Monday, April 30, 2007

Jane Dystel talks gossip

The publishing business is a multi-billion dollar industry that still manages to be small, insular and somewhat incestuous. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I love it. The biggest publishers and agencies are primarily based in New York City and my colleagues and I all run into each other constantly – at lunches, at publishing events, at temple or church, on the street, etc. Even on the weekends when we are out of town, we often share the same neighborhoods. Through the internet and the numerous writers conferences that have sprung up all over the country, our community has grown to include thousands of established authors and potential authors. But, it’s still a small community where rumors fly and gossip is a favored pastime.

And so much of this gossip hurts. Recently, at a writers’ conference attended by many perspective authors looking to find out if they needed an agent and the ways they could benefit from having one, one of our agency’s clients gossiped about how ineffective our agency was in some very specific ways. He was speaking to a large audience of people who were truly there to learn. It so happened that in the next room was one of our senior agents who was horrified to hear these unprofessional (to say nothing about untrue) comments. And of course, when our agent reported back to us after the conference there was enormous shock, unhappiness and disappointment among our staff – especially because we had worked so hard for this particular client over the years.

Mean-spirited gossip is, indeed, destructive and in a business as small as ours it hurts the person responsible for it more than anyone else. That writer, or editor or agent is noted for what they say and colleagues tend to avoid future serious dealings with someone they can’t trust will be discreet and professional behind their backs. I try to encourage our staff – all wonderful, very able agents and support people – to be caring and careful of what they say and how they comport themselves – especially at writers’ conferences where so many aspiring authors are eager to learn about our wonderful business.

I do admit, however, that having had more than one unfortunate experience with the kind of gossip that flies in these venues, I am less likely to attend these gatherings (to which I am invited often) than I was in the past. This is truly unfortunate as I love to teach people about the business I have worked in for so long and help writers become successful. I would much rather follow a constructive path than be confronted by this kind of destructive, hurtful behavior and so I stay in my office and conduct my business from there.

And so, I pray that those of you reading this will stop and think the next time you are tempted to gossip about an editor or an agent who is only trying to help move you and your career forward. Know how your words and behavior will affect the person you are talking about. Also be aware that, because of the very small business we operate in, this kind of behavior will most likely adversely affect your future in the publishing world.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Miriam Goderich discusses 1001 books (sort of)

One of my colleagues here at DGLM is obsessed with a list of the “1001 books you should read before you die.” (I won’t say who the colleague is but if you’ve been reading our blog posts, you’ll probably be able to guess.) This person forwarded the list to me and I started looking through it to see whether I could die happily knowing that I’d go to the part of heaven where the well-read people hang out debating relative greatness – Homer vs. Virgil; Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald; Flaubert vs. Turgenev; Mailer vs. Roth, et cetera ad nauseum. As it turns out, despite undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and a lifetime of defining myself as a bookworm, I haven’t read all 1001 titles. I long ago made peace with the fact that I will not ever be able to read all the books I want to read and certainly not all the classics -- it’s hard enough to keep up with the current bestsellers and award winners! What I found interesting about the list was how many of the books listed fell in the “liked-but-didn’t-love” or “outright-loathed” columns of my own personal ratings system, especially because other books by the same authors might be well established residents of my “love-love-love” column.

As the list-obsessed colleague and I were discussing why Heart of Darkness and The Old Man and the Sea are books to be admired rather than loved (as opposed to Lord Jim and The Sun Also Rises, for instance), I got a query from someone who said she hated a book I’d recommended on the “staff recommendations” section of our web site. None of this is surprising, of course. Literature is all about falling in love and there’s no accounting for taste. Despite all the experts, pundits and pedants trying to tell us what to like (and what not to like), the bottom line is that we all fall in love for different reasons, some as hard to explain as the mad crush we had on that odd-looking, nerdy kid back in seventh grade who wouldn’t give us the time of day (or maybe that’s just me). While I do believe that there are certain qualities that elevate the great from the so-so literature, part of the impact of a great book is how it affects us emotionally and intellectually when we’re reading it and how long it stays with us after. While unpacking a box of books from my basement the other day, I came across The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and just holding the dog-eared copies of Justine and Clea made me smile remembering my pleasure at discovering these titles. I don’t usually have the same reaction when I see my uncreased copy of Finnegan’s Wake, I’m afraid.

We in the publishing business spend a lot of time trying to communicate to authors why their work doesn’t grab us – especially when the writing is solid and the idea strong. We fall back on “I simply did not fall in love,” and many a frustrated and irate author has come back to us with “is that the best you can do for an explanation?” In fact, it is. Because in order to put in the time and energy required to see a novel through from query letter to publication to the morass of the current marketplace, we have to fall in love with it, believe in it, defend it when it’s rejected, and stay with it even when the critics take their shots at it and the buying public walks right by it on its way to the latest James Patterson thriller. For us it’s personal, as personal as any list you might make of your favorite books.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Adina Kahn explains why she became an agent

Ever since I joined DGLM, many friends and colleagues have wondered what convinced me to become a literary agent after having worked for the past few years in film development. The truth is that many people who lack direct contact with the publishing world do not have a clue as to what an agent does, and therefore do not even know that this rewarding profession even exists.

I gained exposure to the field when meeting with literary agents during my time at Sony. Filmmakers in New York have strong ties to the publishing community, and I would take meetings with literary agents to find out if they had any material suitable for film adaptation. In fact, a few years ago I found myself sitting in a meeting at DGLM to hear about the fantastic books they represented with film potential. As I gained more exposure to the world of literary agents I began to realize how exciting and rewarding it could be. After all, what could be more thrilling than coming across an entirely original and brilliant manuscript and being closely involved in making sure it reaches bookstores?

When I worked in film development, the most inspiring thing for me was finding quality stories. But finding a good story is only one aspect of filmmaking, and sometimes it frustrates me to watch a movie and know that the story was not the filmmakers’ top priority. Books appeal to me because the writing is the priority and the focus.

Reading a book is a different experience than watching television or films. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge movie buff and I love watching both good and bad television (unfortunately, I think I may like watching bad television a little more). But books affect me more and stay with me longer. There could be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps it’s because a novel allows you to visualize everything for yourself, and forces you to use your imagination. Or maybe it’s because you tend to read a book over a stretched out period of time, and therefore may associate a book with a certain event in your life (that reminds me, some advice: don’t bring THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion on your honeymoon, that’s a mistake I wish I hadn’t made).

Finding intelligent non-fiction is equally as exhilarating as discovering good fiction, and I love that I can offer writers the chance to share their work and possibly enlighten people who are eager for some new ideas to contemplate and discuss. I appreciate the opportunity to meet writers with all sorts of backgrounds and build a partnership based on mutual enthusiasm for a given subject matter.

I see the role of a literary agent as being similar to that of a film producer, and I have been able to apply lessons learned from my previous experiences to this job. Like a producer, a good agent will oversee a project from start to finish and make sure to solve any problems that come their way. Ultimately, I became an agent because I simply wanted to help talented writers fulfill their dreams of becoming published, and I try to make the rocky road to getting their work to a bookstore as smooth as possible.