Category Archives: opinion

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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…

 

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Author blogging

Yesterday morning, I met up with one of my clients, Shandy Lawson, for a general catch-up meeting. One of the items on the agenda was Fiction Locker, a website he started to encourage young writers. I’ll get my shameless plug over with right now—it’s a great site, with plenty of writing options for those over 19 as well, so please check it out!

And actually, shameless plugging dovetails nicely with a little piece I saw today via Facebook from The Book Designer about the 5 Marketing Mistakes That Beginning Fiction Writers Make. In particular, I was struck by Number 3, Maintaining a Blog to Attract New Readers. It seems like obvious advice, but with Twitter and Facebook, I sometimes feel like the good old fashioned blog gets overlooked. And Jason makes a good point that the key to successful blogging is to provide quality material that connects with the right people, i.e., people who would then buy your book.

At the same time, Jason rightly cautions against using your blog as pure promotion, (or shameless plugging—he got me there!) which brings us back to Fiction Locker. Now, I know Shandy has a genuine interest in encouraging young writers, and the focus of Fiction Locker is squarely on helping teens find their voice. But at the same time, Shandy and other contributors are YA authors… and if readers want to check out their books, great!

In other words, here’s a good example of a blog that delivers meaningful content to the right people. But I’d love to know—are there other author blogs out there that you think do a good job of connecting?

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Judging the Book by its Cookie

 

This morning I listened to a fascinating NPR interview with Peter Mendelsund, an esteemed cover designer who has recently published his own book on cover design (did you follow that okay? I’ll wait).

Mendelsund talked to Fresh Air’s Dave Davies about how he reads every manuscript carefully. “I’m trying to be very alert for anything in that text that has structural importance or a particular kind of emotional weight,” he explained, saying that he wants the cover design to capture the feeling he had while he was reading, rather than simply recreating a character or portraying a scene.

So I was thinking deep, important thoughts about aesthetics and subliminal messaging today as I stood in the kitchen making my coffee. And my eyes fell on a framed cookbook cover on the wall in our lobby, which just so happens to be in my direct line of vision from the kitchen door. “A ha!” I thought to myself. “THIS is why I always crave cookies in the office! It’s not even my fault. It’s the cover design!” Luckily, Tuesdays are the day our intern Amy usually brings in amazing home-baked goods – chocolate peanut-butter-chip cookies are today’s treat.

I’m kidding – sort of – but I’m also thinking about covers. We do judge books by them, even when we don’t realize we are. When I worked at Barnes & Noble, I would hear at least once a day, “I don’t remember what it was called, but the cover was orange.” Below are some delightful books I discovered when their cover caught my eye:

 

What are your favorite book covers? What catches your eye when you’re browsing for a new read? Do you find yourself drawn to the same design elements over and over?

 

Covers via Goodreads

What I’m looking for now (2014 edition)

The mornings are getting chilly, the leaves are changing, and we just stocked up on pumpkin chai mix at Trader Joe’s—fall must be here! And with the autumn, it’s time for my somwhat annual wish list. If anyone’s writing and/or illustrating in the following categories, I’d love to see your work. And please note a few small but significant changes from the last time I put my wish list out there:

PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATORS: Our list of author/illustrators has continued to grow by leaps and bounds here at DLGM. (please revel in our illustration samples if you haven’t seen them yet!) But I’m still very much on the hunt for artists and illustrators who can write. So if you’ve got a great story, a cool concept, or a fantastic character paired with spectacular, professional-level artwork, I’d LOVE to see it.  And if you’re submitting art, a PDF that’s 5MB or less would be ideal.

MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: Last year, I noted that editors seem hungry for MG in all forms, and a year later that hunger has only grown. I hear more requests now for MG, even from longtime YA editors, than I ever have before. That said, I think editors still aren’t quite sure what they want out of MG, but whether it’s realistic or genre, loud or quiet, funny or serious—whatever it is, I’d love to see what you’ve got.

YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Similar to MG, the call for realistic YA, which started to be heard last year, has only grown louder in 2014. And that’s always been my sweet-spot for YA, too, though I’m always a fan of an original genre piece (“original” being the key word), be it historical, fantasy, or sci-fi. But mostly, I’d love to see realistic stories, and I’d love to see stories with both male and female protagonists. I know I’m the self-declared “boy book” guy here, but in looking at my list, about half my YA authors write female main characters, so please think of me for “girl” books, too!

CHILDREN’S NONFICTION: Here’s a new one for me. About a year ago, I started hearing from children’s editors that they were looking for nonfiction, and not just at the picture book level.  Partly, that’s due to Common Core reading standards, but I also think that ALA has been more interested in nonfiction recently, and as we know, awards stickers sell books. So if you’ve got a good nonfiction idea for any children’s category, please send it my way—and that includes picture book MSS, which I typically don’t take unless they’re from artists.

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   I’ve used this line for a few years now, but it’s a good one, so I’m sticking to it: “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, military history, politics—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” In particular, though, I’d love to do some more sports and music—I think there are holes in both marketplaces here.

ADULT FICTION: I’ve been thinking about this one a lot over the past year. As with YA, while I’ve often declared myself the “boy book” guy, I’ve realized that my tastes aren’t really exclusive to boy books. And in fact, some of the books I’ve loved most this year were clearly targeted to a female readership. So I’d like to take a step back from the manly side of things and just say that I’m looking for fiction that tells a good story. More than anything, I’ve realized that regardless of the audience, good plotting and momentum are what really get me going—to take an obvious example, I’ve finally gotten around to GONE GIRL, and I am totally sleep-deprived this week from staying up to see what happens next. So with that, I’ll repeat a little of what I said last year: I’m looking for “high-concept, character-driven narratives, be they literary, commercial, thrillers, suspense, horror, what have you.” And to that I’ll add strong plotting with male or female characters as well.

Thanks so much for taking a look, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!

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Storybook endings

Last Thursday night, in the last home game of his 20-year career as the New York Yankees shortstop, Derek Jeter hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 9th inning. A storybook ending.

Now I’m not the resident Yankees fan here. That crown belongs to Miriam. In fact, I’m not even a Yankees fan at all. I’m a Mets fan—may God help me. But come on, how could you not love that moment? Jeter, a class act, the last vestige of the old New York Yankees, the embodiment of clutch, comes up with a big hit in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, his last game in pinstripes. You couldn’t write a better ending.

“Where fantasy becomes reality.” That’s what the announcer said after Jeter’s last ever walk-off hit. I must have watched that clip fifty times. And I got goose bumps every time. But I’m not entirely sure why.

Usually I hate storybook endings. For some reason, whenever I encounter a happy ending at the end of a book, I always feel cheated, taken for a fool. Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I don’t think happily ever after ever really happens. Books that end that way aren’t realistic. Storybook endings just don’t happen in real life.

Except they do. It certainly did for Derek.

So why then do readers often criticize fairy tale endings? Does good literature always need to end in tragedy and despair? And if so, what does it say that a good book must leave you feeling hopeless?

I am curious to learn what our readers have to say about storybook endings. Love them? Hate them? Does it depend on a case-by-case basis, and if so, why do some storybook endings work and others don’t? Sound off in the comments!

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Spoiler alert!

I’ve been thinking a lot about spoilers lately.  You can’t really talk about them without citing them, so if you’re really averse and somehow magically haven’t had Gone Girl ruined for you yet, you might want to click away.

With all the book-to-film adaptations* this fall—perhaps not more than usual, but more than I usually have any interest in—I dedicated my vacation reading to finally getting to two books I’ve been meaning to read for quite a while, before the movies could ruin them for me.  I might just be the last person to read Gone Girl, and I wasn’t exactly early to the This Is Where I Leave You bandwagon.  Fortunately, my experience with the latter was spoiler free—the only thing I’d been forewarned about was that it was really, really good.

Now, this isn’t me getting on my soapbox about spoilers, because I tend to think that if you aren’t passionate enough to prioritize something you don’t get to quell the conversations of those who are.  (I’m almost always the late one, so I’ve come to this via zen-like acceptance of my own bad impulses to get angry at someone for talking about something they care about, as if talking about something you care about isn’t a fundamentally important part of the human experience that I value highly.)  I know there was also that whole thing about how people actually like spoilers, contrary to what they think, but I’d argue that it changes your experience anyway, in a way that’s interesting but not ideal.  I know I get distracted by spoilers, and it takes me out of the experience of really enjoying the thing in the way I otherwise would.  To each their own, of course, but I’m not going to start seeking them out, and I’ll still probably have to ban myself from social media on Sunday nights when all the good TV is on for the rest of eternity.

But sometimes—like when you’ve put off reading one of the buzziest books of the last few years until the eve of the release of a film adaptation and you work in publishing—spoilers are not entirely avoidable.  To be fair, I wasn’t totally spoiled with Gone Girl.  I somehow made it all this time without finding out exactly what the twist is. When Stacey read it for DGLM book club, I fled the room.  But I can’t imagine it’s possible at this point to have heard of Gone Girl and not know there’s a twist.  And like all books (or films) that are built around a major plot twist, knowing there is one is pretty much spoiler enough.  It didn’t take me long into the book to realize that there was really only one option people would actually have been impressed with in the way I knew people were.  Unfortunately, while I found it clever and admirably crafted and insightful—that “cool girl” diatribe is everything—I missed my chance to have the opportunity with the novel that so many others did.

The thing about thrillers, or mysteries, or other twisty types of fiction is that I really enjoy the puzzle of trying to figure it out before I’m meant to, but I don’t like it when I win.  I want the author to best my whirring brain and catch me by surprise.

So having finished Gone Girl with quite a bit of like and admiration, but no love, I’ve made a pact with myself:  next time a big buzzy, mysterious novel comes along, I’m reading it right away.

*Like The Maze Runner, based of course on DGLM’s own James Dashner’s novel of the same name.  I know I’m biased, but I thought it was a perfect adaptation.  Exactly what you always hope book-to-film can be, but it almost never is.

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The name game

There’s nothing quite like starting off a new season with a book sale, particularly in Autumn, when the summer’s lethargy fades and it feels like everyone in publishing is back on the hunt for new work. And happily enough, I was able to place a middle grade novel that I absolutely loved, made even more gratifying by the fact that, full disclosure, it took quite a while to find its home. But back-patting aside, I wanted to share this story because it speaks to the importance of a really good title.

So, the first time I sent the novel around, it had what I thought was a snappy title—two words that rhymed, which seemed quirky and fun, plus it came from a line in the book, which is always a good thing. Yet, on the first round, despite some enthusiastic reports and near misses, we didn’t end up with a sale. And after enough passes, for which a lot of editors said the same thing, the author and I decided to table the novel for now and work on something new.

But then, a few months after we put it aside, the author came back to me and asked if we could try again with a new title. He just had a feeling that the original title wasn’t quite representing the substance and tenor of the book. Instead, he suggested a three-word phrase that was much more literary and ambiguous, though still taken from a line in the book. So, we gave it another shot, and lo and behold, the offer came in about a month later!

Now, there could certainly be many other variables here at play—the timing of the submission, not finding the right editor until late in the game, the holes in the editor’s list, etc. But I do think that the new title reframed readers’ expectations about what was inside and put them in a different mindset when reading it. Yes, titles can be a struggle, and since publishers almost always contractually control the title, the struggle can seem counterproductive at times. But I hope this story shows how important it is to find a title that truly reflects the book—and at the same time, if the title isn’t quite working but the content’s there, a title change just might be what the doctor ordered…

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A list is a list is a list

Recently, I was challenged by a friend on Facebook to list 10 books that had “stayed with me.”   Normally, I enjoy those types of FB challenges as much as I do folding three weeks’ worth of laundry and I often decline to participate.  But, given my line of work, it feels churlish and ungenerous to refuse any opportunity to share what I consider to be one of my life’s  great passions, so despite the ambiguity of the challenge—“Stayed with me” how?  In a good way?  In a throw-it-across-the-room-in-a-fit-of-rage way?  I mean, I hated everything about The Scarlet Letter, but it stayed with me.  And don’t even get me started on The Goldfinch—I went ahead and posted my list.  

Thing is, I find listing books for any purpose—favorites, tree killers (those that are a waste of paper), recommendations, etc.—a trying activity simply because there is so much to choose from and there is such judgment implicit in every choice.    In fact, no one is as judgmental as a book lover.  Admit it, you have mentally demoted friends and lovers based on their book preferences.  You have gloated (internally or otherwise) about how much better your taste in literature is than anyone else’s.  You have shamed people publicly after finding out they’ve never read a certain author’s work (okay, maybe that’s just me…and, the rest of the DGLMers).  So, there’s no way to pick the best of any category of books without great screeches of dissent, anger, hostility, possible projectile throwing.

And the weird thing is that I love book lists.  Other people’s that is.  I love nomination lists, seasonal lists, lists about books featuring animal protagonists, whatever.  I will happily read lists about lists of books.  In fact, you can keep your Booker and Pulitzer and National Book Awards, just hand me their shortlists.   Given the proliferation of lists on the Internet, I suspect I’m not alone.

To that end, and because it’s back to school, time to get serious about reading again, here’s The Millions’ Lists page where you can get as lost as the kid from The Phantom Tollbooth.   Go crazy and then tell me what your favorite book of the year thus far is.

 

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Those wide open spaces

Many years ago, before I was an agent, I directed all book and magazine publishing for a large newspaper syndicate.  While those of us who didn’t work directly in editorial for the syndicate—publishing, licensing, sales and the executive suite—had our individual offices, some of them very spacious, the heart of the staff worked in an open bullpen.  There, they communicated easily with each other as they edited the writers with whom they worked.  In fact the editorial staff who worked in my division also worked in an open bullpen-like area, writing and editing material and sharing their ideas with each other.

Last Tuesday, many, many years later, Miriam and I attended a party held by HarperCollins to celebrate the relocation of their offices from Midtown to the Financial District downtown. The layout was open and airy with people sitting in bullpen-like settings.  Some, who previously had window offices still had offices with glass walls so that they could see out and those passing by could see in.  This layout, we were told, was meant to foster a spirit of collaboration.  In addition, I would guess that there was an overall downsizing in terms of the number of square feet the company now occupies, which will enable the publisher to spend money on the titles they are publishing rather than on rent and maintenance of the many floors they took up at 10 East 53rd Street.  Bottom line, my general impression was a very positive one.

Fostering a spirit of collaboration and cooperation in this publishing climate can produce nothing but solid results, in my opinion.  Sure, there is some resistance to this layout—those who previously had privacy don’t have it any more, certainly not as much.  But the benefits include a sense of team building and a  collegial environment.  I think growth will be the ultimate result here and I think this kind of organizational layout will become the norm in the years to come.

Of course, I am always curious as to what you, our readers, think of this idea and I look forward to your comments.