Category Archives: opinion

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The New Year’s purge

 

It’s a new year, and in the Rudolph house that means it’s time to get rid of clutter. I think we do a January cleaning, rather than Spring or Fall Cleaning, because we’ve just come back from the holidays in Maine crammed into a car that’s inevitably jam-packed with oversized kids’ presents and new clothes from the Freeport outlets, and all we want to do is find room for the new stuff in our too-small New York apartment–the only solution for which is to purge the old stuff. 

So, for the past two weeks, we’ve been clearing out every closet, cabinet, and bookcase, bagging clothes for Goodwill, bringing books to schools, and scrubbing down the general grunge in the kitchen. I can’t really say it’s been fun, particularly getting rid of the old clothes that I know I’ll never wear but liked to see in my closet just because… But the results are worth it–it’s nice to be able to actually see the back of my closet for a change, and not have a 3-foot pile of books on my desk, either. 
 
And coincidentally or not, recently I feel like I’ve been asking a bunch of my authors to do a lot of purging in their manuscripts as well. I know I’ve used the phrase “kill your darlings” at least three times in recent weeks, and I’ve had conversations with writers about getting out of the corners they’ve written themselves into. Now, darling killing and getting out of corners are always necessary, no matter what time of year. But I wonder–do writers have seasons or preferred times of the year when they feel more inclined to trim the fat and solve lingering problems? 
 
Well… do you? 

 

12

First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.

 

will ferrell glass case of emotion

 

  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?

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Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!

Now that the holidays are upon us, not only am I excited to mingle with family and eat an unnatural amount of food, but also start on the imposing tower of “books to read” I’ve had building up for months.

So, in the spirit of giving thanks, I figured it would be appropriate to share a few things that I am thankful for as a book lover:

  • I’m thankful for family and friends that love and support me in everything I do.
  • I am thankful for the cool and grey days that make me want to curl up in my blanket with a nice cup of hot cocoa and my favorite book.
  • I’m thankful for libraries in general, but most especially thankful for this wonderful library in Dryden that has challenged kids to read up to 1,000 books before kindergarten. 1,000! I find it very encouraging, and I’m so proud of all the little ones taking on the challenge. Like the good doctor said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”—Dr. Seuss
  • The Hunger Games: MockingJay, part 2. I have purposely waited to see the final installment of the movies based on Suzanne Collins’ books this Thanksgiving weekend, mainly to keep up with the tradition of watching the movies with my sister, who introduced me to the series in the first place. Yes, Tolu, thank you for literally shoving the book in my face.
  • Ali Benjamin. I read her debut The Thing about Jellyfish for book club, fell in love, and now I eagerly await her next work.
  • Every Friends Thanksgiving episode.
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  • Starbucks’s Caramel Brulee Frappuccino. I don’t even like coffee, but this is stuff is pretty good (It’s the sugar!!). Pair it with a witty YA romance and your afternoon is completely made.
  • Etsy.com for making my Christmas shopping easy. With its cool and unique merchandise, you are sure to find just the right gift for your book loving/creative friends this holiday season.

And finally, I am thankful for DGLM and all you wonderful readers. Please share what you are thankful for, and I hope everyone has a fun, safe and relaxing Thanksgiving weekend!!

 

4

Running and writing

When my father first moved to New York City in the late 1960s, he got into the jogging trend that had just started sweeping the nation. And ever since, nary a week goes by where he doesn’t go out once or twice at the crack of dawn and log a few miles. As a kid, he’d often ask me to join him, and I still remember huffing and puffing up the hill from 90th street to 86th trying to keep up with his well-practiced strides.

And to this day, I HATE jogging.

Of course, to make myself even more miserable, I ran cross-country in high school– it was either that or gym class. Fortunately, our coach realized that many of us were only there for the class credit and could care less about our personal bests, so practices were pretty low key. But boy did I dread the Saturday meets at Van Corlandt Park in the Bronx–getting passed left and right, the burning lungs, the brutal final sprint across an open field to the finish line, all of which was made worse by those Friday nights of experimental teenage drinking.

So yeah, I am still not a runner. But maybe that’s why I’m an agent, not a writer?

All of this brings me to this interesting piece in The Atlantic about how so many prominent writers pair their writing with a running regimen. And it does make sense—like writing, running can be a long slog, but supposedly you get better with practice. And several authors note how it’s a good way to clear one’s mind and work out story issues away from the page.

So, do any of YOU run? If so, do you find that it helps your writing?

4

Amazon is entering the real (vs. virtual) world

Amazon StoreSo the news last week was that Amazon has opened its first brick and mortar bookstore—this one is in Seattle where the company has its headquarters.  Twenty years after Amazon began as a website selling books (and before they were pushing lawnmowers and groceries), this could be an exciting beginning for those who love to browse in actual bookstores.

Evidently, most of the books in this new store are displayed cover out which could be seductive to consumers because titles will be easier to find.  The other thing that is interesting here is that it was announced that the books will be the same retail price in the store as they are online (where merchandise is usually discounted).

Given the fact that Borders went out several years ago leaving a huge gap in the print bookstore business and that Barnes & Noble seems to be floundering, this is very good news—for consumers and  for publishers.  Hopefully, this new venture will be so successful that Amazon which, after all, began in the book business will expand their  bookstores  to other cities in the years ahead.  One can only hope.

I’d be curious, though, to know what you think of this new development.

5

You’re reading WHAT?!?!

We’ve been going through a bit of a weird reading time lately in the Rudolph household. For the past few weeks, my four-year-old son George has insisted onHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for his bedtime reading, no doubt inspired by his older brother Henry, to whom I’ve been reading all seven books in sequence for about a year now. While I’d like to believe that George is brilliant, precocious, and absorbing every word, the truth is that he consistently falls asleep after 5 pages or so–and since he falls asleep so easily, we aren’t going to discourage the routine!

Meanwhile, seven-year-old Henry wants to know about war–specifically, World War II. And since Dad can’t seem to explain WWII coherently without getting into a lot of evil stuff, he asked if we have any books on it instead, or if he could get some from the library. So it seems we’ve reached that fateful Parenting Moment where we need to think about what kinds of books are appropriate for our kids.

Now, like most of my publishing colleagues, I abhor censorship. One of my proudest projects from my early days at S&S was working with Judy Blume on Places I Never Meant to Be, an anthology that supported the National Coalition Against Censorship. But when it comes to Henry and George, is it right to feel concerned about what they read? Or am I being a total hypocrite if I tell Henry to wait on the war books until he’s older?

Fortunately, Roger Sutton of The Horn Book (and an outspoken anti-censorship advocate) pointed me to this little piece on Book Riot, where the author advocates letting kids discover books without restriction. And after reading it, I realized that I benefited from a laissez-faire book policy when I was a kid, too–discovering Lou Reed’s music in ninth grade led me to William Burroughs, and while I distinctly remember my Mom wasn’t thrilled when I took my copy of Junky on the plane to visit my grandparents in Florida, to her credit she didn’t stop me.

So while I might try to get age-appropriate book from the library on WWII, when Henry starts digging through our own shelves and comes across Ellie Wiesel and Primo Levi, I’m not planning on stopping him. And if George keeps up with Harry Potter through the somewhat disturbing ending, I won’t be the one to stop him either (even if manages to stay awake).

But maybe I’m being unrealistic and/or dogmatic here–how do you handle reading material for your kids? Do you keep an eye on them or give them free reign on your shelves? Where do you draw the line?   

2

The importance of positive persistence

Last Wednesday, there was a piece in The New York Times titled “The Plot Twist”.  In it, the writer, Alexandra Alter discussed the fact that e-book sales were slipping and print book sales were rising by about the same percentage rate.  This, after the dire predictions of four years ago that e-book sales would overtake print sales in a very short time.

I remember when e-books were the topic everyone was talking about.  Many of my colleagues in the publishing business were predicting the demise of print book publishing and of the entire business as we know it.  We were all—publishers, agents and authors—frightened about what would happen.  And then nothing did.

Although we at Dystel & Goderich did begin a digital publishing program in order to help some of our clients self-publish, we didn’t panic.  We felt this was a natural alternative for those authors whose books were out of print but which could still find a readership.   In fact, the program has served us well and will continue to do so in the future.

I found that through all of the sturm und drang of the negativity of the past four years, I kept looking forward, signing new authors, adding to our staff of super talented agents, and knowing that, in the end, print books would survive.  And they did and will continue to do so.

Thinking positively during those difficult days wasn’t easy.  Everyone seemed to be shaking their heads and worrying about the future of the business.  I have found though, over the years, that worrying is paralyzing—that the only way to keep going is to think positively, to find those projects and strategies that will move us forward and to use my energy to make them happen.

Again, this idea of positive persistence is one I have lived by and will continue to do so as it is the only way to keep growing both as an individual and as a mentor to my staff and clients.  I urge you all to think about this and how this concept plays out in your lives.  I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

4

It ain’t over till it’s over

As the press has noted, with the passing of Yogi Berra, we’ve lost not only a baseball legend, but a legendary quipster, whose wit and wisdom (real or attributed) applies to so much beyond baseball. And one of his most famous Yogisms, “It ain’t over till it’s over” came to mind yesterday when I saw the front page article on the Times proclaiming that, hey, print isn’t dead after all!

Now, anyone who’s been keeping up with this blog and publishing news in general already knows that e-book sales have plateaued, and that both print and bookstores have had a nice resurgence over the past year. But as they usually do, the Times provides a nice overview, especially when it points out that the ABA counts 300 new independent bookstores since 2010, and that the big publishers are expanding their warehouse space to keep up with demand. And in their even-handed way, the Times does point out that both new e-readers and pricing could lead to an e-book resurgence, though I find it hard to imagine the $50 Kindle will lead the way…

Instead, I wonder if most people will end up as hybrid readers—e-books for travel, work, maybe for certain genres, and print for the rest. You might draw a parallel of sorts to the record biz, where hipsters gather physical vinyl for home listening but use Spotify on the go. If that becomes the new normal, then maybe the more prescient Yogism here would be “It’s deja vu all over again…”

Anyway, I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Has anyone ditched e-books completely at this point, or vice versa? If so, why? And if you’re a hybrid reader, how do you divvy up your reading between print and e?

2

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?

2

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.