Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You don't have to read our blog to be my friend

by Steph

I always find it interesting to hear about the personal interactions of the other agents here with authors. In many cases, they have real, lasting bonds of friendship that have developed with time. It’s gratifying, and quite frankly it makes perfect sense. Without good authors, we wouldn't have material to work with. And without that, what would be the reason to show up to work every day? Seems logical, no?

My point is, I think that one of the most important parts of what we do is building relationships with authors. I've always believed this to be true. That's why I loved reading this piece by Melanie Benjamin at the Huffington Post. In it, she considers the sometimes delicate and glossed-over intricacies of building a friendship with an author, and more specifically the humorous pitfalls that come with the obligations of being a friend to an author. Ultimately, Melanie boils it all down to this one mantra: You don't have to read my book to be my friend. I’m content to put aside all the serious stuff that’s crossed our computer screens recently, especially when given the chance to read something that reminds me that these days it needs to be less about squabbling over numbers and more about building good relationships. I’m not entirely sure when I turned into Mr. Rogers. It concerns me a little. But just go with me on this one.

Jim talks about himself (and books)

by Jim

Another summer’s drawing to a close, and we in publishing only have one more summer Friday left. Post-Labor Day, submissions will be kicking off in a big way, and we enter the busiest season of our year. Before then…well, let’s just say it isn’t the most stressful week of the year. Half the DGLM staff is on vacation. Every other email sent is greeted by an out-of-office reply. Phone calls are going straight to voicemail. And for the first time in months I feel really, truly, almost caught up on reading. I left my Kindle at work yesterday! On purpose!

Which just means that instead of talking about anything terribly serious like the future of publishing, the agency model, or potential sexism at the New York Times, I’m going to talk about something more fun: me. Well…me and books I like and what I want to find.

Without going into a lengthy discourse on the merits of Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins which I read last Tuesday night (yeah, I was one of those), I will say that despite some initial quibbles, I came around on the book and ultimately loved what Collins accomplished. I would fall all over myself trying to get at a new young adult series that blended the commercial and literary worlds as well as she did. Katniss Everdeen is a genius heroine—flawed and conflicted but tough as nails and with a powerful sense of morality. You love her not because she’s perfect but because she’s trying, against all the odds, to do the right thing. Any author who can make their characters’ motivations feel this honest and deeply considered is a-okay in my book.

Reading Mockingjay put me in mind of another YA dystopian novel that I recently read, one which I will not name because I’m about to be less than friendly. Suffice to say, it’s getting a huge push for its pending release and has lots of buzz. I read it in galley form while at a conference in Pennsylvania. I was hyper-invested for 75 pages then felt myself growing away from it. At around 200 pages, I hurled the book across my hotel room. Literally. It was a book of squandered potential. One of the hardest things to do in a fantastical world, especially a dystopian one, is establish laws and rules that make complete sense. And this book’s central logic disintegrated line by line. When I’m reading a fantasy novel of any sort, the last thing I want to do is sit around pondering whether the universe it’s set in makes sense. It pulls you out of the action and makes you question the author’s grasp on their own material. Without a solid structure, you’ve got nothing.

On the adult, non-fantastical front (which I’d love to see more of), I just read Tony O’Neill’s Sick City. Check out the tagline for this book: “One legendary sex tape. Two desperate dope fiends. Three million dollars. Welcome to…Sick City.” First of all, I hope whoever wrote that copy got a raise. But also, I’m just a sucker for gritty urban realism combined with a unique thriller-ish hook. I like my crime fiction pitch black with a light undertone of humor: Chelsea Cain, Charlie Huston, early Dennis Lehane (his late stuff is also brilliant, just different), Gillian Flynn. There’s a lot to be said for someone who can be legitimately unsettling who also keeps you reading, who can write overpowering scenes but knows just when to pull you back in with a touch of comfort.

I blogged before about reading more graphic novels. Since then, I finished the Scott Pilgrim series and read Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets. I haven’t worked on anything in this category before, but it’s something I’d love to try if I can find the right first project. For me, that would need to be something that wasn’t serialized first and was intended either specifically for a young adult audience or was something that, like the Bechdel, was targeted at a decidedly adult readership. Which is not to say that all of the in-between isn’t fantastic. Things particularly pitched at 20-somethings probably sell best in this arena, but I just don’t know that would be a good starting place for me.

Right now, I’m about two-thirds of the way through The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon. Can I just say…this man crafts sentences with a precision and beauty that so few can rival. Check out this description: “He took Rora home in his Bentley, large as a house, the seats made of leather so fine that you could hear the spirits of the slaughtered calves sigh.” I’m digging this novel, but I’m not in love with it. There are moments where I feel a real disconnect between the storytelling and the action. But I’m so obsessed with parts of it that I’ve actually busted out the pen to underline sections to read to people later. So if you can make that happen, GAME ON!

And blah, blah, blah, like always I want brilliant commercial fiction across categories. I want to find anything that can provoke a physiological response—novels that make me laugh, cry, shiver, flinch. I want books that are escapes from the world and books that make you understand it better. I work with a lot of great authors who write great books. And I want more. I’m selfish that way.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Picking your battles

by Jim

As Jessica discussed last week, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner have been vocally irritated by the raves for Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom. They’ve lashed out at the New York Times for focusing too much on white male authors but also for their almost complete discounting of all commercial fiction. These are points that lend themselves to ample debate. I’ve mentioned before that I think fiction across categories and types can be brilliant. And I have ample concerns about the blinding whiteness of the literary landscape (which is a topic for a whooooole other post). So why do I find myself so irritated by the articles coming out?

First of all, it’s a little tough to stomach the argument when it’s coming from two of the bestselling authors in the country. Why are they so angry they aren’t getting reviews? Can’t they just dive into their money a la Scrooge McDuck whenever they need to feel loved? I’d find this a lot easier to stomach coming from someone straddling the commercial/literary divide who hadn’t broken out and needed reviews to break through.

Second, did you catch this in the Guardian article? “Picoult also criticised Kakutani's use of the word ‘lapidary.’ ‘Did you know what [it] meant when you read it in Kakutani's review? I think reviewers just like to look smart,’ she tweeted.” Oh no, she didn’t… Mocking someone for using a “smart” word is already ignorant. But coming from an author? That’s disgraceful. Working with language is what you DO. If you want to understand why people don’t take you seriously, you probably shouldn’t indicate that you yourself don’t take the language that seriously. Not knowing the word? Totally fine. It’s not like I don’t make regular stops at dictionary.com. But Picoult’s tweet is just anti-intellectual and insulting.

Mostly, though, I’m annoyed because these articles are linked to a novel by someone whose last effort, nine years ago, was a masterpiece. People aren’t excited about Freedom because it’s by a white man. They’re enthusiastic about getting to dive back into the landscapes of the person who created The Corrections, one of the best written, most deeply moving novels of the past decade. Pick on someone divisive like Jonathan Safran-Foer or someone whose output is uneven like Jonathan Lethem. Hell, they even have the same first names and all live in the same borough of New York City. But attacking Franzen…you’re just sabotaging your own arguments.

I’m probably exposing all sorts of biases here. What do you all think?

From the Vault: What we do

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jane

A couple of weeks ago, a woman came to me for representation. She had been offered a publishing contract by a small academic publisher who had sent her their contract. When the woman saw the contract, she felt many of its terms were unfair and she went to a friend of hers to ask if she should get an agent. The friend advised that “the purpose of an agent is to bring buyers and sellers together. Once a seller has a buyer, then the agent’s job is basically done.”

Frankly I was stunned, to say nothing of very annoyed. We are not in the real estate business – which is what this person, who happened to be a published author – had made it sound like. In fact, we do a great deal for our clients in addition to selling their books, and, as the business has changed over the years, we seem to be taking on more and more of what the publisher used to do.

First, of course, we help authors develop their idea. In the case of nonfiction, we help them refine their thoughts and produce a book proposal, which we then edit very thoroughly. In the case of fiction, we work with the author to develop and outline and craft a well written, saleable manuscript.

When we have a product that is ready to show, we submit the material to a number of publishers simultaneously and often sell the project in an auction; we negotiate the deal with the publisher and explain everything clearly to the author, advising him or her on what we think s/he should agree to. We collect all monies for the author on signing, on manuscript acceptance and at any other time designated in the contract.

I contact each and every one of my clients currently writing a book at least once a month to make sure everything is going well with their project. Too often, I have found that writers are reluctant to come forward when they are in trouble in one way or another.-Several years ago, for example, I found out that one of our novelists’ mother was dying of ovarian cancer. This was slowing her down, understandably, and I had to inform the publisher. As it turns out, the book was over a year late, but I was able to work the new deadline out with the publisher and the result was a brilliant novel. On another, more recent occasion, my client found out she had breast cancer and was reluctant to tell anyone until I called. Again, the delivery of her manuscript was easily postponed.

Of course, when there is a problem of any kind with the publisher, I am there to intervene and be the buffer between the two so that their working relationship can remain a good one.

Once the manuscript is turned in, I make sure the editing and acceptance moves along. Sometimes, we even get involved in the editing process if we feel the publisher is not doing their job. I find out the publishing schedule for the writer and make sure, when there is a cover and page design, that the client has a “say” in how everything looks.

I get the promotion, publicity and advertising projections from the publisher and discuss them with the author if I don’t think enough is planned (and more often than not these days I find myself trying to help the author supplement inadequate publishing plans for the book). In addition, I sometimes work with the publisher on finding the appropriate month in which to publish, especially when my client and I feel the publisher hasn’t given that a great deal of thought.

I review all royalty statements and query the publisher when I see anything my client or I think is unclear or wrong. (Publishers keeping too much money in reserve for returns is a typical example of something we catch often.)

And there are other miscellaneous “above and beyond” situations that always arise: the time I had to have a member of our staff edit one of out novelists’ novels because the “editor” felt it was “finished” and we knew it wasn’t; the time one of our food clients was nominated for an important award and I had to fly across the country to be there with her to make sure she was okay no matter which way it went; the time another client really needed me at her publishing party in LA and I went and returned home in 24 hours. These were all important things to my clients; as a result, they became a priority of mine as well.

After that first book is successfully published, we go on to work with the author on what kind of strategy to use in submitting his or her next idea.

So, in our case at least, my new client’s friend was wrong. Or maybe she was talking about the real estate business...

Originally posted in November 2006.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lines being crossed

by Lauren

Jim, Miriam, Jessica have already tackled two of this late summer’s most hotly anticipated releases, but the one I’m most excited for is one that I’ve already read. Emma Donoghue’s Room is on the Booker longlist and recently came out in the UK, where it’s receiving some very nice reviews. My BEA galley made the rounds in this office and has also been read by many of my friends, even though it’s not released in the US till mid-September. No one could deny Donoghue’s genius.

Apparently, though, at least one person feels that the book’s quality as a work of fiction is irrelevant given that it’s inspired in part by real events. The idea for Room came from the idea that when Josef Fritzl was captured, the children his daughter had borne while his captive had never seen the world outside where they were held. The story isn’t about the Fritzl case, and it’s not (unfortunately) the only case of that nature, but Donoghue admits to getting the idea for the book because of it. Writing in the Guardian, Darragh McManus objects to using a major tragedy as inspiration for a fictional work, presuming, apparently, that it’s a cynical choice motivated by greed. McManus grants an exemption for those with personal ties (Maus is okay, because of Spiegelman’s father) and apparently reserves no such negative judgment for people writing about smaller, less “newsworthy” tragedies, which I suppose is for the best given that it’d leave novelists with precious little to write about.

I think that McManus’s conclusion in the piece really misses the mark, in that I don’t think Donoghue is doing those things he claims are the reason for his “no big tragedies” policy in his concluding paragraph. That aside, though, I’m just not convinced that it can reasonably be considered wrong to write novels based on real events. Can it be crass and cynical? Absolutely. Though I doubt that most people writing stories inspired by, say, the Holocaust are being deliberately, consciously manipulative, I’m certainly not beyond finding some of them to be schmaltzy and cheap. But for me, it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t have done it because I happen to feel that way. I’m just not comfortable with the notions that a) anyone owns particular tragedies, b) some tragedies are more important or sacred than others, or c) we’d be well served by declining to fictionalize them. Novels are a large part of the way that we understand the past and process our feelings about it in the present. I can only imagine how much we’d lose of our understanding of life, death, and what came before us if we saved it for the history books that many never bother to read.

In this case, I’m taking the old standby: if McManus isn’t comfortable with it, he doesn’t have to read it, but that doesn’t mean Donoghue shouldn’t write it.

Bookshelf spies

by Rachel

While reading the New Yorker this week, I came across this article by Susan Orlean—author, blogger, and now self-confessed book snoop. While renting a house on Cape Cod, Orlean tries to get a sense of who the home owners are by analyzing their collection of books (and spices!), which made me wonder—how much can you tell from someone’s bookshelves (seriously, her article was simply charming, but I’d never publicly own up to snooping in a stranger’s home!).

If strangers were to come across my current book collection, I’m not sure how they’d analyze me. Most of the books in my apartment right now are gifts from friends or family (who all have very different taste; there’s a lot of self-help and chick-lit—go figure), with a few of my can’t-live-without favorites.

So, if strangers were to rent your home for the holidays, what conclusions do you think they’d draw from your own book collection?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


by Michael
For someone who never liked math much (past the age of 16, that is), I have a thing for numbers. I like things to be tangible and real, and while dealing in the abstract is great for artists, it doesn’t make much sense in business. In all of the discussion of e-books, I find very few articles and blog posts contain numbers, and when they do, they tend be rounded and squared and averaged and guesstimated. So I was pleased to see this great post from Mike Shatzkin today, which looks more closely at the nitty-gritty of author compensation from e-books under the agency model. The results make sense, and in some ways bear out both the arguments of agents/authors and publishers. There’s still some guessing here, but this is the closest to something I trust that I’ve seen thus far, and it’s worth a closer read and further thought. Interesting times.

Gender bias?

by Jessica

Apropos of Miriam’s post on the euphoric reception to Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, at least two novelists have cried foul. Not about Franzen’s book per se, but the case, advanced by Jodi Picoult and seconded by Jennifer Weiner, that the NYT Book Review favors writers who are “white and male and live in Brooklyn.” Good news for this fairly sizeable demographic; Brooklyn boys with literary leanings can now rest easier knowing that their eventual literary efforts will receive proper critical attention.

I’ve followed the ensuing discussion over the last week with interest. In the Atlantic, Spiegel and Grau editor Chris Jackson weighed in with “All the Sad Young Literary Women.” A female colleague asked him to name some female novelists whose work he had read recently, and he confessed that for a moment, he couldn’t think of any (turns out, however, that he had read at least one). This prompted me to go through my own recent reads, seeing how I measure up.

I tend to read plenty of books by women authors, but I’ve never bothered to quantify or implement a quota system. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been in something of a Y chromosome rut, reading Evelyn Waugh, whose books, aside from Scoop, I’ve not read before—Brideshead Revisited, his World War II Trilogy. Fine writer, that Waugh, but something of a snob. I did, however attempt to balance the scales by reading some Muriel Spark, in order to get a female perspective on the foibles of British bluestockings.

How about you? What do you think of Picoult’s charge? How does your own reading compare?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Spy novels by spies

by Stacey

I'm not personally a huge fan of spy fiction, but I came across this incredible list in the Seattle Times and felt it was worth sharing with our readers. You don't often hear about the need for credentials to write fiction (even if it's imperative to write nonfiction), but in this case, it certainly helps for credibility and presumably storytelling purposes as well to have worked in the intriguing and mysterious world of spies. If you have any interest at all in this category, this list seems a great starting point for novels across the category. I'll start my reading with le Carré's George Smiley trilogy. Enjoy, and let us know if you have any favorites that Mary Ann Gwinn might have missed in her comprehensive roundup.

Damning with great praise

by Miriam

Saying that the reviews for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have been positive is like saying McDonald's has sold a few burgers. Running the gamut from “a work of total genius” (New York Magazine) to “a masterpiece” (The New York Times Book Review)—and those are just the local rags—the orgasmic praise is, frankly, a little daunting. The expectations for this book are so high (from readers, booksellers and the novel’s publisher) that even President Obama getting an A.R.C. from a bookseller while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard set off an industry panic attack.

As someone who read The Corrections with equal measures wonder and awe, I plan to get my copy of Freedom as soon as I can find my way to a bookstore when the book pubs next week. I worry, however, that, after all the early hosannas, I will find a comfortable chair, bribe my husband and four-year-old to give me a few hours of uninterrupted reading time, and find myself…disappointed. I am determined to come to the book with an open mind despite all the raves I’ve already been privy to, but Mr. Franzen is going to have to wow me anew before I jump on the laudatory bandwagon. I do feel for the guy, though. That mountain of praise is a long uphill climb.

Do you guys ever resent the media hype of big books (if I see one more Facebook post about Mockingjay…) and do you feel it negatively impacts your reading experience?

Intellectual Property vs. "Cultural Commons"

by Jessica

Some years ago, shortly after I moved from New York to Egypt, I was invited to participate with fellow publishing professionals in a seminar on intellectual property rights, hosted by the Cairo Book Fair. The discussion swirled around licensing translations into and out of Arabic, the plight of authors in the Arab world (who, no matter how successful, rarely make enough money to give up their day jobs) and the importance of combating piracy. Therefore it caught me by surprise when one of the participants—presumably a fellow publisher—raised his hand and pointed out, with all due respect, that intellectual property law in general, and copyright law in particular, was just one more way in which wealthy first-world nations turned a profit at the expense of poorer developing ones.

I was thunderstruck.

Although I’d heard folks in the United States—generally my tech-savvy acquaintances—bat around the notion that “knowledge wants to be free, dude,” I imagined that this applied mostly to shareware, assorted wikis, and other Wired magazine fare. Somehow, up until that moment, I’d failed to see the connection this notion has to the business in which I work, which is, of course, predicated on the idea that knowledge, at least in book form, does not wish to be free. It wants a retail price, a percentage of which (7.5% for trade paperbacks, 10-15% for hardcovers, and still tbd as far as e-books are concerned) should be given to the author.

At that seminar in Cairo, it had never even occurred to me that copyright could be regarded as anything other than capital-G Good. Intellectual property law is, after all, what allows writers to write—the knowledge that their material is protected, that they can profit by its success, that their words or ideas cannot be distorted or stolen, that writing for a living is, in fact, possible. Not easy, not likely, but possible. I’d never so much as imagined that a counter-argument existed, much less thought about ways in which intellectual property law might be seen as vehicle of exploitation. But in developing markets, the cost of commissioning a translation and paying even a modest licensing fee can make publishing a given project untenable. And of course, the issue is not just with books: Powerful pharmaceutical companies control the patents to drugs that are most acutely needed in desperately poor countries, the same is true for most all scientific and creative output—much is controlled by relatively rich entities—whether countries or corporations.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to toss out the baby with the bath water. I’m a staunch defender of copyright; it goes with the territory of being an agent. But I’d like to think I’m a little more critical—or at least open-minded--about the role intellectual property law plays in a complex, global, and (with apologies to Tom Friedman) not entirely flat world. Which is why I have been particularly interested to dig into Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. There’s a great (and unusual) graphic review in the Barnes and Noble review , plus an excellent non-graphic discussion in the New York Times Book Review. Hyde cites copyright law (which presently stands at the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years) as an area in which “enclosure,” i.e. fencing off areas of science, literature, innovation, etc. for commercial gain, has won at the expense of our “cultural commons,” areas of shared knowledge that are essential to the growth of a society. He does believe that artists should own their work (whew!), but questions how long that period should last. He illustrates his point with true stories drawn from agribusiness, pharmaceuticals and even the music industry. He is particularly keen to cite the ideas of the founding fathers, who, he argues, were more or less in agreement with Thomas Jefferson that "ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man."

Sounds good in theory, but how does this play out in practice? How do we see that writing, or creative output in general, is both fostered and rewarded? That the publishing industry does not collapse? I sure don’t have the answers, but given the fact that e-books (and initiatives like Google Books and Project Gutenberg) can aid and abet the Jeffersonian spread of ideas in unprecedented ways, it’s worth mulling over.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Growing up is hard to do

by Stephanie

The other day, Jim and I were engaging in some friendly conversation about pop culture of the 90s, but when I drew a blank on a reference, his disgust was tangible: “My God. How young are you?” In truth, Jim’s frankness led me to consider my own place in the wonderfully unnerving process of growing up in all its forms. Whatever “growing up” even means.

So while I faced the reality of my own Generation Y status, I took some solace in reading this piece on the Book Bench blog, in which Macy Halford gives her take on the literary interpretation of the emerging adult. In it, Halford offers seven novels that provide a unique window to the dramas and pitfalls that accompany the young adult, particularly the twenty-something. Being a member of this crowd, I enjoyed perusing this list of titles—my personal favorites being A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Emperor’s Children. I’m drawn to the idea that there repeatedly exists in literary form a character who seeks to resist the expectations of society, and instead chooses to define one’s path by his or her rules.

Can you think of other books that fit this description? Are there certain books that particularly spoke to you as you entered young adulthood?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Books we love

by Jim

Are we all excited about the release of Mockingjay tomorrow? I’m sure there must be other fans of the Hunger Games trilogy out there. I can’t wait!! Right now I’m trying to talk myself out of going to a midnight release event tonight that author Suzanne Collins will be at. Because if I go, I probably won’t get home until 2, and then I’ll want to stay up and read, and then, well…I’d probably feel not so fresh tomorrow.

In any case, I’m nerding out pretty hard over this book. Watch me segway to the topic of my post here: I love the first two books in the trilogy. And we always talk about how we have to love something to sign it on. Is that actually true?

Lance Parkin, in the comments on Jessica’s most recent entry, had some interesting thoughts on this and came out pretty pro-agent! He sees us as an uncynical bunch who push products that we love versus giving a cold and calculating push to things we just think will earn money.

Oh, Lance. You may give some of us too much credit. I’m not going to lie—there were two times in the past that I can think of signing something on just because I thought I could make some money off of it. I just sucked at selling out. Neither book placed with a publisher. And I just walked away feeling a little bit bad about myself.

I think the biggest reason we have to only sign on things we love is that there’s so much investment of time and energy into each project. And it’s so much easier to stay motivated and really fight for something that you believe in. Besides which, if something you don’t love doesn’t place, you think, “See, I knew I should have trusted my gut.” Whereas if something you do love doesn’t sell, you can spend the next five or ten years talking about how you can’t believe no editors were perceptive enough to share your appreciation of genius. And that’s so much more satisfying!

Letting go

by Jane

One of the really nice customs in publishing is that when an agent is invited to lunch by an editor or a publisher, the editor or publisher usually brings along a book or two from their list for the agent. Sometimes the books are bestsellers, sometimes they represent new voices the publisher is proud of and wants to show off.

Recently, though, an old friend, an editor with a major publishing house, gave me a particularly thoughtful book at our lunch, The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College(and Beyond)While Letting Them Grow Up.  The book was written with research done at Middlebury and The University of Michigan and discusses how much or little parents should stay connected to their children as they leave the nest. 

The book was a particularly lovely gift as my son is going off to the University of Michigan next week where he will begin his college career. It has been difficult contemplating this separation even though my husband and I of course knew it was coming. Having friends and colleagues who are as thoughtful as this editor was at this time is helping us all to get through this experience far more smoothly.

I have no doubt that reading The iConnected Parent will be instructional and comforting and I am looking forward to it. I wonder if you have any other suggestions for books to help us empty nesters move forward.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The allusive and elusive Jay-Z

by Lauren

As you may recall, I’m a bit of a poetry fan. Truth be told, though, I enjoy breaking apart its rhythms and allusions much more than I ever have any sentiment it’s meant to convey. I like the challenge of memorization and figuring out the appropriate intonation, as well as the more scientific analysis of form, which is both nerdy and perhaps a real violation of the spirit in which many poets endeavor. I myself am a fan of the just slightly too clever type of poet—Paul Muldoon and the like—instead of poetry in which form doesn’t play a strong role. I have a vague recollection of once reading a poem about poetry that was so clever, it actually demonstrated each term as it discussed it, and while I instantly fell in love I can’t for the life of me recall what it is.  Does anyone know what I’m thinking of? It’d certainly be some canonical thing from an English class.

I was reminded of this type of analysis while reading a Guardian article on Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” a song I quite like, not least because it sort of sounds like nonsense if don’t understand the allusions. I certainly don’t get much of it on my own, which is why I lost a bit of time down the rabbit hole of this blog entry and subsequent comments on The Awl a while back. The analyses of various parts of the song and the allusions that may or may not be contained therein—as well as this very detailed explanation of the entire song linked to in the comments—are really kind of mind blowing. If you like the song, are confused by it, or just love when people put words together in an interesting way, do check it out! And if the bad grammar of the chorus bothers you as much as it does me, you’re going to love this solution.

P.S. I really need to teach my nephew to do this once he learns some more words, because I’m thoroughly impressed with the way this kid captures the nuance and rhythm required for this poem to make sense. (Thanks, Michael, for sharing the link!)

Used toothpicks and toilets for sale!

by Rachel

Ever wanted to own your favorite author’s toilet? Well, I haven’t, but if you’re into acquiring the weird and wonderful, it looks like you’re in luck: J.D. Salinger’s old toilet is up for auction on EBay for a cool one million dollars. The toilet comes un-cleaned (because you’d have it no other way, right?) and with a letter from the owners who bought Salinger’s house (to verify authenticity? After all, noone wants to pay big bucks for a phony toilet).

Other literary memorabilia has gone on auction before, as Huffington Post noted a few weeks ago – from an unpublished manuscript by Mark Twain (interesting) to a toothpick belonging to Charles Dickens (ick!), but the toilet of an author? A used toothpick up for auction makes me cringe, but a used toilet? I’m not sure what to think about this, but the word “absurd” does come to mind.

If you could choose any one item from your favorite author to acquire, what would it be? Quirky, interesting or just plain weird, I’d love to know!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Missed boats

by Jessica

I spotted this post on Little, Brown editor Reagan Arthur’s blog, and I thought it was well worth sharing. I always tell writers that this business is a subjective one, and that the alleged “gatekeepers,” agents, editors, etc. are by no means infallible, and although we are immersed in the book industry, our judgment is necessarily colored by our own our interests, predilections, and the myriad of other factors, both profound and ridiculous, that compose taste. Superimposed upon this is our professional experience with “similar” books (none of which are precisely alike) and our own understanding of the publishing successes and failures of the recent past.

There are published, successful and much celebrated writers whose skill I admire but whose work I fail to adore—had their manuscripts arrived in my inbox, I would likely have turned them down. Sometimes it’s the style, sometimes the subject matter, very rarely it’s the setting. But usually it’s an inchoate jumble of things, at which point I, (and most every publishing professional whom I know) tend to resort to opaque and sometimes maddening phrases like “I just didn’t fall in love.” Since, by virtue of being an agent, I am not only in a position to employ this phrase, but also on the receiving end of this very rejection, I encounter such demurrals with both frustration (i.e. how can editor X be unmoved?) and also a measure of grudging recognition. Both agents and editors must be determined advocates for the projects they champion, so most tend to be highly selective. The acquisition process is an imperfect science, one short on objective criteria and rife with mistakes in judgment, missed boats, and tales of the “one that got away.” Reagan Arthur’s post, coming as it does from an editor well known for her terrific taste—injects a good dose of humanity and humility into a process that many writers feel is short on both.

Kids these days

by Michael

It’s one of my favorite times of year! It’s the annual Beloit College Mindset List. Since 1998, the college has been helping their professors understand what the cultural differences are between them and the incoming freshman class. The list is new each year, which means there’s an awful lot of fluff on it, but some of the entries really make you think. (I recommend going back and looking at past lists, since much of those still apply.) A couple that stood out to me this year:

32. Czechoslovakia has never existed. (I still remember teaching myself how to spell it when I rather impulsively chose it as the Olympic competitor country to do a report on in 5th grade.)

67. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always sat on the Supreme Court.

46. Nirvana is on the classic oldies station.

That last one gets me the most. Now that I live in LA and have to drive, I listen to music radio again, something I hadn’t really done since high school. It was definitely a shock hearing Nirvana on the “classic rock” station.

So, how’s this relate to publishing? It’s important as publishing professionals to be aware of who our audience is, and reading this list always makes me stop and think about the kids picking up my authors' books. And it also makes me project into the future: In a few years, there won’t be a kid who’s been to a Waldenbooks. They won’t remember a time before Amazon. They’ll live in a world that’s full of widely-available, instant-access e-books. And this is just a few years down the line! Any thoughts on what generational changes the future might hold for publishing?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Blogs to books to film

by Stacey

One of my clients is mentioned in this recent LA Times article that I thought was worth sharing. It's interesting to see how the Internet continues to find new talent and how some of that talent translates to books, and other types of media, like film and television. The article notes that most bloggers become book authors before Hollywood takes interest. There are always going to be hits and misses: even bloggers with a big following don't always translate on the book side to big sales. Heather Armstrong of Dooce has lots of traffic, but her first book didn't make as big a splash as I'm guessing her publisher hoped. And Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, had a huge hit with her first book, which her publisher didn't pay a huge advance for.

Enjoy the piece, and if there are any blogs you're reading that you love and haven't yet found a home as a book or film or tv show, let us know!

If book titles told the truth....

by Miriam

Authors, agents and publishers tend to agonize over book titles. You want something evocative, witty, literary, whimsical, muscular, funny, quirky, different, but not too different, alliterative, lyrical, short…. You basically want the equivalent of the advertising jingle you can’t get out of your head. But, as Dan Wilbur points out, readers are sometimes flummoxed by titles that give them no hint of what the story they’re going to spend hours, days, sometimes months trying to get through is about or that don’t quite prepare them for the experience they’re about to embark upon (good or painful).

Some titles, of course, are exquisitely straightforward (The Old Man and the Sea, for instance, pretty much sums up what you’re up against with the longest short novel ever), but there are plenty that are headscratchers. What are some of the titles you’d like changed for clarity’s sake and what would their replacements be?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Save the unicorns!

by Stephanie

Cover art is constantly a topic of discussion here—it seems like whenever a new cover draft comes in, everyone crowds around the conference table to get the first look. Judgment gets passed, fights break out. It’s a generally healthy exercise.

I have to say though, for all the times I’ve joined in on this opinion party, I’ve only ever considered these new covers in relation to the book itself. But this piece over at Orbit Books gives a different perspective by mapping out the most frequently occurring cover elements, specifically in the fantasy genre, from the past year. According to their not-so-scientific research, several newly tracked graphic elements show a strong presence in 2009, while others seem to fall off the map between 2008 and 2009. All I’ll say is this: I’m sad to see the unicorn lose the prestige it deserves, but I’m also thankful that there’s now a clear delineation between “damsels (in distress)” and “damsels (no distress).”

As I turn it over to you, I’m curious to get your opinion—why do you think certain images gain or lose popularity and therefore show up more or less frequently over the course of a given year?

The return of the independents

by Jane

When Barnes & Noble announced a couple of weeks ago that they were for sale, the incredible irony of the potential results of such a move struck me. Almost immediately, I saw the very positive ramifications for our industry.

The incredible proliferation of the chain bookstores over the last twenty or so years has wreaked havoc on our business. The chains first and in a very dramatic way caused some of the greatest independent bookstores in our country to go out of business. It was in these individual stores that word of mouth about first time authors and their books would begin to build and spread outward. Many of these independent stores were responsible for creating bestsellers and successful writing careers.

But then the chains came in and knocked the independents out with their discounting and other mass merchandising methods. And these same chains because of their tremendous influence also dictated to publishers which books they should publish. When a chain “passed” on ordering a book, that title died—there was simply no place for it to go.

And then came Amazon, first slowly and then it exploded. Ordering electronically definitely put a crimp in the chains’ style and cost them dearly.

And this, of course, was followed by the development of e-readers and the new era of electronic publishing; the chains were becoming more and more irrelevant as places for books to be bought.

Now, Borders is barely surviving—they just laid off a bunch of staff at their headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And, Barnes & Noble might just be bought by its former owner Len Riggio who, undoubtedly, will take it back to being a much smaller, simpler operation—and continue to sell many items other than books simply because for a chain of any size, books are not as economically attractive to carry as they once were.

But the corner bookstore—and I actually have a wonderful one a block away from my home in New York City—is going to become more of a force. I don’t know yet whether the independents will multiply and grow as they once did—but I am counting on them wielding far more influence on what their customers read than they have in recent years. If this happens, then reading will benefit greatly whether books are sold in hard copy or electronically.

I am really rooting for the return of the independents and look forward to hearing what you think of all of this.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Jim waxes nostalgic

by Jim

Hello again, blogosphere. I got back from vacation today and as our dedicated readers know, yet another loyal DGLM intern, Stephanie DeVita, has gone full time. We trapped another one! (I kid, I kid).

Stephanie’s shift to full time makes me feel one thing: old. Okay, two things: it also make me feel nostalgic. It’s now been more than eight years since I went from intern to full-time employee. And I realize as I write this that this week actually marks exactly 11 years since I first set foot in the door.

The first day I was supposed to work here, I was out in the ‘burbs, and a storm dumped so much rain that train lines flooded, and I couldn’t make it in. I figured this was a sign from the weather gods that working here was a bad idea. But with the end of flooding the next day, I was able to make it in. And I was scaaaaared. I had worked about 17 jobs in high school, but this was my first employment in the big city, and I was convinced that everyone was going to be terrifying. Sure, that was true. But I stuck it out anyway.

Nah, everyone was great. And I went from not knowing what a literary agent was to BEING one. The best thing about working here, in my opinion, has always been the opportunity to experiment and grow. I really grew up here. As Jane and Miriam can attest, the exceedingly weird teenager I started was left deep in the past. The world thanks them.

Nothing about becoming an agent is easy. It takes time to find clients, more time to sell books by them, and a lot more time to build them. There was a lot of trial and error along the way. But again, there was room for that. I could sign on books that might not have had much of a chance. I worked on them because I loved them. Some early defeats still sting. There’s a novel that I tried to sell in 2003 that I still think deserved publication. Urination played a large role. It was…less than commercial. I’m still teased about that one sometimes, but you know what? It was GOOD.

Mostly though, I’m just in a happy reflective place. Finding a great book to work on is still the most exciting part of the job. I am thrilled by the successes of my clients but never satisfied until I’ve helped them achieve more. What I love about this job is that it’s never “done.” You don’t punch a time clock and leave it behind at the end of the day. There is always more to be read, more to explore, more to think about. Once that stops being overwhelming (give it about five years, Steph), the ongoing nature of the business is its own reward.

Things change: markets go up and down, new ways of reading are developed, different trends hit while others sink. But great books will always be read. And I’m delighted to play a small role in making that happen.

This concludes the most grossly earnest post I will ever write: promise.

Memoirs don't sell?

by Jane
So I just saw this story about Justin Bieber’s memoir at age 16 (which really isn’t a memoir because that would be ridiculous, right?), and it made me think of a recent experience I had with a project in this category.

We had discovered an author who had previously published a couple of true crime books but who now sent us material for a possible memoir. Her voice was simply superb and I was thrilled as, after all, this is why we do what we do—to find those voices that stand out. The discovery of wonderful writing is what our business is all about.

We helped this writer develop her proposal and I thought we would put it into the newsletter we distributed last May and sell it shortly thereafter. First, though, I thought I would send it to three publishers just to test the waters. I picked three very good publishers and three very good editors. And despite the fact that the material was superb and the publishers and editors were very strong, they all turned down this excellent proposal. Why? Because their marketing and sales people said that “memoirs don’t sell.” At one of the houses I submitted to, the editor didn’t even take the time to read the material.

I found this absolutely shocking, but I wasn’t giving up. I couldn’t believe that in the business of reading people weren’t reading.

And so some weeks later, after the newsletter had gone out and a number of editors had expressed interest in my client and her work, I sent the proposal out to several other houses. We had seven bids at auction and in the end the material ultimately went to Knopf, a terrific publisher. We sold it well. Fortunately there are those in our business who still do read and who aren’t daunted by purely commercial considerations, and all I can think is thank goodness for that!

Do you all read a lot of memoirs?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Word nerds

by Lauren

I've never really had a favorite YouTube channel before (except maybe if the Planet Unicorn folks had their own channel), but I have one now.  Thank you Merriam-Webster Online for your Ask the Editor series.  I particularly enjoy "Octopus." 

Any other super nerdy series (YouTube or otherwise) I should be checking out?

The bad writing virus

by Rachel

While reading a manuscript over the weekend, I was trying to pinpoint why the story didn’t work for me. I couldn’t find the words to describe what the author was doing, but, thanks to Nathan Bransford and his article on Huffington Post, I was able to identify exactly what “writerly germ” had infected the manuscript! The story had a bad case of the overstuffed sentences and description overload. I felt like my eyes needed a short rest after each sentence—this is something I’ve always disliked in writing. But I also can’t stand an entire novel written in shorter Hemingway clipped sentences; very tedious.

I’d love to hear what you think you’re guilty of as a writer!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Oddly, this isn't from the Onion

by Michael

At first, I thought maybe it was April Fools’ Day. I mean, I know we have artisanal everything these days, from foods to furniture to mining, but this one just seemed a little less useful: artisanal pencil sharpening. But it’s quite real. For $15, you too can have your pencil lovingly sharpened by David Rees, creator of the brilliant comic Get Your War On (my favorite being the, “What if our president had been a shoe” panel). Your pencil comes back very well-packaged, along with the shavings, too. As he says, they’re your shavings!

It’s conceptual art, I think, and the whole thing kept me more engaged than I imagined I would be when I first started the Jacket Copy post. As one who loses writing implements on a daily basis, though, I think I’ll pass on the sharpening. Any takers?

Literary karma

by Jessica

There’s a funny article from debut novelist Matt Platt (The French Revolution) on the eye-opening experience of publishing a first book. Platt writes that whereas he once believed himself a "decent member" of the literary community, he has since had a series of epiphanies that he’d “been doing a whole lot wrong.” Included on his list of karma-correcting, right behaviors: “Read books from living authors only;” “channel jealousy into solidarity;” “shut up and buy books from people you know.”

Whether or not you agree with them, Platt’s epiphanies appear to occur more or less surrounding publication of his novel (and his essay is a fairly graceful piece of self-promotion) but it seems to me that many of my own clients and the writers whom I know report experiencing a similar road-to-Damascus moment even earlier in the process. Thus, I’m curious to know if and when your involvement in the writing life has changed the way you buy books, think about fellow writers, or indeed, persuaded you that such a thing as literary karma exists.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Way or YA?

by Miriam

My “away” vacation this year was spent in the Outer Banks with my family, mostly eating, drinking and lounging on the beach (actual swimming was not really possible given the profusion of jellyfish). A couple of those days were also spent reading the last installment of Richelle Mead’s delightfully unputdownable (yes, I know, it’s not really a word, but it fits the bill) Spirit Bound. I could tell you that, by doing so, I was catching up on work – around here, we like to read books from each others’ lists so that we can speak intelligently about them at cocktail parties – but I’d be lying. In fact, I’d been hounding Jim McCarthy for a copy of the book to take with me, even though the ones the publisher had sent over were designated for rights sales. The reality is that ever since Jim urged me to read the first Vampire Academy book, I’ve been hooked on the series. Will Rose have to kill Dimitri? Will she be able to save him? Will Lissa and Christian work through their issues? The series is about serious teenage vampire angst with a body count and boasts a thoroughly engaging, kick-ass heroine, so as soon as I finish a book, I start bugging Jim for information about the next one. (He doesn’t find this annoying at all.)

As you all know by now, we like to think of ourselves as serious publishing professionals, but we’re also just big old geeky readers who can be sucked in by certain books like swimmers by a riptide. These days, it seems that a lot of the books dragging us out to sea are YA titles. I love Amanda Foreman’s quote about her love of YA books in this New York Times piece: “A lot of adult literature is all art and no heart, but good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people.” I think this perfectly explains the boom in this category in recent times and why it is adults are so captivated by literature meant for tweens and teens. Even when tackling difficult, dark subjects, the writing in this genre is all about possibility, about the ability to overcome obstacles and get to the other side. Who can resist that message and the edge-of-your-seat plot twists?

One of the takeaways for me is that the reason YA is so huge among adults right now may be that readers want good old-fashioned great storytelling that takes them away from their uncomfortable realities (the economy, the state of world affairs, global warming, the Kardashians) and makes them believe in possibility. What do you all think?

Writing and food inspiration

by Stacey

As someone who represents a good number of cookbooks and loves food, I found this piece by Melissa Clark about food and writing to be sweet and enjoyable. She is passionate about food, and it shows in her prolific writing and recipes. Although I don't know her personally, we have friends in common and I hear she's a nice person. I hope someday I'll have the opportunity to visit her home and have her cook for me. It sounds like a warm, inviting place to be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Welcome to DGLM, Stephanie DeVita!

by Stephanie

Hi blog readers! Now that both Jane and Chasya have so kindly introduced me, it’s my turn to chime in. I guess the best way to begin is to give you a little information on my background here. I may be new to the website, but I’m not entirely new to the blog. In fact, I have actually been puttering around this office for longer than you think.

I began at Dystel & Goderich over a year ago as an intern. I was determined to find myself an internship in publishing, particularly during the latter half of my college career. I hadn’t had much luck early on, so by my third year at NYU, nothing was going to stop me. I applied and interviewed for the internship with DGLM all while living in London, where I was spending the spring semester of my junior year. Fully aware that my geographical gap could create a handicap, I knew I had to be persistent. And luckily for me, according to Lauren, I was persistent enough that it exhibited my determination, but not too persistent that it made her want to burn my application and any remaining evidence of my existence. So with that, I was offered the chance to join DGLM that summer as an intern. The semesters passed, I continued to stay with the agency, and before I knew it about a year and a half had gone by and I had graduated from NYU. Then I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity by Jane and Miriam to take over for Chasya as she looks to begin a new chapter in her life. I knew that the timing was right; I felt comfortable here, and I had spent enough time working on the less essential tasks that I had developed the desire to explore the business further and carve out my own place in it. And as clichés go, the rest is history.

In giving this blog post some thought, I remembered something Rachel had said in her welcome post: “I think the one thing I truly love about working in a literary agency is that I get to see the entire process of publishing, from a rough manuscript to a finished book on the shelves.” I might make fun of Rachel for her love of Vegemite, but her words are very true. I’m very excited to finally get the chance to dive in and take on my own work. My time at DGLM has allowed me to expose myself to an industry I have always wanted to be a part of, and now it’s allowing me to embark on a new journey in my life—one that will allow me to build the career I’ve always wanted.

The bottom line is, I’m excited to take on this new responsibility within Dystel & Goderich, because now I get to hear from you. Yes, you. I look forward to hearing your ideas, your thoughts, your opinions. You all have stories to tell. Trust me, I’ve read a lot of them. But now I’m ready to do something with them. Turn them into the books they deserve to be. There are certain subjects I’m particularly interested in reading, which you can find in my bio on our website. So let me hear from you. I can only rearrange the pens on my desk for so long….

Goodbye, dear readers!

by Chasya

You have all joined me in various debates here on the blog and read my musings on some of the most random things, such as bad titles (which I love) and good author squabbles (also love). Sad as I am to say it though, this will be my last blog post. As Jane announced yesterday, I will be leaving DGLM shortly to go back to graduate school in clinical therapy. It’s always tough to say goodbye, but this time it feels especially hard. I’ve spent the past few years working in the presence of extremely hard-working and talented people, all of whom demonstrate an abiding commitment to wonderful books. I have had the opportunity to surround myself with remarkable colleagues and learn as much as I can about an industry that continues to fascinate me every day. I’ve also worked with an extremely talented list of clients and am honored to have had a small part in seeing that their books get published.

Though I’m excited to be embarking on this new adventure, I’m also sad to be leaving a job where I’ve learned and grown so much. It will be strange at first, I imagine, to open up my email and not see queries that are inspiring or make me laugh out loud (for good or bad), but I know that I will cherish my time here and miss the challenges and the endless education that comes from wearing the many hats of an agent. I’m so thrilled that the terrific Stephanie will be here to fill my shoes and know she’ll do wonderfully!

Thanks to you all for interesting discussions and lively commentary, and most of all, thanks for reading!

Monday, August 09, 2010

We're moving right along!

by Jane

Over the years, Dystel & Goderich has grown from literally just two of us—well, actually, we did have a part-time person when we began so it was two and a half—to nine. We have also had interns working with us for a number of years and, over time, many have been promoted to full-fledged staff members.

Working at any organization initially as an intern is good for the intern and for the company, in my opinion. It enables the intern to learn whether he or she wants to continue on this career path and at this company and it enables the company to evaluate the intern’s ability and enthusiasm. In the end, the intern system is good for everyone.

Four years ago, I hired one of our interns to be my assistant; Chasya Milgrom had recently graduated from college, didn’t really know what she wanted to do, but thought giving our company and the business of literary agenting a try might be interesting. In fact, over the years, she has done very well—developing new systems for us and growing enormously herself. Last year she began building a client list and also began overseeing royalties (a big job) when Jim McCarthy was promoted to Senior Agent.

Now, sadly for us, Chasya has decided to move on. She will be attending graduate school in an area that she is passionate about. We know she will be terrific at whatever she does and we are excited to watch her succeed.

I am delighted to say that our very bright and energetic intern of the last year and a half, Stephanie DeVita, has just joined us as a junior agent; Stephanie has learned so much about our agency and the business of being a book agent in the time she has been with us that I have no doubt she is going to make a very successful career out of this. She will be taking over the royalties position as well as Chasya’s client roster and has already begun to talk about building a list of her own.

I am always excited when new people come on board and I am especially excited when they are as determined as this young woman is. I know you will hear from her soon and I know you will enjoy it.

From the Vault: Reading explained

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jim
Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.

Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”

At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?

Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.

Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.

“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”

I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”

“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.

The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.

At the delightful (and not just because you can gamble there) Las Vegas Writers’ Conference last year, someone asked a panel I sat on, “Would you rather have something come across your desk that has great writing or a great plot?” It’s an unanswerable question. Because I’m not looking for pieces of a good book. I’m looking for the whole package, or for someone who inspires me to believe in their ability to create the whole package.

In responses to rejection letters, understandably upset writers sometimes ask, “Who are you to judge me? What right do you have to say who’s good enough?” All I can answer is that I’m a reader. I’m an audience. And I want you to win me over as much as you want me to be won. It can’t happen always, but we hope it happens enough.

Originally posted in April 2008.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Contest: World champion!

by Lauren

Well, the USA may have bowed out to Ghana back in June, but thanks to Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, we are the victors in this contest.  Let's take a moment to pause for chants of "USA! USA!" and maybe a round or two of "We are the Champions." 

OK, so now that that's done, here's the results:

1) USA: Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: 36.59%
2) England: George Orwell's 1984: 26.83%
3 - tie) Chile: Isabel Allende's THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS: 9.76% and Spain: Carlos Ruiz Zafon's THE SHADOW OF THE WIND: 9.76%
4)  Netherlands: Anne Frank's DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL: 7.32%
5) Argentina: Jorge Luis Borges's LABYRINTHS: 4.88%
6 - tie) South Korea: Hwang Sok-yong's THE GUEST: 2.44% and Paraguay:  Augusto Roa Bastos's I, THE SUPREME:  2.44%

So, our winner is...Anonymous.  Email me at labramo@dystel.com to claim your prize, which you'll recall is a copy of one of the fine books in the contest. 

And while I did promise to read the winner and report back, I've actually read both #1 and #2 on this list.  I love them both (and still fear being in close quarters with rats as a result of the latter), so I certainly support their victory.  But since the goal was to get me reading more foreign lit, I'll skip on down to the tie for #3.  I have long meant to read both, so they're both moving up to the "to read soon" pile.  Tell me which to start with below!

Thanks to everyone who participated, and I hope we all at least got some good book recommendations out of it!

Literary fashionistas

by Rachel

I’m no fashionista, yet I find it fascinating reading descriptions of characters and their garb in books. I remember reading Charlie and The Chocolate Factory as a kid and being blown away by Roald Dahl’s descriptions, and then watching the movie—wow! So, this article by Judy Berman piqued my interest and made me think about some of the best-dressed book figures out there. I’m going to be cliché here and vote for Ian Fleming’s James Bond as my best-dressed literary hero. I also agree with a lot of the names on Berman’s list—Dorian Gray, Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary—what great examples of fashion-conscious characters.

I’d love to hear who you think is one of the best-dressed literary figures out there! Or perhaps the worst (if I recall anything from my college reading, Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch wasn’t such a sharp dresser).

Thursday, August 05, 2010

It's alive!

by Michael

While the serious, business-minded e-books news continues to unfold at a rapid pace, I thought I’d take a moment to show a creative insight into what books can be. And this one is simple, doable, and doesn’t change the nature of the reading experience: the digital book cover. Instead of just a static cover, why not have something that’s animated or video? And if all covers are as elegant as this clip, I say bring ‘em on!


by Jessica

Some time ago I was horrified to note that I had inadvertently switched off the spell-check on my e-mail application, and after many attempts, still could not manage to turn in back on. I am a reasonably competent speller, but I’m an idiosyncratic typist at best, prompting properly instructed touch-typists around me to blanche when they see me at my keyboard. I can, however, type with one hand like nobody’s business—a skill developed from propping my head up during late-night editing sessions, and later holding my son (who believed in sleeping on people, not cribs) when he was an infant. I could, I realize, go back and learn to type properly, but I never quite have the time. Plus, I worry that I will suffer a similar fate as an acquaintance of mine, a man who logged in many hours with a golf pro to “unlearn” his poor technique, and promptly took his game to a new, and seemingly irreversible, low. My typing could not tolerate such a setback. I’d be corresponding via crayon.

In any event, I was in the midst of looking through the contents of my “sent folder,” cringing at the assorted errors I made—including spelling my own name Hessica—when I came across this article in Salon. The authors of The Great Typo Hunt traveled across the country, logging misspellings as they went, with delightful results. As we know, I hardly live in a glass house as far as mistakes are concerned, but that doesn’t reduce my pleasure in typo-spotting. “Affect” and “effect” are probably my favorite, followed by misplaced apostrophes, “it’s” and “its,” and “I” for “me,” all the classics. When I lived in Egypt (where as a functional illiterate in the local language I had zero right to judge) I was still delighted with the English language menus, signs, and packages—the latter imported from China—that were chock full of errors and weirdly wonderful turns of phrase. On a package for an action figure called “Bat Knight,” a shameless if not entirely successful clone of the Caped Crusader, the tag line read “Get Ready To Crumble Obscure!” There was a kind of found poetry in the phrase.

Any of you spot some memorable misuses of the language? Also, if anyone knows how to turn spell check in Outlook back on, I’d be grateful.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Two for the price of one!

by Michael

I’ll admit, I was having a tough time coming up with something for the blog this week. After a busy Comic Con (wrap up here) and a hectic SCBWI National Conference (great conference blog led by my good friend Alice Pope here), my brain had shifted into neutral. I think this was a precaution to keep it from overheating. Coincidentally, I also made a return to Twitter, where one’s brain need never be engaged—just kidding! Seriously, I’d taken a break during a very busy time, and I just hadn’t gotten back into the habit. But I recommitted myself to tweet last night, so I turned to my friends to see what they’d like to find out. And, since I got two good suggestions, I’m taking them both!

First, my wonderful author Nova Ren Suma pointed me to this blog post by up-and-coming novelist Scott Tracey. It addresses the idea of “overpromotion.” In this day and age, when agents, editors and publishers all harp on authors that they need to be out promoting themselves, things can get out of hand. Scott gives an example of authors who focus on acquiring friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. The purpose? To bombard these folks with reminders about of an upcoming book—a book, Scott humorously points out, that may be a year away from publication! More than overpromotion, this is a case of improperly using social networking. Networking, both in real life and online, is about building relationships and creating a give-and-take. You wouldn’t show up to a party and start screaming that you have a book coming out in a year (at least, I hope no one does that), so you shouldn’t be doing that on social networks, either. It’s about building relationships with other authors, industry professionals, and your audience. You want to mix direct marketing with actual interaction. You want to help promote other authors and the business generally. And if you can do it all with a sense of humor, well then, everyone will appreciate it all the more. So before you go sending out tweets about your DEBUT NOVEL!!! COMES OUT MAY 2102!!! WILL SEND TWEET REMINDER EVERY DAY UNTIL THEN!!!, remember that networking is a two-way street.

The other great question I got was from the talented Joanne Levy. She said, “I keep hearing that editors would rather publish a debut than an already pubbed author—can you elaborate?” I’ve actually been asked about this a few times, and it’s confusing to people as it seems counterintuitive. If you’ve already sold a book, aren’t you immediately more valuable to a publisher? Haven’t you proven yourself to be reliable (well, we hope that’s what you’ve done) and talented? But, that’s not necessarily the case. Yes, you’ve show you can deliver and write, but the question is, can you sell? If your first book doesn’t sell well, it’s tougher for a publisher to take on your second book. Why’s that? Because B&N, Borders and Amazon are not likely to line up to buy copies of a book by an author with a bad track record. And if the publisher can’t get those guys to take books, they have no effective way of selling them in large numbers. And if they can’t sell a book in large numbers, they won’t acquire it. This is a simplification, of course, and many other factors come into play. A well-written, high-concept book will often overcome the challenge of a bad track record. Also, the children’s side of the market (and the author who asked writes children’s books) is a little more forgiving than the adult side. Though as with everything in children’s publishing, that’s switching to more of an adult model, too, for better or worse.

So despite being stumped earlier, I hope I’ve been helpful. Let me know in the comments if you need clarification.

Writing and drinking: Same rules apply

by Stacey

I found this piece from Sunday's NYT book review enlightening and entertaining. The combination of booze and the written word goes way back and for good reason. Both offer pleasure, escapism, and the ability to keep one up late into the night. I'm especially fond of Keith Waterhouse's advice that you should never drink while you're writing, but it's ok to write while you're drinking. The similarities Nicholson hits on between drinking and writing are clever, and funny.

For anyone who likes to drink, read, write, or any combination of the three, you'll enjoy this essay. Feel free to share your own stories of boozing and writing, or your favorites from history.

Iceberg theory

by Miriam

Being a lifelong Hemingway fan—yes, few writers are easier to parody, but few have also done so much with clean, well-lit prose—I’ve always found his “iceberg theory” of writing to be absolutely dead on. Instead of trying to throw everything and the refrigerator into your book, why not have your accumulated knowledge inform your characters’ motivations or the choices you make in telling their story rather than overwhelming it. There’s nothing more tedious than a writer who has to show off every bit of research that went in to his/her saga about 19th century pickle canning for instance.

In this excerpt from George Rabasa’s Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer's Workshop, the author offers some helpful tips to keep the iceberg from sinking your narrative ship. My favorite is #10: “Research does not make the story. The story makes the story.”

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Publicity pointers

by Chasya

Though publishing blogger THE INTERN is hanging up her hat for now, in one of her last posts she offers some insightful (and entertaining!) advice about book publicity and marketing gleaned from her experiences as an author. Number one on the list? It helps to be friendly. A simple but excellent (and, as she points out, easy to forget) point. It also helps to “see everything as hilarious,” as in not take anything too seriously. Oh, and to be bad at math (naturally).

Do you have any other unusual pointers for the recently published author?

Monday, August 02, 2010

Let's talk true crime

by Jane

The other day Lauren Abramo pointed out this piece to me and it brought to mind how much the category of true crime non-fiction has changed over the last twenty or more years.

When I began representing books in this category, they were almost always published initially in hardcover and you could be sure once a high-profile crime was committed and someone arrested for it, there would be three or four authors rushing proposals out to publishers through their agents. I can actually remember one of my true crime writers coming through my office door with the proposal he had stayed up all night to finish just to beat out the next writer. When the Amy Fisher murder case happened, for example, my client’s book was one of three made-for-TV movies that aired.

Advances for true crime in those days could be substantial, which is why so many people wanted to get in the game, so to speak.

Over the years though, these books came to be published only in a mass market paperback format and advances went way, way down. That was the bad news; the good news is that full proposals are no longer necessary, especially for writers who have previously published in the category. Even when there needs to be some kind of a proposal, it nowhere near as complete as it once had to be.

True crime today is fairly formulaic. It must have a sensational murder; the characters need to be people whom the reader can truly relate to and it doesn’t hurt if there is lots of money and sex involved.

We are still handling several true crime titles every year and, though the advances are low, they very often earn out and so the writers earn royalties (which they generally didn’t when the advances were higher). Still, this is a very difficult category to succeed in. It takes someone who is persevering, energetic and patient enough to search out just the right cases.

If you have any questions about this category, I am happy to try to answer them.


by Jim

It’s finally August which means a few things: I’m counting down to vacation (five days!), New York smells like hot garbage, and publishing is in its slowest season. I’ve set a goal of clearing my Kindle before I head out of town on Saturday. It’s an ambitious goal, but so far seems doable (check with me on Thursday).

So what does that mean? One week of entirely non-work reading. It’s the week I have in mind all year long when I hit the registers of a bookstore laden down with things I know I don’t have time to read. Book shopping is my crack. It always makes me feel good. Until I go to put the books on shelves and realize how much I have that I still haven’t read from the last time I went shopping. And the time before. And the time before that. And 2006-9.

Come Friday, I expect this to happen: I go through my bookshelves picking out my vacation reading. I end up with maybe 12 novels. As I start to whittle down, I realize that none of these are what I really want to read on vacation. I reshelve everything and start over. This time I come up with 15 novels. I narrow to five, and I’m completely sure of them. They go into my suitcase. Saturday morning: I pull all five out, throw them on the coffee table, and randomly grab the first four things I see. I get to the airport and drop $75 in the bookstore.

Does anyone else have this problem? We’re all readers here, so I feel like I can’t be alone in this. But, I mean…I work in publishing. I get free books! And I STILL can’t avoid the pull of bookstores.

So fess up: does anyone else have the Barnes and Noble and the Borders frequent shopper card…even though they prefer shopping in independent bookstores? Has anyone else bought three copies of the same book because they just kept thinking it looked awesome? Or shown up late to dinners, shows, movies because they were lost in the stacks of beautiful books waiting to be read?

And, okay, let’s say I do end up shopping again for my vacation reads. Anyone fall completely head over heels for a book lately and just HAVE to recommend it?