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 31, 2010

Jane Jarvis

The Sunday NY Times carried an obituary for Jane Jarvis. She was the organist at Shea Stadium for fifteen years. Much more to her life than just that, according to the obit, but it's for that which I will remember her. According to the article, she left the Mets in the late '70s, only a few years after I first started going to Mets games (1977, I think, was my first), but in my memory she had to have been pounding her organ keys longer into my Mets attendance than that. It's a tribute to her that I feel as if she must have been part of my life longer than she actually could have been. Thinking of Jane Jarvis brings back memories of what is now a long distant age when you could go to a baseball game without being assaulted by loud non-stop music. Even after Jane left there was a certain civility to the soundtrack at a Mets game, like having Sunday in New York played before every Sunday home game. I must be getting old, to be getting sentimental about the quiet old days at the ballpark, when all the music came from two hands on an organ keyboard.

The Trial

Um, no, not the Kafka one.

Gail Collins has always been a favorite columnist of mine. Many years ago she was at New York Newsday. It was a great loss when she left for the NY Times where she was on the Editorial Board and thus having to submerge her voice, and a great pleasure when she returned to being a columnist.

So it's no surprise that I liked her column on the Khalid Shaikh Mohammed trial, but I also think she's going at something very important without quite going deep enough.

To keep this part of it brief, and for those not following the whole saga very closely, KSM is one of the Al Qaeda masterminds of 9/11. Several months ago, the Obama administration decided to try him in Manhattan at a courthouse in Lower Manhattan not far from the World Trade Center. A lot of people in NYC were "hip hip hooray, we're better than those wimps in Illinois who don't want no stinkin' Guantanamo inmates." Then, we get word of the NYPD plans to secure the trial. Which would turn all of Lower Manhattan below at least Canal Street into a giant prison full of barricades, policeman, road closures, random searches, and the like. Then everyone says it isn't such a good idea, and the US has decided to seek alternate locations.

Gail Collins says, not without some reason, (and I paraphrase) that we need to cowboy up and stop acting like this, where anything goes in the war so long as it doesn't go near us.

But where she doesn't go is where I think we need to go. Our society is so enmeshed in fear, hiding from any risk of terrorist anything, that we're forgetting the whole "who watches the watchmen" part. Some people at least question the TSA about security theatre at airports, in part because it's such an in your face annoyance to the rich and powerful including the politicians who have to fly back and forth to DC. But I've hardly heard anyone in the mainstream, Gail Collins in this column included, questionning the deeper assumption in the KSM trial debate.

Which is, why the heck does hosting this trial require such a deep level of security that Lower Manhattan would have to be turned into a war zone at this level and expense of security, to try this guy? I think that's bullshit. New York is a terrorist target right now today. We're less than a month shy as a write of the 18 month anniversary of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I've been living in a terrorist target for at least 18 years. If we need to have this $200M/year security plan for the KSM trial, then we should have a $500M/year security plan for the entire city that's in effect every single day, because the bad guys will be just as happy to bomb the subway tomorrow as to do it while KSM is on trial.

But everyone is buying into the security plan. The rich real estate interests that won't be able to sell a luxury condo in lower Manhattan in the middle of a war zone aren't lining up at police HQ to say "yo, Commissioner Kelly, come back with a better plan," they're just saying the plan is right and we can't live with it.

I'm torn on the subject.

I want Guantanamo closed. I don't like torture. I don't like lopsided military tribunals. I think America has ideals it should stand for even when they're inconvenient because we need to lead by example and show we're better than the other guys.

And I don't want to live in a police state. I did not want NYC to get the Olympics because that would have been a forced three week vacation while I left the police state behind. When the WorldCon was in Boston in 2004, I headed up a few days early so I could entirely avoid the police state New York City during the Republican National Convention, and I didn't even like my layover in New Haven switching from Metro North to Acela because even there the station was too full of police and police dogs for my enjoyment. I don't like walking around midtown east when the UN General Assembly is in session.

If the only way we can try KSM in Manhattan is to have a police state for the duration, then I'll go with the people saying "thank you, but no." But first, I'd like to go back to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and say "great job, Ray, but that's not the kind of approach we're looking for right now. What else you got for us?"

So I'm kind of ending up in the same place as the people I don't want to be with, though from the exact opposite direction.

Though I'm not at the same places as Charles Krauthammer, the conservative columnist who likes digging his teeth into Barack Obama like Joshua Bilmes into a slice of Devil's Food Cheesecake from Juniors. He wants for Congress to defund any civilial trial at all for KSM. I think it's a better thing for the US to have him given a good old-fashioned criminal trial somewhere than to say our courts aren't up to the task. And I'd be very happy if we could try him right here in NYC with me living a few miles away, in a way that says we can go about our daily business for the duration. I'm not convinced that we can't do that.

Borders UK, the reprise

This past Friday, I had a champagne toast with Jon Wood, the head of fiction at Orion Books in the UK, to celebrate the success of Charlaine Harris. I asked him how things had gone so bad so quickly at Borders UK, which had shut its doors right before Christmas.

I'd mentioned in my post at the time that I'd noticed a huge gap in performance between their flagship locations and the retail park outliers and wondered if those bad real estate bets could be reason enough to put the company under. And I guess the answer is "yes," because Jon's immediate answer to this question was the real estate strategy of going into retail parks.

A "retail park" in the UK is something like Potomac Yard in the US, one of those suburban centers with big box stores and big parking lots going on for a half mile. Though a book superstore here is moderately more likely to be in a center with a Bed Bath Beyond and other slightly more upscale retailers, it's not uncommon for book superstores to be part of the mix. Trying this in the UK, Jon said, was a disaster. People went to retail parks to shop for clothes and food, and the bookstore part did not work. I can vouch for that; most of the Borders UK retail park locations I visited were beautiful stores to look at but not selling any books to speak of.

Hence, Borders UK had a lot of stores that weren't generating any sales, and even if the rents were cheap the drain on cash was immense. And then the stores that were generating sales, like the flagship outlet on Oxford Street in London, had huge rent bills on account of their luxe locations, so it was hard for them to be profitable enough to carry the retail park locations. And then add to that just a little that many of the smaller Books Etc. locations opened in the early 1990s when rents were in a lull after the 1987 stock market declines. If locations were on a 15-year lease, the leases were up to renew doing the thick of the now-collapsed real estate bubble.

Add it all up, and t'was the end of Borders UK. Which leaves the UK with one "high street" bookstore chain, Waterstones, and we should very much hope that we don't end up with that situation in the US.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Statistics

I've been thinking on all of those auto insurance company ads. Customers who switched to this company saved an average of $x and to that company an average of $y and to the other company an average of $z. Wow!

What's fascinating is how this is one of those statistics that is essentially meaningless, plenty of which float around in the world.

Let's say 1,000 people look at switching from AllFarm Auto to ProGeico, or vice vera. Of that 100,000 people, 62 of them actually end up switching. Why do they switch? Well, probably because they'll save money, because otherwise you aren't going to switch. Lo and behold, you now have a statistic. Those 62 people saved an average of $629.39. If even 100 people thought of looking, that average savings becomes $390. 750 people it's all of $52, and how many people want to go to the hassle of switching companies to save $52/year?

So all of these car insurance statistics are saying no more and no less than "people who switch insurance companies do it to save money, people who can't save money switching probably don't." But as to which company actually has the best prices overall, if you went out and priced for 50,000 policies?

Here's another shocking statistic: Teams that are winning baseball games after 7 or 8 innings tend to win most of those games. Even bad teams, even teams with bad closers.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Variety Pack

A few quick things...

The newspaper and book publishing industries have been eagerly salivating over the rumored Apple Tablet that gets unveiled tomorrow. I don't know what the Tablet will be like, but I'm loving what Doonesbury has to say on the subject!

Most articles on publishing or profiles of major authors drive me a little bit crazy. One common beat-head-against-wall for me is to have them written by authors who don't understand that a book with an unearned advance can still be profitable to the publisher. Or they're full of sycophancy, or etc. Sunday's NY Times Magazine had an usually good profile of James Patterson, which was written by an author who seems to actually know what he's talking about when he talks publishing, and which provides some unusually good insight into some of what makes a James Patterson into James Patterson. I'd highly recommend giving this a read.

There's another changing of the guard at Borders as CEO Ron Marshall is off to some other retailer. Is this good news? Well, I've been a big fan of Marshall's, so I'm not pleased. Three CEOs in three years, while the Riggios have run B&N since forever. The press release says that there will be great continuity of management as Marshall is going off and leaving the management team in place, but the new guy will almost certainly want to bring in his own team, and my experience is that the old guy will end up wanting to re-form his team. The one argument I can think of for not being too upset is that for all the good Marshall was doing in ways I noticed, he wasn't able to start regaining customers. And of course if he was hunting for another job it's clear his heart was no longer in the Borders challenge. But it's not good news.

Elizabeth Moon was kind enough to point me in the direction of a series of anti-literary agent screeds by Dean Wesley Smith. This links to one of them, and you can find links to the others there. Almost as "interesting" as the actual posts by Dean are the comments afterward. If you've ever watched one of those after-hours colloquys on C-Span where two or three senators or congressman enlighten the world, reading these exchanges between Dean Wesley Smith and Laura Resnick is like watching one of those in either the best or worst sense of it. I don't know if I should find the hours in the day to try and do some careful rebuttals or just let it all be. To me, the sad part of this is that there's a lot of good points Dean Wesley Smith does make which he then carries to vituperative extremes. One, as an example, is to remind that an author is ultimately the one in charge of his or her own career, and that the agent works for the author and not the other way around. But it's clear that he and Laura Resnick have both had experiences with the wrong agents or with bad agents to the extent they cannot comprehend that any author would actually stick with an agent for 20 years and feel they've gotten some good out of it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

gotta love it

This is an e-mail I got today:

*******

Dear JOSHUA,

From time to time Reed Exhibitions would like to send you information regarding
upcoming events, products and offers via email from Reed as well as carefully
screened companies offering products and services that may be of interest to
you.

Reed Exhibitions limits the number of emails sent to our customers each month,
and never relinquishes control of email addresses to other businesses.

If you would like to receive offers from our partners, you do not have to
respond to this email.
If you do not wish to receive these emails please click on the link below.

Thank you very much for your time.
http://tx3.Reedexpo-direct.com/track.aspx?1461813.17595930.430557309.5356.282801


*******************************************************************************
This message is brought to you from one of our valued business partners as an
attendee of Reed Exhibitions.

If you would no longer like to receive future mailings please click here. http://tx3.Reedexpo-direct.com/optoff.aspx?2461813.17595930.430557309.5356.0.0

Reed Exhibitions
360 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010
And this is what happens when you attempt to opt out:

The request cannot be processed.

Why do reputable companies try so hard to act like scum???

Saturday, January 23, 2010

First, Kill All the Bankers

I incorporated my business to start the year, so now I can call myself President Bilmes.

But even though the business is today what it was a month ago, so much changes. The new business needs a new number with the IRS. Then it needs a new number with New York State. And it needs a new bank account. And because all of these numbers are changing, the payroll service has to be set up anew. All the people who send us money need to update their records with our new IRS # and/or the new bank account numbers. There are the little things that need to be changed, like getting workman's comp and the NYS disability insurance re-done with the corporation.

My new bank is the same as my old bank, but it's so intent on treating me like a new customer that I'm starting to think I should have gone to a new bank. At least that way, if I were getting all of the new customer hassles, I'd actually be a new customer.

The day I open the new accounts, one of the checks I have to deposit is a large 3-figure check for translation rights to a book. Yes, 3-figure check. It's from a bank in the foreign country, but it's in US dollars, payable through a US bank, and it has all of the US routing and account numbers that will allow it to be processed just like any other US check. The bank's computer system insists that this check be entered for collection. For those who aren't familiar, collection is a process where a bank prays over a foreign check for weeks before giving you the money, and charges you generously for its efforts in praying over your money. Oddly enough, when I ask the branch manager to try depositing the check into the old business account, the system accepts it as is. Yep, even though it's the same person with the same business as has been with this bank for fifteen years, because I have a new account it wants to screw me over on a large 3-figure check.

Small checks that would a month ago have been available to me the next day routinely, now I pop them in the ATM and it wants to be sure I take my receipt because the availability will be delayed. This isn't a big deal because I've put enough of my own money into the account to start with that I'm not going to go bouncing checks to anyone, but it's still annoying.

Of course there's no way to get any of the information from the old account to migrate to my new account. Which is proving to be a problem, because I can't add any payees to the online banking for the new account. Which takes multiple calls getting bounced from bank representative to bank representative, most of whom are at some level or another blaming me for the problem because I'm trying to do it too soon or I hit option 3 on the phone menu when of course I should have chosen option 1. Finally I'm connected with a representative who actually helps me, and determines that my profile has been set up in a different way than it maybe should have been and usually is, and he toggles some switch somewhere that fixes the problem.

Finally able to add vendors and clients, I begin paying some electronically. And then at 10AM on Saturday morning the security team calls to verify these small transactions, most to people whom I've been sending money to routinely and often in much larger amounts than these. So I have to start answering multiple choice questions generated from publically available information about aspects of my or my family's life. Which gets to be the final straw. The moment I'm off the phone I compose a letter to the President of my bank to say, and send it off by Express Mail.

Because like I said at the top of this column, if you're going to treat your customer of fifteen years like shit just because his business now has an Inc. instead of a dba in the name, shouldn't I really get that white glove treatment from a bank that really doesn't know who I am?

So I'll probably get a call in a few days from some presidential escalation customer service department who will tell me how this is All For My Own Good, just like the airport security that you all know how much I love.

Friday, January 22, 2010

People of all Shapes and Sizes

I had a feeling the Supreme Court would go where it went on campaign finance, and I don't think I agree.

I learned long long long ago that the law considers a corporation to be a person, but the corporation is still a legal construct of a person. As such, can't the people that say in the law that a corporation is just like a person do what they want to define the ways in which the corporate entity can and cannot act like a "person person?"

That's an argument that doesn't carry a lot of weight with the current membership of the Supreme Court, which often tends to care more about the thoughts and feelings of legally constructed people than human people. But to me, we're starting to get a little into Westworld territory. Just like the designers of Delos created these robot people and watched them become minds of their own, the law has constructed the corporate person and ever so slowly it goes out of our control. And now Gunslinger has been unleashed on our political system.

This ignores the entire other side of the argument, which is the potential for corruption when campaign finances are unleashed. Person persons always claim not to do things because somebody's given them a free lunch or a nice pen. Which is the same way that most of us claim to be above average drivers, or to have the cutest baby ever known to mankind. Corporations spend so much money on political campaigns because, in aggregate, they get a return on their investments.

But even if that were not the case, even if we did live in some kind of ambrosian world where none of us ever did things because it benefited our bellies or bank accounts and were capable of being the ultimate altruists at all times, it would still make no sense to say that the very law which creates the definition of a corporate person can't put limits on how that person behaves -- and in fact put even tighter limits on the legally created person than on the real one.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2009 Post-mortems, the second

Borders reported its holiday sales results and saw another large decrease in same store sales, around 10% excluding the large drop in media sales (the music/DVD footage was slashed at most stores from a year ag0), around twice the size of the same store sales drop at Barnes & Noble. The drop was similar at the Waldenbooks stores that are remaining open moving into 2010.

Some of this is self-inflicted. I noticed over the course of the holiday season that I was getting fewer coupons as a Borders Rewards member, for smaller discounts. This meant that the gross margin on sales increased by 130 basis points (i.e., 1.3%), which means that the sales were more profitable. Fewer people dashing in just to redeem a big 40% off coupon and not much else. But it would have been nice to have seen a nicer hold in sales than we did.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

the finest news around

This week's edition of The Onion introduces us to the version of the Kindle I'd like to buy, down a few paras in their highlights from the CES in Las Vegas.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pirates Astern!

Courtesy of the Publishers Weekly daily e-mail on Thursday we find ourselves at a study from Attributor regarding illegal downloading of published works.

It's not certain that the study should be relied upon. Attributor is in the business of selling anti-piracy monitoring for content providers, and the more piracy they find the more they can justify their existence.

Following on a series of assumptions laid out in great detail, they think piracy is a $3B threat right now.

Well, that sounds a bit steep to me.

But none of us really know, and I'll put it out there with the aforementioned caveats.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

High Finance, Part 2

On the personal side of things...

I've always been a big fan of dividend reinvestment, where you take that $6.82 and buy a quarter of a share of stock with it and then watch that compound and grow, instead of taking that $6.82 and ... well, what do you do with $6.82, really?

A friend of mine always thought I was being kind of silly, because it's just such a chore to do the bookkeeping for all of this. Which isn't a issue if you never plan to sell your stock but just to watch that nest egg build for 30 years, and then you can eventually take the dividends in cash and they'll be so lucrative you've live off of them in your retirement. Good luck with that, the cynics might say.

Over time, I've come to realize that my friend might have the better part of the argument. Or maybe not. Let's just say it's not a clear call.

There are two problems with my approach. The first is that you sometimes don't have a choice what delightful extra added stock you might find yourself sitting on. A company called CPC that made everything from high fructose corn syrup to Skippy to Entenmann's spins off its corn refining business, and suddenly I'm stuck with two shares of Corn Products Inc. that aren't even worth selling. And this just happened again, with Time Warner and AOL going their separate ways right after Time Warner spun off Time Warner Cable and now I'm the proud owner of a few shares of AOL stock. Well, I love AOL. But do I really need shares of it that I can't ever realistically sell? And when these spin-offs change the cost basis of the shares of stock, and you have to calculate that change over 68 little stock purchases over 17 years...

And then there are the situations when your stock is sold whether you want it to be or not. There's a merger or a buyout or something, and that stock you planned to own forever is suddenly not yours any more, but the privilege of tallying up the capital gain or loss from 68 little stock purchases over 17 years is very much yours to enjoy.

I'll take a moment here to rant about the practice of companies and brokerages not to provide fractional shares of stock when you transfer them from place to place or if a spin-off transaction leaves you with .6541 shares of AOL. In the current world, there aren't actual stock certificates any more, so it isn't like a fractional share of stock has to be liquidated and cashed out on your behalf because the alternative is to give me .6541 of a stock certificate. It's a fractional share, but it's just a number on a computer. The computers deal with fractional shares all the time, because there are dividend reinvestment programs and employee stock purchase programs and other things like that which generate fractional shares which the companies are all happily keeping on their books. But heaven forbid they just electronically transfer that fraction of a share. No sir. Here's your check for $16.82 for .6541 fractional shares of stock from that .8972-for-1 merger exchange rate. And now you own the right of figuring out that this $16.82 reflects purchases of .7398 shares of the pre-merger company from 3.42 dividend reinvestments. Some of those problems would exist even if you had only whole shares of stock, but they are exacerbated when you have fractional shares purchased in little tiny increments.

It was very depressing recently to realize that I'd been happily investing dividends in one company for 15 years, and when the company fire-sold in late 2008, the entire value of all of those 15 years of reinvestments was pretty much what I'd reinvested, as if I'd taken a dividend check from 1993 and tucked it under my pillow for 15 years. And I have to consider myself lucky to have gotten that much.

And yet, I'm still not sure the wise course of action is just to take some nice $6.82 checks to the bank every three months. In the case of a Corn Products, the dividends aren't even $1. Is it any more of a bother to account for those as a reinvestment than to have to deal with depositing a check for that amount, or even to dealing with a $1 sweep from the brokerage to a checking account? Maybe in 25 years I'll actually own barely enough stock to justify selling it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

High Finance, Part I

So on Friday the 8th, I get a call from a company identified as Epiq Systems asking for my fax number so they can send over some documents related to a bankruptcy. Now, that's not the kind of call you get every day, and they won't tell me whose bankruptcy they have in mind.

It turns out when papers start to come on Monday to be that of a company called Haights Cross Communication, which is the parent company of the prominent long-time audio publisher Recorded Books. Which publishes Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson, Kat Richardson and Peter V. Brett from the JABberwocky list, and you can figure with authors like that, there are some royalties Recorded owes me.

But the bankruptcy is actually a good thing. I think.

Haights Cross took on too heavy a debt load four or five years ago, as many people and places did. Unlike many of them, they were able to enter negotiations with their major lendors and come to an agreement, announced in September, for a debt-for-equity swap involving a significant haircut for the lendors, with the intention to file for a pre-packaged bankruptcy petition and to continue doing business as usual all the way through. Motion 8 is for an Order Authorizing the Debtors to Pay Prepetition Claims of Trade Creditors [I think that's me] in the Ordinary Course of Business.

So as bankruptcies go...

But the interesting thing is all of the things that come out of the woodwork.

Even before the official Notice of Filing for which Epiq needed my fax number -- and there Epiq is, Motion 9 of the First Day Motions, Docket No. 11, authorizing retention of Epiq as the Claims and Noticing Agent -- I get a fax from a credit arbitrage company called Credit Liquidity, LP, which is offering to buy out my claim for 74.6 cents on the dollar. First Come, First Served, Must Respond by January 15. Why, if you didn't read the documents carefully, you'd think this was an official communication. The fax cover sheet blares in very big letters "LEGAL DOCUMENT REGARDING HAIGHTS CROSS COMMUNICATIONS BANKRUPTCY."

If you get around to reading the FAQ, they do hide in question #4 that CL is not related in any way to the company. They also have enough caveats in the FAQ to hide a very large emptor. They'll pay my 74.6 cents "unless issues develop in the bankrupty court proceedings which ay delay us in processing the claim or purchasing the claim." They "may not purchase the claim ... due to ... specific case issues, litigation or other perceived problems with the bankruptcy proceedings."

Which is to say that if you don't look carefully, you can give Creditor Liquidity a quick profit as they pay 74.6 cents in a two or three weeks and then get paid a dollar in two or three months, but if anything happens where it looks like the pre-packaged bankruptcy proceeding won't actually result in business as usual, they'll back away from their offer. Quickly.

Then on Tuesday, it's an attorney in a Florida affiliate of my accounting firm that wants to invite me to throw my hat into the ring for serving on the Creditor Committee.

In a contentious bankruptcy, this group of creditors with their own counsel and experts and staff all paid for by the debtor company as part of the proceeding, would keep an eye on things and represent the interests of the creditors. Because US bankruptcy law gives current management the first shot at reorganizing the company, this is a little weight on the other side of the scale to be sure they aren't doing things that help themselves more than the people who hope to get some recovery out of the bankruptcy proceeding.

But the call from the attorney isn't about me. Rather, if I volunteer and am chosen -- well, I'll need to have somebody actually looking after my interests because I'm not going to head off to Wilmington for every hearing, and those billable hours are a court-protected cost out of the debtor's pocket.

So it's nice to be wanted. I would certainly volunteer, because JABberwocky does have a decent amount listed as owed in the filings, I'm as good an agent as any to speak up for agents that are owed money on this (Scovil Galen Ghosh is one of a handful of others with solid amounts listed). It would be an interesting experience to be part of the process, maybe even more interesting than jury duty. So there's more to be gained experientially from this than from selling my claim for 74.6 cents on the dollar, but let's be clear that isn't about me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Movies in brief

In my review of Police, Adjective, I mentioned I might have liked it more than maybe otherwise because I'd taken a good nap during another movie right before. That movie was a preview screening of something called Fish Tank (seen Wed. Jan 6 2010 at the IFC Center Aud. #1). I went because I like to go to the screenings I get via Museum of Moving Image, because sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised, sometimes unpleasantly, this was unpleasant.

I knew very quickly this wasn't my cup of tea. As with Sherlock Holmes, we're thrust right in to the main character's life without any context or development. And in this case, the character is doing stupid things. She tries to free a local horse. She's driven off. She goes back, and gets into a fight almost heading toward a rape with the people who live there. Which doesn't stop her from going back to get her stuff that was taken during the fight. Why does she want to free the horse? There's no real answer to that. And suffice to say there's no real answer to why she goes back, and goes back again. I got to see people do stupid things when I was in high school and they were drunk. I've never liked much watching movies about drunk people, or movies about people who do stupid things, especially without any visible reason. Some movies I fall asleep in, this one I just kind of said I didn't need to stick around and shoud save my energy for Police, Adjective, playing at the same theater, two hours later.

The movie's set in Essex, UK. I've seen better movies about people living in British housing projects.

I did embarrass myself when I had to leave early to make the other movie, in the midde of the Q&A with actor Michael Fassbender, who was brilliant in the movie Hunger that I saw earlier in the year.

It's Complicated is very "enh." It's not bad. Meryl Streep is really, really good in it. There's an amazing reaction shot when one of her lovers tells her something she'd rather not hear where she lets it all hang out on her face in a way that doesn't seem at all like acting. But it's not so great, either. The rooting interest in whether Meryl chooses Alec Baldwin or Steve Martin is kind of like trying to get really passionate about whether Alec Baldwin or Steve Martin ends up with more hosting gigs on Saturday Night Live, where I believe they're neck and neck. It's a little bit long. Meryl Streep could have had one child less in the movie, nobody would have noticed.

And on the Romanian (like Police, Adjective) movie front, there were no new movies I really needed to see this weekend so I decided to borrow The Death of Mr. Lazarescu from my local library. This was the first movie from the current Romanian new wave to get prominent critical attention and NY release, followed by 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (aka the abortion movie), and Police, Adjective this year. I wanted to see Lazarescu when it opened, but it never left the most distant Manhattan theatres and I never got around to it. It's a fictional version of a Frederic Wiseman documentary. Old man isn't feeling good, calls ambulance, there's a bus crash that night so the hospitals are busy so he can't just go to one place for the diagnosis, the tests, the operation that he needs, so we follow along very verite like. It too is a tad long, almost 2 1/2 hours, and as we got to be well past a half hour and the ambulance not arrived yet I thought I should bail out, and then five minutes later I realized I was starting to get kind of hooked on the story. So this is at least a legitimate movie for critics to fawn over, with the caveat that it isn't the kind of movie most people really want to see. Its virtues and flaws are pretty much replicated in 4 Months (verite look as a woman and a friend try and get a back alley abortion). The fondness for Police, Adjective is almost like the critics have gotten so in the habit of finding a Romanian movie every year to fawn over that they couldn't notice when the movies were starting to become parodies of themselves.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Alleged Contenders in Brief

A few of the movies that are hoping for award attention this year...

All of my comments about Police, Adjective can be duplicated for White Ribbon (Oct. 8, 2009, Landmark Sunshine, Aud, #1). White Ribbon is set in a small German village on the eve of WWI where mysterious bad things are happening. It's filmed beautifully but austerely. The director Michael Haneke has done at least two difficult if worthwhile films, The Piano Teacher (great performance by Isabelle Huppert) and Cache (Hidden). And I think the critical prize goes to Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic of Variety, who accurately warned me when he reviewed in May after it played Cannes that the film is entirely absorbing, longish, difficult to embrace, and medicinal. I did not fall asleep, but the movie really is very self-absorbed, with nothing at all to offer anyone outside of movie critics. It's better than Police, Adjective in that it doesn't devolve into parody, but it's so serious and full of itself that you almost wish that it would.

Heading back from Thanksgiving on Sun. Nov. 29, and right before I resumed the blog after the Sept/Oct/Nov hiatus, I did a layover in New Haven to see An Education (Aud. #2) and The Messenger (Aud. #8) at the Bow Tie Criterion Cinema, just off the New Haven campus and a mile or so from the train station. It was my first time going to the theatre. I'd long thought of maybe doing a stopover if schedules were to work out on a trip up to Connecticut, and they finally did.

The Messenger reminded me a lot of the very solid Taking Chance, an HBO movie in which Kevin Bacon plays a military officer escorting a soldier's body from Delaware to funeral. Except here, we've got Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster instead of Kevin Bacon, playing notification officers who provide the initial news to next of kin that their loved ones have died in action. I'd kind of say this is worth seeing/renting. Woody Harrelson is almost always interesting, and really underrated for having a diverse body of film work following on his role in Cheers. Zombieland and The Messenger would be a good year's work for anyone. And Ben Foster was good in Pandorum and good again here, again a nice year's work. But I'm not as big a fan as a lot of other people. Basically, Taking Chance managed to get away with being something like 76 minutes long because it was done for HBO so it didn't need to pad out to feature length. The Messenger does stretch to feature length, and I didn't care for much of anything that happened when the movie went off message. In particular, Foster's character falls in love with one of the next of kin played by Samantha Morton. Critics like her a lot, I don't, I didn't care about their romance very much at all. And Foster's character is doing so on the rebound from an ex girl-friend who's getting engaged to some other guy, and Foster and Harrelson end up going to her engagement party. It's an excruciating scene that wants to be the rehearsal dinner in Rachel Getting Married, but instead is just excruciating. If you rent it, you can fast forward through the bad parts.

An Education is also a mixed bag. The excellent Peter Saarsgard plays an "older" (upper 20s, lower 30s) man who takes to it with a high school student in the outskirts of London. The movie's set in the early '60s. It's made with a lot more vigor than a lot of other British dramas; I hate to call the 1960s historical or a period movie, but we really are getting to that point, just about. This is good, to the extent that we're not getting all caught up on the costumes. Bad, when the girl's father played by Alfred Molina becomes more caricature than character. It's short, pleasant enough to watch, Peter Saarsgard is very solid as the older man, the screenplay is by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) and does have some nice touches. But I had one big problem, in that the film relies on broad sketches to justify the relationship between the man and the student, enough so that I couldn't buy into it. And the movie starts, the relationship starts, it goes along for a while, and then it ends. It didn't satisfy. There's nothing really all that bad about the movie, but at the same time I couldn't find the one quality to it that was so good as to justify the bother of it all.

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.

Searching for redrum in all the right places

The Shining is one of my favorite movies, so I quite enjoyed this Bing ad.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Movie, Quietly

Once upon a time when I reviewed movies for the Michigan Daily, I sometimes speculated on the idea of becoming a movie reviewer or film critic as a career. These days, I wonder had I done so if I would've kept to some real-world sense were I doing so, or if I too would have drunk the critical Kool Aid that makes critics dump on movies that are not necessarily good but are nonetheless entertaining, jump on the bandwagon for books that no person who doesn't watch movies for a living would ever want to see, and pad a Ten Best list with at least four films that never saw a broader release than the Nuart and Film Forum and had they seen a wider release would still not have been of interest to anyone.

Would I have become a Manohla Dargis, whose first "essential movie" of 2010 is Sweetgrass, a documentary about bringing sheep up to their summer pasture?

Would I have become a J. Hoberman, whose top ten list includes all of three movies that were given a broad commercial release in 2009?

The film that inspires these thoughts is Police, Adjective (seen Wed. evening at the IFC Center, Aud. #3), which is the #3 movie of 2009 according to Hoberman, and which was the #7 film in the annual Village Voice critics poll.

Did anyone notice that the movie becomes over its course a kind of Mad Magazine version of what an art film is supposed to be, that they are reviewing a Mad Magazine version of an art film as if it were an art film?

The movie is set in Romania some time after the dictator was deposed but before entry into the European Union. A young policeman is doing stakeout work of three younger people who are smoking pot. The policeman comes to think it's not worth pursuing, his superior is set on doing a sting operation. That's pretty much what the plot is.

It's like watching an episode of Survivor that is 95% the shots coming out of the commercial breaks of the birds flying and the waves crashing against the shore, or of a sitcom where more time is spent on the establishing shots of the outside of Cheers than actually in Cheers. Because most of the "action" consists of watching the young policeman tail the three suspects. And in my opinion, not doing such a good job of it. How can they not notice him? So we get shots of two people walking down streets. Lots and lots of shots of this.

When we're not doing that, we might be watching scenes that watch like a bad novel, where the author hasn't learned that one of the things an author does is select which details are important. This is a movie where it's not enough to see a character asking for tea at a shop, but then to be asked if he wants the mint, fruit, or herb tea, complete with response. Where two characters walk down the hall at a police station, and one of them says he forgot his keys, he'll go back, and the other character that he doesn't need to, there's someone else in the office.

When we're not watching long shots of people walking down streets or being presented with trivial details, the movie includes discussions of language. The lead character and his wife discuss the meaning of song lyrics "what would the field be without the flower."

In the end, when the police officer is trying to escape the sting operation his boss asks for a dictionary, and the characters read aloud the definitions of conscience, law, morality, ultimately getting to the word police, and the movie gets its title because we then get a big blow-up of the dictionary page for police where we see "police, adjective" as one of the sub-heads.

And this is the movie that the Village Voice critics poll ranks as 7th best of 2009.

Yikes!

Well, I might've been less bored by this than I was by Sherlock Holmes, but it probably helped that I'd slept through most of a movie right before seeing this so I was well-rested.

There's a certain formalism to the movie, a level of craft, that can be said to elevate it beyond the norm. As an example, we can see the flickering old monitors in the police officers that tell us something about the time period or the police force at the time without it having to be told to us specifically. While the set design of the office of the superior in the police force doesn't have the symmetry of the hotel manager's officer in Kubrick's The Shining, there is an echo of Kubrick in the distance, the formality, the interest in holding a long shot on the superior in center of the frame and two officers sitting at either side. I don't want to say that the film is disposable cinema of no critical or artistic interest at all.

But yo, critic dudes, if you want to talk about morality in an army or a police force, if you want to think Kubrick, there's more going on in two minutes of Kirk Douglas confronting his superiors in Paths of Glory than there is in 20 minutes of Police, Adjective.

And is there anyone without a guild card or critics pass who can read my description of the movie and think "wow, this sounds great" or "oooh, that's something really important." For you, please remember that the first essential movie of 2010 is Sweetgrass.

Friday, January 8, 2010

During the Flood

So a few more bits and pieces of e-book stuff this week as the Consumer Electronics show is in full throttle...

There's the Que from Plastic Logic, which looks interesting except for the price. I never lost my Kindle (two broke, didn't lose one), I did lose an iPod Touch, I'm not eager to have a $650 or $800 gadget to lose. That being said, the device itself looks kind of nifty.

There was talk of the Microsoft Courier, but the big intro from them was the HP Slate, which has some book-reading capability. I've chased a few different web sites with coverage of this intro, and it isn't making me froth in anticipation.

Gawker says (link courtesy of PW) there are too many of these now, and they may be right. Gawker says E-ink is an interim technology and there's some back and forth on that in the comments. I do know for sure that I'm no E-ink fan unless it works as easily in a wide temperature range as printed sheets of paper do.

After that, who knows? Since there are so many different e-book stores and approaches it's not even like the VHS vs. Betamax war where you could have many choices but still using the same 2 underlying technologies. I wouldn't know what to buy right now if I decided I wanted another dedicated e-book reader. There's a good chance faced with so many choices and so much market confusion that I'd simply buy a Nook or a Kindle even if were much worse than something else because it was at least a name brand that involved less thought. It will be interesting to see what Apple has to offer, or if any of these other products emerges from the fog. I'd like to see something really really good emerge. The one thing I'd hate to see is a mediocre device from a major player become the default standard and sole survivor simply because the profusion of devices sends people toward the higher comfort level.

The NY Times has a 3 minute video about e-book readers and the CES, but since I can't find a way to link to a specific video, well... maybe if you go looking soon you can find it yourself.

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

Another interesting piece of news with a little more depth to it than you get from the press release.

A company called Spring Design with a forthcoming e-book device called the Alex eReader will be featuring the forthcoming Borders.com e-book store as the default store for the Alex.

What makes this interesting is that Spring Design sued B&N over the design of the Nook.

Isn't it exciting to have lawsuits and bed-hopping in the e-book world entering the nice staid world of publishing!

Elementary, My Dear Watson

I'd rather liked the coming attraction for Sherlock Holmes (seen Thu. evening Jan, 7, 2010 at the AMC Empire, Aud. #13). It struck me as a nifty Indiana Jones style re-working of the concept. From the reviews and word of mouth, I wasn't certain of greatness, but I had real expectations.

No such luck. Within the first ten minutes I had a feeling I was going to be in for a long night in the movie seat, and this proved to be true.

First warning sign was that the movie didn't set out to provide some independent cinematic life to the Holmes character. We're thrust into a scene a little bit reminiscent of Temple of Doom, with not so much as a parsec of time devoted to establishing anything about the characters or the background of what we're seeing. My plot bible is Writing To Sell by Scott Meredith, the first thing you're supposed to have is an identifiable lead character, and this movie required me to bring my identification in with me.

The second thing you're supposed to have is an important plot problem, something of urgency that must be solved but cannot. Sherlock Holmes, he's a detective, you establish urgency just by having somebody hire him. But this movie doesn't do that. It stumbles along from incident to incident, taking its sweet time before eventually reaching a plot problem somewhat reminiscent of V for Vendetta.

I react particularly badly to books or films that stumble along as this does, with lots of things happening only without a good structural underpinning. Sometimes that's cost me; there are some books that have sold which I've passed on for reasons very similar to my discomfort with this movie. So why not people who've had more fun with this movie than I.

Still... when Stakeout has its big sawmill finale, I don't recall it seeming as forced as when Sherlock puts its characters into a fight in drydock. It doesn't make sense to have characters running around underground tunnels beneath Parliament and then finding that they've ended up atop a bridge under construction. Do we need a bird to show up to symbolize death?

Sherlock Holmes has always been a malleable character. I remember a series of books "Sherlock Holmes Bridge Detective" from my youth, he can be an action movie hero. But this should have been better.

And I have to mention the coming attractions. I believe there were seven of them, and it has to be something of a record because not one of the seven excited me. Iron Man 2 just looks bad. I'm not sure if Clash of the Titans is bad, but even if it's good it's not for me. The trailer for Embracing Miracles embraced so many cliches that I'm now not anticipating a movie that had intrigued me from the poster. And so on.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Gift That Dare Not Bare Its Name

Eighteen months ago, I didn't care so much about what the Adult Fiction Boxed Set bestseller list looked like on Nielsen Bookscan. And then last year, the Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse 7-copy boxed set became a stunning phenomenon, joined this year by an 8-copy version, and then by a boxed set of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn Trilogy.

So suffice to say I've suddenly become much more interested in that sub-category of the bestseller list.

The Sookie sets again did very well, #1 on the adult boxed set chart. Not as big a thing as last year when True Blood went on the air in September, vs. this year when people have been buying Sookie in large quantity for a full year, but still a very very good holiday for the boxes. I wasn't quite sure what to expect with the Mistborn set, so I was very pleased to see it settle in as the #7 adult set for most of the holiday season, and then sneaking up higher in the final weeks.

It's the sales trends in those final weeks that I find really interesting.

A huge portion of the box business is generated on-line. Because you can't necessarily find a single mass market book discounted at Amazon, but the boxed sets are, so you can buy an entire Mistborn box for less than about the same price as any two of the single mass markets.

So Christmas week, you started to see a sudden lurch in the line items. It was too late to buy things on-line and have them in time, so that line on Bookscan suddenly nose-dives, while the brick-and-mortar line leaps up as people buy their last-minute gifts.

But then even more interesting, come New Year's week, is that you start to see which sets are being given as lazy gifts, which sets people are much happier buying for themselves than putting on their wish lists, and which see a nice balance.

Lazy gift-giving idea: The Lord of The Rings, which dropped like a stone after the holidays.

Don't Ask, Buy: People clearly were way happier to buy JR Ward or Laurell K. Hamilton with their gift cards than to ask for as a gift. Those boxed sets soared during the gift card season. And did a Sherlock Holmes boxed set surge up the list because of the movie, or because people are as reluctant to ask for Sherlock in their stocking as they apparently are for Anita Blake?

Nicely Balanced: And then in the middle, there are a lot of boxed sets that had smaller drops, representing things that to varying degrees had some interest both as gifts and as gift card items. The Mistborn trilogy benefits from being one of the stronger gift card items of the balanced items, dropping some from Christmas week to New Year's week, but buy a few points less than a lot of the other items.

2009 Post-mortems, the first

So Barnes & Noble reported a disappointing holiday season, with same store sales dropping 5.4%. Their expectation had been for a smaller drop of 1-3%, and as a result they have downgraded their earnings expectations.

Nielsen Bookscan reported a 3% drop in unit sales at their reporting outlets, with most of the drop in adult non-fiction, and adult fiction down just 1%.

In this environment I'll be curious to see what Borders reports, which I believe is scheduled for the latter half of next week. I did think Borders was better-positioned than B&N was, at least as far as my little JABberwocky corner of the world was concerned, but Borders also had a steeper uphill climb because of their challenges the past two years.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Collective Punishment

Wikipedia defines collective punishment as "the punishment of a group of people as a result of the behaviour of one or more other individuals or groups." Which is the easy part.

Because in some circumstances, collective punishment is a routine part of life. In football practice or boot camp, when everyone has to run suicides or do push-ups because another member of the group screwed up.

And in other circumstances, it's a crime. Like if Israel demolishes a home because one member of the family committed a suicide bombing.

And so where do we put the recent United States TSA directive that "every individual flying into the U.S. from anywhere in the world traveling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening."

To me, it's another tragic and bad example of a security system that's rotten to the core, which I've been big on ranting about the past ten days (follow the TSA tags...).

Yes, not all countries are created equal. Some fund and breed terrorism and suicide bombers more than others, some breed crazed courthouse gunmen more than others, some have nice beaches and others good skiing. But nonetheless, this latest TSA directive serves to collectively punish many people from some countries because of the actions of a very few. Will the people who have to endure the extra screening blame the extremist elements in their own society and engage in introspection, or will they focus their anger on the US? It closes the world a little bit by discouraging casual travelers (which suicide bombers are not). Yes, we can all now see ourselves as Doing Something, too bad it's just not something very good or helpful.

And as I discussed before, we continue to layer our security in the worst possible way.

Once the full body scanner proves to be fallable or to be circumventable -- and it will; there will be another Qaeda Underpants or Shoe Bomber and maybe the next will succeed -- there aren't too many more layers of security to go before we all start removing all of our layers in order to get on a plane. Off goes the underwear, one TSA agent carefully checks that by hand, another carefully sticks his hand up the rear while another has us say "aaah. Or maybe we can get to the airport a day early, have awful blue liquid, not eat for ten hours, and then board the plane after the colonoscopy's done. Can I have my prostate checked at the same time and have the insurance co-pay billed to the credit card used for my plane ticket? And when that time comes, will we all happily accept it because we've become bit by bit by bit more and more inured to more and more outrages in the name of safety and security, like the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm who bit by bit discover that all are created equal but some more equal than others?

Under Armored Citizen

Armored, seen Saturday January 2, 2010 at the Regal E-Walk Aud. #7, was the Kraft mac&cheese of cinema, exactly what you'd expect and smooth going down and perfectly pleasant.

Five years ago I'm sure I'd have seen this several weeks ago much closer to when it opened, because it has a solid cast including Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, Laurence Fishburne. The holidays were just quiet enough or I was just willing enough to pretend the holidays were quiet enough that I found one of the few theatres the film's still playing at and caught it before it heads off to video.

And I'm glad enough that I did.

This is a heist/caper movie in the tradition of any number of movies about a heist gone bad. There's this armored car company, see, and a decorated war veteran just finishing up probation at said armored car company. Now, his parents died, and he and his younger brother fend for themselves in a house that's about to get foreclosed. And then Matt Dillon is playing another driver at the armored car company with this plan for a fake heist that will net $42M, and our good guy really doesn't want to go along but then this lady from child services comes by because younger brother isn't attending school. Lose his younger brother to foster care, or rob armored car for $42M? Well, who wouldn't choose the heist.

Most anyone here can write the rest of the movie. The heist goes awry, in this case because there's some homeless person in what's supposed to be an empty building, which looks like the same building where they did the car racing in Death Race a few years ago. And the Hot Tempered One kills him. And then it just keeps getting worse and worse. But our good guy saves the day.

There may not be an original bone in the film's body, but the cast is taking it seriously enough but not so seriously, so they sell their parts well enough. And the movie moves briskly, unlike let's say Avatar so you don't have time to look at your watch.

Definitely a Rent It. If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like.

Law Abiding Citizen, which I saw Thanksgiving weekend at the Parkade in Manchester, is very much the same kind of thing. Again, a movie I once would have seen quickly that in this instance ended up being seen at the second run theatre several weeks into the run. Same director as The Italian Job and other stuff; Armored was a first-timer. Jamie Foxx is an upgrade over Laurence Fishburne, Gerard Butler and Colm Meaney over Matt Dillon and Milo Ventimiglia. The budget is bigger. The bad guy's nefarious plan is much much much grander. The preposterousness is much more preposterous.

Bigger begetting bigger, this movie was destined for bigger things pretty much before a single frame was shot. It achieved bigger things, though the reviews weren't necessarily any much better.

And at the end of the day, for all of its foibles and sillinesses, it delivered the goods. Well-acted, all of the contrivances taken very very seriously by the well-assembled cast, perfectly pleasant way to kill a little time. The movie held up nicely at the box office, with relatively small week-over-week drops and a total box office bigger than its first week might have suggested, and I can't argue with any of that. There's room in the world for good plain genre fun that doesn't need to be taken seriously.

Publishing Links

Talk about your interesting news days!

The Publishers Weekly Daily E-mail newsletter has this. (You'll have to click and see if you can get right at the article or need to register.) Forget about the Kindle and the Nook, soon we can also play with the Skiff Reader and the Apple Tablet and the Microsoft Courier and oh so much more. With screens that bend, or with 2 screens, or with really really big screens. Fasten your seatbelts, it promises to be an interesting ride...

And then their roundup of other news of the day sends us all off to this Salon article about the effect of the Apple Tablet. I haven't clicked thru all of the many links in the Salon article, but I did read the David Carr piece in the NY Times that is also linked to at Salon.

While all of this is happening, there are still physical bookstores selling physical books. This PW article is an abbreviated version of a fuller round-up of holiday stores. This is an annual tradition at PW. For all their redesigns over the years or their this and their thats, PW likes its annual traditions very much.

And then you can read about the realignment in the Simon & Schuster sales force. By "realignment," think "shrinking." More people selling books by phone, fewer people out driving around to bookstores to sell the books in person. It's been a long-time bugaboo of mine that publishers have too few people selling their books. The PW article buys into the S&S Kool-Aid that they now have a renewed focus with a sales force devoted to having just the right kind of people selling books in just the right kind of way to the exact right different accounts. Maybe as technology advances I should be less and less concerned that it's a problem to be losing face time and to be selling books at a distance because the internet brings us all so much closer. But I'm not. Book publishers under-invest in sales compared to other consumer products. They don't have people who can do channel analysis, follow up, really be on top of things. Whatever; publishers have been under-investing like this for as long as I've been in the business, and they still manage to survive.

And then I'm not sure I know the answer to the question of what you're doing if you're S&S, and all of these new e-reader gizmoid gadgets are coming out. Do you try harder to find the last lingering outlets to sell physical books to people, and get more milk out of your current cow? Do you fire all your sales people and hire a batch of nethead marketers to go Twitter S&S's way to bigger e-book sales?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Five Paragraph Essay -- Not!

When I was in school, I learned how to write something called the "five paragraph essay." A paragraph of introduction, three paragraphs or arguing by example, a concluding paragraph.

This op-ed piece from Sunday's NY Times, by Farrar Straus Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, is not that.

Galassi discusses and describes the TLC, editorial input, sales and marketing efforts, and etc. etc., that a major publisher invests in the work it publishes, using William Styron's relationship with long-time Random House editor Robert Loomis as an example.

The choice of Styron is not, pun not entirely intended, random. Styron's work has been at the central point of the debate over whether old publishing agreements that do not specifically mention or grant e-book rights nonetheless include them. Several years ago this was litigated but ultimately settled out of court when Styron's estate sought to have e-book editions put out through Rosetta Books instead of via Random House. (The Rosetta site loads much more quickly than Random's; point Rosetta.)

So in all fairness to Galassi, everything he says about the immense potential value of a good publisher and editor to an author is entirely true. There are books and people and situations where somebody can self-publish their way to considerable success, but when a big publisher is totally behind an author, as let's say a Tor is with Brandon Sanderson right now, or a Penguin with Charlaine Harris, (everyone's site loads faster than Random's), they can accomplish things orders of magnitude beyond what anyone can do on their own. And a good editor can do great things to help an author write the best possible work that the author can possibly write.

But Galassi and the NY Times are leaving it to the reader to fill in Galassi's actual point, which is that publishers are such nice and wonderful people that authors shouldn't be in some great rush to strand them at the altar and rush off with somebody else to do their e-books. If you know the history, you know the subtext, and if you don't, the essay is a somewhat trivial meander.

And why doesn't the essay go into the "Therefore..." mode and state its implication?

Well, there's that word "contract" which is nowhere to be found in Galassi's essay. Regardless of all the good work a publisher might do, there is that little contract thing between the author and the publisher which lays out what the publisher can and cannot do, what the author is and is not entitled to from the publisher, etc. And if the contract doesn't say anything about e-books, it doesn't say anything about e-books. Some books, the publisher has translation rights. Some books, the author does. That's an agreement between the parties, where we all sit down and agree how the publisher gets to receive a return on its very real investment in evaluating, acquiring, editing, selling, marketing, promoting and otherwise publishing a book.

As a literary agent, I will also point out that Galassi's essay talks only about the contributors that publishers make. In many cases, an agent may be as or more important as the publisher and over a longer period of time. Some cases not, but it's not as if publishers or agents have a monopoly on providing value to authors.

And I will also point out that life is not fair. Not for publishers, and not for agents. I don't get paid for all the work I do. And if it might not be fair for Random House to lose out on e-books on very old books with contracts that don't anticipate, I can assure all of you that any publisher as big as Random House with thousands of books in its backlist is also capable of falling into money because nobody bothered to revert rights to a book that went out of print 15 years ago or because there was some right quite clearly granted in a contract that seemed not worth fighting about 39 years ago but which suddenly has some unexpected value.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Another Link for Breakfast

David Brooks in the NY Times had a column on Friday about reactions to Qaeda Underpants that I also think is worth reading.

And another thought on what he calls (as have others) "Security Theatre." As best as I know, we don't have a good track record for unraveling plots against air transportation by catching bad guys going thru security checkpoints. I say "best as I know" because I want to recognize the possibility that we've done so but that it's been put under lock and key and kept under wraps to protect intelligence sources or an ongoing investigation or something like that. I kind of doubt it; it's hard to keep that kind of thing wrapped up, and too tempting to leak for political points, but it's possible. But 9/11, the shoe bomber, Qaeda Underpants, let's forget about Lockerbie because that was so long ago when the Theatre was much shorter than it is today, it seems like the bad guys have a good track record for getting on board the planes. So why are we all going this ever more layered security checkpoint? Can we say we haven't caught the bad guys because they don't bother trying because our security is so good?

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Passion of the Playoff

So it's New Year's, college football bowl day.

Time for more articles about why we need a college football playoff.

Please!

The basic argument for a playoff follows from a silly premise, that we must have a clear #1 team at the end of the season. Do we have to? Why? It's college football, it's a game, it's not waiting for white smoke to emerge in Vatican City.

And then it says that we can't have a legitimate #1 when the game that determines the legitimate #1 might have participants that are chosen with any element of arbitrariness or doubt. It can only be by having 4 teams, or 8 teams, or some # of teams, in the playoff system.

But, um, excuse me. We argue over the 2 top teams to play in a championship game. If we have a 4-team playoff then we can all agree on the top 2 teams. But why does anyone -- anyone -- believe that we won't just be moving the arbitrariness and the debates and the arguments and the lack of clarity down to determining which team should be the 4th team in or the 8th team in. The NCAA basketball tourney has 64 teams for goodness sakes, and that doesn't stop the arguments over whether some team in the next 4 shouldn't have really been the #16 seed in the eastern regional.

And of course, any team can beat any other team on any given day. So what happens when the #4 team or the #8 team upsets the #1 team? You mean to tell me we're not going to have a running of the sports columnists to explain why the playoff victory doesn't really mean that the #1 team isn't still the #1 team.

Have a Link for Breakfast

Read this!

I doubt I'd be where I am today if it wasn't for the guy pushing Omni samples at the Boskone dealers room at the Sheraton Boston on that fateful February weekend when my younger brother and I went with my parents, who had a bridge tournament or something like in Beantown that weekend. [And my thanks to SF Signal for pointing me toward the article.]