Entries by Philip Turner

Enjoying Many Happy Reunions & First Meetings at Book Expo 2017

I’ve long since quit keeping track of how many annual Book Expo conventions I’ve attended since Undercover Books opened in 1978; over the past 39 years I’d say I haven’t missed more than five of these trade shows. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Last year was a miss with the show in Chicago, so I was glad that the Javits Center on the west side of Manhattan was the venue once more for the 2017 rendition of the book industry’s annual get-together. Though the show is diminished in attendance and book industry importance since the glory days when it was known as ‘the ABA,’ the period when the American Booksellers Association, the trade association of indie booksellers, owned and ran the convention. It was a great asset, but eventually they sold the show to a company that ran trade shows; currently, it’s owned by Reed Exhibitions. Their management and the choices they make each year about the show is a topic of much discussion and some controversy among booksellers and publishers.

While registering on Wednesday afternoon, May 31, I was startled to see #TrumpRussia figure Carter Page in line after I’d registered, which prompted some quick picture-taking and tweeting from me before my first event. As I was that afternoon, I’m still very curious about what he was doing at the show. Hoping to sell and publish a book? Or, perhaps he already has one in the works? I figure it was one of these—why else would he attend Book Expo? Maybe he hopes to take the same route that the guy who goes by Milo has announced he’ll do: self-publish. And yet, if he’s gonna tell his story, I imagine the congressional committees and Special Counsel Mueller would want to hear it first. That could set up a constitutional struggle: Page’s interest in exercising his free speech rights versus the legislature’s and the law’s interest in exercising their key oversight and criminal prosecution authorities. I love Book Expo for this—you never know who you might see next! One year, I saw former FEMA Commissioner just a year or two after Hurricane Katrina.

The fair’s kickoff event, held before the show floor would open the following morning, was the Editors’ Buzz Panel, where each year six editors are invited to talk about the one book they’re bringing out in the coming months that has them and their publishing house colleagues most excited. In past years, while the lineup always skewed heavily toward fiction—a product, I guess, of the notional that novels lend themselves to hand-selling by booksellers more readily than nonfiction, not an idea I endorse—there would usually be at least one or two nonfiction books among the novels. Not so this year, when it was six novels, one after another, with each editor being introduced at some length by moderator Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, RI. I’m sure all the novels are worthy, but the program choice led, in my opinion, to an at times leaden and repetitive recitation of plot points, reading of blurbs, and comparisons to other novels, that lasted one hour and fifteen minutes. The other issue I had with the program was the exclusive predominance of big-house publishers, (e.g., three titles from imprints at Penguin Random House, one title from an S & S imprint, one from Hachette, and one from Harper), with no mid-sized majors or indie presses in the mix. Are we supposed to believe there were no worthy titles from among publishers like Grove Atlantic, Norton, Algonquin, Graywolf, Counterpoint, Beacon Press, Other Press, and others of their ilk?

Of the six novels presented (each  mentioned here), I found myself most interested in possibly reading The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Matthews, a first novel set in NYC during the 1939 World’s Fair, and The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, the conceit for which is that a fortuneteller can tell characters the very day they’ll die. The whole program would have flowed much better with some adjustments and variation, including briefer presentations by the editors (some seemed stretched to fifteen minutes, which would never be tolerated at a sales conference) and by injecting some narrative nonfiction in to the mix. After the last presenter finished, there was a mad scramble of people rushing to the back of the room to get ARCs of the six books, but it was so intensely crowded, I felt someone could’ve been trampled. Surely, there must be a better way to distribute the reading copies than a mad scrum that has people gasping for air! I hope the Buzz Panel programmers take note of these points for next year’s panel.

After hours, Book Expo always offers action, and this year was no exception as the sales rep group Parson Weems Publisher Services celebrated its 20th anniversary as a company with a delightful bash at the Landmark Tavern, near the Javits Center. PW sales reps Chris Kerr, Linda Cannon, Eileen Bertelli, and Jason Kincade were great hosts and I enjoyed drinks with many people there in the back room of the tavern, with the late afternoon light fading to early evening as the party unfolded, and the good ale they serve. Glad I could introduce my brother-in-law Ev Taylor to many old friends at the party.

The convention floor opened the next morning, and thanks to the MTA’s new subway stop for the #7 train at Tenth Ave and 34th St (which has the steepest, most vertical escalators I’ve ever seen in NY’s subway), I was right on time for my first meeting of the day. Chance encounters also quickly bloomed, as I bumped in to old and new friends like John Whelan of the superb gift book publisher Cider Mill Press; Tom Nevins, longtime member of the Random House sales force; B.J. Berti, Senior Editor for crafts and illustrated books, St Martin’s Press, to whom I was introduced by another old friend, Mike Shatzkin, one of whose new ventures, OptiQly, was being introduced at Book Expo; Peter Costanzo, digital publishing specialist for the AP; Kevin and Spencer Williams, Talonbooks, Vancouver, BC, who are clients of Consortium, a distributor that’s especially good with literary lines, were excitedly sharing with booksellers copies of one of their lead books, Anima; Rob Sanders, Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC, who had a big hit this year with The Hidden Life of Trees, which he’s following up this fall with The Hidden Life of Animals; and Herb Simon, Chairman Emeritus of the group that owns Kirkus, with whom I discussed the NBA, since he’s principal owner of the Indiana Pacers; George Greenfield, literary and lecture agent, who I chatted with in the crowded aisle in front of Hachette’s stand; Michael Korda, who’s publishing a new book with Liveright, Alone, an historical chronicle on the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk, which he experienced firsthand as a 6-year old child.

I had prepared a memo that outlined all the current projects I’m agenting, and was pleased in several of my meetings with publishers and editors to register interest for the proposed new titles:

  • The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, a new book about the last months of the poet’s life;
  • Dirty Windshields: A Canadian Rock n’ Roll Band’s Misadventures Across the USA and Beyond, CBC broadcaster Grant Lawrence’s hilarious and heart-tugging book about his years as frontman and lead singer of the breakthrough punk band, The Smugglers
  • The Lust Club: Confessions of a Prada Model, a one-of-a-kind memoir by a male fashion model;
  • The Twenty-Ninth Day: A Dangerous Journey in the Canadian Arctic, a wilderness survival story the center of which was the grievous mauling by a grizzly bear suffered by the author
  • Ten Garments Every Man Should Own, by Toronto writer Pedro Mendes, publisher of The Hogtown Rake menswear blog;
  • A book about the development of Rap music through the history of sampling, Bring That Beat Back, and another music title by a true pioneer of electronic and hip-hop music;
  • How Horses Help us Heal: Reports from the Field, a deeply spiritual book about equine therapy that surveys the many equine therapy centers in the US;
  • Crash Test: How an Automaker Evaded Accountability, a corporate whistleblower’s account of a company’s lethal malfeasance;
  • Macoupin, a novel of the American prairie spanning 1800 to the near-present, by Jack Heinz. “Caste and class are most subtly yet vividly described in prose as spare and suggestive as an Edward Hopper landscape.”—Ward Just

It was exciting to represent these books and authors at Book Expo.

I got in an autograph line to meet Mira Bartok, whose earlier book, a memoir set in Cleveland about her schizophrenic mother, called The Memory Palace, I had found very compassionate. So did the National Book Critics Circle, which gave it their memoir prize in 2011. Her new book is a departure, a YA fantasy novel called The Wonderling. I also stood in line a while to get a book signed by actor William Daniels, who played Dr Craig in “St Elsewhere,” and had a memorable role in “A Thousand Clowns” with Jason Robards, Jr. Little did I know how hugely popular he is, so after some time waiting, I exited the very long line, but first got a picture of him signing his acting memoir, There I Go Again. Later, I did hang on in a shorter line long enough to meet Brooke Gladstone, longtime co-host of one of my favorite public radio programs, “On the Media,” author of The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time, a copy of which she signed for me. I also stood in line for novelist Mark Helprin, who as a younger author back in the day twice traveled to Cleveland for successful events at Undercover Books, for his outstanding early books A Dove of the East and Winter’s Tale (the latter for an event that drew hundreds of people in 1983). On this occasion, I had scrawled my name on a post-it note, as the publisher’s representative asks so an author doesn’t have to guess or hear correctly how your name is spelled; Mark did something of a double-take when he read my name, and looked up at me. We shared a rush of remembered friendship, as Mark and I had exchanged letters years ago about his books and our lives. My sister Pamela had met him once during a visit she made to New York City. He knew my black Lab Noah, who readers of this blog will recall I have written about here. We had a pleasant reunion there on line, even while people behind may’ve been wondering about the hold-up. I look forward to reading his new novel, from Overlook Press, Paris in the Present Tense. I also went out of my way to find Carol Bruneau, whose publisher Nimbus brought her down from Halifax, Nova Scotia to promote her forthcoming short story collection, A Bird on Every Tree. In the early 2000s I published her first novel, A Purple Thread for Sky, about the enduring legacy of an old family quilt. Carol and I had a sweet reunion, talking about Canadian books and writing, and our mixed-up modern world. I’m reading the opening story in the new book, “The Race,” about a long distance swimming competition, and am reminded anew that Carol writes enormously enjoyable sentences. Her new book will officially be available in September, and can already be pre-ordered from the Canadian book chain, Chapters. I know many readers of this blog will savor her writing.

I got a lot of pictures over the three days of the Book Expo. Here are some of my favorites.

New Sylvia Plath Poems Discovered on Old Sheet of Carbon Paper

The Guardian’s Danuta Kean reports on a startling discovery of previously unknown poems by Sylvia Plath, found to have been typed on carbon paper in an old notebook that belonged to her. The timing of this may prove helpful for myself and an author client of my literary agency as I am currently submitting that writer’s nonfiction book proposal about Plath and Ted Hughes to publishers in the US and the UK. This comes on top of many other developments about Plath and Hughes revealed in the past few months that point to the baleful influence Hughes exerted on Plath in the last months of her life.

As an editor, I first became involved with the Plath-Hughes story when in 2007 I edited and published The Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath’s Rival, and Ted Hughes’s Doomed Lover, which Publishers Weekly reviewed as “Assiduously researched, compulsively readable…an important book.” 

I will post more about the new book in the weeks to come. You can read the article via this link, and I’ve pasted in a screenshot of the Guardian story’s opening paragraphs below. 

Tribe and Cavs Bringing a Potent One-Two Punch

Not to be too woo-woo about being a Cleveland sports fan, but over the past year the Tribe and CAVs do seem to win in sometimes uncanny tandem. I’ll first cite the Indians’ 14-game winning streak last June, mounted during the same few weeks the CAVs were storming through the Eastern Conference of the NBA, on their way to meeting Golden State in the finals, when for the first time in league history, a team—the CAVS—overcame a 3-games-to-1 deficit. They won the franchise’s first NBA title,* and the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years.**

So, early in the first weeks of the new baseball season, the pattern seems to be holding. Yesterday, the following sports event occurred over the span of about six hours:

  • In the afternoon the Indians overcame a 2-0 deficit in the late innings to beat the Twins, 6-2, thus sweeping a series on the road in Minnesota, 3-0.
  • Last night, as is being widely reported in sports and general media today, the CAVs pulled off a parallel, yet far more remarkable feat.
  • On the road, in Indianapolis, up 2-0 in a best-of-7 series versus the Pacers—after trailing by as much as 26 points in the 2nd quarter, and 25 at halftime—they outscored the Pacers 70-40 in the 2d half and won the game 119-114, to go up 3-0 in their first round playoff series. This, it turns out was, the greatest 2nd half comeback in playoff history.

* When the CAVs began as an NBA expansion team in 1970, I was a teenager, and in their inaugural season began attending games with my father and two siblings at the ratty old Cleveland Arena.  They were lovable losers (mostly) in those days. In their 46 years as an organization the CAVs had some very good teams and great players, with deep runs into the NBA playoffs many times, though they had lost both of their previous Finals trips, in 2008 and 2015, making the comeback versus the Warriors in 2016 so very special. 

** Seeing the CAVs win the NBA title last June was especially sweet, because I had attended the game the last time a Cleveland team won a pro sports title. That was in 1964, when the Cleveland Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the NFL championship, then pro football’s ultimate crown, two years before the first Super Bowl was played. Here’s a blog post I wrote about that game. I was ten years old.

“Ghost Songs,” an Ode to Memory by Regina McBride

The three of us in my household have all now read Ghost Songs, a fine and moving memoir by Regina McBride. Her book weaves together the elements of memory, fantasy, and spirit into a powerful read. The style was haunting and unique, flashing back and forth in time across her life. The coming of age story is compelling and sensitively told. She weaves her past and present poetically, combining the remembered anxiety of youth with her own personal search for answers about the tragic deaths of her parents. It’s an emotional journey presented to the reader with hope and the belief that living a creative life and holding onto one’s dreams is part of the discovery of who we are. I loved it and recommend it very highly.

“Sacre Bleu!” 1st Review of THE RED SPHINX, a Long-lost Sequel by Dumas to THE THREE MUSKETEERS

Readers of this blog may recall that last month, I wrote about my author client Lawrence Schick, who under his pen name Lawrence Ellsworth was soon to be publishing a new translation of a literary discovery he’d made, a long-lost novel by Alexandre Dumas titled The Red Sphinx. As I explained then, the publication date was to be January 3 of the new year, and we were hopeful the book, a veritable sequel to The Three Musketeers, would garner some significant reviews. I’m delighted to say that’s beginning, right on queue the day after pub date. The first review is by critic Steve Donoghue in the Christian Science Monitor, and it’s a rave, with this headline: 

Donoghue’s conclusion reads:

In his Afterword, Ellsworth confesses that translating Dumas is “a lot of fun,” but he need hardly have said it: Fun permeates this big book. The rest of 2017’s fiction will have to look sharp: An old master has just set the bar very, very high.

The whole review is linked to here. I’ll be sharing more reviews as we get them. Clearly, this swashbuckling epic, at 800 pages, is a winner for people who savor historical and adventure fiction. For friends in the D.C. area, please note that Lawrence Schick will be appearing at the popular bookstore Politics & Prose in Washington on Sunday afternoon, January 29. Meanwhile, below is last month’s post:
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On the literary agenting side of my editorial services and publishing consultancy, I’m very fortunate to have as one of my author clients the multi-talented Lawrence Schick. Our affinity starts with the fact that we’re both natives of northeast Ohio, me Cleveland, him the Akron-Kent nexus. Then there’s the fact that when I operated Undercover Books in Cleveland from 1978-85, with my two siblings and our parents, we stocked and sold the then-new role playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which somewhat improbably, was sold to bookstores by Random House sales reps. Years later, after I’d moved to NYC and become an editor, Lawrence and I became associated and I learned about his Ohio roots, and the fact that he was an original team member of the group of smart people that devised, produced, and marketed Dungeons & Dragons.

The first book we came together over was from one of Lawrence’s many areas of special knowledge—the world of adventure fiction, particularly from the Swashbuckler Era (from roughly the 1840s-the 1920s), which led him, under the pen name Lawrence Ellsworth, to edit and introduce a spirited anthology called The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, which Pegasus Books published in 2014. It featured selections from the work of Rafael Sabatini (best known for Scaramouche and Captain Blood), Anthony Hope (of Prisoner of Zenda renown), Johnston McCulley (creator of the Zorro character), Conan Doyle (he favored his adventure yarns more than his Sherlock Holmes stories), Pierce Egan (known for Robin Hood), Baroness Orczy (creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel), and Alexandre Dumas (there’s so much more Dumas than The Three Musketeers)—in all a total of twenty writers from what could be fairly be called the golden age of adventure fiction. I wrote about it here a few times

In the course of assembling the anthology, Lawrence, who also reads and translates French, made a surprising discovery: a long-lost Dumas novel, a veritable sequel to The Three Musketeers, which picks up the story where his most popular book had ended. It had a curious publishing history, even in French, and never had a proper edition in English. He’s translated it in to a rollicking new version that Pegasus is bringing out next month, with finished copies showing up in bookstores very soon. It’s called The Red Sphinx, and it features Cardinal Richelieu, a Machiavellian mastermind, who tangles with the hero, Count de Moret and his love, Isabelle. It’s already had a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and intriguingly, I saw yesterday in Lit Hub that Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, harbors a great desire to finally read Dumas, so we’ll be sure she has the opportunity.

On publication date, January 3, Lawrence will publish a personal essay, “The Riddle of the Red Sphinx,” in Lit Hub which will explain how he came to piece together the novel, despite the fact that when he discovered it, the ending was separate from the bulk of the book, and he had to discover it, too. I’ll be sharing the essay and reviews in social media as they arrive. It’s all kind of amazing—a very good, full novel by Alexandre Dumas novel that was barely ever published in English at all, by a master of adventure fiction who’s been dead since 1870! It’s sorta like having a new book by Charles Dickens, who happened to die the same year as Dumas.

Lawrence Ellsworth will be reading from the novel and speaking about Dumas and the Swashbuckler Era at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. at 1pm on the afternoon of Sunday, January 29, 2017. I’m delighted to share the front and back cover of The Red Sphinx from the bound galley I have in my office. For those eager to pre-order, you can find the hardcover here on Amazon, and an unabridged audio edition from Blackstone Audio.