Book Title = Sales?

Maybe you’ve wrestled a fair bit with choosing a title for your new book. Now comes Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly to tell you it actually matters for your book’s marketing.

Milliot describes an online study conducted last fall by the Codex Group, involving nearly 4000 book buyers and more than 50 new and forthcoming titles. The study examined whether a book’s presentation encouraged prospective readers to browse, as measured by the number of clicks the books’ “read more” buttons received.

As valuable as such information should be to authors, the study has a number of features that limit the interpretation of its results. I’d like to know more about those 4000 readers—gender and age breakdown, genre preferences, are they regular online purchasers?, and so on.

All 10 of the most actively browsed books have women protagonists, several involve children, marital relationships, and female friendships. Were the 50 books tested skewed in this direction, or is it that people who like that type of book are more curious about them? It’s worth noting that, even the best-ranked books received no more than one in four “read more” clicks.

Plowing on, here’s the bad news—or good news if you’re published by Amazon. Eight of the top 10 books receiving clicks were from Amazon Publishing—a data point that would be more impressive if we knew what proportion of the 50 were published by Amazon. Still, five of these highly-rated Amazon titles were among last year’s 11 top-selling ebooks. An attractive cover meant more than taking a deeper look, it meant readers clicked the “buy now” button too.

This suggests Amazon is doing something right, and that may by particularly important for you if you’re a new author, as were some of the authors among the top 10, if you don’t have a pre-existing fan-base, if you’re experimenting with a new genre, or if you write in the genre (women’s fiction) whose readers responded most strongly in this research.

So, how does Amazon do it? For two of the three most popular books in this test, participants said it was the book’s title, not the graphics, that drew them in. Hunh. I’d find this more persuasive if they tested titles alone, on a blank cover, and Milliot’s article doesn’t suggest they did that. It’s hard to separate the effect of a title from the overall—and often more memorable—artwork behind it. Reading the list of titles of the top 10 books makes this finding even more surprising. The most frequently browsed book, for example, was After, pictured (though I can’t be sure this is the version people in the test saw). Without the photograph, the title wouldn’t carry much meaning.

Maybe After succeeded because Amazon tries hard to ensure that title and cover art reinforce each other. (To illustrate, see “Together, they signal readers about the book’s contents and help them know whether they’d like it.

There’s a lot riding on these choices. Everything—art, title, cover copy—is part of your story’s package. Make good choices!

Yesterday’s post provided a few things to think about when choosing the book title that will make an interesting and lasting impression.

Photo (top): Annette G for Pixabay

Will People Pick Up My Book?

We writers are ever in search of a search of a formula that will make our books leap into prospective readers’ hands, rather than languish untouched on the long, slow slide to the remainder bin. If only readers gave it a chance, they’d love it! Right? Would some of the magic leap out when they picked it up?

Watch book store patrons browse the tables a while and the old saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” appears definitely wrong. Certain books attract. And they aren’t necessarily books with a lot of publicity or a best-selling author’s name. Something about them draws people in.

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of cover art and how it’s not something amateurs can attempt at home. We’ve all seen the covers of self-pubbed books that look like misguided collage projects or more likely ones that are just . . . not . . . right. While we recognize covers we like from an artistic perspective, does the art lead to further perusal of the book and—ahem—buying it? Publishers assume so. (Here’s Tim Kreider’s amusing take on the author-publisher dynamic in book cover design from the New Yorker.)

Two recent blog posts talk about another important aspect of your book’s exterior—the very first words of yours that readers will see: your book’s title.

In Writer Unboxed, Nancy Johnson riffs entertainingly on this subject. In coming up for a title for her own debut book, she heard the advice to “keep it short.” One-word titles can convey a lot; Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a perfect summation of her best-seller. Ditto Tara Westover’s Educated, which, in addition, vividly illustrates the importance of the interplay of title and art. What at first looks like a pencil-shaving is a lone girl standing on a mountain, the heroine of the piece.  

Short, punchy titles are presumably easy to remember. Tell that to Delia Owens. One of Johnson’s favorite titles is Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Unforgettable. And, much better than a too-short title that doesn’t convey any extra substrate of meaning. Look up some one-word titles (Guardian, Broken, Alien) on Amazon and see how many competitors there are. As a result, what Johnson concludes about title length is, like so many other rules for writers,“it depends.”

As you know, titles of creative works can’t be copyrighted, so it can be hard to come up with something unique. Appropriating The Talented Mr. Ripley would raise eyebrows. If several other books already share your planned title, you want to think about the company you’ll be keeping (and how far down your book may appear in Amazon’s listing of similar titles). Unwary buyers will be annoyed if they intend to order your romantic suspense and get a slasher story instead.

Tomorrow: A study of the link between title and sales.

Book Promotion Trends: 2019

Diana Urban and BookBub has compiled a helpful analysis of book promotion trends based on the panel discussions and presentations at this year’s BookExpo 2019. If you have a book coming out in the next year or so, one or more of these six trends may either help or frustrate you. In either case, be prepared!

1. Publishers start sending out advance reading copies of big debut books at least a year before publication. This is one reason you hear that incessant drumbeat for a few books and others launch with a whisper.

2. Publishers are using display ads on platforms that let them carefully target the relevant audience for these big debuts, and these, too, start six months ahead. Those splashy ads you see in The New Yorker are usually for established authors—that is, your next book. BookBub’s further thoughts on target marketing are here.

3. Publicists are trying to enhance the ARC package with personalized notes to potential reviewers and librarians, fancy packaging, etc. It can’t hurt to suggest some ideas of your own, or if you’re mailing those copies yourself, to do more than stuff them into a jiffy-bag. I mean, we’re creative, right?

4. She provides a helpful list of how to organize a publicity campaign, and when to do what, starting at least six months out. If you need more detailed advice on anything in this list, you may be able to find it in the Tips or Resources sections of Build Book Buzz, an excellent book promotion “how-to” website from my friend Sandra Beckwith.

5. Reinforcing point two was the advice to focus on niche marketing by finding out what your target audience is reading (anything free) and where they go online, so that your choices of media and marketing messages hit their sweet spot.

6. Tips on how to collaborate with indie bookstores covered the importance of building relationships with them early; how to use events not just to promote your book, but with the mindset of connecting with readers; and how to support the bookstore after your event. More tips on working with indie bookstores are here.

Onward!

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases—a few pennies to put in a jar to pay my WordPress bills. If you decide to read this book and click the photo above to order it, you’ll help me fill the jar.

“Up-Lit” — What Is It and Why Are We Reading It?

files

photo: Nasir Khan, creative commons license

Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.

Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?

We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.

Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.

A Winning Short Story Publishing Strategy

Ellery Queen

Preparing for a panel on “short stories” for this weekend’s Deadly Ink conference for mystery/crime writers, I studied the stack of five print publications in which my work has appeared this past year. This was in lieu of doing any actual preparation, you might suspect. I realized each of them had a publication lesson for me—and possibly other authors. So here goes:

Don’t Dismiss Limited Circ Outlets

Five of the last six years I’ve had a story in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction Issue. Yes, it reaches a small audience, but at a max of 2000 words, the time investment in these stories isn’t massive and I keep the rights (more on that later).

The benefits: reminding myself at least someone thinks my work is good enough to invest ink and paper in, the satisfaction of meeting an actual deadline—in creative work you sometimes need an end-point—and, best of all, cultivating a local group of writer friends for support and commiseration. My 2016 story: “What Would Jimmy Stewart Do?

Prepare for Rejection

Are you thrown into a funk that’s hard to crawl out of when a story’s rejected? Take heart from realizing that all short story outlets today receive far more “publishable” material—stories they like—than they have room for. The literary magazine Glimmer Train, which has given several of my non-mystery stories a thumbs-down, publishes about 60 stories a year. The editors receive 32,000 submissions. Those 60 stories may be fantastic, but they simply cannot be the absolute “best” ones.

I expect rejection. And I plan for it. When a story of mine comes back from outlet x, I read it through, fix anything obvious, and right away send it to outlet y, then z. Last year, I sent a rejected story to a new outlet whose editors want to feature female protagonists. They accepted it gladly, and eventually it won a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. You can read that story—“Breadcrumbs”—here.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is one of the premier, if not the premier outlet for short mystery fiction. I wanted another story of mine in it. So last spring, I wrote a Christmas-themed story, hoping they’d want it for the annual Holiday issue. I sent it in June, to give them plenty of time to think about it. Planning for rejection, even if they turned it down in their usual six to eight weeks (ask me how I know!), I’d have time to submit it elsewhere. They did not, and it appeared in the January-February 2017 “’Tis the Season” issue.

Meet the Requirements

I know writer who become so wrapped up in writing “their” story that they ignore editors’ guidance on theme, length, and so on. Dissect calls for submissions for clues to what they’re looking for. Don’t expect to be the exception, and don’t make it easy for editors to reject your work! I wanted to submit a story to an anthology about police work. I had such a story in mind. A 6,200-word story. The editors’ limit was 5,000. I liked those 1,200 words, but they went the way of the blue pencil (and the story was probably better for it). It was published in April.

Mine Your Backlist

Novelists have a “backlist” of books published in past years. Short story writers do too. When I see an outlet looking for a theme I’ve written on, I check whether the editor will accept reprints. Last October an online magazine republished one of my U.S. 1 stories that had a Halloween theme; I own those rights, remember? In April, a minor edit to a story published in a lit magazine (rights also mine) tailored it for an anthology. Taking advantage of these opportunities puts your work in front of new people and is a refreshing glass of water in the desert of seeming indifference.

four-leaf clover, luck

Dawn Ellner, cc license

Getting a short story published entails more than a small amount of luck, but if you’ve written a great story, you can increase the odds it will reach readers by being strategic about when, where, and how you engage with potential publishers.

Separating the Wheat

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

With more than a million new books a year being published in the United States, readers have to look harder than ever to find the book perfect for them. Book reviews work, if they’ve found a reviewer whose opinions they trust; best-seller lists reveal what other people are buying (or do they?); and online consumer recommendations can help, too. Even in my mystery/thriller niche, the number of new books is overwhelming. I need help!

Blogger Sandra Parshall recently reported on an excellent panel discussion involving three top book reviewers. The reviewers and samples of their reviews in the mystery genre are:

  • Maureen Corrigan, who reviews for NPR’s Fresh Air and is a contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers; she recently reviewed Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, a crime drama she calls a noir vision of an “American gone rancid”
  • Dennis Drabelle, crime fiction editor at The Washington Post, who recently reviewed the “mesmerizing” Malcolm Mackay thriller trilogy featuring freelance Glasgow hit man Calum MacLean and
  • Bethanne Patrick, creator of twitter’s popular #FridayReads hashtag, who reviews for multiple venues. She recently reviewed Mary Kubica’s psychological thriller Pretty Baby for NPR.

Every week, these reviewers wade through hundreds of advance review copies of new books in search of gems, including those in the crime/mystery/thriller genre. They have a few groundrules that make it easier: no self-published books; look at those by well-known authors while keeping an eye out for new talent, such as Vu Tran, mentioned above, or “something unusual”; and look at the books from publishers with a good track record. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the writing that makes a book stand out, they said. (My decision rules for book reviews are described here and here.)

Parshall quoted Corrigan’s distaste for market-driven gimmicks—no “vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” I’m guessing she didn’t review any of the vampire versions of Pride and Prejudice. Zombie ones, either.

Finally, they said best-seller lists are not a reliable guide to finding quality books. Marketing expert Tim Grahl, posting on Hugh Howey’s blog The Wayfinder last year, would agree. Grahl says, “I’ve become incredulous at the complete disaster that is the major best seller lists.” And he feelingly describes how the two biggest-impact lists—those of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—are created. Not how you think they are.

George Orwell was a frequent, but cranky, book reviewer, saying it was like “pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.” Now, new legions of book reviewers are rising up to cope with the massive numbers. They’re the “consumers” whose reviews and recommendations we can read on Amazon and other book-buying sites, the social networks Goodreads and Library Thing, and others. While many consumer comments don’t rise above a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, some are thorough and thoughtful. They’re updating the most popular strategy people use for selecting a particular book, the recommendation of a friend.

In addition, aggregator sites like Crime Fiction Lover, for which I am one of a dozen reviewers, have appeared. Similar specialty shops for reviews of romance, science fiction/fantasy, and other genres exist. And hundreds of websites like this one, that regularly review books of all types.

What are You reading?

What’s NOT a Business Plan

Dr. Seuss

(photo: US Army Garrison, Red Cloud, creative commons license)

Harvard Business Review recently added its voice to the clamor for changes in the $28 billion U.S. publishing industry. The article, by writer Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist based at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is headlined “Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss Won’t Save Publishing.”

By relying not only on those obvious one-offs and other “successful retreads,” but also emphasizing authors who have what publishers call a pre-existing platform—which means either past books, a painstakingly built social media presence, speaker popularity, or high visibility in other media (movie stars, television commentators, high-profile journalists)—publishers are missing partnerships with less prominent authors. Such relationships used to be cultivated over the long term, giving publishers a deep bench.

Publishers don’t treat authors the way a venture capitalist or angel investor might, notes Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes. Some of the authors on that bench were future stars and others solid mid-list performers. The whole timid approach is reminiscent of Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, prequels, and copycat films.

Authors today have a choice; if publishers aren’t willing to invest in them, they can look elsewhere, to smaller presses or self-publishing. In the past, the major publishers could offer authors their expertise in distribution, design, editing, proofreading, and marketing. Distribution has had a tectonic change with the advent of e-books and print-on-demand; increasingly sophisticated design, editing, and proofreading services are available for authors to contract with directly; and only the most highly successful (or happily delusional) author expects the publisher to take sole charge of their book’s marketing any more.

Clark recommends the following strategies to reinvigorate their relationships with authors:

  • Become full partners with authors, looking to the long term; think of them as the seed-corn necessary to harvest future profits.
  • Be more transparent with data (in late October I’ll be receiving my royalty statement from a textbook publisher that will provide up-to-the-minute-as-of-last-April sales information); no way can authors help with promotion when they’re working with arcane, six-month-old data. What’s more, as best-selling author Ken Follett says, “(Royalty) statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book.” (Clark says Penguin Random House has a new author portal that tracks weekly sales. This is a first.)
  • Build their own brand and audience. With all the industry consolidations that have occurred in recent years, if readers had an impression of a particular publisher, that entity may no longer exist, at least not independently.
  • Connect authors to one another for “cross-pollination” of marketing and literary ideas.
  • Double down on quality. Readers of books from all sources, including big publishers, lament the typographical and factual errors and negligent editing they encounter, even in books they’ve paid top-dollar for.

Such strategies could assure publishers’ profitability for years to come, because, as Clark said, “hoping to find another lost manuscript is not a business plan.”

Further Thoughts

Industry-watcher Michael Shatzkin says changes in publishing are, maybe, inevitable?

Why I Cried Last Night

woman writing

(photo: Mike Licht, Creative Commons License)

Earlier this summer, my heart sank. I was reading about yet another manifestation of the gender divide in agenting, publishing, marketing, and reviewing women-written fiction, which, even if unconscious, leads to and promotes a gender divide in the books readers choose, an issue I wrote about in my post, “Will Men Read my Book?” A vicious circle if ever there was one.

Subject Matter Matters

The essay was Nicola Griffith’s “Books about women don’t win big awards.” She compiled data showing that not only have men won most of the major literary awards over the last 15 years, when women have won them, they’ve mostly won them for books about male characters. Think Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won two Man Booker prizes, both for books about Thomas Cromwell, or Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winner The Goldfinch and its protagonist Theo Decker. (Rufi Thorpe has written an amusing, but pointed essay on what it’s like to have her first novel published and the tone-deaf reactions she received. Male at pool: “I mean, yours was just a novel about girls.” Author: “Yeah, I know that.” Male at pool: “I just don’t see how anyone could compare it to actual literature.”)

“Everybody kind of knows it’s true, but they don’t want to see it,” Griffith said in the Seattle Review of Books. Later in that essay, she says, “The way we’re brought up is that stories about men are important and stories about women are fluffy and domestic and kind of boring.” This page from a publisher of predominantly women-written mysteries is a revealing display of that preconception in action. It sends a clear marketing message: These are lightweight books. Not that there isn’t a place for such books and the readers who enjoy them. This publisher is just up-front about what they do and, inadvertently I hope, perpetuating a stereotype.

The Evidence Piles Up

In June, I groaned reading Kamila Shamsie’s essay in The Bookseller on another aspect of the gender divide. She, too, turned to statistics, analyzing The Guardian’s end-of-year book recommendations by some 252 cultural figures, mostly writers. The data showed that more men than women get asked to recommend; of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so; and those men are more likely to recommend yet more men. Says Shamsie:

I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement, while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say, except: go read some Toni Morrison. 

Desperate Responses

I pulled my hair and rolled my eyes as, over the summer, the reaction to this situation became increasingly creative, if quixotic. Shamsie has proposed that in 2018 UK publishers bring out only new titles by women. US writer Amanda Filipacchi tried to “pose like a man” for her book jacket photo when she discovered that in these pictures “The men looked simpler, more straightforward. The women looked dreamy, often gazing off into the distance. Their limbs were sometimes entwined, like vines.”

And white male writers have been urged to acknowledge that “the white male experience has been overexposed, at the expense of other experiences, for centuries.” Or, as American fiction writer John Scalzi has said, in the massive role-playing game of life, “‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”

Submissions (A Too-Apt Word?)

Right now, I’m in the middle of preparing submission packets for small publishers. It took two days to prepare three packets. I’ve been working on the current packet since Sunday, off and mostly on. Each publisher has different requirements, some puzzling. My novel, three years in the works, has been professionally edited by an award-winning mystery writer, professionally proofread, and the police-related parts reviewed by a former NYPD detective and terrorism expert. It’s in its, oh, eighth? draft.

Then yesterday, I read this the story by Catherine Nichols. Discouraged by the lackluster response (usually a one-line rejection or, commonly, no reply at all) to her agent query letters—you need an agent in order to approach most publishers—she began sending her materials out using a male pseudonym. Over a weekend, she sent six agents the same letter and same book synopsis and sample chapters she’d been sending and received five responses, with three requests for a manuscript. Ultimately, under her own name, 50 queries received two manuscript requests, whereas “George’s” 50 queries generated 17 manuscript requests. George is, she says, “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”

The agents’ comments to Catherine (similar to those I have received myself) consistently cited “beautiful writing,” which Nichols points out “is the paint job on top but not the engine of the book,” whereas they said George’s work was “‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’” It received lengthy critiques, not the typical form-letter brush-offs.

She points out that the agents she approached were both men and women, “which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive. It’s not something a few people do to everyone else. It goes through all the ways we think of ourselves and each other.”

I wept.

Resources
VIDA, an organization dedicated to Women in Literary Arts
Sisters in Crime, helping women who write, review, buy, or sell crime fiction
The other side of the coin: Male writers who write as women
Historical Underpinnings of Continual Sexism in Publishing
, Emerson College

5 Things Submitting Writers Should Know

five, matches

(photo: Martin Fisch, Creative Commons license)

AGNI is the well-regarded literary magazine published by Boston University, and its editor is Sven Birkerts. For the June edition of The AGNI Newsletter, Birkets took advantage of the journal’s current hiatus in accepting author submissions to reflect on what its editors hope to find when they read their “towering backlog” of poem, short story, and essay manuscripts.

How big is that “towering backlog”? Birkets says he typically receives a hundred new manuscripts a day. He made five points for writers to consider.

  1. Understand the initial screen – submissions are first triaged into three categories: those clearly off the mark one way or another (more than 60 percent); those that may have potential (25 percent); and those with “obvious appeal” (less than 12 percent), which are circulated to appropriate readers. He doesn’t say whether those 60 receive an immediate “No, thanks,” or whether they get into a process that takes the two to four months noted in AGNI’s submission guidelines. (AGNI turned down a short story of mine, and it took six weeks.)
  2. Understand the need for fit – The approximately one-third of the submissions in the “maybe” queue are reviewed for both quality and goodness-of-fit—as Birkets puts it, whether they fall within its “aesthetic profile.” Determining the likelihood that a story will be a good fit is ideally an author’s responsibility, in part. It’s why literary journals typically suggest a prospective submitter read a few copies before sending in their work. In other words, self-triage. “It does take some time to scout out likely venues for work,” he admits, “but it also takes time sending and re-sending to ones that turn out to be unlikely.”
  3. Focus on the most important – What AGNI editors look for in a cover letter is a quick statement and a short list of the author’s most notable previous publications, if any. By contrast, the first sentences of the story receive the editors’ careful attention. Birkets describes why beautifully: “As an editor confronting the day’s abundance, I want to find a reason to stop reading as soon as I can. As an editor in love with good writing, I want to find that I cannot stop.”
  4. Don’t fret about a lack of previous publications – This, he says, is not a barrier with AGNI, and, contrariwise, well established writers can be rejected because of the lack of fit noted above Birkets estimates that about half the stories AGNI publishes are by newly discovered writers.
  5. Be committed to the importance of the work – This is the hardest of his points to distill into concrete advice, but may be the most critical. He says he wants to see work that is “an authentic and necessary expression, something that couldn’t not be written.” In other words, the writing must be propelled by the author’s deep conviction of its necessity in a noisy world. “We know when we are in the presence of that and, believe me, we are interested,” he says. I have a friend whose OK novel was published a few years ago. Sometime later, I asked him whether he was writing another. “No,” he said, with astonishing candor, “I found out I don’t have anything to say.”

For my many writing friends who do have something to say, AGNI’s submissions period opens again September 1.