The Best Query Letter Ever Written

August 4, 2014

tolstoyRecently I attended the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  It was fabulous and I urge everyone to check it out.   I taught a class  in which the participants workshopped their query letters. Most of the queries were too long. The writers tended to delve into too much detail in the plot summaries. A number of people also wasted precious space – in the words of one of the students – “sucking up to the agent.”

A query letter is typically in three parts. The first paragraph should state the name of the book, the number of words, and the genre. You should try to use terms of art that are common in book publishing. It sends a message that you are serious and know the territory. In particular, avoid characterizing your book as “a fiction novel” and, for pete’s sake, don’t characterize it as “a non-fiction novel.”

The second part of the query is the so-called “elevator pitch.” You should briefly describe the story and why it is important or memorable.

The final section should be a short paragraph enumerating your qualifications to write the book. Be sure to mention previous publishing history, awards, and what you do in your real life. If your previous books are self-published, make that clear.

I get about twenty unsolicited queries every day. I try to look at them and get back to the writer in a timely manner. But that means I have a very limited time to think about each one. I prefer queries to be short, maybe 400 words or less. That means you need to make every word count.

As an exercise, I decided to compose the perfect query letter. I gave myself  an almost insurmountable challenge, to create a  query for the longest book in the western canon and to make the elevator pitch in six sentences. Here it is, my masterpiece (the query letter, not the novel):

***

 I am submitting War and Peace, a 350,000 word work  of historical fiction.

 War and Peace is the  epic story, written in a realistic style,  of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and how 3 characters, members of the  Russian nobility,  live their lives or die in the course of the novel.  In addition to the dramatic and interrelated stories of  Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Prince Andrei Bolkosky,   I also bring in themes that try to explain how the events in the narrative help us to understand the inexorable truths of history. Some of the memorable secondary characters are  real historical figures, notably Napoleon and the Russian general, Kutuzov.  My description of the climactic Battle of Borodino is so realistic that  the reader can almost smell the gun powder.

The book has received enthusiastic praise from some of the most distinguished novelists of all time. Thomas Mann said of War and Peace that it was “the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature.”   John Galsworthy has called War and Peace “the best novel that had ever been written.”

I am a published novelist, author of the best selling novel, Anna Karenina that has been translated into every major   language in the world and adapted for film multiple times, most recently in 2012 from a screenplay by Tom Stoppard starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law.  I have also written works of short stories, philosophy and social criticism.

The manuscript is complete and available at your request.

Count Leo Tolstoy

 

 

Laura Fraser Talks about Shebooks

July 26, 2014

Fraser-cropToday we are going to interview Laura Fraser, co-founder and editorial director of Shebooks, a new publishing company devoted to promoting works by women authors and journalists. Shebooks publishes short e-books, either by subscription at Shebooks.net (you download a free app for your tablet or smartphone from the app store) or individually, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Kobo. Shebooks is a new model for publishing, inconceivable only a few years ago. I think of it as sort of a hybrid that mixes up characteristics of traditional book publishing, long form magazine publishing, and self-publishing.

Check them out at http://www.shebooks.net

Andy:  Laura could you tell us something about yourself and the work you did before founding She books?

Laura: I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years. I started in journalism and published many magazine articles. My first book, Losing It, was an expose of the diet industry. My next book, An Italian Affair, was a NYT-bestselling memoir. My latest memoir is called All Over the Map.

Andy: What made you decide to start Shebooks?

Laura: Even for someone like me with a fair amount of success in the publishing and magazine worlds, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. The space for long magazine articles had shrunk in women’s magazines, and the top shelf long-form magazines publish mostly men, even in 2014. That means fewer intimate memoirs about women’s lives. My last book didn’t sell well, so I became unattractive to the publishing world. Even with a NYT bestseller under my belt, it was like, “What have you done lately?” So I wanted to create a platform for women like me, essentially, where we could write high quality work and get it published.

Andy: In this day and age, do you really think there is still that much bias against women in the media? I work with hundreds of book editors. These days they are almost all women. It wasn’t always like that. Comment?

Laura: There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

Andy: Tell me a little more about Shebooks’ publishing program. You aren’t like a typical book publisher. Most books are more than 60,000 words. Your books are a lot shorter. Why?

Laura: Digital publishing gives us an opportunity to publish things at the length they ought to be. Right now, there is a vast middle ground between, say, personal essays and a book. There are a lot of stories that should be told in less than the 80,000 words it takes to fill a physical object called a book. That’s why so many memoirs feel padded. I want to make a t-shirt that says “No padding.” Digital gives us flexibility. Also, people read digital on the go, in the little pockets of their lives. Many of us still like to curl up with a hard cover book, but if I’m traveling or commuting, I read on my device. I want to read high-quality stories rather than watch cat videos.

Andy: Ever thought about putting some of the best writing into an anthology? I think that would be cool.

Laura: Yep.

Andy: You have published two of my favorite clients: Mary Jo McConahay and Meghan Ward. Both memoirs. What other genres are you seeking?

Laura: Short memoirs are our sweet spot. We also publish journalism that isn’t very time-bound, as well as fiction. There are very few places to publish novelettes or novellas.

Andy: What’s the difference?

Laura: About 20,000 words.

Andy: Do you have any opinion about the big issues that are being debated in book publishing right now? Tell me what you think is the future of big New York publishers? Do you think self published books are the answer? Given the number of self published titles that sell in the high “two figures”, I’m not sure it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Laura: It’s all about flexibility and finding the right platform for your message. Sure, it’s great to go with a legacy publisher if you’re one of the 1% of authors they’ll pay attention to. Self-publishing still has the patina of being not good enough for the big houses. But that’s changing. As with digital vs. paper publishing, it isn’t an either/or situation.

Andy: It seems like Shebooks is kind of a hybrid. Something in the middle. Can you tell us about this?

Laura: We are a highly curated collection of short e-books. We’re closer to a legacy publishing model than self-publishing. We pay close attention to quality, to copyediting, to design. But we give our authors a 50-50 revenue split, which gives them incentive to help publicize the books. They make more; with legacy publishers, it’s about an 85/15 split. So we’re not like self-publishing at all, though there is less barrier to entry for a good writer who hasn’t sold a lot of books. The fact that we are a subscription service means that we don’t have to be hit-driven like the legacy publishers. We can publish a lot of beautiful little books and they don’t have to be bestsellers.

Andy: Any thoughts on the big bad Amazon.com? They have certainly been a windfall for ebook publishing. Do you think that maybe they are becoming too powerful though?

Laura: Amazon takes a 30% bite of everything anyone buys on their site. That leaves precious little margin for anyone else. You can’t just bitch about Amazon, though; it’s a big reality, so you have to work with it, or do a workaround so you can make money—as we’re trying to do, by subscription from our own e-reader app, leaving Amazon out of the picture.

Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about your Netflix-like subscription model. Describe that and tell me how it’s working.

Laura: We have a growing library of short e-books, publishing at a rate of 2 per week. When you subscribe, you get access to our whole library. When you stop subscribing, poof, they’re gone. Right now we have 60 short e-books in our library that you can’t find anywhere else. Yes, Amazon has more, and so does Oyster, but we’re like a boutique where you can walk in and know that everything is quality.

Andy:  Since Shebooks is so different from traditional book publishing, how do you go about promoting it? Who’s your audience and how do you reach them?

Laura: We’re still figuring all of this out, but of course we rely a lot on social media. We are also doing deals with women’s magazines and brands to help leverage our brand. For instance, we had a memoir contest with Good Housekeeping which brought Shebooks in front of 25 million readers. We’re doing more partnerships like that.

Andy:  Shebooks are available at the usual online venues, but you are also selling them yourself. What is working the best for you?

Laura: It’s financially better for us if people subscribe directly from our website so Amazon doesn’t take a big bite. But we’re happy to have people read our books wherever they find them.

Andy: How can writers submit to you?

Write@shebooks.net. We take only well-written, polished submissions of about 10,000 words, give or take. My sole criterion as editorial director is that I have to feel compelled to keep reading!

The Amazon – Hachette Dispute: What’s at Stake for Authors?

May 23, 2014

bezos_bookstore-620x412The book industry has been abuzz with the latest news of Amazon bullying book publishers. According to an article in The New York Times on May 8, Amazon has been involved in tough negotiations with Hachette Book Group, the fifth largest publisher in the United States. In order to pressure them for better deals, Amazon has engaged in a number of practices to make it harder  for Hachette to sell books through Amazon. This includes “slow walking” Hachette titles — delaying reorders of out of stock books in order to  slow down delivery. Normally Amazon ships books within 24 hours. On some Hachette titles, Amazon is saying that delivery will take as long as 5 weeks. Examples include new and backlist titles and even some best sellers.

Today we learn Amazon has removed the pre-order function for many not yet published Hachette titles. Also typically Amazon discounts books 20-40%. Since the dispute began, there are many Hachette titles being sold at list price.

In the past Amazon has taken the “buy” button off titles — making them effectively unavailable  in order to pressure publishers for better terms. They seem to be doing the same thing but using subtler methods in this instance.

No doubt Amazon is trying to induce authors to pressure publishers into capitulating to Amazon demands. If an author’s book is not available on Amazon for 5 weeks, it could be quite distressing, particularly if it is a new title with sales being driven by publicity. But in this instance the industry –  including the authors –  seems to be outraged by Amazon and inclined to support Hachette hanging tough.

There is another possible threat to author royalties in all this. Every publishing contract has a so-called  “deep discounting” provision. Typically the contract stipulates that if a publisher sells a book to a retailer at very high discount, then the royalty to the author will be cut, in some cases as much as 50%. These kinds of transactions have traditionally been limited to wholesalers and non-returnable bulk sales to big box stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco. But if Amazon is successful in extracting ruinous terms from publishers, we can expect more sales to fall under these deep discounting provisions and author royalties to be reduced accordingly.

Today the Authors Guild, the largest organization representing the interests of book authors, came out with a statement unequivocally attacking Amazon’s strong arming Hachette. They characterize Amazon’s tactics as “blackmail”.

Indeed.

Interview With Authors Guild General Counsel, Jan Constantine

April 30, 2014

constantineToday we are going to speak to Jan Constantine, general counsel for the Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild is the largest and oldest organization representing authors in America. I love the Authors Guild, and as an agent, I am proud to be a member.  It is an amazingly robust, sometimes even militant, advocacy organization that fights for the rights of all writers. They engage in numerous activities including lobbying Congress on copyright and book piracy issues and advising writers on how not to get taken advantage of by publishers. In this brave new world of the Internet, where tech gurus tell us that “information wants to be free,” The Authors Guild fights for the quaint notion that the work of the writer, like all work, has dignity and deserves to be compensated. Everyone reading this blog should join. It’s only $90 a year.  Check out their eligibility requirements.

Andy: Jan, welcome to “Ask the Agent.”  I think the $90 membership fee for the Authors Guild is a pretty good investment for any writer. Can you tell me what that buys you?

Jan: Absolutely, Andy, and thank you for having me.  One of the things our members find most useful is our Model Book Contract.  It’s a manual that goes through a publishing contract clause-by-clause.  For every provision, we provide members with what we think of as a “model” clause, and then next to the model clause we provide a running commentary educating authors about what exactly is at stake in each part of the publishing contract.  It’s a very empowering tool that gives authors the knowledge and insight to successfully negotiate with publishers.

Andy: As an agent, I have to negotiate book contracts all the time, and I find the Model Contract an indispensible reference. Not to put too fine a point, a book contract is an asymmetrical agreement where the publisher agrees to give the author a pathetically small amount of money in exchange for the author’s intellectual indentured servitude for the term of the copyright. The Model Contract is a great tool for helping the author avoid the pitfalls. Of course the Model Contract and  representation by a good agent is even better. Can you just tell us a few of the issues in a book contract  that authors should be watching out for?

Jan: Our Model Contract advises authors to be wary of a number of one-sided provisions that are often present in publisher’s boilerplate forms.  One to look out for is a so-called “joint accounting” clause, which provides that any money the author might owe the publisher under contracts for other books can be deducted from payments due to the author under the current book contract.  Our position is that each publishing contract and book should be treated as a separate venture.

Non-competition clauses, if broadly-worded, can also be troublesome. Most book contracts have non-competition language that restrains the author from publishing a “competing” work.   We counsel authors to define a “competing work” as narrowly as possible, especially if they think they might write subsequent works on the same or a similar subject.

Another potential hazard is  the “satisfactory manuscript” clause, also present in most publishing contracts. It can be unfair to authors if it allows the publisher to reject the manuscript for any reason at all.  You don’t want a publisher to be able to reject your manuscript just because of a change in market conditions or a perceived shift in readers’ tastes.  You want to insert some sort of objective standard here, such as a clause stating that your manuscript must be “professionally competent and fit for publication.”

Those are a few issues that come to mind.  The bottom line is that a publishing contract is a joint venture between author and publisher.  A well-negotiated contract should reflect their mutual investment in each other.

Andy: So, Jan, what else does the Authors Guild do?

Jan: Of course there’s our lobbying, which you mentioned in your introduction, and our lawsuits.  Members also receive our quarterly Bulletin, which covers the publishing industry from the author’s perspective, and they have access to legal services, such as contract reviews and intervention in publishing disputes, at no cost.  Then there’s the Author’s Registry, a not-for profit that secures foreign royalties for U.S. authors.  All members are automatically enrolled.  Since 1996 the Registry has distributed more than $22 million to authors.  We have a program called Backinprint.com which lets authors sell their out-of-print books as print-on-demand paperbacks.  We offer web services that allow authors to build full-featured websites.  We host in-person and phone-in seminars to educate authors on all aspects of their profession.   That’s a long list.  We like to think that membership is a great value.

Andy: And you get all that for $90 a year!  Let’s talk about “information wants to be free.”  This cliché seems to express a kind of ethos going around the Internet. It’s exemplified by “Wikipedia.”  It’s a world where all people are experts and where people’s intellectual work is accordingly devalued and not worthy of compensation.   Do you care to comment on this?

Jan: Well, I think Wikipedia may not be the real enemy here.  That’s a situation where people are donating their expertise with no expectation of financial compensation.  We’re more concerned with piracy—theft—making copyrighted works available for free, in violation of the author’s right to distribute her work and her right to make a living from her work.  And yes, this type of piracy does seem to be encouraged by those who rally behind that slogan, “information wants to be free.”  But you know what?  That’s only half of it.  They get that slogan from Stewart Brand.  But what Brand was talking about was this tension that won’t go away.  Information wants to be free, he said, because it’s so cheap to distribute now.  But on the other hand, he said, information wants to be expensive.  Why?  Because it’s so valuable to the recipient.  And this is a tension that is embodied in our nation’s copyright laws in a very productive way.  The author has exclusive rights, sure, but there’s also fair use, and exceptions for schools and libraries, and the fact that copyright doesn’t last forever.  It’s a tension that’s expressed in the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, and it’s a tension acknowledged by Congress every time it brings different stakeholders to the table to discuss what needs to be changed in our copyright law.

Andy:So what kinds of things is the Authors Guild doing to combat piracy?

Jan: Well, I just mentioned Congress.  The Authors Guild has been working with legislators and private companies for years to develop a more comprehensive solution to online piracy.  Two bills proposed in 2012—SOPA and PIPA—would have done something to diminish Internet piracy, and we supported them.  Search engines and Internet service providers are profiting daily from linking to and hosting pirate sites, and the  Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that addresses this problem, is doing little to stop them; the Copyright Alert System is doing little to stop them; and they certainly aren’t policing themselves.  For example, an international recording industry group recently announced it sent its 100 millionth piracy notice to Google—with no noticeable demotion of pirate sites in search results.

Andy: I hear a lot of people who seem to think book piracy is no big deal. I think it’s stealing and no different from shoplifting books from a bookstore. What do you think? (That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.)

Jan: We couldn’t agree more.  The only difference is the extent to which this type of theft is accepted, or at least ignored.  And that seems to be at least in part a result of the “information wants to be free” ethos.

Andy:  One of my pet peeves is Amazon.com. It seems to me that they have cultivated a notion that books cost too much, that e-books have a kind of inherent value of about $2.99. I don’t think this price recognizes the value added that goes into a professionally written and published book. Can you explain why books, electronic and paper, might merit a higher price?

Jan: The real problem is that Amazon is selling books at an artificially lowprice.  A look back at Amazon’s tactics over the years makes it very clear they’ve always used books as a loss leader.  Amazon has sold print books at a loss for years in order to drive its market share.  It’s doing the same thing with e-books.  It’s an artificial market.  This shields it from competition with any but the biggest competitors and makes it incredibly difficult for brick-and-mortar bookstores to enter the e-book market. And you’re right, the danger is that consumers get the notion that the inherent value of a book is cheaper than it actually is.

Andy: Recently the United States sued Apple and the major publishers for trying to fix prices. The publishers lost. The Authors Guild was supportive of the publishers in this instance. How come? Shouldn’t we be encouraging free market competition?

Jan: Well, our position was that the strategies pursued by Apple and the publishers were increasing competition.  Apple and the publishers were offering a new model for the sale of e-books, where Apple would act as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount e-book prices.  In the two years after this new “agency model” was introduced, Amazon’s share of the e-book market fell from 90% to 60%.  Barnes & Noble introduced a tablet to compete with Amazon’s Kindle during this time.  Brick-and-mortar stores began partnering with Google to sell e-books to their customers at the same price they were being sold from Amazon.  These look to me like the effects of a free market.

Andy: Jan, thanks. This is just a small sampling of what the Guild is doing. You should check out their website and blog.

Author Mary Mackey Interviews a Celebrity Agent (That Would Be Me)

April 25, 2014

Mary Mackey, AuthorToday I am reprinting an interview by myself and Mary Mackey originally published in her fabulous writer’s blog: “The Writer’s Journey.” Mary  is a bestselling author who has written six volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of thirteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages including Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her poems have been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, Marge Piercy, and Dennis Nurkse for their beauty, precision, originality, and extraordinary range. ”     Her newest book,  a collection of her poetry entitled Travelers With No Ticket Home was published this spring by Marsh Hawk Press.

***

Mary: Andy, you’re a famous, successful agent. Given this, I suspect the most common question people ask you is: “How do I get an agent?” Let’s answer that one first. Could you please tell us in two sentences or less what writers need to do to get an agent? Also, I’m sure people will want to know if you are currently accepting clients.

Andy: You get an agent the old fashion way,  by having a fantastic, original idea for a book  and a brilliant writing style.  I have a blog that explains the steps you need to take to find an agent.  Check out my Eleven Steps To Finding An Agent. And yes, I am actively seeking new clients. I want query letters by email. You can send them to:  andyrossagency@hotmail.com.

Mary: Before you became an agent, you owned several bookstores including Eeyore’s in Cotati, California, and Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  Tell us about your early experiences as a bookseller. How did you get into the business? What did you love about it?

Andy: I got into it for all the wrong reasons. I was a graduate student in European history. I liked to hang out at bookstores.

Mary: How did you come to buy Cody’s Books?

Andy: Like most of my important decisions in life, it was pretty impetuous. I was visiting my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  Bookshop Santa Cruz. He told me that Cody’s was for sale and that I should consider buying it. I told him probably not. It was daunting.  I was only 29 at the time, and Cody’s was already a legendary bookstore. I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge or confidence. The next morning he asked me again if I would consider it. Again I said, “no”.  But as I was driving home, I decided I would do it.  A month later, I owned the store.

Mary: What were the best things and the worst things about being a bookseller?

Andy: Well, everybody I know has the fantasy of owning a bookstore. Being surrounded by books.  Wow! But when I think back on my 30 years at Cody’s, I realize that a lot of my time was spent on pretty mundane stuff. The bad plumbing on Telegraph Avenue comes to mind. And I was never very good at supervising employees. I was always trying to make people happy, and I never seemed to be able to.

Mary: When you owned bookstores, what was your best-selling book?

Andy: Probably my best seller was Bill Clinton’s memoir.  It helped that he came to the store to sign it.

Mary: How did you make the transition from bookstore owner to literary agent?

Andy: It was another impetuous decision, but one I never regretted. I had been a bookseller all my adult life.  When I left Cody’s in 2007, I thought that I was probably cut out for sacking groceries at Safeway.  I woke up one morning and decided I’d make a good  literary agent. At first I was worried that I didn’t know anything about it. But then I realized that I’d been learning the job for 35 years. Being a bookseller all that time was pretty good experience for being an agent. Most agents come out of publishing. I have the advantage of having spoken to book buyers all my life.

Mary: How is your relationship to authors different at present than it was when you were selling their books?

Andy:  Now I’m working at the other end of the literary food chain. I’m involved much more in creative work. I like that a lot.  The process of writing, particularly writing fiction, is a mystery to me and really quite miraculous. When I first decided to become an agent, I thought that my main job would be making deals. But I spend much more time working with authors and helping them polish their book. It’s tough getting published. You can’t submit a project unless it’s perfect.

Mary: What are the major problems you see in the work of clients you decline to represent? In other words, what do writers need to do to make their books better and more saleable?

Andy: That’s really the $64,000 question. Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. I saw that happening at Cody’s, and I’m seeing it now as an agent. Most of the commercial publishers have been bought up by multimedia conglomerates. The pressure to produce huge profits is intense.  The word that keeps coming up in publishing is “platform,”  which means you have a recognized national or international  authority  in the subject you are writing about or you have the kind of celebrity that gives you the  ability to garner media attention. I like to tell people that platform means  you either have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is less important with fiction.  But the hurdles are even more challenging. The writing has to be exceptional. But that is only the beginning. Almost all the novels that are submitted to fiction editors have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good. Publishing decisions tend to get made based on marketing rather than aesthetic considerations. A literary fiction editor might look at 300 novels a year. They will probably decide to publish 10.

Mary: What is your favorite book of all time?

Andy: Probably War and Peace.

Mary: What are you reading right now?

Andy: Something trashy. I’m too embarrassed to say.

Mary:  What books by your clients are coming out in the near future?

Andy: Sometimes its better to be lucky than smart in this business. But it’s  even better to be both. The most recent book I represent is Water 4.0 by David Sedlak published by Yale University Press. It’s the most important book yet published on the challenges of drinking water. The book was released the week Governor Brown declared a drought emergency in California.  Bloomsbury Press has just released Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. It’s a profound and important book, one that will have a huge impact on the way we think about animals.  Also Sourcebooks has just released Shooting Stars: My Life as a Paparazzi by Jennifer Buhl. Definitely the most fun book I have ever worked on. Also one of the funniest. She was recently interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. I have three magnificent novels being published this fall. I can’t wait.

The Life of a Paparazzi. An Interview With Jennifer Buhl

March 24, 2014

ShootingStars_123013_final-shortquote

 C’mon. Admit it. Every time you’re in the line at Safeway, you can’t help taking a discrete peek at the  tabloids. Gotta get your fix on celebrity tittle-tattle. What’s with Brad and Angie’s breakup? Is Lindsey in trouble again? How’s Kirstie’s diet working? Today we are going to interview Jennifer Buhl, author of Shooting Stars: My Unexpected Life Photographing Hollywood’s Most Famous,  published this week by Sourcebooks.

For 3 years, Jennifer was a paparazza (that’s feminine singular for paparazzi)  in Los Angeles, one of the 5 women in a profession that has always been  driven by testosterone. By the time she left, she was one of the most successful  in the business. Her pictures of the stars have been published worldwide in the major tabloids and celebrity gossip venues. Her photographs of Paris Hilton clutching a bible and of Kristen Stewart smoking pot with her boyfriend the week of the opening of Twilight have achieved iconic status.

Of all the books that I have represented, I think Shooting Stars has been the most fun to work on. It’s filled with breathless chase scenes, sly humor, and an inside look at the real life of the celebs that is surprisingly respectful, given the bad rap on paparazzi these days. Jennifer is always a part of the story without ever hijacking the story.  She  conveys the enthusiasm and fun of the chase. But this book has a larger virtue as well. It’s a lot more than just a slick Hollywood tell all. More than any book I have ever read, it brings out the way celebrity works in our culture.

Jennifer stopped papping several years ago when she had a child. She lives in Boulder where she works as a photographer specializing in family photos which are stunning.

Oh, and if you want to make a movie based on Jennifer’s life as a pap, contact me.

Buy the Book

 Andy Ross:  Jennifer, let’s get right down to the nitty-gritty:  do the celebs want to be photographed?

Zac Efron

Zac Efron

 

Jennifer BuhlWithout a doubt, there is a symbiotic relationship between paparazzi and celebrity.  At some point in most careers, the stars want it and need it.  Being compliant with the paparazzi can skyrocket a no-name to fame.  I watched Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus, Katherine Heigl and Hayden Panettiere go from unknown to super famous within a few months because they were available to the paparazzi and they let us photograph them.  Most celebrities who are in the tabloids every week are there by choice.  Period.  You do not need to feel sorry for them. That said, I think celebrities want to live like normal people.  They want to pump their own gas, they want to eat out, they want to go to the grocery store.  — Well, I’ve never seen Paris Hilton at the grocery store, but most of them do. So there usually comes a point when a celeb is what we call ‘savaged’ so much by the paps that they just can’t take it any more, and they burn out. We expect that.  No big deal.  Without photos, we go away pretty quickly.

Andy: You have some wonderful (and hysterically funny) digressions where you offer advice to the stars about how to either avoid or attract paparazzi.  Can you share a few tips with us?

Ashton Kutcher

Ashton Kutcher

Jennifer: When a star stops wanting to be photographed, the easiest, most polite, and most importantly, effective way to rid herself of paparazzi is to ‘cover.’  She can get out of her car with her hand in front of her face, with an umbrella, with a book. She does that 3 times in a row, and I’ll tell you, we’re not going to be sitting outside her house because we’re not going to make any money. That’s how the big celebrities — Jennifer Aniston, Ashton Kutcher — avoid getting photographed. And there are lots of other ways to avoid us:  Take taxi’s, not limos.  Buy a house on a busy or parking-metered street – you’ll be much harder to ‘doorstep.’  Park your car in your garage, not in your driveway – we won’t be able to tell if you’re home, so we’re less likely to wait on you.  If you must fly into LAX, come in at night and not on American Airlines.

Andy: In spite of the bad reputation of paps (at one point, you describe paps as buzzards feeding on carcasses of celebs), what comes from reading your book is a very different and much more complex dynamic.  It seems almost like a delicate pas de deux.  Can you describe this a little?

Jennifer: I like that, a duet.  It’s true, we dance together – literarily, on the street, and figuratively, which is of course what you meant.  I was usually shooting the stars, not watching the paparazzi, but occasionally when I did – and it was a seasoned celebrity and a seasoned pap – it was actually really beautiful.  A dance.  A tease.  

Andy: Who are some of the stars that are “pap friendly?”  How do they manage the relationship for their benefit?

Jennifer: Lots and lots love paparazzi.  Most of the stars you see over and over in the tabloids work with us.  To stay hot, they must.  Reality show stars – the Kardashians, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes – they often get paid a percentage of their photo sales.  Then there are stars like Jessica Simpson, ones who get what they need out of us when they needs it. In the beginning, young blood is always on board – Miley loved us when she started to become famous.  And still seems to!  Matthew McConaughey clearly had his time with us.  

Andy: And what about the pap averse stars?

katy Perry

katy Perry

Jennifer: There aren’t as many of those as you might think.  Julia Roberts and Kate Bosworth, in no universe will they ever like us.  Probably Kristen Stewart is in that category, too.  Most stars – Katy Perry, Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, even Halle Berry – are fickle and love us when they need it, hate us when they don’t.  But isn’t that the way life is?

Kristen Steward

Kristen Stewart

Andy: Tell us about your shot of Kristen Stewart smoking pot.

Jennifer: I shot Kristen a few days before the first Twilight came out.  No one knew her.  I had to look her up before I went to her house that morning.  She and her boyfriend were sitting on her parent’s front stoop, a few feet from the street, smoking a pot pipe.  I think she was 18.  She had no idea I was there.

Andy: What stars did you like as people? And what about those who were just douche bags?

Katherine Heigl

Katherine Heigl

Jennifer: I lived in Los Feliz, east Hollywood, a great eclectic neighborhood which has become a hotbed for celebs.  So mostly the ones I got to know were my neighbors.  Adrian Grenier of Entourage. Most of the Grey’s Anatomy cast.  Katherine Heigl, I loved.  My shots made her ‘tabloid famous’ in just a few months.  That helped her career for a long while. As a pap, you could tell so much about these people – following them around all day long – to the grocery, the gym, the manicurist.  And the good ones, the good people, weren’t necessarily pap-friendly.  They didn’t ‘give it up’ all the time.  But that was OK. Some of my favorites were Miley and Zac.  Gwen Stefani and Gavin were great. I loved Britney Spears in a motherly kind of way.  I wanted see her be OK – we all did.  And she seems to be now. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Jen Aniston were awesome only because they were so smart.  They understood the media and they were fun to watch.  Even though they were very hard to get.

Andy: Jennifer, true confession.  My knowledge of tabloid culture consists of the 10 minutes a week I spend in the checkout line of Safeway.  One of the things you said in the book was that the tabloids want positive pictures.  But what I see is something quite different:  horrible images of people at the point of death, fat stars on the beach with close-ups of their cellulite and butt cracks, Brad and Angie breaking up every week.  Lindsay Lohan being skanky.  Am I missing something here?

paris magJennifer: OK, these stories might make the covers – and they might be what you remember – but open the magazines and most of the printed shots are of beautiful people looking beautiful.  And mostly women.  Women read the tabloids, and we want to see what female celebrities are wearing, how they’ve done their hair, what their kids look like, who they’re dating and how skinny they are.  We want to be them, or at least live vicariously through them.  When you take a picture of a celeb looking bad, it’s usually only picked up by the international press.  Europe is different.  But America’s trash is things like celebrities’ botched surgeries, body “problem areas,” breakups and makeups, and baby rumors.  Pictures of drugs, cigarettes, rumors of adultery are almost never shown.  There are exceptions – reality show people, stars who “trash” themselves (for example, Miley Cyrus at the moment could fall into that group), but for the most part, celebs who posture themselves as “family” are portrayed that way.  Under no circumstances will the media “out” someone.  Even if there are pictures.  Which there are.

Andy: Did you ever witness or experience incidents of violence between the paps and the celebs?  We see some pretty sensational stories about that.

Jennifer: Rarely do the celebs confront us.  They are rightly scared of “video.”  Usually they leave it up to the police, people on the street, their bodyguards.  And remember, they’re often on our side.  Seal did threaten to “bitchslap” me once, and Casey Affleck, Ben’s brother, grabbed my camera.  But that was because he isn’t a big celeb and didn’t really know how to react.  Most of the violence in our business is pap on pap.

Andy: Let’s talk about money for a minute.  How much can you make as a pap?

Jennifer: Twenty years ago, a good pap was making half a million.  When I was in the biz, four years ago, I often grossed 10 or 12 thousand a month.  Now, most paps will max out at 3 to 5 a month.  Don’t become a pap now.  It’s not worth it.  Too many pictures on the market, and the magazines don’t pay like they used to.

Andy: What kinds of pictures draw big money and what kinds are less desirable?  What stars bring the best money for a picture?  Or the worst?  And why?  And what was your biggest money photograph?

Matthew McConaughey

Matthew McConaughey

Jennifer: Big shots nowadays make you about 5 to 10 thousand over a period of a year.  Those are often bathing suit shots.  McConaughey, I made loads of money on his Malibu shots.  And Jessica Alba I once shot in a bikini and did very well.  Other lucrative photos are ones that have a story associated with them, or they are rare and hard to get.  For example, Britney Spears shaves her head.  Rihanna after Chris Brown wacked her.  Kristen Stewart cheats on Rob Pattinson. Those weren’t my shots, but the photographers made bank.  Besides bathing suit shots, my big hits were Paris Hilton carrying the Bible.  Kristen smoking pot.  Justin Chambers – Alex on Grey’s Anatomy – with his five kids made me great money.  Justin isn’t a big star, but every time the mags wanted to talk about him and his family, they’d buy that shot.  Mostly, a shot will make you a few hundred though.  If you make a thousand, you’re very happy.  

Andy: I know you got out of the business when you had your baby.  But did you like it?

Jennifer: At first, I loved it.  And I knew from day one that I would write a book.  I had to.  I couldn’t not.  It was an unbelievable world that no one understood – not even Hollywood.  I was one of about six women among hundreds of men.  And by the end I had become very successful, but the job had also become dark and oppressive yet terribly mundane for someone who fed off challenge.  And I was ready to spend time doing the thing I wanted most in life:  being a mama.  Which is what I’ve been doing – and loving it!

Andy: Was it as fun being a pap as it was for me to read the book?

Jennifer: Spying, celebrities, chases, shooting, loot – for an adrenaline junkie, everything is here, and yeah, it was crazy fun.  Papping was the hardest job I’d ever had, but far and away the best.  It was rewarding and insanely exciting at the same time.  But there was a big dark side – sometimes it was like I was working for the Mafia.  Perhaps not quite as dangerous, but dangerous enough.  The competition was insanely cruel.  And the police were, well let’s just say, not altogether fair.  And then, my desire for a family began to trump any professional dream that I might have had.  When I did get pregnant, it wasn’t the way I dreamed it would be. But life is never how we dream it’s gonna be.  And maybe that’s OK.  I wouldn’t trade it.

 

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson On What Animals Teach Us About Human Evil

March 5, 2014

Beast-HC jeff and benjyToday Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will be talking to us about his new book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Human Evil, released this month by Bloomsbury Press.  Jeff has been writing about animal emotions for 20 years. His books, When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie About Love (1998) have each sold over 1,000,000 copies. Jeff is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with.  His intellect is both passionate and  wide ranging. Last year, when I visited him at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, he commenced to spend 3 days  ranting at me about the flaws in Hannah Arendt’s concept of evil. (Apparently the fine people of New Zealand don’t have strong feelings about this topic.)

Of all Jeff’s books about animals, this one seems to get to the heart of  the moral boundaries that separate humans from animals. Jeff begins with an observation that illustrates the  puzzle that this book will seek to solve. He says: “There are two major predators on the planet with the most complex brains in nature: humans and orcas. In the twentieth century alone, one of these animals killed 200 million members of its own species, the other killed none. Why?”

ANDY: Jeff, we wrestled with the title of this book for years. And I think we are both pretty happy about it. There seems to be some irony in it though. Can you explain what you mean by “beasts”? How do expressions we use about animals show our basic misunderstanding?

JEFF: Too often, in order to insult somebody, we say that he behaved like a beast, or an animal.  I was reading Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about the terrible gulag prisons, and came across this:  “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.”  Think of all the times we describe humans in order to demean them as some kind of animal.  So we call someone vermin, a worm, a snake, a wolf, a blood thirsty beast (my favorite), an ape, a bitch, or a pig.

ANDY:  As in many of your books, you try to contrast the peaceable kingdom of animals with the horrors of human behavior manifested throughout history.  But there are numerous examples of animals doing violence to humans and to each other. Perhaps you are overstating your case.

JEFF: They do violence to us and to other animals, for sure.  But not to the extent that we do violence to them and to one another.  The disparity is just mind boggling.  I don’t see animals as saints (human saints are not saints either), but they don’t seem driven to, for example, exterminate all members of a different clan of tigers, elephants or crocodiles.

ANDY: Whenever I tell people about your thesis, they always bring up the example of chimpanzees as animals that seem to engage in gratuitous violence. Isn’t this contrary to your ideas?

JEFF: Yes, to some extent.  In the book I go into this in some detail.   Jane Goodall is the first person to notice the violence of chimps and she would also be the first to acknowledge it is simply not on the scale of human violence.  I guess it’s so shocking because so unexpected.  We expected chimps to be more like, well, bonobos!  They are a different species of chimpanzee, just as closely related to us as the other, but completely peaceable.  They have been studied, but not yet in the same detail as the more violent chimpanzee.  They are led by females, and this may be why (I mean why they are less violent AND why they have been less studied!).

ANDY: One of the themes you talk about here and in previous books is that animals, unlike humans, have no sense of  “other”. To a dog, another dog is just a dog, not a different species. But for humans, the idea of “other” has created all sorts of horror. I’m fascinated by your anecdote about “the last Kantian in Germany”. Can you relate that to us?

JEFF: Yes, it is one of my favorite anecdotes, and it’s true.  And it’s deep.  Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, was in a labor camp for officers on the outskirts of the city of Hannover.  When they were marched out of the camp they were treated with contempt, and looked down upon as “vermin,” not even human.  With one exception:  a stray dog who found his way into the camp.  Each day, when the prisoners returned to their camp in the forest, the dog would greet the line of men with great excitement and friendliness.  He was always delighted to see them.  He was there in the morning when they were assembled, and  “was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.”  “For him,” Levinas notes, “there was no doubt that we were men.” Levinas immortalized the dog later with the title of the last Kantian in Nazi Germany.  This dog, like  the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and all dogs, understood that humans are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end.

ANDY: This book audaciously takes on the nature of human evil by contrasting our behavior to that of animals. But you also give the devil his due. Humans have a kind of compassion that we don’t find in the animal world. Why is that?

JEFF: I don’t know, but it’s true.  No animal has become a doctor specializing in humans, or built a hospital to take care of humans.  We can mobilize hundreds of other humans to search for a lost dog.  Individual dogs will search for us, but they wouldn’t implore other dogs to join them.  I’m sure everyone can think of examples of this human quality of compassion, including, of course, thousands of people in the animal rights movement.  Some of us, raised as carnivores, go vegan.  No other predator species in the wild has ever foregone meat for moral reasons!

ANDY: Jeff, one last question. At the end of the book, you take on the ideas espoused by Steven Pinker in his controversial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He argues that human violence in the modern world has declined. You disagree. Will you comment?

JEFF: I have an appendix in my book where I address this question at some length. Apart from his distorted version of prehistory, surely it is odd, in a book arguing that violence is decreasing all over the world, that there is little or no mention of Srebenica, the Rwandan genocide, Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina (or Brazil or Greece); no entry under colonialism, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; and only one mention of Mussolini and two of apartheid, and with virtually no discussion of the violence in places such as Guatemala.

 ANDY: On March 9 at 1 PM, Jeff will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera in conversation with Daniel Ellsberg. This is an event you don’t want to miss. Two towering intellects who have spent their lives trying to understand how evil manifests itself in human history. You really need to be there.

 

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Do Editors [and Agents] Edit

November 18, 2013

When I first decided to become an agent, I had an image of my job as being something between  a  real estate broker and a judge on American Idol.  It hasn’t  turned out that way at all. I find  most of my time is devoted to shaping and editing book proposals and manuscripts. In other words, I’m an editor.

The conventional wisdom you hear at literary cocktail parties is that editors no longer edit. It’s not true, and we’ll get to that in a minute. But what is true is  your book better be perfect when it goes to the publisher, because the acquisition editor is not likely to spend a lot of time visualizing how to reshape a flawed project. Well, ok. I’m sure when Sarah Palin presented her editor with a real stinker of a manuscript, HarperCollins did some significant editorial work; although, as they say, “you  can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

I just read a fascinating essay in Publishers Weekly by Marjorie Braman, who was an editor at several of the large publishing houses for 26 years. Recently she left publishing to devote herself to freelance editing.  The title of her piece is: “What Ever Happened to Book Editors?”  She says some pretty damning things about the role of editors (and of agents)  in commercial publishing today.  Listen to this:

 “A publisher once said to me, almost in passing, ‘We don’t pay you to edit.’ The real message was: ‘Editing is not crucial. If you’re an editor, what matters is acquiring.’ After I’d left in-house editing and was being courted by an agency, the owner/agent said to me, ‘Remember, you can’t sit in your office and edit.’ In other words, ‘If you’re an agent, what matters is selling.’ One thing these comments imply is that editing is no longer the editor’s main function; editing is done on your own time….

“I’d been through a lot of upheavals in the business, and one of the more insidious, but telling, things I’d seen happen as publishers cut back on staff was the expansion of the role of editors. Need a copywriter? No, we’ll get the editor to write the flap copy. Is the art department understaffed and overloaded? No problem, the editor will come into the art meeting cheerfully armed with ideas.

“Need a blurb for the book to get the sales department excited? The editor…  will get just the right quote from just the right author (whom she’s never met, but for whom she somehow has a home address). It’s a snap. Oh, and bring some publicity and marketing ideas to the launch meeting, too, while you’re at it. And that’s what editors get paid for. It’s fun, but it’s not editing. Working with the authors—which most editors love to do—has become something the editor must do ‘on the side.”

This is not what I expected when I first became an agent. As a bookseller on the outside, I imagined the structure of publishing as a kind of a dualism: the creative side (writers and editors) and the business side (sales, financial, and executive). Or to cite the old cliché, “publishing is the marriage of art and commerce.” Well, according to Marjorie Braman, it’s become kind of an S&M relationship with commerce holding the whip.

Maxwell Perkins

Maxwell Perkins

When we think of the editor as literary hero, we always come back to Maxwell PerkinsA. Scott Berg wrote a brilliant biography of him in 1977, Max Perkins: Editor of Geniusthat helped cement his iconic status.   Perkins was an editor at Charles Scribner from 1910 until his death in 1947. He worked with some of the greatest writers of the  century; but he will always be remembered as the man who edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. It’s probably safe to say that Perkins’ role in the creative life of these three geniuses was fundamental to the masterpieces that each of them created.

There is the famous story of Perkins’ work with Thomas Wolfe, a great writer but one without discipline. In Wolfe’s first book, Look Homeward Angel, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words (about 300 pages) from that novel.

My experience with editors is a mixed bag. Although I haven’t worked with anyone like Perkins, there have been some who have done  brilliant and detailed editing and have made good books into great books. There have also been the other kind that Braman describes.

So that leaves me having to do a lot of editing. This is particularly true with fiction. Fiction is hard to sell, and there are many talented writers out there. So everything that I submit has to be perfect. And, yes, a good acquisition editor will then make it more perfect. Editing didn’t come easy for me. In my career as a bookseller, I spent much more time opening boxes than shaping imaginative works.

What I found astonishing when I started working in fiction was how little perspective the author has. But after all, why should she? The stories and the characters have been living in her mind sometimes for years. These characters have probably taken possession of the consciousness of the author. But what does the reader think? An author doesn’t have a clue. That’s where I come in.

There is  a concept in Zen Buddhism called “beginner’s mind”.  It means one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person who really matters. I read the manuscript out loud and listen to my voice and try to think what the reader thinks. Am I bored? Do I believe this character? Do I care? Can I visualize this scene? Does the dialogue sound natural? Is the language powerful or clunky? Readers are unforgiving. If they get bored, hate the character, find the story improbable, anything where they fall out of that trance-like state that we call “willful suspension of disbelief”, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. (And probably tell all her friends not to bother to buy it.)

As I’ve gotten more experience working with fiction, I find that I’m losing that ineffable quality of the beginner’s mind. I’m becoming more mindful of things like, point of view, how back story is managed, voice, overuse of literary clichés,  the kinds of things people learn about at writers workshops and conferences. Craft.  And those are important too. But I  still always want to put myself in the role of the reader. That’s what’s crucial.

Editing has been fulfilling for me. Sometimes I feel like I have made an important contribution to the creative process. Maybe I’m not Maxwell Perkins. But when an editor calls me up and says, “I want to make an offer on this book. It’s brilliant!”, it makes me feel pretty good.


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