Posts Tagged ‘andy ross agency’

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.

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.”

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.

Beth Kephart on Writing Memoir

August 29, 2013

Handling_the_TruthFINALFINALbeth2Today we are going to talk with Beth Kephart about writing memoir.  Beth is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir published this year by Gotham Books. She is the author of five memoirs, one of which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Beth teaches creative non-fiction at The University of Pennsylvania.

Andy: Beth, there are a lot of books out there about the art and craft of memoir writing. Why did you decide to write Handling the Truth?

Beth: Handling emerged somewhat despite myself. I was full of this love for the young people I meet and teach; I wanted to celebrate them and what they taught me. I grew intent, too, on sharing my thoughts about the many memoirs that have inspired and instructed me and to liberate this much-tarnished form from some of the damaging mythology. Finally, I felt compelled to save others from the mistakes I’ve made, and to offer cautions.

Andy: Let’s start with the basics. What’s a memoir? Or to clear up a prevailing misconception, how is memoir different from autobiography?

Beth: I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not, which of course I do in the opening pages of the book.  Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.

Andy: In my work as an agent, I get pitched a lot of memoir. There seems to be an endless number of projects dealing with dysfunctional families, surviving cancer, interesting travels to exotic places, and the like. You mentioned in the book that Neil Genzlinger called memoir “an absurdly bloated genre.”  And my experience with publishers is that they are pretty cynical about these well-mined themes. Aside from an appreciation of good writing style, do you really believe there’s anything new and important to say about some of these overworked subjects?

Beth: I think we have to stop imprisoning memoirs in marketing categories. The minute we start to think that we are writing an illness memoir, say, or a grief memoir, is the minute that we’ve lost sight of the bigger possibilities of the personal story. It’s never just about what happened. It’s about what it meant. Memoirists must continue to look for new structures, new ways of asking and answering the big questions. Look at what Joan Wickersham does in The Suicide Index, for example. That is a book about the aftermath of a father’s suicide. And it is a story you’ve never seen told like that before. It’s a story that makes you think newly on a familiar topic, precisely because Wickersham has been inventive with structure and smart about elisions and inclusions.

In the end, someone will categorize Wickersham’s book as a suicide memoir—perhaps. But it’s clear that she wrote it with bigger ambitions in mind. It’s clear that she was not suffocated by a label.

Andy: You speak at length in the book about honesty in writing memoir. There’s a tension between telling your story accurately and shaping a story that is artistically true and aesthetically pleasing. Can we really remember a dialogue that took place twenty years ago. Do we really recall our feelings about visiting Gramma’s house for the first time?  How much are memoirists permitted to invent? Or maybe just fudge a little bit?

Beth: I’m a pretty big stickler for telling the truth, as much as possible. I don’t believe in the deliberate fudging of facts, the rearrangements of time, the reassignments of characters, the remapping of locales. You start making it up on purpose and you’ve lost the heart of the matter. Memoir writing is, in some ways, like writing a villanelle or a sonnet. You are bound by the rules of what happened, by what you remember, by what you can research (don’t forget, memoir writers, about the power of research to help support the telling of story). The truth constricts your work. It also shapes it. Find a way. Don’t make it up. And when you don’t remember, just say so. Your credibility matters.

Andy: Sometimes I tell an author that their memoir might work better as a novel, a roman á clef. But writing a novel is very different from writing memoir. Do you have any advice to writers who are undecided about which path to pursue?

Beth: Read books that fall on both sides of the line. Vaddey Ratner, in writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, recreated her childhood but also gave herself room to change some of the personal details. Everything in that book comes from a known experience, from something lived throughout the Cambodian genocide. And yet Banyan is a novel. Ratner never lies, but she still writes from a pure, authentic place.

Writing fiction is just as important and personal an enterprise as writing memoir (I write both). But be clear about what you are doing. Count the trade-offs and decide.

Andy: But even if you are writing memoir, the story has to be compelling or else no one will read it. When I get a rejection from  an editor (which happens far too often), one of the standard explanations is that there is no “narrative arc.” Well, real life doesn’t always correspond to a classic 3 act narrative structure. What’s a memoirist to do?

Beth: Stop thinking chronologically. Chronology can be—not always, but sometimes—the death of memoir. It locks people into saying this happened, this happened, this happened. It can be claustrophobic. Be inventive. Study Howard Norman or Rebecca Solnit. See what they make of their lives. See how they selectively shape the interesting stuff and leave out all the filler.

Andy: In my work with authors, particularly those who write memoir and fiction, I’m always amazed at how little perspective they have. Characters and scenes that have been living in the heart and mind of the author for years may leave the reader cold. And as you said, the reader is always in the room.  I tell my clients that the reader is king and is usually unforgiving. If the first page is boring, the reader will throw the book down and never pick it up again. That seems particularly challenging to memoirists. After all, everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. Why should we care about someone else’s?

Beth: We only care if it speaks to us in an inclusive fashion. We only care if the right questions have been asked. The celebrity memoir is often exclusionary, and in fact, the celebrity memoir is often (not always!) not a memoir at all but an autobiography. Patti Smith and Diane Keaton are celebrities, but they’ve written true memoir—they’ve made their life stories relevant to the rest of us by wondering out loud about the nature of love, the nature of relationships, the nature of fidelity to another. Edna O’Brien is a celebrity author, but her “memoir” is less a memoir than a recounting of events and famous people/places. We are all just people in the end. A memoir’s purpose is to lower gates and open doors. Boring books are self-inflating, self-congratulatory, and, ultimately, self-isolating. If we are boring someone at a cocktail party, we are also likely boring them with our memoirs.

Andy: You write a lot about style in memoir. You have, for instance, a whole chapter on weather. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that writers seem to look down on the weather these days. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s immortal “It was a dark and stormy night” is often considered the worst first line in all of literature.  Were you trying to tweak a few noses  at the literary snoots when you wrote that chapter?

Beth: I’m not writing about style so much as writing about ways of remembering our lives. Too often people stare at the events of their lives and don’t stop to think about the ambiance or mood, the meaning, the possibilities in all that “background” stuff. I’m not suggesting that memoirists go out and fill a book with storms and sunshine. I am saying, use everything you’ve got, every sense, to find your personal story. And then figure out what it means, and what is worth keeping. And sometimes weather will signify. And when it does, recognize the opportunity.

Andy: You distinguish between real memoirs and “pseudo memoirs.”  I’ve never heard that expression before.  In your analysis a pseudo memoir is not the same as a bad memoir. Can you discuss this a little?

Beth: Ha! I love the question. Pseudo memoirs are half steps toward the truth. They speak of lives that have not been fully explored, examined, wrestled with. Bad memoirs are bad memoirs. Badly written, badly structured, and published for the wrong reasons. Sometimes all a pseudo memoirist needs in order  to write a real memoir is more time and more reflection.

Andy:  And here’s the $64,000 question: what’s your favorite memoir?

Beth: Can’t do this! Handling the Truth discusses nearly 100 memoirs, many in detail. So there is the first memoir I loved (Natalie Kusz’s Road Song) and the one I most often teach (Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family) and the books I’m still discovering now (Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place). But come to my house. See all my shelves and boxes. I’m in love with a lot of books.

Thank you so much, Andy, for these thoughtful questions. I hope anyone who wants to learn more and to read about some memoirs that aren’t in my book (some additional exercises, some additional essays) will consider visiting my blog, www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com, or buying the book.

Andy: And thank you, Beth. As I said earlier, in the business of book publishing, it’s pretty easy to get cynical and discouraged about memoirs. Every once in awhile, you need to remember about those great ones that changed your life. Your book was an inspiration. Oh, yes, and by the way, I just wanted to say that my last book deal was for a memoir. Yes!

The Absolutely Most Important Agent’s Tip For Writers: First Impressions Count

May 17, 2013

Readers of Ask the Agent know  I’m suspicious of the seemingly endless stream of  publishing tips that you read in writers publications, blogs, and workshops. Given my skepticism about this kind of shorthand advice, my tips tend to be framed with a lot of ironic and self-deprecating humor.  And I also try to be realistic to the point of blunt. This blog is not for the faint of heart. Those seeking flittery feel-good inspiration will likely be uncomfortable here.

 But there is one tip that is as indisputable and immutable as  a law of physics. That is: first impressions count. And your first paragraph will be the agent’s first (and possibly) last impression of your work. So it better be better than good.

 When I  started working with fiction, I found that I usually could decide by the end of the first paragraph if a writer had talent. I was a little ashamed of this, so I asked around with other agents and editors. They agreed. This is not to say that I can tell by the end of the first paragraph whether a book is publishable. If the first paragraph makes me fall in love, I’ll keep reading until that first blush of romance disappears. It usually does at some point. Sometimes in the second paragraph. Sometimes on page 100.  Only rarely do I find myself reading the last line at 3 in the morning crying like a baby. But when that happens, it makes everything all worthwhile. 

 First impressions with an agent are no different than anything else in life. If you were going for an interview at Knopf, you probably wouldn’t show up wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and a John Deere hat. (Unless, you were looking for a job as an editor of a new imprint on ironic detachment.) If your first paragraph is characterized by clunky style, pretentious and flowery figures of speech, clichés, literary throat clearing, descriptions of the weather, clumsy efforts to shoehorn backstory into the narrative,  or other stylistic bads, it’s going to take a lot of brilliant writing to dispel that first impression. And chances are editors and agents aren’t going to afford you that much more time.

 This may seem harsh and unforgiving, but here’s my advice. Make that first paragraph sparkling and brilliant. And after that, make the second paragraph sparkling and brilliant.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

The Day I Debated Grover Norquist (And Whipped His Ass).

November 29, 2012

Grover NorquistIt’s true. In 2000, I debated Grover Norquist,  The Lord of Darkness, himself,  and   got the better of him, thank you very much. The subject of the debate was whether Internet companies should collect sales tax.

It was a big legal and economic issue back then. Remember that America was smitten with Internet – mania driven by the irrational exuberance of stock speculation.  Internet gurus were getting interviewed on TV and saying in all seriousness that the Internet was the most important invention since the wheel.

The  Supreme Court had weighed in on this issue in Quill v. North Dakota (1992) before the Internet even existed  and had ruled that under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution a state couldn’t require an out of state business to collect state sales tax.  But  back in 2000 there were a lot of brick and mortar businesses that had  created related Internet sites but were still not collecting sales tax for online sales. Barnes and Noble had the chutzpah to argue that their Internet subsidiary, barnesandnoble.com,  had no real relation to the physical stores. (They were  totally separate  entities, the BN spokesman said, that just happened to be owned by the same family, run by the same executives, and shared the same offices and warehouses. Sure.)

Of course the big enchilada, then as now,  was Amazon.com. Amazon didn’t have physical stores . And they made sure to put their warehouses in states that didn’t collect sales tax. But they did have hundreds of thousands of affiliate programs in every state. Pretty much every PTA and church group signed up as affiliates and   were actively soliciting orders for and receiving generous commissions from Amazon.

Amazon was putting out  a lot of  grandiose pronouncements to justify its practice, which in reality  was simply a strategy  to undercut competition. Sometimes Amazon  described the Internet as a juggernaut that was “driving the new economy”  and  taxes would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At other times they said that the Internet was a sort of frail bird that could be crushed if  Internet commerce had to collect  sales tax. I pondered how the Internet could be both a juggernaut and a frail bird simultaneously. Amazon  also seemed utterly flummoxed about how they could possibly calculate  the various sales tax rates that existed in different districts. This,  from a company that knew the individual  reading habits of 20,000,000 customers.

I got involved in the issue because I thought Cody’s was getting a raw deal. But as is often the case with me, I very quickly lost perspective and became obsessed with the issue. I pretty much   came to know more about the subject than anyone in California. Leslie got very concerned that I was alienating all our friends by  droning on about the details of tax policy till they were stupefied with boredom.

A number of businesses and trade associations got together to form The e-Fairness Coalition. The mission statement  said that it represented small businesses nationwide.  The American Booksellers Association was a member in good standing. But the real money for this operation was coming from the International Council of Shopping Centers and Walmart.  Normally not my favorite people. But as they say in the Middle East, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

They needed a spokesman and felt that probably the vice president of Walmart for tax issues would not be an effective voice. So they enlisted me. My first job was to show up at a debate before a large business group in Walnut Creek. I would be speaking in support of the principle of  Internet   sales tax collection. And the spokesman for the other side would be Grover Norquist.

Norquist was a pretty formidable figure even then.  He was a little too intense for my taste. He hated all taxes and loved the Cayman Islands.  And he was an early and passionate advocate for Internet sales tax evasion. I knew what his arguments were. The usual stuff that Amazon put out, the juggernaut driving the new economy, etc.  He also ranted about  how whenever liberals discover something cool, they just want to tax it.

It was pretty easy for me to refute   these arguments. All I had to do was lay out the classic conservative economic nostrum that government should not be picking winners and losers. The free market should be picking winners and losers. I also pointed out the corollary,  that tax policy should be based on the principle of a level playing field. It was an irrefutable argument politically, economically, morally.

I’d been listening to Norquist going around the country laying out  his talking points. He said that people in California shouldn’t have to be subject to decisions by tax administrators in Alabama. I still  have no idea what that meant except that it had something to do with states rights. But when I heard it, I sensed opportunity.

I knew he was going to bring it up in our debate. And I was ready for it.  And of course he played right into my diabolical plan. As soon as he said it,  I looked down at the podium, shaking my head with an expression more of sadness than anger. Then I looked up at the audience and very slowly said: “You know….that’s old argument…and not a pretty one…. In 1860…they said that to justify slavery…. A hundred years later….they said it again to defend segregation…. And now my friend here is using it to justify this discriminatory tax policy…

I have to say my timing and the cadence of my voice were perfect. Norquist went wild. He started screaming.  It was terrifying to behold. I tried to breathe slowly and evenly to quiet my heart, to find my center. Norquist’s face turned red. Beads of perspiration started dripping down his cheek. A stench came off his body like the carcass of a rabid dog rotting at the gates of Hell. — Hmm. Maybe not quite.

He finally recovered and started on the next sound byte, the one about the Internet being the most important invention since the wheel. I was ready for that one too. I responded by asking the audience a simple question: “When your toilet overflows, what would you rather do, call a plumber or surf the Web?”


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