Category Archives: opinion

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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.

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Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

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On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

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Tips from writers, for writers

Stephen King’s  short story, “A Death,” was this week’s fiction in the New Yorker, so naturally I started thinking about how I still have to get around to reading 11/22/63 and ON WRITING. Then I started thinking about how a lot of writers seem to enjoy giving advice about writing. But is any of it any good? The answer is yes: Yes, writing tips from established writers can be very, very good.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve come across:

99% of great writers will tell you that their first drafts are rambling, incoherent pieces of s!@*. The other 1% are lying. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished crunching all the numbers yet, so I’m ballparking here.) Editing and rewriting are such vital components to crafting a story, but first you need to put your ideas down on paper. You can’t shape what’s not there. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, do so. Now. It will revolutionize your writing process.

John McPhee’s “The Writing Life” column in the New Yorker is a goldmine of wisdom. His tips on how to develop the structure of a story are particularly helpful. Few writers place such importance on structure as McPhee. Few writers have also had as prolific a career.

You ever hear of this guy Ernest Hemingway? I hear he’s good. He was also a proponent of simple, direct prose. Cut out all ornamentation. If a word isn’t necessary, lose it. He also said that writers should never describe an emotion—they should present the situation/action in a way that evokes the emotion in readers. This is  difficult to perfect, but it’s something all writers should strive to do.

What are your favorite tips from writers? Let us know in the comments.

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No more “boy books”

When I first started agenting, I naturally put out a call for submissions. Through my bio and personal essay on this site, and through interviews and postings on other sites and in print, I told anyone who would listen that I was looking for “boy books,” or that I was known as a “boy book” kind of guy. At the time, it seemed to make sense based on much of what I’d edited at Penguin, and also as a way to differentiate myself from my colleagues here at DGLM. And it worked, in that I quickly built up a client list, most of whom were male and writing about male characters in their fiction.

However, over time, I started to chafe at my self-assigned “boy book” label. For one, I realized that while I might gravitate toward what’s considered “boy book” territory, especially in nonfiction, my personal reading is chock full of books that might be called “girl books”—most YA, for example, as well as some popular fiction and even nonfiction. (I loved WILD, after all.) Moreover, one of my proudest achievements as an editor was working on Padma Venkatraman’s CLIMBING THE STAIRS, which would certainly get labeled a “girl book”—in other words, I had a track record working on “girl books,” so why give that up as an agent? Plus, I discovered that I was limiting the kinds of submissions I was getting, quite severely at times, which is certainly problematic for my bottom line.

So, last year I revamped my bio and essay and took out the “boy book” designation. But while I had practical reasons for trying to shy away from the “boy book” label, I never really thought about it in political or moral terms. So it was pretty staggering to read this recent blog post by bestelling author Shannon Hale, and how “boy/girl” labeling has affected her school visits. On first glance, it seems ludicrous that school administers would only excuse girls from class to hear her talk, yet I can understand the thinking: “Well, her books feature girl protagonists, and we know boys won’t read those kind of books, so why should they skip class for a talk where we know they’ll be bored and won’t learn anything?”

Now, while I can understand the thinking, that doesn’t mean it’s right. Hale correctly points out that the expectation that boys won’t like books featuring girl characters is so deeply rooted in the educational system that for boys a book like THE HUNGER GAMES has to be qualified: “Even though it’s about a girl, I think you’ll like it.” And by denying the encouragement of boys to read girl characters, and the shaming of them when they do, Hale makes a valid argument that this leads to the rape culture that is far too prevalent, particularly at the college level these days.

So—no more “boy books” for me. Or “girl books.” Instead, just great books, featuring interesting, original, engaging characters. Hopefully this post will supersede any “boy book” info linked to me in searches, and if it does, I’d love for writers to take a look at Hale’s post and reconsider how they might label their work. Obviously, the effort to get past boy/girl labels will involve heavy lifting on the part of educators, parents, and publishers, who are certainly culpable for perpetuating the gendered reading divide. But if authors can shift how they view their own work, that’s a major step toward helping the boy who was too embarrassed to hear Hale talk because he would have needed special permission to miss class.

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Page to screen

Oscar weekend is upon us, which has me thinking, as it inevitably does, about book-to-film adaptations, so I polled the office on this dreary winter day about their favorites (excluding DGLM titles, because that’s just cheating).

Sharon went for literary classics: Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the recent musical film of Les Miserables, and Jane Campion’s take on Sense & Sensibility.  (For Baz Luhrmann adaptations of literature starring Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m personally much more partial to Romeo + Juliet, but I’ll allow that maybe you had to be a certain age when that came out to actually have found it appealing.)

Mike Hoogland will vouch for Fight Club, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Sniper.  I definitely have feelings about all of those choices, so I guess those movies are doing something right!

Rachel’s more up my alley, though: The Virgin Suicides, The Commitments (seconded by me!), and Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Jim and I also both picked good old Bridget Jones.  In fact, my taste in book-to-film adaptations overwhelmingly runs toward the contemporary update of literary classics: the Brit Lit curriculum makes great fodder for high school comedies.  For example, Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You are two of my favorite movies.  I prefer Clueless to Emma, but Taming of the Shrew is among my preferred Shakespeare plays (and I also love, love, love it in musical form in Kiss Me, Kate).

WakingthedeadMy all-time favorite book-to-film adaptation is Scott Spencer’s Waking the Dead starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly.  I love the book and I love the movie, which is pretty rare for me.  I even love the soundtrack.  I think the movie is criminally underrated and the book should have been read more widely.

Jim was on a roll though, so he picked many more, most of which I heartily agree with: Adaptation, American Psycho, Apocalypse Now, Rebecca, The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, Leaving Las Vegas, Election, Precious, and Children of Men.

I could name so many more, too: Jurassic Park, Stand By Me, Trainspotting, Brokeback Mountain, The Princess Bride…Basically, if you’re looking for a memorable movie with strong characters and a compelling story to tell, it probably started life as a book.

And now I have to head home for the weekend, because writing this post has made me want to build the Netflix queue to end all Netflix queues and stay curled up in doors away from the arctic chill of February till Monday.

What are your favorites?  Least favorites?

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Fifty Shades: The Movie

So FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James finally hit the big screen this past weekend after what seemed like a million bumps in the road, including losing actors left and right. It made a splash in the box office just as it did in the publishing industry. The movie brought in $94 million its opening weekend: the highest-grossing President’s Day Weekend ever.

But how long will the film industry feel the ripples of this splash? The book was/is an absolute phenomenon. James’s Fifty Shades series has sold an absurd amount of copies—both when it was self-published and after Random House picked it up. Imitators and parodies of the books soon appeared on shelves and e-bookstores. It’s paved the way for other fan fiction and other self-published authors to have a chance to land with a big publisher and/or movie studio.

So will we begin to see more erotica made into films? Given the success of Fifty Shades on opening weekend, it’d be easy to definitively answer yes. However, reading is an intrinsically private experience, which lends itself to fantasy. Watching explicit scenes on a big screen in a room full of people is a different matter entirely. Could Fifty Shades be an exception?

Your guess is as good as mine: What do you think?

P.S. Saw American Sniper this weekend. The movie ended, and everyone walked out silently, somberly. No one said a word. A completely full theater, and not one sound was made. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. What did you think of this movie/book? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this one, too.