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 25, 2016

Boskone 50 - My Schedule!

I'm eagerly looking forward to being at Boskone 50 from February 19-21 at Boston's Westin Waterfront Hotel.  My road to being a science fiction fan, and thus to JABberwocky, started in the Boskone dealer's room in the late 1970s.  And I've got my fingers crossed that we're about to sell a first novel for an author I first met at Boskone a few years ago.

My full schedule is below.  In addition, you'll often find me hanging around the dealer's room or schmoozing in the hotel lobby, and it's one of the best events during the year to get some good quality time with me.

Hope to see you in Boston!

The Perfect Pitch

Friday 16:00 - 16:50, Burroughs (Westin)

Pitching a story can be intimidating, especially if you're new to the field or must change agents/editors. This is your chance to find out what agents, editors, and publishers want from their current writers, from writers fresh to the market, and from writers transitioning to someone new. Hear from the pros about what—and what not—to do when preparing the perfect pitch. (If there even is such a thing...)

Joshua Bilmes , Melinda Snodgrass , Michael Stearns


Mistborn: Final Empire Discussion Group

Saturday 10:00 - 10:50, Harbor I-Discussion Group (Westin)

Mistborn: House War is a semi-cooperative, resource-management game set during the events of the first Mistborn novel by Brandon Sanderson. Join agent Joshua Bilmes for an early look at the game and a lively discussion about this exciting new board game that is coming out in 2016!

Joshua Bilmes


Rebooting Comics

Saturday 17:00 - 17:50, Harbor I-Discussion Group (Westin)

DC has released two revamps of their comic book line in the past 5 years, with “The New 52” and now “DC YOU.” What about Marvel’s single “All New, All Different” changeover? Which reboot really clicks? Let's have an informal discussion group chat about the reboot.

Joshua Bilmes


Digging in with Military Science Fiction

Saturday 20:00 - 20:50, Griffin (Westin)

Is military SF the most enduring category within science fiction? If so, why? If not, it certainly has endured. What is it about this subgenre that gives it such staying power?

Christopher Weuve , Joshua Bilmes, Charles Gannon, Walter H. Hunt , Vincent O'Neil

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Walter Reade's Ziegfeld Theatre, 1969-2016

The first movie I ever saw at Walter Reade's Ziegfeld Theatre was Gandhi.

It was Christmas break between my first and second semesters in college.  It was a sold-out show.  There were a lot of those at the Ziegfeld in the 1980s and 1990s.  I was not one of the first to arrive, and I found my way to a seat on the far right side of the theatre, fairly near to the front.  The theatre smelled of food; Gandhi was a very long movie, and people were prepared with more than popcorn.

The Ziegfeld and Gandhi turned out to be very similar to one another.  They were worthy.  You couldn't not like Gandhi, could you?  I mean, it was a long epic biopic about an incredibly important historical figure,  You could learn so much of such importance about such an important personage.  Of course, it wasn't actually a good movie.  It was a quintessential biopic. The actual filmmaking by Richard Attenborough was kind of plodding.

So it was with the Ziegfeld.  It was a single screen movie theatre with over 1000 seats, and a reasonably large screen.  But the rake was practically non-existent, making it difficult to see over the head of anyone sitting in front of you.  Long and narrow isn't the best dimension for a movie theatre, but that was the Ziegfeld.  A whole city block long.  From the raised mezzanine at the back, a very long way to the screen, which didn't dominate the field of vision from such a distance.  Four urinals, three stalls, two sinks for the men's restroom; imagine the lines after a full house.  Small lobby and concession area.  No accessibility for the handicapped.  There were lots of chandeliers, and some exhibits on the original Ziegfeld Follies theatre.  

The Loews Astor Plaza, built just a few years later, was much better.  Great rake.  Better dimensions.  Bigger screen.  Bigger lobby.  Nicer everything, just not as fancy.  I came to be very frustrated that many more people knew about the Ziegfeld, which got better press and was more often booked for Hollywood premieres and exclusive general releases.

As it turns out, I've likely seen more movies at the Ziegfeld than on any other screen (emphasis on "screen," because some multiplexes I've gone to more often, but spread out over many screens).  But going to the Astor Plaza always exhilarated me, and I never felt that way about the Ziegfeld.  I was often as happy to see a movie on the big screens at the multiplexes than at the Ziegfeld, and I never felt that way about the Astor Plaza.  Looking at the long list of movies I saw at the Ziegfeld, and at full lists of movies that played the Ziegfeld that are on Cinema Treasures, I'm as impressed with the list if movies I could have seen there and didn't.

When I read in 2004 that the Astor Plaza was closing, I cried.  When I read in 2016 that the Ziegfeld was closing, it was more "sigh, I guess I'll have to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet again."

Nonetheless, an era passes with the closing of the Ziegfeld.  It was the next-to-last single screen movie palace to open in Manhattan, with the Astor Plaza the only that came after, and it was the very last large single screen movie theatre to close. I decided to treat the entire office to the final 2D show at the theatre so that they'd all have a chance to experience it before it closed for good.

The last show at the Astor Plaza, opening weekend for The Village, had a few dozen people on a Sunday night.  The Friday night show had hundreds and hundreds of people, but the quick falloff showed how difficult it was to make money running a really large movie theatre.  Of those few dozen people, no more than a dozen were there to bid farewell to the Astor Plaza itself.  And even as the opening credits were rolling, a few workmen came in to begin disassembling.

The last 2D show at the Ziegfeld, with three more 3D to go, had 200, maybe 250 (anyone on the internet saying 500 is lying).  Half of them were still in line to buy tickets.  Three ticket windows, but only one had an actual computer to sell tickets, because they rarely needed even that many.  People stayed.  They took pictures.  It was a scene.  And Star Wars: The Force Awakens, gets worse and worse with each viewing. 

At some point maybe I'll append a reasonably accurate list of the movies I saw at the Ziegfeld to this post.  But the bottom line is that I won't miss the Ziegfeld, while I miss the Loews Astor Plaza often.


The Paris Theatre is the last of the holdouts.  The link takes you to the Cinema Treasures website, which makes the Paris seem much nicer than it actually is.  Almost 600 seats, and it does have a balcony.  But the leg room isn't good.  The rake isn't good.  The screen isn't very big.  The lobby area is practically non-existent.  Some commenters on Cinema Treasures are trying to say the Paris isn't the last single screen theatre in Manhattan, but they are as wrong as the ones saying I saw Force Awakens with 500 other people.  The other single screen theatres like the Walter Reade aren't commercial theatres showing first run movies.  And if the Paris closes. I won't miss it very much, either. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

David G. Hartwell

I got to participate in an SF Signal "Mind Meld" this week, to talk about a science fiction ship I might want to ride upon. My mind often goes in weird directions, and I decided I'd enjoy riding on a nameless ship one might happen upon wandering the world of Severian's New Sun, from the classic Gene Wolf tetralogy The Book of the New Sun.

As I sent my Mind Meld off a couple of weeks ago, I thought it would be nice, when the Meld appeared, to drop David Hartwell a note, and let him know that these books he had edited 30, 35 years ago, still resonated with me. I never had the opportunity. When I woke up on the morning of January 20, I was greeted with two things: the Mind Meld I'd participated in had gone live on SF Signal. And David Hartwell was unexpectedly, critically ill, news that had broken overnight.

Titles from early in David G. Hartwell's editorial career.  One look says it all.
Gene Wolfe was hardly the only great writer that David Hartwell had edited, The Book of the New Sun far from the only book he'd touched that went on to have a long impact in the field. His career spanned 45 years, and touched pretty much anyone who worked in science fiction and fantasy over that time. Besides many a Gene Wolfe book a quick glance at my bookcase reveals Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, Gregory Benford's Timescape and Across the Sea of Suns, Philip K. Dick's The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale, all from Hartwell's years at Simon & Schuster/Pocket's Timescape imprint in the early 1980s.

By the time Hartwell moved, first as a consulting and then as a full-time editor, to Tor Books in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a professional in the field with little time to read for pleasure, and my relationship with Hartwell evolved. He wasn't an editor whose acquisitions I had much time to read, and instead, he was the editor I badly wanted to sell to, in large part because I needed only to look at my bookcase to see the influence he'd had on Joshua Bilmes. And as a professional, one of the things I appreciated most about Hartwell in those early years was the professional respect that I received from him. I didn't get that from everyone. Why would I, really. I was in my 20s, I had some accomplishments, and I expected a certain amount of associational respect solely by virtue of working at the Scott Meredith Agency, which was at the time a leading agency in the field. But David G. Hartwell went beyond that. He treated me like a peer. When I told him I had a first novel that seemed just right for him, he told me how he often purchased books that had that effect on people, and he seemed quite sincere in saying so.
The Tor Books cover for Outpost, by Scott Mackay


David Hartwell also gave the impression that he knew what he wanted to do when he woke up in the morning, that he had a vision for what he wanted to buy, an actual point of view. And again, I didn't get that from everyone. There are editors I've known about as long whose point of view eludes me still. Why be in this business if you don't have a strong sense of the mark you'd like to leave on it? When I cracked the Hartwell code and sold him Scott Mackay's OUTPOST in the mid-1990s, I was a very very happy man. I'd like to say that I went on from there to have this incredible agent-editor thing with David Hartwell. I can't. OUTPOST didn't do well, and he wasn't able to buy a second novel from Scott. I can wrack my brain and have a hard time thinking of the next book I sold to him, though my colleague Eddie Schneider recently cracked the code with something that's currently wending through the contracts process.

The publisher I like most will always be the one I've never done any business with recently. It's inevitable when you're in business with people that you'll get to have problems together. David Hartwell could be slow tending to his submission pile, a trait common to many editors in the sf/fantasy genre; and one of the reasons why we didn't do more business together. If we didn't think a project was tailor made for David Hartwell, we'd tend to steer submissions in other directions at Tor. We disagreed on the cover for the Scott Mackay novel. He liked it because it was appropriate to the Canadian market, which he was trying to cultivate. I was dubious; even a well-cultivated Canadian market for a Canadian author was going to be smaller than the US market. I thought if they could have gotten a 9-copy shelf display with OUTPOST by the cash registers at bookstores that people would pick up the book and ask to return it.

But it didn't matter. However much or little the business we did together, the mutual professional respect we had was a constant. We'd schmooze at his table at Boskone; there will be more than an empty spot in the dealer's room this year. I joined his children for dinner one night in Dublin during EuroCon in 2014. We stayed late at the bar in the San Antonio Marriott, and he shared his very clear opinion of the networking style of an aspiring author several tables away. The author wasn't being humble enough, he said, the conversations were too much about the author, the author needed to be listening more and talking less. It was a question of respect.

Respect.

David Hartwell gave it, and he commanded and demanded it. One of his most important contributions to the field of sf and fantasy is exactly that. Many of the books and authors he advocated for, acquired, edited, nurtured, were authors that could command respect outside the community of science fiction and fantasy. The anthologies he edited were often designed to be boats landing on the shore of mainstream literary respectability, the stories they contained part of an attack on the sands of the beach that separated us from them. There always seems to be this neutral zone, the sands that the water touches as it goes from low tide to high tide and back again that separates the sf and fantasy communities from respectable literature, and David Hartwell never doubted that we could cross that strip of sand.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Weekend at Bernie's

My nephew tweeted a link to a New York Magazine article explaining why Bernie Sanders is a Bad Thing.  The very liberal NY Times columnist Paul Krugman has a column with similar arguments in the Jan 18 New York Times.  And on one level, I agree with both. Sanders is too bombastically left wing to have any chance of winning.

There is just one problem.

Hillary's problem putting Bernie away is indicative of the essential problem with Hillary.  She will lose to any Republican who runs, because the closer we get to an actual election the more there will be way too may people who decide they just don't want to have Hillary and all the Clinton baggage in the White House, just like people are doing in the early primary states.  I fear the people complaining about Bernie Sanders don't understand that the alternative is as unelectable, in part because they are part of the establishment, like Hillary has been part of the establishment, and they just don't understand how little appeal Hillary has to anyone who wants the country to take a different direction. Hillary won't lead the country Bernie's way, she won't lead it the Republican way, she'll just be another same-old same-old when we need something different.

Suggested reading:  Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen rates Hillary's comments on the Flint, MI water crisis.  She sent an aide, she put out a statement, she went on TV.  Something that should be red meat for a Democrat to chew on, and she can't do it.

Of course Bernie Sanders is right about single payer health care.  However long and potholed and rutted the way might be, if rather take my chances with a candidate who is willing to fight for what we need and compromise from there rather than pre-compromise.  Because the Republicans don't do much of that any more.  Whatever their promises, they want something and they just keep going for it.  The Republican governor in North Carolina who wouldn't add abortion restrictions and is adding them.  The Republican governor in Wisconsin who was only after the public employee unions and is now after all of them.  The Republican governor in Kansas who is leading a failed experiment in supply side economics and is happy to keep leading it, leading it, leading it some more and was re-elected.  I might not agree with any of these people,but I have the utmost respect for them.  They have power. They use it.  They lead unapologetically.  That doesn't describe Hillary. If she has a point of view, no one would know what it is. 

You spend a week in my office, you'll have an idea what I stand for and care about, what JABberwocky stands for and cares about.  Spend thirty years with Hillary, and you end up with her caring less about Flint, MI than Rachel Maddow. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

My Eagle

I'm 51.  Since Glenn Frey was my age, I believe I've been to only two concerts.  Don Henley at Radio City Music Hall in 2000, and Don Henley at the Beacon Theatre just a few months ago.

Henley was, Henley is, "my" Eagle.  I think Hotel California, with lead vocals by Henley, is the best Eagles song.  If I walk into a store and hear New Kid in Town playing on the radio, I'll walk in and walk out.  If I hear Hotel California, I'll linger, wait, hold off until the final notes have played, as Glenn Frey's final notes played today.

I wouldn't have Henley if I didn't have The Eagles.  Henley and I wouldn't have The Eagles if it weren't for Glenn Frey.  Henley far surpassed Frey as a solo artist, but I wouldn't have purchased Henley's album I Can't Stand Still if it weren't for The Eagles, for Frey.  I wouldn't have my Dirty Laundry, down at the Sunset Grill, while Building the Perfect Beast for The Boys of Summer during the End of the Innocence.  Henley proved himself to be more than The Eagles, but many of the songs in his solo career have their roots in The Eagles.  The song writers were Eagles song writers, the instrumentations reflect the California easy rock of The Eagles, the tone and tenor are totally redolent of The Eagles.  Henley's biggest hit, The Boys of Summer, wouldn't have been out of place on the album Hotel California, and Glenn Frey could easily have done the vocals.

I don't listen to music much at all, any more.  Haven't really for years.  But if you're wondering how to place this in my biography, Building the Perfect Beast is the only album I purchased on LP, cassette, and CD.  In fact, it was the very first album I purchased to listen to on my very first CD players.

I meant to talk some about the Henley concert at the Beacon Theatre.  As someone who works with creative types, I was fascinated by the dynamic, the yin/yang push/pull between Henley's desire to do whatever he damn well pleased because he could afford to, and his need to do what his fans wanted, because he couldn't afford not to.

It was a dynamic that didn't exist a way long time ago when I saw Mark Knopfler do a solo concert where he couldn't bring himself to do anything that might actually make a Dire Straits fan happy.  He did some of their big hits, but it always felt like a car that was stalling as it got started, like tires spinning in ice.  Mark Knopfler didn't give a shit, performed like he didn't give a shit, I left that night no longer giving a shit about Mark Knopfler, either.

So Henley did weird covers, but it was actually kind of interesting to hear Don Henley do a take on "I've Got a Spell on You."  Not, really, what I paid to see.  But worth hearing.

He did the occasional deep catalog surprise.

Less satisfying, Henley did song after song after song from his new album.  Sadly, more than enough songs for anyone to tell that the new album wasn't near as good as the old albums.  The orchestrations and instrumentations might have fit comfortably on the old albums.  The melodies might have fit comfortably on the old albums.  Alas, the lyrics wouldn't have fit at all.  The songs Henley and his collaborators wrote for his albums in the 1980s and 1990s had a richness not just of sound but of emotion, a depth of feeling as resonant as the trombone solos on Sunset Grill.  The new songs don't have that.  They have one note.  I got Cass County the weekend it came out as one of those things you do at my age, buying the physical product to have on the shelf and to support the artist who meant something once.  I heard almost every song on the album at the concert.  And the plastic shrink wrap is still covering up the CD, because Henley made it abundantly clear that it's not worth my time to get to know this album further.

But ultimately, Henley did every song you came to see.  Just when you thought you were stuck in Cass County forever and ever, out came three of the classics.  Done well.  Performed with heart.  With a voice that's surprisingly resonant after all these years.  That was a lot like the song you listened to over and over again, a decade and another decade and another gone by.

It wasn't a cheap night out.  Didn't find out about the concert until long after it was on sale.  StubHub had me at "hello."  Not a problem; if you do something every fifteen years there's no harm in splurging on it.  I paid to see Don Henley, but I also did it because of Glenn Frey.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Politics!

One of the things I hate about politics, politicians, and the people who support them is the complete inconsistency of their morality -- i.e., things that are 100% acceptable and which should, must, have to be totally overlooked when your guy does it are 100% wrong and heinous and awful when the other guy does it.

A quick example of this:  Could you imagine how the right wing propaganda machine would be humming if a major Democratic figure had been caught outright lying about the funding of their campaign, if some sob story about sacrificing all to run for office turned out to be "Goldman Sachs gave me a loan, and after I knew I'd be getting the loan, I put all my own money into the campaign."

That's what Ted Cruz did, and the story's gotten surprisingly little traction.

And much as I don't like Ted Cruz, I think everyone should consider him a natural-born citizen eligible to be President of the United State.

But at the same time, much as I don't like Donald Trump, I'll give him points for questioning Cruz's citizenship.  Because it at least demonstrates a moral consistency, being willing to go after a Republican the same way he went after Obama on the same issue.

That's a lot better than the professional politician who happily changes his mind every time the party in the Oval Office changes hands.  Confirming justices is good or bad, depending.  Using executive orders is good or bad, depending.  Well - no.  You can disagree on the particular executive order all you want, or the particular judge or justice.  But your entire world view on the legitimacy of the tactics used in pursuit of political power shouldn't change based on the identity of the person or party exercising that power.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Joshua's Query Guidelines

After being closed to queries for a few years, I decided to reopen in early 2016, and I've kept on it since. It's always special finding something great through the query box.  One of the first and most important things to do, however, is follow...

THE GUIDELINES:

1.  If you don’t follow the guidelines, your query will be deleted, unread and without a response.

2.  Submissions can be made electronically to queryjoshua[at]awfulagent.com or via old-fashioned query letter with self-addressed stamped reply envelope.  Since reopening to queries, I have already deleted a number of queries sent to a different email address.  Remember, follow the guidelines.

3.  The only thing I want is your query letter.  No email attachments at all.  You may choose to provide a brief one-to-three page synopsis, but it’s not required, and if you do, it should be pasted into open text at the end of your e-mail, and not separately attached.  Any query with attachments will be deleted unread.  

4.  The query letter should be brief.  If you were to print it on old-fashioned paper, it should fit onto a one page standard business letter.

6.  And while brief, the query should have relevant information on both yourself and your manuscript.

In May 2016, I found this wonderful "Is Your Query Ready" diagram via @davidrslayton on Twitter. Take a look before you hit "send" on your query.

I want to talk a little more about relevance, starting with "relevant information about yourself."  For a published writer, your credits are relevant.  For other authors, it might be having a job or life experience of some sort that ties very directly to the book you have written.  For authors without credits or credentials, it might be adding something that suggests your knowledge or familiarity with the genre or category you plan to write in.  And when all else fails, tell us about where you grew up, where you went to school, but always something.  Check out this article from Publishers Weekly (if not behind paywall), about a writer finding an agent.  Hate to give spoilers, but basically, the only agent who read the manuscript appears to be someone who thought he recognized the name as that of a high school classmate.  If you think it's silly to start telling me where you grew up, where you went to school -- well, I can understand why; it does seem silly.  But it's a lot less silly than writing a query letter that suggests there isn't a single interesting thing about the author.

Relevant information about the manuscript:  Avoid adjectives.  You're not a third-party observer who's earned the right to say your manuscript is "romantic" or "thrilling" or "fast-paced" or any other adjective you might choose to apply to your own work.  And remember it's a business letter, and not cover copy.  

Here’s what I want:

I always like science fiction and fantasy, but there are also at least three other people at the agency who look at science fiction and fantasy.  Will I look?  Sure!  But ask yourself if there’s some extra special reason that you want to direct the submission to me instead of Sam or Eddie, and Lisa is likely to reopen to submissions in the next few weeks.  I tend to shy away from the more literary part of the sf/fantasy spectrum, but I’d rather make the call here. If it looks intriguing, but not in line with my personal tastes, I may share with someone else in the office.

On the other hand, I also like good mysteries and thrillers, and there aren’t as many people here who share that interest.  I’d love to see some great projects in these genres.  People forget that I was working with Charlaine Harris for many years as a cozy mystery writer before Sookie Stackhouse hit it big, and the very first novel I ever sold was a mystery novel.  I’m open to the full range of work in these categories.

With JABberwocky having grown so much, we’re wanting very much to represent more non-fiction.  One of my accomplishments in 2015 was reaching out to Gil Griffin, an author of a great article on the SB Nation website, and turning it into a new non-fiction book (on NCAA basketball players striving to break into Australian Rules football) that was published in Summer 2016.  I was a history major in college.  I love watching movies, follow sports, am interested in business and many other topics, and I spend an average of 90 minutes a day reading newspapers very thoroughly.  So there’s hardly a non-fiction project I won’t look at.  BUT -- you’ve got to have credentials to write non-fiction, and I’ve got to be very blunt that most memoirs and auto-biography proposals I’ve ever seen in 30 years in the publishing business aren’t of broad enough interest.  If you don’t have credentials or have a deeply personal story to get off your chest, even the time it takes to address an email is probably not going to pay off for either of us.

You can try me after you’ve tried someone else in the office; tastes differ.  But have a good, hard think on whether that’s the problem.  I might be more likely to enjoy a military sf novel than Eddie, but if Eddie turned down your literary sf query it’s pretty slim odds that the solution is querying me.

The executive summary here:  I want to see fiction in just the “core for me” genres of sf/fantasy and mystery/thrillers, and will reject submissions in other categories.  Nonfiction, I’ll look a little more broadly.

The process:

It may take several weeks for me to get to the query in-box.  I'm eager to be looking, but good windows of time to devote to the task arrive sporadically.  If we like your query, we’ll generally request opening pages/chapters (for fiction) or detailed proposal (for non-fiction) as our next step.  And again, response time may be unpredictable, since it depends a lot on the overall work flow at the agency, including how many manuscripts I’m juggling from current clients, and a “no” will often come a lot quicker than a “yes” because the manuscripts we like, we need to spend more time with.  We will respond to all queries which follow the guidelines and are in the categories and genres requested.