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Archives: May 2006

She’s really a secret agent when ghostwriters are her clients

A lot of those bestsellers you see on various lists aren’t actually written by the authors whose names adorn the front covers. That’s hardly a surprise; ghostwriting is a crucial, if seldom discussed, component of the business. But literary agent Madeleine Morel took the art of ghosting an extra step when she founded 2M Communications, an agency that only represents ghostwriters.

Publishers Weekly decided to find out how this agency began and how it works, and the resulting article is a fascinating read, especially with details of the economics of such deals: the ghostwriter may get a flat fee or a percentage of the advance with a guaranteed minimum, and Morel takes 15% commission on whatever she gets for the writers. The average ghostwriter’s advance is “between $30,000 and $100,000, which is a hell of a lot more than they could make on their own,” says Morel.

One of the big reasons she can be successful is because of the celebrification of publishing. Now that such books – like Nicole Richie’s “novel” THE TRUTH ABOUT DIAMONDS – are commercially successful, Morel says, it’s proving that “the Judith Regan approach to publishing works. I have no doubt that it’s going to happen more and more.”

Slam Poetry for the Cyber-crowd?

Dinitia Smith files a story for the NYT arts section on poets playing about on the Internet—specifically on a site called QuickMuse, where versifiers square off to write simultaneous works in 15 minutes or less. It’s hard to call it a “competition” when they don’t actually appoint a winner, so when former poet laureate Robert Pinsky squares off tonight against Julianna Baggott, who’s better known perhaps for her fiction, any snap judgments we might make will probably turn out to be wrong..which could be the best thing that could happen to them.

Books, Funny Books: ‘Net Devours All

LA Times reporter Michelle Kellerinvestigates the online comics-swapping suubculture, where it’s said that some fans are scanning their favorite comics page by page, putting them on peer-to-peer networks, and letting other fans download them for free. The story’s a bit alarmist, but it sticks strictly to the impact on the superhero genre…when there’s arguably a more interesting story about pirated comics to be found among the denizens of “Scanlation Nation,” the wave of amateur manga translators who take Japanese comics that haven’t been licensed to American publishers and come up with their own English-language adaptations.

The nitty gritty of publishing co-op

One of the not-so-kept secrets of the industry is that those books you see on the tables at Barnes & Noble or Borders (or in the UK, Waterstone’s, Ottakar’s and Borders)? The publisher paid for placement. And in a lengthy piece in the Sunday Times, Robert Winnett & Holly Watt, they reveal exactly how much publishers are expected to pay: £50,000 a week per book for a place.

A director of one leading publisher said: “If you pay this fee in December your book will be a bestseller. But only a handful of the biggest publishers can now afford the fees so the book charts are totally skewed.” The practice was first exposed five years ago but now the consensus is that it’s “getting out of hand”, especially when deep discounting is factored into the equation.

A spokeswoman for WH Smith confirmed last week that publishers paid for endorsements. “The publishers present their books to us and we present our packages,” she said. “The purpose is to drive sales for customers. We negotiate who takes the places in the adult gold scheme which is over-subscribed. This is standard across the book industry.” Which may explain why one publisher claimed that he had books “recommended” and positively reviewed in marketing literature by bookshops before the books had even been read….

M&S further in bed with Random House

McLelland and Stewart is synonymous with all things CanLit – publishing Margaret Atwood and Farley Mowat, to name a couple of venerated Canadian writers – but ever since Random House bought a 25% stake in the company (the University of Toronto owns the rest) there have been rumblings about the house’s ability to stay truly independent, as Guy Dixon of the Globe and Mail reveals. This was especially apparent earlier this year when M&S laid off three of its senior publicists and marketing managers earlier this year, just as the company was embarking on its year of centenary celebrations.

“You’ve still got a core of true believers in there. But I think that, generally, management [of the company] is sliding away from them,” said writer and Blackfish Press co-founder Brian Brett, who is also chairman of the Writers’ Union of Canada. “It’s an incremental thing. You see it happening bit by bit, getting whittled down. They have actually held out, in many ways, longer than the other publishers. But they are following the general mass of major publishers, [which] are all becoming branch-plant operations that hire independent editors who try to create a brand.”

M&S CEO Doug Pepper begs to differ, saying that the ties only extend to “really high book deals” and sales & marketing decisions. “We share a marketing department, share a sales department and share publicity departments, although we have people on site here that only work on the M&S books. Do we bring in [Random House] people a little earlier now? Yes, but it doesn’t have to do with the decisions we make on books. It just is a smart thing to do to increase the lead time on any specific book in order to arrange book tours, ads and other sales strategies.”

But when there’s corporate influence of any kind, people are going to wonder, no matter what…

On both sides of the publishing fence

Michael Fishwick gets a double dose of profiling by the Financial Times and the Independent, both of whom are fascinated with the idea that a publisher – he works at Bloomsbury after a long stint with HarperCollins – can move over to the authorial side of the equation with his new novel SACRIFICES (published by Jonathan Cape.)

When things turn to his day job, he defends the big-advance practices even when others scoff at his justifications. “We may be outbidding for some books, but we are mostly matching what other people are offering,” he claims. “We are having a lot of that – it is a sort of boast.”

Ultimately, Fishwick believes he’s in a prime position to understand what writers go through. “I would like to think that I was sensitive to my authors even before I was writing myself,” he says of the impact of his writing on the day job. “But it has made me realise even more what they go through.” It also means that the word “enjoyed” has been dropped from his vocabulary.

The indies of Brooklyn

Over at the Village Voice, Jessica Winter analyzes the successes, great and small, of some notable independent publishers – namely Akashic Books, Soft Skull Press and Archipelago, which offer alternatives to the big houses that don’t necessarily want to grapple with the fortunes of the midlist.

“In big publishing, the line is that people don’t read, and we’re all competing for the same dwindling pool of readers,” says Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic. “That’s not true. We’re going out and finding new readers, and showing people that reading can be provocative and exciting.” Temple adds that his definition of thriving is more creative than financial. Soft Skull’s Richard Nash agrees. “With a 10th of the advertising budget for one of the major publishers’ blockbusters, I could run our entire operation across 40 books.”

Book Clubs Conducted in IM: In the Future!

Library Journal interviews Ben Vershbow of The Institute for the Future of the Book about the ways that moving online will transform the relationship that books have to their readers and to each others. “Books will literally have discussions inside of them,” Vershbow predicts, “both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them.” (Unless, of course, they treat you the same way the people on the subway do when you ask them about the book they’re reading.) But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s cheering Google on in its quest to get all those books into its database:

“Here we have a private company that is coming to rival the Library of Congress in its centrality in the information ecosystem. We have five of the world’s major research institutions offering up substantial portions of their collections for digitization and thousands of librarians apparently ecstatic at the prospect. And yet few seem to be concerned that Google’s search system is nontransparent-that no one but Google knows why search results come up in the order that they do. Frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of an uproar from librarians about this. It seems an affront to their nature as information scientists.”

Like it or not, “the main arena of intellectual discourse is moving away from print to networked, digital media,” Vershbow says, so now’s the time to start thinking about how that discourse is going to take place.

Brave & Bold? Nah, Just a Great Leap Forward

great10-7deadly.jpgThe DC Comics publicity team has been on a great roll in recent months, landing several stories in the NYT arts section for big events like last year’s Infinite Crisis launch as well as quirky subjects like the alternative architectural vision of Manhattan in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series. Falling somewhere between the two is yesterday’s feature on the new wave of multiculturally diverse superheroes and how minority characters have moved beyond token status into simply reflecting the makeup of contemporary society. To be fair, George Gene Gustines also reports on what’s happening at Marvel, but DC’s footprints are all over this baby…culminating in an nearly-exclusive (and online-only) sneak preview of the Morrison-created Chinese superhero team The Great Ten, including Seven Deadly Brothers (right), described as “a martial arts expert who can divide into many.” (Alright, so he’s not exactly original—more like a cross between Madrox the Multiple Man and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu—but he’s probably niftier than any superheroes you or I have come up with lately!) The article really ought to come with a spoiler warning, though, as it reveals the identity of the new lesbian Batwoman a few weeks before the issue of 52 in which she debuts is scheduled to come out (heh heh)…all I’ll say is that the leading guess in the fanboy community was awfully close. If you don’t mind losing all the suspense, DC executive editor Dan Didio spoke with Newsarama about the thinking behind Batwoman’s relaunch

Kudos, by the way, to Gustines for the work he’s been doing on this and most of those other stories in recent months. It’s great to see that the Times has somebody who can write intelligently about comics, and his reportage puts the Times on an equal footing with publications like PW that have increased the level of serious reporting about the industry.

Alex Toth, 1928-2006

alextoth.jpgThe comics community was saddened over the weekend to hear about the death of Alex Toth, accurately described by my colleague Heidi McDonald as “one of the most influential and amazing American cartoonists ever.” Toth died Saturday morning after a long hospitalization in Los Angeles. He was probably best known for his work in TV animation, where he had a hand in creating and designing Hanna-Barbera characters like Space Ghost and Johnny Quest, but he also illustrated stories for all the major comics houses at one time or another, where his masterfully crisp design was immediately recognizable.