Posts Tagged ‘cody’s books’

The Authors Guild on the Option Clause

September 23, 2015

Excellent statement from The Author’s Guild analyzing the odious “option clause” in the book contract. Most book contracts are “asymmetrical” in favor of the publisher. I.e. an agreement whereby the publisher gets the right to exploit the work of the author for the term of the copyright, life plus 70 years. In exchange they give the author a very small advance (usually)  against rather small royalties. One of the most asymmetrical conditions is the option clause, which requires the author to submit the next book exclusively to the contracted publisher for a given period of time, but doesn’t require any additional responsibility on the publisher to accept it. Sometimes a very limited option clause is ok. But there are some truly horrible ones out there.  Here is the complete text.

A few authors are lucky enough to sign multi-book deals worth six or seven figures. But many more writers, without really thinking about it, tie themselves to unprofitable multi-book deals in the form of one-sided options or “next book” clauses—and they do it for free.

Option clauses in publishing agreements vary, but generally they give the publisher first dibs on the author’s next book. Some options are relatively benign, granting the publisher rights of first look or first negotiation (i.e., the right to see the next book first and negotiate for a limited period of time after reviewing it). Others are never fair, in our view, such as clauses that grant the publisher a right of last refusal (i.e., even if the publisher turns it down at first, it can come back and match any other publisher’s offer) or the ability to wait until after the first book is published, or the second book completed, to make up its mind. Clauses that do so unfairly impede an author’s ability to write and publish.

We get that publishers want their investments in authors to pay off. When a book does well, it may be a credit to the publisher’s marketing efforts, as well as the author’s. In cases where the publisher actively builds the author’s brand, it may be fair to give it the right to further recoup its investment on the next book. But the terms have to reasonable. We have seen too many option clauses that overreach, binding the hands of an unwitting author for longer than she can afford when it comes time to sell the next book.

Option clauses can wreak havoc on authors’ careers. First, and most obviously, they prevent an author from selling her book on the open market and getting the best deal possible. In cases where the first book sold particularly well, unless and until the publisher passes on the next book, an option certainly precludes an auction from developing. And what if the publisher failed to market the first book effectively, or the author was dissatisfied with the edit? The author is left without recourse.

An option can also hold up the author’s ability to get a new advance—a necessity for full-time authors. Particularly egregious clauses require the author to submit a completed manuscript (as opposed to a proposal) of the next book for the publisher’s consideration. To make things worse, they give the publisher way too long to decide whether to publish the manuscript. The author is not permitted to submit a proposal to other publishers until after delivering an entire new book to the original publisher, which is given ample time to review it and, of course, to reject it. This means that the author is writing the entire book without an advance—defeating the very purpose of an advance, which is to provide an author with money to write the book in the first place.

Even worse are options that give the publisher the right to the author’s next book-length work “on the same terms” as the first. That is, if the publisher elects to exercise the option, the author must sign a contract with the publisher with the same provisions and payment structure as the current contract. This completely eliminates the author’s right to negotiate before the next book’s subject matter, length, and market potential are known. No writer should ever agree to such terms.

For absolute intolerability, option clauses including “last refusal” rights take the cake. These, as discussed above, actually allow a publisher to match a second publisher’s offer, even if the publisher who holds the option declines the author’s work initially. We don’t think a publisher should receive even one bite of this apple. But several? That’s crazy. Once a publisher passes on a book, no author should be obligated to disclose any offers received from others to the original publisher.

One Authors Guild member whose option required submission of an entire manuscript spent ten years without any financial compensation while working on a research-intensive non-fiction manuscript (an early advance for the “next book” is almost never part of the deal). His contract prohibited him from approaching any other publisher until the entire manuscript was done—a decade later. It’s preposterous to ask authors to bear that kind of risk.

Fiction writers aren’t immune. A few years ago, a major publisher used a next-book option (together with a non-compete clause, like the ones we’ve called out here) as an excuse to pull the plug on a novel already scheduled for publication. With her agent’s knowledge and blessing, the author decided to self-publish a previously-written but unpublished short story collection in order to make ends meet before the next installment of the advance for the novel was due. When her publisher—which had already rejected the story collection—found out, the author received a termination letter demanding immediate repayment of the advance, claiming that “by ignoring these essential terms of the Agreement and not informing your editor of your intentions, you have not only breached the Agreement, but also demonstrated your unwillingness to work in good faith with us toward the successful publication of the Work.” The novel clearly didn’t compete with the self-published short story e-book. And earlier, when the author presented the publisher with an outline for her next novel, the publisher had insisted on waiting until after the current novel’s release to see how it was received and whether it was worth picking up the next one.

Or consider the romance novelist who took a break from fiction to write a non-fiction book. Her non-fiction contract required her to submit her next book—a romance novel—to that same publisher, despite the fact that the non-fiction publisher had absolutely no experience with romance novels. The upshot was that the author was required to delay submission of the novel to publishers who would actually know how to handle it.

Fair “next book” clauses do exist and may be appropriate where the publisher invests in marketing, but they must be strictly limited. The clause should grant only a right to negotiate with the author for a next book of similar subject matter for a limited period of time. If the author and publisher can’t reach an agreement in that time frame, it is crucial that the author be free to quickly seek another publisher. Additionally, a fair option agreement generally will:

  • require that the publisher base its decision on a proposal or sample chapters of the next book (not on a completed manuscript);
  • require the publisher to make a decision within a certain number of days (e.g., 30) of receiving the author’s proposal or sample chapter(s);
  • allow the author to go elsewhere if no agreement is made within a limited number of days (e.g., 15) of the publisher’s offer;
  • allow the author to submit a proposal or sample from the next book for the publisher’s review when it is ready (the author should never be forced to wait until some period after publication of the first book, which may be way too far out for an author living on book writing alone); and
  • provide for new terms to be negotiated for the next book (the second deal should never be based on the terms in the contract for the first book).

If the publisher wants an option in any other circumstances, the publisher should pay an upfront option fee for it. We recognize this is not an industry practice—not yet, at any rate. But it should become one. A publisher should never have the right to prevent or delay an author from selling her next book unless it pays an additional amount to hold up that work for some period of time, as a film studio would when buying film option rights on a book.

Bottom line: option clauses are almost always in the sole interest of the publisher and not the author. In some cases, the option clause can hold the author’s writing career hostage to the publisher’s schedule for years. This amounts to an unacceptable restriction on an author’s freedom to write. If an author is agreeable to providing the publisher an option, it should be subject to the limits described above.

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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.

Looking for Respect (and Swag) at BEA

June 8, 2012

Leslie at the “old” BEA

I just got back from New York City where I was attending Book Expo America (BEA), the annual convention and trade show of book publishing. What happened? Let me just put it this way. In 2007, the last year I attended as a bookseller, I was invited to over 50 parties and dinners at the toniest New York venues. The following year, my first as an agent, I was invited to…let me try to remember.uh. I believe it was zero including even the party that was being hosted by one of my best friends in bookselling. It was an indignity, but one  that taught me a heartbreaking lesson about the fickleness of fame. It calls to mind  T.S. Eliot’s unforgettable line: “The only wisdom we can hope to achieve is the wisdom of humility.”

I returned home feeling pretty depressed. After a few months, Leslie told me that it was time to get over it, stop moping, buck up,  and start being a good father again to Hayley. I didn’t go back to BEA for three years. But finally, my self-respect restored, I decided to return.

There was reason to be hopeful. Before the convention, I contacted Bob Miller,  of Workman Publishers. Not only did he most enthusiastically agree to meet with me,  he even invited me to the Workman cocktail party at their offices on Varick Street. It seemed like a sign, an indicator,  that my status in this business was starting to look up. I kept waiting for the mail to come every day, even standing on the porch looking  for the postman. But as I sifted through the daily harvest of letters, I began to realize that there would be no other invitations forthcoming.

When I got to BEA, I walked up and down the numbered aisles around the convention floor at Javits Center thinking that my old friends in publishing, people I had known for 30 years, would come up and stick an embossed invitation into my breast pocket, give me a little pat, and tell me that they hoped I could come to their  intimate  private dinner at The Four Seasons in honor their author who had recently won the National Book Award for Fiction. But no. Sometimes they said hi. Sometimes they said: “We’re really sorry you aren’t still at Moe’s.”

On the second day of the convention, I was walking out of the hall and encountered an old friend in bookselling. I told her that I was feeling a little down because I had nothing to do that night. She raised her eyebrows and motioned for me to come with her over to a darkened niche adjacent to the men’s room. She told me that she had pinched an extra ticket to the Publishers Group West Party being given that night and could give it to me if I promised not to say a word about  where I had gotten it. I just shook my head and told her that this old bookseller still had a little pride left in his heart.

We walked back to the front entrance and ran into another bookseller, an old friend who had served with me on the American Booksellers Association Board of Directors. She asked me if I would be attending the Knopf dinner for David Remnick of The New Yorker. Looking down at the floor, trying to hide my shame, I told her, “No. I had not been invited.” She looked at me with a kind of smirk on her face, and said only, “Pity”, before turning away and leaving the hall.

As I walked down the aisles,  the images of the great moments at BEA  seemed to fade in and out of my thoughts  like specters of times past,  better times for book publishers and booksellers alike, times when we could let go of our phony elitist literary pretentions and   indulge our  secret longings for all things crass and  tasteless.

 

The Bodice Ripper

I remembered the years that the Harlequin booth was the most splendiferous at the show. Harlequin is  the downmarket  publisher of racksize paperbacks of women’s romance. We used to call them “bodice rippers.”  At the booth  there was always a bit actress dressed to look like Scarlett O’hara reclining next to a man, probably a “b” list model,  with bulging biceps, a shining saber at his side and a patch over his eye.

My favorite moment was in 1982. I was walking down the aisle of university press booths and saw another day actor dressed in overalls and a John Deere cap, dragging a live hog on a leash down the aisle. I believe  they were trying to promote a book being published by Oxford University Press, a quantitative economic analysis  of the emerging agribusiness economy in America’s heartland..

And the swag back then was something else. This year the only handout I saw was at the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt booth,  a book bag promoting the new edition of  Tolkien’s Hobbit, tied in to the movie release this December. The fabric was cheap, the workmanship shabby. (I noticed a “made in Bengladesh” label attached to the inner lining.)   You would have never seen that kind of  Schmattah  being given away in the 80s. When  I tried to grab one for Hayley, the smiley face greeter at the booth gave me a dark and threatening look and growled, “Sorry. Booksellers only.”

I remembered the best freebee I ever got at BEA. I was sharing a cab with the CEO of one of the major houses.  They were  heavily promoting a new thriller for the fall called, Jig. Larry, the CEO,  pulled a watch out of his pocket and handed it to me.  It was oversized. The face was black with huge white letters J,I,G. It was a real treasure. Later I proudly showed it to my friend. She commented rather archly that I might not be making the right fashion statement wearing an accessory with an ugly racist epithet scrawled across it. The Jig watch is now gone along with so many other treasures of my past.

That was a long time ago, a different time. A time when bookselling meant something. It was a time when I used to stand next to the new title table at the front of Cody’s greeting my customers. I remember once an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Mr. Ross, your taste in books has always been unerring. What do you recommend that I purchase today?”

I turned and scrutinized the tall stacks of new titles, the best sellers on the front table, and gingerly picked up one. I turned back  and handed it to the woman. “Try reading this  one.  I think you will find it quite satisfying. People are talking about it a lot this season.  It’s called, Jig.”

Bookselling in the Eighties 2

May 18, 2011

Cody's at night 1986In 1980  most books were still being sold in independent stores. The big chains were B. Dalton Booksellers  (later purchased by Barnes and Noble) and Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders and facing extinction). Almost all of these stores were in malls. They were small, about 2-3000 square feet. They sold commercial bestsellers by the bucket load. In the late 80s the big chains changed their strategy and started building 40,000 square feet megastores. And the little  mall stores have been declining in number and languishing  in sales since then.

These  chain stores were a lot different from  independents, and I don’t think they really were formidable competitors. They focused on highly commercial books, hardback and paperback bestsellers, genre fiction, how-to and self-help books, and  coffee table scrap books of Hollywood celebrities.  . Unlike many independents, the stores  were extremely well lit (in a sort of cold fluorescent sort of way) and they put a premium on dramatic displays of  a limited range of titles. Typical independent stores of the time were more crowded, darker, and less glitzy. Displays were pretty modest. Independents  were more concerned with their dignity and seriousness of purpose. (Although my dignity could be tested, when struggling to deal with the overused public restrooms on Telegraph Avenue).  I think that the chains had a better sense of the trends in modern design than we did. They really focused on being inviting to the average consumer. But it wasn’t clear whether they served the function of bringing culture to the masses  or  debasing culture  to the lowest common denominator.  The debate continues to this day.

 The chains pioneered the use of “dumps” (I love that word), large cardboard displays provided by publishers with 4 to 8 pockets of a single title placed face out, usually in the front of the store. When Simon and Schuster published their book on the  transcripts of the Nixon Tapes in 1997, I suggested that they create a dump with a life size cutout of Nixon looking jowly and with five o’clock shadow, pointing down to the books and saying in his inimitable style: “Buy this book, you cock shucker!” Simon and Schuster was neither impressed nor amused.

 People’s opinions of these stores varied. Some media pundits saw them as a democratizing force bringing books to a wider audience. Others saw them as an ominous sign that the barbarians were at the gates and foreshadowed  the end of civilization as we knew it. These stores were never popular in intellectually snooty Berkeley.

A lot of books were also sold in department stores and through book clubs, but these channels  were already in decline. They had always been the venues of choice for  certain types of rich old ladies with blue hair.  The giant big box retailers: Costco, Wal-mart, and Target, all of which are huge sellers of  books today, were not even on the futurists’ radars.

But big changes were afoot that would dramatically transform bookselling in the decade ahead.  In 1971 Leonard Riggio, a young recent graduate of NYU, purchased  Barnes and Noble, a  moribund New York retail book store, that had been around since the late nineteenth century.  At the time Barnes and Noble had what was probably the largest bookstore in America on Nineteenth Street in New York.  Riggio went about expanding the company regionally. He focused on opening smaller stores around Manhattan. He also began what was then a very novel marketing strategy of heavily discounting best sellers, as much as 40%. The discounted books were placed in the back of the store, a little like milk in supermarkets. In order to get to the cheap titles, the customer had to snake his way through long aisles. During the trek, one hoped,  he would be seduced by the full price titles along the way.

Further down the eastern seaboard, in Washington D. C., Robert Haft, another brash and aggressive young man with some family money behind him, was inspired by the Barnes and Noble discounting strategy and started opening his own discount stores called Crown Books. Haft’s family had built up a huge regional discount drug chain called Dart Drugs and had some experience in aggressive price cutting. The typical Crown store was a pretty shabby affair, smaller even than the mall-based chains.  Haft  liked to say that every book in the store was discounted every day. He filled the store with a very limited amount of discounted hardback and paperback bestsellers along with lots of off-price remainders. In 1979  Crown started opening stores in other cities, first in Chicago, then San Francisco and LA, and expanded from there. He never opened in New York to avoid going head to head with the only other discounter of the time, Barnes and Noble.

Haft,  developed extremely annoying ads that saturated the media to announce his openings in new markets. He would stand around stacks of best sellers and say in a grating voice that sounded like the Godfather, only two octaves higher: “Books cost too much in [name of city], so I started Crown Books. Now you’ll never have to pay full price again.”

A Crown opened less than a block from Cody’s on Telegraph Avenue. It never did very well and closed a few years later. There was also  a Waldenbooks a block north of Cody’s. It didn’t do so well either and closed in the early 90s.

Cody’s As it Was in 1977

February 10, 2011

When I became the owner of Cody’s in 1977, it was primarily stocked paperbacks. Although the idea of a paperback bookstore was novel, paperbacks had been around for a long time, at least since the mid 19th century. The first strictly paperback  publisher was Pocket Books, founded in 1939. Its famous logo of  Gertrude the kangaroo is still on the spines of Pocket Book titles.  The company is now an imprint of Simon and Schuster.  The first title they published was Lost Horizons by James Hilton.

New paperback publishers started popping up in the 1940’s. Penguin Books, Bantam, New American Library,   and  Ballantine Books still live on today as imprints of larger houses. The  books they published were called “mass market” paperbacks. They were and continue to be rack sized books and were primarily sold outside of the traditional book channels. Mostly you found them in magazine outlets and drug stores. In the 1950s publishers started producing “trade paperback” books. These were of a larger format and were usually sold in the new paperback oriented bookstores like Cody’s and Keplers.

Before the mid-1970’s, booksellers couldn’t buy mass market books direct. They were forced to buy them from local magazine distributors with unfavorable trade terms and limited selection. A lot of these distributors were run by the mob, who kept both the bookseller and the publisher in a state of terror. Gradually publishers started showing some uncharacteristic backbone and began selling direct to booksellers. There were a number of reports of “representatives” from the magazine distributors, goons really, making personal visits to booksellers in order to discourage them from dealing directly with the publishers. But the booksellers (who were mostly small shopkeepers back then) showed their  characteristic courage and independence that continues to be their hallmark to this day. Fred Cody told the story of a visit from one of these representatives who threatened to break his knees.

Although the mass market publishers sold reprints of hardback bestsellers, they really excelled at genre fiction. That still is their long  suit today. Genre fiction is a publishing term of art for mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, thrillers and romance. A lot of the stuff was pretty cheesy. The covers in those days were wonderful —  full of babes in suggestive poses, their bodacious bodies pouring out of their skimpy clothes. Titles like Flesh Pots of Malibu. Some nice lesbian action too, mostly taking place in ladies’  prison blocks.

My favorite genre back in the 70s were the romances which we called “bodice rippers” referring to the formulaic schlock-o covers  of shirtless muscle men and swashbucklers ripping the bodices off  the swooning, usually excessively endowed, heroine. I remember every year at the booksellers convention, the romance publishers would hire big hunks, usually dressed up as pirates to promote the titles. There were also women at the booths who all looked like a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Daisy Mae Yokum. The most popular and probably the most tasteless title in this genre was one called: Mandingo. It had a a larger than life slave with bulging muscles popping out of his tattered clothes along with the daughter of the slave master, ripped bodice and all, swooning at his feet. 

 In 1977 Cody’s was a large store for its time. It was about 8900 square feet. That’s not impressive compared to the giant superstores around the country now that are sometimes as large as 60,000 square feet. It always seemed a lot larger though. The Codys had built this structure themselves in 1963. The main room was 35 feet high with floor to ceiling windows giving it a cathedral-like feeling of space. It was filled up with funky homemade pine bookshelves sagging with spine out paperbacks. It was pretty impressive when you walked into the store. It looked like it had every book ever published.

  When I bought the store, there were only 17 employees. But that was an enormous change for me. I had previously only managed one or two people at any given time. The staff were paid $3.25 per hour. Pat Cody always said that the employees  had to settle for the psychic compensation of being surrounded by books. It was true that most of the employees were hired because they, too, had a passion for books. I was fortunate to have two managers who were experienced, competent and gifted booksellers. The general manager was Nick Setka. He was 27 years old then and did most of the buying for the store, which was perfect for his wonderful, intuitive understanding of books. Ed Manegold, then in his early 30’s, was the assistant manager. He was smart, committed,  and much more tough minded than either Nick or me.   Outside of finding the right book for a customer, buying was the only fun job in bookselling. So I tried to join in on that. Usually Nick and I would sit down together with the salesmen. Back then the sales reps were known with the rather quaint name of: “travelers.”  Nick is still in the book business. He is a manager at Book Passage in Marin County and works there with my wife, Leslie Berkler.

In 1977,  the store was organized and stocked in a way that reflected the passions of the owners, Pat and Fred.  The front table, the most prominent real estate in the store, was filled with self-published and small press  books. Fred believed in small presses with a passion. It was a kind of political position. He once made a public statement that he would stock one copy of any small press book that was offered to him.  That statement came back to haunt him, but it tells a lot about Fred’s passion as a bookseller.  I was less thrilled with the small presses. A lot of  those books seemed to be  solipsistic exercises. But still  times were different then and there really were some phenomenal small presses, many of which were located in the Bay  Area. Some of them still exist today. City Lights Books in San Francisco started its publishing arm in 1955. It most famously published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl  the following year. Over in Berkeley Phil Wood gave up his sales rep job at Penguin and decided to start publishing. His first book, Anybody’s Bike Book, inspired the name for his new publishing company, Ten Speed Press. The book went on to sell a million copies, and Ten Speed Press still exists today. In 2009  it was bought by Random House and continues to be an imprint there. Phil died in 2010 after a long bout with cancer. He was a legend and a reminder of a time when publishing was  a more personal endeavor  driven by people with a passion for books.  I admired Phil tremendously throughout his career and will miss him. I miss him a lot.

Here is a list of the bestselling titles of 1977, the year I bought Cody’s.

Fiction

1. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien; Christopher Tolkien

2. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

3. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach

4. The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carré

5. Oliver’s Story, Erich Segal

6. Dreams Die First, Harold Robbins

7. Beggarman, Thief, Irwin Shaw

8. How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong

9. Delta of Venus: Erotica, Anaïs Nin

10. Daniel Martin, John Fowles

Non-fiction 

1. Roots, Alex Haley

2. Looking Out for #1, Robert Ringer

3. All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Herriot

4. Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

5. The Book of Lists, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace

6. The Possible Dream: A Candid Look at Amway, Charles Paul Conn

7. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, Carl Sagan

8. The Second Ring of Power, Carlos Castaneda

9. The Grass ls Always Greener over the Septic Tank, Erma Bombeck

10. The Amityville Horror, Jay Anson

Not such a bad list of titles, all things considered. The really hot books at Cody’s were quite a bit different though. Yes, we sold bunches of Carlos Castaneda, Tolkien, and Alex Haley’s Roots. And even a few of the less memorable titles on the list like James Herriot, Erma Bombeck and The Thorn Birds

But Cody’s was really marching to the beat of a different drummer. We would sell hundreds, even thousands, of books like Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida, The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault,  Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Ecrits by Jacques Lacan.  (And almost anything else by French philosophers and considered “post modern”). These books were all written with such opaque jargon that they could only be understood, if at all, by those initiated into mysteries of the cult of deconstruction.   To the cognoscenti, these books were nothing less than a redefinition of philosophy and literary theory. For the rest of us, it seemed like fashionable nonsense.

 Radical politics was still a passion in those days and  was reflected in the books available in the store. Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man had inspired a generation of radical students since its publication   in 1964. Cody’s had two cases of books on “Marxism”. Aside from the collected works of the master and his major disciples, Lenin, Mao,  and Gramschi, we sold a lot of the contemporary Marxist thinkers. Perhaps the most popular of the new Marxists was Louis Althusser, another French scholar. He was considered a “structuralist” which I guess gave him a license to write the obligatory impenetrable prose. In 1980 he strangled his wife to death. But  this did not seem to have harmed his reputation as a brilliant intellectual.  His fans spent a lot of time spinning out strained arguments about why we should distinguish between the profundity of his ideas and the fact that in life he was a homicidal psychopath.  They should have just accepted it as an embarrassment and left it at that.

 Scholars and philosophers  like Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Fernand Braudel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Walter Benjamin sold well at Cody’s over the years. At one point, Cody’s was selling 10% of the national sales of Walter Benjamin’s classic work of literary criticism, Illuminations.

In contrast to the two cases of books on Marxism, the six cases on philosophy and the ten cases on criticism and literary theory, we only had one shelf of books on business, half of which was taken up by a single title, What Color is your Parachute?

The world changes and bookstores reflect those changes. As we moved into the 21st century, the business section had increased to about 20 cases including subsections on management, sales, real estate, and investing. Marxism became a kind of an intellectual footnote, of importance only to the history of ideas. Most of the titles in the Marxism section quietly went out of print or stopped selling. And we folded up the section and incorporated the few remaining titles into politics, history, and philosophy.

Cody’s maintained its reputation as a great venue for scholarly titles until the very end. One of the saddest moments in my career was in early 2006. Unlike most retailers who put excess inventory on sale, bookstores can return books that are no longer selling to publishers. We did this almost daily based on lists that were kicked out by the computer of titles with no sales for the previous nine months. I was pulling returns that day and noticed that on the returns  list was our last copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was stunned to think that I was taking the most important work of modern philosophy out of the store, but it hadn’t sold in over a year. I left it on the shelf anyway. But that was when  I realized that our time was up. Six months later we closed the Telegraph Avenue store.

How I Came to Own Cody’s Part 1

January 26, 2011

Pat and Fred Cody and Me 1977

One day in May, 1977 I drove down to Santa Cruz to visit my friend, Neal Coonerty, who owned  the remarkable, Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was a big store for its time, about 10,000 square feet. It was in a lovely brick building on the pedestrian mall downtown. It had a little cobblestone terrace in back where there was a flower stand and a cappuccino counter.   The store was  a kind of bigger version  of Eeyore’s. Well, except that it had a water bed in the middle of the store. I met Neal at a booksellers school that year. We cut up a lot and made fun of the stuffy teachers. He’s still my best friend in bookselling, and his family still owns Bookshop Santa Cruz. The water bed is gone, though.

I was crashing on Neal’s living room couch that night. Just before going to bed, Neal asked me if I was aware that Cody’s in Berkeley was for sale.  I told him that I had heard the rumor. Cody’s was, even then, a famous store, legendary really. I knew about it even  when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University in Boston. Neal said, “why don’t you buy it?” That seemed unimaginable to me. I was only thirty, and in my mind I felt like I was still 20. When he told me what the asking price was (it was $150,000), I realized I could probably scrape up the money to buy it. It was hard to think of myself as  the owner of Cody’s.  Cody’s was a national icon and an enormously important force in bookselling. Things were smaller then. Owning Cody’s at that time was, to the book business,  a little like  owning Facebook today.

I woke up the next morning and walked out to my car accompanied by Neal. He asked, “So are you going to buy Cody’s?”  I shook my head  and drove away. I thought about it again while driving home. It was a big decision and one that would change the course of my entire adult life. So I tried to give it more thought than  the capricious decision that  I  made to quit graduate school.  So I must have thought about it for at least an hour. As soon as I got back to my house, I called up  Pat and Fred Cody and asked if we could meet. What happened next is a pretty short story. They liked me. I liked them. A month later on July 9, 1977  I was the new owner of Cody’s.

That date, July 9, had a certain inexorable destiny in the history of Cody’s. It was the date that the store was founded in 1956, and the date that I bought the store 21 years later. It was the date that Fred Cody died in 1983. We also originally planned on closing the Telegraph store forever on that date in 2006. When we realized that would be the 50th anniversary of the store’s founding, we made the decent decision to postpone the closing till the following day.

The Codys were larger than life. Fred Cody was one of the most charismatic men I ever knew. He was about 6’2″, had wavy grey hair and looked a little like Moses without the beard. He was a true intellectual. He also got into the business because he had a  passion for books. He had an advanced degree in history, just like me. And he also was just the sweetest guy you could ever imagine. I loved him. Everybody loved him. Pat Cody was great and had a passion for books too. But she brought to Cody’s complementary strengths. Where Fred was a dreamer, Pat was practical and a hardnosed business person.

Everybody thinks of Berkeley as the most radical city in America. It certainly isn’t any more, but probably was back then.  But  just like every other community, Berkeley people were resistant to   change  and wary of outsiders. And they were particularly concerned about the unknown  30 year old who was taking over their beloved bookstore. I learned that one local bookseller, after meeting me, commented disparagingly  that he hoped I had good help.  Everybody came up to me and admonished me not to change anything at Cody’s. I promised I wouldn’t. The Codys knew better. They told me that the store needed new blood and a lot change. And they were confident that I could do it.

During the month of negotiations I had with them, they wouldn’t let me come into the store and meet the staff. Finally the day before the store was to change hands, I was allowed to come in. Pat and Fred stayed around for a few days to clean up their office. Then Fred came up to me and said, “I’m going home. Call me if you need anything.” I was too young and inexperienced to realize that I was too young and inexperienced. So I just started working.   For the next 30 years anybody who disagreed with me for any reason would tell me that Fred Cody would have done things differently. They usually said that they were “close personal friends with Bill Cody”. This was always a tipoff that they that they had no idea what they were talking about.   Some of those people hadn’t even been born when Fred owned the store.  People called me “the new owner of Cody’s” for about 20 years.

 When I bought Cody’s in 1977, it was considered a “paperback bookstore.”  That was when paperback books were beginning to come out of the closet. “Trade” paperbacks weren’t all that common in bookstores  until the 1950s. Bookstores mostly catered to the carriage trade and thought that paperbacks were for riff-raff and beneath their dignity. But bookstores started cropping up that had more egalitarian sensibilities and  started specializing  in the new format. The conventional wisdom is that the first 3 stores that blazed the way for the paperback revolution were in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were Kepler’s in Palo Alto, City Lights in San Francisco, and Cody’s in Berkeley, all started in the mid 1950s; and  all catering to a clientele that was long on brains and short on cash. Each of the founders were intellectual dissenters of a sort. Roy Kepler  was a pacifist and peace activist. Fred Cody had a Ph.D but couldn’t get a job in academics because he refused to take a loyalty oath.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who started City Lights, was a prominent poet and deeply involved in the Beat culture of San Francisco.

National Guard Outside Cody's -1969

In the 1960s all of these stores became central players in the political unrest of the times. Fred was an early supporter of the Free Speech Movement  that galvanized radical dissent at UC in 1964.  Later Fred was an outspoken peace activist. And Cody’s became an intellectual center for left wing politics, a tradition that continued after  I took over the store. FSM leader, Mario Savio, briefly worked at Cody’s.  In the sixties, there was a lot of turbulence going on right outside the doors of the store associated with the Viet Nam War. In 1969 Governor Ronald Reagan responded to the civil unrest in Berkeley by sending in the National Guard. In justifying this exercise of  excessive force, he famously said, “If the bloodbath must come, then let’s get on with it.” 

Reagan was no Abraham Lincoln, and Telegraph Avenue was no Fort Sumter. But peace activists kept marching up and down Telegraph Avenue,  and the cops were tossing tear gas canisters around to  disperse the crowds. Cody’s would always open the doors to let in the  activists fleeing  from the cops. Fred and Pat  Cody loved to tell the story of  the time that the police threw a tear gas  grenade into the store. The employees  tossed  it back out the door. The cops tossed it in again  and then it  blew up releasing the tear gas throughout the store.  Not good.  Months later you could open some of the books and out wafted  a little of the residual gas.

There is a wonderful documentary  film about the history of Cody’s and Kepler’s . It tells the story of the stores during the sixties emphasizing how they mirrored the political activism of the times   and juxtaposes that story against the struggles that the two stores  went through during the last 10 years as we addressed the challenges we faced with the growth of corporate and Internet bookselling.  The filmmaker, Alex Beckstead, came to me  in 2005 and asked if he could follow me around in order to make this film. I said it was ok. He had hoped to make an uplifting film about how these two famous bookstores triumphed over the  mass merchants. It didn’t turn out that way at all. He ended up with a poignant documentary of Cody’s collapse.  It is called Paperback Dreams. I hate watching that movie. In my mind, it is a narrative of all the mistakes that I made during the last years of the store.  Leslie, my wife,  suffered through it as well; and says I am being too hard on myself.  And  others see it differently as well, more like a classic tragedy, a  struggle against an inexorable fate.  It has been shown on PBS in most of the major markets. The DVD is available online and at bookstores.

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.

 

Interview with Andy Ross

December 22, 2010

A few weeks ago John Marlow, who is an editor and script writer in Los Angeles, contacted me and wanted to do an interview on his Self Edit blog. It is a fantastic blog for writers who are interested in writing for movies or getting movie deals. I liked the interview so much that I’m posting it here. We will do it in 2 parts.

JRM: Why did you become—and why do you remain—an agent? What got you started, and what keeps you going?

Andy Ross: Most agents come out of publishing. Usually editorial. This makes a lot of sense. They have experience in the decision to acquire books for publishers. They know the calculations that go into making the decision, and they usually know what general sorts of books publishers are looking for.

I came into this job from an entirely different background. I was a retailer for 35 years. For 30 years I owned and managed Cody’s Books in Berkeley. It was an extremely well known and highly regarded store that had a reputation for its unusual selection of titles and its commitment to books of literary and intellectual value.

This gave me an unusual perspective. I like to say that, as buyer for the store for so many years, I have been pitched over 50,000 titles. It was invaluable experience for understanding the tastes of a very wide range of publishers.

It is pretty easy to make a submission list of the imprints from the 6 major publishers in New York (Macmillan, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, Hachette Book Group). But in the tough world of publishing, realistically it is going to be necessary to go down the list to smaller houses. As a retailer, I am more familiar with a wide range of imprints than many other agents.

When I left Cody’s in 2007, I wasn’t sure what skills I could bring to any new job. I had a sense that my future lay in…maybe…sacking groceries at Safeway. But I had a kind of epiphany that I would be a pretty good agent. I think I am. I’ve sold 21 books [link]  in my two and a half years at this job. Many are lead titles.

I love working at this other end of the book food chain. And getting an offer on a book is a really emotional experience. Getting rejections is also an emotional experience, but that is another story. Honestly, I love this work. I wish I had started years ago. It’s like Christmas every day.

JRM: Given your seen-it-all perspective, what still gets your attention and makes a query
stand out from the crowd?

Andy Ross: I see a lot of articles and presentations for writers about how to structure a query letter. Some of them even profess to offer a kind of kabalistic secret technique that will assure the writer of finding an agent and a publisher. I don’t buy that. The best kind of query letter is one that pitches a good idea for a book from a person who has the authority to write it and the platform to get attention for it

You should always look on an agent’s website for submission guidelines. Speaking only for myself, I like a short query (half page or less) sent by email with the text embedded in the email that tells me the genre of the book, succinctly what the book is about, the audience it is trying to reach and why the author has the authority to be writing about this subject.

You have no idea how often I get queries that begin with a kind of breathless narrative. Two long paragraphs later, it is still unclear whether the book is a novel, a memoir, or something else. I don’t like that.

But, notwithstanding, if I get a query with a project that excites me, it doesn’t really matter if the format is different. I just did an entry on my blog called 9 Tips for Effective Query Letters, which conveys a better idea of what I’m looking for when I read query letters.

JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see new writers make in their approach to people or the industry?

Andy Ross: There is an old cliché that publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. In these hard times it is a kind of S&M marriage with commerce being a rather harsh dominatrix. Publishers are under huge pressure to make money. I suppose they have always been. And their first concern is how to find an audience large enough to make publication a viable commercial venture.

This is only to say that the decision to publish a book is quite different than a judgment about whether a book is high art or intellectually worthy. And writers need to have no illusions about that.

JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know—in general, and when approaching an agent?

Andy Ross: It’s important for writers to understand that publishers are going to expect the writer to do the heavy lifting in promoting the book. A writer can’t just write. He has to be a savvy marketer as well.

And writers should also be realistic and be aware that we live in a world obsessed with celebrity and driven by mass media. Increasingly the books that are selling are the books that are getting media attention, books by personalities.

Sarah Palin’s rather mediocre book was the best-selling nonfiction book of 2009. All of the best selling fiction books last year were by name-brand authors. Chances are that if you don’t already have a mass following, your book will sell in modest numbers. The most difficult job I have as an agent is managing my clients’ expectations.

JRM: What qualities do you look for—and look to avoid—in a writer-client?

Andy Ross: It is always easier to sell a book by a writer with “platform”. Platform is a word you hear a lot in publishing. It means that you are famous or otherwise important and will have access to media and reviews.

A professor with an endowed chair at Harvard has platform. Anyone you see on the tabloids as you are checking out at Safeway has platform. Sarah Palin has platform. The Chilean miners have platform. Oprah’s hairdresser (or anyone else associated with Oprah) has platform. Writers, like everyone else, are all different. I try to be tolerant of their virtues and vices.

JRM: What should a writer look for—and avoid—in an agent?

Andy Ross: I hear a lot of myths about what is good and bad in an agent. I hear that it is always best to get an agent from a large prestigious New York agency. Certainly it is always nice to impress your friends by namedropping your celebrity agent, but it isn’t necessarily going to help your career. Some of these agents are pretty good. But they may not have much time to work with you. Some of them think that it is their job to flip contracts, rather than help the author develop her ideas into good and publishable projects.

A lot of authors think they need an agent, because they can’t get published without one. That is probably pretty realistic, at least with the major publishers. But no agent, no matter how prestigious, is going to be able to sell a book that would otherwise not interest a publisher.

A lot of writers think that an agent can get them a big deal with a big publisher and negotiate a very favorable contract. Agents generally have some knowledge about what to ask for in a deal and sometimes how to leverage a situation into getting a bigger advance. Some, but not all, agents know the pitfalls of publisher boilerplate contract language and can make some limited beneficial changes. But these are not really the most important parts of an agent’s job. You can check out my blog article about the book deal for more detail [link].

If you speak to published authors, most of them feel that their agents are essential and that the commissions are well-earned. But they also will tell you that the real value that the agent brings is to be a creative advisor, first line editor, business manager, intermediary with the publisher, a person who works to advance the writing career of the writer, and is sometimes a shoulder to cry on.

Watch out for agents who are not willing to go the distance to see your book get published. I have worked with a number of authors whose agents submitted their projects  to six big houses, and then gave up after six rejections. Those are not good agents.

I was on an agent’s panel recently, and another agent had a very telling story. A novelist came to her because she was unhappy with her previous agent. She said that the agent had submitted her novel to 40 publishers and it was rejected by all of them. My agent friend advised her that if she could find an agent who would do that kind of work for her even after facing so many rejections, that was a sign of a very good agent.

That said, there are a lot of people selling themselves as literary agents. Some are pretty marginal and some are scammers. Never hire an agent who charges money up front or who accepts you as a client conditional on your being willing to pay for other services. A good agent works on commission only. Anything else is a red flag. So watch out.

It is always a good idea to find an agent with some experience behind them, some one for whom agenting is a full-time job. But new agents can be good too; I was a new agent about 30 months ago. New agents will take more risks and may very well be willing to work harder for you.

Pat Cody — Rest in Peace

October 1, 2010

I just learned that Pat Cody died peacefully in her sleep  on September 30.

Pat was a remarkable woman who inspired me during my 30 years at Cody’s.  Pat and Fred Cody founded the store in 1956. Fred was an incredibly charismatic man and a visionary. But it was Pat who conducted most of the hard business at the store.

Pat always thought of herself as a tough minded business person. She used to say that she learned it from studying at the London School of Economics. But I think she would have been pretty shrewd even without that advanced degree.

When I bought the store from the Cody’s in 1977, I was 30 years old and didn’t know all that much. Pat was always available for advice, but was extremely sensitive about imposing her ideas  on me. She usually said that it was my store now, and I should run it my way. But she was always there for Cody’s milestone events.

I made the decision to close the Telegraph store in the spring of 2006. (The last day of business for the store was July 10 of that year, a day after Cody’s 50th birthday). Everything happening  at that time was hard for me, but the hardest thing was having to tell Pat  that the store would be closing. I’d been in the book business  long enough  not to have to seek Pat’s approval. After all, I had owned the store many years longer than the Cody’s had owned it. I was older than Pat was at the time that she left Cody’s. But when I called her, I felt like a kid who had just cracked up the family car. When I told her  we were closing, Pat was silent for about  two seconds. (It felt like an hour.). And then she said:  “It’s remarkable  you were able to keep it going as long as you did.”  Typical of Pat, this was not a ponderous pronouncement about Cody’s place in history. It was a very commonplace observation. But it was the one thing that I needed to hear at that time.  And it gave me a feeling of consolation. That was a very important moment for me. And characteristic of Pat’s decency.
 
After Cody’s closed in June, 2008 Pat had a party at her house for Cody’s employees. About 30 of us showed up. We sat around in Pat’s back yard. We told a few stories about old times, but mostly we just hung out drinking beer  like old friends who had once shared something important in our lives. I remember that it was a nice afternoon. 

Leslie and I will think good thoughts about Pat. We offer  condolences to her children: Anthony, Nora, Celia, and Martha.

There will be a memorial service for Pat at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on October 30 at 2:00.

Here are some photographs of Pat.

This is a picture of Pat and Fred at the store. It appears to be from the early 70s.

Pat and Fred with me at the time I became the owner in 1977.

Pat at Cody’s Fiftieth Birthday celebration in 2006. It was a bitter-sweet event. Cody’s on Telegraph was closing the following day.

Gayatri Patnaik of Beacon Press Speaks About Publishing Books on Progressive Politics

August 19, 2010

Today we are going to interview Gayatri Patnaik, executive editor of Beacon Press. Gayatri  and Beacon publish books on social issues from a progressive perspective.  Recently Gayatri  became the editor for The King Legacy series. In May 2009 Beacon Press became the exclusive publisher for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work which gives them the right to print new editions of previously published King titles and also to compile Dr. King’s writings, sermons, orations, lectures and prayers into entirely new editions.  What an honor that must be!

 Beacon was founded in 1854 making it  one of the oldest publishers in America. From its earliest mission to publish and distribute books that would “explain and defend Unitarian thought and promote…more reasonable thinking,”  to the full flowering of its contemporary commitment to publish intelligent, eloquent answers to the pressing questions of the day, Beacon has been making publishing and intellectual history for decades.  One reason that Beacon Press has always been one of my favorite publishers is that it is independent and seems to march to the beat of a different drummer. During the years I owned Cody’s, I always felt an affinity with the Press. It seemed that we had a very similar sensibility.

Andy:  Gayatri, welcome to Ask the Agent. I teach a lot of classes about writing good  book proposals. I think it would be helpful if authors had a better sense of how editors think and what they are looking for in a proposal. Can you tell us?

Gayatri: In a book proposal, I’m looking for intelligent and informed-but accessible-writing. I’m also looking for writers who have a platform and a real commitment to being part of the book selling process. The truth is that every publishing house now needs active and engaged authors; and if I feel that a prospective author doesn’t have that kind of action-oriented mentality, I’ll probably pass on the book.

 

 Andy: How many proposals do you receive every week?

Gayatri: The number of proposals we receive vary but, including unsolicited material, we must receive 150 or so submissions a week.

Andy: Beacon has always focused on books about American society, politics, and culture. Are there any trends you discern? How has your publishing program changed over the years to reflect changing social concerns? And what sorts of subjects are you focusing on now?

Gayatri: Andy, as you know, Beacon has always been on the forefront of various issues, particularly related to race, class, gender and sexuality. In my time at Beacon, which is eight years now, I’ve seen us develop strong lists in education as well as the environment, both of which certainly reflect changing public concerns. One of the lists I’ve focused on in the last years are books on immigration, an issue I imagine will be deeply relevant for years to come. I’m also very interested in signing smart books on contemporary phenomena ranging from porn to the rural brain drain to gambling.

Andy: I first became aware of Beacon Press, because you published a book by one of my professors at Brandeis: One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse. It was a book that had enormous importance in its time. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that it influenced the thought of an entire generation of political activists. But it was written in an impenetrable Germanic  academic style. I’m wondering if you were presented with that book today, would you publish it? Do you think it could find a home with any trade publisher?

Gayatri: Andy, great question! I’m imagining us debating whether to sign this book at a meeting and if I didn’t advocate for it, I’m hoping that one of my brilliant colleagues would insist on it!…but, honestly, who knows? As you note, it’s not the most accessible book. And while a university press might pick it up, I’m not sure I imagine many trade publishers being interested. When I asked my colleague, Amy Caldwell, about this, she had a very interesting response. She said that part of the issue is that readerships change and there are intellectual fashions.  She reminded us that there was a time during the 80s when money was made on the even more impenetrable prose of Derrida (though not by Beacon), and she doesn’t think academic presses are able to publish many books like that anymore, at least, with the expectation of making money on them.  And, of course, there may be a smaller readership for difficult works these days as well.

Andy: It seems to me that the publishing business is obsessed with blockbusters. I don’t think this is new. I know I have been talking about this for 30 years. But it seems to be getting worse all the time. As a publisher of books that probably won’t sell in the millions, are you concerned about this? Or do you feel that there is plenty of room for books like yours?

Gayatri: While I occasionally feel dismayed by the content of the blockbusters, I can’t say I worry about it too much vis a vis our books. I’m convinced there’ll always be room for the smart, relevant, and intellectually important and social justice oriented books we do.

Andy: I suppose since everyone in publishing thinks of nothing else, I should ask you about e-books. How do you think e-books are going to change our literary culture? Or are we going to have the same kinds of books, just a different delivery system?

Gayatri: This is really a question for our Director of Sales & Marketing, Tom Hallock! I’m reading, as I’m sure you are, predictions that e-books will eventually constitute 25% or more of book sales. Our sales at Beacon are currently a fraction of that, but growing, and we’re all curious to see where we end up. But to answer your question, I think it’s impossible to predict how e-books will influence the literary culture.  I’ll be very interested to see how Pete Hamill’s e-book will do. His book, They Are Us, will be published in the fall by Little, Brown & Co., and it’ll skip print and go straight to e-book.

  Andy: And finally, can you tell us about a few of your books that are in the pipeline that you are particularly excited about?

 Gayatri: Sure! I’m very excited about a book in The King Legacy which is called “All Labor Has Dignity.” It’s edited by activist and historian Michael Honey and will be published in mid-January, in time for Dr. King’s birthday. This is the first original book in the King series, which means it’s not a reprint but a book we actually created from the archives. And it focuses on an area that people don’t always associate with King: labor rights and economic justice. The reason I’m excited is that people forget, or perhaps never completely knew, that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation

Another book which I think will be of great interest to many readers is When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years by journalist and former PC volunteer Stanley Meisler. Andy, as we know, since its inauguration, the Peace Corps has been an American emblem for world peace and friendship and did you know there are 200,000 former volunteers (including many high profile ones? Paul Theroux, Chris Dodd, Donna Shalala, Bill Moyers, etc.) Anyway, few Americans realize that through the past nine presidential administrations, the Corps has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. In this book, Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; how Nixon tried to destroy it and how Reagan tried to make it an instrument of foreign policy. It’s fascinating—and important!