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.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In Memoriam; Robert Knedlik

During the brief 14 months I spent working in the Arthur Klebanoff era Scott Meredith Literary Agency, he having taken over from Scott's widow, I took on a novel called The Kiss by Robert Knedlik.

I loved it. It was an erotic vampire novel, and when I say erotic I mean "give a hard-on" erotic, but also erotic, and not porn. I really liked this book. Because Arthur was new on board and knew not Joshua, he wanted to get some other opinions, maybe read himself, on what this novel was that was wanting to sell, and he decided we should get behind it.

During Scott's tenure at the agency, marketing was generally approached as a mail order business only. You sat at your desk and you sent manuscripts out. Arthur's approach was somewhat different and alien to me. If we were really behind, then I was supposed to call people and excite them. I even went to some editor to personally hand-deliver as as way of saying we were behind it.

Can you guess what happened?

Nobody wanted to buy it. Rejection after rejection after rejection.

A few months later, Arthur decided that his grand plans for the Scott Meredith Agency were not bearing fruit. I was made redundant in October 1994, along with three or four other people. Around that same time, Robert Mecoy at Avon, who was on the submission list for The Kiss, left for a new position at Crown.

And then one day out of the blue during the earliest months of JABberwocky... Christine Zika, a young junior editor in Mecoy's office at Avon is going through the things he left behind on his way to Crown. She comes across The Kiss. She likes it. And somehow or other a book I'd left for dead from a submission I'd left for dead becomes one of the very first sales for JABberwocky. Well, isn't that nice! The on-signing commission will put me 1% closer to breaking even my first year. A book I really like is going to get published.
A lot of what happened after that wasn't so nice, alas.

Avon decides they can't really sell women an erotic novel with a man's name on the cover, so we're forced to go to a pseudonym. Robert Knedlik becomes Kathryn Reines, which has the benefit of putting the book very close to Anne Rice on the bookstore shelves.

However, the cover which you can see above is just not very good. It's a nice piece of art, but it's very stately, very monochromatic, very unlike what an Anne Rice cover of the mid-1990s looked like. All this effort is made to get Reines next to Rice on the store shelves, but then you need to have a cover that will catch the eye of somebody looking two shelves down at Anne Rice. And whatever else you can say about the cover, it doesn't do that.

While they paid only a very modest advance for the book, Avon did get behind it and give it high placement on their list, so they print something like 60,000 copies, which even in 1996 is a very big number (today, I've had books make the NY Times mass market bestseller list with print runs considerably less). But of course with the awkward cover, it's hard to get people to actually buy the book. The flagship B. Dalton on Fifth Avenue has lots and lots of copies, and I can watch them continue to have lots and lots of copies until one day they are gone. It earns out because the advance is small, but its sell-thru is not very good at all. It is a textbook example of how author royalties do not necessarily equal publisher profit (and on the flip side, unearned advances do not necessarily equal publisher red ink), and of course this is not going to make the publisher think warm fuzzy thoughts when it comes to buying a second novel by the author.

Even worse, it's hard to know if there is a second novel really worth selling. Bob has ideas, but it's hard to get one to gel the way The Kiss did. He isn't a natural reviser like some of my clients, so when I suggest he do something to solve one problem, it's rare that the one problem doesn't solve at the expense of causing some other problem. Sometimes a person has one story to tell, and maybe this was Robert Knedlik's.

A couple years after my Kiss by Kathryn is published, the title becomes synomynous with an incest memoir by Kathryn Harrison.

Ultimately, The Kiss ends up being the first novel to go through an entire life cycle at JABberwocky from sale to a reversion of rights. But that does nothing to diminish my own personal fondness for the book. The fact that there isn't a second novel doesn't diminish my own personal fondness for the book. I could pick up this book today and be in love with it all over again.

Christine Zika ended up leaving Avon a few years later for Berkley. Among her duties at Berkley was to "cover" St. Martin's for paperback reprint rights. When I'm talking to Ginjer Buchanan at Berkley to begin a reissue program for the Lily Bard books by Charlaine Harris, Christine Zika is the one who is doing the Berkley to St. Martin's conversation to make those arrangements. Later, she moves to the Literary Guild empire.

In the early 2000s, Robert Knedlik has an idea for a new vampire novel that seems to have some potential. The revision process goes a little better, and we come up ultimately with a book called The Promise, which I take to market in 2005. It does not sell.

In 2009, it is fifteen years that JABberwocky has been in business, and it has been a very good year. I decide I am going to send some 15th anniversary gifts on a selective basis, but among the people I want to select are authors who made me a little money in 1995 or 1996 when even a little money meant quite a bit to my being able to survive the hard early years of a small business. My personal fondness for The Kiss is unabated. It was one of my very first sales, the royalty checks from Avon among my very first pieces of royalty income. There isn't a rational business reason for me to spend a dime sending a gift to Robert Knedlik or other authors like him, but to me, it is the entirely right thing to do.

Bob's wife called this week after receiving the gift. Or, more accurately, Bob's widow. She tells me Bob passed away last August, at the age of 58, of a massive and unexpected heart attack.

Darn.

Robert Knedlik and The Kiss are small parts of my history, but very important parts, and will always be much beloved, much cherished. A small part of me departed this plane in August.

Amazon has used copies of The Kiss. They do not cost much. If you have a Palm OS phone, you can enjoy the book electronically via eReader.com.

1 comment:

Peat said...

That was a very touching eulogy.