Category Archives: John

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Libraries and Discoverability

Where do readers find out about new books?

It’s one of the questions every publisher asks itself over and over–perhaps even every time they release a new book. And on that topic, there was an interesting article in PW this week by branding guru David Vinjamuri about how libraries should be utilized to promote new titles. Vinjamuri makes some fascinating points here, especially when he correctly show how libraries do not cannibalize bookstore sales, which is unfortunately a truism that children’s book publishers have railed against with their corporate overlords for years. I was also impressed by his analysis of how important physical space is for discoverability, and how the shrinking of physical display space through store closings has affected sales—though it’s a little depressing that one takeaway here is how much people really do judge books by their cover!

Now, one can certainly debate Vinjamuri’s ultimate conclusion that publishers should work with libraries to replace bookstores as a means for finding new books. Myself, I wonder if a cynical attempt to promote through libraries might backfire, and backfire badly, as I think most people at some level go to libraries to escape commerce. I also know from years spent talking to librarians at ALA that they tend to guard their independence rather fiercely, and it’s hard to see them getting into the pay-to-play games of co-op advertising and display space.

But on the other hand, it’s great to see someone suggesting a new approach to book promotion. As I’ve written before here on the blog, with all the sales data available now, I wonder if we’re going to see more inventive ways of publishing and promoting books. While marketing through libraries may not be the best way to go, the fact that marketing types are thinking this way could lead to some rather interesting new book campaigns in the coming months and years.

Okay, enough speculation. Let’s get back to the question at hand—where do YOU (as a reader) find out about new books? And if libraries are one of the places, do you think publishers should market through them?

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Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

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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…