Tuesday, March 31, 2009
But as the tournament itself and the comments on it have shown--what's great about a contest like this isn't the naming of an ultimate winner, it's getting passionate readers engaged about the books they love. There was a fascinating dialogue throughout both for and against books I loved and hated. And what's more fun than that?
Monday, March 30, 2009
--What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
The isolation and fear of the racist; the despair of the murderer or soldier; the egotism and weariness of the politician on the campaign trail; the prisoner in his cell.
--What is your idea of earthly happiness?
It has something to do with chicharrones.
--Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Alexander Portnoy; Raskolnikov; the White Whale
--Who are your favorite characters in history?
V.I. Lenin, Ella Baker, George Burns and Gracie Allen
--Your favorite painter?
--Your favorite musician?
Vladimir Horowitz playing Stars and Stripes Forever in Moscow; Jimi Hendrix playing blues.
--Who would you have liked to be?
Friday, March 27, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Then in 1986, I bit the bullet so to speak, took a huge pay cut and a huger risk and joined a small but successful agency where I learned the ropes from a master. I was once again able to work with creative people who were putting together book proposals and writing novels. I learned how to negotiate contracts from the seller’s side and how to map out a strategy for a writer’s career; I was able to attend writers conferences and find new talent that way. And I met an entirely new group of people – writers and editors, most of them wonderful, honest, and full of creative and exciting ideas.
Now, I have been living life as an agent in my own company for a long time and loving (almost) every minute of it.
Sure there are the heartbreaks: losing an unhappy author, after we have put in years of hard work on their behalf because s/he blames us for his/her lack of success; failing to sell a book you love; watching publishers make wrongheaded decisions that affect your clients and colleagues… But those instances, fortunately for us, are few and far between.
I love meeting with our staff in the morning and trying to help them deal with their frustrations and issues; I also love celebrating their successes. I love discussing various negotiating strategies with our senior management. I love reading an article that I think might become a book, contacting the writer and seeing that idea develop that I can then sell to a publisher. I love the serendipity of sending out a proposal and though I am usually fairly sure of whether it will sell, often I am surprised at the way it sells, to whom and for how much. That surprise is great fun – (almost) all the time.
I love meeting with editors and finding out what they are interested in and going out and developing ideas for them. I love meeting new writers – ones already published but new to me like our dear David Morrell – or first timers whose careers we are helping to launch – like Chris Campion or Dwayne Betts.
And finally, I absolutely love seeing that final book and the thrill of the author as he or she holds it in his or her hand. Just the other night, Mark Rudd whom I have known and worked with since the mid ‘80s celebrated the publication of UNDERGROUND and I was able to see his joy and feel the thrill of being a part of this achievement.
Even in this very challenging publishing climate I am not dissuaded from feeling positive most days. We are helping the creators and no matter what form their work is published in, we will continue to be part of that process.
Yes, I love my “job.” Being an agent is one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done (next to being a wife and a mother, of course).
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
The latest person to answer our mini-Proust questionnaire is author Chris Campion whose memoir ESCAPE FROM BELLEVUE came out this week.
· What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
· What is your idea of earthly happiness?
As the lead singer of a band I’d have to say leading a room full of people in a mirthful group sing-a-long. There is no earthly currency quite like the smiles on their drunken faces. It’s pure joy.
· Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, Tom Joad, Dean Moriarty.
· Who are your favorite characters in history?
Jesus Christ, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, St. Francis of Assisi
· Your favorite painter?
My Mom. Patricia Campion.
· Your favorite musician?
Robert Pollard (lead singer of Guided By Voices)
· Who would you have liked to be?
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
When you buy a book in a store, you aren’t required to buy a pair of secret decoder glasses to read the text. This, in essence, is what the Kindle requires you to do. You cannot read Kindle books without a Kindle (or Kindle app on your iPhone). You can't read it on a Sony Reader, or BeBook, or your color Fujitsu reader, or even your computer. You cannot share your Kindle book with anyone who does not share your Amazon account (and even then, you’re limited as to the number of people who can connect to the account). If Amazon ceases to exist and your Kindle dies, you have no way of re-downloading the books.
This isn’t good business. Artists’ rights need to be protected, yes. We don’t want anyone to lose money. We’re agents – we only make money when our clients make money. But, if the music industry taught us anything, it’s that consumers will get media in whatever way they please. They don’t seem to care if the way they get it is legal or illegal, they want what’s easy. Being able to read your book on only a proprietary device is not easy. How can those of us in the publishing industry make it easier for consumers to get what they want while also giving them the ownership they deserve?
What I think we need is one agreed-upon, platform-agnostic, DRM-free ebook format. A format that can be used on any computer, on any reader, on any phone, etc. It would certainly save publishers and ebooksellers the headache of converting files from one format to the other in order to preserve the correct formatting of the text. And, despite what many other believe, I don’t think this will lead to more pirating. If someone wants to steal something, they’ll steal it. And you can already find plenty of supposedly DRM-locked books available for free online. For the consumer, getting rid of DRM will mean full ownership and less hassle – a scenario that will make them more likely to actually purchase the book.
The digital revolution is happening all around us, and authors, agents, publishers and booksellers all need to wake up to it. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, let’s follow the lead of publishers like Nelson, whose NelsonFree program provides a free ebook (and audio) download with a hardcover purchase (selling content, not format!). Let’s pay attention to forward-thinkers like Kassia Krozser at Booksquare and Michael Cairns at PersonaNonData. Let’s not get caught up in issues like text-to-speech, the prevention of which actually requires DRM on the Kindle titles. And, most importantly, let’s keep this conversation going.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I predict 2666 will go all the way with this one even though I'm not rooting for it. Though mesmerized by the first three sections, the fourth just sucked me down like quicksand, so I dropped the book a month ago and just can't bring myself to pick it back up, even if it is brilliant AND I already read 500 pages. I'll get back to it...someday.
Having read less than half the books in contention, my personal choice for the win would be THE WHITE TIGER. Which was already eliminated!! Of course, someone here at DGLM violently hated that book. They know who they are. And I know how wrong about it they are. :)
Anyone wanna places bets on this horse race?
The reports of publishing’s death are greatly exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain who would undoubtedly have had something snarky to say about all the premature wakes for the industry). Those of us who have to read all the blogs and publishing articles and who have made business gossip into an art form have been nattering on about how bad things are for sometime now. Empirical evidence supports the hearsay, of course. There have been a lot of layoffs by the big trade houses in response to losses on the balance sheets, and the worldwide recession, the fact that no one has quite figured out the role of e-books, and the struggles of the print media in general would lead one to believe that the patient is gasping his last breaths.
But, I think that’s a limited and needlessly dark view to take about a business that’s been around since Gutenberg rolled out his printing press at the 1439 Frankfurt Book Fair. At the risk of sounding hopelessly Candide-like, my feeling is that having survived plagues, revolutions, world wars, and the publication of Moby Dick, publishing should be able to survive the current economic downturn as well. I can’t imagine a world without books and I bet you can’t either.
To some extent books have always been a luxury. In the
In the first three months of the year, our agency has sold about 25 books, a few of those for pretty hefty advances, and even as those sales were going through, we were hearing that last rites had been administered to the dying publishing business. I think that like the Sicilian widow in Moonstruck, publishing will soon (well, as soon as they figure out how to mend their broken business models) get up off the death bed and start cooking again.
But I’m sure a lot of people disagree…
Monday, March 09, 2009
Some book covers are iconic. Some are merely great. And some…well. Here are one person’s choices for the 15 worst covers ever. As a warning, the first one involves nudity (and general ickiness). The second one made me laugh really hard—I am apparently 12 years old.
But more exciting in the long run is this website: http://www.bookcoverarchive.com which offers quite a few amazing cover designs—some witty, some simple, some gorgeous, some controversial. LOTS to talk about. I had never seen the RELIGION EXPLAINED cover before and think it’s a total stunner.
For me, they include some all time faves (LESS THAN ZERO and
Anyone else particularly love or loathe any of the covers?
Thursday, March 05, 2009
New hardcovers were virtually unaffordable, but assuming one was patient (and with a tote bag laden with manuscripts that needed reading, such patience was an easy-to-cultivate virtue) one could generally lay hands on the desired books gratis, sometimes from a kindly publicist or editorial colleague, sometimes via the inter-house, cold-call assistant swap, or when stars aligned, from the “take shelf,” a magical spot where unwanted books waited to be scooped up by the penurious and/or acquisitive. For a while, I allowed the take shelf to dictate my “for fun” reading; it made for an interesting run. One memorable span included Al Haig’s memoir, A History of the Arab Peoples and Lorrie Moore’s incomparable collection, Self Help--Watergate, Shiites and anagrams make for a heady mix, let me tell you. Although I was awash in books, I am somewhat abashed to say that I acquired an astonishingly small percentage of these in retail bookstores. As a holdover from college and then grad school, I was an inveterate used book buyer, and I also went to the library, something I found few people in publishing ever seemed to do.
These days, I purchase books more frequently than almost never (somewhere around the dot com boom, I stopped thinking that only Croesus and his ilk bought hard covers, and started investing in a few of my own). I buy books, most often as gifts, but nowhere near as often as I imagine that a self-professed bibliophile ought to. I wonder whether the same is true of others connected to the publishing world; writers, agents, editors, scouts, if we help to create it, but don’t always float it. And in this dire time, when few people are buying books at all, I wonder if there is some ethically correct consumer position—a literary equivalent of a locovore or fair-trade-ite—so that a person who cares passionately about books would, for example, endeavor to buy them new, at full price, from an independent bookseller. Is buying from Amazon’s selection of used copies like tucking into a plate of Chilean Sea Bass or Alaskan King Crab? What about buying books at deep discount “big box” stores? How do places like The Strand fit in? I love used and antiquarian book stores, and I can’t quite reconcile myself to the idea that these shrines to reading aren’t good for books, though I know full well that the publisher saw not one penny of revenue on my nearly new copy of Iris Murdoch’s A SEVERED HEAD. And so I wonder, now that I’ve come clean about my own less than exemplary book buying habits, what are yours?
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
If I love a book, I want it on my shelf. Even though I have a Sony Reader, I don’t buy books I expect to love electronically, but I might do it for a small amount of money as a preview. If I loved it, I’d buy the book itself. If I only found it mildly interesting (or not at all), I wouldn’t buy a hard copy for more money, though I suppose the publisher would at least have some money from me--and possibly more than if I’d gone into the store and read a few pages to see if I wanted it or never actually got around to going in to pick it up.
The key, then, would be to make sure books are utterly compelling and amazing, so people will get around to buying them and want to display them in hard copy. That’s something I can certainly get behind!
What do you think? If this became more common, would it encourage you to buy more? How much would you pay?
(For the record, I bought In Rainbows for about $5 thinking I’d go back and re-buy it for more money if I liked it, but then I didn’t. $5 seemed a reasonable amount for a band I adore that hasn’t put out an album I liked in over a decade. If they hadn’t done that, I’d probably never have spent a penny on it. So I guess the strategy works on me to some degree!)
Monday, March 02, 2009
So doubts starts to creep in, and you think awful, traumatic thoughts like, “Please tell me I never rejected TWILIGHT. Pleeeeeeease…”
But it doesn’t make sense to spend too much time looking back at what might have been when instead you can focus on what is and what has been. I’m thrilled with the stable of fabulous authors I’ve had the chance to work with. Which doesn’t completely quash the occasional panic that I might have just turned down something unbelievable (sorry, Ms. Vaughn) but is immensely reassuring.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what we pass on, what we sign up, and how those choices are made because of a mind-blowing novel I read over the weekend.
Michael Muhammad Knight’s THE TAQWACORES is, according to its back cover copy, “a manifesto for Muslim punk rockers and a ‘Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims.’” It is a brilliant coming-of-age story about a college kid who bears witness to the wild scene around him in a Muslim punk house in Buffalo--I couldn’t wrap my head around it until I read the book either.
A challenging read for someone with embarrassingly little understanding of Islam or Arabic, it was still the sort of fiction that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. It informed my knowledge of Islam, shook my comprehension of faith, and vibrated with the power of fiction that (even if imperfect) is raw, real, and truthful. The characters were revelations, and the climactic scene at a punk concert was one of the most exciting things I’ve read recently.
So if it came across my desk, would I have signed on THE TAQWACORES? Probably not. It’s tough to admit, but it’s true. “Is there really an audience for Muslim punk rock novels?” I would have thought. And then…maybe…I would have passed.
In response to a rejection letter I recently sent that cited some market concerns, someone e-mailed me recently asking, “Don’t you ever sign up something just because you love it?” Of course, in that case, the logic didn’t bear out because I totally didn’t love that novel. I wrote back, truthfully, that I do. There have been times in the past when I signed up projects and told the author, “Look, it’s a long shot. I have no idea if I can sell this. But I’ll give it a shot.” One, in particular, that was one of the very first things I worked on as an agent, still sticks with me to this day, and I have a hard copy of the manuscript at home, even though I didn’t manage to sell it. Other of those situations have worked out more happily.
It’s a large investment, though, in terms of time, energy, and emotion to take on a project that you suspect is an intensely difficult sell. THE TAQWACORES would have been that. Indeed, it only recently was published by Soft Skull, a small independent publisher in Brooklyn, four years after its author began photocopying it and distributing it on his own. Even having gained a large audience and much notoriety (and having been the subject of a great NY Times article), the book has apparently sold just about 1,000 copies since it came out.
Sometimes we bear with things because we can’t imagine giving them up. And sometimes we look at a tough marketplace and accept that we need to sign up just those things that we love AND we think we can sell. It’s a tricky thing. No one’s perfect at it. But we all try to be.
Now excuse me while I go pick up Carrie Vaughn’s sixth Kitty Norville novel.
Now, though, it seems that even my publishing colleagues aren’t reading either.
It is true our business is going through a very challenging period. It is, however, still a business of ideas and words and in order to adequately judge whether those ideas, proposals and manuscripts that we agents submit will work, publishers and editors have to actually read them.
This last week a senior editor at a major publishing house received a proposal from us and rather than read it at all, she simply looked up other books in the category and decided that since they hadn’t sold, it wasn’t even worth reading one word of this author’s work. In another, rather shocking instance, a publisher of a very good house turned down material I had submitted saying that the fiction market was extremely difficult these days. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the note – the material I had submitted clearly stated that it was a memoir.
If we in the industry don’t read, then I fear our days are numbered. I say, let’s pay more attention to what we are doing and less to the businesses that are taking our customers away.