Friday, July 30, 2010

Contest: Into the finals

by Lauren

You know about our contest, right? If not, read here and here.

So first, let me start by apologizing for the technical difficulties.  The polling site I used to generate the polls seems to have gone down and the polls won't load now.  Anyone who tried to load that blog post (or even our home page) in the last couple days before we noticed would probably have found it very slow going.  Sorry for that! 

It also proves a slight problem because I'm not 100% sure about all the books now and of course hadn't written them down.  I think I've gotten this right, but please let me know below if I haven't.

I did write down the countries that won the last round before the site went belly up, fortunately.  In the interest of not dragging this out, let's skip ahead to the final match, shall we!  New poll pitting the last 8 against one another, below.  (I'm using a different polling site and sacrificing a USB drive to the technology gods for good measure.) 

Let's get ourselves a winner, shall we?  Polls open till Thursday 8/5, and the winner will be handed glory the next day.

Fantasy and self-help and shanking

by Rachel

With Lindsay Lohan tucked away in jail, and a renewed interest in life behind bars, I think it’s time to come clean about my fascination with prison (and prisoners). From long drives while living in California to see a teeny glimpse of San Quentin, to thinking Prison Break was one of the greatest TV shows ever made, to spending days watching those Lockup documentaries while visiting family over the holidays—I’m kind of obsessed with what goes on in the pen.

So, I was rather intrigued to read Kenneth Hartman’s article on Huffington Post . Drawing from his 30 continuous years in a California slammer, Hartman gives his readers an exclusive rundown on prison reading—what genre would you expect to be the most popular? The answer might surprise you. What also might surprise you is that Hartman no longer has time to read books; he’s become an avid magazine reader due to the “oddly busy nature” of his life. Fair enough.

Something also rather interesting was this article in The Guardian that pointed out an alternative to prison terms; being sentenced to read! This saves the government money as well as steers people in a different (/better) direction.

What books do you think would be effective for rehabilitation programs like these?

Thursday, July 29, 2010


by Michael

How many of you owned a Laserdisc player? Hands? None of you? Well, I owned one (which no longer works, making my Laserdiscs sadly unplayable), so I found this article over at TripleCanopy which I found via TeleRead--doubly fascinating. I had no idea that e-books and Laserdiscs had any shared heritage, and I never could have guessed that they were also related to one of the founders of the SDS at Columbia, who also happens to head the Institute for the Future of the Book. The interview is really enlightening, as it shows how the changing technology at times created new formats, while at others the technology was chasing the ideas of great thinkers.

And in other e-news, a new Kindle is born. Looks pretty nice, though with my iPad now I won’t be diving into a dedicated e-reader anytime soon.

All's well that ends well

by Jessica

Last weekend I saw Inception, a film that I mostly enjoyed; I could have done without the alpine fortress/firefights on skis, the relentless soundtrack, and the director's obvious desire to offset tricky ideas with cool special effects (Thinking got you down? Watch this!) but unlike many audience members, I did like the ending. It was, I thought, a niftily ambiguous conclusion, and it called to mind a polite but on-going discussion I’m having with a writer I know, whose novel features an ending that I find indeterminate but unsatisfying. How a book ends matters to me—if the resolution feels forced, artificial, or worse yet, phoned in, I feel cheated, and perfectly entitled to hurl the offending volume across the room.

While mulling over endings, both ideal and infuriating, I noted that The Millions has a terrific article on this very subject. This is the wonderful thing about the internet, one need not go far to discover that the same ideas you’ve been kicking around in an inchoate, undisciplined sort of way have been thought-through, researched, and then recorded, in clear, lively prose. Or such was my experience with Literary Endings: Pretty Bows, Blunt Axes, and Modular Furniture.  In it the, author creates a taxonomy of possible endings, cites examples of these different approaches, and offers up some of her favorites. To my her list I’d add: Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People; Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, Scott Turow’s clever twist in Presumed Innocent; Ian McEwan’s Atonement; Clea, the whole fourth installment of Lawrence Durell’s Alexandria Quartet, in which all manner of hazy details snap into sharp and shocking focus. My husband offered up Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Bleak, but kick-in-the-stomach effective.

Your favorite endings? Least favorite endings?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

World's cutest bookworm

by Stacey

It's hot, and it's almost August, so I couldn't resist sharing this adorable picture posted on GalleyCat and taken by a mom who is taking these sweet photos as a maternity leave hobby. The bookworm is for all of us bibliophiles out there, but check out her blog—the pictures are so clever and so cute! And they beg the question—does this baby ever sleep anywhere but the floor?

From the Vault: Query perfection

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 Miriam

The perfect query letter does not exist. (Well, perhaps it lives in the fantasy realm of unicorns and dragons, but certainly not in our day-to-day publishing world.) And, yet, everyone seems to be chasing the formula for that elusive, perfect query letter (EPQL) and its pursuit is giving a lot of people agita and heartburn. It's a recurring theme during the Q&A portion of agent presentations at writers conferences. Many internet sites and print publications aimed at writers spend a lot of time on the subject and, in talking with individual authors, it seems that confusion about this subject is universal.

So, I will try to elucidate what makes a query effective -- not perfect, mind you, just effective -- for us here at DGLM:

1. It should be succinct and to the point. The purpose of this missive is to introduce yourself and your project and ascertain if the agent wants to take a look at your proposal/manuscript. It is not the place to go into longwinded detail about the weather, your passion for shell collecting (unless, of course, the book is about shell collecting), or your great-aunt Mary’s faith that you would one day be a published writer. It should, however, be no more than a page long and look and read like a letter not a report.

The first paragraph might mention how you came to query this particular agent and/or agency – perhaps noting that you saw a nice acknowledgement of the agent in a book you admired or you looked on the agency’s web site and identified with the agent’s profile somehow or anything that shows that you did your homework and that this is not just a form letter being sent to 6,000 agents.

The next paragraph should tell the prospective agent what the book is in a couple of sentences. Here is not the place to summarize your entire book. You want to highlight the strongest themes or the elements that make the book distinctive (e.g., “My novel tells the tale of star-crossed teenage lovers separated by their families’ bitter feud.” Not, “Romeo grew up in Verona and was part of the Montague clan. He met and fell in love with Juliet who was a member of the Capulet familiy and who spent an inordinate amount of time on balconies or talking to her nurse….”) Unless you’re very good at writing concise plot summaries, the less said the better. The idea is to get the agent to the actual manuscript.

The final paragraph should tell us anything relevant about you – this is your first novel or you’ve been published in numerous literary journals or John Cheever was your godfather or you’re a neurosurgeon who has an MFA from the Iowa writing program, etc. – and ask if you may send a sample of your project or the complete manuscript.

2. On the technical side of things: Spell check and then carefully proofread the query. We have had instances of great hilarity over a dropped letter in a strategic spot. Someone once queried us for a book about “pubic policy” and, juvenile bunch that we are, we didn’t stop laughing for days. You don’t want the query to go directly to the form rejections pile because of typos, grammatical errors or because you addressed the envelope to one agent and sent it to another.

It’s okay to single space query letters – as you would any other letter – but it’s not okay to make your margins less than one inch wide and your font teeny tiny so that you can fit a three-page description into one page. Ease of reading is half the battle among us bleary-eyed publishing people. (Everything else in your submission package should be double spaced and single sided.)

Finally, unless you’re in prison, type your queries rather than handwriting them. One of my favorite queries of all time was a six-page handwritten saga describing the author’s genealogical connections to everyone from the British royal family to Lassie.

3. Did I mention doing your homework? If the agent you’re querying only represents science fiction and fantasy, don’t send him/her a query for a self-help proposal. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and postage, and there are so many places where you can find information on agents and publishers that it should be relatively easy to identify your target.

4. Use any edge you have. If you met one of us at a conference, lead with that. If your father went to school with one of our spouses, tell us that. Anything that helps us identify yours as something we should pay attention to is fair to include. Ultimately, it’s the actual idea and writing that will determine whether we offer representation, but that won’t happen if your query doesn’t make us request your material.

Caveat: Even if you follow my directions slavishly, there’s no guarantee that your query will be that EPQL we’re all looking for. As with everything else in this quixotic business, you can sometimes do all the wrong things and still end up with an agent and a book contract. And, conversely, you can do all the right things and not get your foot in the door. So, my advice is to better your chances by crafting as good a query letter as you can and then trust that your efforts and the strength of your work will pay off.

Originally posted in December 2006.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Apple removes erotica from the iBookstore

by Chasya

You all know I get more than squirmish when I hear the word censorship, so when I came across news in the Telegraph that Apple was removing erotic books (bestsellers, no less) from their store, I winced. The company’s chaste stance has created a flurry of backlash among bloggers, and I think with good reason.

Though I’m not a fan of that category myself, it seems simply strange and outmoded that the company would elect to ban these titles. There is quite a lot happening now on the digital publishing front, much of it evidenced by the most recent controversy over the formation of literary agent Andrew Wylie’s new e-book company Odyssey Editions. There are new skirmishes every day in what is mostly unchartered territory, but I hope that this is not a trend that lasts. What about you? Any dissenters amongst us?

The little things

by Lauren
As I’m slowly readjusting to my return home from vacation, I’m still reflecting on the best moments of last week. Chief among them seeing old friends; strolling down streets I walked down every day for more than a year; eating honeycomb ice cream (why don’t we have that here??); and watching QI (see previous parenthetical). I sort of prefer vacation to be more like living an ideal life for a week than doing fancy touristy things, and an ideal life would include more honeycomb and Stephen Fry.

One of the best moments was actually work-related: finding a book with my name in the acknowledgments on the shelves of the bookshop I used to work in. The last job I had before Jane brought me on here as her assistant was at a fantastic book store in Galway called Dubray Books. So naturally, one of my first stops when I arrived in town was to see my old coworkers and browse through the shelves. I think I may actually have scoured every shelf in the store that had a remote possibility of containing a DGLM title—spotting a few here and there, a couple editions I sold the rights for, some others where I sold translations but not international English editions, still others I had nothing to do with at all but felt proud to see nonetheless. Because of the speed with which publishing moves, especially international publishing, and the fact that not every title is going to find its way into Ireland’s relatively small market, I wasn’t sure that anything in which I was acknowledged would be there. And then I found it, Richelle Mead’s Spirit Bound. I’m not her agent, of course, but I’ve sold rights for her internationally, and she graciously thanked me for doing that. (Thanks, Richelle!) So I got to stroll around the store, book in hand, showing off my name to friends and former coworkers. It meant a great deal—a marker of how far I’ve come professionally in the 5 ½ years since I was stocking those shelves—and a comfort when I was feeling pangs of regret for having left a city I love so much. My desire to work in publishing is, after all, the primary reason I always knew I’d come home to NY after grad school.

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen a book I had a hand in out in the wild, and years into this job, I still seek them out. The first thing I did after work on pub day for the first of my books to hit the shelves was to go to the B&N where I spent 3 1/2 years of my working life and see the fruits of my labor. Every time I find myself in a bookstore with family members, I make them endure this little ritual. Just a few weeks ago, for the very first time, I saw one of my own books being read by a random person sitting across from me on the subway, and I think I may have just sat there beaming till I got off the train. These moments are why I’m in this business: getting to help books get into the hands of readers. I could never write one, and I can’t singlehandedly buy them all, but I can help keep this publishing ecosystem going in my own small way.

I think that there are small moments throughout the process for each of us here that really make us proud to get to work with our fantastic clients and help them make their dreams come true. This morning there were 185 emails in my inbox not counting the queries, spam, and things I was copied on or forwarded as an FYI. 185 things to respond to and take care of and think through and take action on, during a week in which my colleagues and many of the people I work with didn’t get in touch because they knew I was away. Plus the 10 or so contracts in my mail pile, the voicemails, the things that I have to follow up on now that I’m back. At the end of the day, we do all that because we get to be a part of something that’s pretty magical. The odds are so stacked against any book that there’s something really special about having the privilege of seeing them on the shelf and knowing that we helped to get them there.

So thanks, authors, for letting us be a part of that!

P.S. I bought Moab Is My Washpot at that very bookstore.  Can't wait to read it!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jim reads comic books

by Jim

I remember first becoming aware of the concept that a comic book could also be a “real” book around the time that Maus hit Entertainment Weekly’s best of the year list about a million years ago. In the years since I started working at DGLM, graphic novels have gained more and more traction in sales and become increasingly respectable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about them for one incredibly obvious reason: I’ve started selling them. In the coming years, adaptations of a few of the novels I’ve sold will be hitting stores in graphic novel form. And as we move forward with these projects, I’m reading more and more books in the format and also becoming increasingly intrigued about how readers crossover from one format to the other. Take Laurell K. Hamilton: I’d guess that most of the folks buying her graphic novels were already fans looking forward to a different approach to the stories and characters they loved. But I have to imagine that there’s also a dedicated comic readership whose first exposure to Hamilton’s Anita Blake came through the adaptations.

While pondering this all, I also finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. If anyone else still hasn’t read it, you totally have to. It’s, well…amazing (truth in advertising!). and it relates here because it’s about two cousins who participate in the birth of the comics boom in the States in the 40s. It made me want to read more comic books and graphic novels. So I have.

I dug into Watchmen and was blown away by the richness of it all. Emboldened, I kept going. From memoirs of Iranian girlhood (Persepolis) to the biography of a mathematical philosopher (Logicomix) to tales of a dorky Canadian battling his girlfriends seven evil exes (Scott Pilgrim Saves the World), I’ve been incredibly impressed by the integration of art and language. It’s incredibly encouraging that so many artists and writers are committed to growing the format as its own art form.

Of course, the fact that it took me this long to really get behind the movement in full force probably speaks to a bit of snobbishness that I held onto until now.

I’d love to hear if any of our readers are graphic novel obsessives. And I’m completely open to suggestions for what to read next!

I love it when I'm right

by Jane

Over the last several months – it could be as long as a year, actually – whenever I have met someone not in our industry who asks what I do and I tell them, I invariably get the question, “Is publishing going to survive.”  What they really mean is whether the business of book publishing will be able to survive the arrival of the digital book.

I have always maintained that the changes that reading books electronically will bring to the book publishing business can and will be very exciting.  In fact, I have been absolutely certain that as a result of these changes, reading overall would increase.

And then Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon announced that for the last three months, sales of books for its e-reader, the Kindle, outnumbered sales of hardcover books.  This news is really historic.

There was other news though that was just as exciting. According to the American Publishing Association, hardcover book sales were up industry-wide 22% this year.  Indeed, reading has been increasing, and I believe as more and more electronic reading devices are sold – and sales of these are way up as their prices have dropped – people will read more in all formats.

So, rather than being concerned that book publishing is going down the tubes, outside observers of our business should jump on the bandwagon and spread the word. This is only the beginning of a wonderful new digital publishing age. 

Do you all agree?

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Next Big Trend: Libraries

by Rachel

I’ve always been a fan of libraries. As a child, school holidays in the summer time meant keeping occupied, and keeping occupied meant either going to the beach, or visiting the library. As I’ve grown older, my love of visiting the library is still there, and one of the first things I did after moving to New York (and after exhausting myself by visiting every possible tourist trap) was to sign up at the library.

Linda Holmes’ NPR article gives us a few more reasons to love libraries and why she thinks they’re the next big pop-culture wave. But, with libraries starting to go bookless these days, do you agree they could still make a big come back? And if so, can you add to Linda Holmes’ list of reasons why?

PS: The Librarians Do Gaga video is mentioned in this article – if you haven’t seen it, check it out!

From the Vault: By the numbers

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.  If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Lauren

Numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me. I was always much better at the arts/humanities portion of my education than the math/science one. That’s not to say I don’t find math absolutely fascinating—I actually do, I swear!—I just don’t get it the way I do literature and language.

Without a ton of context, statistics don’t tend to make an impact on my brain. But there are some numbers that even the biggest numerophobe in publishing really ought to know. Here are some you might find interesting:

  • U.S. publishing is a $35 billion industry, the Book Industry Study Group reported at BEA last year—net revenues reached $34.59 billion in 2005, which was an increase of 5.9% over the previous year. We may tell ourselves that in this age of video games, technology and instant gratification people are reading less and less—but if that’s true, we’re certainly paying more and more for the books we’re not reading. That same report projects that revenues will break $40 billion by 2010.

  • How many books does it take to bring in that kind of money? Well, approximately 200,000 new books are published each year, reported PW in 2004.

  • And how much paper does it take to print so many books? According to the New York Times (via the Authors Guild Bulletin in Summer 2006), Random House buys 110,000 tons of uncoated paper to publish books each year. 

  • Many of us know that the Bible has more copies in print than any other book, but what’s number two? Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, with more than 50 million copies in print and still going, according to Publishers Weekly from 2/12/07.

  • In 2006, Bowker, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading source for bibliographic information,” published a survey based on 13,000 novels published in the U.S.

    • 1,550 of those with a location that could be identified were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

    • New York and London were the two most common cities used as settings.

    • The same study showed that 65% of romance books, 61% of science fiction titles, and 58% of mystery/detective novels were published in paperback (meaning both mass market and trade).

  • And just how long were those books? The average for sci-fi was 329 pages with romance on its heels at 324. Mysteries were just shy of 300 at 292, followed by westerns at 261.

  • So just how long does it take to write those 13,000 novels anyway?

    • Tom Perkins, ex-husband of Danielle Steel, wrote Sex and the Single Zillionaire in 100 hours over 30 days.

    • Compare that with Donna Tartt and Shirley Hazzard. Tartt published The Secret History in 1992, then spent the next decade writing her second novel, The Little Friend.

    • Hazzard’s follow up took even longer—2003 saw publication of The Great Fire, 23 years after her debut, The Transit of Venus.

  • And do they sell well? The standards for success really do change from book to book based on any number of factors—category, author’s platform, size of the advance, size of the marketing budget—but everyone agrees that the majority of books fail to earn out their advances (meaning that the author’s royalties never accrue to the point that they actually earn more than they were paid up front). What percentage? An exact number is probably impossible to pin down, but it’s said that 80-85% of books published don’t earn out.

  • And how can we know how many copies of a book have sold? The closest we get to reliable public information is via Bookscan, a tracking database operated by Nielsen, the same people who tell us what everyone’s watching on TV. (As you may know, it’s not a perfect system since Bookscan only reports sales from certain segments of the market. If a book sells a large percentage in the “special sales” category—i.e., via outlets other than traditional book channels, including stores like Wal-Mart, which declines to report—Bookscan might not give a particularly good idea of how well that book is selling.) Just how accurate is Bookscan? They claim to be 70-75% accurate, according to a Publishers Weekly article from 2004. Of course that also changes depending on what type of book you’re talking about. Bookscan is more accurate for books that sell primarily via traditional book retailers, and less accurate for categories—like mass market fiction, cookbooks and children’s—that sell a large volume outside those channels.
Some numbers are critical to understanding how publishing works, and others are just an interesting way of looking at what seems like a completely abstract world. What statistics do the rest of you find fascinating? Which sets of numbers comfort or terrify you? What numbers do you wonder about?

Originally posted in May 2007.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Celebrity writers and forgotten authors

by Jessica

Apropos of Jane’s post earlier this week, in which she discusses advising a client to turn down an offer from a major New York house in favor of an offer from a smaller company far from the epicenter of publishing, I’ll add another note of praise for the small press. In the following series, indie publisher Melville House discusses “How do you market a book written in a foreign language by an author who’s now dead, that was originally published 60 years ago, and has been overlooked by mainstream publishing ever since”. Good question, and it’s fairly extraordinary that they venture to ask it. Conventional wisdom has it that exhuming a forgotten title (one in translation no less) is about as effective as attempting to resuscitate its dead author. Unless there was some extraordinary circumstance involved, few mainstream commercial houses would take this kind of chance.

The campaign that Melville House came up with is thoughtful, innovative, and in this era of celebrity-dominated book publishing, (check out this article in The Daily Beast and pray that this era is ending)  exceedingly rare. There are scores of reasons that books are seldom re-launched, but one oft-cited problem is that book releases are treated like “news,” and getting traditional media coverage for older books can be all but impossible. Most media outlets are also desperate for readers/viewers, so from a sales perspective, lavishing coverage on juicy, star-studded stories makes more sense than writing about old, forgotten books.

Are there any obscure/overlooked books that you’d point to as worthy of a Melville House-style campaign? What do you think of celebrity books?

Big ebook news day

by Michael

The big ebook news, of course, is that Andrew Wylie has partnered with Amazon to release ebooks of some of his clients’ classic works. It’s one of the biggest shots fired in the war between authors and publishers on ebook royalties, and it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming weeks.

Other ebook news, via agent Janet Reid, is this video of her client Sean Farrell’s enhanced ebook of his debut novel, Numb. It sounds like it’s a fun book even without enhancement, but I think you’ll find his author commentary more than amusing.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Powerful parenting

by Stacey

A client of mine shared this link with me yesterday and I felt compelled to pass it on. We've been talking a lot about the recent cover story in New York magazine, I Love My Kids, I Hate My Life, which has generated a lot of controversy and ties in to what she's talking about here. Everyone has their own stories to share, some more profound and painful than others. This one by writer and writing coach Jennifer Lawler moved me to tears, and I think if you read it through, you'll see why. Since this is a book publishing blog, I'll also say that she offers some good advice for writers, which she does, but that's not really the point.

You can’t take it with you…or can you?

by Miriam

As you all know, we’re obsessed with electronic rights around here and pretty concerned with issues like piracy and copyright violations stemming from all the ways technology makes it easy to rip off an author’s work and not compensate him or her for it.  And, now, my friend Joan has sent me this link about a device that will allow you to put your entire library, not to mention that heavy backpack full of textbooks, into your e-reader of choice with little fuss and no muss. 

Full disclaimer: I’ve known Ian Sullivan, one of the inventors, since he was a four-year-old with an aversion to clothes and I was his longsuffering babysitter.  Before I take him to task for contributing to the downfall of the publishing industry, what do you all think of his invention?  Is it merely a boon to those of us who want to cart our entire library with us when we’re on the move?  Or is it another sinister way to encroach upon author rights?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The evolution of a cover

by Chasya

It’s impossible to go anywhere these days without seeing a book in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy series. It seems like everyone (on the subway, in the park, at my place) has got their hands on one or the other of these books. Impossible to ignore because of their bright and superbly and originally designed covers, I find myself catching a glimpse of them even when I’ve got my eyes shut blissfully on my commute into Manhattan. So when I saw this article in the Wall Street Journal and the various mock-up covers that Knopf’s senior designer Peter Mendelsund went through to get to the finished product, I was thoroughly intrigued. The covers varied from snowy and stark white to electrified font against an equally electric background. All were scrapped in favor of the now ubiquitous design that anyone who reads (and many who don’t) would recognize.

We often discuss covers on the blog, and it’s fascinating to get an inside look into what works and why. The range of reasons go from the cover being too literary to “just giving everyone a headache.”

What do you all think about the covers presented here? Would you have bought the book if it was packaged in any of the other options?

Thrills at ThrillerFest

by Stacey

I had a rare opportunity last week to get into the trenches with many aspiring writers, and a bunch of published ones, too. I thought our readers might enjoy hearing a little bit about it. There's a great annual writer's conference here in NYC called ThrillerFest, sponsored by ITW, an organization for thriller writers founded by the person many believe to be the creator of the modern day thriller (not to mention a client of DGLM!), David Morrell. It's a pretty cool organization, and you can read more about its history on their website.

The conference offers several days of great author and agent panels that aspiring and published writers alike can learn from. It's incredibly professional and well executed. It also is a wonderful opportunity for writers to meet not only other writers, but publishing professionals. One of my oldest and dearest clients, A.J. Hartley, was in town for the conference, and I offered to listen to pitches at AgentFest for 3 1/2 hours before meeting up with him for dinner and drinks. There were several dozen agents listening to pitches at AgentFest (having it in NY helps to draw lots of locals), a good number of bestselling authors (meeting R.L. Stine and Douglas Preston were person highlights), and a number of publishing executives, including my friend Jennifer Hershey from Random House, which sponsored the opening night cocktail party.

As one of the agents attending the pitch session, I can say the first hour and a half or two of pitches was enjoyable, even if the three minute pitches resembled a marathon speed dating session. The attendees were sincere, motivated, honest, sometimes nervous, but mostly excited to be there and grateful for the opportunity to meet with established agents. Writers and agents both were exhausted by the end, not to mention hungry, but most agreed it was a success. I now have a crowded in-box of queries from the conference, and I will be chipping away at them with fond memories of my short time at ThrillerFest!

Last Thursday, during ThrillerFest, there was also a great review in the Washington Post of a new collection of best-of thrillers (you know how much we love lists around here), compiled by Morrell and critic Hank Wagner with commentary from writers of the genre, including a piece by A.J. Hartley, whose day job is teaching Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte. It's an impressive collection, worth checking out if you are interested in this kind of book.

It all got me thinking about writers, writing, and the community we all inhabit. We often find ourselves in our insular world of words, and it's so important to get out and network within your writing community. There is such generosity and support available to aspiring writers. Even if you don't write thrillers and can't afford to attend a fancy New York writer's conference, there are still a myriad of ways to reach out and connect with others who love what you love -- local libraries, book clubs, bookstores all offer camaraderie and a place to surround yourself with a positive energy and renewed enthusiasm for your work that you can't get from writing alone. I think it's rejuvenating and inspiring to step outside the office, or get away from the computer for a blessed few days, or even a few hours, to do a different sort of work that's unique, fun, and enlightening. When you head back to your desk, I promise you will come at it from a fresh perspective, and maybe the answers to that writer's block you were experiencing, or that character whose fate you couldn't figure out (or in my case that digital contract language we've been trying to sort out), will be waiting for you upon your return. I hope so.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Great writing

by Jim

A few weeks back, one of our commenters asked me a completely unanswerable question: “What is great writing?”

He may have been talking about porn, but I think Supreme Court Justice Potter Smith nailed it when he said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

For me, the phrase “great writing” brings to mind authors who can devastate you with a sentence, whose ability to find distinctive, rich, unique ways to use language are stunning in their own right. I think of people like Toni Morrison who blew my high school mind with this sentence in Song of Solomon: "When the little boy discovered, at four, the same thing Mr. Smith had learned earlier -- that only birds and airplanes could fly -- he lost all interest in himself.” Morrison is one of my favorite novelists. But the phrase great writing also makes me think of someone like Ian McEwan whose prose is always gorgeous and whose books I find tedious and overworked.

Really, the only thing I can say for sure about what great writing is is that it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Some of the finest crafters of prose can’t tell a story to save their life. And some brilliant storytellers can’t make their way through a paragraph without a total dud of a sentence. Take a look at Dan Brown. I don’t think anyone sees him as the most artful writer, but he tells a great story.

Though the tendency is to think that literary fiction is about great writing and commercial fiction is about great storytelling, I think the truth is that all good books blend both. Category divisions crop up based on how the balance between the two is achieved, but what we want to find, in any category, is a book that tells a great story, in wonderful language, with rich characters, fantastic narrative momentum, and an eye for detail.

Is that so much to ask?

What about you folks? Any other writers you feel are particularly “great writers?” I’d also throw out Marilynne Robinson, Steven Millhauser, Andrew Holleran, Margaret Atwood, Colum McCann…there are so many!

The intangibles in weighing publishing offers

by Jane

Recently, I was selling a book and had three offers – one from a large, well known publishing house, one from a medium sized company, slightly less well known and the last offer was from a tiny publisher located far from New York. After weighing all of the terms of the offers, I recommended to my client that she accept the third offer. My client, quite rightly, wanted to know why.

There are so many factors to consider when one has more than one offer. First, of course, and it was true in this case, is the amount of the advance and the royalty rates. These are important considerations, especially the royalties, when the amounts of the advances are close to each other.

But then there are the other less tangible things:

What is the payout of the advances? In this day and age when advances are being broken down into smaller and smaller increments, the payout becomes every bit as important as the total amount, if not more.

What is the publisher’s distribution capability? Does it have its own sales force or does it use commissioned reps? How are the books presented at sales conferences?

How do the publishers envision the book? What will it look like? Where will they concentrate sales?

How will the book fit into their existing publishing programs? Will it get buried or will it be a lead title?

How enthusiastic is the editor; is that enthusiasm shared by the company’s senior management?

How accessible is the editor? Will the author and the agent be able to communicate with him or her easily?

Will the author be consulted thoughtfully on the title, the cover, the press release, etc.?

What is the publisher’s web presence and how does it promote its books both traditionally and electronically.

All of these things I believe are more important than just being published haphazardly by one of the big name publishers, where the editor is so busy he or she doesn’t have time to return a phone call or ask for the author’s opinion and where, ultimately, the book gets completely lost.

In fact, we do a lot of business with some smaller companies and have seen the books we steer their way sell hundreds of thousands of copies more than they would have had they been published by larger houses.

I’d love to hear about your experiences in this regard. What do you think are the most important factors in deciding which publishing house to go with when there are multiple offers at approximately the same financial level?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Contest: Be your own psychic octopus

by Lauren

You know about our contest, right?  If not, read here.

I think we could all learn a little something about the courage of our convictions from the world's most awesome psychic, Paul the Octopus, so let us all embrace that spirit and go forth and declare winners!  I lack the technical know-how to set up something awesome and bracket-like for you here, but polls are open until Monday the 26th, so root for your favorites below, and let's see who makes it to the quarterfinals!

[Sorry, technical difficulties!! See the next round post!]

Thanks, everyone, for the nominees!  A bunch of these have been on my to-read list for ages.

*Selected from a list of Korean novels on Library Thing!
**Technically, this isn't from Slovakia, but it was the closest suggestion I got, since it was published in Czechoslovakia before the split.
***Vicki pointed out that while Allende is Chilean, this was published in Spain. I'm sure she's right, but I'll include it here because we did get another Spain entry and no other Chile ones!

Anxiety of the literary kind

by Rachel
A few weeks ago I went to see Peter Carey at a reading for his new book, Parrot and Olivier in America. Just a little over 200 people crammed into a small theatre to hear—in my opinion—a storyteller like no other. With his thick Aussie accent and dry sense of humor, the audience was captivated and on the edge of their seats (at least I was—I was sitting in the back and wouldn’t see otherwise) as passages were read from the book. Following an amusing discussion and question/answer session, I thought, Peter Carey is as cool as a cucumber; he’s an amazing writer and speaker.

If you read Melanie Benjamin’s article on Huffington Post, you’ll realize that not every author is as cool and calm as we think they are. This is truly an hysterical take on what it’s like to be an anxious author at a book club meeting. I’m sure Melanie appears cool and calm in person, but reading of her dread at the thought of skyping with readers made me laugh, especially after reading this line: “I'd have to arrange good lighting, so that my older face would match my younger voice. I would have to experiment with camera angles, so that my nostrils wouldn't frighten whatever small children might be in the room.”

I haven’t been to any disastrous book club meetings or bookstore readings (yet), but I love a good hot literary mess, and would love to hear about your experiences!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A step in the right direction

by Michael

Via Mediabistro, I was led to this fascinating article about Hearst’s plans for their upcoming magazine apps for the iPad and other tablets. While I’m not sure they’re being realistic about the pricing of these apps, I’m excited that publishers are finally looking beyond delivering the print versions in an electronic format. Of particular interest to those of us in publishing is that the O, the Oprah Magazine app will allow users to download books within the app itself. It’s a smart way to sell books, as readers can buy what they want immediately — not only do they not need to go to the bookstore, they don’t even need to leave the app! I’m curious, of course, about what format the book will be in, and if you’ll be able to move it to other reading platforms, but this is all still early and preliminary. I’ll be eager to try these apps out when they arrive!

What drives us to buy books?

by Jessica

Last week I discovered that many of you who responded to my post about blurbs don’t actually place much stock in them, so now I’m offering up another of publishing’s sacred cows to see whether (and how) it’s barbequed. I’m curious about the publicity or promotion that is most likely to convince you to buy a book. NYT Book Review, appearance on The Daily Show, Oprah segment, Salon, Slate? Although I ought not play favorites, the book publicity to which I most respond has to be the NPR interview, in particular, Fresh Air’s long form, in depth, almost-always-memorable conversation with an author. Somehow, even more than a lengthy review, this format—which is capacious enough to allow a writer not only to discuss her thesis, but explore her ideas in detail—succeeds in piquing my interest.

I listen when I can, and download the podcast for times that I can’t tune in. This past Tuesday’s interview was with psychiatrist and author Daniel Carlat, whose new book Unhinged, The Trouble with Psychiatry, has just been added to my to-read list. My fondness for NPR in general and Fresh Air in particular may border on the unhealthy, but mine is a functional addiction, and enables me to participate willingly in any number of otherwise tedious chores/activities: running on a treadmill, folding laundry, doing dishes, even, on occasion, cooking. My husband refers to NPR as “the drone” and teases me mercilessly regarding its dangerous propensity for inducing catatonia, but as far as books are concerned, and sometimes music, I find NPR tremendously convincing.

What sort of promotion/interview/feature captures your attention?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Best of the year list, in June!

by Stacey

We're always eyeing lists around town around the holidays to see various picks for the best books of the year. Now Amazon has come up with a way to trump the competition by coming up with a best-of list just halfway through the year. It's kind of nice for readers to have a credible resource to go to without having to wait until the holidays. It's an eclectic list that covers a lot of ground. There's definitely something here for a varied set of interests. The nonfiction book I've been wanting to read for a few months now is the Rebecca Skloot, which has been a big critical and commercial success. Do any of our readers have other ideas for great books from 2010 that aren't on this list? We'd love to hear about them.

The real Camelot

by Miriam
I’ve been fascinated by the Arthurian legend since I was a kid. The impossible struggle to be good in the face of temptation and evil, the idea that a belief in magic is as necessary for survival as the quest for something of meaning, the courage and passion and the heartbreaking losses and defeats, the notion that the human spirit can triumph over the darkness that sometimes threatens to engulf us…all that and Excalibur. I’ve read dozens of versions over the years, from Chretien de Troyes’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s to John Steinbeck’s to T.H. White’s to Mary Stewart’s to Richard Monaco’s to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s, and always hoped that there was more than myth and folklore to the story of the great King Arthur and his court.

So, it was with great delight that I came upon this piece in the Daily Mail. How cool is the discovery that there was, in fact, a real Round Table (which was not a table at all)? Hopefully, the new information will spark a new wave of Arthurian storytelling.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

by Chasya

Thanks, Galleycat, for this link to super creative ways artists are using old library cards in their work.

With the advent of digital card catalogues, artists are recycling those little paper boards into the coolest of creations. So, you crazy bibliophiles, want to carry a bit of the library everywhere you go?

Fancy a necklace made out of library cards?  Why your wish is Etsy's command.

My personal favorite is the paperweight.

What about you?

Avoiding the summer slide

by Rachel

A couple of years ago, before moving to New York, I worked as a Kindergarten teacher in San Francisco. I can remember quite well the day before summer vacation began—almost every teacher was complaining that the time spent away from school during the summer would have students forgetting everything they had learned that year. That’s not to say teachers wanted to stay in class and teach all summer, but the “summer slide” was definitely apparent on the first day back at school, and so something to cause a lot of worry. So, come the last day of school, I sent my students home with their backpacks full of books—they thought Christmas had arrived (and how happy I was to see 5- and 6-year-olds excited about reading!).

David Brooks’ article in the NY Times last week was an interesting read, as he touched on the effects of books on a child’s learning, especially in regards to the power of books over the summer period. According to results, students who took home 12 books over their summer vacation had significantly higher reading scores than other students (to be expected, I would imagine), but that having books in the home also produces other significant educational gains.

Another study brought to our attention in the article illustrates the effects of the internet and the declining math and reading scores of students. Though the internet helps one become knowledgeable about current events and trends (and what our friends are up to every second of the day), it is the literary world, says David Brooks, that produces better students right now.

I’m going to agree with Mr. Brooks on his opinion. As I saw with my young students, the class computer was fun (and incredibly popular during free time), but reading books gave my Kindergarteners something more, and there was such pride on my students’ faces when they had finished reading a book that I never saw when they had finished a game on the computer. Seeing my students beaming from taking home a backpack of books on the last day of school—and having a love of books themselves—was definitely worth all the headaches of being a Kindergarten teacher.

While reading the comments following the Times article, it seems there are many people who feel as though the internet has affected our attention span, and so made it more difficult to sit down and enjoy a good book with all the distractions out there—breaking news, twitter updates, constant email notifiers etc.

So, my question is: do you think books and the internet are two different worlds and able to complement each other? Or, do you think the internet really is the downfall of our students and their love of books?

Monday, July 12, 2010

What are you watching?

by Jim

We think a lot about book trailers here. How effective are they? Does anyone watch them that isn’t the author’s husband, cousin, editor, or Facebook friend? And how do some trailers begin to get tons of hits while others wouldn’t stand a chance of going viral even if they ran on the back end of a Susan Boyle video?

We’re still in the beginning stages, even if the book trailer has been around for a few years. Do you think they’ll last? Do you watch them? Are they the best advertising for books?

To help you make a decision, I present a book trailer that offers something I know the internet loves: pretty animals! From DGLM's own, Thomas French:

From the Vault: The right time

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

So many of my clients ask me when the right time is to submit their proposals to publishers. Are there times of year when things quiet down? Is there a perfect time to submit a first novel, a self help book, or a proposal for a wonderful memoir? Here are a few thoughts.

There used to be a time some years ago when things really did quiet down in the summer, and I would advise that very few (at least multiple) submissions go out then because it was so difficult to get a group of publishers who were not out on vacation. I don’t believe that any more. Certainly it is more difficult to get a group of twenty editors that are all in their offices at the same time during June, July and August, but the business is so competitive that I now consider the summer almost as busy as other times of year. Because summer is a time for beach reading, I do tend to submit material that I feel is “lighter” – romance, commercial fiction, thrillers, mysteries – books of that sort.

Right after Labor Day is “back to school” in so many ways. Everyone has returned from vacation, and it is a very active and competitive time for multiple submissions. This is one of the best times of year to get an editor’s attention – and we do try to take advantage of this. This selling period, though, is relatively short. In mid November, things really slow down in anticipation of Thanksgiving, most company’s sales meetings and the Christmas and New Years holidays. At this time of year, I tend to submit option titles, but many fewer multiple submissions.

I have always found the first four months of the year to be the busiest and most productive in terms of sales. I work towards getting my clients’ proposals ready for submission at that time – self help at the very beginning of the year, important fiction and non fiction afterwards. This period slows right around Memorial Day and BEA (that’s the big national book expo for the uninitiated) and then picks up again with the summer reading submissions.

Of course all that I have said here can be altered for the sure fire bestseller which can be sent out anytime. I have sold books for 7 figures during the dog days of summer, and I remember one Christmas period when I sold over 10 books.

Having guidelines, though, does help my clients to know the ebb and flow of the submission process; these also help us in advising them on what to do when.

Originally posted in July 2008.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Kick Back and Read: A Contest

by Lauren

Folks, if you’ve spoken to me in the last month, you’ll know that I have a serious case of World Cup fever. As a child, I was a devoted soccer player and a fairly good goalie, if I say so myself. While I’m something of a fair-weather soccer fan now, every four years I get really, really into it again. I’ve spent the last few weeks on a rollercoaster of excitement (Impressive goals! Beautiful men with even more beautiful accents! Delightful tonsorial choices!) and disappointment (my top three choice teams going out in a blaze of something other than glory). While I gear up to see my (fourth) favorite in the final, inexplicably not doomed by my supporting them, I’m also starting to feel withdrawal.

Now I’m the one who sells foreign rights around here, but I’m not particularly widely read on books in translation. In the spirit of improving that and keeping the World Cup buzz part of my life a bit longer, let’s have some fun here:

Below is a list of the “teams” in the tournament. I’m going to start this off at the round of 16, even if that means excluding Italy (sob). Here’s where you come in: in the comments below, give a shout out to your favorite book from a country listed. The first book named from each is getting selected for the national team! Next week, before I head out on vacation, I’ll set you up with the head-to-head battles. Then while I’m away, you guys can vote for your favorite book in each match. We’ll take this on through to it’s logical conclusion: the World Champion, which I’ll promise to read and report back on—and I’ll send the person who nominated said book a copy of something from the list they’d like to check out.

Fine print: books must have been translated into English, because I don’t know any other language well enough to read in it. (Way back when, my trusty French-English dictionary and I trudged through a few, but let’s just say that neither of us enjoyed it.) Let’s see if we can’t get books in for the US and England that were published in those countries but not originally in English. And if we can’t come up with something for a country that doesn’t export a whole lot to the US, the best argument for including a book for that country gets called up, much like those athletes who play for the team grandma was from instead of the one they’ve lived in their entire lives.

Don't have any favorites for countries that haven't already been taken?  Get in the game by suggesting a new name for this contest, because mine is terrible.
  • Uruguay
  • South Korea
  • USA
  • Ghana
  • Netherlands
  • Slovakia
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Argentina
  • Mexico
  • Germany
  • England
  • Paraguay
  • Japan
  • Spain
  • Portugal

It was a dark and stormy night....

by Rachel
If you’re anything like me, you’re a little neurotic when it comes to words and you have an entire list of the ones you really hate. Of course this list is never written down, for fear of family or friends finding it and actually using those words in emails or casual conversation for laughs. But what’s worse than a hated single word is an entire sentence that makes my skin crawl!

There have been many times while reading books where I’ve come across sentences and have scrunched up my nose because of how dreadful a sentence was written. I’m sure every reader has been in the same position (especially if you’ve read John Updike). So, I’m happy to know that there’s a contest dedicated to the worst opening sentences. The competition may only be for imaginary fiction, but I’m pretty sure disturbing opening sentences like these exist everywhere.

Have you got a doozy of an opening sentence that made your skin crawl?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Effusive encomia

by Jessica

I’m a great believer in the value of blurbs, and I pay careful attention to who has weighed in on the cover copy of any given book, but, thanks to Galley Cat, I could not help but chuckle at The Guardian’s contest, which was spurred by Nicole Krauss’s glowing-to-the-point-of-incandescent endorsement of David Grossman’s new novel To The End of the Land. Grossman’s book is on my to-read pile, and I am now keen to see the degree to which I agree with Ms. Krauss rapturous praise.

To what degree do endorsements matter to you? Will you read a new writer based on the recommendation of a beloved author? Can you offer any examples?

From the Vault: A day in the life

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 Michael

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).

Originally posted in March 2007.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Rise of the Lightning Thief

by Stacey

Rick Riordan is likely a household name to anyone with young readers at home. His Percy Jackson series of middle grade fantasy novels have sold millions of copies around the world. This article goes into some detail about his publishing history. What's interesting to me about this piece is that they talk about how just a few years ago he was clearly a mid-list author, with a series of adult detective novels that had sales that were modest at best. He moved into children's publishing after some inventive storytelling shared with his son, who recommended Riordan turn the tale into a book. Then The Lightning Thief hit in 2005 and became an incredibly successful franchise. It's a wonderfully inspiring and uplifting story to me because not only is this guy super talented, but he had a sales track to overcome before taking his career to this next level. Granted, it's easier to move from adult to children's to make this happen, but it's still an incredibly positive success story (you know how much I love to share those). I think this article is stretching the boundaries of comparison by suggesting that the books are a publishing phenomenon, but not a cultural one. By any measure, these books are a whopping success, and even though the movie didn't do as well as one might hope, there are more books to come and many more opportunities for new fans to come to the table. Speaking as a publishing professional, that seems like a pretty good place to be for the author, his publisher, and his agent too.

Stephen King's pop culture

by Miriam

I’m a fan of Stephen King’s work…in Entertainment Weekly. His stuff for the magazine has a playfulness and wit, not to mention brevity, that is often missing from at least his most recent (and by recent I mean the last 15 to 20 years) long form writing. I find his recommendations for films, music and, of course, books, always intriguing and occasionally baffling—and those are the best kind. Here are his Top 6 summer reads. I know at least four of them will make their way onto my night table pile.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Sometimes, the answer is "no"

by Miriam

So, once every ten weeks or so, each of us at DGLM have to come up with a lengthier than usual blog post. Turns out that on this, the hottest week in memory, it’s my turn to come up with something to charm and/or entertain you, dear readers. Unfortunately, I think the heat has melted several key synapses and I can’t remember a single book I’ve ever read. Heck, I’m not sure I remember how to read. It really is that hot.

While casting about for subjects that don’t involve having to research the Modern Library’s 100 greatest books so I can tell you why I like the ones I’ve read or how embarrassed I am about the ones I haven’t, it occurs to me that we haven’t discussed the whole not-everyone-should-be-a-writer thing. Before you all turn on me with the internet equivalent of torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

All of us here at DGLM (including the interns) are inundated with query letters and manuscripts on a daily basis. As you know from all our nattering on about slush and having to decide what to request, we see everything -- from the brilliant to the “what the…?” For the purposes of this post, let’s consider the truly awful queries which are sometimes accompanied by truly awful manuscripts. Contrary to what many of you may think after receiving a rejection letter from an agent or publisher, most of us in the business do not enjoy turning people down. Some of us have harbored our own literary fantasies and come to terms with the fact that we don’t have the courage or the talent to pursue the writing life. Most of us understand how hard and lonely a path this can be and respect the perseverance and love that it takes to plow ahead in the face of doors slamming in one’s face and the dedication to continue to work on one’s craft even when encouragement and support are in short shrift. We don’t like to turn things down, but we have to.

What most of us never say to an author whose unquestionably unreadable work has crossed our desks is that s/he should stop writing with an eye toward publication. In our eternally hopeful society, where the can-do spirit is practically encoded in our collective DNA, telling someone that they should give up trying to do something they’re just not good at is tantamount to shooting puppies. But honestly, some people should not be trying to get published. (Please note, that I’m not saying they shouldn’t be writing – if that is an enjoyable, even therapeutic pastime, carry on! – just that not everyone should be trying to get their writings published.)

Yes, ours is a subjective business and Jim McCarthy may go into a rage if someone says they didn’t love Madame Bovary while I am often called names when I say I just don’t get what the fuss about Salinger is about. But, those authors and most of the ones that do end up successfully published bring enough talent to the table – whether as storytellers, prose stylists, or thinkers – that their works enrich us on whatever level they touch our lives. Alas, too many people who are bad storytellers, incoherent and ungrammatical writers, and who have nothing new to say, think that they should have a book contract. I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about this, but I do wish we could be more honest and forthright about the fact that they probably should set their sights on other talents they might be able to develop instead of giving them false hope that maybe, if they keep going, they will attain their publishing ambitions.

As writers, do you find yourselves biting your tongue when a colleague you don’t think is particularly talented is railing about how no one “gets” their work?

From the Vault: Going long

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 Chasya

We really enjoy reading the responses we get to our blog posts and finding out what our readers have to say about our ruminations and rambling on everything from book cover design to the state of the current market. These comments can also be excellent jumping-off points or topics that might be of interest the rest of our readers.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Miriam waxed romantic about the lack of sweeping, escapist fare in today’s book market; books that would allow us to get our collective minds off an awful economy and other goings-on in the world.

One of our readers responded, making the point that in today’s market a novel the length of Gone with the Wind or The Thorn Birds would get rejected immediately for being too long. The truth is we do consider submissions of various lengths including those that have a heftier word count, because, at the end of the day, a compelling novel is a compelling novel. Witness the most buzzed about debut this fall, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. At upwards of 560 pages, this doorstop of a book surpasses your average page count. Despite that, it has been an enormous success, and as Stacey pointed out last week, it was a bestseller way before Oprah got her hands on it. People were moved by the story and bought the book in droves. Another example that instantly comes to mind is Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, a 624 page tome which came out last year and shot up the bestseller lists. Our own Jacqueline Carey’s first novel Kushiel’s Dart comes in at 695 pages. Her most recent book in the series, Kushiel’s Mercy, is no slouch at 650 pages.

We absolutely crave the sorts of stories that grab hold of us whether they take 250 or 500 pages to tell. We would be remiss in tossing something aside simply because of its length. One of my own personal favorite books, Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True comes in at a staggering 928 pages. I’ve read this one a few times and still get that sad feeling as I near the end.

Along similar lines, another reader pointed out an interesting practice – mock submissions, in which cheeky authors take the first ten pages of a classic and send it off to an agent and then wait for their form rejection to come in the mail. The implication here is that a) agents are idiots who often don’t know that what they are looking at is a classic piece of literature and b) agents wouldn’t know a good piece of fiction even if it was staring them in the face.

We aren’t going to lie. A couple of years ago one of our agents rejected Moby Dick (yup, you heard me). The agent admitted this to me freely. Thing about that is, this agent also pointed out that he hated Melville and absolutely loathed Moby Dick. So, just because the book is a classic, does not mean we are going to change our minds about liking it or not. And just because a form rejection comes in the mail, doesn’t necessarily mean that the agent does not know what is being rejected. Often the agent does recognize the work and sees it for what it is, a prank, and sends a form rejection as a courtesy response.

Yes, ultimately agents are business people. We have to take on what we think will sell, and something that sold in 1851 probably isn’t going to top the charts in 2008. Let’s face it, the whaling industry is not really booming in this day and age, and one must take into consideration that classics are born of a specific age and place. In order to be successful, we do need to address what contemporary readers want to read. And perhaps if we’re very, very lucky, we can have the opportunity to represent a modern day classic.

Originally posted in November 2008.

Friday, July 02, 2010

2011 will be the best year ever

by Lauren

I must admit that I’d be the first person here to IM my colleagues with “Reeeeeally?” followed by the latest celeb memoir listing from Pub Marketplace. In general, the trend irks me, not because it’s taking the room of other, better books, but because I simply don’t understand why there’s a market for any random has-beens to get paid to talk about their mostly mundane lives. Comedians and other performers known for their ability to string words together are fine with me, and occasionally someone’s life is spectacularly weird, but once upon a time sitcom actresses with the same story as every other memoir on the shelf just boggle my mind. And yet people care. They care in droves. It’s a market I simply cannot comprehend.

Until now, that is. I’m beginning to suspect my confusion is a product of age. Celeb memoirs have, until recently, by and large been written by people who barely register as famous to me and many of my contemporaries. (Which is probably for the best, since you should live at least a reasonable share of a life before writing about it.) Before Valerie Bertinelli became a bestselling author, I knew only that she’d been on a sitcom that happened not to be in my steady childhood diet of crappy TV and that she’d been a spokesperson for a weight loss company. Naturally, I couldn’t have been bothered to read her memoir on the grounds that she’s famous. And those people who were truly famous to me who happened to have book deals—Tori Spelling, for example—didn’t come along so often that the odds were in favor of my actually caring they existed.

But this changes everything.  Sam Seaborn AND Punky Brewster publishing memoirs in the same year! This is the greatest celebrity memoir news of all time. I was genuinely disappointed when Rob Lowe canceled his first book deal. 13-year-old Lauren was a devoted fan of many an 80s movie, but St. Elmo’s Fire was by far at the top of the list. Not to mention that The West Wing is the best TV show of all time, and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken. Punky Brewster was my childhood hero (and Halloween costume at least twice). For probably the first time, the authors of celebrity memoirs actually star in my DVD collection.

I’m still not sure I’m going to read their memoirs, I must admit. I suspect I know the more interesting parts of both their back stories, and much as I get the impression both are at least reasonably intelligent, I’m not really that eager to hear their lives in their own words. (If Rob Lowe’s book features a photo insert, I’ll at least browse it at the bookstore, however, because he’s awfully pretty, even in St. Elmo’s Fire, where he looks kind of ridiculous.)

Whose celeb memoir would I actually read? Well, I got Colin Ferguson’s as a gift for Christmas, and it’s on my to-read pile, because that man is a genius. I plan, eventually, to get around to Kathy Griffin’s. And I’ve been meaning to pick up Stephen Fry’s. Aaron Sorkin’s, which must come to pass eventually, definitely.  But it’s harder for those who are famous for something other than their ability to express their thoughts. Maybe if Johnny Depp wrote one, because he seems like an interesting and intelligent guy.

What about you guys? Read any celebrity memoirs that are genuinely more interesting than a cursory glance at the author’s Wikipedia page? (Seriously, click that--he should write a second memoir, covering the later, wackier years.)  And who hasn’t written one who really should?

From the Vault: Literary v Commercial

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.  If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jim

It didn’t surprise me when someone asked me recently what the differences are in how I handle the projects I love and the projects I work on for money. It did, however, irritate me. The question came loaded with the insinuation that there are two kinds of books—the ones people should read and the ones they actually do. Often, I find that literary and commercial fiction are pitted against each other, as though they’re totally different beasts that serve entirely separate purposes. But is that really the case?

Too often, category fiction is treated like the bastard stepchild of the written word. But, frankly, I’m a whole lot more likely to pick up Stephen King’s new book than dive into Thomas Pynchon’s latest doorstop. Which isn’t to dismiss literary fiction, either.

Years ago, I was getting a ride to a train station from an MFA student in Massachusetts, and we talked about the challenges of fiction writing and writer’s block, not to mention how competitive the marketplace is. And then he unleashed this on me: “I could knock out the sort of mystery novels that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I’m better than that.” If he weren’t behind the wheel of the car, I would have smacked him upside the head. I mean, really. Do you honestly think the only thing holding people back from becoming bestselling authors is…integrity?

As I patiently explained to him (who am I kidding? I sounded like a howler monkey in heat), it takes a lot of talent to write a fantastic mystery, just as it does to write an amazing literary novel. They just happen to be very, very different talents. Anyone who thinks that just because someone is a wonderful writer means they can pull off working in other genres clearly hasn’t read Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days. I recommend they keep it that way.

And let’s not get too far without mentioning that literary and commercial are not exact opposites. There are plenty of authors who mix the two forms freely. One can see this by reading the stunning, bleak mysteries of Dennis Lehane or the thrilling horror of Clive Barker. And is it just me, or is the award winning Cold Mountain as much a retelling of The Odyssey as it is a historical romance novel?

What I’m saying is, let’s let the snobbery go. Reading Madame Bovary can be as entertaining as reading Valley of the Dolls and vice versa, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To those people who consider genre fiction to be “guilty pleasures,” let it go. I grew up on a steady diet of Stephen King, Charles Dickens, Jackie Collins, and Victor Hugo, and I’ll happily debate the merits of Lucky Santangelo and Esmeralda any day. I’m the guy on the subway reading The New Yorker and Romantic Times.

The lines for me just aren’t that sharply drawn. So whether I’m pitching a new cozy mystery or a collection of interconnected stories previously published in literary journals, you can know one thing links them: I love both.

Originally posted in June 2007.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The unsympathetic protagonist

by Jessica

I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s Solar, which is smart, spare and unlike most McEwan novels, funny. At its center, however, is a pompous, self-absorbed, appetitive Nobel Prize winning physicist, whose faults are many and endearing qualities few. That he is painted as such a unredeemably selfish guy, a serial philanderer (five wives, countless affairs), flagrant plagiarist, and a monstrous—even criminal—liar, means that readers are not encouraged to develop much of a rapport with this great man of science. Instead, his weaknesses and flaws are anatomized with devastating accuracy. His self-justifications, moral elisions, and robust self-esteem are completely recognizable. That a man who is a poster child for all seven of the deadly sins does not come across as a caricature of Vice in a morality play is impressive. Yet much as I admired McEwan’s mordant wit and obvious flair for satire, Solar points up the problem of the unsympathetic protagonist. Though I don’t require my main characters to be likeable—the prickly, the badly-behaved and the wicked are usually more interesting than their more blameless counterparts—when the point of view rests entirely on the limited perceptions of the Unsympathetic Protagonist, it takes a skilled writer to craft a satisfying, engaging, emotionally resonant novel. The thought of spending so much time in the company of so unpleasant a person (even when said person is imaginary) can be off-putting.

This is a conundrum that agents and editors encounter most every day. An agent or editor’s inability to connect with or “root for” a main character is one of the most frequently cited reasons that he or she will pass on a submission, so be advised that placing a thoroughly awful person at the center of your narrative will likely make your job even tougher (though mostly awful can work). Even a critical darling like McEwan seems to have trouble managing his creation—most reviews were lukewarm at best, and while McEwan’s thieving glutton was not the novel’s only problem, most critics cited his odious personality as a considerable hurdle, so keep an eye on your own Frankenstein’s monster.

This is not to say that fiction should be peopled by the virtuous; there are plenty of wonderful, awful characters that carry a novel. Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Tom Ripley from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Fans of Lolita point to Humbert Humbert, or Bret Easton Ellis’ titular American Psycho, though these two fellows leave me cold. What do you think? Is an unsympathetic heroine a turn off? Who are some antiheroes worth getting to know?

Vampires in Washington?

by Michael

There are those who contend that there are many blood-sucking creatures within the Beltway, but I don’t think they’re referring to vampires. But you know who was referring to vampires, and to Twilight in particular? Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, that’s who. In this very contentious clip, you’ll see that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan refuses to answer one of the most important questions of our time. Will it affect her appointment? Do the people have the right to know her stance on the issue? How will she rule in any vampire-related cases? Looks like we won’t know until after she’s confirmed.

(I have to make fun of this, because the whole exchange embarrassed me, and seemed to embarrass Ms. Kagan, as well. What a world we live in!)