Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Book Week Review

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Is anyone really surprised? I think not.

I think that, to some extent, Cat's Cradle lives in the shadow of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. The latter is undeniably a great book—in my opinion, the best anti-war book of the twentieth century—but Cat's Cradle is, to my mind, more incisive, less overtly cynical, and less blunt than its better-known and more widely read brother.

The story is fairly simple (begin spoilers): an everyman narrator named John (or Jonah, as his parents "nearly" called him) is working on a book about the bombing of Japan during World War II. In so doing, he ends up interviewing the children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, a physicist who helped create the bomb. This results in his discovering a strange blue-white form of ice invented by Hoenikker and hoarded by his children, ice-nine, which turns any water it touches into a variant of normal ice that remains solid at room temperature; an extended visit to the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo and its dictator, "Papa" Monzano; the discovery of its "suppressed" religion, Bokononism, and its eponymous founder; and, by way of ice-nine accidentally falling into the ocean off the coast of San Lorenzo, the end of the world. (end spoilers)

If you've ever read Vonnegut, you know one thing about him: he was simultaneously deeply cynical about the state and future of the human race and deeply hopeful that it would someday overcome its considerable shortcomings. Cat's Cradle illustrates this beautifully, juxtaposing the simplicity and near-Zen quality of Bokononism against the dictatorship of "Papa" Monzano and the backdrop of the horrific destruction wrought by humanity in World War II. At the same time, Bokononism itself (and Bokonon in particular) display the same struggle between cynicism and hope, producing such aphorisms as "The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world."

Why is this book banned/frequently challenged? Well, there are some Bad Words in it. And one chapter (number 36, "Meow") featuring a message written in human excrement and a dead cat with a sign around its neck sporting the chapter's title. Certainly the relentless and overt probing of religion in general and Christianity in particular don't endear the book to school districts in the Bible Belt, and I imagine there are some school administrators and parents who are afraid exposing their children to Vonnegut's multilayered cynicisms and criticisms will turn them into nihilists or Satanists or something. The fact that they're missing Vonnegut's subtle but unmistakable hurt for the human race makes their desire to censor it all the more ironic.

That said, you won't find a more eloquent or compact criticism of humanity (particularly America) anywhere, especially not one tempered by Vonnegut's earnest love for the world. I'll say he's in a better place now, and not because he's dead or in heaven or anything like that, but simply because I think he'd find that funny. To Vonnegut, nothing was more serious than a joke, and it's when you aren't clear whether Vonnegut/John is kidding that you are, I think, at the very heart of Cat's Cradle.

I'll leave you with this, the last lines of the book and the last attributed to the enigmatic Bokonon:

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

44% is the New 50%

In case you're not following me on Twitter, mes auteurs (and why wouldn't you be?), the results of the Barnes and Noble shareholder vote are in, with preliminary results indicating 44% supporting Riggio and 39% supporting Burkle. Quel fromage.

Riggio is looking to sell the company to other bidders, with books on the company going out to at least 20 interested parties this week. Burkle, who immediately called for a "transparent auction that delivers the best possible outcome for investors," is rumored to be considering a bid himself. If his is the highest, I'm not sure on what grounds Riggio would refuse (although I expect he will, given the bad blood resulting from the proxy war). For the time being, the incumenbent management and board members will remain.

Although this battle is more or less decided (pending certification of the final results over the next few days), the war is far from over. Shareholders will again vote in mid-November on whether to ratify the "poison pill" plan that prevents any shareholder, save Riggio, from accumulating more than a 20% stake in the company. Should the poison pill be significantly altered (say, in accordance with Burkle's proposal of increasing the trigger to 30%), we could see a whole new round of these shenanigans.

In my opinion, the 44/39 split, though close, might have resulted from a point raised by investor Howard Tannenbaum: "Riggio and his brother built up the company. What does Burkle know about book selling?" I ask you, meine Autoren: does it matter to you whether the head of the largest brick-and-mortar trade book retailer in the country knows anything about selling books?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: What Would You Change About Publishing?

Today's query is a simple one, mes auteurs: If you could, what major change(s) would you make to the publishing industry? Everything from author advances to return rates is on the table. Go nuts!

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Home for Your Tea Party Memoir

I was born in a red state. I was later raised in a state that, not unlike Lindsay Lohan, has been known to swing both ways (moreso when in a retaliatory mood). Needless to say, I know more than a few people who continually bemoan the state of publishing/print media in general and its relentless "liberal bias." If you're one of those people, you're in luck! HarperCollins has just announced their new conservative imprint, Broadside Books.

As the article notes, the addition of conservative imprints to major publishers is not uncommon, though it is a relatively new phenomenon. Random House has Crown Forum; Simon & Schuster has Threshold Editions; Penguin has Sentinel. Publishers can print Karl Marx and Sarah Palin side-by-side under different imprints, and as the Tea Party furor continues to mount over the next year or two, I expect publishers to begin printing a lot more of the latter.

There's a sizable minority in the publishing industry that says—or at least jokes—that conservative voters don't read, so publishing books that cater to them is a waste of time and money. I'm certain that the continued success of books by politicians/pundits/celebrities like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Sean Hannity, not to mention their perpetual presence on the New York Times bestseller list, fairly refutes this notion; there can't be that many liberals buying these books out of morbid curiosity.

So, with all the usual caveats that: I am not a seer; I am not speaking from any inside or non-public knowledge; I am not providing professional advice; I am not responsible for your lost time or money in the event you decide to go ahead and do this, &c: if you're writing conservative non-fiction, political analysis, or memoir, especially anything Tea Party-oriented, you might have more of a chance at representation and good sales than you think. Just, you know, try to avoid ranting.

My personal politics notwithstanding, I'm encouraged by this quote from Adam Bellow, son of Saul Bellow and head of Broadside Books: "What I intend to do is uphold a standard of intellectual seriousness on the right. [These books] should be written in a way that they are serious, soberly argued, well researched, and make a respectable case—agree or disagree." If your book is well-researched and well-written, I see no reason why you shouldn't give the Liberal Book Publishing Machine a try.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Banned Books & Round Ups

Before the round-up begins, mes auteurs: next Thursday, September 30th, as per Le R's & Tahereh's brain(blog?)child, I'll be blogging about my favorite banned book. If you want to do the same, add your name to Tahereh's post!

And now: today's Friday round-up with Laura from Combreviations.

Today I have split the happenings of the week into three distinct categories: things that make me go "Ugh, for reals?," things that are interesting, and things I love. As a cranky, pre-caffeine, non-morning person, I think we should start with the things that are super annoying and work our way to happiness. Yes? Yes.

I don't know if you heard, friends and foes, but Danielle Steel is not a romance writer. Yep. That's right. Also, Sarah Palin is super persecuted. Shame on you, persecuting world, for being mean to this poor woman, who has done nothing to deserve any judgment. Speaking of women, there are just too many ladies in publishing. And, you know what, the article isn't that bad, but this really cheesed me off: "The main impediment for attracting men, many think, is the low pay of publishing jobs, especially entry-level ones." I'm sorry. That's an impediment for anyone. You want to pay me $25k a year, before taxes, to work in an industry centered in New York, the most expensive city in America? Where I'll spend $1,000 in rent a month to live in Brooklyn with 4 roommates? Sign. Me. Up. And, unfortunately, it is lucky, because breaking into the industry—even entry-level, even if you're a lady—is extremely difficult to do. If you try to be on the writing side, well, you'll suffer the stigma of your trade paperback original, and e-books are probably going to wipe out print anyway. Also, finally, what is up with Texas and textbooks? It's a truly terrible combo deal.

On the things that are interesting side, here's a round-up of fall 2010 literary movies. If you're not so literary, there's also a list of the most scientifically accurate sci-fi novels, or, hey, some smut by John Milton. Important questions include: Is Danica McKellar sending the right message about being smart and sexy? Could we have a female great American novelist? Why do we bother reading things we won't remember? And does it matter if 4-year-olds can understand irony, if they won't grow up to use it correctly? Also interesting is this 2,400 page cookbook, this list of smart YA books, and suggestions for what to read on jury duty.

For the truly awesome, we need look no farther than Tim Burton's poem for Johnny Depp. But, if you must look further, here are nine great word apps, and also news about a new J.J. Abrams show, starring Locke and Ben Linus from lost. Happiness, thy name is television. You can analyze common author poses, or be impressed by the fact that Terry Pratchett forged himself a meteor sword. Where do such good ideas comes from?

That's all for this week—see you next time, right here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

It's Between Chapters 10 and 12

No, this isn't about Borders (at least, not directly; see below). But it is about another brick-and-mortar franchise whose very existence is imperiled by the Internet: Blockbuster.

After suffering a difficult last few years, including ever-shrinking profit margins and the delisting of its stock from the New York Stock Exchange, the (former) video rental giant announced today that it's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (though they're calling it a "pre-arranged recapitalization").

I think relatively few people are surprised, though I would have given them another year or two before expecting a bankruptcy announcement. Between Netflix's stranglehold on pre-planned video rental and redbox's domination of the impulse rental with their kiosk model, Blockbuster hasn't had anywhere to go for some time.

Speaking of nowhere to go: while Borders hasn't (as far as I know) given any indication that they'll be filing for bankruptcy anytime soon, I do see some similarities between the two companies. Both are apparently strapped for cash; both have been (or have been in danger of being) delisted by the NYSE (Borders' stock has hovered around the minimum average close of $1.00/share for most of 2010); both are competing against impossibly popular, efficient, and fast-growing electronic competitors (Netflix and Amazon, respectively); and both demonstrate, à mon avis, only a half-hearted and ill-informed attempt to enter the digital market (Blockbuster with their on-line rental queue feeding their mail service, Borders with their .com business and partnership with various third-party e-reader manufacturers).

Long story short: I'm not surprised by this turn of events for Blockbuster and while I don't think it necessarily prefigures a similar downturn for Borders, I think the stories are similar enough that both consumers and industry insiders should be paying attention. If Borders' management doesn't right the company quickly, it may be too late to avoid a "pre-arranged recapitalization." Here's hoping it's not too late already.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Personalities and Professionalism

Every once in awhile, mes auteurs, I post about the little dos and don'ts of interacting with agents: what to say and not to say, how to go about saying it, asking appropriate questions without driving your agent up the wall, &c, &c. After having read Bill Clegg's Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man, however, I must ask: what kind of behaviors would you and wouldn't you tolerate from your (hypothetical) agent? How far would you go to preserve your working relationship?

If you haven't read Clegg's memoir, allow me to summarize: for reasons that aren't made entirely clear, Bill Clegg decides to throw away his relationship with his family, flagrantly cheat on his live-in boyfriend, and abandon his career (deserting his pregnant business partner and dozens of clients in the process) so he can blow through $70,000 worth of savings smoking crack. (He relapses or drops out of rehab more than once.) Clegg portrays himself as not very nice and not overwhelmingly intelligent, though he does (pre-crack binge, at least) sound funny and fairly charming. That aside, however, he sounds like someone of whom I wouldn't even want to be a friend of a friend of a friend, much less someone I'd want to work with. (Full disclosure: I have never met Bill Clegg in real life.)

Here's the kicker, though: after he finally cleaned up his act, Clegg—who never actually apologized to the the aforementioned abandoned business partner—didn't seem to suffer at all from having burnt nearly every bridge he had. He not only got a pretty cushy job with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, but even got many of his former clients back. Clients he had abandoned with no explanation so he could smoke a bunch of crack, drink liver-brittling amounts of room service vodka, and have sex with $400/hour prostitutes.

Granted, this is far and away an outlier in the Realm of Recorded Agent Behaviors, but I think it warrants attention not only because of Clegg's high profile, but because of the relative lack of professional repercussions he seems to have suffered.

This might be an easy one, but prithee, inform me: would you have gone back to an agent like Bill Clegg if you believed (s)he were the best fit for your work and/or would get you the best deal available? What would and wouldn't you tolerate in a relationship with your agent?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Never-Ending Battle Continues

As I mentioned last month, there's a battle going on for control of Barnes & Noble (BKS). Leonard Riggio, chairman and largest stockholder of the company, wants to retain control; Ron Burkle, billionaire and founder of the Yucaipa Companies, llc, wants to seize it. Until recently, that was all there was to say about it.

Last week, however, Institutional Shareholder Services, a major proxy advisory company to stock investors, endorsed Burkle's plan to seat three of his own nominees (including himself) on the company's nine-member Board of Directors, as well as rewrite Barnes & Noble's shareholder rights (or "poison pill") plan, a measure designed to prevent hostile takeovers. Apparently, Burkle believes that BKS is "significantly undervalued" and a change of management is necessary to restore the company to fiscal health. Among his chief complaints is that Barnes & Noble waited too long to introduce the Nook, thereby handicapping the bookseller in the digital media/e-book market.

Not everyone agrees with ISS, however: three major advisory services (Glass Lewis & Co., Egan-Jones Proxy Services, and Proxy Governance Inc.) are on Riggio's side, a position somewhat strengthened by the fact that a Delaware judge ruled against Burkle's legal assault on BKS' poison pill defense. Shareholders are scheduled to vote on the proposals at the end of the month.

What does this mean for the industry and for you as authors, readers, and consumers?

Again, I doubt this battle will much affect Barnes & Noble's bottom line in the short term. An ultimate victory by Team Riggio will probably result in little substantive change for the company; a victory by Team Burkle could be game-changing, as his vocal desire to move BKS further into digital media and Yucaipa's successful history of leveraged buyouts could indicate a plan to convert Barnes & Noble into a more direct competitor with Amazon (more emphasis on e-books and related content, reduction of physical title stock, more money allocated to .com business, and so on). The times, they are a-changin', mes auteurs.

To be clear: this is all speculation on my part, and I don't know what Burkle is planning to do any more than any other moderately interested third party; I only know what's being reported in the news. I also have no real preference regarding control of the company; it's all the same to me whether it's run by a rich guy from New York or a rich guy from Los Angeles. I am, however, intrigued by the repercussions of either's victory, and I'm curious to see where this will take Barnes & Noble over the next five years.

What about you, gentle readers?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sticking it to the Ban

In case you were unaware, liebe Autoren, this Saturday, September 25th through Sunday, October 3rd is Banned Books Week! I heartily recommend you select and read a title from this list of frequently challenged books (browsable by author, year, and decade!) sometime this month or next. I also encourage you, if you are Twitter-inclined, to tweet on the subject via use of the #SpeakLoudly hashtag (see below).

This month more than any, gentle readers, reminds us of the importance of our First Amendment rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(Emphasis mine.)

In particular, I'm thinking of the YA novel SPEAK, which I've learned from the author, Laurie Halse Anderson (via Janet Reid and Tahereh Mafi) has been called "pornography" by Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University. (His original op-ed in the Springfield News-Leader can be found here.)

Challenging books with sexual or otherwise "questionable" content is nothing new; Joyce's Ulysses was branded pornography when it was first published serially in the United States in 1918 (a charge that wasn't dismissed until the Supreme Court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses in 1933). Many profoundly important books—including several major works of Western literature—have been challenged or banned at some point in their histories, and it's due in large part to the First Amendment and individual teachers', librarians', and activists' commitment to free speech and opposition to censorship that these books have been made available to United States citizens, students included.

Scroggins maintains that not only should SPEAK be banned, but modern classics like Slaughter-House Five (which, according to Republic Superintendent Vern Minor, has been removed from all school libraries) should also be unavailable to students (mostly due to use of "the f-word"). For context, the district in question teaches abstinence-only sex education to all students, and Scroggins has also been involved in Reclaiming Missouri for Christ, a seminar whose purpose was "to educate... all citizens... to the role of fundamental, Biblical Christianity in the establishment... of our legal... system" (again, emphasis mine). The full quote is in Laurie's post.

I, like Laurie, fear that parents (and possibly even educators) reading Scroggins' op-ed will believe what Scroggins is saying, and will pressure schools to remove valuable books from their libraries as a result. I therefore propose the following, Concerned Parents of America: before you make a decision to remove a book from a library, read it yourself. If you find you disagree with the content, communicate this to your child. Be aware of what your children are reading, watching on television, or browsing on the Internet. Just because you determine a book is unacceptable for you or your child does not give you the right to deprive other people of the right to read that book. Period.

I urge you, mes auteurs, via Laurie's post, to comment on Scroggins' op-ed, write a letter to Superintendent Vern Minor, write a letter to the News-Leader, or simply tweet this post, Laurie's, Tahereh's, or Janet's, using the #SpeakLoudly hashtag.

The freedom to read what we wish is precious and protected in this country. We don't know what we have until it's taken away.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Movie Day Round Up

Friday round-up time, with a little help from Laura from Combreviations:

Morning, friends and foes. This was the week of Franzen-Oprah speculation. But why is everyone going so bananas? Sure, Franzen's great, but he's no rock star, like Jimmy Page, with his massively expensive biography. Or Jimi Hendrix, with his sci-fi collection. Hell, he's not even giving away government secrets, making the Pentagon buy and destroy every copy of his memoir. At least his publisher didn't accidentally break his embargo themselves, like poor Jimmy Carter, and he still has time to win a lifetime achievement award, à la Tom Wolfe. And maybe one day he'll make the hipster Christian reading list, even if his books aren't written by a real live (dead?) ghost.

Although there have been some downer things this week, like Stephen Fry on bookstores and Phillip Pullman on the present tense, I think we can safely skip it. After all, it's Friday, and so I think we should combat the blues with a sweet series of videos.

Have you seen the '90s Finnish adaptation of Lord of the Rings?

What about the book trailer for Night of the Living Trekkies?

And has anyone told you you're special today? With muppets?

To quote Kermit the Frog, "Yaaaaaaay!" See you all next week, right here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On A Lighter Note

Yesterday's post generated a lot of reactions and opinions (which I appreciate!), but I feel that one comment above all others requires a post-length response: Dan Krokos' question, "Who do you guys think will be the villain in the new Batman?" (As you might have read, the Batman is my very favorite hero.)

As much as I enjoyed the Michael Keaton Batman films and the mid-90s' super campy Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (1995 and 1997, respectively), I think the new dark, (more) realistic, gritty Batman reboot would benefit from revisiting some of the over-the-top villains from these films. So, mes auteurs, I offer you the following: my choices for the next set of Batman (wo)mantagonists, along with the actors I'd love to see play them.

· Mister Freeze. He's frosty, he's tortured, he's got a mega sweet freeze ray. I think he's got a ton of backstory/developmental potential that weren't fully explored via Arnold Schwarzenegger's relentless ice/snow puns, so I hope they bring him back and give him a fair shake. My pick for the actor: Adrien Brody.

· Poison Ivy. I don't think Uma Thurman did a bad job at all in Batman & Robin, but I'd like to see a new actress take on the role. I'd have to go with Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I loved in Iron Man. Who else could pull off a supervillainess who's also a scientist?

· The Riddler. Jim Carrey played the enigmatic Edward Nigma a little (read: very much) on the crazy/wacky side. I'd like to see a cooler, more controlled Riddler, one more interested in panache and execution than in simply driving Batman up the wall (sort of how Heath played The Joker). My pick is Neil Patrick Harris, hands down.

· Catwoman. I liked Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns; the movie Catwoman (starring Halle Berry, whom I otherwise really like) was so dreadful that it ruined me on the character for years. Who can fix that? Another Aussie, Emilie de Ravin (Claire from lost).

· Two-Face. I'm not going to beat around the bush: Aaron Eckhart did a phenomenal job in the last movie, and yeah, while they sort of closed off Two-Face's potential role in any direct sequels, they didn't make it impossible for him to return. And I really hope he does.

· Clayface. This character hasn't seen a lot of action outside the comic books and animated TV shows, so I'd love to witness his silver screen début. It could just be an extension of my post-lost heartache, but I'd be beyond amped if they could get Terry O'Quinn (a.k.a. John Locke).

And those are my picks! Feel free to post yours in the comments.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sharing is (S)Caring

Both Janet and Nathan have interesting posts about authors sharing information on the Internet this week. Janet's is a response to my post about dream agents and dream agencies; Nathan's is about Internet fatigue and the effectiveness of social media when it comes to selling books. I'd like to bridge these two topics by asking: where do we draw the line between our real and electronic selves?

Janet has a good point, and Dan Krokos (see Monday's comments) makes a great analogy: mentioning your favorite agent on the Internet is like "saying Tom is your favorite brother, then asking your other brother, Jim, to help you build a deck." At best, you're not doing yourself any favors, and at worst, you might be putting off an agent who would otherwise want to work with you.

So: if I made anyone uncomfortable, I apologize, and certainly feel free to remove your comment if you think that's appropriate.

However! I also believe that these opinions are very much rooted in individual dispositions and personalities, so while it may be best to keep these kinds of discussions off the Internet, you should keep in mind that not every agent (or every author) will respond to these kinds of things in the same way: some agents will care, and others won't. Some are much more involved in their clients' digital lives (and, of course, some authors have much richer digital lives) than others, and so I think that there are at least as many different electronic opinions and personalities as there are real-life opinions and personalities. Sometimes more!

I suppose my questions are, mes auteurs: what do we allow on the Internet, and what don't we? Are our collective attitudes changing as the number of folks who grew up on the Internet increases and the number who didn't decreases? Will the definition of "TMI," especially as pertains to the Internet, change substantially over the next several years? What role will social networking services like Facebook and Twitter—which probably already provide more information about people we thought we knew (or don't know at all) than we could ever want (or need)—play in this transition?

To the comments! Or, you know, not!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Promotional Quantity

First: 300th post! Thanks again for reading, gentle authors, and here's to another 300! — E

I've blogged about co-op before, mes auteurs, but I haven't really touched on one important aspect of the co-op system: the promotional quantity.

A promotional quantity is the number of copies a store or chain needs to take in order for them to have enough to put the book into co-op placement. This number varies widely depending on the retailer: an independent book store might only need a couple dozen copies in order to put a title front-of-store, whereas a chain will need to buy several thousand. Essentially, you need enough copies to make a sizable display somewhere in the store (or in every store, assuming placement at a national chain) for at least a couple of weeks.

Without quoting numbers or otherwise divulging non-public information, I can tell you that unless your announced initial print run is roughly in the mid- to upper tens of thousands (as you may or may not know, announced first prints are always higher than actual first prints) or higher, it's unlikely that your book will get a large enough buy at a major retailer to ensure national co-op placement. You might get placement at a few independent retailers, but as I've mentioned before, their co-op programs are much less rigid than those found in the national accounts, and (unfortunately) due to their smaller size, their influence is limited.

It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the grassroots/guerilla/word-of-mouth campaigns that independent book store owners and employees are capable of waging. LibraryThing, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere at large are all arenas in which the indie store can be king: recommendations from knowledgeable, non-corporate industry insiders can go a long way, and I've seen books take hold at the independent store level and work their way up to become national bestsellers. Your book might get skipped at a major chain, get buzzed by a handful of independent booksellers, and end up getting ordered at a promotional quantity by that same chain when the paperback comes out. Opportunities abound, meine Autoren, and you need to be ready to take advantage of them.

So: whether your initial print run is 10,000 or 100,000, befriend your local independent retailers; pimp yourself and your novel on-line, in person, at readings, and at conferences; and don't get discouraged by the myriad setbacks you'll no doubt encounter.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Prithee, Inform Me: Your Dream Agency

Finding an agent is arduous work, mes auteurs, complicated not only by the difficulty of writing something good, editing it to make it phenomenal, and casting it out into the electronic ether like a message in a bottle, but by the je ne sais quoi known as "fit": will any given agent feel like (s)he is the best advocate for your work?

Because of this, it may not be as meaningful a question to ask about dream agencies rather than dream agents. Regardless: what person, persons, or companies are at the top of your wish list?

To the comments!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Round-Up: The Rough, The Rad, & The Ridiculous

Friday round-up day, with Laura from Combreviations:

This week, friends and foes, I would like to start with the things that I found particularly and insanely stupid. Why? Because it's cathartic. Everyone likes to make that "Oh god why" noise in the back of their throat at work at least once for a non-work purpose. I figured I'd just help a little. First, Tony Blair—did you plagiarize from a play about you? That's kind of lame. You could have at least stolen from Wikipedia, which... doesn't count as plagiarism? What? I would say that's Orwellian, but I won't, because that's not what that means. Although maybe no one would notice, because apparently no one knows how to use "Orwellian" correctly. I know, let's get the sequel to The Secret to fix our problems: The Secret 2: For Real, This Is It. And I know this article on the best way to burn a book is in response to a reader question, but seriously, some people do not need help. Hey Florida, it may be time to pull a Governor Christie and just... distance yourself.

Of course, it's not all bad on the Internet this week. A girl read 325 books in 3 months, so hey, reading isn't dead! And this repurposed card catalog made me wish I lived somewhere with, you know, "space." I hear some places have that. For all you fontophiles, check out this database of over 70,000 free fonts, and for the bargain hunters, Groupons for books! Amateur etymologists (like myself, hey guys!) will like these food idioms, and the somewhat lost novice poetry reader should check out these toe-dipping recommendations.

So, okay. It's not all terrible. But it's not all sunshine and roses either, friends. How do we handle swearing in kids' books? Or novels about being fat? Do we condone skimming? Should we all, in fact, just man up? And dear lord, what will Oprah pick?

The world is a complicated place this week, and we've got these big, moral questions to contend with. Luckily, it can all wait until Monday. So let's all brush up on our Klingon to watch us some Shakespeare, get our geek on, cooking style, and study up for our Harry Potter final. See you next week!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Breaking the Rules

First, to all my he-bros (and... she-he-bros?) out there: !שנה טובה Here's to everyone getting inscribed in the Book of Life (and, if there is one, the Book of Representation by an Awesome Agent).

Speaking of books: when writing yours, you may be tempted to break the rules. While the rules are neither inscribed in an all-encompassing cosmic book nor universally accepted across the board, there are certain conventions, dos/don'ts, and guidelines that I think most writers have heard somewhere along the line (e.g. show, don't tell; maintain a stable point of view; don't write in the second person; clearly plot the rising action, climax, and dénouement; and so on).

Now, plenty of authors have broken one or all of the above rules, as well as many more that were hammered into you in seventh grade English class that I've failed to list. The reason the likes of James Joyce, Toni Morrison, and E.E. Cummings got away with breaking these rules is a simple one: they learned to follow—and mastered—the rules long beforehand.

It may be tempting for you to write a stream-of-consciousness second-person novel in dialect as your very first oeuvre, but I respectfully suggest you start with the basics. If you attempt calculus before you've figured out algebra, you're going to fail the final exam that is representation. Learn to walk before you learn to run, or you'll trip and smash your face on the cold, hard curb of the query process. (Are these proverbs and analogies working for you yet?)

Most good writers who have gone on to produce truly inventive and unique work generally started out with your basic short story or novel; most good poets who have done the same learned to master rhyme and meter before they began to work outside it. You, too, gentle readers and writers, should do the same until you've not only mastered the rules as written, but understand why those rules exist in the first place. If you break a rule without knowing why, you're bound to break it the wrong way.

Tomorrow: return of the round-up!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Timing is Everything

There are a lot of factors affecting your success in this industry, writeurs and writeuses, including talent, luck, discipline, luck, motivation, and, of course, luck. Among these is another factor over which you have relatively little control (at least in terms of a publication date), but it can be of significant importance to your sales: timing.

I can guarantee you that at any launch meeting you attend, if someone's presenting a title due out in the spring that has even the slightest connection to environmentalism/green living/&c, the first words out of the sales rep's mouth will be: "Can we bump this to coincide with Earth Day?" Books about religious holidays (Christmas being the obvious example) come out in time for holiday shoppers; books about celebrities in the news are rushed out the door in order to capitalize on media attention; women's fiction and memoirs by female political figures come out in time for Mother's Day, and books about golf, grilling, and other assorted manly topics come out in time for Father's Day.

If you're writing literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, you might not have much in the way of "prime" timing. Be aware, however, that many more books are published in the fall than at any other time of year, so if you're pubbing in the fall, 1.) you'll have the advantage of full(er) book stores and holiday shopping madness, but 2.) so will everyone else, and you may get drowned out by the deluge of new titles.

I'm hesitant to say whether romance titles do better around Valentine's Day. My inclination is to believe that romance titles are bought year-round by very devoted audiences, so it doesn't seem likely that there'd be much of a bump for a Hallmark holiday in February. I don't think many husbands/boyfriends/partners buy many books for their wives/girlfriends/partners for Valentine's Day (which is sad!), and the only items I can think of that would see a bump are the tried-and-trues (chocolates, champagne, &c), movie tickets (hello romantic comedies!) and maybe DVDs.

If you're writing children's or YA, there's an interesting sales bump around Easter that doesn't appear in sales trends for adult titles, so you might benefit from a publication date in March or the first week of April.

Mysteries, in my experience, do well in the fall, but that could be due to the fact that everything does well in the fall (see above). I'm not sure whether Halloween exerts any influence, but I don't think it can hurt.

As previously mentioned, women's fiction tends to do well in the spring and summer, due in large part to Mother's Day and the perennial "beach read" tables in brick-and-mortar book stores. Then again, many argue that most fiction is "women's fiction," so take this with a grain of salt.

Finally, non-fiction (unless it's holiday-themed or otherwise sensitive to a particular time of year) tends to loosely follow the news cycle, so books about oil and BP did well during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, books about derivatives, mortgage-backed securities, and other financial topics did (and continue to do) well in the midst of the recession, and books about or by celebrities do well when those celebrities are in the news (everything from winning awards to getting jail time to biting the proverbial dust).

In short: absolutely ask your agent and editor about the timing of your book release, and don't be afraid to make suggestions if you think anything from Arbor Day to Yom Kippur will make an impact on your sales. Being in the right place (ideally front-of-store) is only half the battle; the other half is guns being there at the right time.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Virtual Particles are the New Vampires

I've always considered myself something of a science buff, mes auteurs (although I find actually doing science, complete with statistics and differential equations, too taxing for my literary sensibilities), so I was surprised and delighted to read this article in the Telegraph about the recent rise in popularity of popular science books.

As noted in the article, if people were buying popular science books five or ten years ago, they were largely about evolutionary biology (and all the "religion versus science"-type arguments those books seem to entail). Recently, however—and, in my opinion, due in large part to physics projects like the Large Hadron Collider—popular science books about astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and parallel universes have seen unparalleled demand (pun totally intended). Books about evolution, biochemistry, and other scientific disciplines are selling, too, but it's the physics behind the structure, origin, and fate of the universe that seem to be intriguing The Reading Public these days.

I've been into popular physics since at least the late '90s, reading and re-reading Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time), Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot, The Demon-Haunted World, Billions and Billions), and Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos), so while this trend may be new to a lot of people, it isn't for me (although I am, again, surprised and delighted). I will say I'm glad that more people are reading Asimov and Hawking, even if it doesn't balance out the number of people reading Stephenie Meyer and The Situation.

What I'm interested to know is: is this new and/or surprising to you, bros and she-bros? Do you regularly read popular science, and, if not, do you think you'll start doing so? Will you pick up a copy of The Grand Design or Why Evolution is True in the coming weeks or months? If so, why? If not, why not?

Bonus question: if a train leaves Boston at 5:00 pm traveling in a straight line toward Tallahassee at 90 MPH, and another train leaves Tallahassee at 7:00 pm traveling in a straight line toward Boston at 120 MPH, how long will it be before I fall asleep?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Happy Labor Day!

No post today, mes auteurs. Enjoy the long weekend!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Revenge of the Round Up

A long-awaited Friday round-up, from Laura at Combreviations:

It's been a while, friends and foes, and there's so much to share. First, things about the kiddies—they are the future, you know. And they hate paper books! Hate 'em. That's why Random House Children is putting out its first digital-only title, and HarperCollins Childrens is launching an app for the youngins. This is also why Scholastic is trying to sneak new techy advertising in with its books to school. It's too bad that kids hate books 'n shiz, because Emma Thompson is rebooting Peter Rabbit, and a 6-year-old landed a 23-book deal (that should come with the warning: be ready to feel bad about yourself). And teachers are getting in on the book action, training using literary teachers as examples. Well, as long as they don't train using vampires as examples—watch out, Dick and Jane!

Book reading can be dangerous, even without vampires running around after the kiddies. Book signings have become a tremendous spectacle—potentially scary! Your book recommendations could go terribly awry, and your historical fiction could be lying to you. Plus, Dostoevsky is in your subways, causing the youth to revolt.

There are a million more good links but, in the interest of time and convenience, I'm going to give you all of the things I've run across in list format, so you can decide what types of things you like... you know... listed. So: are you interested in this year's fantasy cover trends? In free audiobook sites? Maybe you're more into the 17 most innovative university presses, or 12 great non-book but still literary Ebay purchases. As a great academe, you are clearly (clearly!) interested in this intro to sci-fi syllabus, and also in these 10 typefaces of the decade. Perhaps you're interested in the best and worst books about the war in Iraq, or in these visions of the apocalypse. Maybe you'd like to see the highest paid authors—or maybe you'd rather see the best pigs in literature (of the non-author variety). And I know you want to read about these great posthumous works, these bad ass oral histories, and the books that made China Mieville into China Mieville. Also, hey, 5 YA books to read after Mockingjay, and 10 lesbian and bisexual poets who are awesome!

More awesomeness to come, next week, right here at Pimp My Novel.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

This is Why You Always Meet Your Deadlines

In case you hadn't heard, Yahoo! sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski (say that three times fast) has been sued by Penguin Books for failure to meet his deadline regarding a book about former North Carolina State University basketball coach Jim Valvano. The original manuscript delivery date? August 1, 2007.

Wojnarowski was originally offered a cool $400,000 (of which he received $140,000), but his repeated delays caused Penguin to reduce the total advance to $325,000. Now, over three years later, they've canceled the book and are taking Wojnarowski to court to recover the $140,000 they already paid him.

I wish I could say this kind of story was uncommon, but honestly, the only unusual aspect is the filing of a lawsuit. Books are delayed by months (sometimes years) all the time, and failure to meet deadline (sometimes more than once) is not unheard of. I think, however, that publishers' patience is particularly short in the midst of the recession, so I wouldn't be surprised if they were to become even less lenient about missed deadlines, particularly for books bought for six- or seven-figure advances.

The reasons for delays can range from author laziness to the publisher's disapproval of various drafts (that is, sending them back for rewrites) to changes in current events that warrant substantial revisions (generally affecting only nonfiction). Remember, too, that most advances are cut into pieces: often one installment is paid on signing, another on receipt of the manuscript by the publisher, and occasionally a third on or around the date of publication. If you're getting $400,000 and you've already gotten $140,000 just for signing a piece of a paper, one can see how your motivation might be temporarily shot.

That said: this business is slow enough as-is, so as début writers who always want to make the best of impressions, it's in your collective best interest to get your manuscripts and revisions delivered on time. Always be professional, always be on time, and always ask your agent or editor if you have any questions about deadlines, timelines, or any of the other myriad -lines to which you might be subject.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Blockbuster Phenomenon

Nathan's post from yesterday regarding Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has gotten me thinking about the blockbuster model for book sales in general. Why does the industry invest millions of dollars in a tiny percentage of books that they hope against hope will turn a huge profit? Why do fewer than 1% of books pay for the acquisition of the remaining 99%? Why are the likes of James Patterson, Sarah Palin, and (saints preserve us) The Situation running the show?

Part of the reason is, as I've mentioned before, a sort of singlemindedness endemic to the industry that assumes anything that has worked in the past will continue to do so in the future. If Esteban Fancypants' novel The Art Dealer's Wife becomes a huge hit, he may well end up with a seven-figure offer for his second (or second and third) books. True, it's not entirely fair to blame the industry for this; time and again, consumers have returned to a brand (read: author) they love, and if enough people hear great things about (and later buy) Mr. Fancypants' first book, he's got an established audience for his future titles. Publishers throw money at "sure bets" because publishing has been and always will be something of a gamble, and if there's any indication that leveraging an author with a proven track record can produce more profit, they'll be all over that deal like a monkey on a cupcake.

HOWEVER. Simply because Mr. Fancypants' first novel sold 5 million copies doesn't mean his second and third novels will perform similarly, and for every story of the out-of-the-blue début novelist whose first book sold millions of copies, there's a story of an out-of-the-blue début novelist whose second book tanked. Maybe the second book received bad reviews; maybe it was so different from the first book that it alienated his or her established audience; maybe it comes to light that the author is a terrible person and nobody wants to be caught dead reading his or her book; the number of reasons is potentially infinite. Thing is (and it is fair to blame the industry for this), publishers 1.) perpetuate the blockbuster cycle by driving prices up at auction to patently absurd levels, and 2.) tend to chase losing brands by throwing more money at them long after the authors' audiences have either stopped caring or died.

What, then, can be done about this, mes auteurs?

Well, publishers could consistently include and enforce clauses in contracts stipulating that authors whose books fail to earn out their advances must return the balance of the advance to the publisher, but that's not going to happen unless the industry adopts this policy across the board (not to mention it's not really fair to authors who receive little in the way of marketing and co-op dollars).

I'm interested by this NPR article from last year, which mentions HarperStudio's experimenting with publishing two books a month, neither with an advance of over $100,000, and attracting authors by promising a 50/50 split on the book's profit. While I'm not sure this exact model is a solution, I think programs like it may offer a way out of the boom-and-bust, all-or-nothing blockbuster model that prevails in the industry today.

What say you, gentle readers?