Category Archives: controversy

7

Slow reading

Now that New York State schools have adopted the Common Core curriculum, a lot of us parents are mystified by the new rules for academic success as determined by the educational powers that be.  One of the things that my husband and I keep getting stuck on is how much of an emphasis is now placed on speed.  Our third grader must answer math problems in less than four seconds per problem, for instance.    Given that most of my math is done either on my iPhone calculator or my fingers, I have no moral authority to speak about that one, but when they tell me that eight-year-olds have to read a certain number of words in one minute in order to establish reading “fluency,” well, that’s when the tic  in my left eyelid becomes pronounced.

Which, as many things do on this blog, leads to a shameful confession:  I am a slow reader.

Given the thousands of pages I read in the course of a typical month, people assume that I took that speed reading course they used to advertise on television back in the day.  I did not.  I am the kind of reader who compulsively reads every word and who pauses often to swirl a particularly juicy adjective around or take loving note of an exceptionally well turned phrase.  When it comes to work, I sometimes hate that I am so slow–my manuscript piles reproduce like Tribbles, after all.   On the flip side, I think I am a much more insightful reader and editor as a result of my tortoise-like approach to the material in front of me.

Thing is, I read books the way  I eat dessert.  I want both experiences to last as long as humanly possible so the enjoyment derived from them will be prolonged as well.  What good is a bowl of ice cream if the primary experience is brain freeze from slurping it down too quickly?  Similarly, what’s the point of speed skating through a great novel or non-fiction narrative only to be done and on to the next?  Don’t we already live our lives doing constant hamster sprints as we struggle to keep up with the masses of information being thrown at us?  Shouldn’t we take a stand and force ourselves to read deliberately, thoughtfully, patiently, discerningly…slowly?  Wouldn’t that be better for our intellectual development as well as our souls?

I think the world needs less fast tracking and more thinking it through.  And, I’m not the only one.  Hopefully, my kid will learn that writing can be savored, not just devoured, that it is not just a means to an end but an end in itself.

What say you?  Is fast reading an important skill in the internet age or is there more value in the slow(er) processing of information?  And, how long does it take you to read an average book?

 

 

 

2

Literary meltdowns

This past Sunday night, I went to a concert and witnessed something I hadn’t seen in a long time—a genuine, on-stage, rock-star meltdown by Brian Fallon, the lead singer of The Gaslight Anthem. You can read all the particulars here, but suffice it to say, it was genuinely weird, uncomfortable, irritating… and yet perversely memorable.

Anyway, back at my desk here in Book Land, I started thinking about comparable literary meltdowns. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an author completely lose it on stage—maybe not since college, when I saw Noam Chomsky go bananas when too many students asked him about the Middle East. But of course, the history of the written word is littered with tantrums, explosions, and even a gunshot or two. (That’ll teach you to mess with Hunter S. Thompson!)

So, let’s have some fun—when was the last time YOU saw an author really lose it? Or, if you’ve never seen one in person, what’s your favorite meltdown story? And after witnessing/reading about said meltdown, did it enhance the author or diminish in your eyes?

12

Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

4

Categorizing

Shy, but spunky wallflower meets hot, broody guy.  Sparks fly, complications arise, but true love triumphs in the end.  This could take place in any high school, college, or corporate setting.  And love is love at any age, right?

So, why is there such a flap over bookstore placement of Young Adult vs. New Adult titles?  It all comes down to sex, of course.  The older the protagonists the more sexually explicit the books has always been the rule of thumb.  But, is that still true?  Was the New Adult category created so that everyone involved was of legal age but still playing varsity, emotionally speaking?  Or is there more to this in-between genre that makes it deserving of its own place on store shelves?

I get not putting sexually explicit material next to middle grade or picture book offerings.  But what’s so hard about sliding over a couple of bookcases and hanging a sign saying “New Adult”?  If the problem is that you don’t want kids exposed to inappropriate content, then clear labeling is a tried and true way of dealing with the issue.  Clearly this is a category that is extremely popular for both older teens and adults but one that is having a hard time finding its way into the hands of print consumers because of what seems to me like simple orneriness on the part of booksellers.

Am I missing something here?  What do you all think?

9

Seuss up!

For someone who had never read many children’s books at all before her own child showed up, I’ve become a Dr. Seuss fanatic.   Something about the cadence, the crazy, made-up names (the man would go to any length to make a rhyme happen), the awesome message of tolerance and forbearance, and the cockeyed optimism in the face of greedy Grinches, howling Hakken Kraks, and Horton-taunting bullies, is never less than inspiring.   Which is why this story about drag queen Martha Graham Cracker being disinvited to read a Dr. Seuss book to kids in an after-school program is so un-Seussian.   Ironic, right?

The story has a happy ending, as you’ll see if you follow the link, but it got me thinking about how Dr. Seuss would have addressed some of the more controversial issues of our day.   What would Horton say about gay marriage?  How would the Cat in the Hat feel about the inability of our two major political parties to come to any kind of consensus about anything?  What kind of lectures would the Sneetches deliver to all the haters still clinging to racial and ethnic prejudices?

One of my favorite lines from the Seuss canon is:  “So be sure when you step, Step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.”  If more of us operated with care and tact, it would be a much more friendly world, no?

What are you favorite Dr. Seuss quotes and characters?

3

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?

 

6

The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

Penguin sues authors

When I started working in publishing (roughly 100 years ago) the business was still one of “gentlemen’s agreements,” of editors coddling temperamental authors, and agents selling books based on a persuasive conversation rather than book proposals (look up Swifty Lazar, if you don’t believe me).  Too, it was always a tenet of agenting that despite the terms in a publishing agreement, there were ways around everything, from an onerous option clause to the repayment of an advance for a cancelled book.

This all worked, of course, because publishers have traditionally been unwilling to persecute their authors (very bad p.r.).  Given the conventional wisdom that authors are fragile, creative souls with no real grasp of practical details—like deadlines or basic accounting—even with cutthroat agents involved, the optics of going after someone publicly for non-delivery and non-payment did not work in a publisher’s favor.  So, often, authors got away with not repaying advances based on flimsy loopholes and how skilled their agents were at scaring or shaming the publisher.

But, times have gotten tough in recent years.  Margins are tighter as a result of the e-book revolution and the Justice Department has decided to stick its nose into publishing practices that many argue it has no knowledge of or understanding about.  So, it’s not entirely surprising that Penguin has taken the rather shocking step of suing a number of high profile writers for non-payment.

On the one hand…well, yes.  If you sign a contract that specifies that you need to repay an advance under certain conditions and those conditions come to pass, any legitimate business would go after you to recoup their money.

On the other hand, this makes me sad, because it feels like yet another of publishing’s intangibles has been sacrificed to the bottom line.   To me it seems that this takes us many more steps away from the days when publishers went out of their way, financially and otherwise, to enable an author—even the most wayward of them (see The Lost Generation)—to thrive creatively and produce the kinds of literature we’re still reading today.  Did they lose some money? Sure, but I’m pretty certain Scribner (and Random House and S&S, etc.) is still collecting on its investment.

What do you all think of this action by Penguin?

 

 

4

It’s all over now, Baby Blue

Oh, Jonah…

I’m sure most of you saw the news yesterday that somewhat-discredited writer Jonah Lehrer is now fully discredited, having resigned from The New Yorker after admitting he fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes for his book Imagine and then lied about it. It’s a shame, because, while I haven’t read Imagine, I’ve been impressed by his writing on-line—he’s clearly a smart guy. But while I was willing to let it slide earlier when it seemed like he was self-plagiarizing due to feeling overwhelmed/over-committed, it’s a lot harder when he’s putting words in Bob Dylan’s mouth.

Anyway, I bring all this up just as a simple plea: if you’re writing nonfiction, don’t make stuff up!

I know, it seems self-evident, but there’s a long history of smart writers plagiarizing or fabricating material for a variety of reasons. And while publishers can protect themselves to an extent with the warranty clauses in their contracts, which place the burden of truth squarely on the author, as an agent all we really have is the author’s word. Yet if a problem arises, we certainly catch our share of the blame (witness the silence of Lehrer’s agent on this).

So, for my sake and yours, please don’t pull a Jonah—otherwise, to quote (accurately, I hope) the man in question, “a hard rain’s a-gonna fall…”