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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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Separation Anxiety

There just isn't much in my life so far that's leaving a hole in my existence the way the Borders bankruptcy is. Several years ago it would have been exciting on so many levels to see that Bouchercon is in Cleveland in 2012, and Albany in 2013. Never been to Cleveland, could have added at least a few Borders to my count, now I'm just looking at the date in early October and realizing I'd be going to Cleveland without even the chance of seeing a game at Jacobs Field, or whatever it is they're calling it these days. I need a new hobby, or something. And I can't see myself delighting in conquesting new art museums, or new Starbucks.

I wish B&N were any kind of a substitute, but it's not. And B&N is just getting more boring, less interesting, to me with each passing day. I've never liked their basic Front of Store fixturing as much, I hate those damned octagons. And they're reducing orders, reducing title counts. Their strength against Borders was that they did a better, more consistent job of stocking core series across a full range of their stores, they'd be the place that would have all the Deathstalker books and all the Blood books when Borders would be the place that had the weird gaps of not carrying books #1 and book #4 at various stores. Now I can't count on every B&N to have the entire Nightside series by Simon Green. Maybe I'm being old in my thinking, because Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett have stormed past my other clients, but I don't see Tanya Huff or Elizabeth Moon or Simon Green as doing appreciably worse now, not at all. They've been leapfrogged over, but I'm still reasonably certain that a typical B&N should have better selections on all three than they are. And even with Charlaine, B&N stopped carrying her Wolfsbane & Mistletoe anthology, which has been selling several dozen copies on Bookscan week-in and week-out without B&N, which means it should be at B&N.

So, no, I don't want to spend my life traveling around visiting B&Ns. With Borders, I could kind of afford to have the thrill of the hunt with walking into a bad one with a bad selection because at least I knew there was another chain with a more consistent selection, or maybe even a better Borders in the area. Now, if I visit a bad B&N, it'll just be depressing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

All in a day's work

So there are people in the world who wonder what an agent does and why an author might want one...

A couple months ago, a publisher came to us wanting to re-add e-book rights to an old contract, in which the e-book had to be published within x months and wasn't. The author wants to help out, we want to help out, we have an ongoing relationship with the publisher and want to support the newer books by the author. But I also pointed out to the author that there was an unearned advance of a few thousand dollars, that we'd get around $1.25 for each e-book sold, and we'd be a while in actually getting any royalties based on realistic expectations for the e-book sale. We ended up reaching an agreement with the publisher for the e-book to be separately accounted, so that print sales could still go against the advance, but it would be mutually beneficial for us to sign an amendment for the e-book edition.

[tying back to my last anniversary musing, the ultimate difference that Bill Baldwin and I had was this: I think if you're a professional writer that the goal is to make money, Bill that the goal is to have books in print, and the two are not always synonymous. This is an instance where the author's first instinct is to want to have the book available, and here I as agent was able to step in and find a way to bring the two goals closer together.]

We have our first contract with a big publisher. Big publisher is thinking they should no longer publisher children's books that they can't do an app for, because this is the big next new thing that people are talking about for children's books. Have they done any apps before? Not really. Are they definitely going to do an app for this book? Who knows. Do they know what they might include in the app if they were to do it it? Not really. But nonetheless, they have to have the rights. Big publisher wants to get the rights in the broadest way possible. The problem is that their broadest way possible will not make the general counsel at Big film studio happy if ever we are able to sell film rights, it probably won't make the publisher of any audio edition very happy, this app with who knows what that may or may not ever exist could make it impossible to sell other very valuable rights. So we have to go back multiple rounds with Big publisher to narrow the definition as much as we possibly can. Besides the back and forth with the publisher, when it becomes clear that the publisher is getting very insistent on having these rights, we need to talk to our client to have client support for the idea that the publisher has to come at least a certain way toward our position, or we will in fact say "no" to a decently sized advance. The ultimate resolution, we are still granting these rights to the publisher for the first time, and we're not very happy about it, and we really wish we weren't, but we've at least narrowed things down to the point where the definition is as narrow as it can be without saying "no," and we think narrow enough that if we ever have to discuss the contract with Big film studio, we should be able to do a film deal that will co-exist with the book deal.

Another publisher is very insistent on publishing books in the reverse order of the delivery dates in the contract. Hence, the author is delaying work on the revisions his editor requested on book #1 in order to have book #2 in early. Someone has to explain to the publisher that the author's delivery and acceptance advance on book #1 shouldn't be entirely held up because the publisher requested to have the other book in early.

These are some of the things we do to amuse ourselves during the workday.

There are bad agents who might not do any of these things. There are authors who have the knowledge and the inclination to do each of these things just as well or maybe better. But if you can't look yourself in the mirror and sincerely say to yourself that you would've held off on having an e-book edition just because it wouldn't make you money until 2017, or understood the conflict between the app rights and movie rights and dragged out your contract negotiation for rounds and weeks to protect yourself, and/or felt comfortable arguing when the publisher explained how it was like taking first born child to pay a delivery and acceptance advance for a book that hadn't had its revisions delivered and accepted, then you might conclude an agent can do some things for you.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

An Anniversary Musing #8, Martial Law Pt 1

Military sf has been part of my existence as a literary agent for most of my career.

My first author in the genre was Bill Baldwin. Bill was a very, very successful author for Warner at a time when it didn't have a particularly successful sf program. There was Warner, then there was Questar, then there was Aspect, then there wasn't much, and eventually when the French publishing conglomerate Hachette came along and purchased Warner Books, they imported Tim Holman, who had done a great job building the Orbit UK list, moved the sf program from Warner to Little Brown/Grand Central, and have since had much better results. Not so back then, the Warner program wasn't much, and Bill and his Helmsman books were rare projects that would be displayed at the front of the bookstores. The Helmsman series was classic in its appeal, the lead character Wilf Brim a man's man of a space captain with a life full of women and adventure.

Working with Bill was one of the experiences that taught me that the first batches of royalty statements in the old days, before breaking out of reserves against returns, were good pretty much for toilet paper. The first statements would always be for really small numbers for books that were plastered at the front of bookstores, but mostly because there were 50% or 70% reserves or who knew how much, so if you looked just at those Bill was always magically in the midst of a collapsing career until two years later when the publisher stopped taking reserves and lo and behold the sales were nicely in line with all the earlier books.

When I went off on my own to start JABberwocky, Bill was incredibly supportive, except that he decided to go back to agent he had been with before joining Scott Meredith, who had lots of wonderful good ideas. Those ideas ended up being along the lines of "let's sell the next book in the Helmsman series!" Bill ended up coming back to the JABberwocky fold a few years later.

We still didn't have the best relationship. I tried hard to break him into the mainstream with a WWII thriller, but wasn't able to sell it. And I've always felt there are times that the best deals are the ones you don't do, that sometimes rights are valuable just sitting in the drawer until better things come along, while Bill really very much wanted to have his books "in print" even if it meant putting a book into iUniverse or with a smaller publisher on unfavorable terms. So we ended up parting ways again.

There would be an audience for the Helmsman books on Kindle, I expect. Those aren't available, but you can find the thriller of his that I wasn't able to sell available on Amazon, along with some of those small-press reissues and audios that I wasn't so fond of having. And if you think you like classic military sf, you'd probably have a good time with these.

Rick Shelley was my next military sf author. He'd started his career with stories in Analog and in Terry Carr's Universe anthologies (if you don't know Terry's name, he was the editor not just of the great Universe series but of the Ace Specials line, which discovered just a few wee important books to the field like Neuromancer by William Gibson and The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the very important editors in the history of sf/f, Terry was).

Rick is a little like Ronald Kelly, an author whose native gifts weren't as prodigious as for some, but who made the very very very best of them. The main thing with Rick, his batting average was really awful. For every published novel of his, there's probably one that wasn't and to be honest, shouldn't have been. It's not the nicest thing to have to say in one of my anniversary musings, but I think it's worth saying because it's an important thing for a writer to know, that you can have a long career and sell dozens of novels but still have a rough patch or an off outing, or can occasionally divert to something to try and stretch your aims and ambitions (though doesn't hurt to be prepared to return to home base if you need to), that you can have a relationship with an agent that can last even if there is sometimes a book that the agent can't sell or perhaps won't want to try selling. There are many kinds of careers in publishing, and they don't all consist of selling every word you write without anguish or setback.

And the books I liked of Rick's, I liked them. The first novel if his I sold, which wasn't the first novel that he sent to the Scott Meredith agency, it was something like the 4th or 5th (another lesson worth repeating for new writers, your first published novel is often not going to be the first novel you write, even some of my biggest clients like Brandon Sanderson and Peter Brett have learning experiences on their hard drive), was Son of the Hero, the first book in the Varayan Memoir fantasy series. I think it would make a good movie, it's a good example of a very archetypal story about the kid who finds there's something more to his life than he knows about. The trilogy will soon be available in JABberwocky e-book.

After an interesting attempt at Moorcockian fantasy (The Wizard at Mecq, The Wizard at Home), Rick found his calling writing military sf, but again not without some ups and downs along the way. His Lucky 13th series did pretty well, his Buchanan novels somewhat less well. But when I read Officer Cadet, I knew this was something that could be destined for bigger things. I encouraged the editor at Ace to follow the model Warner was using for David Feintuch, which they did, and the DMC series, which is now available on e-book, really took off.

Neither Rick nor I was making so much money back then that we could afford to travel a lot, and I met Rick only once at the 2000 WorldCon in Chicago. We had a very tasty lunch at Pizzeria Due. It was an especially enjoyable lunch because the DMC books were doing very well, Rick was tasting true success for the first time in his life, and we had things to be happy about.

And then a few months later, Rick was dead. Massive heart attack in the hotel lobby at Chattacon the following January.

It was strange, because Rick had always been very aware of his own mortality, that his father had died young and the men in his family died young. And then Rick died in his early 50s, with only a couple years of enjoying success when he really should've had the opportunity to enjoy it for another 20 or 30 years.

And the odd thing is, for all the books Rick wrote that I didn't like, there are books he wrote that I wish were published (the third book in his Wizard series, which was completed and cancelled), books he proposed that I wish he could have written (the sequel series to the Varayan Memoir books), and all in all still a feeling of loss. And something like the third book in the Wizard series, that was written in the mid-1990s, I doubt I even still had that pile of paper in the office five years later, because why would I keep it around? And I didn't talk to his mom or his sister about doing an instant recovery mission for any old manuscripts or old diskettes. Must check if any of that's still laying around somewhere...

You can click here to find your way to the available JABberwocky e-books from Rick Shelley, six as of July 21 and more coming.

Maybe I'll have a chance before the slower summer months give way to the much busier fall months to continue the JABberwocky military sf story...

Monday, July 18, 2011

Running on empty

There's a custom in Jewish prayer to recite something called the "Mourner's Kaddish" at the end of every worship service. When I'm leading a service, there's an introductory reading I do to this. It's the last paragraph of John Crowley's Little, Big; my favorite non-client fantasy and in part because it leads up to this wonderful passage of loss, of feeling for better days and different times. And there aren't better words to provide as I begin what will perhaps be my final post about the Borders business, for today all of us who love books have to be in mourning:

From LITTLE BIG by John Crowley
One by one the bulbs burned out, like long lives come to their expected ends. Then there was a dark house, made once of time, made now of weather, and harder to find; impossible to find and not even as easy to dream of as when it was alight. Stories last longer; but only by becoming only stories. It was anyway all a long time ago; the world, we know now, is as it is and not different; if there was ever a time when there were passages, doors, the borders open and many crossing, that time is not now. The world is older than it was. Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.

And let me make very clear, you can love Borders or hate it, you can rue the day they came in to your neighborhood in 1994 and helped to kill some local independent store, you can say you liked Barnes & Noble better, or that the staff at your local Borders were rude, or they never seemed very nice when you wanted to arrange a signing. You can do all of that. But if you love books, if you care about the power of the written word, of the ability for a writer to tell stories, and for those stories to move people and give meaning to the lives of others, if you care about any of that you can't be happy today. This is the saddest day for the book business that any of us have ever seen, and let us only hope that we can still say the same 25 years from today.

There are millions of people who now don't have a good, convenient, physical place to buy and explore books, unless you think a computer screen counts. And I mean that. I don't agree with everyone Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith say about agents, I don't remotely like they'll have an extra hour to drive to visit a good bookstore. There are millions of people living in Manhattan, many millions more working there on a weekday, and we're about to revert back to before Sept. 5 1995 when Borders opened at the World Trade Center -- only worse because before then there were at least a handful of indies on the island with decent and wide selections co-existing with B&N, and now you can't look at the sf section of Posman Books in Grand Central and think this is a place you want to go for your book shopping needs. So for all the rest of us, our book selection is now only and solely what Barnes & Noble decrees it to be. And I've got news for you, if you think publishers have been spending the past several months doing detailed analysis of their Borders sales and finding the 1% or 2% of their titles that were selling well at Borders alone and are now going to give those the extra TLC to get B&N to share the love -- well, the idea's good for a laugh. There are authors who no longer have a store to sell some or all of their books.

And yet I can't be as sad as I feel I should be.

I tried awfully hard when I visited the Peabody MA store in February. It was that brief window between the bankruptcy filing and the start of the liquidation sales for the first round of 200 closures, the sun that day was still shining even as the dark clouds gathered and the storm approached. It was a Borders store that time forgot, still with the old-fashioned woody shelving with the sf/f hardbacks and trades separate from the mass markets. I knew at one level that I could have shopped those same shelves twelve or fifteen years before. But I couldn't really get "up" for that experience.

That's the thing, once upon a time it had been fun to enter a Borders, good or bad not to know what you'd find selection wise on the shelves, to roam some weird diagonal aisles, to look at the different things that store had up at the front that other stores wouldn't, to peek into the mass market overstock shelves and find some singleton copy of a book that I could rescue and put out where customers could see and buy it and have some real sense of accomplishment, or climb the ladder if nobody was looking to rescue something from the overstock there.

But the stores didn't have personality any more. If they did, it was the personality of a ghost town, of walking in to the Plano TX stores or Preston Road stores in April 2010 and feeling the cobwebs rolling along down the aisles of these large empty boxes without merchandise enough or customers enough to sustain.

And on the other side of the ledger, there's supposed to be some comfort in finally reaching the end of a death that was long in coming. None of that here. Around 11,000 people that will be out of work. The authors who don't have an outlet for their books. The readers who don't have a bookstore to explore. There's pain, there's sadness, there's misery, all around. There's no sense of relief.

But for a few minutes, let me find a tear or two for the pensieve, and let me try and find those good memories of times gone by:

First walking into the original Ann Arbor Borders some twenty years ago, looking at more books than I'd ever looked at before in amazing and wide and stunningly broad profusion, that first purchase of Ben Bova's Exiles Trilogy. And then the hours spent exploring those shelves during my college years.

That happy moment when I "broke the code" and realized what the numbers on the buff inventory punchcards meant and knew I could now browse the shelves with entire new layers of meaning.

All those visits to DC, visiting Borders by Ride-On and Metro and by foot, doing all those things I mentioned above that I'd love to do at Borders, in an area where almost all the bookstores really were above average. The hustle and bustle of 18th and L during lunch hour, of White Flint on a Saturday night, of watching Germantown sprout from the corn fields to become a hugely important location for my clients.

Walking in the first time to the store in Columbia, MD or Gresham, OR or Milpitas, Mission Viejo, Torrance CA or State St. or Fairview Heights IL or South Bay and Mission Viejo or Fairfax and Bailey's Crossroads, VA, Redmond WA, and realizing you'd just walked in to one of the best bookstores around, the places that were getting in 24 copies of some new paperback that you'd have sworn there wasn't a store getting more than 12 of them, and that would sell through all two dozen in no time flat.

The first visit to the first Borders that was actually close to where I was living as an adult on Park Ave., finding a bookstore for the first time that had 100ish books I'd sold on its shelves.

The birthdays I'd spend taking the train out to Long Island. Really. There were many many years I'd quite happily spend doing the great Long Island bookstore tour.

Professionally, going to Newark DE or to Bailey's Crossroads VA to see clients signing at those big special stores for dozens and later hundreds of people.

The thing is, in a way I wish Borders had died unexpectedly, that these happy memories were fresh in my mind and not dependent on tears in the pensieve, but it's all so interconnected, so related, so entirely unaccidental that these stores will soon be no more.

The bulbs will burn out, or be turned off by Hilco and Gordon Brothers, on some Sunday in mid September.

The end was expected.

The stories, now only stories.

The borders open, and many crossing. That time is not now.

As once upon a time, they were.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Dance with Adjectives

So everyone else is reviewing A Dance with Dragons, the fact that I haven't actually read the book shouldn't stop me from doing the same... Or at least, in a limited basis, trying to explain how the first page of the latest GRRM opus shows him breaking the rules in order to follow him.

There are enough sample chapter places all over the internet that I'll take the liberty of typing in page 1:

The night was rank with the smell of man.

The warg stopped beneath a tree and sniffed, his grey-brown fur dappled by shadow. A sigh of piney wind brought the man-scent to him, over fainter smells that spoke of fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf. Those were man-smells too, the warg knew; the stink of old skins, dead and sour, near drowned beneath the stronger scents of smoke and blood and rot. Only many stripped the skins from other beasts, and wore their hides and hair.

Wargs have no fear of man, as wolves do. Hate and hunger coiled in his belly, and he gave a low growl, calling to his one-eyed brother, to his small sly sister. As he raced through the trees, his packmates followed hard on his heels. They had caught the scent as well. As he ran, he saw through their eyes too and glimpsed himself ahead. The breath of the pack puffed warm and white from long grey jaws. Ice had frozen between their paws, hard as stone, but the hunt was on now, the prey ahead. Flesh, the warg thought, meat.

A man alone was a feeble thing. Big and strong, with good sharp eyes, but dull of ear and deaf to smells. Deer and elk and eve hares were faster, bears and boars fiercer in a fight. But men in packs were dangerous. As the wolves closed on the prey, the warg heard the wailing of a pup, the crust of last night's snow breaking under clumsy man-paws, the rattle of hardskins and the long grey claws men carried.

Swords, a voice inside him whispered, spears.

The trees had grown icy teeth, snarling down from the bare brown branches. One Eye ripped though the undergrowth, spraying snow. His packmates followed. Up a hill and down the slope beyond, until the wood opened before them and the men were there. One was female.

[excerpted from A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin, ©2011, published by Bantam Spectra Books, buy here]

So there's this adage in writing that you "show, don't tell." This means that the writer is supposed to use a character's actual words, deeds, gestures, to use these to allow us to get close to the character. The other approach, the "tell" approach, has the narrator telling us things. One small example taken from a submission I read recently, the narrator tells us that a character is anxious, and the better approach in about the same amount of words would be to tell us that the character could feel his heart pounding or his pulse racing. We've all felt our heart pound or our pulse race, we know when and why it happens, we can imagine the sensation. Using those words makes the prose immediate, it brings us into the world, it helps us feel what the character feels. The tell way, to say the character is anxious, does none of that.

The interesting thing with the prose I've excerpted from Dance With Dragons is that it's full of telling, but almost all of the telling is intensely visual, and intensely relatable, so even though Martin shouldn't -- and believe me, by the rules he shouldn't -- be using such a potpourri of purplish prose to start his book, he's actually doing something with it.

Let's look closely:

The smell of man. I'm assured by Myke Cole that I haven't experienced the smell of man until I've changed in the Coast Guard's Sector Hampton Roads locker room. I still don't especially like the phrase, we're in the outdoors and unless there's a Roman Legion of very sweaty soldiers standing right there I don't think the phrase is right, even if an army just marched past five minutes ago that would have to be one hell of an army to leave that stench. Still, as bad opening phrases go let's say that I've seen a lot worse. The examples I have to give to point out why I don't like the phrase still all point in a certain direction of what's just happened, is happening,is about to happen in this space. It's not a picnic, not a quilting circle.

Piney wind. If you've never been in a pine forest this phrase won't mean much, just like the "smell of man" phrase might not resonate for everyone sufficiently removed from high school gym class. But if you have, and here in NYC we can go strolling through the Arthur Ross Pinetum in Central Park, these two words tell us an amazing amount about what these woods look like. A pine forest doesn't look like other kinds of forest.

Puffed warm and white from long gray jaws. This phrase and the ones immediately preceding in the paragraph give us an idea how many wolves are racing through the pine forest. Now, we know it's cold, we know that there are those vapor trails of the breath emerging into the cold air. And then we can add the visual of the stuff frozen beneath their paws. This is another of the visuals that doesn't quite work for me, I don't have enough experience seeing that to really buy into it, but buy into it or not I can visualize.

Last night's snow breaking. Again, a clear visual.

Of course, between these well-chosen phrases, GRRM continues as he does in this series to lay on the lists:
fox and hare, seal and stag, even wolf
smoke and blood and rot
Big and strong, with good sharp eyes, but dull of ear and deaf to smells. Deer and elk and eve hares were faster, bears and boars fiercer in a fight

Let me say on a personal level that this opening page tells me I wasn't wrong to bail out of this series around 90% of the way thru book #2 without any deep regrets. There's a lot that I can and do admire about the prose, in fact I often recommend GRRM's "Fevre Dream" as a writing textbook for authors needing to learn some lessons about writing good dialogue. And reading this one page, I can easily admire all of the perfectly chosen two or five word phrases that tell an incredible amount and pain vivid pictures for me that are entirely different than the pictures I'd draw in my mind with any other two word phrase in the Engish language. At the same time, there are a lot of words here, a lot of words. Rich and powerful but still so very very many of them. What I came to realize with this series was that for me, where I am, with the time I have to give to read things for pleasure, that the pleasures of the series weren't quite rich enough to justify my own time investment. It's fun to admire the prose, I just can't afford to admire so much of it.

This is not exactly the same as saying I wouldn't agree to represent if a client of mine decided to write the next Game of Thrones, or if it came in through our query pile. Pleasure reading time is precious, while work reading is a question not just of what I like, but also of the marketplace, of the investment I have in an author-agent relationship, and other factors. Your spouse might not make the world's best quiche, but you can happily eat that quiche having brunch at home while choosing not to order a quiche of equivalent quality at a local restaurant.

My submission pile will not lack for people trying to emulate GRRM. Alas, very few of them will be able to emulate in a wholly successful way. GRRM can get away with his love of lists in part because he can match example for example with one of his perfectly chosen two word phrases.

Or with people who think there's a difference in meaning between an azure sky and a blue sky. And you know what, there really isn't. Unless you work devising colors for Behr and Benjamin Moore, Tupperware and Corning, KitchenAid and Waring (please note that not all lists of six are equally interesting as those on the first page of Dance with Dragons) you're substituting use of a thesaurus for an actual demonstration of literary craft.

The fantasy submissions we get are as rich with derivative RPG-inspired fantasy novels as the opening page of Dance with Dragons is with rich visual imagery. I'm glad to see GRRM succeeding with these books even if I'm choosing to abstain because they are incredibly rich, a major literary accomplishment in a field that often settles (you could say this of most...) for considerably less.

But new writers beware: GRRM's richness is of a piece. I would say it is even less tolerant of success via mediocre imitation than the RPG-inspired.