never shared with anyone, but as I was writing my memoir I had a friend I’d tell the stories to, just to see what he thought of them. I actually found it funny the way he thought my stories were funny. I find that when you put people from different cultures into one place, you will often get a humorous, dynamic, and irreverent exchange. I hope I was successful in capturing this in my book.

Finally, Ma comes to the table with the main course, a huge glass dish holding the roasted geese. The birds’ heads are still attached, and the birds are so large that their necks hang down over the side of the tray. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 210)

You were taking your family’s food stamps, selling them for well below their value, and also stealing money, and this resulted in a brutal and humiliating punishment. But it’s the reason for the stealing that’s so utterly devastating—to try to buy friendship from someone who gives nothing back. If you found a kid today who felt worthless, hopeless, without a sense of belonging or purpose, what do you think might make a difference to him?

I’d write the kid a letter—a letter that I wish someone would have written to me when I was that kid.

Dear Kid,

The world is not like what you see on television. Things don’t always turn out OK. Real people sometimes feel lost, hopeless, and sad. The pain you feel makes you real. I think you would have a bigger problem if you weren’t feeling what you’re feeling under the circumstances. The psychology books call these people “crazy.” So, be glad you’re not crazy. There are reasons why you feel this way; don’t ignore them.

How much do you hate your life right now? I ask because the feelings weighing you down will remain if you don’t do something about what is causing them. What can I do about them, you ask? There are two important things for you to do:

1. Surround yourself with smart people. I mean really smart people. Learn from them. Soak up everything they have to teach you. Ask them a bunch of questions.

2. Keep these three phrases on the tip of your tongue: “I am sorry.” “Will you teach me?” and “Thank you.” There’s actually another phrase to hold close, but you can’t use this one unless you really mean it. When you do, you better damn use it: “I love you.”

Good luck, kid. You can turn your T.V. back on. Actually, turn off that T.V. and read a book.



“Do you remember how to get back to where we were, Big Head?” Pa asks.
“Why didn’t you keep track?”
“Because I’m sleepy.”
….”We’re almost there at the old trash bins. You know how I know?”
“Because of that big number eighteen on that wall. That’s how I get around. Remember things that pop out at you. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“Okay, now you can walk home alone without me. I’m leaving you now.” (pp. 38-9)

You joined a gang when you were a teenager, and I was very, I don’t know, I think the word might be touched to find out it was a graffiti art gang, and all these little thugs had sketchbooks. What’s the connection for you between art and healing?

The beauty of art is that you can dump your negative energy into a medium and make it beautiful. It’s called “channeling”, I think. I understand how the most tortured and grieved writers and painters can create such beautiful masterpieces. When you look at a Van Gogh or Pollack, those intricate scribbles, patterns, and colors come from somewhere. Writers, like painters, tell stories with emotion. For a long time, I had a lot of negative emotions that I kept bottled up inside. Being able to release these bad vibes and make art out of it is soothing. Art says things that you’re unable to otherwise express. Writing is cathartic, and you hope that someone will connect with your art. For someone to say, “I know what that’s like,” serves as a form of healing for me.

My newborn brother never made it home from the hospital. The doctors said the Raid was the culprit. The crib that Pa pulled from the Dumpster—and was so careful to fix and polish to perfection—sat in our apartment collecting dust for nearly two years, until the day that Vinnie came home. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 74)

The scene of you rubbing Tiger Balm on the wounds you gave your little sister was a really pivotal moment in the book—a wake-up call that you didn’t want to become what you hated. But where does all that rage that was inflicted on you get released? How does your mind find peace when you carry such memories of fear and shame?

There are two things available to me: a quick fix and life-time maintenance. When I was younger, I wrote poems and drew pictures. These days, I paint and garden. Music has always been soothing. These are quick fixes—a bandage to cover my pain. (This is a great question, Susan. I’ve never really thought about this.) For the long haul, the way I heal and reconcile my past is to love people—and do things differently than what my father did to me.

Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.

Here’s a story I call on again and again to give me perspective…

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused solely on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.

Around the time I was still being congratulated for landing my first book deal, and for landing it at a big house without an agent, things started going downhill.

I’d been feeling under the weather ever since I received the edits on my manuscript. I always get a little tender when people strike out favorite passages, or write “NO!” in the margins, but I expected that. I even swallowed down the idea that this editor planned to market my book YA so many of the edits were about dumbing down the language and adding training wheels to the storyline. But what was breaking me was something that, in retrospect, I should’ve spoken up about. The editor had asked me to change the voice of the story, to have the character see the world differently. And for me to do that, every single sentence of the book, and every single action taken by this character would have to change.

I never spoke up. Never defended my position. I didn’t want to be one of those difficult types. I remembered what it felt like to have no book deal, and who was I to complain?

So I was driving my kids to a local amusement park, where they were supposed to sing with their school and then enjoy the rides. It was my first real day coming out of the fetal position. (You think I’m kidding.) And halfway there, I got a call from the editor who asked if I could get these changes to her by the end of the month. I pulled over on to the side of the road and just started sobbing with my poor, confused children looking on from the backseat.

A few weeks later, I was on a panel at a conference and had lost so much weight, friends wondered aloud if I had cancer. Against all instincts and without a plan, I had dismantled the entire book and had no idea, and no interest, in how to put it back together. The despair I had felt in trying to get this book published didn’t come close to the feeling of overseeing its destruction. After the conference, I went out to dinner with some writer friends (Patry Francis, Tish Cohen, and Bella Stander). It was a delicious African-fusion meal, and afterward, we went to a writer’s party, though I wasn’t in the mood.

At the party, my friends introduced me to Dan Conaway, who changed everything.

The last person I wanted to meet was an agent–I was that fed up with the business–but we got along easily, talked the next day, and eventually (though I fought hard against the idea at first), I signed with him. Over the next several months of working with him, we broke contract with that publishing company as I went to work finding my way back into the novel. I no longer had a book deal, which was scary, to say the least, but I was going to get this book right. Gradually, my body got healthy again, I rediscovered the joy in writing, and I am ever so grateful for that chance-meeting!

I didn’t tell a soul that we’d canceled the book deal. I didn’t want to invite the kinds of questions or tell the kinds of stories that would bring me down again. I just got to work.

In Danielle Trussoni‘s ANGELOLOGY, a young nun who’s been living in a convent since she was twelve years old, finds herself at the center of a battle between fallen angels and the scientists who’ve uncovered their secrets. It’s a thriller with literary appeal. There are chases, murders, and puzzles to solve—all testing humanity’s power over evil.

In this interview, Danielle and I talk about the process of writing and selling this book, including the fascinating tidbit that she didn’t set out to write about angels at all. Hope you enjoy our talk, and please feel free to jump into the conversation.


I want to talk to you about the dreaded unknown in this business. Our books were on submission at the same time, and I remember talking to you during that nervous wait. Everyone was saying the publishing market was at it’s worst, and I think both of us wondered if we’d just spent a lot of time writing books that wouldn’t sell. Talk to me about that process and how you coped with the wait and the self-doubt.

There is no doubt that writing is a labor of love. Every day that one goes to the desk and writes without a contract (or even an agent for many of us) is an act of faith. I have been doing this, however, for years and years and so perhaps the anxiety is something that I have gotten used to. I understand what it means to work on a book that doesn’t make it into the world. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2000 and graduated in 2002 with a manuscript (a novel) that was never published. It was heartbreaking, but I kept trying and eventually wrote FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH, my first book, which was a memoir.

I began to write ANGELOLOGY—my debut novel which was published on March 9th—without any real sense of what the industry was going through. I knew, of course, that novels are often difficult to sell. But I knew I wanted to write this novel and so I went ahead anyway. I quit teaching and worked full time on ANGELOLOGY.

And then, in the midst of all the awful publishing news, your book went to auction, and you had serious interest from both publishing and film companies. Tell me what was happening behind the scenes.

I was actually helping with a family emergency when the book went out to publishers and so the whole thing was a little surreal. Luckily, we had a lot of interest in the book almost immediately. My agent set up phone interviews and soon I was speaking with a number of incredibly smart editors about how the book could be edited and shaped. Then, a few days after ANGELOLOGY sold to Viking, there were three offers to purchase the film rights. It was surprising, especially because the film agent I had for Falling Through the Earth had passed on representing ANGELOLOGY and so I thought that the film rights would be more difficult to sell.



I was pretty shocked when I read this book. I wasn’t at all surprised at the marvelous writing, but I was surprised how different this book was from your first. FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH was an unflinching look at being raised by your father after the damage he was dealt as a Vietnam War tunnel rat. And now, you’ve not only moved on to fiction, but an intricate thriller, at that. Where did the idea for ANGELOLOGY come from, and do you see a connection in these two books?

I am the kind of writer who takes inspiration from a million places and then just begins writing. I discard a lot of material and rewrite endlessly. I started with Evangeline (who is the heroine of ANGELOLOGY) and I knew that I wanted to use certain settings—a convent, World War II Paris, the mountains of Bulgaria) but I didn’t have the central concept of the book until after I began writing. I went to a convent and stayed there for some time interviewing nuns and doing research in the archives. While I was there, I came across a lot of books about angels and became incredibly interested in the idea of the role that angels have played—their placement between heaven and earth, the ethereal and the material, their function as messengers of the divine. I came to love the ambiguity of their position and the possibility they offered narratively.

Fascinating that you didn’t begin with angels at all! Tell me about writing this book. How did you balance research (WWII, the legend of Orpheus, Paradise Lost, Rockefellers, convents) with story? Tell me something about your daily discipline, where you got stuck, how you got unstuck.

Reasearch was a huge part of writing ANGELOLOGY. I spent lots of time in the library, but I also went on research trips. I revisited the mountains in Bulgaria, went and found locations in Paris and spent a lot of time in museums studying Renaissance paintings of angels. The visual component of my research was probably the most rewarding, and also helped me to find the right physical descriptions for the creatures in my book. There is a gorgeous, eerie quality to the way angels have been traditionally represented. It makes our contemporary images of angels—especially the cute cherubs—seem utterly silly.

Some of this book is so horribly, deliciously dark. Even from the very beginning, when we learn about the young girl the convent was named after. Would you tell the story of Rose, and did you make that up, or did you pull from history?

The story of Saint Rose is real or, at least, it is considered real by those who venerate her.

Although she knew she risked being late, Sister Evangeline paused at the center of the hallway. Here, the image of Rose of Viterbo, the saint after whom the convent had been named, hung in a gilt frame, her tiny hands folded in prayer, an evanescent nimbus of light glowing about her head. St. Rose’s life had been short. Just after her third birthday, angels began to whisper to her, urging her to speak their message to all who would listen. Rose complied, earning her sainthood as a young woman, when, after preaching the goodness of God and His angels to a heathen village, she was condemned to die a witch. The townspeople bound her to a stake and lit a fire. To the great consternation of the crowd, Rose did not burn but stood in skeins of flame for three hours, conversing with angels as the fire licked her body. Some believed that angels wrapped themselves about the girl, covering her in a clear, protective armor. Eventually she died in the flames, but the miraculous intervention left her body inviolable. St. Rose’s incorrupt corpse was paraded through the streets of Viterbo hundreds of years after her death, not the slightest mark of her ordeal evident upon the adolescent body.

I want to finish up with some fun movie gossip. Who bought the rights to your book, and what can you say about the movie version so far?

Will Smith’s production company ended up buying the rights. Marc Forster—who directed the last James Bond film—will direct and Michael Goldenberg, who adapted Harry Potter for the screen—will adapt the screenplay. I know that they are moving forward quickly and that the screenplay is being written. I’m meeting with Michael Goldenberg this week to talk a bit about the adaptation and the sequel to ANGELOLOGY called ANGELOPOLIS. I’m really excited to see how the film reinterprets the book.

Can’t wait to see it! Thanks, Danielle, for your time and for your books.


***To read an excerpt from Angelology, please click here.



Here’s something that gnaws at most writers, whether they’re writing fiction or memoir: How much are you allowed to tell? Who owns our truths?

For several years I was a sexual abuse therapist. And what you learn right away, if you haven’t already learned it elsewhere, is how trauma is exacerbated by silence. Trying to fake that you’re fine, trying to keep a trauma a secret, trying to protect a family system or an abuser you also love – these are emotions that eat at the heart of a survivor. So why not just tell, right?

Not so fast. The moment you tell, you have also exposed a slew of others. You’ve exposed a family system and an entire network of secrets. And maybe worst of all, you’ve opened yourself up to the problem of all problems: whose perspective is right, and whose memory contains the real truth? Rarely, when a survivor speaks up, do others agree that the survivor described what happened accurately. And rarely is speaking up met with hugs and apologies.

Truth is a slippery thing. Let’s stay with the example of the survivor a little longer. Surviving a trauma involves many things including denial, dissociation, and possibly some coercion to process the abuse in some alternative way. A survivor who’s been abused by a family member may feel a number of emotions besides the fear that you might expect. They may like the attention of the abuser. Their body may react positively to the abuse, regardless of how their head responds. The abuser may have many likable traits, and the survivor may have many unlikable traits. This starts to make a mess of the survivor’s head because we don’t have a black-and-white situation anymore. Instead you have complicated and layered characters in a complicated and layered relationship. So the moment this survivor speaks up, there is plenty of room for others to argue the truth of what’s been said.

One advantage to writing essays or memoir is that you can speak your mind without interruption. You can tell the entire scope of a story or paint as large a picture as you need in order to express what you need to express or discover what you need to discover. It can be like traveling through hell to find truth or peace or order, but it can free you from the past, make you wiser, and allow you to connect with others who have no voice for their experience. Say, then, that you’ve done it, you’ve said what you needed to say and said it lovingly and yet fearlessly. Now is when you hope the real people within your story understand the way you see the world, they “get” you, they value your experience and how you’ve become the person you are and why you think or feel the way you do.

Ha ha! You know why I’m laughing, right? Because now your memory is out there for others to question and judge. What is true to you is not necessarily true to the other players in your story. And why is that? For starters, there are mistruths in even the most careful of memoirs: misremembered events, dialogue re-invented years or decades after the fact, things left out because they don’t seem important or because you wanted to quicken the pace, not to mention the blind spots we all have from seeing the world through our own lens for so long. And the final kicker: others don’t want to know or believe your truth because it would be disastrous to their psyche and their paradigm about how they fit into the world.

So, given that others are naturally intertwined with the stories we want to tell, where is that balance? I think the answer is different for each of us. And, of course, it’s complicated when you’re telling things that are true about your heart and your emotional experience of the world through fictional writing. But I’ll answer this question for me: I won’t read tepid writing, and I certainly don’t want to produce it. I like writing that goes where we’re afraid to go and says what we’re afraid to say in our real lives. Salman Rushdie says it better: “One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions.”

Your thoughts?