Category Archives: opinion

4

Literary letdowns

I’ve recently heard from some friends who have been disappointed with critically-acclaimed, wildly popular books. In some cases, I’ve recommended the book on the wrong end of a vicious verbal barrage. Imagine this:

 

 

 

 

 

Toss in a few more obscenities for good measure and now you get what I’ve been dealing with recently. First it’s THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. Next, it’s INFINITE JEST. Even a couple of my most memorable childhood books have been slandered during this, the merriest time of year. If one more person puts down ENDER’S GAME or HATCHET

At first I thought my friends were being a little too harsh. They couldn’t see any of the, ahem, silver linings, in the aforementioned books. Then I thought back to those times I too had experienced that hollow feeling that follows the breaking of high expectations. We’ve all been there. Every one of us has cracked open a book hoping to turn that last page, clap the back cover closed, and look up to a new world with a fresh perspective.

It rarely happens. And we’re let down. Now’s the time to share. Let’s get all of the whining out the way right now and enjoy the rest of the holiday season. What books didn’t live up to your expectations?

0

Best time of year

Keeping up the holiday cheer and general positivity that has crept into our blog lately, I figured it’s time to bring up the Best Books of 2013. It seems like almost all of the lists are in (here’s a handy little Google search for most of the notable players). Lots of crossover and consensus among them, but when it comes to comprehensiveness, I’ve got to hand it to the Times. At least on the fiction side, it seems like they cited just about every novel that got significant ink this year.

So… whatcha think? Everyone out there love THE GOLDFINCH and THE GOOD LORD BIRD as much as the list-makers? What are YOUR best books for 2013?

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Best part of the holiday season

It’s Thanksgiving already. And it’s certainly cold enough to be winter. There’s no denying it: holiday season is upon us!


Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The holidays mean different things to different people, and I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you what I love the most about the season of giving.

Yep, it’s not the Thanksgiving turkey or the piles of gifts or even the general merry cheer that permeates the air, but the opportunity to relax and read a book. In fact, reading is how I bond with my family: my nose in a book and completely shut down from everything around me. They talk, I don’t listen. Call it a family tradition. And don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but the holidays are when it’s my time to get some serious reading done. In fact, I’ve read some of my favorite books by the Christmas tree.

 

So, that’s enough about me. What do you guys enjoy the most about the holidays? Oh, and by the way, not everyone loves Thanksgiving.

8

Random is a state of mind

One of the things I’ve always loved about publishing (and which makes saner people twitch with frustration) is how random and illogical many of its systems and processes are.    For a small industry with outsize influence relative to its size, its day-to-day operations feature a lot of crazy shenanigans.  Exhibit A:  This delightful  excerpt from Dan Menaker’s memoir which John referenced earlier this week.

Instead of on sober reasoning and well calibrated risks, a lot of decisions in our business are based on emotional reactions (“I fell in love with the gorgeous prose.”  “The story hit me like a punch in the gut.”  “I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down.”) that a moody, infatuated teenager might find over-the-top, and a measure of wishful thinking that might land normal people in a mental ward (“Let’s give the author of this partial manuscript on goat herding in Tibet a $4,000,000 advance.  We’ll surely recoup most of it in foreign sales—you know how the Brits are about goat herding.”)

As much as we try to be logical and measured, however, the nature of this particular beast is that it is quixotic, mercurial, and hard to pin down using standard measuring tools and equipment.  Just when you think something can’t and shouldn’t possibly, ever, ever, work, it’s a huge bestseller and you and your team look like geniuses for having the foresight to pluck it out of the precariously high piles on your desk, floor,  whatever.  And, just when you think you’ve found the next 50 Shades of Da Vinci Codes, you end up looking at Bookscan numbers in the low four digits.

And, it is precisely that unpredictability, that randomness, that makes what we do so often exciting and rewarding.  It’s gambling, sure, but gambling dressed up in a tux and sipping a martini at a vingt-et-un table in Monte Carlo.  It’s crazy and fun and miserable and painful, but never dull and you have to want to be in the game (as a publisher, agent, author, market  and rights person, etc.) even when it doesn’t go your way.

What say you guys?  Is the randomness fun or is it more anxiety producing and maddening than it’s worth?

5

Accentuate the positive

Rumor has it that I’m the critical type,* so you might guess that I’d turn my nose up at the announcement that BuzzFeed’s new books page will only post positive reviews.

But I’ve gotta be honest: wasting a lot of time working to discourage other people from liking what they like just isn’t my thing.  Maybe that’s why I work in a job that’s all about telling people about new things they should love.  Years after seeing a presentation by Tumblr creator David Karp, I still use as an example of creative genius that Tumblr was created without comments so that anyone who wants to add their two cents has to reblog—essentially putting their sentiments onto the page they own, which forces people to consider whether they want to be known by their vitriol.  It’s a brilliant way around the problem that the internet is a toxic cesspit of anonymous rage, but it’s also a goal I can get behind.

I love a clever piece of writing as much as the next person, but reviewers who endeavor to destroy what they’ve read (or seen or heard or eaten) with the might of their pen just irk me.  I never fall in love with the angry reviews that make the rounds, and I’m not sure I see the point in excoriating a thing that people worked hard to create.  (Sure, they didn’t always work hard, but there’s only so much joy in taking down an easy target.)  I mean, I’ve been known to bitch when something gets tons of praise heaped upon it that seems to miss every flaw that I found glaring (I’m looking at you, film adaptation of Silver Linings Playbook), but I’ve only ever looked at negative reviews when I’m looking to confirm that it is right and just for me to dislike a thing I already dislike.

Criticism is an art form, and I think negative critiques have their place, but to me it’s more of an academic need than a practical one.  One of the reasons I don’t really read reviews is that I’m not terribly interested in what people who hate things have to say about them.  I’ve never read a bad review and thought, “Oh, okay, I can skip that,” because it so often seems like the reviewer, be they a highly regarded professional or a person on Goodreads, has an axe to grind.  Fortunately, for people like me, there’s BuzzFeed, and for anyone who wants an aggressive critique rather than simply an opportunity to find something new to check out there’s virtually the entirety of Kirkus and a certain someone at the New York Times.

 

 

*I prefer to think of myself as intellectually thorough.

3

Holiday gift ideas

Today it snowed in Manhattan for the first time this season. You know what that means? The holidays are here.

It may not officially be holiday season until Black Friday hits stores, transforming shoppers across the country into characters straight out of Lord of the Flies, but it’s never a bad idea to get a head start. In fact, rather than wait in an endless line for the new iPad, try giving a book as a gift. I always enjoy unwrapping a good story, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The key is to choose the right book. That’s why I’m coming to you. I need suggestions. And don’t be afraid to get creative. In fact, it’s encouraged. Nothing says “I didn’t really try” like buying someone a bestseller they’ve already read (although I suppose that asking for ideas over the internet comes close).

What you need to know

Dad: likes legal thrillers, sports books, military history

Mom: likes any controversial nonfiction (especially something health-related), thrillers, romance

Sister: likes everything from YA to literary fiction to books on psychology, no science fiction or fantasy though

So get in the Christmas spirit! Share your suggestions!

3

The value of gossip

A couple of weeks ago, we had a staff lunch—where we order a bunch of delicious food and sit around talking about what’s on our mind regarding our business and the industry in general.  In the past, I have learned a great deal from these sessions and I believe our staff has as well.

Sure enough, there was some heated gossip along with the yummy cole slaw.   We dished about what was happening at various publishing companies—Amazon and Penguin-Random in particular—and how these events would affect our business and our clients.  There was a really interesting exchange of news and ideas and I think we all felt afterwards that we got some good inside information, as well as enjoying each other’s company.

All of this made me think about industry gossip and its value.  I can see, as I did at our lunch, that when important news and information gets passed around (even if it’s just hearsay) and its implications are discussed and analyzed, we can learn a lot…I certainly did.

After the lunch, I found this piece, which ran a couple of years ago in Forbes and which underlines various aspects of office gossip.  Do you all engage in a lot of office gossip?  Do you find it useful?

1

Beginning to see the light

It’s been over a week now, but for me Lou Reed’s death has been lingering on like a pair of pale blue eyes. You know, man, when I was a young man in high school, I was a HUGE Lou Reed fan—not just the Velvet Underground, but the solo records, too. Even the bad ones–who remembers Mistrial? In fact, I first got the news about his death from a couple of high school friends, for whom my Lou fixation evidently made a bigger impression than I ever realized.

Anyway, I figured Lou would be a good subject for a blog post, since so much of his output had to do with books and writers. The literary connection got more explicit in his later years, culminating with The Raven and Lulu, both of which were based on other writers’ work. But from his earliest interviews, Lou talked about books and writers, claiming that he wanted to take what writers like William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby, and Delmore Schwartz were doing in print and translate that to rock and roll. I know a lot of readers found their way to these authors through other rock stars, but I never would have dug Last Exit to Brooklyn without Lou.

And the more I think about it, Lou’s celebration of writers had as much to do with my getting into publishing as any actual writers or books, too. It basically boiled down to a syllogism: Lou is cool, Lou likes books, therefore books must be cool—and so when my dreams of a rock star faded in college due to a serious lack of faith in my talent (or, more likely, a serious lack of talent), something about publishing spoke to my rock n’ roll heart. In particular, kids’ books, which at the time had a serious us-vs.-them relationship with adult books. It got even better once I started at S&S and discovered how many uptight parents, teachers and librarians were banning Judy Blume and other kids’ book authors who wrote about real life like a certain rock musician…

So, any Lou Reed fans out there in blogland? Anyone see his influence in their writing? I’d love to hear your stories–hey, maybe we can get a New York conversation going (and have a real good time together)…

4

Learning to deal with “no”

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague and friend who was thinking of going back to a previous agenting career.  This person had once been an agent and had the reputation of not being able to take rejection well.  When he told me what he planned to do, I said I thought that his choice sounded great but that he had to learn to handle the word “no.”  His response was that he simply couldn’t deal with a young, inexperienced person on the publishing side of the business turning down one of his clients’ ideas.  All, I could think was, “That’s just too bad.”

Over the last many years since I have been an agent, I have been handed rejection many, many times. When I was starting out, I actually took the turn downs personally, but then, after about six months, I realized that people really weren’t rejecting me, they were passing on the proposals I was presenting.  And so, I decided to learn what I could from the rejection and move on.  It hasn’t always been easy – I am still disappointed when an editor rejects one of my clients’ proposals – but over the years, I really feel that through rejection, I have become a better agent.

Looking for material on how to handle rejection, I happened upon this blog post.  There is, indeed, much here that is instructive not only to those of us who represent writers but also for authors who must steel themselves to handle rejection, for editors who want to buy a project but are turned down by their bosses and colleagues, for publishers who are rejected by accounts and consumers when they go to sell their books, and on and on and on.

I really believe that if we try to benefit from being turned down, and learn from it, we can more easily move forward.  And perhaps using what we have learned from a previous rejection will enable us to experience success with the next project we set out to sell or get published.

I would love to hear what your experience has been dealing with “no” and whether you agree or disagree with my take on this.

What I’m looking for now

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

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

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

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

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

ADULT NARRATIVE NON-FICTION:   As I said last time: “If there’s an amazing book-length true story out there, I want to hear it. History, memoir, sports, music, immersion journalism, popular science, health, animals—whatever the subject, if you’ve got the credentials to write about it, send it my way.” To this list, I’ll add military history and politics, as well as a request—whatever the subject, try to make it as expansive as possible without losing the main narrative. A favorite rejection line from editors is that a subject is too narrow… so go wide!

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

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