Category Archives: John

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Who will write the revolution?

Like most New Yorkers, I was shocked by yesterday’s grand jury ruling in the Eric Garner case. I only wish I wasn’t on babysitting duty last night and could have joined the protest that marched up the Upper West Side past our apartment–instead, I watched on TV with the roaring drone of helicopters flying low overhead our building. Creepy, to say the least, though it was a relief to see this morning that the protests were mostly peaceful and that the cops didn’t lose their cool.

But as I read the paper and tried to wrap my head around how the grand jury could possibly have let Pantaleo off when the video evidence seemed so crystal clear, it got me thinking both about the power of narrative and the role of books in other protest movements. Bear with me here, but I’d argue that when political and social change arises, especially here in America, books often play a prominent role, if not a central one–off the top of my head, I’m thinking of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, THE JUNGLE, SILENT SPRING, even up through ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

And while, true, these examples come from a time when people didn’t have information available the way they do now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the emotional connection people felt to these narrative and the characters therein ran far deeper than simple exposure to unknown atrocities. Particularly in a case like this, one power of fiction is to make sense of the world when our eyes tell us that something very wrong just happened, and yet we’re at a loss with how to deal with it or effect change.

So, as we struggle to deal with the Garner decision, I wonder if the power of a book-length narrative could help pave the way for the much-needed police reform. Whether it’s a fictionalized insider look at the NYPD or a novel from a victim’s perspective, maybe we need that emotional response to a book in order to help move us forward. So hey, if there are any writers out there who feel the revolution will not be televised but written, I’d love to hear from you…

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When publishers compete–or not?

No, I’m not blogging about the highly competitive (hah!) Publishers Softball League, though I do have many happy memories of cutting out early summer afternoons to play left field for the Penguin Penguins, only to get our butts kicked by the NY Times and Time Magazine. Who routinely stocked their teams with ringers, by the way–so much for journalistic integrity!

Instead, I wanted to point you to our friend Mike Shatzkin’s recent blogpost about subscription services, and how Penguin Random House has opted out of the game. Mike makes a convincing argument that PRH is making a mistake here, but what really struck me more than anything else was his opening statement:

“I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town… contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors.”

Indeed, with all the consternation over Amazon, the notion that publishers might actually try to compete against each other for market share seems beside the point. And according to Mike, it seems like PRH is avoiding opportunities for competition, whether by wrongheadedness or design. I’d add, too, that from my agent’s perspective, it feels like PRH is NOT flexing its muscles, whether by limiting submissions or demanding contract concessions. Rather, it feels like they’ve gone out of their way to stress that the merger hasn’t affected business as usual, nor will it in the future.

But how long can that last? Especially now that Amazon and Hachette have come to terms, I would certainly expect PRH to be under more scrutiny. Mike suspects that a competitive move in kid’s ebook subscriptions is coming is coming down the pike, though that seems fairly minor to me. But I’ll be very curious to see in the new year if at some point PRH takes over from Amazon as the publishing industry villain–or at least competes for the title.

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Could be worse (if you’re a songwriter)

Evidently, it’s music appreciation week here at DGLM–believe it or not, I actually had this music-themed blog post in the works Wednesday morning before I saw Miriam’s post. But rather than scrap it, I think it dovetails with Miriam’s question about lyrics and books, so here we go:

As book publishing is considered a media industry, you’ll often hear comparisons drawn between the book business, the music business, and the film industry. And you’ll often hear about the common problems they share–declining sales, disappearing retail outlets, fragmented audience, technological challenges, and so on. But as much as people carp about the state of book publishing, I think it’s always good to remember that when you compare books to other media–especially the music biz–things could be worse. A lot worse.

And to that point, I wanted to share this post from Wired by the musician Aloe Blacc yesterday morning, where he points out the criminally small royalty that songwriters are paid by streaming music services like Spotify and Pandora. The idea that Blacc has earned less than $4,000 for a song that has been streamed 168 million times seems crazy. Yet on the whole, the complaints about royalties for streaming services have been fairly muted–as Blacc notes, streaming provides more exposure for listeners than ever before, and it seems like artists to this point have been willing to trade earnings for that exposure.

Now, compare those muted complaints to the noise surrounding Amazon vs Hachette. With all the hue and cry about Amazon screwing authors and publishers, one might assume they’re being ripped off as badly as Blacc–and of course, it’s nothing even remotely close to that bad, partially thanks to the agents who established standard eBook royalty rates early on. But credit also goes to publishers for defending their author’s right to earn–a right that has never been recognized properly by the big music companies who’ve been screwing artists out of royalties since the beginning of the industry. And as much as I hate to admit it, credit goes to Amazon when it comes to self-pubbed authors, for whom a loose analogy can be drawn to indie musicians on services like Soundcloud and Bandcamp–again, Amazon is making indie authors millionaires, Soundcloud not so much.

So while our business has its problems, and while writers have legitimate complaints about earning power, take heart–apparently it’s better to be even a struggling writer than a famous songwriter. Though movie stars seem to have it pretty good…

 

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Author blogging

Yesterday morning, I met up with one of my clients, Shandy Lawson, for a general catch-up meeting. One of the items on the agenda was Fiction Locker, a website he started to encourage young writers. I’ll get my shameless plug over with right now—it’s a great site, with plenty of writing options for those over 19 as well, so please check it out!

And actually, shameless plugging dovetails nicely with a little piece I saw today via Facebook from The Book Designer about the 5 Marketing Mistakes That Beginning Fiction Writers Make. In particular, I was struck by Number 3, Maintaining a Blog to Attract New Readers. It seems like obvious advice, but with Twitter and Facebook, I sometimes feel like the good old fashioned blog gets overlooked. And Jason makes a good point that the key to successful blogging is to provide quality material that connects with the right people, i.e., people who would then buy your book.

At the same time, Jason rightly cautions against using your blog as pure promotion, (or shameless plugging—he got me there!) which brings us back to Fiction Locker. Now, I know Shandy has a genuine interest in encouraging young writers, and the focus of Fiction Locker is squarely on helping teens find their voice. But at the same time, Shandy and other contributors are YA authors… and if readers want to check out their books, great!

In other words, here’s a good example of a blog that delivers meaningful content to the right people. But I’d love to know—are there other author blogs out there that you think do a good job of connecting?

What I’m looking for now (2014 edition)

The mornings are getting chilly, the leaves are changing, and we just stocked up on pumpkin chai mix at Trader Joe’s—fall must be here! And with the autumn, it’s time for my somwhat annual wish list. If anyone’s writing and/or illustrating in the following categories, I’d love to see your work. And please note a few small but significant changes from the last time I put my wish list out there:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Our list of author/illustrators has continued to grow by leaps and bounds here at DLGM. (please revel in our illustration samples if you haven’t seen them yet!) But I’m still very much on the hunt for artists and illustrators who can write. So if you’ve got a great story, a cool concept, or a fantastic character paired with spectacular, professional-level artwork, I’d LOVE to see it.  And if you’re submitting art, a PDF that’s 5MB or less would be ideal.

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: Last year, I noted that editors seem hungry for MG in all forms, and a year later that hunger has only grown. I hear more requests now for MG, even from longtime YA editors, than I ever have before. That said, I think editors still aren’t quite sure what they want out of MG, but whether it’s realistic or genre, loud or quiet, funny or serious—whatever it is, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Similar to MG, the call for realistic YA, which started to be heard last year, has only grown louder in 2014. And that’s always been my sweet-spot for YA, too, though I’m always a fan of an original genre piece (“original” being the key word), be it historical, fantasy, or sci-fi. But mostly, I’d love to see realistic stories, and I’d love to see stories with both male and female protagonists. I know I’m the self-declared “boy book” guy here, but in looking at my list, about half my YA authors write female main characters, so please think of me for “girl” books, too!

CHILDREN’S NONFICTION: Here’s a new one for me. About a year ago, I started hearing from children’s editors that they were looking for nonfiction, and not just at the picture book level.  Partly, that’s due to Common Core reading standards, but I also think that ALA has been more interested in nonfiction recently, and as we know, awards stickers sell books. So if you’ve got a good nonfiction idea for any children’s category, please send it my way—and that includes picture book MSS, which I typically don’t take unless they’re from artists.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   I’ve used this line for a few years now, but it’s a good one, so I’m sticking to it: “If there’s an amazing book-length true story out there, I want to hear it. History, memoir, sports, music, immersion journalism, popular science, health, animals, military history, politics—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” In particular, though, I’d love to do some more sports and music—I think there are holes in both marketplaces here.

ADULT FICTION: I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past year. As with YA, while I’ve often declared myself the “boy book” guy, I’ve realized that my tastes aren’t really exclusive to boy books. And in fact, some of the books I’ve loved most this year were clearly targeted to a female readership. So I’d like to take a step back from the manly side of things and just say that I’m looking for fiction that tells a good story. More than anything, I’ve realized that regardless of the audience, good plotting and momentum are what really get me going—to take an obvious example, I’ve finally gotten around to GONE GIRL, and I am totally sleep-deprived this week from staying up to see what happens next. So with that, I’ll repeat a little of what I said last year: I’m looking for “high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they literary, commercial, thrillers, suspense, horror, what have you.” And to that I’ll add strong plotting with male or female characters as well.

Thanks so much for taking a look, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!

1

The name game

There’s nothing quite like starting off a new season with a book sale, particularly in Autumn, when the summer’s lethargy fades and it feels like everyone in publishing is back on the hunt for new work. And happily enough, I was able to place a middle grade novel that I absolutely loved, made even more gratifying by the fact that, full disclosure, it took quite a while to find its home. But back-patting aside, I wanted to share this story because it speaks to the importance of a really good title.

So, the first time I sent the novel around, it had what I thought was a snappy title—two words that rhymed, which seemed quirky and fun, plus it came from a line in the book, which is always a good thing. Yet, on the first round, despite some enthusiastic reports and near misses, we didn’t end up with a sale. And after enough passes, for which a lot of editors said the same thing, the author and I decided to table the novel for now and work on something new.

But then, a few months after we put it aside, the author came back to me and asked if we could try again with a new title. He just had a feeling that the original title wasn’t quite representing the substance and tenor of the book. Instead, he suggested a three-word phrase that was much more literary and ambiguous, though still taken from a line in the book. So, we gave it another shot, and lo and behold, the offer came in about a month later!

Now, there could certainly be many other variables here at play—the timing of the submission, not finding the right editor until late in the game, the holes in the editor’s list, etc. But I do think that the new title reframed readers’ expectations about what was inside and put them in a different mindset when reading it. Yes, titles can be a struggle, and since publishers almost always contractually control the title, the struggle can seem counterproductive at times. But I hope this story shows how important it is to find a title that truly reflects the book—and at the same time, if the title isn’t quite working but the content’s there, a title change just might be what the doctor ordered…

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Outlaw Pete

With the Labor Day weekend nearly upon us, I feel like the only books people are thinking about are which ones to take to the beach. But I did see this bit of book news on the Times site, and of course it made me sit up and take notice. Yes, the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, is diving into the picture book game, joining the ranks of many of his fellow dinosaur rockers. (Hey, that sounds like a picture book, too!)  Of course, “diving in” may be stretching it, since it sounds like Bruce pretty much just handed the lyrics to an illustrator, which is how these things usually go—though I do have dreams of Bruce waking up one morning and saying, ‘Gee I’d love to go to ALA this summer and pitch my book to all the teachers and librarians…”

What’s really weird about this one, though, and why it probably hasn’t been bigger news, is that the book is going to be published by the adult division. Which makes sense once you give the lyrics a read—yes, it begins with a cute image of a baby outlaw, but from there we get into guns, blood, death, knives, and a 25-year-old main character meditating on mortality and redemption. I’m not sure even Maurice Sendak could get away with all that!

So I’ll be curious to see how it plays out, but early signs aren’t encouraging. The cover image makes it look like a typical picture book, playing up the cute baby outlaw for kids who love cowboys, which seems like a bait-and-switch. Now, maybe it will be a wonderful book that will appeal to both adults and kids, and I’ll certainly reserve full judgment until it comes out. But on first glance, it does seem like the most cynical kind of celebrity/children’s publishing—let’s hope The Boss takes charge and gets it to that place where we really want it to go. And then we’ll walk in the sun…

 

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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?

 

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Live Amazon-free or die

Perhaps it’s leftover patriotism from the World Cup, or that the calendar makes for a real three-day weekend this year, but it feels like the 4th is generating an extra dose of excitement and patriotic good will this year. Or maybe it’s just MY excitement for getting out of the sweltering city for a few days. Either way, I can’t wait for a weekend of beaches, BBQs, and family time—maybe we’ll even sing patriotic songs in the car…

So, in the spirit of freedom and rejection of tyranny that the 4th celebrates, I thought I’d quickly share this article from the Times  about Edan Lepucki’s California,  which I’m sure you’ve been hearing about. But the article is a nice summary of what’s been going on, especially for those of us who can’t stay up for the Colbert Report anymore. And maybe I’m stretching, but perhaps there’s a timely holiday parallel here, in how the current revolt against Amazon, through grassroots support, hard work, luck, and media savvy, created a bestseller. Heck, all we need is the French to jump on board, and we’ll have a good old fashioned American revolution!

Anyway, have a very happy 4th of July everyone. And if you do any book shopping this weekend, keep it local…

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Good music

With apologies to Miriam for shamelessly ripping off her recent blogmy life has revolved around two things recently: work and music. As some of you might know, I used to sing and play guitar in a few bands back in the day, and I spent a couple of summers as a camp music counselor as well. Even majored in music in college, though I think that says more about my school’s lax curriculum than my musical abilities…

Anyway, my musical endeavors these days consist of screwing around on Garageband and playing for two boys who occasionally tolerate Daddy singing weird songs about bowling skinheads and some guy named Alex Chilton. But back in in December, a choice guest spot backing up the Manhattan School for Children’s winter hootenanny rekindled the performance itch, and so tomorrow I’ve got my first real gig in years–I’m playing 4 songs for my oldest’s kindergarten class. Needles to say, I’m terrified!

Okay, what does any of this have to do with books? Well, as I’ve written before, I do love rock bios and other books about music, and I’ve had the good fortune to place a few music-related titles as well. But it’s a tough market, especially for anything not written by or about an aging 60′s rock star. Yes, books about punk, jazz, classical, even hip-hop occasionally end up on the Big Six’s lists, but it’s hard to think of many that have broken out in recent years the way Keith Richard’s LIFE did–the numbers for PLEASE KILL ME, OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE or THE BIG PAYBACK pale in comparison.

So, like non-baseball sports books, is this a case of publishers not knowing or reaching their audience, or are 60s fans the only ones who buy books en masse? Of course the 60s inspire a lot of writers, but to the exclusion of other eras? Does gender play a role? Or is it simply that the music book category is so small that it takes a major celebrity to sell a book in serious numbers?

Well, I’d love to hear thoughts, because I do want to sign more music books across the board. What kinds of music books do you read and why? Are there any subjects, genres, or people you want to read about? What are your all-time favorites?

And if anyone wants to send good vibes my way tomorrow around 8:30 a.m., I’ll take them! I hear these kids today can be a pretty tough crowd…