Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why Michael Bourret loves Twitter

My officemates think I’m nuts. For the past few months, I’ve been (to greater or lesser degrees) addicted to Twitter. For those of you not in the know, Twitter is a microblogging site that allows users to post 140-character messages (the same length as a text message) for others to read. It’s pretty simple. I’m not the most prolific tweeter. Others are much more dedicated to posting. And, it’s those people who make Twitter such an important part of my day.

As my life become more hectic, I find it harder to stay on top of fast-breaking news. With all the reading and emailing, I find that I’m only visiting my RSS reader and favorite news sites a couple of times a day. But Twitter is always open, and the people I follow are always posting interesting things, like links to news articles or new blogs. More importantly, I found out more breaking news on the Mumbai attacks and the US Airways accident on Twitter than anywhere else – including an amazing photo of the plane rescue unfolding from Janis Krums, who took a picture with his iPhone (another obsession of mine, but I digress). While there can be a lot bad information to wade through, it’s worth it for me to have up-to-the-second reporting on current events.

It’s also a great, fun way to network with other publishing folk. When I was looking for a writer for a project, I sent out a message to the Twitterverse, and my authors and even other agents re-tweeted my original message. I wound up with several leads in just a few minutes. Even a self-professed Twitter-geek like myself was impressed. I also have fun learning what my authors are up to, whether it’s revising their novel or writing 140-character movie reviews. And, I like being able to share with my followers (that’s what they’re called – I’m not that narcissistic!) what I’m up to and thinking about, whether it’s the Time article on the future of publishing (so right, but also so wrong) or my bran muffin obsession. (I’m noticing an obsession trend here.) It’s a fast and easy way to keep in touch, and I recommend that authors at least give it a shot. It can be a great way to reach out to other authors, publishing folk and even fans.

You can find me at http://twitter.com/michaelbourret. But I’m not the only agent or publishing pro on Twitter. Editor Unleashed has a good, but not definitive, list here. Many of our clients are on Twitter, and it would be great if they would add their info in the comments.

And if you join, be sure to send me a Tweet!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jane Dystel on "The Role of the Collaborator"

It would seem to me that in this economic climate, being a collaborator, especially when a writer isn’t working on his/her own book or articles, is the way to go. In the past months, though, I have increasingly found that people who say they want to collaborate don’t understand what their role is.

The most important thing the collaborator must do is support the person he or she is collaborating with. If the collaborator is working with someone as a writer (and that person is the celebrity or expert whose name will sell the book) then the collaborator needs to understand that s/he is not the main author. In many instances s/he won’t sign a publishing agreement; his/her role is a supporting one in every way.

I have found that collaborators can often forget what their roles are meant to be. They want the same decision-making power in terms of copy, design and even cover approval that the author has; sometimes they even want to receive greater than a 50% share of proceeds which, in my mind, is just wrong and indicates that the person making such a request really doesn’t understand his/her role.

Last year I had the experience of a collaborator actually trying to convince her partner, the Author, to break a contract -- something which was totally against the Author’s best interest. The collaborator had simply forgotten her role.

And I have experienced a collaborator actually asking for 60% of a project when the project would not exist but for the Author. Again, a mistake on the part of the collaborator.

These things are unfortunate, in my opinion, because collaborators can achieve great success both financially and professionally if they have a good track record with those they work with and with editors. I have had many wonderful experiences with collaborations and I am hoping to have many more. But the best collaborators know when to set aside their egos and focus on making the project (and a smooth writing process) the priority.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jessica Papin on "Vampires, New Years Resolutions, and Works in Translation"

One of my favorite moments of the 2008 holiday season took place in a local bookstore: it was shortly before closing, and as I waited for a clerk to check to see if a title I wanted was in stock, I watched her weary looking colleague at work constructing a Stephanie Meyer ziggurat. Red and black and several feet high, built in alternating layers of Twilight titles, it was a marvel of retail engineering.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s quite a tower.”

“Yes, she said—and they’ll sell out, too.”

“Every,” She placed a book. “Single,” she aligned another at a precise right angle. “One.” She surveyed her handiwork, then turned to me.

“God bless the vampires,” she said. “They saved Christmas.”

Further to the holiday theme, and in the spirit of New Year/New You releases, gym solicitations, my inaugural entry and that other Inauguration to come, I thought I might take as my subject New Year’s resolutions. Which, for most folks, are well on their way toward being forgotten. This need not be the case. My technique for cleaving to my resolutions is two-fold: make as few as possible—ideally only one—and then be certain it is a pleasure to accomplish.

That said, my resolution is as follows: to read more fiction in translation.

Funnily, works in translation are—by virtue of being foreign—considered about as suited to the mainstream American reader as a macrobiotic diet to fans of Texas Barbeque. Yet (with apologies to macrobiotic gourmands) there is nothing especially virtuous, seaweed-like, or indigestible about reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar.

I had always been interested in international literature, but while working as an editor in a predominantly commercial house, and then later representing overwhelmingly American clients, I’d not devoted much thought to the role of contemporary fiction in translation. This changed when I left to work for the American University in Cairo Press. For all intents and purposes, I was still agenting—albeit in a part of the world where literary agents don’t exist. Thus, whether I said I was an “agent” (what sort of agent?) or that I dealt in “International Rights” (surely international human rights?) few people seemed to have any idea what I did. Nevertheless, if the truth of my occupation was neither as clandestine nor as noble as my acquaintances imagined, selling a list of modern Arabic fiction to publishers in the U.S. and around the world was certainly fascinating. Both the nature of my work and its location, in Cairo—far from the epicenter of American publishing both in distance and outlook—were focused on the book business beyond the USA. It was an eye opening experience, not least because it became acutely obvious that the global world of letters is one in which my own country participates precious little.

Only three percent of the books published in the US are translations from other languages (and as it happened, only one percent of those were from Arabic;). To be sure, houses face no shortage of barriers to publishing translations; the expense of commissioning a translation, which is a cost above and beyond the advance, the fact that the author is probably unknown and possibly unable to promote in the US. In this, the age in which the ideal author is not only a fine writer but an articulate and persuasive promoter with a rolodex of media connections—language barriers, as well as sheer physical distance, can be especially problematic. Few trade publishers are willing or able to take on so potentially unrewarding a task. Indeed, in many cases it has fallen to small independent and university presses, whose print runs are small and expectations of profit modest (or nonexistent) to pick up the slack. They provide an invaluable service, but receive limited media coverage, and reinforce the idea that these books are somehow academic exercises, fit for the Ivory Tower and little else.

True, we are a big country, internally diverse and externally uninterested. It could be that we heeded too well the exhortations of the transcendentalists, those brilliant, bewhiskered granddaddies of American letters, who urged us to develop a literature uniquely our own. In his influential address, The American Scholar, Emerson complained that we have “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” These days, few European muses, courtly or otherwise, get a hearing, let alone those from other continents. Some people posit that there are so many people writing in English that we need not look beyond our linguistic borders. This of all possibilities seems most absurd—indeed as pointless as deciding that “American cuisine” is sufficiently robust that we need never eat foreign foods. Indeed, reading literature in translation is perhaps as onerous as dipping into a subtly spiced curry, or a baklava sticky with syrup. Neither tastes like mac’n cheese or apple pie, but they are no less delicious.

Which is to say that my less-than-ambitious but happily anticipated resolution to up my intake of fiction in translation is as easily honored as my plan to return to the Persian restaurant whose albaloo pollo convinced me that cherries and chicken is a match made in heaven. As to what books are on my to-read list, I already have some ideas: Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is this season’s undisputed choice for Serious Readers of Serious Books, and I am curious to read his work. But I’m also interested in the books that have not been so anointed—and for that, I’ll have a look at Words without Borders and Three Percent, two wonderful on-line publications devoted to works in translation.

I’m also happy to hear reader recommendations.

And who knows: Perhaps next year, some weary bookseller will bless translators as the saviors of Christmas.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Miriam Goderich blogs on blogs

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions but I think I need to address a problem that has started to get out of hand. I’ve been in denial about it but I think it’s time to face the issue head on. I’m addicted to blogs and they’re taking over all of my reading time.

It all started innocently enough. My friend Jim Donahue’s The Velvet Blog was as wryly funny as he himself is and I started checking in on his random musings regularly. He started TVB in June of 2004 before the blogging craze became the internet equivalent of Chia pets and rubber bracelets, but something about the seeming spontaneity of the format and the feeling that you’re privy to someone’s intimate thought process hooked me – after all, doesn’t the best fiction (and some narrative nonfiction) achieve that same effect?

Soon, however, the bug had spread and exhibitionist writers everywhere took to the Internet in droves. Agents and publishers got clued in and all of a sudden there were big book deals for everything from Stuff White People Like to our own Daily Coyote (based on the eponymous blog) and A Homemade Life. It was quickly obvious that blogging was not only here to stay but potentially a great source of untapped writing talent.

But then, the whole thing started to become institutionalized and fun sites like Daily Candy and Boing Boing became part of the media establishment. So now, aside from my print magazine habit, I started collecting blog bookmarks by the dozen justifying my addiction by telling myself that it was my business to be “ in the know.” There was PerezHilton (no, I’m not proud of it), Politico, The Onion, Gawker and all its spawn, Slate, Salon, etc. During the feverish election season, there was 23/6 (for comic relief), The Huffington Post, and Tina Brown’s heavy on flash, low on substance The Daily Beast, and, well, too many to list. Problem is that one link leads you to another and, well, a person could spend all day going from one site to another, down endless, exhausting pathways.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not giving up my blogs. We’ve found too many great authors by sending a fan letter in response to a particularly strong post or neat concept. But, I do have to rein it in before I find myself in a 12-step program for blog abusers. Otherwise, my reading piles will get dusty and yellow while I follow the saga of the lady who lost all her money to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme or lose myself in the possible designs of Michelle Obama’s inaugural gown on Mrs. O. Losing weight? No problem. Cutting back on the cocktails? Okay. Giving up the blogs? This could take willpower.

What are your favorite blogs and are they taking over your life too?

(And, btw, what’s the correct usage for blog titles, do you italicize as you do titles of full-length publications?)