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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

On Being (& Becoming) Grand - Charlaine Harris

On the occasions of Charlaine Harris being named a 2021 Grand Master honoree by the Mystery Writers of America...

It was a Cub game.  The Mets and the Cubs at Shea Stadium in 1989, when you could bring a backpack into the ballpark, and my backpack would have a manuscript to read, when we still read those on paper.  That’s when I remember reading REAL MURDERS by Charlaine Harris, during a rain delay.

Charlaine was looking for an agent.  She had successfully placed two books on her own in the early 1980s, SWEET AND DEADLY and A SECRET RAGE, to the legendary Ruth Hapgood at Houghton Mifflin, and then taken a few years off to when she had her first two children.  A then-client of mine, Barbara Paul, recommended that Charlaine get in touch with me, and so it was that I found myself reading the first Aurora Teagarden mystery, and I was very much in love.

Not to knock the idea that it helps to write a good novel, which REAL MURDERS was and is, and do well by the people you work with, which Charlaine Harris has done for every moment of a long career, but there’s still a lot of fortune involved in the successful writing career, and for myself, Charlaine, and Aurora Teagarden, fortune came wearing the name of Janet Hutchings.  Janet is now, and has been for many years, the editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, but she was then the mystery editor for Walker & Company, a small-ish family owned publisher with a deeply creditable mystery list, and she was the only editor -- the only! -- to make an offer on REAL MURDERS.  $4,000.

I was crushed.  I had taken this wonderful novel out with much enthusiasm and great expectations, and all I had to show for it was a $4,000 offer.  But my boss at the time, Scott Meredith, sent me one of his famous scrawls on 3x5 note paper to tell me that it wasn’t easy bringing an author back into the market after a several year absence, and that I had done good.  And I reckon, with the passage of time, that this was a true statement.

Janet left Walker after buying the second Aurora Teagarden novel, and Charlaine and I didn’t cotton as much to Janet’s replacement.  We went looking for a new home for the third Aurora Teagarden.  And this time, fortune came wearing the name of Susanne Kirk.  Susanne edited a mystery list for Scribner, another family-owned publishing company with a rich and storied and even more deeply creditable mystery list. She wasn’t sure about picking up the Aurora Teagarden series, which had been with a smaller publisher with modest sales.  I can’t say that I persuaded her.  She told me later that it was Charlaine herself who did the trick, charming the room at a mystery convention, that told Susanne she should have some Charlaine of her own.  

And then Scribner was engulfed and devoured by Simon & Schuster.  Susanne hung on for several more years, but big publishers like Simon & Schuster don’t enjoy publishing (not then, in the mid 1990s, not now, not for a very very long time) the steady but modestly profitable books of the world, and the mystery list Susanne edited turned much more heavily toward the lottery ticket approach, squeezing out Charlaine and the Aurora Teagarden series.

This time around, fortune came wearing the name of Elizabeth Story, a young editor at St. Martin’s whom I’d met a few times during a monthly networking night at the Cedar Tavern on University Place.  Elizabeth ended up leaving publishing, and the Cedar ended up leaving the world entirely, but that connection helped in selling SHAKESPEARE’S LANDLORD, the first of the new and rather darker Lily Bard series of cozy mysteries by Charlaine, and after Elizabeth left St. Martin’s we ended up in the care of the (then very young) Kelley Ragland.  

I have always been a fan of the Aurora Teagarden books, dating back to that rain delay at Shea Stadium, and I spent a good chunk of this period of time trying to get Kelley to pick up some more books in the series.  This was not easy.  The Lily Bard books had their level of success, and it was not intuitive that the series that had already been dropped by two publishers deserved to have a third.  But, I persisted.  The Aurora Teagarden series moved to St. Martin’s, and ended up selling better than the Lily Bard novels.  Never bet against Aurora Teagarden.

It was also around this time that Charlaine made the decision to do something entirely new.  She felt she was mired in the midlist, and this wasn’t where she wanted to be.  And with some inspiration from Laurell K. Hamilton and Tanya Huff and Buffy guiding her muse, she wrote a novel called SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES which introduced a very very different character named Sookie Stackhouse.  And boy, was it different.  I wasn’t even such a big fan, but this time it was Charlaine who persisted.  We agreed to send the book along to Dean James, then an important bookseller at Houston’s Murder by the Book and now very well known as Miranda James, and accept his verdict.  Dean liked SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES, so I took it out to market.

These vampires didn’t want to sell themselves.  It wasn’t for lack of a good marketing letter.  In a remarkable bit of prescience, I said that the combination of Charlaine’s loyal base in the mystery field with the genre-crossing merriment that had made Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake into a force to be reckoned with would work its magic on book buyers.  But, nobody was buying it.  We had one offer from a very small publisher that I persuaded Charlaine to turn down; it was very one-sided for a book that would probably succeed more on the basis of Charlaine’s name on the front cover than the publisher’s name on the spine.  

Finally, I sent it off to John Morgan, a young editor at Ace (Laurell/Anita’s publisher), who was starting to acquire.  I could have sent it to Ace sooner, but the established editors sometimes had slow response times.  And it worked.  John liked SOUTHERN FRIED VAMPIRES.  He was able to get his boss, Ginjer Buchanan, on board.  And we got a two-book offer for less money per book than Charlaine was getting at St. Martin’s.  Not the most auspicious sale for a book Charlaine had hoped would take her out of the midlist.

But we got a new title you might all be familiar with.  DEAD UNTIL DARK.  We got a great cover.  And lo and behold, and exactly as I had promised in my marketing letter, we got buy-in to the book both from Charlaine’e established mystery readership and from the Laurell K. Hamilton fans, and DEAD UNTIL DARK sold, and sold, and sold, and hasn’t stopped selling for twenty years.  So well and so quickly that Charlaine was almost immediately offered a contract for the third and fourth Sookie Stackhouse novels, and then when the second book was published for the fifth, sixth and seventh Sookie novels -- the first time in over twenty years that Charlaine had a big enough advance that she could feel truly comfortable as a writer.

The rest of the story, you probably know.  Or a pretty good chunk of it.

What you might not know:  TRUE BLOOD came out when Alan Ball was early for a dentist appointment, and came across DEAD UNTIL DARK while browsing the shelves of a nearby Barnes & Noble.

Charlaine’s one of the very few authors to have not one, or not two, but three different series make it to television. (So far…)  I sometimes feel like a bystander to her success, but not when it comes to the Aurora Teagarden series on Hallmark.  Just like at St. Martin’s, I advocated for the series that had been around a time or two (the creator of Simon & Simon was going to write a pilot for CBS in the 1990s, before a management shuffle left the project orphaned even before the contract was finalized), and the book-to-film agents at APA, Debbie Deuble Hill and Steve Fisher, took my words to heart, and found producer Jim Head, who packaged things for Hallmark.  The 15th Hallmark movie is wrapping up production right about now.

There are so many instances where fortune has played a major role in Charlaine’s success, but it’s of no small import that she’s forever displayed great courage in directing her career.  She put Aurora Teagarden aside to launch the Lily Bard books.  She killed off Aurora’s husband.  She stopped writing Lilly Bard novels when she felt she’d ran out of things to say.  She put an end to the Sookie Stackhouse series, and went on to start two more, the Midnight Texas and Gunnie Rose novels.  She took a big gamble on starting the Sookie books.  

It’s only with the passage of time that I’ve come to truly appreciate how fortunate I’ve been to work with Charlaine.  My agency has in many ways grown along with her, with some high stakes discussions that were nerve-wracking at the time because I’d never done them before, but as I’ve done them more and more have realized that they could have been even more fraught.  

You don’t get to be a Grand Master without winning the respect of your peers. When you’ve been told a thousand times, as Charlaine has, that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, it can seem a little artificial, but this award is the moment when you realize it’s entirely true.

Charlaine’s been loyal. For all her success, you can still go to a convention and see her hanging out with a lot of the same people today as she did thirty years ago, only the surrounding crowd has gotten so much larger.  I’ve been blessed to get to work with other authors like Toni L P Kelner and Elaine Viets in no small part because of Charlaine’s good word.

Charlaine’s been there for her family, and they’ve been there for her. 

And all along the way, I’ve simply known how lucky I’ve been to be in the Charlaine Harris business.  In the mid and late 1990s, I wasn’t prosperous, not by a long shot, but finding the money to be in DC for Malice Domestic weekend was always important to me.  I wanted to be there for Charlaine.  I’ve always known.

I consider the Grand Master honors to be the most significant a genre author has a decent chance of receiving.  The Nobel and Pulitzer don’t often get awarded to cozy mysteries or fantasies.  You can leave any given Bouchercon with any of three different awards, or collect a Hugo and Nebula and World Fantasy withiin the space of a few months.  I don’t know in my career if I’ll get to have another Grand Master.  There are but a handful from the major writer’s organizations in a year.

I’m so grateful to the Mystery Writers of America for awarding Charlaine Harris a 2021 Grand Master honor, and for recognizing not just what she’s done, but who she is is.  And even more to the point, I’m honored that I’ve gotten to hang out with Charlaine for thirty one years and counting -- to go to the Real Murders club with Aurora Teagarden, working out at Body Time with Lily Bard, getting creeped out by Manfred, checking into the hotel at Midnight Crossroads, wandering across the dangerous landscape of Texoma. Being there as Sookie helps Hunter to make his way into the world, and as Anne DeWitt comes to the aid of her charges.  And always, Bobo Winthrop.  And always, always, Grand.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

On Doing Better...

 One of the great joys of Fantasy novels is the opportunity to experience the way characters evolve and grow, and to see that process demonstrated through the choices they make. The characters we love best are those whose sense of personal responsibility expands ever outward as they recognize their own power to effect change in the world – to aid someone in distress, to right wrongs. 

We love this journey, in part, because it reflects our best hopes for ourselves. Most of us know that too often we narrow our own sense of responsibility, rationalizing that we are limited in what we can or even should do in our lives to help others when they need us. We call it being realistic or practical. Usually, it is an excuse for cowardice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of my own sense of responsibility in the context of my reflections on a moment where I failed to act when I should have.

As some of you reading this already know, in 2009 I hosted a JABberwocky dinner at a World Fantasy Convention in San Jose. At that dinner, a friend and valued colleague, Janci Patterson, was subjected to unwanted and unacceptable behavior by another guest at that dinner, which made her deeply uncomfortable. 

I did nothing but watch as one of my authors made comments that made her feel awful at an event that I put on.

I wish I could precisely reconstruct my thinking on that night. Why didn’t I intervene? It wasn’t that I couldn’t empathize. From early in life I had plenty of personal experience -- the harshness of middle school or the awkward high school parties -- with the pain and discomfort that can be caused by other people’s bad behavior. 

On that night in San Jose I should have known how wrong this thing I was witnessing was. And yet I did nothing to stop it. 

I have no clear answer for why I made that bad choice except to say that somehow I determined it was not my responsibility. 

And, in doing so, I failed a crucial test. 

I have apologized to Janci for my failure. But no apology is sufficient unless it is coupled with an honest effort to change.

So that is what I am committing to in writing this. I have made a promise to myself and to any who read this that I will expand my sense of responsibility, as I hope we have all learned to do over the past year or two. 

I don’t expect that doing so will be easy. But that is what taking responsibility means and that is what I pledge myself to do. It is part of what I believe I owe to Janci and, as importantly, to myself in my own efforts to be the kind of person I wish to be.