Another Seismic Shift in Publishing Land: How Will it Affect Writers and Agents?

If the merger between Random House and Penguin really goes through, let me tell you how that is going to narrow authors’ chances at getting agents, and agents’ chances of having a title accepted: a lot. From my own experience with a very good agent who had/has made a name for herself, an agent can only submit to one editor of a house, even if that editor is one of twenty editors in one of twenty publishing houses that are under the umbrella of a big name like, uh let’s see. . . . Random House, the largest publishing house in the world.

Penguin Group is owned by Pearson. I am familiar with this company because the Pearson representative for textbooks in my part of Central California can be communicated with by email only and will send out the requested exam copy that teachers express an interest in. However, Bedford-St. Martins, A U.S. company specializing in Humanities textbooks for colleges, is owned by the Bedford, Freeman and Worth Publishing Group owned by the Stuttgart, Germany-based George Von Holtzbrink Publishing Group.

The Bedford-St. Martins local book rep is someone I consider a friend, who meets me for coffee to discuss the new batch of books for next semester’s classes along with any other teachers I can get to come along. Then we discuss the book publishing industry at large. Being number two definitely makes The Bedford representative work harder! I doubt she takes a breath during the first ten weeks of any semester, when teachers and departments are considering books, because she seems to be in ten places at once.

But I drift from my topic, which is how the merger of two giants is going to change things. If the practice of only one submission per editor per house per megalithic publishing company holds as standard practice, agents already in the business will be relying even more (like they don’t already) on the 20% income from paychecks of writers who have already made it in the business,  New agents will. . . .

You fill in the blank. It is a changing industry. As long as people want to write, and people want to read, there have got to be ways that new writers come to the notice of readers. I honestly do not know where that will leave agents.

Johnny out of his Depp?

I thought I had got past the news of Johnny Depp being a publisher. I mean why not, so what, and all that rot.

Last night I had a class in which, in halting, impassioned language, I told my students that they would not, absolutely not, become better writers until they developed a strong and meaningful relationship with books, not to be confused with the strong and meaningful relationship they had with their significant others. I must have phrased that better than just now because no one moved, their eyes were open, and I got some contrite expressions and promises to visit the Writing and Reading Center daily.

I can remember teachers in my past making similar impassioned speeches. One handsome male teacher at Ecole Lemania in Lausanne, Switzerland seemed to go into a trance when speaking about his all-time favorite writer, Stendhal, author of Le Rouge et Le Noir, or for those of you with rusty French, The Red and the Black. At the end of the hour, we couldn’t wait to discover Stendhal.

Perhaps the cumulative effect of all the world’s  reading and writing teachers’ impassioned speeches produces interlocking ripples on the ocean that is literature. The ripples attract attention: hey, books exist, everybody. However, the power produced by the great works of dedicated writers wells up from the depths of that ocean. It is like the siren’s call–magnetic and dangerous–and how many a reader has been willing to turn away from the world, or change it, in order to follow that call!

This brings me back to Hillel Italie’s version of the Depp news, which was published in the online magazine, Salon. Her first sentence was “Johnny Depp is bringing a dash of cool to the book world.”

Excuse me while I try not to lose my lunch.

Jane Austen

Dear Hillel Italie, you must have had an untouched life. It is sad to find a journalist who has  never  delved into Henry James, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, George Eliot or Tolstoy, to name a few.   But it is not too late. If you google your name and happen upon this blog post, try a book by any one of these authors–and of course there are many, many others. You may come to re-define “cool” as it pertains to the book world.

Gustave Flaubert

Johnny Depp a new publisher?

It was hard enough competing with actors and socialites who write books. An unknown writer has to be ten times more fascinating than a celebrity to get a glance from an agent or publisher. Now, Johnny Depp uses the royal “we” to acknowledge his illustrious foot in the publishing door.

“I pledge, on behalf of Infinitum Nihil that we will do our best to deliver publications worthy of people’s time, of people’s concern, publications that might ordinarily never have breached the parapet,” Depp said in a statement released by HarperCollins. “For this dream realized, we would like to salute HarperCollins for their faith in us and look forward to a long and fruitful relationship together.”

How, we ask, will the royal Depp “they” (him, himself and he) help the little person get a boost over the dike? Ahem, the parapet?

Why, by publishing what celebrities like Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie have to say about the trials of the common person.

What happened to the good ole days when celebrities sold salad dressing and cologne?

— Thanks, Dennis Abrams, for the nifty news.

The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby

I love Victorian period dramas.  As I was sliding off a high induced by the Encore miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White, based on the 2002 novel by Michel Faber (which I am dying to read),  I chanced upon The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby. Published in 2012 by Penguin, this is the debut novel of a young woman who teaches writing in England as I do in California, but that is not why I fell in love with her book.

The Whores’ Asylum is aptly titled, with a pretty cover, and in fact has a couple of engaging, colorful whores in it, yet it does not fit genre expectations.  It is an intelligent study of the human heart rather than the narrative of a clever whore who raises herself up and escapes from misery in Victorian England. (By no means am I trivializing the referred-to miniseries. I only mean The Whores’ Asylum is a labyrinthine sanctuary where the reader must get lost to find meaning, and it is a delightful book to get lost in.)

Darby gives the amiable narrator’s voice to one Dr. Edward Fraser, whose affinities and friendships set the entire tone of the novel.  At the outset, young Fraser has not determined whether to follow his proclivities for righteousness or his fascination for the classical past. It is significant that he has already achieved a Bachelor of Arts in Theology from Cambridge with first class honors and is now pursuing a Master’s in Philosophy at Oxford. Fraser is no simpleton.  This character, far more layered than Holmes’ Watson and definitely more significant to the plot, tells of his great friendship for Stephen Chapman, a young man studying medicine. Chapman is good for Fraser and vice versa. They room together in Oxford, sharing their lives, dreams and aspirations with each other. Since the novel is told in hindsight, Fraser wants to explain why Chapman died in such hideous manner, and make amends for his failings, if he can, by so doing.

One of Darby’s delightful ploys is to play a trick on readers who judge. Since making judgments is human, chances are most readers will comply. One may, for instance, judge Fraser as a prude. We are, after all, of the 21st century and do not see things as British society did back in Victorian times.  There are other judgments the reader may make which I do not feel inclined to give away.  At the very least, the reader will be likely to find young Fraser too judgmental in his view of the young woman with whom Chapman has fallen in love. Still, there is no doubt that Fraser’s friendship is sincere and he tries to do right by Chapman. The reader is free to disagree with Fraser’s point of view on any number of topics or plot twists, and that disagreement is, I believe, something Darby engineers with skill.

The characters in The Whores’ Asylum develop as they are supposed to in serious, prize-winning literature. More than anyone else, the layers of Diana/Anna and Fraser are peeled back over and over, until the person finally seated on the couch beside the reader—they are that alive—is not the one the reader had an opinion about at the beginning or even halfway through the novel. (I blushed next to Edward Fraser, hoping he would forgive me for my earlier criticism.) Through the metamorphoses, the plot keeps us hooked and the changes are all believable.

Photo of Darby by Jon Cartwright

I can see why Darby titled this novel The Unpierced’ Heart in its first incarnation, for the overall story is about judgments and choices made around, for and about love. The Whores’ Asylum is set against a background of rich Gothic trappings and told in a strong, literary Victorian voice. I cannot wait to see what Darby writes next.

How to get an Agent

I’ve only done it once–get an agent. She was a prominent agent, too. Now I am thinking about the process again, knowing that with each passing year it becomes harder. Why? Population growth. There are more of us competing with each other. Moreover, as writing teacher, I am aware of how many people think they can write. That shoves writing teachers and agents in the same uncomfortable manuscript-strewn corner, having to shuffle through scores of poorly written flights of fancy. Wingless wonders, if you will.  Birds too stuffed with dressing to get off the ground.

It occurs to me that the old adage about finding an agent who represents books I like a lot is true–if he or she likes books I like, chances are good he or she will like my book. Wishful thinking, you say?

Ah, but how do I get the talented and busy agent’s attention? Do a cartwheel? From what I read, even bribery has lost its charm. Agents are tired of little trinket gifts in the mail. Or big fat gifts.

I am looking for books to love, and when I fall for them, you will hear about it, in more places than just this blog. It will take digging. Like good friends, a loved book is not always where I would hope. However, when I do find one, I shall do a cartwheel in words.

My summer of discontent

For those of our readers who don’t know much about Fresno, it’s hot here. I mean really hot as in H-O-T. And this summer has been one of the worst on record, with daily temperatures reaching into the high nineties for the entire month of September. In August, we had only a couple of days where our thermometers didn’t reach triple digits. Today is the first day of October, and our high is predicted to reach 104 degrees. Normally by now we’d be enjoying some of the best weather in the country. Temps in the 80s during the day and cooling into the 50s at night. Instead, it feels as if we’re in the middle of July. All of which adds up to one huge distraction on the writing end. My gardening chores have tripled, our dogs are going crazy from lack of exercise less a late evening swim, and we have zero extra energy for anything outside of getting through another scorching day.

Still, all of that said, it shouldn’t be enough to stop me from writing. I finished the book I started about a year ago and am presently engaged in the joyful process of marketing. That in itself is a post for another day. I mention it now only so I can add it to the rock pile of stress I’ve been carrying around since June, when we began a major bathroom remodeling job. Two months of workers coming and going at various hours of the day (and evening), bringing with them the calming sounds of pounding hammers and buzzing drills. How relaxing to look about my house and see a layer of white dust covering everything from the coffee table to the TV screen to the stove; dust that reappears every few days no matter how often I clean it away. How quaint to find a tube of calking and various power tools cluttered my office, which has the sad fate of being attached to the bathroom in progress. Best of all, my three dogs remain on high alert every minute of every day, ready to defend their home from these noisy offenders. Their method of barking at the top of their lungs every time someone walks by is very reassuring. At least I don’t have to worry about said workers attacking me. Thank the gods for small favors.

In the midst of all this, Jody’s mom passed away. Ruth lived a good, long life, and we are relieved she didn’t have to linger in the hospital or wind up in a nursing home the way many elderly people do. Jody traveled to Wisconsin for the funeral, and came home stuck in the middle of a family feud that has been simmering for the past decade. His mom’s death has escalated this thing to the point where he will be forced to choose a side and deal with the consequences. It’s a no win, sadly.

On the animal front, one of our cats broke her leg at the shoulder. Due to her age and the area of the break, the best and real only option was to amputate the leg. (I’m happy to say Taffy has recovered and is doing as well as can be expected.)

Yes, you say, all of that sounds unfortunate . . . but what does it have to do with writing? Well, the point, as obscured as it may be, is that all our lives are filled with distractions. Life itself is a distraction. The key to overcoming it is to realize that fact and move on. If we are truly writers, we find a way to write regardless of what is happening around us. Getting this post up today provides a small victory for me on that end. Onward and upward I go.