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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

business quick takes

As I type this I'm a few hours away from boarding a plane to Melbourne, Australia for WorldCon with some travel Down Under following.  I may not be able to do all the cross-linking and such I try and do usually because the Blogger site I post in is a little more cumbersome to use on an iPad. This post an example of that.  But I will try and do some posting.  

A few business things to mention before I go...

Borders is going live with their AreaE sites this week, and we've been watching them go from big red tables to more fitted out but I'll be away for the official launch. Not impressed. At some stores these big red tables are replacing and thus doubling as the information desk, so customers trying to test a Sony or Kobo will compete for attention. Can't wait to see how that works on 21 December. And even where the table is dedicated AreaE most of the table space is taken up with computer stations, not eReader display space. The center of the table will have room for a few display units of eReaders surrounding a riser with info posters like "download our app.". Nothing like what Barnes and Noble is doing with their Nook desks. I thought they had an intriguing approach of how to contend in the eReader space in spite of being late to the party, but the way AreaE is looking so half-assed it's like they think the war is lost and are fighting for appearance's sake and that alone. 

Andrew Wylie, a major literary agent who recently started his own ebook company, has settled his dispute with Random House over rights, rumor has it ceding the rights battle but getting a higher escalating royalty rate.  Well, those royalty rates have to start going up if agents and authors are to continue to do as much business with publishers, we'll see how many other circumstances Random may need to do similarly.  I spoke in more detail on these questions in a guest post I did for the Clarion blog, which I linked to in an August 17 post.

Barnes and Noble is in the middle of a proxy fight with an investor group having proposed an alternate slate of directors.  Their last earnings report didn't thrill, same store sales down a bit and profit taking a hit from digital initiatives. 

The Kindle 3 has gotten rave reviews from David Pogue in the NY Times and Walter Mossberg in the Wall St. Journal, both major people in technology reviewing. I am not a fan of E-Ink based devices like the Kindle vs iPad multitaskers, but no denying that the reviewer buzz for Kindle 3 is there.     

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Funny Book Round-up

Wonder Woman 602 was a disappointment. First issue at least intrigued but instead of moving forward I thought this 2nd issue in the J. Michael Straczynski run became incoherent. Peter Brett and I were discussing if it's possible for anyone to do a good Wonder Woman because of the inherent flaws of the character herself, and this perhaps further proof it might not be. 

Better news from the Straczynski revamp of Superman.  This was a solid second issue, #702, at least to the extent that if you like what he's doing there's more to like here, and I still like the art by Eddy Barrows and JP Mayer which well suits e story. The larger lingering question is if the "socially relevant Supes" is the right direction. 

I just don't know what to make of the Paul Levitz run on Legion of Superheroes there and in Adventure. I liked the story in Adventure 517 more than the first installments, but was seriously disappointed with Legion #4. The last issue suggested a major new storyline aborning, but this issue picked up with Darkseid then jumped here and there without a lot of connecting tissue. I want really badly to like these but much harder than I had hoped to actually do so. 

Geoff Johns, I read, used to work as an assistant for Superman director Richard Donner. No surprise that his Superman: Secret Origin miniseries has updated a lot of the story from Superman: The Movie, which I continue to think is the best superhero movie we've seen.  Cary Bates, a long-time DC writer including on the Superman books 20 or 30 years ago, doesn't hsve to use Donner's movie as a stepping off point but does in his new Elseworlds series, Superman, Last Family of Krypton, El on Earth, but does. A lot of the movie has filtered back into the comics because the movie is so iconic. In this alternate version the entire El family is on Earth, not just Kal-El, but we still find new versions of things like Superman's flight with Lois where you you can hear the John Williams love theme. I kind of liked but also realized picking the book up after a few weeks that it had made little impression.  And in the final issue of Secret Origins, Johns has to go from lovingly saluting the movie to integrating it into current continuity.  Overall I liked the series a lot, and the final five or ten pages of the last issue are redemptive, but I wish we could have done without the first two-thirds of this final issue. But on balance a worthy project that I would suggest be checked out in the collected edition. I have a feeling the parts of this final issue I disliked will be less bothersome if the whole series is read in one sitting. 

I liked Ex Machina very much, over it's fifty issue run. The concluding issue #50 is OK. But... it came out late so my memories of issue #49 were faded. Which will not be a problem in the collected. There's some stunning, scary and wonderful stuff that spins the characters in ways that make you ask if there is a new interpretation of all that came before. But most of what comes before in this issue is an epilogue to the prior issues. Both this and Superman Secret Origins make an argument for collected editions and against the purchase of the monthlies as they unfold. On the whole this and Y: The Last Man are two excellent series, Ex Machina held up better over it's run and in the finale. Hard business, endings can be sometimes. 

DMZ 56 is a fill-in issue masking as part two of a story arc. 

I have been liking the Len Wein scripted DC Universe: Legacies with different artists as the run progresses but issue #4 suggests it could be a hard act to keep up over 10 issues in the context of an expanding universe. There's so much ground to cover that the story vanishes behind the box- ticking to get it all in. Every DC team in one issues.  Yikes!  The art by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is well-suited for the era. Next issue covers the Crisis on Infinite Earths era whichnI will want to see. I'm not sure if interest levels will hold after that.

Bongo continues to do good, consistent work month in and month out. In Bart Simpson #55 Bart and Lisa both compete in a princess contest to win a pony. In Simpsons #169 Bart has to contend with a doppelgänger. Both are close to torn from the scripts from a good or better episode of the TV show. Comic Book Guy #2 I liked even more than the first issue. Comic Book Guy died in the first issue though we can safely anticipate his resurrection. Lines in this issue like Bart standing at grave sight and saying "I hope God's a collector and that you're in his best Mylar bag.". The tombstone is inscribed "Quit reading my tombstone! This is a cemetery not a library!" And who turns The Android's Dungeon into The Android's Playground...   

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ashfall, Part 2


Window Shopping at the Louvre
So when we left off on this here, Eddie and I were collapsing in our hotel rooms after a very long day full of unexpected surprises on the way to London Book Fair.

One bank
I got a pretty decent night's sleep, and I had one goal for my morning in Paris before we headed off to catch the Eurostar. I wasn't in Paris if I didn't go to the Seine, which looked close enough for a round trip walk if I kept about my business. Down by the big department store and the opera house, stop at one chocolatier that's been around for 80 years then on next block see one that's been around for 90 years and realize you picked the wrong one. Down to the Louvre, walk along both banks of the Seine because I don't want anyone to think I'm slighting the left or the right bank or vice versa. Emerge near big old buildings and think "gee, I bet Benjamin Franklin visited some of these."

Another bank
It was a wonderful and delightful morning, in part because of the unexpectedness of it.

We then found our way to Gare du Nord and checked in at the mobbed counters for the Eurostar, with all services booked until some time the next day or day after at this point because everyone was trying to take the train. It was while reading newspapers in the departure lounge that some of the joy of the experience started to fade, as it became clear that the ash cloud which diverted us wasn't just a one day thing, and that I'd gotten a lot of chocolates to give away at our table at London Book Fair to people who might not be coming if things didn't resolve themselves pretty quick like. This did not make me happy.

Tilt your head; my luxury "tip up" seat between cars on the Eurostar

But there wasn't much time to mope with my eagerly anticipated first ride on the Eurostar about to begin. But we were in for a surprise, which explained why we had to go through a staffed check-in gate instead of the automated. Our very expensive first class seats weren't seats in the actual train. No, we were luck to get "tip-up" seats, the jump seats in the entry vestibule between cars. Kind of like being told that your first class seat on an airplane was the jump seat next to the galley door. It wasn't quite as bad as all that, because we did get to sit in actual seats for the first leg of the journey to Lille, where more people would be getting on and we'd be getting the boot. And it was a very nice meal service. And it certainly made for a train ride to remember.

Eddie enjoying the meal service on board the Eurostar in our first class accommodations
I've always been a fan of high speed rail in theory, and I loved partaking of it in practice. The train moved slowly until right around DeGaulle airport when it finally heads off on its own dedicated tracks, and then it speeds along, my does it speed along. In the US we're lucky to match the speed of cars on the interstate, here we just zoom by. The countryside was beautiful, the French landscape as full of churches as the British landscape can be of castles. And churches.

Peter V. Brett signing at London's Forbidden Planet
Alas, the Book Fair ended up being pretty much the debacle I'd started to fear it might be when I was reading newspapers at Gare du Nord. Peter V. Brett had come up a little before us, he was one of the last planes to land at Heathrow before it was shut down and we got to Europe just before the European airspace closed pretty much completely. My second employee Jessie Cammack was supposed to come out the next day and never made it. All in all, two thirds of our appointments cancelled. And we got to sit around the Fair during the downtime wondering if/how we might ever get home.

Thanks Emma/HarperUK for getting us the artwork and John Berlyne at Zeno Agency for designing these nifty signs, which more people will see on blog than at the ash-interrupted London Book Fair
Because Peter was out in support of the UK launch of his Desert Spear, which we knew would be big, and because the book has in general been quite big on a global basis, we decided to show the flag by taking out some signs in the Rights Centre, and also by having a meet and greet for our sub-agents and Peter's publishers in attendance at the Fair to meet with Peter at a Russian restaurant a short walk from the Fair. Hardly anyone to look at the signs, and we had 12 people for our big event instead of 35, which was very deflating. But those who attended had a very good time, and I would recommend Nikita's in London to anyone looking for some good Russian food and drink.

In the end, UK airspace reopened in time for Peter, Eddie and I all to return on time on our originally scheduled flights, but in ways good and bad it was a week to remember.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Young guns (tennis, pt 3)

After two days of bad weather, Thursday was wonderful for tennis, and the tennis was amazing. Good matches, good young players, epic struggles, an amazing day.

I decided to be somewhat monogamous for Court 10, which has nice seating and was having three straight matches featuring seeded players for the qualifying.

The first was the #9 seed Ricardas Berankis of Lithuania, just turned 20, against a 24-year-old Columbian Juan Sebastian Cabal. This was good, solid play, but Berankis, who is up and coming and around #120 in the rankings, clearly deserved his 7-5 6-3 victory. The second match also had some good tennis, but no real takeaway moments. The 25-year old #7 seed Adrian Ungur of Romania is at his career high rank of #122, but lost in straight sets to a 27-year-old Italian, Simone Vagnozzi, who is ranked something like 40 spots lower and has never gotten into the top 150. Bad tennis, no. But Vagnozzi's 6-3 6-4 victory seemed to be as much about Ungur not taking it as of Vagnozzi really earning it. In both cases, these were good matches, and I would say Berankis has some potential, but I also don't come out of either with any strong lasting memories.

That started to change with the third match. This one featured the #1 qualifying seed, a Turkish player Marsel Ilhan. 23, so can still have his best years ahead of him, and this summer he moved as high as #103, currently #108. His 7-10 career record in tour matches is not bad by qualifying player standards, not bad at all. He is playing one of the youngest players in the draw, a German-born Australian player named Bernard Tomic; and I hate to admit I'm happy to see he's German born because I was a bit puzzled to see the "Aus" after a player named Bernard Tomic! Tomic is still eight weeks shy of this 18th birthday, low 200s in the rankings, but worth noting that his 5-8 record is similar to his opponent's, and for the year 4-5 vs 5-7 for Ilhan.

Since I can't bring my iPad into the USTA grounds I can't look up all this stuff beforehand, so going into the match all I know is the names and countries and Ilhan's seeding. Maybe if I'd known more I'd have been less stunned that the #1 seed just gets blown away absolutely and completely in the first set, 6-0. And then when Ilhan takes the 2nd set by an equally lopsided 6-2 score there's this expectation that it was just one of those things and that Ilhan will assert in the third. Doesn't happen, not at all. But unlike two days ago when an anticipated third set became a complete fizzle, this third set is the best I've seen so far in the tournament. Neither player gives it away, they're both playing some good and exciting tennis and making their shots. I recall Tomic as trying successfully to really paint the lines and the corners in the third set, which is good when you're game is on and you make everything, not so good if you start missing. But he's making his shots, takes the third set and the match 6-3. The write-up on the Day 3 Qualifying calls this an upset. Well, yes and no. Ilhan might be the #1 seed, but he had the bad luck to come up against a very young player who might start to make some noise. And that being said, Tomic is still ranked down in the 200s, and there are no guarantees he'll even make it through the next two rounds.

Then it was off to the conclusion of the Begemann Farah match from the day before. Which became a completely different match overnight. Simply put, Farah was in the zone today. He was hammering service returns left and right, half a dozen more. He was making everything. He was seeing the ball like it was the size of a watermelon. It meant that the conclusion of the match was lopsided. The score had been knotted in the second set, Begemann loses the next four games of that set to go down 6-1. There isn't much Begemann can do in the third set, and final score Farah 3-6 6-1 6-2. But even though it was lopsided it was good to watch, because again it wasn't that Begemann wasn't playing well, he wasn't giving the match to Farah. It was that Farah was in the zone, taking it, having one of those days you dream of having as a player every day. I don't know if Farah will be in the zone every day!

This was just the first half of the day's excitement. But I'll have to talk about that later... I'm getting ready to go on a big trip, have to prepare for today, so I'll end and publish this post, but believe me, the best is yet to come!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

white elephant by white house

When Borders started expanding nationally in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the DC market was a major one. Borders #10, #29, #45, #50, #89, #112, an overrepresentation of their best stores. Borders #50 at 18th and L Sts. in downtown Washington was probably for a very very long time one of the best Borders in the country, maybe even one of the best bookstores in the country. An incredible depth of selection, sold tons of books, lunchtime at the store was like a gold mine five days a week.

So ten years ago, when Borders opened up a new store in downtown DC around a mile from their downtown flagship and right by the White House, big things were clearly expected. Huge store on two main levels each with one or two mezzanine levels, filled with books in all shapes, sizes, varieties.

And it was a white elephant.

It just never sold the quantity of books that you'd expect from a store that was clearly designed to be a major store. Not even close. Maybe it was because it was a downtown location that looked nice but really wasn't. One block from the White House meant the store could only be approached from one direction, so even though it was in the middle of downtown it was at the same time on the edge of downtown, with less ability to draw the day crowd from a radius.

And now the white elephant is closed. Noticed on that last trip to DC that they were having a going out of business store at that location. I did some math and asked an employee if it was a ten-year lease that was up, which is kind of what it was. Twenty year lease, but some kind of buyout option or such halfway through, so Borders is gone and a local restaurant chain will turn the space into a downstairs night club and an upstairs restaurant, which might give you an idea of the space that the downstairs could become a night spot. You can read about the plans in the Washington Post article here.

This is in keeping with a pronouncement during a conference call earlier in the year that Borders would try and be more aggressive in getting out of bad leases, so this is a good thing and a sad thing. I mean, I'm never entirely happy to see a bookstore close, but I can't imagine with the rent this location must have carried and the volume the store was doing that Borders ever made a dime at this location. And when you have to start taking a big space like this that was designed to have a big music and movies department, only there aren't any sales in music and movies any longer, and start renovating out the music and movies and still making the store look somewhat filled with merchandise... part of me wishes they'd known 18 months ago the store wasn't long for the world and not spent whatever they spent on the last round of renovations, same thing at the West Hollywood Borders that closed at the start of 2010.

And yet as happy as I kind of am to see that Borders will no longer be allocating resources to this white elephant, I remember the excitement I felt on my first visit ten years ago, exploring every nook and cranny of a huge space lovingly designed to be a showplace for the printed word.

The 18th and L store is still there, and still good, but will never be as good as it was. After three rounds of renovation most of the character was renovated out of it. And in the cash flow crisis two years ago, the depth of selection at the truly great Borders stores was one of the things that was foolishly sacrificed and can never be regained.

Borders alas has a lot of legacy real estate like store #412 in downtown DC, very big boxes that were designed for selling categories of merchandise that no longer exist to sell profitably.

Other Borders news, I did see a big red table at the Columbus Circle store that will be the home of their AreaE space for selling e-book readers in a Borders the same way B&N has been devoting space to the Nook. I'm curious to see how that will go.

it's like watching courts dry

The weather was even worse on Wednesday than on Tuesday. Rain all morning. Instead of a cameo appearance at the office I worked a full half day, then went into Manhattan for Wednesday comic shopping (the bright side of the dreary day) and visited a couple bookstores before heading out to tennis. Got there 3:15-3:30 and court drying started 3:40ish.

Court drying for qualifying is not done with the same speed as what you might see after a main draw rain delay on a show court. Not near as much manpower put on the task. Several years ago armies if squeegee people were put out. Now they have zamboni like machines to suck up moisture and modified leaf blowers which are incredibly obnoxious to be near. A few minutes quicker than with the squeegees but so unpleasant.

Drying starts on the larger outside courts then outward to the most outlying where the least interesting matches have been put. I started out watching a women's match on Court 7 because it was dry and going around 4:40 and I could see when the match I wanted to see on Court 5 was ready. Which ended up being 40 minutes later a full set in on Court 7.

While watching on Court 7, I look a few feet away and see a man who looks just like Patrick McEnroe. Can't be, can it. He's in civvies and Patrick is always wearing a suit on TV. Was Patrick. I sneak a peek after at the credential of one of the people he was talking to and it says Jose Higueras, who is one of the coaches working with the USTA on player development, which is one of the things Patrick works on. This is one of the nice things about going to the quallies, that you never know who might pop in to the seat next to you. But enough about Court 7, neither the 20-year old American, Madison Brengle, or the 24 year-old French woman Claire De Gubernatis, figure to be lasting parts of the Open. Over on Court 6, which doesn't have a lot of seating, you've got two Americans playing, Amer Delic and Michael Yani. If you've got two Americans and they're not playing on Court 7 or 11, or maybe 10 or 13, that's a clear sign that great things are not expected.

Court 5 was chosen because I'd heard of neither, a player for Portugral by the name of Leonardo Taveras, and from Spain, Guillermo Alcaide. An epic battle of the Iberian peninsula. Check out the stats, the two are very even, 24 and 26, 115K or 135K in career prize money, 30Ks this year, ranked 200 give or take, career high ranks very similar. It is a fairly tight match, I do think it's Alcaide who is the better player, and who wins, 6-4 and 6-2. Neither seems really great, it's one of those decent first round matches that reminds you often can't cast judgments until later rounds when you see two players that look good playing someone very similar going against someone 80 spots higher in the rankings. On the next court over, there's a 22-year old from Belgium, Ruben Bemelmans, playing against another of those QSF (Qualifying Since Forever) guys Thiago Alves from Brazil, who may be better than either person on Court 5, even though he's maybe 20 ranking spots better and 2 years younger. Alves makes a Frank Dancevic from yesterday seem like Federer. 28 years old, pro for ten years, never above 88 in the rankings.

I stick around to watch Italian Simone Bolelli against Hungarian Andreas Haider-Maurer. Bolelli I've heard of, he'd gotten as high as #36 in the world. But he's no great shakes, I even think the 24 years old from Hungary may be playing better even if he isn't winning. Bottom line, I"m really bored by the match. I don't do this often, but I decide to leave. Haider-Maurer does stage a comeback to win the match in three sets, and maybe it would have been interesting to watch but I kind of think not. No regrets. But I can keep Haider-Maurer in mind, maybe, for round 2.

It's been a long time I've been in the area of courts 6/7 and 4/5 so I wander a bit, end up settling a few games in on the other side of the grounds, Court 15 for Hungarian Attila Balazs against Italian Matteo Viola. Hadn't heard of either,don't get to see many Hungarians. If you're clicking links to the bios or reading in detail you'll notice that a lot of the players in the qualifying aren't 18 year old prodigies, like several years ago when I saw QSF Jeff Salzenstein drummed out of the quallies by Marco Baghdatis. You hope to see that future top 10 player, most of the time you don't. So on Court 15, you've got a 21-year old and a 23-year old. I think there's more life in watching Attila at 23, but he also seems a little loose in his playing and goes down to the slightly older Italian. Today's results aside, Balazs may be going into the top 100 some day, I'd be surprised if Viola is going to go far beyond his current rank of 264.

The next match aborning of interest is on Court 9, with Andre Begemann of Germany against Robert Farah of Columbia. I think I've vaguely heard of Farah, though looking at his ranking or his Google results I can't figure why. Solid USC player but I don't follow the college game. Begemann is a German journeyman whom I don't think I've seen before. It's somewhat a tight match, and not bad to watch. And then... a little after 8, drops start falling. Begemann isn't happy when the chair umpire takes them off the court when he has a chance to break back early in the 2nd set, having won the first. but the lines are dried, players go back on for a point or two. But the rain, extremely light as it is, keeps coming. Players sit down again. Rain still light but getting heavier. And the problem now is that it's just heavy enough that it isn't just the lines that would need to be dried, because now the courts are wet. Not very wet, hardly wet at all, but wet enough that it would be a bit drying them. Players go back to locker rooms, they ain't coming back. Frustrating. The very light rain stops before I'm three or five minutes away, you can see the skies are clearing, even see a star or two, but in the quallies if the players go back to the locker room after dark, they're not coming back. That's a difference between the main draw just about anywhere where you've got way more money at stake, here not really.

Vanilla chip at at the Lemon Ice King, and unlike last night there's a bocce game going on which I watch while enjoying my ice. My vanilla ice is so, so, so good I want to have another, but I tell myself I can't, haven't worked off the calories near enough. Tomorrow is another day...

You can go deep into my August 2008 archives and maybe one in September for posts on my last visit to the quallies. I wasn't much excited about anyone then, let's hope for better this year...

Tennis, anyone? 2010 Pt 1

The forecast kept getting worse and worse as the day approached but I was still excited, after missing event in 2009, to be hitting the USTA National Tennis Center on Tuesday August 24 under cloudy skies for the first day of qualifying for the US Open.

But which match to see. It is nice to see players I've seen before but not nice to see players who have been qualifying since forever. Nice to see new faces but not nice to spend three hours watching #203 vs #258 while both adequately demonstrate the correctness of their rankings.

I ended up going to Court 7 to see American Ryan Harrison against a Frenchman Jonathan Dasnieres de Veigy. Him I knew nothing about. Harrison had received a wild card two years ago as a top high school player. He looked very young then, had lots if baby fat, but played impressively for his age. Now 18, Harrison is noticeably thinner and very collegiate.

Alas, drops started to fall not very long into the match and then more than drops and there was a rain delay no more than a half hour in to the match. Didn't rain too hard or too long but by the time they're sure it's OK to start drying the courts and then dry and then get the ball persons and lines judges and players back out... it was three hours before play resumed. Harrison did come out early for a quick practice hit.

How is Harrison? Who knows. The French guy wasn't good enough to test him. Harrison was up 5-1 in the first set when the rains came. After the delay, a few games into the 2nd set, the wind really picked up. Harrison didn't deal well with the bad conditions, got frustrated, then angry. But he settled down, adjusted a bit, the wind died down a bit, he won handily in two sets.

I had invited a Canadian to join me, so for the next match I violated the rule on not watching people who've been qualifying forever and went to see Frank Dancevic. He peaked three years ago, but just barely high enough (#65) to just barely make the draw without qualifying, behind an appearance in the finals of the Indianapolis event in 2007. That year, he had a winnable first round match in the Open against Marat Safin, but he lost. The difference: Dancevic's lack of experience in those moments. Today he outplayed a Czech journeyman Ivo Minar, who also had a peak ranking in the 60s, and both Minar and Dancevic born in 1984. Talk about your evenly matched players, though on this day Dancevic looked in considerably better form. Straight sets victory 6-3 6-4.

We stayed nearby to watch Aussie Greg Jones play Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin, the #4 seed in the qualifying. I do not often pay much attention to the 5-minute warmup before each match, but I noticed here that Roger-Vasselin had a deer-in-headlights aspect to his at-net volleying. Jones seemed much more assured. This was the highest quality tennis, with Roger-Vasselin taking the first set and Jones the second. I was expecting a tight struggle for set #3 but it was not to be. Jones went up early, Roger-Vasselin started acting like he had a plane to catch, and it was done. Jones has an 0-1 record in main tour events, nonetheless the better player won. Jones also stares very intently at his foot before each serve.

On Court 13, Kei Nishikori had taken the court to play the forever-qualifying Paul Capdeville of Chile. He was having a hard time closing out Capdeville. Ahead by a set and up 5-4 in the 2nd set, he lost the next three games and the two were early in their 3rd set as Jones was winning on Court 14. We went next court to watch the final set. Nishikori had emerged atop 5-3 after some back and forth in the early games when the rains came again, and the day ended at around seven.

I did a brief tour with my guest of Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Plenty of late-night soccer action still going on in the gloaming. New since my last visit skateboard park by the LIE overpass so no need to skateboard pn the overpass itself. The New York State Pavilion is still rotting away. But the fountain beneath the Unisphere has just been refurbished and was at its full glory for the first time in a decade. Off to the Lemon Ice King of Corona (medium mint chip for me), good Indian at Mehfil in Jackson Heights, and the day was done.

Considering the forecast, no complaints to have seen three full matches. First round rarely has great matches, a lot of journeyman, or mismatches of #103 vs #303, but I so love just being there. And the things you see in the first round help to build the story-lines.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

cultural capital

I ended up going on a bit about Animal Kingdom, let's so some quick takes.

Sunday August 22 I saw Eat Pray Love at Clearview's Ziegfeld and then The Other Guys at the AMC Lincoln Square, Aud #4/Olympia. Other Guys had higher highs and lower lows and Eat Pray Love was more consistently mediocre, so I'd give a slight nod to seeing The Other Guys. The best parts of Other Guys are in the first half hour and are often genuinely good and genuinely funny. There's good chemistry between Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. But as many of the reviews I read quite accurately point out, in the last half hour the movie becomes too much that which it is supposed to be spoofing, and I tuned out totally and completely. It was good to see Michael Keaton with a decent role in a mainstream movie. Where did he go? Eat Pray Love isn't without its pleasures. Julia Roberts, exotic settings, lush feel, eye candy in some ways. But it's flat. The script is kind of flat. I don't know what depths are to be found in the book the movie is based on, but this script doesn't show any. But as or more important the quality of the casting seemed to end with getting Julia Roberts. For all its flaws at least in Duplicity you had good chemistry between Roberts and Clive Owen, who has some of the same "it" that Roberts does. Billy Crudup isn't bad in this movie, but he doesn't have that it. James Franco, same thing; if Franco had that "it" he'd be much bigger a star than he's become, because he's had his chances. The role Richard Jenkins has is annoyingly scripted, and I'm not sure any actor could have made it work. With Javier Bardem, it might just be that I'm not a fan. In order for the movie to have worked as well as it could have, they needed to aim higher and get higher for the men in Julia Roberts' life.

Last week Peter V. Brett and I saw Scott Pilgrim at the AMC Empire, Aud. #20. Better than either of the two movies above, but not as successful as I would have liked. To the good, the filmmaking by director Edgar Wright, who's previously done Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, is lively and energetic. Comic book sound titles go sweeping along the screen kind of like the subtitles in Slumdog Millionaire. Michael Cera fits the lead role like a glove, most of his entourage are well cast and likable. There are some good choices for the smaller roles of the seven evil exes. On the opposite side, it's creative and energetic in a way that can wear out its welcome after a bit, and here I think that point is reached rather before the end of the movie. At its essence, the movie is a romantic action comedy. The whole premise is that Scott is fighting for the love of a girl. And the director, the script, the filmmaking ... a lot of that "little" stuff shows no interest in the romantic side of the romantic action comedy. The movie's so busy at the start introducing all of us to its bag of tricks that the arrival of the romantic lead kind of gets lost in the shuffle. Where did she come from? Why? Why does the Michael Cera character go with one girl over another? This film had an even more disappointing opening at the box office than Kick Ass, which has found some justified redemption with excellent early sales for the video. Will the same happen here? I had some issues with the unnecessary violence in Kick Ass, but overall I do think it was the more successful of the two movies.

Salt, which I saw at the Regal Gallery Place Aud #10 in DC on July 31, was a thoroughgoing delight, very similar in my mind to the Angelina Jolie movie Wanted. It's totally and preposterously silly, and it knows it is. The actors toe a fine line nicely, most of them knowing that they're in on the joke but taking themselves just seriously enough for the preposterousness of the film to be solidly grounded in some semblance of Hollywood reality. Angelina Jolie is a delight. I had a lot of fun with the movie. I'm not going to defend it as art, and Myke Cole did not like it, couldn't look past the silliness of it all enough to find the enjoyment in it. But me, I loved the over the top pleasures this movie had to offer, and I'd recommend it.

Not so for Dinner With Schmucks, which I saw the next day at the same location, Aud. #13. Schmucks. Yuck. I don't even want to talk about this movie very much. It's not well-scripted, or well-made, and it just kind of lies there. It's not totally without laughs, but nowhere near enough of them.

And while in DC, I also saw two plays.

One Man Lord of the Rings is by the same guy who did One Man Star Wars. If you think you'll like it from the name, you probably will. Check here, maybe one of the shows is coming soon to a theatre near you. It was my first time seeing something at DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. And then the Studio Theatre had Passing Strange. My classic DC theatre visit, that show had played on Broadway, gotten nice notices, wished I'd seen it, so this was my last chance I really must go and partake sort of thing. This is an autobiographical show of the artist's road to musical theatre. The Studio production was lively and energetic, I had a wonderful time, I'd recommend anyone go. It's also kind of entirely forgettable, almost while you're watching it. But while you're there, you're having fun, and that's not a bad way to go.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom is an excellent Australian gangster movie which opened in New York on August 13 and which will be arriving in other cities in the weeks ahead. It's well worth -- well, well, well, well, well worth -- seeking out.

It's a double debut, both for the director David Michod, and for his lead actor, James Frecheville. Frecheville is so new nobody's bothered putting his DoB on IMDB, but we're told by Wikipedia that he's pretty much fresh out of high school and had to fit filming for Animal Kingdom around his final year studies. Frecheville plays Joshua "J." Cody, whom we meet at home where he's calmly if not very assuredly calling 911 following a fatal heroin overdose by his mother. Out of desperation, he moves in with his aunt, who's the matriarch of a suburban Melbourne crime family that's seen much better days. The Melbourne police have taken to resorting to extrajudicial means to deal with a crime outbreak, and J's outlaw uncles are feeling the heat. Police act, uncles react, action begets reaction and things start to escalate. The police are focusing on J as a new arrival and possible weak link as they make their inquries. His uncles and grandma are every bit as concerned, as much or more about J on his own account as on his deepening relationship with a girl. Pillow talk and all. It's not a happy home environment.

Frecheville's performance is a wonder. It's entirely self-contained. There's rarely any outward or visible emotion to be found in the exterior of his performance, yet it's abundantly clear in every frame that the young man's deeply uncertain and masking deep emotion but nonetheless also deeply calculating. It's a tinderkeg that should explode, eventually it does, but it's a targeted explosion. I can't remember when I've seen an actor do so much by seeming to do so little. Stunning performance.

The skill of the director is seen in the uniformly excellent performances that abound in the movie. Best-known in the cast is Guy Pearce, whose career is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma tied within a mystery. Here's an actor who came out in the US to deserved acclaim with roles in movies like LA Confidential and Memento, and somehow or other he's decided with what seems like genuine satisfaction to go the character actor route. Last summer briefly in Hurt Locker. Here he's got a massive mustache and thickish head of hair and an accent more than just thickish which pretty much entirely mask the actor in the role. He's playing a police detective with the lead role in investigating the Cody clan, and you're never quite sure -- not even sure if the character's sure from moment to moment -- if his interest in J is paternal or professional or both or neither.

It's hard to like the uncles, but that's on account of who they are as the performances are uniformly excellent. It's just that these people are not nice, not nice at all. They don't look nice, or act nice, or play nice. The audience feels that unpleasantness as much as we imagine J must. Which is in its way crucial. For us to see the inner life in Frecheville's performance, we have to feel the context he does.

And it's impossible to talk about the movie without also singling out Jacki Weaver for her performance as the matriarch. She's been called out as the villain of the year, and it's hard to argue. She's peeled some like the layers of an onion. When J first moves in, she's not seen or heard so much of, she's just there, quietly in the background. But you know she's too there not to be aware and part and parcel of what's happening in the family. She isn't the moll, the wife like Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas who's purposely kept at some remove. Eventually we start to see just how there she is, and it's chilling.

Michod's skills aren't just at working with actors. There are multiple scenes of great tension. A car pulling out of a garage. A traffic stop on a quiet suburban street. A raid on a house. Not the "cat jumping out of closet" tricks, but scenes that are relying on good photography, good editing, good scoring and good underscoring.

This was the first of my Monday night movies at the Landmark Sunshine a week ago (Aud. #1), and maybe I'd have liked Lebanon more if I'd seen it first and Animal Kingdom second. But seeing a bad movie like Lebanon after a good -- no, great -- movie like Animal Kingdom magnifies every flaw. And no bones about it, Animal Kingdom is a great movie.

About the title: Pearce's character likes to talk to J in animal metaphors. J is being protected by the strong animals, they're not going to be around to protect him, J will have to now take to relying on the strength of the police. Which is very much the worry of J's uncles, that J is weak and will move to the embrace of the police. Which of course says something about the uncles, that they're self aware enough of themselves to know they're not offering a young man a good place to mature, self aware to see that but not strong enough themselves to offer anything better.

And in keeping with the metaphor of the title, I'm not quite sure what the final scene suggests. Is the final embrace a recognition that the weak has become the strong, or an acknowledgment that the strongest animal isn't the one we think?

I can't encourage you enough to see Animal Kingdom, and come to your own conclusion. Let me know what you think...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Lebanon, the Movie

Lebanon, one of two movies seen on Monday night at Landmark's Sunshine in Manhattan (aud # 5), is yet another overrated art film; Fandango has a pretty solid 83 critical score, and a typical viewer rating of no, and the viewers have the better of it. It's set in a tank during the opening day of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It's supposed to be autobiographical for writer/director Samuel Maoz. I hope if I ever write an autobiography and it turns out my life is as cliched as his was that someone will stop me. This is the kind of movie where you have a soldier asking his CO to call mom to let her know he's alright with 2 weeks theoretically to go in his enlistment. You want to guess what happens to this short timer? The kind of movie where the tank's gunner can't bring himself to fire when circumstances first require. Can you guess what happens? And when he does fire the second time he's supposed to, will it surprise you to find out that this truck is full of chickens? When I say it's set in the tank, I do mean in the tank, set in the tank the way Das Boot is set in a submarine. We only see the outside world from the POV of the tank sight. Now, I've never looked out of a tank sight so what do I know about what it's like. I can only say it seems to me that the quality of the image we get from the tank sight seems to vary mightily based on the needs of the film, so when it needs to seem like the tank sight isn't even there, it's like the tank sight is hardly even there and more like the cameraman is outside the tank shooting the scene just like in a regular movie. And even though it's set in a tank, in the middle of a war, so many people are coming into the tank to visit. So many people. Living people, dead people (yes, dead people), Israelis and Christians and Syrians.

I will say the movie has a great coming attraction. With that and the good reviews I was really eager to see.

And it's sad the movie itself is so sucky because it is an interesting concept. Why not do for a tank what Das Boot did for a submarine. But it's a real challenge to set a movie in a setting as small as a tank, and to tell a good story with only a very small cast of characters. It would require some hard work to make it work, but it certainly can work; there are plenty of movies that have fewer than a handful of cast members in them and manage to work just fine. But nobody seems to be working very hard in the movie. If the tank is too confining, just have the commanding officer conveniently find his way to the tank whenever you need. It would probably require confidence in the audience to accept whatever they could get just from looking at a tank sight without a lot of cheating. But there isn't, and there is.

And J. Hoberman of The Voice calls this the finest first feature of the year, Corliss of Time and Scott of the NY Times and EW and lots of other people are salivating over this. How? Why? The Onion was not as impressed. Which is why The Onion is America's Finest News Source. (In fact, with the regular NY papers cutting their review hole over the years, the Onion is one of the best places to go in NYC for good film reviews.

Splits

When I started my dialogue with Dean Wesley Smith, the starting point was a post he did, which you can find here, that was kind of on the question of whether your money should go to your agent before it came to you, though it did go off in a lot of different tangents and take on a lot more than that one question.

But let's look at that question, as an example of why I think Dean's posts have kernels of truth but are not, as a whole, totally to my liking.

Kernel of truth: Once upon a time, the marginal cost to a publisher of cutting each additional check was extremely high. No computers, royalty statements done by hand, checks cut by hand, do you want to have 820 or 8298 payees you have to send checks to every six months? In that context, I think it reasonable that a standard practice developed whereby publishers paid agents, and agents paid authors. The agents did need to get paid, the agents did need to see the paperwork, you can agree or disagree on the practice being established the way it was, but it wasn't an unreasonable way for things to develop. Now, in 2010, certainly the major US publishing conglomerates can cut more checks with very little marginal cost. And considering how wasteful some of their royalty statements are, how they can take pages upon pages to tell you what Penguin says in one page, they can hardly complain if they start "splitting" checks, where an agent gets a check for a commission and an author gets the net after commission. And since the publishers can do this, why don't we ask them to. Nothing at all unreasonable.

However, here's where it gets complicated.

1. even in the US not every publisher is a big publisher with a fancy computer system that can spit out more checks, even in massive quantity, without burping. There are some vendors that are still sending me handwritten checks. So at best, the issue has to be selectively visited.

2. the further you get from the US, the more you're going to find situations where splitting checks just isn't practical. Many of the foreign agents and/or foreign publishers I deal with are small operations, family run Czech publishers with owners speaking bad English that specialize in sf/fantasy. The agents I work with overseas are also often small operations. Most books, the Hebrew or Serbian rights don't sell for lots of money, and you have to watch overhead as an agent in those markets. Splitting checks isn't practicable at all.

So on this basis alone, your agent is likely to have some paymaster responsibility for you. And for that reason alone, an author can decide "in for a dime, in for a dollar" and prefer to have it all done that way.

And it's not as if there are no benefits at all to the author in doing so. To a real take-charge take-control person like Dean, these benefits may be small enough as to hardly merit consideration, but they are there nonetheless.

1. I have a better infrastructure set up for tracking payments. You find you need a summary of your 2006 income for some reason, I can get that for you in a few quick keystrokes, while you might have to dig through a shoebox.

2. Have you ever switched credit cards or banks or something, and you have to notify 9 different companies who do automatic debit from your account? So far as your publishing income is concerned, you can let your agent know you have a new address instead of notifying every publisher that might pay you money. We recently wrote to a client who cashed a check as recently as the latter half of 2009, found the client had moved without letting us know, and had to do a lot of legwork to reestablish contact. Yes, I know, that kind of thing will never happen to you, it's so stupid and obvious you can't believe it would happen to anyone. But guess what, it does!

3. A check doesn't get deposited. I care, I call, I follow up, I replace. What does HarperCollins do when your royalty check doesn't get deposited or gets returned?

4. On foreign payments, some wire transfers can see as many as three different banks grabbing a service charge, and these can total over $50 in some instances. My business is now big enough that a lot of payments I get cover multiple authors and these costs can be spread out over multiple authors, which can easily save 2-3% of your Serbian advance.

5. A good agent needs to see everything. Big client like Charlaine Harris, people use the global sales figures for her books (translated into more than 30 languages) as a selling point. There's only one place in the entire world with an infrastructure developed and in place to track that kind of thing, and it's JABberwocky Literary Agency. Could Charlaine replicate that? Yes. Should she? No. We don't know who our next Charlaine will be, we are starting to track global in print on an author and series basis from the first copy sold of your very first novel.

Yes, there are some agents who aren't good agents. Client doesn't deposit a check, who cares? You shouldn't go through life assuming everyone you meet, literary agent or not, is a saint, but nor should you assume everyone is a sinner.

My workload? I wouldn't have to write as many checks, but because I'm still going to be paymaster for some things I can't throw away the staff or the IT or the infrastructure I need as a paymaster. A good agent would also substitute new work, like every time I got money from a big publisher that was splitting checks, I'd have to check to be sure you got your money. No, actually. I don't have to, but you sure would like for me to, wouldn't you? On balance, this would probably be less total work for me, but not as much less as you'd think at first glance.

So even as I agree 100% with Dean that this is a question that can and should be revisited, I don't agree that the outcome of such a revisiting is as clear-cut as he would suggest.

Think of it as Evolution in Action

One of the major appeals of the CD in spite of the audiophile accusations of diminution of sound quality was that it liberated us from having to get off our duffs to change sides on an album complete with cleaning album and stylus. As I finally start to burn my CDs and put them on my iPad now I see why this whole MP3 thing is so popular. No longer do we need to get off of our duffs to change CDs or even to change our six CD changers. No, we just sit in the easy chair and play 49 straight CDs without getting up, all we need is someone to feed us grapes or Skittles (grape Skittles!). And the audiophile snobs still think any of it's about sound quality. Yeh. Right. What they need to think about are the cunning evil aliens now one step closer fattening us for intergalactic slaughter.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Quick Link

You can go here to find a guest post I've done for the Clarion blog, wherein I discuss the quickening pace of the e-book revolution and the roles of publishers and agents in the current age. Lots of other interesting stuff to be found on the Clarion blog, so if you go and visit, stay a while!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ashfall

Things were so busy after London Book Fair, not just with work but with getting settled into a new apartment, that I never got around to sharing some pictures of Josh(ua) & Ed(die)'s Excellent Adventure getting there.

So Eddie and I are just kind of flying along to London, we're kind of on the Irish leg of the trip, and I do notice that we do a turn over Ireland at a point in time when I'm pretty much expecting a straight flight until maybe you go into holding getting into Heathrow. And then a little bit later the pilot comes on with some bad news from the cockpit.

So let me say, very clearly, that there are worse things when you hear about bad news from the cockpit to be told that you're getting to go to Paris. Which is what we're told. Maybe you've been hearing about this volcano in Iceland, and there's this ash cloud, and Heathrow is closed, and so we're not going there. The moment I heard this, I'm kind of excited. I've never been to Paris. Well, once, in 1980, a refueling stop in Orly. Doesn't count. So we're going to Paris, and I'm thinking very strongly that I don't care what Delta's plans are for getting us to London, but that I'm taking the Eurostar. Even if it means maybe booking the 3PM that day or something, but I'm going on the Eurostar. I'm really excited about this.

So we settle in at Charles DeGaulle to await our fate. Delta is going to try and get a bus. I tell Eddie to try and get us Eurostar tickets. We don't quite know just how much disruption this ash cloud is causing. Eddie keeps getting error messages as he tries to book tickets on his laptop, and then the one or two times he is able to get to the credit card stage we run into problems because one of my credit cards can get very picky if I'm shopping online if you do or don't have the "5th" or a "5" or if there's a comma and etc., and I'm a little too frazzled to focus that I do know the exact right way the address needs to look. And in the meantime, we can't go anyplace anyway because if we can't get Eurostar tickets then we sure better have our boarding pass for the bus which indeed Delta is able to arrange. Did we get the bus boarding pass before I was able to focus and get the address looking the right way for us to finally book Eurostar tickets? Well, whatever, we go through customs, claim our bags, have Eurostar tickets, and call our French sub-agents Anne and Pierre Lenclud to see what they're up to that afternoon.

Waiting to audition at the Moulin Rouge, right near our hotel.

This is quite the grand adventure. I know enough to help some tourists at the ATM machine who don't realize they're asking for too many Euros and probably over their withdrawal limit which is why they're not able to withdraw, but bottom line I'm in a strange airport where I don't know the language and I'm learning how signs start to not make any sense when you don't know the language and we're trying to figure out the subway or the train into downtown and who knows which ticket window or which vending machine or which what is the one we need, thank God Eddie's there to help with all this. Somehow we find our way to the right train to go downtown, I get to see French books in a Hudson News type thing at Gare du Nord, we find our way to the Metro, we find our way to the offices of our French agents in the 9th, I have no idea where we are but I can at least make sense of the map in the station as we exit.
Eddie at Sacre Coeur
If you like old-fashioned physical books, you'd love the offices of our French agents, Anne and Pierre Lenclud. There are books everywhere, on shelves and on tables and on floors and on any possible surface. I could have spent hours there, but we were also hungry. We went to a French/Hungarian restaurant a few blocks away. I don't like French cuisine much and figured the restaurant had this combination of cuisines because there are Hungarians involved somewhere, so I got a wonderful paprika chicken dish which did not go over well with the expectation that I was in Paris and should eat French. I did have wine, which isn't one of my favorite pastimes. We went into a small bookshop not well-endowed with JABberwocky clients. Anne and Pierre were kind enough to arrange rooms for us at a hotel nearby, and Pierre walked us over. I've always felt highly of the work Anne and Pierre do for the agency and our clients, we've been together for the entire 25 years I've been in the business as their good deeds date back to my tenure at the Scott Meredith Agency, this day they went above and beyond the call as people to help us out and be hospitable unexpectedly and on short notice.The view from Sacre Coeur
After we freshened up, Eddie and I went on a walk, with Eddie in charge of the map. We found out the Moulin Rouge was just down the street from our hotel. We walked past (but not in, as closing time was approaching) Montmartre cemetery and climbed higher and higher to the Basilique de Sacre Coeur, some nice glimpses of view along the way and spectacular views from Sacre Coeur itself. The interiors are as stunning as the views, and our arrival at the summit of Sacre Coeur was truly a capstone to a day that had become much more an adventure than ever anticipated 12 hours before. With Eddie guiding the way, we meandered back to the hotel. And I don't think I can begin to say where we meandered.

More to come...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elaine Koster

Publishers Marketplace reports that long-time NAL publisher Elaine Koster passed away earlier this week at the age of 69. Elaine was kind of the go-to person during the early years of my career when I was selling Simon Green and Rick Shelley to the NAL list, the person editors like John Silbersack and Chris Schelling and later on Laura Anne Gilman would need to go to for the thumbs-up on an acquisition. I'm told by many of these people that she could be hell to work for, but was at the same time one of those people that a lot of good people would all learn a lot from working with. After she left NAL, she became an agent. John and Chris did eventually as well, actually. But we'll forgive her for that. And remember her support of the genre.

The Fantasy Marketplace

A fantasy writer was asking me if he should write a big epic 250,000 word fantasy as the first in a series as the next step in his career arc. Because there's no midlist for fantasy, and so you need to be big and meaty and epic to stand out.

I thought my response was worth sharing.

What I think we're seeing is pretty much this.

The mid-1990s, we saw Terry Goodkind take the fantasy community by storm. Every publisher suddenly wanted to have Terry Goodkind, so the fantasy market from mid-to-late 1990s for many many years was full of people trying to forcefeed the next Terry Goodkind onto the marketplace. None of this worked. I'm hard-pressed to think of a truly major guy fantasy debut between Wizard's First Rule in 1994 and Brandon Sanderson's Elantris in 2005. By which I mean, there may have been some first books that sold well in part just because there were so many copies pushed into the market for people to buy, but you didn't find people whose second books actually sold well, let alone ever getting to a fifth book and really becoming part of the conversation in the fantasy world.

And Elantris was published by Tor at maybe the absolute worst possible time, because eventually the major retail accounts started pushing back against all of the failed attempts to force a new big guy fantasy writer into the market, didn't want long doorstops, I'm 95% certain that if Elantris had arrived five years earlier it would have initially shipped two or three times as many copies easily and been a much bigger book.

So Brandon makes his debut in 2005, isn't Terry Goodkind immediately but unlike many of the other attempts over the last five years he's an author who's second book sold better than first, third better than second, and while Brandon is having his slow build, the game changes in 2007 when Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind appears. For the first time in 13 years, the fantasy market sees a major big debut fantasy by a guy writer kind of do that Wizard's First Rule thing. Heavily promoted by DAW Books to the front of the store in large quantity so people can find it, and then people like it, and then the book just keeps selling and selling and selling week after week and month after month.

Then a year or so later Orbit launches Brent Weeks. Maybe you've heard of him? Three books back-to-back that haven't slowed down much in some two years.

And at that same time, Harper Voyager is publishing Peter V. Brett in the UK, who instantly becomes a major author there and in Germany, and debuts solidly in the US and now quite spectacularly with the US paperback using the same cover art that helped the UK edition soar quickly and spectacularly.

And finally, Jim Butcher debuted in 2001, but at the same time you've had these four other new new writers debuting, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files are growing and growing and in the past two or three years have become incredibly big.

So let's look at this... ten years with no major debuts, and now four major debuts and the Butcher blossoming in a five-year stretch of time.

If you're writing an OK fantasy, do you want to have it published in 2000, or in 2010? Hands down you want to be published in 2000. Six years after Terry Goodkind you can't keep talking about him again and again and again, so almost by default to be talking about something -- well, you'll talk about something. Today, if you're looking for a new writer you can start in on Name of the Wind or Warded Man. You can get caught up on Elantris, the Mistborn books, or Brent Weeks. The Dresden Files can keep you going for months. Are you going to talk about all of these exciting new things, or talk about some OK think just because there isn't anything genuinely exciting to talk about?

And yes, this can make it look like there's no midlist fantasy any more. Because with all of the good, big, new stuff to look at, the market for the stuff that's just kind of OK ain't gonna be what it used to be.

How do you deal with this problem? Well, not by matching word count with Name of the Wind, Desert Spear, Well of Ascension or the entirety of the Night Angel or Dresden series. It's by recognizing that the chances of succeeding with the so-so just aren't what they were like six or eight years ago. There's a lot of good stuff out there, and you've got to beef up your game, not your word length, to deal with it.

Mao's Last Dancer

But then you have pleasant surprises like the forthcoming release Mao's Last Dancer, which Moving Image presented on August 3 at Scandinavia House's Victor Borge hall.

Mao's Last Dancer is an actual true story unlike the very loosely true Get Low. In the early 1980s, the Chinese government lets a promising ballet dancer study with the Houston Ballet. He falls in love. When it's time for him to return home, he decides to marry instead and defect to the US, which of course the Chinese government is not very happy about. There's a stand-off at the consulate...

Can we say I don't rush to see movies about ballet?

Li Cunxin eventually ends up in Australia as a dancer for the Melbourne ballet. This might explain why his story came to the attention of semi-noted Australian director Bruce Beresford.

Beresford was part of a wave of Australian directors circa 1980 who made a big splash on the international film scene when the Australian government started financing movies, thus giving these directors calling cards to present to the world. In Beresford's case, his calling card was a film called Breaker Morant, about the Boer Wars. Not bad, not bad at all. The success of this movie led to the US release of a movie called Don's Party, 90 minutes of people getting drunk at a party that I saw in my college years and which has to rank among the most miserable experiences I've ever had in a movie theatre. And back then, I wouldn't so easily doze off during a bad movie, like I do now. And like so many of these Australian directors (Peter Weir, The Year of Living Dangerously and Dead Poets Society, is certainly my favorite of them, though Fred Schepisi for Roxanne alone deserves recognition) Beresford went Hollywood. Three of his movies, Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart and most of all Driving Miss Daisy achieved fame. In the twenty years since Driving Miss Daisy I don't think Beresford has been involved in a single movie I've seen. That I've wanted to see. That has flitted on to my radar to maybe think about seeing. And I'd say overall the reputation of even his best 80s movies hasn't always held up.

Can we say I don't rush to see movies directed by Bruce Beresford?

And yet Mao's Last Dancer ended up being a surprisingly wonderful way to pass two hours.

I don't want to oversell it. For one, it's a very old-fashioned movie, though I think that very old-fashionedness is also part of why the movie succeeds as much as it does. It's full of breathtaking vistas of China, beautiful ballet numbers, evil Chinese, good Americans, it's just very very old-fashioned. But it does pass the time, smoothly and nicely. Because old-fashioned as it might be, you don't have to like opera to like Amadeus and you don't have to like ballet to like this.

But to give some great credit where due, good acting never goes out of style and Bruce Beresford directs some very good actors here. The actor and dancer who plays Chi Cao isn't a great actor, really, but he's definitely a dancer. And since his role is that of a young Chinese man thrown onto Houston shores as a student, some of his awkwardness can be passed off as that of the character instead of that of the actor, enough so that when we give credit for the quality of the dancing we have to say that the performance is a fully realized success. Kyle MacLachlan is years off of his youthful role in the David Lynch "Dune" and does a nice turn as the Houston immigration attorney. Joan Chen is on hand.

But for me it's Bruce Greenwood who gives a performance which I think has to be given consideration for the Supporting Actor Oscar this year. Greenwood's been around for years as a character actor, the kind of actor you never notice. Most of you might best know him from being the Starfleet officer who recruits the young Kirk in the reboot of Star Trek last summer. But he's been in dozens of movies, a couple of Atom Egoyan, lots of TV, just all over the place. Here he plays the artistic director of the Houston Ballet who takes the young dancer under his thumb and who supports him over the years that follow. He does the entire performance with the strangest accent that's kind of gay if you're entitled to say there's a gay accent but isn't entirely that, either. I'm curious how much it's like any accent the character has in real life. He's completely submerged in the role to where you know it is Bruce Greenwood but can never quite believe it's actually him. Skirts with but never becomes charicature. It's a compulsively watchable performance.

This movie was a pleasant surprise. It opens in New York on August 20, and in the way of these things will broaden out from there. Keep your eyes open for when it plays near you.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Get Low

Get Low is a big giant "enh" for me.

What a cast! the first pairing of Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek, add in some Bill Murray. If only I found what they were doing in the movie to be way more interesting than I did.

The movie's based in the most very loose of ways on the story of a man who arranged to have his funeral while he was alive, back 80 years ago or so. It's a true story but as much a legend with a lot of the details not very well known, so the movie's essentially taking this very basic concept and inventing an entire story around it. In said story, Duvall is a hermit with fierce reputation in town. Murray is the funeral director who helps to set things up, with an assistant played by Lucas Black. Sissy Spacek is an old flame of Duvall's who so happens to be in town. But I didn't care much about Duvall or about whatever secrets lay in his past, I didn't care about his relationship with Spacek. I just didn't care. This isn't so much the fault of the actors. I'm not sure Bill Murray is right for period pieces, honestly there's a lot of stuff that isn't playing Bill Murray which I don't think Bill Murray is all that good at. But Robert Duvall is a legend, and rightfully so. There's a rare performance of his that will have even the briefest of false note. I think he over-acts in the climactic scene of this movie, but I might have better tolerated if I'd cared more. We can overlook the foibles of those we love.

Good cast and all, I was pretty much ready for a nap before this was over.

I saw this at a screening July 20 for Musuem of the Moving Image members, at the AMC Loews 34th St. This was one of those movies where I start thinking about the opportunity cost of the two hours.

Why?

I've been a literary agent for 25 years, I think I'm a pretty good one, I'm kind of partial to the profession in general.

If you want to read another perspective, go at Dean Wesley Smith's "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing," which you can find here.

If you read through all of his posts he'll often go to great lengths to say that he doesn't dislike literary agents, some of his best friends are literary agents, this post is about the bad literary agents for of course there are plenty of good and wonderful ones, and that post he's just talking about the newfangled agents and not the old school agents for which of course none of this applies. But all caveats aside... close to half of the sacred cows he wants to kill in these posts deal with literary agents directly, and some of the other posts deal with them tangentially. One of the posts talks about the "hundreds and hundreds" of scam literary agents. Which would be almost all of them.

I should also mention the comments! I'm the kind of person who sometimes watches C-Span with a strange fascination. 20 minutes watching a candidate work a rope line, or one of those special order speeches at the end of the day. In his posts Dean will often have a colloquy (even better than the solo special order speeches is a good colloquy) with Laura Resnick and then some third party will come in and provide a jump off point for more. So when you're clicking thru one of the links, be sure not to stop with the post itself.

Once last year and again recently I had people asking me about one or another of Dean's posts. Haven't responded. In part because I don't want to use the blog to get into fights with anyone. But perhaps as important, the posts often have enough of a kernel of real truth which is good and valuable and important for people to know, that I don't think anyone should just dismiss what Dean has to say out of hand. Dean knows publishing. He's written and sold an awful lot. 20 years or so ago, his Pulphouse was a pioneering and revelatory small press in sf/fantasy. Some of what he's done he's done in partnership with his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch, herself what Variety would call a "multi-hyphenate" who's made a mark on the field in many different ways as an author, editor, publisher, more. The two teach valuable writing workshops, some geared toward professional writers which try to emphasize the importance of writers to take charge of their own careers.

With all that background, Dean has a lot of good advice to give. I will happily concur in good things Dean has to say, like:

Agents should work for writers, and not the other way around. I've come to great grief as a literary agent when I've forgotten this one.

You don't need an agent to sell a book. Well, no, you don't. I've often said that finding an editor and finding an agent are things that can proceed on simultaneous tracks.

That it takes nothing but stationery to become a literary agent. Sadly true, there is no licensing, no classroom, no regulation, pretty much anyone can become a literary agent just by saying so, and that does mean there are some bad agents out there.

You don't want an agent who spends all his time blogging. I've been posting like crazy the past week or so because things do get quiet this time of year, largely because there are so many vacations taking place, especially overseas where lots of foreign agents and publishers can take most of August off. When it gets busy, the blogging slows. I have a day job. And no, I don't think you should go with an agent because you've loved the 21,563 tweets they've done.

So when Kris and Dean give workshops to published writers, yes, they hammer hard on the fact that writers should take charge of their own careers and not just delegate all the thought and paperwork and planning and everything else to their agents. Who can be schmucks off the street with nice letterhead and business cards fresh off their inkjet.

But I ended up providing a few paragraphs in recent days for a private forum on one of Dean's posts about agents, and as I got to thinking more on the totality of his Sacred Cow killing, I had a big-picture philosophical approach to what he says which I thought was worth sharing here.

For the past few hundred years, humanity has advanced on account of specialization. And for all the good points Dean makes, his underlying dislike of literary agents blinds him to the fact that the community of arts and letters and culture is as a whole a better place for writers where more writers make more money than they would otherwise. Dean feels pretty darned strongly that the world would be better without agents, or with agents used so piecemeal and so selectively as to not be very effective or helpful at all. He does it that way, it works for him, it would work for every author if they'd just take more control of their own things and have the agent doing a lot less. If anything.

But...

There are sleazy auto mechanics who will repair things that don't need fixing, yet how many think the world would be a better place if we all did our own auto repair work? You know how there are people in the world who love to spend Saturday afternoon working on their car and doing their own oil changes, about the best example I can think of, but most people I know aren't those people. Would the world be better if we all did our own appliance repairs, hemming, and taxes? Of course not. And the world wouldn't be better for writers without literary agents. Most authors I know just aren't, at heart, Dean Wesley Smith. They don't have his skill and talent and passion for adding so much of the agent skill set to their own repertoire. They want to write and let somebody else handle the negotiations and the paperwork and keep track of the markets here and abroad and the many other tasks that fall to competent literary agents, and in the totality of things authors are better for having a good agent do the agenting, while they do the writing. Dean is strongly DIY on this topic, thus he writes with a negative undercurrent so fierce that it drowns what could be a more constructive message. When Dean talks about what authors can do to in the way of self promotion, I see more constructive distance. He's able to be a little more constructive. Why authors do self-promotion, why they probably shouldn't need or have to, how to analyze the pros and cons of doing different things. You can decide for yourselves.

This is a conversation that could go on for a very long time. I could debate specific points, mount a full-throttled defense of my profession, provide examples of where I managed to do something good for someone. None of those are things I do on this blog with great frequency. As opportunity presents, maybe I can pick up some specific items, maybe Dean and I can dialogue where it might be constructive to do so. But this is where I'll leave off for today.

The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right is one of the specialty hits of the year at movie theatres, and deservedly so. It's one of the rare, maybe handful a year, stunningly raved about art movies that can legitimately be stunningly raved about. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a lesbian couple with two children, a daughter just about to head off to college and a son a couple of years younger. The son is wondering about who his father is, now that his sister's 18 she can ask for the information, and he prevails upon her to get it. Dad turns out to be a charming organic restauranteur cad played by Mark Ruffalo. He comes into their lives, and things get real different real quick.

It's the strangest recipe for a movie I'd really like. Co-written and directed by a director, Lisa Cholodenko, whose one previous major release, High Art, I had zero interest in seeing a dozen years ago and who has done little since. Add in two actresses that I view with at least some hesitancy. I don't dislike Annette Bening, but it's been twenty years since I'd consider her to be a major part of the film discussion with films like Bugsy and The Grifters. Julianne Moore has been more an ongoing part of the film discussion in recent years. Sometimes overhyped, as in her Oscar-nominated role in A Single Man; a good and vibrant movie but not particularly on account of her. Sometimes lending arthouse cred to a bad movie; Blindess. Other times, Children of Men, a good thing in a good movie Not bad, but hardly the Good Housekeeping seal. And yet here, these two actresses are brilliant. They play off one another fantastically. It helps that they have well-written parts, but the chemistry between them comes from within these two actresses.

And then there's a nice play of styles between them and Mark Ruffalo. The ladies are often giving very internalized performances, kind of showing that there are things they're keeping inside, that there's stuff you don't tell the kids about. Ruffalo broke through ten years ago with You Can Count On Me, and he's spent the ten years since doing a mix of things that provide a paycheck one month and the next month that are really interesting roles that you have to know even before you've started are interesting in movies that nobody will see. The Kids Are All Right may be his best work since that breakout role ten years ago. He charms the children he fathered, charms the parents, even the initially very standoffish Annette Bening, charms the camera, charms the audience, charms everything his eyes come in contact with. And he's a cad. Of stunning, epic proportion.

The kids are played by not-yet-18 Josh Hutcherson and 20-year-old Mia Wasikowska. I didn't find either of them to be amazingly strong, but they both kept up with the rest of the people on the set, which is no small thing.

I wasn't entirely sure about the ending. There's a Stella Dallas moment toward the end for the Mark Ruffalo character that can be seen as some richly deserved just desserts or something stunningly cruel. And I'm just not sure which it is. I saw this July 19 at the AMC Empire, screen #8.

Leisurely into the Future

On or about the 17th, I will be doing a guest post for the Clarion Blog where I talk some about various e-book issues, so keep an eye out for that.

In that post, I briefly mention but don't really discuss some of the big news from last week, which was the decision by Dorchester Publishing to do away with their mass market publishing and focus entirely on e-books, with a limited trade paperback POD component either for their book clubs or selected titles for retail. You can read the Publishers Weekly article here.

I guess the big question is whether this is the harbinger of a trend that will play out across the business in the very near future, if it's a one-time act of desperation that nobody else will follow, or a bold stride into a new era that will force the issue even where it's not heretofore been considered.

Dorchester is an independent mass market house. They were founded in 1971. Their best-known imprints are their Leisure Books imprint for horror and thrillers and their Love Spell imprint for romance. In more recent years, they've been the distributor for the Hard Case Crime mystery imprint. And in sf/fantasy, they've briefly had the Cosmos imprint reprinting selected titles in mass market from POD publisher Wildside Press.

They've had money issues. Fifteen or twenty years ago there was a lawsuit over their royalty accounting, which when settled required them to have this end of their operation closely supervised. They sold off the entire backlist by a prominent Love Spell author to Harper within the past two or three years. Their sales had been dropping.

All that aside, they've been the smallest major publisher of mass market books. If publishers will sometimes play bookkeeping games with authors, distributors and major accounts can play similar games with publishers. And the smaller you are, the more likely you'll find yourself gamed and the harder a time you have smoothing over the rough times while those games play out.

So in a way, the circumstances at Leisure are unique. The closest company to Leisure is Kensington Publishing, which was founded in 1974 and which publishes a similar but also bigger and broader line of books. The extensive romance and Zebra horror and western lists and the same aversion to sf/fantasy are matched at Kensington with the non-fiction Citadel line or the Dafina line focusing on African-American literature. I don't know the actual differences in billing, but certainly it's a step from Dorchester to Kensington, and steps from Kensington to get to the major publishing conglomerates like Penguin, S&S, Harper.

Clearly, Leisure is taking a big risk. They're trading away the lion's share of their sales dollars as they trade mass market for e-book. The fact they think they've any chance of getting away with it suggests there is more truth than the big publishers want to admit to the idea that e-books can/should be cheaper because they do away with so many of the costs in publishing. That being said, Leisure is still going to have a lot of costs. Editors, offices, all of the people that put a book through production and publicize it and market it. They'll need fewer sales staff and have layoffs there, but they still need some people to keep an eye on the relationship with their etail partners.

If this risk if worth if for them, I still don't foresee major publishers going this same route in the next three to five years, perhaps well longer than that. There's still too much money to be made selling books at Wal-mart and Target and Costco and even actual bookstores, all of which give actual physical books an ubiquity that we're not approaching next month for ereaders and ebooks.

Furthermore, because the "books want to be free" people are entirely wrong that there are no costs at all in publishing e-books, the move only works if they can keep some semblance of their sales when they no longer have their mass market arm. This, to me, is the big if, the big risk question in what they're trying to do. Barry Malzberg was telling me how his friend Mike Resnick, whose web site I won't link to because it's an ad-cluttered godforsaken mess but that's neither here nor there, has digitized his reverted backlist and feels he can make a tidy amount selling even if only modestly direct to consumers, but... for those books the sunk costs of editing and initially producing are already sunk, and Mike still has new books out on a regular basis to remind people he's there. Elizabeth Moon's wonderful Hugo nominee Remnant Population now sells more e-copies than print copies, but again Elizabeth is out there with new books and wonderful blogs and all sorts of things to help drive people to seek out this book.

When Dorchester no longer has an active print component to drive people toward their e-book program, I'm not sure they're going to be able to maintain their e-book sales. The hope is that they can pioneer the move into electronic publishing only (well, pioneer insofar as the mass market publishers are concerned, for there've been other people doing what Dorchester wants to do, lots and lots of other people) and then kind of ride the upward rocket trajectory for this business. I worry they'll find they really miss the synergy between the print and the e sides of publishing.

Which, along with piracy issues, is always my concern. It's much harder to browse your way to things, much harder to break through the clutter, when things start moving en masse to the internet, and when mass circulation ways of finding a book, like all of the Sunday book sections we don't have in newspapers any more, give way to 1,000 variations on Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

There's a lot more that could be said about the topic, but it'll be so much funner to sit back and see if Dorchester is a canary in the coal mine showing what we'll all be seeing very, very soon, or if they're enough the outlier in the mass market business because of their size that as Dorchester goes, so goes nobody.

One last thing, though. It's old-fashioned of me to think about the impact this has on the dying technology of printed books, but... How many racks and slots does Dorchester control in supermarkets and drugstores across the country? What happens to those rack spaces? Nobody's successfully established themselves in mass market in the 35-40 years since Kensington and Dorchester launched, in part because of the barrier to entry in getting rack space. And now there might be all of those racks... Do the racks go away? Do the other publishers divvy them up? Does somebody try and buy them en masse? E is the wave of the future for publishing to be sure, but for the near future the real money in the Dorchester news isn't where all the buzz is. It's in the old-fashioned spinner slots that nobody at all is talking about.

Update: A few hours later PW reports on the editorial director of Leisure saying we're all misunderstanding everything and that they're not going away from mass market entirely but only for six months, and that the POD will be done mostly to provide reorders while still doing regular printing for regular mass markets. Make of all this what you will...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

iPad 2

Weight: With its case the iPad weighs 1.5ish pounds. I am youngish if not youthful and do modest lifting but mostly the weight doesn't bother me. A bit when I was reading a novel on it while walking around the DC area for a good chunk of a day. A big hardcover fantasy can weigh more than an iPad. So it is true that the dedicated eReaders weigh more like a modest paperback while the iPad is compared to an epic fantasy in hardcover, but the weight issue can be put into perspective.

Typing: I have survived typing on an iPod Touch, this keyboard is bigger! My biggest problem is that my finger will hit a bottom letter key instead of the space bar resultingminmsomethingblikenthis. And the autocorrect doesn't do a good job of recognizing run-on words that result from this unfortunate habit of mine. Maybe with time I will train myself to hit the space bar. Less often I hit the space bar instead of an m or n. I did also mate the Bluetooth keyboard that came with the new home Mac to the iPad, which wad done quickly and painlessly so I have that option. Perfect, no. Major issue, no.

Brightness: Inverse problem of eReaders. Great in the dark, not so much in bright. But I have read large chunks during the day, so pmetimes using te case to shade the screen a little bit and just lime I might increase font size on my Kindle in twilight to extend how ,ong I can read with it I can raise the font size in daylight on the iPad. Amazon is right to make a selling point that the Kindle really does thrive in sunlight but again this is something we can work with.