Monday, June 30, 2008

Gender Gap

We talked last week about which books are marketed toward women and which are for men. Here is the Sunday Times bestseller list, marked in pink, blue, or yellow (gender ambiguous). I'm curious to see how it'll go. I'm judging solely upon the brief descriptions beneath each title. (Clearly women can be interested in zombies and men can be interested in finding true love. I'm not interested in making a point about gender interests, but in the gender gap in the book market.) If this is interesting, I'll post next week's, too:

1 FEARLESS FOURTEEN, by Janet Evanovich. (St. Martin’s, $27.95.) Stephanie Plum and her boyfriend Joe Morelli become involved when his cousin’s bank robbery goes bad. 1
2 SAIL, by James Patterson and Howard Roughan. (Little, Brown, $27.99.) A sailing vacation turns into a disaster when someone attempts to destroy a family. 1 2
3 THE HOST, by Stephenie Meyer. (Little, Brown, $25.99.) Aliens have taken control of the minds and bodies of most humans, but one woman won’t surrender. 3 7
4 CHASING HARRY WINSTON, by Lauren Weisberger. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95.) Three glamorous friends, New York women nearing 30, vow to change their lives. 6 4
5 LOVE THE ONE YOU’RE WITH, by Emily Giffin. (St. Martin’s, $24.95.) A woman’s happy marriage is shaken. 5 6
6 NOTHING TO LOSE, by Lee Child. (Delacorte, $27.) Jack Reacher exposes the secrets of a Colorado town. 2 3
7 PLAGUE SHIP, by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul. (Putnam, $26.95.) Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon must determine what happened on a cruise ship full of dead bodies. 4 3
8 THE BROKEN WINDOW, by Jeffery Deaver. (Simon & Schuster, $26.95.) Detectives Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs confront a criminal who frames innocent people. 7 2
9 THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, by David Wroblewski. (Ecco, $25.95.) A mute takes refuge with three dogs in the Wisconsin woods after his uncle murders his father. 14 2
10 * NO CHOICE BUT SEDUCTION, by Johanna Lindsey. (Pocket Books, $25.) Sir Anthony Malory’s daughter is kidnapped, with repercussions for Katey and Boyd Anderson. 1
11 THE BEACH HOUSE, by Jane Green. (Viking, $24.95.) A woman’s life changes when she rents out rooms in her Nantucket house. 1
12 * ODD HOURS, by Dean R. Koontz. (Bantam, $27.) Odd Thomas, who can communicate with the dead, confronts evil forces in a California coastal town. 8 5
13 MARRIED LOVERS, by Jackie Collins. (St. Martin’s, $26.95.) An affair between a beautiful personal trainer and a producer married to Hollywood royalty leads to murder. 9 2
14 SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY’S, by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet. (Little, Brown, $24.99.) A woman finds an unexpected love. 10 8
15 THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, by Garth Stein. (Harper, $23.95.) A Lab-terrier mix with great insight into the human condition helps his owner, a struggling race car driver. 13 5
16 * BLOOD NOIR, by Laurell K. Hamilton. (Berkley, $25.95.) The vampire hunter Anita Blake is involved in a scandal that threatens the master vampire Jean-Claude’s power. 12 4

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wednesday Entry abridged

I have finished my first notebook. Filled. In three days at this course.

It is getting late, so here is what I want to share from today:

Please download this program. You absolutely will not regret it. Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (otherwise known as if:book, a fantastic blog) shared it today in his lecture. It's better than Pagemaker, Powerpoint, or any other media-blending tool out there. The MacArthur Foundation backs this - you should, too.

It's currently known as "Sophie."

Also, when blogs like Alex Itin's enter my life, I remember why I stay up all night scrambling to read the entirety of the internet.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Last night's entry

My computer has taken up this adorable habit of disconnecting from wireless each night for no particular reason. Last night I thought I'd lost the signal. Tonight I know better. Here's a belated update:

We began our Tuesday with Ellen Reeves. She is a wealth of sarcasm and fabulous job advice - she is in charge of helping us edit our bios and resumes, building "unassailable" job application materials.

"The down-and-dirtier your job experience," she said, "the more I like you. If people trust you with your kids and dogs, I can trust you to transport a manuscript on the subway."

She advised us to be Lily Bart from Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. Lily Bart knew how to turn her impulses into intent. I can't tell you how happy I was to hear an Edith Wharton reference before 10 AM.

She also quoted Twain: "Don't write 'the lady screamed' - bring her out and let her scream." We were instructed to show that we were organized by citing an example of redoing a company's filing system, rather than describing ourselves as "organized."

Reeves is hysterically funny; I highly recommend her upcoming book on interviewing and resumes. Beyond all of the impressive experience she has in the field, she did a project in college on irony and sarcasm. You have to buy the book of anyone who has that sort of qualification.

The afternoon session was a conversation between beloved novelist Ann Patchett and the executive editor of Doubleday, Alison Callahan. They are both intelligent, articulate, beautiful, well-dressed women who walked in in such a way, we knew they loved their jobs. And so we paid attention.

They began by talking about the late Robert Jones, who had been Alison's mentor. He bid on Bel Canto just as he was diagnosed with cancer, and Ann Patchett traced a lot of the book's hype back to him. He wanted Alison to take over his job at Doubleday, which she did.

Before this, Patchett had worked with Dick Todd, who lived in the Berkshires and rarely visited the publishing house. "Having him as your editor was like believing in God," Patchett explained. "You have to trust he's there, and feel his love - you see it in the flowers and in the wind."

Unlike many other authors, Patchett doesn't pre-sell her novels. She takes about five years to write each, and she explains that she mostly sits and stares, and often cooks and cleans. "I'm a very good cook," she said. Alison affirmed this, adding, "And all her counters are clean." Patchett added, "And my dog is very, very clean."

Patchett spends years creating a story in her head before she puts it on the page. She described the writing process as like taking a beautiful butterfly out of the air in a sunny field and brushing the dust off its wings until the color is gone, and snapping its wings and balling it up in your hands and sticking it to a corkboard with a pin through its chest.

She is best friends with Elizabeth McCracken, and says that she works very hard with McCracken on each novel. She met Jane Hamilton and traveled to an old lakehouse in Wisconsin that's been in Hamilton's family for generations and read her latest novel aloud. It took three days. But Hamilton, lying with her eyes closed, would sometimes snap her fingers and say, "You used that same word twenty minutes ago." Patchett said she tried this because Hamilton does this with all of her own novels.

Patchett said of wrestling with film rights and foreign rights and all sorts of other rights, she feels "like a foreign country." She is very close friends with her former lawyer from HarperCollins, Jim Fox. They read Henry James together. "The more important relationship you have as a writer," Patchett states, "is with your publicist." Hers is Jane Byrne, and she swears as long as Jane Byrne is at HarperCollins, she will be too.

A student asked how her life had changed since she became big, and she said, "Nothing changed. Nothing changed except I made a bit more money and I got to meet truly amazing people." She cites Jane Hamilton and Jim Fox as two of these people.

Alison Callahan explained the basics of book publishing - the rhythm of the three seasons, the difference between houses that specialize in hardcover and paperback (these things have changed since she was at Columbia). Her favorite part of the work is the acquisition process.

She generally reads forty pages of a manuscript from a big agent, then if she likes it, her assistant reads it with her. Otherwise her assistant works on the pile of manuscripts that have an interesting pitch. If she finishes a book and can't wait to have it, she can go into her boss's office and they could buy it almost instantly.

She also used the joking line, "You cry, you buy." She said she hadn't cried in ten years of book publishing, but one book got her this year, and it will be released in the fall of 2009.

A student asked how often she is assigned books she doesn't want to read, and she said, "Publishing houses are set up so beautifully that there is a person for every kind of book." She says she falls in love with a book about once every three months, and reads about sixteen manuscripts a day. She takes work home with her; she never stops reading. She said she doesn't have the chance to read for pleasure these days, but she loves her work. It was apparent in every way she spoke about the business, in the way she laughed with Ann Patchett, and with the way she got excited just describing the books she'd liked in the past. She was particularly excited by David Eberhoff's upcoming novel, The 19th Wife, which I read for Columbia and I can't tell you how much I hope you read this book. It will be released August 5th.

Two of her other clients are Zora Neale Hurston and Sylvia Plath. She said the trick with classic authors is reminding people that they're there.

I will end this section by explaining how Ann Patchett was first published. She published in The Paris Review at 19 and had an agent, who eventually passed her to her assistant, Lisa Bankoff. She moved to Nashville, I believe, and worked as a waitress. At 26, she drove to New York to drop off her first novel - she left her agent with the only copy of her book. She drove to her mother's, came home four days later, and discovered she didn't have to be a waitress anymore: her book had been sold.

Patchett added if she could go into the publishing business right now, she'd try to be an audio producer. Rick Harris, she said, was the best person with whom to be locked in a black box for eight hours for recording.

As if that weren't enough, we met Bob Gottlieb this evening. He was an editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992, but he's best known for his work at Knopf.

He has the great big glasses and older face that are the makings of New Yorker cartoons. He spoke with characteristic eloquence. I expected him to be more outspoken, with larger gestures, perhaps. Instead he speaks with great restraint - he speaks like a gentleman, a pleasant reminder of the heyday of The Algonquin Table and the men who dominated The New Yorker in decades past. (He said that we do not have a generational gap; we grew up in different epochs. His contemporary literature in college was Joyce and Faulkner - he did not know of any writers from Spain, Portugal, Japan, etc., and they are common in our contemporary literature.) However, he has adapted to huge changes in the industry, and manages to demand the attention of thousands of people and some of the best contemporary writers.

He makes it a priority to return a manuscript if not the same night as he receives it, certainly the following day. He reads it quickly the first time because he wants to read like the book's readers would.

He revealed that Toni Morrison's new book, A Mercy, will be released in November, "and I think it's the best thing she's written in years." He said it was in the same vein as Beloved. Someone asked him what he'd corrected in her work and she had to call him up and ask him. "She, of course, remembered every word because they were blows to her heart; I was just talking." But he admitted he did two important things for her: (1) After Song of Solomon, he told her to give up her job at Random House to be a writer. (2) After she finished Sula, he said to her, "Sula is a perfect book. You don't have to do that again."

He talked John Cheever into doing a collection of his short stories. Cheever said, "Why would you want to do that?" They were already published, and he hadn't been well-received at first. Gottlieb insisted the time was right. Of course, Gottlieb was right - the book won Cheever a Pulitzer.

He explained that good editing is reading and reacting. You have to like the book, which means you have to be sympathetic with it, and you have to make it better for what it is. "The book belongs to the writer. It's not yours. You have to ask yourself, how can I help this writer?"

He spoke with a tone that made everything sound simple and straightforward. I had heard legends of his ego, but it wasn't the sort of ego I expected. He trusts his instincts and ignores everyone else's. His instincts happen to be just about the best in the business, and he puts in the time and energy to make everything work. He explained that Michael Crichton is not a great writer, but has a good mind for plot and scientific detail, and Gottlieb was able to work the rest out.

Gottlieb rewrote another commercial book entirely for an author in Colorado, and he said she was so grateful she did something no other writer has done for him before: sent a crate of Colorado celery. Apparently this is a source of Colorado pride - who knew?

He described working with the two top spy novelists, Len Deighton and John le Carré. Le Carré was a fabulous rewriter. Deighton was eager to please, but not especially good with rewrites. Gottlieb famously said, "Len, we have a problem here. On page 28, this character is gunned down and dies. Then on page 110, he's at a cocktail party." Len said, "That's great! I'll fix it!" and ran home. Gottlieb read the new draft: "On page 28, it now said the character was gunned down and almost died."

Joseph Heller was apparently a "genius for editing," and editing his work "was like working with a surgeon on a patient, except that the other surgeon IS the patient." The eeriest story Gottlieb told was about editing the book Something Happened. He finally said to Heller, this is wonderful, but I have to tell you, the character never felt like a "Bill" to me. I see him as a Bob. Heller admitted, "You know, I had him as Bob, but I changed it because I didn't want to offend you."

That, Gottlieb said, is trust.

Gottlieb reports that being an editor is about a balance of authority; you have to know when to back off and when to be persistent. Being an editor is also about transference. An editor is a symbolic presence on every psychological level, and that's a delicate thing. It is also a service job, and when a writer leaves an editor, it is a very difficult thing. Your job is to make them feel secure and to be loyal to them.

The difference between magazine and book publishing, then, is that as a magazine editor, you are a product provider, and do all your editing to please the magazine; as a book editor, you do everything to please the writer.

Publishing is "about making public your enthusiasm for a given book." He gave a book to a woman who is like family to him at Knopf named Nina. She came into the office the next day very excited and said to him that she'd stayed up all night reading the book. She was so excited, she had to tell someone about it! When she finished, it was too late to call him and it was too late to call anybody. So, she said to Gottlieb, "I made a cup of tea and told myself about it."

A few tidbits, just for fun:

Gottlieb called Miss Piggy's Guide to Life "one of my major contributions to the culture of the world."

He also hates writing. "Nothing in the world is harder than writing - or more painful - or more stupid."

He says he read Nora Roberts, and that she gave him hope for the American reader. She really is the best of all romance writers, he says, and writes about fifteen books a year. Readers must be intelligent if she's the top of the list.

Someone asked if he would recommend a book to her. He said no. "If we sat down for two to three hours, I could tell you a thousand books." But just one? Almost impossible. He wrestled with the question for a while, and finally went to his default book, War and Peace. He said you can't know that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time by reading just one book. His favorite thing in the world to do is read everything a writer's done in chronological order.

Perhaps the line that best summarizes Gottlieb's attitude is this single quotation: "I never wanted anybody else's opinion." And small wonder. His instincts are the best in the business.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Columbia Publishing Course launches

The first day of lectures at the Columbia Publishing Course 2008 was today. We heard from David Young, the Chairman & CEO of Hachette Book Group; then three literary agents, Leigh Feldman of Darhansoff, Verrill & Feldman, Jay Mandel of the William Morris Agency, and Scott Moyers of the Wylie Agency; finally, a lecture from Sara Nelson, the Editor-In-Chief of Publishers Weekly.

Some highlights: David Young said he'd learned that authors can be raised from the dead, citing Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Agatha Christie. He reviewed a great deal about the publishing market; Hachette is 5th in the American market, with 642 titles and dominating 10% of the adult market. In his patient voice and British accent, he shared advice about how to handle authors during the copy editing process and their publishing dates, stressing communication (his wife is an author, and he said he'd learned this watching her). He passed out three books: Stephenie Meyer's latest, Twilight, which is supposed to be the next Harry Potter (I'm skeptical, but they're popular), Kate Braestrup's Here If You Need Me, and David Gilmour's The Film Club, brought to us by Jonathan Karp of Twelve (an imprint that does one book a month and is featured in a great little piece by NPR).

Young was enthusiastic about the digital future of the publishing industry - he owns both a Kindle and a Sony Reader, which he believes are "designed" for the publishing community and will make people read a wider selection of books - but he says, "The book is perfectly evolved," and closing a physical book makes people "content." He thinks on-demand printing is a fabulous prospect because the "woeful inefficiencies" of the current industry can be corrected.

He mentioned a site being launched next month called that supports literacy for young children. He also let us know that 400,000 new ISBNs were published last year - Hachette has focused in recent years on supporting fewer new titles, but giving these more attention.

The afternoon Agents' Panel supported three entirely different backgrounds - one editor from major publishing corporations who had just switched to working as an agent, Scott Moyers, an alum of the course who had switched from a boutique agency to a large agency, Jay Mandel, and finally moderator and boutique publisher Leigh Feldman. Feldman said she feels the biggest role of the literary agent is "managing authors' expectations," which may often feel like one is "a lightning rod for rejection."

The major advantages of working a boutique agency include "total transparency," "great access," and the luxury of taking on clients more easily than one could as an editorial assistant. Agents are responsible these days for more editorial work than they used to be, and they often do a lot of negotiating between authors and editors. They also manage the authors' budgets and are paid by commission. I had the impression that this is, more often than not, a thankless job that requires a tremendous amount of patience, but that provides the opportunity to fight for authors one really believes in and support literary fiction as often as one can. The questions each member of the panel echoed was, "When can you push? How can you push?"

Perhaps the most entertaining part of our day was provided by Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly.

She described starting out at a fitness magazine where the editor smoked three packs a day and the food editor was anorexic. Good start, right? I tried to take notes on her advice and ended up writing down her life stories.

When she worked as an assistant, her boss finally said to her one day that she was smart and talented and everyone thought she was going to be a great writer, "but you haven't done the job we hired you to do and I need you to sharpen my pencils. Take ownership of the pencils!" And so Nelson took ownership of the pencils, she says, but that was it - her innocence was gone.

When she finally left her job for one she really loved, losing 40% of her pay and turning into a nervous wreck, she said her mother told her to do what her gut told her, "which was great, but I didn't know what my gut said because it was so full of cigarettes and scotch."

She's now gone on to give Publishers Weekly a facelift, including little sidebars like in Lucky magazine.

PW receives 200 books a week and, impressively, reviews 100 of them. They receive these books three or more months in advance. Nelson says she believes magazines are more destined for digital forms because of their financial dependence on advertising. Online advertising is certainly cheaper.

They also made the decision to license their reviews to Amazon, which is what you've probably read if you've ever read a book on Amazon, ever.

Oh! FYI: Borders has just launched their own online bookstore that could compete with Amazon. I'm hoping, anyway. I've always had a soft spot for Borders. Their design is always good - they hire architects to make the best use of each individual space they acquire - and I usually like the people in their stores. Stay alive, little Borders! We're cheering for you!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Maguy Marin, and the luxury of French dance performances

I've just arrived home from Maguy Marin's Umwelt. This is currently at the Joyce Theater, on 8th Avenue and 19th Street. It's a dance performance that looks just a little bit like this.

I can describe it to you briefly: There are a series of mirror-like pieces standing in three or more rows, lined up side by side. Each is big enough to hide a dancer behind it. The whole piece is one hour divided up into ten-second segments. Two or three dancers at a time came forward between mirrors, where we could see them, for approximately ten seconds at a time. The dancers would all perform the same action in synchronization without looking at one another.

Each action was remarkably commonplace. Shaving, cooing at a baby held overhead, toweling hair dry, scrubbing the floor, counting cash, seducing a member of the opposite sex, wearing a billowing dress (both men and women), sipping a glass of wine, putting on a robe, sipping a cup of tea, eating apples, eating sandwiches, blowing a nose, wiping a nose, eating a cupcake, eating a bowl of ice cream, making out, putting on a blue hat, putting on an elaborate sun hat, mooning the audience and pulling up a pair of pants, taking out the trash, hauling a bundle of sticks, dumping a bucket of rocks on the stage, putting on a black shirt, putting on a green jacket, putting on a doctor's coat, fixing a blonde wig with a delicate stroke of the hand, tying an apron, scolding someone offstage, punching someone onstage, jumping into someone else's arms, falling to the floor, chasing someone, yelling, taking a picture with a disposable camera, hauling a hunk of meat the size of half a cow, crunching a mouthful of lettuce, wrestling a piece of meat in the mouth on the ground like a dog, walking out in paper bunny ears and crunching a big carrot, holding a stuffed dog in the air and cooing at it, etc. A few were more unusual: a man walking with a naked woman lying utterly still over his shoulders, putting on a paper crown (at one point, the crowns became twice as tall as in the opening), walking through in a trenchcoat and whipping out a dick, etc.

This all with wind machines blowing at the dancers, and with a strange, loud, discordant sound emerging from a rope hooked to three guitars that moved slowly throughout the performance. Once in a while a single person would walk to the front row of mirrors and stand alone, looking at the audience. The lights would change. Then slowly they would fade back and the other dancers would start up again.

Here is why I think this is worth describing: every person's reaction to this show is different. The people behind me said it was "clearly ominous." Reviewers say it is exhausting, or "an unflinching look at the meaninglessness of existence."

I thought it was just lovely. Seeing every person doing things they do nearly every day, but doing it in tandem with others, whether we know it or not. That's what the city feels like. Company in tedium. And there was a nice rhythm to it. There was plenty of variety in the actions. And none was favored too much; a woman naked beginning to undress her lover took up as much time and space onstage as did someone eating a cup of yogurt or bouncing a ball.

There was a talk-back tonight with the choreographer. One woman in the audience said, "I saw King Lear. The whole thing." Many audience members insisted they didn't want the choreographer to explain it - which was good, because she wouldn't. She is inspired by Samuel Beckett, according to the program. This is just life. In ten-second fragments. You are meant to see whatever it is you see.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Welcome to Adulthood! Some assembly required.

I'm working through the traditional American rite of passage: putting together one's own furniture. I haven't bought curtains, I haven't splurged on a rug. I didn't buy a bureau or bedside table - boxes will do until I have an income.

Somehow, after a day of shopping, the most essential item for my room seemed to be a rolling file cart from The Container Store.

I know. I know. I needed curtains. But somehow having my work life in order seemed like the most important part of moving in.

The cabinets were delivered to my Brooklyn apartment for a $35 fee. I wouldn't have fit in the subway at rush hour if I'd been carrying such things (assuming I was beastly enough to schlep them home). The cart arrived in a big box with that beautiful white mesh cart picture on the front. This is what it looked like when it arrived:

I was familiar with this particular problem. I had recently phoned a good friend who was moving from L.A. back to N.Y. She bought a desk she had to put together and was enraged when she found the directions expected her to own a drill. She wanted a desk, not a drill, and buying a drill would cost almost as much as a desk.

Never one to overlook these life lessons, I brought my brother's Phillips set here all the way from Ohio. We also have a tool box in the apartment. I opened a beer. I was ready.

Unfortunately, the directions were not specific to this piece of equipment. They were generic Elfa directions, mass-produced for all of their products. "If your product has drawers..." and "You may have to..." started most every sentence. I spent more time discerning what my shelf needed than actually working on it.

The first challenge was this: at the top of the paper, it suggested I use a plastic mallet. Is this a household item? Do you in fact own a plastic mallet? My apartment's toolbox happens to lack this "common" item, and so I found an old beach towel and wrapped it around the shelf as I hammered each piece in.

I turned the directions one way, then the other. The picture was for several different shelving units, so I guessed one was mine and put two pieces together. I beat one piece in rather fiercely, decided it was making too much noise, and abandoned the pieces until morning.

Can you guess what happens next? I wake up to discover I've put the piece in the wrong side of the other piece. I begin to try to pound it out. It doesn't budge.

I call the hotline, and humbly confess my mistake. The woman on the line laughs and tells me to use "a little elbow grease." Feeling renewed by her use of this charming idiom, I pound it out and put the whole bit together successfully.

Of course, it looks empty. Because it hasn't included the file folders.

I spend the day tracking down file folders to fit it. Welcome to adulthood! It takes a little doing, but it all gets done.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Planting Season

I am thinking of planting some seeds on my fire escape.

All is well in the city. It is eighty-one degrees and sunny. Finally checking out the Godard series at Film Forum today. I'll let you know how it is.