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Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?

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New York, New York

When you picture NYC, what comes to mind? Skyscrapers reflecting on the river on a crisp winter night? Tourists snapping photos of costumed characters in Times Square? Writers scribbling away in an overpriced apartment in Brooklyn? Agents reading away in an overpriced apartment in Astoria? (Guess which one of those is drawn from life…).

Me in the fall of 2009 – full of excitement and bangs

New York City is even more diverse and colorful than the version of it you get on Friends or Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a city full of many different neighborhoods, and even each neighborhood can have several vibrant communities sharing the streets. Turn off the TV and turn to a book shelf to get a much broader experience of NYC’s sights, sounds and smells – the New York Public Library makes it easy for you with this fun list of NYC novels by neighborhood.

A couple of my all-time favorite books made the list, but that doesn’t mean I can’t suggest a few additions! These are all books that are tied in my memory to very specific seasons of my life in NYC. A BIGAMIST’S DAUGHTER by Alice McDermott, gives a sample of the Upper East Side neighborhood where I lived when I first moved here, and the Murray Hill location of my first job in publishing.  I couldn’t tell you what part of Brooklyn is the setting for L.J. Davis’ A MEANINGFUL LIFE , because I bought the book at an author signing at Greenlight Bookstore my first week in New York, when I had no idea where anything was. Even seeing the cover will always evoke for me that autumn of fresh excitement, anxiety, and seemingly infinite potential.

More recently I’ve been seeking out books that celebrate the diversity of NYC and call my attention to corners I haven’t explored yet. Books like Adam Silvera’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT which takes an honest look at both the joy and the danger of growing up in the Bronx – especially when your story is different from that of those around you. And Tanwi Nandini Islam’s BRIGHT LINES took me into Brooklyn’s Bangladeshi community as young girls come of age and learn to navigate among the identities that surround them. Because I think that’s maybe what nearly every novel is really about, in same way: finding out who we are, and learning to love it.

What are your favorite NYC novels? Any neighborhoods this list overlooks?

Good as gold

Getting a mention of one’s book on network television is kind of a Holy Grail for authors these days. It’s right up there with being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s  Fresh Air.  Network attention was exactly what my client Chris Grabenstein got a couple of weeks ago, in the most serendipitous way. Chris’s Middle Grade adventure Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is beloved by kids all over the country, who are eagerly awaiting the sequel, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, in January. But Chris had no idea that it would turn out to be part of a major gag on Seth Meyers’s late-night show. On the pretext of forming a new family, Meyers and his brother interviewed a series of kids on camera. They asked one little girl the question, “What’s your favorite book?”  And she immediately answered, “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” That led to a prolonged improvised comic riff on the title between the brothers Meyers. Licensing restrictions prohibit me from embedding that clip into this post, but suffice it to say that Chris’s phone started ringing off the hook. He also got a nice Amazon ratings bump.

Nobody can take credit for a break like this one—it was just luck of the draw that this little girl happened to be such a big fan of the book.

Actually, Meyers has turned out to be a great friend to the reading public.  He regularly features novelists as guests on his show—something few late-night network talk show hosts are doing these days.   Recently, not only big names like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin have been guests, but newer, younger writers like Marlon James, Joshua Ferris, and Hanya Yanagihara have all been on Meyers’s show to promote their new books.

Meyers’s interest in contemporary fiction is certainly a boon to both authors and the public. But he shouldn’t be a minority of one. There’s no reason Fallon, Kimmel, Corden, Colbert, or the yet-untested Trevor Noah shouldn’t hop on board. As many of us know, writers can be articulate, entertaining, and very funny people. They are often highly sought-after as party guests. What better qualifications for being on a talk show?

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You’re the best

A propos of Michael’s very handy breakdown of the latest changes to the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve been thinking about just how many lists the Times graces us with these days: 23 on the 8/30 list, in various combinations of format, category, genre, and demographic.

Sports and Fitness. Food and Diet. Education. Relationships. Travel.  Business. Manga.  In August, there were bestseller lists for each of these specific things at least once, separate from the other lists they might fit under.

the-new-york-times-logoAs an agent, I’m thrilled for my and my colleagues’ clients to have the greatest possible number of chances for their books (and careers, frankly) to be tagged with that New York Times bestseller status, and there’s no denying that breaking out into narrower lists gives books that would never make the main lists a fighting chance.  With an Education list, you don’t necessarily have to compete with Felicia Day, Aziz Ansari, Ronda Rousey, Holly Madison, Jimmy Carter, Judd Apatow, and Amy Poehler, all on the main hardcover nonfiction list this week, to get a spot.

If we’re heading toward a day when there are more distinct New York Times bestseller lists then there are spots on the longest of those lists, I’d love to see them drill down further in fiction, too.  Literary Fiction by Women, maybe? (Or just Literary Fiction at all, for that matter.)  And what about one for Diverse Books? (If that’s the first time you’re seeing that phrase, here’s some context.) Or Debut Fiction!  People Who Aren’t on Twitter.  Authors Who’ve Never Been on TV. Authors Who Always Seem About to Break Out but Somehow Never Do. Books by Authors with More Starred Reviews Per Book than Zeroes in Their Advances.

Sure, it’s a little more subjective than Sports and Fitness, but if they need the help I’m happy to curate.  Which lists would you put in your fantasy New York Times?

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The Times it is a-changing, part deux

Back in 2012, I blogged about the New York Times making a significant set of changes to their children’s bestseller lists. At the time, the picture books and series lists remained, but what had been “chapter book” and paperback lists were instead replaced with middle grade and YA lists. The bigger change, though, was that these lists would combine sales across formats, counting hardcover, paperback and e-book sales. My concern in that first week of the new lists focused mainly on the middle grade list, which was dominated by non-fiction—which includes all sorts of tie-in publishing. Frankly, we were all sick of seeing the list full of Lego books, and the shift only seemed to make that worse. What wasn’t clear in that first week, however, was just how bad combining sales of all formats into one list would be. Yes, I had questions about how ebook sales would affect the lists (and past-Michael: those ebook price drops are not weighted differently, so dropping the price does get books on the list), but what I hadn’t taken into account was how “new” backlist would go on to dominate the lists.

If there has been one steady complaint about the children’s bestseller lists for the past couple of years, it’s been John Green. Not that anyone begrudges his success—the man works hard for it. But with four of his books pretty permanently in the top 10, there were only 6 slots for other books. And, putting Green aside, it became clear that the list was mostly made up of “new” backlist. Paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers, and they sell in greater numbers. The ebook editions of those same books also become cheaper when a book goes from hardcover to paperback. So, the list became skewed very heavily towards long-running bestsellers in paperback and ebook. And I think this frustrated just about everyone. It seemed nearly impossible for a new book in hardcover to hit the list, which meant less discoverability. On the adult side of lists, with formats broken out, the hardcover lists typically feature new titles that are just out, changing considerably from week to week, while the paperback lists show which books have long-term staying power. Readers, authors and publishers all benefit, with both new books being highlighted and backlist titles getting recognition for their ongoing sales.

Yesterday, the good news came down that once again, the lists would be changing. And this time around, the changes are huge. In this PW interview, Pamela Paul explains the changes, the rationale for those changes, and the reasons these changes didn’t happen earlier (though I am still curious what the “technical challenges” are that she refers to). Goodbye format agnostic lists, and hello hardcover, paperback and ebook lists—one each for both middle grade and YA. Yet again, the picture book and series lists remain the same. In general, I think this shift is a really good one. Each format will now only compete with other books in that format, which should create a more level playing field. As on the adult side, I think we’ll see a fair amount of change and movement on the hardcover list, while the paperback list will likely feature well-established bestsellers. The ebook list (which is oddly only five slots) will be an interesting one to watch. Will books show up there that aren’t on either the hardcover or print list? Will publishers game their pricing to get books onto that list, eager to have the “NYT Bestseller” on their book? Time will tell, but in the first week, the ebook list looks an awful lot like the paperback list, which reflects, I think, the price-sensitive nature of ebook sales.

Some interesting smaller items:

  • The paperback and ebook lists will be online only, not in print. This means that the books that have dominated the printed lists for the past few years have fallen off the printed list. Does that matter? Likely not, but it does feel like a demotion.
  • As with the last change, “Weeks on List” has been reset. The Book Thief is once again at week 1 on the list. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this doesn’t seem right to me.
  • While there’s some tie-in on there, the middle grade list seems to reflect the breadth and depth of the category. Exciting stuff going on in that space.
  • The paperback list does not feature a single female author. The hardcover list has eight. Will this new formulation feature more women? (Much has been said about the male dominance of the children’s bestseller lists.)

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the changes. The conceit behind these lists makes much more sense—the adult side has been doing it this way for an awfully long time, and it’s worked well there. I’m eager to see how this plays out over the next few years. Any thoughts on the changes, dear readers?

UPDATE: It turns out the series list has changed, albeit slightly. Erin Stein, publisher at Imprint, pointed out that tie-in titles for properties will now be combined and added to the series list. This explains why the Descendants moved over to the series list this week, which had been a point of discussion amongst us list-watchers on Twitter the other day. While I think this is a good move, as it’ll eliminate the MG list being dominated by Frozen tie-ins, it’s going to make the series list even more competitive than it was for authors. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

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Behind the scenes of a bestseller

We are all looking for great books that will hit the bestseller lists. That’s the reality of being a book agent. There is nothing more exciting or rewarding than having a project you absolutely love be well supported by the publisher who acquires it and then subsequently embraced by the public who come out to buy it. In our dreams, this happens with every book we sign up. In our reality, it happens very, very rarely.

So, I like hearing about and sharing stories like this one about a nonfiction self-help book (a category I still do a lot of business in despite a very tight market for it) published in 2013 called YOU ARE A BADASS by life coach Jen Sincero that started off slow and has since become a surprise bestseller. It does illustrate that working hard throughout the publication process and beyond is critical for authors, as well as their publishers, if they want their books to be successful. Too often we see books come out of the gate slowly and never able to hit their stride due to a combination of the publisher withdrawing their support and the author slowing down their brand building and marketing efforts. I think that edgier books can really work in the current market, and I’m thinking about this one as well as the recent cookbook bestseller THUG KITCHEN: EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A F*CK, which also has profanity in its (sub)title!

I also think this approach translates to those who are seeking to be published in the first place. Often these roads are long and winding, and you need to be resilient and fierce in your efforts to both produce high quality work as well as your attempts to sell, market and promote it. Remember, you are a badass, like Ms. Sincero says, and clearly her message is resonating in a big way.

 

 

 

 

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Collapse of the Kindle?

E-readers like Amazon’s Kindle have forever changed the publishing world, but are we seeing the beginning of the end of the e-reader? Amazon has been getting its fair share of bad press lately, and now it can apparently add declining Kindle sales to its list of troubles.

I absolutely loved Jennifer Maloney’s piece in The Wall Street Journal, and in my opinion, I think she is right: the phone will drive future book sales—not the e-reader. With our increasingly mobile lifestyle, convenience and the ability to multitask are king, and our phones afford us both. I bought the iPhone 6 Plus, in part, so I could take advantage of the huge screen and read whenever I had a moment, which is exactly what I’ve done. My Kindle has been useless ever since (and to be honest, I think I lost it but don’t really care). Carrying around a phone and an e-reader seems counterproductive when just one can easily accomplish the task.

I’m very curious to see how publishers take advantage of this burgeoning trend to package books for the mobile phone. Amazon’s dominance in the book and e-book marketplace began, in part, because of the Kindle and the necessity for a complete book buying ecosystem to accompany the e-reader. Amazon’s Fire phone was a bust, so what does it mean for the retail giant as Apple, Google, and other players continue to flesh out their bookstores and build up lively reader communities for phone readers?

How do you read e-books? An e-reader? Tablet? Smartphone? Over someone else’s shoulder? Oh, and this drinkable book is amazing. Just another reason why print books are best.

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New Girl On the Floor

Hello DGLM blog readers!

I’m thrilled to be adding my voice to the other members of the DGLM team, and many thanks to Jane for the lovely introduction last week.

Naturally, since starting I’ve been thinking about my journey to DGLM and literary agencies in general. I knew about literary agencies from a fairly early age, since I had written a (truly terrible) fantasy novel from the ages of twelve to fifteen and had the courage/naiveté of the young to send it around to various agencies. It didn’t get picked up, in case you were wondering. Probably for the best.

However, as I was entering my junior year of college and starting to think about possible career options, it didn’t even occur to me that a literary agency might be the place I would fit. Thanks to a SUNY Geneseo alum, I got in touch with a woman who used to work at Curtis Brown, Ltd., and she helpfully answered my questions and suggested I look not only at publishing houses but at agencies. I seized upon that immediately—all the different facets of being a literary agent (see Lauren’s post here for more details on that) fascinated me. It sounded like a job that would provide me with new twists and turns regularly. And so I sat down with a good old fashioned Google search and one of my professor’s 2014 Guide to Literary Agents and started calling/emailing everyone.

One thing led to another, and it doesn’t seem like too long ago that I was chatting (rather nervously) with Mike on the phone during an interview for my summer 2014 internship with DGLM. After that, I pretty much just stuck around—dropping in over the winter when I was in NYC, assisting Stacey this summer, and miraculously, they asked me to stay.

In terms of what I love to read: I’m always eager to pick up historical fiction, young adult (especially with strong female characters), and smart work of all kinds from minority and women writers.

Needless to say, I’m pretty gleeful to be here as an administrative assistant and am looking forward to getting to know more of the DGLM community and hopefully offering new perspectives and ideas to the conversation!

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Recharging

So last week, I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before.  I spent a week at my country house by myself to recharge.

The concept of “recharging” has always been anathema to me.  The dictionary defines it as “regaining your energy and strength,” something I always assumed could be accomplished in a long weekend.  Last week, though, I proved (to myself) that my preconceptions were wrong.

While I was away I got lots of sleep, played some golf, had lunch and dinner with friends, went to concerts and simply enjoyed the beauty of the Berkshire Mountains.  And it worked. I came back last Monday re-energized and ready to go.

I think it is so important for us creative types to take some time every so often to do just this—leave our professional world and enjoy other things we like to do.  Only then can we gain the perspective and energy to return to our work lives and move forward.

Check out this piece I found about ways to recharge.  How do you all do it?

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Once a book nerd, always a book nerd

Putzing around the internet this past week or so, I’ve noticed a listicle/Twitter trend (because I am very observant and astute) using the hashtag #growingup______ fill in the blank with whatever esoteric or widely recognized variable you’d like. Some of them were funny, especially when I could relate and others I just rolled my eyes because the jokes were either overplayed or just too universal to even be worth it.

I’ve been growing a little bored of the trope, but when I came across Buzzfeed’s compilation of #growingupabooknerd, how could I resist? I thought it would be tired and, yet again, eye-rolly, but there were things there that I didn’t even know I related to until I read them.

Even the URL name had me in (metaphorical) stitches: “just-one-more-chapter-then-i-should-go-to-bed.” How more appropriate can it get? I think my most overused line as a kid was “once I finish this chapter,” which I would slyly wait to say until I had just started a chapter. SO TRICKY, LITTLE RACHEL, SO TRICKY.

However, I think my favorite inclusion in this list #14, which is a level of stress I know so well and am more than a little relieved that others experience the same existential panic:

Anyway, it’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the mood for a little more lightheartedness and knowing chuckles. Add your #growingupabooknerd memory in the comments!