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Comparisons

Do you like ____? Well, then you’ll LOVE ___!

This new title is like ___ and ___ by way of ___.

___ meets ___ in this exciting debut!

Literary comparisons are excellent for publicists. A new book can’t sell based purely on strong characters or great style, because readers haven’t read it yet. That’s the whole reason publicists exist. For readers, comparisons can be beacons toward books and authors they might love, but they can also be traps that ruin an otherwise grand experience.

The marvelous Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan was touted by many as “The Next Harry Potter.” Unsurprisingly, the most common criticism in its reviews is that it’s not. Of course it’s not—a comparison is a metaphor; it’s not literal. Eragorn is not The Lord of the Rings. Divergent is not The Hunger Games. Percy is not Harry. Taken simply as books with a kindred spirit, these titles would likely have swept their grumpiest critics along for a pleasant ride, but instead they sank under the weight of what they are not… what they were never meant to be.

When I was five or six, I went through a big science phase. I would fill petri dishes with anything I could find that was smaller than a petri dish, sketch funny looking insects that I found in the garden, and cruise through as much baking soda and vinegar as my parents kept stocked in the house. For weeks I wore a little white lab coat and safety goggles to play in the back yard (embarrassing but completely true).

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My parents couldn’t afford much, but to support my enthusiasm, they bought me a magnifying glass. It was a slim plastic thing I could slip into the pocket of my wee little lab coat—and it had a handle that made it look like it was just an ordinary pen. It was like a secret agent’s magnifying glass, and it WOULD have been the perfect little trinket to accompany my happy obsession, had it not been prefaced by an incredibly helpful comparison.

“Mom and dad got you something that looks like something else,” my sister hinted. I assume she had been instructed not to reveal the gift, but she felt no qualms about dropping cryptic clues.

“Something that what?” I asked.

“You know… like a cane that’s really a sword when you pull on the handle. It’s something that looks like one thing, but it’s really something else.”

There it was. I could not comprehend that the comparison was figurative. I was 100% eagerly anticipating a freaking samurai katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick… and my poor parents handed over a nifty plastic magnifying glass. For a little kid, that is the emotional equivalent of a Wile-E-Coyote painted wall prank. I was done. Science was ruined. I never wore my white lab coat again (tragic and melodramatic, but also completely true). It’s too bad. It really was a fine little magnifying glass.

It’s a quarter of a century later, and I’m still not scientist. Instead, I make up stories in which things often appear to be something they’re not. Also, I own a katana concealed within a walking stick. Don’t judge. That stuff sticks with you.

My book, Jackaby, is currently being publicized as SHERLOCK meets DOCTOR WHO. On one hand, that’s a solid comparison, and I love it. An eccentric detective with impossible insights—a down-to-earth yet indomitable companion—a grim yet cheeky caper with a supernatural twist. It all fits, and it’s a brilliant beacon for precisely the sort of fans likely to enjoy Jackaby. On the other hand—crap! “WHOLOCK” is the fandom equivalent of a freaking katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick, and I DIDN’T WRITE WHOLOCK. I didn’t even try to. I wrote Jackaby.

All I can do is hope that readers will find a way to love my little magnifying glass for what it is. It’s exactly the magnifying glass I set out to write. It’s a really good magnifying glass, and it could fit right in the front pocket of your lab coat, close to your heart, if you let it.

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Agent 13

I was living in Japan the year I finished my book. After months of editing, it was finally time to send my private project out into the wide world. I was an American in Okinawa, but the publishing industry was far more foreign to me. My friends and relations very helpfully warned me to watch out for bad agents, but what I needed was a clear way to pick a good one. How can you tell if a total stranger will be passionate about your project, if they will push through hell and high water to make it a success?

I did my research and wrote a query letter. I committed myself to sending one query per day for a month, more to force myself to get over my hesitation than because it is a good way to find the right agent. By the end of the second week I had gotten much better at researching, and was becoming more discerning about which agents I queried and which I skipped over. I sent my 13th and 14th letters on the same night, and woke in the morning to find that both had replied with requests for a full manuscript.

I was ecstatic. This is a first step, but it is a huge step. I sent the drafts out and waited, knowing that either one could open the door for me to become a published author. This was my big break. I was half-a-step away from crossing that threshold, and nothing could stop me now!

That’s when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

In case you’ve forgotten “Superstorm Sandy,” it was the largest Atlantic Hurricane in recorded history, wreaking havoc up and down the eastern seaboard. The east coast, incidentally, is where America keeps its literary agencies, stacked like sandbags along the coast. I found reports of trees uprooted and facades ripped off of buildings within a few blocks of the agencies I had queried. I began to spend slightly less time hoping that the agents would like my book, and more time hoping they would survive long enough to read it. The storm killed power, phones, and internet, so they had no way to open the document, even if it did cross their minds to do so while huddling in a basement, getting pummeled by hundred mph winds.

The day after the storm finally passed, disappointment had settled in, elbowing hopeful anticipation callously aside. With reports still flooding in about the damage and the state of the blackout, I was more than a little surprised to find a message in my inbox. Agent 13, still without internet or reliable phone lines, had sent a message through an associate, requesting to speak with me. After maneuvering time zones and bad connections, I finally got through. She had just reached a home with electricity to keep her phone from dying. I was using a spotty internet service to make the long-distance call from Japan to New York, but I could hear a muffled group of people around her, and she told one of them to go use the shower first, because she had an important call.

Agent 13 had literally reached me about my book before reaching running water during an emergency. She had, I learned, printed the full manuscript and finished it by candlelight during the blackout. She had not only fallen in love with the project, but had already developed some good ideas, showing thoughtful understanding of the characters, tone, and central themes of the book, and had then navigated a damp, post-apocalyptic New York just to get a message along to me.

Image(Slight dramatization of events)

I don’t know how other writers determine if an agent is right for their book, but Agent 13 crawled through wet hell to represent mine. She has, indeed, remained its stalwart ally every since. Within two months, she had attracted several major publishers. We held an auction, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to turn down offers beyond my wildest dreams, and sign with the very best publishing house for my story. My book is JACKABY, soon to be released by Algonquin Young Readers, and Agent 13 is the inimitable Lucy Carson, of the Friedrich Agency.

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