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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Busier than a one-armed paper-hanger!

Yes, that’s what the Greenhouse Husband regularly announces:  I’M BUSIER THAN A ONE-ARMED PAPER-HANGER!

I know what he means.  I have so far exceeded the poor, limb-less paper-hanging guy this week that I’ve not even had time to tell you my exciting news - that last Friday I sold UK and Commonwealth rights in Lindsey Leavitt’s PRINCESS FOR HIRE.  In fact, not just rights for one book but, as in her US Hyperion deal, for three.  I seem to remember telling Lindsey in highly confident tones when I first met her that I would achieve this, so it’s been really, really satisfying to deliver on my promise.

It was pleasing once again to have competition for the rights, with two houses both bidding from London. In the end we went with Egmont UK and my old colleague (old as in former, rather than in years!) and friend, Rachel Boden. Rachel had loved our Princess Desi from the start and had nailed her colours to the mast some time ago.  Most regular American agents would sell US rights initially and then wait for proofs of that edition before pitching it (via sub-agents) to the UK. I took the view that PRINCESS really had the legs to succeed in Britain and that I wanted a UK house to feel a stronger sense of ownership and involvement in the text.  Plus I felt it could only be good for Lindsey to have the additional profile of a UK deal concluded early on. I therefore submitted it to British houses at the same time as the Americans, knowing there would need to be some level of collaboration between edits done by both houses.  In fact, the strategy has worked perfectly and Rachel’s conversation with Emily, our Hyperion editor, soon revealed that they had very similar editorial sensibilities, which would enable Egmont basically to use Hyperion’s edit. A great result, which means both houses will publish the first book in Winter 2010, which makes for great transatlantic synergy. Egmont are the British publishers of Lemony Snicket, among many other great authors, so they have an excellent, and growing, reputation as series publishers as well as of successful standalone fiction. It’s also been great to get to know Elizabeth Law and Doug Pocock, pioneers of Egmont US, which launched here a few months back.

Hands up - how many of you are baffled by the rights issues I’ve just been talking about?  Maybe you are wondering what I mean by UK and Commonwealth - or even how the globe is carved up in terms of potential deals.  Well, I sell US houses exclusive English-language rights to the USA and Canada (which will also include the Philippines and other US dependencies). British houses get exclusive English-language rights to the UK and British Commonwealth - which includes the major territories of Australia and New Zealand (Aus is a very important market in terms of potential sales). Many other countries are included in this grant of rights:  parts of Africa (eg, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya); Middle East (eg, Egypt, Kuwait, Sudan); Asia (India, Malaysia, Singapore); Australasia (as well as Aus/NZ this includes Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa); South America (eg, Belize, British Antarctic, Falklands); West Indies (eg, Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago).  Europe is always a bit tricksy - both US and UK houses want to lay claim to it, so the best way of dealing with it is to make it what we call Open Market, which means both houses can sell into it.  However, Europe can also be a deal-breaker for UK houses who insist on having it exclusively, so it can help enormously in clinching the deal to be able to retain it for them as I was able to do in this case.

Now bear in mind that all I’ve mentioned so far is EXCLUSIVE ENGLISH LANGUAGE RIGHTS.  So we still have a huge piece of rights cake left - basically, the rights to publish in all other languages.  And these rights I retain - to be exploited and sold by my sister company Rights People (Alexandra, Caroline, and Alex; visit them on  US and UK publishers would love me to sell these rights to them (under the banner of granting World rights), but I don’t!  Sorry, pubishers, but those rights are almost always going to be more valuable to my author if retained and sold for them separately by Greenhouse/Rights People.  We don’t really start selling these rights until we have an absolutely final, fully revised manuscript in our hands, so that’s why you won’t see that many countries sold yet on the author-listing part of the website.  Return in a year’s time and take another look, and I suspect you’ll see a great deal more.  Which is very exciting for authors because they may have moved on to writing subsequent books, but sales around the world of their first can be ongoing in a way that’s great for profile and income.

Whoa, I’m starting to sound like a school teacher lecturing a class.  Sorry about that, but hope you’ve found this little rights seminar interesting.  The message I’d want to leave you with is this:  It is a big, big world out there.  Your writing, if you get published, is not just about either the USA or Britain. It doesn’t matter in the least to me where you live - I look for the potential of your work in a much bigger way than that. I want to see your book out there in Tuvalu, Turkey, and Tanzania; being read on an alpine mountaintop in German, in a bijou bistro in French, or even in Mandarin over in Beijing. 

Now isn’t that exciting? Looks like I’ll be busier than a one-armed paper-hanger for a long time to come! 

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Vermont - and a picture of beauty (or maybe not)

I’ve a riddle for you.  Where in the world have I just been? 
Clues:  My feet blew up with scabrous mosquito bites. My hair turned into steel wool, fuzzed into an unappealing mass by alternating drizzle and humidity. And I saw more important people wearing nothing but towels than is in any way recommended.

Can you guess where I’ve been?  YES - I was at the alumni conference of Vermont College’s MFA in children’s writing.  And despite an increasingly terrifying view of myself in my dorm room’s mirror (small children look away now), and all the furtive lurking to achieve privacy in the shared bathrooms, I had a great time. Who would not, in the company of many and diverse children’s authors, a goodly number of whom have already been plucked from the fertile flowerbeds of Vermont and hauled off to the likes of HarperCollins, Roaring Brook, Front Street, Candlewick, and many more.  Here are flocks of authors who look quite normal but talk about unreliable narrators, authorial perspective, Aristotelian plot structure (yes, really), in the same way that we normal mortals discuss popping down to Giant for our groceries.  Whoa, this is some course, people!

But that wasn’t the most exciting thing.  The most exciting thing was . . . roll on the drums . . . I got to hang out in the vicinity of M.T. Anderson (FEED, OCTAVIAN NOTHING) and Tim Wynne Jones (BOY IN THE BURNING HOUSE, THIEF IN THE HOUSE OF MEMORY), who are both involved in the program.  Now, it isn’t easy appearing completely calm in this situation, but I felt I did quite creditably and avoided looking like the groupie I secretly am. They were also the funniest, most charming double act you can imagine, wearing their considerable intellects as lightly on their shoulders as butterflies. 

So what, I hear you ask, was Sarah doing in this elevated company?  Well, I was asked by the alumni to take part in a couple of panels - and had also offered to co-sponsor the first-ever Vermont cocktail party (which, as can imagine, went down rather well as a little alcohol usually does).  The first panel was on Intellectual Property and Rights, along with Michael Stearns of Firebrand (my old mate from publishing days - we used to do a lot of business together, shared a lot of books, across the Pond).  Fortunately, the discussion moved away from ghastly things like trademark law and on to more interesting topics like the international scene and the importance of various contractual clauses (believe it or not, I get quite excited by the minutiae of contracts, which is just as well since an agent spends half their life pouring over these pedantic documents).  Panel 2 was with another old friend, Deborah Brodie, who after a long career in publishing is now a freelance editor, teacher and book doctor ( If you just can’t sort your novel out and are about to jump over a cliff, Deborah is the lady to turn to.  She’s a genius editor and quite incredibly kind, so I was being all sassy commercial agent and Deborah was the calming, soothing, mellifluous one.  Kind of like good cop, bad cop (in reverse, of course).  We basically talked about writing, how to be commercial, tricks of the trade, submitting, and much more.  All very enjoyable, and I hope we were able to add something helpful to the considerable knowledge and experience of our audience.

There were many other highspots in this Vermont sojourn.  Driving through the forests and seeing the beautiful scenery for the first time (so big, so big, compared with Britain!). Exploring the town (kind of alpine, kind of Celtic, kind of neither). Chilling with a coffee at Capitol Grounds - and chatting with a swarm of Vermonters who pitched up also in search of a break from campus.  Chatting with esteemed editor/publisher Melanie Kroupa of Farrar Straus and Giroux under a tree.  Eating breakfast in the cafeteria with young students who have made real sacrifices, both financial and in career terms, to study for their MFA. The dedication, the eagerness to learn, the talent in that place were remarkable. I can’t think of anything quite like it in the UK, other than the children’s writing course at Bath Spa University in the west of England (which produced the wonderful Ally Kennen of BEAST fame and others).

So I pitched up home again Monday afternoon - pretty tired, to be honest, but feeling it had all been very worthwhile.  Even if it meant I’d be working for 12 straight days on the trot.  It’s very hard to stop.  Ever.  In the time I’d been away, submissions had poured in - some sent special delivery, all with hopes attached like flags. And then, of course, there’s the authors I’m already representing, whose business is my top concern and priority.  It’s fantastic, it’s fun, but just occasionally it would be nice to sit on a sun lounger and snooze. 

Know what I mean, jelly bean?

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Waiting, waiting, waiting . . .

This is not a business for those seeking instant gratification.  Much of it is about waiting. And waiting. And waiting ... 

Waiting for the voice that makes me read one paragraph and sit up, punch the air, and hiss YESSSSSS! (Because it’s the greatest temptation as an agent to sign too many authors, or the wrong authors, and then not be able to give them time and attention - or sell their work.)

Waiting for the words to form in my mind that will best enable me to explain to an author how their story might be refined and shaped. (Because it’s the easiest thing in the world to rip out an editorial letter that isn’t nuanced quite right.)

Waiting for revisions # 1, 2, or even 3. (Because my first mantra is that I owe it to my authors to submit only the very best work of which they are capable. And because my second mantra is that if I’m going to get them a deal it must be the very best deal possible.)

Waiting for publishers to respond to my careful submission, which means everything in the world to me (and my author), but is one of so many for the editor.  (Because you don’t get anywhere by hassling them - until just the right moment.)

Waiting for the absolutely final decision. (Because the Marketing Director hasn’t yet read it, the acquisitions meeting was cancelled, the MD was on vacation, the dog ate it, the building burned down).

Waiting for the Contracts Director’s responses to my responses to their responses on Clauses 2, 3c and 15b.  (Because every word in this document could be vital if something goes horribly wrong at any stage in the future.)

Waiting for yet more revisions. (Because don’t think for one moment that the poor author is off the hook once the manuscript is acquired.  Hah, far from it! The revising fun has only just begun. Let’s dig it up and make it over!)

Waiting for the book to come out.  (Because normally it takes a year - or that’s what the Production Director’s ‘critical path’ will tell you. And pub dates move, production nightmares ensue, illustrations get lost, files get corrupted, factories shut for Christmas.)

Yes, this game is all about waiting. 
And precision. And absolute focus.  And doing things just right.

Because there is also a moment to pounce, where the silence, the holding the line, the breezy patience, the grey days turn into rapid, intense action. The phone rings, the email arrives, the pressure is applied, the answer comes - and suddenly your destiny as a writer has turned on a dime, for good or ill, and the world is transformed.

This is not a job where achievement necessarily matches the hours spent working. 

So what does this waiting mean for you aspiring authors?  It means waiting (and working) to learn your craft, to discover your voice, to turn that sentence - and every sentence - into one so nuanced and skillful it breaks my heart. It means understanding that this is a slow-moving business that lumbers like an old tortoise until The Moment of sudden action. This is the way of books.  This is not America’s Got Talent; this is the ancient craft of story-telling, handed down through generations.  Despite our modern publicity flim-flam, writing is still about spinning magic painstakingly and cleverly from words, and there are rarely quick fixes.  Sadly, The Hoff will not come leaping at you from the Greenhouse telling you you’re going to Vegas. There will only be me, doing my best for you - whether that’s telling you that I can’t make it work with you, or whether you’re one of the very few whose journey and risk I can share.

No, this is not a business for those seeking instant gratification.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Back at my American desk (though head elsewhere)

It’s good to be back in Virginia, though my head is spinning in orbit somewhere over the Atlantic.  I’m sure it will land safely back on my shoulders tomorrow once the old body clock has reconnected. It’s also good to be safely manacled and shackled to the Greenhouse desk again.  Or rather the virtual desk, since (very predictably) both phone and broadband crashed in my absence, necessitating a hasty cobbling together and camping out at a temporary desk elsewhere before The Man comes to fix things.

There’s a ton to do: a mound of paper manuscripts, a landslide of emailed ones, several deals to be done (hurrah!), and plans to be finalized for my trip to Vermont next Friday for the alumni conference of the MFA program.  I’m really looking forward to it - taking part in several panels, hosting a Greenhouse cocktail party to welcome attendees, and no doubt meeting many aspiring writers.

It’s been a good, if pretty exhausting, trip to the UK. Lots of work done, family and friend reunions enjoyed, and publishing contacts and colleagues reinvigorated. Not exactly a vacation, but at least a change of pace and scene. Greenhouse Son #1 says he feels he is a ‘citizen of the world’ and I agree.  I belong in both the USA and Britain and feel at home in several other places too. Hmm, I find that interesting - the realization puts a different spin on every issue, as well as having such a bearing on how I see the literary scene and what I hope to achieve for my authors.

It’s good to be back, fellow Citizens of the World!

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