Category Archives: John

1

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…

 

7

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?

 

1

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…

4

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…

2

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!

 

1

When all else fails…

So, it’s Tuesday night, you’ve totally blown past your deadline for posting to the blog, you’re completely blocked, and nothing on-line gives you any substantial ideas. What do you do?

 You do this:

2014-05-06-ColbyProcyk1

You’re welcome.

P.S. Now that you’ve wiped your eyes, get out another Kleenex and check out the accompanying article about how an animal rescue center has kids read to stray cats to help the cats get socialized for adoption, and how it helps kids become better readers, too. How warm is your heart now?

P.P.S. Interestingly, the program is based in Berks County, PA, which has a storied literary pedigree: John O’Hara, Wallace Stevens and John Updike all came from towns in Berks County. And it must be noted that the hub of Berks County is the city of Reading–okay, it’s pronounced “Redding,” but still…

0

A long time coming

One of the many things I love about book publishing is that the life of a book can be much longer than one might think. Generally speaking, from a publisher’s point of view a book’s “life” runs about three years–that’s when the business office usually runs their final post-mortem on a book’s performance. Yet even three years down the line (or more), things happen that can boost a book’s sales and give it new life on the shelf, and those surprises are gratifying in so many ways.

Case in point: When I was an editor at Putnam, I had the great pleasure to debut Royce Buckingham, whose DEMONKEEPER made a nice little splash in MG circles. However, it wasn’t as big as Putnam hoped, and his next novel didn’t do so well, either. So when it came time for Book 3, Royce and I felt he had to try something different. Thus, he came up with THE DEAD BOYS, which was much darker and scarier than his previous books, but in my opinion, the best thing he’d written by far.

As you might have guessed, THE DEAD BOYS totally tanked, despite some good reviews. But then some funny things happened: first, DEMONKEEPER became a huge hit in Germany, to the point that his German publishers asked him to write sequels in English solely for translation into German. It’s hard to quantify how much this helped raise Royce’s profile stateside, but it certainly didn’t hurt!

And then, THE DEAD BOYS quietly chugged along, particularly in Royce’s home state of Washington, where he does his share of school visits and other local promotion. The result? THE DEAD BOYS just won the Washington State 2014 Sasquatch Award, for which it was nominated by local librarians and voted on by kids across the state–four years after it was first published!

So, great news for THE DEAD BOYS–validation for a book that should have been “dead” by now, and I’m sure it will be followed by the sales boost that accompanies state awards. But more to the point, it’s just one of the many examples of a book whose life was extended beyond expectations, and I feel like it’s good for authors to keep these stories in mind when faced with dwindling royalty reports or out-of-print notices. You just never know–especially if you put in the work!

0

Illustrators at Dystel.com

In case you haven’t seen it yet, I wanted to use my blog time today to alert readers to a new feature on our website: illustration samples!

Over the past few years, we’ve added a good number of author/illustrators to our list. And so we thought it would be useful to have a single page where readers could see samples of our clients’ work without having to click over to a slew of personal websites. (Though of course we encourage that, too!)

Hence, please check out our DGLM author/illustrators, either from the menu on the right or directly at http://www.dystel.com/illustration-samples/. You’ll find a wonderful breadth of styles and techniques here, not to mention a whole lot of cuteness!

2

One-on-ones

Readers, I would love to get your feedback on this one: What do you think is the most productive format for one-on-one meetings at a writer’s conference? I ask, of course, because I attended a conference this past weekend, where I spent most of my time in one-on-one meetings with authors.

Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of configurations: one-on-ones and roundtables; 5-minute slots, 10, 15, and so on; MSS in advance, no prep, 10 pages, and so on again. This time out, the meetings were half an hour, and we were sent 40 pages in advance. And as much as I hate to say it, on the whole I don’t think they were particularly productive.

40 pages is a funny length–much longer than what an author would probably send on submission, yet not really enough to give a full snapshot of a MS–while half an hour is a ton of time to talk. And with that, it seemed like the chattier authors got bogged down in a lot of details and small points, with not enough time to discuss the big picture, while at the same time, the sessions for those who sat back and listened tended to run way short, even with some question time at the end.

So, unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day, and I worry that I didn’t give the authors the help they were looking for. However, the organizers are asking for feedback for next year, so I’d love to hear what works best for you and try to change things up–any thoughts?

1

Write where you know

“Write what you know” is probably the most contested piece of writerly advice out there. Yes, writing what you know gives you authority and a personal approach; no, writing should be about discovery and taking readers to a new place.

So I was intrigued by a profile of the novelist Chris Pavone from yesterday’s Times , which highlights how his new thriller is set in the publishing world, a world that, according to the article, is a rare setting for a novel, especially a thriller, because it’s “too cerebral, too dominated by meetings, too absorbed by reading manuscripts and filling out profit-and-loss reports to make riveting fiction.”

Now, Pavone’s justification for such an ostensibly boring setting is that, “Any setting can be a good setting for a novel.” But in reality, it’s a classic case of write what you know, since Pavone served as a longtime nonfiction editor at Clarkson Potter. And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that–clearly Pavone’s book focuses on the classic thriller tropes of action and suspense, rather than the drudgery of acquisition paperwork!

But it did get me wondering about setting in general, and whether it’s more constructive to place a story in a world with which you’re deeply familiar, or whether an exotic locale or industry is more helpful, especially for thrillers, as the article suggests. Personally, I’m not really sure–I’m usually drawn to thrillers that avoid NYC or DC as a home base, but then again, so many thrillers set abroad follow the same old trajectory of a former agent in exile forced back into action.

Where do you fall on the divide? Set the book in a world you know, or a world you don’t? And how does familiarity with the setting (or lack thereof) inform your plot?