Posts Tagged ‘andy ross’

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!

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.

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.

 

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.

Bill Petrocelli -Bookseller and Novelist

November 11, 2013

circle of thirteenpetrocelliToday we are going to interview Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the legendary Book Passage in Marin County. Bill has recently written a novel, The Circle of Thirteen that has just been released by Turner Publishing to rave reviews. Lisa See said of it: “In The Circle of Thirteen, Bill Petrocelli has created a story that flashes forward and backward through time, creating a futuristic world that bears some striking similarities to today. The Circle of Thirteen is a true celebration of the power of women in the face of great odds.”

 Andy: Bill, thanks for letting me interview you on “Ask the Agent.” We’ve been friends for a long time as booksellers. Probably more than 30 years. And we fought all the great fights together defending independent bookstores against the corporations. But you never told me that you wanted to write a book. When and why did you decide to write The Circle of Thirteen?

Bill: I guess I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, more than anything else. Although I’ve been heavily involved in bookselling for many years, during that time I managed to write two non-fiction books as well as a lot of articles.  As to The Circle of Thirteen, I began thinking about that story six years ago. And once the idea formed in my head, I couldn’t let it go.

Andy: The novel is bold and unique in structure. It’s sort of a science fiction novel, but not really (even though it takes place in the future). You structure it with flashbacks, but both the “then” and the “now” take place in the future as well. I don’t see that very often.  It’s a political novel with a strong feminist message that addresses real issues of today. Weren’t you trying to keep a lot of balls in the air? It must have been pretty hard to shape the story.

Bill: It takes place in the future, but I don’t really consider it science fiction. Probably it should be called “future fiction” – or maybe even “speculative fiction.” The idea for the book was to look at the expanding role of women and the potential backlash against them. I decided to set the story a couple of decades into the future, because I thought that would give me the best setting – really, a better perspective on things.

The challenge was to find a time that was far enough removed from the present to get away from day to day politics but still be close enough to seem relevant to the present moment. I decided that I couldn’t write the story in the form of a saga – a story with just one event after another – because I needed to maintain the tension and keep the important elements of the story at the center of things. That’s why I decided on one main narrative line that occurs over a period of two weeks with a series of flashbacks that feed into that story.

Andy: And that  raises the question of how to write flashbacks in a future setting.

Bill: You’re right – that’s a big challenge. And you’re the one who first pointed that out to me several  years ago. After we talked, I went back and reworked the story to try to do two things. First, I wanted to make sure that all of the transition signals were clear – dates, places, and all that. Readers needed to know where they were at any given moment.

The second thing, I believe, was even more important. I had to be relentless in maintaining the point of view of the narrator at key points in the story. I re-wrote most of the book so that it was the first-person voice of my principal character, Julia Moro, who is the Security Director for the United Nations. So when the flashbacks occur, they are  mostly told through her recollection. That allowed the reader to listen to her re-counting of earlier parts of the story with just enough information to get the feel and texture of what happened.

Andy: When I left bookselling, I became an agent, and   started working at the other end of the publishing food chain. It was pretty eye opening for me. What have you learned from this experience? How has it made you view the process of publishing differently?

 Bill: I’ve learned all kinds of things that I hadn’t really focused on before. A lot of it has to do with timing. How much lead time do you need for submission? For editorial feedback? For book promotion? Each of these things operates on its own calendar, and they’re quite different than the calendar that booksellers follow.

Andy: Book Passage is probably the most marketing driven bookstore in America. You have events practically every night. You have classes being taught by famous writers, book fairs, writers conferences. It’s a real three ring circus (in the best sense). Now you have to market your own  book to bookstores. How has your own bookselling experience helped you do this?

Bill: My experience in the book business has helped a lot – there’s no way to deny that. Mainly, my years as a bookseller have given me an entrée into bookstores. It’s also made it easier for me to talk with the people who report on books and bookselling. The people at the blog: “Shelf Awareness”, for example, have been incredibly helpful.

But even with all that, I’ve had to do a lot of the same things that other authors have to do. I have a wonderful agent, Lisa Gallagher, who helped open a few doors at key moments. But I’ve had to create my own website, hire a publicist – and even work with a publicist who specializes in book blogs.

Andy: You’re also a legendary figure in retail bookselling. Is that helping you get the book into the stores? What are other booksellers saying about it?

Bill: Legendary? I don’t know about that. If anyone is legendary, it’s my wife, Elaine, who really understands bookselling as well as anyone in the country. But I do know other booksellers, and I’ve gotten a lot of nice support for the book from many of them.

Andy: When I first became an agent, I avoided representing fiction. Now I have dipped my toes in it. It’s really tough to sell. There are a lot of good writers out there who can’t find publishers. Publishers are making their acquisition decisions based on marketing, not aesthetics. And they will tell you that most of their fiction titles aren’t selling. Any thoughts why?

Bill: Now that I’ve been promoting my own novel, I have a better idea why it’s  so difficult. It’s different than promoting a non-fiction book. With  non-fiction  you can talk about your credentials on the subject, you can stress how important the book is, and you can focus your message to specialized audiences. But none of that is true with fiction. You can talk all you want about your book, but until someone reads it they don’t know how good it is. The real test is the quality of the writing.

Andy: Any thoughts about how to get these books to readers better?

Bill: I have no secret formula for making it easier. I think the only answer is to get as many advance reading copies in the hands of booksellers, other authors, and prominent people – anyone who can read it and give a positive blurb that can then be used in marketing.

Andy: Ok, Bill. Here’s the $64,000 question. I couldn’t help notice that your book is for sale at Big Bad Amazon and almost as Big and Bad Barnes and Noble. Want to share your discomfort with us?

Bill: I have no discomfort with that. I want the book sold through as many places as possible, but I haven’t done anything to encourage sales through Amazon or through the chains. I’m trying as hard as I can to get people to buy it through their local independent stores, In fact, if you go to my website at http://www.williampetrocelli.com, you will see that my buy-link goes directly to the websites of about forty independent bookstores. I’m hoping that more authors will pick up on this idea and link to the independent stores whose support for their books is so important.

Andy: Are you working on your next novel?

Bill: I am, but I put it aside while I’m been trying to promote The Circle of Thirteen. Every now and then I find those characters talking to me, though, asking me where I’ve been. I need to get back to it. It’s a different kind of story, but hopefully it will be just as provocative. One of the characters is a bookseller, so that should give us something to talk about next time.

Bill will be speaking and reading from The Circle of Thirteen at the following venues:

Tues. Nov. 12, 7 PM. Powell’s Books, Portland, Or.

Thurs. Nov. 14,  7 PM. Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, Ca.

Sat. Nov. 19, 7 PM. R. J. Julia Books, Madison, Cn.

Wed. Nov. 20, 7 PM. McNally Jackson, New York, NY.

Sun. Nov. 24, 11 AM. Miami Book Fair, Miami, Fl.

Michele Anna Jordan on Food and Food Writing

September 7, 2013

jordan picVinaigrettesNew200Today we are going to talk to Michele Anna Jordan about food writing. Michele is a James Beard Award winning author and food and wine writer.  She is the author of 18 cookbooks. In 1989, she was voted Best Chef in the Sonoma County Art Awards. She lives and writes in Sonoma County where she pretty much has sewn up the title of  “Sonoma food guru”. Her new book, Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings, was published this year by Harvard Common Press. Right now, it’s the best selling book on salad dressing in America.

Andy: Michele, you’ve been writing cookbooks now for nearly 25 years. How has the market for these books changed during that time?

 Michele: Readers don’t seem to have changed much. They still want what they did when my first book came out, which is to say good recipes with clear instructions accompanied by interesting stories and a context that is both broad and deep. Readers like context–not just culinary, but also geographic, historical, emotional.

But getting a book into a reader’s hands has changed in big ways. Advances are a fraction of what they were a decade or so ago. More of the marketing and promotion work is put onto the author. Some publishers do nothing or next to nothing to promote the book once it’s published. Publishers expect the author to provide photographs and other materials to the publisher free of charge. The kind of high quality food photographs you see in cookbooks can be very expensive to produce.  With my first book, I was offered $2000 for testing expenses. That never happens now.

Andy: Has anything gotten easier?

Michele: Yes.  I no longer print out a 500-page manuscript and send it off by FedEx.  Nearly everything, except for final galleys, is done by email. Of course, that means no more “It’s in the mail” excuses to buy time, either. With my most recent book, nearly all the editing was done digitally.  Quality photographs are, for the most part, much easier to produce these days too. All this speeds up the process and gets  the book to the marketplace more quickly than in the past.

Andy: It seems like celebrity chefs are a bigger part of the food world than ever. How does The Food Network and food TV play into this? How is it manifested in the book  publishing world?

Michele: Chefs and cooks were once simply physical laborers. Early cookbooks were written by doctors and then Fanny Farmer and the Domestic Scientists came along  at the end of the nineteenth century and began to codify home cooking.  This codification also lead to over-manipulation of foods and attempts to deny both appetite and the pleasure we take in eating. This had a pretty devastating impact on the American palate.

Andy: So when did all this start to change?

Michele: Stay with me here a minute, okay?

Fast forward to the Gourmet Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the back-to-the-earth movement coincided with increased European travel and a re-emergence of pleasure as a pursuit. Alice Waters, herself not a chef but an inspired restaurateur, rode this wave to fame and fortune. In her wake came all that we see today: Restaurants as havens of the best food, chefs as elevated celebrities, home cooks — by definition inferior. Vanity cookbooks–coffee-table books that tell a chef’s story or  a restaurant’s story and offer recipes put together by a kitchen staff of a dozen or more sous chefs — became a huge industry. This all received an enormous boost when The Food Network finally took off.

Andy: So how did putting it all on TV change things?

 Michele: It’s  made cooking a spectator sport,  passive entertainment for a huge portion of the population.  It’s left us feeling disempowered, in the sense that the Food Network makes us believe that it requires some sort of  magical talent  to make great food. I find this sad, since the real skill of a professional chef is management and consistency, the ability to put out plate after plate of reliable food day after day. You don’t need this skill to be a fabulous home cook. You just need to make fabulous food.

Now, back to the codification and over-manipulation of food. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry is often heralded as the best chef in America or even the world. I use him as an example because he’s probably the best known of his ilk. But if you look at his food, it’s over-manipulated to the degree that it is more of an intellectual exercise than a sensual pleasure. He and others like him have brought cooking back to where it was for the Domestic Scientists, who took great pleasure in creating such things as “all white meals,” in which everything was cut quite precisely and cloaked in white sauce, frosting or such so as to disguise it entirely. Pleasure and its handmaiden, appetite, were the bane of their existence. This newest version of their aversion to appetite has had a pretty devastating effect on the American palate.

Anyone interested in this part of our culinary history must read Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro.

Andy: Michele, explain that a little more. I went to the French Laundry, and the food was delicious. Are you saying it doesn’t taste good?

Michele: I feel like Thomas Hardy after the publication of Jude the Obscure, when he said he’d be a fool to stand up and be shot (he was referring to his decision not to write any more novels). but here I go, I’m standing up.

In all honesty, Keller’s food doesn’t always taste good. When I was there about a year and a half ago, a couple of things were good but not great, some things were mediocre and a few things were not good at all–but most things looked lovely, in a very symmetrical, constructed and often clever way. And I found certain elements offensive. For example, a tower of eight white plates and saucers elevated an espresso cup full of what was said to be carrot soup. Eight plates! All I could do was think about the poor dishwashers and the water they’d need. And the soup? It was hot carrot juice with a leaf of tarragon. I love purity of flavors and the showcasing of single foods grown and harvested perfectly but hot carrot juice is a bit disgusting.

Andy: Yuck!

Michele: Most presentations were like this, cerebral, ostentatious, pretentious and, in the end, not about the food.

What most offended me were  the four dessert courses, each one with several highly manipulated elements. I felt infantilized and, really, just wanted another lamb chop or some such, since there really wasn’t all that much on the savory side. I was embarrassed, too, because neither I nor my companion wanted all those sweets–they were cloying and a bit candy-shoppish. We just pushed them around on our plates so our waiter would think we’d eaten.

And the bill! It was $668 for lunch for two, which included just two glasses of sparkling wine and one glass of pinot noir. Two people could fly to Hawaii and back for the cost of one mediocre, forgettable lunch.

Andy: Boy, I hope your partner grabbed the check! Ok, let’s say that I’m getting started in cooking and I want to have one book that tells me all I need to know. It used to be The Joy of Cooking. Does that book still reign supreme? Or is it just a well established name brand? What are some good alternatives?

Michele: I think the 1974 edition of The Joy of Cooking remains an invaluable resource. The 1964 edition is excellent, too. The 1997 edition, not so much. But nothing has replaced it. Some have tried but none have succeeded, not so far.

Andy: That’s very interesting. How are the editions different? Have they changed because of food trends?

Michele: Yes, the 1997 edition was too  trendy. A group of well-known chefs did the revisions and there was more focus on professional techniques, flavors and ingredients than previous editions, which have so much down-to-earth kitchen wisdom. As soon as I looked through it, I realized it was not going to become a classic. And it hasn’t.

 Andy: So now I have my one standard book. And I want to build a modest cookbook library. What are the next 10 titles that I should buy for my kitchen shelf (after I purchase Vinaigrettes, of course)?

Michele: This is a personal question that depends on your food preferences, how much time you like to spend shopping and cooking, etc. I read cookbooks for inspiration, and I recommend them for this purpose too.  So this is a very personal list that represents a wide range of cuisines. The first book is one I always recommend. Sadly, it is out of print, though you can find it fairly easily on line. It is brilliant but overlooked and underrated.

Unplugged Kitchen by Viana LaPlace

Fish Forever by Paul Johnson

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

The Italian Baker by Carol Field

The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy

Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

Arabesque by Claudia Roden

The Original Thai Cookbook by Jennifer Brennan

Andy: You can get hundreds of thousands of free recipes on line. Just look at Epicurious. Why would anyone need to buy a cookbook any more?

Michele: When it comes to free on-line recipes, it’s a jungle.  So watch out for those pretty but poisonous plants. I frequently peruse the major recipe web sites to see what’s there and I’m appalled by what I find: poorly written and untested recipes predominate. A lot of them absolutely will not work. There is no consistency when it comes to seasonality or quality. Randomness rules. Sure, you might find a recipe you like. But there will be no context, no relationship. Nothing is vetted; there’s no central voice.

A good cookbook has been vetted on many levels. Recipes are tested. There’s a voice, a point of view, at the center of it all. There’s context and, in the best of them, there is depth. A good cookbook is like a friend who joins you in the kitchen. It’s a relationship, not a one-night stand.

Andy: When I think of regions that are important in the food world in California, the places that come to mind are Napa and maybe Berkeley. Last time we talked, you said something surprising.  You believed  Sonoma County is much more important now than either of those places. Care to elaborate?

Michele: I could write books on this topic. Oh, wait, I have! Sonoma County has always been much more important when it comes to food than either Napa or Berkeley. Berkeley has plenty of claim to fame, of course, and launched the Gourmet Ghetto and the food revolution and gave us L.  John Harris, Alice Waters, Les Blank, Peet’s Coffee, Acme Bread, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant and so much more. It spread the gospel. But look at early Chez Panisse menus: They are filled with foods and wines of Sonoma County.

Napa has a singular focus, wine. It is a long inland valley with temperatures that rise as you head north. It was easy to spread the gospel of Napa because there was a single story, which Robert Mondavi told exquisitely well. The walnut and  cherry orchards and other farms and ranches mostly disappeared as viticulture eclipsed everything. There are plenty of high-end restaurants with world-wide reputations in Napa, which makes sense, given the wine business. But this is about dining, not about cooking or farming or ranching. Napa produces some food, yes, but it must reach beyond its borders for most of its raw materials. The first place they reach out to is Sonoma. Attend any farmers market in Napa County and you see dozens of vendors from Sonoma County.

Sonoma County has five major valleys, with dozens of microclimates within these valleys. It has a seacoast. Our history of farming and ranching extends back to the 1800s, when an olive oil industry thrived here and Luther Burbank called it the chosen spot of the entire planet, as far as nature is concerned. We have some of the country’s finest dairies and the cleanest milk in America. We have extraordinary cheese makers and yogurt producers. Pastured eggs and poultry, the best lamb in the US, glorious duck, succulent grass-fed beef, delicious pork and goat, all come from our ranches and farms. We were pioneers in mesclun, the salad mix that is now everywhere. In the early 1980s, high-end restaurants from Honolulu to New York City had Sonoma County mesclun on their menus. Several local foods–the Gravenstein apple, the Bodega Red Potato, the Crane Melon and Dry Jack Cheese among them–have been taken onto the “Ark of Taste” by Slow Food.

There is a long history of home cooking here, too, with a patchwork of influences that include Portuguese, French, Italian, Swiss and German immigrants. More recently, Asian immigrants have had an impact on the region, too, especially on our agriculture.

According to several recent polls, Sonoma County is the top destination for wine travel, for wine and food travel and for food tourism. Healdsburg has been named one of the ten best small towns in America.

Frankly, I thought this would happen sooner than it has. My first book about Sonoma County food came out in 1990 and my second, a revised and expanded edition, came out in 2000. Both were ahead of the curve by several years. But now, Sonoma County is on the national and international stage, as it should be. It’s both a satisfying and a worrying development. We need to protect and preserve what we have, one of the finest agricultural environments in the world.

Andy: Michele, thanks so much for this. As usual, you are brilliant, provocative and refreshingly counter-intuitive. Gotta go now and make some of your delicious salad dressing from Vinaigrettes.

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!


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