Friday, October 30, 2009

Shhh! People are reading.

This morning on the subway, I had the pleasure of seeing a diverse world of book reading in action. My Sony Reader and I sat down next to a woman reading a book on her Kindle. Across from Mrs. Kindle was a woman reading The Lost Symbol in hard cover. Standing up next to her, a woman read a trade paperback about our post-something-I-couldn’t-make-out world. When Mrs. Kindle got off to switch trains, a young man sat beside me, reading a book on his iPhone. A woman came on the train and stood just in front of him, reading Chris Marie Green’s Midnight Reign. When Mr. iPhone left, not only did this woman sit down in his seat, but she switched books to Nora Roberts’s Bed of Roses. Throughout the ride my end of the train also held a couple Metro and AM New York readers (because it’s hard to argue with free!) and someone reading a current affairs mag, but there was only a single person I saw who wasn’t reading at all and almost everyone was reading a book, in whatever genre or format best suited them. My only regret is that technology thwarted my subway voyeurism--I am, after all, the sort of person who subtly takes camera phone photos of F train passengers reading DGLM titles. I could see from the way the text was formatted that they were reading actual books, but not which books they were reading.

With all the fighting about how we get our content and how much we pay for it and who’s reading the right things and who’s reading the wrong ones, it’s nice sometimes to have a moment to be happy that at least we’re still reading!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jim McCarthy on having a voice

At a writers’ conference in Myrtle Beach this past weekend, I did two “slush fests.” Writers brought transparencies of the first two pages of their novels to be projected in front of a room, read aloud, and critiqued by two agents. The first, which I did with Holly Root of the Waxman Literary Agency, focused on paranormal and urban fantasy. We worked at a deliberate pace and weighed the pros and cons of each first page. The second, which I did with Scott Eagan of the Greyhaus Agency, was about romance and women’s fiction. We did not work at a deliberate pace. We whipped through more than two dozen first pages and gave very quick critiques that offered a peek into how an agent is really reading as they move through their slush—how quickly decisions are made and for what reasons.

I hope both panels offered a lot of information to those brave souls who opened themselves up to criticism. The paranormal folks all seemed to walk out with smiles on their faces. The romance writers…well, no one poisoned my soup. It wasn’t pretty, but it was honest, and the feedback I got was positive. Everyone who came up to me said they felt they learned a lot. That said, I did notice that no one who thanked me for my honesty had actually had their material we had read aloud. On the plus side, no one cried! I try to be kind and supportive at conferences (I swear!), but I can’t say I haven’t made writers cry. But I only saw one writer in tears at this conference and felt a totally inappropriate sense of joy when I realized I hadn’t met her, so it couldn’t be my fault. Go team!

In any case, one of the things that kept coming up at the slush fests was that there are a lot of things we have our eye on--we’re looking at grammar, tone, and structure; keeping an eye out for clich├ęs; and ultimately looking for that one element that grabs us and that cannot be taught: voice.

Teaching someone to have a distinct voice would be like teaching someone to have a personality. You can coach them on how to pull it out and make it resonate more distinctly, but you can’t actually create it for them. I want to find writers whose work is so distinctive that I could recognize a sentence of theirs out of context. It’s miraculous that anyone can convey enough personality in a handful of words that they make them completely their own. And isn’t that the wonder of great writing? I once got a bottle of scotch in the mail with a note attached but the sender’s name was nowhere to be found. But it only took a note card for me to recognize Phoebe Kitanidis by her style. [Side note: Phoebe is the author of the absurdly fantastic YA debut WHISPER which comes out next year.]

I was able to snag a copy of one of my favorite memoirs last night. It’s a little tough to find, but Diana Vreeland’s D.V. is the ultimate triumph of voice over content. The woman ran Vogue, operated the costume institute at the Met, and traveled the world. Her memoir is less than 200 pages and she takes up the first pages talking about back plasters. I couldn’t care less about half of what she writes about, but damned if I didn’t eat this book up. She’s irreverent, hyperbolic, bitchy, and pithy. She’s one of a kind, and even when she makes you hate her, you can’t help but being transfixed. It takes some serious nerve to open a memoir with, “I loathe nostalgia.” Oh, realllllly. Well, then, we should have a great time going through your past together. “Nostalgia—imagine! I don’t believe in anything before penicillin.”

Vreeland is the crazy aunt prattling on at Thanksgiving dinner. She might not have anything to tell you, but damned if she’ll stop talking. Her whole book reads like it was written in a single go. And I mean that in the best of all possible ways.

“We both knew there weren’t any marble staircases west of the Mississippi in those days—let alone in Elsa’s father’s house. But that was Elsa—she was just putting on the ritz, keeping things up. Why say you were born in a hovel? Who wants to hear that?” The exaggeration and tone (and her response to her friend’s lies) tell you so much more about this woman that anything she actually says. And while that’s tricky to pull off in nonfiction (since you have to be all honest and everything), it’s hugely admirable in fiction.

If how you’re telling the reader something says more than what you’re telling the reader? Heaven. Because then you aren’t just a writer; you’re an artist. Or in the case of Vreeland, a nutball (not that these terms are by any means mutually exclusive).

I’d love recommendations from anyone who can think of writers with particularly strong voices. I’m always looking for more books to add to my reading list. Call me Sisyphus.

Haunted houses

This made me think of all the fictional houses -- haunted or not -- that are characters in their own right. What are your favorites?

-- Miriam

Seth Godin, right again

Once again, Seth Godin gets it right.

Kindle readers buy two or three times as many books as book readers. Why? I don't think it's necessarily because using a Kindle leads someone to read more books. I think it's because the kind of person who buys a lot of books is the most likely person to pony up and buy a Kindle. I know that sounds obvious, but once you see it this way, you understand why book publishers should be killing themselves to appeal to this group. After all, the group voted with their dollars to show that they're better.

Now, as someone who has a Kindle, I'd argue it does lead one to buy more books (it's so easy that I can't stop!). That aside, what he says is true: Kindle users are a (certain type) of voracious reader. These are the people who evangelize not only the Kindle itself, but also the books they're reading. They're probably also on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads talking about what books they liked. Publishers should be going out of their way to get their books into their hands, not holding back their hot properties. Honestly, who's going to want the Sarah Palin book after the first month on sale, anyway? All the juicy tidbits will have been quoted at length, rehashed and remixed by time the e-book is released. Seems like a big waste to me.

While there's certainly room to debate and experiment, publishers need to start looking at Kindle and nook and other e-reader owners as allies, not enemies. Once they do, I think we'll see what a boon e-books can be.

(Editor Unleashed via Galleycat.)

- Michael

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Jim McCarthy says, “Shut up, Philip Roth”

Philip Roth, ever the optimist, thinks that the novel is going to become a cultish object in the near future. JK Evanczuk has some good arguments that the novel is quite a bit healthier than Roth expects.

I think we can all agree that while the future of the printed book may be in question (are hard copy books going to become the albums?), the actual art of writing continues (and will continue) to hold appeal.

The question is, why is it so hard for people to acknowledge that there is room in our lives for more than one medium to entertain and inform us?

I love you Philip Roth, but you sound a little crotchety and out of touch here.

Or am I just hopelessly optimistic?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

King's e-book news

The dialogue about what value there is in holding off on offering books electronically until after they are published in hardcover (rather than having a simultaneous publication) continued this morning with a piece in the Wall Street Journal about Stephen King’s publisher keeping the e-book edition of his new novel Under the Dome back until Christmas Eve. Again, the thought here, one supported by the author himself, is that doing this will encourage more people to go into bookstores and buy the hard copy of the book, thus increasing bookstore traffic at a time when book sales are down.

My reaction is twofold: First, I am quite surprised that Mr. King, who has been a huge proponent of publishing books electronically is taking this stand. It seems diametrically opposite to what he has been saying (and doing) for so long.

Second, I still feel that the reader of electronic books is not the same as the reader of hard-copy books but, instead, is an additional reader. Selling the e-book at the same time as the hard copy book increases readers and sales, in my opinion.

I am more then aware that there are many who feel differently. What do you think?

If you can't see behind the WSJ paywall, you can read about the issue, sans King quotes, in this AP article.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What Jim McCarthy wants

Authors often ask what we’re looking for. The easy answer is that whatever it is, we’ll know it when we see it. But I thought I’d take a moment to mention just a few things I haven’t been seeing but would love to.

I’d love to find literary horror whether in the adult or young adult realm. There simply aren’t enough great ghost stories crossing my desk, which I think is a shame. I want the book equivalent of Paranormal Activity. If you can scare the bejesus out of me, I’d be delighted to sign you on.

I don’t know if steampunk is really the next big thing or whether people just expect it to be, but in either case, I think it’s a fascinating genre and would love to see more of it cross my desk. For those who don’t know yet, the definition of steampunk can be found here. And for those local to New York, there’s even a steampunk haunted house coming up which looks like it might be made of awesome. Who knows? Maybe I’ll see you there.

I’d be more than happy to take a look at alternative histories. Whether it’s fantastical reimaginings of the past a la Diana Gabaldon or stories about ways that history might have played out like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Robert Cowley’s What If? series provides endless food for thought. This site provides lots of examples of the sort of books that have been done in the category before. I think there’s room to bring the genre more into the mainstream, and I’d love to see it happen.

Still laughing...

This New Yorker piece is "old content" by now but since we're still talking about and chortling over it, I thought it deserved a post.  Enjoy!

-- Miriam

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Book sales and wails

Anyone else getting tired of hearing about how the book business is in a slump?  I have a cold, summer’s over, and the health care battle wages on in Congress.  Sure, the Yanks are in the playoffs, but aside from that, there isn’t a whole lot out there that makes me feel optimistic.  Except, that our agency is having a good year.  A really good year.  We’re selling books faster than we can turn contracts around, we’re seeing authors whose careers we’ve helped build show up regularly on the bestseller lists, and we continue to be engaged in developing the myriad ideas that cross our desks every day. 

So, when I open the paper (actually, I read the Times online) to yet another “the sky is falling” piece citing as the primary indicator of the industry’s woes the under-performance of titles like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Ted Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, it makes me just want to…write a blog post.  Last I heard, Dan Brown’s book has sold about 3,000,000 copies and I’m guessing it will eventually sell all the ones his publisher printed.  If you factor in rights sales, this book will make money (despite the astronomical advance and whatever you may think about its literary merits).   Likewise Ted Kennedy, whose book should have even greater staying power than The Lost Symbol.  Senator Kennedy’s career and storied family, not to mention his contributions to his country, would seem to guarantee that generations hence political science students will be reading True Compass.  I confess to being one of the few people I know who didn’t love The Time Traveler’s Wife so I would not be surprised if the author’s new book finds a true and loving audience or really does end up disappointing the publishing execs who overpaid for it.  That’s what makes horse races, as they say. 

What I really object to in today’s article (among other things better left for other blog posts) is the notion that books are like the latest Tom Cruise or Will Smith movie, that opening weekend grosses are more important than overall sales (and an author’s career), and that books are going to find themselves in the remainder bins as quickly as one of those films goes to DVD because they don’t sell out their entire print runs within the allotted 10 days of co-op placement.  In fact, the marketplace is changing and it seems that only publishing people are unaware of that.  Given the internet’s ability to create niche audiences for everything from bento boxes to splatterpunk, it takes longer for some titles to build sales.   Readers are becoming used to the fact that they will be able to find the books they want to read either in their originally published form or through used book sites or e-book editions.  Just because these people are not in the bookstore the day a book is published doesn’t mean that that audience, if marketed to correctly, can’t make a title a bestseller six months after publication.

Despite this, publishers are still overpaying for a tiny percentage of books and then rolling them out as if the entire business depended on them, and they are invariably disappointed when they don’t sell by the truckload within a couple of weeks.  And then the second guessing and hand wringing begin.  Instead, how about not paying such ridiculous advances and publishing books more intelligently?  You can still have your Dan Browns and your Ted Kennedys and your books about bento boxes but won’t bankrupt the system by making them happen.   Building sales slowly and carefully may not be “sexy” but it will guarantee a loyal audience that will follow an author (and a book) for years to come.  That’s been our M.O. here at DGLM and it’s what will ultimately take the publishing business out of the doldrums.

-- Miriam

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How to Hook an Agent

I was approached by Writer's Digest a while back to contribute to their "Successful Queries" feature, and I jumped at the chance.  One of my personal goals is to explain to authors that there's no one right way to do a query. Only by seeing what's worked in the past can you see just how varied they are.  The magazine (which features several excellent examples in different categories) came out last month, and you can still order it online.  Additionally, it was featured here on their blog, where you can see Lisa McMann's excellent query for the YA book that became WAKE, along with my commentary on why it worked for me. 

Thanks to Writer's Digest for this informative feature.  It's one I'll continue to watch!

- Michael

Thursday, October 01, 2009

To promote James Dashner's forthcoming book, The Maze Runner, there's this addictive flash game that none of you aspiring writers should even start playing. I'm afraid if you do, we'll never get another query!

- Michael