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This Is Not Your Beautiful House

Yes, I am aware that the Book Expo is on. Do I care? Yes and no. When I was a little girl, my dad took me to lumber trade shows and I loved them. Especially the displays of knobs and pulls, hundreds of them. Racing down the aisles in search of candy and any free crap we could get our hands on like levelers and mini tool boxes (which I still have).

I hear things are heating up at the Javitz Center with dog fights breaking out over e-book royalties, the undead everywhere, and Barbra Streisand as the big draw with her book about her “passion” for design, which is a euphemism for control which is about how no matter what she achieves her mother will never be impressed. (Anyone else belong to that club?)

I understand that there will be fewer giveaways, fewer galleys, and t-shirts, and tote bags. Fare thee well swag! Fare thee well bowls of candy for grubby hands! When I was younger, the best part of the fair was scoring free galleys of favorite writers, sometimes getting them signed. Going to parties at night and sleeping with Knopf writers. (You know who you are.) Ha ha. The best part for me was scouring the small presses and university presses, such cool shit. Just soaking it all in, each publisher’s booth with its glossy blown up jackets. Watching people in meetings talk like squirels with their mouths full of nuts.

Do I care about BEA? Yes and no. It seems like more dancing on the Titanic.  Earlier today when I looked up above the convention center I saw something quite extraordinary: our beloved books getting in formation and flying away high above the Javitz Center, above the sad fray.

I’m glad I got to do this with my life. Lucky.

Sometimes the Lights All Shining on Me

An editor told me that pictures of cute animals increase traffic exponentially. I'm not proud.

If the best moment in an agent’s life is telling a writer that a publisher has made an offer on his or her book, the worse is when, about three weeks after publication, it becomes clear that without an act of god the book is likely to slip beneath the waves. How do you tell a drowning man there’s no raft?

The tour that didn’t materialize, reviews that didn’t appear, feature articles failed to showcase you at your desk, your cocker spaniels aloof on the couch. You had to throw your own publication party and your editor didn’t come. Or your agent for that matter.

I’ve never met an author who didn’t think that publishing a book would change his life. The problem is you never think it’s going to be a change for the worse. Some writers never recover from their book going unnoticed, some can’t take the negative reviews (JDS). Even those who get good attention can get stage fright. Can’t live up to or live down from expectations. And some, just some, can access their gift, harness their desire, and get back to work.

If you have been published, what was it like? Did you get rich, famous, laid? Did you get another contract? Did the book help you in achieving other career goals. Did your father stop calling you a bum? If you have not yet been published, what is your fantasy about what might happen. Don’t be shy.

Let’s Play Twister, Let’s Play Risk

If you want excellent advice on how to write a pitch letter, go to Nathan Bransford’s blog, or to Janet Reid’s check list, or Rachelle Gardener’s guidelines. OR, come, sit back, and watch me light myself on fire. I’m going to write a mock query letter for a project I’ve abandoned as a way to describe the kinds of things I look for in a letter.

Salutation: Dear FIRST AND LAST NAME. (I don’t like too familiar and I don’t like too formal.)

The one sentence pitch: I hope you might be interested in my memoir, The Potter’s Apprentice, which describes a year of pottery lessons between an octogenarian teacher and his last student: me.

Alternatives: I met you last year at Breadloaf where we spoke briefly about my project, The Potter’s Apprentice. OR, I am a great fan of your clients X and Y, and hope my work might be of interest to you. OR, I read your blog religiously and, perhaps magically, imagine that you might take to my work.

The body: It had been nearly thirty years since I studied pottery and I didn’t miss it. But one afternoon, down a quiet side street in New Haven’s East Rock neighborhood, a sign caught my eye: Pottery Lessons. What followed was a year of classes with a master potter, an 82 year old whose craft dazzled me. Between fending off his advances, listening to his tales of the Blitz and mutliple marriages, and letting myself put the blackberry down for two hours and take in the clay, the darling garden, and the wheezing of an old hound, an unlikely friendship developed between the old potter and me. The book is also a meditation on marriage, on love, and on clay. Done right, I hope it will appeal to readers of (we need two good examples here).

The bio: As for me, I received an MFA from Columbia. I was the recipient of (fill in the blanks). My writing has appeared in x,y,z. You can read more about me on my website xxxo.

Many thanks for your time,

Betsy Lerner


Be brutal: would you request the manuscript if you were an agent? What worked for you and what didn’t? How could it be improved upon?

All Because There Was No Driver On the Top

I’ve known authors over the years who balk at boiling down their book to a few sentences. “I”m not good at it,” they cry. I’m sympathetic; it’s extremely difficult to do, and may be impossible when you are in the middle of it. It takes time to figure out what a book is really about, as they are often about so many things. But it’s critical if you want to hook someone. Just imagine yourself at a party. You discover someone writes. You ask, what is your book about? They reply with a five minute plot description. I would guess that by the end of thirty seconds you find yourself wishing you were never born. Now imagine the writer responding, “It’s about a woman who kills her therapist.”

Can you you give me one sentence about your book?

Like a Bird Without a Song

I’ve been whining for a while about being stuck with my writing. Pathetic. Finally, had a breakthrough over the last week (or maybe it’s my meds talking), but I feel that I’ve taken the project a few big steps forward. Mother may I? Yes, you may. And in the middle of all this new writing came the title for the screenplay as if on a silver platter with a great roast upon it. The title not only galvanized me into figuring out what the motherfucker is really about, but it also suggested a new structure, which is like getting a new engine in a car.

How important is a title, anyway? For me, it’s crucial. I won’t submit a client’s proposal unless I think we’ve nailed it. To me a great title can vastly improve one’s desire to read the work. Too many people say, “I’m not good at titles,” or, “won’t the publisher change it anyway?” I beg you: search the bible, poetry, rock lyrics, the yellow pages, titles of paintings, John Cheever’s diaries, look under rocks, couch cushions, four leaf clovers, but find a title that kills it.

When do you come up with your title, before, during or after? Where do your titles come from? Do you try them out on people? How do you know when you’ve nailed it?

Andy Are You Goofing on Elvis?

Dear Betsy,

I’m a young(ish) literary agent working for NAME BLACKED OUT. I know you’re a very busy woman, but I’m good friends with a couple of other young editors/agents, who are also now addicted to your blog, and we would love to take you out for drinks or dinner at some point in the hopes that you would be our cool publishing mentor. If you have any interest in this please let me know and we’ll take you out and ask you a bunch of annoying questions and tell you how much we love you. If you’re too busy, no worries, we would just love to meet you at some point and soak up your literary wisdom (over booze, etc.).


Okay, twist my arm.

Met with these freaks tonight and they were me twenty years ago, only more together. And thinner. And better dressed. And not negative or fatalistic or depressive or self-destructive. (Which makes me wonder if they meant to invite me or a different publishing blogger for drinks, or perhaps they were working their way down a list and I was the first to say yes because I’m such a busy and easily flattered woman.) They were lovely, smart, hardworking, plugged in, and building their lists. I felt glad to be older for a change; it’s hard to say whether you can still have a good long run in this business. They all lamented how publishers are no longer interested in developing writers over the long haul. I gave them my best advice: start your own publishing company. A new financial model. New voices. Different assumptions. I hope I impressed them with my warmth, confidence, and savvy.

Celebrity sighting during my lunch date on Sixth Avenue above Houston Street: Ben Stiller. Much cuter in person than you would think. Large head, tiny body. No ass whatsoever.

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Last week a non-fiction proposal sold for a small fortune. Everyone was talking about it for a few days, the manuscript electronically zinging all over town. I wondered what would stop someone from publishing it electronically? It made me think of my first bootleg album, Patti Smith, of course. I loved how illicit it felt, the raw production values, the cheap cardboard sleeve it came in. Of course, it never occurred to me then that she was being cheated of her fair share of royalty. Now that I’m an agent I think about these things, especially as books are next.

What made this particular book so hotly contested? It’s controversial, for starters. Exhibitionistic even. And the idea at the heart of it is something that people are both curious about and invested in. The author also has what’s known as an impressive pedigree. But it’s more than that: whether or not you like what he has to say, he touches a chord. You have to touch a chord. Unfortunately for me, whenever I think of touching a chord, the next thing I think about is touching the third rail.

Who will your book appeal to? Does it touch a nerve?

Once Upon a Time You Dressed So Fine

Sales figures. When I was a young editor, a highly regarded literary agent sent me the second novel by a writer whose first I had loved. I was desperate to acquire it, but before my boss had even read a page, he quickly surmised the situation. The novelist’s first work hadn’t sold much and his publisher had passed on the book. He asked me to ask the agent for sales figures. She sneered at my request. I wasn’t allowed to bid on the book. And I never saw another project from the agent.

Fast forward. Today, all sales figures are available to publishers on Bookscan, which tracks approximately 70% of sales. Now, you can no longer fib about how many books you’ve sold the way you might fib about penis size, body weight, or SAT’s

Duh, a good track record is hugely helpful in providing leverage when you’re selling your next book or the one after that. But it’s not everything. I think of bad sales figures as a sand trap. If you can chip your way out  you can stay in the game. The novelist I couldn’t acquire went on to win five literary prizes and was twice a finalist for the National Book Award.

How do you stay in the game, overcome sales figures, demons, financial insecurity, creative ebbs, night terrors?

Deep Inside My Heart I Know I Can’t Escape

Be afraid, be very afraid.

When I was an editor, everyone at the publishing houses feared a few agents, most notably Andrew Wylie who has gone on the record with his disdain for publishers. He was a bully, he didn’t play by the rules (or rather he played by his own rules), and he exacted huge advances for his clients.

In a Vanity Fair article he was quoted as saying, “When I got into the business, I saw that agents had…friends. Their close friends were publishers, and their second closest friends were their clients. Their friendships with certain editors, certain houses were important to protect the longevity of their profit margin…It’s a source of satisfaction…that editors do not recommend us to writers. They say, ‘No, no!” Whatever you do, don’t go with Andrew.’ Well, thank you very much, we’re doing our job.”

I realized then it was better to be feared than loved. Fewer people will attend your funeral, but so what. You’re taking a permanent dirt nap anyway. Unfortunately, I think the only I person I scare is myself.

When I left editorial for the dark side, a fellow editor took me aside and said he thought I was making the right decision, becoming an agent. He had observed that I fought too hard on behalf of the authors, that I didn’t realize who “buttered my bread.” I couldn’t let anything drop. He said I wasn’t a good company girl. I took all these as great compliments, that I was a true champion of writers. Though I also felt vaguely accused of being…immature.

My parents had always accused me of never knowing when to stop, but why should I have stopped begging to go to that Peter Frampton concert? So what if I had a 102 degree fever. Why wouldn’t I want to go to my 34th Grateful Dead Concert? What is enough? I keep pushing because I believe in the these little fuckers known as books. And if they’re worth publishing, it’s worth trying to get it right. In the ten years I’ve been on Andrew Wylie’s side of the fence, however, I still find my stance is more collaborative than confrontational.

That said, I’d like to be feared. I want editors to tremble and publishers to faint. And please, don’t think of me with a referral. For god’s sakes, man, whatever you do, don’t go with Betsy Lerner.

Let’s Not Do Lunch

May I please have the dressing on the side?

I want to write about a strange publishing phenomenon which I call phantom lunch or faux lunch. This is where a lunch invitation is extended that will never materialize. Or when you actually have a date but then start canceling and rescheduling, knowing that you will never actually sit across a table from this person and stuff a California roll down your gullet.

The faux invitation: we’ve all been there when you are the recipient of a vague invitation, an email, say, that ends with a p.s. let’s do lunch. If it isn’t followed with some possible dates to actually have lunch, then it’s a faux. An empty gesture. Don’t be fooled. It doesn’t mean let’s have lunch; it means let’s not have lunch and say we did. Or, in a perfect world, we might be cooking raw beef over a Korean b-b-q, but we’re not. Or, I’m vaguely interested in you and haven’t totally written you off, but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to sit for an hour and a half and watch you scarf the chicken paillard at Molyvos.

Then there’s the cancel/reschedule dance. Big show of being sorry about rescheduling. No, no, no, I totally understand. Your next free date is months from now. Then that gets bumped. Then the next. It’s one thing and another: author in town, editing a crash book, sales conference, yeast infection, family brutally murdered by random attacker. Oh god, I hate when that happens. Well, don’t worry, we’ll reschedule when you’re back in the office. No worries. Well, my friend, highly fucking likely that you’ll be enjoying the roasted cod with fingerling potatoes at Balthazar. Your lunch date ain’t happening. Trust me on that.