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, December 31, 2012

Recaparama

I guess it's that time of year when we talk about the year that was...

On the business end of things:

When you're a literary agent, your work often comes ahead of the reward.  With the time lag between a book selling and the royalty reports coming along, a book that sells in January might not bring a royalty until November or with reserves against returns until the following May.  So in 2009 and 2010, we were getting paid for when there were 8 or 9 Sookie Stackhouse books on the bestseller lists in 2008 and 2009.  We were getting paid a lot.  It was also a bit like a one-legged stool, a bit unstable because so much of the income was coming in just a couple checks each year.

In the years since, the business has become more stable.  The Charlaine Harris business is still huge, not as big as when there were 9 books on the bestseller list but still big.  Other authors have gotten bigger in the past few years, Brandon Sanderson or Peter Brett or Jack Campbell.  Not so much bigger as to totally make up for that whole "not having 9 books on the bestseller list at once" thing, but bigger.  So even if my total income is down, I'm happy because the overall business is somewhat more stable.

But 2012 and 2013 are definitely inflection years.  The business is more stable, but because the income isn't just from two checks a year.  So 2012 starts with me, Eddie and Jessie still working out of the living room of my old apartment.  By February we are looking for a real office.  By May, we are in one.  By June, we have added another person to the staff with Brady McReynolds on board to handle foreign rights.  By September or October it becomes obvious we don't have enough people to do everything we need to be doing and we end the year with two 2-day part-timers.  New office, new staff, all of these things cost money, and we're making less of it in 2012 than in 2011.

But we've also had multiple clients move over from other agents to JABberwocky.  Ari Marmell with Jessie, the Ellery Queen estate which Joshua had to leave behind when he left a larger agency to start his own in 1994 is back in the fold.  TC McCarthy and Marie Brennan.  And Ben Parzybok.  The year ends with Joshua getting an offer on a first novel.  We sell audio rights to upwards of 300 titles.  The e-book program grows, and by putting some of the audio money to use on conversion and cover costs it may double in title count in 2013.  Brandon Sanderson doesn't have a new book-length work come out but he has two novellas appear, we sell two new YA series, Rithmatist and Steelheart, that will come out in 2013, and he starts work on the 2nd Stormlight Archive book, so what seems like a quiet year for Brandon is actually a very important one.  Peter Brett turns in The Daylight War, which goes on sale in six weeks and is going to be a major international bestseller in the New Year.  The first of the YA/middle grade novels that Eddie has sold start to appear in stores, I'm a little disapppointed that the brilliant Chasing the Skip by Janci Patterson was so under-published by the people who grabbed it in a pre-empt with such excitement (everyone reading this post should read this book, everyone) but Adam-Troy Castro's Gustav Gloom and the People Taker is launched to good success.  Even though it will never be 2008/09 for Sookie Stackhouse, the series conclusion in May 2013 will be one of the major publishing events of the year.  All of these things feed on themselves, without Brady on board Eddie maybe doesn't have time to take on the new clients Eddie is taking on.  So even though I am spending more money (money to update the databases that I thought we'd nicely updated not so long ago...) while my top line revenue is going down, I feel content.  I will not be content if we're doing all this work and adding all this staff and not seeing some top-line year-over-year growth in 2014 vs. 2013, but that's for two years from now.

Idle thoughts on the business:

Do I mind that Charlaine Harris is winding down the Sookie Stackhouse series?  No!  One of the reasons Charlaine is so successful is because she's always stopped writing a series when she thinks it's run its course.  I'm very excited about the new Midnight Pawn series she's working on now, about the Cemetery Girl graphic novel she and Christopher Golden are working on.  And that's not just agent-speak.  For all the success of the Sookie novels, my mom won't read them because they have vampires in them.  Charlaine is ending a series that has done phenomenally well, in part because it appeals across genre lines, but there are also a lot of people like my mom out there.

I've said over the course of the year that I didn't think the e-book business would continue jumping up by leaps and bounds, that e-readers were cheap enough a year ago that the biggest book buyers probably for the most part had an e-reader in their hands by January 1 2012.  There are signs that this is correct, publishers are saying digital growth is starting to moderate.  However, we're still feeling our way to an e-book future with a lot more change to come from this transition.  All of us can see Barnes & Noble, as an example, where growth in the Nook business is slowing when they want it to be growing because of saturation and the transition from e-readers to tablets.  Their best locations are at risk because they can't pay the rent that others can pay (interestingly enough, Borders had longer leases on their stores which hurt them when their business soured, but now the generally shorter lease terms for B&N are a risk) while their lesser locations are at greatest risk of becoming unprofitable even with smaller drops in sales.  Less obvious to readers but of crucial importance to writers and agents, the actual ability to sell English-language books in the US, the UK and Australia is still heavily driven by the commitment of a local publisher to publicizing books locally, but the growth in e-books and the power shift from local retailers to Amazon may make it harder and harder to sell books locally instead of to large conglomerates intent on a global strategy.  There've always been little dust-ups over territoriality that end up not amounting to much at the end, this may be a little different.

And just to mention again in a year-end wrap-up, 2012 was clearly a year in which we could see the ability of the internet to sell books, NPR for Tobias Buckell, iO9 for EC Myers, general blog touring for Myke Cole.  I was once worried about how people could find books without physical bookstores to find them in, but I am comforted to see that it can be done. New thing in 2012 that I've never done before, calling some clients about cover reveals that their publishers have offered for the client websites and kind of ordering them never never never ever never to do such a thing, if you know anyone in the internet besides yourself you find a good third party location to do reveals where they will be discovered most readily by people not already your fans instead of doing them within your own community, they may want to have an exclusive for a day or an hour after which you can do whatever you want on your website, but let someone else present you to the world.  Some publishers are better than others about arranging third party reveals on their own (and in general I find UK publishers to be ahead of US in this regard), authors seem to get it when I explain but often don't understand it instinctively on their own.

I never expected this to happen, but I've virtually stopped visiting bookstores.  I don't like Barnes & Noble very much, so many of their stores now have such awful selections, and they bore me.  Indies often don't have sf sections.  Just in general, if I could justify making a trip to a DC suburb to visit a B&N and a Borders and maybe a lingering mall store, I can't justify an hour or more of round trip transit time to spend 10 or 15 minutes visiting just a B&N.  So much of our business is now coming from e-book sales instead of sales in actual bookstores.  There's logic to it, but it leaves a bit of an empty pit in my heart.  It's as recently as ten or fifteen years ago that I could spend a day visiting bookstores, spending a half hour more more in each Borders and feeling something special about it.

On a personal front:

Which means, since I'm not visiting bookstores, that I have time to do other things, but it's a struggle for me to spend that time productively, or to think of the excuse when I'm visiting a new city to get out and see the world.  When it works, finding time to do a first-time walk on the Custis Trail to get out to West Falls Church for a dinner instead of taking the Metro, it's nice, but too often I can feel like I'm stretching for a reason/excuse to get out of the routine.

But the big news in 2012 was to have my parents moving back north, from a retirement community in south Florida to an assisted living facility in Connecticut.  My mother had a very bad health scare in the spring, bad enough that I spent my first days in London ahead of London Book Fair wondering if I might be leaving an empty spot at our tables.  It got to be as bad as it did because it was difficult for my parents to deal with it on their own, and once they got some help to get the process going it wasn't a difficult thing to treat.  But I and my four siblings had to have an intervention, as good a word as any, and tell my parents that things had to change.  Not an easy conversation.  Once my parents took the (not so subtle) hint they ended up moving within a few months.  Happily, my parents are now complaining about everything.  Why happily?  They are eating better and have more energy.  They have a zest and thirst to be doing more than they are.  In Florida, they were doing less and less and not really noticing it.  I'm very happy I have four siblings, with four of them the transition cost me around two weeks out of the office spread in bits and pieces over the year and we were all able to do different things at different times.  I don't know how anything would have happened if there'd been just one or two children to help out with things.

During Sookie's peak years, I was able to buy a very nice apartment which should be affordable come what may, short of all the wheels coming off everything.  I've taken advantage of the space to start hosting regular games events for people to play old-fashioned word games like Scrabble and Boggle and new-fangled things like Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride.  I can't tell you how much pleasure I get out of this.  I enjoy playing the games, having people over, the people who come seem to have a good time, I've always gone to conventions and looked enviously at all the intriguing games in the games room, now I own some of them or have friends to bring them and actually get to play them.  I still have insecurity issues, and I worry with each games event that I schedule that it will be one of those embarrassing things where it will be me, Eeyore, and one other person.  I'm also always very insecure that all my clients will leave, after 25 years without too much of that happening maybe I shouldn't, but that insecurity does drive me to keep trying and doing my best.

The apartment also has a large walk-in closet.  A few years ago I discovered Express sold these brightly huged crew-neck Ts that looked so much nicer than the typical tee-shirt for summer wear or as part of an ensemble.  This year they started selling brightly-hued jeans that look decent on me even though I'm heading toward 50 and struggling not to go up a waist size.  But then the more hues of jeans they have, the more hues of Ts I want.  And then I want brightly hued shirts to go along with the jeans and the shirts.  I'm starting to feel like Imelda Marcos with the shoes as I fill the available space in the closet.   As recently as 2004 and 2005, I was making less money than what I now pay any of my full-time employees, in the early years of JABberwocky in the late 1990s I was a little embarrassed to admit to myself that I was making less running my own literary agency than if I were an editorial assistant for a small publishing house.  So I know there are times you don't have money to spend.  But if you don't have to do Old Navy, just to say I've been much happier going to fancier stores, the ones they have at the "good mall" like Kenneth Cole or Armani Exchange, and hunting in store or on-line for the things that are on the sale rack.  And the thing that annoys me is that I could have maybe started buying better stuff on sale for $40 over lesser stuff for $20 years before I actually started doing it. Right now with sale items and a coupon I have three really nice snazzy pair of pants in my shopping cart at Express for $65 total, which is not much money for three nice pair of pants.  Bottom line, I enter 2013 feeling like I have the wardrobe I should have, spending less than even I might think.  Alas, I then decided to splurge on a really nice designer label suit to end the year, I don't think it's something I could have done for $200 at J Crew, it certainly cost more than that.

So let's leave it at that.  I think I've covered the major events for 2012.

What Rhymes w/the Aliens' Great God Harper

In my last post I dumped a little on the critical herd for film reviewers.  They ain't the only ones.

I've seen a lot of theatre, this year I added a second off-Broadway subscription because it looked like a very good season at Playwrights Horizon.  I'm glad I did, not so much because all those plays have been wonderful but because the Broadway season -- there isn't a show on Broadway which I really want to see and haven't yet, so if not for the off-Broadway stuff I'd be going without.

Recently, I've seen a lot of plays that have had varying degrees of critical fawning but to my eyes are falling a little bit or a lot short, though unlike things like Harper Regan, which I walked out of, or Detroit, which collapses into inanity if it doesn't start there, are interesting failures.

The Whale by Samuel Hunter.  So you've got this really really fat guy brilliantly played by Shuler Hensley.   We're talking 600 lbs fat.  At first, it's hard to appreciate the performance because you're focusing on the fat suit, but once you get accustomed to the suit you focus on the face.  Why is The Whale so whalish?  It's some kind of reaction to something that happened several years ago when he and his boyfriend went to church and heard something that caused his boyfriend to shrink away into nothingness and death.  Getting super fat is a reaction.  So the Whale waddles around his home, teaching English over the internet.  Into this mix comes a Mormon Elder, the guy's estranged daughter who's teenaged into being a real fire-cracker, then his ex-wife, and a friend who also happens to be a nurse and might be the one person who cares about the Whale as a person instead of an embodiment.  There's a lot of stuff being stuffed in here, if you haven't noticed, and it's all very very very well acted.  Cory Michael Smith as the Elder, he's good.  Reyna de Courcy as the daughter, she makes an overwrought role seem very real.  There's a lot of really good writing.  But there's a but, or a few of them.  For one, if you know anything about Mormon missions, you know you don't have "an elder" visiting someone.  It's always two of them.  So the fact that there's a lone Elder constantly popping in is like a huge flashing klieg light that there's something up here.  Too far into the play, he's asked why he's alone and he gives and answer that doesn't entirely satisfy, and then, of course, like the gun in the first act that needs to be fired before the end of the play you soon enough find out there's something more going on with this character.  The teenage daughter isn't just a firecracker but is bordering on if not actually mentally ill, and she'll be doing things that take the play up to 11.  There are revelations about the finances, about the relationship between the man and his ex-wife.  It might be possible to write a play about the main thing, this 600-lb guy who's intent on wasting away, Samuel Hunter decides to write a play about a great many things.  Too many, really, and to connect them all together he drowns the play in endless metaphors.  There's this essay about Moby Dick which the guy had graded years and years ago, and he keeps on reading from it.  And it's not enough that the essay is about Moby Dick, so there's this whale, see, and the name of the play is The Whale.  No, there's something else about the essay as well to tie it together in the double secret probation of plot knots.   And there's so much going on that the most important thing, whatever it is that happened long ago at that church service, ends up hidden amidst everything else.  This is a good play, but it should have been a better one, if nothing else, just find some way to have "an Elder" showing up that tackles the "an" part in a convincing enough way that you can be a Mormon or know something about their missions and not spend the entire play wondering if either the playwright doesn't know about these things or if that klieg light is shining on something.

What Rhymes With America stars Chris Bauer, who plays Sheriff Bellefleur on True Blood.  You wouldn't know that he's a Yale Drama School grad with extensive theatre credits, but just for The Atlantic Theater he has a handful.  He was good a few years ago in Parlour Song, a bad Jez Butterworth play.  He's very very good in What Rhymes With America.  He's recently divorced from his wife, quite bitterly, and still clinging to visions of reconciliation even though things are so bitter that his daughter won't let him into their old house.  The opening scene, brilliantly written, is him and his daughter talking, the door is imaginary so it takes a bit to realize that he's standing outside and she's inside.  He does ham acting and there are several scenes of him talking to another of the actors in the play, comic relief but often revelatory about the character.  The comic highlight of the play is an overdone sex scene which is coitus interrupted when his ex-wife calls, and practically with his thing still in hers he starts telling the ex-wife how much she loves her.  From the perspective of the other woman, the one he's screwing when the phone rings, this isn't the best way to end the encounter, and the fact that the man starts saying this over the phone in the same room as if he's completely forgotten what he was doing is indicative of his overall common sense and self-awareness.  But as good as the play was, I was also dozing a bit in the middle of it, because it's ultimately just another play about a failed marriage, and in this one, the more you know about Chris Bauer's character the less you're inclined to want to spend too much time watching a play about him.  He's hopeless.  In the opening scene you're sympathetic, by the time we get to the sex scene you want to walk out of the room with the lady he was screwing because he's hopeless.  And while the writing is often well-observed there's only so much you can say, big picture, about this topic.  When playwright Melissa James Gibson mines the depths of the topic, she uncovers things that make us less interested in the proceedings, instead of things that might make us more interesting.

I loved Annie Baker's Body Awareness, which was part of the same Atlantic Theater season as the awful Parlour Song.  I was quite pleased that I had an excuse to be in DC while the Studio Theatre was performing another play of hers, The Aliens, Washington Post review here.  Which, sadly, was nowhere near as good as Body Awareness had been.  Like most of these plays, it has some good dialogue and nice observation and you can see why everyone considers all of these playwrights to be hot and new.  The outstanding performance in this production was Brian Miskell's as Even Shelmerdine.  He's a teenager working at a coffee shop in Vermont who finds a couple of driftless perpetual teenager characters hanging out in back where the aren't supposed to.  Under their tutelage, he grows from being so very, very, very teenager to being a more confident adult, you see it in his bearing and his tone of voice, it's almost like the transition the lead character undergoes in Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, or at least requiring that same set of skills from the actor.  But, with all of these plays there's a but, a note in the playbill says that the instructions in the script are for one-third or even one-half of the play to be silence.  It's not the pretentious and artificial silence of Pinter, it's that natural silence of people just hanging around and being silent.  But you can get that point across when you start the play with two minutes of characters on the stage being silent, believe me when you're waiting for a play to start and the lights have come up, having an extended silence makes its point pretty quickly.  Does your character need to have a last name like Shelmerdine that can hammer home the fact that this is a young teenager with nothing much going for him in life, and if he's going to start out with that name shouldn't he change it by the end of the play, or do we see him blaring out his last name with pride and excitement before the end of the play to complete the arc?  We'll be hearing more from Annie Baker early in 2013, a new play The Flick is part of my Playwrights Horizons subscription.

Flashback:  I never reviewed 4000 Miles, a highly regarded play by Amy Herzog from two years ago.  Young adult moves in with his grandmother after a trauma, both of those performances are excellent.  The scenes between the two of them are spot-on, full of people saying and doing just the right thing.  And they take place on a brilliantly designed set of a New York apartment that could probably have been done from pictures of the one my great aunt had on Ocean Ave. in Brooklyn.  Neither my sister nor I liked it quite as much as the general consensus.  It was a little on the slow side, the kind of thing where every scene seemed to drag on just a beat or two too long, which over the course of a long play starts to add up.  There are JABberwocky clients like Brandon Sanderson who do that, but the thing is, Brandon's last step in writing a book is to go in and take out all of those extra beats in the final revise before sending the book to myself and his editor.  4000 Miles needed that.  Didn't get it.  I also felt that the ultimate revelation about the trauma that had the grandson moving in with his grandmother was a little underbaked for having an entire play lead up to it, but I might not have minded that as much if the length of the entire play had been ten or fifteen minutes less.

This season, Amy Herzog is back on the NY stage with The Great God Pan at Playwrights Horizon.  Perhaps more than any of these other promising new playwrights, she is showing incredible promise.  This new play starts off with a 30-something journalist meeting a childhood friend, the two had a babysitter together in their elementary school days, for the first time in many years.  After the obligatory small talk, the two get down to business:  the friend is suing his father for child molestation which he's discovered took place when he was very young, the journalist is the first person he's reaching out to because things said by the father suggest that the journalist, might have been victimized as well.  From the opening minutes of the play, you know you're in the hands of someone who can write a scene, and the entire first scene is as vivid and real and spot on as if I was having the conversation myself.  And unlike in 4000 Miles, the scene doesn't go on for an extra beat or two, it's taut and lean.  The problem with this play is that, once the initial scene is held, you can guess for yourself what many of the scenes that follow will be like.  The journalist doesn't remember anything happening, but with the suggestion that something did he will begin to grasp at things that may or may not lead to a recollection being unearthed.  His parents will have to come into the picture to shed some light on the scenario.  And of course, it's a play, the thing that may or may not have happened 25 or 30 years ago will have some parallel to something that's happening today.  And all of those scenes that you might expect to see if you were writing the play, well, they happen in the play Amy Herzog has written.  When he was 5, something happened at home which led to the journalist's sleeping over at his friend's.  The journalist is in a relationship and is about to find out that she's pregnant, quite unexpectedly, and she is dealing with her own issues as a therapist treating a teenager with an eating disorder.  Now, if you were writing the play, would you end it with a resolution, or would you leave the whole question of what did or didn't happen up in the air?  The play is worth seeing to find out how Amy Herzog answers that question.  It's worth seeing for each perfectly realized scene with spot on dialogue.  It's certainly worth seeing for this cast.  I was distracted a bit from Jeremy Strong's performance as the journalist; couldn't the writer or director or costume designer have had him changing his shirt at some point during the play (in The Aliens, it's like Annie Baker wrote the play with extra scenes just so Evan could change shirts more often, talk about opposite ends of the spectrum...).  But it's a very good performance.  The way the journalist's father halts when revealing the past to his son, spot on in both writing and performance.  I've had a thing for Keith Nobbs, who plays the childhood friend, from when I first saw him off Broadway some ten years ago, and he holds the stage, holds the theatre, every moment of the two scenes he has on stage, absolutely fabulous.  And yet, for all that's good about the play, the fact that it can't overcome the logical consequence of its opening resolution, that you can diagram the scenes before they're played out, keeps the play from being truly great.

The frustration to me in all of these things:  My goal as a literary agent, one of them, is to take good books from my clients and help them shape them into great books.  It's very difficult to do that when the world is willing to settle for good where it might be possible to achieve great.  When that happens, when too many critics elide problems in their criticism, it makes it too easy for the recipients to fall short of what they can achieve.  I'm not sure that The Great God Pan could be a better play than it is, any attempt to shake up the expected consequences of the opening scene would create more problems than it would solve.  The fact that Amy Herzog is writing so much tighter in this play than in 4000 Miles does say something good about her internal drive or of someone else involved in the process of Great God Pan.  But The Aliens, The Whale, 4000 Miles, all of those could have and should have been better plays.

The final piece of theatre on my plate in recent months was Hearts Like Fists, which played at the Secret Theatre.  This little space is tucked on a dark street beneath the el between my home and my office.  Written by Adam Szymkowicz.  Superhero play.  Got some good press when it opened in LA.  And got some decent press in New York, too.  It's hard to describe the plot, but basically you've got this bad guy, you know he's bad because he's called Doctor X and he skulks across the stage in classic super villain fashion delightfully played by August Schulenburg.  He likes to take people's hearts out, especially when they are locked in one another's arms in romantic sleepful bliss after making love.  Some kick-as superheroines are out to stop him.  I'm not 100% sure I fully understood the plot, but I knew the play was a lot of fun, that the cast was fun, that everyone involved seemed to be having a lot of fun.  The NY Times reviewed this play and liked it, but it's a little tiny review by some stringer who does off-Broadway.  A pretentious bore like Harper Regan gets an even more fawning review and articles before and after and many many column inches.  I would love it if the genre fun, the pleasurable hour-and-a-half, of this play, would get the respect and attention that the pretentious bore does.

The Big Sit

So I saw five movies the weekend before Christmas, and am happy to say I didn't entirely like any of them.

First up was Barbara, a German movie which has been getting excellent reviews.  It isn't so excellent.  The eponymous lead character is a doctor in East Germany in the early 1980s who has been assigned to work at a new hospital.  We see her working at the hospital, getting attached to another doctor in a romantic way, and to a patient or two in an empathic way.  The German secret police come by every so often to her apartment and search it up and down, then have a female agent come in to search her up and down.  We see her biking all over town, sometimes to have a romantic tryst with a government official.  Well made, yes.  But sometimes I think critics are hampered in their judgment because they go to a movie with the press kit, or they go to a play and are given a copy of the play.  And this is one of those times.  Barbara is so suffused with subtlety that it's chock full all over of things that only make sense if you have somebody explaining them to you.  I didn't.  I couldn't figure out why, at least within the context of the actual movie on the screen, where the movie was set (well, OK, they were speaking German, so it was in Germany, and there were secret police, so it was probably Eastern Germany), or when it was set.  I only know it's in the early 1980s because a reviewer told me.  I didn't know why Barbara was where she was.  I didn't know why the police were on her case, someone I mentioned this to said "it's East Germany, the police were investigating everyone."  Point taken, but were they searching every apartment, and giving everyone regular strip searches?  I could figure she was sleeping with a government official, but not who or what or where or why, or if that relationship had anything to do with everything else or if it was just happenstance.  And the filmmaking itself stumbled over its wonderful gentleness and subtlety to the point of becoming, well, a little bit dull.  This was the official German entry into the Academy Award race for Best Foreign Language Film.  It didn't make the shortlist from which the nominees will be selected.  Nobody's being robbed.  This is a classic case of a movie made more for snobbish critics than people who actually go to watch movies.

I saw this at the Angelika Mosaic, a new movie theatre that's part of a major retail development in suburban DC, walkable from the Dunn Loring Metro station.  There are all kinds of housing and retail developments that have been going up in the neighborhood over the past five or ten years, turning suburban wasteland into a livable transit-oriented development.  The movie theatre is quite nice, but seemed quite quiet on a Friday night.

The next morning I headed out to the Landmark Bethesda Row to see Rust and Bone, a French movie.  The director, Jacques Audiard, is something of a US critic's darling.  The first film of his I saw was The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which was quite dreadful in my opinion.  His next film to get a major release in the US was A Prophet, which got great reviews and was in fact quite quite fantastic.  My review is in this post.  This also got excellent reviews, albeit with a couple significant dissenters.  I was a little wary, but I really did like A Prophet.  Not Rust and Bone.  It's a boring mess of a movie.  It's not well made in my opinion, as an example one of the most prominent scenes in the movie is of Marion Cotillard losing her legs in an accident at a French Sea World thing, and the blocking and shooting of the scene is done so poorly that I couldn't for the life of me explain how the accident happened or how the character's legs were lost.  We aren't given much about the character to care about her lost legs.  Her boyfriend?  We aren't given much reason to care about him, either.  The movie just drags on and on, improbability piled on improbability for the sake of -- I don't know what, honestly.  A dreary bad mess of movie.

This theatre is down the street from the Bethesda branch of Georgetown Cupcake, which is one of the best cupcake places around.  However, it's hard to buy their cupcakes in hot weather and not eat them right away, because the icing is so soft and fluffy that it ends up glopping itself off the top of the cupcake.  I found out on this trip that is' hard to buy their cupcakes in cold weather not not eat them right away.  Walking around a bit before eating the cupcakes, the good news was that the icing had hardened a bit and didn't glop all over.  But the icing had hardened a bit, even the edges of the cupcakes had frozen up some, and the flavor was frozen away.

I didn't have great expectations for my next movie, The Guilt Trip, which was playing at the Regal Bethesda, an '80s style sloped-floor multiplex that is still around and doing a decent business.  It wasn't a pleasant surprise, but it was at least as good or bad as I was expecting.  It was a good enough movie that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand could make it seem a little better than maybe it was, and I was generally smiling during the movie if not often laughing.  But the bottom line is that I'd dozed a bit during Rust and Bone, usually if I doze in one movie I'm not going to doze in another because I'm well-rested.  And this one, I wasn't just resting my eyes but was actually dozing during Seth Rogen's pitch session at HSN.  Which I'm sure was the comic highlight of the movie, there must be one in there someplace, and I missed it entirely.

We then walked down Wisconsin Ave. a bit to the AMC Mazza Galleria.  Many years ago, there was a small Cineplex Odeon sloped floor triplex in the basement of this upscale mall.  As part of a mall redevelopment, that gave way to a much larger stadium seating AMC theatre on the upper level.  This was my first time seeing a movie there even though the new theatre has been open for several years, I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the screens and the overall comfort of the theatre, and I'm sure I will be back.

My first film there was This is 40.  I'm not the Judd Apatow fan club.  I walked out of 40 Year Old Virgin.  Knocked Up was kind of OK.  I regret not seeing Funny People.  I think he might be better as a Producer of movies by other people than a director of his own.  This particular movie has a lot of pitch perfect and telling moments.  It has a lot of laugh out loud moments.  There's plenty to recommend in the film.  Unfortunately, the film's also close to 2:15 in length, which is way way way too long, and I started to feel every second of the film's length and squirm and rest my eyes and otherwise find plenty to focus on other than the perceptiveness and occasional LoL funny in the movie. There's no way I should doze off in three straight movies, no way, when that happens, it's not me being tired but movies that are too easy to sleep during.

Which is ultimately why this blog post is titled "The Big Sit."  All of these are movies that make you focus heavily on the fact that you're sitting and sitting and sitting, which are not transporting you to another world, holding you rapt in their spell.

Across from the Mazza Galleria is the site of the former Borders #285.  Which was one of those underperforming stores that Borders had too many of, and which they spent too much money remodeling at least twice, when they really needed to find a way out from under the lease.  A DSW Shoe Warehouse has now opened.  At least here, I know where the Borders was.  Walking along Walnut St. in Philadelphia a couple days later, I was pained to realize that I could no longer to tell which store had held the original downtown Philadelphia Borders.

The final movie in this four-in-a-day marathon was Jack Reacher.  Which may not be -- no, let's be frank, it isn't -- a particularly good movie, but which by the standards of the other movies I'd seen was exceptionally good.  It was the only one that didn't drag, that didn't put me to sleep, that came close to delivering on the hopes or expectations that you might take with you into the theatre.  I haven't read the Lee Child novels, so I could just focus on the fact that Tom Cruise was in it, and as a general rule, most movies with Tom Cruise have something going for the, and Cruise usually makes decent decisions on what movies to be in.  I don't think he has many outright duds in his filmography, in part because he is in the movies.  There's a particularly good if small supporting turn by Robert Duvall.

Especially in the wake of the Newton CT shootings, Jack Reacher has taken a lot of heat because of its violence.  The opening scene is a sniper's eye view of shootings on the Pittsburgh waterfront as the gunman takes aim at a series of targets and kills what he's aiming at.  The thing I find odd about this is that Lee Child gets kind of a free ride.  It's as if the movie just decided all on its lonesome to be full of shootings and violence in a typical Hollywood kind of way, full of brutality toward all but especially toward women.  Nobody then wants to step back to do the "but," to acknowledge that the movie might be doing all of these things but that it does them in service of an adaptation of a published book, nobody analyzes if the film's treatment of these things does justice to or is independent on the book on which the movie is based.  Does Jack Reacher the movie take a kind and loving novel and turn it into the typical Hollywood gunfest?  Or does it take a book that has these qualities, and bring those qualities to the screen?  I guess I should be happy that I'm a literary agent who gets to work with the books that might get a free pass here because they're books which are literary and good.  But I'm not, I'm disappointed that there's so much verbiage about the film that ignores the source.  And of course since I haven't read the Lee Child novels I don't know the extent to which the tone and approach of the movie diverges from or stays true to that of the books, I only know that it's not good journalism or criticism or reviewing to take aim at the movie without putting it into the context of its source material.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Scripts that go bump in the night

Haven't done a business post in a while.  I keep thinking my work must be interesting, but I'm not sure what to talk about.  Part of it is probably ennui, I've been doing this thing for almost 27 years.  Part of it, maybe that I get to watch while other people have the fun, a lot of my own job has changed to being the mastermind of a business that isn't as small as it used to be.  Eddie takes on new clients and sells first novels, Brady gets to talk to our global partners and sell foreign rights, I get to be their boss.

My current fun task is overseeing an upgrade of our databases.

I don't know if this is something we, like, need-need to do.  The current databases have kept the business running for five years.

But I don't like to settle.  One of the reasons JABberwocky and its clients do well is that we don't let ourselves, try not to let ourselves, get complacent, sit back and be happy with some good news when the right thing to do is ask how that bit of good news can help lead to other and bigger bits.

So as an example, our payment items to clients have increased by 80% from 2008, which is the first year we used the current check database.  It was fine to manually turn $68.49 into "Sixty Eight and 49/100" back then, now I've been thinking lots and lots that there's got to be somebody who knows how to get Filemaker to automate this task for us.  As of today, we have that taken care of.  Though I'm not satisfied entirely, and may call our Filemaker consultant tomorrow to see if the script can take $67 and turn it into "Sixty Seven Dollars and Zero Cents" instead of "Sixty Seven Dollars."

As another example, we have a Global Partners database where we keep the contact info for the foreign agents we work with and foreign publishers we sell to, and which is home base when it comes time to schedule appointments for book fairs.  I've always liked the idea of the database but never been in love with the execution.  I've grown less fond of it as it's had to scale up from handling scheduling just for London Book Fair to handling scheduling for London, Bologna and Frankfurt.  We need better ways to keep track of whom we need to see at each of these Fairs, whom we need to see, whether we are seeing.  And whom we don't need to see, we don't need the editors for children's books that Eddie meets with at Bologna cluttering things for London a few weeks later.  This means more database fields for more Fairs, more layouts in which to view those fields, more scripts to generate more reports so we can keep on top of all of it.

Even though databases can keep lots of information forever and ever and ever, I've often been fond of having a place for historical keeping of information that is different from the place where you keep active information.  Hence, our deals database has a nice table where we can look at the history of paid advances for a book, that is different from the ongoing advances due table where we keep information on anticipated payments.  But, now that the business is growing there are some redundancies here that we can perhaps eliminate if we can find a nice way to view the historical information that will feed off the same information, an attractive portal or something.

With our e-book program, I am around 80% certain that we can do more with the data we're fed from Amazon and Kobo and B&N if we import that data into a database, rather than working with it in spreadsheets.  But can we find ways to automate or simplify how the data is imported?  If we can do that, I'm reasonably certain we can set up scripts that can match this ASIN at Amazon with that ISBN someplace else and put the Simon Green books in the right place and collect and summarize the data.

There are lots and lots of things like that.  Some of them are little, some of them are big.  Some of them (change in how we track advances) will allow us to enter information once that we now enter twice, but others of them might force us to feed the new database fields with new data entering procedures (carefully reviewing our entire global partner editor list to carefully check boxes for each of three different Fairs).  On balance, we hope they will make the business run better.

It was interesting looking for a person to help us with this work.

Person #1 was kind of insulting, looking at everything we'd done and letting us know very clearly that we had major structural flaws with our databases, that we needed to combine everything into one mega-database instead of, as an example, having the checks cut from a different database than was keeping track of the deals themselves.  When he e-mailed the next day to say he wasn't interested in doing all that work, I wasn't that upset.  Yes, the official way to do things is to put all the data for the entire agency into one massive database.  That's generally the way database designers work.  And that's never the way I've wanted it done.  I've wanted it to be robust enough for the business to run smoothly, but simple enough that we could do some basic updating and tweaking of our databases by ourselves.

Person #2, whom we are working with, was much more pleasant.  You have multiple databases, he's not going to go integrating them just because the official way to do things is to do them that way.  He recognizes that things grow of their own accord, not always in the way they would if they were being carefully tended like a bonsai garden, and you work with it.

All of this is going to cost us some money to have help from an outside expert on Filemaker.  That makes me wonder if I should've looked harder in 2008 or looked harder now for some wonderful off-the-shelf software for running a literary agency, are the improvements we're doing now kind of reinventing the wheel of an integrated agency management package?  It's a good question.  I have too much invested in what I've done the past five years to be the best person to answer it.  I still don't like what I see if I go searching the internet for "literary agent software."  It's for Windows, the screen shots look icky, it might be great underneath the hood but you have to pay for the support and the interfaces are invariably clunky looking even if the underpinnings are not. I could go touring offices of my colleagues looking at their programs, I guess, there are probably things out there that aren't advertising on the internet.

But then again, one of the things about the business is that there's an agent for everyone, we don't all run our businesses the exact same way with the exact same focus on things.  I feel extremely comfortable with something I made, that's rooted in something that's worked for a long time.  Our check database, in particular, has its roots back twenty years when we were finally had computers at Scott Meredith.  Not rooted in a bad way, but the basic idea of cutting the checks is that we should all know how much money came in, what got taken out, and what we're paying.

The bigger problem with all of these improvements is the meetings that go along with them.

We have to decide in the office on the best way to do certain things, we have to think on those things, we have to communicate those things to the expert who has to make them work.  We can't save time without first investing it.

And if you're wondering why I haven't done a lot of business posts lately -- well, this stuff has been a lot of the business stuff that's been rolling around in recent weeks and months.  If there's this huge popular outcry to know more, we have more to tell, but I'm not thinking there will be that huge outcry.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Promised Land

Even though I am a liberal, I have some mixed emotions regarding the environmental movement.

If we end up with a choice between the last seal in the arctic or the last un-fracked farm and keeping human civilization going for a while longer, we'll keep civilization and nuke the seals.

So I'm not sure what to think of Promised Land, a film directed by Gus Van Sant which has been doing the screening circuit ahead of an opening later this month.  The Variety Screening Series Q&A had producers/co-writers/stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski along with co-star Rosemarie DeWitt.

Just to back up a bit, if you're not aware, "fracking" or hydraulic fracturing is a method of getting at natural gas which involves drilling down into shale, using a combination of water and chemicals to break up the shale and release the gas that's inside of it, and then get the gas above ground.  It's made a lot of natural gas more accessible.  As with clear-cut or mountain-top coal mining it has some strong economic side effects, which are disputed by the gas companies but which I think likely do exist, where the break-up of the shale with water and chemicals either allows the gas you're trying to harvest or some chunk of the chemicals into the environment and water table.  The breaking up of the rock formations may also have risks.

As is par for the course in the history of resource mining, large mining companies need to lease land or get easements or mineral rights from people.  The leases will be one-sided, the companies will try and get things as cheaply as they can, their goal is extracting resources.

Matt Damon is playing Samuel Butler.  It's established at the start of the movie that he's very good at his job, of getting people to lease their land to his employer, because he's one of them.  He grew up in a small farming town that liked to think its existence was based on farming, but which actually centered around a Caterpillar plant in the area.  That plant closes, his farming town fast loses viability.  When he goes to one of these towns, some part of him really believes he's doing the people a service, there's no money and no future in farming and the fracking lease is the way out.  He's partnered with Frances McCormand.

When a local science teacher played by Hal Holbrook starts to turn the town against the fracking, an environmentalist played by Krasinski comes in to help Holbrook, and we get some cat-and-mouse between Damon/McDormand and Krasinski for the town's allegiance and votes at a town meeting. Damon and Krasinski also fight over the attentions of attractive local DeWitt.

So, things to like:

The film doesn't wage jihad against fracking.  I'm sure the people who wrote and directed the film aren't fans, but with Damon playing an advocate of fracking, the guy getting the signatures on the dotted line, you can't entirely discount the reality of the idea that the risks of fracking may well be better than the alternatives.  This argument is made quite cogently at the end of the movie.

The cast is mostly quite good.  Has Matt Damon ever been bad in a movie?  It's a performance of grace, subtlety, strength, it takes advantage of his likability but doesn't abuse it.  Frances McDormand could probably play the role in her sleep.  Krasinski does well.  I can't fault DeWitt for not doing much with a role that doesn't have much to offer an actress.  Most of the townspeople seem very real and very authentic.

You never know what you'll get with Gus Van Sant.  Something great like Good Will Hunting.  Something artsy and dull.  This is the good Van Sant.  Not Best Director good.  There are a few shots that stuck out in a bad way, like an establishing shot of a silo that didn't seem to connect to the actual farm being visited.  But overall, the film is nicely photographed, good acting is often helped by good directing.  The musical underscore by Danny Elfman and the songs on the soundtrack are well-chosen.

But also things not to like.

Hal Holbrook didn't work for me at all.  He seemed to be trying too hard to be an honest folksy speaker of truths, but it was like he had come straight from his performance in Into the Wild.  Just doesn't work at all.

The script relies on too many contrivances.  It manages to give a little message and wee bit of education without falling on the wrong side of the old "if you want to send a message, call Western Union" edict. But still, contrivance after contrivance, characters that are forced to places they don't really want to.

And ultimately, the movie is to be admired, but not with any passion.  And that's what's missing.  If a film is going to take on the bad guys, let it do so with passion.  I'd have liked this more if Hal Holbrook decided to channel Jack Lemmon in The China Syndrome than his own Into the Wild role. The movie isn't slow or dull, but it's never very exciting, either.

This may gain some traction in the acting categories, but on balance I don't think it will be a strong awards season contender.  But we'll see, there's certainly pedigree behind the movie, and the studio will be trying its best.

Games People Play - Carcassonne

One of the nicest things I've started to do in the past six months if host regular games events at my apartment.  It's a mix of people from my twice-monthly Scrabble club with JABberwocky employees and other writing and publishing types.  These are a lot of fun.  I've always felt a little under-gamed in my life. I've played with my Scrabble club regularly for over 20 years, but you look at the games room at an sf convention like Boskone or Balticon and you realize the world is full of wonderful games, and I've played all too few of them.

So let's start to review a few of the games, and we'll start with Carcassonne, which has become a real favorite of mine.

Why?

Well, first, I like games that have a combination of luck and skill, and Carcassonne is very very good at this.

For those of you who haven't played, it's a land-building game.  In the basic game, there are tiles that have pieces of road and/or pieces of buildings on them.  You can claim a road or city that's on one of your tiles, so long as it isn't already claimed by someone else.  You get points if the roads or cities are completed.  You also get the "meeple" back, the little piece you use to claim things.  Because you are only allocated a certain number of those, you have to balance the desire to claim anything and everything you can with the fear that all of your pieces might be out on the game board in incomplete roads or cities.  There are a few other little wrinkles, there are some buildings called cathedrals that you don't complete, but rather get your meeple back if you can surround.  You can also claim a field and get points for the completed cities that border on the field, but that meeple stays in the field from the time you place it until the end of the game.  You can compete for things, let's say you start and claim a city a tile or two distant from somebody else's and then the two end up connecting, both you and your opponent now have an ownership share in a big city.

So there's luck, lots and lots of luck.  Some games, you'll need a piece with a road and a city in this exact right combination in order to complete something, and it never arrives.  Turn after turn, your opponent gets the tiles you need, and you never get the ones you need, and soon you find you've got all your meeples marooned on the board.  It's very hard to overcome a bad run of tile picking.

But it's not impossible.

After all, every turn you might have a choice of claiming a road, a building, or a field.  That's a lot to choose from, and there will always be an element of skill in making good choices regardless of the bad titles.  And you can play both offense and defense, maybe you can't claim anything or finish anything of your own, and all the plays have to match up so that road pieces abut matching road pieces and building pieces abut matching building pieces, and if you play a tile just so maybe you can make it way more difficult for your opponent to finish something.  As with Scrabble, there is a distribution guide, if you want you can keep track of which tiles have been played, and you can realize there's no way your opponent can get a tile with the road and the city in just the right place to allow it to be completed.

Because there are so many different ways to play a tile, your opponent(s) can be full of advice and suggestions on where to play things.  So it's fun, especially with a lot of people where you can choose whom you're going to try and help or hurt.  As an example, do you play a tile that might get you points for a city, but at the same time will fully surround somebody else's cathedral and allow them to get those points and regain the meeple?  Or do you start a city at some other end of the board that might have less immediate benefit to you but with more long-term potential?  In a large game there will be no lack of opinions.

As with so many games these days, Carcassone comes with a lot of expansions that add more cards with different powers to do different things.

Even those are very well-designed.

Today we played with "The Princess & The Dragon."  The dragon adds a lot of luck to the game.  Depending on the tiles, the dragon could be at one end of the board at one time, and then one turn later be at the opposite end.  Drawing other cards will determine when the dragon goes on the prowl.  So it's hard to protect against, you never know when the meeple you've used to claim a potentially big city will suddenly be attacked by the dragon and taken off the board.

However, the expansion set comes with a few other wildcards that allow you to make tasty lemonade out of your lemons.  Maybe the dragon displaces and returns a meeple that was in a bad place, and now you have a chance to put it in a better place, with other added cards like the magic portal to make that possible.

We also played with "Builders & Traders."  The trade goods go to the player that completes the city where the goods are made.  And at the end of the game, you can get 10 points for having the most of a particular trade good.  But there's no guaranty it's your city that you'll complete in order to claim the trade goods.  Is it worth giving your opponent six points and letting him get back his meeple so that you can maybe get ten points for owning the most wheat at the end of the game?  It's a perfect distillation of the constant balancing act between offense and defense, of doing things that are right for you that might also be right for someone else.  The builder is a powerful tool that lets you draw a second tile if you can add to a road or city that your builder is on.  But what happens if you play your builder on a city, and then spend the rest of the game drawing only road tiles, or your opponent is able to play his tiles in a way that will make it really difficult for you to complete your city and regain your builder and meeple?

Which also demonstrates how well different expansions play with one another.  The best solution to the trapped builder might be if the dragon starts to move and knocks off your pieces.

Like Scrabble, you could choose to count tiles if you wanted to, it would be a little more difficult with a lot of expansions in the mix, not too difficult with just the basic game.  If you play on the iPad, you can see the remaining tiles, and the game will put an "x" on a square that can't be played on with any of the available tiles.  And also like Scrabble, I don't think I would actually enjoy playing the game with someone who was so serious as to be counting tiles.

Luck, skill.  Luck, skill.

It also fits into lots of different time slots.  Play the basic 72-tile game, you can find yourself finished in a half hour.  Start adding different expansions that work with one another in different ways providing more options of where and how to play, you could be taking two hours.

Other than a couple places where the rules lend themselves to ambiguity, it's hard to find a fault in the design.  It works in different ways with one opponent or many, it can be a guaranteed quick half hour or two hours or more.

So all in all, there is a reason why the game is popular, and I can't wait to play again.

If you get the "Big Box Carcassonne" that I did, which comes with the basic set and a few popular expansions bundled, be very careful as you take the tiles out.  They come out a little too easily, then you need to sort out which go with the basic game and which with the expansions.  At least the inside of the box has a key to where to put all the different tile pieces.