Here’s an interesting story that was told me last night: Apparently, two A-list literary agents, who happen to share the same initials, both hit upon the same strategy to make sure the book they were pitching didn’t slip off editors’ desks and into anybody else’s hands—they watermarked the pages with the editor’s name. First I’d heard of such a tactic, and apparently the scouts, who depend to some extent on friendly, informal sharing, are less than thrilled at the prospect of this catching on…
Archives: January 2008
At one point during my conversation with Mark Stevens, he mentioned one of his favorite scenes from Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about Bob Dylan. It’s a moment when Donovan comes into the room, picks up a guitar, and plays a perfectly nice song, and then, as Stevens recalls it, “Dylan rips the guitar of his hands almost before he’s finished and plays ‘Baby Blue.’” It’s a powerful metaphor, he says, for the things we do in our daily business lives, and the difference between mediocrity and excellence. “It’s like, this is Donovan, and we need to get to Dylan… But it’s hard to be Dylan!”
So that’s something to think about in terms of the project you’re working on: “Ask yourself,” Stevens says, “is this Dylan or is this Donovan?” (But, before I get a ton of hate mail coming in, being Donovan can be a good thing! Especially around “Atlantis” time.)
“Great salespeople, whatever their actual careers, have to position themselves as an expert and a friend,” Mark Stevens explained as we sat in the lobby of a hotel off Times Square last week, chatting about his latest book, God Is a Salesman. “Forget the word ‘sale’ and get into the process of knowing the person and letting them know you. If you can let go even just a little bit, people will begin to want you in their lives… and then they’ll start selling you.”
The book defines salesmanship as establishing a faith-based relationship between vendor and consumer, putting forward the vision behind the product; religion, Stevens points out, is one of the most powerful examples of promoting something that doesn’t exist materially, that can be communicated with passion but not simply handed off. But his examples aren’t confined to religion. “You have 100 teachers,” Stevens says. “You remember three. Those three were salespeople… So is anybody who has the power to synthesize information and sell you an idea—a writer, a musician. It’s an art… Business people should be artists. Isn’t Steve Jobs an artist?”
Heather Fain, director of publicity at Little, Brown, introduces Katie Crouch to the crowd assembled for the prepublication party thrown for Crouch’s debut novel, Girls in Trucks, which comes out in April. The back room at Southern Hospitality, Kevin Federline’s Upper East Side bar, was packed with a mix of Little, Brown staffers and transplanted southerners, viewed as one of the key target audiences for Crouch’s story of one girl’s growing up in Charleston, South Carolina and what happens after she leaves.
As the party wound down, Crouch’s agent, Rob McQuilkin, decided to show me the T-shirt she’d given him as a present:
Whether he actually does brake for boiled peanuts was left unresolved.
I’m all for “passionate conversations about books,” which is what the home page for Daniel Menaker‘s online chat show promises, so I’ll definitely be curious to see whether what Motoko Rich describes for the Times as “a round-table discussion between Mr. Menaker… and a group of four authors” can draw a loyal enough audience to transition from its initial private backing to corporate sponsorships. Not to mention I’m dying to know what the Titlepage site will offer besides those taped conversations—how do Menaker and the producers intend to turn viewers into active, engaged participants? Because “[letting] people listen in on a conversation they might like to have themselves” can only take you so far; one of the most powerful aspects of online media is that it allows you to move beyond talking at your audience and start talking with them.
On a side note, there was one bit of detail tucked into the article that an anonymous GalleyCat reader considers proof that this week’s literary sensation was, in his words, “the ultimate inside job”:
“Mr. Menaker… is married to Katherine Bouton, deputy editor of The New York Times Magazine, and has written a book of humor with Charles McGrath, a writer at large at the Times. The first episode [of Titlepage] will feature… Charles Bock…”
The conspiracy theory might be undermined, though, by the fact that Bock was brought into the Random House fold by David Ebershoff, not Menaker…
As I mentioned yesterday, from the moment that profile of Charles Bock appeared in Sunday’ New York Times Magazine, some of you were asking me how Bock managed to get so much attention—but some of you were particularly bewildered because you were unimpressed by what you’d read or heard or heard about Beautiful Children. As the most charitable of that strain of emails put it, “Couldn’t the Times muster evidence that Bock’s book is indeed one of the most anticipated of the spring season beyond saying that it made a men’s magazine hot list and that the cover has ‘glittering foil?’ Print run? Film rights? Optimistic quotes from Sessalee Hensley? Anyone?”
In all fairness, the profile did quote the nice blurb from A.M. Homes, plus all those more general accolades from Bock’s literary friends in the final grafs. Anyway, I honestly don’t have an opinion on this yet, because I’m still looking forward to getting the novel and making up my own mind about it. I will say this much, though: Remember that the last time Liesl Schillinger staked out the front page of the NY Times Book Review to enthuse about an ambitious debut novelist, she chose Marisha Pessl—so if that example is anything to go by, Bock can expect a radical divide in reader reactions. Still, there are worse trajectories for an author to replicate.
So yesterday afternoon I posted a blind item about a Gawker editor’s book proposal, figuring that I’d have time after keeping my various appointments to call her up, get an actual confirmation, and write something more up. No such luck: Leon Neyfakh over at the Observer kept getting pinged by people wanting to know if he knew who it was, so he started digging into the story, and that’s how he wound up IMing with Sheila McClear about Every Day I Know Less and Less: Postcards From the New Times Square, which will detail “her time spent working in Times Square as a peep show girl” in 2006 and early 2007. What she told Neyfakh: “I got interested in it— obviously, it’s a fascinating and weird milieu—and my book is about that experience!”
The “narrative of modern life on the fringe of society in New York” McClear describes in her query letter to prospective agents does sound like it has potential—”documenting life inside the peeps and their history” sounds sort of like a cross between Diablo Cody and Luc Sante, or maybe Herbert Asbury. (Actually, you know who would probably dig this, given McClear’s labor background? Carol Queen.) I just hope that taking down her pseudonymous blog, which had been updated as recently as last week, is about keeping the material under wraps before it sells than about covering her tracks once her proposal became public. A look through the cached Google pages, taking into account the rough-draft nature of the blogosphere, shows significant promise, and I imagine either Neyfakh or I will be writing about the sale soon enough. After all, editors are already trying to get hold of McClear’s pages after reading both items yesterday; at this rate, she might land an editor before she finds an agent…
I’m still sifting through all my notes, but in the meantime, here’s a ninety-second clip from my conversation with Mark Stevens, where he explains how he came to write his latest book, God Is A Salesman.
I’m told that a Gawker editor is currently shopping a memoir about life before blogging—the details are sketchy at this time, but what little I’ve heard about the query making the rounds is that the career discussed is somewhat more sordid and dramatic than sitting at a computer churning out blog posts. (And thank God for that: As a professional blogger myself, I can assure you that there are few potential memoir hooks less entertaining.) No idea if it’s any good yet, but a talent roster that can produce novelists like Elizabeth Spiers and Emily Gould can probably provide a decent memoirist as well. We’ll probably be coming back to this story again soon…