Follow awfulagent on Twitter

About Me

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Two Way Streets

Did you know that Uber drivers get to rank you, just like you get to rank them?

And when you summon an Uber, drivers can decide not to pick you up based on your passenger rating?

In theory, ratings and reviews are always a good thing, but I'm not always sure.

Generally, I've had good rides with Uber, but when I took an Uber from my hotel to LAX a few weeks ago, it wasn't a very good ride at all.  The driver decided to park across the street from my hotel rather than in the hotel's carport, even though we needed to make an easy right turn out of the carport, there was no obstacle to turning into the carport, and no obstacle in the carport.  The driver didn't offer to help wheel my luggage across the street to his car, which would be a nice thing to do if you're deciding to park across the street for no reason.  Then when we ran into traffic and the "10" looked really really backed up, the driver had little awareness of the alternate routes.  When we got to the airport, and there was a clearly marked sign to go left to cut across the "U" shape of the main terminal area at LAX to get to our terminal, and I even pointed this out to the driver, the driver didn't feel like taking the left because he knew it wasn't the right way to our terminal.  Um, he was wrong.

So how am I, the passenger, supposed to behave during this ride from hell?

Because if I don't protect my passenger rating with Uber, who knows what might happen the next time I need to get one...

And just as an aside, my experiences with Beverly Hills and LA cabbies have often been pretty miserable, with drivers who wouldn't know their way from the bed to the bathroom without a GPS, let alone from Beverly Hills to Burbank, and waiting times are usually longer.  My average with Uber has been better, even if this single ride was probably the single worst.

The same thing happens when I go to a writer's conference.  At many of these conferences, all the attending writers get to grade me, and my grade might determine whether I get invited back to the conference.

So what do I do when I have someone with the worst idea sitting across from me in the pitch session, or the absolute worst pitch?  I could politely give constructive criticism regarding the pitch.  I could give some constructive criticism on the really really bad idea.  Or not.  Because it's a lot simpler to be less than helpful during the pitch session, invite the author to send something along, and then deliver a bland rejection two weeks or two months later.  One course of action, you're actually delivering value to the author by providing the sort of constructive criticism that might help the author improve at their craft and presentation.  The other, you're protecting your rating and doing the easier and arguably more polite thing by not spoiling the face-to-face moment.  You do whatever you want after the conference, it doesn't change the ranking that gets turned in at the end of the conference.

Even if the attending agents or editors aren't specifically aware that they are being graded, the default tendency will still be to take the course of least resistance and do your rejecting after the conference rather than during.  Which will make any outlier who does the rejecting at the pitch session itself that much more of an outlier.

So should we get rated?  After all, Uber shouldn't want passengers throwing up in their cars, and I wouldn't want such a person in my car.  Authors can invest hundreds of dollars in registration and travel fees for a writer's conference, and you don't want to have them filled with agents and editors who aren't giving value.

And yet the existence of the ratings encourages bad behavior.

Monday, October 13, 2014


I am extremely happy that the Washington Nationals got drummed out of the NL playoffs early, and for as long as Stephen Strasburg is playing baseball, I want for them never to advance to the World Series.

Stephen Strasburg himself?  If he goes to another team in a trade or free agency, he can win all the World Series rings he wants.  Just none with the Nationals.


So two years ago, the Nationals has Stephen Strasburg on an innings limit because he was recoving from Tommy John surgery, and when the Nationals advanced to the playoffs, they refused to let Stephen Strasburg pitch because of this innings limit.  This was a controversial decision, and a decision that I disagreed with strenuously.

It's not that I am opposed to any innings limits for pitchers.  My 16-year-old nephew has been playing a lot of baseball in both spring and fall leagues from Little League on.  I've never noticed my brother to be one of those fathers who wants for his son to win at all costs, but such fathers exist.  And there are coaches who don't care about the kids and make coaching kids all about them.  And there are kids who need to be protected from themselves, just like there are NFL players who need to be protected from going back out onto the field with a concussion.  In fact, there should probably be stricter limits on kids playing baseball than there are, since it's so much easier now than was once the case for a kid to do baseball, baseball and more baseball twelve months a year with spring little league leading into summer travel league leading into fall league.   Everything in moderation, and the arms of young growing teenagers ought to be taken care of.

But when it comes to Major League pitchers, teams have all sorts of policies about how to take care of their pitchers, but there's no actual evidence that any of these things work.  It's not like the Nationals went all out with Strasburg before his injury, but there he is having Tommy John surgery in 2011, and that's hardly unique in the sport.

And most Major League players will tell you that they play to win the World Series.  And to earn money, of course, but winning the World Series is right up there.

If there was actual evidence to show that Stephen Strasburg needed to be protected from himself or from his manager over-working him -- shut him down.  If the Nationals aren't in the playoffs -- shut him down.  If you aren't comfortable with the risk, then don't undertake when the reward isn't there.

But the Nationals were in the playoffs, playing to get to and win the World Series.  And you never know what tomorrow will bring.  Look at the Nationals.  After their big 2012, they went nowhere in 2013.  And after their big regular season in 2014, they went nowhere in the playoffs.  Part of their bad 2013 was that everyone was going on the DL.  At least 7 Nationals pitchers went on the DL in 2013, and then hardly any went on the DL in 2014.  That happens a lot in baseball.  Teams have good and bad years for injuries.

But nobody actually knows how to protect pitchers in the Major Leagues from injuring their arms.   Yes, the Nationals GM said loud and long that anyone who was criticizing his decision in 2012 just didn't know the facts and the evidence, but if the Nationals know so much, how did they end up putting so many pitchers on the DL in 2013?  The Nationals  should've given Strasburg the chance at his World Series ring in 2012.  I'd love for Strasburg to win a World Series ring, just not with the Nationals.

Me And My Movie

This fall season marks both my 50th birthday and the 20th anniversary of establishing JABberwocky Literary Agency.  To celebrate, I screened a film at the Museum of the Moving Image for a select group from virtually all phases of my life.  I didn't name the film in the invitation, though the invitations included references to enough of the catch phrases immortalized by the film that it wasn't exactly a state secret.

Here, slightly edited, are the program notes I prepared:


When Jerry Maguire opened on Dec. 13, 1996, I sat down to see it projected (in 35mm, on part of the screen) on the Imax at the Loews Lincoln Square.

I was expecting to like it.

I didn’t realize that I was about as close to my autobiography as Hollywood is likely to get.

The “expecting to like” is easy; it was Tom Cruise in a Cameron Crowe movie, with a decent coming attraction.

Tom Cruise and I have very special relationship.  Top Gun is extra special to me.  That movie wasn't the first film I saw at the Loews Astor Plaza, which was the best movie theatre in Manhattan.  But it was the first movie I saw at the Astor Plaza after starting at JABberwocky.  Before, I was visiting the Astor Plaza.  After, I was living there.  And over the thirteen years that separated Top Gun from Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise had a misfire or two (Days of Thunder, Interview with the Vampire), but for the most part, he was hitting it out of the park every time up to the plate.  Rain Man, The Color of Money, Born of the Fourth of July, The Firm, A Few Good Men, Mission: Impossible.  Even Cocktail and Far and Away -- if you think they worked (and I did, at least at the time I first saw), they worked because of Tom.  The films were generally hugely successful at the box office.  They were also more often than not hugely successful artistically.  The directors or screenwriters included the likes of Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Ron Howard, Oliver Stone, Tony Scott and Sydney Pollack.  All have made significant contributions to cinema.  And the co-stars?  Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall, Brad Pitt.  These movies garnered a lot of Oscar nominations for people besides Tom Cruise, whose artistic contributions to cinema over a long career are, I think, under-appreciated.

And then Cameron Crowe.  25 years later we still reference the classic scene in Say Anything of John Cusack's Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box to woo his girlfriend.  And in 1996 when Jerry Maguire was open, that classic scene was much nearer in the past.  There was a frisson to a new Cameron Crowe film.  But Say Anything was good on many levels, including the overall quality of the performances.  Not just John Cusack's defining performance, but the best performance from John Mahoney.  Forget Frasier.  Has Mahoney ever been better than Lloyd Dobler’s nemesis, the father who doesn’t want Lloyd dating his daughter.

For both Cruise and Crowe, their movies were often my soundtrack.   Working with music supervisor Danny Bramson, Say Anything and Singles were full of great tunes.  Bramson's one of the best at this. He also helped pick the music for the very lyrical Bull Durham soundtrack.  Rain Man had one of Hans Zimmer’s best scores.  The Color of Money was full of great tunes.  There were the soaring trumpet solos in John Williams’ Fourth of July score, and the jazzy piano of Dave Grusin’s music for The Firm.

So Tom Cruise was going to be in a Cameron Crowe movie.

Which was not just my soundtrack, but my life.

Jerry Maguire and I -- it turned out we were both agents who’d come to have issues with our bosses.

I’d been working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency.  Scott  Meredith died.  The people with the clients and the money walked out the door to start their own agency.  A rich guy purchased Scott Meredith and had lots and lots of bad ideas, and I made a very conscious decision that I wasn’t going to just agree with them all.  Working for Scott hadn’t been fun; I didn’t need to bend over backwards to work for another bad boss.  A year-and-some after the agency was sold, did I know the day I was fired, twenty years ago this month, that I was going to be fired?  No.  But when the office was being renovated in the summer of 1994, I wasn’t entirely joking when I told people I got a fax to have at home just in case the boss had other plans for me.

After Jerry wrote his mission statement, he knew there might be repercussions.  He knew just about the moment he hit “save.”  He didn’t know Sugar was taking him to lunch to fire him, but deep down, he wasn’t shocked by the news.

The phone jockeying that followed?  That was me, twenty years ago this month.  My boss, he didn’t care about my clients.  If he wanted my clients, he wouldn’t have fired me.  But boy, did I spend a lot of time on the phone in October 1994.  I had a $300+ phone bill that month.  Because even if I wasn’t competing with my boss, I was competing with the Scott Meredith guys that had broken off 18 months earlier, and any and every other option besides me that any of my clients might have had.  Jerry Maguire’s a movie.  In real life, I doubt there’d be the crying gymnast picking up the wrong line.  But in its essence, every moment Jerry spends on the phone that afternoon is entirely real.

I’m not sure if it’s me or Jerry who headed off to our own businesses with a bigger stock of naiveté. I talked to an accountant enough to understand I’d have self-employment tax weighing down on me whether I was actually making any money or not, but my “business plan” was a sheet of my Scott Meredith memo paper where I roughed out that I needed $24-25K in commission my first year, that I knew where half of it would come from, and that I would come up with the other half.  But honestly, I never thought much about doing anything else.  And while Jerry Maguire and I both settled into home offices, for me the home office was all I needed.  Jerry Maguire needed more. He had a much bigger income potential because he was representing big-time athletes, not a bunch of sf/fantasy authors that were little known outside their fields.  But he had champagne tastes.  He needed the fancy suits and the fancy cars and the ability to look rich and act rich and compete with Bob Sugar.  I was fine settling into my one bedroom and moving furniture around to make room for a desk (cheap do-it-yourself from Staples), a filing cabinet, and a hand-me-down copier from my parents.

So Jerry Maguire might have been nominated for five Academy Awards: Picture, Actor (Cruise), Supporting Actor (Gooding Jr. who won), Screenplay (Crowe) and Editing. It might have spawned a sea of catch phrases that are as or more enduring as Lloyd Dobler holding up his boom box in Say Anything.  That’s not why we’re here watching Jerry Maguire today.  There are other favorite films of mine that have probably aged better which are even more iconic.

Here is why we’re here:

When I sat in the Lincoln Square on that Friday night in 1994, having paid full tariff for a Manhattan ticket at a time when my first choice was always the Saturday bargain matineee in Queens, my story was unfolding in real time with Jerry’s.  I laughed a lot.  Too much; I earned some weird looks from people in the row behind me who couldn’t fully appreciate the jokes, because who else but me really could?  But I squirmed a little bit.  I wasn’t sure how the health insurance bills were going to be paid, or when or if I’d ever get a big offer coming across my fax machine.  I was two years into starting a business that spent five years working its way out of neutral.  I was still hoping to have Jerry Maguire’s happy ending.  And today, there’s no better way to say I had that happy ending than to be able to share Jerry Maguire with you.

And what would I say after seeing Jerry Maguire again this weekend?

I own DVDs and BluRays, but I don't do them.  They're there for decoration.  I live in New York City, there are lots of movies to see, and I don't sit in my apartment to do them.

Which means there are films I love that I see over and over again because they're easy to see.  As an example, if I wanted to see The Shining, I could do that lots between Kubrick retrospectives or midnight showings or whatever.  Jerry Maguire isn't one of those films.  I haven't actually watched it in a while.

And in my notes above, I underestimated it.  The movie has aged pretty well, and is even more iconic than I remembered.  The number of little bits of dialogue in this film that have taken on a life of their own goes so far beyond just "show me the money" or "you complete me."  I don't know how many of them Crowe made up and how many he'd heard and used, but so much of the movie is in popular culture 18 years ago because it's in this movie.

In 1996, I could most appreciate the movie's tonal accuracy for the stuff at the beginning.  I was two years off from my own phone jockeying.  Which still feels accurate from a twenty-year remove.  But now I can appreciate it for so much more, especially at the end of the movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s Rod Tidwell has his big game and gets his big contract.  It's very Hollywood, with Tidwell taking a big hit and being knocked out and doing this whole dance and the terms of his contract are revealed as a surprise on an ESPN interview show.  But if you cut away all the Hollywood trappings, every emotional beat is right.  Jerry Maguire, walking around the stadium after Tidwell's big game, is pretty much feeling the exact same beats that I felt a year ago, watching Brandon Sanderson win the Hugo Award for "The Emperor's Soul," and then hanging out with Brandon that night going for a celebratory late night nosh.  It was so dead-on right that I found myself tearing up at the ending.  I hadn't expected that.

So Cameron Crowe's screenplay is a masterpiece.

It doesn't get the emotional beats of being an agent right just by chance.  It doesn't fill itself up with cultural references just by chance.  These perfect words don't write themselves.

The acting.  This I knew. Strangely enough, both Jay Mohr and John Mahoney have the same initials.  Both are better known for stuff on TV.  Both give their best performances in a movie directed by Cameron Crowe.  Ione Skye?  Renée Zellwegger?  Again, both probably have their iconic roles in a Cameron Crowe movie.  Cuba Gooding, Jr.  Same thing.  Lili Taylor is hiding out in Say Anything.  Donal Logue (Harvey Dent on Gotham) is hiding out in Jerry Maguire.  Cast long enough, any movie you do can have someone important doing an early role, but Crowe -- he seems to keep doing it.

What a darned good movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Up and Down and In The Middle

I am a big fan of The Middle, which I think is an under-rated and under-appreciated part of ABC's Wednesday comedy line-up.

But as much as I enjoyed the episode that aired on October 1, I was also kind of down on it, because the main story-line deals with college admissions and financial aid in a way that perpetuates the worst kind of thinking, the kind of thinking that keeps people in the middle down rather than helping them up.

Basic premise of the show:  working class family with two parents who work hard and never get ahead, with three kids to feed and a house and a mortgage and bills.  The middle kid is Sue, who's surrounded by two brothers and who is a font of sometimes misplaced enthusiasm.  She's tried out for every club or sport in the school, usually to very bad results, but she's slowly been getting her act a little more together, starting to find boys and a little more common sense and a little more assertiveness in the right places.

In this episode, Sue announces that she's retaken her ACTs, gotten a much better score, and can now set her sites on so many more schools that are so much better.  Which sends her parents into a panic, because there's no money, so how can they afford to send her to any of these really nice schools, so they get second jobs because they're going to do everything they can to get their daughter into the good college she wants.

Funny?  Yes.  It's rare that the show isn't funny.  The main story-line sees the mom working from home with one of those airline call center jobs that doesn't require being in the call center.  But as she says, the job means working from her home, with all the distractions from her three kids, which goes rather poorly in ways that are quite richly humorous.  The dad gets a scene of two wearing a uniform that's very fast food in a way we don't usually see the father.  And the B and C storylines are as good as the main one.  The son in his sophomore year at college decides to walk off with his share of the family's possessions to stock his first student housing apartment.  The youngest sone finds all of the noisy toys his parents had taken from him 10 years ago hiding in the basement.  Sue and a friend of hers work on a school play that's way funnier than Waiting for Godot.

But the basic premise is just wrong.

One of the biggest problems with disadvantage kids getting into good colleges is that they won't apply in the first place.  They don't understand that the schools might offer financial aid, that they might be able to aim higher and afford it.  And this episode totally buys into that idea.  I guess in theory if both parents work dead-end jobs for 25 hours a week, that's 25x2 is 50 hours, and that could be $500 or $600 a year (or $400) and that's an extra $20K or $30K before taxes.  And they've got three kids.  Well, that's not going to cover rack rate at a college.  It's a farce, but not the kind of farce that the show is thinking it is.

No.  Wrong.

Why don't the writers and producers of The Middle find the humor in a show that models better behavior, where Sue and her parents decide that they're going to apply to the best schools possible and Sue is going to chase every scholarship she can possibly chase.  Or they can go looking for schools that waive the application fee, or find out that they're poor but that they make $10.23 too much to qualify for the application fee waiver.   Even if that goes as poorly as their efforts to have these dead-end second jobs, at least it's modeling a better idea.  It's modeling for a parent that maybe they should encourage instead of discouraging if a child wants to aim high and pray for financial aid rather than aiming low because that's all the family can afford.  Maybe it helps a child decide they can do Sue one better and succeed where she doesn't at getting a scholarship because it's Sue, the child who can't succeed at a tryout for anything and in the real world they're better.

I'm not asking The Middle not to be The Middle.  I've been watching this family since June 2009 when I started laughing out loud in the middle of an airplane sampling an episode on the in-seat TV.  I know these characters.  I know there's plenty of humor that's just right for The Middle in the better version of this episode, and they don't need to turn The Middle into The Message in order to put a better message into the middle of their 22 minutes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Maze Runner

It isn't often that I get to see a movie based on a huge bestselling novel that I had the good taste to turn down, but I got to do it tonight, when I headed off to the Ziegfeld after work for the 7:15 of The Maze Runner, based on James Dashner's novel of the same name.

Which is worth your time.

Spoilers follow:

I think I might've liked the movie less if I'd read the book.  One of the things I enjoyed about the movie was that it held surprises.  I was able to make some educated guesses about what would happen in certain instances based on my experiences as a reader of fiction and a viewer of films.  When a group of 15 people heads off somewhere, and half of two-thirds of them are characters who haven't had a line of dialogue, it is safe to say that a good number of those characters aren't going to be around for the end of the movie.  Cannon fodder, they've got cannon fodder.  And if the arch nemesis is left behind someplace, the suspense is in wondering whether the arch nemesis will return in the sequel or before the end of the film at hand.  Also, when characters walk in front of something that looks like the door to a loading dock, it might be a door.

But if I had a general idea of what was going to happen at points throughout, the movie held my attention, interest and curiosity.  I was never entirely sure what was behind the door, or who might be coming up on the elevator, or the exact point in time when the climax was going to be set in motion.

Casting was a definite plus.  Not a single complaint about any of the kids in the Glade, and their roles weren't all easy ones to play.  As an example, the role of the Doubting Thomas (and this movie does have not just a Thomas but a Doubting Thomas) is kind of cliche and very functional and full of pronouncement, but all those lines are delivered with fervor and self-belief by Will Poulter, in a very different role than his equally excellent performance as the son in We're The Millers.  And Dylan O'Brien as Thomas makes his character's actions seem perfectly natural even when, really, they're not, when it takes a lot of gumption or a job with McKinsey to arrive in a situation and start shaking things up like you've been doing it all along.

Well, maybe one false note in the cast.  Blake Cooper has the task of playing the analog to Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and he doesn't manage to surmount that burden.

One false note in the physical production, which is generally impressive, and which false note occurred to me in real time as I was watching, and not with thought afterward.  There isn't some giant dome over the Glade, like there is in the arena in Catching Fire.  Yet the weather in the Glade seems entirely and completely different than the weather beyond the Glade and its immediate environs.  I don't think it can work that way.

But on the whole, it's a movie that kept me interested all the way through, that didn't have me looking at my watch, that kept me awake and alert.

And as the Washington Post critic said, if I could've stayed around to see the sequel right afterwards, I would have.  It's a great ending.  A couple other reviews made it seem like this movie was a giant set-up for the next one.  And it is.  But it's also a quite entertaining movie in its own right.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Curious on Broadway

I am a bit jealous of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It is a novel that is indirectly about autism and which was published around the same time as Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, which is very directly about autism.  Of the hundreds of novels I have represented as a literary agent, Moon's is unabashedly the one I am proudest of.  It won the Nebula Award and has become a small part of the canon, used in a number of campus and community reading events.  But it hasn't been Curious Incident, which won many prizes and has been sold in twice as many languages and become much more of a thing.

My mild envy extends to the fact that the Mark Haddon novel has been adopted for the stage, with the play by Simon Stephens getting rave reviews in London and winning the Olivier Award for best play.  And now it's on Broadway.  And jealous or not, I am somewhat curious about the Curious Incident.  If I'm still not interested in the novel (ennui, disinterest, scared, who knows…) the play is an opportunity to experience it once removed.  So when I saw it on the TKTS half-price list last week, I decided "what the hey," and soon found myself in the front row for the second night of previews.

And I've got to say, the play is better than solid, and boasts and excellent performance in the lead role by Alex Sharp, a young British actor fresh out of Julliard, who has a two page profile in the September Playbill.

Sharp plays Christopher Boone, a 15-year old who is likely on the autism spectrum.  According to the Playbill article the book never states this clearly, but if you follow the duck test, a kid with poor social skills who hates to be touched, fares poorly in crowds, doesn't do well outside of his home environment, etc. etc. -- yes, tis a lot like autism.  He sets out to do detective work to find out who killed a neighbors' dog, which leads to revelations about his family, which leads to a road trip.

Among the many strengths of Sharp's performance is that he plays an annoying character without ever being annoying, which is not at all an easy thing to do, and this in turn enables the play to hit its notes without ever seeming manipulative or cloying.  It might have been an early preview, but Sharp received a stirring standing ovation from the near to capacity crowd, and the play seems quite likely to duplicate on Broadway the success that it has had in the West End.  And it deserves to.  Hard to believe I walked out of Harper Regan, the last play I saw from this playwright!

The production is directed by Marianne Elliott, and physically the play takes place in what is essentially a big modernistic hi-tech box with few actual sets.  Boxes, mostly.  Trap doors for a dead dog to emerge from at the start, or which open to present a trench for the Underground tracks when Christopher is journeying on the Bakerloo line. It works well enough; it enhances the words, doesn't get in the way of them, and connoisseurs of model train sets will enjoy some of what happens within the box of little boxes.  And people who remember the old Automat days may enjoy the way Christopher Boone is able to get things from the little boxes as well; it's almost like there's a little old lady putting new mac & cheese in, only in this case it's the ingredients for the model train.

This was a second preview performance.  As I exited, I could see a lot of people clearly not getting ready to leave, as there are notes to be given and changes and fine-tuning to be made.  Likely more notes for the supporting cast than for Alex Sharp.  He's about as perfect as I'd think he can get, but no one character in the supporting cast had quite that same effect.  And it's kind of hard, because almost all the supporting cast are playing multiple roles, and "just right" for one may not be exactly that for another of the roles.

There ought to be some notes on the play!  Good as it is the first act could be delicately trimmed, 30 seconds from this scene and two lines in another.  The second act can definitely be taken in a notch.  In particular, Christopher's road trip is done up quite a bit, choreographed cast-wide urgency up and down and across the stage, all staged beautifully, very energetic and thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd.  And it would still be all of that were it two or four minutes tighter.  My guess is people aren't looking too much at changes to an award-winning play that's getting standing ovations, but if it's four or eight minutes shorter (and almost certainly not ten minutes shorter; it's needs a bit of a trim but only that) it will be better.

Did the play make me want to read the book?  No.  But the people sitting next to me were thinking they should.  And while there hasn't been much sign I can see that people who read the Haddon novel go looking for more and fine their way to Elizabeth Moon's as a next stop, I can hope a successful play might say something to the people who have circled around doing a film or play from The Speed of Dark.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

more BS from Amazon

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch: I HAVE REMOVED THIS EMAIL

Copy us at:

Please consider including these points:

- We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
- Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
- Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
- Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at


Dear Nathan:

If I am going to cc Amazon on an email to Michael Pietach, you will surely agree it is proper to cc Jeff Bezos directly.

Could you get me his functional Amazon address for that purpose?

And then send it to every KDP author as well? 

Or even just settle for sending us Russell Grandinetti's.

There are a lot of things you can do in a war.  Sending thousands of people the email address of a CEO of a major company shouldn't be one of them.

Every one of you should feel some measure of personal disgust to work for such a company.

This is not right.  You should be ashamed.  

Joshua Bilmes, President

JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.

(someone in the comments mentions that a email address was given out, but it has been an open secret for years that this was Jeff Bezos' address once upon a very long time ago, but has long been staffed by customer service people.  It isn't his working email address, but rather the one you use to feel empowered when you complain.  The one Amazon gave out, to the best of my knowledge, is, and Hachette does not have a massive customer service staff like Amazon does.)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Loncon 3 Schedule

I'm looking forward to attending my second British Worldcon next week, and will be at London's Excel for Loncon 3.

Here's when you can see me:

Thursday 14 August, 13:00
Kaffeeklatsch, London Suite 5 (Level 0)

A Kaffeeklatsch is a small group around a table, and advance reservations need to be made with or at the convention.  I know it's early in the convention weekend, which doesn't give a lot of time to sign up.  I hope you'll make plans to be part of this small group.

Saturday 16 August, 12:00
Finding an Agent, Capital Suite 16 (Level 3)

Join me, author Jacey Bedford, fellow agents Ian Drury and John Jarrold, and moderator and long-time editor Betsy Mitchell.  This is an especially exciting panel for me to be on because of the great co-panelists.  Betsy gave me my start in publishing, and John Jarrold was one of the very first UK publishing folk I got to meet in person, during his days at the Earthlight imprint at Simon & Schuster.

Saturday 16 August, 13:30
Adult Readers Within the YA Market, Capital Suite 10 (Level 3)

Happily my back-to-back panels are not far from one another!  Authors Sarah Ash and Ben Jeapes and Tor UK editor Bella Pagan will be joining me for this panel.


There are a lot of JABberwocky clients attending WorldCon and a lot of British publishers we don't get to see very often, so if you want to meet up with me, attending one of my panels is definitely the way to go. Not that you won't find me wandering around the dealer's room at some point or another, but with many people attending the con and events and meetings spread out in multiple hotels near Excel and even a few that'll have me hopping to Bank on the DLR, it'll be a little harder to count on serendipity bringing us together.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dinner With Puppets

Somehow or other I never posted these two play reviews from several months ago...

Dinner With Friends, which first played in New York in the late 1990s into 2001, is one of the major plays by Daniel Margulies.  For a literary type such as myself, Collected Stories is perhaps the keynote. It's an All About Eve story of an aging writer and a young admirer/protege.  More recently, Time Stands Still, a play about a wartorn journalist recovering from wounds physical and spiritual at home got a lot of attention.

But it's Dinner With Friends that I saw today in a revival at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, and I can't say it impressed.

It's a yuppie marital drama.  A couple, probably in their thirties, are having a friend over for dinner.  She reveals that her husband is leaving her.  A few scenes that night of the aftershocks, one at her house, where he stops by when a flight cancellation keeps him from heading off to his new home.  They have sex.  Another as the couple that received the news discusses.

Act Two has a flashback to when everyone first met, when the one couple hooked her up with him.  Then his-and-her scenes as the two men and two women talk separately a while after the event, and then a final wrap-up scene in the bedroom of the couple that are still together.

And who cares?

These are the kinds of people who fly up to Martha's Vineyard to open their house for the summer, but who have no external lives that can be detected.  They each have kids.  The "happy" couple likes to talk about food, to decide that the shiraz is too astringent or maybe too much vanilla in the polenta cake.  They all spout platitudes about marriage and family life.

"Having kids is something I just have to do."

"I had to survive Tom in order to realize that my second husband is the man I was meant to be with."

"Why can you talk for hours and hours about the problems of everyone else we know, but the moment I want to talk about us you fall silent?"

And that's pretty much it.   The play never delves much deeper than those platitudes.  I "rested my eyes" purposely.  When there was a scene with brighter lighting, a read a little bit of a comic book, turning the pages quietly.  The best I can say is that I've seen plays that are plenty duller than this, but still, I just wasn't interested in a word of it.  I can't quite comprehend that this play was ever a "thing" in the drama world, that it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

I saw Margulies' Collected Stories at the Lucille Lortel theatre, so many years back I think I was still working at the Scott Meredith agency.

Coincidentally, just a few hours after seeing Dinner With Friends, I found myself back at the Lucille Lortell, for Hand to God, which is certain to contend for my personal Best Play honors for 2014.

Written by Robert Askins and directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, Hand to God is a play with puppets.

It starts with a marionette alone on screen delivering a monologue on theology.  Quite a funny one.  So whatever happens after this, at least there's one thing different.

Thereafter the play proper begins in the basement classroom of a small Texas church, where a recently widowed woman is seeking solace by teaching a puppet class for teens in the church, including her sullen son and a smoldering hot teen who has eyes on his teacher.  So, in fact, does the play's pastor.  We see two different types of seduction, one driven by the passion of youth and the other by the power of authority, within a few minutes.  For some plays, that might be enough.  For this play, the real fun begins when her son becomes possessed by his puppet.  Hard to tell what the puppet wants, exactly, but whatever it is the teacher's son will do what he can to gain satisfaction for his puppet.

This sounds serious, The Exorcist melded with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or something.  But it's a very witty play that surpasses any expectations for any of the individual genres you might want to tag it with because the underlying emotions of the characters feel true, and are realized on the stage by an excellent cast. The rave reviews are going especially to Steven Boyer as the son and evil puppet Tyrone.  Both are good.  But my eyes were drawn more to Geneva Carr as the mother and Michael Oberholtzer as the young man who desires her. She can pivot in a sentence or two, radiating vulnerability, confusion, strength, responsibility, passion, and he has "it," a lot of charisma and you see in his performance that way the young have of radiating what it is they don't know about life and don't realize they don't know.

I can often write the second act of a play having seen the first, because there are conventions that are followed in writing theatre, as in writing books or movies or pretty much anything else.  To its credit, Hand to God doesn't succumb to predicatability.  Ultimately, the end of the play doesn't go anywhere unexpected, but scene-by-scene it plays out with enough uncertainty that I could enjoy the second act rather than diagramming it,

I would expect a lot of local theatre companies in the US will be producing Hand to God in coming seasons, and you should keep an eye out for it.

Hugh Howey Is Right!

So, yes, the big publishers really do treat their authors shittily sometimes.

This example can be considered an extension of my post in March called The Royalty Jar, where I discussed reserves against returns as part of a series of posts on royalty statements.

As I mentioned in that post, we (a) try to review our royalty statements very carefully, including any itemization of the reserve against returns on the royalty statements (b) have contract language that puts some sort of limit on how much money a publisher can hold back in its reserve against returns.

Late last week, I was reviewing a royalty statement from a British publisher.

The contract language we negotiated for this deal says that the publisher can, at its discretion, take a reserve on paperback editions each semi-annual period of up to 25% of the author's royalty earnings for this edition.  Simple, right!  The language even suggests that the publisher could use its discretion to take a smaller reserve.  Not that I'd ever expect it, but it's a nice thought.

So for the second half of 2013, the paperback edition of this book earned £1200, 25% of that would be £300, and the reserve against returns on the royalty statement is -- £500 !!

Here's how the publisher accomplished this trick of turning 25% of £1200 into £500.

The previous royalty period was the first for this particular edition.  The book earned £3200, and of course, the publisher in that instance did the same math as any of the rest of us and took a £800 reserve.

This period, the publisher decided to add in the refund of the prior period reserve to the actual royalty earnings for this period.  Or, to put it another way, even though the author earned £3200 last time and £3200 was used as the basis for calculating the reserve against returns last time, 25% of that £3200 is now being "earned" again.  So what is supposed to be, contractually, a 25% reserve has now become a 41.67% reserve.

The publisher's gift to itself is a gift that keeps on giving.  Because...

The publisher has now taken an extra £200 reserve that it shouldn't, and it will refund that money to the author, and the author will "earn" that money a third time, and the publisher will take an extra £50 on the next reserve against returns.

The publisher still has the correct £300 reserve which it will refund next time, so that money will be "earned" a second time, and that will increase the reserve against returns by £75.

And the time after that, there will now be:
£50 the author will "earn" a fourth time, £12.50 of which will be "earned" a fifth time.
£75 the author will "earn" a third time, £18.75 of which will be "earned" a fourth time
and the correctly held 25% reserve for the first half of 2014, which will be incorrectly "earned" a second time.

Ultimately, when you carry out the math, the £3200 that the author earned on this paperback in the first half of 2013 will become a total "earning" of £4266 when determining the reserve against returns.

Bit by bit, drip by drip, the publisher will forever keep taking more than the 25% reserve against returns which they agreed to take in the contract.

Publishers do sometimes overpay authors, and they can lose millions of dollars on this book and thousands of dollars on that book, because they overpaid.  Then again, those choices are always the publisher's.  There's nothing right or fair about playing games like this with the reserve against returns for one author in order to compensate for bad decisions you might have made for some other author.

Especially when the shift to e-book sales over print sales means the whole rationale for having any reserve against returns is considerably reduced.  There is almost always money coming in from the e-book to make up for any overpayment of royalties due to returns of the print edition.

Now we shall present the publisher with this information...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Between Riverside and Crazy

I saw the last preview before tonight's opening of Between Riverside and Crazy, a new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, a highly regarded playwright whose The Motherf**ker with the Hat was nominated for six Tony Awards.  I'd seen that play, somewhat flawed by tremendously well acted, at the Studio Theater in DC last year.

What should I say about Between Riverside and Crazy?

Bedecked with references to Game of Thrones and Whole Foods, it's a play very much of its time and moment.  It has some tremendous scenes in it.  It has lots and lots of laugh lines, and the audience was clearly having a very good time. I expect it will be popular and get some good reviews.

But honestly, it's not a very good play.

It takes around 40 minutes of a play that's around 2:10 with intermission to get to its point, to the extent that it has one.

The lead character, name of Walter "Pops" Washington, is a former NYPD officer, who was shot six times by a white rookie officer eight years ago, and has a lawsuit going against the city.  There's pressure coming down on behalf of the powers that be from his one-time partner and her fiancee for him to agree to a settlement, because it's not looking good for his case after eight years.  The public has turned its attention elsewhere.  He's suffering since his wife died, having trouble paying the rent on his apartment, his son is off-and-on, more on, with criminal troubles with the police.  So after around 40 minutes of engagingly written, lively, sometimes funny, sometimes touching, but ultimately going nowhere scenes, we finally get to this confrontation.  Which is great.

Then the curtain comes down on Act One with a cliffhanger.  Which resolves like most cliffhangers.  And Act Two has four or five scenes that just don't go anywhere, like most of the first act.

Part of the problem is that we don't care about the characters.  "Pops" is an alcoholic.  If he isn't soaking in his drink, he's stewing in his bitterness.  Stephen McKinley Henderson does a great job playing the part, but the part goes nowhere.  We see a man who's less pleasant to be around than he thinks, with less going on upstairs than he thinks.  His "adversaries," Elizabeth Canavan as his one-time partner and Michael Rispoli as Lieutenant Caro, get as much as they can out of their roles, which are probably more fully realized in the script than anyone else's and then boosted a little beyond by the performances, but I didn't want to hang around with any of the people hanging around in Pops' apartment, and even accounting for the fact that some of them are family, they're the family I don't think I'd want to see other than at Thanksgiving.

I hate to come down hard on a play that has some lively writing and lots of good laugh lines, but I generally prefer plays that don't have me wishing for more brightly lit scenes to provide more reflected light in the auditorium to allow me to do more of my crossword from my seat in Row C.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Battle of the Ebook Superstars

Haven't done a blog post in way too long…

On the subject of Hachette vs. Amazon of which too much has been written, let me make a few points:

When Amazon says that e-book sales will grow if only they are priced cheaper, I consider this to be bullshit.

John Scalzi is much more polite.  He disagrees by saying that he thinks it might well be a true statement for Amazon, but that it might not be true for everyone else, or for the broad publishing ecosystem in general, but that he has no reason to think Amazon is making up the numbers for Amazon.

I don't feel like being that polite.

Amazon's argument is essentially an updated variation of the famous "Laffer Curve" which Ronald Reagan used to justify the argument that lower taxes meant higher revenues.  Which if it is true at all is true only at certain high extremes of tax rates, because after a point you just can't keep getting more by charging less, whether it's e-books or government or chewing gum.   It also isn't accurate to say that you always get more by pricing something more expensively.  I don't believe e-books should all cost $29.99.  In pretty much any market, there is only so much demand to go around.  The number of readers is finite.  The number of books they have time to read is finite.  The budget they have for buying books is finite.  At the margins, you can occasionally pick up an added sale or get a little more money spent on books than on something else, but not forever or indefinitely.  As an example of this, look at all of the added casinos that have been built in the US with the argument that we'll keep the casino dollars here and people will spend more at casinos.  Nope; not forever.  Casinos are starting to close.  Tax revenues are starting to fall short.  You can't keep getting enough more revenue to support endless casinos by building more casinos, and you can't keep getting more e-book money by cutting e-book prices.

Here's a question which I'm asking Amazon right now, and can't wait for the answer:  What do their studies show about dropping prices from $14.99 to $12.99?  Or $12.99 to $10.99?  What is the exact magic that all e-books which are $14.99 should be $9.99?  Very few e-books by our clients have ever carried a $14.99 price tag, actually.

The marketplace should determine what the right price is for any given e-book based on lots of people competing to sell goods through lots of different places.  It shouldn't be set at $9.99 because Jeff Bezos has a divine revelation when the Kindle was launched that the price should be $9.99.

While I disagree with Amazon on certain things, I also admire them on others.

Their battle with Hachette has been waged much more skillfully and artfully than a few years ago when they were battling with Macmillan.  The Macmillan fight with the buy buttons removed was very aggressive and in-your-face and visible.  WIth Hachette, they've done all sorts of things to make it difficult to buy Hachette books, but they've never actually stopped anyone from buying them.  Yeah, you can't preorder them.  And no, you can't get them tomorrow.  But you can get them.  A good tactician learns from the battles of the past, and Amazon has learned its lessons well.

HarperCollins isn't my favorite publisher to deal with.  They are much more set in their territorial ways than other publishers.  But I am quite pleased to see that they now have a website that sells e-books direct to customers.  Publishers need to have that tool in reserve in order to strengthen their position when negotiating terms with Amazon, B&N, and their other big customers.

Here's my takeaway:  A healthy marketplace should determine e-book prices and compensation, and we don't have a healthy marketplace in e-books.  And both Hachette and Amazon are part of that unhealthy marketplace.  Amazon has too big a share of e-book sales, and the self-published authors who instinctively side with Amazon don't realize that this will not end well for them.  But Hachette is in a highly concentrated industry like the airline industry is, where all the big players tend ultimately to be very much alike, doing as little to compete as they can get away with.  Just like one airline seats by rows and another windows in, one publisher pays an export royalty based on a smaller percentage of cover price and another based on a higher percentage of net receipts.  Especially since not every publisher wants every book, we don't often have much choice on where we sell books to, just like we have little choice on how to sell an e-book if we don't sell it through Amazon.  It's not a healthy market, neither Hachette nor Amazon are 100% saint or 100% sinner, and however their battle plays out it still won't be a healthy market.  But there is one thing that we at JABberwocky have in common with Hachette and not with Amazon.  We are a "single play" company.  We make money by having people buy books, and only by having people buy books.  Not by selling them memberships.  Not by selling toasters.  Not by selling cloud computing services.  Hachette has more of an interest in having a healthy overall marketplace for books, while Amazon can survive very nicely without a prospering book industry, which is a much bigger thing than selling books through the Kindle store.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Balticon Schedule

I have a nice schedule at Balticon this year, with seven panels, all looking interesting, and I hope I'll have a chance to meet some of you this year.  And if you don't see me at a panel -- hey, I'll be around the bar or the dealers room or looking for a game of something in the games room.

Balticon 48 is a four-day extravaganza that takes place from Friday May 23, 2014 thru Monday May 26, 2014 at the Hunt Valley Inn, in Hunt Valley, MD.  Of the long-time conventions in the Northeast, I think it's done the best job of integrating games, anime, podcasting, and all sorts of other things of interest to the newer generations of sf fandom with the classic elements of regional sf conventions as they came together in the years after World War II.  I always have a blast, and this looks like one of the best personal schedules I've had at the convention.  Though they do seem to have a lot of the publishing panels in the early hours.

All times are Eastern, and all room assignments are at the Hunt Valley Inn:

1700 Saturday May 24:  In the Hot Seat (Panel) (Participant), Sat 17:00 - 17:50, Belmont Room

1800 Saturday May 24: Forgotten Works in Sci-Fi / Forgotten Works in Fantasy (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0800 Sunday May 25: Finding an agent (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0900 Sunday May 25: Editors Q&A (Panel) (Participant), Salon B (lower level)

1000 Sunday May 25: How NOT to Break into print- The Bad Advice panel (Panel) (Participant), Salon A (lower level)

1100 Sunday May 25: Dealing with Problematic Authors (Panel) (Participant), Derby Room

0800 Monday May 26: Long-term Career Planning for Creatives: Surviving the Next 10 Revolutions (Panel) (Participant), Chase Room

Several other JABberwocky clients will be attending Balticon this year.

Brandon Sanderson is the Author Guest of Honor.

Myke Cole is the winner of last year's Compton Crook Award, given at Balticon.

Jon Sprunk celebrates the launch of Blood & Iron.

Joshua Palmatier celebrates the launch of Zombies Eat Brains, ahead of the fall publication of his new novel Shattering the Ley.

Peter V. Brett may not be on the programming, but will be around the con.

Our friends at Graphic Audio will be around for Brandon Sanderson's signing on Saturday, so you can sample their dramatic abridged audio editions of his work.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Devane and I

Watching the premiere of 24: Live Another Day earlier in the week gets me to thinking where it is that I have heard the name of William Devane before...

Once Upon a Time, 24 years ago strangely enough, in September 1990, a client of mine named Barbara Paul called to say that there was a TV movie on NBC by the name of Murder COD being previewed in TV Guide that sounded a lot like her book Kill Fee.

The TV movie and a perfectly respectable cast.  Patrick Duffy, still on Dallas, starred as a police detective, and one William Devane was the bad guy.  Devane was on Knots Landing.

And if it sounded a lot like Barbara Paul's novel Kill Fee -- well, that's because it was.

The book had been under option for a while.  The option had, if memory serves, expired on September 10, which was now a few days in the past.  The producers of the TV movie had not quite forgotten to pay the purchase price for the TV movie, which they should have done months before when the started filming the movie.  And now, the check really was in the mail.

I don't know how it would have played out if they had sent their late check even a coupe of weeks or a month sooner, when the check would have been late but at least within the option period.  Had it come in before we knew the movie and actually been shot and delivered we almost certainly would have cashed it and then been a little perturbed to find put two weeks later that they had screwed us a bit.

But here, the option had expired, the producers had no rights to the movie, and they were planning to show it on NBC in a few days.  So of course the check was returned.

We ended up getting a few dollars more.  Not a lot, I wonder if we could have held out longer and gotten more, but as little as it was it represented a 60% increase in what they needed to have paid had they done so just that wee bit sooner.

So this is my William Devane story that had absolutely nothing to do with William Devane.

You can give a listen to the Audible audio edition of Barbara Paul's novel Kill Fee.

Friday, April 4, 2014


Not sure I would have seen Noah otherwise, but there was a preview screening at the Museum of the Moving Image.

It's an interesting movie, in a better way than when your spouse is saying your banana bread is interesting, but I'm still not sure it's actually a good movie.

But interesting.

The first interesting thing is the complete lack of sugar coating.  We can spend so much time with bible stories growing up, the idealized kinds of stories suitable for children of all ages, that we can forget that most of the people in those stories are kind of crazy.  Cain, Abraham, Joseph, Noah certainly.  And the director Darren Aronofsky doesn't let us forget that about Noah.  Nor does the portrayal by Russell Crowe.  There isn't a thing about the movie that lets us forget that you have to be a certain kind of crazy to build an ark because God tells you to, and to do most of the things that Noah goes around doing in the classic bible story of Noah.  It's an interesting choice, and I respect it.  I'm so tired of heroes in cinema that I was kind of delighted here when Noah forces his son Ham to abandon his girlfriend, who doesn't fare well in the immediate aftermath.  Not what we're supposed to do, not what we're used to seeing, not what we like to think of when we think of God and doing God's work and being Godly.  But it's actually true to the nature of the Old Testament, where bad things happen to people.

It's interesting to see the use of classic elements of sf/fantasy to provide the presence of God in the movie.  You need the hand of God to make the story of Noah work.  To make it rain for those 40 days. To get Noah to build the ark.  To keep the ark from being attacked and destroyed by the saner people in Noah's universe.  So if you've got to have a supernatural entity casting its gaze and spirit over the movie, why not have it be a cross between Tolkien/Peter Jackson's ents and Brandon Sanderson's koloss.

The movie has a bad guy, and the bad guy isn't the strength of the movie in cinematic story terms.  But in the bibliical sense, the character makes for some itneresting parallels with the story of Adam and Eve, providing temptation which mankind has to either embrace or resist.  The decision on what to do in Noah is much more interesting than asking what card you have in your wallet.

I dozed off only briefly, and I could easily have gotten sleepy-eyed for a lot more of the movie than this.  It's an interesting movie.  I'm hesitant to give it a recommendation, but I wouldn't warn anyone against.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

the royalty jar

Over the course of these royalty season posts, I have spoken a lot about the reserve against returns, and this entire post will deal with this.

The idea of the reserve is rooted in reality.  The books the publisher sends out can be returned for full credit by booksellers.  The publisher has to ave some protection against paying royalties on copies that might be returned.

But the reality of the reserve is that it is the publisher's cookie jar, a source of abuse, and like many things in the publishing industry a relic of a past age that doesn't want to come kicking and screaming into modernity.

Once upon a time, the fate of a book really was a mystery.  It isn't any more. With Bookscan and other direct ties between major retail accounts and major publishers, the big publishers know the fate of a book.  Maybe not by June 30 for a book that came out in May, and I can understand a bit if the reserve against returns on that first royalty report is high.  Yet, I will occasionally see publishers taking such large reserves that they pay royalties for fewer copies than Bookscan reports as sold through the end of the royalty period -- and way fewer than we know are sold by the time I am getting the royalty statement.  In those instances, on general principle, I complain to the publisher even about very small numbers of copies.  Paying my client a royalty for 2536 copies when we know the book sold 2682 -- that's not a reasonable reserve against returns.

I mentioned how DAW used to hand-write "too early to tell" for the rest report on every royalty statement.  Now, their default is to take a 100% reserve on print sales on the first royalty report, whether a book has been on sale for  six weeks or six months.  This used to matter less because the books would often not earn royalties on the very first statement even if the reserve was closer to 50% it becomes more likely that the client could get a small royalty check even from known activity on a short period of time.

25 years ago, retail distribution for books was hugely inefficient.  It could take months for information to flow from the corner drugstore to a small independent distributor to the publisher's warehouse.  Shipping fully returnable books into distribution channels that ranged from highly inefficient to somewhat inefficient with long lag time on information reporting -- you could understand why reserves had to be high in the early going.  Now, Amazon has a low return rate, and channels with higher returns like Costco and Walmart have pretty good IT and can provide Point of Sale information on copies sold to publishers very quickly.  But reserves are often still held as if average return rates are still what they were 40 years ago.

The purpose of a reserve against returns was to keep the publisher from being on the hook for paid royalties on copies subsequently returned.  But even though the typical novel is now published in multiple formats, including audio and ebook formats sold as digital downloads with few returns, reserves are held on each print edition as if the others don't exist. If you know a book is being published hard-soft, can't the reserve on the hardcover be moderated in anticipation of paperback royalties?  Many of our authors now sell over half their copies in ebook, so why take a print reserve at all when there will always be ebook royalties to make up the difference?

I don't expect publishers to do away with reserves entirely, but I sure think they should be held with a lighter touch in 2015 than in 1985.

We try in current contracts to specify that reserves not be held on digital products or after the first few royalty periods, or at least be justified upon request. But I feel like we need to get more aggressive in evaluating reserves held with a broader perspective with regard to the range of editions published.

But book by book, do you or your agent look at all your reserves against returns every period?  Do you check them against Bookscan?  Do you check the size of the reserve against actual returns? Do you peek inside the publisher's cookie jar to see if there are cookies?  In many instances, even if the reserve is reduced you may still have a negative royalty balance or be due so little money is isn't worth the fuss to complain rather than waiting for the reserve to be reduced on the next report. But sometimes you can get decent money in your hands months earlier if you just take the time to look in the cookie jar.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spread 'Em Wide

One of the reasons I have spoken a lot this week about royalties:  well, information is the mother's milk of literary representation, and along with the quality of the book itself, the three most important pieces of information we can use to sell an author are (1) the author's bibliography and biography (2) reviews (3) sales history.  Furthermore, if you want to gauge how much the market might pay for an established author you have to have a handle on actual expenses for printing books vs. actual revenue from selling them rather than royalties paid. And how do we figure out what an author's sales history is or how much revenue and expense the publisher has in printing and selling books, in both print and electronic forms?  Well, we gather that information from royalty statements.

And I learned early in my career at Scott Meredith that sales information isn't well kept by stacking piles of paper in a filing cabinet.  Those Penguin statements I was telling you about, that told you only the quantity of books "sold" in any given six month period -- well, back then we had many Ellery Queen books available in Penguin doubles, and if someone wanted to figure out how many Ellery Queen novels were sold, it meant collecting years with if little sheets of paper and manually adding up columns and columns of figures.

Suffice to say when I finally had a computer at my desk in the early 1990s, things changed.  I could at least put the figures into a word processing document so they could be added without having to retrieve little pieces of paper from the filing cabinet.  Eventually that gave way to tables within the word processing program, and eventually to tables in a spreadsheet.

And for a variety of reasons, not just out of habit, we continue today to process every incoming royalty statement on to our computers, just like I started to do over 20 years ago when I first had a computer on my desk.

Some of those reasons:

Publishers make mistakes.  It doesn't hurt to check their math, and spreadsheets enable us to do this.  Assuming, of course, that we set up the spreadsheets correctly.  There is this tendency to trust that the computer generated very official looki royalty statements the publishers provide always have the correct royalty rates.

As discussed in my previous post on current royalty statements, most are still seriously lacking in cumulative information on copies shipped and copies returned, and it's still very 1989 in needing to track that information someplace other than on piles of paper hiding in a file drawer for years or decades.

A spreadsheet will take the information I enter for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas and start to turn that into a series total for the Sookie Stackhouse novels and an overall total for Charlaine Harris, and this information can then be used in our marketing of translation rights and film rights, or be of use when the Wall Street Journal calls to do a major profile on the author.

In that sense, I get a lot more out of what I put in than when I started to do this over twenty years ago.  Spreadsheet, and the world if ours!

All that said, there are times when I and my employees who now have to do a lot of the actual spreadsheeting work probably wonder why we bother.

Each publisher's royalty statements are different, and the royalty scenarios can be different within a publisher for mass markets, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, audios and e-books, so we have to have lots of different spreadsheet formats.

The benefits are invisible.  The company that is doing the Mistborn video game needs to go to its bankers and needs information on Mistborn copies sold for Brandon Sanderson, or the screenwriter with an option on Elizabeth Moon's Remnant Population needs some information to present to producers with her screenplay, or we want to rough out a profit & loss statement to try and guess how much money DAW books can pay for the new Jim Hines, and we can do those things quickly and easily because we have impeccable spreadsheets.  But it is very easy to separate out those benefits from the time, heavily concentrated during the twelve weeks of royalty season, when it seems like we do nothing all day but spreadsheet royalty reports.

We can't predict.  It's our policy to do spreadsheeting for every piece of paper for everyone, because we don't know when Alan Ball will stumble across a novel in a B&N while waiting for a dentist appointment and be inspired to produce True Blood.  For more of our authors than not, the effort we do in spreadsheeting is ultimately futile. In that sense, even I must confess that I can't be sure that we wouldn't be better off doing time-consuming forensics to produce information when it's actually needed, rather than to have so much up-front investment to have good information for all of our clients.

It's just another variety of gibberish.  We can read our spreadsheets very well because we put them together.  For the many publishers that don't provide cumulative information on copies shipped and returned we like being able to give clients our spreadsheets as opposed to the underlying publisher reports.  But the fact is that our spreadsheets can still use some tutorials for people who don't know their way around Excel.

High maintenance.  The information doesn't flow up-hill on its own, so every time a publisher comes out with a new edition of a book we have to set up a new table and then plug the information from that table into at least one location in a summary table.  Dead Until Dark has had an e-book, a mass market with many different prices attached, a True Blood tie-in mass market, a hardcover, a trade paperback, another trade paperback, etc.  Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn a hardcover, a paperback, a promotional paperback, a YA trade paperback, an e-book, an audio.

But all that said, I like that we are able to get all this information to flow uphill to a nice single sheet of paper that gives the actual global sales totals for Brandon Sanderson or Peter V. Brett or Elizabeth Moon or Simon R. Green, based on actual publisher royalty reports, and that we can send that out to anyone who asks whenever they want it.  I doubt we'll stop spreadsheeting any time soon, certainly not for as long as the royalty statements we get are as generally unhelpful as they often still can be.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Apocalty Now

Yesterday I told you what royalty statements looked like at the start of my career in the mid-to-late 1980s.

As we progressed through the 1990s, publishers slowly started to provide "better" royalty statements.  As with the Random House portal, which has been around for two years now, I am always surprised when publishers make it easier for authors and agents to find information, though maybe I shouldn't always be because even publishers can sometimes recognize the cost of keeping secrets.  Unlike, let's say, the NSA

That said, the additional information is often provided in a "watch what you wish for, you might get it" kind of a way.  It's sometimes so hard to find the information and so difficult to interpret it that the improvements are less significant than I would wish.

Before continuing, this post's reminder that in major trade publishing that most of the books publishers send to bookstores can be returned to the publisher for full credit.  Hence, the publisher is entitled to take a reserve against returns to guard against paying royalties for books that are later returned. 

Furthermore, your profitability to the publisher is dependent in some ways upon the efficiency of your sale, i.e., how many print copies the publisher has to send out into the world in order to sell one copy.  This is a little less the case today than twenty years ago because of ebooks, but it is still important,  If it costs $2 to print a $25 hardcover, and if the publisher gets $12 of that $25, it is harder to make money if the publisher has to print three copies in order to sell one,  $6 of the $12 is already out the door to the printer, $2.50 or $3.75 to your royalty, and there could be $2 or $3 left from each copy sold for the publisher to pay for your cover, the copy-editor, the editor, etc.  If the publisher sells four of every five copies, then the printer gets $10 of every $48, your royalty is $10 or $15, and the publisher can have over twice as much money left per copy sold to pay overhead and direct expenses.

Because of this, it is very important if you want to judge how big an advance you should get from your publisher to know your "sell-thru" percentage,  Higher sell-thru equals more money for the publisher equals more money to pay you.

I am simplifying a little bit.  The publisher can make decisions that can artificially inflate or deflate your efficiency.  As an example, for Brandon Sanderson's debut YA novels in 2013, The Rithmatist and Steelheart, both Tor and Delacorte decided to invest in shipping more books into channels like Costco, Walmart and Target that generally have higher return rates.  However, each publisher still had expectations on what the size of the investment would look like after the final numbers came in, relative to their profit expectations and their overall marketing budgets for each book.

Since these things are important, I think any decent royalty statement today should clearly tell you how many copies were shipped, how many copies were returned, and what the reserve against returns is.

Penguin started to provide that information only as we got into the mid 2000s; even for Dead Until Dark which the Berkley Publishing Group published in 2001, the earliest royalty statement was the old-fashioned (your number) Berkley royalty statement.  I feel they provide the gold standard for royalty reporting.  Each print format or ISBN gets one or two clean concise pages that give the current information for copies shipped and sold, for the reserve against returns at the start and finish, and at the bottom, summarize that information cumulatively for prior, current and ending totals.  If you want to figure out your sell-thru percentage for the life of your book, you need to pull only that one most recent piece of paper.

Pretty much every other publisher falls short of this in one way or another.

Scholastic is surprisingly awful for a big US publisher in the 2010s, and their statements are relics of a last age, with the reserve against returns still hidden, and no information given on copies shipped and returned.

St. Martin's is slightly better, but only slightly.  They provide cumulative total copies sold by channel, while Scholastic provides only a grand total, which is a little better.  As an example, if you are a Canadian author, you might want to know how much of your business is coming from Canada, and St. Martin's is a little better for this.  And St. Martin's does give the reserve against returns, albeit only in dollars and not in units, which is something I will discuss in more detail in a later post that deals exclusively with reserves.

St. Martin's is owned by a big publishing conglomerate Macmillan, and strangely other Macmillan imprints like Tor provide information on copies shipped and returned that the St. Martin's statements do not.  We are told this is because St. Martin's purchased the new royalty system earlier and got the budget version.  But same conglomerate, same warehouse, same computers tracking everything, and they haven't had a chance to upgrade?

Even the better statements from other Macmillan imprints have a tragic flaw.  They only provide a cumulative total for net copies sold, and not for copies shipped and copies returned.  Hence, if you want to know what your vitally important sell-thru is you still have to collect information from many pieces of paper dating back many years, and there is no positive change there as against the royalty statements I saw in 1988.

Other publishers are unable to present information on one page.

Simon & Schuster was one of the first publishers to provide more "informative" royalty statements, but the statements could take three or five pages to tell you that three or five copies had sold.  If you are wondering why I have a "watch what you wish for, you might get it" approach to these newer royalty statements, look no further.

Other publishers have layering problems.  i.e., like airline security they took their old systems and loaded new stuff on top of it.

Historically William Morrow and Avon had provided slightly better detail on their royalty statements, and when HarperCollins purchased Morrow/Avon, they just added more pages without looking at the overall quality of their reporting.  It's a mess, spread over many pages.  Perseus, which had been distributed by Harper, has a similar-looking statement that looks a little prettier but isn't any easier to use.

Random House made a big fuss when they switched from putting "your number" on a computer-fold oversize piece of paper to putting it on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, but it was the same information or lack thereof only more manageably presented.  When they finally got around to providing information on copies shipped, copies returned, and reserves against returns, they kept that same 8.5x11 sheet of paper around as the first page of the new royalty statement.  To put it less politely, the first page of your Random House statement is the same utter bullshit that we got 25 years ago.  They do provide more information but you have to go hunting for it.  And they don't automatically provide information on copies shipped and returned for the life of your book.  They automatically provide a sheet with that information for books that have reserves activity, but if they stop holding a reserve on your hardcover after two or three years that page suddenly disappears.  They provide that information by price point, so if your mass market price changed from $6.99 to $7.99, you may now only get the page for the $7.99 copies.  If you ask them by ISBN and price point to provide the missing pages, they will provide them to you, but only if you ask.  Or, you can ask them to provide you with all the "Print Summary" pages every time.  Since e-books can be sold at many different prices, this may result in you receiving a 40-page royalty statement.  Every time.  You can choose to drown in information, you can choose not to have information, or you can choose to add a semi-annual e-mail request for select additional information while also being sure to archive sheets of paper from several years ago.  The one good thing in these statements:  Random House is on of the only publishers that will tell you how many copies they print and when they print them.  On the other hand, the calculation of actual royalties earned is on a different page than the detail of how many copies were shipped and returned.  At its best and simplest, you'll still have three pages of information (summary, royalty calculation, ship/return/reserve detail) vs. the one page from Penguin.

Penguin has one layering issue of its own.  Early in the e-book era each e-book format had its own ISBN, and their system was designed to generate a page for each ISBN.  Suddenly, we would have six pages of royalty reports for e-books.  For less popular formats, those pages might list a handful of copies if any.  The pages didn't have a place to tell you which ISBN was the Amazon one and which was the B&N one, so there were no benefits to having the information spread over multiple pages.    Over time, ISBNs have been consolidated, but they do not have a way to purge the inactive ISBNs from the ongoing reports.

Especially now that the ebook ISBNs are consolidated, I clearly prefer the Penguin reports to the Random House reports and am curious to see which will prevail as the combined companies merge operations.

So on the one hand, we've come a long way, and on the other hand not.  After two or three years the old statements were reasonably accurate for what they were, and you had just one page that anyone could understand.   Now, we generally have much better visibility on reserves against returns, but there are still serious problems across the industry in giving basic cumulative information on copies shipped and returned, and the royalty statements are differently annoying with each publisher in their layers, pages, complexity and presentation.

We shall continue this series with a discussion of our internal processing of these pieces of paper,  Suffice to say just sticking these pieces of paper in the file isn't going to be very helpful when we actually need to make use of the information that is hiding within these reports....

Monday, March 24, 2014

Royalty Season, Spring

We are settling in after our move just in time for the arrival of royalty season.  In fact, some German royalties from Heyne, which were the first buds of the season or sprinkles of the monsoon or flakes of the blizzard arrived almost simultaneous with the move.

And I realize in six years of having Brillig, I've never spoken much about royalty season.

First, royalty season in the publishing industry doesn't arrive at the same time for everyone.  It isn't like spring or fall, but rather more like the last frost.

When I was at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in the early years of my career, royalty season arrived on February 1 and August 1.  Random House was due to send out reports the last day of January and last day of August, and they were very nice about it.  They didn't entrust their big checks to the Post Office in order to get another day or two of float, but rather would messenger them over, though late in the day so the check couldn't make it to the bank for that day's deposit.  Carl Sagan -- Random House author.  Norman Mailer -- Random House author.  Margaret Truman -- Random House author.  All of the many Scott Meredith clients published by Del Rey -- Random House authors.  The Mists of Avalon -- Random House.  Blade Runner -- Random House.  2010 Odyssey 2 -- Random House.  So when Random House reported royalties, that was when we had royalty season.

At JABberwocky, the vast preponderance of our authors are published by the Berkley Publishing Group part of Penguin, which reports on/about March 31 and Sept. 30.  Charlaine Harris, Jack Campbell, Simon R. Green -- all NY Times bestselling authors with many many books, all Berkley Publishing Group.  Along with some of our Roc authors.  And DAW, with many of our other authors, usually sends statements along a few days after Penguin in April, and a few days before in September.

I think Scott Meredith had the better of it, because the Random House statements were a bit off from everyone else's.  It wasn't one super big season, but rather helped to spread it out a bit more.  For us, it's not just Penguin on March 31 and Tor on April 30 but most of our big German and UK statements that want to come in then along with lots of miscellaneous others.  Just about everything comes in between March 20 and May 10, and between September 15 and November 10.  Less than a third of the year with two-thirds of our royalty paperwork.

So that is royalty season.

This is going to be a series of posts, and if that's the introduction let's put up Chapter One now as well, which is to talk about what I saw when I looked at royalty statements at the start of my career.   It was a lot different, if also in some important ways not so different at all, from what I see now.

One very important thing to keep in mind in this entire discussion, so I will say here and repeat often in different keys:

Most of the books publishers send to bookstores can be returned to the publisher for credit.   So a book that is sold might not be.  To protect against paying royalties to authors for copies that bookstores might return, publishers are allowed to hold a reserve against returns.  We sent out 30 copies, we will reserve 10 or 20 that we feel have a reasonable chance of coming back.  So I am going to use "sold" in quotes here, because it was very much the case twenty years ago that the number of copies on a royalty statement was the "in quotes" version.

For Penguin or for Kensington, the number might be the number of copies "sold" in a given accounting period.  That number came on a little 5x7 (maybe, don't have any at hand) piece of paper that came off of a computer.  And there wasn't much more than that one number to look at.

Random House gave multiple numbers, the number of copies "sold" over the six months and the total number of copies "sold" to the end of the period.  Their number came on a big oversized piece of computer print-out paper which made it seem especially important and true.

Berkley gave their numbers on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper which made them easier to file.

DAW gave many numbers, since they did things by hand on a piece of paper that would be passed down from royalty statement to royalty statement like a revered scroll..  That paper would have rows, and the rows would have the date of the period, the number of copies sold to the end of the period, and then the next row either gave that number followed by the new number, or the number of copies "sold" over the six months which you would add to get the new number, kind of like one of those Scrabble score sheets that comes with the fancier sets.  The first number was always "too early to tell."

There wasn't a lot of mentoring or training at Scott Meredith, so it took me a long time to learn that all these numbers, from all these different publishers, no matter how official looking the sheet of paper was, were utter bullshit.


Well, the number was the result of an equation, and the equation itself was hidden.

The equation used to generate the number was:

(actual copies net after ship and return) (minus) (reserve against returns) (equals) (your number)

And all we got was (your number), either as a total at the end of the period or as the difference between (your number) in one period and the immediately prior period.

You'd walk into bookstores and see a book all over the place and wonder why (your number) was so small.  Well, (your number) was maybe a half or a quarter of the actual number of books the publisher had put into the marketplace.

A book would come out, not appear to sell, and when you got the second royalty statement (your number) went up.  Not because there were more copies, but because the hidden reserve against returns was reduced by more than the hidden copies shipped less copies returned.

It would take around four royalty periods, or around two years, before the magic number that appeared on the royalty statements was close enough to the actual performance that the statement could be considered reliable.

I got in the habit of calling my debut novelists when their first statements came out to tell them, very excitedly, that I had their first royalty statement, I would be sending it to them, and when they got it they could put it in the trash or use it for toilet paper or do pretty much anything except pay much attention to it because it was utter bullshit.

Now it's different, and we'll move on to that in the next post, tomorrow.