Thursday, July 30, 2009

Obsession

[Written in a spreadsheet-induced haze, and so I apologize in advance.]

I make an effort to read book other than children’s books in my leisure time—I’m sure most editors do—but I almost always find myself sneaking a peak through the YA lens when I do so. Not surprisingly, it’s pretty easy to find YA themes and characters in non-YA books. Adolescence is universal, after all. Often more fascinating than the actual teenagers in adult fiction are the stunted adults—the adults who can’t quite find their ways out of adolescence and whose lives are painfully absurd because they are teenagers in adult bodies with adult responsibilities. You often find them crushed by or fleeing from their conflicting impulses and responsibilities. I think this is a real window into the broad appeal of YA. Some examples, then.

Image:RabbitRunbookcover.jpgRabbit Angstrom. I read Rabbit, Run for the first time right after Updike died, and it is a stunning book. It’s hard for me to imagine a better case in point for the adult adolescent than twenty-six-year-old Rabbit, who peaked in his senior year of high school and runs full-tilt downhill thereafter. I’m embarrassed I didn’t read this one sooner.

First edition coverRobert Cohn. The Sun Also Rises is a book on the other end of my personal reading spectrum. I have been rereading this book regularly since my initial, farcical misreading of the book in 7th grade (“I don’t understand why Brett and Jake can’t be together.”) and it always reveals new things to me. The character of Robert Cohn is recently particularly interesting because he is very vain, but he is also an outsider obsessed with fitting in and being noticed. He is painfully obsessive, romantic, and naive in love, and thus his more cynical, cruel “friends” come to despise him.* (Yes, I realize there’s an anti-Semitic angle here, too.)

I’d love to hear about other great adolescent adults in adult fiction.

File:Bridge declarer.jpg*I caught an NPR story about a couple of teenagers who are cleaning up on the bridge circuit (yes, there still is professional bridge; average age is 64) and it reminded me of this great passage in The Sun Also Rises:

[Robert Cohn] was not in love yet but he realized that he was an attractive quantity to women, and that the fact of a woman caring for him and wanting to live with him was not simply a divine miracle. This changed him so he was not so pleasant to have around. Also, playing for higher stakes than he could afford at some rather steep bridge games with his New York connections, he had held his cards and won several hundred dollars. It made him rather vain of his bridge game, and he talked several times of how a man could always make a living at bridge if he were ever forced to.

I can’t quite articulate why this is all so very adolescent to me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rigorous Testing

When you tell people you’re a trade children’s book editor, people from outside the industry—“civilians”—often assume that you do a lot of focus group research with young readers, and that books are rigorously tested*. Formal, truly representative testing is not really compatible with the creative process that’s so essential to picture books and novels, so what happens in practice isn’t what people imagine. I do occasionally send a manuscript to a trusted young reader, and the feedback is often valuable, but it’s nothing like a focus group. And, of course, consultation with librarians and booksellers is always part of the job, helping us to calibrate our tastes. But writing and illustrating are, after all, art, and art and methodical testing and surveying don’t tend to play well together. In the end, the artists make the books that they envision.

Still these informal checks are valuable, and in the last couple months, I’ve had a unique opportunity in that regard. My son is 17 months old, and, as you can see, is a bit of book nut. A recent favorite of his is Joe Kulka’s Wolf’s Coming, which I thought was probably a little too old for him, but he’s shown me otherwise. He’s always engaged when we read it, and in the last few times, he’s become absolutely obsessed with pointing out the blue balloons that appear (sometimes quite small) on all but one of the narrative pages. Neither his mother nor I have ever pointed out these balloons, but now he won’t let us turn a page until he’s found the balloon (violent pointing, much shouting). Fun stuff. Meanwhile, Joe Kulka and I are deep into sketches for his next picture book, which I can say concerns alternative theories about dinosaur extinction. And maybe he needs to work in some blue balloons? Test subjects clearly approve.

*There’s a lot about testing picture books at Bank Street College in the Margaret Wise Brown bio by Leonard Marcus. Worth reading.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This is what I like to see

I love it when a review of a Carolrhoda nonfiction title begins “I’m not a big nonfiction reader” because that so closely resembles my own personal reading habits until recently. This particular review of Sally Walker’s Written In Bone appears on Ooops . . . Wrong Cookie, a blog run by Texas librarians. Not coincidentally, it ends with the same conclusion I’ve come to: “I've obviously been missing out, I need to read more non-fiction.”

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Cocktail Party

Reposted from the Lerner Books blog.

I had the opportunity to talk to the students at the Hamline University’s low residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. It’s a new-ish program, but it’s off to a fantastic start with a great faculty and great students. It was a real pleasure to be involved.

One of the things I talked about was my take on how authors should think about approaching social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and general blogging. I’ll try to summarize it here. Basically, I think authors entering this world should imagine that they are arriving at a very large cocktail party that’s already in full swing. If you think of it this way, you’re likely to manage your time better and get more results (and by “results” I mean web traffic, particularly comments).

For example, let’s say you’re a new author and you’re trying to decide whether you should spend hours crafting incredibly witty, finely crafted blog posts for your shiny new blog. Think of it this way, would you walk into a party, stand in the middle of the room and start telling your best stories and jokes to no one in particular? I doubt it. Likewise, you, the newly acquired author, might be wondering if you should spend your entire advance on web design so that you can have the best author site ever right out of the gate. Well, would you spend a mortgage payment to buy a dress for a party where you don’t know anyone? Would you want to be known only as the guest nobody knows who has a conspicuously expensive dress? You might get noticed initially, but are you getting attention for the right thing?
Martini foreground, Downtown skyline background by mezzoblue.
What you want to do at a party is find a conversation that interests you, listen in for a while, and then join in as you’re able and as you have something to say. Gradually, the circle opens up, you get attention on your merits rather than by grabbing the spotlight, and eventually you’re initiating conversations. The social network analogy is to start by commenting on active, interesting, relevant blogs. Spend as much time doing that as you do writing your own posts. This is the Web 2.0 equivalent of joining a circle of friendly folks engaged in a conversation. Soon, people will be coming to your blog for conversation. And so on.

One critical note on comments. Commenting anonymously is the equivalent of saying really witty things in this cocktail party conversation while wearing one of those creepy Richard Nixon masks. People might laugh uncomfortably, but they have no idea who you are and wonder if you’re insane. Don’t do it. If you’re going to comment, log in and take credit.

Go forth. Network socially. Try not to spill your martinis.

Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mezzoblue/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The difference between me and Frank DeFord

http://media.npr.org/about/people/bios/biophotos/fdeford.pb.jpgIs that he can get away with using that hair and that moustache to convey his authority, whereas I generally use a picture of a cute baby with an ice cream cone. And he does also make regular appearances on NPR. But apparently we read the same newspaper articles about college athletes showing up in video games and not seeing a dime of compensation. And thus we are indistinguishable when it come to the rank exploitation of teenage athletes by the NCAA.

I’m telling you, this screams for a fictional treatment.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Lerner Books Blog

Lerner Publishing Group, Carolrhoda’s parent, has a new blog. I’ll be posting there on Tuesdays, and my colleagues from the other imprints will be posting on other days. Do check it out.

Lerner Publishing Group

Monday, July 6, 2009

This is what I’m talking about

I wrote about John Green’s great post on advances and royalties late last week and now it’s Monday morning and I find this excellent piece about sales terms on the Harper Studio blog by Association of Booksellers for Children exec Kristen McLean. Put these two together, and things start to look pretty interesting. It’s supremely encouraging to see this kind of thinking coming out of children’s books. Quite appropriate, when you think about it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

John Green’s modest proposal

The inimitable John Green blogged about his vision for a different compensation model for authors, and now it’s been picked up by Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, so I expect to find the revolution in full swing on Monday. Ought to be a good time.

Seriously, though, I think Cory and John are two of the most charismatic and thoughtful authors in the YA world, so this is exciting. I do have a few comments about how they’re approaching remaking publishing, though. I like that they’re doing it, but I think they might be starting in the wrong place when they focus on the author-publisher contractual/financial relationship. Here’s an example of why (my wise Esteemed Successor at Flux pointed out that the message is more important than the math here, and that’s true, but the math does matter a bit and is illuminating). John writes:

“I assume that everyone would rather make $300,000 in a career that contains 30 books than $300,000 in a career that contains three books.”

Sounds okay, right? Thinking about a career is something I always endorse. Problem is, if all you change about the book publishing world is the author-publisher relationship, John’s 30-book career simply can’t happen. Using John’s assumptions, this is what we’d get:

To earn to $300,000 at a 20% retail royalty on thirty  $20 books, you need an average of 2,500 units per title. Assuming a 50% discount from publisher to bookseller (pretty standard), that leaves $6 for the publisher after royalties ($4 per book). Then, let’s be very generous and assume the PP&B (paper, printing, and binding) is 2.00 per book (hardcover). All right, now we’re down to $4. (For those of you scoring at home, the book “cost” $20, but the retailer only paid $10, of which the author gets $4. Tack on another $2 for the cost of the physical materials).

So, each book, before any of the publisher’s costs are factored in, generated $10,000. (And all of this is based on $20.00 books, which don’t exist for YA, and by the time they do, PP&B will have increased at least proportionally). Does anyone else see the problem here? Hint: we haven’t covered any of the publisher's costs. This books is likely in the hole. (And I haven’t even factored in returns.)

(I’m no mathematician, so feel free to check me on this.)

What about the paperback, you say? Well, in the current system, it’s unlikely that there would even be a paperback of 2,500-selling hardcover because, in the current system, that would be a lot like continuing to dig after you’ve found yourself in a hole. You’re not going to get to do this 29 more times.

File:NagasakibombEdit.jpegI suspect John just picked 30 and $300,000 at random, but it is illuminating to see what happens when you plug those numbers into the whole system, not just the author-publisher relationship. Even if you double the earnings, it’s marginal.

John’s post is extremely important and I am all for the result he wants, but unfortunately you can’t tinker with only one relationship in a long chain of relationships and expect to have sustainable change. You’ve got to take on the whole system. I suspect the relationship that needs to revamped first is actually publisher-retailer (more akin to what happened in the music industry, but hopefully less bloody), which will then dictate changes in the publisher-author relationship (first against the wall will be retail royalties, I would be willing to bet. The publishers will stop printing retail prices on books and start paying authors on net amount received. Many houses already do this second thing, of course.)

(I would be remiss if I didn't point pout that others are working on these very problems. Even big houses care about this. Harper Studio is a prime example.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Things you do not say to artists

I’m obviously a bit sensitive these days about my profession. I’m not claiming we’re above reproach. Hardly. And I think the dialogue between librarians and editors has been enhanced by the Internet and this is a great thing for books and authors. But Tough Love: And Open Letter to Kids’ Book Publishers in the latest SLJ has at least one thing absolutely wrong and backwards from my vantage point:

2. Better editing.

It's time to tighten up those stories. Unless you're publishing Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, 200 pages is plenty. And, yes, I know all about “Harry Potter” and “Redwall,” two series that successfully exceed that limit. But they're not the norm. And if a hefty book isn't super popular, its length can easily overwhelm many young readers. Plus, long novels often smack of assigned reading—even for middle school and high school students. Still not convinced that less is more? Consider these relatively thin titles: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (167 pages), Charlotte's Web (184 pages), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (155 pages), The Adventures of Captain Underpants (128 pages), Casino Royale (181 pages), Of Mice and Men (118 pages), and A Separate Peace (196 pages). I rest my case.

This is tricky. I don’t disagree that there are books out there that are too long, and I really love short novels, but I respectfully (but firmly) reject the notion that there is a meaningful general limit to length. I also disagree that the case “rests” on the precedents of previous generations, as though these earlier books are faultless archetypes of what makes good novel writing for young people (they are not, and more importantly, the eras they represent were obviously not). The case in art NEVER rests. Nothing is more damaging to the genre or its audience than to minimize expectations and opportunities for readers or writers. This is the straightest path back to second class status for the creation of children’s books. As an editor, I refuse to be a party to this. Do books get shorter in the editing process? Absolutely. But that is not the goal and it shouldn’t be. The goal is always the best book.

I suspect many novelists who write for children have heard versions of this comment: “When are you going to write a real novel?” Heartbreaking, right? Every one who works with books for children is diminished by this perception and we should all be fighting the inferiority complex, not contributing to it.

(Also, the notion that long novels smack of assigned reading seems doubtful to me. At least two of the short novels she mentioned are staples of assigned reading, along with notable short novels like The Pearl and Lord of the Flies, among others. I suspect with more energy focused on testing, the trend in assigned reading will be toward short. I’m inclined to think extracurricular entertainment (including gaming) will  have to carry the torch for the long form narrative, not the other way around. But that’s for another day.)