Category Archives: culture



During my year abroad in Germany, I was lucky enough to have a host mom who was also a librarian. My first week there, she signed me up for a library card and once I stopped getting lost on public transportation, I often visited a small library a half hour away (Bücherhalle Bergedorf). For an avid reader, Germany felt like paradise to me. Like in America, there was a bookstore in the mall, a small independent bookstore around the corner in a small square from my German tutor’s apartment, and books in train stations.

Unlike what I had experienced in America (living in several small towns without much public transportation), everyone seemed to be reading. My host sister and host brother (ages 16 and 12, respectively) brought two or three books with them to the beach. (I was charmed by the German “vacation books”—slender, inexpensive volumes of fiction that would be typed as “beach reads” or “light reading” here—but for €5 or even sometimes less.) It seemed like everyone carried at least one book around with them to read on the bus, the train, while waiting in line. Bookstores abounded.

I think part of the German insistence and delight in reading comes from their idea of a “Kulturnation”—a country bound together by tradition, literature, language, and religion. The act of reading and writing has always furthered (and often challenged) these aspects of any country. Back in the U.S., as I read headlines about the demise of independent bookstores, Borders closing, and many questions about the future of print books, I wondered how the Germans did it. Now granted, Germany is considerably smaller than the United States, and one might argue that we do have a substantial book culture here. But is it more due to geographical size and population than an actual ingrained cultural tradition? How could we here in America make turning to a book as natural as turning to our phones or another electronic device?

What do you think of the U.S.’s book culture? How can we make it better? Or do you think we’re doing just fine, after all?

**If you’re further interested in this topic, I found this article, originally published by The Nation in 2012 to be very interesting and helpful.


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.



As you all know, we’ve been pushing the whole build-your-platform-through-social-media idea pretty much relentlessly since grumpy cat memes and the Kardashians became a thing.  We’ve also suggested that understanding how social media works and knowing how to use it properly (for good, not evil) is essential.  We’ve seen how often it can backfire and how damaging the repercussions can be.

That was brought home to me this week by two separate “#Ask___” Twitter events.  First, E.L. James had to deal with responses that ranged from mildly sarcastic to outright insulting when she agreed to participate in an online chat to promote her latest iteration of 50 Shades.  Then, in a very different arena, presidential candidate Bobby Jindal’s #AskBobby hashtag elicited some pretty rude commentary about the Louisiana governor’s policies and even personal life and left a lot of people wondering if someone so clueless about how Twitter works could actually be a good president.

What’s amazing about both of these situations is that these are folks who should know better—or at least their handlers and p.r. people should.  The social media universe is mostly a Hobbesian place—all cynicism, righteous anger, and meanspiritedness—where moderation in opinions or dialogue is in very, very short supply.  And, those who are out there promoting themselves, their work, or a cause, need to figure out how not to fall victim to the pitchfork wielding mobs (metaphorically speaking, of course).  So authors need to beware.  In order to reap the benefits of an effective social media presence, you need to understand the potential pitfalls and be thoughtful about how to avoid them.  Like any tool, this one can help build or destroy.

What useful things have you learned from your experiences on social media?




A couple of weeks ago, I was at my alma mater to speak to the Columbia Fiction Foundry folks about publishing.   The session was structured as an interview and one of the questions posed to me was how we handle books about taboo subjects.  I liked that question because it’s one that’s seldom asked but which is important to anyone who works in publishing (or any media, really).  Given how charged the political environment is, not just here but globally, freedom of speech is a tricky, sometimes dangerous concept for those who work in the business of communicating ideas.   And, yet, we take on projects all the time that have the potential to offend some or many.  The rule of thumb for us is that if it’s something that doesn’t personally offend us, or it offends us but we think there’s merit in furthering the conversation on that particular topic,  we don’t shy away from representing it.

This week, along with everyone else in the country, we’ve been talking about the Rachel Dolezal story and wondering if there is a book in this very bizarre journey of hers.  The fact is that her actions have offended large numbers of Americans.  Given how volatile the subject of race is in this country, that’s not surprising.  But, regardless of where you stand on this individual’s weird appropriation of a group’s identity, it seems to me that the conversation her story has engendered is a good one.  I’ve read several interesting articles about this now, among them this one by our friend Sam Freedman, which have approached the topic in diverse, but  insightful ways…and isn’t that what free discourse is about?  I still don’t know what the book would be, but maybe it’s one about the very notion of discussing taboo subjects.

So, what taboos would you tackle or shy away from in your own writing?  And which would you like to see more deeply explored in print?


Globalizing the literary landscape

Hey readers! Today I’m pleased to share a guest blog post from our bright and insightful intern Christa Angelios:

From Mallory Ortberg’s poem “Male Novelist Jokes” to Junot Diaz’s comment in the New Yorker on his MFA program – “that shit was too white” – it’s no secret that the world of literary classics is awash in a lack of diversity. Culturally diverse authors often assume pseudonyms or use initials to make themselves fit in more with what they see as expected of them – because they’re worried the sales numbers will be too low if they use their given names. They’re worried that the American public is simply not interested in hearing their stories, cultural stories.

There are, of course, authors who are pushing against this formulaic assimilation, and proving that diversity does not equal diminishing numbers. Khaled Hosseini’s wildly popular novel, THE KITE RUNNER; Matt de la Peña’s critically acclaimed piece, MEXICAN WHITEBOY; and Junot Diaz’s hailed work, THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, all attempt to diversify the modern literary landscape. Fortunately, my schools have not only respected diversity, but encouraged it. In high school, during my sophomore year, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s INTERPRETER OF MALADIES along with a selection of short stories by Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz. Diaz came to read at my high school that year, before which the administration begged him to keep his audience in mind and to tone down his presentation and after which the administration stood mortified when he chose to read some of the most colorful stories he had hand. Teachers were torn between admiring his bold rejection of censorship and finding his gall appalling. But despite the fact that the administration cracked down on a lot of smaller spoken-word performances after that, we still read works that broadened our cultural literary palate.

In college, I discovered that folklore held my literary heart. Celtic mythology, Grimm’s tales, and Russian skazkas could entertain me for a lifetime. And when I began writing culturally informed work, taking up the mission Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie expressed in her TED talk to prevent a culture from being distilled into a “single story,” my professors felt compelled to ask the question: what gives you the right to be writing about a culture that isn’t your own? My father is from Egypt, after all, so I have a rich ethnic history to draw from to which I could “appropriately” lay claim, and I admit that Ancient Egypt and the Arab Spring have captured my interest and imagination. But I count myself among what ethnically Indian author Pico Iyer, who feels he has not earned the “right” to call himself Indian because he didn’t know enough about the culture even if it was his ethnicity, calls an increasingly multicultural group for whom “home” is more of an intangible and ongoing project than a place. With no indication that globalization will be slowing down any time soon, what happens when our world becomes full of people who are of every nation – then whose “right” is it to lay claim to a nation’s culture?

These are not questions that the literary world can continue to ignore. Diversity should be recognized and celebrated across the board, not separated out into its own genre of “ethnic” work. In an interview with RonReads, young adult author Jenny Han said of her choice to include diversity in her work, “I want my books to look like the real world, and the real world is populated by all kinds of people.” It’s time the American literary landscape began reflecting the real world, too.

Honeymoon’s over. Can this marriage be saved?

So, the talk lately (around here at least) is that e-book sales are slowing down—significantly enough that doomsday prophecies about the health of the format are being bandied about by the ever-unflappable* publishing community. Through several Amazon initiatives that are too complicated and, well, tedious to go into here, that monolithic company has undermined the Indie publishing world it mostly created as well as undercut sales of  traditionally published books.  Then, there are the studies that say that print reading gets absorbed more efficiently into your bloodstream.  And, finally, there’s the “Hipster Effect” which makes anything retro cool again—so the youngsters are all reading paperbacks on the subway instead of Nooks–combined with the “Geezer Effect” which makes all this newfangled technology suspect and terrifying.Kindle and Book

All of these things really add up to just this:  there’s been a correction in the digital book market.  The quick growth of the last few years has slowed down as consumers have gotten used to the idea of a new product, road tested it, and decided that, while nifty, it’s not the be-all, end-all.  Does that mean e-books are over.  Uh…no.  This format has legs, in my opinion.  But, it does mean that it is going to have to get creative about competing against its print counterpart and all the other media we’re collectively obsessed with.   And, that means that publishers, e-publishers, and e-tailers as well as authors are going to need to come up with ideas on how to make this a category that works on its own terms but also complements the underlying publishing rights—i.e., the copyrighted content.

For my part, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do—read both my Kindle and the thousands of print books cluttering my house and office—and wait to see how sales actually look once the dust finally settles. 

What do you guys think about the long-term health of the e-book market?  Is the slowdown a good thing or bad, in your opinion?






On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?


Youth is wasted on the young. Or is it?

Every “semester” we have an office lunch for the purpose of getting to know our current batch of interns and to answer any questions they might have about the, undoubtedly, bizarre goings-on in publishing (and in our office).  Yesterday, over a Middle Eastern spread (the baba ganoush was delicious!) we asked everyone to tell us what they read for pleasure.  Overwhelmingly, the response was YA.  And, for some reason, that surprised me and even made me a little wistful for the days when youngsters couldn’t wait to get their grubby little hands on “adult” literature.

I still remember when, in seventh grade, a beat up copy of The Other Side of Midnight (which was already a decade old at the time, in case you were wondering about the timeline) was surreptitiously passed around at my school.  The book, of course, opened naturally to the “sexy” parts and we would have all been mortified if our parents had caught us reading it.  By the time I was a young adult, myself, my peeps and I were interested in SERIOUS fiction that dealt with IMPORTANT subjects, and if you wanted some sex and scandal, you turned to grown-up bestsellers like Marguerite Duras’ The Lover  or Josephine Hart’s Damage.  You know, stories about older people behaving badly….

The thing is that, traditionally,  YA was considered “aspirational”—kids younger than those depicted in the books were the primary market for it. Now, I know that YA literature has exploded as a genre and that, in many ways, it’s tackling tough subjects in ways  sometimes more inventive and provocative than we’ve seen in what is considered adult fiction.  That said, is it narcissism, solipsism or fear of growing up that accounts for young adults actually preferring YA books in general?  In recent years, with blockbusters like  the Harry Potter  and Twilight series playing havoc with readership demographics (as evidenced by 40-something moms reading YA and NA alongside their tweens and teenagers), it seems that the category now even appeals to its own namesakes.   Crazy, huh?

How do you account for this shift?  Are there broader cultural implications that I’m missing here or is this trend just a function of how sophisticated the category has become?



Fifty Shades: The Movie

So FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James finally hit the big screen this past weekend after what seemed like a million bumps in the road, including losing actors left and right. It made a splash in the box office just as it did in the publishing industry. The movie brought in $94 million its opening weekend: the highest-grossing President’s Day Weekend ever.

But how long will the film industry feel the ripples of this splash? The book was/is an absolute phenomenon. James’s Fifty Shades series has sold an absurd amount of copies—both when it was self-published and after Random House picked it up. Imitators and parodies of the books soon appeared on shelves and e-bookstores. It’s paved the way for other fan fiction and other self-published authors to have a chance to land with a big publisher and/or movie studio.

So will we begin to see more erotica made into films? Given the success of Fifty Shades on opening weekend, it’d be easy to definitively answer yes. However, reading is an intrinsically private experience, which lends itself to fantasy. Watching explicit scenes on a big screen in a room full of people is a different matter entirely. Could Fifty Shades be an exception?

Your guess is as good as mine: What do you think?

P.S. Saw American Sniper this weekend. The movie ended, and everyone walked out silently, somberly. No one said a word. A completely full theater, and not one sound was made. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. What did you think of this movie/book? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this one, too.


Love is an open door

Does the title of this post sound familiar? If you’re a parent of young kids, I’m sure it does–your kids have probably been singing it ad nauseum for months now…

Yep, I’m talking about Frozen. Actually, we’ve been talking about Frozen quite a bit here at DGLM over the past couple of weeks, trying to wrap our head around why it’s such a cultural phenomenon and whether there’s a book in it. Of course, anything that involves The Mouse would be hard to get an insider’s POV, but I’d love to know more about how the story evolved and how they thought about their audience.

Because while Frozen is clearly, even transparently, targeted at girls, boys love it too–just ask the New York Times!  I can personally attest to it as well, with daily requests from my two sons (ages 5 and 3) to “play Frozen music” and an Elsa doll taking her place of honor next to the Star Wars figures and Matchbox cars. And as much as Dad keeps hoping they will “let it go” and start singing something else, I don’t see this obsession ending anytime soon…

Okay, what does this have to do with books? Well, it’s long been a truism in children’s book marketing that girls will read books with boy main characters, but boys will only read about boys. And so while books with boy main characters tend to be marketed with less regard for gender (Harry Potter pops to mind immediately), books with girl mains are often pitched much more directly to girl readers, especially “girly” ones like Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Eloise, etc.

But with that, are the children’s marketeers giving our boys short shrift? My sons love Eloise, Ladybug Girl, and Olivia, who has gotten progressively “girlier” over the years. Granted, I already had these books on the shelf from my editor days, but we’ve also taken Fancy Nancy out of the library at their request. And when I talk to parents of boys in my oldest’s class or check out their bookshelves on play dates, I usually see some evidence of books that aren’t “meant” for their boys.

Now, of course my anecdotal evidence is flimsy at best, but I’m curious, dear readers: if you’re a parent of young boys, do they like books with girl main characters? Do they ever get Frozen-level obsessed? And if so, how do the books get into their hands? It’s a question for me as an agent, too, in terms of how I pitch certain projects–it’d be great to be able to say a girl main character will appeal to boys if there’s a way to back it up. So, please, lemme know!