Category Archives: John

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No more “boy books”

When I first started agenting, I naturally put out a call for submissions. Through my bio and personal essay on this site, and through interviews and postings on other sites and in print, I told anyone who would listen that I was looking for “boy books,” or that I was known as a “boy book” kind of guy. At the time, it seemed to make sense based on much of what I’d edited at Penguin, and also as a way to differentiate myself from my colleagues here at DGLM. And it worked, in that I quickly built up a client list, most of whom were male and writing about male characters in their fiction.

However, over time, I started to chafe at my self-assigned “boy book” label. For one, I realized that while I might gravitate toward what’s considered “boy book” territory, especially in nonfiction, my personal reading is chock full of books that might be called “girl books”—most YA, for example, as well as some popular fiction and even nonfiction. (I loved WILD, after all.) Moreover, one of my proudest achievements as an editor was working on Padma Venkatraman’s CLIMBING THE STAIRS, which would certainly get labeled a “girl book”—in other words, I had a track record working on “girl books,” so why give that up as an agent? Plus, I discovered that I was limiting the kinds of submissions I was getting, quite severely at times, which is certainly problematic for my bottom line.

So, last year I revamped my bio and essay and took out the “boy book” designation. But while I had practical reasons for trying to shy away from the “boy book” label, I never really thought about it in political or moral terms. So it was pretty staggering to read this recent blog post by bestelling author Shannon Hale, and how “boy/girl” labeling has affected her school visits. On first glance, it seems ludicrous that school administers would only excuse girls from class to hear her talk, yet I can understand the thinking: “Well, her books feature girl protagonists, and we know boys won’t read those kind of books, so why should they skip class for a talk where we know they’ll be bored and won’t learn anything?”

Now, while I can understand the thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Hale correctly points out that the expectation that boys won’t like books featuring girl characters is so deeply rooted in the educational system that for boys a book like THE HUNGER GAMES has to be qualified: “Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.” And by denying the encouragement of boys to read girl characters, and the shaming of them when they do, Hale makes a valid argument that this leads to the rape culture that is far too prevalent, particularly at the college level these days.

So—no more “boy books” for me. Or “girl books.” Instead, just great books, featuring interesting, original, engaging characters. Hopefully this post will supersede any “boy book” info linked to me in searches, and if it does, I’d love for writers to take a look at Hale’s post and reconsider how they might label their work. Obviously, the effort to get past boy/girl labels will involve heavy lifting on the part of educators, parents, and publishers, who are certainly culpable for perpetuating the gendered reading divide. But if authors can shift how they view their own work, that’s a major step toward helping the boy who was too embarrassed to hear Hale talk because he would have needed special permission to miss class.

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Go read a watchman?

Well, since none of my colleagues have blogged about it yet, I figured I’d bring up the big publishing news of the week…

And while far be it from me to turn down an obvious blog topic, I’m probably not the best person to write this, because, to tell the truth, I can barely remember TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I know I read it in school, and I also know I saw the movie at some point, but any memories are associated with Gregory Peck in that grey suit of his. It’s probably the cynic in me, but of all the school classics, CATCHER IN THE RYE stuck a lot more than MOCKINGBIRD.

But of course, the news of a new novel from Harper Lee is big news. And while there’s a lot of good-hearted excitement for GO SET A WATCHMAN, like a number of writers, I feel kinda weirded out by the whole situation. For one, despite the claims that WATCHMAN was started before MOCKINGBIRD, it’s still basically a sequel, and of all the books that need a sequel, MOCKINGBIRD would be one of the last I’d think of. And while I’m certainly not in the camp that thinks MOCKINGBIRD is untouchable either, (I wouldn’t be much of an agent if I did!) it’s just strange that in an age where everything gets a sequel and spun off and branded that MOCKINGBIRD suddenly has a companion piece.

Then there’s the nagging feeling that somehow this wasn’t the big surprise everyone claims it is. After all, Harper Lee has been in the news plenty in the last ten years or so, for better or worse keeping her name in the public eye. And again, it’s probably the cynic in me, but even with the reports of Lee’s infirmity, on the heels of her prior press I just can’t help feeling that a publicist couldn’t have played this much better–certainly everyone is going to read the new book, right?

Or are they? Are YOU? I’d love to hear what you think of the whole situation, what MOCKINGBIRD did or didn’t mean to you, and whether you’re excited to read WATCHMAN.

 

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Breakfast reading

When I was a kid, breakfast was a family affair, but a mostly silent one. Every weekday morning, my parents would read the New York Times, while my sister Jane and I stared bleary-eyed at the box of cereal between us on the table. At some point, though, we kids started to read on our own, and I distinctly remember a period of reading chapter books and novels over my Cheerios—Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice comes to mind, as do the Basil of Baker Street mysteries by Eve Titus. By high school, Jane and I moved on to the Times as well, and so the quiet was only occasionally interrupted by someone asking for a different section of the paper, which suited me fine—to this day, I’m hardly what you would call a Morning Person…

Now, for the past six years, breakfast at our house has been much more rambunctious, thanks both to my wife Julia’s early riser tendencies and the two motor-mouth sons I somehow ended up with. But while I can’t get away with hiding behind the paper, we mostly keep the peace by reading picture books and early readers aloud to the boys. Not a bad solution, but hardly ideal for a morning grump like me.

And so, imagine my excitement when I was able to snap this picture at the breakfast table last week: 

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Yep, that’s my son reading Harry Potter on his own. To himself. In silence!

Aside from the obvious parental pride here, plus my hope that breakfast reading helps develop his reading skills, I can’t tell you how nice it is to have the morning noise cut in half. I’ve even been able to sneak a peek at the paper once or twice while Julia reads to our younger boy! That said, I know the day of full independent breakfast reading is about three years off, but I can see the finish line in the distance…

Anyway, I’m curious—do other families read over breakfast like this? And if so, is it a conscious family activity or one born from a need to quiet down a noisy horde of morning people?

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Gonzo innovation

Anyone else out there excited for football this Sunday? Sure, I wish the Giants were playing, but we all knew that wasn’t going to happen this year. However, I’m pleased to have legitimate rooting interests in both games. One of my college roommates grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, right next to Green Bay, so when the Giants are out, I’m willing to get on the Packer bandwagon. And in the AFC, I just root for whoever’s playing against the Patriots, of course…

Anyway, in reading up on the match-ups this weekend, especially Packers/Seahawks, I stumbled on this article, which, despite the title, talks about how basketball, baseball, and football are going to see some wildly inventive coaching in the next few years, spurred on by advances in statistics and Moneyball-style analysis. A lot of food for thought here, especially if the Patriots make it past the Colts—as much as I hate Belichick, the man is nothing if not inventive. The trick he pulled last week with the four O-line set seems like “gonzo” coaching personified.

Meanwhile, I had drinks last night with a client who was in town for the Digital Book World conference, which focused heavily on data and statistics. And from his description of the presentations, I think there might be a parallel to what’s going on in sports. After all, both sports and publishing at some level start with talent. And then the team/publishing house develops the talent of the athlete/writer, which these days typically involves data analysis, in order to generate wins/book sales.

So, does that mean we’re in for some gonzo innovation on the publishing side? Well, time will tell, though one could argue the PRH merger was pretty gonzo in its audacity. I’ll certainly be watching to see if publishers start pulling some Belichick-style stunts in the coming months—or not, especially if Tom Brady loses yet another Super Bowl. One can only hope…

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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!

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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…