About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Latent Ability

Today's the day, the official on sale for Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole, first in a three book deal with Ace.

Today's the day, the official on sale for the mass market edition of Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon, the 2nd book in a 5 book Paks World arc.

It's safe to say that these two authors represent very different paths to writing and selling a first novel.

Elizabeth Moon sat down some thirty years ago to write a short story. She wrote, the short story grew, grew into the three book series known as The Deed of Paksenarrion that is one of the most enduring fantasy series of the 1980s. How many fantasies published between 1985 and 1990 have been continuously in print since? I don't know, but it's likely not more than in the dozens. She didn't have to look for an agent, I liked her early stories in Analog and wrote a letter asking if she had a novel, and if it wasn't the sf novel I was expecting we can stipulate that it was good. It wasn't all super-duper easy, I did have to get Jim Baen to change his mind on publishing the series, using the fact that his editor in chief Betsy Mitchell was one of the only people I actually knew and had a relationship with at the dawn of my career. But nonetheless, she wrote a first novel, it found an agent, it was published without too much editing, and was on store shelves within two years of my first reading it, and hundreds of thousands of readers have explored the world of Paksenarrion in the 25 years following.

Myke Cole's path is a wee bit longer, and very instructive.

First, if you are an aspiring writer, you do need to try and get out there and meet people. Myke put in the time and effort to do that. I first met Myke and his Professor X, Peter V. Brett, at a SFWA NYC reception, we believe whatever year it was that it was held at some bar a tad south of the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. Myke and Peter have better recollections of this than I. I met them for good at Philcon in 2003. the first of the three years that this convention was held at the Marriott in downtown Philly in the dark pre-holiday days of December with such cheap hotel rates that it was impossible to resist. I'm not sure the move to mid-December was a great thing for Philcon, but it was certainly a good year for me. Peter, Myke and I hung out at the bar until the wee hours one night. The travel was good for all of us. You can sell a book by sending us a great query letter, but it sure doesn't hurt to rely on other tools and weapons and to invest in opportunities to network and meet and find what opportunities you can to get yourself out there in a good way.

So I probably read the first draft of Shadow Ops: Control Point, then called Latent in 2004.

Only, I hate to even call it that. That first draft bears so little resemblance to the book you're reading today (this can also be said of the first draft I read of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings) that I hate to even say I read a first draft of Latent. I didn't read the whole thing, I didn't come close to reading the whole thing. But there's this basic image that's stayed in my mind all that time, an image that's core to the concept, which in my mind is of a young magic user standing in ranks in the center of the Pentagon entering the Army's corp of magic users. The writing was good enough (I'm not even sure I'd even call it good, at that point, but the chapters I read weren't written to where they tripped over themselves) and the basic concept powerful enough that I felt it appropriate to offer encouragement to Myke to run somewhere (not in the run and hide way, the good kind of running) with it.

And after that? Well, nothing much really happened for several years. Myke and I kept in touch somewhat, it helped that he lived in DC, and I liked to visit DC, so we could hook up every so often when I was down there. We could talk, I could encourage, he could tell me about himself, he could help me paint my apartment, just about anything and everything except that there wasn't anything at all happening with this nifty concept he had for a novel. Myke was very involved with a lot of different things, had his tours to Iraq starting with the private contractor he was working with, very involved in thinking about different aspects of counterterrorism and the history of Islam, he seems cured temporarily of his big thing then of recommending everyone in the world read The Sling and the Stone. The only thing I read of his was a portion and outline for a fantasy novel that was deeply steeped in the things he was interested in at the time, so deeply steeped that it sunk and was a real step back from what I was wanting and hoping and expecting. But I liked Myke, we were becoming bona fide friends, and I kept trying to push him back in the direction of Latent. The idea still had some real pull on me.

Professor X was also trying to get him to focus on the task at hand.

And finally, right before one of his tours to Iraq, the new version of Latent finally arrived. And it was good. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was a fully embodied realization of the concept I'd first encountered five or six years before, better written and better plotted and singing out that it was a book that I needed to be working with.

I couldn't tell this to Myke.

He didn't want distractions during his tour in Iraq, so standing orders were to say nothing about the book until he returned.

I was much relieved when he returned safe and sound from his tour.

Now, the real work could begin. As is often the case, the fact that I liked a book enough to want to work with it was somewhat distant from saying I wanted to represent it. There were problems, issues, suggestions, things to be revised, and we went through another draft of two over what has to have been a year, maybe more.

Finally, in was July 2009, we went out to market with Latent. This has to be five years after I'd first read the first thing called Latent.

And then...

We've spoken about the importance of networking, let me also say here how important it can be to heed editorial advice from a committed agent, at least to a reasonable degree. Because one of the things I've learned time and again and which I learned again with Myke Cole and Latent, is that we can work through five drafts improving a manuscript, and I do mean improving it, and then we send it out to market and we find out that it needs to be improved some more.

That's what happened here. Multiple editors came back loathing and detesting what was then Part 2 of the manuscript. Nobody wanted to publish it as is. So Myke had to go back to the drawing board.

This was not an easy time for Myke and it wasn't an easy time for me as Myke's agent and friend. Myke may not want to use this word himself, but I think the experience was a little deflating for him. He'd done all of this work, I'd vouched for how good it was, I was excited and enthusiastic, and all we had was this stack of rejections.

I didn't see it that way, at least not entirely. We had a stack of rejections, but we had some editors who were willing to look at a revision and other editors who were willing and eager to look at another novel of Myke's, a foot in the door, a calling card, all those kinds of things you have but only when you don't have what you came for. I would try and remind Myke of this, I'd tell him that 99% of the authors who contacted our agency would be quite happy to be where Myke was in the fall of 2009, but still, where we were was kind of back to the drawing board to redo the manuscript with an entire large section of it needing to be replaced and almost every page of the novel otherwise needing to be looked at for any changes necessary for consistency.

But Myke did what he needed to do, and as much as I'd liked the manuscript I'd sent out in July 2009, it was hard not to think that the new version that went out in June 2010 to a handful of editors was genuinely better.

And it did the trick.

Come the fall of 2010, we had offers from two publishing companies.

But even then, things weren't easy. Myke had a strong preference to work with Anne Sowards at Ace. There were editors who were open to seeing a revision, but Anne was the one who went a little bit further than that, really pushing and prodding and going a little beyond being open to really radiating a bone fide want, but the company was starting to make a strong push to get rights that we hadn't historically sold to them, and I had to explain to Myke that we couldn't say yes without really pushing back on those demands. Which meant another week or two or three of anxiety while we did that.

But even then, the process wasn't done. There were the requests from Anne and the sales/marketing people at Ace for changes to the author name and changes to the title, and we had to kind of decide that we were very firm that the author was Myke with a Y, but that we could try and come up with some different titles. So it was that Latent became Control Point, and Riven became Fortress Frontier, and Union became Breach Zone.

And the writing wasn't done, Now that Anne had actually acquired the book, it wasn't just "I'd love to see the book again if you totally junk the entire 2nd part of the book and replace it with something else," no, now it was pages of actual editorial notes, broad points and then the line-by-line.

I think that this long story has a happy ending. I think that this book that Myke Cole first started writing in 1998 and that I first kind of read five years after and which finally went to market five years after that and which finally sees print thirty months after that is going to be a success. The reviews have come in fast and furious over the past month, all of them good and most of them great. A common theme is that we're just into January but that this is going to be one of the debuts to beat for the rest of 2012. Myke has been busting his but doing guest blog posts and interviews and interfacing with reviewers. As we pass the witching hour and officially arrive into launch day, the book is in the top 10K in Amazon's Kindle store, the top 16K in books, These are quite respectable, more than that for a first novel since those generally don't see a lot of preorder activity. We have sold audio rights and UK rights and Czech rights, and the publisher has sold book club rights.

And you know, I've read this book four or six times in multiple drafts over close to a decade, and I still like it. It's better than good, it deserves the reviews it's gotten, and I think the people who are buying it this week are going to encourage their friends to buy it next week and next month.

And I've even now read Fortress Frontier. There's no sophomore jinx here.

If you've read to the end of this post, then you ought to find out what it is you've been reading about.

You can obtain your copy of Control Point here.

You can visit Myke at his web site here.

You can follow along on Twitter here.

FInally, most importantly, if there is one thing you take away from this post that you didn't know when you started reading a half hour or three hours ago, you can find out what kind of cake Myke wants on his birthday here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pirates!

This might disappoint some of my clients who've been tweeting about the on-line petitions against, but I find myself sympathizing more with the content providers than the internet providers on the SOPA/PIPA question.

Why?

Well, this weekend somebody e-mails me with a listing on eBay for a seller hawking complete sets of Sookie Stackhouse audios for £3.99. These are not legal. These are the copyrighted works of my client Charlaine Harris, and the sound recordings themselves are (p) Recorded Books, Inc., and the rights to sell these in the UK belong to the Orion Publishing Group. I don't believe for a single solitary second that the person who's putting up these listings thinks it's legal to run his/her own duplicating operation and to sell them on eBay for £3.99. And for that matter, I don't think the people buying these if they have half a brain or have ever been taught the "if it's too good to be true" think it's legal, either. And no, the seller isn't selling their one copy of the audios at whatever price they can get, they're selling multiple sets on this listing, and when this listing goes down they put up a new one with another batch.

You can't take the most basic step of reporting the seller by clicking the "report" link without being a registered eBay user. I have never been and have no desire ever to be a registered user of eBay, get along just fine without, thank you. And you can search high and low and up and down and left and right on eBay for an awfully long time without finding any depository e-mail for sending DCMA notices, there is no such thing, they just don't want to hear it.

Let me be blunt: eBay simply doesn't give a shit that it is aiding and abetting in the violation of copyright law.

So I don't want to hear eBay telling me about how I should oppose the cruelties of SOPA.

And of course, eBay is one of the good guys, a major corporation that theoretically has a reputation to care about.

What about the bad guys? As an example, a site that I was told about two weeks ago that has a raft of pirated A. Bertram Chandler e-books. This site is allegedly to help readers buy textbooks, what a generous kind group of people to help students. Oddly enough, their #1 category is science fiction and fantasy. The site doesn't have any depository e-mail for DCMA notices, or any contact information at all, for that matter. A request to their hosts, based in France, reveals that the registry is with group based in Poland. I decide I don't even want to try and complain, why not just draw a target on my back for Eastern Europan hackers to take their revenge. This site exists for no other purpose than to help in the infringement of copyrights, and the people who set up the site know it, and they're hiding behind their offshore addresses.

And guess what, I don't need eBay to run about running interference for these pirates. Or Yahoo, or Facebook, or Google, or whomever.

None of these major internet companies are our friends, they aren't my friends or your friends or your friends friends. There are big corporations, making huge sums of money, just like the big music companies and the big motion picture studios that have been trying to get SOPA passed.

I want to go after these people. I want the government to assist me in this. I want that copyright violators like this can at least be protested the same way that I can file a report about an illegal telemarking call to the FTC, maybe my one complaint won't do anything but if enough people complain, at least there's this sense that you can do something to fight people who are going around happily and knowingly breaking the law.

Now that I've vented, let me say that SOPA does go over the top. I don't like the idea of censoring search results. I don't think you should get zapped because you have one link somewhere to one person doing bad things.

So in that regard, it's good to have an opposition that might help to shave some of the rough edges off of the legislation.

But we need to make the criminals work a little harder.

I don't think, by the by, that these pirates are going to kill book publishing the way they killed Big Music. If for no other reason, than that people want whole books more than short stories, and the industry sells whole books at very reasonable prices. This is the exact opposite of the music industry, which thrived on selling whole books at high prices to people who really just wanted the short stories.

But even though I don't feel this person on eBay selling illegal copies of Charlaine Harris audios is going to kill the livelihood of Charlaine Harris or her agent, I don't think it's a good idea to treat laws like they are disposable, or things for us to ignore. I can't have a reader who's kind enough to tell me about the eBay listing and just shrug my shoulders and say, no, not worth worrying about. eBay shouldn't make it a challenge to report a crime in progress. It's a matter of principle to me.

And that's the kind of guy I am. I'm the kind of guy who called the NYFD to complain that a gym had a huge hamper of towels parked directly in front of the main fire exit. No, I didn't really expect there was going to be a fire, but fires do happen, and dozens of people die when those fires happen in places that have the fire exits blocked or locked.

So even though I don't think the pirates threaten me in a serious or urgent or immediate way, I want to have the might of law a little more on my side when it's necessary to go after them.

A lot of people disagree with me, some of my own clients. It happens, especially in these sorts of situations where we are trying to muddle through the fast-changing publishing industry. I had respectful disagreements with some of my clients on the proposed Google Books settlement, interestingly on that one I was siding with the Google Empire, on this one it's the clients siding with Google and the other big internet companies.

This is my personal opinion, it isn't an official opinion of the agency.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The JABberwocky CES

While the electronics world gets ready to gather in Las Vegas, we've been spending time over the holidays upgrading the JABberwocky IT.

2008 was a good year for JABberwocky, it was the year that True Blood arrived, but on our bottom line it was the last year to pre-date. And in that perfectly pleasant last year before the True Blood storm, our foreign commissions represented just under 18% of our total commissions for the year, which was about typical in percentage terms for the entire history of JABberwocky.

Well, we get to 2011, and our foreign commission income alone is bigger than the entirety of our commission income in 2008. And, foreign commissions are approximately 25% of our total. Most of this is a direct result of the success of Charlaine Harris and the Sookie Stackhouse novels following on the success of True Blood, but nowhere near all of it.

No, nowhere near all of it., In the UK, Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson and Jack Campbell and Peter Brett are all selling more copies week in and week out than our most successful author in the UK in 2008. And, in relationship to Charlaine Harris, Sanderson and Campbell are closer in percentage terms to our market leader than is the case in the US.

In Germany, Peter Brett is outselling Charlaine Harris, with a big enough lead that I doubt he'll be passed, and even though both have now made the Der Speigel bestseller lists. Brandon Sanderson is starting to sell big-time as well. with an excellent chance he will become our 3rd Der Speigel bestseller.

In Japan, Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books are selling far and away better than anything else we've previously had going in that market.

In Taiwan, Simon Green, Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett have all had books hitting the charts for Eslite, the country's biggest brick-and-mortar book retailer.

And, yes, in markets across the globe, Charlaine Harris is afire.

This is all quite wonderful, except that it means that our foreign business is now bigger than our entire business was just a few short years ago. We're consistently doing 100 deals overseas every year, and for way more books than that when multi-book deals are taken into account.

Which means, alas, that our tracking mechanisms were getting a bit creaky...

2008 was also the year when we first got Filemaker and started to create our databases for keeping track of pretty much everything worth keeping track of, but as mentioned above that was when our entire business was smaller than our foreign desk in 2008. And when most of the royalty payments and such were coming from a small number of territories with really good on-the-ball sub-agents whose excellent IT we could coast on. Not so now, when royalties are coming in, sometimes in significant amounts, from twelve or twenty territories over the course of a year.

So off we go into our Deals database, to set up new tables and portals to allow us to quickly look in a nice and pretty way at all of our advances and royalties due by sub-agent in each overseas territory. Eureka moment, finally figuring out that something having to do with the relational graph for a relational database meant that the portals were only working for the existing author sorts if the author had some kind of listing in the royalty chart as well as a listing in the advances chart.

Then it's off to the database we were using to schedule our London Book Fair appointments and, as of 2011, Eddie's Bologna appointments. We probably could have built on the existing database, but it made more sense to start afresh. Now we have a database that will better allow us to check if we have a meeting with one editor at a particular publishing company instead of with some other editor, we have prettier layouts to track all of the people we maybe want to meet with by country so that we can more easily work with our sub-agents to keep those things up to date. We'll have a better place to track which sub-agents want printed catalogs, electronic catalogs or both, and if we've actually mailed them out. We'll have better places to keep track of which things we've sold to which publishers so that we know what we're supposed to talk about when we get to our appointments. It will work so that we can have a consolidated database for both Bologna and London. Not that we couldn't do all of those things a year ago, but that now we'll be able to do all of them better.

Today's eureka moment, getting out the Filemaker book and studying up on the "Send Email" scripting, so that now we can send e-mails to take care of scheduling from within the database, instead of having to copy and paste addresses into the e-mail program. And now that we've done that, it means that we can more easily target all kinds of other e-mails. The e-mails we send out when an author hits the bestseller lists, or gets an award nomination, we can now set up a way that an e-mail about Simon Green hitting the bestseller lists can go not only to our sub-agents, but also to publishers who are publishing Simon Green.

At this point, some of you might be rolling your eyes in disbelief that we haven't been doing all of that kind of stuff routinely for years now. Well, maybe you're right, except that my gut instinct tells me that our overall IT process for keeping track of different things was probably better than for a lot of other agencies before we made all of these improvements, and that now it's just that much better. Most literary agencies are rather small, 12 employees or fewer, often way fewer, not a huge IT budget. Most of them have probably gotten basic management software of some sort off the shelf to track deals and handle basic payments, but I doubt they go too much further than that.

I feel as if the hard work is done, it's always an experience to me when I'm getting out the MIssing Manual for Filemaker and playing around with it like I have half an idea what it is that I'm doing. Phew! But now that we have the capability to keep track of all the data, it also means a little more to do day-in day-out for every deal. We can keep track of royalties due by sub-agent, but now we have to start adding sub-agents to the royalties due table. Small things like that will take only a few extra seconds for each deal, but when you multiply each step with a few extra seconds by 130 deals, it's not an invisible amount of time.

And it means using the information, going at it with out sub-agents more often on payments that should have come in, on checking if a publisher purchased books #1-3 in a five-book series when/if they plan to get around to buying those last two. I like it when I occasionally have an author asking about a particular advance or royalty or something, because it's good to know that some authors are out there keeping on top of these things, which reminds us to keep on top of them for all of our clients. At the same time, if every author for every one of those hundreds of foreign deals is wondering monthly about when a payment comes in or when a book is scheduled to appear in Portugal, you can spend too much time dealing with that instead of actually selling books in Portugal, it's no different for the agents we work with overseas.

Still and all, on the whole I'm pretty happy. I've worked very hard on foreign rights over the entire 17 year history of JABberwocky, and it's exciting to see that our business is more global than it's ever been before, and likely only to become moreso, And I think we've done what we needed to do to keep on top of all of it. Still, thinking of all those new fields in new tables and new layouts that need to be populated -- well, that's not the fun side of the business, not where the glamour is.

And if we can just be sure not to use that e-mail script step to do one of those NY Times things and actually send 8 million people and e-mail that was intended for 362. What's that thing Spider Man says, about awesome power and awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Barnes & Borders

Publishers Lunch Daily has a list of Barnes & Noble locations that have quietly closed at the end of 2011.

The demise of their big and busy store in the University Village mall just down the hill from the University of Washington and its University Bookstore had been known to me earlier. But also of interest is that their store in Washington DC's Georgetown neighborhood has also shuttered.

Going back fifteen years ago in the earliest days of B&N's nationwide superstore expansion, they would take out ads in places like The New Republic to ballyhoo their wonderful selection, including of academic, scholarly U Press type books. Those two stores, University Village and Georgetown, were two of the half dozen or so locations that would be specifically included in those posts. So to see those two stores closing at pretty much the same time kind of brings down the curtain on a small part of the book superstore era.

The University Village store is one that I'll certainly miss as a literary agent for sf/fantasy. Not so much the one in Georgetown, which sold very little in the genre though it was overall still considered a kind of flagship store for the company and had a depth of inventory that went beyond what was justified by its sales. That store gave me "Evanston moments."

Because it was visiting Evanston, IL, I'd guess when I was over for WorldCon in 2000, that I first came across a Borders with a really really godawful surprisingly bad sf/fantasy section, which theretofore I'd never known such a thing existed, and then popped across the street to the B&N which had a much better selection, but you could tell by looking at the yellowed books and how they would have the 5th printing of a Deathstalker novel that was several months into a 6th printing that they weren't actually selling sf/fantasy but at least deserved credit for having the selection.

That was a strength of B&N for many years, to have a more consistent core title selection across their entire range of stores, and that was the Georgetown store, to go in and be grateful they were carrying a lot of JABberwocky titles but to be deeply depressed by the deeply yellowed tops of the books.

But to get to the actual two points of the post...

1. B&N is getting very Borders like in their selection now. They're no longer bothering with a core stock across the full range of their stores. It used to be, and I felt this lack of brand identity was a very big problem for Borders that did not serve them well, that I could go to the Borders in Commack and find half the selection of the Stony Brook store a few miles away, while the B&N gap was more like 2/3 or 3/4 of the title count in a bad store vs. a good one. Now, the Tribeca B&N carries fewer than half the titles in Union Square. The B&N in Bayside Queens carries only two of the six "Lost Fleet" paperbacks, and these are up there with the Nightside books as the top-selling JABberwocky titles after Charlaine Harris, Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett.

Now, B&N doesn't have to worry about physical competition the way Borders had to worry about competition from B&N. But there is competition from Amazon. There's a school of thought that says it doesn't make any sense for B&N to compete with the long tail of Amazon because there's no way to do it so why even try, as a B&N you're selling something other than whether the store carries two Lost Fleet paperbacks or six. I'm not there. Cost of inventory in mass market is not a huge factor in the success or failure of your business, I still think if you're a B&N and you want to give people an excuse to get in their car and visit your store that you can't nickle and dime. B&N knew this once, and it saddens me that they no longer do. That said, times have changed, and maybe it doesn't matter the way it did six or eight years ago that your stores had full runs of the key series while the other guys did not.

2. I used to visit DC for a four day weekend in no small part because I loved to take the temperature of a very big bookselling market. I could easily visit 6 B&N, 8 Borders, a handful of Waldenbooks, a few Daltons, a handful of Olsson's, some Books a Million. I could easily visit a very very impressive 30-35 bookstores over a long weekend. Now there's nothing left to visit. The mall stores slowly disappeared. Then Olsson's went bankrupt. Then Borders started to close the underperformers before now closing entirely. And the Books a Million in Old Town Alexandria is gone as well.

So let's see, now on a DC visit I can go around and visit the Dalton/now B&N in Union Station, B&N on E St., Clarendon, Rockville, Springfield, Potomac Yard and Bethesda. KramerBooks and Books a Million in Dupont Circle. Politics & Prose. Whatever's before security at National Airport. So that trip's gone from 32 bookstores to 10. And really, not even that. Traipsing out to Rockville or Springfield made sense when I could visit both a Borders and B&N, not just to visit another B&N. Potomac Yard is a pain to get to without a car, I'm not up for that any more. Politics & Prose is a pain to get to and doesn't really have much of an sf/f section so what's the point. I used to think about dragging in some of these just to make the list of stores visited look very very impressive for claiming the trips as business. Now, I can go to DC and actually justify visiting all of seven bookstores that might offer a reasonable return on the schlepping.

Am I right to find this depressing?

Because that's one way to look at it, with each new bookstore that closes more and more of us can now choose to drive several more miles than before to visit a boring B&N that maybe doesn't even bother to carry the entire Lost Fleet series in mass market. [Another of the B&N that's said to have closed is their Westside Pavilion store just south of Westwood in LA; with the Borders having closed a year prior to the bankruptcy, this introduces yet another urban book-buying desert, with the closest stores now requiring a schlep several miles west to Santa Monica or east to the Grove.]

Intellectually, I know that we can also all now sit in our easy chairs and buy pretty much whatever book we want in a minute or two on our iPads or our Nooks, our Kindles or our phones.

But you know, even that kind of depresses me in a way.