2 May 2006
Last weekend UCLA hosted the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Besides feeling like coming home again for me (how I miss a big city! And LA in particular) I was again blown away by how many attended this fabulous event. Last year I believe there were 150,000 or so people and I have no reason to believe that number has diminished. It was cholk full of people who love books, love to read, and want to share that experience with their children (and dogs). For book people, there is no greater event. Besides the booths of free stuff (and my teenaged son and his friends were certainly into that!) there are panels and discussions with authors, agents, and publishers. This is, of course, what interested me the most.
The first thing I have to say about the panels is, the moderators need to be reined in. Either they linger over their own wonderfulness or they are simply too boring to bear, and this goes on every year. Except Tod Goldberg. He can moderate breakfast if he wants. He's too funny and really brought the energy up. But I digress. I started off my Saturday with a two hour drive (yes, I come from the middle of nowhere) and arrived late for my ten o'clock which was Mystery: Straight Shooters with John Morgan Wilson, Barbara Seranella (you were looking good, Barbara) and Rob Roberge. This wonderful panel discussed the merits of writing a bit edgier, where the ending isn't always tied up with a neat little bow. Your novel doesn't always have to have a tidy ending nor is justice always served, if the story merits it. Although, as writers, we know that people generally read mysteries for the satisfaction of some sort of order, that the bad guys will get what's coming to them, because as Barbara Seranella pointed out, if you want the bad stuff, go read the newspaper. Particularly politics. The good guys won't win there.
Next up was First Fiction: Breaking Out. A group of very sharp, very savvy young people: Uzodinma Iweala, Kirstin Allio, and Olga Grushin talking about their first published novels and, in most cases if memory serves, the first novels they ever wrote. I hated them instantly. Naw. Just joshing. But it's those publishing stories writers like me cringe to hear: I thought I'd write this, gave it to a friend to read, they handed it to an agent, the agent signed me, and I got a publisher...all in two weeks. Hey. It can't all be as brilliant for the rest of us. Their novels--all literary fiction--sounded fascinating. I was short on cash or I would have bought a few and got them signed. That's the fun of it, too. But since I knew that cash was not an option I filled up my time with panels.
I next jumped over to Book Biz: The Insiders, which was by far the best one. This one featured Steve Wasserman (the fellow who originally engineered the Book Festival), Kim Dower a publicist, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, agent, and Betsy Amster, agent. Here is the meat I was waiting for. Mr. Kirshbaum told us that "big books are doing better than ever before. Once, thirty years ago Hawaii by James Michner was the big book and sold 125,000. Today the same is sold in Costco alone." A theme running through the panels was nay saying that books are dead. Mr. Kirshbaum reiterated that there is a "tremendous appetite" by readers but that thousands of books fight for shelf space in bookstores and few papers review or can review an appreciative number of books. The LA Times Review receieves 900 books a month but can only review 1200 a year. "Riches on one hand," he said, "and poverty on the other...I want to see more exposure for books in the middle." Don't we all? And then the dreaded "platform" issue arose. For those of you out there who are the wonderful Readers, let me explain that one cannot simply write a book and expect the publisher to throw money at it to advertise. One would expect that but it doesn't happen. The publisher wants the author to already have an established platform, like a readymade audience. For instance, a natural would be if you wrote a medical nonfiction about how the brain works and you were a brain surgeon. You've already got authority, a platform, with possibly seminars that you already give in which you could sell your books. It's harder for a writer of fiction, but not impossible. One simply has to be creative about it. So Kim Dower raised the issue of platforms, that there is tremendous competition in the market for products and entertainment, and novels are just one more product. Writers must also be performers and win people over. "There is great pressure to market it," she said, "and marketing seems to be a dirty word in publishing." Indeed. Even a large publishing house will give you very little in the way of publicity. The sad fact is an author must hire their own publicist because the window of (perceived) success or failure is very small.
"Quality books do sell," said Kirshbaum, when they are "commoditized." Steve Wasserman added that there is a pressure not to take risks on books that don't have success written all over them. Everyone wants that blockbuster so they can capitalize books that may not initially sell as well. But the discussion also covered James Frey and the teen who received her half a million advance and was found to have plagiarized her material. So risky business becomes riskier. Where does the fault lie? Publishing is becoming blockbuster-driven without the same resources as the film industry. Is it the same in Europe? I don't know.
At the end of the day I attended Niche Mysteries with Jerrilyn Farmer, Earlene Fowler, David Rosenfelt, and Diane Mott Davidson. These are cozies with a hook of some kind; one is a quilting hook, catering, courtroom with dog, etc. Since this wasn't my cup of tea, I didn't have as many notes to take on it but they were an interesting bunch, and I can't tell you how many times I seem to run into Jerrilyn Farmer.
The next morning I was back in my car and back at UCLA listening attentively to Mystery: The Los Angeles influence with some of my favs Gary Phillips, Denise Hamilton, and T. Jefferson Parker moderated by Tod Goldberg. So lively, so funny, and fun. I'm a great noir fan and I grew up in LA so it was just a great day-starter.
Next up was a rather misleading panel entitled Hip Chicks Packing Heat, which turned out to be a little too chick litty for me. No offense. Again, not my cup of tea. Though Susan Kandel who is exploring revisiting Perry Mason and Nancy Drew in her series, wasn't quite happy with the moniker "chick lit." "After all," she said, " when there is a male protagonist they don't call it 'dick lit'." That made the panel worth it!
The last panel I attended was another full of good information called Publishing: The Next Big Thing. Stephen White and his wife Mus White are newbies and just began their small press Sunswept Press. Johnny Temple is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Akashic Books (who published Nina Revoyr's Southland which I read and enjoyed from a couple of years ago. Great prose, neat lady.) Charlie Winston was the old hand, having been at Avalon for thirty years. Josh Getlin, book review editor for the LA Times New York office moderated. E-books were discussed. They seemed to be the "next big thing" about ten years ago and sort of died on the vine. Mr. Winston explained that ebooks would be something bestseller driven just as audiobooks are. Though it seemed that the future of college text books may head toward ebooks. The relative few that need to be published, their great expense, and portability would seem to make them perfect for an ipod sort of mechanism. The other component being that the younger generation is weaned on such electronic fare and could adjust easier than us old codgers who can't read off a screen for long periods of time. And besides, as Winston pointed out, books themselves are still a "profound invention."
Mr. Temple agreed and said that "readers are very attached to the form of the book." Though the use of paper is an environmental issue.
Stephen White felt that it was going to be difficult to engage new readers, claiming that the new generation's attention span is limited and it takes time to read a book.
The theme again was blockbusters and falling readership (though my contention is that the readership isn't falling. Book prices being what they are, readers are heading to the library first to see if they like a series before they invest the money. Publishers take note the next time you shell out half a mill to a teenager. But it's okay to give it to me, you understand. I'm cool. ;-) Mr. Winston agreed (because of the plagiarism issue and the perceived need for big blockbusters) that "publishing has gotten away from a relationship with the author." Just deliver the goods and then the publisher just hopes that it's all on the up and up. Mr. White made the pithy comment that "publishing is chasing things, not originating them." Here, here.
There wasn't a lot of glowing commentary about agents. Small publishers of course don't rely on them but big publishers do. Winston said that larger houses don't feel they are taking so much of a risk with agents, as agents do the sifting for them.
Temple lamented the big splash effect: "There's no reason why a book has to have a tiny window to be a success." He insisted that publishers (and I suppose bookstores) need to be convinced to set up events and have a sustained commitment to the book that may actually make its money over time, but just not within that first two or three weeks of its launch. Keep yourself in the driver's seat, was his advice to authors. Winston suggested that authors get publicists.
All in all, authors said over and over again that you can't follow trends. There's too much lead time, for one, and trends fall away quickly. They insisted you must write what you would like to read. Yup. That's why I guess I'm still plugging away at medieval mystery and historical fiction. It's the place I like to be and would like to read. I know you're out there, my Readers-to-be. We'll connect soon.
A great festival, great weather, overpriced food, and great discussions. I recommend it if you're in the LA area at the end of April next year. Maybe I'll be in a booth by next year selling my book. Hey, it's LA, the place where dreams come true!