Posts Tagged ‘barnes & Noble’

Andy Ross Interview Part 2

December 26, 2010

  This is a continuation of  John Marlow’s  interview with me for his Self Editing blog. John is a novelist and script writer and editor. His blog focuses on people writing for movies.

JRM: A number of agents and agencies are now rebranding themselves as “literary management” companies. Does this, in your opinion, represent a fundamental change in the representation business-a shift, perhaps, toward the Hollywood model where writers often retain both agent and manager?

Andy Ross: In the book trade, so far, distinguishing between “agent” and “literary management” is like distinguishing between “used car” and “preowned car.” Different words for the same thing. The real distinction is between agents who do manage client’s careers and those who just flip contracts. The former are preferable to the latter.

JRM: You’ve just described the difference between managers and agents in Hollywood, though there are of course exceptions. But in the book trade-so far-they’re all still “agents?”

Andy Ross: Yes. I guess my simple answer is that, in the book world, good literary agents manage their clients’ careers as well as get them contracts. Bad agents just flip contracts.

JRM: What’s the industry-wide average or typical advance for a book by a first-time writer, and how is that paid out? Feel free to break that down into categories, or to qualify it any way you like.

Andy Ross: I can’t make any generalization about typical advances. But I can say that advances have dramatically decreased in the last few years. It is not unusual to get an offer of a $50,000 advance from a major publisher, for a book that may very well be a lead title.

Any agent will tell you that today, $50,000 is a very good advance. Five years ago, that same book might have garnered three times that amount. You read about seven-figure advances, but really these are for the big celebrities.

Advances get split into payments. Two, three, and even four. Smaller advances are often paid in two parts, one on signing and one on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. Larger advances will have an additional payment at the time of publication.

I have a six-figure advance that has yet an additional payment at the time of paperback publication. So the final payment is likely to come over two years after the contract is signed. One questions whether this should even be called an “advance.”

 JRM: Moving more toward the classic Hollywood step deal.

While we’re talking left coast—any thoughts on books with film or other crossover potential, and how that potential affects the likelihood or ultimate price of a sale?

Andy Ross: Most good agents will try to reserve the rights for movie/tv/performance for the author. So a publisher won’t get a piece of that action. But in general, a movie helps the sale of a book. There are a lot of deals for “options” for movies, which give the production company the right to exercise an exclusive option for a given period of time. A lot of these deals aren’t worth much money. There are very few options that end up getting made into movies.

JRM: For readers who may not know the score, I feel compelled to say here that, while this is absolutely true of most options–typically those by lesser-known companies and individuals—it’s also true that many options pay more than a typical book advance, even if the film is never made. In which case, the author gets to keep the money-and option the work again, or sell it.

Also, some options involve the optioning party doing a significant amount of work to develop, improve, or adapt the work being optioned.

Andy Ross: That is certainly true. Options, like advances, come in all shapes and sizes.

JRM: What industry trends do you think writers should be aware of right now—what’s changing, and where is it taking us?

Andy Ross: The big topic of conversation right now is electronic publishing. It is growing exponentially, and will continue to do so as more consumers buy reading devices.

The reading experience with e-books has become pretty good now. I believe that this is the future of book publishing, as far as anyone can really predict the future in this fast-changing world. I think this will have tragic consequences for community-based bookstores and for the communities they serve.

I don’t think online bookselling is ever going to be able to recreate the ineffable joy and excitement of shopping at a real bookstore. I don’t think that e-books will necessarily change the way people write or the content of what they write. It is a neutral medium, just as a blank piece of paper is a neutral medium.

Of course the more substantial and, to my mind, more troubling trend is the reduction of reader attention span due to the Internet. Reading requires patience and time, and a kind of commitment from the reader that is missing when one is simply surfing the net.

And, of course, the culture of celebrity is driving bigger and bigger sales to fewer and fewer titles. These are very troubling trends, indeed.

JRM: Going back to your comment about the pleasures of shopping at brick-and-mortar stores, I have to agree. But there’s another issue in play here.

Once upon a time, the big chains drove the little independents out of business. Now the online behemoths are putting the hurt on the chains. Amazon has driven Barnes & Noble to the auction block, Borders has already gone under in Britain and was teetering on the brink last year in the U.S. The same thing is happening with dvd rentals: Netflix has driven Blockbuster into bankruptcy.

This would seem to bode well for indies, particularly small or niche stores with lower overhead—where the people working there actually know and care about the books they’re selling. But will customers be willing to pay more for that superior service and personal connection, when they can in most cases order the same thing online, for less?

Andy Ross: That is a very good point. My wife works at an independent store, Book Passage in Marin County, north of San Francisco. I used to be an independent bookseller, and I have a lot of friends who own independent stores. People in publishing and book lovers everywhere think of indies as the heart and soul of the book business.

Barnes & Noble is still a very robust company. It sells about the same number of books as Amazon. But they are closing a lot of stores and using more space for non-book items. In other words, they are having to make very significant adjustments to accommodate the brave new world of publishing.

Borders is a corporate basket case. They seem to be trying to shrink their way into profitability. Not a good sign.

And yes, you are right that smaller independents have some important advantages. They have low overhead and provide the kind of bookstore experience that is matchless. But unless they can find a way to adapt to the e-book revolution, their future will be in doubt.

JRM: What does your experience at Cody’s tell you?

Andy Ross: Cody’s was a large independent store and was probably a victim of history. The heyday of independent stores was in the 1980’s, before the chains started opening up superstores everywhere. Business began declining in the ’90s. And at the end of that decade we began facing extremely robust competition from Amazon.com. Cody’s had a very high overhead and faced eroding sales.

JRM: What do you like most about working with writers?

Andy Ross: I have enormous admiration for the vocation as well as the profession of writing. I think a lot about what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird. She advised the writer to stop worrying about getting published. Writing opens you to the world and makes you a better and wiser person. Getting published does none of this. And seldom brings wealth or fame.

I have said elsewhere in my blog [link]  that the work of the writer reminds me of the final magnificent sentences of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. Something to the effect that: “the journey itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Nothing to my mind is a more eloquent expression about the courage it takes to be a writer.

 

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Remembering the Rushdie Affair

November 18, 2009

On February 28, 1989, Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me that a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store putting 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. I 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 that the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although it was never learned exactly who was responsible for the incident. But I assumed that it probably wasn’t a disgruntled ex-girlfriend of mine.

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 Moslem 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 Moslem 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 about people’s 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 the vantage point of street level, this was not such an easy decision.

I had made a second career out of attacking the chain stores in any manner I could find. But when they became the underdog in this melodrama, for the first and last time in my career I took their side. It was a very contrarian position that won me few friends. I’m sure that had Cody’s not been bombed the following week, and had I not become the martyr de jour, I would have taken some heat for this.

I articulated the reasons for this and the reasons that my own feelings had become quite conflicted in a letter I wrote to Susan Sontag on February 19, 10 days before the Cody’s bombing. I’ll quote the letter at some length here.

“I was distressed to read a quote by you in the media… in which you seemed to draw an analogy between the behavior of members of the literary community to the silence of Germans during the 30’s….

“The events of the past week have forced me to make difficult decisions; decisions in which I have had to choose between my most valued ideals of freedom of expression and the need to protect the lives and safety of my employees. Both of these values are absolute and yet, in this case, inconsistent. We are on the horns of a dilemma. To aggressively affirm our commitment to freedom of speech, we risk inflaming further the anger of fanatics. At best we compromise and find a middle ground. We agonize endlessly over whether we should carry the book at all; if so, do we sell it under the counter or display it; if we display it, do we feature it prominently or discretely.…..

“And so we make our decisions without any assurance of their wisdom. Our actions will be judged either cowardly or prudent only in hindsight and only as a result of consequences which are out of our control….

“… Although I personally disagree with the chains’ actions, I find it difficult to pass judgment on them in this instance. Booksellers are the front line shock troops in this struggle as in most censorship issues….We can’t go into hiding, and so we are uniquely vulnerable….It may be that in some situations, caution is required. If, as a result of such caution, lives are saved; then a store’s actions could be deemed not cowardly but prudent. If, as a result of another store’s decision to carry the book, people are harmed; then such actions could be deemed not courageous but foolhardy….”

Susan Sontag never responded to this letter.

The following week,  Cody’s was bombed. I spoke of the fire bombing that occurred at 2 AM. More troubling was that as we were cleaning up in the morning, 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. Literally hundreds. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. At this point 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 move. 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 that 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!

I stood and told the staff that 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 to 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 the moment when I realized that bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation. Because ideas are powerful weapons. It was also the moment that I realized in a very concrete way that what I had told Susan Sontag was truer and more prophetic  than anything I could have then imagined. 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 from 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. We were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told that 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.”