Category Archives: Michael

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I don’t know a book from countdown

People who know me well know that I’m a bit taken with David Bowie. The obsession began sometime in college, and hasn’t really let up. I’ve seen him live more times than any other act, and I was over the (serious) moon when I got to see the David Bowie Is exhibit at the V&A Museum in London earlier this year (thank you, Molly Ker Hawn!). And since my clients and co-workers know me so well, several of you forwarded me this piece about David Bowie’s Top 100 Must-Read Books. The list contains some pretty obvious choices for anyone familiar with the man and his work: Orwell makes three appearances (Diamond Dogs!), A Clockwork Orange is there, and The InfernoLolita, and On the Road. But I was especially tickled that the list also includes a few of my favorite books, including The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, The Great GatsbyThe Iliad and A People’s History of the United States. Though none of those books should be particularly surprising, considering his oeuvre, it’s always a pleasure to see what inspires one of your greatest artists.
I also now have my work cut out for me, as I haven’t even read half this list. If only I had the time to drop everything and get to reading!
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71% of people make an odd decision

I think I’m a bit of an anomaly in the book world, and I don’t even mean publishing, but the larger group of people known as “readers.” I was surprised to read that 71% of travelers at Heathrow said they’d prefer to bring a physical book on vacation. Which leads me to confess: I almost never buy print books. That isn’t to say my apartment isn’t overflowing with them. In fact, I have more than I know what to do with, but this may stem from my compulsive need to have each of my authors’ books in my home. And then there are my favorite books, which take up another bookshelf. And I do have a bit of an addiction to coffee table books; if I see a museum show and like it, I must have the accompanying book (which I do look at, despite what my partner thinks). But for novels and general nonfiction, I turn to my tablet, where I buy books from all the major retailers. I prefer the convenience of reduced weight and the fact that I can carry several titles with me at all times. I guess I’m more tied to reading than I am to books.

But, I don’t want this to turn into an argument about the merits of physical books over e-books or vice-versa. I think they both have their place, and people each have their preferences. If nothing else, it shows that both can co-exist somewhat peacefully. In fact, I must admit: I’m curious how many of the 71% actually read e-books in non-vacation settings. How many of you out there are hybrid readers? Are physical books saved for special occasions?

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Speaking of

When I was but an intern at DGLM, one of the things that most appealed to me about the agent job was the odd mix of the solitary and the social. For me, it satisfied two very different sides of my personality: the me who wants nothing more than to be left alone with a good book, and the me who wants to tell everyone how to think, act, dress, eat, and now, read! A combination of being left alone but also telling people what I think, and what they should think, is just right for me.

What I didn’t know, however, was just how often I’d be hitting the road to go speak in front of groups of people, both large and small. Telling people one-on-one what I think is one thing, getting up in front of a room of 50 or 100 or 1,000, well, that’s another story. I have awful, terrible, painful stage fright. Honestly, back in the beginning, I had a difficult time even speaking in front of 10 people. It brought me right back to middle and high school, giving reports in front of the class. I was absolutely petrified. I tried to hold out as long as possible, but conference invitations picked up, and I had to do it. I actually don’t even think about this all that often, but I read this piece on Life Hacker yesterday and it got me thinking. The advice is really great, and it mirrors my own experiences.

The first few times I spoke were a disaster. I am not exaggerating. One time, I just had to do a short introduction in front of a large room. Name, agency, what you rep–things I could have recited in my sleep, even then. But I had to hold a microphone. I had never done this, and for some reason, it terrified me more. My heart was racing, I was sweating, and I was shaking. I started to speak, lost my way, and wound up apologizing and telling everyone that I was terrified of public speaking. The crowd, mostly women over the age of 50, went straight into mother mode and started audibly comforting me. It was kind–and humiliating. There were other less dramatic but equally painful experiences.

So, I tried to avoid it. I would go to conferences where I only had to do critiques or one-on-ones. But eventually, there was no getting around it. I probably should have sought professional help, but that’s not really my thing. Instead, I started to pay attention to what bothered me most about it, and how I might be able to mitigate the issues. I noticed, early on, that being on stage with other people made me about so much more relaxed, so I first sought out panels. And I did a lot of them. It began to feel more natural, and even though they’re often unscripted, I developed an introduction and a few somewhat-scripted answers that helped me feel more confident.

Next, it was time to tackle talking on my own. Honestly, it’s still tough for me. I get nervous and clammy. But I am prepared. I make sure to practice my material enough (but not too much!) beforehand, so I feel assured in what I have to say. I have clear outlines that make it difficult for me to get lost. And, I remind myself, people actually want to hear what I have to say. I still feel strange up there, with all those people looking at me. It still takes a few minutes for my heart to stop pounding. I often finish speaking and realize that the time has flown by, and I don’t have much memory of it–I think I get a pretty big adrenaline rush as my fight or flight response kicks in. But whereas before I rarely heard from anyone after I spoke, now people come up to thank me for my thoughts, and more shockingly, compliment my delivery. I am not, by any means, a fantastic public speaker, but I’ve overcome the crippling fear I had, and I’m able to get the job done.

I know authors also have issues speaking, and my author Nova Ren Suma did a great, very helpful post about it recently. And my author Sara Solovitch is actually writing a book called PLEASE SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, an investigative piece about stage fright and performance anxiety, told through the lens of her own battle to play piano in front of people. What about you all? I imagine the performers amongst you don’t mind, but what about all you introverted bookish people? How do you deal with stage fright?

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Comic Con!

For the second time in three years, I’m on my way to Comic-Con in San Diego. Thirteen-year-old me is very excited. Comic books? Movies? TV shows? Amazing! Thirty-something-year-old me is slightly more circumspect. Crowds? Crappy convention food? No comic books? That said, it’s pretty exciting that books are taking a center stage at the show. All of the major publishers have presences, and many of the movies being featured are based on books, as well. Even better, they’re based on YA books (including our own James Dashner’s MAZE RUNNER), so it’s all quite relevant to my list.

But the real reason I’m heading down is to appear on the Ask an Agent! panel on Friday with several other great agents: Brandy Rivers (a book-to-film agent), Barry Goldblatt, Sara Megibow, Jane Putch, Kate Schafer Testerman and Pam van Hylckama Vlieg. We’re literally just taking questions, so please do come and interrogate us, otherwise we’re going to be pretty bored. (Though knowing all of us, we could probably entertain ourselves for a lot more than an hour.) It really is your chance to ask whatever you want, and we’re a very direct group. What are publishers looking for? How do agents work? Why does it take so damn long for a book to come out? Whatever you want to know, come ask! Really hoping to see you there.

 

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Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

7

Writer’s block

I’ve been bad. About blogging. I haven’t blogged in quite some time. I don’t want to say how long, because it’s embarrassing, even to me. I could blame computer woes–it’s been fun! Or the fact that I’ve been really busy with work work. I could pretend I’ve made up for it by being very active on Twitter, but you’d find me out. So what gives?
I would blame writer’s block, but it’s not something I believe in. Because the truth is, it’s not that I can’t write about things. It’s that I don’t want to write about things. Call it a crisis of confidence if you will, but I can’t imagine there’s anything left to blog  about that either 1) I haven’t already blogged about or 2) someone hasn’t said better than I ever could.
I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, but not by work–busy though that has been. I’m feeling overwhelmed by the constant stream of information: the RSS feeds, the news, TV, texts, movies, IMs, music, Twitter. It’s a cacophony, and I’ve been feeling especially mindful of my part in it. Am I just adding to the noise? Does what I say actually benefit anyone or add to their existence/knowledge/growth? Am I listening and learning? Why am I blogging and tweeting? Am I carrying on a meaningful conversation?
I’m not sure I have the answers. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking into the wind, and there’s no point in that. Other times, I feel like I’m making a real human connection, and I cherish the contacts I’ve made through social media (many of whom are now people I know in real life).
I hope my quietness or silence isn’t misinterpreted. I want to connect. I want to learn. I want to grow. But I also want to make sure that what I’m putting out there isn’t just for the sake of putting something out there. Bear with me?
1

Manufacturing a bestseller

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about authors gaming the bestseller lists, spurred by this story in the WSJ last week. While the company mentioned in the article may be new, the phenomenon is not. Business book authors, in particular, have used similar tactics in the past, hiring companies that would have copies of their books purchased from stores that report to the New York Times to get onto their list. Publishers do their own version of this, sending authors out on tour to pump up first week sales in select markets in the hopes of getting on regional and national lists.

The ubiquity of Nielsen BookScan data has made gaming lists harder, since it’s no longer just newspapers calling around to certain stores and asking what’s selling. Sales are much more easily verifiable, so pumping up an underperforming book isn’t as easy. Then again, when you can order copies of your book online, you no longer need buyers in different cities to make yourself look good. All you need is a credit card!

All this talk reminded me of an amazing story I read on The Awl a while back about a radio DJ named Jean Shepherd who orchestrated an amazing media hoax back in the 50s. He enlisted the help of listeners of his late-nite show to try to get an non-existent book onto the bestseller list. There are a lot of twists and turns, and I’ll let you read the story instead of summarizing. It’s worth the time.

And, it just goes to show, nihil sub sole novum.

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Random thoughts from this week

Yesterday, I know I had a great idea for a blog post. Perhaps it was the Novocain at the dentist, but today I have no clue what that idea was. I know for sure that it was genius, perhaps world-altering, but alas, it is lost like Atlantis. Instead, some random thoughts from the week:

  • I really liked this “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” post from Melanie Gideon over at Writer’s Digest.  The question of to-Google-or-not-to-Google is always a big one, and I tend to agree it’s best to let a trusted friend or spouse filter through all the information and present just the important things–both good and bad.
  • Speaking of Google, their Valentine’s Day doodle is quite possibly my favorite yet. Too cute!
  • B&N’s Nook news isn’t good. I wonder if they should go back to selling books?
  • The DOJ cleared the Random House/Penguin merger in record time and without any conditions. Maybe they’re being lenient since Penguin (and now Random House, as part of Penguin Random House) agreed to the e-book settlement.
  • And, finally, if you want to feel old: Scholastic announced a new cover for the first Harry Potter book to coincide with the 15th anniversary of its first publication.  I think Kazu Kibuishi did an amazing job. That’s one brave dude to tackle such a daunting challenge!
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Reading in the new year

January has been off to a busy start! I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to have an extra 24 hours this holiday weekend, in part to catch up on some work reading, but also to do some reading for fun, too.  Last night, I was excited when Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief downloaded to my iPad, and despite it being late and me being exhausted, I had to crack it open for a bit. I pre-ordered the book ages ago, and have been dying to read it. I’ve always been interested in religion in an academic way, though my interest has primarily been in classical religions and early Christianity. But when I read the Paul Haggis profile piece Wright did in The New Yorker in 2011, I knew I wanted more. All of this is to say, the book was definitely my most-anticipated of the very early new year.
With most of the year still ahead, I’m curious to know what you’re most looking forward to. Which books will you be adding to the TBR pile in 2013?
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The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?