Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Jim McCarthy lets you know that agents do read...for fun!

A lot of people ask me how I ended up in publishing. The answer is kind of simple: I tripped into it. I needed an internship during college so I applied to about 40 places. Stacey Glick was the first person to call me back. Voila!

The more important question, of course, is why I stayed. Another relatively simple answer: I love books. How trite is that? But it’s true…

I’ve said before (probably on this blog) that most people end up working in publishing simply because they’re readers, plain and simple. It’s certainly not about fame and fortune, two things that (on an industry level at least) are not in abundant supply.

Agenting is a reading intensive job. We receive over 2,000 queries a month and dozens of manuscripts cross our desks at a regular clip. But there is a difference between work-reading and pleasure-reading. When I read for work, I’m looking for editorial inconsistencies, thinking about marketability, categorizing and re-categorizing in my head, and trying to identify the audience. When I read for pleasure, I can let those issues go and focus on a book as its own entity focusing on my own personal response. They’re different types of reading, but I’ve always felt that they only enhance each other.

Some people seem surprised that I read a book a week (roughly) for myself. But I’ve never been sure how I could do my job if I didn’t. If I was all critical eye, it seems that I would start to objectify books. But if I read only for personal gratification, I’d…well, I’d be really bad at my job.

What do I read for pleasure? Well, let’s take a look at my reading list for 2008 to date (of course I keep a list!). These are the books I read exclusively for pleasure. I haven’t included anything by my own clients or other clients at the agency, anything I read in order to understand a market better, or anything that I disliked enough to stop reading before I was finished. One book only made it on here because I was on a plane and hadn’t packed alternatives…grumble.

LATER, AT THE BAR by Rebecca Barry

This was a charming little novel about the lives of a bunch of regulars at a small town bar. It didn’t blow me away, but it was an auspicious debut.


What DID blow me away was this book. Junot Diaz does so many things in this novel that I find annoying (interspersing another language to give a novel flavor and liberal use of footnotes were the two most obvious), but the thing is—he’s just so damn good. I would have hated this book because of his stylistic choices if it was anything less than brilliant. It wasn’t. Bravo.


What a fun mystery novel this one was. The first few pages felt a little gimmicky, but once she got going, Lutz won me over with some seriously charming characters and an abundance of wit.

REMAINDER by Tom McCarthy

No relation. That said, I’m tempted to call him Uncle Tom just because it’s wrong. The book? It will totally mess with your mind. I mean that as a compliment.

BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala

I had originally intended to read this book after I had finished WHAT IS THE WHAT, another novel about the Lost Boys of the Sudan, but I decided to take an emotional break before getting back to the subject. Good thing. This book is devastating.

RUNNING WILD by J.G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard is a super-prolific though perhaps not extremely successful author; I read about one of his books a year because they’re all engaging, even when they’re not all that successful. Like this one.

THE ALIENIST by Caleb Carr

I know, I know. Everyone else read this ten years ago and fell in love with it then. Understandably. It’s a fabulous historical thriller. Though for me (and I know some would have me crucified for saying this), THE INTERPRETATION OF MURDER did the same sort of thing more successfully.

THE SOMNAMBULIST by Jonathan Barnes

Another weirdo little book, this one. It’s a historical thriller by way of urban fantasy with a healthy dose of British comedy and one of the most surprising narrators I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t love the book, but Barnes is certainly one to watch.


I’m still working through 1,001 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE (and likely will be until, well…y’know). It was such a delight to dive into this novel. And now I really want to go check out the miniseries!


Have you ever read something perfectly pleasant right after you read something brilliant and just felt distressingly underwhelmed? It’s not your fault, Jessica. Sorry.

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

Crikey! No wonder this guy won the Nobel. I started and stopped this novel twice before committing to it. The beginning feels a little familiar (an affair between a professor and his student again? Really?), but he takes it where I least expected and does so brilliantly. You’ll notice Coetzee pop up more below. He got me!


I know I should love this book as many people have raved to me about how extraordinary Hempel’s short stories are. Well, I can’t love everything.


He does it again! Fascinating to go from a relatively recent novel by an author back to something from a long while back. Allegory is possibly the toughest thing to pull off, but he does it!

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

No comprende! No comprende! Okay, I actually enjoyed reading this even if it was an incredibly tough little book that kept turning in on itself and revealing new aspects of what it was. Ask me in a year whether I liked it. I’ll still be trying to figure it out.

BEL-AMI by Guy de Maupassant

Here’s one that I never would have picked up minus my “must read” book of books. So glad I did. It felt a bit derivative, certainly, but it was such a charming, entertaining novel if not outstanding.


So much fun! I took this book everywhere and was reading on the subway, in elevators, waiting for lunch dates, and (one clumsy afternoon) walking down the street. Ignorning anything else, Wolfe is a damned fine storyteller and this was super-involving.

THE 39 STEPS by John Buchan

Buchan is long gone, so can I just admit that I hated this book? I finished it because it was short. That is the only reason.

NIGHTS IN ARUBA by Andrew Holleran

Holleran wrote two of my favorite novels, GRIEF and DANCER FROM THE DANCE. The first chapter of this one was brilliant. I hate to admit that after that, he lost me.


Jhumpa Lahiri is just an amazing writer of short stories. I actually didn’t love her novel, but this book and INTERPRETER OF MALADIES are just stunning.


Russians are seriously bleak. This novel depressed the heck out of me, but like all great literature, it ended with a sliver of hope. It was just such a small sliver!

GENERATION LOSS by Elizabeth Hand

This dark novel set in the Maine wilderness made me want to run out and take photographs and talk to strangers. It did not, unfortunately, make me want to read more of the novelist’s work.


Philip Roth makes me stupidly happy. Going back and reading his first book was an enormous treat, not because it’s the greatest thing he has done, but because it allowed a peek at the seeds of a genius that would present itself later.


Marc Acito made me snarfle a Diet Coke on the subway. The bubbles hurt my nose. I have forgiven him for that pain because he was damn funny enough to make me snarfle in the first place.

SLOW MAN by J. M. Coetzee

Ever start reading a book, get halfway through, and then have the rug pulled out from under you? Then get knocked over, rolled up in the rug, and left for trash collectors? Yeah…this book gave me the weirds.


Even the happy Russians are tragic and sad. This reminded me a bit of MADAME BOVARY stylistically. It’s not as good, but hey, what is?


Note to self: don’t read Oprah book club picks any more. Ever.

THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga

Note to self: DO read Booker Prize winning fiction. Holy moses, this book knocked my socks off. I’m going to put it in a two way tie for my favorite book of the year. Immediately upon finishing it, I handed it off to someone else to read. There have been some negative reviews recent that state that Adiga somehow failed to bring the entirety of India to realistic life. As though that would have been the point. Or possible. I don’t care what anyone says, this book is brilliant. Violent, amoral, hysterical, disturbing, fresh, thrilling. I could go on for far too long.

THE PIANO TEACHER by Elfriede Jelinek

Sigh. It’s so hard to know what I think about this book because I saw the movie first. And it became one of my favorite movies. And while I’m inclined to say that the novel is superb (as it likely is), I feel like I need to re-read it before I really know what I think about it.

LITTLE KINGDOMS by Steven Millhauser

This blog entry seemed like a much better idea when this list was single-spaced. This is a collection of novellas, one of which I loved, one of which I hated, and one of which fell in the middle. It’s worth it for the first of the three.

GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson

My second pick for favorite book of the year. I didn’t expect to relate too much to a seventy-something pastor in Iowa at the turn of the last century. That didn’t even begin to matter. Robinson took my breath away. The depth of her characters humanity, the fullness of her understanding, and the astonishing beauty of her simple, straightforward writing were captivating. I loved this book. I can’t wait to jump into her next, HOME.


What a fun book! It has monsters, murder, adultery, drug addicts, ghosts, and a charmingly screwed up heroine mapping out her very complicated family history. A blast to read even if I have some quibbles about certain choices.

A MERCY by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is a goddess. That is all.

WORKING STIFF by Grant Stoddard

Some people can make sex boring. Moving right along…


Heh. I still chuckle even thinking about this book, which I read at the beginning of last year. Toby Young is a nutjob, but he’s also hilariously self-aware. I think his memoir is most interesting if you care about NY media. And I do.

INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer

Here’s a book that didn’t suffer at all from my having watched the movie first. Jon Krakauer can pretty much do no wrong. This is superbly researched, wonderfully written, thoughtful investigative journalism. But everyone else already read it and knew that, it seems. Sometimes I’m late to the game!


A memoir dictated by the one blinking eyelid the author had that was the only part of him not paralyzed. Reading it felt like having someone pressing weight against my chest. Absolutely devastating but so richly inspiring without being saccharine.

AUDITION by Barbara Walters

I already blogged about this. I love me some Baba Wawa.

BEAUTIFUL BOY by David Sheff

Some memoirs… Well, some authors should… Maybe if David Sheff weren’t… Ummm…a lot of other people liked this. Moving on…

DANDY IN THE UNDERWORLD by Sebastian Horsley

Ugh. Maybe it was memoir fatigue. Moving on again…


Whee! When you’re David Sedaris, your lesser efforts are still a joy and wonder to read. So congrats to him on this fabulous lesser effort.

PSYCHE IN A DRESS by Francesca Lia Block

Okay, so this book was sold as YA, and I spent most of my time reading it cross-referencing Greek gods on Wikipedia. So either teens are way more knowledgeable about this stuff than I realized or this might have been poorly categorized. That said? Breathtaking.

ECSTASIA by Francesca Lia Block

I found this one in a remainder bin at a used bookstore and dove right back into Block’s writing with wonder. She is so. So. Good.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

When I first heard about this novel, which is about a group of teens forced to battle to the death on live television, I thought it sounded horribly derivative of such movies as Series 7 and Battle Royale. I also couldn’t understand how it would work as a young adult novel. Finally, I broke down and bought it. Color me impressed. If aspects of the story are familiar (and they are), it’s entirely besides the point. Collins throws inhibitions to the wayside and tackles a ferocious plot with verve and talent to spare.


The first half of this young adult novel is stellar. It went off the rails for me slightly in the second half, but I didn’t especially mind. I was still tremendously moved and impressed by Green’s work.

LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott

Ever rush through a book to get past how painful it is? I’m not talking bad painful. I’m talking novel about a teenage sex slave painful. Yeeouch.

THE ALCOHOLIC by Jonathan Ames

I’m determined to learn more about graphic novels, so I’ve picked a few up to find out more about the market. This is the first time I sought one out just out of the desire to read it. I’ve already shared it with friends. A quick read, it’s also amazingly honest and open, deeply tragic, and laugh-out loud funny. If this is what graphic novels have to offer, it’s no wonder they’re doing so well right now.

It has been a really good year! I’ve read some amazing books, worked through some more of my must-read list, and discovered some new authors who I’ll follow in the future. With a few weeks left to go, I’m about halfway through THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, am overly excited about Carrie Fisher’s upcoming WISHFUL DRINKING, and (as ever) am prepared to push aside whole piles of to-be-read books if something astonishing catches my eye.

I’m also prepared for my next entry on this blog to be much shorter than this one!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Chasya Milgrom on why we rejected Moby Dick

We really enjoy reading the responses we get to our blog posts and finding out what our readers have to say about our ruminations and rambling on everything from book cover design to the state of the current market. These comments can also be excellent jumping-off points or topics that might be of interest the rest of our readers.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Miriam waxed romantic about the lack of sweeping, escapist fare in today’s book market; books that would allow us to get our collective minds off an awful economy and other goings-on in the world.

One of our readers responded, making the point that in today’s market a novel the length of Gone with the Wind or The Thorn Birds would get rejected immediately for being too long. The truth is we do consider submissions of various lengths including those that have a heftier word count, because, at the end of the day, a compelling novel is a compelling novel. Witness the most buzzed about debut this fall, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. At upwards of 560 pages, this doorstop of a book surpasses your average page count. Despite that, it has been an enormous success, and as Stacey pointed out last week, it was a bestseller way before Oprah got her hands on it. People were moved by the story and bought the book in droves. Another example that instantly comes to mind is Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, a 624 page tome which came out last year and shot up the bestseller lists. Our own Jacqueline Carey’s first novel Kushiel’s Dart comes in at 695 pages. Her most recent book in the series, Kushiels’ Mercy, is no slouch at 650 pages.

We absolutely crave the sorts of stories that grab hold of us whether they take 250 or 500 pages to tell. We would be remiss in tossing something aside simply because of its length. One of my own personal favorite books, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True comes in at a staggering 928 pages. I’ve read this one a few times and still get that sad feeling as I near the end.

Along similar lines, another reader pointed out an interesting practice – mock submissions, in which cheeky authors take the first ten pages of a classic and send it off to an agent and then wait for their form rejection to come in the mail. The implication here is that a) agents are idiots who often don’t know that what they are looking at is a classic piece of literature and b) agents wouldn’t know a good piece of fiction even if it was staring them in the face.

We aren’t going to lie. A couple of years ago one of our agents rejected Moby Dick (yup, you heard me). The agent admitted this to me freely. Thing about that is, this agent also pointed out that he hated Melville and absolutely loathed Moby Dick. So, just because the book is a classic, does not mean we are going to change our minds about liking it or not. And just because a form rejection comes in the mail, doesn’t necessarily mean that the agent does not know what is being rejected. Often the agent does recognize the work and sees it for what it is, a prank, and sends a form rejection as a courtesy response.

Yes, ultimately agents are business people. We have to take on what we think will sell, and something that sold in 1851 probably isn’t going to top the charts in 2008. Let’s face it, the whaling industry is not really booming in this day and age, and one must take into consideration that classics are born of a specific age and place. In order to be successful, we do need to address what contemporary readers want to read. And perhaps if we’re very, very lucky, we can have the opportunity to represent a modern day classic.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stacey Glick asks, "Will Books Survive and Thrive?"

There’s a lot of talk everywhere these days about the doomed economy and what it means for all businesses, large and small. No doubt the climate is grim, and people are worried. There have been discussions within the confines of book publishing that speak to all sides of the issue, and reports that book publishing is “recession-proof” given the relatively low price point for books and the fact that people are staying home more, and looking for inexpensive alternatives to entertain themselves. The holiday season will soon show if people will be buying more books, and less of other things, but we are all hoping for good news.

But what about outside of the consumer level – agents selling books and publishers buying them? Will there be a slowdown there, will publishers be buying fewer books and spending less money on them? That debate has been going on through the years and continues through this downward economic cycle with great concern from authors, agents, editors and publishers alike. But really, midlist and backlist books at the big houses have taken a back seat to front list titles for years already, so that’s not really new news. So far, the market seems to be cautiously conservative in some ways and grandiose and lavish in others with a mixed bag of returns. For every gloom and doom story out there, there’s another that’s equally as uplifting and encouraging.

Doubleday just announced a number of layoffs in part because of disappointments like paying over $1 million for Andrew Davidson’s first novel, The Gargolye, and recent reports like New York Magazine’s article by Boris Kachka about the end of publishing as we know it continue to spread pessimism about the future of books (see Michael Bourret’s blog from September 30). But there are still success stories both large and small that make us optimistic about the future of books. All of the recent press about a literary first novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle which has sold well over 500K copies in hardcover at 576 pages is by anyone’s standards a huge hit, and would have been even before it was picked as an Oprah book. And what about the amazing little Randy Pausch book, The Last Lecture, which Hyperion spent mightily on in the hopes it might become another Tuesdays with Morrie, and it’s actually worked on that scale, resulting in a very happy publisher, not to mention a wonderful, lasting legacy for the author’s family. Then there’s Dewey, another big ticket item from Grand Central which they paid seven figures for and has been hovering near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the last few weeks reminding all of us that animal books are still working (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my upcoming The Daily Coyote by Shreve Stockton, which is getting very nice advance notices and response will follow the lead). And there are smaller success stories too. Like Michael Bourret’s children’s book, I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak, that Scholastic paid a tiny advance for and it’s sold over a million copies.

So while there will always be disappointments and books that publishers paid too much for, they seem to keep spending aggressively on the books that their staffs and p&l statements say will break out as a “big” book and continue to make money for everyone for years to come. So far, we don’t really see that changing, and we all continue to search high and low for that next great book, the one that we can fall in love with, and that hopefully can make us all lots of money, too, whether the advance is seven figures, or just a small fraction of that.