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, January 31, 2011

More Shoes Dropping

So sneaking out the news on a Sunday night, Borders put out an official press release to say it's not paying publishers for January, and now starting to skip rent payments as well. This follows a press release last week to say that they had a contingency-riddled commitment to new financing.

It's going from sad to worse. Borders is so poorly managed right now that it can't even go bankrupt right.

As I mentioned on New Year's Eve day, you have to pay your landlord before you pay anyone else, because your landlord is the one person who can change the locks and keep you from accessing your inventory. And if things are so bad you aren't paying your landlord, then you should have just gone into Chapter 11 long before, but as I suggest here that poses ego issues and money issues to some very rich people who've made some bad bets on Borders. Because of those rich person egos, Borders has engaged in a long drawn-out process that has pissed off employees, publishers, landlords, pretty much anyone whose help you'd need to get you through a crisis.

In the midst of this, they still aren't engaging the main long-term problems with the business. Their salvation plan if people help them is to do more with Borders Rewards Plus, gain internet and e-book marketing share, change the product mix to alleviate the digital migration in books, reduce costs, and invest in IT to improve customer experience. For almost all of these things, they're late to the party. And I don't see the supply chain discussed anywhere. For fifteen years, the top people at Borders have been immune to the idea that you can't be in competition forever taking eight weeks to do what your competitor does in eight days, but that's been the story of Borders existence, late not just to that but to the internet and to e-reading and to everything else.

Publishers are not persuaded by this. Why should they be? There's that definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over with hopes of a different outcome. So the $125 million in "junior debt financing provided be certain vendors and other lendors" isn't going to happen.

There's also a requirement to have financing arrangements with vendors, landlords and other financing parties. Not gonna happen.

And finalization of a store closing program to identify underperforming stores to be closed as soon as practicable. And this is a problem. Borders has only 12 leases expiring in 2012, and of the 508 superstores open for business around a year ago, 369 had leases that were ending five or more years in the future. If the business was going well, or if the economy wasn't in a spin where leases can today be renewed at lower rentals in many instances, people would look at all of these long leases and think the people at Borders were geniuses. But when things are going bad, they tend to go really bad. And since Borders isn't certain to be paying its rent tomorrow anyway, no landlord has a big huge interest in working with Borders to protect rent that's due a year or five years from today.

The word from Publishers Weekly is that some publishers are so discouraged they might try to make a fuss if Borders goes to court with debtor-in-possession financing, which is the credit line you get when you go bankrupt to keep you afloat during the reorg, which is given priority over all other loans for repayment. If you're refused that financing, you can't keep going during Chapter 11, and would have to liquidate.

I'm not sure there's anything left to save in a Chapter 11. If I thought there were good solutions that current management or any management at Borders could execute which might keep 200 or 350 or some number of stores profitable moving forward, I'd want that very very much as would everyone in the publishing industry. But when I'm looking at how miserably this final descent into bankruptcy is being managed, when I'm looking at the competition from the internet and e-books where Borders is so far behind the curve, when I'm looking at the continued failure of management even today to recognize the core realty that the company has to upgrade supply chain and replenishment and inventory consistency/brand identity... And all that doubly and triply so because the non-bankruptcy of the company the past five weeks has so damaged relations with anyone and everyone.

And I'm not even thinking about the customers. Unless Ingram is still supplying Borders during all of this, the shelves are going to start to look empty and depleted and who'll be left wanting to shop there...

I have a stock certificate from when Borders had a stock split in 1996, and those few dozen shares will soon be suitable for framing. The original shares from pre-split I'd sold off long ago and recovered costs. It's not worth the effort to send the certificate by registered mail to the broker to sell.

I've been to 233 Borders locations (for Australia, I counted any store which Borders originally opened, but not stores like the one by the WorldCon hotel that opened subsequent to the sale of the operations Down Under), 216 of those are US superstores. I'm torn between wanting to accumulate a few more notches in my belt before they disappear, or finding something morbid about it. Borders had somewhere between 540 and 550 total US superstores opened, if you look at stores that relocated and which need to count twice, we might be talking about 570 or 580, something like 475 in operation now and 25 more already scheduled to close, so I've visited not quite 40% of the total US store base. If I can perform death watch at another 20 stores, I can lay claim to a pretty clear 40% inclusive of relocations.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

quick newsy notes

Even though Barnes & Noble likes to brag about how wonderfully they're doing, the cost-cutting bug hasn't skipped over. Here Publishers Weekly discusses the impact on small presses of B&N's recent layoff of some four dozen staffers, including several long-time buyers and merchandisers which include the company's director of small press and vendor relationships. Holding to the truism that companies don't like to mayke announcements of bad news, there is no B&N release on the layoffs, their latest is to wax enthusiastic about periodical sales for the Nook.

The news from Borders is that publishers are supposed to indicate next week if they will trade their accounts receivable for a promissory note. And there were more layoffs at HQ. They raised some cash by selling their Day by Day calendar kiosk business to Calendar Club. Can't be much, though, because the kiosks are a seasonal business, and the business can't be much more than selling the rolodex of contacts to talk to about leasing space next year. Somebody I know who works at a Borders says they're on skeleton staff and still supposed to take out 80 more hours from the store payroll, and there's a big push to sell the Borders Rewards membership upgrades. I wish this process wasn't dragging on so long, annoying customers, employees, publishers, pretty much all of the so-called "stakeholders" as Whole Foods likes to call them. I suspect there are some ego issues involved. The very rich Bennett Lebow doesn't want to admit he made a mistake putting money into Borders last spring. Nor does the very rich and often full of dumb ideas William Ackman of Pershing Square Capital. They have too much at stake in a Chapter 11 filing, they're not afraid to have collateral damage in trying to avoid the filing. They're rich enough they can lean on a bank to refinance Borders, but the bank has to do something to make it seem like there's a good reason to put cash into the business hence the hard sell on the fig leaf of having the publishers share in the sacrifice. So it drags on.

The Queens Public Library is no longer buying books. They decided it was more important to keep staff and hours at the branches then to buy books to put into said branches, so until their funding renews maybe in July they've put a stake in the book buying budget. Ain't that cheery!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Passages

I'm starting to feel like one of those people who needs to check the obituaries first thing each morning.

Susannah York. She played Lara, Superman's Kryptonian mother (Marlon Brandon's wife) in Superman: The Movie, which is one ofd my favorite movies of all time. She was also in Images, which is one of the more interesting efforts by Robert Altman. The prof who taught my intro film survey in college was a big Altman fan, and in this film she played a possibly crazy housewife maybe or maybe not seeing images of men maybe or maybe not threatening her. It's a weird movie, hard to follow. Blessed with stunning musical score by John Williams and beautiful photography by Vilmos Zsigmond.

And then a few days before that, Peter Yates. When I finally caught up with Bullitt, with its famous San Francisco chase scene, a few years ago, I wasn't impressed. I thought the movie was on the long and slow side and a little implausible. There's that chase scene, but there's also a neverending scene at the San Francisco airport that doesn't make sense. But Yates also directed Breaking Away, a perfectly pleasant and well above average example of the coming-of-age sports movie. I liked, it doesn't linger. More importantly, he made Eyewitness, with William Hurt in his first role after Altered States, Sigourney Weaver, Morgan Freeman, James Woods. One of my first Christopher Plummer films in a non-Sound of Music role. And as I recall, a pretty good and nifty little movie that I'd like very much to see again in my adultage. The Dresser is an exceptionally well-acted British art film adaptation. I didn't see much from Yates after that, but for Eyewitness alone he's in my heart. Weird connection, Yates directed For Pete's Sake, which was the opening movie at the Loews Astor Plaza. William Hurt was in Altered States, which was the first movie I saw at my beloved and much sorely missed Astor Plaza, as well as in the underrated The Village which closed the Astor Plaza. And then the two hooked up for Eyewitness, which with Altered States is one of the first movies I have any real adult memories of.

Yates did both more and less than Irwin Kershner. Kershner did The Empire Strikes Back. Need I say more? I mean, Empire Strikes Back only gains in stature to me, when you compare it to all the Star Wars movies that came before or after. Kershner went on to do some less great films, like Never Say Never Again. His Entebbe TV movie was a good example of its sort. But if that was all he did, it was quite quite something.

Leslie Nielsen. Airplane would have been enough, that was and is and always will be a classic comedy, AMC Cinemas is showing it for a weekend matinee and an evening performance in a few weeks, and it will hold up. But he went on to do Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies and so much more. Also in Forbidden Planet.

I'm a little late to say something about Bob Guccione, who passed in October. Most people will think of him as the Penthouse dude, but to me he was the publisher of Omni. The path to my today started with the free samples of Omni I got at Boskone in 1979, which introduced me to Orson Scott Card and George RR Martin. And Omni in its heyday was a great magazine, filled not just with good fiction but with columns by important people and interviews with major figures in science and good articles and really in its best days just a pleasure to read in so many ways. Omni lasted less than 20 years, but it was hugely influential in the fields of science and science fiction. Ben Bova was the fiction editor at the start, Ellen Datlow at the finish, and Robert Sheckley in-between.

I commented separately upon Blake Edwards.

It used to be a rare and stunning and surprising thing when major influences on the culture of me passed away. Now, not so much.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our e-books, Borders links, etc.

I found my way to an Atlantic blog post by Peter Osnos, the person who founded Public Affairs Books, which is now part of Perseus, with his take on why Borders has declined so. It overlaps with but is somewhat different from my own. You can read his here.

According to Jim Milliot in this week's Publishers Weekly, Borders accounted for 8.5% of dollars spent on books in the third quarter, which was just under half the dollar share for B&N, and still for most people their third largest account. So you can understand the dilemma, that everyone wants Borders to keep going but at the same time it's hard to know what the good path forward is.

A quick update on the JABberwocky e-book efforts.

We love Amazon more and more with each passing day because they made it so easy for us to go up with titles for Kindle.

We will soon be up at Kobo, waiting to get a countersigned contract back. They were very nice, because we were actually able to negotiate a couple of points in the contract with them, instead of having everyone else's take it or leave it public boilerplate. And yes, there was an actual responsive person to talk to for doing this.

We have uploaded books to B&N, but they are taking several days now to process and have live on the site. With Amazon, we had some issues with documenting that we did in fact have rights to publish Simon Green books that had previous publishers, which we surmounted quickly with the help of the Kindle team people. Maybe B&N is looking at this, too? Maybe they're just slow. The fact that we were asked to prove our bona fides with Amazon was the pleasing kind of pain because at least it's differentiating them from the file share sights that happily allow you to share copyrighted work until someone complains. Gordon van Gelder put us in touch with an entire area on the Google Sites that's just endless links to pirated books, and Google's attitude is that they have no responsibility at all unless each individual person complains about each individual link.

We're not sure we'll sign up with the Google e-books store. Two issues. Most of the sites set default previews at 10% of the book (bringing this down was something Kobo alone was willing to do) while Google insists on 20% and you can only go higher. We're all in favor of previews, don't ask people to buy an e-book pig in an electon poke and all, but when you insist on at least 20% it goes from being the person who reads a few pages in the store to the person who takes a book, reads it all in the cafe, then plops it down with a broken spine and dog-eared cover that nobody will buy and you're left hoping the store will return it so it will be replaced with a fresh copy. And while their e-book store doesn't put ads on title detail pages, you can't participate without signing up for some old Partner Program that's all about how you get paid for letting Google put ads on to your book page. Add to that the usual miserable state of affairs on the Google help screens, where you can never find a phone # or person to speak to anywhere, and where you get sent around to forums where nobody posts questions and certainly nobody posts answers.

B&N is settling in somewhere in-between Amazon and Google, there are people you can e-mail if you look and ask hard enough but you never want to actually have to do it.

The iBook store is reasonable enough in line with Amazon DTP and B&N Pubit platforms. The problem here is that we weren't able to finish our sign-up process but got far enough along that the computer insists that the business has an account and cannot be allowed to sign up for another, but not far enough along that we can log in and do anything with our unconsummated account. We are waiting to hear from an "iTunes senior advisor" who is looking into this for us.

All six Simon Green titles are up and I'd say selling in line with expectations.

We're ready to go up with some horror anthologies, but need to fine-tune the ePub files adding in updated front matter and things like that, and then getting new cover copy written.

Mayer Alan Brenner's Dance of Gods series will probably arrive via JABberwocky by mid-February.

The next author we have plans to do in bulk will be Rick Shelley.

It is very exciting to have opportunities in 2011 to do something with these books that were unavailable eight or ten years ago other than to the most perspicacious souls, and as recently as two years ago to the extent they are today. It's a little bit scary as well.

True Grit

I'm just not a Coen Brothers fan. Haven't been a big Coen Brothers fan for some 25 years now, their first overrated movie was their very first Blood Simple, which I saw and didn't think was all that great at the old State Theatre in Ann Arbor during my college days. For trivia buffs, the State is just a few doors down from the original Borders location, and they still show movies in the two theatres that were twinned out of the old balcony, the street level is retail.

Now, True Grit is better than a lot of other movies, let's be sure to say that. Not without its virtues. But like even the best Coen Brothers movies, I just don't think it's as good as everyone's running around saying it is. Most of you probably know what it's about, but since I can summarize it quickly enough... 14-year old hires a US Marshall to find the man who shot down her father, and she accompanies him on the journey.

So one of the virtues in chief here is that of Hailee Steinfeld, the actual 14 year old who is playing the 14 year old. Her performance is stunningly good, especially in the early going when she has to make her presence felt in order to get her quest for justice taken seriously, and a bit more in the later going when actually face to face with her nemesis. But one of the not virtues is that most of the space in-between is taken up with all of the usual Western movie bonding cliches you can imagine,and there's nothing much special about them here. So I found an awful lot of the stuff between the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes to be kind of dull and uninteresting. But Steinfeld's performance is revelatory. Bravura. Wonderful. Maybe even worth the price of admission.

Alas (and yes, this will be sacrilege to some, I know) Jeff Bridges acts in Coen Brothers movies the way four year olds act when they're trying to hide wrongdoing, which is to say not very convincingly. Egads, what an awful performance. It's just so overacted, so caricatured, so painless to watch almost every single moment he's on screen. Bridges is a much better actor than this, no fault to be found with him in last year's Crazy Heart, as I said in my review of that he inhabits the role like I inhabit my recliner. But if in Tron he was acting like the director had put tranquilizers in his breakfast food, here he's acting with some weird psycho energy going on. Hated pretty much every minute he was on screen, which was most of the movie. And then you've got Matt Damon, giving one of his lesser performances, and Josh Brolin playing the bad guy every bit as much the caricature as Jeff Bridges.

The movie is gorgeous to look at, really really really gorgeous. The photography is by Roger Deakins, who's done quite a few Coen Brothers movies and many others besides, other of his recent movies include Revolutionary Road (not so good but not the photography's fault) and the excellent The Reader and A Serious Men. There's one beautiful composition after enough, the wide screen frame is filled with wide screen imagery that yearns to be seen on a big screen (I was fortunate enough to be admiring on the very big screen at Clearview's Ziegfeld). But I think I had too much time to enjoy some of the photography. There are an abundance of scenes that go on just a little too long, from the first outhouse meeting between 14-year old and Marshall that could have lost 30 seconds easy, to the ride back home after the final confrontation, to the scene with the snakes that seemed to go on too long even as it didn't go on long enough for another character to get into place. Interestingly enough even though this movie seems to me to go on a beat too long in numerous locations, it's almost 20 minutes shorter than the original 1969 film with John Wayne.

So, OK, there are virtues. If they want to give this an award for its photography, or for the score by Carter Burwell, or for the performance by Hailee Steinfeld, well, go ahead. If this wins Best Picture against much better movies like King's Speech or Social Network, I'll be rather annoyed as I do my traditional Oscar Live Blog at the end of February. Won't be the first time.

The film is based on a novel by Charles Portis.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Good Old Days

Here's a blog post on Edward Champion's blog that was re-tweeted by Tobias Buckell last night, regarding event cancellations at Borders. This isn't exactly news, who's going to rush to send 200 copies to a bookstore for an event when the bookstore has already announced you won't be paid. Here's a link to a NY Times Media Decoder blog post with a few small items, that Borders suggested publishers obtain joint legal counsel to represent in discussions over their bills, and that some publishers weren't thrilled with the turnaround plan being discussed at this week's meetings. Again, not entirely news.

I want to remember the Borders that was.

It was 1981 or 1982 that I first stepped into the original and then only Borders on State Street in Ann Arbor. My memory says it had to have been '81, but the first book I purchased at Borders was The Exiles Trilogy by Ben Bova which did not come out until '82, maybe we went there in '81 but I didn't buy a book.

What an amazing store. It was on two main levels with like four littler levels, and it was filled with more book than I think I'd ever seen in a bookstore ever. The science fiction section just went on, and on, and on, and on, and on. It was hard to believe if there was an sf book in existence that it wasn't in that section. The front of the store looked a lot like the front of the store of any Borders for the next 15 or 20 years, you had face outs of new hardcovers in bays, and the new hardcover and paperback tables. Fiction was on a raised area against the left wall when you walked in, children's was in the back, there was a big upstairs, it was amazing. As I've discussed the inventory system for then was kind of beyond state of the art. Each book had a buff punchcard that was taken at purchase to run through a scanner, the front info desk had huge computer-fold printouts updated regularly by author, title, maybe even subject. What a store!

It was a couple years in to my college days in Ann Arbor that I figured out the buff cards had # of books in an order and day of order in them, so even before I was in publishing I was happily looking at the cards to see how many copies were being ordered of this book vs. that book and how early and often the reorders were coming in. There were lots of books being sold, and lots and lots of reorder, and there were copies ordered in of really pretty much everything.

Think of any good indie that people will talk about today, whether it's Politics and Prose or Tattered Cover or anything. The original Borders store was well beyond in any and every way what your favorite bookstore was in your fondest imaginings of it.

When Borders started to expand nationally, the thing I can't say enough about Borders was that each new store opening wherever it was in the country was like bringing the experience of that original Ann Arbor store to your front door. It was for 1988 or 1992 something like the experience of going on to Amazon for the first time and realizing you could actually get any book you ever dreamed of ever wanting.

The fixtures were and to this day are better at Borders than at B&N. I love the new hardcover table 8 times better than the Octagon at Barnes & Noble. The flat new paperback table at Borders was an amazing piece of furniture that sold many many books, always perched very near the front of the store (FOS). It was even improved down the line with the addition of the "tree" in the middle, as the company called the high-rise extension of their flat table. Each and every Borders had its bays of new fiction and new non-fiction, new this and new that. And if you were in an area like DC that had three or five Borders you could get to in one day, it was like walking into five different stores because all those new fixtures were filled with books that were filled by people at that store.

Not a random process. You'd be more likely to fill the FOS with books where you'd gotten seven copies than two copies. Hence, even as late as 2002 you could still have a special experience walking into the Borders that was right for you. I could go to the Borders in Milpitas, just outside of San Jose and near the Cisco campus, and the front tables were just full of sf/fantasy titles, because that store could sell tons of sf/fantasy, so the orders of new books in those categories were of course higher than in other categories, so of course those books migrated to the front of the store like moths to light. I could walk in the front door, look at that front table, and know I was in for a treat. And on that trip, I visited something like a dozen new to me Borders, and it was never boring. I didn't like all the stores equally, Fremont was really bad for sf/fantasy. But Milpitas was wonderful. The Emeryville store was marvelous to visit.

Opening day of a new Borders, they had people from around the country who were part of sort teams that came in to help train and to unpack the boxes. The stores would be full of happy and eager customers, you could be at a store in Long Island and talk to somebody from Cincinnati and Philadelphia who had come in for the sort, you could get a sense of the buyer expectations for that particular store by looking at what there was more of or less of.

I could curl up in a Borders for a good 45 minutes and feel I was rushing it. You had the barcoded inventory stickers instead of buff punch cards, you could see how many copies were ordered. In the sf/fantasy or mystery sections, with the excess books shelved in that row right there behind, you'd literally want to sit down on the floor to go hunting for anything in the back shelf that wasn't in the front. I was always happy on Opening Day when I'd find a book by a client that had been put in the wrong section, and any day to find a singleton in back that I could make room for in front. I could look at the FOS bays for that store and find a book I hadn't even known might look interesting that was at that store. With the weird strange diagonal lines the stores had you could kind of browse your way down the history section and suddenly find yourself at the end of the row in a different section. I liked that.

You couldn't get these experiences at a Barnes & Noble. You still can't, you never could, you never will. The octagon isn't as nice as the rectangular new hc table at Borders, the new mass market tower isn't as nice as the Borders table, B&N was always walk in the door and find the bestseller bays and all the same books at all the same stores. Does anyone ever curl up in a science fiction section at a B&N the way I would curl up with the section at a Borders? A B&N opened, and I had a decent chance at predicting within a few titles just how many titles from JABberwocky would be on the shelf, and maybe even which ones.

I want to make very clear, none of this is remembering it all through rose-colored glasses. For better or worse, my first time through the front door of a new to me Borders, I had no idea what to expect. Was it a good sf store or bad sf store? Was I four weeks out from the last reorder cycle for Ace or Baen and the Simon Green or Elizabeth Moon section was depleted, or were the shelves full of 12 new titles just in from a reorder cycle? The odd thing is that Costco tries to sell the treasure hunt aspect of the stores that Borders kind of had without really wanting.

The issues that drove Borders out of business aren't unique to Borders. You can read an article from the NY Times in October that discusses how Macys has tried to find the right balance in their stores between localized inventory and chain-wide buying.

The frustrating thing at Borders is that so many people for so many years could fail to notice that they weren't striking the right balance. Needed: square table at FOS that has the big new books of the week, all with publishers paying to put them there. Not needed: the entire FOS at Borders changed from being entirely local to being almost entirely paid publisher placement. Needed: Slightly better D/E level inventory for brand consistency. Not needed: reduce title counts of $7.99 mass markets that cost hardly anything to keep on shelf so that your A/A+ level stores are diminished.

My purpose here is to celebrate what was best about Borders. B&N offered a corporate consistency to the book-buying public, maybe it's not right to call them like McDonalds, we should say they were the In 'n' Out Burger because there's a measure of real quality to the B&N product. Alas, the best of Borders wasn't that, they never became that, they lost all that they once were. But I want to make abundantly clear that the loss of Borders as we have come to know it is not a good thing.

And to name names: Jim Hines' Goblin books, Marjorie Kellogg's Dragon Quartet, Simon Green's Guards of Haven, the first Elizabeth Moon Serrano omnibus, Howison/Gelb's Dark Delicacies these are just a few JABberwocky titles that don't have enough retail presence outside of Borders to have an existence in print form after Borders.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Borders update

According to this article on publishersweekly.com there is a bank willing to refinance Borders debt but with several strings attached, and one of those strings is for publishers to accept a note or bond for their delayed payments.

The only problem with this is, it may not be legal or kosher for the publishers to agree to this outside of having a court force it upon them, because it's then selling books to Borders on terms way different than the established discount schedule and terms of sale. Quoting from a B&N statement on the subject: "We think the playing field should be even. We expect publishers to offer same terms to all other booksellers, including Barnes & Noble and independent booksellers. We fully expect publisher’s will require Borders to pay their bills on the same basis upon which all other booksellers pay theirs. Any changes in publishers terms should be made available to all." And who can blame them. I'd sue, if I were some other bookstore, and couldn't get to turn my payments to a major publisher into a note that I could just dole out interest on for the next 8 years.

B&N also piled on by pre-announcing an announcement on Thursday regarding their holiday sales. Driven by the Nook, almost a 10% increase in same store sales, and Dec. 23, 2010 was the best date in company history. A caveat there, however, that B&N purchased the college bookstore chain so that they are now entitled to count hundreds of those stores in their sales tally which they couldn't count two years ago.

Borders also announced two resignations, neither of which has a press release on their website, and one of them particularly notable. Thomas D. Carney, the current General Counsel and one-time Secretary, has been a Borders office pretty much from the day the company went public around 1994. He's been in one role of the other through multiple bosses for a very, very long time. He is the embodiment of institutional memory at Borders. Well, he was.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole is based on the 2007 play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire which I managed to miss both in NYC and in DC. It's a very well-acted but not entirely convincing domestic drama about a couple trying to deal with the death of their 4-year old son eight months before, the couple played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart and her mother played by Dianne Wiest.

It's hard in some ways to judge a movie with subject matter like this. Both my parents are in their '80s and aren't going to be around forever. Their five children all got virtually identical upbringings and especially insofar as religion is concerned have managed to end up at all different kinds of places as adults. I am looking forward with a certain dread fascination to seeing how this all plays out when we have to deal with a loss in the family, as someday we are certainly going to have to do. For one, I don't currently anticipate that I'll want to do everything the handbook of Jewish mourning says you're supposed to do, and there are other people in the family who almost certainly will. Will this cause tension in the family? Will that tension play out in quiet or subtle ways, or will we argue it out? If there is tension, will it linger for years or decades, or will we be able to move on? It's something I would enjoy watching with clinical detachment, and will get to live it instead. And I can think back to cousin Jane's wedding, there are things you think only happen in movies and soap operas and sometimes they happen for real.

All that being said, my big problem with Rabbit Hole is that too many of the awkward moments that are so brilliantly acted by this fine cast seemed to me to be made-up awkward moments that exist for purposes of the script in ways they wouldn't exist in real life. One example: the couple decides to sell their house, the wife goes off to read in a park for a few hours, the husband insists on staying around during the showing and when he's showing off their son's room to a couple that's looking at the house there are those awkward moments. The script handles it wonderfully, and Aaron Eckhart doesn't have a false note in his performance. But I just kept thinking how in real life the real estate agent would probably hire a team of horses and have them drag the husband away from the house for the showing, instead of saying "sure, stay." And the husband would never even say he wants to stay, because there's no guidebook on this process in the history of ownership of real property that advises the owners to stay on site during a house showing. No, no, no, no, no. Another example is a scene that's in the coming attraction, which is set at a bereavement group where the Nicole Kidman character challenges somebody giving their story, how God must have needed another angel and took their daughter. Kidman says "couldn't God have just made an angel. He's God after all. Can't he just make another angel." In the real world, I think eight months later that Kidman would probably have enough tact in her body not to say that aloud, during the group meeting. She might think it, she might say it to her husband in the car on the way home, but she wouldn't blurt it out like that. And if she did, somebody would try a lot harder and quicker to tell her to stifle, while here for dramatic purposes she's allowed to say her piece uninterrupted. Again, it's a wonderful scene to look at the face of the other mother, and the faces of the other people in the bereavement group. All wonderfully acted and directed by John Cameron Mitchell with great grace and tact and beauty. But I don't buy it.

It's hard to know where to draw the line on moments like these. The son was killed when he ran out into the street after the family dog, and was hit by a teen-age driver who swerved to avoid the dog without noticing the son fast on the dog's tail. The mother is having clandestine rendezvouses with the teenager. That may or may not be convincing, but it's the kind of thing that happens often enough in drama (the kids in Party of Five need to meet the drunk who killed their parents) that I'm willing to buy it here. And buying that, the scene where Nicole Kidman drives by the kid's house not realizing its prom afternoon and is overcome to realize there will never be a prom for her son is real and powerful and one of the best scenes in the movie. That she falls asleep in the car and doesn't wake up until the kid pounds on her door on his way home at 6AM the next morning is then a good way to ruin the reality of the moment.

Do I recommend it? Do I not? I don't know. It isn't an easy movie to sit through, but it's got enough human heart and ultimate optimism that it isn't one of those depressing downer sorts of things that can only be enjoyed on an intellectual level. Yet I've seen darker more depressing movies like The Sweet Hereafter that I might recommend more quickly simply because there darkness rings true. And there are awkward moments on film like Anne Hathaway's toast in Rachel Getting Married that are more believable to me than the awkward moments here.

Nicole Kidman was a very pleasant surprise. She can be a little icy sometimes, but in this role she somehow finds an openness and warmth and heart to her performance that is engaging and open even when the character is flirting with the edges of acceptable behavior. You never know what you're getting with her, she can be wonderful in genre fare like Dead Calm or in Cold Mountain, she can be awful in a Far and Away. She's amazing here, perhaps her finest piece of work, though thinking on great performances by actresses in 2010 I may still give the nod to Annette Bening in The Kids Are Alright. But this is great work.

I was disappointed with Diane Wiest, who is less wonderful than usual. Which may have more to do with her part than her performance.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In The Heights

The next stop on my quest to catch up with the January closings on Broadway that I'd really miss seeing was In The Heights, which opened almost three years ago after a successful run off Broadway, and won some Tony Awards in 2008.

Alas, the things it's best at are things I don't appreciate in a musical as much as some other people, and the things I do appreciate, this one isn't so good at.

It's one of the very few musicals to make it to Broadway at least so far that's heavily influence by latino culture, with a bit of african-american mixed in. The eponymous heights are the latino areas of Washington Heights, the part of Manhattan near to the George Washington Bridge which looms over the street scene, which centers on a bodega and a car service. Nothing wrong with that, exactly, just that if you took away the latino rhythms and characters you'd be left with a story that could as easily have been done and probably was for that matter with a Jewish tailor shop or an Irish pub subbing for the car service or bodega, in fact one character comments on the Irish that were still in the neighborhood way back when, and when the sign on the car service is taken down we see one for O'Hallaran's Car Service beneath with a clover logo.

There are bigger or smaller stories you can do even within this kind of background, and the story here is small. Too small for a 2.5 hour show, you ask me. Young girl is coming back home from Stanford for the summer, we find out she has taken a leave of absence without telling her parents, in part because she was too busy working for her tuition to have time to study so her grades suffered. Dad decides to sell car service and use money to fund her through college, dad also doesn't want her having a romantic relationship with the young black man who works at the car service. Parts of this go back to Romeo and Juliet if not before, other parts have been the meat of 659 other immigrant dramas. Honestly, there's so little plot and it's all so perfunctory we can safely say there's really no plot at all. And I'm a plot person.

This wispy plot is filled out with an assortment of character types. The wonderful grandmother, the bodega owner, the young dreamer, a shaved ice vendor. Of all the characters big and small the only one I found at all interesting was the young man at the car service who was in love with the owner's daughter. Either the writing or the actor or something had a little bit extra for me there.

Absent much of a plot or much in the way of interesting characters, the musical is mostly about having big production numbers, the kind that are spoofed by the opening number of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, and then interspersed with those you get the daughter with her "I want/I wish" song, and grandmother has her big number. People dance a lot, they sing a lot, they do it for 2.5 hours less the 15-minute intermission with the briefest of interludes to allow for the most perfunctory developments of the plot.

And it's just not for me. It wasn't for me in Hairspray, which kept coming to a halt in order to give every character his or her big number. It wasn't for me in the production I saw of La Cage many many years ago where they just kept dancing and dancing to no purpose, it isn't for me in the big dance numbers that pop up in The King and I or Oklahoma. I like the music to tell a real story about real characters that I really care for. I found that in Next to Normal, didn't find it here.

I can understand why this has had a good three year run. I can understand why I waited on seeing it.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Send in the Clowns. Really.

So Saturday night I decided to try and catch one more of the January closings on Broadway. In The Heights sold out as I was heading in to the TKTS line, so I opted for A Little Night Music.

A Little Night Music is a Sondheim show from 1973, with book by Hugh Wheeler and directed originally by Hal Prince. The same group would collaborate on the masterpiece Sweeney Todd a half dozen years after, and had done Company three years previous. It's probably best known as the show which includes Send In The Clowns. I'd seen once before, in a NY City Opera production at least 15 maybe even 20 years ago.

I do not consider it his best show or score. Send In The Clowns is a classic kind of because it became a classic. After that you've got the occasional line or two that's hummable and memorable, but Company or Sweeney Todd or Assassins all have more.

It's three hours inspired by Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, which is longer than that movie, way longer than Woody Allen's similarly inspired Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.

And this production, directed by Trevor Nunn (Cats), is a bad one. In fact, the more I think about it in the hours after seeing, the more I'm realizing how bad a production it is.

It's a period piece, about a rondelet of lovers in Sweden in 1900. So that means everyone has to get into period dress, but does it mean that everyone in the production has to be wearing gowns of the exact same off white color, or that two of the male characters seem to be wearing the same outfit, being played by people that look so much like younger and older versions of themselves that you'd think they'd wandered in from some strange production of Follies (a show that actually is about older and younger versions of the same characters)? It's awfully hard to get involved with the love lives of the characters when you can't actually tell the characters apart from one another!

Once upon a time any Broadway production had to have many many musicians. Over the years in contract negotiations, the minimum number required to be paid at any particular theatre has been reduced, and since this production is at an intimate theatre, the Walter Kerr, more traditionally known for hosting plays (the original Broadway production of Angels in America, for one) it has a smaller minimum musician count than a huge theatre like the Gershwin that often hosts big musicals. I think this is the first time that I truly felt deprived sitting in the theatre. A period score like this, which Sondheim wrote mostly in waltz time, should have a certain silkiness to it, a period lustre, it should sound like you're listening to a waltz in some grand estate ballroom in the 1900 Swedish countryside. God knows this doesn't. I don't know exactly how many or few musicians there were, but there just weren't enough.

The set, the costumes, the orchestrations, all of it was just so monochrome, and if you're thinking of the smiles of a summer night, that's not the right color scheme.

This production had originally opened as a vehicle for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won a Tony Award, and the beloved Angela Lansbury. When the two of them left, the show was re-cast with two grande dames of the Broadway stage.

Elaine Stritch has a long association with Sondheim dating back 40 years to the original production of Company. She's just shy of her 85th birthday, and the role here doesn't require a lot of singing or movement, in fact the character is in a wheelchair for most of it. I wish I'd seen Angela Lansbury, to be honest. The effort shows in Stritch's performance, and even though the character being played is an aging wheelchair bound matriarch, I think we should see the effort more in the physical aspect of the performance while here the giving of life lessons seems a challenge as well.

Bernadette Peters isn't on Broadway near enough these days as one would wish. She's originated roles for the Broadway productions of Sondheim's Into The Woods and Sunday in the Park with George and also played in a dreary production of Gypsy. She's one of the few characters in this production who manages to show love at its lightest, breaking through the monochromatics. Her performance of Send In The Clowns is radiant and revelatory. It's no longer a song, it's a hearbreaking conversation with musical accompaniment. Every syllable of every word of every line drips with a life of longing and feeling and wishing. In fact, she so completely takes the song away from the very idea of "song" in the Broadway musical sense that I wished the should could have taken a break afterward to allow her to sing it as she might if she were actually doing it as song in a cabaret act or something. I don't mean that in a bad way, either. It's just that she's so powerful doing the song one way that the only way to top would be to have her do it in another.

Right after Peters does her stunning rendition of Send In The Clowns, we come to the one pleasant surprise of the evening (with Peters, you never consider greatness a surprise), which is Leigh Ann Larkin's performance of the song The Miller's Son. Which honesty isn't much of a song musically. It's got the one signature "I Will Marry The Miller's Son" and the rest of it isn't worth getting wedded to. But it's got some classic Sondheim lyrics with some heart, and some nice variety between the signature line and the other sections of the song, and Larkin just puts her voice around every subtlety of the lyric and finds every bit of feeling and passion in the song. I was almost as transfixed listening to this as I was to Send In The Clowns just minutes before.

There are enough intrinsically good things about A Little Night Music that it was by and large tolerable even in this bad production. I didn't fall asleep, I mostly thought of what was on stage and only occasionally about how Borders could get run into the ground and other such things. We're not talking Follies which requires absolute perfection to be tolerable. That being said, even a great production of A Little Night Music would be only so great. And we're not talking here about a great production.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010!

Well, on balance, 2010 was a pretty danged amazing year for Brillig, and the Business of Being Brillig.

On the dollar-and-cents scorecard, I've told people I think 2010 was the best year I had, and ever will have, and then I have to listen to all of these people saying "oh, you can't know that." Maybe I am selling myself short, but... 2010 was the year we were getting royalties for the second half of 2009, which was when there were 9 Sookie Stackhouse books on the NY Times list at once (8 on paperback list linked, 9th on hardcover), a feat for an author that is unprecedented in the annals of publishing. I'd prefer to be pleasantly surprised if that can ever be equalled or surpassed by some other event or combination of events. Charlaine returned to Earth in the US in 2010, she was "just" an incredibly successful author, and the hardcover sales first week for DEAD IN THE FAMILY were "only" twice the first week sales of DEAD AND GONE the year before. Even if CBS picks up a series based on Charlaine's Harper Connellly books, that series has only four books in it and won't duplicate the 9-on-a-list Sookies. Even if Paul W.S. Anderson starts filming his Painted Man movie tomorrow, that series has only two books so far. Now, there are multiple foreign markets where we haven't yet seen the Charlaine Harris business peak. She's hit the French bestseller lists, True Blood goes on a better German network in 2011, lots of things are happening. But I like to be on the conservative side of realistic in my planning, and if you're the next person I'm telling that 2010 is the year of peak oil, JABberwocky style, humor me on that.

JABberwocky is not a one-legged stool.

The Sookie Stackhouse books were bestsellers even before True Blood. In 2010, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy was selling well beyond what the first three Sookie books ever came close to doing even as that series was climbing the charts pre-True Blood. Well beyond. The Stormlight Archive is, with The Way of Kings, off to an amazing start. The success is deserved. The Mistborn trilogy is one of the towering achievements in the fantasy genre in the past five years, and The Stormlight Archive will be all that and more in the next ten years.

As successful as Charlaine and Brandon are, Peter V. Brett has accomplished things with just two books under his belt that go well beyond either at equivalent points in their career. #35 NY Times, #16 Der Spiegel, #9 Sunday Times of London with THE DESERT SPEAR.

I don't want to turn this post into a Christmas letter where I mention every single client, but I could. Elizabeth Moon's OATH OF FEALTY is making many best of year lists, Tim Akers is doing so for a 2nd year running, Jack Campbell's "Lost Fleet" books got to #10 on the NY Times paperback list and are moving into hardcover, Simon R. Green turned in his 40th novel in 2010, Eddie's author Jon Sprunk has had the kind of early foreign success Peter V. Brett and Brandon Sanderson enjoyed.

It was a really good year.

One shadow was having Kat Richardson depart our company, probably the most important client to part ways with JABberwocky. Maybe it was inevitable. Kat had been discovered by my first full-time employee Steve Mancino in our slush pile during his very first week on the job, and Steve took very good care of Kat's. I don't know if I ever saw him happier during his time at JABberwocky than when he did a great deal with Roc for her 4th thru 6th Greywalker novels. His decision to head back to his family in Philadelphia and later to depart the agency was a blow, and I wasn't able, as the writing of those three books played out, to match that kind of first author/agent special thing that the two of them had.

But we also had our best year ever in 2010 for placing first novels.

Eddie did a great job getting multiple editors excited about Janci Patterson's SKIPPED, and then of doing the heavy lifting for an eight-month process of negotiating new boilerplate with the publisher that ended up buying. I was able to sell Myke Cole's LATENT after many years and many drafts. Interestingly, I first had extensive face-time with Myke at the same Philcon in 2003 where I first had extensive face-time with Peter V. Brett, so that was definitely a good weekend to be at the Philadelphia Marriott. We didn't entirely sell Bryce Moore's VODNIK to the new Tu Books imprint, but we were thrilled when he came to us with the offer. I first met Bryce at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison in 2005, had read and given notes on an earlier draft of the book along with some others along the way, and feel we did something more than pick up the phone when it rang. And interestingly enough, I also first met Tim Akers at that same World Fantasy, so that was definitely a good weekend to be hanging out in Wisconsin. The person who introduced me to Brandon Sanderson at the 2000 Nebula Awards in NYC recently tweeted that he had finished a novel and was starting in to revise, who knows maybe we can make a two-fer on that convention, too! And at the very end of the year, Eddie got an offer for FAIR COIN by Eugene Myers, more details to come.

We launched our e-book program. I did hope it would be a little further along by the end of 2010. We ended up taking more months than weeks to ponder exactly how big a program we wanted to have and what overall approach we wanted to take, which I think is time well spent. We also ended up underestimating all the little things that would come up to be sure we were setting up our vendor relationships the right way, which is just annoying time to have to spend that I'd like to make go away. But we do have six Simon Green titles up for Kindle, sales are in line with expectations, Kobo should follow very soon, and a lot of horror anthologies not long after, some possibly on Kobo before they show up elsewhere.

Of course, that whole Kobo thing... In the US, Kobo is pretty well tied to Borders, who knows where Borders will be in a couple of months but it looks grim, and then what is the Kobo store in the US? However, Kobo is very well established in Canada and Australia, to name a few other markets, and probably will be a player in the e-book space at some level no matter what befalls its major US partner. Well, with the e-book revolution happening by the day and the Borders scenario to play out, 2011 will be interesting for the business. Enough publishers had bad experiences in Borders in 2008 especially that I think most will manage to muddle through even if Borders does go into bankruptcy, but it wouldn't be entirely surprising to see some smller publishers go into bankruptcy if Borders does.

After years of pretty much sleeping in the office, I finally gained some distance between work and play in 2010. I hate to commute to work after all these years, but I like not sleeping in the office. But the last stage of decorating new apartment to allow old apartment with home office to be spruced up a bit (bedroom there hasn't been painted in over 19 years!) is becoming one of those typically long-winded fix-up stories.

I saw just under 80 movies, which is pretty typical for recent years. I used to see more like 120 movies, however, and there are always a half dozen or so of the missed movies that I wish I'd seen.

I was shocked to see just how little theatre I'd done in NYC in 2010, but am trying to catch some things before they close. I reviewed two of those shows here and here. I think I'm going to try harder to make time for going to shows during 2011. Why live in NYC otherwise, and if Myke Cole follows through on plans to move to New York, I can't drag him with me to see things sometimes when I do "missed it in NYC, last chance DC" theatre trips.

The iPad is amazing. I think the best technological device that I've ever had, and it pretty much goes everywhere with me. I read on it, I tweet, I surf, I correspond, I find efficient walking routes on Google Maps, and imagine if I started to really load it with apps.

The one thing I don't have now that I had a year ago is Len Horowitz. Len was a man, around 70, who was a regular at my Scrabble club. And however these things happen because I can't really explain why it did, we became good friends. We'd walk up 7th Ave and talk after Scrabble, the summer holidays when we had a bbq at someone's house we'd play an extra game or two at a local pizza dive after or head to where we could watch the fireworks on the 4th. Len kept a lot to himself, we didn't talk much if at all about his family as an example, but we could talk about movies at length even if we often didn't agree, and he was genuinely interested in what I was doing and happy for the success I was having in recent years. At the start of 2010, Len stopped showing up at Scrabble without any word, and I ended up stopping by his apartment building in March to see what was up. He'd been diagnosed with a brain tumor, he was in rehab, didn't really want visitors. In retrospect you could look at some of the little things, the eye problems he'd been having or the way the Boggle words were getting more fanciful (Len always thought it was better to create words when you couldn't find many real ones), but only in retrospect. I sent a healthy number of greeting cards, got one e-mail from him that didn't sound very good because he said he was dealing now with pneumonia on top of everything else, and we all know that's not a good thing in situations like these, not a good thing at all. He ended up passing away while I was away at London Book Fair. No funeral, I was told. Maybe there'd be a memorial service. There really wasn't any family to speak of to bother sending a card to, a cousin or nephew or something helping to sort through his affairs. I was really looking forward to having him over to play Scrabble in my new apartment, he'd have actually ventured forth from Manhattan for that. When those of us in the Scrabble club play Boggle, we'll always know what it means when we say somebody's written down a "Len word." It's fifteen years now that my Uncle Matthew passed away, and I still feel that on occasion. In fifteen years, when I'm starting at an awful Boggle board with one vowel and no words and putting things down just because that I'll still see Len there, guiding my hand as I write down my very own Len words.

He was in his early 70s. How do people live to be 50? Let alone into their 80s and 56+ years together like my parents. There are days when my hair is looking its most grey, my knees feeling their creakiest, this week when I've been sitting around with an icky cold, when I wonder just what the pleasures of a ripe old age are supposed to be. But you know, we sold four first novels this year, and I'm quite eager to see what people think of them. Sookie has a choice to make between Eric and Bill. I'm not yet entirely sure if The Warded Man or Jardir is the Deliverer, if the bad Verrakai can be defeated once and for all, whether the Knights Radiant can be re-formed, if Black Jack can discover what makes those mysterious aliens tick. The Gale family has yet to bake me a pie on my birthday, maybe John Taylor can find my Latent magic, and the Mets and Blue Jays will finally meet in the World Series. All of these are things worth waiting for.