1

Critical Mass

 

I’m not quite sure why it took so long, but at last we have a literary equivalent to Rotten Tomatoes. Book Marks, which is part of the Literary Hub website, is now up and running.

Just as Rotten Tomatoes does for movies, Bookmarks will aggregate the reviews from professional critics, assigning each new book a grade from A to F according to the consensus of critical opinion. Thumbnail versions of the reviews will be posted, along with links to take you to the full text. There will be a space for average readers to weigh in, too, but the emphasis here is on the major mainstream reviews—ones we may disagree with, but which certainly carry plenty of weight for publishers, booksellers, and book buyers, not to mention the authors whose careers may ultimately be affected for better or worse.

In the age of the internet, received critical opinion has been devalued because anybody at all can now state an opinion and put it out there for the world.  And there’s something to be said for that, as a book’s popularity can often buck the critical tide. In recent years, we’ve seen self-published authors who have become phenomenons without the support of mainstream reviews.

But there’s still something to be said for a perceptive, insightful review by a professional critic who may bring a career’s worth of education and experience to his or her work. Lord knows we may not always agree with their findings. Still, what they have to say will always carry weight within the publishing industry, and Book Marks will make it easy to  find a book’s reviews gathered together at a single keystroke.  And who knows? Maybe it will return to book critics a bit of the respect they’ve missed lately.

I’d love to know from this blog’s readers whether they think they will use this new site or ignore it as just so much “book noise” that’s already out there.

1

I believe the children are our future

coverRegular readers of the DGLM blog will already know that I dote on my nephews, and that reading is one of our strongest bonds. The two little goons had their first day of summer vacation this week and asked their mom if they could spend it reading, which pleases me to no end.

Luckily I got to spend this past weekend with them, where I planned to work with them on making a “book.” They’re already fascinated with the fact that their aunt makes books happen—the older one, who I call Fidge, refuses to leave a bookstore without looking for my name in some books, even proudly showing it off to strangers in the same aisle, and the little one, who I call Gus, thinks that my job is International Secret Agent.  Imagine my delight when I arrived at my mother’s this weekend to see that they had already taken it upon themselves to make their own books, without my ever suggesting it.  Fidge wasn’t done with his yet, so I’ll have to wait till next time.

back coverBut Gus?  Gus not only finished his book, he read it to me, then turned it over with a flourish to read the title page that he tells me says “By At Lauren.”  (Having the title page on the back cover is a really bold move. He’s going to really change things up in publishing, I think.) While I don’t actually recommend that new authors sign over their copyright to publishing professionals just to curry favor, I can’t help but be touched.

interiorFor those of you who don’t read Gus-ese, the book is about a turtle who is lonely because he doesn’t have any friends. Then a shark swims by and tells him that he wants to be the turtle’s friend. And then they are friends forever.  I couldn’t be prouder to have “written” it. Picture book editors, shoot me an email if you’re interested.

 

1

Book Art

3c9a7c3c1011b71c029716359300f8f8One of my favorite  things to do is to go into a book store and judge book covers. “Gasp! No! This is something you should never do,” you may be thinking. But I think there’s actually merit in appreciating and critiquing the artworks that decorate books. That doesn’t mean I’m judging the writing, though.

The cover of a book is a work of art. There are artists involved in this process, and a lot of time and effort from many different people goes into making them just right. So if you’re not appreciating them or looking at them critically, you’re basically saying that all that effort is a waste of time. In my opinion, going into a bookstore is like going into a museum full of paintings. You may not love or understand every work of art, but you should appreciate its existence.

Here’s a blog that I love. It takes the covers of books and shows how absolutely beautiful they can be.

Bookbento

A photo posted by Book Bento Box (@bookbento) on


And here’s an article that shows some truly gorgeous book covers like this one:

8aaf07f0118381246684b291abef4c23http://drinkmicro.com/25-beautiful-book-covers/

These covers can enrich your home as much as they can your mind. Covers are just one more wonderful thing to love about books!

What are your favorite book covers?

Will books survive if Barnes & Noble doesn’t?

There is no shortage of articles that have been written over the last few years (and beyond) about the death of publishing. There’s little doubt that the industry has changed dramatically since I became an agent in 1999. Back then we had meetings to talk about digital books, and the consensus was it was not going to happen, at least not anytime in the near future and not in a way that would have a dramatic impact on the sale of print books. Well, we all know what a big impact digital publishing has had on the book market in recent years. The good news is publishers are still finding ways to maximize print sales as well as digital sales so it’s another revenue stream to mine that has cost benefit to publishers.

This recent piece in newrepublic.com speaks to a specific, if not new, concern for publishers and the book business – the potential demise of Barnes & Noble. Bear in mind, this has been a topic of conversation for many years and despite rumors, challenges and financial constraints, B&N is still in business.

Alex Shephard mentions in the piece: “In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.” That might be true, but we’ve been seeing this for a long time. Same with his assertion that “Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all.” This has been a refrain we’ve heard on repeat for years.

My sense about the retailer’s impact on the book business if it were to shutter its doors is that it would be a significant and negative impact, but not an insurmountable one. No question, B&N has been a wonderful partner for bringing books to a wider audience. They provide some very nice opportunities for books and authors, from in-store events to co-op advertising (front of store placement) to their now 25 year-old Discover Great New Writers program. And while publishers still rely heavily on B&N’s feedback on many things, including covers (I’ve had several covers change at the last minute because B&N didn’t like it), the truth is that the number of books they purchase for their stores has dropped dramatically over the years. Yes, they still carry lots of copies of the big bestsellers, as do all the retailers, but they take a lot fewer copies of almost everything else.

This, in part, has resulted in smaller first printings for most books from years past with the hope that if the book starts selling, publishers can quickly hit the reprint button and fulfill market demand. But that doesn’t feel like new news to me. I hope B&N can survive and find a way to thrive in a very difficult market, but I feel strongly that even if that doesn’t happen, authors, publishers and agents will figure out a way to make it work, just like we’ve always done.

 

5

When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?

10

Getting lost in a book

My preferred activity as a kid was sitting somewhere (I always hoped for inside and air-conditioned during the summer) with my library bag stuffed with ten to fifteen new library books, and reading the day away. I would zip from one universe to another, skip centuries back in time, advance a few thousand light years in the future, face down a dragon or learn new magic words, be embroiled in the Civil War or Elizabethan England…the possibilities were endless. Changing worlds was as effortless as changing from wakefulness to dreams.

Given this, it’s unsurprising that this article from The New York Times piqued my interest. Two writers (Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser) ask whether or not it’s harder for readers to be transported by a book as they get older. Prose argues that children’s bigger imaginations and willingness to suspend disbelief allow them to become more wholly immersed in a book. Adults are more likely to analyze, cross-reference, and compare people and events in a book to things they’ve experienced. Moser says he discovered that he wanted to read the same books again and again, since, “the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s.”

Now of course, neither Prose or Moser’s points are true for everyone. Prose admits that some books still have the ability to totally immerse her in their reading experience and plenty of writers find new inspiration and motivation from reading other people’s work. Reflecting on my own reading trends, I realize that maybe I’m choosing a different kind of immersion as I’ve gotten older. I used to devour everything fantasy & sci-fi as a kid—I loved escaping to other (more exciting) worlds that had the possibility of magic glimmering at every turn. Now, I’m more interested in commercial fiction, “women’s” fiction, and more contemporary fiction, perhaps as a reflection of my own life. I’m turning to these genres for answers, other experiences and perspectives, and identification in my own life. It’s a different kind of immersion. (And I still love sitting down on a weekend and turning my attention to the stack of two or three library books I’ve checked out.)

What do you think? Can you mark a noticeable difference in your reading experience as a child and an adult? Do you think writing helps or hurts your reading?

9

Whatever Works

During a very energizing few days at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with fellow agents as well as a lot of authors—published and yet to be—and I practically O.D.’d on some of the best tacos known to man (El Sitio at 2830 De La Vina St., I’m lookin’ at YOU.)

One of the highlights of my stay was attending a panel of newly-published authors who were eager to talk about the craft of writing. An audience member asked them at  one point what their “process” was. It’s a legitimate question, because it seems to me that no two authors have the same process for writing and, Lord knows, that process is not always a steady one. It can vary depending on a writer’s moods, not to mention demands both personal and professional that always threaten to encroach on writing time. Lida Sideris, author of the mystery thriller Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters, answered, “I don’t have a process. I write by the seat of my pants. No one was more surprised at who the culprit was than me.”  Another panelist, Stephen Vessels, (The Mountain and the Vortex) warned of the danger of procrastination. “THINKING about writing can take an enormous amount of time,” he said. “You can THINK about writing instead of ACTUALLY writing for years.” That would seem to tie in with the mantra that succesful authors urge upon neophytes: Write every day. Sometimes that can mean setting yourself a goal of a certain number of words or pages. If it’s ultimately not usable or requires heavy editing, fine—those are decisions that can be made later.  You can’t edit a blank page.

But there are also successful authors who depend on a germination period before they sit down to write. They may need to take time to develop possibilities and choose among them; to let stories grow in their head before the actual writing begins. They may outline the arc of a plot before actually beginning a novel.

Whatever your process is, it is just that—your process. It’s what works best for you. Would anyone like to chime in and let us know what your particular system is? I’m always eager to hear about that.

4

Dream Job

A few days ago, I signed a new client—a scientist and researcher who studies dreams, who is writing a smart, heady novel that draws upon the neuroscience of dreaming and pushes it just beyond the threshold of the possible. Think David Mitchell, the film Inception, with a dash of DaVinci Code.  The novel is built like a mystery and set against a dreamscape backdrop that beggars Freud.  The author interleaves both the science and the mythology of dreaming in a tale that is inventive, original and utterly spellbinding.    All this is by way of introduction to the idea that I love my job.   It’s like grad school, but this time without papers, politics or adjunct teaching. Agenting offers exposure to big ideas and the folks who think them, and the opportunity to keep learning pretty much all of the time across a dizzying range of subjects.

Since part of my job is to act as a stand in for a curious, bright-but-not expert reader, I get to ask innumerable questions, request clarifications, and read like mad–sometimes even an actual, published, bound-in-paper book. Other parts of my job are just as satisfying, but in different ways—matchmaking, negotiating, advocating, advising… and the gerunds continue.  Of course, there are plenty of downsides to this business, too; rejection is a constant, there are disappointing sales, difficult people and the always fragile ecosystem of publishers, but I’ll save the grim bits  for another post. On balance, I love the work I do.

And what does that work look like on a day to day basis? My lived version is not especially glamorous.  I was a rank disappointment to a client visiting New York for the first time, who imagined me kitted out in Louboutins and Armani, climbing in red-soled stilettos over the bodies of tourists.  Happily, she forgave me for my lack of resemblance to Anna Wintour or even Annie Hall.  As I’m writing this on Thursday, I’m dashing in sensible flats between meetings with editors from three different imprints, all in midtown. This evening I have two author events, novelist Beth Hahn, author of THE SINGING BONE, doing a reading at the terrific Spine Out series and Mychal Denzel Smith, author of INVISIBLE MAN, GOT THE WHOLE WORLD WATCHING in conversation with Melissa Harris Perry at B&N. Assuming the subways and my legs are functioning, I’ll attend both; the first on the lower east side, the second on the upper west.

Wednesday was a staff meeting in which all the agents in our office go over the projects presently on or near submission.  With more than a dozen agents in attendance, it’s lengthy but informative. This is always followed by an ideas meeting where we pitch potential book concepts. In the interstices, I edited a proposal, responded to countless e-mails, set up author meetings/phone calls for a project on submission, and conducted gently harassing follow-ups on behalf of other projects out in the world. Earlier in the week I learned a great deal about ground scanning radar technology on a conference call with an archeologist client, conferred with a film co-agent shopping the adaptation of a forthcoming work of narrative history, had a long editorial conversation with client/co-authors about a novel in progress,  and requested several projects from queries.  I also tried to glance at social media, the newspaper and the weather.  I managed two thirds of these, hence was umbrella-less on Wednesday when the skies opened up.

The downpour was actually useful. Trapped until the rain slackened with a rapidly draining iPhone battery and no computer, I did something I rarely do in the space of a work day;  I cracked open a book and read—which to me, is living the dream.

4

The bookshelf project: part 2

After posting about the recent arrival of my long awaited built-in bookshelves, and getting some great feedback from our readers, family, and friends, I finally embarked upon the multi-hour project and wanted to share the end result (still a work-in-progress) here:

To give you some more information about the strategy (and it was discussed extensively before the project began as well as throughout the endeavor!), I’ll share how it all played out. We started by unpacking books from boxes as well as taking off of shelves from my office one copy of each of the books I’ve sold during my almost eighteen years at DGLM.

We then labeled the shelves with post-its indicating which category of books would go into which shelves. The broad sections include adult fiction, cookbooks, illustrated/craft, practical nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and children’s. For categories where we had more books, we used more shelves. For the cookbooks, we divided them into sections: general, vegetarian/vegan, and baking and then alphabetized them within the section. Then we filled in the two top shelves with foreign editions of my titles.

We mixed the style of display with horizontal and vertical and left a few books standing up and facing out, and then filled in some blank spaces with decorative touches and picture frames. At that point, we’d filled ten of the fourteen sections, and the other four sections we used for additional cookbooks, miscellaneous awesome books (Hamilton!), and my beloved large and growing collection of books signed by the author, which includes mostly children’s books (I’m that person who will go to an author event with or without my children to get a signed book!) and a few celebrity titles.

I have a lot more books that I’ve read and collected over the years, but I didn’t want to pack the shelves too tight so I could leave room for more of my own titles to fill in. At some point I’ll get another large bookcase which I’ll put  in a different room to house  the others, but for now I’m happy my living room bookshelf project is finally complete.

Please let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions for changes or improvements!

7

Baby Library Must -Haves

This weekend I attended my cousin’s baby shower and while every other person brought adorable gifts and essentials for the new mom-to-be, I came bearing books. Why? Well, why not? But really, it’s mostly because I have taken it upon myself to help build my little cousin’s first library.

Seeing as I don’t have any knowledge of what goes in a baby’s library past my personal favorites, OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO and HORTON HEARS A WHO by Dr. Seuss, I thought I’d enlist your help in completing this little project of mine. 

So what are the must -have books that should be included in every child’s first library? To start off, I took a poll around the office and this is what everyone had to say:

Jane suggested BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE?­­­ by Bill Martin and Eric Carle, and Jessica seconded that and added GOODNIGHT GORILLA by Peggy Rathmann.

Miriam and Michael both went with Dr. Seuss and Miriam suggested a couple more titles: THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle and GUESS HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU by Sam McBratney.

Stacey’s daughters have loved TAP THE MAGIC TREE and TOUCH THE BRIGHTEST STAR by our very own Christie Matheson.

Jim’s go-to baby gift is Lane Smith’s IT’S A BOOK and IT’S A LITTLE BOOK.

Lauren suggested the hilarious classic ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY, and Lisa Brown’s amazing mommy gifts BABY MIX ME A DRINK, BABY MAKE ME BREAKFAST, BABY DO MY BAKING, and other entertaining titles in the Baby Be of Use series. 

As well as the classics- Sendak, Carle, McCloskey, Rosemary Wells, etc., John also enjoys ALL THE WORLD by Liz Scanlon, which is enjoyable for both parent and child. He also made a good suggestion about getting board books, so babies can play and chew on them!

 Eric added MADELINE by Ludwig Bemelmans to the list, and Mike  and Sharon love THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD, GO DOG GO, and the Llama, Llama series.

Amy went with GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown and Erin suggested the amazing classic, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak.

Thanks to my wonderful DGLMians , I am off to pretty good start!  Are there any other titles you would like to add?