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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.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Save the Titanic

TCM had Titanic on Saturday night, and I watched large chunks of it. It's so much nicer to watch this three hour plus movie when it isn't interrupted with on toward an hour of commercials.

So if Avatar wins Best Picture a week from when this post goes live...

Well, not only will it be wrong on its own terms, but it will demean Titanic. Which is really everything that Avatar was not. Three hours, but oh, does it move. None of the toe-tapping of Avatar. When I turned to Titanic at around 12:28 AM, I was utterly rapt for the next 40 minutes; couldn't go for the dental floss until the movie was over at 1:32. Serious minded, but with a constant twinkle in its eye. Oh, the bad husband character played by Billy Zane is a bit of an unwanted buffoon, but there's a subtle pleasure to David Warner's performance as the valet that gives compensation. Kathy Bates is a joy, Gloria Stuart is a wonder, the music by James Horner is such a delight. No, the special effects aren't as good. The artificially inserted air vapor looks weird and artificial. But it has the biggest effect of all, which is real heart. It's like the song says, "my heart will go on." If there's a cliche, like "guy drops keys to lock, Jack must dive down, get key ring, find right key before he and Rose drown," you don't mind because your heart is in it. When Sam Worthington proclaims "at first, it was just a job, and then it became love," it's just a boring cliche in a boring movie.

It was a wonder to watch this unfold on the mammoth screen of my beloved Loews Astor Plaza, now 5 1/2 years gone but it will live in my memory forever, and Titanic is that kind of movie. Avatar doesn't hold a candle to it, it's not even a little teeny tiny Hanukkah candle against the brilliant lustre of Titanic.

So please, let's not have an Oscar for Avatar sitting on James Cameron's shelf next to the one for Titanic.


I mentioned here that I had gone to DC to see some theatre, and I'm overdue to talk about what I saw.

Why do I go to DC to see theatre when there's so much in New York? Well, it's hard for me to make time for it when I'm home because there's so much else calling on my time, and then when some show I really regret not seeing makes its way to DC, I see it as my little last chance theatre and try and see if I can force myself to take advantage of the opportunity Before It's Too Late.

So this trip was a BITL for The Four Of Us, a show about writers and writing that had played off Broadway and of course has some professional relevance. And then I decided to add in a well-reviewed show called In the Red and Brown Water at the Studio Theatre, which is my favorite DC venue, and then added in a second show at the Studio that was just opening called That Face, about which I knew very little, but in for a dime in for a dollar.

In the natural way of things I liked most the show I knew nothing about.

That Face is written by the Christopher Paolini of British playwrights, someone named Polly Stenham who was 19 years old when she wrote it and ended up on the West End. It's very oedipal, thank you to the Washington Post review for giving me the word which was eluding me on my own after I saw the show. You've got a drug/alcohol addled mother of two, the father having escaped to a rich banker job in Hong Kong, a daughter in prep school, and a son who's essentially abandoned his life entirely in order to "care for" his mother. When the daughter's schooling is endangered by her involvement in a hazing incident, daddy is called back from Hong Kong to help resolve the situation. There's very little I'd disagree with in that Post review, except to say that on balance I tipped toward rather enjoying myself while the tenor of the review is mixed. The writing is sharp. The acting is good. The dynamic between the son and the mother is totally weirded out. My main objections are to that weirded out relationship, which I bought into near to totally while watching the play but kept resisting in the discussion with self afterwards. Ultimately, if I can buy into the Harper/Tolliver relationship in the Harper Connelly books by Charlaine Harris, then I should let myself buy into this weird relationship, and if I let myself do that I can let myself recommend the play. That being said, the cast really does have to be on top of their game, and if you stumbled across another production of this where the actors weren't walking the tight rope as adroitly as the Studio cast does...

In the Red and Brown Water was quite nicely reviewed by the Post and has been a popular show at the Studio with a multi-week extension, but the best I can say is that I kind of admired it but in no way liked it. It's like the Fish Tank of plays. Another young girl, this one a track star with the potential to get a scholarship, but tied up in all sorts of family drama and boyfriend drama and other drama. As with that movie, the character's thrust upon us without a lot of motivation or explanation for the choices she's making. The writing style is rather arch. The characters constantly break the third wall to announce things like "Oya cries" or "I walk in like a cat in the jungle ready to pounce." Not my cup of tea.

And then there's The Four of Us, NY Times review here. From what I've seen of the critical response, it's been up and down. Even just in Variety, the original review and the NY review aren't entirely in agreement. But it does have that professional resonance. You've got two young writers, one a playwright and the other a novelist, who are friends. The novelist sells his novel -- doesn't just sell it but sells it for $2 million when all of the global and foreign sales are accounted for. This causes some tension in the relationship, though the play isn't just about that. It moves back in time to show some of the pre-success relationship. It moves forward in time to show how the playwright ultimately resolves his own feelings toward his friend.

One of the risks you have when you're watching this sort of thing and know something about the subject is the easy ability you have to find every little flaw in what's being presented. Think the Pelham 123 remake from last summer. The good news on this play is that I can assure you all of the little details are dead-on. Maybe not a surprise; the playwright Itamar Moses is known to have known the author Jonathan Safran Foer. Examples: One scene is set in a music camp the two writers attended as teens and one of them talks about how he likes to go into record stores and go to where his CDs would be and envision them sitting there on the shelves in their proper alphabetical order. I've gone to bookstores with writer Andrew Gudgel and seen him put his hand in that space between Simon Green and Peter Hamilton, thinking this exact same thing. We get little snippets of the questions asked of the writer while he is on book tour, and they are very much the kinds of questions and answers that you get on book tour. He talks about moving from an agent who submitted the book to one publisher at a time to one who sends it out to many people at once, thus getting the auction fever going. Not once did I find myself shaking my head at some really silly piece of something in the play.

But I wasn't totally a big fan of the play, either. All the little details were right, but when they were added up together I wasn't sure if the play's big picture reveals about life were anything special. The play uses a very specific milieu to come to a much more general and perhaps more generic view of friends and friendship and the writing process. I wish the play had been insightful on something big as it was on all things small. Since I didn't think the play was going anywhere special on the macro side of things, I found the writing to be a little too leisurely. If I know where you're going, why not get there? Most of the scenes went on a beat or two too long than I thought they needed to. It was a 1:40 play which probably could have come in ten or twenty minutes shorter. I was seeing with a Sunday matinee crowd that skewed old, your 40-something blogger one of the younger attendees. I was getting a little bleary-eyed during the play, it looked like the man next to me was getting a little bleary-eyed, and somebody a row back and a seat or two over. Maybe I was tired, maybe that's what happens when you're 60% older than I am, or maybe it's what happens when every scene could be just a little bit tighter.

Not a bad play. It's a two-person play that travels well and could easily enough show up somewhere where you are. It will give the real goods on some parts of the creative trade. But I do wish it had been just a little bit better.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

out on video

The Damned United is now out on video. I saw this in London during last year's London Book Fair, it had a brief run in the US, not surprising considering the Britishness of it. I liked it quite a bit, and I felt I should give it another quick shout out now that you can buy or queue.

Inglorious Basterds

So as I expected when I did my post on the Oscar nominations, Inglorious Basterds did find it back into a movie theatre in New York City, so the studio could show off its wares nicely to the Oscar voters. This is definitely one of the nice things about living in New York, one of the reasons why I live here and not elsewhere. And to my happy surprise, when I got to the Landmark Sunshine on Tuesday night Feb. 23 to see, not only was it there, but it was on the bigger downstairs theatre the Variety Screening Series rents out and not one of the smaller theatres upstairs. So if any of the 20ish people at the 7:15 showing were Oscar voters, the studio was indeed putting its best foot forward.

Well, the movie was such a delight on so many levels that I was pretty much kicking myself not to have seen it when it first opened, maybe even on a bigger screen.

First and foremost, I now have my rooting interest for Best Supporting Actor. Christoph Waltz is a German actor not much known on these shores, with credits that don't go much beyond "German spy" in Goldeneye. Here, he plays a role that we've seen in film dozens of times before, the Nazi officer who hunts Jews and kills people. I certainly can't say that we sympathize with him, because after all he hunts Jews and kills people. But he does play the role with a kind of relish, a delight, a joie de vivre, an elan, an aplomb, a distinctiveness, that we just never see from an actor playing this role. He chews up the scenery, he steals the show, but lurking beneath it all there's a constant self-awareness that what he's about is a nasty business, that he isn't someone you want to cross. It's a masterfully modulated performance, an indelible work of true screen genius. So come March 7 when I shall be live-blogging the Oscars, I'll be in the Christoph Waltz camp.

Waltz's presence in the movie is an example of the deeply essential German-ness of a lot of the casting. The young actor Daniel Brühl, as another example. And all of these people co-existing with a Brad Pitt, a Mike Myers, an Eli Roth. And then there's a French actress Julie Dreyfuss from the Kill Bill movies. There's a term "europudding" that Variety uses, often in a negative sense, that take an actor from country A and a director from country B, film in country C in the language of country D, in order to cover all bases and maximize the sales. That could definitely apply to Inglorious Basterds, except the term is intended as a negative oftentimes, and this movie makes you wish for more of them.

The entire musical soundtrack is borrowed. If it sounds like it's something Ennio Morricone might have done for a spaghetti western or Italian gangster movie, it's because it is something he composed for a spaghetti western or Italian gangster movie. These tracks are joined by cuts from Cat People or White Lightning or a composer Jacques Loussier whom I've never heard of before. There's not an original note to be found, and it's pitch perfect.

Contemporary cinema is not known to linger. Michael Bay is at the extreme end of the quick cut, but it's safe to say his style of short shots and fast cuts is closer to the norm. A lot of times now if we're looking at a movie that's leisurely in its editing, it's probably way in the opposite direction, the kind of over-stuffed art film that I felt was pretty much self-parodied in Police, Adjective. What a change of pace this is. The lion's share of the movie is taken up with just a few very long scenes. There's one at the beginning, where we meet the Christoph Waltz character as he interrogates a farmer about Jews that might be hiding in the area, and it's a good 20 minutes, and all of it pretty much in the main room of the farmhouse. There's another later on in a basement night club that goes on for around a half hour. Each of these long scenes is a miniature masterpiece. As long as the scenes are, they never seem slow or dull. The words being spoken are interesting and suspenseful. The music is heightening the atmosphere. The camera movements aren't flamboyantly suspenseful like Brian de Palma might be but are gently nerve-wracking. These gentle scenes build real suspense and come to great climaxes in ways we're simply not used to seeing. This is a quality that's shared on this year's best picture nominees with Hurt Locker, which manages to find a serenity in the chaos of war. It definitely ain't shared with Avatar.

A very nice piece of work.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

all the gin joints...

I like the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire very very much. I can still see the feet of the runners pounding along the surf while this wonderful Vangelis music swells up, still remember the day I saw it, driving down with my younger brother to the RKO Stanley Warner Rt. 4 in Paramus, NJ in the upstairs auditorium, and driving back very happily in a light snow.

Hearing said music on a TV ad for the forthcoming movie The Bounty Hunter?

That is very very strange.

indie-d indeed

I was in the Posman Books location in Grand Central Terminal last night, and if you wonder why I often don't shed tears for the demise of the beloved independent bookstore...

They have two copies of books by Scott Mackay on the shelf, including his book Phytosphere, which is out of print for long enough that we have a reversion of rights.

They don't have and never have had a copy of a Lost Fleet book by Jack Campbell. These books are not only in print, but have made the NY Times bestseller list.

And there's no sign that they will be getting any copies of the Warbreaker mass market by Brandon Sanderson, or the Warded Man mass market by Peter Brett, as two examples of March releases that I would expect will enjoy strong sales.

So they clearly don't have anyone buying the sf and fantasy who knows anything about sf and fantasy. They don't have very good inventory management, because their relatively small sf/f section has plenty of books that just aren't very likely to sell.Based on the concentration of odd books they have from the DAW/Roc list, it's clear they look at the monthly NAL mass market catalog more closely than some others which may imply that the Penguin sales rep is better than some of the others that call on this account.

Now, I love all my book children equally, and I was certainly happy when the Scott Mackay books came out that Posman was carrying them. At the same time, I do get that weekly Bookscan report card and I get royalty statements, and I know which books are selling and which are not. Independent bookstores are just much more likely, especially away from the categories like lit fic or children's they really care about and which motivate the owners, to have sections like this that ooze inattentiveness.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

the e-book Revolution 2

I keep seeing more and more and more people with e-book readers. Sunday night on the Acela back from DC, last night on the #5 train from Grand Central to Union Square, it's gone from being a special sighting to being a regular occurence.

Barnes & Noble spends so much time touting their wondrous results and the immense huge hitted-ness of their Nook on their earnings conference call this week that it wouldn't surprise me if the executives on the call shit in their pants from the excitement of what they were saying. As is the case when Amazon shits in its pants in excitement talking about the Kindle, there are all kinds of buzz words and not a lot of specifics. When they sales sales "exploded" beyond expectations does that mean they were expecting to sell 4 and actually sold 6, or they were shooting for 82,900 and sold 126,800? Their market share on e-books on some books is now above their 18% market share of physical bookstore sales. Which e-books? Bestsellers? Ones that sell 2 copies and B&N sold one? All of this stuff needs to be taken with a grain of salt, the Nook wasn't that well reviewed, and in the call they're very happy with the reviews, but there you have it.

We just got royalty statements for a book that came out around 14 months ago. Thru a November royalty report, it sold 475 non-Kindle e-books, with the biggest formats there accounting for 194 for the Sony Reader and 183 copies for another format which it's hard to tell exactly which it is. Then there's an e-book format that sold 2,271, which we guess to be the Kindle edition, for total e-book sales approx 2250 copies. The print version trade paperback sold 31,832, which number could go up or down based on other copies shipped and returned.

This doesn't really include any Nook sales, because that was just shipping about the time this royalty statement was closing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

It's still just a cupcake

Maybe I need to get out of town more.

In around 33 hours actually in the Washington DC area over the weekend, I managed to see 3 plays, visit 1 B. Dalton, 4 B&Ns, 4 Borders, chow down at 2 Whole Foods and a Pizzeria Uno, do the Saturday NY Times puzzle, two from Sunday, a regular and a cryptic, read 70% of the new Violette Malan book and get started on Tanya Huff's next.

I'll talk more about the plays later, but just a few idle observations.

I've sung the praises of Georgetown Cupcake before, no doubt I'll do so again, they're some of the only overpriced cupcakes that at least taste really, really, really good. But what is the world coming to when I pop by their new expanded flagship location in Georgetown and see over 30 people curled around in the store waiting to buy cupcakes. It's just a cupcake. It's not worth waiting, sorry, no possible way unless it's your child's bar mitzvah and the caterer's truck with the viennese table pastries overturned on the beltway, that anyone should wait 30 minutes for a friggin' cupcake. I noticed they had a new location in Bethesda down the street from the B&N on Bethesda Row, much closer to that B&N than the Georgetown location is to the B&N in Georgetown, and the Bethesda store does a much better business in sf/fantasy than the one in Georgetown, so I expect in the future that I'll go to the Bethesda location, and I did wait five minutes or so the next day. And yes, the carrot cupcake was yummy, and the chocolate/vanilla and the key lime pie and the chocolate mint, even though the icing had kind of run off from the top of the cupcake by the time I ate them back home after taking them around with me for several hours and I had to scoop the icing back on top of the cupcakes.

The original home of the Rockville Pike Borders, which became an Anthropologie when Borders moved down the street into White Flint Mall, is an Anthropologie no more. The store is up for rent, so if any of you want to open a store in a historic retail location on 11500 Rockville Pike... And this huge Borders location no longer has even a single visible store-discretion shelf facing in its Front of Store, nor really does the wonderful Borders on 18th and L have any store discretion that's visible in its FOS. I find this a little depressing. I can remember back 20 years when a Borders had character. Of course, there weren't 500 stores back then. And one of the problems the chain had was that it had too much character and not enough management. And I wasn't very happy with George L. Jones because he didn't run a tight ship. But the nostalgic part of me wishes the chain could be a well-run chain while still retaining some of that store-specific character.

B&N will soon have Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion back on shelves. Should have been there all along, but that's a long story. Maybe I'll tell that story in a blog post some day. That was one of the nice things to see in the stores. The bummer thing is that Borders is underordering on Peter Brett's Desert Spear, around half as many of those as the new Robert Redick hardcover, though I bet Peter will outsell the Redick by about that same margin.

It's soon going to be $8.30 for a one-day pass on the DC MetroRail system. Is it that long ago this was a $5 bargain?

As I get older I get more crotchety about my hotel rooms. I went down twice to ask for a new room because any of the ones facing the air wells on either side, the HVAC equipment at the bottom of the airwell, all that noise just shimmies up the walls. Which leaves a room facing the street so you can get the street noise as the "best" option. I probably won't race to book the Hilton Garden Inn on 14th St. again.

I've never seen so much snow in DC. Knocked over light posts and paper boxes. The sidewalks not so bad but at the corners where snow was plowed from two different streets, you had some interesting detours.

The Pizzeria Uno in Bethesda is closed. And right before I headed to DC, my younger brother told me the one in Manchester, CT is closed now as well. I enjoyed my dinner at the Union Station location. I tried the honey crisp chicken salad for the first time, along with that new moroccan lentil soup, and it was a good thing.

Whole Foods is about to open the new store in Chevy Chase, MD just over the border from DC in Friendship Heights. May 18, I'm told. That's just a little over a mile from the Tenleytown store in DC and not far from the River Rd. location in Bethesda, so I see some same-store cannibalization in the near future. And it's maybe but three years ago that the Tenleytown store was given a pretty major remode. I also see on their web site that the store in Lake Grove, NY will be opening on March 17.

With my little weekend trips the past two weekends when I've been considering myself as on vacation and able to do more than just the Sunday Times crossword, well, I've impressed even myself with how well I've done on the Saturday puzzles. They're not easy, and it takes some backing and forthing and fermenting in the back of the mind while I do other stuff, but I've been very pleased.

I just can't seem to get as much done on a weekend when I'm home.

keepsake for sale

For whatever reason, the Dupont Circle (Washington DC) Books a Million has a rare-to-find in stores copy of the first edition hardcover of SHAKESPEARE'S TROLLOP by Charlaine Harris. I you're in the DC area, why not buy if you like Charlaine? There are some used copies on sale on Amazon for less than what Books a Million will charge, but you don't get to look at the book before you buy it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Boston and the movies

One other thing about my trip to Boston. In his review of Edge of Darkness, Boston-born NY Times critic A.O. Scott thinks the Boston accents were overdone. Well, maybe Tony Scott needs to go back to his old home-town. The accents in the real Boston are every bit as abundant as they are in the movie.

There are no Boston accents to be found in The Last Station.

I saw this at the Landmark Kendall Square, Aud. #1, a movie theatre which clearly has no desire to be found. It's around two-thirds of a mile from the Kendall stop on the Red Line. The newspaper ads give its location as 1 Kendall Square, but 1 Kendall Square turns out to be a complex with Building 200 and 300 and 400 and 800 and 1400, and the movie theatre is kind of way in the back hidden away in a dark dusty corner. Not a bad place to see a movie, kind of '80s sloped-floor multiplex but the rake is OK, and the screens are at least decent even in the smaller theatres.

I'm talking about the theatre because I'm not excited to talk about the movie. I'd resisted seeing it because it seemed like the reviews like something that really wasn't all that good, but since it did get those two Oscar nominations...

And I was right. It's not all that good. It's about a battle between Leo Tolstoy's wife and his followers for control of the copyright to his books like War and Peace and Anne Karenina. The movie takes a stab right at the start to provide some historical context, but its heart isn't in it, so there isn't much historical context to provide any real stakes to the goings-on. In my opinion, there wasn't anything all that special about Christopher Plummer's performance or Helen Mirren. That being said, it's rather amazing that this is Plummer's first Oscar nomination. He should probably have been nominated for Ararat from 2002 or for The Sound of Music from 40-some years ago, but he gets one now. He is 70, after all, so how long can you go.

Like one of those sports movies that shows the photos of the real people over the end credits, this movie shows some archival footage of the actual events taken on some of those earliest of moving picture cameras. I doubt I'd find a documentary on this subject any more unquenchably interesting than the fictional version, but I found more to like in those fleeting glimpses of archival footage than I did in the film that proceeded them.

After doing my duty with this, I did decide that I had done enough dutiful moviegoing. I just don't think I'm going to be delighted by Precious, I'm not going to see it, and I'll just have to miserably underprepared to comment on whatever it wins or loses on March 7. My early warning system for the movies I'm likely to like or not like is, on balance, reliable.

SF Signal actually linked me for Viewer Mail. Jim Hines, too. Not that I'm starved for attention or notice these things. Nosirree.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

28 days later

Or as Maxwell Smart would say "would you believe 7?"

I'm taking a quick +1 week Bookscan peek at the Macmillan titles that would have been hurt the week before from the Battle of the Buy Button on Amazon, and what we're seeing is a lot of healthy ticks upward. Warbreaker up 15%, the Mistborn boxed set, the Wheel of Time boxed set, the Terry Goodkind boxed sets, all up by 25% or more. The Gathering Storm up 16%. Michael Schiefelbein's Vampire Maker up a good chunk, The Cole Protocol up 7% mass market and 15% trade.

So we know that sales were lost on these books a week ago, it's hard to know how many were just delayed into this week, how many went to other channels, how many lost for good.

I do know that I worry a little about things that are just a transient blip, and a lot more about the decline in sales after the September 2008 economic plunge in the US where you didn't see a bounce back up. It's clear that publishers and retailers can play their games at relatively minor damage to one another so long as they're doing quick skirmishes, and equally clear that somebody would end up losing if a dispute like that went on for a full month or more.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The More Things Change...

In many ways, Boston is where it all began for me. February 1979, my parents and my younger brother are staying at the Sheraton Boston the same weekend as Boskone, we're allowed into the dealer's room even though we don't have a membership, somebody's pimping free samples of Omni Magazine, before you know it I'm reading stories by Orson Scott Card and George R. R. Martin, getting hooked on the stuff, and some 31 years later I'm one of the leading literary agents for sf/fantasy. There's also the six weeks I spent at Harvard in the summer of 1981 overshooting my allowance on movies, comic books and fantasy and sf novels. So whenever I go to an sf-y something in Boston, it always has a nice extra bit of resonance for me. With not too much lead time, I decided to take a break from NYC and head up to Boskone this year.

So what's up in Beantown?

Since my last visit a few years ago, the good news is that Pandemonium Books in Cambridge survived a scare a few years back when relocation delays led to money problems led to some difficulties with the IRS. The bad news is that the store's book inventory is now mostly new books for the new books, but then mostly used books for the backlist. Better that than not to have the store around at all, and there were customers and a decent crowd in the downstairs gaming room this past Saturday. I did them a favor and suggested they not charge $3.95 for a decent used copy of Beyond the Blue Moon by Simon R. Green, which goes for $16+ on Amazon at the moment.

Pandemonium is the successor to a bookstore on the second floor of a building on Eliot Ave. in Cambridge where I spent many a dollar when I was there in 1981. That building is still around, but now connected to another building with an IHOP where I didn't eat because there was too big a line. I ended up getting Ben & Jerry's for breakfast from their outlet in The Garage, which was the building that housed the previous incarnation of Pandemonium.

I think the Pizzeria Uno in Harvard Square was around in 1981 but too expensive for me to eat at. On this trip, I ate at an Uno's one stop up the Red Line in Porter Square, the 52nd Uno's that I've eaten at. This is in a little shopping mall that may once have been thriving and now is not, and I'm sure once upon a time you couldn't just walk in and find a table on a Friday night. But I must say that the new Moroccan Lentil Soup is one tasty bowl of soup, and with under 200 calories in the bowl. I highly, highly, highly recommend.

The Out of Town News kiosk in the center of Harvard Square was saved from closure a while back, and honestly it may as well go, because it's not even a good version of a US newsstand any more, really, and has about as many out of town newspapers as you'll find at your local Midas outlet. But across the street, the Crimson Corner sundries shop still puts Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, EQMM and AHMM on display right at the front door. If there's ever a tradition you'd think not to have stood the test of time, but somehow or other you still can't walk into this little shop without having a chance to catch up with some good mystery or f/sf fiction.

Besides getting to my 52nd Unos, I took the MBTA out to Dedham Mass to visit the largest Whole Foods in New England, and I believe my 101st of those. I had a very good time. This is in the very busy and prosperous-seeming Legacy Place lifestyle center, which as we can see
here is theoretically going to have a new Borders in it come Summer 2010.

Peeking in through the window...
... and looking at all of the other stores that have opened already at Legacy, you get the unfortunate impression that they decided a while back to maybe take a break from actually building out the store in order to decide if it made more sense to actually build and open the store or find their way out of the lease. I sure do hope the store will be open in the Summer, because this looks like a nice happening place for a Borders, and I do so love being part of the first day excitement at a new bookstore.

The Vinny T's across from the Prudential Center where Steve and I had dinner with Simon Green in 2004 is now closed. I did pop in to the Sheraton Boston in the Pru to pay proper homage to the 2nd floor South Tower meeting room where the hucksters room had been in 1979. Boskone hasn't been at the Sheraton for a while, and the past few years has been in a nice Weston attached to the new convention center in a desolate waterfront area not quite a mile away from South Station. That neighborhood is alas just as desolate as I remembered it being a few years ago, but Boskone itself was a solid convention. Around a thousand people, well run, people seemed to be having a good time. Next year Charlaine Harris will be a special guest, so I will probably be back for more.

The Acela is a nice train, but it is so frustrating not to have real high speed rail in the US. For whatever reason, we had a really pokey train ride up and were 15 minutes late, kind of like being in a car that you know wants to go faster only it can't. The trip was better coming back since the train was actually going at the speed it's supposed to. Except when we had an unscheduled stop just after the bridge from Groton to New London, and sat for 45 minutes because of some signal difficulty. It was still faster both ways than the unelectrified bad old days when the train went slower and had to do an engine change in New Haven, and the seat is nice and comfortable.

I sat in on a couple readings and a panel on the Google settlement. Ya know, folks, Google at least wants to pay authors money. I wish half the energy being spent opposing Google was being spent thinking on ways to deal with piracy and file-sharing and other people and places and companies and things that would rather not pay authors at all. As Jane Yolen and the other panelists pointed out, the Google settlement is flawed.

The flagship Borders on School St. in downtown Boston is still a really nice bookstore selling lots and lots of books. Borders has a new sf/f buyer as the excellent Morgan Burns has been promoted to doing graphic novels and other such things. We'll miss him!

I finally found my way to the Landmark Kendall Square and saw The Last Station. So maybe I'll blog about that.

I didn't get as much work reading done as I'd hoped on the weekend, I never do. But I did catch up on comic books and other fun things, and I did very well on each of the Friday, Saturday and Sunday crosswords in the NY Times.

Basically, it was nice to be in Boston, to look out my hotel window and see the Sheraton Boston across the way, and to walk in to Harvard Yard and look at the staircase where I can remember reading Robert Heinlein in the summer of '79.

A few things

I really liked today's Lio.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Edge of Daybreak

Edge of Darkness, seen Tuesday evening Feb. 9 2010 at the AMC Loews W. 34th St., aud. #4, was a pleasant surprise. It's one of those films that could, from the credits, go either way. Do you encounter the director Martin Campbell who did Vertical Limit, or the one who did Casino Royale? Mel Gibson? Is that the Lethal Weapon guy, the Lethal Weapon 4 guy, the Mrs. Soffel guy? It turns out to be a movie co-written by William Monahan, whose screenplay for The Departed was an excellent adaptation of the very good Korean movie Infernal Affairs. It turns out to be a movie edited by Stuart Baird. Now, who pays attention to who edited a movie? But Stuart Baird is the long-time go-to guy for Richard Donner, starting with The Omen and Superman, and with Mel Gibson dating back to Lethal Weapon, Maverick, one of those editors who works with people forever the way Thelma Schoonmaker has edited Martin Scorcese since forever or Michael Kahn has edited Spielberg for over 30 years dating back to Close Encounters. It's the movie that takes an actor named Shawn Roberts who's done plenty of TV but nothing anyone's really noticed and puts him in and gets a well-textured and interesting performance in a small but important role, and is otherwise filled with interesting actors doing interesting roles. Critics have said, true enough, that Ray Winstone kind of steals the movie from Mel Gibson, but the movie's full of nice supporting turns. It's one of those things that says A people aren't worried to surround themselves with other A people because they have the self-confidence not to worry they're going to be overshadowed. A movie with some nice old-fashioned subtle musical scoring by Howard Shore (LotR).

It's a movie good enough that I really noticed when it fell short of the mark. It does so once out of necessity, lingering for a second or two longer than you'd expect on the face of a young policeman. So yes, this cop plays an important role later on that justifies that strange extra second or two of screen time, but... it's such an intrusive and glaring second or two that I wish there was another way. And there's one three minute stretch around 90% of the way through the movie that's just silly and entirely unnecessary, and I wish somebody had noticed in time to leave it on the cutting room floor. But most of the movie is reasonably taut and suspenseful and well-crafted.

So worth seeing.

And then there's Daybreakers.

Ethan Hawke is an actor whose done a lot of interesting work for over 20 years now, along with Robert Sean Leonard a real stand-out to emerge from the plentiful supply of male adolescence in Dead Poets Society. Seems to me he should have had more of a career than he's had, and in part that's because he makes two or three strange choices for every logical one, and then one out of three of those strange choices is interesting strange and the rest of them are just strange.

Daybreakers is definitely one of his interesting strange choices, and should probably go on double bills with the equally interesting and strange Gattaca from a dozen-ish years back.

It's a vampire movie that goes in some very interesting directions. What happens when everyone becomes a vampire, turning humans into an endangered but very necessary species because the True Blood efforts in this world aren't meeting with success. So human blood is a vital necessity, there are fewer and fewer humans to supply it, and the vampire population is not happy.

Ethan Hawke plays a hematologist for a pharmaceutical company that's looking for a cure while also farming humans in a large slowly emptying tank.

The movie heads off in some interesting directions. Hawke will find his way to a different cure that is not intuitive. That cure will have some implications that are kind of clever, leading to some final act twists on the standard vampire movie that are fun and intriguing. There are often some interesting things going on a little bit off to the side of the main movie. As with Edge of Darkness, there is some nice stuff going on with the casting, not just with Hawke but with Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe and an interesting turn by young Australian actor Michael Dorman in the same way you've got the interesting turn from Shawn Roberts in Edge of Darknesss.

But the movie matches all of the interesting stuff with a lot that is archetypal and familiar, battles between father and daughter, between brothers.

It's a whirlwind of the offbeat and interesting and the obvious and uninteresting, in the same line or same scene or same frame oftentimes.

If you're remotely interested in vampire fiction, this is definitely a must-rent. I'm certainly glad to have seen it, can see why its theatrical run has been a quick in-and-out, but wouldn't be surprised if it's a movie people are talking about and referencing for a lot longer than its theatrical run alone might suggest. Which I think is the case for Gattaca as well, and for other of Ethan Hawke's strange choices. I should be happier than I am that an actor who has the smarts and talent to be Big has instead chosen a stranger road.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Viewer Mail

One of my blog readers sent an e-mail to ask why we don't accept electronic queries at JABberwocky, which is actually a pretty good question that seemed worth answering.

Part of it -- the most important part for me -- is just the generation I'm from. I spent many years reading queries on pieces of paper, and I'm still very comfortable doing it that way. There are a lot of things that can be determined about the quality of a query just by looking at that piece of paper. First and foremost, is the query letter one page or two? It's much harder to get that sense from looking at an e-mail query, and I still think this is one of the most important tests. Even for a one-page letter, I can take that out of an envelope and see before I even start reading if there's a good balance of information about both the author and the manuscript, or if the bulk of the letter is an over-long description of the book. There are words of that letter that jump off the printed page -- good or bad -- in a way very different from scrolling along on a computer screen.

Then there are the process management issues. I could have people send a query letter as an actual attachment of a letter, a PDF or Word file. Do HR people at big companies that get all kinds of attached resumes look at all of those on isolated computers? Leave that aside (I can get paper cuts with hard copy queries, nothing in life is entirely safe), the time to download and open the files and then paste e-mail addresses into a response template is probably greater in aggregate than opening hard copies and putting replies into SASEs. Maybe I'm wrong, and an electronic query doesn't need to be recycled, but I'm pretty sure it's not a big time savings to have e-mail queries.

As another management issue, there's the "out of sight, out of mind" thing. Queries would need to come in to a dedicated e-mail address, and I'm not sure an e-mail box I wasn't checking would nag at me the same way a pile of hard copy letters does.

When the day comes that I have people working for me who are pushing heavily on having e-mail queries, I doubt I'll hold to my own stronger comfort level with hard copy. That day hasn't yet arrived. But there's no denying that for me I'm still happiest holding a piece of paper in my hand, just as I am happier on days when I get into Manhattan and buy a physical copy of the Washington Post, instead of reading it on line.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

something else to worry about

Ian Randall Strock, the high poobah of the excellent SF news site SFScope, which anyone interested in the genre should bookmark or RSS, gives us all something else to be depressed about. As he points out here, the e-book age makes record-keeping and auditing a little more challenging. We don't as yet have a tracking system for e-books like Nielsen Bookscan does for printed books. And with printed books, the publisher and maybe its distributor are responsible pretty much on their own for shipping books and processing when they come back, and these things can be tracked and checked in different ways if the need arises. But for e-book sales, the publishers are almost entirely dependent on third parties, who can decide to play games in their reports to the publisher. And if the author goes to check on the publisher, that third party piece of paper is the only thing to look at. Hmmmm. Can we force the publisher to audit an e-book retailer if we think the retailer is playing games? Thanks, Ian. This will help me sleep better at night.

& when the fog lifted...

So what did it mean to have Amazon's "buy" buttons removed for certain Macmillan titles?

I could do a really thorough Nielsen Bookscan research project and check 62 things, but I do have a day job so I'm limiting the investigation to books by my clients which I'd be checking anyway, though drilling down a little further into the numbers than I might do for just my ordinary Wednesday report card check.

When we looked over the Bookscan #s for Week #4 ending January 31, all of us at JABberwocky cried, because it was a kind of depressing week all the way around. Numbers on most things were down. And that had really nothing to do with the Macmillan/Amazon dispute. That started at the very end of the week, and since Bookscan gets the figures based on when books shipped, pretty much the entire effect of the disput would be seen in Week #5. And overall, Week #5 was a stronger week for the JABberwocky list than week #4 was.

So for the week when the full impact would have been felt...

For mass market paperbacks, the typical Brandon Sanderson book, the Mistborn series or Elantris, was on average down maybe 1 or 2 percentage points. The typical Charlaine Harris book, which are not Macmillan, was up maybe 1 or 2 percentage points. The Lost Fleet books were up or down but on balance a little up. No pattern to a Simon Green.

But when we drill down one step, there's a breakdown on Bookscan between "Retail" and "Discount and Other," which includes the major internet web sites as well as places like Costco, Target and BJs. For most books, the "Discount and Other" line therefore just means "internet" because the books aren't available at the discount stores. So for Elantris, the Retail line is up 7%, and the Discount line is -67%. So it looks like this was a disaster for Elantris? Well, yes and no. For the typical mass market paperback, which Amazon does not discount, internet sales are relatively smaller than for hardcovers -- and for boxed sets -- where people go on-line to seek out the discount. It's possible that the Macmillan/Amazon dispute cost 25-35 copies in sales.

And we do see some real damage when we look at the boxed set numbers for Brandon's Mistborn trilogy. Sales on these can weight very heavily toward the internet, because the same 3 books that Amazon won't discount singly get a very sweet discount when purchased in the box. For its entire lifetime, Mistborn in paperback has 18% of its copies sold on-line, 17% and 20% for the next two books in the series. The boxed set has sold 35% of its copies on-line. And for that boxed set, retail sales were down 8% from the week before -- and the boxed set was down 45%. Then again, the last week, the boxed set had been down 38% retail/30% discount because fewer of those sell as we get further away from the holiday and gift card season. If I compare -8 to -45 that's a lot, -45 to -30 not so much, but I think it's safe to say that the boxed set had a big hit.

And what about the hardcovers? Well, The Gathering Storm was down -4% retail, -50% internet. The total drop in sales was only 15%, and that's not an atypical drop for a book that's been out for three months, but we may be looking at 150 or 200 fewer copies. We may be looking at fewer copies for Warbreaker.

Halo novels? The mass market of Cole Protocol by Tobias Buckell was -3% retail, -37% discount, -19% "non-traditional" which are supermarkets and drug stores and airport newsstands, and for this book the discount line may include Target or other non-internet discounters. The trade paperback is -9% retail, -31% internet. But this isn't very significant, because the internet sales are a very small portion of the total, as an example 10% of the lifetime sales for the Cole Protocol trade paperback. So even though these books are selling very nicely, and even though the percentage differences are huge, the actual number of copies represented is no more than 10 or 20 lost sales.

But where we really see a major impact is for those books where a few copies are making a big difference, and the balance on retail vs. internet sales is more pronounced.

As an example, Michael Schiefelbein's first "Victor" hardcover for St. Martin's was Vampire Transgression, and sold 26% of its total copies on the internet. The new book Vampire Maker is just out. This isn't a big bestselling book. The series sells steadily in trade paperback and has for many years, but when it loses -72% internet vs. -26% retail, that takes this new book that needs to sell decently to hold its shelf space and you might be losing 8 copies, but that's a significant percentage of the total number of copies that might have otherwise sold last week. Jeri Westerson's Veil of Lies trade paperback was +32% retail, and down 81% on the internet, and might have lost one-third of its total sale last week. Her new hardcover might have lost half or more of its total sale. Jeri's building an audience for her historical mysteries and like Michael Schiefelbein selling steadily. For these authors, even when we're only talking a few copies, we're talking something significant.

So what does it all mean? The Amazon/Macmillan dispute clearly did cost some sales, perhaps even in the hundreds of copies for The Gathering Storm, though even that may have been only 7% of the total number of copies sold last week. For authors lower down on the totem pole, we might be looking at 5 or 6 copies sold, but that could have been half of the expected number, so it's less significant one way but very significant the other. Some of those sales might just get pushed back into the current week. Some of them might have gone to marketplace sales, and in that case if some of the lower-priced marketplace copies were grabbed up last week thus skewing toward higher-priced marketplace copies now, there may be a slight long-term switch in the next two months where people buy a new book instead of a marketplace copy. Other than for authors whose books were going on sale last week or the week before, the blips are probably survivable. For both Macmillan and Amazon, the dispute was attention-getting but any losses to either probably insignificant against what both sides saw as their potential gains in fighting the battle in public.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's like they're twins

There's supposedly some kind of big game today. I'm guessing it's a hockey game, cuz it's winter time.

Is there a ball game of some sort today?


Male fantasy writers represented by JABberwocky Twitter about the Super Bowl. Can you guess which Tweet goes with which writer?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Apocalypse Now

In the past six months, we've had three movies full of debris-ridden interstates, broken pavement, downed bridges, overturned shopping carts as symbol of dead nomadic humans.

The first of those was Zombieland (seen in October 2009 at the Regal/UA Kaufman Astoria 14), which arrived during my blogging interregnum, and which I consider to be a thoroughgoing delight. If it wasn't written with its two leads in mind, it was certainly impeccaby cast with two actors who took full advantage of every opportunity the script had to give them. Woody Harrelson has had a very strong year ranging from his excellent deadpan laconic zombie killer here to the equally laconic but totally different soldier he plays in The Messenger. I'm not sure Jesse Eisenberg is yet capable of bringing life to an inert script; he certainly doesn'tmake Adventureland sing. But this young actor wasn't even 20 when he made Roger Dodger sing, barely old enough to drink when he delivered a performance of confused teenage snarak in The Squid and the Whale, and he does it again in Zombieland. We've seen the humorous horror movie before, from American Werewolf in London to Shaun of the Dead. Eisenberg's voiceover totally nails Zombieland and helps elevate it above even those good movies. It's not perfect; I didn't totally buy it when Eisenberg's character started thinking with the part of his anatomy around two or three feet down from his brain. Perfect, no. But fresh, fun, quick-witted, and a definite one to rent.

Awards season presented us with The Road (seen Saturday January 2, 2010 at Landmark's Sunshine, Aud. #4) . This was marketed as quintessential award bait, and that's a problem when you get the kind of mixed reviews this one did. On account of the reviews, I was ambivalent about going to see it, but a strong recommendation from Peter V. Brett ultimately pushed me into the theatre, and I'm extremely glad that I saw this. What makes the movie work for me is its pitch-perfect blend of a harrowing post-apocalyptic setting with a heart-warming father-and-son story. The film pulls no punches in its depiction of what the world would be and should be. Horrible things happen at almost every turn. They're often handled with as much directorial delicacy as I think the subject matter could allow, but because we're viewing them through the lens of characters we care about quite a bit, the events have real emotional power. We're not able to distance ourselves. I think this might be one reason for the surprisingly mixed reviews. If you take the topic and make a dull, leaden movie... well, you can call that art, and then easily say nice things about it because of the dulling, distancing effect it has. So David Cronenberg can make you squeamish and get great reviews because you're set apart from it all, and here you don't have that luxury. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as the father, the son is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who isn't entirely immune to a kind of youthful over-emoting but for the most part plays this unnatural role with winning naturalism. Charlize Theron is tender as the mother. And Guy Pearce, who had a brief but powerful role in The Hurt Locker has another excellent cameo here.

And talk about your odd juxtapositions, I also saw a midnight showing of The Muppet Movie, the very next movie in the exact same auditorium, didn't have to leave my seat.

And then finally, we come to The Book of Eli (seen Sunday February 7, 2010 at Clearview's Chelsea, Aud. #9). Occasional commenter Myke keeps questioning my taste in movies so he will be quite disappointed to know he was right to warn me away from this. Here, you've got Denzel Washington as a Mad Max type of post-apocalyptic traveler. I like Denzel a lot and don't miss much that he's in, but this movie does pretty much nothing to show off his star power and charisma. So why did he pick this, and why pick him to waste him? Gary Oldman has some fun in a bad role that's been done 609 times before as a post-apocalyptic villain. The first two thirds of the movie are taken up with a lot of been-there done-that very uninteresting battle scenes. Toward the end of the movie, there's a very nifty twist that puts the movie a little into Sixth Sense/Fight Club territory. I think it may work. Part of me would love to go back and see the movie to see just how well the twist works, which in Sixth Sense is near perfect and in Fight Club really not at all, except to do that would involve having to watch 90 minutes of really un-interesting apocalyptic fight stuff. Furthermore, these kinds of twists work best in movies that have some underlying smarts, while I think this movie is essentially very stupid. Where does Gary Oldman get fuel for his fleet of cars? Why isn't he dethroned when his loyalists are decimated by Denzel Washington? Why doesn't he look to check out that the Bible is for real the moment it's given to him? And then in the crowning stupidity of the movie, after we've gotten the neat Sixth Sense/Fight Club/maybe even a bit of Twilight Zone nifty twist, we get this shot of the precious Bible (no spoiler here that this is the eponymous Book) being tucked on a shelf between The Torah and the Qu'ran. Nobody involved with the movie is aware of the fact that The Torah is the first five books of The Bible, so that it's at least a little bit wrong and I'd venture to say a little more than that for characters to act like there isn't a Bible to be had in the world? OK, yes, the Torah is only part of the Bible, no New Testatment, no Prophets, etc., having a copy of the Torah isn't having a copy of the Bible. But let's just say that a few minutes before the movie was getting totally jazzed about the opening verses of Genesis -- which are sitting on the shelf next to the Qu'ran at the time. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I was much happier afterward to see Dear John (seen Sunday Feb. 7, 2010 at Clearview's Chelsea, Aud. #8). I saw this every bit as much to see Channing Tatum as I'd gone to The Book of Eli to see Denzel. I don't want to say that Dear John is genuinely good, but it delivers totally and pretty much without apology on what it promises. It's sappy but charming. It's almost 19 years ago to the day, also in the Chelsea, that I saw the pretty dreary Once Around by director Lasse Hallstrom, which was followed by the really good What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and that's the kind of career Hallstrom's had, careening wildly from the insufferable to the intriguing to the overly or overtly sentimental. This is well-cast genre fare. There are worse date movies or chick flicks for guys to be dragged along to.

Friday, February 5, 2010

customer in the middle

A few quick idle links on the whole e-book thing...

Timothy Egan is an excellent writer who worked for the NY Times for many many years as a reporter and now does an on-line opinion column for the Times. If I had more time for pleasure reading I'd love to read one of his books, but I settle for now to read his column for gems like this on the iPad: "it's a big iPhone, allowing people to carry all their movies, tunes, books, magazines, newspapers and the Web itself in something that still won't fit into a coat pocket, and will not withstand beach sand." Well, for the record, a Kindle could fit in some sufficiently big pockets if it wasn't covered, like the ones on my cargo pants. But please do read his whole column here.

My client Peter Brett has an interesting back-and-forth with a reader who's wondering how the e-book wars fit into the reader's own book-buying habits. It's a good question, and a good answer, and you'll find it here.

The reader, in his e-mail to the Peter, mentions LPs and MP3s, and I was thinking a little on the music business comparison earlier in the week when I was talking with another client about the 15% cover vs. 25% net question (earlier blog post here). Because I do worry a lot about file-sharing, and I worry about what will happen if publishing follows the music industry path, which would make the last week seem modest in comparison to the fun times ahead.

But there's one significant difference between the two. When the CD came around, the music industry kind of stopped supporting the idea of the 45 RPM single. Nobody had turntables for those, attempts to have CD singles were pretty half-hearted. When I was in high school, you really could spend $.99 or $1.49 to buy a single of something you really liked, even the good B side. I got Baker Street on a .45. Didn't buy an entire Gerry Rafferty album. When I was 35, you had to buy an entire album or not buy the one song you wanted. In publishing, people don't buy most novels because they like the 2nd chapter and the 8th chapter and don't care so much for the rest of them. There are some exceptions, like with travel guides for a big country where you just want to find out about one city. But big picture, people buy books. And the same book has been available at different price points at different times for 50 years, the hardcover branching to the remainder and the paperback, the library offering books for free, used books a more common thing than used records. Yes, some people having tasted the $9.99 e-book will say that it should always be thus. But how many people can say they were totally screwed to have to buy all of Dune when really all they wanted was the chapter with the sandworms.

More from the e-book front

Regular blog-reader Maria made some good comments on my last post.

Why don't publishers sell their own e-books directly? I haven't the foggiest idea, because it seems to me that this is something that should have been happening ages ago. One reason could be brush-back. Whenever publishers have gotten too aggresive about selling hard copies off of their own web sites, the established retail channels haven't been happy about it. In the dawn of the e-book age, before the Kindle, it might have been easier for the publishers to stake that turf for themselves. Now, for that same brush-back reason, it might be harder. This also depends on if the market leaders for e-books are the Kindle and the Nook, where they have to worry about people also vending print books, or if they're annoying retailers who can only hurt the publishers on the e-book side.

Why are some books in series missing? Part of it is that publishers did not sit down ten years ago and start working in a programmatic way on which books meant money if digitized and get to the task of doing it. And some still don't. Though at this point in time, the bigger issues could be contractual ones. Simon Green's earliest Deathstalker novels are covered under contracts from the early 1990s that pre-date the specific inclusion of electronic book language and royalties. Whether or not it's Simon or the publisher that has those rights, that's the exact kind of thing that Random House sued over when Rosetta Books started selling William Styron e-books in 2001. The question hasn't been resolved definitively. Considering how much flux the business is in right now, when we're not sure who'll be selling e-books on what terms for wat author royalty rates, per my last post, should I or Penguin be in any great rush to come to some kind of agreement on the question? Sadly, I'm not sure it's in anyone's interests to do that until the wild west of e-books gets a little tamer. I'm not encouraging publishers to do e-books that they ain't doing of their own accord because long term, I think I'm better off if they forget and the rights can come back ultimately to my clients.

Finally... E-book royalties have trended down over the years, and that trend may now finally start to end as a result of the recent action in the marketplace. In the earliest years, Random House started out offering 50% of net proceeds, became very lonely, and started to ratchet those royalty rates down, first to 50% until a book earned out (i.e., when it's all money on paper) and then 25% after (when it's actually necessary to pay), then to the 25% of net many others were doing. Ever lower. British publishers started asking for e-book rights, their starting royalty was 15% of net, which will NEVER be better than 15% of cover, and also much much worse. They can be bargained upwards. And Macmillan, which is being hailed as the hero in the Great Amazon War which is still going on (still no "buy new" button for The Gathering Storm) rolled out a new contract boilerplate last fall where the asking royalty rate on e-book was 20% of net. It seems clear that Macmillan is now openly acknowledging they have to push those back up some.

What's been taking so long? The downward creep didn't make sense when it was becoming ever easier for authors to be their own entrepeneurs in electronic publishing and capture two or three times the revenue that the publishers were offering. That could never be done very realistically in the print publishing world. Before Print On Demand, the barriers to entry were so high for distribution and fixed costs of copy #1 that Vanguard Books was never a great option. But over my 25 years in the business the fixed costs and distribution obstacles have slowly come down, and publishers may ultimately have to adjust their royalty offerings if they're going to keep major authors from doing it themselves with increasing frequency.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Royal Tease

As publishers had to establish royalty rates for e-book sales over the past ten or fifteen years, two basic models emerged, at least with agented contracts: 15% of cover price (because 15% matches the highest hardcover print royalty in traditional publishing contracts), or 25% of net receipts, which is the actual money the publisher receives, and a bigger portion of net proceeds than found for any actual print edition.

In an indirect way, a client and I were discussing this week which of those royalty rates is better. Complete with very thorough spread sheets. Let us explore...

Let us assume a $10 cover price; a $13 cover price changes the numbers but not the percentages, which are more intuitive with a $10 starting point.

First we have the Kindle Classic model. A publisher says the e-book has a list price of $25, Amazon pays the publisher kind of like it's buying a hardcover at traditional retail discount, maybe $12.50, and then sells the book for $9.99. 25% of net could be $4.125, which is over 41% of the actual cover price and over 15% of the publisher's list price. That business model is crazy. After a while, no matter how many Kindles you sell at no matter how high a profit margin, you can't keep losing $2.50 on every e-book sale. But clearly, 25% of net could be a lot better than 15% of cover.

Normal examples: An e-book costs $10, the e-retailer gives the publisher one half of that, or $5, and then at 25% of net proceeds gives the author $1.25. The effective cover price royalty is 12.5%, and the 15% of cover is better for the author. But we're being told that Apple is offering 70% to the publisher, which means the publisher gets $7, and the author gets $1.75, and now 25% of net proceeds is effectively 17.5% of cover price. The net proceeds royalty is better.

And the thing that's always been in the back of my mind is the scenario where the publisher sells e-books directly to the consumer, maybe gets 90% or 95% of even almost 100% of cover price, and the effective royalty to the author is now 22.5% to 25% of cover price.

My guess is that most publishers offering 25% of net felt they were doing better than the ones offering 15% of cover, but you can see why that's not such a sure thing. Thus, I was very agnostic on which model was better for I and my clients.

So should I have been gunning for 25% of net? It sure does look higher, doesn't it.

Well, not so fast. You pay Amazon $10 for an e-book that is delivered wirelessly to your Kindle at no charge. Well, maybe not to you. What if Amazon insists that thirty cents come off the top of the $10 to pay for their delivery charge? You pay by credit card, and there's some kind of commission for that. What if Amazon insists that thirty-five cents come off the top of the $10 for that? Now, the 70% is based on $9.35, so Macmillan gets $6.55 from Amazon, and your 25% of net becomes $1.64. This is still 16.4% of cover, and that's still better than 15% of cover, but it's not very much more. Another deduction or two off the top, and we're at parity.

And let's look a little further into the future. Right now, with 40 e-book devices supposed to go on sale in 2010 and the iPad looming as a major threat on the horizon, no e-reader retailer can afford to be without huge swaths of content. But is the market really going to support 40 or even 20 devices? Not forever. We will have a shake-out, we will have a handful of devices or formats, and there will be a concentration of market share. And 30% is not such a big margin for a retailer. A printed book retailer gets the book at 40% or 50% discount, not 30%, so what happens when the survivors of the shake-out start to take advantage of their stronger market position, no different than Walmart putting the squeeze on a toothpaste maker? The 70% share being talked about by Apple and Amazon may not be 70% in five years.

So in 2020, will you be better off with a 15% cover royalty, or a 25% net? Anyone who claims to know the answer to that is lying.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bad Gertrude, Bad Bad Gertrude

I'd linked a while back to a PW report that Simon & Schuster was downsizing its sales force. Now PW reports that the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, the regional group of indie booksellers, sent a stern letter of protest. The field reps are a crucial part of the book business, and without them our book culture will disappear.

Well, good luck with that.

It isn't that NAIBA isn't right to protest, for I believe that they are. Publishers as a rule under-invest in selling books, this move by S&S the latest little piece of it.

It's just that solutions NAIBA offers aren't very helpful either.

Among their alternate suggestions:

Eliminate multiple ARC mailings. If this means NAIBA thinks publishers can consolidate and do fewer mailings with the same number of ARCs, good. But if they mean sending out fewer ARCs of fewer books, these are the same people who happily fill bags with galleys at BEA, and we send galley copies to get people reading and talking about new books.

Do away with promotional gimmicks. Well, OK, maybe, kind of, except that with all of those galleys publishers do want theirs to stand out. Though this may be the best idea, because I think most of these giveaways are kind of silly.

Cut celebrity advances. Not gonna happen. This is a cure-all that a lot of people throw out. But publishers pay those advances because they expect to earn them back, and there isn't a perfect way to predict ahead of time which ones will and which ones won't.

Publish fewer titles. Now, film studios have actually cut back on titles, and the world isn't exactly suffering for new movies to see. And publishers do publish an awful lot of books and can't attract attention to all of them no matter how hard they might try and more often don't. So I agree with this in theory, but fear the reality of it would disagree with the theory. Because this is a creative business, it's hard to tell which books will work and which will not. If you take too many fewer chances, you have fewer chances to win. Some of the titles that are published, are published because there are arrangements in place at various ID outlets to take those books and put them into supermarkets and drug stores and truck stops hither and yon in places many of us may never even see. The world doesn't need a 298th Jake Slocum or Long Arm novel, but I guarantee you if Berkley gives up that slot somebody else will fill it.

And one big difference between film studios and book publishers. Any major studio movie represents an outlay of many millions of dollars and is huge in absolute terms and perhaps even in proportion to the overhead for running a big company like Paramount. A book with a 12,000 copy print run can cost under $20K, not counting allocated costs like a proportion of overhead. One editor can easily shepherd 25, 30, even 40 of those books a year for a salary of $100K, perhaps even less. If Penguin cuts back on titles, it's not going to say "no" to the next Charlaine Harris, which will actually have a big investment if for no other reason than you have to spend more money printing hundreds of thousands of books than 12,000 of them. It's not going to say "no" to a celebrity title it is reasonably sure it will make money on. No, it's going to cut at the middle or bottom of the list, with a title with an insignificant marginal cost. It could cut five of them and maybe pay to have another rep in the field, and the rep will have five fewer books to sell.

So that idea of NAIBA won't save any money.

So no, publishers should not cut back on field reps. My answer is "spend more, make more," which is not how the publishing industry works. Theirs is "spend less, make more," which is just another NIMBY way of saying the fat in the budget isn't where their money comes from.

Oh -- Gertude is the kangaroo's name. And don't ask me which kangaroo.

Show me the Locker

I suspect I'll be pulling hard for The Hurt Locker at the Academy Awards this year.

There are two films with a lot of nominations that I haven't seen. Inglorious Basterds is one I was kind of lukewarm about seeing, kind of leaned toward seeing, but as busy as things were most of last year, I wasn't making time for the lukewarm. There's a decent chance the studio will find a theatre in NYC for a movie with this many nominations, and I'll see if there or on video. Precious, from its Sundance reception a year ago I was rapturous to see it but the more I read about it the more "enh"-y I got about actually going to it. There's a good chance I'll cowboy up and do my duty. I will not see A Serious Man, but I do recommend A Single Man. The Last Station, I probably can see. If I catch the three of those four films that I'm willing to see, I'll have caught the lion's share of the nominees in all of the various categories.

Big picture, the big battle looks to be between The Hurt Locker and Avatar. For those of you who don't know, there's added intrigue because Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow is an ex of Avatar director James Cameron, though the two are on good terms with one another. Avatar did very well at the Golden Globes, but the Directors Guild and Producers Guild both voted for Hurt Locker. Hurt Locker could also benefit because actors are the biggest contingent in the Academy, though the motion capture technology of Avatar is much more actor friendly than in the Bob Zemeckis movies or Lord of the Rings. So there is some potential for a really tight race.

I did not like Avatar so much, while I liked The Hurt Locker very much. So far as I'm concerned, Avatar can pile up all of the technical awards it wants to its very utmost hearts content, but please let Best Director and Best Picture go to the soldiers fighting on Earth. The Hurt Locker is one of those all too rare films that is both riveting, dramatic, compelling, taut movie-going and simultaneously a work of genuine art. It does revisit some war movie cliches, but Avatar visits all those and more. As much a technical triumph as Avatar might be, any movie with the "at first, it was just a job/mission/assignment, but then it became love" line in it ought to get a DQ for Best Picture.

After those two pictures, Up in the Air was my favorite of the other eight nominees. I'm glad to see District 9 in the mix because it shows you can do good science fiction without drowning the story in blatantly CGI effects that turn cinema into a video game. The Blind Side joins Avatar in being among the most popular movies of 2009, with rock steady box office as a result of good word of mouth, and if that helps it to get a spot on the expanded roster of ten Best Picture nominees, I'm all for. An Education and Up, I saw both, and can't say I liked either as much as some other people.

I've seen all five nominees for Best Actor, and they're all amazing. This is a tough category. If the Academy wants to give it to Jeff Bridges, fine by me, but any of these performances would be deserving. The other acting categories, I need to catch up on more of the performances.

A few other quick comments:

The White Ribbon is kind of stuck on itself, but it was very nicely photographed. That's a category where I might root for a movie I didn't actually like.

Once again the Feature Documentary category is filled with documentaries nobody actually saw. Howls of protest should commence momentarily. On the other hand, this wasn't one of those years when any documentary did really really well at the box office, so the howls will only come from the critics rushing to the side of their overlooked darlings.

I wish Michael Giacchino had picked up a second nomination for his score for Star Trek. James Horner and James Cameron were a great team on Titanic, but Avatar's probably the spot I wish had gone to a second nom for Giacchino.

And overall, while I'll happily see Avatar picking up a slew of technical awards, the fact is that Hurt Locker has excellent technical work in places like sound editing. Movies like Star Trek and District 9 were really good. Will voters find consolation prizes for them someplace, or will Avatar conquer all?

If you haven't seen The Hurt Locker, please do so right away. Move it to the top of your Netflix queue, Redbox it, rent it, one way or another, see it right away.

Monday, February 1, 2010

An Onion a Day

On the lighter side from some other recent posts...

we've all heard of the dreaded pulled hamstring and other pulled muscles, and now The Onion has its laugh-out-loud take on this subject. I wish I'd thought of this one, and I don't think you'll read another article about sports injury in the same way ever again.

Planned Outcome?

For all the sturm and drung over Amazon's battle with Macmillan...

Amazon has been paying most publishers for e-book content based on the publisher's list price for said content, while charging a price chosen by Amazon. If Macmillan sets the list price to match the print edition, and Amazon pays a 30% royalty, we might have a $25 list price, and Amazon pays the publisher $7.50 out of $9.99 Amazon Kindle price. That leaves $2.49 for Amazon to enjoy. And if Amazon is paying the biggest content providers a bigger royalty, maybe not even $2.49.

Macmillan now establishes a $14.99 list price, and Amazon gets to keep 30% of that as Macmillan's agent for this sale. Suddenly, Amazon goes from getting $2.49 or less to getting $4.50.

Places, everyone? Are you ready for your close-ups?? Lights, camera, action, and then a few days later "Cut!"

Maybe from a very long term perspective Amazon would still prefer to sell the e-book for $9.99 so there's a bigger gap between the $25 print edition which Amazon sells at discount for $16.75, which makes the Kindle more attractive. But all the long term perspective aside, how angry can you be when your big customer forces you to take $4.50 instead of $2.49?

The E-Book Revolution

So, the iPad! While I type in one window, I'm watching the keynote speech on the Apple web site.

Though I used the Kindle for over a year, I'm not the hugest fan of it. It allowed me to do things I couldn't do before, and I loved it for that. But it didn't allow me to do many of them very well. I could read a manuscript without carrying it around but not in cold weather and take notes on the same device but not easily and the relay to the author was cumbersome. I could read the Washington Post every day without schlepping into Manhattan to buy a hard copy, but the reading experience wasn't very good. I liked the Sony Reader less, because the note-taking interface was cumbersome and the glare on the screen distracting to me. And the Nook was surprisingly bad to me for how much learning curve should have been curved.

I've never been a big laptop fan. They're portable, but not fun. When I live-blogged the Oscars last year, I had to sit at a desk instead of perch in my recliner because it's just too cumbersome to sit with a laptop in a recliner.

I have no complaints about my iPod Touch. I read manuscripts quickly, in colder weather than the Kindle. The limiting factor is whether I have to wear gloves or not outside, which is a much lower temperature than when the Kindle started to degrade. I can take notes fairly easily and send them to my clients right from the device. And it plays music. And shows off photos. And does video. And has a calculator. And when I'm traveling and curled up with it in my hotel room with wireless, I can lose hours to surfing the web just like when I'm at home.

So Apple seems to get it. You have a kind of giant iPod Touch, and Steve Jobs demonstrates it sitting in a comfly leather chair which is exactly the place that I might envision perching with it. It has a dedicated iBook reader. I can pay a fairly reasonably priced $14.95/month to AT&T to have a limited amount of wireless access, or $30/month for as much as I please. All the time, or for thoee trips when I can't hook up my Touch into the hotel wireless?

So I like the idea of the device, but time will tell how the actuality of it works.

Now, what does this mean for publishing?

Fun Times!

In either a good or a not so good kind of way.

Publishers are not fond of Amazon's control over pricing and terms of sale for the Kindle. Apple is willing to give the publisher more pricing power. This led to a dispute over the weekend with Amazon not selling titles by Macmillan USA, which includes Tor, St. Martins, Farrar Strauss, Holt and other imprints, in a dispute over the sales arrangements. And then maybe backing down and agreeing Macmillan could price its own books. I say maybe, because the seeming concession may have come with conditions we don't know about. These kinds of things happen. Not that long ago Costco pulled Coke products from their stores in a pricing dispute. Amazon UK has had some big publisher disputes. Apple is Apple, but Amazon sells a lot of physical books that are still 90% of publisher revenue. But Amazon isn't the only internet store in town. If I were Borders, I'd have done an e-mail blast right away with promo code AMZN24 to say "hey, can't buy [bestselling Macmillan title here], we'll sell it to you and give an extra 10% off your entire order."

I do think Macmillan's position in the matter (CEO letter here) is the better one, which may be why Amazon ended up seeming to cede. The world is full of variable pricing for the same thing at different times and different places, from bargain matinees vs. Saturday night at the movies, the paperback vs. the hardcover, the last-minute fare deal vs. the prepaid reservation vs. the regular rate. Just because Amazon woke up one morning and decided a bestselling e-book should cost $9.99 doesn't mean an e-book should forever cost $9.99 or less.

Also making things interesting... the Amazon iPod Kindle application will work on the iPad. I do my manuscript reading using Stanza, which is now owned by Amazon, and that will work on the iPad. Will Amazon continue to want to add value to Apple's iPad even while Apple is trying to squirrel in on Amazon's e-book business? Then again, how will the Apple Pages application work on the iPad? When I use Pages on my iMac, I can do track change and comments right in a manuscript, export to Word, and send away to a client. Will I be able to do that on an iPad? And will anyone care what Amazon does or does not do to support the iPad when they can iBook?

As I said, Fun Times. I think there's a lot of potential in the iPad, but I think the arrival of Apple as a major player in e-book retail is going to lead to a lot more shoving matches like what we've seen between Amazon and Macmillan as all of the different e-tailers and the publishers all jockey for position.

Our client Tobias Buckell is among those who've done particularly good commenting on the Amazon/Macmillan dispute.

In the midst of this, JABberwocky is starting to explore how it can best enter the e-book world. We've spoken in recent weeks with people at Amazon, and Rosetta Books and are starting to think seriously about all of this. Lots of interesting questions. Do we go with a third party vendor like Rosetta or eReads? Do we become our own eReads? Depending on that, where do the costs of cover art and scanning/converting reside? How much upside do you trade to reduce the investment in those costs? Do you go one way for some books and another way for others?

Those are just the back-end decisions. At the front-end of what we actually show to the world... Since Simon Green has the most enticing out of print backlist do we start out with a single author-based promotable program and see what happens? Or do we look for original content, short story collections perhaps, from half a dozen top authors and make that the launch? Or go with that, and the top two dozen other backlist titles? Or make our entry with 100 books or 250 all at once? Feel free to vote!

And we'll start to explore these questions just as Apple, Amazon and the other publishers jockey for position. With as many as 40 different e-book reading devices scheduled for a big unveil over the course of 2010. With different permutations of format, exclusivity, cross-compatibility, etc. etc.