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, February 28, 2011

Quick Newsy Notes

A few items from the past week...

HarperCollins is doing a "this tape will self-destruct" thing on its e-book library loan program, allowing 26 circulations per library purchase. Why? I figured this out before I read it officially. They feel this about matches the iifespan of a printed book in the typical library, and they don't wish to have an e-book purchase become an eternally available sort of thing when a print book truly can't be loaned forever before it falls apart. You can find a Library Journal article on the subject here, link courtesy of publishersmarketplace.com. I'm of mixed emotion on this. I don't think it's prima facie a heinous thing to do because businesses do need to adjust to changing business models, and the longevity of the product sold is enough of a concern that it's just kind of sitting there to be noticed and looked at. On the other hand, it pisses off customers. In the real world, libraries rarely would replace copies of a book that was ready to go to pasture unless it was maybe something like Harry Potter that doesn't come along very often. The book would be discarded or sold away at a Friends of the Library sale for 25¢ and that would be it. The main difference might be that if a patron discovers, let's say, Simon Green's Nightside series when the library had the 10th book, maybe they would go out and buy the first ten and now with e-book lending they could still find the first book sitting on the electronic shelf six years later. But even though readers are readers, I'm not sure the dedicated library patron would be the reader who'd go and actually buy a series like this. Hence, I feel as if Harper is addressing a real problem, but also that they've inflated and enlarged this bogey-man beyond the stature it actually deserved, and thus perhaps come up with a remedy that's a little more punitive sounding than it needs to be.

That same issue of the Publishers Lunch Deluxe from publishersmarketplace.com reports that Bloomsbury is reporting e-book sales at 40% now, while Sourcebooks was saying 35%. On the other hand, Penguin still has print as 85% of its business and thinks people need to be reminded that the lion's share of the book business is still in the old-fashioned print variety. Penguin also reported having a very good year even after taking reserves and allowances for the $42M that Borders owes and additional sums from the bankruptcy of RED Group, the major bookseller in Australia and New Zealand.

Tweeted a link to a NY Times article that went live last night about bookstores dealing with non-bookstore channels to sell books. This is the kind of thing that's hardly news news, though the Times tries to hook it as having new urgency in a post-Borders era. Alas, these channels can't replace Borders. Their selections are too small, maybe you can get a couple hundred appropriate books into a big Whole Foods markets, or twenty in some other retail channel. These sales also don't help a lot, because they can be invisible. Publishers do look at Bookscan. We once had a book by John Zakour, Man's Guide to Pregnancy, that was selling a gazillion copies at Motherhood Maternity. But because none of those sales are on Bookscan, selling the sequel was impossible because (1) we had to take a "trust us" approach in telling people that there really were all of these sales because it was 90% of more and the visible sales to other publishes hardly there at all and (2) if you don't think the sequel will sell to the same place then you have to conclude there's no market to be had.

Finally, we've achieve launch on stage 2 of our e-book program with most of the Hot Blood erotic horror anthologies now up for sale at Kindle. We should have those up on Nook soon. Kobo we're very close, they have a slightly more cumbersome process but the account is set up. We had a problem getting the account set up at iBooks which took weeks to fix, and now we're having trouble getting them to accept uploads of the same ePub files that everyone else is perfectly happy with. We need to get in touch with Sony, still. And Mayer Alan Brenner and James Robert Baker programs are progressing, while Rick Shelley is starting to come up after.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The True Social King or the Grit Network's Speech

11:37 having the presenter do all the encomia for the acting nominees instead of the array of past winners, well OK, not lime the thing they did the past few years is unalterable. But the Best Picture nominees are all lumped into one montage. The producers don't have their names read aloud and have to settle for just type on the screen. And even the Best Picture winers have to deal with music telling them time is too shirt. C'mon, broadcast somewhere around 3:15 you can let the winners for Best Picture have their say.

11:32 why Jurassic Park music of all the films Spielberg has directed

11:31 not in love with his acceptance speech. trying too hard.

11:25 Colin Firth was also great in A Single Man last year.

11:20 unless Jeff Bridges wins in a category that is almost certainly and deservedly going to Colin Firth, safe to say that True Grit is the evening's big loser. Lots of nominations, lots of bos office, no love from Oscar. I didn't like the movie all that muspch save the painterly and stunning cinematography by roger Deakins, certainly not the performance by Bridges. I did love Jesse Eisenberg in Social Network, but as a stutterer myself I can tell you there are bits of the teenage me on the screen in Firth's King's Speech performance.

11:19 she will thank Mr Oster for inventing the blender she blends her protein shakes with in the press room afterward.

11:18 and giving such a boring cliche ridden speech that I would rather be listening to Jar Jar.

11:16 the buzz is right, what would Jar Jar Binks say to have his next door neighbor winning an Oscar?

11:13 Warren Beatty, being the loving husband to Annette Bening. He coulda been a contender, and not just on the football gridiron in Heaven Can Wait. Buzz is Portman, I want Bening.

11:08 Fancy Feast ad it's not, but M&M ad cute

11:02 supposed to be David Fincher's category and is not. Tom Hooper takes it for King's Speech..Well, it's a good movie too, but I am disappointed. But I will plug Hooper's earlier film The Damned United. One of the best sports movies I have ever seen, to where it is hardly a sports movie at all. Bottom line, much as I wanted Fincher and The Social Network to win in this category, I cannot begrudge Hooper the win.

10:52 John Barry, Tom Mankiewicz, Gloria Stuart, William Fraker, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Culp, Lynn Redgrave, Peter Yates, Arthur Penn, Susannah York, Ronald Neame, David Wolper, Jill Clayburgh,, Irwin Kerschner, Blake Edwards, Theoni Aldredge.

10:49 the Lulu German chocolate cake is really good, sorry Jim C Hines but this is the one place where coconut s a good thing. I am a big fan of the Juniors version of this cake but have to make special trip to Brooklyn to buy it. Only problem with liking Lulu version is that they do not always have the same cake lineup so it's not like I can count on having when I am in the mood for it.

10:48 and he is giving such a delightful speech

10:46 found myself rooting for the song from 127 Hours after hearing all four, but I cannot complain to have Randy Newman winning. Hard to believe 20 nominations for him have resulted in so few wins.

10:41 I walked out of Hereafter. I couldn't quite believe I was walking out of a Clint Eastwood movie, but after the wonderful opening scene of the tsunami, the movie gets boring and dull and even worse pretentious. Lots of good talent, Matt Damon whom I always like and Jay Mohr and Eastwood is Eastwood. But my only regret is that I didn't Orleans before the Tube bombing which just sickened me. You have to earn the right to get emotional points out of terrorism, and otherwise you're the worst kind of exploiter. And I sat watching that scene, kind of figured where it was going before I got there, and said to myself that it is Eastwood and he can't be going there. But go there he did. A bitter aftertaste, that's the main takeaway for me from that movie.

10:33 is this four for Inception? And now another well-deserved win for Social Network for editing. I do not often think of editing when I think of a film, but just thinking back to the opening fifteen minutes of this movie, it is hard not to. The crackling conversation between Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg and his girlfriend won't crackle without good editing. Te tension that simmers as the opening credits roll over the walk back to the dorm room, that's a lot due to the editing. I didn't love Social Network the second time I saw it, and yet each new win, each playing of the movie's theme, makes we want to see again.

10:31 bad repartee, nothing new, and white ties that you can hardly tell are there since they fade into the shirts.

10:19 but this musical montage that just finished?

10:16 what a wonderful excited enthusiastic speech from the documentary winner, and yes this of us in NYC are happy to hear NYU mentioned, not sure if I have ever heard NYU in an acceptance speech before. What a great speech.

10:09 the Randy Newman song is nice but sounds like 16 other Randy Newman songs for animated movies. I like Newman, scores for The Natural and Ragtime are bookends at the earlier end of his career but not this. The second nominated song is also nice but sounds vaguely familiar. I gets me humming some other song, something la da da, I can go the distance or something like that, instead of the song itself.

9:59 two wins for Alice in Wonderland? Wow, if Tim Burton entered an Oscar pool he may be the only person with any chance of winning.

9:54 the red velvet "twinkie" at Lulu was quite good but must try and pace myself for the other two treats...

9:51 in fact I think Inception now has the most Oscars on the night. Which will not win Best Picture. Better to have the Fancy Feast ad win than Inception. Which if put into pill form would put Ambien out of business.

9:46 but one of the major changes in Oscar voting in my 30 years paying serious attention to such things is that the awards in smaller categories have become more likely to go to deserving winners instead of the evening's sweeping Best Picture.

9:44 and a pleasant surprise that it won. most of the buzz for this category was that it would go to Alexandre Desplat as part of a King's Speech evening.

9:43 my favorite original score is that for Social Network

9:39 I cannot believe they just took two minutes to talk about the renewal of the ABC license to televise.

9:32 but this is an amazingly competitive category with Geoffrey Rush, Mark Ruffalo in particular both giving worthy performances. I have been watching Christian Bale for close to 25 years since Empire of the Sun, and there as so often he has been overpraised in so-so movies lie that or gone unnoticed in things like Newsies or Swing Kids, which might be the prior movie where I most warmed to him, which I haven't done very often indeed. I am almost surprised at how much I liked him in The Fighter. And listening to his acceptance speech -- Ewan McGregor one hardly sees doing other than a British accent and Christian Bale only seems to be in movies where he does American dialect.

9:31 and he does

9:30 Supporting Actor has to go to Christian Bale

9:19 David Seidler's speech was very nice. I do not think this was the best script in the category, but no complaints. Oh -- the Fancy Feast ad in the last commercial break was better than some movies I have seen over the past hear. The Diet Coke commercial just ended, are they maybe getting a little too full on themselves in Atlanta?

9:15 the adapted screenplay win for Aaron Sorkin for Social Network is expected and well deserved. Sorkin's speech isn't as tightly edited as the movie was.

9:14 Blinded by the white! These two white tuxes together on stage are screechingly awful to look at.

9:06 Toy Story 3 was one of the best films of the year, deserves this, everyone expected it to win. And the winner clearly had his speech prepared, unlike Melissa Leo. Who let me say was really good in Frozen River. Just not, not, not that good in The Fighter.

9:03 More vapid dialogue in presenting the Animated Short. Justin Timberlake deserves better.

9:01 I thought Melissa Leo was one of the least pleasant things in the somewhat overrated (good, just overrated) The Fighter. Jacki Weaver was one of the best things in Animal Kingdom, which you must rent. And Helena Bonham Carter whom I never like was wonderful in King's Speech.

8:58 but credit Melissa with a good adlib.

8:55 pleased that Jacki Weaver was nominated for Animal Kingdom

8:55 please not Melissa Leo.

8:52 making lecherous small talk about Anne Hathaway? Who is writing this thing?

8:51. serendipity, here comes Kirk Douglas.

8:49. I think my biggest regret in the nominations is that Michael Douglas wasn't nominated for Best Actor for Solitary Man. But nobody saw it, and Wall Street Money Never Sleeps some people did see but it wasn't as good a performance and wasn't a fantastic movie.

8:47 I did not like True Grit, but Roger Deakins deserved to win this for True Grit. No sweeps tonight, that's for sure.

8:45 Alice in Wonderland for Art Direction? One film will not win all three awards this year. How many people have this in the Oscar pool.

8:41 first year I cab live blog with an iPad

8:40. Flatter than the dictator's nose after the steamroller in Sleeper.

8:38 The dreidel joke was borrowed from my review of Inception.

8:35 I though the pre-opening opening was a commercial. The opening montage I think is falling flat.

8:25 Once again doing live blog for Oscar night. I am rooting for The Social Network, but it will probably be Best Picture for Rocky done as Masterpiece Theatre. Main course for dinner some brisket from Righteous Urban Barbecue, about to take some mashed potatoes and veggies off the stove to tap off the meal. Desserts tonight come from Lola in Chelsea.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An Anniversary Musing, #2


A couple years ago I did some postings on technology and the agenting business, in the first one I talked about how the Scott Meredith Agency kept a lot of records on green index cards, called not very creatively "green cards." Alas, those were gotten rid of in the mid 1990s when the agency moved, doing some of these anniversary posts I think how wonderful it might be to look over some of the detailed histories on some of them. But they ain't around, we must move forward!

One of my other earliest clients was a horror writer by the name of Ronald Kelly. I remember being held rapt by his "first" novel on the Shortline bus ride into Manhattan. It was then called "The Tobacco Barn." It ended up being published right around New Years, 1989 into '90, as Hindsight. It took rather a long time to sell, longer I would still think than it should have, before being taken by Wendy McCurdy, then at Kensington/Zebra, so even though Ronald was one of my very earliest clients he was beat to publication by several other authors who came later.

Like many of the authors I took on during my Scott Meredith years, Ronald had used the agency's fee reading service, and The Tobacco Barn wasn't the first novel the agency had seen. Alas, those records we kept track of on what I think were the white cards, which are as dead and gone as the green cards, but if memory serves he went into horror after some initial tries at writing westerns. I didn't read the earlier novels but Barry Malzberg whom I believe did would tell me that Ronald had kind of hit upon success by sheer force of will, that he kept at and kept at until he found something that worked. That makes Ronald a little bit of a rarity. By far the large majority of aspiring writers don't have and won't have and can't have the special gifts that allow success to occur. And then a lot of the writers who do and will and can have those gifts, they have them the same way that some people are born to hit baseballs or shoot baskets. To achieve the goal through hard work, passion, commitment -- even the talented writers need that, but to make the gifts yours, to kind of take and grab them, is another skill set entirely that is vanishingly rare.

So I liked The Tobacco Barn, I worked hard over a couple years and I think nine to twelve submissions though it may have been more, to place it. Ronald ended up becoming a fixture of the Zebra horror program over the next half dozen years, with eight books published.

Alas, the Zebra horror program came to an end, with two books that Ronald had written that were not to be published. The horror market had pretty much collapsed entirely at that time, and I had no idea how or where or to whom I could market them. It didn't help that there wasn't a lot of editorial support at Zebra. The horror line was kind of about the product, they had their two slots to fill and they were going to fill them. Ronald wasn't pushed to go beyond what he needed to do to fill out his spots in that program, which meant the books he'd written with that program in mind weren't likely to go over as mainstream horror/thriller titles.

A decade or so after we parted ways, I was happy to see Ronald have a renaissance of sorts. Two years ago, Cemetery Dance published a collection of his short fiction called Midnight Grinding and Other Tales, and subsequent to that one of the novels that was caught up in the horror collapse of the mid 1990s, Hell Hollow, finally saw print as well. You can track down some of the good notices for those publications here. Another collection called Dark Dixie is available for e-book. And you can check out Ronald's own blog here.

My relationship with Ronald was hardly the longest-lived that I've had, but I will always have a soft spot for him and his work because he was one of my very very first clients, not to many that I was reading on the Shortline bus which automatically puts him in the first six months of my now 25-year career. His resurrection in recent years is inspiring.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

An Anniversary Musing, #1


  It was 25 years ago today that I started at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, and here's a glimpse at the hardcover cover of the very first book I sold, Mary's Grave by Malcolm McClintick. Scott Meredith had a reading fee service, and this novel was what was called a "send-up," a book that a fee reader liked enough to suggest it be taken on. The author had a story or two published in Hitchcock's, and this was the first in a series of novels featuring the George Kelso character who also appeared in some of the AHMM stories. The book was published quickly, in the first half of 1987, and subsequently appeared in paperback from Avon. The acquiring editor at Doubleday was Michelle Tempesta, the long-time editor of the Doubleday Crime Club, and at Avon the editor who took the first three Kelso books was Nancy Yost. When the Doubleday family sold Doubleday to Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate which had owned Bantam Books and which now owns the entire Random House publishing empire in the US, the library-oriented hardcover lines at the old-line Doubleday, which included a small sf program edited by Pat LoBrutto as well as a western and romance imprint, were all terminated. My relationship with Malcolm did not last long. I was not very diplomatic or tactful in my publishing youth, not very much at all, and Malcolm was not the easiest author do deal with, and after a blow-up he ended up getting switched to another agent at Scott Meredith. Avon lost interest in publishing category mysteries, and Nancy Yost ended up establishing her own literary agency, which has endured nicely with a good list of mystery, romance, paranormal, and other categories.

There used to be several library-oriented lists like Crime Club. Charlaine Harris stopped at the Walker and Scribner mystery lists along the way to Sookie Stackhouse. Walker got out of the mystery business, and when Scribner was sold to Simon & Schuster the same kind of thing happened as when Doubleday was sold to Bertelsmann, the larger company preferring to place bigger bets instead of relying on smaller trickles of reliable income. Today Avalon Books still has a library-oriented hardcover publishing program in the mystery, western and romance genres, and Five Star Books popped up to serve the market as well, this series packaged by Martin H. Greenberg's Tekno Books for publication.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bride of List!

All told I have visited around 80 of the Borders that are closing, adding two in Burlington and Peabody MA this past weekend.  Around 25,000 square feet, e average store that's closing.  Leave aside the drain represented by entire stores, each of those could have done it's business in 5000 fewer square feet, 5K x 200, and that's one million extra square feet floating around, and the troubling thing is that the 450 stores that remain open probably carry around another 2M spare tire around the belly, and the bankruptcy filing doesn't help that. 

Start at the top, alphabetically by state, and the Anchorage store is as typical an example as any.  When I visited Anchorage in 2006, the Borders was disappointing. I had been to the amazing Waldenbooks in Wasilla, which had an amazing selection in an amazingly small space, kind of a captive audience, and then the BN in Anchorage which was selling books in jaw-dropping quantity. And then the Borders?  Well, it was just OK. It had no doubt been first in the market, but clearly was no longer best. Move ahead four years and a remodel or two later with four years of likely declines in same store sales, with the music and movies sections gone, and then you would end up with that 31k sq ft box looking like the tumbleweed friendly environs of the Plano TX store in 2010. 

In the San Francisco area, we've got the too expensive flagship in Union Sq that's closing, the Pleasanton store in the Walmart mall where you can almost see the better-situated BN on the other side of the highway in Dublin, the Fremont store which I doubt ever made much money, and the store in San Francisco Center that is only 20k sq ft and doing a decent business but which must be carrying a heckuva rent bill. 

LA, there's the Century City store that replaced a prosperous small Brentanos with a Borders that I thought should have been a gold mine but somehow never came close. Pasadena was 40k sq ft, which can't be justified any more, and the equally large Glendale store that was a ghost town long before a spiffy huge BN opened across the street. I am surprised that the older Long Beach store is going, but then you see it's 30k sq ft which is too big even though it was still selling books. The newer store in downtown Long Beach was a shipwreck from day one. 

Connecticut us getting creamed. The Danbury store was quite prosperous in 2002, Milford is an upgrade from a Waldenbooks to a new wing of the mall by e movie theatre, and that's going. Manchester was a really nice store once upon a time but was in decline and started to look seedy and had a spiffy new BN to contend with -- and still had a better wider selection in the sf/f category than that spiffy BN as of Thanksgiving.  Is there any chance Borders could have sublet the old store several years ago and grabbed the BN location?  Southbury was a Waldenbooks replacement new concept store that opened less than three years ago. 

Chicago is getting creamed. It is the anti-DC, a market where every store seemed below average but where more and more and more were opened.  Huge swaths of the market are now being ceded to BN. But what does it say about the company that 16 of 29 stores within a 50 mile radius of downtown are closing?  Did they all start losing money only recently? I mean, the Evanston store was my first introduction to a seriously underwhelming Borders, and that was over a decade ago. 

And on and on it goes, stores that never should have opened (Commack NY) or ended up on the wrong side of the tracks when a better-located BN came along (Peabody MA) or too big and perhaps helped to their death by bad management (Westbury NY was not known for the quality of its alphabetization, and Monroeville and Langhorne PA a tad large), or relocated to make more room for more stuff even after the death of music-movies was on the horizon (Austin north), or strangely placed (Mt. Kisco is mediocre, White Plains is starting to fade, let's in-fill with a store in Scarsdale).

All happy bookstores are alike, all unhappy ones are unhappy in their own special way!

When I went to Dallas, I got annoyed that Borders was sending big national authors to their original Dallas area store that was big, cobwebbed, not looking very prosperous any longer, while there was a livelier happier somewhat newer store a few miles down the road. Why?  Because that was the old store where big tours had always stopped, thus they always should. The "good" news is that the friendly better nicer store is going to stay open, the original Dallas store will not. Alas, that inability to be fleet of thought remains intact.

Some people want to blame the Borders inventory stickers as the quintessential example of inefficiency. Um, NOT! Stickers told employees where to shelve books, every store has to do that somehow, you can go to a BN and watch employees spend time scanning books to figure out where to shelve them, which is its own kind of inefficiency. Books needed to cross the warehouse and go from the incoming boxes tome outgoing boxes, sticking along the doesn't add a lot of time. The process could cause an efficient business to take ten days instead of eight to move a book, the problem at Borders was doing in weeks what BN could do in days, and Books a Mllion and many other stores use stickers.

No more long Borders posts forma while, unless developments warrant.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Funny book Roundup Tuesday

I got Red Robin #20 because it was crossing over from Teen Titans, and it was OK, just a basic Robin Needs Help Calls in Old Gang thing. 

I go into the 80 Page Giants out of curiosity with low expectations, which were surpassed by Superman Giant 2011. Which means there weren't any stories that I entirely skipped, which happens often. These books are used a lot of times for apprentice work by newer talent, and not much you can do in ten pages when you grow up in a world where everything is a multi part epic. The veteran Cafu did the best art in Beau Tidwell's opener, which was a good job of telling a pointless backfill prequel to Superman The Movie which I haven't been holding my breath for. Worst fir me was a Bizarro story with art that looked like refugee work from a Plop story from 30 years ago. 

DC Legacies was OK, not living down to either worst fears or up to best hopes as they move into retelling stories from my comics hiatus. 

We save some of the best for last. DMZ 61 was one of the best fill in art issues in the Free States Rising series as it started to move the story forward in current continuity and Shawn Martinbrough did a good job channeling the style of series co-creator Riccardo Burchielli. But the next issue with Brian Wood and Burchielli together on a DMZ for the first time in too long totally rocked. As with Pier Gallo on Superboy there's something quietly wonderful about the art that makes me linger on it a little, where the graphic part of the comic book comes alive. With the last ten issues kicking into gear and the original artist back on board this issue reminded me of why DMZ has been a favorite of mine these past five years. 

Brian Wood also wrote The New York Five, a sequel to a series The New York Four in the Minx DC imprint of women-oriented titles a while back. Hadn't read that, but with more DMZ behind me thought to try some more Wood Ryan Kelly is the artist and co-creator here and is doing excellent realist with the sets yet just a tad stylized with the people artwork that I liked. Characters all NYU students, bit soap opera-ish. Ya know, I will come back for issue 2. Rather against my better judgment I want to see if Riley will buy Frank a cup of coffee. 

And finally and delightedly, Superboy 3&4 by Jeff Lemire and Pier Gallo. Fantastic, still.  There is a scene with Conner Kent telling a kid at school that he can hang with Conner or with Superboy but not both which is well enough. written and the even better because the art is every bit the equal partner. A mild fault that the character's reaction doesn't get much follow- up, and similarly something from issue #2 where the followup if any is nebulous. Not sure they are quite mastering the art like the best TV shows can of letting things play out in a way neither too obvious nor too subtle. However what is on the page is so consistently good it seems churlish to complain about what isn't. This book is a must read. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Funnybook Roundup Monday

It is a good thing that DC is holding the line at $2.99, because something like Brightest Day seems just that little bit easier to indulge at that price than at 33% more. I am catching up on comics over the Boskone President's Day weekend and just did issues #17-20. #17 was half good with Firestorm and Deadman stuff that was interesting and the. Hawkman stuff that was not. #18 is almost all Hawkman with a little Deadman and may end (spoiler alert, but really, if you care about the series you read this issue a month ago unlike me) with Hawkman and Hawkgirl being dead, and does anyone really care?  Hawkwoman?  Cannot stay dead, even as a DCU backwater for most of his existence eventually the attorneys will need them revived for trademark purposes, but maybe we can hope not until 2015. Issues 19 and 20 have an Aquawar. Lots of fast page flipping in #19, some payoff in the followup issue.  I want more Firestorm in the final four issues, and at this point I think I can spend $11.96 or something to see where it goes. This isn't great stiff, but I am more involved than in the last 23 DCU crossover epics which counts for something. 

Speaking of trademark rejuvs, I have been selectively sampling the DC Comics Presents reprint books, and should have selected away from The Atom.  The first half from twelve years back has some Gil Kane art in what is intended asman homage/return to Silver Age comics. But Silver Age didn't mean incoherent, and this is.  With a script I couldn't comprehend the charms of the Gil Kane art, ne being one of the quintessential Silver Age artists, were elusive, and I felt guilty for preferring the more contemporary art by in the Atom pages. The second half was a more contemporary story equally incomprehensible. So let's be fair to Brightest Day and other current comics not as good as that. It's only via extremely rose-colored glasses that there was a good old days when only good comic books were published. 

Superman isn't looking good right now. DC made a big push with issue #701 of it and Wonder Woman with J. Michael Straczynski taking over both. WW wasn't good at all, Superman was interesting, a brave stylistic choice, but not a clear winner. Straczynski bailed, deciding he wasn't doing great work and shouldn't do at all.  Now novelist and iZombie writer Chris Roberson is writing from JMS plots. 

The first of these, issue #707, which has fill-in art, is off to a bad start by panel two. Superman keeps a freight train from running over a little girl, but the art shows him doing this by stopping the train. I would vote for picking the girl up off the tracks, much less likely to cause collateral damage. A few pages later we have a caption where Superman worries about whether a factory's insurance will cover something. There is realism and there is realism, and this is a little much.  Later Superman is tempted to take the side of a plant owner who says if he can't poison the environment nobody will have jobs, and I don't see Supes as the type to settle for false choices like that. Issue 708 is a downhill step, the art is at least with series regular Eddy Barrows instead of the static fill-in of the prior issue, but the script starts out with an I erecting idea, loses it's way in prose like "you were trying to reconnect with the formative experiences that first taught you your values" and soon commended a guest appearance by Wonder Woman. Issue #709 is looking like a doubtful...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Funnybook Roundup Sunday

DC Comics recently reversed a decision to go to $3.99 pricing on some books, and all regular monthly titles are now $2.99.  Which is a good thing. Except that a couple of story pages were dropped. 20 pages is still more than the 17 I can remember a long time back, but not 22 or 23. But I am still doubly thrilled because at least one of the pages will be used to restore letter columns to the books.  I loved letter columns. Even had some published back in the day. We will see if they print good letters and bad, or if they use it to have some real dialogue, but just the idea of seeing them back thrills me no end. Even on a limited basis, pushing feedback and dialogue to your readers in the comic instead of having people pull it by visiting a forum or bulletin board or whatever is a welcome return to a better way of doing things.

If the opening issues of the new Superboy series are all that can be good in comics, the first issue of threw Shazam is every bit the opposite. If you haven't picked up a book involving Shazam in a while you'll be surprised to know it isn't Billy Batson and Mary any more; he and his sister lost their powers and a non-entity named Freddy Freeman has. The issue quickly devolved into a fight scene with a demon (well, at least acts a lot like one) who's being double-crossed by Mary in a plot to take Freddy's powers. No real closure, and it is instantly going to crossover with another title. I shan't follow the crossover or be back for issue 2. 

The new team of JT Krul script and Nicola Scott-Doug Hazelwood-Scott Koblish on New Teen Titan is still on probation. Issue #91 winds up a somewhat incoherent plot about a mysterious dude doing genetic experiments on high schoolers with an extended fight scene, evil mastermind gets away. Not good. But there is enough decent characterization about the Titans to keep me interested and reading. Then again just a few issues into the new team and the to be continued is in an issue of Red Robin. I am not sure I am up for a crossover, as inclined to not buy Titans as to now have to start buying Red Robin. We'll see...

On the Bongo front...  I do not like Simpsons mash-ups either on the show or the comic as I have said in my funny book roundups many times before. And yet I loved -- loved!!! -- Simpsons #175. Homer buys a magnet to pull his car into his garage. Homer is soon telling a judge "It was the nineteen seventies. That short time between 3-D movie fads!" Turn the page and Lisa Simpson is green, doing her best Kermit the Frog imitation, and we are off and running with mash-ups of The Muppet Show, Little House on the Prairie and The Rockford Files. I even liked the mash-up of Little House, which I never would have gone near in the seventies. 

Simpsons Super Spectacular tends to disappoint, so happily issue #12 is at least good for the standards of that book. The lead story takes off amusingly enough from a Dial H for Hero thing, and the lead and back-up story both get to be kind of silly, but a kind of silliness I can see others liking even if I didn't entirely.  While not one of the best Simpsons experiences it does exemplify one of the best Simpsons traits, happily working on multiple levels where a younger reader might enjoy the antic energy while I notice they're using Dial H for Hero as the touch-off point and using a more obscure hero like Black Lightning with as much zest as some of the more prominent. Simpsons #174 was an average issue for this book, which is not a bad place to be.  Lisa is saving an owl, Homer is being used by Mr. Burns to drive down property values, Bart is being Bart.  Not the heights of the issue that followed, but more than good enough. Futurama #53 is a good issue of a series often much better than just good. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Ten & Five Stores

For general impressions of the closing Borders see my last post here  This will start some store specifics.  I believe that Borders #10 at the White Flint Mall in Kensington/Rockville MD and Borders #50 on 18th and L St in downtown Washington DC were in their prime two of the best bookstores in the entire country. 

Store #10 was one of the first stores opened by the brothers Borders as they expanded across the US. It was the second Borders I ever visited, my late uncle Matthew dropping me off at the Bethesda Metro station with instructions on how to find my way there as I was heading home after from something or other. I loved it. It was exactly like the experience of visiting the original Borders, and I no longer had to go to Ann Arbor for it. I was upset they were not carrying Simon Green's Blue Moon Rising in it's original Roc edition. That store was in a small standalone retail building on Rockville Pike, subsequently filled with an Anthropologie and now vacant; the Borders proved so popular that it was no more than a few years before it left its books only building behind for an anchor location in White Flint across the street, with one of the hugest Borders signs you could see facing the Pike. And it was so popular there they even took over adjacent space for an even bigger selection. What a selection!  What a crowd on a Saturday night!  So many books sold, 30 copy initial order of Elizabeth Moon's Sporting Chance, if I recall.  I could easily and happily spend an hour or more there, looking at every end cap, reveling in the crowds, checking the behind stock of the sf section. 

The 18th and L store opened a bit later, probably after the K-Mart purchase of Borders. It was in the basement levels of a DC office building. It was hard to appreciate just how big the store was because it was on two levels and the lower was in an L shape with the walled off music and movies section taking the lower part of the L so you didn't know about the foot of the L if you didn't head in. It's Saturday night was lunch hour. Every lunch hour. If you could get a book on the new mass market table to be admired by the lunchtime throngs you could sell ten copies in a week easy. I tried hard over the years to fill an empty slot on that table, or if the table was low to bring up copies from the sf section downstairs. 

As Borders did in those days, the front of store at each was full of facings and tables that reflected the character of the store. The downtown store would be big on politics, and there were books displayed in quantity there that you didn't see elsewhere.  The White Flint store would long retain some of the tweedier university town aspects from being one of the first stores out of Ann Arbor. Both easily carried over 100,000 book titles, well over. The downtown store was never as strong in horror, both sold sf/f in such large quantities.

Both stores, when I might commonly expect to see 55 or 60 JABberwocky titles in a superstore, I could go here and find 80 or 90. White Flint may have been one ofmthe first stores where I found 100 titles when it wasn't a fully stocked opening day. 

So what happened?  

The downtown store didn't face direct competition, but it's sales were clearly slowing because of environmental conditions. Not just the ebook. The first superstores tended to open up in core urban or suburban locations. As the population migrated out and more stores opened in the suburbs, the original core stores lost business. In DC right now the more outlying stores in Germantown and Columbia MD or Fairfax VA may be among the most profitable. 

But beyond that, Borders happened to Borders. A Barnes and Noble opens on Rockville Pike a mile up from the Borders. Not very happening at first. But over time, even though the Borders has a theoretically bigger selection the long lag time in replenishment will mean that you cannot actually find your book, as could the Borders quirk where a book that got shipped to the wrong store would be listed as received at the theoretical destination instead of the actual. 

Both stores were hurt by the cash crunch in 2008 when title counts were reduced chain wide. The presence of a rare find like a Hot Blood anthology could no longer make up for the missing 2nd Deathstalker novel that sold three weeks ago and still hadn't been reordered. 

The corporatizing of Borders hurt. These stores once had character, personalities distinct to their neighborhood, visibly so when you walked in the front door. As more and more of the front of the store was sold off to paid publisher placements, and as the stores themselves were renovated with the new hardcover facings taken away and/or becoming "FOS Bay 07" on the chain wide weekly displays, the titles that gave that character to the stores were forced into the section where if lucky maybe the store had an extra endcap. With the title count reductions in 2008, many of the books that gave character but sold eight copies a year over the entire chain were removed completely. 

And oh, those remodels. These are two of the stores that I saw in at least four incarnations. The original, the original with diagonal lines removed, the navigability/mixed hc-mm genre shelving, then the booting out of the music and movies, then the filling out of the space. At one point in time half the sf/f at White Flint was put in upstock, which didn't make things easy to find, so up the road to the BN the customers would go. In the final remodel at 18th and L, the old lettering Borders sign was taken down and replaced with a sign with the new logo. This offended me as a Borders purist. More to the point, while that new sign did give brand consistency it did not sell an extra piece of merchandise, and it cost money which Borders did not have. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I do not think Barnes and Noble has spent energy swapping out signs with it's original somewhat more ornery lettering, and even though I am not a BN purist, I still find this stores and smile when I walk in because I know the stores with the old lettering have more history behind them. 

And oh, those remodels!  Let me say it again. Every dime Borders spent on those remodels made the stores less interesting to me, less attractive, less fun to visit, had me spending less time in the store. That has always worked well enough for BN because the business has always been thus. Borders built it's business on a different kind of customer, and slowly replaced it with people wanting to use "40% off any one item" coupons. 

I last visited White Flint in December, and 18th and L just a two weeks ago. They were so much quieter than once upon a time they were. I was at 18th and L right about noontime, and it was busy-ish but not like the lunch hours of my recollection. 

That said, both stores were still selling decent quantity of books. Both had better selections, and better selected selections, than a typical BN. On some titles, White Flint could still outsell the BN a mile up the road. 

Why are they closing?  Too big. The White Flint store was over 40,000 square feet. When they took out music and movies, they had enough space left to put in a boxing ring and spectator seating. They did shuffle and move and fill out the space, but they were doing a nice business for a 27K store maybe even with steep rent, but there was no way they could ever do 40K sq ft of business. The 18 and L store was around 37K, same problem. 

Store #85 at Pentagon City has faded as much or more as either of these stores, but maybe three years back Borders was able to give back space to the landlord. That store remains open. 

Can you tell that I will miss these stores, not so much for their faded presents but very much as once upon a time they were. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The List

As you can imagine, I spent a good chunk of time looking at the list of Borders that will be closing in the next six to ten weeks following the chain's bankruptcy filing this morning.

I'll have more to say about some individual locations or other specifics, but a thing or two worth noting:

First and most important, a store's fate didn't depend on sales alone. Which might be my biggest sadness about the list. My hope had been the Borders would close a third of its stores doing 20% of its business, but it just ain't so. The rent and square footage ended up saying as much about a store's profitability as the quantity of books it is selling. So here in New York City, there's a store in Glendale, Queens that is still remaining open, in a failed attempt at an upscale shopping mall. So failed that the shopping center itself was just sold at a bankruptcy auction. Hence, the Borders survives. Why? Well, along with the movie theatre the Borders is one of the few traffic generating assets in this failed mall, the rent has probably been dropped to a pumpkin slice and iced mocha at the Seattle's Best cafe, so Borders can keep it open as long as they make payroll. This means the effect on book sales is likely to be bigger than I'd have wished. Yuck!

That being said, there are so many of these stores more than once over many years that have clearly never lived up to expectations, and have clearly been drains on the company even during the good old days. From Kips Bay in Manhattan to Friendship Heights in DC to Century City in LA to a good half dozen of the stores closing in the Chicago area, Borders is finally free of stores that never worked to their rent rolls and expectations, and a company that is free of those many dozens of bad eggs is a better, stronger company on many levels.

However, every store has to contribute to overhead. With fewer stores there are still certain fixed costs that don't go away. The surviving stores have to make an even stronger contribution to overhead in order for the company to have any good chance of moving forward in slimmer shape. Considering the problems Borders has had in recent years, this is sadly not a sure thing.

There is no one type of store that seems to have survived better than some other type. There are new concept stores from 2008 that are gone (Southbury, CT). There are stores in major urban locations (18th & L, DC). There are stores in weird rural locations (Colleyville, TX). There are Waldenbooks replacement stores (Southbury, Milford CT). There are stores in fancy downtowns (Los Gatos, CA). There are new stores and old stores. The problems at Borders weren't limited to this thing or that thing, but to anything and everything.

There's still no recognition that the company needs to use the strengthened cash position it could have coming out of this filing to strengthen its supply chain, speed replenishment, and update reordering and inventory systems to match B&N. The bankruptcy filing still lists things like "strengthen Borders Rewards Plus" and "start selling related non-book items" as the major focus areas of the turnaround plan. These things aren't going to cut it, if they don't deal with the supply chain.

Personnel? Let's say you're a good GM who's been working at a store selling lots of books with too high a rent, and there's some other store that's surviving because the rent is cheap even though the store itself is managed like shit? With all the tumult, are there people who are going to try and be sure the bad GMs are the ones who end up exiting, and the better GMs will somehow find their way to the stronger remaining stores? Of course there are also a lot of hourly employees who are out of work now, many of them wonderful people. I think here of the clerk at the LA/Howard Hughes Plaza Borders who helped track down copies of some Peter V. Brett books when we did drive-by signings in the area last August. There are a lot of great people like that.

Recovery: Borders needs to make May Day into Borders Day, or something. Somebody needs to work on having a major event with the best author they can possibly find at every surviving Borders store as a way to get some people into the store, make people aware publicly and in a very big way that the surviving stores are in business. I doubt there's anyone working on this.

The closing list emphasizes the folly of all the money Borders spent on remodels. If the store was losing money, did it really matter if it was losing it selling music and movies instead of bargain books? There's so much mis-deployed capital investment represented here.

This is a terribly sad day for me, made at least tolerable because it's the necessary and too long in coming capstone to an event that was becoming inevitable. Several of the earliest Borders stores I ever visited are soon to leave, many of them stores I used to love to visit, that once were truly marvelous stores to shop. There are business concerns I think about, this is real shitty timing with regard to the paperback releases of Oath of Fealty by Elizabeth Moon and The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett as an example. But my thoughts are less there right now, than with the long-time friends I am losing.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Threes

First, let it be said that the episode of Glee after the Super Bowl was simply dreadful. I've watched some Glee, and it can achieve real heights. This contrived boring uninteresting filled-with-bad-musical-numbers of songs-nobody-would-care-about episode was nowhere near anything good. A shame.

I saw three theatrical pieces in DC this past weekend.

Black Watch is a play I've been wanting to see very badly. It played in New York a year-and-a-half or so ago to rave incredible reviews and multiple extensions. It's two week tour stop in DC at the Shakespeare Theatre was the main impetus for heading down. It wasn't quite like the Shakespeare-shaped cookie cutter in the gift shop wasn't more interesting than the play, but closer than I'd have expected considering the reviews, that's for sure. The Black Watch is a Scottish military regiment which dates back to the 1880s and which served in Afghanistan. This play is too many things and not enough of any of them. It's framed as a journalist interviewing members of the regiment after their experiences in Afghanistan, but it doesn't have any characters. It has mouthpieces to tell the history of the regiment, or a little about the war in Afghanistan. Because it doesn't have characters, it can't get across a "war is hell" message near as good as a Full Metal Jacket. Because the history of the regiment isn't intrinsically interesting to a non-Scottish audience but is very important to the National Theatre of Scotland, whose production this is, it isn't sure whether to tell lots of history or little pieces of it. The staging is kind of all over the place. There's a lively but pointless scene where one member of the regiment is lifted off his feet multiple times so different kilts or hats can be put on him to symbolize different parts of the regiment's history. It's different, at least. The setting makes decent use of the steel box shelter unit which I'm told is used in the military theatre. At the end, everyone marches around the stage in something that seems to be the "war is hell" moment where members of the regiment falter and get back up, but it's a gesture. And it goes on way too long since the production is done with seating on both sides, so it's like every piece of the action has to be done twice with the company facing both ways. It's better than I'm making it sound, lively and passionately done, it kept me awake. Still, I left thinking as much on the pointlessness of my two hours in the theatre as I did on the pointlessness of war -- the majesty of the fighting arts either, for that matter.

The historic Ford's Theatre in DC has been nicely renovated, with a new lobby area that makes it much more suitable for use as an ongoing theatre and living museum instead of just a museum of the Lincoln assassination, which is still marked in his box. I went there to see Horton Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children, which I might have skipped if I'd known it was a monologue play. I don't like monologue plays. A good play play, you can feel like you're observing some version of reality. If the actors break the third wall at some point, it's an acceptable device. But to have people just talk and talk and talk like the audience isn't there but who then are they talking to is just an artificial device that in real life would be associated with mentally ill people regaling on a crowded subway train. But as monologue plays goes, this one was actually pretty good. The three actresses are telling different pieces of the same story, about a northerner and his kin living in a small Southern town after the Civil War. The actresses are very good, all veterans of the DC stage and frequent nominees or winners in DC's Helen Hayes Awards for theatre. It's a real story, and not quite just people droning on as bad monologue plays can be. I once read that acting is about listening, and I don't know if it's because the scripts are better or the actresses really really good, but there's more interaction even when silent between the actress who's telling her story at any given point and the two others that are on stage. Usually, the staging of a monologe play has no idea what to do with the other characters in the pieces, and here they actually have a purpose. Count this as a pleasant surprise, at least in this production.

I liked Tynan some, would have liked it more if I wasn't so so tired the night I saw it that I was having trouble staying awake for no particular fault of the play's. This is a one-man show which is playing at the Studio Theatre about the British critic and later writer for The New Yorker Kenneth Tynan, who long kept a diary from which this pleasantly acerb play is drawn. It's a one man show, quite nicely acted by Philip Goodwin, and I felt pleasantly educated by the experience of seeing. I do wish, as I'd said, that I'd been a little more awake, but my long day beforehand of shopping by and at the Potomac Mills, including a visit to Borders #262 in Woodbridge, my 234th visited, left me beat.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

after the fall

One of my clients was wondering what effect a Borders bankruptcy might have on major publishers.

At least there, the answer is "not as big as you might think." Let us say Borders was 12% of the company's business, and that Borders was not paying for two of the biggest holiday months, so that this would be more like 1/3 of their annual billing with Borders than 1/6 of it. So that ends up being around 4% of your expected income where you've actually paid for and printed and shipped books and incurred all of those costs and you're stuck with the bill. Now, that's a big hit. A very big hit. It could take your expected profit and narrow or shrink it, maybe even put you into a loss situation for the year. But it's an absorbable hit, especially when you realize that most of the major publishers are part of huge international conglomerates with publishing operations in lots and lots of different countries. And this isn't the first time a major player in the industry has gone bankrupt. Borders UK went belly-up 14 months ago, and a major distributor in the US went belly-up several years back.

There are other effects. There are some books that went to press with the expectation that copies would go to Borders, and now those books might be sitting in the warehouse instead. Moving forward, there will be fewer Borders stores, the number circulating is that 150-200 of around 450 may close in a bankruptcy filing. Some of those sales will be lost. However, it's important to keep in mind that the stores that are closing, many of them will be stores that have not been doing a lot of business in recent years, maybe a few like the Borders on Park Ave. in Manhattan that does a decent business but with too high a rent, but if they close 35-40% of their stores, those stores are likely to be closer to 20% of the actual business Borders has been doing. So that would be something like 2.5% of the business that will disappear or migrate to other bookstores or sales channels. There are some stores that don't have a B&N anywhere nearby, Kris Rusch talked about how her one hour drive to a Borders would become two hours to a B&N, so if that Borders were to close there would clearly be people who wouldn't drive two hours to buy a book. But in other instances, if the Borders in Commack closes people are all driving out there anyway, most of them can drive another mile, mile-and-a-half to the B&N in Commack.

Even right now, I went into the Borders in Kips Bay Manhattan on Wednesday night, and it certainly didn't have that dying bookstore look that I've seen before, like in the final years of Wordsworth in Harvard Square. Borders is paying cash for important books they need to have to keep the business going, Ingram is still supplying on terms unknown. I don't think unsecured debtor publishers will get zero cents on the dollar.

Right now, we're in that time when nobody knows exactly what happens. The Kips Bay Borders is theoretically getting 4 copies of one Del Rey book I have in March, 3 copies of another. Will they pay cash to Random House, or get them from Ingram, or not actually get them? If there is a bankruptcy filing, this store will almost certainly be on the list of those closing, so will they still get books intended to arrive two or three weeks after the filing, or will they cancel them? Multiply this out by lots and lots of books and you can see how much uncertainty there is. So we worry. We should worry. But this will not likely be the end of the world.

This is not to say there are not smaller publishers in the world or publishers without a cushion or publishers who do a much bigger share of their business with Borders who will feel this much much much harder than the average publisher. And yes, some of them may end up going under as an aftershock if Borders goes under.

Also, there will be some books, the Goblin books by Jim Hines are an example of books that are carried at Borders and not at Barnes & Noble, and there will be particular books that might die if Borders dies. However, if Borders does not die completely but does live on with 62% of its current store base which does 80% of its current business, those books may not die. This may not be as bad as when Borders entirely dropped titles in spring 2008 when it first developed liquidity issues. And even then, keep in mind that books die on a regular basis when B&N or Borders decides to cut a title loose.

Part of me thinks I'm being too rosy in this blog post. Let me emphasize again, there are some books and some authors and some publishers that will get hurt very badly, that are already hurt very badly by what's happened already, perhaps fatally. And if 200 stores close, there could be thousands of employees who lose their jobs, just as hundreds already have at the 50 stores Borders closed in the last six months and at the warehouses that have been closed and in positions that have been made redundant at all levels of the company. At the same time, as I've said for a long time, publishing has been dying for as long as I've been in the industry, just shy of 25 years, and the industry still lives. It will still be around, whatever the fate of Borders, six months or six years from now.

If Borders closes 200 stores, plus all the stores already closed... I'm trying not to be a piler-onner. There are clearly a lot of bad real estate decisions. But some of those bad real estate decisions, I'd have made. Borders #228 in Manhattan, I'd have signed that lease twelve or fifteen years ago. New retail development in an underserved area of Manhattan, no bookstore in the immediate vicinity as we reckon such things in Manhattan, adjacent to a big 15-screen Loews movie theatre I'd have signed that lease, darned tootin' I would have. And it was a nice store, with a nice selection when it opened, a perfectly delightful place to go shopping. And I can't tell you why that store never did a particularly good business. Never. The problem isn't the lease, per se, but how long of a lease it was, that the store's been open more than ten years doing not such a good business and probably not making very much money even in its best of days, and the only way to escape the lease is to go bankrupt. There are other decisions that seem more questionable. Clearly they overpaid for the Park Ave. location. The King St. San Francisco store that closed in the fall, that store I don't know where they were thinking they'd find customers. All those decisions have been compounded by an inventory system that didn't give bad stores a chance at redemption, and by spending lots of money to remodel stores that never had better days and never were (the philosophy at Sears which hasn't spent tons of money remodeling stores thus earning demerits from many who write about such things does have its merits). But if a bad decision is only bad with the benefit of hindsight, let us admit that that decision, at least, wasn't bad at the time.