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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cold Stone Timbits

I am a big Tim Hortons fan.  I love just thinking about precious little Timbits, only 60 calories in a banana cream.  You can read what I said here about the genius idea of having Wendy's spin off Tim's.  

I am not a Cold Stone Creamery fan.  I prefer Ben and Jerry's, where Ben and Jerry do the hard work of picking yummy flavor combinations for me.  I think it's too much work to have to select the mix-ins at Cold Stone, and I don't think the ice cream is particularly wonderful that I've wanted to wait on line for 45 minutes as I once did with my niece.

But it looks like I'll be going to Cold Stone a little more often now that they've announced plans to roll out a co-branding initiative to three Manhattan stores, including the one on 42nd St. across from the AMC Empire theatre.

I don't know how much space each brand will get, but let me say right now loud and clear that they better have room for some Timbits.

I worry a little about having temptation so close at hand, or that the bloom will go off the rose when I can get Timbits more easily.  But hey, life is full of risks.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Bookscanner Darkly

A week or so ago, another agent I know, Andrew Zack, blogged about a negative experience he had with Bookscan.  A book he had on submission was rejected by at least one house because the author's prior sales on Bookscan were not very good.  This frustrated Andrew because the actual sales were much better than what the Bookscan numbers were saying.  There is nothing more frustrating to an agent than to have a book you like rejected for a not very good reason.  Here at JABberwocky we had a manuscript by Fred Durbin rejected by one house because marketing vetoed it even though everyone on the editorial side was enthusiastic, and I found this rather an odd thing to do because a chunk of the book had just been serialized in Cricket Magazine, which to me you'd think maybe the marketing people would think was a nice hook.

I've known Andrew for a very long time.  He was one of the last young publishing up-and-comers to cut his teeth working for Donald I. Fine, and for some categories of work I'd unhesitatingly suggest him; I quite envy in particular the breadth of his non-fiction offerings.  But I don't agree with his assessment of Bookscan at all.

There is one major problem with Bookscan, which is that a fairly full access for one user ID costs a small fortune.  Several thousands of dollars, in fact, so the cost is really prohibitive for a lot of literary agencies.  There are some ways to get some information for less; but if you want to really have fun with this you've got to pay big bucks.   For me, for that kind of thing, cost is almost no object because I've always been fascinated with numbers.  In college, before I had a career in publishing, I would always enjoy looking at the index cards used to track ordering activity at the Community Newscenter locations in Ann Arbor, and it's not like I stopped doing that sort of thing once I actually had a real professional reason to do so.  Imagine how happy I am every Wednesday morning when I can have a week of actual POS sales data for the entire JABberwocky list delivered to my computer.

And yes, the information is flawed.  It doesn't include Wal-Mart, which guards its sales data zealously.  It doesn't include Larry Smith's table at a convention.  It doesn't include a lot of grocery or drug store or similar channels, though they've kind of gone from 0 to 25 MPH in the past couple years first by adding a few supermarket chains like Kroger and Stop and Shop and this January adding Hudson News.  It doesn't include a lot of non-traditional channels, so I was out of luck the same way as Andrew Zack when I tried to market a sequel to a book that was selling mostly through Motherhood Maternity.  Maybe if you as an agent subscribe to Bookscan you can be aware of possibe situations like this and try to address them with a line in your marketing letter, but that may or may not work.  It could just force a house that wants to reject to come up with some other "polite" but silly reason to say "no."  Or maybe they'll believe Bookscan before they believe the agent.  Agents do lie sometimes.  A baseball free agency season hardly goes by when some GM isn't complaining about the mysterious other suitors Scott Boras claims to have, and I'm sure some editors feel that way about some literary agents.

But Bookscan is a tool, and like all tools it can be used right and used wrong.  Right about the time I first got my Bookscan subscription, I noticed that the just-published Crossover by Joel Shepherd was selling pretty danged well for a book that had been taken by Borders but not by Barnes & Noble.  I was able to go to Lou Anders at Pyr and point this out, and Lou was able to go to the sales people at Prometheus Books, and they were able to go to B&N and get them to take some copies of the book.  And this helped turn CROSSOVER from a dubious proposition into a solid enough performer that it's now been chosen to launch the mass market program from Pyr.  A lot of things had to go right for this to happen, but it all started with somebody paying attention to those Bookscan numbers.

And now this year, I was able to notice a sales spike for Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries from the Dead after it won the Philip K. Dick Award, and I was able to make a good numbers-based case to Diana Gill at Eos and she was able to go to her sales people, and we've gotten some renewed support from Borders for Emissaries and its sequel The Third Claw of God.  It's too soon to know if this will have the long-term payoff that I saw with Joel Shepherd, but again this is at least getting some good use out of the tool.

Of course it costs so darned much, that I'm not sure on strict cost-benefit terms that I can justify how much I pay in order to achieve these victories.  It's a no-brainer for me because of the weird wiring of the Joshua Bilmes brain.  But does it really pull my fat out of the fire near often enough to start saying cost should be no object?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Citi Field

Many years ago I was a regular at Shea Stadium with a 60-game ticket plan.  That ended in the mid-1990s.  No money when I started my own business, and the baseball strike cooled my ardor as well.  The ardor is still cooled some.  The "security" restrictions (i.e., the Yankees and Washington Nationals are among the teams that will let you bring in a factory-sealed water bottle but not that same bottle empty) after 9/11 make going to a game less pleasant.  At least with the Kindle I can now bring plenty of reading material just like the old days, gone post 9/11, when I could take in a backpack full of manuscripts and other reading which ain't so easy to fit when the allowable bag size is 16x16x8.    Even though I can now afford even over-priced NYC ballpark tickets, I wasn't rushing to go to the new Yankee Stadium, and the Mets' Citi Field.  (& yes, the Mets do allow plastic bottles full or empty, but no glass or hard containers.)

But when one of my friends ended up with extra tickets for Yankee Stadium this upcoming Wednesday and another told me last weekend the Mets still had seats if we wanted to go for last night's Subway Series game...  Well, I wasn't complaining.

So Citi Field:

Annoyance #1, the city has spent all kinds of big bucks helping to support these stadiums in ways that avoid saying they're actually paying for them.  Providing city-backed bonds, or "infrastructure" improvements, or sweetheart rent deals, etc.  Yet, they haven't found the money to really upgrade the subway stop that's now called Mets/Willets Point.  If you can't navigate stairs, you can kind of get to the stadium from Manhattan or closer-in parts of Queens by taking existing ramps on the wrong side of the stop that lead to a new ramp to street level where you have to cross the street.  Going home, there's still no wheelchair access at all to the Manhattan-bound platform so you would have to take the train one stop further out and then head back in.  That's incredibly obnoxious.  This could easily add a half hour or more to a return trip if you even want to bother trying.

Nice touch #1. while the 60s era circular stairs were taken down in favor or a straight staircase, there's now a really nice promenade leading from the subway to the main entrance, which is much closer to the subway.   If you want to get to the early-opening gate 2 1/2 hours before to see batting practice, you are just steps away from it.

Enh #1.  The exterior of the ballpark is very attractive, but it follows designs intended to relate to a cityscape that doesn't exist around Shea Stadium.

Nice touch #2.  You can circumnavigate the stadium.  I think there's something nice and festive about being able to walk around the entire perimeter of a ballpark and take it all in.  I don't like places like the new Busch or the new Comiskey which turn one wall into a private dead end preserve.  And the new stadium does present a real street front to 126th St.  There's nothing across 126th St. but auto parts junkyards that the city's never bothered to supply with sewers and which they hope to relocate (maybe then the exterior will relate to some cityscape) but at least right on 126th St. there's some real sense of place.  The official entrance to the Mets offices is on an actual city street instead of facing a massive parking lot.

Enh #2.  It's like going to a Marriott.  Everyone's wearing a name tag with the place they live on it.  They're somewhat friendly.  Friendly is nice, but do we need the places on the name tags?  & the vendors (or are we supposed to call them "Hospitality Attendants" now, according to one namem tag I looked at) still have garish uniform colors that make them look like escapees from an Alabama chain gang.

Enh #3.  Nice wide main concourse with good views of the field and plentiful rest rooms and room to walk around and etc. etc.  I would give this a Nice Touch, except this is stuff every new ballpark has so it doesn't make me feel at all special that for these ticket prices and the public subsidies and everything else that we in NYC get to now use a baseball stadium that looks like Camden Yards or Seattle or Nationals Park or...  

Nice Touch #3.  Like many of the new stadiums there's a plaza area back behind the outfield.  What makes this one nice is the Shake Shack.  Some years ago a little outpost by this name opened in Madison Sq. Pk in Manhattan where all the people from Tor Books can wait on line for their entire lunch to buy burgers and fries of rare quality.  Now you can wait on line for the same thing for 30 minutes at Shea Stadium.  Dang this stuff is good.  The burger was very good.  The fries tasted like pieces of potato and had no need of ketchup to be totally chow-downable, and the shake was excellent.  $17 for the meal, but the best food I've ever gotten at a baseball stadium.  

Annoyance #2:  But with all the people waiting on line for Shake Shack and BBQ from Blue Smoke and picture-taking with Mr. Met, the centerfield plaza had no sense of place and no comfort.

Annoyance #3.  And it's hidden behind an advertising bedecked back of one of the scorecards.

Annoyance #4.  And the pre-game music like the during game music was loud and blaring and assaultive and obnoxious and makes me never want to go to Citi Field again.

Enh #3.  For old times sake you do get a nice view from one end of the plaza to the UHaul sign that used to be the Serval Zipper sign that used to be one of the things off in the distance beyond Shea's outfield fence.  I doubt most people will care about this.  But if they do redevelop the auto junkyards I hope they put a street down there so it will protect the view corridor.

Annoyance #5.  We paid $98 for a seat beyond the edge of the outfield fence near to the left field foul pole.  We couldn't see right below in the left field corner.  We couldn't really see deep center field very well. We could see all of the scoreboards with lots of head tilting.  Yeah, tickets are overpriced big time.  This might have been field level, but it wasn't a good seat.  The raking wasn't even so good, so if a tall person were sitting in front of me I wouldn't have seen much.

Enh #4.  But I learned quite a bit about the operations of a Canon HD 100 Camera with Sony monitor attached.

Enh #5.  Way too many advertising signs all over the park, but that's to be as expected as the wide concourse.

Annoyance #6.  Mets got only one hit.  That was one too many.  I'd have rather seen a no-hitter at that point.  And the stadium was full of Yankee fans.

Annoyance #7.  No ramps.  I like walking up and down ramps in ballparks, not stairs that are encased in stairwells with views of nothing.  Not elevators, not escalators.  Ball parks should have ramps.

Nice Touch #4.  We exited thru the Jackie Robinson rotunda, which is very grand and attractive.

Nice Touch #5.  I noticed on my way out more than on my way in how the plazas surrounding the stadium are full or benches or circular floral displays with actual nice places to sit.  It makes waiting for somebody to meet much more pleasant, or to just people watch after a game.  Very very nice.

Because I was going with a friend and waiting on line for Shake Shack, I didn't explore the view from the top row or walk around the entire inside of the stadium.  Because of the head-tilt for the main scoreboards I can't really comment on that part of the experience.  With more annoyances than enhs or nice touches, and with the overpriced tickets, I'm not even sure if I'll be in a great rush to return to the stadium to kind of do the full thing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Funny-book round-up

Haven't done one of these in a while...

The Muppet Show, #1-3 (of 4).  This is a pleasant surprise that does a not-at-all bad job of replicating on the comic book page the experience of watching the classic TV show from 30 years ago.  You've got Statler and Waldorf, Pigs in Space, backstage shenanigans, Muppet Labs, running jokes (can Gonzo's species be identified to qualify him for insurance?), pretty much everything except the comic doesn't sing the Muppet Show them when you open it up.  It's written and drawn by Roger Langridge, whom I am otherwise not familiar with.  It made me smile, and it gets 3 slithy toads.

DMZ #42 launches a new three-part story arc.  The book's had some nice multi-parters since I last commented upon and gets an improved 3 toad ranking on this issue, which explores some new territory in the DMZ.  The Empire State Building is the site of group therapy for mercenaries that we find out is designed to keep them all sulking in their misfortune to make their trigger fingers just that little bit happier.  There's a guest artist, Ryan Kelly, and he does a good job of channeling regular artist and series co-creator Riccardo Burchielli.  And writer Brian Wood chugs along.  This has been one of the most consistent Vertigo books I've read over the past several years.

The same cannot be said of newer Vertigo title Air, which has had more ups and downs in 10 issues than DMZ in four times that.  Air #10 is an issue to hate.  It seems to have hardly anything to do with the story as we know it so far.  I gave issue #2 a solid 3 toads, but this issue gets 1 slithy toad.  DC/Vertigo's been totally behind the book with an extensive preview program and a special-priced issue down the road, and anyone who sampled that issue will probably wonder what's going on after reading this.  Lots of good ideas in the series, but no focus.  I'm not sure I'll keep paying.

I'd gone on hiatus with House of Mystery when it started an arc that seemed really really bad to me, resumed with the special 13th issue, and now am back for issue #14 that starts a new arc.  Looks a little more interesting, but still good for only 2 toads in my book.  Do I want to shell out for a book that's mediocre in hopes it might accumulate to something better?  Enh.  Really on the fence.  

Ex Machina #43 sees this usually solid series from Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris in the midst of what will be an off arc.  Seems a little too obtuse to me, really requiring a vast familiarity with the series continuity to understand a lot of what's going on, and with less of the alternate-NYC elements that make the series fun.  Though I'm giving this issue only 1.5 toads, maybe 2.5 for the most careful students of the collected Ex Machina, I'll probably keep going with the series because it's often been very good.  Yet I really worry that this series, like Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man, will end up drifting into disappointment as it heads toward its conclusion.  I read Y to the bitter end, but if this arc doesn't pick up...  I don't know quite what happened either, since I wasn't so negative on the first two issues of this arc, and yet this one has me really put off.

The Unwritten is a new Vertigo series, also with a lot of previewing and support from the company.  It has an interesting premise, in which the son of the creator of a Harry Potter-like series may be a direct model for the series, or may be the character himself, or may... well, we don't really know and finding out what's going on is the idea of it all.  The first issue was excellent.  This 2nd issue not as good.  There's some sense of mystery and weird bad guys and plots, but I wanted something a little bit more.  2.5 toads, will keep going and hope it settles at a high level instead of drifting down.

The Simpson's Summer Shindig #3 has one really good story, two so-so stories, and one with a cute idea that didn't end up working for me.  Final grade, 2 toads.  The best story has Moe looking to get rid of stale beer by starting to make and sell beer-flavored donuts from the bar.  And then Scott Shaw! spoofs his own Captain Carrot and the Simpsons' Radioactive Man.

Simpsons #155 was a pleasant 3.5 toad surprise.  It launches a 3-part crossover in which the purveyors of Radioactive Man decide on a major crossover event where the main gimmick will be secrecy, all of the other gimmicks having been done to death.  It's a little bit Hembeck or Ambush Bug, starting out with the Kruller (a shot at the big Marvel thingie) before visiting death, new costumes, parallel worlds, and oh so much more.  

And my final books, Superman: World of New Krypton #4 and Action #878, are prime examples of the whole gimmick stuff that I think is strangling the DC Universe.  The current thing in the Superman books is that the Kandorians have been enlarged and have moved to a planet orbiting Earth called New Krypton.  Superman has moved there, where he fights with and for General Zod.  And of course Earth is without Superman.  This story-line crosses from book to book though each book has its own separate story-line, and these are the two books I've been reading while not paying attention to Supergirl or Superman.  It's big event after big event in the DC Universe, and a never-ending series of mini-events in the different individual books, and since I don't/can't read 28 DC books a month to keep track of all of it I keep trying something for 2 issues then giving up when it ends up crossing over with something else.  The fact that I've actually read 4 issues of New  Krypton with plans to be back for a 5th, that's a rare good sign.  But the fact that I'm so doubtful on the whole affair...  These are 2-2.5 toad books and for old time's sake to be reading an old line superhero book I'll keep going.  But I just know it will end badly.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Implausibility and Amiability

So the implausible first...

The Taking of Pelham 123, seen Saturday afternoon June 20, 2009 at the UA Midway, Auditorium #1.  If you Love NY 1 Slithy Toad.  Else 2.

Talk about finding laughs in all the wrong places. 

The 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 has its virtues.  The lead performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta are quite pleasant to watch.  That almost goes without saying for Denzel Washington.  With Travolta, you never know quite what you might get.  But here, he's a good foil, playing a subway train hijacker against Denzel Washington's subway dispatcher.  There are some nice turns in the supporting cast, like James Gandolfini as the Mayor of New York City.  If you can live with the fact that 2009 is simply not 1974 in any way or shape or form, you can accept that the movie is acceptably updated and remade.  Oh, it goes too far.  The first movie ends in an almost anti-climactic and certainly very subtle kind of way, and the new version goes all the way into loud 21st century movie-making.  Something in-between might have been nicer.  

But...

My oh my but...

for all the money and talent and resources that were spent on this, did it have to treat NYC geography so stupidly, so sillily, so cavalierly, so ineptly? 

Some things, you can give the filmmaker artistic license.  My movie-going companion, editor extraordinaire Moshe Feder (he discovered Brandon Sanderson for Tor), noticed which I did not that some of the Grand Central subway scenes were shot at the #7 train platform instead of the Lexington Ave. #6 platform.  That we can live with.

But here is a movie where:

1.  The midtown HQ for the subway system is located at the tip of lower Manhattan in the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

2.  After the #6 train is hijacked, the authorities continue to run express trains on the adjacent tracks.  Even if they don't stop at Grand Central, this is ludicrous.  The Lexington Ave. line would be shut down in the neighborhood.

3.  The captured train goes south from Grand Central to some secret "Roosevelt" station that goes into the Roosevelt Hotel.  Which is North of Grand Central, and not on Lexington Ave.  Except that this secret Roosevelt station leads into the Waldorf Astoria hotel, which has a private platform for the Metro North commuter rail but not for the the subway system.

4.  The movie invents a Brooklyn Federal Reserve bank.  And then the NYC police that I've seen do incredible street-clearing jobs for things like the UN General Assembly somehow manage not to be able to do a decent job of clearing a route for a motorcade carrying $10M from this fake Federal Reserve bank, solely so that there can be Exciting Illogical Crashes along the motorcade route.

5.  It takes less time to drive from the Waldorf to the Manhattan Bridge than it does for a half dozen policeman to walk 20 yds. along the Manhattan Bridge bike/walkway.  

6.  And of course the police don't stop subway trains going across the Manhattan Bridge even though they know that's where the villain is heading.

7.  The hijacked #6 train is somehow going to head off to Coney Island, even though there is no way that  I know of for a train on the Lex. Ave. IRT lines to switch on to any of the lines that go out to Coney Island.

8.  When the train emerges from underground on its way to Coney Island, it does so where the #7 train emerges from the tunnel leading into Main St. Flushing in Queens, with a brief glimpse of Shea Stadium in the background.  Poor Shea Stadium, perhaps its final screen appearance and it has to be here. 

9.  The Mayor takes a train to 57th or 59th St. in order to go to the Staten Island Ferry terminal 5 miles away.

10.  Neither the Mayor nor his aide have a cell phone while riding the subway, so the only way to alert the mayor to what's happening is to have cops run up to an elevated platform and hop on a train just moments ahead of the doors closing.

You get the idea.  

The filmmakers had the money and the cooperation and everything else they needed to make things right, or at least a reasonable version thereof.  And instead, they make it wrong.

I got a lot more laughs out of this than I think I was supposed to.

After a little bit of a break to visit the Barnes & Noble in Forest Hills, I returned to the Midway and saw...

Hangover.  Seen Sat. evening June 20, 2009 at the UA Midway, Auditorium 4.  3 slithy toads.

The Proposal.  Seen Sat. evening June 20, 2009 at the UA Midway, Auditorium 9.  2.5 slithy toads.

Neither of these movies had as many laughs as Pelham 123, but both had me smiling for pretty much their entire duration.  Hangover gets the edge in my ratings because it doesn't wear out its welcome while I was occasionally checking my watch in The Proposal.  Also, Hangover is kind of ludicrous at every level but intentionally so, and when you buy into it you buy into it.  While The Proposal too often stretches plausibility even within the parameters of its premise.

But I enjoyed both and was glad in both instances to have seen.

Some random observations on both...

I haven't seen this mentioned in the reviews I've seen, but Hangover is a comedic retake on a 1998 movie Very Bad Things, which is a much darker but similarly conceptualized Vegas bachelor party gone bad from director Peter Berg, who later went on to such Much Better Things as Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, and Hancock.  Will Hangover director Todd Phillips (Old School) take a similar turn in his career.

Hangover may be one of the best Vegas travelogues I've ever seen, certainly since James Bond film Diamonds are Forever.  Oh, a lot of movies do Vegas from the standpoint of a casino, but the views from the Caesar's roof in Hangover are a different animal entirely, sexy and vibrant and seductive in a way that the baccarat table is not.  And you see the city from a gritty street level view as well.

The end credit sequence in Hangover is excellent.  Kept the entire audience in its collective seat, and made it hard for me to watch the credits because I kept wanting to look at the other side of the screen.

Ryan Reynolds grows on me as I see him in movies like Definitely Maybe and The Proposal, to the point that I almost regret not seeing Van Wilder.

We don't see enough of Mary Steenburgen.  I've been fond of her from the earliest days of her screen career in Time After Time and Ragtime, thru her excellent turn in Philadelphia.   She did several films with John Sayles, but it was another Mary, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (also not seen enough) who was in Sayles' Limbo and disappears in Alaska.  Yet I feel as if that Mary disappeared to be reincarnated in Alaska as this Mary here.  Does this make any sense to you?

Yet neither Mary Steenburgen nor Sandra Bullock really seem to be aging, which is one of those unfortunate facts of Hollywood life that women are never supposed to age.  The men can and do, but heaven forbid you age as a woman in this business.

The depiction of the publishing business in The Proposal is probably as unrealistic in its way as the depiction of NYC in Pelham, but this movie isn't really about publishing while Pelham is supposed to be living and breathing NYC.   

After my movies I ate at Pizzeria Uno for the first time in an unusually long time, and it was like comfort food to me.  It's 26 years now since I first treated myself to a sit-down meal at an Uno's, and the one in Forest Hills has the Michigan Daily Weekend section "Best of Ann Arbor" thing on Uno's from 1994.  I love walking into an Unos and seeing this hanging on the wall.  It connects me to my youth.  I would have compiled the campus film listings in that same issue of the Weekend section.

Oh, to be young again.

It was a good day.  I'm still smiling about it.

Oh, a quick final note on the Midway.  This movie theatre on Queens Blvd. in Forest Hills was a semi-grand mid-size movie palace in its day with a very nice lobby.  When I first started to see movies there in 1986 or 1987, it was one of those awful hack job quads.  The two downstairs screens were narrow and tunnel-like leading to small screens at the far end.  The balcony theatres had larger screens but like a lot of those theatres the movie projected from the center out while the balcony seats were designed to face toward the center so you kind of had to tilt your head the entire time you were watching the movie.  Some people in the comment section at Cinema Treasures praise the balcony theatres because those old balconies did have stadium seating, and I don't entirely disagree, but I also never entirely liked the geometry of those balcony twin jobs.  In 1997, the theatre was rebuilt from the ground up.  The lobby was kept, but the theatre beyond was demolished and rebuilt into a surprisingly pleasant 9-screen theatre.  The theatres aren't particularly big, but they all have at least a decent-size screen, the sound is usually good, and the nice lobby with its grand staircase is still intact even though there's a certain modern movie-house tawdriness that detracts some.  It compares quite favorably to some of the fully modern theatres in NYC like the smaller screens at the Kips Bay or the dreadful Kaufman Astoria.  Every time I do get out there I think I should get out there more often, except there isn't a truly large screen like at many of the Manhattan houses, and there's more to do heading in to Manhattan than further out into Queens. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Ethicist

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/magazine/14FOB-ethicist-t.html

Excerpted below, from the NY Times Magazine for Sunday June 14.  This is the first issue with a smaller trim size as the Times continues to try and cut costs in non-journalism areas.  

I've flown to Europe many times, and never been recognized by a flight attendant.

THE ETHICIST

Signature Act

I am a flight attendant. I was working a flight from Europe when I recognized Michael Connelly, my favorite author, on board. I told him I was reading his novel “Brass Verdict,” and he kindly offered to autograph it. The catch: it is a library book. Must I return the signed book to the library, or can I replace it with a new copy in a suitable jacket? J. T., ST. SIMONS, GA.

You may keep your trophy if you follow the procedure you propose and meet any other costs of retrofitting the replacement for library use. As a general matter, a library should not be regarded as an ad hoc bookstore, but on those rare occasions when you need a particular book at 35,000 feet for so glamorous an encounter, there’s no harm in it. (I’d act similarly if I met the ghost of Jane Austen on the D.C. shuttle.) I am a bit disconcerted by Connelly’s writing in a library book, knowingly or unknowingly, but whether he defaced or embellished it is something for literary critics to adjudicate.

UPDATE: J. T. bought a new copy and a heavy-duty clear plastic cover, but the original cover was affixed too firmly for her to remove. She threw herself on the mercy of a librarian, who told her, “Don’t do it again,” helped her install the new cover and let her keep the autographed copy. No charge.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

British Cinema

I saw 3 movies while I was over for London Book Fair in April.

In The Loop (Sat. evening Apr. 18, 2009, Odeon Kensington #4, 1.5 slithy toads) was a British movie that had gotten some decent reviews.  I decided to go in part because I'd walked by the Odeon Kensington on every trip to London without ever actually seeing a movie there, and I decided it was high time.  In that regard, I was able to peek in to the big screen (#3) and see that it is a very nice and very big balcony theatre that will be worth keeping in mind for the future.  I wasn't sure I should go because this was a late show on the same day as my castle walk, and I was tired.  And in that regard, In The Loop did not help keep me awake.  It's a political satire spun off from a British TV show.  A cabinet minister puts his foot in mouth about the war in Iraq.  The media minister scolds him.  Efforts to improve situation only make it worse.  Minister is exiled to DC to a study committee on the war.  Only makes things worse.  The media minister curses up a storm wherever he goes, he's modeled after some minister in the Tony Blair cabinet but maybe for us in the US think of a minister who's Dick Cheney talking about Pat Leahy or Rahm Emanuel with his famous temper and then taken not just to 11 but to 18 on the dial.  Most of the laughs (and not just to me but also the handful of other people in the audience) are from this one character's abundantly foul language.  Otherwise, I don't want to say it's bad, but it's not very good either.  It's just a little flat, the occasional chuckle or wry observation but badly in need of something more.

I've had good luck seeing movies at the Odeon Covent Garden, what used to be the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue.  In fact, I believe the very first movie I ever saw in London was the delightful comedy East is East in 1999 at this theatre, and Arlington Road is another film I quite liked which I saw here.  So let's add The Damned United (Sun afternoon. Apr. 19, Odeon Covent Garden, Aud. #1, 3 slithy toads) to that list.  This is a sports movie with an excellent pedigree that is unlike any sports movie you might have seen in the US in the past 30 years.  Michael Sheen, who plays David Frost in Frost/Nixon and Tony Blair in The Queen, here plays Brian Clough, a British football (i.e., soccer) coach who gets his dream job taking over the Leeds  United team from his arch-rival, well-played by Colm Meaney.  The script is by Peter Morgan (also Frost/Nixon, also The Queen) and director Tom Hooper did the highly regarded John Adams mini-series for  HBO.  So as I said, good pedigree, and I should also single out Timothy Spall who adds wonderful supporting work as Clough's right-hand man and Jim Broadbent is in the cast as well.  So we all know this script, new coach takes over from arch-rival and it leads up to the big game where the new coach goes up against the old coach and wins dramatically.  And since I wasn't familiar with Clough's real-life story (and this movie is adapted from a novel based on Clough's story by David Peace, said novel all over bookstores in the UK), I kept waiting eagerly for the movie to tick off all of the sports movie cliches I am so fond of and so used to.  The big moment when the new coach goes up against the inherited players and makes the team his own.  But you know what, that's not what happens.  Clough fails miserably, the holdover players mutiny, management sides with the players, and several weeks into the season Clough is booted off the job and forced to beg his right-hand man whom he'd abandoned to take his dream job to re-up on their pairing.  It's not really a sports movie at all but rather a fascinating character study of a man in need, who has to have someone or something to balance his insatiable drive and lacking that drives himself off a cliff.  It's an excellent movie.  I don't know if it will come to these shores, but if it does you should seek it out.

My final UK movie would be a treat no matter how the movie was because it was playing on the main screen at the Empire Leicester Square.  This is one of the nicest movie theatres in the world, I feel safe in saying.  It's a somewhat small scale version of Radio City, with a huge huge screen and wonderful sightlines and excellent sound.  There are multi-colored lights in the auditorium that cycle thru so you can just admire that while you wait for the movie, and then as the film is about to begin the lights in the auditorim give way to a twinkling firmament above the screen.  I love going to this theatre.  It is a true Cinema Treasure.  The movie was State of Play (Wed. eve. April 22, 2009, 2.5 slithy toads).  This is a well-acted and well-made thriller with a frisson of old-time All The President's Men excitement and lots of appeal to a newspaper sentimentalist such as myself.  The ending starts to tie itself up in a few knots too many.  But Russell Crowe good, and Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren, and Rachel McAdams, and Jeff Daniels.  I could find quibbles, and I'm giving this only a moderately favorable rating instead of a very favorable one, but bottom line is that it is well-acted, it does entertain, and I would say to see this when it comes out on video.

If I were in London today, my ambivalence about seeing Terminator Salvation would resolve, because any movie you have even the tiniest desire to see, when  you can do it on the big screen at the Empire you want to do it because the evening will be a special occasion regardless.  I love the Empire.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Comeback Kid?

It's time for a progress report on Ron Marshall, who took over as CEO of Borders in early January, and who has been trying very very hard since the start of the year to dig out from under the hole dug by his predecessor, George L. Jones.  I had a very ambivalent relationship with Jones, whom I felt made some good decisions and some bad decisions and some interesting decisions but at the end of the day wasn't running a tight ship, wasn't solving the biggest problems quickly enough, and was rearranging the concept store deck chairs while the company's cash position was sinking like the Titanic.  I urged his firing in March 2008, and the only sad thing about the announcement of Ron Marshall's arrival was how long it took to make the change.

I am happy to say that I like pretty much everything Ron Marshall has had to say since he came on board.  He seems to be executing on what he's saying in his interviews and conference calls.  He's solving problems that need to be solved.  And I can only hope he's doing things quickly enough in these difficult economic times to put a real turnaround into effect.

To give credit where due, he is building on some initiatives left in place by George Jones.  It looks like Borders is trying to leverage the new employee computer system that was introduced in 2008.  And I felt in 2008 and continue to feel today that Borders was placing some good and right bets on the JABberwocky list, with Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson both enjoying more consistent support from Borders.  Part of the credit for that goes as well to sf buyer Morgan Burns, who will now be tending a new sf/fantasy blog called Babel Clash at the Borders web site.

So let's look over some of the things Ron Marshall has done:

He's chopped middle management at the store level.  This is something the liberal in me doesn't like to like, because there are hundreds of people who've lost jobs as a result of this.  But it's the kind of hard decision that has to be made.  Every Borders had a variety of management positions, like a sales manager or an inventory manager, because that was the way it had been done at Borders.  And that wasn't a problem in the 1980s when Borders started to march across the country and generally had little competition and state-of-the-art inventory and was opening good, high quality, well-trafficked stores in good neighborhoods.  But over time, Borders had hundreds of stores, and some of them were still big and well-trafficked but others were not.  Yet all of them still had the full assortment of middle management positions that Borders always had, and to be quite honest I was sometimes surprised to go to a mid-level or lower Borders and meet a bookseller who had one of these titles because I could look around the store and see there wasn't a lot of inventory for an inventory manager to manage.  He also dropped some middle management positions at HQ.  I'm pained by this, but I have to give this a thumbs-up.

He's made it very clear that Borders cannot shrink its way to success and that his ultimate goal is to get the Borders customer re-engaged with Borders and buying merchandise at Borders.  This might be a difficult thing to accomplish when most retailers are seeing drops in same store sales, but at least he knows that he has to get an upward sales trend going.  Thumbs up.

He's increased the frequency of reordering.  Big big big thumbs up for this.  He is addressing a core problem Borders has had in the past ten or fifteen years.  It had been the custom at Borders that each publisher would see a backlist order from Borders once every month or so, with some frontlist titles maybe ordered a bit more often and some of the deep deep backlist being ordered only every two or three ordering cycles.  This was fine once upon a time when Borders was state-of-the art, but B&N had leapfrogged Borders in replenishment by the early 1990s, and Borders kept doing things the same way it always had been.  B&N was supposed to carry a book, they'd have a fresh copy on the shelf within a week or ten days after it had sold.  Borders was supposed to carry a book, they'd sell that copy and could go three weeks or ten weeks before it was replenished.  Now, Borders will place orders every two weeks or every four weeks, which means it is much more likely that Borders will have the books customers want on the shelf when customers want them.  About time, don't you think?  Borders also had this habit of going overboard in early reorders sometimes.  If books are looked at more often, they may not need to guess so much on how much a six or eight week supply would be for an early reorder, and so Marshall thinks they may be able to have fewer returns while ordering more often.  I'm not so sure about that, but maybe.

The music/DVD section that's been a drain on Borders as sales in these categories have shipped is being diminished.  The chain is being divided into four tiers of stores.  The top tier that can still sell music/DVD (as an example, Manhattan stores that tourists may frequent) will continue to have a good selection.  The bottom tier will have only a few hundred top titles in the category.  The space that's cleared up will be given over to expanded children's, bargain, wellness, and other top performing book categories.  George Jones had been taking down space in these categories as well, but Marshall seems to be doing it right.

In February 2008, Borders introduced its new concept store, which was designed to have fewer titles and more face-outs.  They liked this so much they decided all stores should carry fewer titles.  Then they announced their big cash crunch a little bit later and hacked at inventory even further.  This was a bad thing.  It's been an ongoing problem that the worst Borders had really bad depth but this was balanced out by the deep selection at the best Borders.  This cutback in titles cut away at the depth at top stores and made them less attractive and certainly didn't make the bad stores any better.  It killed some of the JABberwocky backlist, like the Hot Blood anthologies edited by Jeff Gelb and Michael Garrett that saw small but steady sales at the best Borders locations.  It wasn't helpful to Emissaries From the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro which I would say is the quintessential example of a book that was published in early 2008 and gone from Borders by late summer that would previously have been kept on at least at the top half of their stores.   This book seems to have become a sleeper hit based on sales trends over the past two months (and it deserves to be; it's an award-winning and very very good sf mystery by a very very talented writer) and the fact that you can't buy it at Borders is a bad bad thing for me, the author, and for Borders.

Ron Marshall recognizes that you can't be a bookstore selling lots of books to dedicated readers without carrying books, and he says that depth of stock issues will be addressed.  There are some signs of this.  Tanya Huff's Blood Books are back at Borders, and there are books like The Sleeping God by Violette Malan or Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell that are hanging around at Borders (at least at some stores) which would certainly be gone if they were applying the same criteria that saw Adam-Troy Castro given the hook a year ago.   I don't know if they'll reverse course to the point of returning the Hot Blood books to their top 50 or 100 locations for horror or picking up Adam-Troy Castro again, but at least the attitude is that a Borders should carry books.

There are also plans to get booksellers more involved in hand-selling and recommending books to customers.  Interestingly enough, the new computer system has been given a facelift that will give booksellers tools to do this.  This makes me very happy, that when Ron Marshall says Borders should be doing something I can go into a store and see that the company is giving the employees good tools to do it.  If you ask for a book by a particular author, there certainly won't be tool-related excuses for a bookseller not to say "oh, bummer, we don't have this book by the author, but we do have..." or "that's right over here, and we've also been finding that people who like books in this category have really been going for that other book as well."

The one thing that saddens me is the company's plans to trim the mall store business down to under 100 stores.  Like the dump of middle managers, this may be necessary.  But I can remember the days when big shopping malls often had two or sometimes even three bookstores in them, and with B&N's B. Dalton outlets down to 50ish and Waldenbooks maybe down to 80 (which could include airport stores) we may enter an era when a mall has a big superstore or 16 books at the CVS and some cookbooks in the Williams Sonoma and nothing in-between.  That won't be good for the book business.

Borders is in a hole, but I think it can survive, I think Ron Marshall is doing things that enhance its chances of surviving and thriving, and I am very glad.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Hunger and Sugar

Hunger, seen Saturday April 11 2009 at the IFC Center, Aud. #3.  3.5 slithy toads

Sugar, seen Saturday April 11, 2009 at the AMC Empire 25, Aud. #5.  3 slithy toads.

I saw these two films prior to heading off for London Book Fair, almost 2 months ago.  Sugar is still hanging around here and there, such as at the Cinema Village in New York City.  Hunger, you'll want to keep an eye out for on DVD.  I'd certainly recommend renting both.  Hunger is the better movie, but Sugar the more enjoyable.  I've been meaning to blog about both, but as you can tell from the small # of posts in May, it's been a busy time in the weeks since I got back from London, and the blog often feels the brunt of my busy-ness.

Hunger is about a 1981 hunger strike in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland led by Bobby Sands.  But while about Bobby Sands' hunger strike, the film makes an interesting and even courageous decision to NOT approach the story directly from Sands' point of view.  Rather, the first chunk of the film takes us into Sands' story by way of a couple other prisoners participating in a "blanket" strike, where the prisoners refuse to wear prison issue and go into their cells with blankets instead.  And more.  Not for the squeamish, we get to see quite vividly how you can avoid using a bathroom by smearing your feces on the wall and building mashed potato culverts to put your urine out into the cellblock hall.  Quite, quite vividly.  The purpose of all of this is to attempt to get the Thatcher government to recognize the IRA prisoners as political prisoners instead of garden variety criminals.  The authorities do not take well to this, and there are scenes of great brutality and power as the guards attempt to assert authority and give the prisoners haircuts or clean their cells.

Sands embarks on the hunger strike as a way of escalating the stakes, and the second half of the movie is devoted to that hunger strike.  He sticks to it until the bitter and fatal end, and the movie has a Kubrickian chill in depicting how the hunger strike plays out.  If you could imagine a wasting body inserted into the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the old man star child of that film being turned in bed and his bed sores treated with ointment, his parents looking on, that's about what you're getting in Hunger.   And to me, there's no better praise for the movie than to say that it's one of the most Kubrickian pieces of cinema I've seen since Kubrick himself.  Its structure as a play in three acts is reminiscent of 2001 and Full Metal Jacket.  The art and set direction, the symmetry of things, the use of music through most of the film, it's all Kubrick.  I think it very safe to say that your attitude toward Kubrick's work may well be indicative of your interest in Hunger.

There's only one flaw in the film which keeps it from getting the last half toad.  The middle act of the movie is an extended sequence in which Bobby Sands discusses his plans for the hunger strike with a visiting priest at the prison.  On the one hand it's a brilliant scene with rich,  vivid and provocative dialogue.  On the other hand, it's a godawful indulgent scene that drones on and on.  And on and on.  And almost set me into a deep and lasting slumber for what was to come.

This isn't a film to see again and again, either.  Kubrick has a chill to a lot of his work but also a kind of brute genius that makes me want to see his major films once every five years.  Hunger is a brilliant work with almost all the same ingredients, but once is both a must, and enough.

Sugar is a baseball movie that really isn't about baseball.  It comes from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck who attracted considerable attention a few years ago for a film called Half Nelson that I only half-liked.  It was about a school teacher played by Ryan Gosling with a lot  of problems and baggage besides his work, and it was worthy but flat.  I was interested in Sugar from the first reviews of it I read coming out of Sundance in 2008, but also ambivalent.

Happily, this one wasn't flat at all.  The central performance by Algenis Perez Soto as a Dominican baseball player who comes to the minor leagues in the US is totally winning.  Soto is a charmer, totally engaging.  There are some small scenes of big grace.  My sister and I both liked one where Soto visits a diner in the US, is unable to order eggs because of his inability to know what kind of egg is which, and gets the assistance of a kindly waitress who brings him a plate full of eggs in different varieties with a quick English lesson to go along with it.  I enjoyed some of the scenery.  Soto's minor league team plays in a stadium in the shadow of a bridge across the Missisippi, and there' s something about the play of the big bridge and the minor leagues that I cottoned to.

This so-called sports movie takes an interesting turn when it leaves sports behind.  Soto's Sugar decides that he isn't going to cut it and abandons his A-level minor league team to seek  friend in New York City, and the last third or quarter of the movie turns from sports to immigration assimilation drama.  Soto's absolute charmer of a performance takes the viewer along because we care about him more than the balls and strikes.  However, the downgrade on the toad scale for me in this movie comes about because I didn't feel as if the lead character's pivot from lifelong pursuit to total abandonment of baseball was sufficiently justified by what was on the screen.  This didn't bother my sister as much, because she feels from working with latino kids as a school teacher that there's a kind of macho that totally justifies what the character does without it needing to be spelled out, and she and I have agreed to disagree on that.

But we would both recommend Sugar.  It's charming, approachable, likeable, and worth the ride.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

BEA 2009, Pt. 1


BEA, or Book Expo America, is the big trade show for trade publishing in the United States, and was held in New York City a couple weeks ago.  I'll do some posts over the next several days either about or inspired by the event.  Here are some photos I took (or in some cases, mis-took, because they're blurrier than we would want; I guess I'm not a professional photographer).

The first comes from inside the Javits Center, where a nice Sookie Stackhouse display was at the front entrance to the Penguin booth.  Very nice views of the current DEAD AND GONE hardcover and the True Blood Season 2 tie-in edition cover for LIVING DEAD IN DALLAS.  I am very fond of both.  And then there was the big, bold, beautiful True Blood billboard on W. 39th St. at the intake into the Lincoln Tunnel, and isn't that a nice way to start and finish the day heading to and from the Javits Center each day.

The next very blurry picture was taken at the Prometheus Books booth.  The wonderful Pyr SF line edited by Lou Anders is part of the Prometheus empire, and they had a big poster up for GEOSYNCHRON, the concluding novel in the Jump 225 trilogy by David Louis Edelman.  Prometheus was also giving out copies of the new premium-size mass market edition of CROSSOVER by Joel Shepherd, so the JABberwocky list was well-represented in this corner.
  
At the Severn House booth, it was nice to see the forthcoming historical mystery ANGEL OF THE GLADE by Scott Mackay on their display shelf.    And there on the right, I'll also mention Marcia Talley's new book, because Marcia Talley is a wonderful person whom I've known by way of Charlaine Harris for many many years.  It always brings a smile to my face when I see Marcia, and it brings a smile to my face to see her book at BEA as well.

Finally, this was a very special BEA because it's the first time in all my years in the business that I had an author officially at BEA, with an official signing in the official signing area and on a panel and totally getting the full royal BEA treatment.  So we have a picture of Brandon Sanderson participating in a panel with 
Jonathan Tropper for authors of books that had been mentioned in the Editor's Buzz panel the day before, and then we have a picture of Brandon doing his official signing of copies of new novel WARBREAKER while his editor Moshe Feder is standing up in order to take a picture of Brandon's very long signing line. Brandon also had an ALA autographing and did an interview for BookSpotCentral.  He and I met up with the people at Macmillan Audio and recorded some video that will be used to promote the audio release of The Gathering Storm.  We discussed possible comic book adaptations of Brandon's work with a couple of comic book publishers.  

I should have taken pictures at the JABberwocky dinner, where Brandon joined myself, my JABberwocky associate Eddie Schneider (celebrating his first anni on the JABberwocky team, Peter V. Brett, the publisher of Recorded Books, our man in China, our summer interns, and World's Biggest Bookstore bookseller Jessica Strider and her husband at Rachel's.  A good time was had by all.  It was my first time going to Rachel's, and I will happily go there again.  It's convenient to the theater district and the food generally received high marks.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Genius? Or Mad Man?? (aka My Life in Technology, Pt. 2)

This can be considered as the next post in the series I began way too long ago with My Life in Technology Pt. 1.

There are a couple of movies that have extra resonance to me because of my job.  One is definitely Vampire's Kiss, in which Nicolas Cage plays a literary agent who thinks he is becoming  a vampire.  It's one of Cage's classically manic performances, this one good Cage manic instead of the bad Cage manic from the very dawn of Cage's career.  Hard to believe it's 21 years now since this opened.  One of the classic scenes for a literary agent is when he's tasked to locate some old short story contract for one of the agency's most important clients, and the task -- well, shall we say it gets to him!

This is not an atypical problem.  The longer a literary agency is in business, the more the contract files should grow, and the more the number of actual important active contracts should grow as well because you sure hope in this business that your backlist is getting deeper and more important as they years go by.

So once upon a time you have one contract for Brandon Sanderson, for his first two book deal with Tor.  Then you start to sell some of the books in translation markets.  Then you do a second deal with Tor.  And you start selling more books in more places overseas.  Then you do a deal for the Elantris jewelry and the Mistborn miniatures and slowly the contract file begins to get very big.  Big contract files are bad, because it takes forever to find when you suddenly need very badly to find the agreement for the German edition of Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians.  So you end up splitting it into 2 files, one with the Tor contracts and one with the translation contracts.  Or 3 files, and put the merchandising deals into a different file, or 5 files for those 3, and then the European deals in a different file than the Asian ones and the audio deals in a different file than the jewelry ones.  This is kind of better, except with all of those different files... does the Russian contract go in with Europe or Asia, or what if the Czech contract for Mistborn gets put in with the audio contracts by mistake.  It's easier to find the right contract, but that assumes the right contract is in the right file and you still have what was once a little single contract that is slowly becoming 8" of contracts.

But I believe this is how it has always been done.

Recently I've gotten to thinking if there isn't a better way.  We now have a wonderful database program in Filemaker with a wonderfully robust Deals Database.  We have a serial # field set up, so every time we do a new deal the deal has a serial #, and that becomes a tool that helps a little bit to track the deal as the contracts go back and forth and the payments come in.

And I've had this crazy notion that we should file our contracts by Deal #.  

Which is not how it has always been done, which scares me.

And because the deals we have from before Filemaker don't have serial #s, we would have to enter all these old contracts in at least a stub entry form into Filemaker.

And if we ever stopped using Filemaker that could be a problem.

But it just seems to me it would be so much quicker over the fullness of time to find the Deal # and then go right to that contract in the file than to do things the way it has always been done/

We'd want to have backups and redundancies.  We already enter the serial # for new deals in the master deal word processing file for each author.  We could set up layouts to generate sortable summary sheets by title and author that we could put into binders.  We'd have at least 3 layers of redundancy with the printout, the database and the word processing file.  I don't think -- I don't think -- that we'd be in a situation where we'd have 862 contracts in the file by Deal # and suddenly find we didn't know any of the deal #s any more.

Anyone who comments that we should scan all of our contracts and have them as searchable PDJPEGFTIFGIF files and send them to Yucca Mountain six times a month for back-up, that's a wonderful idea, I thank you for your suggestion, etc.  I know I could lose all my hard copy in a fire or something, but the idea of having all of these contracts as electrons on a keychain drive petrifies me to death.

So it seems to me in the 21st century that doing things that I should break with the past and switch the contract files around and not keep doing the way it's always been done because that's the way it's always been done.  I'm around 85-90% leaning toward making this big break.  But  I'm kind of thinking it's still a really really bad idea because we wouldn't keep doing things the old way if it wasn't the right way as well.  Would we?