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, March 28, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #5 Collaboratively Speaking

For part two of my Elizabeth Moon musings, this is a good occasion to talk about the benefit of doing collaborative work.

There are two approaches here.

One is where you put an author on to a Star Wars or Halo novel, expecting to get the Star Wars or Halo audience to rub off. This NEVER works, in my opinion or experience. People who buy media novels, they might be readers but they're media readers. For the rare thing like when Tim Zahn launched the original Star Wars fiction line 18 years ago, it can be SO big that even a small percentage of carry over is SO big that it can make a visible small dent in the base of sales for a much smaller regular novel. But for the most part, an author should do these things for the money or for the love of the media product, and nothing else. There's no umbra or penumbra or coattail or other benefit to be had, maybe that you're making the publisher happy because the publishers keep seeming to think this kind of thing is so wonderful you really ought be doing it.

The second, represented by the Planet Pirates books, is to collaborate (back then, "sharecrop" was a term often used) in another author's world. And when you have two good authors that are a good match for one another, this kind of thing can work very very well indeed.

SASSINAK by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon was the biggest Baen book to that time, an instant and immediate success and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And it did indeed bring more people to Elizabeth's own work. [Newer readers may not realize just how big a name Anne McCaffrey was back then, she's still a big name to be sure but was at the height of it 20 years ago.]

But, this worked only because the authors really liked one another, and they had a similar look and feel to their work, so it was a good fit. If not a marriage of equals, Elizabeth was enough regarded in the field that this could be seen as a real novel and not as exploitation. Same thing today with Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson on Wheel of Time, even more so as the two authors and series are all even bigger than McCaffrey Moon then.

However, the trap is this. Most of the benefit of the collaboration is realized from doing it once. There are only so many Robert Jordan fans, only so many Anne McCaffrey fans, and they're not minting so many new fans between books that you'll find scads more who will decide to sample the partner's work between 1st and 2nd collaboration. Grab what you can from doing once, then give your new fans new work of yours.

So In an ideal world to Joshua Bilmes the Literary Agent, Elizabeth Moon walks away from doing GENERATION WARRIORS and Brandon Sanderson walks away from doing TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT unless given a much better deal than on the first book, because their careers are now improved to the point where they are much better off doing their own new book which they own 100% of than doing a collaborative book for a much smaller percentage. In the real world, the younger author knows that the publisher wants them to do more and doesn't see as the younger author that the publisher might if push came to shove pressure the established to give a better deal. And is a fan and enjoying the relationship. And even though the long term benefit is to do solo work the immediate advance will often be bigger for the collaboration than for the solo project.

So intellectually, I know and understand and respect why have little success getting my clients to let me be a mean ogre in negotiating book #2 of these collaborations, same reasons why collaboration #1 works are why author will want a collaboration #2.

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #4

With Elizabeth Moon's newest book KINGS OF THE NORTH now on sale and (knock wood) headed somewhere on the NY Times extended bestseller list, seems like a good time to send an anniversary musing this direction.

Elizabeth was just starting to publish in Analog at around the same time I was starting at the Scott Meredith Agency. At Baen Books, where I'd done freelance work during college, publishing books by Analog authors was a kind of major sub-niche. And I was enjoying some of Elizabeth's early stories like "ABCs in Zero G" very much. And reading magazines and finding wonderful things and reaching out to authors was the kind of thing agents were supposed to do. So I asked the higher-ups at SMLA if it would be OK to reach out to Elizabeth Moon and ask if she had a novel.

Did she ever!

Rather to my surprise, since I was experiencing Elizabeth through excellent hard sf stories in the magazine full of hard sf stories, she had a completed fantasy trilogy around half a million words long. A fantasy trilogy? A fantasy trilogy???

And while I wasn't exclusively a science fiction reader, I was certainly more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader.

But I started reading this massive fantasy trilogy, and I found myself enjoying it. I read some of it at the Rego Park Burger King on a Saturday night, where my eating out treat (people working six months in publishing are not often rich) was using the Buy One Get One Free coupons for the original chicken sandwich. I read some of it on the grass at Juniper Valley Park, while people would ride or run or walk by and the novelty "Let's Go Mets Go" song that was extremely popular in the late summer of 1986 would play on their radios.

But getting back to the important parts of the story, I read it, and I liked it, and got the OK to take on Elizabeth, and she said yes, and off I went to try and sell the thing.

Elizabeth had been in the Marine Corps. As a young agent with less than a year on the job when I started marketing the trilogy, it didn't occur to me that you would mention something completely irrelevant like that in trying to sell a fantasy trilogy. A really really good fantasy trilogy. A clearly special and wonderful fantasy. Great book, author has credits in Analog. But then we'd start getting these rejections from people like Lester del Rey and (via Betsy Mitchell) Jim Baen that they couldn't buy into this whole "woman warrior" thing in the book. I was starting to get a little annoyed at this. Elizabeth was starting to get a little annoyed. I knew Betsy Mitchell, she'd given me my first job in publishing and all, so I called her up and said "Betsy, I've got to tell you this letter from Jim's annoying and Elizabeth's getting kind of upset because she's an ex-Marine and all of these people keep saying she can't write a fantasy with a woman warrior in it." [Not those exact words, but that was the gist of it.]

Well, Betsy was kind enough to take this information back to Jim Baen. And Jim, to his credit and because he is was always-will-be a fan of all things military, was man enough to change his mind and give Betsy the OK to buy the trilogy. That little thing about Elizabeth being in the military which it never occurred to me to mention in the cover letter became in a box on the back cover of Sheepfarmer's Daughter "Her background in military training and discipline imbue Sheepfarmer's Daughter and its sequels with a gritty realism that is all too rare in most current fantasy."

Lesson learned. When more recently taking Myke Cole's Control Point to publishers, his military training wasn't left to the reader's imagination.

And lesson for you to learn: Much as we hate to think it, life sometimes is not just about what you know, but who you know. There's a legit chance that if I hadn't known Betsy and felt comfortable enough to push back on her rejection that this classic fantasy trilogy would have been unsold for many more years.

So continuing with the story, Sheepfarmer's Daughter comes out the latter half of 1988, and however it is that word of mouth works people decide they like this one, and the book goes into a second printing very soon after the release date, and the next two books in the trilogy follow on a quarterly release schedule (the idea of having books come out close together from a new author wasn't invented recently) and the series is a hit, a genuine bona fide hit. This struck home for real when I popped in to the B. Dalton at Paramus Park Mall and saw that they had an entire shelf devoted to the work of Elizabeth Moon.

Elizabeth and I have been together 25 years so there's a lot that I can talk about and I will give her more musing. Part I, I end here, a part II tomorrow.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Dozen Eggs Breaking

Publishers Lunch links to the updated Borders closing list, with another 28 stores scheduled to close by the end of May, 12 of those stores that I have visited. As with the original list it includes stores of all shapes and sizes. Hollywood & Vine that did business but I doubt ever enough for the rent at that location. Milpitas CA which I will miss, because it was one of the nicest stores in the country for selling sf/fantasy on the day I visited. Fairfield CT, which I was surprised to see wasn't on the original list and which I'd visited on opening day and occasionally since as a quick on/off Metro North. Stamford CT is a somewhat historic site, as it had been put up by Waldenbooks prior to its purchase by Borders as part of their budding "Bassett Books" chain of superstores, the original location in Towson of Borders #44 that is now in Lutherville MD had been another. Braintree MA and Tacoma WA had both once been extremely prosperous, and I don't know if their demise reflects high rent or half of their business going elsewhere over the past several years. Federal Way, WA and Cranston, RI are both stores that had relocated to supposedly better locations. The store in downtown Philadelphia PA is another surprise because that store sold a lot of books and was still doing so at my last visit, but it was also a big store in a high rent location designed for selling books, music and movies (in fact, a relocation of an older smaller location that may have been books only) and likely has too big a rent bill for a time when there isn't much of a music and movie business any more. You think on these relocations and you realize how miserable the Borders strategists were at forecasting the demise of hard copy content sales.

In its bankruptcy filing, Borders reserved the right to close up to 75 more stores, so the additional 28 suggests that at least some stores were given rent concessions to help keep afloat. The very un-busy Glendale Queens store as an example gets to enjoy life still. Stores like Hollywood & Vine or in downtown Philly, there's not much of a chance the landlord will do Borders any favors because locations like that can almost certainly find new tenants.

I visited one ongoing Borders in Manhattan this week and one that is closing. Even a going out of business sale with 30% off and an extra 10% off for Borders Rewards (around 36% total discount) doesn't seem to move sf/fantasy at the Park Ave. Borders, which has many depleted sections but sf/f looking like it was hardly touched, and overall still has a surprising amount of inventory four weeks after the liquidation sale started. They're about ready to bring down the remaining merchandise on the 3rd floor music/movie area, and part of the 2nd floor was closed off. I was undercharged for my purchase, pointed it out, waited around while they re-rang, gave them an extra $10, and was given $18 in change. I didn't point out that they had now made a bad situation for them worse.

The front of store at the Columbus Circle store that is to remain open still had lots of books and looked very full. To give Borders credit for something, they've done a decent job of scrounging and scraping for inventory to give a good initial impression of things when you walk in the front door, and that is important. The store still had customers going in and out, but when you got into the actual section shelving you did notice that things were a little lighter inventory wise than usual. A theoretical order for 4 copies of Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon had turned into an actual order of 2 copies coming from Ingram, this goes on sale Tuesday and at least they'll have some. There were some books being reordered and on the way from one source or another, and 120 copies on order for the mass market of Charlaine Harris' Dead in the Family that is on sale in a couple of weeks. At the same time, there was supposed to be a promotion for the new Mark Hodder book in FOS Bay 4 from 15 March for 2 weeks, but no Borders stores have actually gotten the book, and who knows when or how or from who because the publisher can't be entirely pleased to have some money owing as a result of the bankruptcy. So it's a very mixed bag, the stores are there and open and at some level getting the titles they need to have to look that way, but they're going to suffer if they can't start to get back to ordering and restocking in the usual way.

A funny store I'm told third-hand. The closing stores are essentially managed by the liquidation company at this point, and as the romance section was being relocated and consolidated at Borders Wall St., management decreed that books should be arranged by price because people would be coming in to hunt for bargains. The employees did say that this was not such a good idea, and then did what they were told. Well, I'm looking for a bargain too, but if I'm going to find my bargains they better still have a semblance of alphabetization because I'm not that kind of a bargain hunter.

In other book news from Publishers Lunch, indie chain Joseph Beth is putting it up for sale and closing an additional store. They haven't been able to come up with a reorg plan that everyone likes since filing for bankruptcy in the fall, and the sale process now seems like the only way to keep any of the business ongoing.

And if you're interested in UK book news, here is an article from The Bookseller where the head of Waterstone's says the UK may have as much as 3 million excess square feet devoted to book distribution (not stores, but distribution facilities) and that he'd like to bring return rates down below 10%. A competitor says this would be too low because you then aren't taking enough chances, and this is in fact correct. Since it's impossible to tell in content business what will or won't work when it actually confronts the public, you need to be able to take a few uncertain bets in order to find the things that will work.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Borders update

Borders CEO Michael Edwards gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal and the company also had a conference call with creditors, which was covered by Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. The company will soon decide, based on discussions with landlords, on the fate of an additional 25 to 75 stores that may close. Publishers Marketplace does a good job of putting this into perspective. The 200 stores liquidating now were all drawn from the not quite 500 superstores so it was a full 40% in the initial round, and as few as 145 of those 500 stores were solidly profitable. That is a scary statistic. These articles differ on whether it not there will be a round of closings for the smaller format mall and airport stores.

The company is getting supplied by major suppliers on a cash basis. It is begging for the major publishers to resume shipping on regular terms. Good thing to hope for. Costco will brag in its annual reports that it churns inventory so fast it is often getting paid by its shoppers before having to pay suppliers, Borders has to pay suppliers long before it gets any money from customers. Publishers Marketplace doesn't see why anyone would resume selling on net plus 30 when Borders had a 50% return rate then stopped paying then went bankrupt, but after a point if publishers want to keep a diminished Borders around they will have to take some risks on resuming normal trading terms.

While the company will continue to sell a variety of e-readers in stores it intends to fully invest its marketing and promo efforts in the Kobo. In exchange Kobo will give Borders a piece of all of its US ebook sales. Publishers Marketplace hates this, says selling the same old also-ran eReaders as it has been as it's fallen behind in the business is more of the same old. I disagree. Barnes & Noble isn't going to start selling the Nook at Borders. It can do so at Books a Million because BAM is still a smaller chain with a smaller selection with a much smaller national footprint while large parts of the BN business plan in recent years are driven by gains based on consolidation, I.e., Borders going away. Amazon isn't going to start selling the Kindle at Borders. The only good strategy for Borders is to be the one bookstore chain that offers eReader choice instead of our way or highway. The only choice is selling things that aren't Nook or Kindle. Getting a few pennies on every Kobo ebook sold could be a valuable lifeline to Borders especially as the cash needs of the company will be much smaller moving forward because of the reduced store count and reduced drain on resources from unprofitable locations. Kobo needs the Borders distribution channel, especially with its Australian business now hurting due to the RED Group bankruptcy there. This is an intriguing development, one of the better pieces of news in the Borders Bankruptcy stew.

As in any major bankruptcy that isn't pre-packaged there are disagreements over how much time to give current management to come up with a reorg plan. Creditors want June, Borders as late as August, looming over is when people can plan for holiday ordering. Creditors say the Borders Debtor in Possession financing is both too big for immediate needs thus costing too much in fees while not being big enough to finance Borders thru the holidays. Publishers Marketplace does point out the inconsistency.

Website, Borders says they have lots of visitors but too many of whom leave without buying. Well, they don't offer the level of discounting that BN and Amazon do, they can't afford to necessarily, I don't know how Borders turns this around. And I like the Borders website now.

For a typical 25k sq ft superstore Borders would like to have 15k devoted to books and 10k for other stuff. This doesn't bother me prima facie other than for the implication that it could be yet another round of remodels for a company that has already spent far too much money and energy rarranging the deck chairs. Borders says sales at ongoing stores have surpassed expectations. Publishers Marketplace interpretation: people have been showing up at those stores expecting a fire sale and stay to buy things anyway. There are times I like the added snark and analysis on Publishers Marketplace compared to the offend no one blandness of Publishers Weekly, but today I do not. Yes, Borders is in bankruptcy, has been run like shit, may not survive, but Publishers Marketplace is so snarky on Borders now you get the impression that their stopped clock wouldn't even be right twice each day.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

taking it personally

Oh, the nuclear power industry. We tried scrubbing, we tried soaking, and still we have ring around the collar. The interesting thing from a risk management standpoint is that the old-fangled coal and gas plants kill people bit by bit from their emissions and the costs of getting the coal or the gas out of the ground. Over the course of 20 years, do we lose more people 22 in this coal mine disaster and another 6 there vs. how many might die from radiation exposure as a result of the Japanese disasters? It's impossible to tally all that up, especially when you add in the externalities of emissions, etc. But we do know that these occasional nuclear power disasters are very big and very noticeable and very disastrous. Hence, there is a perfectly good argument to make that nuclear is still an important and necessary part of our energy portfolio moving forward. I don't want to be the person who tries to make that argument with a straight face, even though it is there and legitimately made.

Libya. Idealistically yes please let's get rid of Qadaffi. However, the US doesn't have a good national security interest to make that happen. He does a perfectly good job of pumping the oil. In recent years (recent, we can't forget things like Lockerbie which are hardly ancient history but also not yesterday) he hasn't been an active exporter of violence that we know of. One of the only nuclear-trending regimes to give it up, in fact. No guarantee that the people who replace him will be better than he is, we've seen that tribal enmities in Africa don't die easily and that yesterday's savior (Mugabe) is tomorrow's disaster. It may not seem like the right thing to do, but as much as the US can sit this one right out we're likely better off to do so. Situation in Egypt was very different, in no small part because Egypt is essentially a 51st state, hugely dependent on the billions of dollars we give in aid. And it was also a little more abundantly clear there that Mubarak was going to go one way or the other in the near future, so getting it done better was in many more ways than in Libya a genuine need for American policy makers. It's very nice that the Arab League would support us in getting rid of Qadaffi, and I'm still not convinced we should rush to take them up on that invitation.

China. They're keeping the lid on the unrest, but they still run the risk of repeating the Soviet path. Why? Because they have to spend so much time, money, energy on protecting the regime that can be used for other things, and over time it gets to be very difficult to absorb those costs.

TSA. Which we don't seem to learn in the United States. We happily spend countless millions of dollars and lose enormous amounts of human time and energy and effort in order to fight -- well, who? what? Yes, the US will be victimized by another successful terrorist attack, sure as the sun will rise. But how many lives have been lost in the US due to terrorist attacks in the past nine years now and counting? Yet we give up our rights and our privacy and our freedom to guard against, and if the TSA has its way as it almost certainly will they want to make it less enjoyable to travel by train or by highway as well in the name of fighting this threat. On my most recent flight, I had a suspicious banana in my backpack, so I had to stand around for a few minutes and watch while my tax dollars paid for man to delicately paw through all the pockets on my backpack to retrieve a banana and then put the bag back thru the magnetometer. It's almost funny, except that it's really very very sad.

Liberty. But the right wing libertarians are more concerned about the government encroaching on their right to burn wasteful incandescent light bulbs. Why can't more of these people join me in the fight against unreasonable search and seizure, making the US more like the communist states we spent 50 years necessarily fighting where you had to have your papers to move about the country? Please. The incandescent light bulb is an ancient technology that turns electricity into more heat than light. Try and feel up one of those bulbs with your bare hands. There should be reasonable limits to the kind of nannying the state will indulge on our behalf, I think the argument that the health care mandate will lead to mandatory consumption of broccoli is, as straw man slippery slope arguments go, one of the more intriguing ones to puzzle over as a thought exercise. But I cannot see the defense of the incandescent light bulb as the last bastion of liberty. This is the exact kind of area where government regulation serves a powerful public good, keeping us from doing something that is cheaper to the individual and costlier to society. We are surrounded by examples of such. Flammable PJs might be cheaper to manufacture, but we aren't given that option. We survived the banning of CFCs in refrigerators. Please, pretty please, will you attack the TSA monstrosity instead of the compact fluorescent light bulb?

Building Codes. In fact these are a very good example of an area where good government regulation keeps us from things we might like to do or would find cheaper to do but which in the long term aren't such a good idea. Just like banning incandescent light bulbs!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #3


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me close with a tribute to the creative end.

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Going Busting

I'm scared by the full-throttle attack on public employee unions that's taking place in many of these United States rights now.

Not unambivalently. Unions can stand for featherbedding, for archaic work rules, for stagnation. But they can also help individual employees to stand up to large corporations, to help raise living standards for their members. Bottom line, there's a reason why big corporations fight so hard to keep unions out, and it isn't because they're looking out for the little guy. And every bad thing you can say about unions, you can say sometimes about employers. If there are union heads living high on the hog off member dues, there are corporate CEOs doing the same. There are businesses that are staying wedded to old ways of doing things. I spent seven years working for Scott Meredith, who was in many ways the epitome of a bad boss.

Public employee unions are a little bit more awkward for me, largely because most politicians of my acquaintance especially here in New York City are very fond of having union support, union phone banks, union contributions, and are very eager to do the bidding of unions in ways that are harmful to everyone else in the city. For many years in NYC, any felony trial required the jury to be sequestered during the deliberations, even if nobody in the media was covering or would care about the trial. This was expensive, disruptive, unappealing to potential jurors. But it also meant jobs for court officers who had to watch over the jurors. As a result, it took many many years to do away with this stupid law. Multiply that out by negotiations across the country, where public employee unions have won things in the legislature that they couldn't win through collective bargaining or gotten things in collective bargaining that have price tags paid after the mayor leaves office, and yes, public employee unions have contributed to the financial crisis that states are facing.

But...

It isn't just an expense problem that's leading to the fiscal crisis. It's also a revenue crisis because of the economic collapse, the Great Recession, of recent years.

The general tack of the argument is to say that public employees should be happy to give up on things like good medical care or good defined benefit pension plans or good protection against unjust job termination because workers in the private sector have seen all of these things eviscerated in recent years.

It says that your goal isn't to uplift people but to bring them down. It buys into the worst short term logic of the capitalist marketplace that puts short term profit over all other concerns. It buys into the idea that no government is good government and that the best tax is no tax.

And I don't buy into that philosophy.

We aren't going to make our country better, our business climate better, our prospects better, by having a country full of people who can't afford good medical care, who can't afford to retire, who have to worry that they'll be fired for teaching evolution.

The United States is a rich country. It shouldn't squander its resources, no person or family or business or government should, but rich people are quite capable of spending money in frivolous and silly ways, and some of that money can be paid over in taxes to the greater good of all of us. Regulation can create an environment where business can go and thrive just like good parenting can do that for children, and this is an analogy I'll take and run with. Corporations are often like children, rapacious in their quest for immediate gain with no cognizance that it isn't always good to get exactly what you want at any given particular time.

I'm a businessman. I get to deal with government red tape. It can be a pain in the neck. But I can see as my authors work with publishers how my ability to leverage a client list helps every author on my list to do better -- and could do better still if authors could actually collectively bargain with publishers. Follow the logic of Scott Walker, and if one author will agree to a 4% royalty then all should, if one author will sell film rights then all should, the goal should be to single-handedly protect the interests of the publisher until every author is thoroughly impoverished.

I want to say that some of the public employee unions have had this coming because they've been very corporate in their rapacious approach to using all tools at their disposal to get pension and benefit programs that are ultimately unsustainable. And how many of those unions would support a governor who says "no raises, I need to fund the pension plan!"

But we as a society won't be better off if we can cut them off at the knees, if we do away with the idea that good benefits and good middle class jobs are something worth fighting for. That's something Henry Ford recognized, that his employees had to have some chance of buying his cars.