Author Salon Reviews the Lit Scene with Peter Rubie

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Author Salon Reviews the Lit Scene with Peter Rubie Share/Bookmark

From Author Salon Interviews With Prime Movers In The Literary World

CEO of Fine Print Literary, Peter Rubie specializes in a broad range of high-quality fiction and non-fiction. In fiction he represents literate thrillers, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, military fiction and literary fiction, middle grade and some boy oriented young adult fiction. In non-fiction he specializes in narrative non-fiction, popular science, spirituality, history, biography, pop culture, business and technology, parenting, health, self help, music, and food. He is a "sucker" for outstanding writing.

Rubie is a former BBC Radio and Fleet Street journalist and for several years was the director of the publishing section of the New York University Summer Publishing Institute. He was a member of the NYU faculty for 10 years, and taught the only university-level course in the country on how to become a literary agent.

Prior to becoming an agent he was a publishing house editor for nearly six years, whose authors won prizes and critical acclaim. He has also been the editor-in-chief of a Manhattan local newspaper, and a freelance editor and book doctor for major publishers. He was a regular reviewer for the international trade magazine, Publishers Weekly, and is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction. He is a member of AAR, and regularly lectures and writes on publishing and the craft of writing, and was once a professional jazz musician.




Tricks abound as short cuts to achieve effects that should be hard won through effort, talent and technique. And alas, books and writing are heading the same way at the popular end. But, interestingly, for all the noise about self publishing and how no one needs agents or publishers any more, most of this first wave of self published authors has discovered that in fact few people want to read their books for the same kinds of reasons that agents and editors did not want to acquire them in the first place.

- Peter Rubie

So I'm like my colleagues all over the industry in looking for material that sings, that has a great voice, and that has strong enough story and emotion inside it that I can love or hate the characters I'm reading about.

- Peter Rubie




AS: We know that ebooks are becoming increasingly popular and changing market dynamics, but has the art of good storytelling changed also or remained a constant? Some ebook authors behave as if they can disregard the principles whenever convenient.

PR: And they are paying the price for it. Truth is, a lot of people say a lot of stupid things about publishing and its death, and the revolution etc. (and I'm a pretty left leaning guy from Europe, let me tell you), but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Last year, according to a rare statistic Amazon put out, out of the hundreds (or more) of self published books they sold for writers last year, something like 11 (yes, eleven) self published writers made decent money with their efforts, and nearly all of them were far better marketers and promoters of their works than they were writers--as John Locke is the first to admit.

AS: What factors or instincts drive you as an agent to choose one writer's ms over another?

PR: This is such a subjective question it seems mean to even attempt to answer it rationally. It's pretty much the answer it's always been, believe it or not, in the sense of the guy saying to his friend, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like!"

Obviously, first and foremost, we're looking for exceptional writing. That's always been true in publishing, and what I would argue has happened is that traditional publishing has narrowed its requirements for getting into print as they have shrunk the number of titles and number of copies of each title they publish, while at the same time ebook publishing has opened up, and continues to open up for the tyro writer who is still learning his or her craft. The problem with ebook-only is that you're only reaching about 50% of the reading audience. (Shocking but true: not everyone has or wants an e-reader.) So, ideally, what you want is a publishing situation where you are offered both opportunities at the same time. Ebooks in effect have become the new mass market paperback as I have always maintained they would.

After quality of writing comes, of course, originality of idea and characters that speak to their times. Too many people do very competent "workshop" writing, and feel that is good enough. But again, the honest truth is that no one "deserves" to get published, just because they work hard at their craft. TALENT, whatever that is, has a place. Tricks abound as short cuts to achieve effects that should be hard won through effort, TALENT and technique. And alas, books and writing are heading the same way at the popular end.

But, interestingly, for all the noise about self publishing and how no one needs agents or publishers any more, most of this first wave of self published authors has discovered that in fact few people want to read their books for the same kinds of reasons that agents and editors did not want to acquire them in the first place. The books are at best, average, and at worst downright poorly done and the only reason they sold at all was the low price point. This is the P. T. Barnum end of publishing, not the Flying Wallenda end.

So I'm like my colleagues all over the industry in looking for material that sings, that has a great voice, and that has strong enough story and emotion inside it that I can love or hate the characters I'm reading about.

AS: Do you feel the reality of e-books arriving by the droves onto Internet every day are also creating, rather than negating, a real demand for gatekeepers of some type or other to filter, organize and present the work in a manner that provides readers with quality choices? We hear more and more complaints from readers and writers trying to sift through the morass.

PR: So the analogy I always like when discussing this question is the one of going into a restaurant, and being handed a 40 page menu you can order from. The idea of so much choice is wonderful (especially if you're a foodie like me who loves tapas and mezze and so forth), but the practice is that it's a nightmare finding anything that is worth time investigating. So nearly everyone resorts to tried and true favorites ignoring the broad variety in front of them because they can't trust that the experience will be worth the adventure to try it out. The best restaurants have small two page menus, and change them regularly, or have daily specials. You know the food in the place is good, and as a result, even if you're not sure about something, you will try something more adventurous based on your confidence that the curator -- or gatekeeper, if you prefer -- of the food is going to give you a quality experience no matter what.

When the defining reason you buy something is based solely on price -- 99c for a book, as opposed to $5 or more for a more known entity -- then yes, curating material is very important. It has about as much to do with good books as Macdonald's does with good food. That is why a book that bears a Random House label, or a Farrar Straus & Giroux imprimatur, or Soho Press or Europa Editions guarantee a basic acceptability of reading experience that encourages experimentation in readers. And if not through a company like that, then the writer has to create their own brand name experience for the reader, so that the Stephen King experience, or the Tom Clancy experience, or the Patrick Carman or Patrick Lee, or Rebecca Coleman experiences are known quantities that the reader can trust and depend on to deliver the satisfaction and quality they're looking for in the reading experience.

What is missing in the ebook world at the moment is the digital translation of going to a bookstore and browsing the stacks in a way that replicates the browsing fun of the bookstore experience. The online experience is just not the same even though you can see the whole array of what they have to offer.

AS: Aside from extant independent publishers who have been around for decades, do you see a middle ground of new e-book-and-POD publishers becoming consistently successful in that realm between major NYC publishers and the larger self-publication outfits? Will they have the marketing punch and distribution to make it happen?

PR: I don't think there is any question about it. The larger companies have larger overheads to worry about, so it is harder for them to do smaller, midlist type books these days, even though ebooks will eventually provide a lot of revenue streams for them. Ebooks are basically where mass market paperbacks were in the 1940s and early 1950s. These larger publishers are slowly developing original ebook lines, in effect replacing mass market paperbacks with ebooks as I mentioned earlier, but the definition of a publisher has evolved from a 19th Century factory model to a 21st Century marketing model.

Up to now, the creation and distribution of the book took, crudely, 2/3rds of a publishers efforts and overhead, and 1/3rd was marketing and publicity. That model has essentially switched. Certainly, the same kind of care in creating the book is still necessary -- the big change is that the final version is available electronically rather than in a print version -- but some of the best new ebook companies, such as Open Road, Astor & Blue, or Ridan, are real publishers who spend the majority of the efforts promoting and marketing the books they put out with a 1/3rd of their effort (again, very crudely) spent on creating the book and distributing it through a variety of sources largely Internet based, and 2/3rds of their effort put into marketing and promoting those books. An editor friend at Tor, for example, told me recently they have as many people in their marketing and publicity department now as they do editors, and likely they will end up with more on the marketing side than on the editorial side.

AS: Several major publishing houses have requested fulls and partials from Author Salon writers, and several of your agents at Fine Print also requested various projects. How did they stand out from the agent query slush pile, so to speak?

PR: This goes back to your second question really. Clearly there was a voice that spoke to the reader, and an idea that stood out as an original take on a familiar thing.

AS: What does the future hold for Peter Rubie and Fine Print?

PR: Oh God! What a question. Surviving and thriving as the world -- or at least western economies anyway -- stumble forward into the light eventually. And a concerted effort to reassure people of all persuasions that the nonsense about the publishing industry or the book being dead is just that, nonsense. I'm a big supporter of ebooks, but I do find the "evangelical" approach of ebook supporters to be a bit aggravating. It's just another format, that's all. I heard a great story recently I'll finish with.

At a panel about ebooks a particular panelist spent the majority of the panel saying nothing, while everyone around him waxed lyrically about their favorite Sony-Kobo-Kindle-Nook-ipad-Android-ios whatever reader. Finally, the others realized he hadn't said anything, and so coaxed him into the conversation. He picked up a paperback, read a paragraph out loud, then threw it up in the air as hard as possible and watched it come crashing down to the ground. Then he calmly picked it up, opened it up, read for a moment and said "Hmm, yes, still a good story." Then he looked up at the other panelists with a "I dare you to do that" look. Everyone was very quiet after that. (Read the letters in the June issue of PCWorld for the original version of this story.)





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