Category Archives: nonfiction

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Developing a nonfiction “slam dunk” book concept

We have many ways in which books become books. Each title we sell has its own history and path to print. I thought it might be an interesting exercise for you to hear about a recent project of mine and how it came to be.

I represent Amar’e Stoudemire, best known as an NBA basketball star, but also the co-author of the just-published  COOKING WITH AMAR’E, which he wrote with his personal chef, Maxcel Hardy. Max and I got together initially in February of 2012 to talk about book ideas that he and Amar’e could pursue together, and he was initially thinking about a Kosher cookbook. We went through a list of ideas and the one that seemed most interesting to me had the two of them in the kitchen together doing informal cooking lessons, Max teaching Amar’e how to cook for his family and friends. It felt very commercial to me, and very accessible for a broad audience.

After finding a writer, Rosemary Black, to help them develop the proposal, which was a process that took some time, we sent it to publishers and hosted a lovely cocktail party for interested editors with recipes and cocktails from the proposed book. We sold the book to It Books/HarperCollins just over a year ago and everyone worked tirelessly to produce the book in time for Father’s Day of this year.

The publication was a whirlwind of media events for Amar’e, including appearances on Today and The View, and several book signings in and around NY. A picture from a midtown B&N signing below of yours truly with Amar’e and Chef Max (good thing Amar’e was sitting down or we wouldn’t have fit together in the photo!).

So, what I’m trying to get at with this post in addition to showing you some fun behind-the-scenes insight into the publishing process, is that there are many ways to develop a book and no matter who the author is or what the book concept is, it is a process that can take many turns and a long time from soup to nuts. Being in the business of ideas allows for a lot of creative brainstorming and you never know when that next great one will present itself.

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So many ideas, but who will write them?

I am constantly thinking of ideas for books.  I read two or three newspapers a day, blogs, online publications, and several magazines weekly.  There are fresh and original concepts everywhere.  The problem, though, is who will turn these ideas into a book.

In fact finding a writer for many of our ideas is extremely difficult.  We start, of course, by talking to our own clients and, surprisingly, most of the time they turn us down.  They simply don’t see the idea as being material for a book, as we do.  Then, we go beyond our client list and ask our contacts if they know qualified writers (we mostly come up with non-fiction ideas as fiction is such a personal creative process) who might be interested.  Again, it’s hard to find any takers.

One would think that because we have all of these years of experience selling books it would be easier to find people who would be interested in taking our suggestions more seriously.  But, you would be wrong.  Most of the time writers want to come up with their own ideas.  It takes a long time to develop a book project and so rather than adopting one of mine, their ideas are “owned” by them.  I get that.

Still, though, I think many of my ideas and those of my colleagues (we actually have an ideas meeting every two weeks) are very worthwhile.  And so I thought I would throw out a couple here and see if there are any “takers.”  I would love to hear from you if there are.

The first idea is about the New York City Opera which collapsed last year.  This would be both a human interest story (there are some very colorful people involved) and a business story (the fate of this organization resulted from colossal mismanagement).  I have spoken to a number of writers about a book about its rise and fall but all have dropped out after considering it for a short time.

Then, there is a book about Friendship (with a capital “F”) modeled after Gail Sheehy’s Passages.  I believe that we go through many stages of who our friends are – they and we are different (sometimes sadly so) through the many cycles of our lives and I would love to explore how and why this evolution occurs.

So let me know if any of you want to pursue one of these or have any thoughts or opinions about  why this process can be so difficult.

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A crowning achievement

Monday,  April 14, was the day of the first Passover seder.  Because of that I was at home preparing food for my family and guests.  At around 3:00, I checked my e-mail  and saw that an amazing thing had happened.  My client Dan Fagin had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the category of general non-fiction for his astounding work on TOMS RIVER (Bantam Books 2013).

fagin 2

Of course, TOMS RIVER had received gushing reviews from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, USA Today and many other publications, and it had won a Books for a Better Life award in its category. We (Dan and I), however, were not made aware that it was a finalist for the Pulitzer and so this win came as a complete surprise.  Both of us were simply stunned.

Over the years I have been fortunate to work with a number of Pulitzer Prize winning journalists on their books but I have never had one of the books I worked on from the idea stage on actually win this great American prize.  There is, in my opinion no one more deserving than Dan Fagin, because of his brilliant research, beautiful prose, and tenacity in telling a powerful and important story.

Dan worked on TOMS RIVER  for six years.  Through that period, for various reasons, he lost one editor after another, although he finally wound up with the very talented Ryan Doherty.  Dan’s winning this award proves more than ever that hard work pays off.  I have rarely seen an author work harder on a book.

I am so incredibly proud to have been a part of this project.  We here, at DGLM, are very proud of Dan’s incredible achievement.  I hope you will all join me in wishing Dan Fagin a well earned congratulations.

Bravo, my friend.  Way to go!

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Non-fiction for all?

I have a school-aged son, so like many other children across the country, he and his teachers are in the midst of transitioning to the new common core standards.  I think it’s too soon to tell whether these reforms are for good or ill, but I’ve been interested to note that there is a movement afoot to shift much of what children read to nonfiction http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/22/what-should-children-read/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 There’s a funny 2009 op-ed in The Washington Post that points up some potential weaknesses, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2012/12/07/the-common-cores-70-percent-nonfiction-standards-and-the-end-of-reading   I’m a true blue believer in the value of literature, and it’s inconceivable that a kid could get a high school diploma without being asked to read To Kill A Mockingbird, Huck Finn or The Catcher in the Rye (a novel I heard some high-schoolers referring to as “historical fiction”) but I’m not sure that ramping up the narrative nonfiction is such a terrible idea. By the time I hit high school, I’d been raised on a wonderful but self-selected diet of fiction.  I’d encountered so little of what my teachers called “creative nonfiction” or the “new journalism” that discovering its power and range was revelatory.  Books that stood out included John Hersey’s Hiroshima, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, John Gunther’s Death be Not Proud, and Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Boy by Roald Dahl, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. While our history textbooks might have been comprehensive and lucid, they were seldom compelling, and  for me, narrative nonfiction brought the issues and actors to life.  Sure, we needed some frameworks and overviews—dates and names and context– but these were the books that made dead white guys, the wars they waged and the laws they passed interesting, mostly by giving voice to everybody else.

What narrative nonfiction would you nominate for the new common core? Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family is a bit of a doorstop, but certainly it could be excerpted. I’m not the first to say so, but I think Into Thin Air would be a good candidate.

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Bigfoot

I recently had to break the news to my seven-year-old son that some of information obtained via the Internet is not, in fact, true.  He looked thunderstruck. “What do you mean?” he cried. “People can just make stuff up and pretend it’s real?  Don’t the people in charge of computers control that?”

Notwithstanding Edward Snowden’s recent revelations regarding surveillance or the fact that my personal data is owned not by me, but by the cloud, I tried to explain that there is no central regulatory agency for The Computer.

My son’s reaction: “Well that’s wrong, and when I grow up…” He set his mouth in a determined line. “That.Will. Change.”

So much for freedom of expression. Before my kid grows up to head the Ministry of Truth in his Orwellian state, I asked him to consider that the people posting to YouTube might be making stuff up. Or playing a joke. Or be mentally disturbed. Or getting their facts muddled.  In this case, the “facts” in question revolved around cryptozoology, which is the “scientific field” devoted to the study of creatures like the LochNess Monster, the Chupacabra and Bigfoot.  Over the Christmas break, my teenaged nephew had helpfully shared some Youtube videos of Sasquatch sightings on his newly acquired tablet computer.  I probably should have checked to see what the two boys were doing more quickly, but after just a few minutes, my son summoned me to his side, triumphant.

Surely now, having seen footage of Bigfoot and Sasquatch, I would have to believe–as he does–that these creatures are real. But instead of conceding and lacing up my hiking boots for our monster catching mission, I called into question the veracity of the Stuff We Read on The Computer.  And to add insult to injury, I said that not all books are trustworthy.  This just about blew his mind.

“Then how do you know,” he demanded, “when books aren’t telling the truth?” I gave a rambling, mom-ish sort of answer that discussed fiction versus nonfiction, good judgment and the meaning of the word skepticism. (Yawn, I know), but of course, the answer is: sometimes we don’t know.  Sometimes we’re fooled.

What made me think of this conversation, which took place a couple weeks back, was a far more recent  instance of my own credulity.  I was looking for a book-related subject to blog about today, and several of my Facebook contacts had shared an infographic about reading that featured the following “facts”:   33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives;  42% of college grads never read another book after college;  80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.”  Yikes.  (As a publishing industry professional, I am one susceptible chicken little to these sky-is-falling-style statistics).  But just before I posted that infographic to this blog, I did a little digging.  Turns out the guy who created the infographic had got his data wrong.  None of that stuff is true. The retraction that he posted on his blog did not, however, go viral.  I’m sure he wasn’t trying to trick anyone, but the information is out there.

Just like Bigfoot.

What I’m looking for now

With this October marking my third anniversary here at DGLM, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I’ve been thinking about how my client list has developed, how it’s changed over the years, and what kinds of projects I’d like to represent going forward. In that spirit, I took a gander at my old blogposts, and I realized it’s been almost two years since I published a wish list—yikes! I really didn’t mean to let it go that long, especially because last one I published drew plenty of interesting submissions, not to mention a few clients…

So, without further ado, here’s what I’m looking for now, by category:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Picture books have always had a special place in my heart. In fact, they’re one of the main reasons I stuck it out in children’s publishing for so long. And to my great joy, it seems like picture books are cycling back into favor–we’ve had a couple of major picture book deals here at DGLM recently. So if there are any author/illustrators out there with a fun, character-based story to tell, I’d LOVE to see your work!

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: More than any other category, it seems like children’s book editors are hungry for middle-grade these days in any form—realistic, fantasy, sci-fi, boy- or girl-focused, you name it—and I couldn’t be happier. Ever since HARRY POTTER ended, I think publishers have been searching for the next classic, and with YA in flux (more on that below), the search has become a top priority. Personally, I’m most interested in realistic, contemporary MG a la WONDER. (Can’t argue with those numbers!) However, I’m more than happy to look at anything fantastic that fits the category, so if anyone’s got a great 8-12 character (or a great YA character that can be aged down), bring it on!

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: YA has been a puzzle for the last year or so. On the one hand, we’ve got John Green waving the banner of realistic, issue-driven YA; on the other, there’s DIVERGENT and now STEELHEART fanning the flames of sci-fi/dystopia/fantasy. My feeling is the fantasy side will keep lumbering on, but the bar for originality has never been set higher. So while I’m certainly open to fantasy/sci-fi, it really needs to be something special to have a chance. At the same time, contemporary YA seems to be in demand, though again, originality is the key. But on both sides, strong characterization trumps all–without that, we won’t get anywhere.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   As I said last time: “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—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” To this list, I’ll add military history and politics, as well as a request—whatever the subject, try to make it as expansive as possible without losing the main narrative. A favorite rejection line from editors is that a subject is too narrow… so go wide!

ADULT MEN’S FICTION: When I first started at DGLM, I signed a number of adult fiction clients without much understanding of the categories or market, and after a number of misses, I decided to steer clear of adult fiction for a while. Three years on, I think I’ve got a better handle of how things work, plus our independent publishing program provides a viable alternative for projects that can’t find a traditional home. So, once again, I’m on the look-out for high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they thrillers, suspense, literary, commercial, horror, what have you—happy to take a look.

Thanks for giving this a read. Can’t wait to see what comes in!

 

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Addicted to memoirs

No matter what the season, I am always drawn to the latest memoir. It’s been an ongoing interest of mine my entire adult life, and since becoming a literary agent almost 15 years ago, I have always tried to mix my list up with the occasional I-can’t-believe-how-amazing-this-story-is memoir. I tend to like dark, psychological memoirs. I’ve sold books about sexual abuse, autism, and bipolar disorder. They always have some measure of redemption, and the journey is often painful but inspiring.

So, this spring season is no exception to my memoir craze. Right now, I’m really enjoying Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (I know, I’m not the only one riding that train as evidenced by its #1 NYT bestseller status). Although it’s not a memoir, there’s a lot about her own history in there that I find compelling.

Other memoirs on my reading shelf at the moment are Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World. This one is difficult reading. It’s about her son’s diagnosis with a fatal genetic disorder. He died just a couple of weeks before the book’s release. But Rapp is a transformative writer, her prose is gorgeous, and it is worth it to check this one out.

Being the mother of identical twins, I am fascinated by all twin stories. There is a new memoir, Her, by Christa Parravani, an identical twin who lost her sister at twenty-eight to a drug overdose. It’s a fascinating look at the identical twin connection and the intense grief when one sister loses not just a sibling, but a part of herself.

I’d love to hear from our readers what memoirs you love, old or new, that I can add to my large and growing collection. Until then, I will be reading the memoirs on my shelf and looking for new projects in this category to blow me away.

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Something “new” for me

This piece from last week’s  New York Times attracted my attention and although I totally disagree with the notion that just because the facts concerning a non-fiction book have changed since its original publication, its content should be arbitrarily updated, it did make me think about non-fiction in general.

For many years, most of what I represented was non-fiction and then recently and very deliberately (and because I truly love it) I have been concentrating on fiction, all kinds of fiction – commercial and literary – and have had great success with indie authors and more traditional types.  But my yen for good narrative non-fiction is still very strong and I would love to see some new ideas.

Of course, as you all know, in this category the author needs to have a solid platform and the credentials necessary to write authoritatively on a subject – these things have become increasingly important. And there has to be a great story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end. With those elements, I would love to consider some compelling new nonfiction in the areas of science, history, biography, politics, and business.

I hope that some of you reading this blog will keep this in mind, send me your work, and spread the word.

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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?

Stacey Glick interview at Writer’s Digest

It’s been a while since I wrote about the kinds of projects I’m looking for, and since I answer that question and many others in an interview I did that was recently published on writersdigest.com, I thought it would be nice to share it with our loyal blog readers.

The interview goes into some detail on my background, my list, and my thoughts on many different aspects of the market, where it is now, and where it is going.

I thought Ricki’s questions were really targeted to my interests and as a result we managed to squeeze a lot of information into a fairly brief interview.

I hope it’s useful to anyone reading, and if I didn’t answer all of your questions or you have others you’d like to ask, ask away and I will do my best to respond to each and every one. Promise! Enjoy.