Thursday, May 28, 2009

I've Changed My Mind--I'm Going With Harper Lee

Before I get to explaining how to read a royalty statement (which I keep putting off because, let's face it, it's not the most interesting topic to write about) I thought you might be interested in hearing this interview with James Patterson that I heard on NPR last night, where he describes his writing process. Since the process seems to involve more editing than actual writing, I'm changing my answer to Harper Lee.

That said, Patterson has a point. Artists have been taking their concepts and hiring them out to others to execute for years. Take Jeff Koons, for example. Patterson argues that people have a hard time accepting when a writer does this (though they shouldn't because it happens all the time, whether readers are aware of it or not).

We could argue all day whether Patterson and Koons are producing real art or pure product, whether there is a difference between hiring someone to craft a sculpture or a paperback, whether you can truly call yourself the creator of a piece of art if you have a hand only in the concept but not the execution. I will say, however, that when you choose to skip the actual process, something is lost in both the art and the artist.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Understanding Your Royalty Statment--Part I

This has been a long time coming. In fact, I’ve been wanting to cover this topic ever since I started this blog—over a year ago—but I kept putting it off. For those of you who don’t know, I spent many of my formative years in New York City, working in the accounting department of a literary agency. A big part of my job (aside from chasing down info from my famous co-workers, storing old documents in the rodent-filled basement, and eating copious amounts of take-out Indian food at lunch) was auditing unearned royalty statements. And yes, we found mistakes. Lots of them.

If you have an agent, the accounting department of your agency will likely be scanning your statements for errors (reason #812 to have an agent). If you don’t have an agent, you’ll need to be looking for errors yourself. Either way, it behooves every author to know how to read a statement and check for errors. Far too many of us right-brained authors are at a total loss when it comes to the business side of things and it’s crucial that we keep ourselves informed. Sure, reading royalty statements is about as much fun as filing taxes, but it doesn’t have to be painful. So open that desk drawer, dig out those unread statements, and let’s have a look, shall we?

The first thing you need to know is that most royalties are reported twice a year. It used to be that all the major publishers reported at the same time, but now the dates are spread out and every house has its own timetable. To find out when your statement is reported, look at the top of the statement. It should say “For Period Ending __________”.

Let’s say your statement says, “For Period Ending June 30, 2009”. Just because the accounting is finished on this date, it doesn’t mean the statement will make its way to you anytime soon. It can take as long as three months for the publisher to compile, print, and send out the report. So that statement for the period ending June 30th won’t make it to you or your agent until the end of September. If you have an agent, you can add at least another month for processing, meaning you might see it in October or November. It might feel like everyone’s sitting on your statement, trying to make the wait as long as possible, but I can assure you that a lot of work goes into getting the statements out to every author. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that at royalty time, my colleagues and I in the accounting office were surrounded by foot-high stacks of statements, covering every available surface. Be patient; you will get your statement.

There is one quirky instance, however, when you can wait up to a year for your first royalty statement. This happens when the release date of your book falls close to the end of an accounting period. Let’s say then that your book comes out in mid-June and the publisher’s accounting period ends June 30th. The publisher will, most likely, not issue a royalty statement because there isn’t any data to go on. In that case, your first statement will be for the period ending December 31st. Add in the usual four-month wait time for processing and you’re already at the end of April—nearly a year since the release of your book.

So you finally have your statement—now what? We’ll delve into the meaning of those numbers on the next post.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oprah Vs. James Frey

In old news...

According to this article in TIME magazine, Oprah has apologized for ripping James Frey up one side and down the other on national TV. Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Too bad she chastised him in public and apologized in private--it should have been the other way around.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Breaking the Rules

One of the things I love about starting a new creative pursuit is that it has a way of informing all your other endeavors. For example, I was recently thumbing through my brand-new copy of BEND THE RULES SEWING by Amy Karol, when I came across this little nugget of advice in chapter one:

“You have to be good enough to know when you can bend the rules.”

This reminded me of something I’d read in Molly Wizenberg’s cookbook/memoir A HOMEMADE LIFE a few weeks ago. When trying a new recipe, her mother urges her to follow the instructions to the letter the first time through. After she has prepared the dish the intended way, she is free to improvise the next time. This way, she can have a better understanding of how all the components work together if she should choose to improvise the second time around.

These two anecdotes, of course, made me think of fiction writing. I’m all for breaking the rules, but you need to know what you’re doing in order to break them. I’m sure most people would agree with this statement. But let’s take this thought a bit further…is there a limit to how rules you can break at once?

A few weeks ago, I probably would have said no. It’s kind of silly to have a rule about breaking the rules, right? But then I saw Woody Allen’s VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and I started to have a change of heart.

(Forgive me on commenting on such an old movie. Long gone are the days when I used to see one or two movies a week. Sadly, the last movie I saw in a theatre was WALL-E. )

The movie, which received excellent reviews and earned Penelope Cruz an Academy Award, starts breaking rules right from the first scene and continues throughout the movie. All along the way, broken rules start to pile-up like roadkill on the highway: the story is propelled by an omniscient voice-over narration rather than by the characters themselves; major events happen off-screen; there is little conflict, and the conflict that exists is short-lived and easily resolved; a major character is introduced late in the story; clich├ęs abound in both story and stereotypes; in the end, the major characters return to their normal lives unchanged…just to name a few.

There were so many broken rules, I started to wonder if Woody Allen had written the movie as an intentional exercise in rule-breaking rather than focusing on making a good story. I mean, the guy knows what he’s doing and he’s broken rules forever, but this time the result felt overwhelmingly shallow. The movie received such glowing praise that I’m in the minority here, but it left me thinking that rules are best broken in moderation. There’s something admirable in going for broke, but sticking to a few rules while breaking others might be necessary to give your experimentation some legitimacy.

Perhaps I’m just generalizing based on a mediocre movie—but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there a limit to how many rules you should break at the same time?