Last May I mentioned on this blog that as literary agent I was developing a book project with an author client who would be writing an important new book on Sylvia Plath. I’m happy to announce that that proposed book is now under contract with a publisher, and the author and I very excited about the arrangement we’ve made. The book will be titled The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, and the author is prolific biographer Carl Rollyson. We’ve sold it to the University Press of Mississippi. In a concise narrative, Rollyson will chronicle the last four months of the poet’s life, drawing on hitherto unexamined sources, including the archive of Harriet Rosenstein, a controversial figure who in the 1970s undertook a biography of Plath that she never completed or published. Rollyson’s book will be an imperative study apt to re-shape the way readers view the end of the poet’s tragically abbreviated life. I posted an announcement of the deal earlier today at publishersmarket[dot]com (listing below). The manuscript will be delivered to the publisher in early 2019.
In case you haven’t seen this yet, it’s an important op-ed by my agency client Amy Knight’s in the LA Times today about Alexey Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s popular and charismatic critic. If you don’t know about him yet, you ought to because he’s got a chance to mount a credible challenge to Russia’s political status quo, and is making some headway despite an autocratic environment. The piece reports he has 80 campaign offices and more than 130,000 volunteers. Putin and his government are trying to sideline Navalny and scuttle his candidacy in next year’s presidential election by using the courts to keep him off the ballot. The piece is about 1000 words, so a 5-7 minute read and drawn from reporting for her book Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime & Political Murder. It went on sale this past Tuesday, from St Martin’s Press (ordering info here). I believe it is going to be very widely read and discussed. Thanks for sharing word about it if you have friends keeping any eye Russia’s ongoing politics, not just for what they’ve done in recent years and months, but for what is still to come. The book will help readers understand the Putin system, so necessary for us going forward since his displacement—by Navalny, or anything or anyone else—is unfortunately way more than a long shot. Note that with Russian law mandating 6-year presidential terms, if re-elected, Putin could be Russia’s leader till 2024, a worrying thought for the West. Still, if anyone could do it, Navalny is the one to watch most closely, for his canny maneuvering which includes a fed-up anti-corruption message that could stand alongside Trump’s failed promise to “drain the swamp.” In Russia, with the economy flat, and ordinary people falling behind, and businessmen and bankers cleaning up, Navalny rails against privileged plutocrats and means it. Navalny also bears watching because of the uncomfortable conclusion that his personal security could be at risk. Amy concludes her piece with a quote from the dissident:
“In an interview with the BBC in January, Navalny, who is married with two children, was reminded of what happened to Nemtsov and asked if he realized the danger he faced. Navalny, whose political support far surpasses [the late Boris] Nemtsov’s popularity, assured his interviewer that he was fully aware of the risks of opposing Putin. As to his motivation, he added: ‘This is my country and I am going to fight for my country. I know that I am right.’”
After Stephen Biko’s death following a brutal police interrogation in 1977, an atrocity that the South African government tried covering up, the anti-apartheid newspaper editor Donald Woods, who’d known Biko, quickly wrote and smuggled out of the country a manuscript* that was his combined biography of Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) he’d been a key leader of, and an exposé on the case. The book added fuel to the controversy in Western countries about the conduct of the corrupt regime. It was an amazingly timely and powerful book, and instilled in me a love for ripped-from-the-headlines books, the sort that I’ve been partial to ever since. Biko was published in 1978 around the time my siblings and parents and I were getting ready to open our bookstore, Undercover Books, and it was among the first books I ordered for our opening stock. With the scandal that ensued from Biko’s death, ownership of Woods’s book became a crime in South Africa. I was very proud we sold many copies in Cleveland. Woods lived many years in Britain, and was still on the scene when Nelson Mandela finally became free.
*When I said above that Donald Woods smuggled his manuscript for Biko out of South Africa, I could’ve added that he carried it out himself, in clandestine fashion, so it could be published in the West. He and his family fled the country in a land cruiser sort of vehicle, in back country, crossing a frontier to a neighboring country where there was no guard post. A brave man with nerves of steel—Woods was determined to honor the memory and sacrifice of a true human rights martyr by first writing the book, and then putting his life, and his family’s lives, on the line to make sure the manuscript would make it to publication. That’s commitment!
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 Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”, courtesy George W. Bush) just a year or two after Hurricane Katrina.just a year or two after Hurricane Katrina.
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) May 31, 2017
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) May 31, 2017
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.
— carol bruneau (@carolbruneau) June 4, 2017
I got a lot of pictures over the three days of the Book Expo. Here are some of my favorites.
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.
Deep reading and writing are revolutionary in a society where ignorance is on the march.
I’m pleased that for the second year in a row I’ve been invited to be the professional editor on hand and participating in the summer workshop for writers put on by the Adirondack Center for Writing, in Lake Placid, NY, coming up Saturday, June 11. I really enjoyed the conference last year, when I read and commented on the work of more than a dozen talented nonfiction and fiction writers. The format was an open one that seemed to benefit all the writers: in advance I read submissions from each writer, then on the day of the workshop I spoke in front of the whole group about the work of each writer presented to me. It proved to be a serious but not judgmental forum for all participating writers. If you live and work in upstate NY, and are interested in having me read your work as part of the workshop, you’ll find all the details at this link.
Here is a description of my session:
1:15-2:30pm How to Pitch Your Work with Philip Turner
You will be asked thousands of times, “what is your book about?” and “who is the reader for it?” You need to be able to answer these questions in a compelling way in sentence or two, though it is often hard to do this. Philip will lead a session on ways to answer these questions, and others publishing professionals may ask you. Participants will also be able to pitch their work this session and get feedback on it. This pitch will follow your project from the beginning stages all the way through marketing, so make sure it is a good one.
Paying affectionate homage to Mark Twain, who died on this date in 1910, in Redding, CT, one day after Halley’s Comet’s close approach to Earth, a celestial visitor that also neared Earth around his birth in 1835. Here’s a photo I took of his grave a few summers ago at the lovely cemetery where he’s buried in Elmira, NY.