Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jim McCarthy talks The Tournament of Books

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m obsessed with awards shows. And not just the big ones like the Oscars and Emmys. I’m the guy watching the SAG Awards on Bravo, the Independent Spirit Awards, the Tony’s, the Emmy’s, the Golden Globes. If there’s a trophy, I’m there. I was in the audience (okay, I was working the event) when Jonathan Franzen snagged the National Book Award for THE CORRECTIONS (a very just victory), and Arthur Miller received a lifetime achievement award. I’m the kind of person who still remembers with an unfortunate degree of anguish that Leaving Las Vegas didn’t even get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar the year that Braveheart won. So when I caught on that Powell’s and The Morning News were doing a Tournament of Books to coincide with March Madness, let’s just say I found a new favorite website.

Starting with 32 books from 2006, each title was pitted against one other for single round eliminations as judged by a small panel of random literary types. This went on until there were two semi-finalists. Now, two eliminated titles will be brought back for a second chance. Then, once down to two finalists, all of the judges will have to pick between them to crown one ultimate victor.

Looking over the initial list of contenders, I realized that I had only read two of the books so far. An anemic showing at best. There are a bunch of authors whose previous work I’ve read (I’ll get to your new one soon, Richard Ford!), and some of the novels are already in my piles to read at home. This is to say, I don’t have a favorite in this contest. There is, however, one novel on the list that everyone seems to love, and I happen to…well, let’s say, dislike.

When something receives universal acclaim, I often manage to find a way to hate it. I’m the schmuck who couldn’t stand Lost in Translation and who couldn’t fall in love with Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose. I have to wonder if it’s me being unintentionally contrarian, or if maybe, just maybe, my opinions are actually defensible. Which brings me, nervously, to THE ROAD.

Everyone loves THE ROAD. It has sailed through the rounds of the Tournament of Books, eviscerating the competition and garnering praise aplenty. In case you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis: guy and his son walk down a post-apocalyptic road dodging cannibals. The End. Sure, the writing is terse and impressive. I can really, really picture the grey. And the ash. And the burnt logs. And the grey. Cormac McCarthy is a superb writer. With THE ROAD, he jotted down a brilliant short story. A very, very overlong short story. Philosophical musings? Check. Interesting thinking points? Sure. Sleep inducing? Ding ding ding! For a book that people have described as “riveting,” I sure couldn’t wait for it to be over.

But here’s the thing: I feel guilty for not liking it. Critics seems so often to focus on what books are unworthy or unaccomplished that I feel bad about raining on the parade of something so well liked. It makes me want to shout out the names of popular books that I thought were worthy of every bit of their praise (THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA!) if only because so much writing about literature seems focused on the negatives. This leaves me with questions: Does all of the carping about bad books make people more likely to search out the good stuff? Or does it just discourage people from reading at all?

And we’re back at the Tournament of Books. We’re a competitive people. And by we, I mean me. I love to see winners and losers. I’m inspired by competition in a strange, some might say sadistic, way. Since I’ve never developed an affinity for sports (besides the Olympics…don’t get me started), I enjoy watching competitions involving things I care about: movies, books, theater, America’s potential next top models…you know: the arts. But what role does that competition really serve? SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE is still one of my three favorite books, even if it did lose the 1970 National Book Award to THEM by Joyce Carol Oates. Can the arts, particularly the literary arts, be judged fairly in the moment? More importantly, how should they be judged at all?

I’ll be following these last rounds of the Tournament of Books eagerly, hoping for THE ROAD to fall by the wayside, but I’m probably not the better for it. I’ll give the tournament judges this: plenty seem to go about the task playfully, whether acknowledging that they’re scared of AGAINST THE DAY’S thousand-plus pages or that their decisions ultimately came down to matters of personal preference and not quality.

Having not come around to much of a point, I leave anyone reading with this: does it make sense to pit books against each other? Do literary awards make sense?

UPDATE: Apparently, Oprah selected THE ROAD for her next bookclub book. I wasn't tipped off. Just a totally random coincidence.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Michael Bourret describes the day in the life of an agent

People always ask me what my day is like. I often respond by saying that it’s nothing but e-mail and phone, which is only somewhat true. It’s a long, tiring, very rewarding day, and I hope this provides some insight.

6:30 AM: Wake up. Feed cat. Shower, shave, dress. (Pray to get the order right at early hour.)

7:22 AM: Leave house to catch 7:30 C train (no, subways don’t technically run on schedules, but the C train only comes once every 10 minutes during rush hour, and it happens to come on the 30-minute mark).

8:00 AM: Arrive at Starbucks. Purchase “Grande” mild coffee (iced during the summer).

8:10 AM: Arrive at work. Log into computer, remove reading from previous evening and sort into “reject,” “request more,” “offer representation,” “get another read,” or “do editorial letter” piles. Check news.

8:10 – 8:30 AM: Read the news. Look for stories that would make great book ideas, either fiction or nonfiction.

8:30 – 9:00 AM: Morning meeting. The whole staff gets together each morning to go over business. We discuss where we are on projects (Do you need a writer? Is money due? Did the editor get back to you about bound galleys?), ask Jane and each other for advice, generate book ideas, and discuss news items.

9:00 – 10:00 AM: Respond to all the e-mails I received the previous night. There are often many from the West Coast, as they’re still going when we leave for the day. Also, since writing isn’t the primary employment for most authors, it’s the only time they have to correspond. And, many writers don’t seem to sleep. Really guys, sleep is good!

10:00 – 10:30 AM: Take care of any other author correspondence: contracts, amendments, agency agreements, editorial letters, royalty statements and more.

10:30 – 11:30 AM: Return phone calls and make follow-up calls on proposals and manuscripts on submission. This is when we find out that someone is very interested in a project. Hopefully.

11:30 AM – 12:30 PM: Put together and submit new material. Make any calls associated with the new submission that I didn’t make earlier.

12:30 – 2:00 PM – Lunch with an editor. This is our chance to meet new editors and catch up with old friends. The agent lunch seems to mystify those who aren’t in publishing, but I find it a necessary, important and enjoyable part of the job. The book business, for all the analyzing of numbers that we do, is still very subjective, and it’s often at these lunches that I get a real sense of someone’s taste. It’s when I learn that the editor who typically does political nonfiction also loves anything to do with cats and can acquire whatever he wants. Books are often sold to unlikely editors based on such information.

(When I don’t have a lunch, I take this time to read through blogs looking for book ideas or gossip, or a recap of the America’s Next Top Model episode that I missed.)

2:00 PM – 3:00 PM: Return the calls and e-mails from lunch time. Check Gawker and Galleycat to make sure no one was fired while I was out, which could change where I send that proposal I packaged in the morning.

3:00 PM – 4:00 PM: Open mail and review e-queries. There is a lot of mail coming in, and even more e-mail these days. It takes this long to review all the material and request what looks interesting.

4:00 – 5:00 PM: Go back to checking client e-mail and answering calls. This is the busiest time of day for phone calls, as everyone’s looking for information before the close of business.

5:00 – 6:30ish PM – Wrap up the day. Print out any reading for the evening, get together any material to review contracts, make last minute and West Coast phone calls. Some nights, have a drink with an editor or author who’s in town.

6:30 – 7:15: Train ride home. This is when I get to read for pleasure! Right now I’m reading Pop! by Aury Wallington, which a client gave me. I also read magazines and newspapers during this time.

7:15 PM – 9 PM: Feed cat. Eat. Watch DVR’ed TV.

9 PM – Whenever is necessary: Read and edit proposals and manuscripts. Vet contracts. Write and revise submission letters and create submission lists. Sometimes there’s also e-mail and phone calls.

Honestly, an agent’s work is never done. It’s difficult, frustrating and can make for a very boring social life. It’s a good thing that I love my job (and didn’t have a social life,to begin with).

Monday, March 05, 2007

Jane Dystel reflects on publishing then and now.

We’ve all heard the theory that it is important to know about history because we can learn from it and use what happened in the past to make our future better. I wish that were true in my world of book publishing.

I often find myself thinking back to when I began in this business and what it was like at that time. There is so much that is different today, I couldn’t write about all of it in a single blog. But I thought I would try to examine the role of the editor then and now – and then, perhaps in future postings, I will cover other areas of the business I love so much.

When I entered publishing, there were two kinds of editors, the ones who acquired books from authors and their agents and those who actually did the editing. Sometimes one person took on both roles.

There was no such thing as multiple submissions in those days. Agents submitted proposals or manuscripts to editors one at a time, rather than to 10 or 20 editors simultaneously. Authors, with agents or not, sent manuscripts in to those editors whose job it was to read and crossed their fingers that their work would be picked up. Advances compared to where they are today, were incredibly low, but there were other ways the author could earn money in the process.

An editor was assigned to the manuscript and that person worked with the author on making the book the best it could be editorially. Sometimes this took a very long time, but in those days, the quality of the final book was of utmost importance to everyone involved and so whatever time was needed was taken. I remember hearing famous stories of editors tearing manuscripts by bestselling writers apart and literally helping to put them back together again so that the story being told became stronger and more commercial.

The editor was also the in-house advocate for the author and the book. It was the editor who presented the book to the rights department, who would then go on to sell serial rights, book club rights, reprint rights and if the author and publisher were really lucky, movie rights.

In those days serial rights were sold for many thousands of dollars. Hearing about a first serial sale of $25,000.00 to $30,000.00 wasn’t all that unusual. And there were lively auctions for magazine rights, very exciting auctions too. Magazines like Ladies Home Journal, McCalls, and Woman’s Day competed for the top women’s interest books – both fiction and non fiction. Esquire and Playboy, among others, vied for the men’s market. And publications like Reader’s Digest paid thousands of dollars for the general interest rights of many books.

The two major books clubs – Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild were also often in auctions to acquire the book club rights for top authors. Not being a book club pick was a serious “black mark” in an author’s track record.

And then there were the paperback reprint houses where the editors “covered” various hardcover houses and where the big auctions at the time really happened with several paperback houses bidding against each other. Those were very exciting times with books like LOVE STORY and JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, THE GODFATHER and the novels of Judith Krantz going for several hundred thousand dollars.

The role of the editor at the reprint houses was simply that of an acquirer. Since the books were already written and edited, their job was simply to identify those with mass market sales potential and buy them. Sometimes, in the case of noted bestselling authors where the acquisition price was going to be very high, paperback editors would join with their hardcover counterpart to buy the package rights of the book initially. This happened with JAWS which was published by Doubleday in hardcover and Bantam Books in mass market paperback. And, occasionally the paperback publisher would buy the rights to the book from the author’s agent and sell them back to the hardcover publisher. I know there were numerous instances of this between William Morrow and Bantam and I am sure it happened elsewhere as well.

In those days, the editor was “king.” Their taste and their work were respected and they headed up most of the hardcover publishing houses. “Sales” and “rights” were next, followed by “publicity” and the other business areas of the company.

Today, editors simply don’t enjoy the status they once did at their publishing houses. Their opinions are listened to, I suspect, but far more important are the opinions of the sales and marketing staff and what the financial people say about the value of the material submitted. There are those editors who still fight passionately for their authors, but I find that, for the most part, most of them are beaten down by their colleagues who really don’t respect their editorial wisdom.

So, I ask myself what we can learn today from our history in this business? My answer is that we have to try to change the status of the editor within the publishing house. Without his or her skills, the quality of the books we produce will continue to diminish. Editors have to be given the time to properly care for the books they acquire (for today, of course the editor does both acquisition and editing); they can no longer be responsible just for acquiring these manuscripts, they must more fully help their authors realize their total potential.

It is my sincere hope that those currently heading up publishing houses will take better care of those in charge of their important “products,” the manuscripts upon which their bottom line depends. Without these, it doesn’t matter who is distributing and or how strong the promotion is, there will be no business for our future generations to look back on. Editors must be respected, encouraged and promoted so that they can better do their job and so that all of us can continue to do ours.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

More critique with an extra helping of snark: Bookclub Part 2

In light of Lauren’s recent post about our bookclub, we thought it might be fun to visit the ghosts of book clubs past. You’ll find that our opinions are strong. We’re a love it or hate it kind of crowd.

Despite winning the Booker Prize, Miriam still thought one novel was “a cynical smirk of a narrative. Its only saving grace, in my opinion, is the fact that, at under 200 pages, it’s only briefly painful. As I put this down with a sigh of relief for the last time, it occurred to me that the only thing worse than a bad book by a bad writer is a bad book by a good writer.”

Taking on another award winner that fell short of expectations, Miriam noted that “this could have been a great piece of fiction, but like endless foreplay that goes nowhere, it’s just a quiet disappointment.”

One blogger turned novelist received a ton of buzz for their debut, but Jim thought it was “Trash. This may not be the worst book I ever read, but it is the worst that I have ever finished.”

Michiko Kakutani loved it. Michael Bourret didn’t. “I hated this book. Trite, shallow, and without any intelligent commentary. At least it was short. I wallowed through quickly, hoping that there would be a moment of clarity or interest. There wasn’t.”

It was pitched as the modern Great Gatsby. Let’s just say that Stacey disagreed. “Hated it. Hated everything about it. The characters are rich, privileged, and pretentious. Their shallow musings and fervent banter never lead to much, other than a supposedly tragic ending. This fell way short of my expectations.”

For one book club, we read galleys for books publishers were really excited about that would be coming out the following season. Excitement, as Lauren points out, is not always contagious. “Accomplished? I suppose. Charming? At times. Tedious? Oh, yeah!”

We didn’t let up when we took on favorite books of our colleagues. One agent felt it was the best book of the past five years. Another thought the author was “given to overthinking his characters’ motivations and painting them into dramatic corners. The protagonist’s precociousness grows wearisome. He’s like the kid always with his hand up in the air in class – the one you want to smack and tell to shut up. The ending of the novel feels unsatisfying and overly arch and some of the big moments veer into melodrama.”

When she took the time to read a recent novel that garnered a lot of attention and a mid-six figure offer, Jane’s reaction was as balanced and thoughtful as we all try to be. “This definitely had aspirations of becoming the next The Da Vinci Code. It is original and very well researched. It is also incredibly confusing. An early review called the plot ‘sinuous,’ which it certainly is—and in my opinion, not in a good way. There were no characters here I really cared about—none I really got to know. Having said that, I am a sucker for this kind of thing—the juxtaposition of fact and fiction, very well done. Still, I didn’t personally love this. It just wasn’t as good as the hype made it out to be. In the end, idealist that I am, I do believe that if the book ‘isn’t there,’ especially for a first novel with these high expectations, it isn’t going to work.”

Sometimes we fall head over heels for something. Michael said, “It’s a rare novel that captures both the imagination and the heart, and The Line of Beauty is one of them. Written with a sly wit and a keen eye, this epic meditation on wealth, power, class, sexuality, politics and beauty is truly a masterpiece.”

Stacey really enjoyed Lucinda Rosenfeld’s What She Saw, saying, “I loved this book because I could relate to so much in it. Rosenfeld’s writing is accessible, simple and smart, and her style is breezy and light. She doesn’t wow you with extraordinary prose, but her characters and story are effective and memorable. She also has an uncanny ability to describe simple details with humor and flair. It’s a fun read, with a very likable protagonist.”

With The Hours, Miriam found an award winner that she did admire. “Mr. Cunningham is a lovely writer who finds his way into his characters’ souls and makes the drama he finds within universal and poignantly human. Virginia Woolf would have applauded.”

Jim fell for Dennis Lehane’s first book during the mystery bookclub. “The protagonist’s brazenly un-P.C. views on ‘white rage’ and what causes it are at times a bit unnerving, but they never feel less than honest. Dark, moody, and aggressively paced, A Drink before the War is a detective novel rank with intelligence and soul.”

And sometimes we’re so effusive that it sounds like we’re trying to sell the things. “A novel of incredible scope, daring vision, and dazzling prose, Arthur Phillips’s Prague is, quite simply, an incredible achievement.”