Category Archives: bestsellers

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Death and Hamsters

Although Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL is my assigned DGLM office book-club book, I don’t think I can last until our next meeting without singing its praises in some public forum.

When I began in publishing, there was a certain truism that books on death don’t sell. When I was an editor, I looked at worthy proposals that were, according to conventional wisdom and my ed-board, simply too hard. Certainly there had been exceptions—books by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Jessica Mitford, Sherwin Nuland—but they just proved the rule. For the most part, the book industry reflected our entirely human propensity to avoid thinking about our own inevitable ends.

That Gawande’s BEING MORTAL—a work of such signal intelligence, readability and compassion–has sold so extravagantly, hitting #1 on the NYT bestseller list, is a sign that perhaps we’ve turned a corner. When my fellow DGLM-er Eric found out that I was reading BEING MORTAL, he told me it should be required reading for everyone. And he’s right. Funny, too, because all sorts of books are billed as universally relevant. But Being Mortal really, truly is.

In addition to weeping on commuter trains over my recreational reads (belated apologies to the dismayed lady sitting beside me), I also represent authors whose works engage mortality. Medical Humanities historian Brandy Schillace’s book, Death’s Summer Coat: What Death and Dying Can Teach us About Life and Living, which was reviewed today in the New Yorker.Com, is a wide-ranging and fascinating look across cultural approaches to death, while forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, co-author of the memoir Working Stiff, chronicled her work as a speaker for the dead. Another client, archaeologist Nicholas Reeves is at work on an excavation that aims to find a particularly ancient and famous corpse, Nefertiti (the ancient Egyptian approach to death, or the royal one, anyway, being that you can take it with you.) And I’m reading a proposal from author and neurosurgeon Richard Rapport on How We Don’t Die.

In any event, none of this has yet helped me with the particular challenges of explaining the certainty of death to my children. My younger son recently requested a pet hamster, one who (in contrast to his cousin’s late and much-mourned Hamchop) would not die. When I patiently explained that all living things die eventually, even people, he looked at me for a beat and retorted, “Yes, Mom. I know. All except my hamster.”

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At least nine lives for writers

They say a cat has nine lives. I’d like to argue that a writer has many more. Literary lives, so to speak. I’ve talked on this blog before about talented authors like Sloane Crossley making the move from nonfiction to fiction, and now I’m switching it up to talk about a famous fiction author trying her hand at nonfiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri needs no introduction in literary circles. One of the world’s most accomplished living writers, she has managed to find success in her story collections and novels, including her first Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, a beautiful book which might have one of the best titles ever.

And now, just when you might think a new novel or collection is going to hit the market, she does a complete 360 and writes a memoir. And not only is In Other Words, scheduled to be published February 9th, her first nonfiction, and she wrote it in Italian! It’s about her love affair with the Italian language, and it inspired her to create a book that could be experienced in both languages (for the U.S. edition, she used a translator so those of us who do not read Italian can still enjoy the book). Here is an article that goes into more detail about the book and the author’s process from Harpers.org.

As a publishing professional, it is such an admirable and huge risk to go so far astray from one’s comfort zone and I’d guess that the decision wasn’t well received by all. Some might say it’s gimmicky, or inaccessible, but creative passion sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. And talent is talent. Plus at a certain point in an author’s career, when you’ve had the level of success that Ms. Lahiri has had, she can call the shots to a certain extent on what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.

Reviews have been glowing. Kirkus calls it “An honest, self-deprecating, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.” Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Ms. Lahiri has done with this book, and I just know no matter what I think of it that it’s going to make me long for Italy, one of the most special and beautiful places on earth, and where I spent my honeymoon almost fifteen years ago. How many writing lives do you think you have? And at what point do you decide to reinvent yourself and change direction?

From page to screen, more ways than one

I have a few books I’m working on book-to-film deals at the moment, and for several years before I became an agent I worked in NYC in film and tv development. Which means I looked for books to be adapted into movies. So I guess you can say I got my start in books by reading to see what might translate to film. I still find I read this way, and relate to books that I can visualize as movies.

So I’ve been taking note of several recent book-to-film deals that have sort of interesting stories behind them. I’m fascinated that The Martian by Andy Weir, which was initially self-pubbed. This article from Variety.com talks about its path from publication to big screen. It’s nothing short of amazing! He had no luck attracting an agent or publisher so he self-published the book and it started to gain some momentum. Eventually, publishers and film companies started approaching him and very lucrative deals were signed. He has a deep fear of flying so never met any of the people he was doing business with. The way he describes it, it was all so surreal he actually thought it was a scam.

Then I saw another piece about a bestselling YA book, 13 Reasons Why, that is now going to be turned into a tv series for Netflix starring Selena Gomez. That’s interesting because the book was initially published back in 2007 and then became a bestseller in paperback in 2011. It’s taken years to get it from page to screen!

Finally, there’s the much hyped adaptation of the bestseller Room, which was adapted by the book author. She drafted the screenplay even before she knew it was going to be optioned and made for film. An interview from Publisher’s Weekly about that process you can find here.

To me they all have interesting back stories and histories and the takeaway is that you never really know what’s going to happen with your book, or when. In each of these cases you have examples where a book property started life as something else and then went on to become not only a published book, but a film or tv show after the fact, in the case of 13 Reasons Why, years after the fact. Keep on writing and working toward success in your endeavors. You never know when someone will find your book and turn it into something else. If you have any other fun book-to-film stories, please share them with us!

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The Sticking Power of Harry Potter

 

My Twitter and Facebook feeds have blown up with the announcement that the new West End play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was going to be “a fullblown sequel” to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Eighteen years after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published, the Harry Potter fandom (which my generation was raised on) is still going strong. I’ve heard many accounts of parents saying that this was the book that finally got their kids to read and even friends who said they weren’t big readers until they discovered the Harry Potter series.

cursed-child

I remember many people being disappointed when they turned eleven and hadn’t received their letter from Hogwarts. The rush to every midnight premiere of a Harry Potter movie was insane and Pottermore is still going strong. Clearly, all these years later, we’re still enchanted by Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the promise of Hogwarts.

So I’m wondering: what makes a book this universally powerful? And even more so: what creates the staying power of a book through generations? What do you think, dear readers?

 

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To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

I’m a big fan of Sloane Crosley. Her first collection of essays, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, offered a voice of a younger generation that was so distinct it set the stage for another collection of essays and now, a debut novel called THE CLASP. Good writing is good writing regardless of the category but it’s interesting to me to see authors who can go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. There are many talented writers who try their hand at both successfully. Think Ann Patchett or Joan Didion; even J.K. Rowling had her Harvard graduation speech published in book form.

I have authors on my own list who have tried their hand at both. From my experience, they are usually better at one or the other and once they have some success with finding a publisher they stick with that. One of my most prolific fiction authors doesn’t seem interested in nonfiction, despite a few prods from me. And another who has only done nonfiction so far has teased me by talking about doing a novel at some point. I love the idea of this creative exploration.

I found this piece on Crosley’s publisher’s website interesting for aspiring or established writers because it goes into the psychological mindset of switching from one category to the other, or in her case the idea that many writers move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction but it’s a different beast when it goes the other way. While the feelings Crosley has experienced crossing over are hers, I suspect there are some common threads that other writers would agree with. She feels fiction is a lot harder, she says that “publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano.” I look forward to reading the novel and seeing how it compares to her nonfiction.

What do you think? Fiction or nonfiction or both? I say if you have the talent, spread it around!

The Clasp

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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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Fruit flies and me

A conversation I was having with a publisher last week, went off topic (after we’d reached an agreement about the client in question, of course) when we started discussing vacations and vacation reading.  One thing leading to another as it does, we began to reminisce about the days when the publication of a big book was an EVENT and how rare a thing that is these days when Kim Kardashian’s latest naked selfie breaks the internet every 4.5 days (yawn!), Donald Trump opens his yap and the news cycle is hijacked to the exclusion of anything else, iPhones, tablets, FireTV sticks, and watches that text and send e-mail keep our attention buzzing from one landing spot to another like a drunken fruit fly.

Not to sound like a crotchety old lady but I remember when books made headlines and created the kind of anticipation blockbuster movies can still sometimes drum up (I’m there for the next James Bond film…just sayin’).   Sure, not so long ago the Harry Potter titles were doing just that but it’s been a while since a book was not only buzzed about but read by everyone immediately upon publication and then discussed ad nauseum everywhere you went.  (I don’t count the “new” Harper Lee since, personally, I consider that a cynical, somewhat soulless publishing move that has more in common with the Kardashian publicity machine than the event books I remember fondly and whose success was usually more predicated on their content than the marketing behind them.)

Is all of this due to the fact that there’s too much competition for our ever more fragmented attention spans or is it that we are slowly losing the ability to commit to a reading experience and the subsequent processing of that experience that involves discussion, debate, criticism, etc.?  Have the Buzzfeed book lists taken the place of the lively conversations about important titles that added something to the culture and our understanding of the world?

On a less cranky note, I’m reading The Martianthe martian right now and in the past two weeks have spoken to six people in vastly different contexts and in a serendipitous fashion, about the book.  This, combined with the rise in print sales and the fact that readers are looking for what the publisher I was speaking with called “the physical connection” we experience when reading hardcovers or paperbacks makes me hopeful that the big event book is not totally a thing of the past.

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Keep your sense of humor

There has been so much attention on the new Harper Lee book released a couple of weeks ago that it prompted even me, a veteran publishing professional, to buy it as well as a new paperback edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to re-read. GO SET A WATCHMAN came out to numbers that compare to Jurassic World for the book biz: over 1.1 million copies sold across formats in less than a week, over 3.3 million books printed according to wsj.com. Never have I seen in my almost 17 years as an agent such hoopla surrounding a book’s publication.


I know it’s a big deal, but it even surprised me with the scope of its coverage. I mean, last time we saw a book get so much attention was when the 50 Shades sequel was published in June (joke)!


So, it cracked me up when I came upon this piece recently in Publisher’s Weekly by (as it turns out, didn’t realize when I was reading it) Jane’s client Mardi Link about how her book’s publication fell on the exact same day. What are the chances? She has such a funny take on the whole scenario that I thought it would be fun to share.


As I’ve said on the blog before, so much in life is about timing. What do you think? Is she onto something by using her competition as a way to get publicity for her own book? I think it’s a very clever approach, and an entertaining one as well. Hope her book does a fraction as well as Harper Lee’s!