About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Two Way Streets

Did you know that Uber drivers get to rank you, just like you get to rank them?

And when you summon an Uber, drivers can decide not to pick you up based on your passenger rating?

In theory, ratings and reviews are always a good thing, but I'm not always sure.

Generally, I've had good rides with Uber, but when I took an Uber from my hotel to LAX a few weeks ago, it wasn't a very good ride at all.  The driver decided to park across the street from my hotel rather than in the hotel's carport, even though we needed to make an easy right turn out of the carport, there was no obstacle to turning into the carport, and no obstacle in the carport.  The driver didn't offer to help wheel my luggage across the street to his car, which would be a nice thing to do if you're deciding to park across the street for no reason.  Then when we ran into traffic and the "10" looked really really backed up, the driver had little awareness of the alternate routes.  When we got to the airport, and there was a clearly marked sign to go left to cut across the "U" shape of the main terminal area at LAX to get to our terminal, and I even pointed this out to the driver, the driver didn't feel like taking the left because he knew it wasn't the right way to our terminal.  Um, he was wrong.

So how am I, the passenger, supposed to behave during this ride from hell?

Because if I don't protect my passenger rating with Uber, who knows what might happen the next time I need to get one...

And just as an aside, my experiences with Beverly Hills and LA cabbies have often been pretty miserable, with drivers who wouldn't know their way from the bed to the bathroom without a GPS, let alone from Beverly Hills to Burbank, and waiting times are usually longer.  My average with Uber has been better, even if this single ride was probably the single worst.

The same thing happens when I go to a writer's conference.  At many of these conferences, all the attending writers get to grade me, and my grade might determine whether I get invited back to the conference.

So what do I do when I have someone with the worst idea sitting across from me in the pitch session, or the absolute worst pitch?  I could politely give constructive criticism regarding the pitch.  I could give some constructive criticism on the really really bad idea.  Or not.  Because it's a lot simpler to be less than helpful during the pitch session, invite the author to send something along, and then deliver a bland rejection two weeks or two months later.  One course of action, you're actually delivering value to the author by providing the sort of constructive criticism that might help the author improve at their craft and presentation.  The other, you're protecting your rating and doing the easier and arguably more polite thing by not spoiling the face-to-face moment.  You do whatever you want after the conference, it doesn't change the ranking that gets turned in at the end of the conference.

Even if the attending agents or editors aren't specifically aware that they are being graded, the default tendency will still be to take the course of least resistance and do your rejecting after the conference rather than during.  Which will make any outlier who does the rejecting at the pitch session itself that much more of an outlier.

So should we get rated?  After all, Uber shouldn't want passengers throwing up in their cars, and I wouldn't want such a person in my car.  Authors can invest hundreds of dollars in registration and travel fees for a writer's conference, and you don't want to have them filled with agents and editors who aren't giving value.

And yet the existence of the ratings encourages bad behavior.

Monday, October 13, 2014


I am extremely happy that the Washington Nationals got drummed out of the NL playoffs early, and for as long as Stephen Strasburg is playing baseball, I want for them never to advance to the World Series.

Stephen Strasburg himself?  If he goes to another team in a trade or free agency, he can win all the World Series rings he wants.  Just none with the Nationals.


So two years ago, the Nationals has Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit because he was recoving from Tommy John surgery, and when the Nationals advanced to the playoffs, they refused to let Stephen Strasburg pitch because of this innings limit.  This was a controversial decision, and a decision that I disagreed with strenuously.

It's not that I am opposed to any innings limits for pitchers.  My 16-year-old nephew has been playing a lot of baseball in both spring and fall leagues from Little League on.  I've never noticed my brother to be one of those fathers who wants for his son to win at all costs, but such fathers exist.  And there are coaches who don't care about the kids and make coaching kids all about them.  And there are kids who need to be protected from themselves, just like there are NFL players who need to be protected from going back out onto the field with a concussion.  In fact, there should probably be stricter limits on kids playing baseball than there are, since it's so much easier now than was once the case for a kid to do baseball, baseball and more baseball twelve months a year with spring little league leading into summer travel league leading into fall league.   Everything in moderation, and the arms of young growing teenagers ought to be taken care of.

But when it comes to Major League pitchers, teams have all sorts of policies about how to take care of their pitchers, but there's no actual evidence that any of these things work.  It's not like the Nationals went all out with Strasburg before his injury, but there he is having Tommy John surgery in 2011, and that's hardly unique in the sport.

And most Major League players will tell you that they play to win the World Series.  And to earn money, of course, but winning the World Series is right up there.

If there was actual evidence to show that Stephen Strasburg needed to be protected from himself or from his manager over-working him -- shut him down.  If the Nationals aren't in the playoffs -- shut him down.  If you aren't comfortable with the risk, then don't undertake when the reward isn't there.

But the Nationals were in the playoffs, playing to get to and win the World Series.  And you never know what tomorrow will bring.  Look at the Nationals.  After their big 2012, they went nowhere in 2013.  And after their big regular season in 2014, they went nowhere in the playoffs.  Part of their bad 2013 was that everyone was going on the DL.  At least 7 Nationals pitchers went on the DL in 2013, and then hardly any went on the DL in 2014.  That happens a lot in baseball.  Teams have good and bad years for injuries.

But nobody actually knows how to protect pitchers in the Major Leagues from injuring their arms.   Yes, the Nationals GM said loud and long that anyone who was criticizing his decision in 2012 just didn't know the facts and the evidence, but if the Nationals know so much, how did they end up putting so many pitchers on the DL in 2013?  The Nationals  should've given Strasburg the chance at his World Series ring in 2012.  I'd love for Strasburg to win a World Series ring, just not with the Nationals.

Me And My Movie

This fall season marks both my 50th birthday and the 20th anniversary of establishing JABberwocky Literary Agency.  To celebrate, I screened a film at the Museum of the Moving Image for a select group from virtually all phases of my life.  I didn't name the film in the invitation, though the invitations included references to enough of the catch phrases immortalized by the film that it wasn't exactly a state secret.

Here, slightly edited, are the program notes I prepared:


When Jerry Maguire opened on Dec. 13, 1996, I sat down to see it projected (in 35mm, on part of the screen) on the Imax at the Loews Lincoln Square.

I was expecting to like it.

I didn’t realize that I was about as close to my autobiography as Hollywood is likely to get.

The “expecting to like” is easy; it was Tom Cruise in a Cameron Crowe movie, with a decent coming attraction.

Tom Cruise and I have very special relationship.  Top Gun is extra special to me.  That movie wasn't the first film I saw at the Loews Astor Plaza, which was the best movie theatre in Manhattan.  But it was the first movie I saw at the Astor Plaza after starting at JABberwocky.  Before, I was visiting the Astor Plaza.  After, I was living there.  And over the thirteen years that separated Top Gun from Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise had a misfire or two (Days of Thunder, Interview with the Vampire), but for the most part, he was hitting it out of the park every time up to the plate.  Rain Man, The Color of Money, Born of the Fourth of July, The Firm, A Few Good Men, Mission: Impossible.  Even Cocktail and Far and Away -- if you think they worked (and I did, at least at the time I first saw), they worked because of Tom.  The films were generally hugely successful at the box office.  They were also more often than not hugely successful artistically.  The directors or screenwriters included the likes of Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Ron Howard, Oliver Stone, Tony Scott and Sydney Pollack.  All have made significant contributions to cinema.  And the co-stars?  Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Brad Pitt.  These movies garnered a lot of Oscar nominations for people besides Tom Cruise, whose artistic contributions to cinema over a long career are, I think, under-appreciated.

And then Cameron Crowe.  25 years later we still reference the classic scene in Say Anything of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box to woo his girlfriend.  And in 1996 when Jerry Maguire was open, that classic scene was much nearer in the past.  There was a frisson to a new Cameron Crowe film.  But Say Anything was good on many levels, including the overall quality of the performances.  Not just John Cusack's defining performance, but the best performance from John Mahoney.  Forget Frasier.  Has Mahoney ever been better than Lloyd Dobler’s nemesis, the father who doesn’t want Lloyd dating his daughter.

For both Cruise and Crowe, their movies were often my soundtrack.   Working with music supervisor Danny Bramson, Say Anything and Singles were full of great tunes.  Bramson's one of the best at this. He also helped pick the music for the very lyrical Bull Durham soundtrack.  Rain Man had one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.  The Color of Money was full of great tunes.  There were the soaring trumpet solos in John Williams’ Fourth of July score, and the jazzy piano of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm.

So Tom Cruise was going to be in a Cameron Crowe movie.

Which was not just my soundtrack, but my life.

Jerry Maguire and I -- it turned out we were both agents who’d come to have issues with our bosses.

I’d been working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.  Scott  Meredith died.  The people with the clients and the money walked out the door to start their own agency.  A rich guy purchased Scott Meredith and had lots and lots of bad ideas, and I made a very conscious decision that I wasn’t going to just agree with them all.  Working for Scott hadn’t been fun; I didn’t need to bend over backwards to work for another bad boss.  A year-and-some after the agency was sold, did I know the day I was fired, twenty years ago this month, that I was going to be fired?  No.  But when the office was being renovated in the summer of 1994, I wasn’t entirely joking when I told people I got a fax to have at home just in case the boss had other plans for me.

After Jerry wrote his mission statement, he knew there might be repercussions.  He knew just about the moment he hit “save.”  He didn’t know Sugar was taking him to lunch to fire him, but deep down, he wasn’t shocked by the news.

The phone jockeying that followed?  That was me, twenty years ago this month.  My boss, he didn’t care about my clients.  If he wanted my clients, he wouldn’t have fired me.  But boy, did I spend a lot of time on the phone in October 1994.  I had a $300+ phone bill that month.  Because even if I wasn’t competing with my boss, I was competing with the Scott Meredith guys that had broken off 18 months earlier, and any and every other option besides me that any of my clients might have had.  Jerry Maguire’s a movie.  In real life, I doubt there’d be the crying gymnast picking up the wrong line.  But in its essence, every moment Jerry spends on the phone that afternoon is entirely real.

I’m not sure if it’s me or Jerry who headed off to our own businesses with a bigger stock of naiveté. I talked to an accountant enough to understand I’d have self-employment tax weighing down on me whether I was actually making any money or not, but my “business plan” was a sheet of my Scott Meredith memo paper where I roughed out that I needed $24-25K in commission my first year, that I knew where half of it would come from, and that I would come up with the other half.  But honestly, I never thought much about doing anything else.  And while Jerry Maguire and I both settled into home offices, for me the home office was all I needed.  Jerry Maguire needed more. He had a much bigger income potential because he was representing big-time athletes, not a bunch of sf/fantasy authors that were little known outside their fields.  But he had champagne tastes.  He needed the fancy suits and the fancy cars and the ability to look rich and act rich and compete with Bob Sugar.  I was fine settling into my one bedroom and moving furniture around to make room for a desk (cheap do-it-yourself from Staples), a filing cabinet, and a hand-me-down copier from my parents.

So Jerry Maguire might have been nominated for five Academy Awards: Picture, Actor (Cruise), Supporting Actor (Gooding Jr. who won), Screenplay (Crowe) and Editing. It might have spawned a sea of catch phrases that are as or more enduring as Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box in Say Anything.  That’s not why we’re here watching Jerry Maguire today.  There are other favorite films of mine that have probably aged better which are even more iconic.

Here is why we’re here:

When I sat in the Lincoln Square on that Friday night in 1994, having paid full tariff for a Manhattan ticket at a time when my first choice was always the Saturday bargain matineee in Queens, my story was unfolding in real time with Jerry’s.  I laughed a lot.  Too much; I earned some weird looks from people in the row behind me who couldn’t fully appreciate the jokes, because who else but me really could?  But I squirmed a little bit.  I wasn’t sure how the health insurance bills were going to be paid, or when or if I’d ever get a big offer coming across my fax machine.  I was two years into starting a business that spent five years working its way out of neutral.  I was still hoping to have Jerry Maguire’s happy ending.  And today, there’s no better way to say I had that happy ending than to be able to share Jerry Maguire with you.

And what would I say after seeing Jerry Maguire again this weekend?

I own DVDs and BluRays, but I don't do them.  They're there for decoration.  I live in New York City, there are lots of movies to see, and I don't sit in my apartment to do them.

Which means there are films I love that I see over and over again because they're easy to see.  As an example, if I wanted to see The Shining, I could do that lots between Kubrick retrospectives or midnight showings or whatever.  Jerry Maguire isn't one of those films.  I haven't actually watched it in a while.

And in my notes above, I underestimated it.  The movie has aged pretty well, and is even more iconic than I remembered.  The number of little bits of dialogue in this film that have taken on a life of their own goes so far beyond just "show me the money" or "you complete me."  I don't know how many of them Crowe made up and how many he'd heard and used, but so much of the movie is in popular culture 18 years ago because it's in this movie.

In 1996, I could most appreciate the movie's tonal accuracy for the stuff at the beginning.  I was two years off from my own phone jockeying.  Which still feels accurate from a twenty-year remove.  But now I can appreciate it for so much more, especially at the end of the movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s Rod Tidwell has his big game and gets his big contract.  It's very Hollywood, with Tidwell taking a big hit and being knocked out and doing this whole dance and the terms of his contract are revealed as a surprise on an ESPN interview show.  But if you cut away all the Hollywood trappings, every emotional beat is right.  Jerry Maguire, walking around the stadium after Tidwell's big game, is pretty much feeling the exact same beats that I felt a year ago, watching Brandon Sanderson win the Hugo Award for "The Emperor's Soul," and then hanging out with Brandon that night going for a celebratory late night nosh.  It was so dead-on right that I found myself tearing up at the ending.  I hadn't expected that.

So Cameron Crowe's screenplay is a masterpiece.

It doesn't get the emotional beats of being an agent right just by chance.  It doesn't fill itself up with cultural references just by chance.  These perfect words don't write themselves.

The acting.  This I knew. Strangely enough, both Jay Mohr and John Mahoney have the same initials.  Both are better known for stuff on TV.  Both give their best performances in a movie directed by Cameron Crowe.  Ione Skye?  Renée Zellwegger?  Again, both probably have their iconic roles in a Cameron Crowe movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Same thing.  Lili Taylor is hiding out in Say Anything.  Donal Logue (Harvey Dent on Gotham) is hiding out in Jerry Maguire.  Cast long enough, any movie you do can have someone important doing an early role, but Crowe -- he seems to keep doing it.

What a darned good movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Up and Down and In The Middle

I am a big fan of The Middle, which I think is an under-rated and under-appreciated part of ABC's Wednesday comedy line-up.

But as much as I enjoyed the episode that aired on October 1, I was also kind of down on it, because the main story-line deals with college admissions and financial aid in a way that perpetuates the worst kind of thinking, the kind of thinking that keeps people in the middle down rather than helping them up.

Basic premise of the show:  working class family with two parents who work hard and never get ahead, with three kids to feed and a house and a mortgage and bills.  The middle kid is Sue, who's surrounded by two brothers and who is a font of sometimes misplaced enthusiasm.  She's tried out for every club or sport in the school, usually to very bad results, but she's slowly been getting her act a little more together, starting to find boys and a little more common sense and a little more assertiveness in the right places.

In this episode, Sue announces that she's retaken her ACTs, gotten a much better score, and can now set her sites on so many more schools that are so much better.  Which sends her parents into a panic, because there's no money, so how can they afford to send her to any of these really nice schools, so they get second jobs because they're going to do everything they can to get their daughter into the good college she wants.

Funny?  Yes.  It's rare that the show isn't funny.  The main story-line sees the mom working from home with one of those airline call center jobs that doesn't require being in the call center.  But as she says, the job means working from her home, with all the distractions from her three kids, which goes rather poorly in ways that are quite richly humorous.  The dad gets a scene of two wearing a uniform that's very fast food in a way we don't usually see the father.  And the B and C storylines are as good as the main one.  The son in his sophomore year at college decides to walk off with his share of the family's possessions to stock his first student housing apartment.  The youngest sone finds all of the noisy toys his parents had taken from him 10 years ago hiding in the basement.  Sue and a friend of hers work on a school play that's way funnier than Waiting for Godot.

But the basic premise is just wrong.

One of the biggest problems with disadvantage kids getting into good colleges is that they won't apply in the first place.  They don't understand that the schools might offer financial aid, that they might be able to aim higher and afford it.  And this episode totally buys into that idea.  I guess in theory if both parents work dead-end jobs for 25 hours a week, that's 25x2 is 50 hours, and that could be $500 or $600 a year (or $400) and that's an extra $20K or $30K before taxes.  And they've got three kids.  Well, that's not going to cover rack rate at a college.  It's a farce, but not the kind of farce that the show is thinking it is.

No.  Wrong.

Why don't the writers and producers of The Middle find the humor in a show that models better behavior, where Sue and her parents decide that they're going to apply to the best schools possible and Sue is going to chase every scholarship she can possibly chase.  Or they can go looking for schools that waive the application fee, or find out that they're poor but that they make $10.23 too much to qualify for the application fee waiver.   Even if that goes as poorly as their efforts to have these dead-end second jobs, at least it's modeling a better idea.  It's modeling for a parent that maybe they should encourage instead of discouraging if a child wants to aim high and pray for financial aid rather than aiming low because that's all the family can afford.  Maybe it helps a child decide they can do Sue one better and succeed where she doesn't at getting a scholarship because it's Sue, the child who can't succeed at a tryout for anything and in the real world they're better.

I'm not asking The Middle not to be The Middle.  I've been watching this family since June 2009 when I started laughing out loud in the middle of an airplane sampling an episode on the in-seat TV.  I know these characters.  I know there's plenty of humor that's just right for The Middle in the better version of this episode, and they don't need to turn The Middle into The Message in order to put a better message into the middle of their 22 minutes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Maze Runner

It isn't often that I get to see a movie based on a huge bestselling novel that I had the good taste to turn down, but I got to do it tonight, when I headed off to the Ziegfeld after work for the 7:15 of The Maze Runner, based on James Dashner's novel of the same name.

Which is worth your time.

Spoilers follow:

I think I might've liked the movie less if I'd read the book.  One of the things I enjoyed about the movie was that it held surprises.  I was able to make some educated guesses about what would happen in certain instances based on my experiences as a reader of fiction and a viewer of films.  When a group of 15 people heads off somewhere, and half of two-thirds of them are characters who haven't had a line of dialogue, it is safe to say that a good number of those characters aren't going to be around for the end of the movie.  Cannon fodder, they've got cannon fodder.  And if the arch nemesis is left behind someplace, the suspense is in wondering whether the arch nemesis will return in the sequel or before the end of the film at hand.  Also, when characters walk in front of something that looks like the door to a loading dock, it might be a door.

But if I had a general idea of what was going to happen at points throughout, the movie held my attention, interest and curiosity.  I was never entirely sure what was behind the door, or who might be coming up on the elevator, or the exact point in time when the climax was going to be set in motion.

Casting was a definite plus.  Not a single complaint about any of the kids in the Glade, and their roles weren't all easy ones to play.  As an example, the role of the Doubting Thomas (and this movie does have not just a Thomas but a Doubting Thomas) is kind of cliche and very functional and full of pronouncement, but all those lines are delivered with fervor and self-belief by Will Poulter, in a very different role than his equally excellent performance as the son in We're The Millers.  And Dylan O'Brien as Thomas makes his character's actions seem perfectly natural even when, really, they're not, when it takes a lot of gumption or a job with McKinsey to arrive in a situation and start shaking things up like you've been doing it all along.

Well, maybe one false note in the cast.  Blake Cooper has the task of playing the analog to Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and he doesn't manage to surmount that burden.

One false note in the physical production, which is generally impressive, and which false note occurred to me in real time as I was watching, and not with thought afterward.  There isn't some giant dome over the Glade, like there is in the arena in Catching Fire.  Yet the weather in the Glade seems entirely and completely different than the weather beyond the Glade and its immediate environs.  I don't think it can work that way.

But on the whole, it's a movie that kept me interested all the way through, that didn't have me looking at my watch, that kept me awake and alert.

And as the Washington Post critic said, if I could've stayed around to see the sequel right afterwards, I would have.  It's a great ending.  A couple other reviews made it seem like this movie was a giant set-up for the next one.  And it is.  But it's also a quite entertaining movie in its own right.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Curious on Broadway

I am a bit jealous of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It is a novel that is indirectly about autism and which was published around the same time as Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, which is very directly about autism.  Of the hundreds of novels I have represented as a literary agent, Moon's is unabashedly the one I am proudest of.  It won the Nebula Award and has become a small part of the canon, used in a number of campus and community reading events.  But it hasn't been Curious Incident, which won many prizes and has been sold in twice as many languages and become much more of a thing.

My mild envy extends to the fact that the Mark Haddon novel has been adopted for the stage, with the play by Simon Stephens getting rave reviews in London and winning the Olivier Award for best play.  And now it's on Broadway.  And jealous or not, I am somewhat curious about the Curious Incident.  If I'm still not interested in the novel (ennui, disinterest, scared, who knows…) the play is an opportunity to experience it once removed.  So when I saw it on the TKTS half-price list last week, I decided "what the hey," and soon found myself in the front row for the second night of previews.

And I've got to say, the play is better than solid, and boasts and excellent performance in the lead role by Alex Sharp, a young British actor fresh out of Julliard, who has a two page profile in the September Playbill.

Sharp plays Christopher Boone, a 15-year old who is likely on the autism spectrum.  According to the Playbill article the book never states this clearly, but if you follow the duck test, a kid with poor social skills who hates to be touched, fares poorly in crowds, doesn't do well outside of his home environment, etc. etc. -- yes, tis a lot like autism.  He sets out to do detective work to find out who killed a neighbors' dog, which leads to revelations about his family, which leads to a road trip.

Among the many strengths of Sharp's performance is that he plays an annoying character without ever being annoying, which is not at all an easy thing to do, and this in turn enables the play to hit its notes without ever seeming manipulative or cloying.  It might have been an early preview, but Sharp received a stirring standing ovation from the near to capacity crowd, and the play seems quite likely to duplicate on Broadway the success that it has had in the West End.  And it deserves to.  Hard to believe I walked out of Harper Regan, the last play I saw from this playwright!

The production is directed by Marianne Elliott, and physically the play takes place in what is essentially a big modernistic hi-tech box with few actual sets.  Boxes, mostly.  Trap doors for a dead dog to emerge from at the start, or which open to present a trench for the Underground tracks when Christopher is journeying on the Bakerloo line. It works well enough; it enhances the words, doesn't get in the way of them, and connoisseurs of model train sets will enjoy some of what happens within the box of little boxes.  And people who remember the old Automat days may enjoy the way Christopher Boone is able to get things from the little boxes as well; it's almost like there's a little old lady putting new mac & cheese in, only in this case it's the ingredients for the model train.

This was a second preview performance.  As I exited, I could see a lot of people clearly not getting ready to leave, as there are notes to be given and changes and fine-tuning to be made.  Likely more notes for the supporting cast than for Alex Sharp.  He's about as perfect as I'd think he can get, but no one character in the supporting cast had quite that same effect.  And it's kind of hard, because almost all the supporting cast are playing multiple roles, and "just right" for one may not be exactly that for another of the roles.

There ought to be some notes on the play!  Good as it is the first act could be delicately trimmed, 30 seconds from this scene and two lines in another.  The second act can definitely be taken in a notch.  In particular, Christopher's road trip is done up quite a bit, choreographed cast-wide urgency up and down and across the stage, all staged beautifully, very energetic and thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd.  And it would still be all of that were it two or four minutes tighter.  My guess is people aren't looking too much at changes to an award-winning play that's getting standing ovations, but if it's four or eight minutes shorter (and almost certainly not ten minutes shorter; it's needs a bit of a trim but only that) it will be better.

Did the play make me want to read the book?  No.  But the people sitting next to me were thinking they should.  And while there hasn't been much sign I can see that people who read the Haddon novel go looking for more and fine their way to Elizabeth Moon's as a next stop, I can hope a successful play might say something to the people who have circled around doing a film or play from The Speed of Dark.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

more BS from Amazon

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: I HAVE REMOVED THIS EMAIL

Copy us at: readers-united@amazon.com

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at www.readersunited.com


Dear Nathan:

If I am going to cc Amazon on an email to Michael Pietach, you will surely agree it is proper to cc Jeff Bezos directly.

Could you get me his functional Amazon address for that purpose?

And then send it to every KDP author as well? 

Or even just settle for sending us Russell Grandinetti's.

There are a lot of things you can do in a war.  Sending thousands of people the email address of a CEO of a major company shouldn't be one of them.

Every one of you should feel some measure of personal disgust to work for such a company.

This is not right.  You should be ashamed.  

Joshua Bilmes, President

JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.

(someone in the comments mentions that a jeff@amazon.com email address was given out, but it has been an open secret for years that this was Jeff Bezos' address once upon a very long time ago, but has long been staffed by customer service people.  It isn't his working email address, but rather the one you use to feel empowered when you complain.  The one Amazon gave out, to the best of my knowledge, is, and Hachette does not have a massive customer service staff like Amazon does.)