Archive for October, 2011

An Interview with Alan Rinzler and Myself

October 31, 2011

Author Meghan Ward has a fantastic blog about writing called Writerland. Recently she did an interview with myself and my friend (and legendary editor) Alan Rinzler. I’ve interviewed Alan on my blog before. It’s a long interview. So feel free to turn it off  if Alan or I seem too full of ourselves.

Meghan’s blog is very good though and I urge you all to take a look at it. Right now she is doing a survey on what kind of advances authors are getting for their published books. So if you are willing to share that information, check  it out….. And don’t lie!

Occupy Literary Agencies

October 28, 2011

Ok. Now I have your attention.  If you decide to protest by camping out  on my front lawn, I’m not sure it would make  a compelling political statement. But if you choose to put up your tent there, I am more likely to give you cookies than to lob canisters of tear gas at you.

What I want to say is that I’m really inspired by OWS and its many affinity groups. It reminds me that there are still things to believe in and still some values in public life that just can’t get suffocated by cynicism.  I haven’t felt that way in awhile. I haven’t felt that way in a long time.

I get really angry at those people who criticize OWS by saying that they don’t have a constructive program.  This is usually coming from people who don’t have one either or, more likely, have programs that are in conflict with everything we have learned to believe is good and true and beautiful.

When Rosa Parks got on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and sat right down at the front, she didn’t come armed with a 20 point plan to end segregation in America. She hadn’t studied the footnotes to Supreme Court decisions. She just got on that bus and sat down where she wanted. I don’t know what she said to that bus driver, but she was probably thinking: “this much and no more”. She was probably just thinking: “no”.

One of my intellectual heroes is Albert Camus. In his brilliant book, The Rebel, he said, “What is a rebel? A man who says no.”

I think that’s a good place to begin.

EBook Sales Are (no surprise) Up. Internet Book Sales Are (no surprise) Up.

October 27, 2011

New Statistics have been released by Bowker Pubtrak showing shifts in book sales by Channel and by format. The report compares  the second quarter of 2011  to the same period 2010. Not surprisingly Internet book sales are forging ahead. A lot of it was due to the closing of Borders. But  book sales have been shifting online for some time. And similarly unit sales of ebooks are continuing to increase exponentially.

First let’s take a look at the channels. That’s a fancy word for where books are being sold. As you can see by the chart, e-commerce has increased from 27.6% to 37%. Borders’ closing certainly has a lot to do with this. Even with Borders open,  last year Amazon barely beat out Barnes and Noble for the first time as the largest bookseller. We don’t know whether BN will come roaring back this year. After all, they stand to pick up the most from Borders’ closing. But Amazon, being the largest purveyor of e-books, may very well increase its market share as the largest bookstore.

Looking at some of the other channels, book clubs are becoming more marginal.  When I first entered the book business in the 1970s, book clubs were a huge presence. Now they are insignificant. At that time one of the largest venues for selling books was department stores. As you can see in the graph, department stores have pretty much discontinued selling books, replaced by ladys’ handbags and designer beauty products.

Chain store sales have declined from 30.6% to 27.3%. That is a lot less than I would have predicted, given the fact that Border’s disappeared. The only significant chains that are left are Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. I would have to assume that a lot of the Borders’ business has been picked up by these two companies.

Moving down to the independent stores, some nice news here. Market share has increased from 4.5% to 5%. It is still distressingly low. But indies are also benefiting from Borders’ closing.

Mass merchants and warehouse clubs have declined slightly. That would be stores like Costco, Wal-Mart, and Target. There was a time back in the 90s when Wal-Mart bragged that it would soon be the largest purveyor of books. They expected to sell 25% of all books. It doesn’t look like it will happen.

Ok, now let’s look at how  sales of book formats have been changing. Again these figures are for the 2nd quarter 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. The largest format is still paperbacks, both trade and mass market. But it has declined from 58.3% to 51%. Hardbacks too have declined significantly from 33.3% to 28.6%.  And as expected ebooks are continuing to increase exponentially  growing from 3.2% to 13.7%.

Amazon.com is Going into Book Publishing. Is the Sky Falling?

October 18, 2011

There was a somewhat alarmist article in The New York Times today by David Streitfeld about how Amazon.com is going into commercial publishing, signing up authors, and cutting traditional publishers and agents out of the deal. I’ve been getting a lot of emails about this from authors and book lovers asking either: 1)whether this is the end of literary culture as we know it?  or 2) how do I get an Amazon contract?

Let’s back up. A lot of people in the book business hate Amazon. Publishers won’t say this out loud since Amazon is their biggest customer. But they will tell you this privately.  They feel that the company has become too big and wields too much power in irresponsible ways. Usually what this means is that publishers resent the fact that Amazon charges a lot of extra money to “promote” their books. You probably have seen all those books flashing at the bottom of the page.  It usually says something like “people who bought this book also bought…”. All of this costs money. If a publisher chooses not to join Amazon’s promotional programs, their books will continue to be available on the Amazon site but will be invisible. To be perfectly fair publishers for years have been paying money to get books prominently placed in stores. Being on the front tables doesn’t come free. But apparently Amazon’s baksheesh is particularly costly.

Streitfeld’s article addresses only one of several publishing programs that have been created by Amazon.  For sometime now Amazon has been offering print on demand and e-book publishing. These are essentially self-publishing platforms. A lot of writers who could not get published by the New York houses have availed themselves of these services. Amazon also started a small commercial publishing venture called Encore Editions. The Encore books  are not big titles and Amazon doesn’t pay advances but it is a step up from self-publishing. These programs are not what Streitfeld is addressing.

Rather, Amazon has made a big splash by opening up a New York office and aggressively going after big name commercial authors and paying them lots of money. Publishers are not happy about this for a lot of reasons, but mostly not  because they believe  that this is the next step in making publishers obsolete.

And I don’t think this is going to happen anyway, regardless of what The New York Times says.  Of course, if Amazon offered me an $800,000 advance for my book, I’d think long and hard and then probably sign on the dotted line. But there are some compelling reasons why this may not be such a good deal. In spite of the endless buzz we hear about books on Amazon and Kindle editions, Amazon’s market share of trade books is about 30%. That’s pretty impressive and it’s growing. But it isn’t that much more than Barnes and Noble. If Amazon is not popular with publishers, they are positively loathed by bookstores. This is going to have some dramatic consequences when Amazon wants to distribute their published titles at venues other than Amazon. Independent bookstores will not carry the titles, period!  Barnes and Noble probably will under their own conditions that Amazon may or may not agree to. And the books B&N does carry will likely not get very prominent promotion.

Amazon is hiring some pretty good editorial talent in New York. It seems to be making publishers nervous. But Amazon’s  program is relatively small and is focused on some very big and very commercial titles. So it is not likely to bring down the great New York publishing empires yet.

There has been a lot of talk in publishing about how the “old publishing paradigm” is dead and how “legacy publishers” are standing in the way of a vibrant literary culture. Amazon has certainly fueled these fires by articulating a concept that no one should stand between the author and the reader. It is a nice thought, even if it is coming from the  largest entity that really is standing between the author and the reader. But if you look at the millions of books that are being self published now, you will have to agree that a lot of them aren’t very good. If there is no filtering apparatus, if everyone can be a publisher, then it becomes very difficult for the reader to make intelligent and meaningful choices. We have written about this phenomenon, “the paradox of choice”,  in a previous blog.  And when the buyers are flummoxed by too much choice, they  tend to focus on a very narrow range of titles. That’s the paradox.

And so returning to the title of this blog post, in my humble opinion, the sky isn’t falling.

I

Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction

October 10, 2011

Mary Mackey  is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.

Mary will be giving readings  of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.

Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:

The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5


in the flame
of a single candle     entire cities
are appearing
and disappearing

my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog

above our roof     the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky

Could you tell us a little bit what went  through your mind when you were composing this poem?

Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.

Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?

Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.

Andy: This is a gorgeous poem.  I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good  big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?

Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.

Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?

Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.

Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies.  So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?

Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor,  write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching.  I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.

Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.

Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.

Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.

Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions.  I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it.  Occasionally a poem will come to me without  a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself  takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers  do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.

Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?

Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.

Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen  here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?

Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship,  poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.

Andy: How do poets make money as poets?

Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences.  If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.

Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?

Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.

Andy: Will you ever write another novel?

Mary: I am working on one right now.  I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

Dogs Make Us Human

October 3, 2011

Most of the books that I have worked on have been narrative non-fiction. I’m starting to do more work with fiction now and it is a lot of fun. One genre I never really expected to be representing is photography books. But I have said many times before that my life as an agent is full of surprises.

This week, Bloomsbury USA  published Dogs Make Us Human: A Global Family Album with text by Jeffrey Masson and photographs by Art Wolfe. It is a gorgeous photographic book  filled with pictures of dogs and their human companions in work and play throughout the world. We wanted to avoid the usually cutesy-wutsy doggie pictures. There are enough of those kinds of books  already. So  we used as our inspiration the classic and enduring photographic book, The Family of Man by Edward Steichen. We wanted to do a kind of “family of man and dog”. After all, Jeff Masson has been saying for years that the bond between dogs and humans is unique, the only love bond that is truly cross-species. And it appears to be a bond that is universal to the human experience worldwide.

Art Wolfe is one of the world’s great wildlife photographers. He has worked on every continent. He has done numerous spreads  in National Geographic. He has been photographing dogs for years and his work has finally found a home in this book. You see dogs with Asian boat people, dogs with children in African villages, dogs herding sheep in New Zealand. Oh, and my favorite. A stone age Yanomami warrior and his dog, both dressed up in war paint.

There were some challenges in putting together this project.  Art’s agent and my friend, Peter Beren, approached me about doing this book and having my client, Jeffrey Masson, write the text. Some of the challenges were geographic.  Jeff lives in Auckland New Zealand. Art lives in Seattle but is usually on shoots in places inaccessible. Most of the time that we were putting this deal together, Art was in Antarctica. (Probably not photographing dogs down there, though.) Nancy Miller of Bloomsbury, who is one of my favorite editors, fell in love with the idea. Bloomsbury did a magnificent production job. They made the book a lead title for the Christmas season and graced the cover of their catalogue with Art’s images.

Here is a great slide show of some of Art’s pictures with commentary by Jeff and Art.

Dogs Make Us Human from Art Wolfe on Vimeo.


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