Two things that tell us summer is ending - kids going back to school and a daytime high in the low 50's. In Minnesota we got both of those things the last two weeks. For my kids school started the day after Labor Day. And this week we have been treated to highs in the 50's and low 60's. I am happy about the weather, but even happier about the start of school!
Five days into the school year, my fourth grader's teacher sent out the information on ordering books through Scholastic. My kids love books as much as I do. Taking them to a bookstore is quite dangerous because they will have a huge stack of books in no time. Libraries are a little easier on the wallet. After all, the fines for late books don't match the cost of buying even more books for our house. (The boys already have an impressive library.) I am excited to see what the boys will pick out. Last year my oldest son was into Minecraft books and the "I Survived" series. One of my twins reads any and all hand me downs from his older brother (I have two very advanced readers) and my other twin has just started to embrace reading. Nothing warms my heart more than when we get home from football practice and my reluctant reader and my oldest immediately open their books to start reading!
All of my kids are supposed to read every night. And how does that affect me? I find myself reading more as well. Because I read so much for my job, there are nights when I just don't want to read anything at all. Yet there is something magical when you see three heads buried in books. It makes me want to join them in their adventures. Getting lost in a book is the best feeling in the world. Then I saw this on facebook:
Knowing that my boys are taking in these stories, making them come alive with their intrepretations and imagainations, well, it reassures me that there will be books and stories and adventures in their lives for years to come.
(If you have any suggestions for kids's books - lay them on me! My oldest is in fourth grade. He used to only read non-fiction, but now has added ficiton. He is currently reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. My twins are in first grade. One is at a third grade level, the other at first/second grade. They read anything, but more fiction than non-fiction. Thanks for any suggestions!)
Today was one of those where the astonishing range of the writers I work with came out in force. It reminded me why this job, with its stress and never-shrinking inbox (Summer Slowdown? HA!) is so consistently fascinating.
Today, over the course of nine hours, I dealt with the following people and events:
1) A new author, who wrote a wonderful young adult novel filled with angst, poetry, and first love, agreed to let me represent her. When Danielle gets back from vacation she will dance, since she put this novel on my desk and said “READ THIS.” It’s called My Pablo Neruda Summer. Watch out.
2) While I was on the phone with New Client, I was handed an envelope from Putnam, with a first copy, hot off the presses, of Todd Moss’s The Golden Hour. It’s always such a thrill to hold a first copy, and this one stands to MOVE.
3) Once off with New Client, and done tweeting the picture above, it was time to go to a meeting at Oxford University Press with a client, Professor Jenna Weissman Joselit, whose examination of America’s fascination with the image of the Ten Commandments is going to come out in 2016. I was not simply the least intelligent person in the editor’s office; I felt rather that I was the least intelligent person in the building. On the way out I stopped for a moment at Tim Bent’s office. Tim, who’s now been editing at Oxford for many years, was a classmate of mine at the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course in the summer of 1990. We realized that there might not be more than one other member of our class (Random House editor Jordan Pavlin) who made publishing his or her career. And I took a 13 year sabbatical!
4) On my return I had meetings with our summer interns, one of whom was updating our editor database (editors change houses a LOT!) and was getting started on a new project to track foreign sales of Geoff Rodkey’s new, hysterical middle grade series The Tapper Twins, whose imagery is slightly less elevated at times than Jenna’s (dead fish in knapsacks, half-eaten cronuts…). Coincidentally, that was followed by a call from Geoff himself, with some questions about the second in the series.
5) Finally I had a chance to work on some emails. It was 4:30. These ranged from confirming a visit from the talented young writers from Writopia, to organizing a drop-in from Dead Guy Guru Jeff (“EJ Copperman’s CLOSE PERSONAL FRIEND”) Cohen, to downloading a new contract to asking for a new author to send me her debut Young Adult novel about teenage angst and love in 18th Century France. A lovely bookend to an always-interesting day.
And the inbox remains full.
This week, I was lucky to have one of my newest clients, Nikki Trionfo, visit our Chelsea offices. Nikki has written a terrific, searing young adult novel about a girl in California who’s trying to investigate her sister’s death. The girl, Salem, is the daughter of a peach grower in California, and the novel, called Shatter, brings into play the conflicts among white middle-class growers, Hispanic migrant workers, unions, and gangs.
One of the things I enjoyed about Shatter is the way Nikki brings in characters of different races and socio-economic statuses and shows their interaction in a natural, unforced way. When I took her on, I told Nikki that one of the more sought after elements in fiction these days, both in children’s books and books for adults, is Diversity. My colleagues on both the buy and sell side of publishing are actively looking for books that address cultural, racial, and sexual diversity, and I felt that when she finishes her revisions and we go out on submission, we will have a very enthusiastic response from editors.
This afternoon I was looking on Nikki’s website, http://www.nikkitrionfo.com/, and I saw her latest blog post. It was fascinating. In it, Nikki brings up this conversation, and how it took her aback. She hadn’t thought she was writing a book with a Diversity theme in it at all. Rather, she was writing from her own experience growing up in the orchards of California, where different cultures mixed all the time—it felt so natural because it was.
Often, we spend our time in our own bubble of similar-looking and –behaving communities. And often writers, working off their own experiences, create homogenous casts. And part of the need for diversity in literature is to give future readers and writers role models to look to—so sometimes we strain ourselves looking for diversity. (And that’s not a bad thing, and has great cultural relevance and worth.) Which is why I’m so excited when I get a book like Nikki’s where the diversity is so second nature as to be that much more powerful. I can’t wait to see where it lands.
Recently, Danielle and I were discussing a number of queries we had received where the setup and buildup were outstanding, the manuscript was rolling along, we were wondering “hmm, I wonder how this will play out,” and then…
BANG—Conspiracy of Templars!
BANG—The evil bully is actually an alien!!
BANG—The GOVERNMENT is out to get the 12 year old!
(No, this is not about any specific query, but a type. If you think this is about YOUR query, read on, then revise!)
OK, so here’s the thing: If you are writing a big international thriller, a YA adventure with Save-the-world written all over it, or epic fantasy, then fine. Go ahead with the Uncle Who’s Really a Triple Agent from the 28th Century.
But the books we were reading where this was happening were smaller in scope; mysteries and domestic dramas and YA novels that were, in some fundamental ways, cozier than that. It’s not necessary for a kid to find enough nitroglycerine to destroy the world three times over in the neighbor’s garage; he can find a stash of porn or a couple of kilos of coke. The bad apple down the block could have issues smaller than being three light years from the planet Xenon.
My point is pretty basic. Most novels have a built-in scope, where the reader is nodding along and where the suspension of disbelief is reasonable. When a writer, for reasons of ambition or because it seems cool, or in order to work out a tricky plot point, goes beyond scope, it is jarring. Eyes roll. We ask “Why????” We don’t want to read further, or we ask the author to walk it back.
Sometimes the writer will make a reasonable point: “We always hear that books need to be BIG in order to ‘make an impact in the market,’ and that’s what I was trying to do.” OK, fair enough. But almost all the time, the issue is far less about the true Bigness of the story and more about trying to compensate for a plot deficit.
And also understand, I’m not saying don’t be ambitious. I don’t want only tidy dramas in small towns or, you know, Good Expectations. But when you are thinking “OK, what if the dog can fly?” PLEASE be sure that you set it up that the spaniel drank a whole mess of magical non-poisonous jet fuel for dinner.
So we’ve been back from Winter break for a couple of weeks now, and it’s given me time to think about the reading I did on vacation. I read a number of manuscripts, some from clients and some requested projects from folks we’ve been considering, trying , Sisyphus-like, to make a dent in the “to-read” queue.
Much of what I read fell, one way or another, into Dark Young Adult for Girls. Some had elements of science fiction, some were historical, some were straight-ahead contemporary. But I found myself noticing a trend which, as it came up again and again, I felt warranted public comment.
The trend was the situation where the lead girl, who’s been traumatized by a particular illness, life circumstance, or by just being a teenager, is paired with the Sidekick Who Can Help, and then spends half the book misunderstanding the SWCH’s motivations (almost willfully), thus slowing down Progress until it’s almost too late.
OK fine, so this is the setup for buddy movies, rom-coms, and stories forever. But I’m seeing two things going on now. The first is that it seems to be taking longer—too long—for the Protagonist to get on board. It’s becoming a primary plot point (possibly designed to try to show the protag’s depth and personality). The Second is that it feels like a crutch, like the authors have manufactured conflict because they are not confident enough in the basic plot. And that’s ironic, because in each case over the break (and there were more than five of them), the overarching plot was fine—terrific, often—and the character-conflict served only as a distraction. The plots were complicated enough without unnecessary misunderstandings. I wanted to say to these girls “STOP IT! JUST STOP IT! (S)he can HELP you. (S)he’s proved loyalty to you , like, a hundred times. Get over yourself and get on with solving the murder/saving the world/finding the boyfriend/protecting the treasure!”
I guess my point to writers is this: Unless your story DEPENDS on conflict between a mistrustful protagonist and a secondary character who’s very different from the protagonist, don’t overplay this plot point. It served to make the protagonists less likable—I grew annoyed with their rigidity and unwillingness to forgive or get with the program. Have faith in your plot, and don’t get bogged down in petty bickering. Sure tension between characters (particularly if they are potential love interests) is useful and important. But resolve it and allow for cooperation before the reader wants to smack your protagonist.
I hope that’s helpful. It is not saying that everyone needs to be pliant. Just that it’s a plot point that ought to be resolved in time for the Team to work smoothly and for the people to trust each other.
Today was the 4th annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. This is not just a national event; more than 500 bookstores from every state in the US are joined by booksellers in Canada, the UK, Australia and Germany in encouraging parents to foster a love of books and bookshops in the next generation of readers.
This annual event was started by Jenny Milchman, author of Cover of Snow and the forthcoming Ruin Falls, whose love of bookstores led her to spend seven months on the road this year, visiting booksellers all across the country. I was fortunate to have Jenny at The Moonstone Mystery Bookstore early in her tour, and to meet her two lovely children (and wonderfully supportive husband), who inspired her to create a holiday when children everywhere would be introduced to all that bookshops have to offer.
Every author I have met in this wonderful second (really third) career as a bookseller has been sincerely supportive of bookstores, particularly independents, even in this age of electronic books and on-line selling. But Jenny Milchman is in a class by herself; even before her book tour, she spent her vacations traveling the country to visit bookshops. If anyone is keeping track for the Guinness people, I am sure she holds the record for bookshops visited, and also for booksellers who consider her a friend. On tour, she left a small (and yummy) gift at each stop, with a tag that still hangs on my bulletin board: “Thank you booksellers, keepers of community, culture, and conversation.”
Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day is not a literacy program. Milchman says, “It's really about the fact that there is a physical immersion to reading a book and there is a physical immersion to choosing that book, or there can be, and when there is it becomes almost a completely different experience. It says something to a child in a way he'll never get if he just sees mom order a book online." I have written before about the joy I experience in watching children choose books in my shop. They are as wide-eyed and awed as if in the more commonly referenced “candy store.” When they are allowed to make their own choices, to hold and scan the volumes, to take time exploring all the possibilities, to talk to the bookseller, they realize that a bookshop is a place where people know, love, and discuss books, and that they are welcome to become part of that community.
In this world of on-line shopping, it is possible that even the most privileged children will be denied the opportunity to browse in a bricks and mortar bookshop. Jenny Milchman’s efforts to combat this potential loss of an important formative experience for the young booklover need support from all of us. Take your child to a bookstore on the first Saturday in December next year, where there will be special events to welcome him or her. But don’t wait until then. Take a child to story time. Take them to shop for themselves. Of course, give gifts of books for the holidays, but include a gift card or certificate and the promise of a trip to the bookshop to redeem it. And interpret the words “your child” broadly: if you don’t have biological offspring, borrow a niece or nephew or neighbor’s child and show them where the booklovers hang out. It’s the future, not just of bookstores, but of the community of booklovers.
And thank you, Jenny, promoter of bookstores, lover of children, and giver of hope to both.
Baker's Dozen 2013 Report
Today was the annual Baker's Dozen Auction, an online contest run by children's book blogger extraordinaire (and, full disclosure, awesome HSG client) Authoress.
For several weeks, Ms. A and her partner in crime Jodi (INCARNATE) Meadows go through a slew of submissions consisting of a tagline and the first 250 words of an unpublished manuscript. They choose 60 submissions, post them on Authoress's blog--Miss Snark's First Victim--and watch the magic happen.
There is magic because Authoress, in her winning yet determined way, has convinced (roped in) 13 agents to evaluate and bid on the exclusive right to consider either parts or all of the most promising of the submissions. That day was today.
This is the third year I've participated in Baker's Dozen, and it's one of the more fun days of my year for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is because over the years the agents have taken to talking some serious smack before and during the auction, both on Twitter and on email (which is BRUTAL. Looking at YOU Brooks Sherman and Lauren MacLeod and Michelle Wolfson).
The second is that it allows us to let our hair down and show the kind of public enthusiasm for manuscripts that we always WANT to show but so rarely get the opportunity to do in public.
I was looking at Facebook this afternoon, and my friend, author M.J. Rose, was asking what the point is of this auction. Isn't publishing a buyer's market? Can't we just take our pick of the best manuscripts anyway? Why are we competing? Rather than recreating it, here's what I said:
M.j. Rose--it's fun as much as anything else. We (the agents) get to talk smack with each other while we give writers an indication as to the kinds of books we like to read (and at times how effective a tag line or first 250 words can be). We spend so much time being the voice of negativity to querying writers that it's nice for us to show even for an hour or two why we got into this in the first place--because we WANT to be excited by a query, by a beginning, and when we are we can get giddy. Every so often one of us finds a client from the auction (the pages are chosen by a panel run by the blogger Authoress in consultation with some writers or editors she knows), and it kind of helps everyone--drives traffic to her site, gets the agents' names out there, that kind of thing...
And there it is. We get happy. We are doing our job and can pull aside the curtain. We can (virtually) hang out with our friends. And who knows? Maybe we'll take one all the way. And wouldn't that be just great? I won auction #56 today. It's a young adult novel set in Paris. We'll see...
A few weeks ago, Time.com published “What Schools Can Do to Help Boys Succeed” by Christina Hoff Summers. There was nothing startling or new, just the observation that boys are more active than girls and think differently. The second of her three suggestions sparked my interest, however: “Turn boys into readers.”
Turning young people, male and female, into readers is more of a challenge than it was in the past. The new technologies offer many alternatives. Watching films, once a special occasion requiring a trip out of the home, is now an on-demand feature of daily life, from Youtube to Netflix to who knows what else that I haven’t kept up with. Games, once requiring a coordination of schedules among friends, can be played alone or with anyone available on-line at any time. The attraction of sitting alone quietly reading non-mobile black letters on a white page, even an electronic page, pales in comparison.
Hoffman points out, and I doubt there is much disagreement, that good reading skills are critical to both academic and workplace success. But there is a large and growing gap in skills between boys and girls, as evidenced by the fact that more women complete college degrees and graduate degrees. Assuming that both genders are required to do the same amount of reading for classes in primary and secondary schools, the difference may well be in the amount of independent or “pleasure” reading.
Reading as a chosen activity for “free” time may be more appealing to girls than to boys, who are more inclined to physical activity. (I know I am generalizing, but bear with me). But I think the real problem lies with the reading material. Hoffman’s article points to a study showing that girls prefer fiction, magazines, blogs and poetry; boys like comics, nonfiction and newspapers. My own experience as a bookseller bears that out.
Our school district seems to have universally imposed a 20-minute a night “pleasure” reading requirement on the elementary and middle school students. Many late afternoons bring mothers and children to my shop, looking for a book the child will enjoy while being forced to read. I’m sure that some good will come of this, and I do my best to make suggestions that will turn the homework requirement into an anticipated joy. The girls are much more willing to try something unfamiliar. The boys are pretty firm in rejecting suggestions, but a little unclear about what they would like. The mothers reject the “comics” (graphic novels) that appeal to them, and even the nonfiction must have a lot of action to get a glance from the boys. It is unfortunate that some really good fiction now available for middle grade boys (and girls), such as Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series, gets rejected as being “too long.”
An incident my sister related to me illustrates how the most reluctant reader can be turned into an enthusiast with a little creativity from teacher or parent. She teaches Special Ed, and had a student who had no interest in developing his reading skills; nothing appealed. As she listened to him talk to other students, she became aware of his keen interest in sports. So every morning she brought the Sports section of the local newspaper to class for him. Once he discovered the amount of information and opinion about his favorite topic available, he couldn’t wait for each day’s news. And reading the newspaper lead to a comfort with reading other material. He knew he could do it.
I make a suggestion to parents who come in to my shop with reluctant readers, and it works with boys as well as girls. It’s been pretty well established that children in homes with a wide selection of books, and parents who are readers, are more likely to become avid readers themselves. Too many parents, even those with the best intentions, have little time to read for pleasure themselves, and so the “modeling” is not done. I would bet that most of these parents read bedtime stories to their children when they were toddlers. And the children were not reluctant then. Yes, the reading is good for the child, but the appeal is the physical closeness and the full attention of the parent. It seems that once school starts, the child learns to read, and this bedtime sharing stops. Why not continue?
When my son was in elementary and middle school (pretty much up until the time the hormones started), we read together. In the evening, he would read me a chapter, and I would read him a chapter. If Dad was not traveling, there were three chapters. I think the appeal was more than the books; it was the sitting together on the sofa, paying attention to each other rather than the televison, and sharing an experience. After we finished The Trumpet of the Swan, we all walked around for days laughing “Ko-hoh! Ko-hoh!” The books became part of our shared history.
When a school librarian suggested Redwall to me as I made that difficult search for books a boy would like, my son was 10 and I thought it might be a little advanced. But we gave it a try, And something miraculous happened. He stretched to keep up with his parents’ reading skills. And then he decided that he wanted to read the rest of the series, and was not going to be slowed down to two or three chapters a night. We would have to find something else to read together; he took off on his own with the denizens of Redwall Abbey and hasn’t stopped reading since. Now that he is an adult, I’ve hooked him on crime fiction, but that’s another blog post.
A child, boy or girl, may be reluctant to read, but is unlikely to be reluctant to have the full attention of one or both parents. When I suggest to parents having difficulty getting their boys to sit for twenty minutes to read at night that sharing it with them is better than nagging (and actually requires less energy), they are amazed that they hadn’t thought of it. I’ve been getting feedback indicating that there has been some success.
Of course, this gives me another problem, and I was glad to see that the Time.com article had a suggestion I, too could use. Lists of books that boys like are available on Guysread.com. It is organized by subject matter rather than grade level, but when the seeker clicks on a title, the age level is available along with a summary, page count, and rating by other users of the site. This site has become a great resource for me for ordering purposes. It is also a great resource for the young reader; a boy can go there to see what other “guys” are reading, know that “guys read,” and bring his own requests to the bookshop. They’re even on Twitter!
So if you’re struggling with that reluctant young male reader, go to Guysread.com, let him choose something that sparks his interest, visit you local bookshop, and sit down to read together. It’s a very pleasant experience.
...So I'll ask that you all just look below this post, wish Jeff and his CLOSE PERSONAL friend EJ Copperman a Happy Pub Day, and also Happy Pub Day to all the writers with new books out today. (Special Shout out to Steve Hockensmith, whose Nick & Tesla's High-Voltage Danger Lab also launches today; and a wistful congrats to Keith Raffel for A Fine and Dangerous Season.)
First of all, I didn’t expect to be writing this particular column today. I’ve spent the past two days working on the launch of my client Helen Wan’s fabulous novel The Partner Track, which has had an amazing narrative and a unique marketing and publicity angle. Helen has had the first two of her appearances in the last 24 hours, and we’re getting some great momentum. And I will write about this process, because it deserves writing about and makes me intensely happy.
But then I was on Facebook and I saw a post by another of my clients, Mary McCoy, who’s a librarian in California when she isn’t writing searing YA noir.
The post had to do with Meg Medina and Rainbow Rowell, both of whom have written children’s books dealing with tough situations of bullying, coming to terms with growing up, kids trying to navigate adolescence. Both authors speak all the time at schools. And both recently were uninvited to appearances because small, small-minded groups of parents determined that the words in their books—“Ass” in the title of Medina’s “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” and a number of curse words in Rowell’s Eleanor and Park—made the messages of perseverance and tolerance in their books irrelevant: Their children needed to be protected from the word Ass.
Medina was told she’d still be allowed to read at the school—provided she neither stated the name of her own book or showed a picture of the cover (see above). This was the way she responded:
I’ll say only this: I make absolutely NO APOLOGIES for the title of my book. The title is bold and troubling, and it suggests exactly what’s inside. Besides, we can fret all we want about the word ass, but that word isn’t the real trouble, is it? What’s hurting our kids is the savagery on their phones, and Facebook pages and in their classrooms. That, and the reluctance of those around them to step up and do the tough work of pulling the issue out into the open and talking about what bullying really looks and sounds like and about its radioactive impact that lasts for years into the future.
Rowell wasn’t even certain she’d been uninvited, until her contract with the State of Minnesota was returned. She said in an interview here (http://the-toast.net/2013/09/17/chat-rainbow-rowell-love-censorship/), that
“The Parents Action League is mostly responding to the cursing in the book – there’s a lot of it.
But it’s so bizarre to me that they’re objecting to the cursing because Eleanor and Park themselves almost never swear. I’m not anti-profanity, personally, but I use profanity in the book to show how vulgar and sometimes violent the characters’ worlds are. The very first line of the book is:
XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus.
Park pressed his headphones into his ears.
He’s trying to block out the profanity! And Eleanor hates that her stepfather curses so much. She complains about it throughout the book.
There’s also some pretty vulgar sexual language that the parents have objected to: Someone harasses Eleanor by writing gross things on her school books. It’s one of the more traumatic things that happens to her.”
So let’s get this straight: Two authors, writing books they are hoping will be read by children and teenagers who can empathize with the bullied and abused kids portrayed, are prevented from talking to these same kids because there is cursing (which is pretty broadly defined if you use “ass” as a line in the sand). It’s astonishing. Bullying, both in person and online, is such a massive problem now that you end up seeing heartbreaking articles like this one (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/queens-girl-12-hangs-citing-harassment-article-1.1352387) and this one (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/us/suicide-of-girl-after-bullying-raises-worries-on-web-sites.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
I’ve got two daughters. One is 10, the other, 11. They have had their run-ins with bullies. They are young, but growing up really quickly. They have access to social media, and they have lockers in the hall of middle school. They are now on a break for ten days for the end of the Jewish holiday season. I’m going to Barnes and Noble tomorrow morning and I’m buying them each a copy of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and my whole family is going to read it and talk about it. And it’s tragic that the kids in the school Meg Medina is not going to visit won’t have that same opportunity.
For more information, click here http://megmedina.com/2013/09/04/author-uninvited-a-school-decides-im-trouble/ and here http://the-toast.net/2013/09/17/chat-rainbow-rowell-love-censorship/
This summer, more than anything else professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the periods just before—and after—a book is published, and really analyze what an author, a publisher, and now also an agent need to do in order to position a book for success.
Look, until a certain period of time in the past, an author wrote a book, attracted a publisher, signed a contract, and was more or less able to assume that the publisher would take it from there. Now, there are certainly many folks who say that that period ended very recently, but I recall differently.
In 1991, I was working as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich under the legendary, irascible Anne Freedgood (one of the few people I know for whom “irascible” is both a condemnation and a compliment). I ended up leaving Harcourt and publishing and going to business school because I was so frustrated that, as editors, I felt our hands were tied by conservative and short-sighted policies toward marketing and publicity. We were publishing a marvelous, beautiful, fanciful novel called A Case of Curiosities by Allen Kurzweil. We had paid very good money for it. It had received terrific reviews. The author had written a gorgeous book. Anne had edited well, and the designers and production folk had put together an excellent package.
And it was absolutely dying on the vine.
I couldn’t fathom why there was no money for ads in the New York Times. (I know, I know, it’s a waste of money…most of the time.) I saw the sales dwindle after a few weeks, stopped seeing it on the front tables in the bookstores, never saw anyone read it on the subway or the beach. I despaired, and I went to get my MBA specifically in order to understand how to sell books.
And now it’s 2013, and so many of the problems still exist. Authors still write gorgeous books, which are packaged well and at times given reasonable advances—and die on the vine in precisely the same way that Allen Kurzweil’s novel did in 1991, and so many have before and since. And I wonder why, and at times I despair for this business, for its seeming randomness.
So this summer we started thinking about the differences between 1991 and 2013, and most specifically how an author can work to promote his or her book both before and after publication in order to create the elusive buzz and to achieve sales success through either pre-sales or sales after publication. Sometimes the publisher takes the lead; sometimes it is up to the writer (who most of the time hasn’t bargained for a position of such primacy in the marketing—after all, isn’t it enough to write a book strong enough to be released into the public???). Sometimes there is support and enthusiasm from the publisher, sometimes the author is made to feel like he should be grateful just to get a deal, and should go back home and be satisfied.
So we think, and we analyze, and we adjust. When we can find a particular market segment to target and the author has a platform within that segment, we try to exploit that advantage. We see if television exposure works (not terribly often if you are a talking head, in terms of resulting in folks actually clicking the Buy button on Amazon; but more likely if you are the subject of a story). We see if posting on genre-appropriate blogs work. We see if Tweeting and sharing on Facebook make a material difference, and for how long prior to publication you need to build up your base (hint: it helps if you have an established web presence, at least within your genre, from the get-go, but it’s certainly possible to make up for lost time as long as you aren’t perceived as overly craven).
Finally, we try to find places—not bookstores—where the author can appear and speak to the end user. For a children’s book writer, that’s often a school or a library. For a lawyer or a business author writing with expertise about a particular industry, that could be to conferences or firms or to different divisions of large companies. In these circumstances, what’s often the difference between success and leaving money on the table (as it were) is the combination of time, energy, and resources. We have brought on interns and part-timers to call schools and law firms and coordinate appearances, and work with the publishers to ensure that there will be books available to purchase at the events. We help create a degree of buzz.
But what causes the tipping point between a nice tour and a long, extended sales arc? Seemingly it’s the confluence of everything—the book, the package, the reviews, the appearances…and the support by the publisher. And that can be alchemy. Sometimes it’s throwing money at a book (which is nice, certainly). Sometimes it’s a galvanized sales force that goes to its retail accounts and gets the elusive traction. Sometimes it’s ads in the paper or on Amazon or on the subway. Sometimes it’s simply making the book ubiquitous.
And that part, what goes into the elements of that last paragraph, is REALLY HARD. So few authors get all of it. My clients laugh at me because at some point in my relationship with every client I tell them straight out that I am managing their expectations. I’m not subtle. And when I do, I try to figure out what the first point is where that author will be happy, and start by trying to exceed that point. Sometimes it’s simply seeing a book in print. Sometimes it’s earning out an advance. Sometimes it’s getting enough sales to ensure a next contract. Sometimes it’s a specific number of sales, or an Edgar, or a spot on a best seller list. Often those marks are very difficult to hit. Often those marks are unrealistic. Occasionally we exceed them. Sometimes I feel like I’m reliving Allen Kurzweil’s experience over and over, and need to go back to business school to try to figure out a new way to help these books succeed.
But then we close a new deal, and a new book starts the process, and we start to parse the markets, and I think, “This is the one where we figure it all out.” But even if we figure it out once, it’s not necessarily replicable throughout publishing—a cozy needs something different from a middle grade fantasy, which needs something different from women’s fiction. It keeps things interesting, even if it feels like I’m constantly rolling that rock up the hill and waiting for it to slip. But once in a while, you get traction, and then you go back down the hill and start over with the next rock.
Like many people, I loved Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, first published in 1977 and soon to be a major motion picture. It's the story of a remarkable boy manipulated by his government into using his talents and skills in a faraway war. I really want to go to the movie, but I really, really don't like the idea of supporting Card, who is anti-gay, in any way. So, what to do? I'm rereading the book, wary of a hidden anti-gay message. If I find one, I can't go to the movie.
So far, I have to laugh, because I'm finding -- big surprise? -- gay overtones throughout the book. Battle School is an almost-all-male world, and closeness between males is a comfort. It's like ancient Greece -- in more than one way.
When Ender must say goodbye to his friend Alai, the boys share an intimate moment (p. 51 in the 1991 edition): "Alai suddenly kissed Ender on the cheek and whispered in his ear, 'Salaam.' Then, red faced, he turned away and walked to his own bed at the back of the barracks. Ender guessed that the kiss and the word were somehow forbidden ... After such a thing nothing could be said. Alai reached his bed and turned around to see Ender. Their eyes held for only a moment, locked in understanding."
I'm not implying that Ender and Alai have a sexual relationship -- they don't -- but language like this seems loaded, to say the least. Similarly, here's Ender's reaction when he meets another boy, Bonzo Madrid (p. 55): "A boy stood there, tall and slender, with beautiful black eyes and slender lips that hinted at refinement. I would follow such beauty, said something inside Ender."
Oh, and did I mention the so-called "sleep-uniform" (p. 54)? "Skin from head to toe." The book takes place in a world where young boys (and a very few girls) sleep naked in communal bunk rooms. Fraught with contradiction much, Mr. Card? Presumably, the sleep-uniforms will not show up in the film.
Not only do they sleep naked in the book -- they jog, work out in the gym, and wrestle in their sleep-uniforms (p. 125 and p. 147). Ender and his friend Bean share a bed at one point (p. 140). For no reason I can fathom, part of the novel takes place on a small planet called Eros (first mention p. 173). On this planet, Ender's teacher tells him " 'In this school, it has always been the practice for a young student to be chosen by an older student. The two become companions, and the older boy teaches the younger one everything he knows. Always they fight, always they compete, always they are together' " (p. 185). The companions sleep in the same room, too, though in this case the teacher sleeps on the floor.
I'm not the first one to notice homoeroticism in Ender's Game. A quick Google search shows that many readers have noticed homoerotic overtones in the book. Librarian and writer Emily Lloyd articulates her mixed feelings about the book (similar to mine) in the online comic Shelf Check, here.
Scholars, too, have written on the topic. In 2009. James Campbell published "Kill the Bugger: Ender's Game and the Question of Heteronormativity" in Science Fiction Studies (Vol. 36, No. 3); he says "I read the Ender's series as being at odds, on matters of sexual identity and desire, with Card's public stance as a Mormon fundamentalist." 19 pages later, Campbell concludes: "Card’s fiction provides a more nuanced and tolerant response to homosexuality than his more direct social commentary ... [science fiction] allows people, both writers and readers, to say things they would never articulate without the mask of genre."
So maybe I can go to this movie after all.
Addendum, August 14, 2013: Here's a related article by Kate Bonin, "In the Bugger Tunnels of Planet Eros: Gay Sex and Death in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card," first published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, December 2002: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~tenshi/articles/Boninessay.htm
Note from Josh:
So I was sitting happily if frenetically at my desk this afternoon, thinking about the eight—EIGHT manuscripts I need to read—when I got a call from my wife, Amanda, who was walking on the Upper West Side.
“You don’t need to write your blog tonight,” she said.
“Why?” I thought. “Have we skipped Tuesday?”
“I want to write it this week,” she said. “I want to write about independent bookstores.”
A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the Kindle Daily Deal, the Dead Guy bookseller, Marilyn Thiele, wrote to me that she should apparently close up shop because obviously Amazon was going to drive her out of business. Amanda’s guest column, below, should be the antidote. Don’t call the movers, Marilyn!
(Oh, I guess I should say, by way of introduction, that Amanda is a World History teacher at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and is the inspiration behind—among other things—my abiding love of all things Tudor.)--JG
Let me begin by saying right off the bat that I love all bookstores. Really. They all draw me in, whether they’re large chains (as a kid, I loved the WaldenBooks stores in malls) or small independent bookstores. The Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street and Broadway is my home away from home, and where I have spent hours searching for novels and cookbooks and reading with our kids. The folks there are incredibly knowledgeable and unfailingly helpful.
But in my guest blog post I sing of independent bookstores and the teacher mom.
It goes like this: I am a history teacher, which is a wonderful job ALL months of the year, but a particularly easy one in July and August. When the grading is done, and my desk is finally cleaned (ed. Note: HA!), I have time to wander and peruse. And although I have projects pending (new paper assignments, new curricula) I have much more free time and invariably find myself strolling the neighborhoods of Manhattan.
This summer, my son is taking a three-week creative writing course at Columbia University, and I have been dropping him off each morning. On my return downtown, I pass several lovely bookstores along Broadway, and I stop at them all—often consecutively. The Bankstreet Bookstore has a lovely selection devoted to education books for teachers, and I have already bought a book about making history more meaningful and fun for students, whose ideas I hope to incorporate this fall. Another fine independent bookstore is Book Culture, where I spent a lot of time (and money!) this morning. I noted with pleasure their huge middle grade section, where Geoff Rodkey’s New Lands was face out on the shelf. I bought a book of Neuroscience Haikus by Eric Chudler (sample: Memory fleeting; Cannot remember who, what; No hippocampus.) and a French vegetarian cookbook.
These small bookstores remind me of all the bookstores that populated the Upper West Side (and all of New York City) when I was a kid. I am very nostalgic for these places, like Shakespeare and Co. (ed. Note: The people there were RUDE!), or Eeyore’s (lovingly fictionalized in the movie You’ve Got Mail). They somehow seemed like places where you didn’t need to need anything in particular, but you wanted everything so much. The booksellers really love the books, and want to talk to you. My husband Josh Getzler and I seek them out wherever we go (like last summer in Woodstock, New York) and always chat with the sellers, exchange picks and usually buy something nice.
So here’s to your neighborhood bookstore. Talk to the booksellers. Tell them what you like (be sure it’s one of my husband’s clients). Sit and read—to yourself, your friend, your kids. Attend an event. And then be sure to buy something wonderful. I recommend Neuroscience Haikus.
Every year on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, WPLJ radio in New York broadcasts its morning show from Jenkinson’s Pier in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. There are bands playing live, the atmosphere is festive. I used to listen every year I worked in baseball as I drove from my apartment in Manhattan to the ballpark in Staten Island. And every year, the highlight of the broadcast was the same: The traffic guy, Joe Nolan, would get up on stage and tell a long story about his father taking him out to the shore in the summer, and how now, as a father himself, he marveled at his own life. Then he would pause, yell “1, 2, 3, 4!” and bust into a highly emotional, slightly off-key but marvelous Born to Run. I once found myself feeling oddly choked up on the New Jersey Turnpike as I yelled along with Joe Nolan.
I feel like every summer I write a blog post about the day my girls go to camp. It has to do with being a dad of daughters who are still little but grow more worldy and somewhat more inscrutable by the day, even as they are still willing to hug me and still cry when they get on the bus. Only now it’s for seven weeks straight, and that’s a long time.
And every year I talk about what they read, and what they read on, as technology changes and they become more sophisticated and plugged in. Which is why it was fascinating to me that this year they went without e-readers at all, and simply took their books with them the old fashioned way—weighing down their backpacks and crammed among the lip gloss and the illicit granola bars and the sunscreen, in hardcover and paperback.
Now this is not a judgment—I’m not proud that they’re reading print books or disappointed that they aren’t reading on machines (or vice versa, if that’s even logical). Rather, it was interesting, and I was thinking about why. And I came up with a couple of answers:
The first is that a couple of years ago, when I first started chronicling the kids’ adventures in reading, they read shorter books. Therefore we could load, say, 117 My Weird School books onto the Kindle and send them on their way. Now that they are older, they read longer books, but fewer of them, and with more words per page. And they mess around all evening when they might be reading, doing things like talking to their friends and (ahem, girls) writing letters to their parents, who miss them. They’ll get through the books they bring, but don’t need as much of an inventory.
The second (although the first was more than one point), is that they are fundamentally indifferent to the platform on which they read. They have so many options at this point, and they are all “normal” now, as opposed to a couple of years ago when it was cool to read on a tablet, that they go with the most convenient (and frequently best looking). And in this case, the one they don’t need to plug in or keep safe from, say, getting wet.
So this morning I stood with a hundred or so other parents (around a third of whom were crying at any given time), waving vaguely at the tinted window where we think we saw our particular kid’s face flit by, though it could be Maya. My son, who just started a writing program and is now going to have my wife and me to himself for a couple of months, was waving frantically saying “I’ll miss you, I’ll miss you…heh.” Several of the other parents were people I went to school with myself, now with dogs on leashes and smaller children who haven’t yet started day camp holding on to them. I stepped back for a minute, looked around, and started humming Born to Run.
Last night, after months of first negotiation then anticipation, the Newman-Getzlers hosted a sleepover party for our daughters. They both have birthdays during the summer, so they rarely have had parties with school friends. That’s how we ended up with six girls under the age of 12 spending the night in our apartment along with my wife Amanda, our son Joe (whose blogging shoes I’m reluctantly—and, I suspect, unsuccessfully—trying to fill), and me.
I say “spending the night” because “sleeping at our house” would be lying. Not so much sleeping. First there was the mid-afternoon bowling, followed by the Wii, followed by the pizza followed by the movies followed by the cupcake “decorating” (read “smearing frosting all over their faces like shortstops’ glare-b-gone”).
Then it was 11:15 and the sugar rush was starting to fade and I walked into our daughters’ room. There were the six girls, sitting in various positions on or near the beds, each on her smart machine. Mostly it was phones, though there were a couple of tablets as well. Some were playing games involving fruit (?). Most were taking photos of their socks and posting them on Instagram. “I HEART ITA’S SOCKS! (followed by seventeen Imogi (??)” Nineteen friends not at the sleepover then commented, largely complimentarily, on this fascinating developing situation. My wife looked over my shoulder and shook her head.
“In our day we read BOOKS at our sleepovers.”
I almost did a legit double take.
“Oh bullshit,” I said. “In our day we watched “Emergency” and “Eight is Enough” and “The Love Boat,” then ate too many cookies and talked until midnight or until our parents got mad and made us go to sleep.”
“We also did makeup and pretended we were Cher.”
We shrugged, looked again. They were having long, involved conversations. By text message. While sitting next to each other.
Brave New World.
(NOTE FROM JOSH: I was sitting down to write this evening when the Boy, two days done with Middle School but not yet a Freshman, tells me to step aside. “You’re tired,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about something.”
Clearly he has been. And he’s not shy about discussing it. I hope I miss the train to Weenieville.
By Joe Newman-Getzler
What is a “classic”? Depending on whom you ask the answers could vary wildly. For some, a classic could be a book like Murder on the Orient Express, a movie like Casablanca, or a song like “Let It Be”. To others, a classic could be a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie like Johnny Dangerously, or a song like “Boom! Shake the Room." This need not only apply to books. The term “classic” can also be applied to anything from a good joke to a memorable sports play. But what, indeed, is a classic? And how does it unify these many different things?
To most people, a classic is merely a thing that stays in their head for a long time, usually for a positive reason. But to some, the name goes much deeper than that. A classic means a piece of cultural significance, something considered a great thing that all should love and cherish for its greatness. Typically, there is a predetermined set of “classics” for any kind of genre or type. For example, if you want a “classic” book, the names that’ll probably come up would be books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or Gone with the Wind. A “classic” movie? You’d probably see names like Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, or Singin’ in the Rain. But should we have our classics defined for us? Or should we form our own opinions on what is classic and what’s not?
This is a question that has been troubling me for a while now: what’s a classic and what’s not? The reason this has been rumbling through my mind is because lately I have been trying to give myself a “classical” film and literary experience. Summer’s just begun, and now that I have gobs upon gobs of time to spend, I want to fill them with great books and great movies. For the former, my family has been supplying me with tons of great books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. And yes, they are great. But I will admit, my standards for classics are pretty low. The whole school year was peppered with classic books in my English class, like The Woman Warrior, The Chosen, Animal Farm, you name it. But my ideas of classics are Dave Barry is Not Making This Up, Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Gray Hare, and There Is No Dog. And yet, Mom and Dad say not to read those over and over. Read The Hobbit. Come on! It’s only 500 pages long, you wuss!
Movies are another area of “classics” that drive me crazy, though for a different reason. While I would consider myself a rather decent film lover, there are still so many movies I haven’t seen that I feel pressured by myself to watch. Seriously?, I ask myself. You haven’t seen Citizen Kane? Jaws? The Dark Knight? You, sir, are on the train straight to Weenieville. And even my gym teacher’s let into me about my lack of film exposure: he spent 10 minutes telling me how I simply must watch The Empire Strikes Back in order to truly deem myself a Star Wars fan (BTW, I’ve only seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. That fact led to not only the aforementioned monologue, but another about how I should watch the prequels because, yeah, they suck, but I MUST have the complete Star Wars experience.) And yet, I also feel that there are a great many films that I truly love and yet many don’t even think of in the same league as “classics.” Seriously, does nobody but me consider UHF a classic? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory better than the Gene Wilder one? I feel so lonely.It’s times like this when I start to think about how subjective a term “classic” is. Can only what has been previously called a classic be a classic? Can others come up with their own “classic” films to share with the world? That is my hope. While, naturally, classic books and movies are to be revered and respected, they aren’t the only good books and movies out there! I wish more people would realize that. And YES, I am going to watch The Empire Strikes Back this summer. But the prequels? Hmm. Maybe. But for now…keep on readin’.
I recently attended a local production of "The Amazing Food Detective," a program from Kaiser Permanente intended to teach kids about health and nutrition. I can honestly say that I have seldom enjoyed an experience in a theater more. I laughed my butt off, and so did the rest of the audience.
Okay, so almost everybody there was in elementary school, but I'm telling you, it was genuinely funny. The kids in real life actually looked like they were having as much fun as the kids in the picture on this page. The crowd participation was 100%. It was everything you want a mystery to be -- surprising and satisfying.
As with many mysteries, even if you knew the ending from the start (in this case, junk food is to blame for a soccer player's lethargy), the play still managed to take unexpected, entertaining turns. For example: at one point the Food Detective, looking for clues, pops out of a trash can; at another point he pulls a pair of enormous underpants out of his vest. Yes -- Kaiser Permanente understood the play's audience very well.
I couldn't help but notice detective fiction tropes throughout. The Amazing Food Detective in this particular production put on a plaid hat when he got serious about detecting, and made use of a massive magnifying glass. (Our detective was a man; refreshingly, the detective on Kaiser's website and game is a woman.) These accoutrements and others reference Sherlock Holmes, but our Food Detective didn't smoke a pipe -- after all, this is a kids' play put on by a health insurance company. (I wonder if kids nowdays know Sherlock Holmes. Probably not, but perhaps they know Sherlock Hemlock from Sesame Street. He doesn't smoke a pipe either.)
Other mystery tropes -- the finding of clues and the moments of discovery -- were greatly exaggerated in the play. The Food Detective, we learn, is in the business of collecting "A-Ha"s. Whenever he found a clue, the audience was instructed to yell out "A-HA!" (which we did with great enthusiasm). Additionally, we got the detective story mainstay of the damsel in distress when a soda can puppet spoke to the Food Detective in a sultry Southern accent, saying "Aren't you thirsty? Come and have a sip of little old me!".
The play ends with the players telling the audience that we are ALL food detectives. A nice ending for anybody, age four to forty-four to four hundred.
This week, I participated in an online conversation with author (and my client) Geoff Rodkey and Putnam editor-in-chief (and Geoff's editor) Jennifer Besser at the marvelous middle-grade-oriented website www.fromthemixedupfiles.com. I think it gives a fun insight into the three perspectives that often go into the creation and publication of a book. We aren't saying exactly the same things, but I think the idea of creativity and collaboration and thought that goes into deciding how to position a book are worth reading. So I will leave you to click onto the site here , though I also will be happy to answer any questions or comments left below.
Oh, and if you get the chance, go out and pick up Geoff's new novel, New Lands, which continues the Chronicles of Egg started in Deadweather and Sunrise (out now in paperback!).
Last month I talked about John Bellairs's children's book The House with a Clock in Its Walls and said my daughter wanted to read all the books in the Lewis Barnavelt series. We've just finished The Figure in the Shadows. Like the first book, it was wonderfully creepy and spooky. Reading it made me think of a famous passage from Stephen King's Dans Macabre (1980):
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
Bellairs's work sits squarely in terror. For most of The Figure in the Shadows we only know that something scary is on the way. The scary thing only appears in the final chapters; even then it's barely seen. On page 78, Lewis Barnavelt receives a scary postcard that says, in Latin, Venio ("I come"). Such a postcard -- a POSTCARD -- should not be so scary. But it is VERY SCARY. The next scary thing, an old newspaper blowing around in the wind -- A VERY SCARY NEWSPAPER -- appears on page 119. My daughter and I were TERRIFIED.
With this book, Bellairs reminds us that a figure in the shadows can be much more frightening than, say, a well-lit monster. No one has written a full-length biography of Bellairs. I wish someone would.
Last weekend, I was out in New Jersey visiting my in-laws with the family. It was the end of Passover, and including my brother-in-law's family and some friends, there were fifteen people (including seven children) hanging around the house.
My youngest daughter, Ita, had an English assignment and decided that for her report she was going to read one of the books I represent--Geoff Rodkey's wonderful and clever Deadweather and Sunrise. As something of a treat, and in order for her to get into the rhythm of the story (and because, having read it, oh, ten times already, I was pretty fluent), I agreed to read the beginning to Ita, with the understanding that she'd take over after a reasonable number of pages.
Turns out that "reasonable" meant a hundred and twenty. And it was a pleasure. Beside the actual words of the story, which are funny and at times quite beautiful and poignant (when people aren't hitting each other with rocks), a fascinating thing happened: I acquired an audience. Slowly, over the course of the hour and a half or so that I read, people found their way onto the porch.
They had all read the book already--Deadweather and Sunrise was my go-to book last summer, and my son and wife had read it when it was on submission. But there was something about the whole sociability of sitting together and hearing a story that was magnetic. By the time I got to "and I realized REDACTED (read it yourself!) was trying to kill me" and closed the book, there were eight or nine people in the room.
We spend an enormous amount of time hanging out in front of screens. We write posts and emails and text messages. Particularly when kids aren't around we rarely sit together and read to each other. Heck, the Author Reading as social event at the local bookstore has almost disappeared as publishers have realized that blog tours are generally more efficient and cost effective than sending writers on the road (except--as is the case right now with Geoff Rodkey himself, coincidentally--when they send a group of authors on tour together to visit schools and bookstores en mass).
So it was particularly fun--in a retro, quaint way--to read to Ita and the greater Jersey Shore. It helped that it was a lively book, and on a holiday where we don't use electronics so the audience was somewhat captive. And everyone walked around the house smiling for a few hours at the sheer pleasantness of the experience. Ita has not, in fact, read on this week--the return to school has taken over her free time. But it's almost the weekend, and the days are long, and I think the immediate family is going to NEED to hear how Egg escapes from REDACTED.
Since I'm a librarian, I frequently bring home books from the library for my kids, books that they most certainly did not request. (Of course, I also bring home their requests.) The ones I bring home unrequested are usually books I remember from my own childhood. Sometimes my choices pan out big time (the Little House series, the Mushroom Planet series). Sometimes, not so much (I cannot get my kids to read The Great Gilly Hopkins no matter how I try).
Recently I brought home The House with a Clock in Its Walls, a book I remembered only very vaguely from my own childhood. The paperback edition I got is billed as "A John Bellairs mystery featuring Lewis Barnavelt." What I remembered: it is spooky and distinctive. What I learned, reading it to my daughter at bedtime: it is definitely both of those things, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (love!) and a gothic spirit you don't usually see in children's books. This is no Goosebumps, with gross-outs (not that I'm against those). It is truly scary, and the magic in it seems very real.
At the same time, it has a heartwarming goofiness to it that made me want to hug the author. The main character, Lewis, is a chubby crybaby of a kid who, guess what, turns out to have enough inner courage to save the world. Oh, and he's an orphan, too, like a certain mega-popular wizard you may know. He writes his own spell to solve the mystery of the clock, and his made-up magic is as goofy, loving, and lovable as the main characters of the story.
I don't remember reading other books by Bellairs as a kid, but my daughter has requested ALL the Lewis Barnavelt books, so I guess we can call that a success.
I can't seem to get off this Nancy Drew topic. Talking to my aunt last week made me wonder what mint-condition vintage Nancy Drew books might be worth. A visit to abebooks.com yielded some surprises. Currently for sale: a first edition of The Password to Larkspur Lane (1933), in dust jacket, for sale for $6500. Now, there's no guarantee it will sell at that price. But that's what the dealer is asking. The copy is described as in "very good" condition, which any collector will tell you is quite different from "mint" or "as new" or "fine."
The next most expensive Nancy Drew for sale right now is a first edition of The Clue in the Diary (1932), also in "very good" condition, for $2500.
I wondered if I would find any Nancy Drews claiming to be signed by the author, since Carolyn Keene didn't actually exist. I didn't find any, but I did find a book signed by Mildred Wirt, one of several authors who used the Keene pseudonym. She published, under her own name, Ruth Darrow in the Fire Patrol (1930), and there's a signed copy available for $650 right now.
Talking to kids about Nancy Drew led me to interview my aunt Peg about her collection of vintage Nancy Drew Books. Peg is a New Yorker by all but birth and very glamorous. She is now in her sixties but you wouldn't guess it. I didn’t know until recently that she collected old Nancy Drews.
Do you still read the books, or just collect them?
I still read them. Even now, it’s almost embarrassing to admit, the books are page turners. When you get to the end of a chapter, you MUST keep reading to find out what happens.
Are there things in the books you notice now that you didn’t notice as a kid?
Yes, definitely. From my perspective now, though I didn’t notice these things as a kid, I see 1) what a thoroughly modern woman Nancy was. She changed her own tires on her roadster, she dried out carburetors. She was not helpless. She tackled problems fearlessly. 2) how unfortunately racist many of the books were. In The Mystery at Lilac Inn, for example, a "dark-complexioned" woman is described as "impudent," "insolent," "swaggering," and having a "sly look." In The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, an Indian man is cruel to animals and children, and “his eyes bulged with superstitious fear.” In The Clue in the Old Album, a grandmother explains that she has little control over her granddaughter, “Perhaps…because of the heritage on her father’s side.” (Her father was a gypsy.) Throughout this book, gypsies are portrayed in a negatively stereotypic way.
Even as a girl I was aware of the absurdity of Nancy falling into all those mysteries. I laughed even then at the boilerplate writing that appeared in all the books – her “famous criminal lawyer” father; his “sparkling blue eyes” and more. Also that Nancy never appeared to go to school.
I am a Nancy Drew purist, in that I don’t want to read the revised mysteries making the story details more current. I like the 30s and 40s time frame. In re-reading one of the books, I was confused as to why Nancy felt she had to rush home from her outing in her blue roadster when it looked like there was going to be a big storm. Nancy didn’t strike me as the type who would be afraid of driving in rain. As I read on I realized that in those days the secondary roads were not paved so a big rain would turn the dirt roads to mud. And sure enough, Nancy ’s car got stuck and so she had to go to a farmhouse for help, leading of course to a new mystery.
My daughter Celie is eight years old, just about to turn nine. Here are her answers to my questions about a mystery series she likes, Archie's Weird Mysteries, which are comic book versions of a television series of the same name. They are available as paperback books and as ebooks for the iPad and iPhone.
What do you like about these books?
I like the characters, because they are the same ones as in my favorite comic books. I also like the setting, Riverdale.At what age did you first one of these?
Are they too scary for little kids? What age do you think they would be best for?
They would be good for all ages.
Do you need to read the books in order?
What else would you say about these books?
You always want to read on.
The day after she returned from winter break, my assistant Maddie asked if she could meet me for coffee the next morning. There she told me that, having gone home to visit her family over the break, she had decided to leave New York, leave agenting, leave this model of the publishing industry (at least for now, and at least most likely), and go back to California.
All of this was understandable, if disappointing. She has many pulls to go back West, and she’d clearly thought it through carefully. But there was a professional reason as well, which says a lot about this industry even if changing it would require blowing up a model that has existed for decades.
Let me back up a second. One of the disappointments to me for Maddie’s departure is that in fact she had been doing so well—and not just in her assistant role, at which she excelled. She had made a large group of friends and contacts within the industry—she’d networked within her “class” of junior agents and younger editors, and had been an active and competent presence with the editors I worked with on my own books. When she came to me after a somewhat shorter than usual time and said that she had been working on a novel and asked if she could represent it, I felt she would be able to do the job. She did, and had an auction on her first submission: Mary McCoy’s wonderful and chilling historical YA noir Dead To Me. She seemed to be very much on her way to proceeding—pretty quickly—toward success as a literary agent.
That’s why her professional rationale for leaving publishing made me really sit up and take notice. She is leaving, she said, because traditional book publishing the way it is set up is simply too slow-moving. She’s young and capable, and she took a look and saw that it would take years for her to see the fruits of this labor, both in terms of the satisfaction of building a list and seeing the books come out, and building up her commissions to the point where she’d be able to make a good living.
I think the turning point here was when, after a taking on Mary’s book and selling it quite nicely at auction, she found out that Dead To Me was scheduled to be published in September or October of 2014. So it would be a year and 10 months from Deal to Shelf. That’s a hell of a long time. But because of the timing of the deal (and all the publishers time their cutoffs slightly differently), Hyperion had closed its spring and summer 2014 seasons and the first slot they had was in the fall. Perhaps they’d been buying YA more aggressively and were crowded; perhaps there were competitive titles. Whatever, it was going to be almost two years before Maddie and Mary were going to see their book out in stores.
This isn’t particularly strange, either. I’ve had three novels in the past two years be purchased and come our more than a year and a half after the deal was done. There wasn’t much editorial work or any complications. Just scheduling.
So that was a particular frustration, and it feels counter-intuitive when writers are independently publishing their books very quickly, and some e-original or e-first publishers are able to get books out with a very short lead. An example would be Elaine Powell’s historical thriller The Fifth Knight, which Thomas and Mercer published in serial form. We made that deal in September, and the first piece of the serial came out at the end of November. I received a finished book last week, and start-to-finish it was four months.
The problem there is that The Fifth Knight received no traditional reviews (Publisher Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, etc), and couldn’t be publicized in the traditional ways.
So Maddie’s conundrum, which I think translates to just about anyone involved in the greater publishing world, is that while there are ways to be very quick, to be very efficient in the physical production of books (particularly digital), the traditional seasonal timing of publishers’ lists creates a frustrating backlog between deal and publication. The tradeoffs are clear, and at this point (at least while there are still enough brick-and-mortar bookstores to matter) unsatisfying.
Now, is it unreasonable to want both efficiency in timing of publication and payment and effective marketing strategies that remotely resemble the traditional journalism-based review-driven campaigns? Perhaps. But I think it’s going to drive a continued wedge between traditional and independent publishing until we do, and will create a somewhat divided, inefficient industry. And it will drive more and more smart young professionals like Maddie out of the industry, to businesses with greater flexibility and speed.
So Godspeed Maddie—we will miss you. You will succeed and flourish. Thank you for everything.
My post about the Mysteries in Our National Parks series, in which I interviewed my own kid, led me to talk to a few other eleven-year-olds about their mystery-reading habits. Here are Coleman Horner's thoughts on Hits and Misses, a combination Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys "Super Mystery" first published in 1993.
What did you like about the book?
I liked the action and the plots. It's quite serious and has lots of danger. It isn't funny. The slight bit of romance in it ties in well with the mystery.At what age did you first read it?
Is it too scary for little kids? What age do you think it’s best for?
It's not too scary. I think 9 would be the best age.
What do you like about the series?
I like that Nancy and her friends find so many clues and try to figure out the solution to the mystery. There is some danger in the books but they always get out of it. It takes a while to read each book because there are so many details.
At what age did you first read a Nancy Drew book?
Is it too scary for little kids? What age do you think it’s best for?
It's not too scary. 8 would be about the right age.
I did not tell Coleman and Hannah that the authors of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, "Carolyn Keene" and "Franklin W. Dixon," do not exist. (The books were authored by multiple employees of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded 1905, which was also responsible for several other series, including the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift.)
My son Will, age eleven, has been reading the Mysteries in Our National Parks series by Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson, so I thought I'd interview him about those books.
Mom: So, which of these books have you read?
Will: I've read Cliff-Hanger (#3), Deadly Waters (#4), Ghost Horses (#6), Valley of Death (#8), and Running Scared (#11).
Mom: What got you started reading them?
Will: Grandma gave me one after she visited one of the parks. I think they sell these books in the gift shops at parks. I haven't seen them at my school library.
Mom: We've found them at the public library, though. Do you like them?
Will: They're pretty good. I'd give them a solid four out of five stars. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger and they have no boring parts at all.
Mom: What kind of stories are they? Are the characters always the same?
Will: It's always the same kids who solve the mystery, plus one extra kid who's an orphan or something who the family has taken along for the trip. Endangered animals are often part of the story, like maybe a particular animal goes missing and the kids have to figure out what happened to it.
Mom: Should kids read them in order?
Will: No, definitely not. It doesn't matter what order you read them in. They are kind of scary, so I would say you should be at least eight to read them. There are situations where people are in serious danger, like at one point the kids are in a dark tunnel and their candle is almost gone, or another time a mom is hanging by her fingertips over a deep chasm.
Mom: Do the books make you want to visit the parks?
Will: The one that took place in Yellowstone made me want to go there because the author made it sound really beautiful.
Mom: Thank you for participating in this interview and soon you'll be in a blog!
Velma isn't the only girl sleuth whom some have interpreted as gay. Anybody remember Cherry Ames?
Cherry was, of course, utterly wholesome and cheerful and perky. She dated occasionally, but had no steady boyfriend. Most of the book jackets showed Cherry in her white uniform and often proclaimed on the back “It is every girl’s ambition at one time or another to wear the crisp uniform of a nurse.” (Indeed, the books always paid careful attention to the uniform, describing it and Cherry’s off-duty snappy outfits in great detail.)
Cherry didn't have Nancy Drew's staying power, and by the 1970s her books were out of print. The character had a rebirth in the 1990s, however, when Mabel Maney created a series of gay parodies of the girl-sleuth series books, bringing out their (almost certainly unintentional) lesbian subtext. In her first book, The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, lesbian detectives “Cherry Aimless” and “Nancy Clue” discover more than just the solution to the mystery. And guess what? This and the follow-up book, The Case of the Good-For-Nothing-Girlfriend, include a lesbian character called, you guessed it ... Velma.
(The main source for this blog post is my own entry on Cherry Ames in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, published 2000.)
After last week’s post, I thought I’d see what the scholars had to say about Scooby-Doo. Strangely, I find very little academic work on the topic. (It really is strange. There are reams of books and articles and conference presentations on pop culture phenomena from Bugs Bunny to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but almost nothing on Scooby.)
Richard M. Levinson’s “From Olive Oyl to Sweet Polly Purebread: Sex Role Stereotypes and Televised Cartoons” (Journal of Popular Culture, Volume IX, Issue 3, Winter 1975, pages 561–572) may contain the first appearance of the Scoob in an academic journal. The article is a study of gender in Saturday morning cartoons of the period (the mid-1970s). Levinson makes many find points, but I suspect he didn’t actually watch any cartoons; he refers to a character named “Bella” on Scooby-Doo, describing her as a “Superbrain” (presumably he means Velma). He appreciates that the Scooby gang is “somewhat balanced” in its gender roles.
In scientific papers, I find many references to the Mars Mission of 1997, when scientists gave rocks funny names including Scooby-Doo, Casper, Zaphod, and Marvin the Martian. (See this NASA page for more information and this one for a view of all the named rocks in the Northeast quadrant.)
Megan Arnott’s paper, “Saturday Morning Medieval: Medievalisms and Children’s Television Programming,” presented May 11, 2012 at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, looks at the way Scooby-Doo and other cartoon programs have incorporated castles, knights, and other medieval tropes over the decades. This may be the only academic paper in the known universe to include the phrase “Scoobra Kadoobra,” the title of a 1985 episode involving a warlock.
Liz Laidlaw’s “In Defense of Scooby-Doo” (Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, Vol. 22, Issue 3, Fall 2009, pages 42-43) ruminates on what children learn from cartoons. In her opinion, the more recent series What’s New, Scooby-Doo “makes an effort to be a little more politically correct and switch up the stale stereotypes.” Nevertheless, she says, “no matter what happens in the beginning, I know exactly how it will end. The monster will be revealed as the angry janitor, rival hotel owner, grumpy steam boat captain or adversarial skate-board champion, uttering the words: ‘I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids.’”
This makes me think how awesome it would be if someone on the show – probably Velma – would say, in a new episode, “You know, every other time we’ve investigated a monster, ghost, or other supernatural being, it has turned out not to exist, so, Shaggy and Scooby, how about if you operate on that premise instead of running in place while funny music plays,” which is a good metaphor for this whole series, actually.
I watched re-runs of Scooby-Doo in the 1980s. Who hasn't seen that show? I mean, if you were a kid in the 1970s or later, you are familiar with that show. Now my children watch the program, and sometimes I watch with them. This week, for example, we watched Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated Season 1, Episode 4, “Revenge of the Man Crab” (first aired August 9, 2010).
WTF, people. Scooby-Doo is no longer just a mystery show where villains would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids. It is now also an instructional program for heteronormativity. Boys and girls can learn from Scooby-Doo that girls only care about boys and romance, and boys don’t care about romance because they have their minds on other things, like solving mysteries.
Remember how, in the original show, it was usually Velma who figured stuff out and solved mysteries despite Shaggy and Scooby being obsessed with Scooby snacks? Well, now, instead, Velma is obsessed with Shaggy. In "Man Crab," Velma can’t seem to think or talk about anything but Shaggy. She sulks when he doesn’t respond to her advances. She looks different than the old Velma, too: her breasts are bigger, or maybe her sweater is just tighter. She also has a bow in her short hair – in case you weren’t sure if she was a girl or not. (I know these pictures don't look THAT different, but in the program you'd notice a change.)
Daphne’s main concern in "Man Crab" is whether or not Fred capital-L Likes her. When girls in bikinis play volleyball, the show calls our attention to the sexual side of things: Daphne thinks Fred is ogling the girls, so she puts on her own bikini to get his attention. She then, of course, has to spend a good chunk of the episode in the bikini. She’s wearing it when the Man Crab captures her and puts her in a hanging cage. (The Man Crab is only interested in females, by the way. After all, it's a man. Um ... and a crab.)
Thanks, Scooby-Doo, for going BACKWARD as far as sexism is concerned. If you’d just stayed the same, I could still plan to name my imaginary girl band The Velmas. But now I don’t want to any more. The Man Crab episode has made me crabby. (But at least it didn't give me crabs.) Scooby-Doo plots have always been repetitive, but now we also have dull, repetitive fake intrigue about ... romantic relationships? Really?
Luckily, Scooby fans still have their imaginations. When TV feeds us sexism and gender norms, we don’t swallow them whole. If you Google around you can find multiple interpretations of the Scooby gang, including a lesbian Velma and a gay Fred and, I’m sure, additional romantic combinations and crossovers, like Fred and George Weasley hitting on Daphne. So I will not despair: no matter how much heteronormative bullshit TV throws at us, at any age, we still remain our own whatevernormative selves and form our own diverse Scooby gangs of friendship and romance.
Remember how last week I claimed that the Bernie Rhodenbarr books were the first mysteries I ever read? Well, as I researched that blog entry I discovered that Lawrence Block had published another burglar book in 2004, one that somehow slipped under my radar (maybe because I had a brand new baby that year, born right around the time the book came out). So of course I got it from my library and read it immediately: The Burglar on the Prowl.
On page 104 of the book, Bernie receives a call at his bookshop from someone wondering if he has a particular Joseph Conrad title. As I read this passage I realized that the burglar books weren’t the first mysteries I read at all. They were just the first adult mysteries I read. The first mysteries I read as a kid were Ellen Raskin’s middle-grade novels: The Westing Game, Figgs & Phantoms (in which Joseph Conrad’s novels play an important role), The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.
Oh my god those books were sooooooo good. If you’ve read them, you know. Maybe your teachers made you read The Westing Game, which won a Newbery and is Raskin’s most famous book. My favorite, by far, though, is Figgs & Phantoms, with its big beautiful ampersands and other typographical niceties. The jacket of Figgs & Phantoms states that the book is “a mysterious romance or a romantic mystery” and says “if you want to read it as a mystery, a clue is: the bald spot.”
Raskin designed the book herself (she also designed the cover for the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time), and it’s full of kid-pleasing text-illustration meshes, including a number of signs (one character is a sign-maker) in Playbill font. How do I know the name of the font? Because Raskin includes a detailed note on typefaces at the end of the book. And this, dear reader, may have been the beginning of my personal love affair with the alphabet and typography and the book as object, which led me to my current position as Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where classes make things like this and like this.
As soon as I realized I’d read mysteries meant for kids, I also, of course, remembered the Encyclopedia Brown books, which Josh has already talked about. And for that matter, Josh has mentioned Raskin, too, and I think I may have given my final approval of him as a husband for my friend Amanda when he got as excited as I did to hear that there’s a posthumous Raskin novel coming out next year, A Murder for Macaroni and Cheese. It can’t possibly be as good as Figgs & Phantoms, but I will certainly read it.