Category Archives: genre


Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:


150610103412-escaped-ny-convicts-split-richard-matt-david-sweat-super-169  george-clooney-o-brother1

But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?

Characteristics of a great thriller

Publishing is trendy—as in, it’s an industry dominated by trends, like pretty much every other industry. It’s not hard to understand why. Demand for books in a certain genre increases. Publishers acquire more books in said genre. And right now, thriller is that genre.

Thrillers have always sold, but Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL hit the big screen last year and demand for the genre grew. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins enjoyed some serious pre-publication buzz and came out of the gates at a full sprint this January. It’s been at, or near, the top of all bestseller lists since. Renee Knight’s debut, DISCLAIMER, comes out in a week, and it has drawn comparisons to both GONE GIRL and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. And on the eve of the London Book Fair this year, a professor at Oberlin College saw his debut thriller go for 7 figures in a two-book deal!

So clearly thrillers are hot. But what makes them great? What differentiates a top tier thriller from an average one? What do you think? Sound off in the comments.

Oh, and if you think you’ve written a top tier thriller, do send it my way. I wouldn’t hate reading it…


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?



MG vs YA

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. At the opening Agent’s Panel, I gave my usual spiel of what I’m looking for–Adult nonfiction, a smattering of offbeat adult fiction, and the broad range of children’s projects–YA, Middle Grade, and picture books. After that, I settled into my seat in the ballroom for a long stretch of power pitching, where the writers line up for 4-minute pitch meetings one after the other in the hopes of getting a request to see a full MS.

As exhausting as power pitching can be, it does serve to give an agent a good idea of what writers are generally working on these days. Although we often recommend that writers NOT write for the market, it’s natural for writers to turn to what seems to be popular. And hence, I heard a ton of MG pitches, which makes sense, since a ton of editors seem to be focusing on it these days.

But what surprised me about these MG pitches is that a solid majority of them featured a main character who was 13 years old. Which, if you go by the traditional demarcations of MG as ages 8-12 and YA as 12 up, means that they’re really writing YA. At the same time, the stories seemed to be solidly MG–heavy on fantasy and school stories, light on teen issues and racy content.

So what gives? Do these writers not know the basic guidelines? Are they just trying to age down their YA novels for the market? Or has MG become more elastic and less constricted by age distinctions than in the past?

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure, so I was very interested to read this article from PW Children’s Bookshelf, which looks at how bookstores are struggling with how to shelve MG and YA. And from their survey, it seems that stores are making up their own rules–some are keeping YA and MG totally separate, some create overlapping sections of 8-12, 10-14, and 14 up, while others lump them all together. Different strokes for different customer bases, perhaps, but for me it seems like there’s just confusion all round about where books belong on the shelf.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, like a lot of category distinctions in publishing, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear answer. My personal feeling is that despite the shifting winds, a writer seeking representation is still better off adhering to the old guidelines–if your character is 12 or under, it’s MG, 13 and up, YA. Not that I’m trying to take the easy way out here, but the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.  So I’d much prefer an author adhere to what’s been done in the past when starting out and go genre-busting on book 2.

That said, others may have different ideas of what marks MG versus YA these days, so I’d love to know what you’ve been hearing. Are 8-12 and 12 up still recommended? If not, what are folks suggesting as new guidelines?



Life Stories

The other day I was excited to hear that Neil Patrick Harris is publishing a memoir this fall, and told my friend Brian about it. “What?!” Brian yelped. “Already? He’s only 40!” I was a little surprised by this reaction – NPH has been in every corner of showbiz, from TV to film to internet series to Broadway. I’m certainly interested in a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his fascinating and creative life.

But Brian’s response got me thinking about the genre of memoir itself, and whether there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography. For some readers, autobiography and memoir may be synonymous terms for any story of a life that is written by its liver. For others of us, autobiography is based on chronology, while memoir focuses on a theme, experience, or period. For example, Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles is a hilarious and moving account of his upbringing and early career, peppered with anecdotes about his best friends Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson – yes, that Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. I think of this as autobiography because of the linear narrative. In contrast, Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi is both a Hollywood gossip-fest and a moving account of struggling with an eating disorder. And Cheryl Strayed’s Wild relates the months she spent hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which turned into a powerful way to process and grieve her mother’s death. The latter two might not tell a full story of their authors’ lives – and those authors might not have as prominent a place in history – but they are still worth reading for their candor and introspection.

Whether you call it autobiography or memoir, many readers can’t resist the lure of a true story well-told. Keeping the nuances in mind might help you as you structure your own personal story or refine your narrative non-fiction projects.  (But I will tell Brain to cut NPH some slack considering that Justin Bieber has published TWO memoirs. At the age of 20, he’s not even old enough to enjoy a writerly glass of whiskey while he writes his third!)

Do you distinguish between autobiography and memoir? Whose yet-to-be-written memoir would you be most excited to read? What true stories do you recommend?





Something “new” for me

This piece from last week’s  New York Times attracted my attention and although I totally disagree with the notion that just because the facts concerning a non-fiction book have changed since its original publication, its content should be arbitrarily updated, it did make me think about non-fiction in general.

For many years, most of what I represented was non-fiction and then recently and very deliberately (and because I truly love it) I have been concentrating on fiction, all kinds of fiction – commercial and literary – and have had great success with indie authors and more traditional types.  But my yen for good narrative non-fiction is still very strong and I would love to see some new ideas.

Of course, as you all know, in this category the author needs to have a solid platform and the credentials necessary to write authoritatively on a subject – these things have become increasingly important. And there has to be a great story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. With those elements, I would love to consider some compelling new nonfiction in the areas of science, history, biography, politics, and business.

I hope that some of you reading this blog will keep this in mind, send me your work, and spread the word.


These have been an extraordinary couple of weeks. My home town is still without power in the wake of hurricane Sandy, and my kids are still out of school, making today’s “snow day” a redundancy for my little truants.

Cold and dark as my house may be, I’m among the fortunate—the devastation that Hurricane Sandy has wrought is heartbreaking.  My own family’s “indoor camping” adventure lasted only as long as the relatively mild weather.  When the mercury plummeted, we left for warmer, brighter lodging with family and friends.   My experience of reading by candlelight (charming for the first ten minutes, headache inducing thereafter) has filled me with new-found respect for Abe Lincoln, and most everyone who lived before the advent of electricity.

My older son has missed nearly two weeks of school, so what he sees as astonishing, magical good luck has become a source of increasing consternation to me.  I’ve been cobbling together lessons of my own, which are effective only as much as they increase my appreciation for teachers, who probably do not use m&ms to teach arithmetic.

I’ve been doing lots of reading aloud, which is fun, and also looking for books suitable for my six year old to attempt on his own. We’re not in our own home, so “on level” storybooks are few and far between. Still, when I’m not reading books, drafting worksheets, or monitoring the utility company’s “three day plan” (now in its 9th day) I’ve been thinking about post-apocalyptic fiction–environmental devastation, fuel shortages, breakdown of civil society, etc.   Disasters, even those for which we prepare, are fearsome reminders that dark imaginings we channel into fiction are not entirely fanciful.

Post- apocalyptic/dystopian fiction is not a genre in which I have read widely or recently;  I can think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Books,  a novel from some 15 years ago called Into the Forest by Jean Hegland, in which civilization just sort of petered out, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, David Brin’s The Postman ( I think I read this in high school, ditto classics like Farenheit 451 and 1984)  I realize this is woefully incomplete: what other books should I add?




The other night I had dinner with New York Post columnist Cindy Adams and  I told her that I am always having trouble deciding what to write about in my bi-weekly blog entries and I couldn’t imagine how she came up with at least one interesting and fresh idea every day.  Then, she described the column she had to do for later in the week asking people how they would spend their time if they could do anything they wanted.

So, (and this is related to the post I did two weeks ago) it got me wondering what writers wish they could write if they weren’t writing what they currently do?  Would they switch from fiction to non-fiction?  Would they go from adult mysteries to children’s picture books?  Would they go from cookbooks to memoirs?

So I am putting the question out there.  If you could write something different than what you  currently write, what would that be?


Typecasting – good or bad?

So last Thursday I read this interesting  piece  in The Wall Street Journal and it got me to thinking (again) about whether being slotted into a category is a good or bad thing.

I say “again” because long ago when I was the publisher of World Almanac Publications and my employer wanted to branch out into areas far from our popular reference book line, I went to the book buyers – Dalton, Walden, and Ingram – and asked them their opinion.  Every one of them opined adamantly that no matter how good these proposed books might be, they wouldn’t buy them from us.  We were the publishers of popular reference books, they said, and that is the way it was going to stay, as far as they were concerned.  Ultimately, the decision was made by my colleagues to go ahead with the new products.  Knowing what would surely happen, I left the company and became an agent, and that publishing program ultimately failed miserably.

So, what about someone like J.K. Rowling and her foray away from the Harry Potter world into the adult nonfiction category?  Notwithstanding the success of The Casual Vacancy, should she have taken this chance?  And if the book doesn’t sell up to expectations, what will that mean to her career?

Many of my talented self-published clients ask this same question.  They understandably want the ability to publish in more than one category, but the question is, always, will their readers, their fans, “follow” them?  I often find myself advising that an author should build up his/her sales in one category, become a best seller and then do whatever s/he wants.

A terrific example of this is Mitch Albom. Michael Crichton is another author who mixed it up in his bestselling novels. And what about all of the thriller writers recently who have found their way into the children’s category?

So, I am curious as to what you think.  Should an author, bestselling or not, publish in more than one category or would they be better served by “sticking to their knitting”?



One of the greatest things that publishing has done for me (besides pay my rent, for which my landlord is surely grateful!) is broaden my horizons dramatically.  As the DGLM old guard will surely attest, I showed up here as a huge snob, albeit a snob without much love for the classics.  This meant, as you might imagine, there wasn’t much variety in the books that I enjoyed.  Much of the advice I received when I started here was along the lines of “Get over yourself” because of my great wiser-than-thou proclamations on what was just not good enough for me.  It’s actually a testament to his restraint that Jim has never punched me in the face, actually.  I was insufferable.


But more than that, I was wrong.  Holding books to a high standard is important, and I still do it, but it took me a while to recognize that books don’t all have to serve the same purpose to be worthy.  Now I’m lucky that when I found myself in Barnes & Noble yesterday, where I’d gone for a magazine but needed to buy a book to hold to my 2012 rule about not walking out of any bookstore without a new book in my bag, I felt like I had all the choices in the world.  Ultimately I was weighing my options between a book of critical cultural essays and young adult historical fiction—a debate that took me about 7 minutes of standing thoughtfully near an escalator, deciding whether to go up or down a floor.  But I could just as easily picked up a new paranormal romance or thriller, or a sports book or political polemic.  That’s the great thing about books—whatever experience you’re looking for, there’s always different book to turn to.


Working in publishing, particularly as an agent, I find I sometimes forget that not all readers read this way.  When selecting a book for the book club I started with friends, several people decided to bow out based on the choice, because it’s not their kind of thing.  It startled me to realize that I’m not the kind of person who’d feel that way anymore—if it wasn’t my kind of thing, I’d want the social pressure to read it and experience something new.  I might still have my tastes and preferences, but I’m now someone who is always willing to give a book a shot.


What about you?  Do you stick to what you know you love (because, frankly, whatever the category you’re unlikely to run out of books!) or branch out?  Do you love books across genres and categories or prefer to stick to one or two?  And if you’re a writer, how do you think the diversity or lack thereof in what you read impacts your writing?