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.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

...As Once Upon a Time They Were

So concludes one of my favorite reads of all time, John Crowley's Little Big.

Which is the current selection of the AV Club book club, which has inspired me to give it a quick shout-out.

I discovered John Crowley when I was a wee lad, courtesy of Orson Scott Card, who offered great praise to Crowley's Engine Summer, subsequently repeated in an F&SF review column of Card, where you'll see that Card and I did not agree on Little, Big (nor, for that matter, on Crowley's later novel Aegypt).  But nonetheless, just like Card's praise for Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy in recent months may have sent a few readers Brandon's way, Card's praise for Engine Summer got me to reading John Crowley.  I quite liked Engine Summer, which is a post-apocalyptic novel whose derelict roadways stick in the recesses of my mind more than anyone else's.  I went on to read The Deep and Beasts, perhaps not as good but certainly interesting.  And then Little Big appeared in the summer of 1981, which is the Joshua Bilmes version of The Summer of Love, when I was on my own in Cambridge and Boston for several weeks, haunting the second floor sf/fantasy shop a few blocks down from Harvard Square and Wordsworth and the Million Year Picnic and Sack Theatres.  And there was some good buzz on Little Big, and I eagerly anticipated it, and my recollection is that I laid out quite happily and eagerly for it when the Bantam trade paperback arrived in the new release section at Wordsworth.

And I loved it.  If there is one book I'd love to find time to re-read, it is this one.  I don't know, maybe I'd be disappointed and wonder whatever I saw in this at that age.  But all these years later, the last paragraph of the novel still holds resonance for me.  I think of the book when I show off the whispering well at Grand Central.  There's this image of an octagonal house that I can summon up, which I remember being from here.  It was a fantasy.  It was a love story.  It was well-written.  Maybe it's just that it's a type of book for which I had a soft spot in those years (Richard Adams' Girl in a Swing), but I don't think so.

So I smiled when I noticed that it was being featured in the AV Club this month.  

For many years, Little Big struggled to stay in print.  There was a mass market edition, and it would go out of print, then Bantam would think of some excuse to do a Signature Special Edition or some-such that would last for 18 months.  There was another Harper edition before the current, which seems to have settled in at long last to a sales pace that will keep it around.

The literary success of Little Big turned Crowley into a darling of the literary community.  His newest book has been reviewed respectably in all the right places.  But as he's become more and more the darling of the literary community he's become of less interest to me, and I don't see myself rushing into the arms of his new Four Freedoms.  But if you're inspired to read Little Big, let me know what you think. 

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Harry Potter and the Perfect Getaway and other such things

As I mentioned a few posts ago, doing the blog thing is one of the things that takes a back seat when work gets really busy and work has been really busy.  But I'll try and do some quick takes on my recent film-going...

Harry Potter and the Whatever's Whatever.  Seen Wednesday July 29 at Clearview's Ziegfeld.    1.5 slithy toads.  This was nice because it was a guy's night out with Peter V. Brett, who was eager to see the movie again, and I don't often have company for my movies, and we had a nice dinner after, and I saw it at the remaining big single screen movie theatre in NYC.  But I just didn't like it very much.  One of the problems early on in this series of movies was that the films had no screen life independent of the books themselves.  I felt this slowly improved over the first three or four films, but now the series has regressed.  This movie introduces you to characters of absolutely no importance to anyone who hasn't read the books, involved in events and situations that make no sense to anyone who hasn't read the books, and as a result it felt dramatically inert sitting in a theatre watching it.  Peter pointed out the plus sides of the film.  It is a fine reenactment of the book, with excellent special effects on which no expense was spared.  And in that sense, not only great effects but effects that are real world enough to keep you in the world of the movie instead of giving the sense as the most expensive bad effects can that you're watching a computer game.  But for me, just too too flat.

Fahrenheit 451, seen Sunday August 2, 2009 at the AFI Silver Theater (Silver Spring MD), Auditorium #1.  2 slithy toads.  This was also a nice day at the movies with the newest JABberwocky client Myke Cole, in the old restored main auditorium at the AFI Silver, and a nice meal after at Ray's The Classics.  This is the 1964 adaptation by Francois Truffaut (the only English language film by this great French director) of the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  I've never read the book, and hadn't seen the movie before, and it was interesting, but at the same time not something I'd hugely and heartily recommend.  The performances are a bit icky and flat, and the difficulty Truffaut had coaxing a performance out of his actors in English may be part of why he stuck to doing films in French after.  I'd had this notion that the story was about burning books for censorship reasons, so I was surprised to discover that it's the notion of books itself instead of any particular book that's annoying the authorities in this future world.  The vision of the future includes weird urban design connected by weird monorail to standard suburbs.  The monorail was the most interesting thing to me, with the cars hanging down from the rail instead of being supported by it.  And then access was by stairway which comes down from the floor of the monorail and leads very steeply to ground level.  So this means that the cars lose a lot of usable space because people can't stand on the spot that's the staircase, and then the dwell time in the stations as people climb up or down a steep set of stairs to the ground must be horrible.  Who'd think of such a thing?  It must come from the same mindset that would think that reading a book can only be a dark and depressing experience.  But the solution the film posits (is it the same in the book?) of oral history as the next generation of book is odd as well.  On many accounts an odd and interesting film.

A Perfect Getaway.  Seen Tuesday August 11 at Pacific's Culver City Theatre (LA), Auditorium #9.  3 slithy toads.  For somebody who usually goes to the movies alone, I saw four straight films with company, in this case horror anthology editor and long-time client Jeff Gelb.  Following dinner at the kosher dairy restaurant on Pico run by Steven Spielberg's mom.  This was a very nice B movie.  It's written and directed by David Twohy, who wrote the screenplay for The Fugitive and has done some other nifty genre turns as writer and/or director like Pitch Black and The Arrival.  This looked like above average B movie fun from its coming attraction, and happily the film delivered.  With a good cast including Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich. Some smart scripting.  Some good Puerto Rican locations doubling as exotic  Hawaiian vacation destination.  Suspenseful without overdosing on cheap tricks.  I enjoyed it at least as much as I'd expected from the decent reviews and the trailer, and Jeff maybe even more so.  Not a great movie, but a very good one that I hope will last some on video.  Because it's an exemplary example of the kind of thing it is.

And speaking of Steven Spielberg...  Close Encounters of the Third Kind, seen Monday August 17 at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival.  4 slithy toads.  My friend Mark from my Scott Meredith days joined me in the park for this, and it's always nice to sit, talk, eat al fresco, people watch, and make a full evening of it.  The final showing of this year's Bryant Park Film Festival was packed but happily not quite as much as last year's showing of Superman.  Mark was just back from Atlantic City and got me a box of James Salt Water Taffy as a two-month early 15th anniversary gift for the founding of JABberwocky, and lovingly changed every number on the Nutrition Facts box to a "15."  I love James Taffy and it still tastes yummy anad really best in classs/best in show for taffy, though sadly it agrees less with my fortysomething teeth than it did my twentysomething teeth.  Oh, and the movie...  it's a masterpiece still 32 years and multiple viewings on.  It's tautly constructed, well-edited, well-acted, I still get goose bumps when we get to the dark side and the music-and-light show begins and the aliens swoop down for their visit.

A lot of the summer it's been a struggle to find good movies to see but recent weeks when I've had a distinct lack of movie time have seen a lot of interesting open.  I did see 3 more movies yesterday and am going to try and make time for a few more during midweek, but I'll save those.  Four movies in this post is a real post, and that's all the blog time I can give tonight.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

#200!

So here is your fearless blogger, posted nattily in front of Borders #118, Thousand Oaks, CA.  Which opened on November 18, 1995, and which on August 10, 2009 became the 200th Borders superstore visited by yours truly.

27,854 square feet, located in a former bowling alley.

That sign next to me is an old-style Borders "cafe espresso" sign.  This is one of the few Borders in the country (the store on Park Avenue & 57th St. in Manhattan is another) not to have been converted into a Seattle's Best cafe, generally due to lease restrictions of one sort or another.  However, while the NYC store is a real time-warp location that maintains its ancient Borders cafe look, this store serves Seattle's Best coffee products but without the food goodies and general look and feel of the Seattle's Best cafes.  In fact, it currently serves no food at all.  So it was kind of half-retro.

I celebrated this momentous occasion by purchasing two bags of Lindor truffle balls to leave for the store's break room, and the new issue of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine.  Which I'll probably never have time to read, but I wanted to get more than just a 45¢ truffle ball at my 200th.

More posting on my recent trip to the LA area TK, as I dig out from accumulated e-mails and such.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Space For Let?

So I spent some time down in DC this past weekend doing my grand bookstore tour for the first time in 7 months.  8 Borders, 1 Borders Express, 2 Borders Airport, 1 B. Dalton, Two Indies, 7 B&Ns.

These aren't stores I visit most often, because they're rather a distance from me.  But some of them are certainly stores I've been visiting regularly, at least once or twice a year, for a very very long period of time, 15 years or more.  There's been a B. Dalton in Union Station since forever, and it's one of the last Dalton standing.  The Borders in White Flint, 18th and L, and Pentagon City are the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Borders I ever visited (to put this in context, I'll get to my 200th on Monday August 10, so #2 is a long time ago).  So they're good places to see how things have changed over the years.

The big thing on this trip if watching as Borders tries to decide what to do with all of the music and movie space.  A lot of the DC stores are old big boxes that had a lot of space devoted to these categories that are now carried at most stores in markedly reduced quantities.  And a lot of the old big boxes had pretty big book sections.  So what do you do?

Well, one thing I don't like:  you remodel the store and shift things around, an you move the genre fiction section which has historically been front and center at the stores to heaven knows where.  Springfield, White Flint Mall, 14th & F and Friendship Heights have all moved their genre fiction sections away from the front section of the store.  This I don't like.

Some of the stores have been remodeled in such a way that they look almost as if they've always been this way.  14th & F looked pretty good.  But the White Flint mall store is so big that there's now so much space left in the store that they may as well move in a few foam mats and stage high school wrestling matches.

The expanded Teen sections called Borders Ink are probably a good idea.  The expanded toy and game sections are being ballyhooed now and these are probably a good idea.  But with so many stores designed to have so much space devoted to categories that are no longer working, that square footage will be a long term drain on the company, and maybe Borders will need to think more outside of the box on how to make this work.  B&Ns always had smaller sections at the stores that had, and in some cases are moving audio books into those sections to modestly increase book space, but Borders has to suffer the drag.

There were some inconsistent signs of the new customer service initiatives at the stores.  I felt genuinely fawned over at the Germantown Borders, but staff were hard to find on a quiet Saturday at the 18th & L location.

Moving on to other topics...  The Books a Million in Old Town Alexandria had 80 JABberwocky titles on the shelf, which is a clear new high for the chain.

I don't understand what B&N is up to with the Sookie Stackhouse books.  They have them, but considering they're bestselling books in surprisingly small quantity.  A typical B&N will have a good helping in the front of store new mass market range/bay, but often fewer than a lot of the other titles that are displayed there.  The sf/fantasy section will often have hardly any visible Sookies at all.  The typical Borders will have a helping in the front of store, a helping in the sf/f section, an endcap.  They're just much more visible.  B&N is overall a tighter ship and I'm sure is selling lots of Sookies, but I'm also sure they could be selling more if they were trying as hard as Borders is.  A Target can have as many Sookie books as a B&N, and I don't think I'd make that comparison at Borders.  Similarly, Borders tends to look much better stocked on Brandon Sanderson, with some stores showing recent MISTBORN reorders in the double digits while the typical B&N will just get and sell and reorder one copy.  Borders almost has to do this because they don't do routine replenishment as quickly as B&N, so maybe a B&N and Borders will both sell 10 Brandon Sanderson copies in 10 weeks, the Borders by ordering 12 of them and selling down while B&N replenishes its one standard stock copy week in and week out.  Still, B&N might have the higher stock price and the better sales right now, but I just have this gut feeling that B&N is missing upside by not taking bigger bets on my bigger authors.

B&N is dropping the trade paperback edition of Elizabeth Moon's SPEED OF DARK.  Borders is dropping Violette Malan's SLEEPING GOD right before they might show a sales spike with the release of the next books in the series.  Both decisions are clearly defensible from the Bookscan data, but I'm not happy with either.  Borders still tends to carry hardcovers longer, and we're coming to the point where THE WARDED MAN by Peter V. Brett will start to get hard to find at B&N while being visible at Borders perhaps thru the holidays.

For all the #s that Bookscan can deliver to my computer each week, it's still nice to get out and about in the field.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Health Insurance

I'm utterly baffled by this belief in the salubrious effects of taxing employer provided health insurance benefits.

The more ardent free marketeers love to tout the benefits of treating health care as a consumer driven market like deciding whether to go to McD's or Subway for dinner. We've been told how if we can just get consumers more involved with their health care costs will come down as consumers make better decisions. I don't think higher co-pays, deductibles, etc. really do that, though, because too much health care is done when the need is urgent, which does not lend itself to comparison shopping. Too much health care, well it's your life that's at stake so if the doctor tells you to take Tests x/y/z and Drugs q/r/s there's a certain reluctance to challenge the experts.

The argument for taxing health insurance is, simply put, that since it isn't taxed it costs less than it would if it was taxed. And since it costs less, we therefore spend too much money on it vs. things that cost more. If it is taxed, business owners will get more serious about getting a better buy for their health care dollar, just becoming better consumers, thus spending less.

The first part of that argument I kind of agree with. Yes, at a certain level decisions are guided by tax policy. Houses certainly cost more because we can factor in the benefit of the mortgage interest deduction, and thus pay more for a house than if we did not have a mortgage interest deduction. Which is why that is unlikely to go away, because the transition issues are so mighty.

Yet, real estate is an actual functioning marketplace, and people might buy more house than they would otherwise but still shop very carefully for houses. They look at many many houses over a period of time and carefully weigh pros and cons and the market functions. But health care isn't like that. Imagine if every house were to be purchased only in circumstances of immediate dire need, like if human babies gestated in nine days instead of nine months and you had to have that extra bedroom right away, or if you only took a new house when the job was moving, or etc. etc. Then the housing market would be like the health care market.

Because you see, health care is an expense. Business owners do not spend money lightly. I would happily keep my health care costs down if I could. And how can I do that? Basically, the more I screw my employees with deductibles and co-pays and shittier benefits, the less money I can spend on health care. Does this sound like the way we should run our lives? Some people would say yes, but I do not.

The big macro-questions that drive up health care costs are totally beyond my individual control. New York State wants to mandate certain minimum coverage, that's not something I control. The administrative costs that drive up health care costs? Beyond my control. Allowing drug companies to advertise directly to consumers? Beyond my control. Conflicts of interest where doctors can build their own MRI machine and then use it? Beyond my control. Breakthrus in technology or drugs that provide better care at higher cost? Beyond my control.

All I can control is how much I want to screw over myself and my employees by offering us all shittier health insurance, and then after I've gone to the shittiest possible coverage my % increase will still be driven by the overall costs in the health care market and I'm back where I was.

This isn't a functioning market. Taxing health care benefits will either raise my expenses without good recourse, or force I and my employees to have shittier health insurance.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Apple E-Book Reader

So let's just say the iPod Touch is an amazing thing.

Yes, the screen is kind of small, but overall I've found reading manuscripts via the Stanza app and Stanza desktop to be no worse than reading manuscripts on a Kindle.

The Stanza desktop program works with more file formats than I could wirelessly send to my Kindle, though not with docx. One ms sent in that format I had to open in Pages, convert to .doc instead of .docx, and it did then go over to my Touch but as one long paragraph. So far I've been able to keep track of it all, but paragraph breaks to have a certain virtue.

The battery life is better than I'd thought. In part because my hotel room has free wired internet but not free wireless I've mostly just been using the Touch to read on, and setting it at the lowest comfortable screen brightness, and I can probably read an entire decent-size ms on one battery charge. The Kindle battery lasted longer in theory, but the circuity for when I turned on the wireless each morning to take my newspapers tended to eat up way more battery than you'd expect, and the Kindle said its battery likes to be charged often instead of drain-and-charge, so I can settle with the battery life on the touch. Reading on Stanza or not, if I were using the wireless more or blasting music more at loud volumes the battery will go. As I slowly burn more of my CDs, buy music on iTunes, maybe I'll find the battery issues more annoying. But so far, so good.

Lots of font size options on the Touch, just like the Kindle.

The Touch has a smaller screen so I have to turn the pages more, but the pages refresh in the blink of an eye which the Kindle's do not. So I'm not losing the fractions of a second I've been used to using on the Kindle with each page turn. I think that ends up being a draw.

Note-taking on the Touch is fine. Press bottom button, hit the note pad button, start taking a note. You can't see the manuscript, but the note screen on the Kindle covered up half the page so I couldn't really see the manuscript there either. Theoretically I like a physical keypad more than the touchscreen, but as I'm getting used to the keypad on the Touch, getting used to its auto-suggest, and sometimes taking advantage of the landscape mode in the 3.0 iPhone/Touch upgrade that makes the keys bigger, I'm finding the overall typing experience to be better on the Touch. Fewer mistakes, those I make are more easily corrected, typing symbols is easier.

The Kindle did auto-insert a location # which could be used to help an author find where I was taking a note but in an imperfect kind of way. The Kindle also inserted lots of extraneous stuff like the date and time each note was taken that I'd have to strip out before sending the comments on to my client. Stanza tells you you are 37.45% thru the manuscript so I can add that easily enough and it's about as helpful as the Kindle location. I haven't yet e-mailed my Touch notes to my home base to pass on to an author, so this story isn't complete.

The Kindle with its black on gray E-ink seemed to thrive on bright daylight. The lighter it was the easier the Kindle was to read, and then the darker it got the harder it was until you couldn't read at all. The Touch has backlighting, and it's a little less fine in the brightest daylight and you need to up the brightness, but it was wonderful reading on the Touch walking down MD Rt. 355 from White Flint Mall to the Grosvenor Metro Station at night and being able to read the whole time when I wouldn't have been able to read on the Kindle or even on a magazine with very bright glossy white paper for contrast. Advantage, Touch.

I was able to read the Touch while using the elliptical at the gym, just like a Kindle, though the added page turns from the smaller screen size meant a slightly less vigorous workout for the arms.

But basically, for reading manuscripts I'd say I'm delighted with the Touch even though I'd never purchased it with that in mind, and the Kindle can go light itself a nice campfire.

The Kindle did have rudimentary internet on a wireless network, so in that regard somewhat better than the Touch.

The Kindle did offer wireless newspaper delivery, and I need to see how the Newspaper Direct version of the Washington Post goes. But let me say that I never enjoyed reading newspapers on the Kindle. I liked having a Washington Post wherever I wanted it to be, but the actual reading experience was not very good. The Touch would be even worse for actually reading a newspaper.

I think if I could buy a used Kindle at a cheap enough price I might well do so, but I'm pretty firmed up now that I ain't paying $180 for a refurbished or $300 for a new Kindle 2. So Jeff Bezos and Amazon will lose hundreds of dollars a year in subscription income from me. I don't love multi-function gadgets that print/fax/copy but I kind of like the way that the Touch plays music really well, gives me a better Address Book than my cell phone, surfs the internet decently enough for the screen size, plays video really well for the screen size, and on top of that I find I'm able to read manuscripts on it just about as well as I was doing on the Kindle.

Update #1:  The docx manuscript that came on to Stanza as one long paragraph ultimately got to be too big for Stanza to handle well.  It likes to divide things at part or chapter breaks into little bite-size chunks.  Once I got past the halfway mark into the ms without any of these breaks in the file, I had to finagle a bit to get it past each page turn.  So I saved the second half into a separate file, and I assume what will now work without difficulty.