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, March 6, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #3

Since we've just gone live with our own e-book editions of several of the books, a good subject for my next anniversary musing would be the Hot Blood anthologies and their siblings, edited by Jeff Gelb and Michael Garrett.

I can't take credit for starting the series. That goes to Kurt Busiek, a noted comic book writer who made a brief stop at the Scott Meredith agency in the late 1980s. He sold the first book in the series to Claire Zion at Pocket Books, and I picked up after Kurt left.

The history of the series is a good prism through which to view a lot of different aspects of the publishing business.

1. The importance of relationships. When I picked up the series and was selling my first books to Claire, I was thinking the books were doing well enough that the authors should get a little bit bigger advance. Claire, whom I hadn't done business with previously, automatically assumed that my request for a raise meant that I wanted to make a big splash with my first deal and get the advance doubled or some such. It took much longer than it should have been to sort this through.

When Claire left Pocket Books to go off to NAL, we quickly found out that our relationship with Pocket was largely a relationship with Claire. Even though the books were doing well, it tended to be a struggle after she left to negotiate each contract thereafter because there was forever this lingering sense that they were doing the books because they kind of should commercially but at the same time really wished they weren't and were always looking more for reasons to stop than wanting logically to continue.

1.a. Yet relationships will sometimes get you only so far. An author named Dave Pednau wrote a powerful story for, I think, the third Hot Blood books. It was called The Accusation, if memory serves, and dealt with the aftermath of a false rape accusation. This was not PC. Claire insisted that the story be pulled, her reason ultimately coming down to the fact that she was uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would ever suggest that anything like this would ever be used as a tool. It was a good story. Thought not much known today, Pednau was a fairly well-established thriller writer for Fawcett Books who was selling decent numbers of copies. But there was no arguing on the subject. We were forced to our dismay to dump the story in order to get the anthology accepted. Even worse, Pednau passed away in 1990. Were he alive longer, I think we'd have gone back and tried at some point to get the story into a subsequent book or one of our new e-books or something.

1.a.i. This was one of two occasions when I ran into difficulty with a project that went up against conventional wisdom on issues such as this. There was a huge panic in the late 1980s and early 1990s about child abuse rings going on in daycare centers, you can read the Wikipedia article about the McMartin Preschool case here. I tried to sell a book called The Child Abuse Industry which did a very good job of debunking the panic, but of course that would be anti-child. Never sold.

1.b. One of the things with anthologies is that people have different tastes and don't all cotton to the same stories. It was always interesting to compare notes on which stories in a book were my favorites vs. Mike and Jeff's vs. Claire's. Sometimes with other stories that didn't hit such hot buttons we had more success arguing with Claire over stories that she didn't like but which I or the editors liked very much. Another major problem came about with a Grant Morrison story that had to be edited at publisher command, a truly great story by a really great author, you'll especially know the name if you pay any attention to the graphic novel/comics business. We weren't able to be in business with Grant Morrison in the series thereafter, and this was a loss.

2. Some of the horror stories you hear about publishers really are true. Back in the day, the computers at B&N had a hookup to the computers at Ingram where you could see how many copies Ingram had on hand and on order of different books at the various Ingram warehouses. When Pocket put the first three Hot Blood books out of print, I could l see quite clearly that they were doing it even though Ingram alone had hundreds of copies on order, more than enough to pretty much cover the costs of a decent-sized reprinting. This was one of my earliest experiences of having a publisher attempt to deny the evidence of my own eyes. Since it was now going to take six months instead of six weeks to cover costs of a new printing, and since these were books that management didn't really love anyway, they weren't going to keep in the Hot Blood business, and the cold equations that they'd make money doing it were no longer going to be acknowledged because the money wasn't worth it any longer.

And when they finally and reluctantly published the 10th Hot Blood book, it went clean within weeks of publication, could have sold thousands more copies, but Pocked didn't want to be in the Hot Blood business any longer. They printed barely more than they needed to cover the initial orders, refused to print any more just because it would be the logical money-making thing to do, and we had the quickest ever turnaround in my 25 years experience from publication to reversion of rights.

3. The Hot Blood series didn't really pick up until the second and third books in the series were published. The first didn't do badly, but it took the aggregate presence of multiple books on the shelves for people to notice them. For all that we had our difficulties with Claire Zion, it was also crucial to the series that she was willing to go ahead and do more books in the series even though the first had done OKish but not minted money. It's as good an example of any of why I do not like publishers that won't commit to at least two books for a new writer. This is one of my frustrations with our burgeoning business in children's publishing. We're getting as a rule considerably higher first novel advances in middle grade and YA than we get for selling sf or mystery novels, but usually the genre novels are part of a multi-book deal while the children's publishers adamantly insist on wait-and-see. Which I don't think works. By the time you wait and see, and then finally go ahead and buy the next book, which then has to be written and published, that next book will often not be published in a timely fashion. And even today, it might be harder but it is still possible to build a career over time instead of with an instant hit first novel. Jim C. Hines is a good example of this from the JABberwocky list over recent years, I think Jeri Westerson with her Crispin Guest medieval noir series might prove to be another. But children's publishers seem to be really bad on wanting instant success or having no success at all. Yuk.

4. Publishers will pay for things that make their lives easier or more defensible even if they don't actually make money. The Hot Blood books have always sold on the series and concept. It's sex, it's horror, it sells. There's no particular evidence that any Hot Blood book has sold better or worse because it has a Big Name on the cover, yet Pocket Books was happy to pay a bonus advance so that we could include a higher-priced Joyce Carol Oates story in one of the volumes. There's no overlap between Joyce Carol Oates and the Hot Blood audience, but she's a name, which makes it easier for the sales and marketing people to talk to retail accounts about the book, so they'll pay for that. In the case of Jeff Gelb's solo edited SHOCK ROCK, having Stephen King's "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" was a mixed blessing. The number of copies that Pocket was able to ship was extravagant in the extreme because of the Stephen King story, but it didn't increase the actual audience commensurate with the added copies that could be shipped. Which leads to bad sell-thru, which retailers hate worse than anything. Sell one copy of one, and they love you, sell ten of one hundred and they hate you. So orders get cut back, and you have to work to overcome that. Names, names, names. Even with the anthologies Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner are editing for Ace today, Ace wants very very badly to have x # of NY Times bestsellers in each book because it makes them feel warmer and fuzzier, even though none of those names are more of a sales hook than Charlaine herself being in the book. And of course publishers are blind and oblivious to the fact that their quest for names sometimes forces editors to take inferior stories by better-known authors. That might lead to bad word of mouth, that might create problems with the long tail of the anthology or make people more reluctant to buy the next. But those are all worries for another day, and the publisher is concerned only that having names makes it easier in the present to push books into sales channels.

After Pocket ended the Hot Blood series, the books lay fallow for several years, though we did set up most of them with decent results on pioneering e-book company Peanut Press, with some decent results. And then John Scognamiglio, who'd been a junior editor at Pocket during the waning days of the Hot Blood series, moved to Kensington. He had fond memories of the series, and decided to bring it back with new books and reissues of the old ones. That whole relationship thing again! This meant we were able to have some of the same conversations about how many names we should have!! But which also brings me to my next numbered point...

5. Covers Count! The Kensington mass market reissues of the Hot Blood books had some excellent covers that were at the same time very very bad. The packaging was so intently focused on the names in each volume that the Hot Blood concept and the Gelb/Garrett co-editor names too easily got lost. This was a problem but not an insurmountable one at Borders which had a discrete horror section and stickers on the books that told employees where to shelve them. This killed the books at Barnes & Noble, which had done away with its horror section. Employees would see "Joyce Carol Oates" in really big letters on one book, "Jack Ketchum" on another and "Lawrence Block" on a third, and instead of having the benefits of shelf presence for the series (see above, re: how series took off initially only when more than one book was on shelves) the books had a tendency to be strewn over the entire length and breadth of the general fiction section where the horror titles were now being mixed in. We did object, but sometimes when publishers are set on doing things a particular way they are really set on doing things a particular way. We've been having that same problem today with Scholastic, which put bad covers on the Alcatraz novels by Brandon Sanderson and refused to listen to us at the time of initial publication and even today with Brandon a #1 bestselling author refuses to repackage and reissue the books. They say they've suggested the idea to major accounts who say they're not interested, I say they're Scholastic and if they just went ahead and did it for a #1 bestselling author the accounts would react accordingly. Deep down, the cover might not have been a good idea, but unless you have a change in personnel it's difficult for someone to volunteer to do something that if successful might prove an earlier decision to have been wrong. So even after you can look at your sell-thru and see that things aren't working, it's full speed ahead. Getting back to Kensington, it was also interesting that they put very different packages on their trade paperbacks
for the new Hot Blood books than they did on the mass markets for the reissues. In this case, there are good reasons for this. They were able to get some Front of Store promotion for the trade paperbacks with more upscale covers that never could have been gotten for the much louder covers of the reissues that certainly would stick on a rack at the supermarket.

6. And all of this also circles back to Borders. The mass markets did have shelf presence at Borders because of those stickers and the tight confines of the horror section, people could go to a Borders and find three or five or seven Hot Blood reissues (depending on the strength of the individual store) all together, and people would buy them. Not in vast great quantities, maybe Borders sold 250 copies a year of the top books in the series and fewer as you went down the list. But these were the sorts of books that the best Borders carried that other bookstores did not, of the books that gave people a reason to walk into the best of Borders. And the kinds of books that were dumped uniformly in 2008. Borders didn't go bust because they stopped carrying the Hot Blood books, let's be clear about that. We're looking at $10K or $11K in lost sales for a chain that went belly up owing orders of magnitude more than that. But I am utterly convinced of the fact that the devaluation of the brand image when they lost the depth of selection at their best stores was one of the things that started the final death spiral of year-over-year sales declines over the past three years. While Borders didn't go bust because they stopped carrying Hot Blood books, the books went bust without Borders to sell them because that was the primary outlet for physical copy sales. No coincidence that the books were remaindered and put out of print over the year following the title drops at Borders.

7. Which also points out to the importance of the physical bookstore, at least as recently as 2008. Yes, people could go on line and buy copies of the books, but the on-line experience is still not as much a browsing experience. The physical bookstore is still where you can browse the shelves and decide to buy something because it catches your eye.

In this post I've spoken lots about the business side of the Hot Blood series

Let me close with a tribute to the creative end.

The Hot Blood anthologies contain a lot of great horror stories. I love The Tub in Hotter Blood, or Black Cars in Hottest Blood. There were multiple Stoker Award finalists and some Stoker winners included in the anthologies. Graham Masterton was a standout contributor to the series with almost every volume having a long novella from him, many of them brilliant pieces of work. The series crossed cultural lines way more often than is common in the anthology trade. Grant Morrison was just one of several comic book writers who did good prose work for the Hot Blood books. Film director Mick Garris was in the series, as were other film industry veterans. Some of the books have music industry types writing prose fiction.

Please do see for yourself. If you click here you'll find buying links for all of the currently available formats (Kindle and Nook as of this writing) for the books available thru JABberwocky. And I want to give some public thanks to John Fisk.
Every time I go looking at the array of covers for these new e-book editions, I smile, for I think John did a wonderful job coming up with the perfect vibrant look.

I've been working the Hot Blood business for over 20 years, and I don't think I'm near finished with it. I'd love to see a publisher do a Best of Hot Blood compilation or some of the best stories in the series from women writers (erotic horror isn't just a guy thing!).


Kurt Busiek said...

I named the series, too!

Interesting post -- and I'm glad the series ran as long as it did, and hope it will have a new (and long) life beyond that. Jeff and Mike put together some very nice books.

nybookreader said...

I remember these, and I clicked through to Amazon thinking I might very well pick up a few (easier than rooting around in the paperback horror section of my attic). But $9.99? Really? Sorry, that's way too high for reprints of old mass-market books. Like at least $5 too high. Guess I'm off to the attic after all...
(Nice covers though! Great designs.)