AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Donald Maass

With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.

AUTHORNOMICS Interview with author, agent, and writing expert Donald Maass

A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas.  He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009) and Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012).  He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

You are a successful agent, teacher, and writer in both nonfiction and fiction. What are the elements of each role that you enjoy the most?

Everything I do satisfies a different side of me.  The agent side loves selling, deals, contracts and keeping up with our industry.  The teacher part loves pushing authors to dig more out of their stories.  There have been a lot of success stories out of my books and workshops and that’s gratifying.

The writer part of me gets to write, a joy by itself, but in particular I get to analyze and explain what it is that makes great fiction great.  I love knowing how things work.  Fiction is perhaps the most complex art form of all.  I love understanding ever more about it.

You have produced several critically-acclaimed non-fiction books about writing. What inspired you to share your industry wisdom with the world?

Selfishly, I want better novels to sell.  But in a larger sense, it bothers me that many authors get to mid-career, flounder and don’t know why.  They blame the industry when the truth is that it’s their writing that hasn’t won as wide an audience as hoped.  Our industry is not well set up to explain stumbles, or to tell authors how to get out of trouble or how avoid it in the first place.  My books aim to do that.  Great fiction is many things and there always is something more you can do to achieve greatness and success.  Even highly popular authors have shortcomings.  They too have things to learn.  A bunch of them tell me they use my books, which I’m glad about.

What new areas of writing/publishing do you cover in your recently released book, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling?

My new book is about the merging, in our century, of great stories and beautiful writing.  It shows commercial writers how to achieve literary impact, and literary writers how to generate strong story events.  There are sections on the crafting inner journeys for characters, going beyond pretty imagery to master everything that is beautiful writing, chucking description and instead creating story worlds, and more.  It challenges authors to identify the writers they are, the writers they’re not, and compensate.  It has 380 “tools” (prompts) to enhance any novel and push writers to master the dimensions of fiction at which they’re weak.

What do you feel are the major differences between commercial and literary fiction? How do you think the merging of the two is impacting the publishing world at large?

Second part first: There’s no question that when great stories (commercial) and beautiful writing (literary) come together, readers respond in enormous numbers.  Such fiction can be blockbuster, running on best seller lists for one, two years and longer.  The Help.  Like Water for Elephants.  The Art of Racing in the Rain.  Sarah’s Key.  The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Dismiss such fiction as “Lit-light” if it makes you feel better, but the fact is that it moves millions of readers around the globe.  Who wouldn’t like to have that effect?  You can.  Publishers, booksellers, reviewers, librarians, book clubs, movie producers and more would like your fiction to have that effect too.  Everyone’s looking for it.

At the same time small-feeling, genre-adherent novels sell in ever smaller numbers.  Yes, some genre authors break “out of category” and become brand names.  When they do, they’re writing in a literary-commercial way.  But if you identify yourself as a genre author you’re putting yourself in a box.  At some point you’ll fall back on genre tropes, stereotypes and language.  To break out you’ve got to get out of the box.  Think of genre as a set of tools, not rules, and you’re on the right track.

What sage advice do you have for new writers aspiring to be published? What are your thoughts on Indie Publishing?

No question, e-book self-publishing is a new option for authors.  But is it worth it?  Evangelists are screaming “yes!”, down with “traditional” publishing, but there are problems not least of which are a smaller consumer base and a tiny number of bookstores that feature only 100 titles.  It’s a tough way to go.

What you need is not just an e-book.  What you need is a hardcover, paperback, e-book, physical audio and digital audio to reach all potential consumers in the way they want to enjoy books.  All those formats work together.  Think of it this way: The most effective advertising for your e-book is a print edition on display in bookstores.  You can’t beat the visibility of a printed book.  That’s why the e-book best-seller list looks so much like the print best-seller list.

So, for new authors, don’t quit too soon.  Work until you’re good enough for “traditional” publishing.  Not that it’s perfect, but it’s still a better way to build a readership.

Beyond working with a critique group, do you recommend serious fiction writers work with a private developmental editor?

There comes a point when you exhaust everything to be learned from books, critique groups and even professional mentors.  Most fiction writers hit a point where they feel like they’re on the verge, everyone says they’re ready, and they’re still getting rejected.  It’s what my wife Lisa Rector-Maass, a developmental editor, calls “the last 10%”, the stuff that nobody seems to be able to tell you to do, especially not in those cryptic “loved it but can’t buy it” rejection letters from editors.  That is a stage when developmental editors can be helpful.  It’s not cheap but if you find the right one (I’ve heard both horror and success stories) they’ll tell you the hard-to-articulate truths that you need to hear.

E-books and print-on-demand publishing have strongly affected the publishing market. Do you think physical books will ever truly disappear? What are your thoughts on the future of book publishing?

Physical books aren’t going away.  E-books aren’t a revolution.  What’s happening is that those formats are working together, and we’re slowly but surely figuring out how.  It’s an exciting time.  E-books are good.  The profit margins and royalties are better.  They’re flexible (for example in pricing) and open new strategies for building authors.  There are e-book only and e-first options that are working, not many, but they’re around and that’s exciting too.  I’m optimistic about the future.  What’s wrong with new formats?  It’s more ways to get books to readers.

Do you have any new projects or appearances coming up that we can look out for? 

The Story Masters Workshop in Seattle, November 8-11, brings together me, Christopher Vogler and James Scott Bell for four days of advanced story work.  It’s a fantastic experience.  Last year in Houston I learned a ton—and I’m one of the “masters”!


Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.

Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal. She has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.

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