Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's the Best Length for My Novel?

Carla’s posting last week about manuscript length reminded me how frequently I am asked "What’s the best length for my novel/memoir/fill in the blank?" My response is: "However long it takes to tell the story."

I’m not trying to be coy or evasive. Honest. By "however long," I don’t mean "however long it takes to tell the story in a single, unrevised draft," or "however long it takes to tell the story with interesting digressions and fascinating but nonessential backstory" or "however long it takes to tell the story before you’ve figured out exactly what the story is." I mean "however long it takes to tell the story well, with a keen awareness of structure and an understanding of which elements of the story are essential and which are nonessential."

Art is art, and it doesn’t always occur within strict guidelines. That being said, there are some loose parameters within which most adult fiction falls. In my experience, general adult fiction is somewhere between 60,000 and 85,000 words in length. Anything less than 60,000 feels a little slight, and once you expand beyond the neighborhood of 85,000 words publishers usually become uncomfortably aware of the length. As Carla said, there are lots of reasons to be rejected. Why include length as one of them?

But there are plenty of exceptions. Different genres have their own guidelines regarding length. If you’re writing in a genre (and you should know if you’re writing in a genre) make sure you know the guidelines. If you’re not writing in a genre, be sure that the length is justified by the size and the demands of the story, and that the story is not lost in an avalanche of words.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Here we go again. Reading Judith's blog below about the possibility of ereader wars, maybe e-reader "auctions' for rights brings me back to what I remember as the early days of auctioning reprint rights, how much fun and exicitement, how racy and sexy the auctions were--people sitting in their offices until late at night--anyone remember the Ragtime auction?

And before that (or was it after) the auctions for the books in the english speaking world.

Are we going back where we started in terms of how books are sold? I don't know where the price war ended between WalMart and Amazon but if e readers begin warring for rights then the retail price will ultimately be affected. The printed word will take another blow because ebooks will be even cheaper than now.

I think we should have ebooks but I dont want to lose the printed word as it is sold in book and mortar stores. That would be like losing Staples, where Karl relaxes or Marshall's where I am about to go to unwind--You can't just hang out and browse wherever ebooks are sold. Start now to form a 'Save the Printed Word' Coalition.' I'll make the tee shirts.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Are E-Reader Wars on the Horizon?

After reading about all the new e-readers on display at the recent Consumer Electronics Show and all the partnerships being formed between reader manufacturers and content facilitators, I'm getting worried--but not about the same things traditional book publishers seem worried about.

When it comes to e-readers I'm an end stage consumer, pure and simple. I love my Kindle, and based on the comments I'm getting from people looking over my shoulder on the bus these days, I'm no longer an outlier in that regard. So what am I worried about? Well, I'm wondering whether we're about to embark on a series of e-reader wars. Will Amazon, B&N, and Sony--to name just the three biggies--be bidding against one another to get exculsive e-book rights for their particular reader? Will there be e-book auctions? Is the e-book biz going to wind up like VCR and Betamax? (Is anyone else old enough to remember Betamax?) Will it be like Blu Ray and DVD? Will I have to get a Nooke and/or a Sony Reader in addition to my Kindle in order to access all the available e-content? That could be not only costly but also confusing.

I'm too much of a Luddite to understand how all of this works, so my fears may well be groundless. If so, I'd appreciate someone's letting me know so that I can go back to worrying about all the other stuff I have to worry about.

Judy Kern

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Anthropology of the Writing Life

Via Mental Floss, here's a fun piece about the work habits of 25 famous thinkers, most of them writers. Note that John Cheever, the second writer mentioned, isn't the only author who finds it necessary to put on a jacket and tie before settling in to work; in the current Esquire, the great biographer Robert Caro says he does the same thing. Not me! In fact, I left corporate publishing behind to become a freelancer in part because I hate wearing a tie.

One thing I do share with many of the writers in the article is the need for a mental and physical break after a few hours at the keyboard. My personal trick: Take time off in the late morning or early afternoon to drive over to Staples, where I browse the latest office supplies and gadgets, then visit the grocery to pick up whatever looks good for dinner. The trip leaves me refreshed and ready to put in another couple of productive hours before the wife gets home from her "real" job. Next time you're suffering writer's block, give it a try.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I have been searching for a really good marketer for an author who is publishing her own book. Here's what is disturbing me. While the good authors are moving over to the new independent publishing trade, many of the marketers and distributors still seem back in vanity press days.

Check it out. Look at sample web pages and blogs of on line book marketing specialists. I am worried that, unlike book doctors, who moved from major publishing to individual consulting, and artists who package the books, the rest of the process is supplied in many cases by people who want to market books the way Jackie Gleason tried to sell kitchen knife on TV (unless you are a 'Honeymooners' devotee you might not know about the time he tried to sell a kitchen knife with lots of functions on TVwith an ad similar to those pet pedicure products that come with loud voice overs and lots of ad ons.) Cheesy is the word I'm looking for. That's what some of the marketing for independents looks like.

Obviously we know of exceptions. But authors who are not working with bookdoctors are finding their own way and this threatens the professionalism and commercialism of independent publishing.

This is a really good reason for authors to use an editorial consultant. We can take them through the entire process of publishing, whether traditional or small press, just as we did for the authors we acquired in house. I believe in the future of independent and self publishing. We have to bring the ancillary functions along with us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Size Matters

I’ve been getting a lot of queries lately from potential clients about their middle-grade and young adult books seeking editorial advice because they keep getting fast rejections. In other words, they are pretty sure the agent or editor isn’t taking the time to actually read their entire novel. They may be right. One thing all of these authors share is that their manuscripts are over 100,000 words.

Now, there are many reasons why an agent (or publisher) may turn down a manuscript, and given the sheer number of submissions they have to reject a large percentage. A good way for a manuscript to be turned down fast is by being much longer (or – rarely -- much shorter) than is standard for the age group.

But the Harry Potter books are middle-grade and they weigh more than my cat! you protest. True – but take a look at the very first Harry Potter. It was around 300 pages. When J.K. Rowling was still an unknown author, her first book was much more in line with traditional middle-grade publishing specs.

But my story needs every single one of those 158,000 words! you argue. Maybe. But you may be loading up your book with more plot, more extraneous detail, or more characters than the story demands – or your reader wants.

These are VERY rough guidelines, but in general books aimed at middle-grade readers run between 25,000 and 60,000 words. That’s a wide range because complexity and ideal audience age for any story varies. YA books run from 45,000- 75,000 words for the same reason.  Yes, there are exceptions and maybe your book is it, but why risk putting yourself out of the running for reasons of length alone? Your first goal is to be read. Remember, agents are people too (I swear! I’ve met some!). If you had twenty manuscripts arriving every day, which of the ten vampire queries are you going to respond to favorably? The one that falls within traditional page lengths or the one that is 158,000 words?

Do yourself a favor and do the hard work of trimming. Usually your story will benefit, by being more focused, less repetitive, and better paced. Give yourself the best possible shot at being read. As frustrating as this may seem to you, size really does matter.
Carla Jablonski

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Is This The Future of Magazines?

Speaking of the future of publishing, check out this video if you haven't already. It's the demo of Sports Illustrated's hypothetical "tablet format" interactive online magazine, designed for the full-color, video-enabled, touch-screen e-reader of the near future.

It's certainly glitzy--eye-poppingly so--but would you pay to subscribe to it? And how much would you pay for the gadget that enables you to download it? (Rumors say that the supposedly-soon-to-be-announced iTablet from Apple will cost around $1,000.) If an interactive Sports Illustrated doesn't float your boat, what about an interactive Vogue? Or New Yorker? Or Vanity Fair? Or [name your favorite magazine]?

I'm skeptical about this being the salvation of the magazine business. But what do I know? I'd love to hear what others think.

Authors Need Editors More Than Ever

What is our role as Book doctors as the industry shifts toward independent and self publishing? Though the printers who bill themselves as publishers pretend to provide editing what I have heard is many of these editors are not living in this country, like other telemarketers. And though the price might be right, a few cents a page, the final product is like a feature film shot with amateur actors and directors on a high school stage. Certainly there is no development going on. I worry that the quality of literature in general will dissolve. When authors take their material straight to publishers/printers there is no reason for anyone to address the content, or the art or the interior design. I don't know how we address this problem directly other than in forums such as this. Authors need editors more than ever. But how do they know it?

Friday, January 8, 2010


Had the good fortune of attending the Publishers Lunch Club where Gail Collins offered some interesting thoughts about that grey old lady, the Times. I told her we all want to get thinner but few succeed but an exception was The New York Times which seemed to be getting thinner every day. Gail said that was actually a good thing because readers were often overwhelmed by an overweight, ovrsized newspaper, and that they like the thinner version. I said my real question was how long did she think the Times would last. Her response was a cheery one. While papers like the Enquirer in Philadelphia and the Globe in Boston are endagered species, she predicted eventually there would be four national newspapers and one was the Times, which is a good and often the only reason to get up in the morning.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2020 Foresight

Former publisher Richard Nash, one of the many prognosticators about the future of books, has some dire predictions for the next decade, but even he thinks long-form narrative will survive in some manifestation. I do worry though. Will anyone other than long-form writers and people stuck on the subway (assuming they don't have internet on the A Train) still have the attention span to absorb pages and pages of text?

Check out his posting: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/publishing/richard_nash_book_publishing_10_years_in_the_future_147747.asp

Re: Catastrophic But Not Serious

I couldn't agree more. Since the start of my 27 years in book publishing (God help me, too), the good old days have always just been receding forever. Yet much of what I learned at the beginning of that time remains true: at the core of the business, people who care about delivering a great reading experience put everything they have into helping authors put their best on the page. Then, now, and forever, content rules.

At the same time, Marshall McLuhan wasn't blowing smoke when he said the medium is the message. There is something different about a page of ink on paper and a "page" on an electronic screen, even if the screen does a pretty nice job of simulating ink on paper. It will be interesting to see how the electronic book and the physical book influence each other in the next few years, as information technology continues to advance. For one thing, I expect that the potential for augmented audio-visual content won't be the province of the electronic book alone. With smaller and smaller microchips, why shouldn't the physical book also take advantage of sounds and images in new ways?

Of course, it will also be an interesting challenge, and it should be fun, for us editors to help authors take advantage of these capabilities as they evolve.

The News About Publishing: Catastrophic But Not Serious

I just finished perusing Publishers Weekly's year-end roundup summarizing the biggest news stories of 2009, and as usual the situation in our industry is viewed as teetering on the brink of disaster. The number one story for the year is headlined, "Layoffs, Pay Cuts, and the Reshaping of the Industry," and things go downhill from there, with the article describing the unsustainable business terms Amazon appears to be demanding for its Kindle, bookstore closings by the hundred, a storm of controversy over the Google book-digitization settlement, etc. etc.

So what else is new? I've been in book publishing for 28 years now (God help me) and I don't recall a year when people weren't predicting the imminent demise of the business. It's second only to the theatre (AKA "the fabulous invalid") in terms of institutional hypochondria.

One day I suppose the dire forecasts will turn out to be correct and all the big publishing houses will collapse in a heap of rubble on Sixth Avenue, in which case we will report the news right here on the Consulting Editors Alliance blog! But meanwhile I comfort myself--perhaps naively--with the idea that, as a freelance writer and editor, I am a "content provider" rather than a publishing executive . . . and that as long as people want information, inspiration, and entertainment, they will want "content."

So whatever happens to the business model of book publishing--and heaven knows it's due for some massive changes--I believe there will be a place for me and the writers I work with. Anyway that is my story and I am sticking to it.