We'll see you all in January!
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Since it's way too close to the holidays to talk about anything that resembles serious, and you technically have a few more shopping hours, here are some links to holiday gift book ideas. Books are always a great gift, and a good way to support the publishing industry. There is definitely something here for everyone on your list--moms, dads, kids, sports fans, animal lovers, book haters (just kidding), and even those who seem impossible to shop for. Enjoy, happy holidays, and a very happy, healthy New Year to all!
Posted by DGLM at 1:49 PM
My friend Jim Donahue of The Velvet Blog, a great copyeditor and literary curmudgeon (in the best sense of the word) pointed me toward this piece in Salon. I admit that I, too, find it irritating when writers decide to do away with punctuation and other grammatical and syntactical rules and claim artistic license as their excuse. Seems to me it’s mostly laziness. But then, I may be a little OCD about the whole thing. How do you all feel about quotation marks gone AWOL?
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I was going to blog about this on Monday after the delightful and amazing Michelle Rowen called my attention to it. At the time, much of the content was missing from the web. Thank you, Guardian, for hunting it down.
Long story Twitter-short: Bad Amazon review makes author lose damn mind!
I can totally relate to Flood’s opinion here that watching an author have a spectacular public meltdown can be incredibly compelling stuff. Know what makes it even more special for an agent? Their clients’ lack of involvement!
This whole saga is really worth tracking through for examples of what never to do once you’re a published author. Don’t get defensive. Don’t respond to reviews on Amazon. And for gods’ sake, DON’T blame your editor!!
Like Neil Gaiman, I will claim not to be posting this because it’s funny in a tragic way (even though it totally is) but because it’s an extreme reminder of why the heat of the moment is NOT when to respond to one’s critics.
In honor of the holidays, I’ll be taking a little break from the questions corner to bring you this hilarious post from Thom Geier at EW’s Shelf Life blog. What does Christmas have to do with a book called The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America, you ask? Absolutely nothing.
Enjoy, and happy holidays!
With the recent release of Vladimir Nabokov’s never-before-published and not-quite-finished novel, The Original of Laura, I thought it might be interesting to touch on the debate that was brought about because of its publication.
After having written the incredible Lolita, and some of my all-time favorite short stories, Nabokov was working on The Original of Laura at the time of his death, in 1977. With strict instructions for his yet-to-be-finished novel to be burned upon his death, the manuscript was not burned, but rather placed in his wife’s hands, and then, upon her death, passed on to his son, Dimitri.
A great article on the matter was written by Ron Rosenbaum for the New York Observer back in 2005, pleading for Dimitri Nabokov to allow the manuscript to either be published or gather dust, but to never let it burn. I suggest you read the article to see just how passionate some people are in the literary world--the poor guy is at the point of panic towards the end of his article. So, I’m gathering he’s pleased now that Nabokov’s unfinished, semi-unauthorized work has finally been released.
Message boards have been filled with comments regarding the publication, and the topic was touched upon in morning news shows as well as in blogs and newspaper columns. Rosenbaum stated that Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, had a "responsibility to the literary world” to publish the “last fragments of his father’s genius."
Many questions arise from this debate: Did Dimitri really have a responsibility to publish his father’s work, despite being told not to? In Leland de la Durantaye’s Boston Review article, "Last Wishes," he writes that Vladimir Nabokov’s wife had to stop her husband from burning a draft of Lolita. Lolita! Was his son, then, afraid of a possible new masterpiece being overlooked, never to be appreciated?
With all these thoughts filling my head, I tend to get a little philosophical and start to wonder about the ethics of the situation. It’s certainly sad to think that another masterpiece could have stayed locked up in a safety-deposit box forever, but was it ok to go against Nabokov’s final request?
How much say or ownership can an author really have upon their death? And, do you think it’s ok to go against an author’s wishes for the sake of art?
Monday, December 21, 2009
Consistently my favorite listmaker in pop culture, Stephen King has names his ten favorite books of 2009. What I love about Mr. King is that he never seems to care about convention or what others will make of his choices. He’ll include popular commercial fiction (hey, John Sandford), dense literary fiction (hi there, Roberto Bolano), and even books that came out decades ago (isn’t Richard Yates dead?).
I’ve only read two of the books on the list—the weighty Drood and the weightier 2666—and disliked both. But he’s Stephen King! I’d still take the rest of his recommendations seriously.
Here is a very interesting piece written by publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin on his IdeaLogical blog. I believe he has a very good point here and one that authors should also pay attention to. When thinking about a book idea and how to present it, we all must be able to identify the potential market--the reader--both demographically and statistically.
Do you agree?
Friday, December 18, 2009
What do those four things have in common, other than being convenient markers of my adolescence? I used to be unable to hear Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill or Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? without being transported to Anne Rice's Lousiana or the Iowa of Peter Hedges. This GalleyCat post on music to write by made me think about the ways in which I experience music and reading together. As a person who tends to listen to the same album incessantly, not switching up till I never want to hear it ever again, there have sometimes been albums intrinsically tied to a novel I was reading--though apparently the effect lessens over time, because I now can't recall which CD above went with which book. Every time I hear Brandi Carlile, it calls to mind a novel by a client that I devoured in a couple sittings with The Story on repeat in the background. (I also experience this with apartments: Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head = my senior year in Ditmas/Flatbush; John Mayer's Room for Squares is two apartments later, on the Upper East Side. My musical taste = ever so slightly embarassing.)
I've always loved the power that music has to do this--feeling reinserted into the world of a beloved novel can sometimes be like coming home.
I recently discovered a new version of this phenomenon: my client, Michael Gavaghen had been having a bit of trouble diving back into his novel to do the edits he and I had discussed. When he'd first worked on the novel, he'd been listening to a lot of blues music, and since then had shifted his listening habits. In fact, he'd been working on another novel as well. When it came time to revisit the first novel, he had trouble re-immersing himself in that world. But as soon as he put back on the blues, he recaptured the rhythm and voice of the novel. Handy trick!
Does anyone else experience this, either as a writer or a reader? And does anyone actually have a strong sense memory from simply reading about music rather than hearing it?
It’s always interested me to know the writing patterns and practices of authors, as each writer has their own quirks and habits to get words onto a page--some more outrageous than others (did Thomas Wolfe really write standing up beside a refrigerator and did Truman Capote only write while lying down, as has been mentioned over the years?).
In Virginia Woolf’s extended essay, A Room of One’s Own, she stated that a woman had to have money and a room to herself if she was to ever write fiction. However, in more recent times, the Wall Street Journal presented an article on author writing habits and how they’ve come to write bestselling books. Some of their quirky habits will raise an eyebrow, I’m sure, or--if you’re a writer yourself--perhaps these practices are simply the norm in composing the next great novel.
My writing habits--whether it be blogging for DGLM, writing an essay back in college, or simply a story that comes to mind--involve finding a very quiet room, a ridiculous amount of soda to consume, and playing my Rain on a Tin Roof CD on repeat until I can’t write anymore.
Do you have any interesting/unusual habits while writing?
In what is a first for me, I was on The Casting Couch last night! As evidenced by the proper nouns, I wasn’t making out with some producer here in LA. I did an interview over on BlogTalkRadio (home of our own Mr. Media while you’re there) with Sean Berry, who asked me a bunch of very smart questions about what I do and the publishing industry in general. I really enjoyed it, and we discussed topics that appeal to aspiring authors through pros. So check it out!
Listen to The Casting Couch on Blog Talk Radio
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Intern Kara just told me that a blog in the Baltimore Sun declared that this was the "Twilight Decade."
Clearly, Stephanie Meyer has made a mark—and whether she is symptom or cause, we are deep inside a paranormal moment in pop-culture. Austen and the undead, who would have thought? Still, as Kara (who argued that the past ten years belong to Harry Potter) demonstrated, the “Twilight decade” is subject to some debate. I’m curious to see where you all weigh in. In the name of what author, idea or impulse, do you name the past nine years? And, incidentally, what do we name this decade? The “aughts” just never caught on.
My own answer—in terms of book-publishing, public policy, and in personal life— might be that these last ten years have been the decade of the Middle East.
Starting with 9/11 and the attendant wars begun in Afghanistan (not actually the Middle East, I know), in Iraq and on terror, to concern with radical Islam, to the scramble to understand “why they hate us,” through to present anxieties over a nuclear Iran, it was a discussion that was conducted across the media, one that taught us a new vocabulary of terrible and heartbreaking phrases: Al Qaeda, Clash of Civilization, extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, improvised explosive devices…and the list goes on. The books that have emerged from and informed this discussion are too numerous to list, but they include the works of Bernard Lewis, Stephen Coll, Lawrence Wright, Dexter Filkins, Jane Mayer, Stephen Kinzer, Reza Aslan, Karen Armstrong, Juan Cole, John Esposito, etc. “Middle East Studies” is category that has grown by leaps and bounds and for better and for worse.
My decade of the Middle East is, of course, a smaller story and a happier one, a brighter and more hopeful counterpoint to the grim meta-narrative of tragedy and turmoil. Granted mine was made up of words like motherhood (my son was born in Cairo), Mahfouz (plus a host of other remarkable novelists whose work I came to know), meshi (vegetables stuffed with rice and meat, and assorted other delicious staples of Egyptian cooking), and so on…. But the opportunity to live and travel in the Islamic world, to see that devout is not, in fact, a synonym for dangerous, was eye-opening. And even though I’m back in the USA as the decade closes, my sojourn in Egypt profoundly colored this period of my life.
So obviously, this is a subjective exercise, one with no single answer: I look forward to reading your nominations.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Here's a fun link to some ideas for classic children's books that would adapt well for an adult audience. I'm not sure about a movie version of Goodnight Moon (unless it was very short!), but I do think that Good Night, Gorilla would be a really great animated film. Let's hear some of your favorite children's books that you think would make great movies.
Every once in a while a celebrity news story morphs into a veritable hydra-headed monster of a tabloid saga. And, given my love for that particular brand of infotainment, I am usually sucked in right along with the other readers of Us Weekly, People, and, yes, Star. So, you know I’ve been bouncing from one blog to another for the last couple of weeks following the supernova of a meltdown that is the Tiger Woods saga. Same thing happened with the Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and John Edwards gossip fests. The rubber necking fascination for grown men behaving badly never seems to wane, despite the fact that at this point it seems more the norm than the exception. Fame/Money + Unbridled Ego = Tabloid story in the making.
So, whenever one of these events turns into the usual circus, my colleagues and I immediately think “Is there a book in this?” And, of course, there usually is. In fact, there are usually 10 books. So, how do you decide whether to jump on the ambulance chasing wagon, track down a writer and loose them on the story or take a chance on the “insider” account by one of the members of the disgraced figure’s entourage, his ex-whatever, or his second grade teacher or simply keep watching from afar. The answer is tricky and it depends on what kind of agent/agency you are.
Generally speaking, we take on books that we think we’re going to be able to sell because we don’t get paid for our efforts unless we do. Given that simple premise, it doesn’t make sense to run through hoops in order to try to make a book about one of these scandals happen unless (a) that book is going to offer revelations that are truly not to be found in the 24/7 coverage by blogs, magazines, newspapers, and tv shows (b) there is serious analysis of the situation and its more universal implications by a writer who has strong credentials and who is not just going to do a clip job restating the obvious and (c) one of the main players is willing to sell out his mother for a book deal and really does know where the bodies are buried. Ultimately, though, it’s one thing to be titillated by these kinds of stories while eating your Cheerios and quite another to spend the time, energy and dedication it takes to get a book published on a narrative that will soon be supplanted by the next celebrity/politician/sports star behaving badly. And, sometimes, despite the potential monetary windfall, the subject is just too distasteful to pursue--I don’t think anyone here would have repped OJ Simpson’s book (except perhaps Jim), even though we all would strenuously defend an agent’s choice to do so.
If you were agents would you try to sell a Tiger Woods book right now?
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
As a follow up to your post on December 1, is it considered good form to let agents who have your full manuscript know when you receive another request for a full (assuming they have not asked for an exclusive)? I want to be above-board and professional, but I don't want to needlessly pressure (or annoy!) agents who have my work.
The short answer to this is no, you generally shoudn't inform an agent who is reading your manuscript that you have received another such request. It can be difficult discerning what can be considered a faux-pas when it comes to submitting your work, but where updating agents on who else is reviewing your material is concerned, this isn’t something we request or expect. We do always appreciate a writer’s desire to cross their Ts and dot their Is, but there’s no need to worry about this one!
Keep sending in your questions to email@example.com!
Continuing the theme of Jim’s post yesterday, the e-book rights wars are on! Clearly Markus Dohle’s announcement that Random House has a retroactive claim on electronic rights that weren’t in existence when certain of their contracts were signed (as well as your grandma’s china and your first-born), has raised quite a stir in some circles--authors, agents, people who don’t like legal documents manipulated to mean whatever a powerful corporation decides they mean...
As PW reports, the Authors Guild is, rightly, miffed about this power play by one of the industry’s biggest players, not just because of the immediate implication to RH authors but because of the precedent such a move may set.
My sense is that Mr. Dohle’s move will not have legal legs to stand on and will engender a great deal of ill will within the publishing community. What do you all think?
Monday, December 14, 2009
The Wall Street Journal has an article on a letter that Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent out to agents on Friday. In the letter, Dohle casually mentioned his belief that Random House owns the digital rights to their entire backlist. Slow down, Smokey!
There’s a reason that almost all good publishing contracts include language that rights which are not specifically being acquired are reserved to the author. That language was placed there for the author’s protection specifically in the event of developments like electronic publishing technology—forms that couldn’t be foreseen at the time of the contract’s initial signing.
To say that electronic rights are suddenly included in the phrase “book form” is disingenuous. If that’s the case, why did later contracts go on to specifically list electronic publishing rights as negotiable terms in addition to the printed book rights? It’s also impossible to argue that ebooks were considered part of traditional book rights well before they were even a twinkle in Amazon’s eye.
We’re seeing a lot of publishers engaging in these sorts of rights grabs now and a lot of them are using semantics to pretend they’ve always had rights that were not, in fact, included in the purview of the original contract. And it isn’t just limited to ebooks. It makes sense that in times of economic troubles, publishers will be trying to hold onto absolutely every potential source of income that they can. But that doesn’t make it right or acceptable.
There’s a whole lot more conversation that’s a’comin’ on this one. Stay tuned.
When my client Matthew Algeo suggested the idea of doing a book about the road trip Harry Truman and his wife Bess took right after his presidency was over, I thought it was a terrific idea. The proposal went to 34 publishers in three different rounds beginning in April 2007 and finally selling in early July of that year. There were two bids on the project and Matthew chose Chicago Review Press, a small publisher with whom we do quite a bit of business.
The book was published earlier this year, has earned more than twice its advance and has received incredible reviews and press mentions which I am sharing here. Success stories like this one don’t happen often but when they do, I find them enormously gratifying:
Washington Post Book World
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
The Daily Herald (TN)
Wisconsin Rapids Tribune
Pekarskie (PA) News-Herald
Sauk Valley (IL) Weekend
Ogle County (IL) Life/Rock Valley Shopper
XM/Sirius Radio’s The Ron and Fez Show
Dayton Daily News
Memoirs of an Amnesiac
Carroll County (MD) Times
Jefferson City (MO) News Tribune
WTKF FM's Coastal Daybreak
College & Research Libraries News
New Press (OK)
WGN-AM’s Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg
Baltimore Sun's Read Street
Cars & Parts
Nashville Public Library's Off the Shelf
Daily Reflector (NC)
Selma (CA) Enterprise
Delaware State News
Baltimore Jewish Times
XM/Sirius Radio's Peter Greenberg Worldwide
Frederick (MD) Post
Dover (DE) Post
Something Good to Read
Presidents and Presidency of the United States
Bucks County (PA) Herald
New York Times' In Transit
Journal of American Culture
Dave's Travel Corner
Chowan (NC) Herald
Jackson (MS) Free Press
Allegheny Radio Corporation's "Magic Morning Show"
WTCS-AM's "The Morning Show"
WVON-AM's "Paul Lisnek Show"
WLS-AM's "The Roe Conn Show"
Lake Michigan Shore
Illinois Radio Network's "Eye on Illinois"
KMBZ-AM's "Kansas City's Morning News"
WZUS-FM's "Scott and Scott in the Morning"
St. Louis Beacon
WMEA-FM's "Maine Things Considered"
WILP-AM's "Happenings Q&A"
KGO-AM's "The John Rothmann Show"
Herald and Review (IL)
History News Network
New Daily Record (MD)
Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)
American Public Media's Marketplace
Bonner Springs-Edwardsville Chieftain (MO)
Staten Island Live
Alfred Sun (NY)
KCUR-FM's "The Walt Bodine Show"
KCMO's "The KCMO Morning Show"
World Wide Woodard
Friday, December 11, 2009
Lauren touched on the subject of film adaptations in her post-Oscars blog entry, but with The Lovely Bones opening in theatres this weekend, and with films such as Alice In Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes also coming to us on the big screen, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on the ongoing book vs. film adaptation debate.
Today’s NY Times review of The Lovely Bones was mixed. A.O. Scott writes that while Alice Sebold's novel showed audacity and effective art, the film shows less audacity and too much art. The film, he says, “skitters and lurches from set piece to the next” and never achieves the “delicate emotional coherence that would bring the story alive.” He then goes on to say that one of the problems with the film is that there are hard decisions to be made when trying to put Sebold’s work into a motion picture: What should be highlighted? What should be left out?
I’d like to know how filmmakers make such decisions. Obviously you can’t transfer every minute detail from a book to the screen--an audience doesn’t really want to stick around for more than a couple of hours to catch every last event that occurred in a book, but by having to be so selective in film adaptations, are we missing out on details that only reading books can bring us?
The film Adaptation comes to mind when I think about the great book vs. film adaptation debate. What was meant to be a film adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchard Thief, turned into a film about how to adapt a book into a screenplay--better yet, I think the film poses the question of whether or not it’s possible for a book to be adapted for film at all. The movie certainly makes you think whether or not this is possible. Sure, Adaptation is a wonderful film, but it’s a film about a man having writer’s block while trying to adapt the book to the big screen.
So, I wonder, are there some books that just can’t be made into films? Or, do you believe films ‘give life’ to books?
Adding to the discussion of e-book pricing earlier this week, the always insightful Mike Shatzkin of The IdeaLogical Blog rethinks the controversy and comes to the conclusion that the move to delay e-books is not about fear of cannibalizing hardcover sales (which, as Miriam argued, does not sound like an effective strategy) but about wresting control of the future of e-books from Amazon. Publishers cannot collude on e-book pricing legally, and thus far Amazon has been in charge of the whole shebang. But if publishers withhold product, they take back some of the power from retailers and put it back in their own (and, as an extension, the authors’) hands, not just on those specific books, but for the future. I’m still thinking this through, but I’m intrigued by the argument, and I’ve long agreed with many people that we as an industry have been heading down a dangerous path here—one that puts publishers at risk in the same way MP3s damaged music studios that underestimated and responded poorly to a change in the way their world worked. So what do you think? Is Shatzkin giving the publishers too much credit here for the hidden agenda, or is it a very savvy move that’s been a long time coming? Or, alternatively, is this as nonsensical as doing it for fears of siphoning sales?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Chasya used this week’s Questions Corner to respond to a good question; namely, the mistakes that authors make while pitching. My afternoon was a busy one, and somehow I missed my moment to chime in, but I’m adding my two cents now. I’d argue that pitching—the ability to use your three or seven minute “speed date” to sell an agent on an idea— is less important than the material you send or hand over. In other words, it’s possible to flub a pitch session entirely, but if you’ve managed to communicate the core idea, and that idea strikes me as an interesting/viable one, then I’m almost always willing to look at a sample. For me, and likely for most agents, it’s what is on the page that counts. So, if you stuttered or shook or needed to start over, don’t sweat it. Polish your pitch so that you feel comfortable delivering it, but know that the real assessment comes not at a tiny table in the midst of a busy conference, but when I read your work.
That said, my best advice to writers, whether they are preparing for a conference or mailing out queries is to try and think like an agent/editor. Do come up with some contemporary writers whose work is thematically or stylistically related to your own. That your work is unique is a given, but for agents and thereafter publishers to “position” your book, they’ll need to target a particular audience; does your work appeal to readers of Sue Miller and Jane Hamilton, readers of Jonathan Lethem and Dave Eggers, etc. I’m always surprised by the number of pitchers who seem flummoxed by this question. Note: It’s probably best to exclude all canonical writers from the discussion. Not because it may raise an eyebrow or two (being presumptuous is fine if you can back it up) but because it is not especially helpful as a marketing description. Leave comparisons to Joyce or James or Fitzgerald to the dazzled critics.
Nonfiction writers should address one of book publishing’s existential questions: namely, is this material really a book or is it better suited to a magazine/blog piece? Obviously, this is a subjective judgment, and sometimes it’s a question answered in hindsight, when a book fails to sell. It is, however, among the most frequently cited reasons that editors pass on interesting, well-written and even timely material. For most writers, it’s worth the effort to view your work through this lens: what does a book offer than an article length treatment can or does not? Is this a subject that people will pay to read about? Why?
Sometimes it’s tough to look at our own work so dispassionately—after all, this is a project you care mightily about. But doing so can help you reframe, fine-tune, or broaden your approach into something more viable. Something people might not only want to read, but pay to do so.
by MichaelI was pretty shocked to see a tweet this morning that Kirkus would be no longer. Honestly, my emotions are rather mixed. My authors’ books have fared well (I had two author make their year-end round-up of the best young adult books), while others, who shall of course remain nameless, haven’t been so lucky. Though many different people wrote the reviews for Kirkus, there was always a very particular snarkiness about their bad reviews. I don’t think any other publication can make an author cry the same way that Kirkus did. On more than one occasion I have warned an author before the review to be prepared, because if you’ve never read one of their reviews and they go after you, it can be soul-crushing.
But when they did give an author and book a good review, it always meant that much more. Pleasing them wasn’t easy, so doing so was all the more satisfying. And if you were lucky enough to get a star, well, then you knew you’d written something not just great but truly worthy.
So even though I told authors again and again that Kirkus and those negative reviews didn’t matter (and they didn’t), I’m sincerely going to miss complaining about the harsh reviews and secretly cherishing the positive ones. Farewell, friend.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
by MiriamI know Jane wrote about the issue of publishers delaying eBook publication, but now that Simon & Schuster and Hachette have officially jumped on the creaky bandwagon, I feel that it bears more discussion. Or maybe just a short rant by yours truly. It makes no sense, people! You could argue till you’re blue in the face that this move is going to result in more book sales and I won’t be convinced. As the26thstory blogged today, there’s no evidence that someone who’s committed to their Kindle, Nook, or eReader is going to plop down $25 for the hardcover instead of waiting for the eBook.
Sure, those of us who love the heft and weight of a hardcover (or even paperback) book and feel that holding one in our hands instead of an electronic tablet enhances the reading experience and who actually can’t wait another second to read an author’s work, will buy the hardcover. Then, there are all those college kids and young adults who love books but are financially strapped. That’s an audience that’s been mostly ignored by publishing folks for years because, wait for it, they don’t buy books. In my view, that’s also a market that grew up with iPods, MacBooks, and all their electronic offspring and who are less needful of the smell of paper and binding glue to enjoy a good story well told. And, there are all those moms at book clubs across the country who need to save money wherever they can and who might buy that $9.99 eBook instead of waiting patiently for their local library to have it available but who’ll never plop down the $25.
As far as I’m concerned, this new development is nothing more than publishers running scared. Instead of embracing the eBook revolution and figuring out how to make money off their product in all possible formats at a time when the market is in the midst of tectonic shifts, their solution is to clamp down on availability of that product. Seems just plain silly.
Your vehement opposition to my viewpoint is most welcome.
by StaceyAs we're coming up on the new year and end of a very tumultuous decade, and looking at lots of book lists, like Jim's recent post, this piece from this week's New York magazine made me think about my favorite novel of the past 10 years. The book that popped into my head was Little Children by Tom Perrotta. Loved that book (a lot better than the movie version). It's a very compelling and real look at serious suburban dysfunction. It's funny, but also achingly sad, and the seemingly simple plot unfolds in surprising ways that subtly suggest this book is not, nor was it ever, going to have a fairy tale ending. Perrotta is a talented and versatile writer who I am always eager to read something new from. What's your favorite book of the last decade?
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Another excellent question from one of our readers:
What are the biggest mistakes writers make when pitching their work at a writers' conference?
I asked around to several other agents here to find out what sorts of things make writers stand out to them during pitch sessions--and not in a good way. These were some of their replies:
I think the biggest issue I have is when people over-rehearse. It sounds so phony and it's not engaging. I want people to talk naturally about their work, and while they should be able to do so easily, I don't want it to sound like they're reading from cue cards (or even worse, ACTUALLY reading from note cards).
I don't know that I'd classify it as a big mistake, but I don't like it when pitches go on too long, they need to be concise, and it's hard to be objective when the pitcher gets really emotional, so I'd say keep it professional.
I’d say the biggest mistake is pitching a book that isn’t done: not complete, not revised, not read by a critique group or trusted friends and then revised again. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. An author that has a pitch session lined up before figuring out that they should have been further along in the process is better off taking the time to ask more general questions than pitching a book the agent can’t consider that the author might never complete—or that might be a very different book by the time they do finish.
I’d say being completely and utterly terrified. Or too reliant on a script. People trip themselves up and forget that all they really have to do is talk about their book. It’s better to be enthusiastic and calm than it is to be super-precise. Oh, and don’t bring props.
We need more of your questions! Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, jeez. Everyone else is telling you why or how they became agents. I might as well jump on board and offer the same.
Let’s face it: I had no idea what a literary agent was when I first stepped in the doors of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in the summer of 1999. I was an Urban Design and Architectural History student at NYU with a minor in the ever practical field of Dramatic Literature—that’s dramatic as in plays, not dramatic as in literature where lots of stuff happens (yes, I’ve actually gotten this question before).
So there I was…studying to be the next great urban planner, destined for a life of fame and glory. But in the meantime, I was stone broke and needed a part time job. I sent out 40 resumes to any and every listing on NYU’s career board that sounded interesting. Why’d I apply here? I liked books. That was it.
Stacey Glick was the first person to call me back. I had an interview the next day and accepted the job the day after that. One more day passed, and I got a call about the job I had really wanted: usher at Hammerstein Ballroom. It was too late: I had already committed to coming here.
On what was supposed to be my first day of employment here, I was stranded in the suburbs because some freak storm shut down all of the trains running into New York and most of the subways. An auspicious beginning.
As Miriam Goderich often tells me about my first few months here, “Jim, you were really weird.” And that’s likely true. Painfully shy, completely terrified to be working in an office with real people who seemed strangely important and powerful, I mostly kept to myself, spoke softly, and consumed buckets of Diet Coke. For some reason, Jane and Miriam remained convinced that I had some sort of talent and wasn’t just some 19-year-old moron. I don’t know what it was, but it was definitely not my hair, which resembled a calico oil slick. Regardless, they kept me around, and I started to learn just how involved the publishing process was. It was hugely intriguing. I think I had some vague notion that there was a small group of people out there who decided to be authors, so they wrote books, sent them to Manhattan, and then had books magically appear with names like “Random House” on the spine. And while I realize this is an author’s dream come true, I was personally much more excited to learn how much that was NOT the case.
Here’s a dirty secret (well, it would be a secret if I ever kept my mouth shut): I quit Dystel & Goderich three times. Each time, I went off to get a job in my “real” field of urban planning, but that never really worked out like I planned, so I kept coming back to my “fun” field of publishing. It took me about two and a half years to realize that I didn’t have to choose a career related to my major—I never claimed to be the quickest draw on the block.
In the intervening time, I had fallen in love with diving into the slush pile to see what was there. It was a thrill to charge into manuscripts hoping for the best, preparing for the worst (the attitude I still take when opening something new). I’ll confess my nerdiness: I also pulled DGLM titles off of shelves in bookstores and read the acknowledgements thinking, “Some day my name will be in one of these.”
A full time job opened up as I happened to graduate from college. Kismet. I was told when the job was offered to me, “You realize this means you have to stop quitting and coming back.”
I didn’t sell the first project I ever signed on (though to this day, I remain convinced that it would have worked). And I didn’t sell the second. But I did sell the third, and I actually sold it pretty nicely. “They offered you what? For a paperback?”
I may have stumbled into it, but it’s been a blast ever since. I had a few criteria while I was in college for what my dream job would be: every day would be different, I’d work with fascinating people, I could wear jeans in the office, and I wouldn’t start my work day until 11:00 a.m. So…I missed out on that last one, but the first two were probably more important anyway. Maybe three. I really like wearing jeans.
It’s an honor to be involved in the process of ushering books to readers, as roundabout as that process sometimes seems. And I’m thrilled with the deeply accomplished group of authors on my list. Publishing is a team sport, and…wait, I don’t know enough about sports to make a good analogy here. They’re good folks, my authors. I’ll leave it at that.
Beyond that, I was supported by Jane and Miriam the entire way. Somehow they knew the weird kid with the bad hair might just be able to make a go at this crazy business, and they supported me every day, while also giving me just enough room to find my own footing. No one ever seems to leave the agency which is a testament to how well we all function together as a team but also how deeply rooted the generosity of support we receive is and has always been. I stumbled into this business, but Jane and Miriam invited me to stay. Here I am, ten years later. Damn, I’m getting old.
Monday, December 07, 2009
I’ve made it clear over the past few years that I’m a sucker for a good list. And here’s a list of lists. One blogger compiled every Best of '09 list he has found so far. Stupidly addictive. I’m going to stop looking in one…more…second….
by JaneMany years ago when Mary Doria Russell’s first book, The Sparrow, was being published, the publisher sent Mary and me a suggested cover. I remember it well--in fact, when I looked at it, I thought that it was a joke. There, on the jacket of this beautiful first novel was a picture of a dead bird lying on its back with its feet up in the air.
I immediately contacted the publisher and clearly expressed our adamant objections--and several weeks later an eye-catching and much more appropriate cover resulted. The book has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
Would that first cover have prevented The Sparrow from selling? That is Joe Queenan’s theory in his amusing essay in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. In fact, there are many wonderful books that I suspect aren’t read because their covers are so uninviting.
I asked my colleagues at DGLM for some examples of terrible jackets and here are just a few they came up with:
Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances
Ken Kalfus's The Commissariat of Enlightenment
Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document
Alicia Erian's Towelhead, in both hardcover and paperback
I wonder whether if I really want to read a book, it’s cover would affect me. And so I decided to look at the cover of the book I am currently reading and absolutely loving: Kathryn Stockett's The Help. I was shocked--the cover is incredibly uninviting and, in my opinion, totally misleading. Thank goodness I downloaded the book into my e-reader rather than seeing it at a bookstore. Had I done the latter, I doubt I would have bought this book--and then, because of a really unfortunate cover, I would have missed a wonderful read.
Can you think of any book jackets or covers that affected you negatively--enough not to pick up that book?
Friday, December 04, 2009
Since Jane, Chasya, and Rachel have already weighed in on why they are agents, I thought I’d take my turn.
I came to agenting as many people do in publishing, somewhat by accident. When I finished grad school I moved home: jobless, apartment-less, and broke. I'd worked in bookstores in college and grad school and at a non-profit between, so I was pretty confident that I'd be happy in either field. As with many of the uninitiated, the only real jobs in publishing I could think of were editorial, marketing, and publicity, and I didn't think the latter two were for me. Neither the editorial job I wanted nor a position at a non-profit were especially easy to find. Out for dinner with friends one evening, having borrowed money from my mother to come into the city from the suburbs, I whined as usual that I wasn't finding a job and was going a little stir crazy. My friend Beth, fortunately, threw me a lifeline: two of her college friends, Michael and Jim, worked at an agency, and she knew they sometimes hired freelance readers. It'd be a foot in the door, an excuse to come into the city, and a bit of money to make it happen. The next day she put me in touch with Michael, and I luckily applied for a reader position just as Jane's assistant Leslie was moving off to Peru. Michael asked me if I was looking for a full-time position and wanted him to pass on my resume, and the rest is history!
So that's how I got to DGLM, but 4 1/2 years later, why am I still here when my plan had been to work in editorial? Because it turned out to be a perfect fit. Not only did Jane encourage me to take on my first client as soon as she felt I was ready while still assisting her, but working for her that first year gave me invaluable experience in just how agenting works. Most of us at DGLM started in our first job in publishing as an intern or as Jane's assistant, and it has made a tremendous difference. Jane knows the business inside and out having worked on both sides of the desk, and while the office is run on a complex set of systems (and anyone who has seen me work knows I love systems more than almost anything in the world), once you have a hang of them you have a real leg up on managing your time and serving your clients' best interests. And even though Jane’s constantly busy, her door is literally always open--we don’t even have to knock. Jane makes a point of explaining how things work and why. Just before my anniversary with the company, I was offered the chance to move up--take on more clients and work junior to Michael in our rights department. I was able to continue learning, not just from Michael, who taught me the ins and outs of subrights and patiently gave me advice and answers probably more often than he had time to do. I also got to move desks to sit just below the loft Miriam works from, and just from hearing her do her thing I've learned a great deal in the last few years about how to put out fires, give editorial feedback, and make sure clients are on the right track and feel supported. When another year or so later the time came for Michael to give up rights selling to focus on his ever expanding client list, Jane and Miriam once again trusted me to climb another rung of the ladder. Jim might've regretted being so easily accessible at the next desk when I couldn't wrap my mind around a contract clause or royalty statement—or when my job, regrettably, called for me to use numbers. As an agent, my list overlaps slightly with just about every other agent’s, so there’s always someone to give me an informed second opinion, to suggest an editor who’d be perfect for my submission list, and to give me feedback on my pitches.
As the agency’s Subsidiary Rights Director and an agent, I still learn new things all the time, but I’ve also had the pleasure of being the one who sometimes knows the answers. It means a lot to me that others ask my advice now, even if it’s perhaps just rightful payback for the time spent at their desks with a confused look on my face. And I’ve gotten to see Chasya, who started as an intern back when I was Jane’s assistant and then took over the front desk from me, make a similar journey within the agency, even joining me in the back room at Jim’s old desk now that he’s got his own office.
So I’m an agent because I found myself in a supportive environment where I could grow, learn, and thrive, and where my obsession for detail and order would come in handy. And yes, like everyone else really, I’m an agent because I love to read!
This week, the DGLM office talked more books, as another book club meeting was held around the all-purposes back office table.
The book club is a little different to any I’ve been involved with before because, for starters, we don’t all read the same book. The DGLM book club usually involves all of us reading a different book--this time we chose novels from the great books lists that were compiled over the summer by staff and interns. Another thing that makes this book club different is that we’re not only evaluating books as readers, but as people in the publishing industry. The reports we give involve ways we would pitch the book, offering our real opinions (some in praise, some…not so much in praise), and then talking about how they performed and whether we'd have picked them out of slush.
This time around, here is what we read:
- Jane read The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken
- Miriam read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
- Chasya read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
- Jessica read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
- Jim read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
- Lauren read The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- Stacey read Ordinary People by Judith Guest
- I read After All These Years by Susan Isaacs
Following the DGLM book club this week, a few of us were eager to get our hands on books others had reported on, so the idea of a book club where everyone reads a different book is especially great because it allows us to hear about books we might not have heard of or seen in bookstores, and it also introduces us to amazing new authors. I really like this concept because bookstores can sometimes be overwhelming with all those titles on display, and it can be difficult to know what or who to start reading.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
- Popular science or history of science, in particular, neuroscience, medicine, natural history and biology, but if the writing is good, I’m open to most any discipline. I’m looking for today’s answer to Lewis Thomas.
- Plot-driven literary fiction, books that contain both gorgeous writing and a well-constructed, dramatic narrative arc.
- Literate, John LeCarre-style spy thrillers
- Novelistic/narrative retellings of pivotal chapters in world history—modern or ancient—with strong contemporary resonance.
- A modern gothic novel, like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
- Polemic/muckraking narrative, a la Barbara Ehrenreich
- Psychology and sociology growing out of original research, with either a “big think” or prescriptive orientation.
- A surprise
There's an excellent post up on the Vroman's blog today about the failed Rick Moody story-tweeting experiment. The piece makes very good points about the insularity of publishing, which is something I've given much thought to, especially as I've headed out West. If the same group of people has the same conversations in the same spaces over and over again, what good is it really doing us? How do we reach new readers? How do we hear what book-buyers really want?
For me, this isn't about the failure of Twitter to promote books (as some who have picked up on the story have been highlighting), but rather about publishing never looking outside itself for ideas, both about how to promote books and what kinds of books people want to read. It definitely got me thinking this morning. What do you think? Is Twitter just a bad way to promote books, or is there something more to be learned here?
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
by StaceyAs some of you might know, I had identical twin girls 10 months ago, and have 2 "older" girls at home (3 and 4 1/2). So, while I have continued to work throughout my entire pregnancies and maternity leaves, my life has had a lot to do with topics like dirty diapers, play dates, and nursery schools lately. Listening to some of the respondents from Lauren's earlier post, I wanted to give a little insight into what I'm looking for right now. For obvious reasons, I'd like to see more smart, unique, well-told parenting titles. The category is really overcrowded, so it's important that the authors have a strong platform, a fresh message, and a voice that resonates with today's overstressed, exhausted parents. It doesn't have to be practical either. There are some great narrative books out there that aren't in the parenting category per se, but appeal to that market, books like the one I just recommended on our site, One and the Same by Abigail Pogrebin. I'm also always looking for more narrative nonfiction, like a project I represent, The Widow Clicquot, which tells the little known story of the dynamic French woman who created the champagne brand. Another category I'm very fond of both personally and professionally is memoir. Also overcrowded but when it works, it's so satisfying , like Come Back by Claire and Mia Fontaine, which I've blogged about before, and which I sold after sending the proposal to 54 publishers before finding the right one! It helps for memoir to have a platform already in place, like Shreve Stockton's The Daily Coyote, based on her very popular blog. In the practical area, I am always interested in working with how-to authors on craft books and cookbooks. And finally, I've had some good success recently with young adult fiction, and I'd love to see more smart, quality work in that area. I hope to hear from you soon with new submissions!
(Now seems a good time to point your attention to our relatively new sidebar: "I wish I saw more..." We'll use it as a way to keep you all up to date on the "Why can't someone just send me a query for X?" conversations that go on 'round the DGLM offices. Check it out to the right! UPDATE: Sorry, I meant to thank Susan at Stony River for the excellent idea!! -Lauren)
Just in time for the holidays, new staff recommendations from us here at DGLM to add to your shopping or wish lists! Check 'em out!
When I was a kid, the best thing I could imagine getting for my birthday or Christmas was a book. My family was, shall we say, “economically challenged,” and there wasn’t a lot of money for expensive presents, so books were the perfect gift. As far as I’m concerned, they still are. What else will keep you occupied for hours and days after the unwrapping frenzy has passed? After all, you can only use the Pedi Egg so often. And that chopping device your aunt gave you has “regifting” written all over it. But, open a book, wrap yourself in a blanket (or the Snuggie your cousin, Marge, gave you) and pour yourself a glass of wine or cup of cocoa and you’re set for a delightful time. Here are some book lists to shop from:
Michiko Kakutani's Top 10 Books of 2009
NPR's These Aren't Your Geek's Graphic Novels
The Guardian's Top 10s
PW's Best Children's Books of 2009
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
I just found out that two of the agents who are reading the full ms not only share office space, but they also share interns (based on articles and blog postings from various sources).
I know that agents usually don't talk about their potential projects with each other, but how awkward could this get?
Great question. This entirely depends on the agents’ policy. If two agents merely share office space and do not work within the same company, it is usually ok to submit to both so long as neither specifies that you shouldn’t do so. Even if these agents talk to each other about potential projects, unless they specify that they won’t accept submissions if you’ve queried Agent B in the same office suite, then you haven’t done anything wrong.
It’s a bit different if these agents share office space and they work within the same company, however. Agencies have different policies about submissions of this kind, so we can’t speak for everyone. Within the publishing world, this can be considered a submission faux pas. We here at DGLM do not accept submissions to multiple agents at this agency precisely because we will not compete with each other in-house for projects and we do regularly share things that we feel are more appropriate for a colleague than for us. There may be some agencies that don’t mind.
The bottom line is to do your research and make sure that you follow the submission guidelines for the agency you query. If you do that, you should be ok!
We need more of your questions! Please send inquiries to email@example.com.
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I attended the Middle East Studies Association conference, which is the yearly gathering of scholars of the Middle East. With its panels and papers, receptions and speeches, it is probably not unlike academic conferences of other disciplines, except that the music at the Sunday night dance party was Arab pop (if you’ve never heard the Middle East’s answer to Madonna, she’s worth a listen: check out Nancy Ajram on youtube) and among the post-docs getting down were a daunting number of accomplished belly dancers.
I go to MESA to get a sense of the ideas percolating in the field, sit in on assorted lectures, and meet with potential and existing clients whose research crosses over from an academic to a mainstream readership. This year, while helping out friends and former colleagues, I also had the memorable opportunity to moonlight as a bookseller. I have limited experience in the retail end of publishing; as an agent I’m in the business of selling books, but I’ve never tried it on a copy-by-copy basis. The experience was instructive, and I emerged from my adventure with a renewed sense of respect for the business of hand-selling.
It quickly became obvious that matchmaking between book and customer is both art and science—in this case I happened to know the books I was selling quite well, but to occupy that sweet spot between helpful and obtrusive was a wholly different challenge. When I convinced a browsing professor to purchase a novel I’d particularly loved, I was immoderately pleased. That she was already very likely interested in the subject I was peddling in no way diminished my sense of accomplishment. Other artisanal processes, like making cheese or crafting small batch whisky seem to be enjoying a renaissance, but hand-selling books, and the people who do it, ably and for real, are faring less well. Perhaps the book industry needs its own answer to the locovore movement. (Perhaps it’s out there—if yes, let me know).
Programs like B&N Discover and Borders Original Voices are efforts to scale up the hand-sell, and I like these programs immensely, but I note them professionally perhaps more than I respond to them personally. I’m curious to know how you all respond to them—ditto Amazon recommendations. Amazon’s ability to target my interests is undermined by the fact that I use the site as a research tool more often than I do to make purchases, but maybe you have better luck. Shelf talkers are great, but for me, nothing beats interested, widely read booksellers with whom I can speak; not only are they brilliant at suggesting books, they see the publishing industry from a perspective of the buyers who keep it alive. These days I’m particularly fond of New York’s Idlewild bookstore, which specializes in books on international themes—travel, world lit, etc.
But as I suspect is the case with many of you, indie bookshops have always had a special place in my heart. When I was growing up, each year, probably right about this time, my parents (both inveterate readers of nonfiction) would report to our local bookshop, where the owner would recommend a raft of novels that were just right for me. The stack that ended up beneath the tree, selected by Santa Claus, never disappointed. When, eventually I figured out that it was the bookstore owner and not St. Nick doing the selecting, it did not render the achievement any less magical. I was, however, crushed when the store closed (take that Virginia). Imaginary though he is, Santa’s position seems more secure than that of the independent bookseller, a figure whom I hope will not become a ghost of holidays past, as Jane touched on recently.