Tuesday, April 21, 2015

HOW I BECAME A BOOK CRITIC


Most everybody in the book business is a critic, from bloggers to agents to scouts, to audiobook editors, to writers, to judges for various literary and mystery awards, to publishers and even to independent bookstores who, at the ground level, have the opportunity to hand sell titles they are impressed by. Then, of course, there are professional book critics who are salaried and whose reviews invariably appear in newspapers and magazines.

As publishers, we receive about 5,000 queries and submissions a year, and doing 16 titles annually, have to say “No” 4,984 times. This is relatively easy to do, for our critical judgments are private, whereas professional book critics have to contend with authors, publishers, and publicists whose books are unfavorably reviewed or ignored. That can be a negative side, of course, but there are also gratifications.

With that, Ron Charles, Editor of The Washington Post Book World, was kind enough to discuss his work. I was impressed with his opening remark even before he responded to some questions I posed.


I’m flattered that you think anyone would care about my responses to these questions, and I think you’re wrong. But what the hell.

How did you get started as a book critic?

Out of graduate school, I started working as an English professor in one of those idyllic liberal arts colleges you’ve heard are dying across the country. I taught American lit and critical theory (the Women’s Studies Department even wheeled me out once a year to teach feminist criticism: “See? Men can do this, too.”). It was a lovely place—Principia College, high on the Mississippi River bluffs—but I began to grow restless and so switched for a few years to teaching at a ritzy private school in .St. Louis (The John Burroughs School; Jon Hamm and I were always carousing around town together. Not entirely true, but he really was in the Drama dept. during my time there). That school was pretty much the kingdom of heaven, but the paper grading wore me down, and when an old student’s mom told me I should try writing book reviews, I went to Library Ltd. — now, alas, gone—bought a book off the New Fiction shelf, read it, reviewed it and sent it off to the Christian Science Monitor. Lo and behold, they bought it and asked for more.

What attracted you to it? And what motivates you now?
Book reviewing was not so far from what I was already doing—explaining how good books work—so it was a chance to try something new that still fell within my limited skill set.

Now, almost 20 years in, it’s still a great pleasure to read such fine books—or, sometimes, not so fine—and write about them for interesting, interested people.

What are your thoughts about the role of the critic in general, and your own philosophical beliefs?

Oh, those questions make me tired. . . . It’s such an invitation to climb up into the attic and bring down some brittle Christmas tree decorated with profound thoughts.

But…. I do, honestly, think that insightful, respectful and elegant book reviewers can encourage talented writers and draw a few good readers to them. Such critics can also serve as a (very weak) brake on a culture careening through inanity and dullness.

My philosophy of reviewing is nothing particularly original: Try to judge a book according to how successfully it accomplishes what the author seems to have intended.  

What do you look for in choosing a book to read?

First, I always hope I’ll enjoy the books I choose. Beyond that, a number of considerations come into play: I’m always trying (not always succeeding) to review a variety of books in hopes of reflecting the wide interests of The Post’s readers. Some giant authors (Morrison, Franzen, etc.) are unavoidable, but I’m also on the lookout for debut writers that sound promising.

Does being a critic have a downside as well as an upside?

The upside is obvious: I get paid to read great books and talk about them. The downside is shallow: I’m always, always, always behind. Every minute—even asleep—I know exactly where I am in a book and how many pages I’ve still got to finish that day. Sometimes, when conversations run long, I catch myself thinking, “That’s nine pages right there I could have read.”

How that’s for a start? Anything else?


This concludes Ron’s comments, But in a postscript, he added these words, as refreshing as his opening remarks: “Feel free to quote any of this so long as you correct my notoriously bad spelling and brush up my grammar.”

I invite any of you to ask Ron “Anything else” you cared to know. Send me your questions by email or post your remarks on this blog and I shall send them on to him.

Next week Haila Williams, Acquisitions Editor at Blackstone Audio, will take a well-deserved turn in these weekly “Publishing: The Inside Story” discussions.


Marty

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

AN AGENT SPEAKS


The Sandra Dijkstra Agency is the most powerful literary agency on the West Coast and represents major international writers. Jill Marr is one of the agents that works there. Back in December 2010, she sent us Racing the Devil a first mystery from Jaden Terrell, which launched a very successful Jared McKean Mystery private eye series. Two months later Jill sent us a manuscript for David Freed’s first novel, Flat Spin, which turned into a very popular Cordell Logan Mystery series. Six months later I met Jill at a mystery convention, Killer Nashville, where we were both invited down as panelists. I remember that August well, both for the pleasure of meeting and spending time with Jill and because there was a hurricane here in Sag Harbor while I was away, leaving Judy, my 
5-foot-2-inch wife and co-publisher to batten down the hatches and cope with a lack of electricity for days.

In all, by the time 2016 ends, we will have published ten titles from three different writers she sent us. How can one not love somebody whose taste is so compatible with ours?

Though Jill doesn’t mention it in her comments, a good agent is really the author’s first editor, often turning a manuscript that needs work into something that sparkles when it is submitted to a publisher.  With that I turn this space over to Jill who headlined her piece Falling in love...with my job.


“Being a life-long Southern California resident, I was very lucky to "fall into" the publishing industry. I didn't even know what a literary agent did, or that there was such a job out there. It was the week after 9/11 and I had recently left the local news station where I had been working in the Creative Service Department for the previous 5 years. I answered an ad in the paper and after a lengthy and somewhat painful interview process I was hired by the legendary agent Sandra Dijkstra, as her assistant. I had no idea what I'd gotten myself into. 

“The very first week I was at the Dijkstra Agency I witnessed the other assistant in the office accidentally hang up on Oliver Stone. The horror! It was an all-around frightening experience. This was just books, right? It shouldn't be scary, but it was--the amount of work that went into each book, from soup to nuts. The trust that the authors had for us. However, I was learning from a true master in so many ways. I watched Sandy pluck projects out of the slush pile, witnessed her editorial process and then marveled as she negotiated the very best deals for her authors. We were helping to create books out of ideas and we were shaping careers. 

“That is what attracted me to the agenting business then and what keeps me going now—14 years later. I love the entire creative process and the magic that we make happen—the fact that on any given day, we can have a sale that changes an author's life. I remember exactly where I was five years ago when I read the first chapter in a submission I received from one of my authors, Robert Pobi. I recall laughing out loud as I read, thinking "This guy has so much talent, I can sell this!" And then praying that the book held up (it did!). And every time I open a new submission I hope that I'll have that same reaction—a visceral kind of thing that is, unfortunately, all too rare.  And speaking of rare, once we take on an author, it's harder than ever to make a sale to a publisher. The industry is shrinking and expectations are growing. The competition is fierce. And a big part of my job is, sadly, managing expectations. Bad reviews happen. Small sales numbers are a reality. Every day is not a great day.

“But it's that magic that still motivates me. And I continue to look for books that surprise and inspire me. I'm always attracted to voice-driven books like David Freed's series that features a snarky and unapologetic want-to-be Buddhist, ex-special operative Cordell Logan, and character-driven books like Jaden Terrell's series starring Nashville private detective and all-around good guy Marlboro Man, Jared Mckean. I love the art of good story telling and the fact that I even get to play a small part in getting those stories out to the world. The thrill of all that is possible, that's what really keeps me going.”

You can get in touch with Jill at jill@dijkstraagency.com. Coming up next week: Ron Charles, the editor of The Washington Post's Book World, will be talking about his work.
If you want to be assured of receiving these weekly blogs concerning the book world, join the site and become a member. Up until now I’ve been alerting a few hundred people in the book business by email that a new blog is currently posted. But I look forward to ending these alerts as soon as I can. 

As always I welcome your comments, posted on the blog (www.blogger.com), by email (shepard@thepermanentpress.com) or telephone 631-725-1101, as well as any suggestions of what you’d like addressed, who you’d like to hear from, or anything you might want to offer. Other forthcoming postings are scheduled from a publicist, from a scout, and from a director of an important book fair.

Marty

Thursday, April 9, 2015

FROM BLOGGERS TO WRITERS

When I started my Cockeyed Pessimist blog at the end of 2008 with two postings, my intentions were to do a posting each month. This worked out well for two years with 13 postings in 2009 and 11 more in 2010. But the numbers kept sliding down: seven in 2011, six in 2012, and seven more for each of the following two years. 62 postings in all with 95,000 overall viewers.

So why the slow-down? Too many other things to attend to as a publisher, not wanting to duplicate issues I addressed before, and tired of getting involved in partisan conflicts pro-or-con about Amazon, the five huge conglomerates (I think we’re down to four now) who dominate the industry, and some subtle and not so subtle belly-aching about falling print coverage in magazines and newspapers in general, and inadequate review coverage for our prize-winning authors.

But immediately after my April 2nd blog about Sheila Deeth and on-line bloggers in general, a new door opened, and it started with the comments of Eleanor Lerman, whose novel Radiomen we published in January. Why not change the tenor of the cockeyedpessimist and open a door for others in the industry to discuss the challenges they face, be they writers, editors, publicists, agents, scouts or professional critics, and share their predilections and passions with one another? As a publisher, a major concern of ours is our writers, but it is also exciting to introduce all concerned to one another. We've already been in touch with an exceptional agent, Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, and Iris Hsieh, another excellent person, who is a scout at Aram Fox. Both will be contributing to the next few blogs. This cross-fertilization will, hopefully, benefit many, and make it possible to provide something new on a weekly (or at the latest bi-weekly) basis.


So without further delay, here is the email I received from Eleanor, who expressed feelings of injustice that I too have shared along the way. And just as I learned more about Sheila and her thinking, I've learned more about Eleanor and how her mind works.


Dear Marty:

Thanks for sharing your April 2 column. It is critical to realize how important online blogs and publishing venues have become. Of course, the underlying issue here is that writers, critics, bloggers, etc.—as well as publishers, of courseall have to deal with the difficulty of earning a living doing the work they love.  I know that what I viewed as a terrible injustice when I was young (oh, poor me, I used to think!)—that I had to have a job while I did my writing at night—is now something I am lucky to understand without any kind of pain: it is just unlikely that anyone except the top tier of commercial writers are going to be able to support themselves with their art. But that's fine for me since I've long made peace with that idea and since I ended up going my own way, anyway. I write what interests me and when things don't get published, I just go on to the next project. This is especially true of my short fiction, which I always have trouble finding venues for except that suddenly, I am getting published a lot, and with ease, in online zines where no one is making a penny, not even the editors.  I guess it depends on what one wants out of their work. As I've mentioned to you before, I am ambitious and black-hearted when it comes to trying to gain recognition and all that kind of thing but I also know when to be grateful. And I am grateful when anyone, such as you and Judy, take the chance to showcase my work.

So, you've hit on a very important subject in your column and one that deserves much further conversation in the writing community. Poets, in particular, know how important online sources for publishing and review have become.  I am reading a book right now called "My Life in Ruins," which is about archeologists, and it seems they are in the same boat—most of them can't get jobs, can't pursue a career that they've invested years and money in preparing themselves for in terms of education and getting advanced degrees. They, however, don't have the advantage of the kind of robust online community that exists for writers so it has been interesting to read about another profession where effort and passion can go commercially unrewarded so you have to find ways to reward yourself.

Eleanor  www.eleanorlerman.com


IN CLOSING: If you are part of the book business mentioned above and want to participate in this planned on-going weekly blog, do let me hear from you and what you’d like to contribute to the discussion. I also hope you will sign up to join this site (easy to do if you have a google account) as a follower, so that you will automatically receive the new blogs as they are posted.

Marty

Thursday, April 2, 2015

IN PRAISE OF SHEILA DEETH AND OTHER ONLINE BLOGGERS

It’s time to sing the praises of those dedicated on-line bloggers who publish book reviews for the love of it and don’t have to constrict their reviews to best-sellers or titles that are trendy. These bloggers are especially helpful when magazine and newspaper review-space is continually declining, and when relatively unknown novelists or better known writers published by an independent press need a helping hand. Over the years, certain bloggers have been invaluable:  Marc Schuster, a teacher and novelist has such a site, Small Press Reviews, while another novelist/university teacher, Charles Holdefer offers occasional posts, as do various individual critics at Luxury Reading.

But Sheila Deeth (a published writer and teacher) is in a class by herself since she started her blog in 2008 and blogs two or three times a week. It consists of personal and philosophical messages and book reviews. In 2014 she reviewed 272 books on Goodreads alone and at least 20 more that were not on Goodreads. Before she started blogging she had never acted as a critic, but soon realized that “It’s all about writing, which is fun.” She is also prolific in posting her reviews elsewhere as well, from Amazon to Shelfari, LibraryThing, Barnes & Noble, Powells.com, and Lunch, among other sites.

I asked her how she chooses books.

“I try to review everything I read. I make a point of reading at least one book "just for me" each month (though quite often it will be one a friend has loaned me). Other than that, if I'm asked to review something I'll look for it first on Amazon. I use the ‘look inside’ feature to read the first few pages; if it catches my interest, and I can fit the book into my schedule in time to satisfy the author, I'll agree to read and review it. Of course, there are a few publishers who I will always review for—The Permanent Press, Second Wind Publishing, and Wisdom Tales among them—for I've enjoyed all the books I've read of theirs, so I know their tastes and mine are fairly well aligned.” This has been a great blessing for both us and our authors.

I posed a second question: How do you see your role as a critic?

“There have been times when I've been asked to review a trilogy and I've stopped after the first book. But I will always finish reading a book once I've started it, even if I'm not enjoying the read, for there's still the puzzle to be solved. If there are things I didn't enjoy in a book, I'll try to phrase my review so that readers can choose for themselves whether they'll have a problem with it. For example, I get really frustrated when people misuse statistics or misinterpret science (my background also includes being a mathematician), but that doesn't mean the plot wasn't fun or exciting.

“The majority of the submissions I receive are eBooks, presumably because it's easier and cheaper for the author to request reviews that way. Some arrive unsolicited through email. Many arrive in the form of review requests from publishers, publicists, blog tour organizers, or other bloggers. Even if I can't or don't want to review a book I will usually offer a spot on my blog to the author—I love to host authors and read their different points of view. I get lots of review requests directly from them, and I have some favorites to whom I will always say yes.

“And then there are real printed books. I look on them as a treat after reading electronically. Wisdom Tales send me the most beautiful illustrated children's books. I always tear the packaging apart and start reading straight away because they're short of course. The Permanent Press sends me gorgeous galleys that are always beautifully presented and nicely described, like Christmas presents arriving throughout the year. They're longer so I can't read them straight away, but I look at the release dates and make sure to add them to my list in time to review before release.

“Finally, I really do buy books as well, and get them as gifts, and borrow them from friends. My sons will drag me across the street to avoid letting me loose in a bookstore. And my friends, most of whom are also avid readers, will always pick out coffee shops near bookstores when we arrange to meet.”

Enough praise from me regarding Sheila. To better appreciate her gifts as a critic, her recent reviews of our 2015 novels speak for themselves and demonstrate her considerable abilities.

Sheila's Reviews for:

Should you wish to contact Sheila, here is a link to her blog: http://sheiladeeth.blogspot.com/

As a subscriber to The New York Times there are excellent professional critics who I read and enjoy, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner among them. They are household names. But word-for-word, would you not think that Sheila ranks among them?

I look forward to your responses.

Monday, March 2, 2015

ON PRIZES


In late February I read a report in The New York Times about a controversy when it came to awarding Oscars. There were gripes coming for the lack of support for American Sniper, which had ten times the box office success as Birdman. Essentially the complaint was that Oscars should be rewarded for commercial success, as opposed to giving them out to films based on artistic merit. If this same argument prevailed in the book world, then James Patterson would win the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel each and every year (he writes about six a year), and E. L. James would win the National Book Award every time she wrote another 50 Shades of Grey novel.

We’ve never published a Best Seller since we began publishing in 1978, and while individual titles have won various awards in both the mystery field and for quality fiction, it’s also clear that given the decreasing review space in the largest newspapers and magazines, books published by smaller Indie presses are not likely to become Best Sellers, a necessity if one is to have major sales.
Which leads me to think about what additional “prizes” any of our authors might enjoy.  And this is what I think, particularly since several of our 2015 titles— Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen (January), Paul Zimmer’s The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove (February), Ivan Goldman’s The Debtor Class and Tom LeClair’s Lincoln’s Billy (both in April), have gotten incredibly praiseworthy early reviews from pre-publication review sources in Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews— as well as independent bloggers and some small newspapers, that their “prize” is knowing that their fiction is appreciated not only by us, but by critics who admire  exceptional writing.
  
For instance, on March 1 Radiomen was reviewed in Library Journal as part of a roundup entitled “13 Key Spring Titles for Readers Looking Beyond the Best Sellers list,” and also gained exceptional reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly and five other sources. Audio rights were purchased by Blackstone Audiobooks, who also bought the rights to Lincoln’s Billy, which had a fine advance review in Kirkus and will be published on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The Debtor Class had a starred review in Booklist, comparing it to “Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., with howlingly funny dialogue. Don’t let it slip by; this one needs lots of word of mouth to become the cult classic it deserves to be.”  And The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove merited a starred review in Publishers Weekly and a great one in Mystery Scene.

And that, dear people, will have to do in a world where the Pattersons and the E.L. Jameses reign supreme in media coverage and sales, and where some of the best writing largely gets overlooked as coming from “boutique” publishers. But we’re delighted to be in the boutique camp…and that is our “prize” as well.
I welcome your comments.

Marty

Thursday, January 15, 2015

IN PRAISE OF OLDER NOVELISTS

It seems as if 2015 will be the year we join forces, so to speak, with the AARP, since the ages of our authors range from 50 (when one is first able to join the American Association For Retired People) to 92 (when one is, to use a sports metaphor, in triple sudden death overtime).

We never consider the age of the novelists we publish, only the merits of the 5,000 submissions we receive each year. Yet the average age of the writers we will be publishing is 67.38 years, and one can only speculate on the causes for this.  
Over the years we’ve often published writers in their mid-seventies (like two novels by Daniel Klein, The History of Now (the Silver medal finalist for ForeWord Magazines’ Book of the Year in 2010), and last year Nothing Serious. And then there were 12 novels written by the great Southern writer Berry Fleming (some reprints, but two others newly minted when he was turning 90 years old—Captain Bennett’s Folly and Who Dwelt by a Churchyard: both award-winning novels). Just two years ago we published Christopher Davis’ brilliant The Conduct of Saints, a historical novel taking place when Italy surrendered and the allies occupied Rome after World War ll. At the time “Kit” Davis turned 85.

But nothing prepared us for this year: three novelists in their 50s (Victoria Alexander, Baron Birtcher, and Margaret Vandenburg), six in their 60s (most eligible for Social Security), four in their 70s,  two in their 80’s (Erik Mauritzson and Paul Zimmer), and our 92 year old Norman Beim, whose gothic After Byron, comes out in May.
How to account for this? My theory is that there is not enough talent to draw from in the pool of writers under the age of 30, if one is interested in reading artfully constructed fiction. Several factors are involved here. One is that the wizardry of modern technology has trumped learning to use language creatively, winnowing many fishes and would-be-writers in the sea. Decades ago this group would read books or attempt to write: be it books, or diaries. Instead they grew up with electronic devices, and carry about their iPads, tweeting, and using Facebook instead.

Another factor is that newspapers are expiring, and in order to stay alive they are laying off staff, particularly reporters, replacing them with wire service reporters from the Associated Press and other wire services. Many writer’s we’ve encountered, and published, developed their writing skills by working as reporters on smaller newspapers, making first hand observations (later used in their fiction) and writing their columns. But this post-grad opportunity to learn the craft is vanishing as well.
In my day, not to have read and been inspired by Hemingway, Faulkner, Vidal, Steinbeck, Camus, Sartre and other literary giants was impossible. They were always featured in the news and always reviewed in the press. But today the featured writing and reviews cover not literary giants but best-seller giants like James Patterson and E.L. James and her 50 Shades of Grey books. And how many aspiring young writers try to emulate them, with the hope of gaining fame and fortune?

So again, I raise my glass to the best novelists: the older ones. And I hope you will share your thoughts about this as well.
If you go look at our 2015 catalog, you will see what’s coming out from these golden oldies in 2015.
Marty

Monday, November 24, 2014

THANKSGIVING


At the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October, I passed the Poisoned Pen Press booth and got into a conversation with Robert Rosenwald who, along with his wife Barbara Peters, started the press 17 years ago. We talked about how fortunate we were to still be in the game, able to publish exactly what we ourselves loved reading, without having to consult marketing people, or salesmen, or cater to some senior editor’s taste. In short, both of us enjoyed being able to find, publish, and promote good fiction that the five major conglomerates had little or no interest in.

I asked him about financing, given the fact that book publishing is such a marginal profession. “We’re starting our 37th year in 2015, and there have been times when we’ve barely kept our nose above water. Has it been that way for you, too?"

Robert paused, smiled, and said, “It’s the least expensive hobby I could possibly have!”


This is a line I will not forget, spoken with sincerity as well as humor, and a perfect way to give thanks during this Thanksgiving season.


Viewed in one way, publishing is not that different from politics, where major media attention is given to the big parties—democrats and republicans—while independents get scant attention. Just as politicians make passionate speeches trying to cloak themselves as both morally and socially responsible people (and many of them surely are), so do those in our industry. But if you can rise above their statements without becoming partisan, it’s easy to see contradictions, absurdities, and propaganda at work.


In publishing, the media covered Hachette’s big-name authors who complained that Amazon hurt their income before their dispute was settled. Yet there is no word from Hachette authors—or those of the other four major conglomerates—complaining that their publishers are hurting their income by only giving them 25% of
 e-book sales, rather than the 50% that so many independent publishers pay. 

Before the settlements with Amazon, the various Big Five publishers complained that Amazon was such a large and powerful bookseller that it put them at a distinct disadvantage. But now, as
Publishers Weekly reported in their November 17 issue, it seems that they are putting the screws to independent bookstores aided and abetted by their authors. All of them have been in the direct-to-consumer sales business for some time, offering titles online, through direct mail and at book fairs. But HarperCollins upped the ante this fall by giving authors a strong incentive to link their websites to the harpercollins.com website. When their books are sold directly through these links, the author will be credited with an additional 10% royalty rate, despite the fact that if this catches on with authors, neighborhood bookstores will be endangered, just as they are by Amazon supplying lower prices for printed books.

There’s nothing new in this, of course, for everyone and every business—from bookstores to authors to wholesalers to publishers, to newspapers, to magazines—has both a right and obligation to be profitable if they wish to stay afloat. But the righteous clamor coming out from all these competing segments of the industry can be deafening as each tries to rally public support to what they believe to
be righteous, even if they commit these same “crimes” against other groups in the book-biz.
 
So this is another thing we give thanks for: that we are
of this confounding and squabbling and fascinating business, but have the freedom not to be involved in these goings-on.

I welcome your response.

Marty