Category Archives: opinion

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You’re the best

A propos of Michael’s very handy breakdown of the latest changes to the New York Times bestseller list, I’ve been thinking about just how many lists the Times graces us with these days: 23 on the 8/30 list, in various combinations of format, category, genre, and demographic.

Sports and Fitness. Food and Diet. Education. Relationships. Travel.  Business. Manga.  In August, there were bestseller lists for each of these specific things at least once, separate from the other lists they might fit under.

the-new-york-times-logoAs an agent, I’m thrilled for my and my colleagues’ clients to have the greatest possible number of chances for their books (and careers, frankly) to be tagged with that New York Times bestseller status, and there’s no denying that breaking out into narrower lists gives books that would never make the main lists a fighting chance.  With an Education list, you don’t necessarily have to compete with Felicia Day, Aziz Ansari, Ronda Rousey, Holly Madison, Jimmy Carter, Judd Apatow, and Amy Poehler, all on the main hardcover nonfiction list this week, to get a spot.

If we’re heading toward a day when there are more distinct New York Times bestseller lists then there are spots on the longest of those lists, I’d love to see them drill down further in fiction, too.  Literary Fiction by Women, maybe? (Or just Literary Fiction at all, for that matter.)  And what about one for Diverse Books? (If that’s the first time you’re seeing that phrase, here’s some context.) Or Debut Fiction!  People Who Aren’t on Twitter.  Authors Who’ve Never Been on TV. Authors Who Always Seem About to Break Out but Somehow Never Do. Books by Authors with More Starred Reviews Per Book than Zeroes in Their Advances.

Sure, it’s a little more subjective than Sports and Fitness, but if they need the help I’m happy to curate.  Which lists would you put in your fantasy New York Times?

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The Times it is a-changing, part deux

Back in 2012, I blogged about the New York Times making a significant set of changes to their children’s bestseller lists. At the time, the picture books and series lists remained, but what had been “chapter book” and paperback lists were instead replaced with middle grade and YA lists. The bigger change, though, was that these lists would combine sales across formats, counting hardcover, paperback and e-book sales. My concern in that first week of the new lists focused mainly on the middle grade list, which was dominated by non-fiction—which includes all sorts of tie-in publishing. Frankly, we were all sick of seeing the list full of Lego books, and the shift only seemed to make that worse. What wasn’t clear in that first week, however, was just how bad combining sales of all formats into one list would be. Yes, I had questions about how ebook sales would affect the lists (and past-Michael: those ebook price drops are not weighted differently, so dropping the price does get books on the list), but what I hadn’t taken into account was how “new” backlist would go on to dominate the lists.

If there has been one steady complaint about the children’s bestseller lists for the past couple of years, it’s been John Green. Not that anyone begrudges his success—the man works hard for it. But with four of his books pretty permanently in the top 10, there were only 6 slots for other books. And, putting Green aside, it became clear that the list was mostly made up of “new” backlist. Paperbacks are cheaper than hardcovers, and they sell in greater numbers. The ebook editions of those same books also become cheaper when a book goes from hardcover to paperback. So, the list became skewed very heavily towards long-running bestsellers in paperback and ebook. And I think this frustrated just about everyone. It seemed nearly impossible for a new book in hardcover to hit the list, which meant less discoverability. On the adult side of lists, with formats broken out, the hardcover lists typically feature new titles that are just out, changing considerably from week to week, while the paperback lists show which books have long-term staying power. Readers, authors and publishers all benefit, with both new books being highlighted and backlist titles getting recognition for their ongoing sales.

Yesterday, the good news came down that once again, the lists would be changing. And this time around, the changes are huge. In this PW interview, Pamela Paul explains the changes, the rationale for those changes, and the reasons these changes didn’t happen earlier (though I am still curious what the “technical challenges” are that she refers to). Goodbye format agnostic lists, and hello hardcover, paperback and ebook lists—one each for both middle grade and YA. Yet again, the picture book and series lists remain the same. In general, I think this shift is a really good one. Each format will now only compete with other books in that format, which should create a more level playing field. As on the adult side, I think we’ll see a fair amount of change and movement on the hardcover list, while the paperback list will likely feature well-established bestsellers. The ebook list (which is oddly only five slots) will be an interesting one to watch. Will books show up there that aren’t on either the hardcover or print list? Will publishers game their pricing to get books onto that list, eager to have the “NYT Bestseller” on their book? Time will tell, but in the first week, the ebook list looks an awful lot like the paperback list, which reflects, I think, the price-sensitive nature of ebook sales.

Some interesting smaller items:

  • The paperback and ebook lists will be online only, not in print. This means that the books that have dominated the printed lists for the past few years have fallen off the printed list. Does that matter? Likely not, but it does feel like a demotion.
  • As with the last change, “Weeks on List” has been reset. The Book Thief is once again at week 1 on the list. I’m not sure what the solution is, but this doesn’t seem right to me.
  • While there’s some tie-in on there, the middle grade list seems to reflect the breadth and depth of the category. Exciting stuff going on in that space.
  • The paperback list does not feature a single female author. The hardcover list has eight. Will this new formulation feature more women? (Much has been said about the male dominance of the children’s bestseller lists.)

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the changes. The conceit behind these lists makes much more sense—the adult side has been doing it this way for an awfully long time, and it’s worked well there. I’m eager to see how this plays out over the next few years. Any thoughts on the changes, dear readers?

UPDATE: It turns out the series list has changed, albeit slightly. Erin Stein, publisher at Imprint, pointed out that tie-in titles for properties will now be combined and added to the series list. This explains why the Descendants moved over to the series list this week, which had been a point of discussion amongst us list-watchers on Twitter the other day. While I think this is a good move, as it’ll eliminate the MG list being dominated by Frozen tie-ins, it’s going to make the series list even more competitive than it was for authors. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this one.

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Recharging

So last week, I did something I don’t believe I have ever done before.  I spent a week at my country house by myself to recharge.

The concept of “recharging” has always been anathema to me.  The dictionary defines it as “regaining your energy and strength,” something I always assumed could be accomplished in a long weekend.  Last week, though, I proved (to myself) that my preconceptions were wrong.

While I was away I got lots of sleep, played some golf, had lunch and dinner with friends, went to concerts and simply enjoyed the beauty of the Berkshire Mountains.  And it worked. I came back last Monday re-energized and ready to go.

I think it is so important for us creative types to take some time every so often to do just this—leave our professional world and enjoy other things we like to do.  Only then can we gain the perspective and energy to return to our work lives and move forward.

Check out this piece I found about ways to recharge.  How do you all do it?

Children’s Nonfiction

One of the more interesting and unexpected developments in the children’s book industry over the past year or two has been the rise of nonfiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran an article that surveys the landscape, and how publishers are having success with the kind of MG and YA nonfiction that, until recently, was thought to be going the way of the dodo. Who would have foreseen that in 2015, guidebooks for a video game would be bestsellers?

(Then again, if anyone can explain the appeal of Minecraft in the first place, please do!)

But while video game tie-ins are all well and good, obviously those are licensed products, and for the average children’s book writer, writing for a licensor is a hard gig to land. So how can writers take advantage of this NF “moment” and capitalize on the momentum?

Well, from my seat at the agent’s desk, books like BOMB and RAD AMERICAN WOMEN are the way to go–titles that can fit with Core Curriculum standards while having the kind of adult-market trade appeal that will catch parents’ eyes in the bookstore. Biographies are also attractive, particularly those of living figures (for instance, Hillary Clinton) recently deceased figures (Steve Jobs) or historical figures that are back in the zeitgeist (Alexander Hamilton). And if you’re a published adult writer whose book can be reworked for MG or YA, that’s a great way to further your reach, too.

I’ll also add that on the picture book end, nonfiction is in demand as well. Of course, the topics naturally skew younger than MG or YA–lots of animal stories and bios that can sidestep most controversy. Multicultural topics are also a plus at this level, as they can often be paired with the kind of highly imaginative artwork that editors love.

And here’s another plus on children’s NF–submission guidelines tend to be somewhat squishy. So while picture books submissions do require full text, often you can write longer than the 500-1,000 word limits that frustrate a lot of PB writers. And for MG and YA, my experience is that most editors will review a proposal in lieu of a full manuscript, and a fairly brief proposal at that.

So, for any children’s book writer who’s contemplating NF, this is the time to do it–and when you’ve got your MS or proposal together, send it to me!

The art of storytelling

The story matters. But so does the way you tell it. Just learn from this 23-year-old who has been writing a memoir on Instagram.

There are so many great things to love about this story. Sure, I appreciate the beautiful photos and well-written captions, but I admire the sheer ingenuity most of all. Fact: a new memoir is published every 38 minutes. Don’t fact-check me on that, just trust me. There are a lot of memoirs out there. Another fact: not many of them are written using the medium of a photograph social media platform, with carefully curated shots posted a year later, a completely different practice than the usual immediacy and spontaneity of picture posting.

Short stories and even entire novels have been written on Twitter too, but what technology gives, technology also takes away. Algorithms generate news stories and a scary amount of written content that you would never suspect. Don’t believe me? Then take this test.

The point is this: technology has changed everything and will continue to change everything, for better or worse. There are an unimaginable number of ways to spread stories now. Get creative and find a way that is uniquely you. Otherwise computer algorithms may as well write your story for you.

Also, I just wanted to include a quick update on one of my earlier blog posts. In March 2015, I posted a blog about censorship and China being named the guest of honor at BEA 2015. Want to see what that all amounted to? This was the result.

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The classics

Last Saturday, my husband Steve and I went out to play golf and, as often happens, we were asked if we wouldn’t mind if a third player (someone we didn’t know) joined us. We agreed and played our round with a very nice and interesting man named Ed Chapman. It turned out that Ed had been in the Berkshires for the previous two weeks doing the sound design for a play that was opening that night at The Barrington Stage, a theater in Pittsfield about 45 minutes away from our home in Great Barrington. The play was THE MAN OF LA MANCHA.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pablo Picasso, Don Quixote (1955). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Later that day, I asked Steve if he had ever seen the play and he hadn’t and I just knew he would love it so we bought what turned out to be the last two available tickets for this past Saturday night. Indeed, the play was absolutely wonderful in every way—everyone was raving about it afterwards. But as I was leaving the theater, I heard a woman behind me say that it was “dated.” How, I wondered, could a play based on the classic story of Don Quixote be dated? The message is an evergreen one and important, I think.

And this made me wonder why time and again we return to the classics—in theater, in film, in our music and yes, of course, in literature. Authors such as Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde are constantly referenced and imitated in more recent works.

I wonder what value you see in the classics. Which of our many iconic authors do you consider classic and why? Who are your favorites?

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Men of constant sorrow

As my colleagues at DGLM know from last week’s staff meeting, I’m somewhat obsessed with the prison break in upstate New York. I think ever since O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? entered my all-time top-five movie list, I’m naturally predisposed to prison break stories, and this one is starting to shape up like a Coen brother’s movie. Yes, I know it’s poor taste to make light, given that our perps are actually violent killers not cuddly movie stars, but then today it comes out that Richard Matt painted a family portrait for Joyce Mitchell. Awwww…

And it doesn’t help, too, that the more I look at Matt and Sweat (such great names!) I see George Clooney and Tim Blake Nelson playing them in the movie version:

 

150610103412-escaped-ny-convicts-split-richard-matt-david-sweat-super-169  george-clooney-o-brother1

But while I can’t wait to see how it all ends, I’m having trouble wrapping my agent hat around it. For one, where does a prison-break story fall in terms of genre? On first glance, I’d say True Crime, but the crime here isn’t murder—at least not yet—which still seems like a prerequisite for the genre. But if not True Crime, then what? Moreover, with the story having so much media attention and legs so far, what would be covered in a book that hasn’t already been seen on TV or the Web? It’s an issue that’s bedeviled traditional True Crime for years, and unless an author can get access to Matt, Sweat, or Mitchell, it’s hard to see what would pass the “new and newsworthy” test.

So, what’s the angle? It’s a question agents ask ourselves all the time, especially when it comes to stories in the news. If any readers have any ideas, I’d love to hear them, because I do think there’s something here, or that there will be down the line. At the very least, we can play the casting game—any thoughts on who plays Joyce?

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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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Globalizing the literary landscape

Hey readers! Today I’m pleased to share a guest blog post from our bright and insightful intern Christa Angelios:

From Mallory Ortberg’s poem “Male Novelist Jokes” to Junot Diaz’s comment in the New Yorker on his MFA program – “that shit was too white” – it’s no secret that the world of literary classics is awash in a lack of diversity. Culturally diverse authors often assume pseudonyms or use initials to make themselves fit in more with what they see as expected of them – because they’re worried the sales numbers will be too low if they use their given names. They’re worried that the American public is simply not interested in hearing their stories, cultural stories.

There are, of course, authors who are pushing against this formulaic assimilation, and proving that diversity does not equal diminishing numbers. Khaled Hosseini’s wildly popular novel, THE KITE RUNNER; Matt de la Peña’s critically acclaimed piece, MEXICAN WHITEBOY; and Junot Diaz’s hailed work, THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, all attempt to diversify the modern literary landscape. Fortunately, my schools have not only respected diversity, but encouraged it. In high school, during my sophomore year, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s INTERPRETER OF MALADIES along with a selection of short stories by Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz. Diaz came to read at my high school that year, before which the administration begged him to keep his audience in mind and to tone down his presentation and after which the administration stood mortified when he chose to read some of the most colorful stories he had hand. Teachers were torn between admiring his bold rejection of censorship and finding his gall appalling. But despite the fact that the administration cracked down on a lot of smaller spoken-word performances after that, we still read works that broadened our cultural literary palate.

In college, I discovered that folklore held my literary heart. Celtic mythology, Grimm’s tales, and Russian skazkas could entertain me for a lifetime. And when I began writing culturally informed work, taking up the mission Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie expressed in her TED talk to prevent a culture from being distilled into a “single story,” my professors felt compelled to ask the question: what gives you the right to be writing about a culture that isn’t your own? My father is from Egypt, after all, so I have a rich ethnic history to draw from to which I could “appropriately” lay claim, and I admit that Ancient Egypt and the Arab Spring have captured my interest and imagination. But I count myself among what ethnically Indian author Pico Iyer, who feels he has not earned the “right” to call himself Indian because he didn’t know enough about the culture even if it was his ethnicity, calls an increasingly multicultural group for whom “home” is more of an intangible and ongoing project than a place. With no indication that globalization will be slowing down any time soon, what happens when our world becomes full of people who are of every nation – then whose “right” is it to lay claim to a nation’s culture?

These are not questions that the literary world can continue to ignore. Diversity should be recognized and celebrated across the board, not separated out into its own genre of “ethnic” work. In an interview with RonReads, young adult author Jenny Han said of her choice to include diversity in her work, “I want my books to look like the real world, and the real world is populated by all kinds of people.” It’s time the American literary landscape began reflecting the real world, too.

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Angels Among Us

 I’m thrilled to be the new kid on the block here at D&G, one of the classiest and most respected agencies in the business. This is a great team of people to be working with.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about libraries and librarians. My client Chris Grabenstein’s Middle Grade adventure THE ISLAND OF DR. LIBRIS just published on March 24, and it’s already been embraced by the same librarians who loved Chris’s recent bestseller ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY. When we’re kids, we take plenty for granted. Throughout my childhood, librarians were just always there, and I never really appreciated all they did for us, or what courageous warriors they could be.

It is librarians who have always been the first line of defense against book-banning. It is librarians who struggle, in the face of constant budget cuts, to keep their stock as full, wide, and up-to-date as possible. And it is librarians who are determined to get kids started reading early, and to encourage them to keep reading beyond the age when they are distracted by sports, TV, and video games.

But sometimes they take that extra step and become heroes. It’s no wonder that we now have The Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced With Adversity. Inaugurated by Daniel Handler and the American Library Association last year, it is presented at the Summer ALA conference. The first winner was Laurance Copel, who was honored for her work in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. This year, on June 28, the recipient will be Scott Bonner, director of the Ferguson Public Library in Ferguson, Missouri. What did he do to reap this award? Let’s start with the fact that he kept the library, located just a couple of blocks from where armed militia were clashing with protestors, open and active throughout the unrest following the Michael Brown shooting.  Amidst the surrounding rioting, looting, and violence, Bonner hung a sign on the library’s entrance:  “Stay strong, Ferguson. We are family.”

All through those disturbing weeks, with the local school system shut down, Bonner recruited volunteers, teachers, and church groups to provide educational activities for up to 200 children per day. He organized community groups to offer a wide range of programs and services to help affected local citizens and businesses to recover. Bonner, the sole full-time librarian on the staff, had started on the job only weeks before, yet he instantly became a mainstay of the community right when Ferguson needed one. He even brought the Small Business Administration into the library to make low-interest loans and aid available to local Ferguson businesses. So successful was Bonner’s outreach that his programs become SRO, and he had to expand activities into rental space in the church next door.

I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Bonner on the phone last week. He sounded solid, unassuming, and down-to-earth as could be.  But in my book, he, like so many other librarians, has a pair of white wings on his back, and walks a few feet off the ground.