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, December 30, 2009

It's Just SO five years ago

A Layered Security System.
No single security measure is foolproof. Accordingly, the TSA must have multiple layers of security in place to defeat the more plausible and dangerous forms of attack against public transportation.

Recommendation: Improved use of "no-fly" and "automatic selectee" lists should not be delayed while the argument about a successor to CAPPS continues.

Recommendation: The TSA and the Congress must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers.

Those are quotes from the 2004 report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

And as a quick alternative reading recommendation... Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post isn't one of my must-read columnist but her column's (you may need to register at the site) about as good as any I've read in discussing last week's airplane incident.

Now, security and I have a kind of ambiguous relationship. I've ranted about the idiocy of requiring photo IDs when you check into a hotel. I'd really like to see a grass roots movement formed to protest that. Waiting on line to show a photo ID to get a visitor badge to enter any run of the mill NYC office building is a ridiculous stupid time tax that should be obliterated off the face of the earth.

But I'm also not a privacy purist. NYC has random bag checks on the subway system that do something to harden a very soft target without being silly or imposing an unacceptable time tax on three million people a day. And don't get me started again about the baseball teams that let you bring in a factory-sealed water bottle, but not an empty water bottle.

The main problem with the whole airplane thing is that there's a huge time tax imposed on lots of people that wastes goodness knows how many billions of person hours every year, and it still doesn't work. The system is so inefficient and awful that I'm tempted to say we should just do away with the whole thing entirely. But then sanity rears its ugly head. The system is an outgrowth of a bona fide problem with hijacking planes, and if we could all just cart a fire arm on to a plane... I don't want to make it so easy for people to pop on to airplanes with explosives, either.

But yet, the system we have is layered in the worst possible way. It's layered like my office IT had been two years ago. I had a system that barely worked when I started it, then kept adding on to it to do no things and more things, and bit by bit I had a system so bad that I don't think my business would have survived 2009 if the IT hadn't been un-layered in 2008.

Once upon a time we had a system that just scanned everyone very quickly for metal, so we couldn't keep on with open season for hijackers. And you know what, that actually mostly worked, there were way fewer hijackings, and if the system even then wasn't perfect (plastic guns, hijacking without guns, etc.) it worked well enough. Then we started with checking the boarding passes so that only people actually getting on flights were allowed in. Then we started with checking the photo IDs. Well, OK. Photo IDs can be counterfeited, and so can boarding passes, but OK. 9/11 happens, and we start to add more layers at the security checkpoints because we realize we need to worry about things other than just guns. Like knitting needles and nail clippers. Well, OK, some of the most vibrant idiocies of this era were eventually dialed back. But then we get the shoe bomber. Now we all need to take off our shoes, and we have the liquid rules. For a time, I couldn't even bring an empty bottle past security and then fill it up from a water fountain, and again some of the most vibrant idiocies were eventually curtailed, but the end result was still yet another layer. Now we have the Qaeda Underpants Bomber, and I'm sure some of the most vibrant idiocies of the past week will eventually be rolled back but we'll still have another layer.

Well, this isn't going to work.

The enemies of western civilization have already achieved a victory in adding all of these new layers to the process, increasing the friction and time tax to airline travel with each new layer. The ability to move from place to place on an airplane instead of being limited to the horseback riding of the typical fantasy novel is a big part of contemporary western civilization. Even high-speed train travel has its limits, and if we had only that I'm sure the bad guys would try and make that untenable as well (recent bomb on Moscow/St. Petersburg train in Russia). We can't make flying so miserable that nobody wants to do it at all.

But at bottom, I think we need to start over from the beginning, ask what we're really trying to do, and find some way that doesn't require everyone to wait on line, take off their shoes, take off their jacket, take off their belt, put the laptop in a separate tray, but the 100ml bottle of Prell into a little plastic baggie, put all of this thru a metal detector, wait around to go thru the explosives detector.

Clearly, there always has to be a chance that some people will need to do something like this, because an element of random security isn't such a bad idea. But maybe one hour it just needs to be everyone on some flights, and some other hour some people on every flight. Maybe today you get screened at the entry to the gates and tomorrow you get screened at the gate and the day after that at the bottom of the jetway and occasionally no place at all. And maybe it's a hand pat one day, a full screening of everything the next, and an interrogation about your travel plans the day after that. And you know what, Granny Wither Walker and Artie Fish Alney will need to be screened every so often, because if the bad guys know neither of them are ever going to be screened, they'll find themselves a Granny or an Artie.

But what we have now is a farce.

I know a lot of people right now who are flying less or not flying at all because they're just not comfortable with the process. I fly because I like going places, but I like the screening routine less and less with each passing flight (I did go thru a next-gen body scanner flying back from Miami in August). Now, happily, we did away with the policy where everyone who was on a one way flight, and everyone who paid cash, and everyone who didn't check baggage, was going to get the once-over. But somebody who does all three, who's on the radar of intelligence and security forces in multiple countries, and we're all being good boys and girls taking off our shoes and our belts and our jackets, and this still happens?

We've got to do better, and when the experts talk about layered security, the layers we've got going now just can't be what they have in mind. I think we'd probably be safer and more secure with less security than we have now.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Honey, I Shrunk the Blog

Some of you may have noticed that the blog went without posting for over three months...

Well, for good chunks of August and September, JABberwocky was working at half capacity. I'm in LA. Eddie is at WorldCon. I'm in Florida. Eddie is on vacation. The intern is on summer break.

In mid-September, I buy a new apartment, which I might not actually move into for a few months yet. Why? Well, I see the apartment as kind of building my dream home and want to move in when my home is ready. Some think I have a mental block against actually moving. In any case, selecting paint colors and looking for ceiling fans and designing a big built-in bookcase and getting appropriate new furniture and talking to contractors and figuring out how to light the bookcase and all sorts of things like that, some of which I've done infrequently if ever and am hardly expert at, enter my life. It's a little part-time job to go along with my full-time job.

We return to usual attendance levels just in time to get huge stacks of royalty paperwork from DAW, Penguin and other publishers. October and April tend to be the big crunch months for this. I'm actually quite pleased with how efficiently we process these big stacks of paper.

And all the while, we are very busy selling books to lots of people in lots of places, which means lots of contracts and other paper to push around the office.

So even though we're getting it done, there's a real cost. When I head off to Bouchercon in Indianapolis in mid-October, I have lots of reading for my train ride, because I haven't had a lot of time to do anything other than work. And the trip is really nice, and recharges my batteries, but there are all the e-mails I'm saying "well, that will have to wait until I'm back in the office." And then we did such a nice job processing the US royalty statements, but then there's the second wave of foreign statements that start to pour in. Cutting one check doesn't take a lot of time. Cutting checks when you have money coming in from 3 different places each for 6 different authors for a total of 18 payment items going to 10 authors gets to be a bit of a to-do as you be sure all the pieces match up and balance out. So there's a week in the office between Bouchercon and World Fantasy. The three weeks between World Fantasy and Thanksgiving looked so invitingly long, but let's just say no real let-ups. And then I take an extended break for Thanksgiving and actually read a book for pleasure for the first time in over a year (Agassi's Open) and recharge a little, and at least Thanksgiving most of my clients aren't working either but the foreign publishers don't seem to know it's a holiday. So it's around a week and a half of finally catching up after Thanksgiving.

In the midst of this we expanded the staff by adding a 20 hr/week part-timer who is helping out quite wonderfully, but in the meantime it's two months without doing anything on the apartment so when mid-December finally arrives and work finally seems to have died down I get to really start focusing on that. And work does get quiet in December, but we have all the year-end/year-beginning stuff to work on over the holidays and a little this and a little that.

But one thing I realized in the midst of this was that I really did miss the blogging. Some people are really pressuring me to do the Facebook thing, which I'm just not interested in, but I emerged from this busiest-ever stretch in the job with a renewed desire to try and keep the blog going. And I'm still feeling a little guilty on that, because think of all the manuscripts I could have read with the time I've spent making December 2009 my record month for blog posts. But this is the part of the contemporary age when you're supposed to blog and social network and do that modern internetty stuff that I want to try and be doing. I am trying to keep some posts a little shorter, and I'm also trying to look harder for business-y blogging topics that won't get me in trouble. Maybe I should try and track the blog traffic, but why do I think that would just end up depressing me?

Who knows what the future will bring, but I'll be trying to keep up. And as I try and do more posts, maybe some reports on some of these things I was up to from August thru November will make their way in.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Up in the Air

It was nice to see a movie on the big screen at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, which celebrated its 15th birthday this fall. My first film there was on the Loews Screen (Aud. #1), and that's where I was Sunday night for Up in the Air.

Which is a very good movie, one instance in which the generally enthusiastic critical reception is spot-on. It's the third very good movie in a row for director Jason Reitman after the excellent Juno and Thank You For Smoking. It fits George Clooney perfectly. It joins Jerry Maguire and In Good Company, perhaps Office Space, in the pantheon of great corporate culture movies of the past two decades.

I suspect most people are familiar with the basic concept. George Clooney is a modern day road warrior who works for a downsizing consulting firm. His job is to fly around the country firing people for bosses who don't have the guts to do it themselves. He could soon be on the chopping block himself. A young hotshot Natalie has come along with the idea to take the company's road warriors off the road and do the firing by teleconference. Clooney has to take her on the road with him so she can see how it's done in person in order to better do the job by remote. At the same time, Clooney starts a road fling thing with another road warrior played by Vera Farmiga. I haven't previously been impressed by Farmiga, not even in her role in Scorcese's The Departed a few years back which earned her some hosannas, but I'll have to reconsider after this because she's pitch-perfect in the role. Clooney doesn't carry much physical baggage -- carry-on, carry-on, nothing but carry-on -- but he carries some emotional baggages, somewhat estranged from his family and with a relative who's about to have a wedding, which good chunks of the Clooney character would just as soon ignore.

To a large extent, the movie goes along familiar paths. Would anyone be surprised if I said that the wedding does become an opportunity for Clooney to reconnect with his family? I mean, this is a high-gloss star vehicle for George Clooney, it's not an overrated indiepic 23rd comeback vehicle for Mickey Rourke like last year's The Wrestler. (Gee, anyone notice that a year's gone by and we haven't really heard from Mickey again?)

But the dialogue is so sparkling especially over the first two-thirds of the movie, the writing so insightful, most of the lines in the screenplay, most of the readings so true, and most of the atmospherics of the movie so true, that it doesn't matter. If you're riding through beautiful scenery you don't need the road to veer off in unexpected directions in order to admire what you see with each curve in the road. At the same time, let me be clear that the movie doesn't sparkle because of one of these elements but because of the combination. Every once in a while the movie delivers itself a lob, and then returns a line that really is obvious, but the line is a perfectly written line that takes advantage of the lob and it's always delivered impecabbly. When the movie should hit something out of the ballpark, it does. Always.

And no, the final third wasn't as good as the first two thirds. The family business does get really obvious and borderline treacly. The ending just drifts along into a suitably happy conclusion that isn't quite as incisive or sharp as what we've seen in the first section of the movie. But on the other hand, there's a devestatingly sharp pre-ending that cuts to the bone. It's not a complete surprise, but it's very close. I sensed where the script was going around two seconds before it actually got there, but it was only two seconds beforehand while in a worse movie I would have seen this coming from a half hour away.

Right before Up in the Air, I went to see Me and Orson Welles at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (Aud #3). I hate this theatre, I've always hated it, I hardly ever go there, but the movie's been out a few weeks and this was the only option in Manhattan. It was playing on one of the three original screens which are at least better than the three added on later, but small screens and a very poor rake in the auditorium so you're guaranteed screwed if you don't have an empty seat in front of you, have never done it for me. Let me say, though, that they did have some nice-looking high end cakes and muffins at the concession stand.

Me and Orson Welles was a pleasant movie, but it didn't do much to keep me from napping.

On the plus side, Christian Mackay has been praised widely and deservedly for his performance as a young Orson Welles, directing his Mercury Theatre Company in a production of Julius Caesar. He is spot-on. You can see Mackay walking off this set, on to the set of Citizen Kane, and nobody would know it wasn't Orson Welles himself. It's a truly amazing piece of work.

Also, Zac Efron is smooth and likeable as a young actor who gets a small role in the production. A lot of times when a hot young actor like Efron does a role in a movie like this to get some street cred, he can look a little look stacking up Bugsy Malone against Don Corleone. Not here. Efron holds his own. You don't see him straining to act, just like you don't see Clooney straining to act in Up in the Air. But he's not holding the screen just on account of being a pretty boy teen idol two years removed, either. He's demonstrating some real acting chops, and I'll be curious to see what choices he makes in the next few years and where he lets his looks and his talent take him.

But it's just a very small movie, and not all that interesting. It's the definition of a movie that will play a lot better on TV than it does in the theatre, so I'd recommend Netflixing it at some point, but not rushing right out to go see.

And I'll put in a plug for Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Sunset had some of the best romantic tension of any movie I've ever seen, but you need to have seen Sunrise to fully enjoy Sunset. Linklater is a little inconsistent to my eyes, with these little gems side-by-side on his filmography with the overrated Dazed and Confused, the fun School of Rock, and a variety of other strange little films, more of which I've seen than not.

Calling the roll

We've just finished the last holiday season for B. Dalton. The last 50ish are closing, with one or two (the Union Station, DC location may be one) that will stay open as a B&N.

Once upon a time, these were where we shopped for our books. It's my (correct) recollection that the chain was owned by Dayton Hudson, the department store chain that eventually became Target, and was sold to Barnes & Noble in the mid-1980s, just about the same time that I started my literary agent career. This was a minnow swallowing whale sort of thing. B&N used the Dalton cash to fund its move into superstores (modeled after Borders; though B&N likes to pretend it was first, Borders was already starting to open its large-format stores here and there around the country), was much more aggressive in shuttering its mall format stores than Borders was about downsizing Waldenbooks, and within another month or so will have exited the business completely. B&N also purchased the mostly smaller Doubleday and Scribner brands and folded them into Dalton.

I hereby remember the following Dalton/Doubleday/Scribner locations, and also the little B&N bookstores that were what B&N once was:

WA: Southcenter Mall (also had a Waldenbooks that was replaced with a Borders)

CA: Embarcadero Center, SF; Farmers Market, LA; downtown LA (the one I couldn't visit but looked longingly at two summers ago bedecked with the old old old logo)

MI: Briarwood Mall, Ann Arbor (right off center court, a frequent stop in my college years)

TX: Houston (I visited in 1979, walking over from my hotel on a Saturday during my bus tour, in the basement of an office complex shopping complex); Austin, the mall where Elizabeth Moon used to go with her son for ice skating.

MA: South Shore Mall (also a sole survivor breathing its last)

CT: WestFarms mall (also a multi-store mall, now with one of the last 200 Waldenbooks, and where my younger brother once worked); Doubleday WestFarms; Hartford Civic Center mall;

NYC: The B. Dalton, the one that moved into the Orange Plaza Mall in the mid 1970s and which became my home book store, the B. Dalton where I happily got gift certificate for my Bar Mitzvah, the B. Dalton where I spent my first Caldor paycheck buying Gene Wolfe's Citadel of the Auturch in hardcover; the B. Dalton at the central entrance with the sf section in the back corner; the big and bright and airy B. Dalton that will always be mine.
Elmhurst across from the Queens Center mall; 8th St. and 6th Ave., (turned into a B&N); 5th Ave. and 52nd St. (the flagship B. Dalton, which I loved dearly, which occupied the space now taken up by the NBA store; this was a great, great bookstore); Doubleday 5th Ave. and 53rd St. (the sf section you could only reach by riding an elevator; Scribner 5th Ave. and 48th St. (where I cajoled by father into buying me Orson Scott Card's Songmaster in hardcover; Doubleday 57th and 5th, once open to midnight, their flagship, and many evenings late at night a street band would set up across the street; Doubleday 3rd Ave. and 49th St.
the B&Ns on B'way & 73rd, B'way & 80th; Times Square; lower B'way; Park Row; 47th & 3rd (closest to the SMLA offices), 57th & 7th; 86th & Lex; Grand Central; 33rd & 7th; 8th St. @ 6th Ave.; Albee Square Brooklyn; Forest Hills
and some more B. Daltons: SmithHaven Mall (also once a 2-store mall); Roosevelt Field (once very big then much smaller spot a few doors down and now a sole survivor that is about to close);

NJ: Bergen Mall (a little chunk of where the Whole Foods is now); Paramus Park Mall (when I saw an entire shelf of Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion paperbacks at this store some 20 years ago, that was then it dawned on me that she was going to be my first really successful client; the mall is now about to lose its Waldenbooks;); B&N Essex Green;

The DC Area, which was once blanketed with B. Dalton locations: The Shops at National; Union Station, which moved from a little tiny hole to a big airy location and which may be re-branded as B&N; Chevy Chase Pavillion; K St., a block from the 18th&L Borders; 2 at Crystal City, a big and a little; Springfield Mall (once a 2-store mall, now its Waldenbooks is about to close); Lake Forest Mall (once a 2-store mall, now its Waldenbooks is about to close); Ballston Commons; Scribner in Fashion Centre at Pentagon City

This list is almost certainly not a complete list of every B. Dalton that I've visited. The chain peaked at 800 stores in 1986, which is 23 years ago. Some I visited only once a long, long time ago; and others I may have visited more times than that but all those visits so long ago that the memories are in distant recesses of my mind, with my forgotten knowledge of calculus. I'll update the post as some of those resurface.

But these places were where all of us used to shop for our books. If there's a Dalton or two you remember, I hope you'll make mention of it in the comments section. As the book business moves inexorably to an electronic future, let's light a few candles for what once was and what will soon be no more.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar

I went to see Avatar on Saturday with Myke Cole, Peter V. Brett and Laura Anne Gilman. (At the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Aud #9 (Majestic).

I liked it least.

To get one thing out of the way, right away: the 3D is amazing. We saw in RealD digital 3D. This is the third movie I've seen recently in 3D, after Bolt a year ago and then Up, and this was the first one where the movie just seemed made for 3D, where it was an integral thing making the movie something more than it was, and not just doing it for the visceral thrill of having stuff come at you. It's still not exactly comfortable to wear the RealD glasses over my real glasses, but it wasn't a huge bothersome thing, either. We were in one of the mid-sized screens at the theatre and not one of the much larger and bigger, but the glasses still provided some sense of panorama instead of making it too much like watching TV, which was something I hated very much about Imax 3D circa mid 1990s.

But...

For all the exotic alien surroundings and languages and marvelous images and etc. etc., we managed to have one character telling another "at first I was only following orders, but then it really did become love that I was feeling for you, true real genuine love, and you have to understand that." That doesn't match the technology in the trailblazing department.

I can understand why Roger Ebert is quoted in the ads as saying, and in fact does say, that this gave him that Star Wars feeling all over again. Because the movie is kind of a mirror image of Star Wars. There are people attacking the Death Star, only this time the good guys are occupying the Death Star, and the bad guys are trying to get in their one good shot, and we're rooting for them to fail. Because this is a good Death Star. Kind of like how some other movie had a good witch and a bad witch, this is the good sacred hard-to-attack place that we cannot see destroyed.

All these gazillion dollars spent on the movie and they couldn't re-dub Sam Worthington's lines so he wouldn't lapse into an Australian accent. All the time. I mean, all the time. I don't know if I've seen another review to comment on this. I guess it must be different reviewers than were complaining in Season One of True Blood that the actors couldn't keep their accents, because those actors didn't have problems with their accents, while Sam Worthington is doing a Full Dundee constantly.

We all felt the movie seemed very, very long. This is one of those things where I don't quite understand why everyone I went to see the movie with professed to mostly love it, even as they all agreed it seemed long. Good movies don't seem long. I may have been a little more length sensitive than everyone else, because I was doing the Full ToeTapping every time Sam Worthington was doing his Full Dundee, and I was looking at my watch only constantly. But I'm sorry, great movies don't seem long while you're watching them, really and truly they don't.

Most of the characters ended up as archteypes if they didn't start out that way. No, cliches is probably a better word than archetypes. Bad military dudes, bad corporate dudes, valiant scientists.

The music annoyed me. I like staying for the end credits, listening to a John Williams put all his themes into 3:49 of good music over the end credits. Here, it was bad music, over credits that were put together so tightly that you couldn't really read them, and part of me was ready to bail before the credits were over because it totally wasn't doing anything for me.

We discussed afterward some of the various plot holes, though talking in the after-dinner event with a couple of Peter's friends, maybe many of those were covered in the dialogue. So perhaps it's not full of plot holes. But we could still see exactly what was going to happen when the film cuts back and forth from the struggling good guy to the struggling heroine who seemed down for the count, but guess what maybe she isn't and she'll get back into the game just in time to save the good guy's bacon. I'd say this is a spoiler, except anyone who's ever gone to a movie will see what's coming from several minutes away.

Part of me wants to go on trying to go into more detail on why I don't think this is a very good movie, but there's this other part of me that's already working overtime trying to forget I spent three hours of my life squirming and toe-tapping and waiting desperately for Avatar to end.

I'll close with a quote from Bull Durham:

Come on rook, shows us that million dollar arm, ’cause I got a pretty good idea about that 5 cent head of yours

Because Avatar's exactly that. It's got a five cent screenplay to go along with its million dollar arm, and I'm not going to give it a pass.

I will give higher marks to our dinner afterward. We stumbled/meandered our way from place to place near Lincoln Center with too long a line and then decided to head down 9th Avenue. We settled on a restaurant called Whym. The food was good, the desserts outstanding. Many restaurants have nice-sounding desserts that end up looking like they came from Sweet Street but I don't think I've had anything quite like their S'mores-wich, and the Apple Pie Spring Rolls were also quite good. In both instances I've seen items like on many many menus, but rarely with the execution. I'm tempted to go back right now and see how the Banana Cream Pie holds up. Definitely a place I would consider going back to. And reasonably close to the Random House building... Hmmm, maybe it's time to start trying for some more lunches with my friends at Random House.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holiday Traditions The Second

I think I kind of fell into my Dec. 24 tradition, two or three parts of me merging into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

1983: I start to eat at Pizzeria Uno, and it kind of sticks. Occasional bad service aside, it's still comfort food for me 26+ years later.

1986: I move into NYC, on the fringe of a neighborhood that has a decent quantity of attached and/or single family houses where people can put out Christmas lights. Or, as I refer to them internally in an interfaith-y kind of way, Holiday Lighting Displays. I realize there are worse things to do than walk around on a December evening admiring the Holiday Lighting Displays.

Early 1990s: Barnes & Noble opens a superstore in Bayside, kind of distant from me and in what is then a "two fare zone" because you need to take a subway to a bus to get there and there are no free transfers. It is a mile or so away from a Pizzeria Uno.

1991: I move to a new neighborhood that's almost all apartment buildings, so it's really hard to get a good Holiday Lighting Displays experience.

So I like to visit the B&N every so often, in part because it's a different market and a different feel than the Manhattan stores are.

So some Dec. 24, it's not like there's anything happening in the office, I have lots of time, so why not go to Bayside. Did I walk all ten miles the first year? Did I take the #7 to Flushing and then walk? Did I just go the B&N on that first visit or do both Uno's and B&N? Details, details, all lost in the haze of time. But I decide to walk back from the B&N to catch the #7 at Main St. Flushing, around a four-mile walk, and then it's a "My God it's full of stars" moment as I realize that I'm walking through a neighborhood full of single family homes, which are full of Holiday Lighting Displays, and I just can't resist admiring them, and admiring them, and admiring them. And it's such a much bigger neighborhood than where I'd lived before.

Whatever happened the first time, the tradition eventually developed its firm elements. If possible, you walk all ten miles from your apartment to the Uno's on Bell Blvd. Sometimes, I may have walked even more by first going down Queens Blvd. to the recently closed Entenmann's outlet store. Leave around noon, get to Uno's before 3pm, so you can have the express lunch. Stay an hour or so, no need to rush, maybe walk along the Bell Blvd. commercial strip before heading down to Bay Terrace shopping center and the B&N. Get to the B&N 4:30 or 5, stay a while, enjoy the panicky announcements that we are closing at 6 and you better get your last minute items or else, enjoy the atmosphere. And then sometime between 5:30 and 6, you leave. You meander the 4 miles to Main St. to catch the #7, except tonight it isn't 4 miles. Because you just go down whatever block you feel like, wherever the Holiday Lighting Displays seem to be the most colorful, most interesting, most alluring. You have all the time in the world. Savor it. Soak it in. Enjoy it. Enjoy the lights. Enjoy the people pulling out and pulling up, arms laden with packages. Enjoy the lights on the trees, and the trees inside visible thru the bay windows. Enjoy the quiet and serenity and uniqueness of this one night. And then enjoy that last hubbub on Main St. as everyone else is heading one way home from the subway station and you are heading the other way.

Some minor variations, maybe. The Cake Box bakery in Bay Terrace went out of business, but then you discover D'Aquila Pastry Shop. Stop and smell the ravioli at Durso's. Try the heavenly hash at Lazar's?

I didn't get out of the apartment on the 24th until 12:26, which makes it a little tight to get to Uno's by 3pm. So in this case, I walked 3.5 or 4 miles to the 103rd St. subway stop, the took the subway 3 stops to Main St. I hoped this might gain me time to buy something at Durso's instead of just smelling the ravioli, but the line was so so so very long that I decided I would make a special trip to Durso's at some point because I really should actually finally buy something there. The walk to 103rd St. was delightful. Not quite the full way to Flushing but certainly the interesting part of it, and I hadn't done it in so very very long so I just looked around as I walked buy, taking in some of the small changes. The very different walk from Flushing to Bayside was a delight. I hadn't done it in so long. Here's an apartment building being fixed up on Roosevelt Ave. There's the IHOP on Northern Blvd and the McGoldrick branch of the library. The old UA Quartet theatre that was a drug store and furniture store for not very long is now an ethnic supermarket. The left turn onto Crocheron Ave., the meander after the Clearview Expressway to the Uno's.

After lunch, it's been so long since I've been in the neighborhood that I decide to take the very scenic route to the B&N, and go down Northern Blvd. to the Joe Michaels Mile along Little Neck Bay. The added distance makes up for the subway ride earlier. The last dribs of sunset reflect from houses on the other side of the Bay. It is getting dark so I can't go to Ft. Totten and double back, so I leave at the Marina for 28th Ave. and up to Bay Terrace. Hey, it's nicer on a crisp fall day or gorgeous glorious spring day, but those opportunities ain't coming so often any more.

No, the lines at the B&N aren't like once upon a time they were. But the announcements are as frantic as always. Hey, there's somebody in the sf section buying Simon Green's Hell to Pay, and they're buying #7 in the series because she's read and liked #1-6. Sweet!

And then I meander. There's always something new in the Holiday Lighting Displays, and this year it's the lettered Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays signs I see in a lot of windows. Of course next year most of those will be gone, like we don't see all of the American flag ornaments I remember on the walk in 2001, but this year everyone has to have one. I set off at least six motion detector lights on houses as I'm walking along. There's a Homer Simpson Clause at this house, a little music going on at that one. More snow-globe type things than I remember Someone calls me on my cell phone and disturbs my serenity to make plans for seeing Avatar. I start thinking we need to finish a filk that starts "Hrathen got run over by a Mistborn, walking home from Vasher's Christmas Eve. You might think there's no such thing as Stormlight, but as for me and Brandon we believe." Durso's was mobbed like always, but there's nobody at D'Aquila's. It's been getting slower and slower there over the years, no twelve people line like I remember. I don't really like Italian pastry that much but for this one night during the year it's nice to do something different. It's a warm enough night that in a concession to age, I rest in Bowne Park for ten or fifteen minutes before doing the final 30-minute walk to Main St. Usually the meander stops at Bowne Park because I'm getting tired and the neighborhood slowly more urban with less to see.

Unlike the 23rd, I enjoyed every single part of this trip as much as ever I had. There's something special about Christmas Eve, just like there was something special 25 years ago to walking along the deserted Diag at U-M on Thanksgiving night. The walk, the lunch, the store, the Holiday Lighting Displays.

I added another element this year, so infused with the spirit, and came home and put in the entire Back to Mono box set, ending with the holiday album.

And the knees that seem to want to get older a little bit quicker than the rest of me are coming up out of the last dip and don't seem to mind the walking from store to store yesterday, or the 18 miles I must have put on the pedometer. No, not something to do every day, but when I rest them up a little bit by doing the bike or the elliptical instead of a walk, I'll feel like I'm rewarding them for a job well done.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Holiday Traditions The First

As my business has grown and I've gotten busier, it's become harder and harder to do a lot of the things I used to do. After a year with more growth, more busy-ness, more challenges both good and bad to what I used to do and used to be, I decided it was important this holiday season to make the time for my two pre-Holiday rituals of yore. I had to touch base with my roots.

Back before Bookscan, I tried to keep tabs on the books I sold, and at some level on the publishers who were publishing them, by running JoshuaScan. I would visit most of the bookstores in Manhattan and a few in Queens, and rigorously track the performance of my titles by eyeballing the shelves and such. The system was fairly accurate, though also subject to ridicule. Publishers could dismiss the information as anecdotal, or fail to recognize that if you poll 1739 people in the US you can predict a presidential race, hence visiting 2% of the B&N superstores in the world was not a bad glimpse into B&N. After Bookscan became available to me, I essentially ran both systems in parallel for at least a year. As the Bookscan info proved to track JoshuaScan pretty nicely, and I had more experience with Bookscan, and my time got more precious, the bookstore visits slowly dwindled. Enough visits to enough stores so I can keep track of things like orders on Bk #2 in a series vs. sales on Bk #1, or what the minimum take was looking like (the minimum take may be the single most important indicator of buyer enthusiasm and publisher-paid placement).

But in any case, one of the things that JoshuaScan eventually evolved into was a Dec. 23 ritual of visiting bookstores in Manhattan from mid-afternoon until the stores closed. I could walk into a busy bookstore and look at a long line and pretend all of those people were buying JABberwocky books. Which was a nice thing to pretend when I was getting by, but not all that much more. I could take the pulse of the list for the holidays. The day would include a visit to the Pizzeria Uno at either E 86th St. or sometimes if I got an early start from the office and could visit the E 86th St. stores and then walk to the west side, the Uno on W. 81st St. And I enjoyed this quite a bit.

Alas, having returned to the tradition this year after skipping (I believe) the past two, I don't think I'll feel an aching desire to keep this tradition going. It started out nicely enough; I got a late start from the office, but the subway was good and I got to the 86th St. Uno's a few enough minutes before 3pm to have the lunch special, which has been part of my life since 1983. But the lines seem less long with each passing year. Fewer shoppers? More registers?? The stores were busy but not mobbed; I didn't find people lingering in the sf section to hand-sell to. The old Lex/86 B&N that was one of the first (and way too small) B&N kind-of superstores is gone now, replaced by a much bigger store that opened in the summer. This was only my 2nd visit after one a few days after opening, a testatement to how I'm not doing the stores the way I used to. As I went from there to the B&N on 82nd/Bway to 66th/Bway to Borders Columbus Circle to Borders Park Ave. to B&N/Citicorp to Midtown Comics (not an official stop!) to B&N 46/5th to Borders Penn Plaza, I slowly came to realize that I was doing all of this solely for the sake of the tradition.

As John Crowley says in the closing lines of his masterful Little Big:

The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.


The only thing that gave a frisson of past excitement was finding out that Borders had put in its orders for the mass market of Peter V. Brett's Warded Man rather earlier than expected, so if I asked at the info desk "when is this book coming out," I could be rewarded. In the good old days of JoshuaScan and lots of time, eagerly-awaited orders might have put my plans for a Sunday afternoon aside so I could eagerly add data to my data set. Now, even though I'm still eager, I don't have the time and can say to myself "well, the book will be out in two months, so it's not like I can't get some of the orders into the data set next month." But with a little second wind after strolling down to the Chelsea Whole Foods and getting 1.18 lb at the hot buffet in me I decided I'd walk crosstown to the Borders at Kips Bay to get one more piece of data into me.

But overall, the day just confirmed that my pleasant visits to bookstores are now more and more likely to be when I'm traveling, in less well-trod ground, maybe with a little bit more time just to poke around. My life moving forward won't be what it was looking back...

On the other hand, my Dec. 24 tradition held up very nicely, and that post shall follow anon...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It Just Keeps Getting Better & Better

For those people who like to slam Bookscan for tracking "only" 70 or 75% of the market, I have some bad news.

Come the New Year, they've added BJ's Wholesale Club, Meijer, and the Paradies Shops to their reporting outlets.

BJ's I think most people are at least familiar with, but if not, they're the 3rd biggest warehouse club after Costco and Sam's, and they've certainly been adding more and more NYC outlets in recent years, though none real convenient for me.

Meijer, I have fond memories of from my college days in Ann Arbor. Back then they were Meijer's Thrifty Acres, which was and still is an early version of a Walmart Supercenter with groceries and hard goods all under one roof. I never shopped at one when I was in college because they were on the outskirts of town, but the name still brings fond memories. I did pop in to one outside of Indianapolis to see what the book department was like, and in the same power center as a B&N. So the chain is still around, still offering some regional competition to the Walmart behemoth.

And Paradies, I believe they are a competitor to Hudson News (which came on board at the start of 2009) in the airport retail market.

Know, Bookscan is still not perfect. It still doesn't get #s from Walmart, which guards them zealously. It doesn't cover a lot of non-traditional outlets, so as an example a book one of my clients once did that sold 90% of its copies in Motherhood Maternity would still be invisible to the Bookscan universe. But all that being said, these additions add some depth and breadth to the sales that are being tracked in 2010.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Borders UK

While I'm cautiously optimistic that Borders is having an OK holiday season (it seems to me they've been less promotional with the Borders Reward coupons, which is a good sign), Borders UK is officially dead, a few years after being sold off to local management in a leveraged buyout.

Other than for some lease guarantees and damage to the brand equity, this doesn't directly impact Borders US, but it's a very sad day nonetheless.

When Borders decided to open up stores internationally in the late 1990s, I was a big fan of the idea. In the UK, it seemed smart that Borders purchased a local retailer Books Etc. which had some nice stores, mostly mall, but ranging from a tiny closet on Holborn St. to a huge flagship at their Charing Cross HQ. And it was exciting to me to visit the very happening Jam Factory Borders in Melbourne Australia in 1999 or the flagship UK store on Oxford St. when I went over for London Book Fair. While start-up costs led to some large losses, sales trends seemed OK as more stores opened enabling the company to leverage its fixed costs over more stores and bigger sales.

But something odd happened to the international operations after 9/11. With diminishing tourism, it was to be expected some that sales at an Oxford St. or Charing Cross road store and other flagship locations like that would flag. But while most of the world recovered with time, the bad trends that emerged at international Borders locations after 9/11 never really reversed. Kind of like how the Toronto Blue Jays seem to be one baseball franchise that never totally recovered from the 1994 baseball work stoppage, 9/11 seemed to have an outsized effect on Borders overseas.

And after that, things snowballed. The challenges in getting a reversal of sales trends led management to slow down on expansion and do some disinvestment. Ultimately, the decision was made to sell, and the Australian and the UK operations were sold off in separate fire sales to separate owners. The buyers of the UK operation seemed to struggle almost from the very start, parceling off this piece of Books Etc., later selling off five leases including the Oxford St. store to a fashion retailer.

Macro, the UK bookselling market was not in good shape. The large big box retailers like Tesco started to heavily discount books. The chains reacted by becoming heavily and boringly promotional themselves; one London Book Fair spring even I got bored walking into another bookstore because the front of every store whatever the chain looked exactly like the front of every other.

But micro, I can't explain why 9/11 had such an outsize effect on Borders internationally, or why Borders UK ended up running into the ground way more than other book retailers. I can tell you why Borders US has had troubled times and how the new CEO here is doing good things to turn around, but even with decent enough experience wandering about British bookstores over the past ten years, the UK situation is a puzzlement.

There are some nice rants in the comment section on this article from the Bookseller, but none quite explain things. You read this October interview with the head of Borders, you wouldn't think the company would be gone in two months.

I do know that there was a huge performance gap between the major flagship stores and the stores in retail parks in Beckton or Watford, enough so that you have to think either rents must have been very cheap or the company was making too many really bad real estate bets. But is that explanation enough?

In the US, the bankruptcy process is much more friendly to incumbent management and opportunities much more generous to reorganize the business in friendly hands. In the UK, a company in trouble is put into administration in third party hands, and it seems as if the administrator may have spurned offers from Barnes & Noble and/or the old Books Etc. management for some portion of the store base. Why? Who knows.

Waterstones, owned by HMV, is now pretty much the only large retail bookstore chain in the UK. So it's them, Amazon, and then WH Smith's and the big boxes, which can move large quantity of some things but none at all of most because their shelf space is variable and for the most part very very small. Borders wasn't a huge chain but was at least some counterweight to the larger players.

kindelicious

Over here, blogger extraordinaire Andrew Wheeler and I have been exchanging some comments about the latest Kindle statistic from Amazon. We got to exchanging on the royalty reporting publishers are providing for e-book sales, and I thought I'd paste a chunk of one of my comments here for the hometown crowd to enjoy, with a few add and extends...

Don't get me started on e-book accounting with the major publishers.

Some companies like Macmillan (Tor, SMP, FSG) aggregate all the e-book sales into one line, so there's no format information.

Penguin gives a separate page for each ISBN, meaning each e-book format, but doesn't tell you what ISBN is what format. You guess that the page with the big shitload of sales is the Kindle, that the next biggest is Sony, and that after that life is too short. And since Amazon doesn't attach an ISBN to its Kindle pages, it really is a guess. Since these statements are six or eight highly uninformative pages, I end up aggregating the sales onto my spreadsheets.

Harper also has separate pages, but also has a summary section, and does list formats. But none of these formats are Kindle; you need to know or ask to find out that those sales show up on the MOBI line. Since Harper does provide format information, I do track formats when entering on to my spreadsheets.

Random House doesn't give entire separate pages, so less paper waste, but does print out e-book sales in ISBN lines, again with no format information attached. So same as Penguin, we take the total e-book line and aggregate for the spreadsheets.

As yet, I haven't seen any publisher that's reporting on an e-book sales in a way that is both concise and informative, and many publishers that manage to spew out considerable amounts of paper which offer surprisingly small amounts of information.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Good Business Thru Politics

I don't know how the health care debate going on in Washington will play out. I've come out clearly in favor of liberal non-market approaches. And I'll admit that I want very badly for some kind of reform to get passed, please please please. My insurance carrier will be telling me soon how much the JABberwocky premiums will be going up come March, and in the meantime I've gotten the good news in a letter entitled "Supporting member health and affordability" that they plan to make our coverage worse. With that title to the letter, on the outside of the envelope, what else could it mean! Copays will go up. If I need a wheelchair or other orthotics, prosthetics or durable medical equipment, I'll get to pay 20% of the cost, and there doesn't seem to be any limit to the size of that co-pay. There are new co-pays for ambulances chemo, and radiation.

If I need a wheelchair and have to pay 20% of the cost, it's safe to say I'll look to go to Joe's Pre-Used Wheelchair Discount Emporium unless I'm rich enough to buy the best wheelchair money can buy. No, that's not rationing. Because that's just screwing people who can't afford 20% of the cost of the nicer wheelchair. We're happy to ration care in this country based on ability to pay, and somehow or other that isn't rationing.

But that's not the purpose of this rant.

The purpose here is to explore why it is that some senators have such outsize power in the negotiations over the course of the health care bill, and the simple reason for that is that they're the ones who are most willing to say "no." Which means that I and all the other people on the side of making good health care a right, privilege and responsibility (yes, responsibility as well) of citizenship, who want to do something, don't have the leverage. It's the people who are "differently principled" to try and put it politely who have the power, because they're willing to say "no."

And this is a good lesson for any author.

When a publisher offers to buy your book, they are saying your book is something they want. If you ask for a better deal, maybe they'll say "no." But very rarely will they say "oh, well, if you don't like it exactly the way it is then we're going to withdraw it." Because if the offer will go away that quickly, then it's clear that they don't really want your book all that much. And if they want it that little, maybe you should'nt be selling it there anyway.

So don't be afraid to say "no."

That being said, there are right ways and wrong ways of saying no.

Much as Ben Nelson isn't on my Christmas card list this year, I can respect that he's always been opposed to abortion and is sticking up for a clear and consistent conviction. If I had a client like that, my one big thing would be that the client have expressed early and often and clearly any kind of deep-seated belief like that instead of discovering it only after the 4th round of back-and-forth between me and the publisher on the contract. The "I was for the Medicare buyout before I was against it" approach isn't so OK with me.

If I find a contract that's running up against one of the JABberwocky convictions after the second round with the publisher... Well, let's say the publisher is intent after I've tried a couple times on having an out-of-print clause that doesn't have a clear exit path because of the theoretically perennial availability of an electronic book. That's when I need to get the client on the phone, explain why I'm worried that we're two rounds into the negotiation, the publisher isn't budging on this, and it's a problem to me because... and then need to find out just how far the client will go in saying "no" to something I feel passionately about.

These games of brinksmanship don't have a clear set of rules. Sometimes problems come up in unexpected times in unexpected places. But I do feel very strongly that the health care debate does offer a powerful example of what can happen when you have something other people want, and you are willing to say "no" longer than those other people are. A good agent should be able to give you good advice on how badly other people might want what you have and how long you can or should say "no." A good agent should also pick up the cues the client gives on core convictions. And both client and agent should be more afraid to give those cues too softly or too inconsistently than to give them clearly, convincingly and (absent changing circumstances) consistently.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good Living Through Pop Culture

I saw Invictus on Saturday night (at the Bow Tie Cinemas Palace, Hartford CT., auditorium # 14). I liked it quite a bit. After being a bit disappointed a year ago with Clint Eastwood's last directorial effort Gran Turino, I was quite quite pleased with this. It's a sports movie and historical biopic all in one, set in the first half of the 1990s. Nelson Mandela is released from prison, takes the reins of government in South Africa, and in an effort to build unity in the country throws his full support behind the Afrikaans rugby team the Springboeks that to blacks has become a symbol of oppresive white rule. The captain of the team is played by Matt Damon, who's fine in a character role that's much less showy than the Bourne movies or The Informant. Mandela is played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman. The movie is occasionally a bit too obvious, but generally in small quick ways as opposed. Maybe Mandela explains why he's doing a bit more often than we need, enough so that it's surprising there isn't a quick rules lesson about rugby. But the big Power Scenes aren't as gushingly maudlin as is often standard for movies of this sort and instead have a bit of powerful not-quite-understatement that's moving without seeming manipulative. There's a quick glimpse of some security forces prepping for the big game where one of the persons we cut too is shorn of context just enough for the segment to be jarring, as if these scenes should have been left on the cutting room floor or some other scene with the character not left there. But generally you can count on a Clint Eastwood movie to be a well-made affair, and this doesn't disappoint.

The life lesson: Mandela makes a point of adding hold-over security from the white regime to his trusted security lieutenants, which is the source of some tension. When Matt Damon's rugby captain is invited to tea by Mandela, one of the white bodyguards is escorting him in, and Damon asks what he thinks of Mandela. The guard's response is along the lines of "with DeKlerk, I was invisible. With Mandela, he learned that I like toffee, and when he went to England he came back with a box of english toffe for me."

This line resonated with me. I try to be the person who would remember to bring back the box of toffee. I won't claim to do it perfectly, I can't claim to keep track of the lives of people like my mother, who manages to send more greeting cards to more people for more occasions than anyone else I know, but I try. And I think it's a trait worth having. Be a little curious about the people you work with, try and find out who likes the toffee. It's a social grace that I don't find near as much as I should.

On Sunday night it was time for the finale of Survivor: Samoa, the 19th edition of the pioneering reality show.

I had been a Survivor snob for its first three or four years, proud of ignoring it. And then one year I watched an episode on Thanksgiving night (sadly in recent years this episode has more often been an enh-y clip show than an actual newbie) with my younger brother and his family and found myself hooked. And have watched pretty regularly for the past six years or so. There've been good seasons and bad seasons and some boring episodes along the way, but overall it gives me pleasure.

This was a really good season, which helped to revise the show's gentle ratings decline. Sunday's finale was seen by a few more people than last December's, and even a bigger improvement over Season 18 in May.

And the finale was one of the more interesting, because I, at least, found it hard to root for the best man to win. An oil company executive named Russell clearly played the best game this season, perhaps one of the best in any season. He had a plan from the beginning, he executed it impeccably, he held to a core alliance, formed shorter alliances to be sure he could always vote out the people he wanted to vote out, when he wanted to do it.

And he lost the vote to become sole survivor and winner of the million dollar prize. Not even close. 7-2 in favor of another player who advanced that far prettty much entirely by hanging to Russell's coattails.

Why?

Well, Russell never stopped playing the game.

After the votes, the show has a few seconds where the departing player talks on his elimination. The next-to-last player to be voted off said in his remarks "the least I deserved was to be told that I was going home." And this departing player was right. There are times in the game when it's too dangerous to stop playing the game. Often not at the beginning, when there are too many votes to sway when nobody knows anyone else yet. Certainly not at the end, when alliances are so well cemented that there aren't votes to sway. So there's no harm in telling someone "sorry, but tonight's your night."

Boy, did that never happen in Survivor: Samoa. Week after week, the person being voted off was blindsided with no idea what was coming. Russell never told anyone tonight was their night. He was always telling person B that person C was being voted that night, person C that it was person B.

Life lesson: there's some truth to the adage about being nice to the people you meet on the way up because you might cross their paths on the way down. You can't always be playing the game.

I don't know how close that scene in Invictus is to anything that happened in real life. Survivor isn't real life. But nonetheless I think both of these things are teachable moments.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

the well-dressed output tray

I just got a spare part for my Xerox printer, the size of which is approximately 9x4.5x1, in a 25x16x8 carton.

I guess I should be thankful it came with sealed air packing, instead of two cubic feet of packing peanuts.

Nine Iron Cross

There may be a few lingering items in January, but the 2009 Variety Screening Series calendar ended with Iron Cross, the last time to star Roy (Jaws) Scheider, and Nine, the big new musical directed by Ron Marshall, whose prior big screen musical Chicago was quite successful a few years ago.

Alas, Iron Cross (seen Tuesday Dec. 15, 2009 at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud., #1) is abysmal. Scheider plays a Holocaust survivor whose family was killed. He managed to escape into the forest, hook up with partisans, get some training as a fighter. His son marries a Chinese woman and the couple move to Nurenberg. Dad visits, realizes that his son's elderly neighbor is the Nazi who killed his parents, and vows revenge with or without his son's help. Some third act twists, but not many surprises between here and there. Scheider isn't bad, but pretty much everything else about the movie is. Scheider's character is prone to flashbacks; pretty much anything on the street will lead him to have a vision of the day his parents died. But it's not enough for us to see this a few times to get a feel for what the character's going through. We get these visions again and again, like the entire city of Nurenberg is some big Overlook hotel where everything shines, like a novel where one of the characters stutters or speaks in an accent so every single word becomes-s-s-s-s-s word-d-d-d-d-d and the writer is droppin' the g every time one of them is appearin' durin' the writin' of the novel. Similarly, the music has to underscore every single emotional or plot beat in the movie in the loudest and most annoying way possible. How am I supposed to nap in a bad movie when the music insists on underscoring everything so very, very, very loudly?

Nine (seen Wed. Dec. 16, 2009 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Aud. #5 Valencia) was a hot ticket, moved to a larger auditorium, every seat filled, cancellation line, the works, and it is picking up Golden Globe nominations and the like. I might have liked it a little more than this excoriation from Scott Foundas in the Village Voice, but I didn't really like it. Was Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as bad as Mr. Foundas suggests? Did I like it not because it was good but just because it was so different from his stellar performance in There Will Be Blood? He plays an Italian movie director with lots of lovers and lots of admirers, and he's making a movie, and every so often people break into song. These people include Fergie, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren, all kinds of a-list people. I had trouble telling them apart (well, not Judi Dench, who is the only one to sound like M), and the relationship with the wife seemed a lot like the relationship with the reporter like the relationship with the mistress. And I didn't care about any of those people or any of those relationships, so I didn't care when they started to sing, or whatever it was they were singing about. Each character gets one big number, and the characters and the numbers don't meet up in any exciting kind of way. No plot, no dramatic arc, the movie is very extravagent but I also think it's very very flat. Of course it caters to the Hollywood ego in a very big way since it's a big extravagant star-studded movie about making movies. Which does not hurt in the awards race. But it's just not very good.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

e-book frenzy

So Borders has announced its e-book strategy, and Random House is making a land grab.

The Borders announcement fascinates me on several levels. If my distant memory serves, a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Borders contemplated opening Canadian stores in partership with Heather Reisman, now the CEO of their e-book partner and major Canadian book retailer Indigo. This did not come to pass because of the difficulty in finding a way to structure the deal that would pass muster with Canadian content regulations for book retailers. Or at least that's my distant memory, which may or may not be correct. And it was after this did not come to pass that Heather started to put together the Indigo retail empire in Canada.

Borders is late to the e-book game. As they were late to the internet. Late to having a modern inventory system and in-store computer system. Late and still not arrived to having a rapid supply chain. But unlike the internet business, being late here might be to Borders' benefit. I don't consider even the Kindle to be a dominant unapproachable category killer, nor any current e-book reader for that matter. When I'm content to read manuscripts on an iPod Touch, it's safe to say that the future of e-books may not even be the e-book reader. Part of it will depend on whether they do a better job of putting something good out the first time around instead of doing the bad rush job for the holidays represented by the B&N Nook. The press release has precious few details. Well, this should all be very interesting to watch play out over the next year or two. It's too bad I'll have to watch as someone with a lot on the line as it all plays out instead of as an interested rubbernecker.

The Random House letter is a lot of "yadda yadda yadda" followed by a "don't mess with us." Yes, Random House is doing all kinds of on-line thingamabobbies, Suvudu this and Library Thing that, with a free e-book here and a galley contest there, here a link, there a post, everywhere an interview (you want to sing the above to the tune of Old McDonald for your fullest enjoyment), but so is everyone else. But as with publishing itself, where the barriers to entry have come down so much that the idea of paying a Vantage Press thousands of dollars to publish a book seems stunningly quaint, the barriers to entry for doing on-line book promotion are practically non-existent. I've got clients like Jim C. Hines who do quite a bit of this kind of thing, most of it done without overwhelming assistant from his publisher's publicity people. If you have no idea what any of this is about, the Random House touting of its electronic horn sounds much more impressive than I think it really is.

As to the suggestion that Random House has e-book rights on ancient contracts that don't mention e-books, don't specify e-book royalty rates, long pre-date the existence of e-books... Um, yeah, right. I don't know if there will ever be an ultimate court case where the Supreme Court will end up having to decide. One of the biggest brouhahas previously between Random House and Rosetta Books, a company led by my one-time boss Arthur Klebanoff, ended up with an out of court settlement after some initial rulings that were not totally favorable to Random.

To me, the bottom line on this is that the major publishing houses all started to revise their boilerplates in the early 1990s to specifically cover electronic book editions. If they are so gosh darn confident that all of the older contracts covered this, why bother to go to all that effort to change your boilerplate?

Of course, this letter is a model of gentility compared to the form letter publishers send out to try and get authors to sign away after the fact on granting e-book rights or specifying e-book royalties. Which all sound the same, no matter what publisher they come from, and which should never, ever, ever be signed, because they always do things like forget to mention that adding in e-book rights without looking at the entire contract and things like the out of print clause could be the equivalent of signing away the book forever. Now why would the publisher forget to mention that in the letter?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

D'oh!

Oh those Simpsons!

I've probably watched the lion's share of episodes, and certainly pretty much all from the last 12 or 15 seasons. As the show's gotten on in years, there are the occasional weeks, and sometimes stretches of weeks, when the series shows its age. There are some ideas like the historical reenactments or fairy tale retellings that I can't stand at all.

The show is a lesson in TV credits. The longer a show is on the air, the more and more people manage to get contractual producer credits of some sort or another. The roster that appears on air is now pushing 30 producers of various shapes and sizes in the opening credits.

Most weeks, though, the show is pleasant enough, that it's worth watching because the only way to find the great episodes like this past week's is to keep plugging away, and then lo and behold once or three times a season there's something that works so wonderfully on so many levels that you just sit and marvel. This week's episode, written by Matt Selman (who is responsible for more than his share of great series moments), has Bart Simpson deciding he needs to have a a younger brother, so he hooks up with a kid from an orphanage.

And in the middle of the episode, Bart says his dad told him "I was one Uday who didn't need a Qusay."

And I was still thinking about this line and laughing to myself about this line hours later when I went to bed.

It would have been worth watching the episode for that one line alone, but in the best Simpsons tradition the episode references an amazing potpourri of just about everything. The first 8 minutes encompass references to the Food Network (or is it the Learning Channel that shows documentaries on how Twinkes are made), climate change, the Emmy Awards, Lewis Carroll, Peanuts, video games, pop-up books, the X-Men, the Manning Brothers, the Blues Brothers, the Smothers Brothers, the Mario Brothers, Smith Bros. cough drops and the Wright brothers. After the second commercial break, I think I might have missed two or three references but could spot the ones to South Park, Jerry Maguire, the Kama Sutra, carpal tunnel, birth control, breath mints and Buy America. And Homer's birds and bees talk with Bart consists of three words: "point and shoot."

And if I'm not entirely sure about one or two references, well, there's always "I was one Uday who didn't need a Qusay."

For the record, this is an awful, miserable, godawful line, because there's nothing in Homer's background or history over twenty seasons to suggest he would have the intellectual grounding to tell Bart that he "was one Uday who didn't need a Qusay."

There may not be another episode the rest of the season as good as this, but I'll keep watching to find one more "Uday who didn't need a Qusay."

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Colin Brothers

So it's Awards Season, which means the Variety Screening Series is going on, and one again man of the screenings have a ticket allotment for Museum of the Moving Image members. I've cut way back on movies this year as I've gotten incredibly incredibly busy. Ten years ago, I would look for reasons why I should see a particular movie, and now I often look for reasons not to so I won't feel as bad about not going. But my general policy for the freebies is to say "yes" to the invite unless there's a scheduling conflict. Last year, that meant seeing the godawful Blindness and the excellent Rachel Getting Married and many others in between.

Julianne Moore of Blindness was at the Q&A this year for the much better A Single Man, seen Monday Dec. 7, 2009 at the Landmark Sunshine, auditorium #1. This film, directed by the fashion designer Tom Ford (he headed Gucci, I am told), is based on the 1962 novel of the same name. A gay man in a closeted time finds out that his lover has passed away. He decides to commit suicide, and the movie chronicles his last day. I've not read the book, but the reviews and Q&A reveal that the suicide bit was added to give some structure to the script that wasn't in the novel. Colin Firth has been touted for his performance, and it's very very good. Firth's one of those all-purpose British actors who's been in things from Shakespeare in Love to Bridget Jones to Love Actually to The English Patient, whom you rarely really notice but never disappoints. Julianne Moore is less successful in the film, largely because she has an underwritten role that you may need to have read the book to understand, of a divorcee who's also one of the closest friends to the Colin Firth character. In light of Tom Ford's fashion background it's no surprise that the eye candy that helps brighten Colin Firth's last day is really really nice candy, featuring the British actor Nicholas Hoult, little seen in the US since About A Boy, as a flirtatious student, Matthew Goode in flashback as the dead lover, and a Spanish hottie playing a Spanish hottie.

There's a keen visual eye to the whole movie, however, and not just to the costume design, the hair design, the makeup, etc. Parts of the movie, especially in the beginning, are shot in such desaturated color as to border on black and white. As Colin Firth finds more joy over the course of the day, the movie gets more colorful, and in some scenes the palatte can switch back and forth like a mood ring. I've read some reviews that consider this unwanted artifice, but it worked for me. There are so many films that don't take advantage of what film can do that I'm pleased to see a first-time director who's doing something to take advantage of the medium.

Hoult, Moore and Ford did the Q&A, and all three were dressed to the hilt. I should have been in black tie, it seemed, because they certainly were. It was Hoult's 20th birthday, and with Hoult as with the actors who play Bill and Jason in True Blood, it's always interesting to hear the real voice for the actors vs. their role voice.

And then there's Colin Farrell in Crazy Heart, seen Sunday December 13, 2009 at the Victor Borges auditorium of Scandinavia House. This was not part of the Variety series but rather a member screening for the Moving Image. Crazy Heart has become a very highly touted film for Awards Season on account of Jeff Bridges performance as an alcoholic and washed-up country music singer. The film was done by a division of Paramount, they didn't want it, it was rescued from possible direct-to-video by Fox Searchlight, and their efforts to position Bridges for Best Actor contention received some early validity from the LA Film Critics.

Is Bridges good? Yes. He inhabits the role like me sitting in my recliner. So naturally and so thoroughly that you can't see the acting, and not a touch of Master Thespian about the performance.

And he's so good and so likeable and so natural in the role that I managed to forget for around 2/3 of the movie that I was doing one of my least favorite things when I go to the movies, which is watching a drunk do the stupid drunken things that drunks do. I've never enjoyed watching movies of this sort, from Don's Party thru Barfly thru any other exemplar of the art that I've seen.

It's not until we get to the "drunk loses child in mall" plot device that I finally realized that's what this movie was. Because the event didn't really make sense for the character who seemed drunk in a not-that-bad-a-drunk kind of way. And it's just such a device. Hackneyed. Didn't Bailey lose Owen in the mall in Party of Five?

At least I could get annoyed at that. Bridges' performance can't hide the fact that this character spends most of the movie doing things that just aren't very interesting, and as much as I liked Bridges' performance I was having trouble staying awake. Yes, yes, yes, we all learn in the creative arts that everything's been done before and it's more in the quality of it than the what of it, but the lost child in mall was in this case the culmination of so many cliches of the drunkard movie being checked off like sports movies cliches. Great performance, too bad the movie isn't.

But Colin Farrell, he steals the show. Farrell's played movie star in things like SWAT, but as the director pointed out in the Q&A afterward, he is at heart a character actor, and in Crazy Heart he's totally absorbed in the role of Tommy Sweet, a young country singer whose idol/mentor was the Bad Blake character played by Bridges. You wouldn't know he's Scottish because he does a great country singer, singing and all. And you wouldn't know it's Colin Farrell, he's so submerged in the role, except that his blue eyes are something special that you can't hide. And eventually you watch those smoldering blue eyes coming at you from this country singer and you go "that's Colin Farrell," and then you're all the more fascinated at the transition that you're seeing. It's a stunningly good performance.

According to Bridges, it's Colin Farrell who found a guy named Ryan Bingham playing in a club in LA and mentioned to director Scott Cooper, and Bingham shows some real "it" in a brief role as the lead singer for the band that's doing backup for Bad Blake at the bowling alley performance that starts out the movie.

Robert Duvall is really good in the movie.

There are an awful lot of very good performances in this movie, and it's too bad director Scott Cooper didn't get a better script out of the co-writer Scott Cooper, because it's abundantly clear that Scott Cooper has a way with actors.

Between Firth and Farrell, I've been kept in Colins this week, and there are worse places I could have been.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

musings

Tiger Woods has gotten some very bad advice from a lot of people, but it's disappointing he isn't smart enough to have noticed. Haven't he or his handlers paid any attention to any other similar scandal, or to any of the steroid stuff in baseball, to know that it's a better idea to get ahead of the story, in public, than to leave on the stove? Even at the lowest temperature, a pot left to simmer eventually boils over. Some journalists have said we should all just leave Tiger alone and respect his privacy, but he sold his privacy long ago. He's never been a golf player who plays the game and goes home. He's marketed himself and his image. And when that image becomes a mysterious wee hours car trip on Thanksgiving, driving into a fire hydrant and tree, your wife standing over you with a golf club in her hands... It was bad enough at that, to decide not to be silent on all of it.

Afghanistan depresses me. You can't win in life without occasionally going to war. That's true in my business. No, publishers shouldn't be thinking I'm a jerk. But every once in a while one of them should be mad at me about something. So yes, I have strong liberal tendencies. I sometimes wonder why the US still has troops pretty much everywhere it ever put them, with the possible exception of Viet Nam. But going into Afghanistan in 2001 was a must in my book, and deserved more and better follow-through at the time. The problem is that we're trying to make up eight years later for things we should have done six or eight years ago. I kept thinking as I watched the West Point speech that these cadets were 10 or 12 years old on 9/11. And all these years later... Well, we can't set up an Afghan army or police force with illiterates. So we need to build schools to educate people so we can then train them to be killed defending their country. But it is awfully hard to justify building schools in Afghanistan when we have a serious funding crunch for needs here in the US. I don't want to be there for $30B a year, I don't want to not be there, I don't envy the President for having decide between so many bad options.

Some publishers are delaying the release of their e-book editions that are selling for $9.99 to protect their $27.95 hardcovers. Enh. The problem with this isn't the $9.99 e-book, it's the free one. The ultimate threat to publishing is the illegal file share, especially because publishers and authors don't have the ancillary revenue streams in ring tones or merchandising that the music industry does. For the publishing industry to transition, it would be like going to a convention that would cost five times as much as it costs now, then paying ala carte for each panel, then having all that revenue split with the authors. Yeah, right. People who pay $250 for an e-book reader will want to read things on it when they want to read them, and I think we're better off risking our hardcover money than risking that it will become as acceptable in publishing to get for free what you can't or don't feel like paying for than it has become in the music industry. I can worry about what e-books will do to my bottom line. I can have nightmares about file sharing.

And over the course of 2009, the Google settlement and the presence of illegal file share sites got me to thinking that the publishers should provide authors with a free copy of their e-books just like they would provide them with 10 or 20 paperbacks. This was something new, I wasn't expecting to find every publisher would instantly agree to something new, but it's been surprising to me just how resistant they've been.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Now why didn't I think of that?

My local Wendy's had something new on Friday, a spicy chicken crispy chicken nugget. Yes, the breading from their spicy chicken sandwich applied to their longstanding crispy chicken nuggets.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kirkus leaves the stage

So the news is announced today, not in any very exciting way so you can follow this link to Andy Wheeler's blog and other links from there (PW, NY Times etc. all have had little reports, Adweek was the first up maybe) that Kirkus Reviews is closing.

Kirkus was one of the major pre-publication review sources in the publishing trade for many years, along with Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist. Since it had a tendency to be snarky, a good review always made people very happy, a starred review exceptionally so, and a bad review could be ignored because after all weren't they all that way.

Even the Wikipedia page for Kirkus is terribly shallow, however, because nobody outside of the trade really cares. My recollection is that it had been family owned for many, many years. It was sold mostly to libraries and to publishers with very little circulation beyond. In a day when there were very few sources of broad coverage of books, it was a very important subscription for libraries to have. But then the internet comes along, and budgets for very expensive magazine subscriptions (for as little as Kirkus might pay for a review, they had to pay something and they reviewed many many books) tightened and the subscribers dwindle and it really is expensive. The family may have sold it several years ago to some other entrepeneur and I can't remember how it ended up in the hands of Nielsen. In recent years it tried to experiment with doing things like offering paid-for reviews but allegedly real reviews but still separate from the regular reviews for people who were self-publishing. I guess if I wanted to look for citations for some of these things I could update the Wiki page.

But bottom line is that it became more and more irrelevant, and while never a staunch supporter of sf/fantasy it became even less so in recent days. So as Andy Wheeler says, it's hard to get too upset that it's gone.

But here's why it's worth commenting upon. While not known to the general public it did have some resonance still in the trade and in libraries. There aren't many places like that, especially as newspaper reviews have become fewer and fewer. And you can certainly say of PW what one will say of Kirkus. All of these are under deep attack in the internet era, and none of them are crucial to anyone. But if we are left with none of them at all, if all we have are the dozens of internet review sites which are important to very few but without meaning to the world at large, it's going to become harder and harder to get a book known and heard about, to build buzz and get things to rise above the crowd. Even in its last days, telling people in-house that you have a good review from Kirkus does more than telling them it has a good review from [insert your favorite internet review site here].

And that's not a path I'm thrilled to be travelling.

Nookie Nookie

I played around some with a demonstration model of the Nook at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan on Thursday and was not impressed.

E-Ink is E-Ink, so the screen look like all the others. But if the initial Kindle had a knock that it was too easy to turn the pages accidentally, I found it took too much effort to turn the pages on the Nook. And when I did turn the pages, the refresh rate was very slow, a good two to three seconds. B&N did acknowledge this problem, and they say it will be fixed with a software update in the near future. But isn't that the kind of thing you should work on before you release the product? Anyone think they decided to rush out something for the holidays?

And then there's that LED screen at the bottom that's used for navigating. It's a nice idea, on one level, because one knock certainly on the first generation Kindle was the awkwardness of the little sliding side thingie to navigate around. But I think if they were doing the second screen they should have worked very hard to make it an intuitive and natural sort of thing, and I didn't really find it to be. It has the same learning curve as the awkward navigation on other e-book readers. I often found myself pressing the wrong button or finding that the button seemed to do something different than I would have intuitively expected.

So I think I'll stick to reading on my iPod Touch with Stanza for the time being. I was disappointed, really; with all this time to learn from Amazon's experience and mistakes, I was expecting the Nook to be a much clearer step up in the e-book gadget war than it is at this moment.

That being said, the fact that you have an e-book reader that people can go around and play with in many B&Ns and look/see/touch/feel is definitely a major step forward in adaptation of the technology. Borders has had little kiosks for the Sony Reader, but their investment and the quality and accessibility of the presentation was nothing or nowhere like what B&N is doing to put the Nook into people's hands.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Go Borders, Go!

This will post six months to the day since I gave an interim report card to Borders CEO Ron Marshall, who came on the job after the holiday season a year ago.

I love this guy!

And I'm urging all of you to check out your local Borders this holiday season and think about giving them some of your business, because I think Ron Marshall has worked very hard and for the most part very successfully to position Borders for the holiday season and bang the stores into shape.

By way of background, the prior CEO, George L. Jones, had not done a good job. First, he debuted his wonderful new concept store a very very short time before announcing the company was in a cash crunch. While I was roaming around visiting bookstores in LA, my thinking on this crystallized: this meant he either knew the company was running out of cash but was having too much fun with his new toy, his "buy a GPS, burn a CD" digital bookstore of the future, to tend to the important fact that he was running out of cash, or he didn't know. Either should have gotten the guy fired sooner than actually ended up happening. And then his solution was to slash inventory levels, which hurt the best Borders stores most of all. One problem Borders had was an inconsistent brand image because their worst stores for sf/fantasy had an inventory selection markedly worse than a B&N, while the best stores had fabulous deep selections that were much much better. The best Borders were just really, really, really good, but the huge gap in selection from good stores to bad wasn't good for brand identity. So when he slashed inventory levels over the course of 2008, it meant that the best Borders no longer carried things like a selection of "Hot Blood" anthologies which you couldn't find elsewhere. Before this, the average Borders had been about the same as the average B&N, though with a bigger spread. Thus, the average Borders was worse because the worst stores were still appreciably worse while the good stores were no better than the competition. Which made it that much harder to cover up the slower supply chain, the less frequent reordering, and other such things. On the plus side, it was under George Jones that Borders finally rolled out a new computer system for its employees and started a non-stop Charlaine Harris campaign which B&N took around a year to catch up to.

Ron Marshall is doing what he can to solve these things.

As I mentioned six months ago, he quickened reorder cycles for backlist. Borders still takes longer to replenish than B&N because its supply chain isn't as good, but the problem is no longer exacerbated by waiting eight weeks to reorder. If a Borders is supposed to carry a book, it is much more likely to have the book on the shelf than ever before in its history.

Starting in October, I could see the results of a major effort to increase inventory levels and improve selection from top to bottom at Borders. There is hardly a JABberwocky clients who doesn't have more books carried at more Borders locations now than in September. In the case of the Goblin books by Jim Hines, the books were rolled out to every single store as of October. Tanya Huff's "Keeper" books went from being carried maybe at 20% of the stores to being carried at 65% or 70%. Elizabeth Moon's "Legacy of Gird" picked up a few stores. The most recent earnings press release said Borders invested an extra $16M in inventory in its superstores this holiday season versus last, and you can see that to greater or lesser extent at pretty much any Borders you go into.

There are many books that B&N carries more consistently than Borders. These include the Dark Delicacies anthologies, the first two Greywalker trade paperbacks, the Crispin Guest mysteries by Jeri Westerson, both Andrea Cort novels by Adam-Troy Castro and a full selection of Michael Schiefelbein. But if you want to find Elizabeth Moon's "Deed of Paksenarrion," Brandon Sanderson's "Warbreaker," David Edelman's "Infoquake," Jim Hines' "Goblin" novels, John Zakour's "Zach" novels, Peter Brett's "Warded Man," you have to go to Borders. On balance, I think we're regaining some of that special feel at the top 20% of the stores in the Borders portfolio that helps to make up for some of the advantages B&N still has with its supply chain. And the typical Borders has much more Sookie Stackhouse and Brandon Sanderson on the shelf.

Borders had to do a lot of store remodels in the spring and summer to cover up the gaping holes from eliminating the music and movie sections at many of their stores. A lot of the stores were a mess, and as discussed in August, some Borders locations may always be weighted down by more square feet than anyone can know what to do with. I'm not happy that many of these remodels moved the genre fiction much further from the front door. The latest store where I saw this was Borders #55 in Farmington, CT., where the genre fiction is now way in back in part of the old walled-off music section, and the space right up front where the genre fiction had been is now filled with bargain books. Me sad! But at least the store looks OK, design wise, without the sense that somebody had scratched at the store and pulled off strips of its flesh. It didn't look that way in the summer. So going into the holiday season, the store had been remodeled into some semblance of attractiveness, and with a slightly beefed up inventory selection as well.

So the stores have been spiffed up a little bit, they look nicer than they did, they're carrying more titles than they did, and I hope customers will start to take notice.