Monday, November 12, 2007

Orhan Pamuk, the follow-up

Okay, so I was trying to think of what to say to a Nobel Laureate who just received an honorary doctorate, and not sound like a dork or like some bah-hah academic or something. I closed my eyes for a moment and remembered what it looked like to see him walk down the aisle in Gaston Hall with all those be-robed colleagues, ascend the stage, and receive the honorary doctoral hood. It kinda looked like getting married! I asked him about that, and he laughed and said yes, that's exactly what it felt like. He said the moment is surreal, and over very quickly, before you realize what is happening.

He was so laid-back and he seemed to have fun, like he does this all the time (which perhaps he does). His beautiful daughter Rüya was with him. I have met enough famous authors by now to be tired of the thrill. Most are okay, some are awful, but overall writers are better on the page than in person. Orhan Pamuk was an exception to that. He's a bit more interesting in person.

He snapped a photo of the three of us with his digital camera, and I regretted not having one myself, but I didn't know if it would be appropriate. D'oh. I hope he reads this and decides to send the image. Booklab at georgetown dot edu.

A wacky quote in PW, and a mystery

Okay, now here's a news tidbit that made me wonder whassup at university presses. This is from Publisher's Weekly a while back (June), but I just now found it and marveled. Joseph Esposito, who is listed as the founder of a firm called "Portable CEO," and a former executive at Simon & Schuster and Random House, is quoted in the following context: "In an age of diminishing university subsidies to their presses, . . . Esposito emphasized the value of being self-supporting, partly, in Esposito’s words, 'to stay one step ahead of the ax,' but also, he said, 'to make money available for other central activities at the university.'"

Excuuuuuse me? Isn't it enough that universities have put their presses under tremendous pressure to make money, even while charging them with the crucial mission of continuing to publish scholarly work? This nearly impossible task is what gave us those awful faculty subventions in the first place! So now am I correct in reading that some critics say beyond this, university presses should try to earn enough to actually give back to their home universities, rather than having the university subsidize the press? What will happen to scholarly publishing if this is true?

I find this sufficiently hard to believe that I will contact Esposito myself and ask him to clarify. Maybe PW got it wrong (that wouldn't be the first time, although I am a loyal reader). Maybe the quote would sound more sensible in context.

Watch this space for details.

Literary conferences can and should be more encouraging!

Okay, today my rant is about literary conferences. Authors go to them seeking support and professional guidance. What they often get is institutionalized discouragement packaged as "no-nonsense advice," usually in the form of literary agents looking over the authors' sample work. Some authors report that they have actually paid money at conferences to meet with an agent for 15 or 30 minutes in person. I simply have to ask, "For what?"

Agents can be great, and I know some of the best in the business. For the most part, though, these wonderful agents are not out scouting the conferences. They tend to send their more junior colleagues instead (there are notable and noble exceptions to this, but not that many). I have dealt with the emotional aftermath of these unwitting bloodbaths. Authors have been in my office in tears, describing how an agent at a conference pronounced the work unpublishable, or said that there is no market right now for books of this kind. When I recount the wonderful authors who heard such news in the past and who soldiered on to publish books that did very well, my authors are encouraged, but the wound only heals when the author finds a great agent and a publisher.

Herewith a word to all authors, both academic and trade: you should only listen to agents with amazing personal track records (who cares what the name of the agency is... follow the individual), and even then, in the words of Bob Dole, "Reasonable minds may differ." Many's the project that failed to captivate any agent anywhere, but that sold to a publisher straightaway. Learn who the best agents are -- this office only works with exceptional ones who know the business and who have decades of experience -- and focus on getting your work in front of these professionals. And stay away from literary conferences! Your time would be better spent researching your next bestseller.