Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Tournament of Books selects a winner

I let you know when it started, and I'm here to let you know that it ended. The Tournament of Books over at The Morning News has selected its winner, and for the second time in its five years, they picked a novel I loved--one of the only books I've re-read in recent years (well...re-read for pleasure) and that has only increased in my estimation as more time has passed.

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

Mark Rudd on Mark Rudd: The Proust questionnaire

Mark Rudd is the author of the memoir UNDERGROUND: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, out now. Here he confronts the Proust questionnaire.

--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?
Breughel, Goya.

--Your favorite musician?
Vladimir Horowitz playing Stars and Stripes Forever in Moscow; Jimi Hendrix playing blues.

--Who would you have liked to be?
Richard Pryor

Friday, March 27, 2009


Countryman Press is running an interesting experiment. They've posted their catalog on Twitter before releasing it in any other form, one book a tweet. Without links, I don't think it's that useful, but it's certainly garnered them a bunch of attention. With e-catalogs seemingly the future of things, an integration with other social media would make sense.

- Michael

Publishing Flashback

From MobyLives via Galleycat comes this link to a 1987 New York Times article on the future of publishing in an age of conglomeration. Fascinating look back at how we got where we are--for better or worse--particularly for someone like me whose only ties to publishing in 1987 came from bedtime stories and the classroom library.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why I Love My Job by Jane Dystel

Actually for the last over twenty years, my “job” hasn’t been a job at all. Before I became an agent, I was an editorial assistant, a managing editor, an editor and then a publisher. All of those positions were jobs – work, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes not.

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

Story Collections v. Novels

Taylor Antrim's piece for the Daily Beast tells us short story collections are big this year, defying conventional wisdom cited by naysaying agents and publishers when trying to persuade an author to write a novel instead. Thing is, story collections will continue to be published and some will do quite well. But the commercial successes are few and far between and still a dicey proposition for authors trying to get their foot in the door and the agents and publishers who want to help them.

-- Miriam

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chris Campion meet Proust

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?
Being faithless.

· 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?
Joe Namath

On a lighter note

- Via a tweet from Ryan Chapman, Internet Marketing Manager at Macmillan

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Is the Kindle a danger to ownership?

This article from The Christian Science Monitor by librarian and professor Emily Walshe asks that question, and her answer is a resounding YES. When you use a Kindle, you don’t buy ebooks – or, rather, you don’t actually own what you’ve paid for.

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.


Orange and Booker International Longlists

The always helpful Publishers Marketplace Automat points me to the nominees for both the Orange and Booker International prizes. Once again I find myself looking at the lists and realizing I’ve read almost none of the authors. I have read (and love!) Toni Morrison, but not yet the nominated A Mercy. I almost read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang once—it’s still in a pile waiting to be read, but I can’t remember what bumped it from first position. I’m about 20 pages into Gilead, not really enough to say I’ve read Robinson, and the Orange nomination is for Home anyway. I read part of a Naipaul book once, but got frustrated with it and never went back. While I’m not sure who to root for for either prize, I do always look forward to both lists as a reminder of what I mean to read. How many of these have you read (because a book list is always grounds for a competition!)? Who are you rooting for? Anyone want to suggest any of these to add to my piles for that magical someday when I need something new to read and haven’t got anything lined up?


Some news on the digital front...

And the book/digital publishing dance continues.... Good marketing strategy?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Titles, titles...

Our friend Jim Donahue points us to a Bookseller.com article announcing the shortlist for the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. Just as we had stopped snickering about Cooking with Pooh.

-- Miriam

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Tournament of Books

Gah! I almost forgot that it was time for The Morning News to run their Tournament of Books. They've already done the first three rounds. And I already HATE at least one of their choices.

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?


Miriam Goderich on the supposed death of publishing

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 U.S., illiteracy rates are shockingly high and even among the general population of literate citizens only a small group actually read books much less buy them. So, in fact, our business has always had outsize cultural influence despite the relatively small market that buys its product. That’s a good thing. Because, while we always hope that market will continue to grow, we publishing types know that art and ideas will still need to be disseminated in order for societies to progress. The form may be different – maybe you’ll be carrying around a Kindle or one of its cousins or maybe you’ll be reading your “book” on a computer or television screen -- but you’ll still need the publishing process to weed out the chaff and point you to what you should be reading, or might want to read because everyone is talking about it, or have to read because it provides information distilled in such a way as to make sense of the nonsensical, or really, really have to read because it’s the most fun you can have without leaving your seat.

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 VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), some recent loves (THE BOOK OF DEAD PHILOSOPHERS and DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, and a few that I personally quite dislike (REMAINDER and SAMEDI THE DEAFNESS).

Anyone else particularly love or loathe any of the covers?


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Back when I was an editorial assistant living in New York on the princely salary of $17,500 per annum, I noted that although my colleagues and I were laboring to sell books, few of us actually seemed to buy them.

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?


Slate on why computers can’t read well

In all the debate about the Kindle and text-to-speech, one thing that certainly came up was that at—at least at present—it’s hard to imagine wanting to listen to a book that way. It’s just not the same thing as an audiobook or any other means of human performance. This fascinating piece in Slate gets into the science behind the technology and just why it’s so tough for a computer to master human speech.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

For those of us who have a problem with "done."

boingboing points us toward this, which might be helpful when face to face with the terrifying blank page.

-- Miriam

Innovation, UK Style?

Piggybacking on Michael’s last post--a topic I was about to write about along with this till I realized he’d beat me to it--apparently Faber in the UK is also trying an interesting e-method to jumpstart book sales. Following in the footsteps of Radiohead’s experiment with their last album, Faber is making Ben Wilson’s What Price Liberty? available electronically six weeks before the hardcover is released with readers picking their own price. It’s an interesting strategy--and you’ve got to love the punny-ness of an experiment like this for a book with that title!--so I’ll be looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

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!)



I've been saying for some time now that publishers should be giving away free copies of ebooks along with hardcovers, and it seems like someone was listening -- and then took things the extra step! NelsonFree is a new program from Thomas Nelson in which one purchase nabs you a hardcover, a free ebook download and a free audio download. It's a great deal, and I think these kinds of arrangements make great sense in certain situations. I hope other publishers will consider similar arrangements.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Jim McCarthy thinks about what he has rejected

Let’s say you flip open the latest catalog from Random House or Simon & Schuster and staring back at you is a novel that you rejected. Maybe about five years ago in a moment of complete stupidity you thought, “Is there really an audience for werewolf books?” and passed on Carrie Vaughn’s fabulous KITTY AND THE MIDNIGHT HOUR. If you had, you’ve probably spent much time since then feeling sharp pangs of regret every time Vaughn published the next book in that great series.

I mean…hypothetically.

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.

Has EVERYBODY stopped reading?

Over the past several years many in the publishing industry have complained that the reason sales are down is that people are no longer reading. They are watching tv or on the internet or playing video games – everything but picking up a good book.

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.


Amazon caves

While they continue to claim that they aren't stepping on anyone's rights, Amazon has agreed to let authors and publishers decided whether or not the text-to-speech function should be enabled for their Kindle books. Seems like a victory for the Authors Guild!