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Ninja Skills & Marmite Books

Kelvin Kong and Dan Wagstaff muse on publishing, books and breaking into the book business.
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The latest of Toronto's literati to take part in Open Book's 48-Hour Interview series are Kelvin Kong, a foreign rights associate for a children's publisher, and Dan Wagstaff, who works in online sales and marketing for Raincoast Books and blogs at The Casual Optimist. In their interview, they chat about their work in publishing, ebooks, social media and online literary communities, and they recommend some excellent books.

DW:

We've only met the once, so I wanted to start by asking you, Kelvin, how did you get into the book business?

KK:

We’ve only met the once, but wasn’t that a great meeting? I imagine most first meetings with me often are.

This isn’t going to be the bright-eyed “I’m so passionate about books that I can’t dream of doing anything else” spiel. I got into the book business because I couldn’t get into grad school, having made some academic mistakes (like taking courses on symbolic logic and economics). Ended up working for two years in retail, after which I had enough and decided to try tech writing. One course and one written cell phone manual later, I decided to try something else. I recalled that two friends in university had decided to get into publishing, so thought maybe that might be something to try.

That being said, how about you? What made you give up fame, fortune and the prospect of a comfortable retirement?

DW:

I guess it was a similar story. When I graduated I was working in customer service for a bank. I started to really hate it and quit after a couple of years. I ended up taking a job at a university bookstore basically because I needed some cash, and it seemed like a nice place to work. I've always had a lot of books, so I guess in retrospect it shouldn't have been a surprise, but I actually really liked being a bookseller. It never really occurred to me that knowing a certain amount about books and authors might be useful! My parents were always reading or writing, and there were always books in the house (on the table, on the chair, on the floor...), so I think I just took it for granted that everyone was interested in this stuff. It turns out, however, a lot of people really don't care and I'm just weird....

Anyway, I didn't really expect to get a job in a bookstore when I moved to Canada from the UK. I just saw there was an opening at a bookstore I liked (Pages — formerly on Queen Street West in Toronto), so I applied and, somewhat to my surprise, got the job. It felt a bit like fate to be honest (although there was a massive blackout in Toronto and the entire Eastern Seaboard on my first day on the job, so I'm not exactly sure what that was a portent of...).

In the end, I was at the bookstore for a couple of years. It was great experience and I got to know a bit about Canadian literature and the Toronto book scene. And it was fun — Pages was a great store — but there's even less money in bookselling than publishing so I started looking around for other book-related jobs. I ended up at as a publicist at Dundurn and then shortly after at Raincoast where I am now.

Where did you start, and where are you working now?

KK:

I wonder how many of us fell into publishing serendipitously, irrationally. Tip to the aspiring publishers: no one will judge you if you say “I failed law school” as the reason for entering the industry, when people ask. Well, maybe not at job interviews. ;)

My parents were readers but not largely so (Mom read crime novels and Chinese fiction, Dad read mainly Chinese magazines).

So you started at Pages on the day of the blackout in 2003. I remember that day. Wasn’t scheduled to work so I sat at home waiting, then reading, then making chicken with President’s Choice Memories of Jamaica Jerk sauce on a gas stove. Tasted like crap. Then went and read by candlelight for a while and slept it off, hoping things would be back to normal the next day. Didn’t go out to party or walk a million kilometres home, like other blackout stories. Your starting the job was around the same time I decided to get out of retail.

Wow, you were at Dundurn. I was there for a very brief stint — worked as a proofreader for about a month and a half in 2009. Which is a convenient dovetail into my condensed curriculum vitae (see, if I spell it out, it makes me sound smart): interned in rights/publicity at Tundra, editorial intern at Anansi, then got a contract at Madison Press as a production assistant, which led to production coordinator, and as time went on, foreign rights. Then, worked as a foreign rights associate at The Rights Factory. I’m currently a rights associate at Kids Can Press. As you can see, I’ve had a dip in most departments aside from full-on publicity, or accounting. And I’m happy about not having to go near either, thank you very much. I’d make the world’s worst publicist. To continue this expository chat, how do you like being one? Is it all BlackBerrys and taxis and getting drunk with authors as popular media would have me believe?

You’ve been in the game for a while now; do you still feel as passionate about the job, the industry, everything, as when you first started? And related to passions flaming out in time: do you still feel the way you to about Engerlund? They’re going to make it to Euro 2012, at least, as they’re in second place in their division. (Nice segue, if I don’t say so myself.)

DW:

I'm sure a lot of people have found their way into publishing by accident rather than design. But it's definitely not something to say in interviews! Unless you have a small personal fortune, went to Yale and the guy opposite was in your fraternity. And it's 1927.

It seems harder than ever to get into publishing these days. Jobs are scarce, and the minimum requirement for entry level positions is often a graduate degree, publishing diploma and at least one unpaid internship. Not to mention a random selection of ninja skills. I can see why publishers ask for all that — you're getting someone that can hit the ground running (who has time to mentor these days?) — but I'm glad that I didn't have to go through it, and I think the industry as whole is in danger of losing some diversity and energy as well to be honest.

Both Pages and then Dundurn were educations for me. I was more or less thrown into the thick of it at both jobs so I had to learn a lot quickly and make the most of it. They were really great opportunities, and I'm very grateful to the people that hired me and helped me along.

I'm not actually a publicist at Raincoast any more (I work in online sales and marketing), although that is how I started. It is a lot less glamourous than it sounds — but that's true of every job in publishing! Still, being a book publicist is a pretty thankless task. If the book does well, it's the writing or the author; if it fails it's because the book wasn't promoted properly!

It's lot of mailing and following up. A lot of rejection. A lot of stony silence.... And it's probably harder than ever now as well. The space for reviews in the traditional media is diminishing, and building online relationships is time-consuming and nobody really knows what works (or why). And someone will likely blog about some sleep-deprived faux pas you made promoting a book that's singularly failed to catch fire....

That all said, you do get paid to talk up books, which on a good day — when things are going right and it's a book you love — is the best job in the world. And, honestly, I really like hanging out with authors. Or, some of them at least.

So yes, as you can probably tell, I do have a few publicist war stories (Sushi with Will Self is a favourite) — and the inevitable scars that come with them — but I probably have less than most. I was never particularly good at the schmoozing part of publicity. I just felt too old for it mostly.

I don't know if I still have the same enthusiasm I had when I started. Who does? Do you? I mean, it's hard not to get bitter and defensive about stuff (see above!). But I still love books and I love talking about them. My blog is sort of meant as personal reminder of that — that books are just amazing things and working on them can be amazing too.

I'm going to ignore that England question because we promised to keep this civil. So why don't you tell me about your current job at Kids Can? What does a rights associate do?

KK:

Ugh, sorry for the late reply. I’m still slightly (okay, a lot) jetlagged, and having odd sleeping patterns, like 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. I’m also sick, so took a while longer to get up, and will likely be spending New Year’s Eve convalescing. TMI, for the rest of you.

I agree it’s getting harder and harder to break into publishing. You’ve laid out all the problems in your previous email, so I won’t enumerate them again, but would like to look at where the problem comes from. Canadian publishing sells to one very large customer with very little competition, and said customer is able to dictate lots of unfavourable terms. The lack of diversity in the end retailer also means there are fewer places to sell books and less handselling — books that are popular make it into the best placements, while other, lesser-known titles either have to pay to play or get lost in the shuffle. And the immense discounting means publishers make much less, and what they make is offset by returns. Publishers make much less, and therefore have to be really careful in what they acquire, and who gets hired. On the flipside, those who do get hired tend to leave after they realize it’s not all fun and games. Still, there are many amazing people in our industry.

Diversity is key, not just for employees but for the market. We need to have other sales channels so that revenue is diversified. We need more booksellers like Type, Nicholas Hoare and Ben McNally Books, who will carry what might not be the on the top-ten bestseller list, but who will make sure they find the perfect reader for those non-bestseller books. We need booksellers who aren’t afraid to start niche stores, like The Good Egg. I hate to constantly talk about sales and money and will refrain from pointing out that publishing, in the end, is a business, but we sure as hell need money to keep doing what we do, even if we’re doing it for the love of it.

As an online S&M guy (haw haw), do you see online as part of a way to improve things?

About my job as rights associate — all three rights jobs I’ve done were similar in role: find potential publishers that the book would be a good fit for, pitch them, send materials, negotiate terms if they want to acquire, draft contract, handle questions/requests and act as liaison between the client and my colleagues. Depending on the strength of the lists, there was more or less rejection. Regardless, there is a lot of rejection involved even when things are good. And a lot of stony silence as one tries to follow up and ask whether potential clients have received materials, whether they were interested in the book, etc. Lists are shrinking and publishers are being bought out, especially in Europe, so there are fewer and fewer places to submit books to. Advances and quantities will never be the same as they were back in the '80s and '90s (based on the print runs I saw at a previous job).

I enjoy the rights gig immensely. I like to meet new clients, pitch books, try to pair the publisher with the book. I also like negotiating and drafting contracts (it seems I’m better suited to handle the right brain business part of publishing).

As for enthusiasm — I don’t know. I like what I’m doing and am having a great time. It gets better every year despite the goings-on in our industry and the constant threat of the sky falling. A large part of it is that I keep meeting great people (yes, including you, Dan) that make it more and more difficult to leave and do something else. Though I wonder if I’ll keep at it for too long.

DW:

I think online is facilitating relationships and building communities in a way that wasn't really possible before. I see it with my blog, which has introduced me to everyone from design students in Auckland to VP art directors in New York. That's just kind of baffling and amazing to me. But I see it professionally as well with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. They've connected me to reviewers, readers and other people in and around the industry who I just wouldn't have met otherwise (even though many of them live in the same city).

More generally, I think it's exciting for books and reading. There are all these vibrant bookish conversations going on and ideas being thrown about. And a day doesn't goes by when I don't see at least one book recommendation posted on Twitter or in my RSS — and it is so easy to click and buy online (especially if you're buying ebooks) — that it's got to be good for sales.

But, it isn't magic. It's a bit heretical to say it, but traditional media and literary prizes still drive a lot of the online conversations and are really important for sales — The Sentmentalists is a great illustration of that. I'm sure that Canadian book folks had all heard about that novel — I certainly saw people muttering about it online before the Giller — but a lot readers had probably never even heard of the publisher let alone the book until it won and the mainstream media and online pundits started to pay attention (not all of it pleasant to behold). I think as online book people, we sometimes forget that not everyone has an iPhone and is on Twitter all day tuning into the latest chatter.... It is a bit of bubble.

And, you know, even on online, marketplace is just as dominated by one major retailer — albeit a different one — who isn't necessarily concerned about the long-term health of the industry (to put it politely). That might change over time because some of the big traditional players are beginning to take online a bit more seriously and more publishers are starting to sell directly to readers. But it is always going to be difficult for the independent bookstores to sell online — especially as more people start to buy ebooks — and that means the stores themselves have to offer something really special to get customers in, which may not be the books themselves sadly. I think a lot of bookstores have already realized this though.

But to go back to foreign rights though for a minute, how are online and ebooks affecting what you do?

KK:

Oh my god, it’s almost been 24 hours. Sorry for the delay.

I fully agree, social media does generate communities, collaboration and conversation that we’ve never seen before. I don’t think they always translate into hard sales statistically, but it sure does a lot of good for your brand (or your book) when people are engaged and therefore more committed. And yes, the ease of use does help. Lord knows that with my Kobo app, I’ve been impulse-buying books like nobody’s business.

On the other hand, you’re right — traditional media does still reach a larger demographic than a bunch of people on Twitter following each other and spewing hash tags.

The indies have to offer themselves, I think. A niche, or a personality. They have to contribute to the conversation and engage with others so that they get their name out, and make people want to come in. A good example is Nicholas Hoare — Maxeen’s done a great job of tweeting during the course of the day, and I’ve chatted with her a few times, which led to me going there to meet her in person and pick up a few books. In terms of offering insane discounts or free free free shipping and that kind of shit, no, the indies will never compete with the large chain. But they can build a community and be more personality driven and attract a loyal clientele. That’s an advantage they’ll have over the chains.

Online and ebooks aren’t really affecting my job that much. Sure, I’ve connected with client publishers on things like Facebook or Twitter, but then that tends to be because they like my sparkling personality and not so much for business purposes. (Okay, I threw up in my mouth a little typing that.) With foreign rights, there still needs to be that pitching and submission process that’s essential to the role — handselling is key, we need to champion our titles and show why they’d be good investments for a small Eastern European publisher, for instance. Ebooks are another matter entirely. It’s a new frontier for everyone, and for foreign rights it comes down to how publishers are handling them. Will they market and sell the ebooks through one channel, multiple channels? Will they use adequate measures to prevent piracy? What kind of price/royalty are they adopting? How does it affect royalty rates with print? Will the rights be separate? What if the print edition goes out of print, does the same happen to the ebook? Does it count as in print if it's being sold on the publisher’s site in perpetuity? Or do we treat it as a different entity with its own term of licence? Just lots of questions, lots of things to look at. I sound like I’m dodging the question, but I’m not sure of the answers myself. Maybe someone more qualified than me will weigh in.

DW:

Well, I think there are always a lot more questions than answers. Things are changing all the time, perhaps now more than ever (or maybe that's just how it seems to us?) — if we don't keep asking questions then I think we may all as well give up.

With the foreign rights and territories stuff, I was just curious because I've heard a couple of people — mostly on the retail side of things — complaining about them recently. I can kind of understand that because it makes their lives a bit more complicated, but at the same time, my sense is that there's not a lot of appreciation for how important the sale of foreign rights can be to an indie publisher and/or author.... It's interesting to hear your take. It's obviously complicated....

Anyway, with your jetlag and my kids, we are now well over our deadline, so I thought maybe we could wrap this up by quickly talking about a couple of books we enjoyed recently, and what we're looking forward to reading in 2011?

I mentioned on my blog a couple of weeks ago that I didn't read as much as I hoped to in 2010 — that's true, but I did really like Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, which just won the National Book Award. It was far more self-depreciating and touching than I thought it would be. I enjoyed Tom McCarthy's C as well, although I think that might be a bit of a "Marmite book" — either you'll love it or you'll hate it! And, talking of Marmite books, I really, really liked a short graphic novel called Werewolves of Montpellier by Norwegian cartoonist Jason, but he's definitely an acquired taste — imagine a Tintin comic made by Jim Jarmusch and you'd be close. Another graphic novel I enjoyed was Darwyn Cooke's latest adaptation of Richard Stark The Hunter, I thought that was great (and he's Canadian!).

I haven't had much time to look at what's coming out in 2011 to be honest, but there was a book called Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman that got released in the UK last year that I want to pick up. I don't know if it has Canadian distribution yet, so perhaps it will be out here in 2011? (Can anyone enlighten me?) I got Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story for Christmas and I'm looking forward to reading that. I'm also hoping to get around to The Tiger by John Vaillant. And lastly, I keep hearing good things about The Waterproof Bible by Toronto-based Andrew Kaufman. I liked his previous book All My Friends Are Superheroes and met him at the launch event for that so I'm feeling a bit guilty that I haven't read it already (not to mention he's a close personal friend of yours isn't he?).

What about you? What have you read recently? And what's on your "to read" pile?

KK:

Sorry, once again I am late. I had the best of intentions, to get up and reply. Instead, I puttered around the house for a bit, then went out to California Sandwiches (great sandwiches, abysmal service).

The question of foreign rights isn’t much of a concern for booksellers, as those are translation rights. What they find frustrating are English rights being carved up internationally which makes things harder because they’re constantly trying to figure out what can be sold in their territory and what can’t. But then it was the same thing with print books — they’ve had to figure out what they can stock on the shelves and what they can’t. At least it gets easier with ebooks, since having good metadata makes it easier for territorial controls to be enforced.

I might be biased, since I deal in them, but foreign rights are very important as a way to generate income on an intellectual property. Sometimes the foreign editions of a book end up doing much better than the original edition. When I was working for Sam Hiyate, he had a title that did fairly well in Canada, but sold enormous quantities in Germany. The profits from the German edition was probably more than those for the the other 24 territories combined. The sales and marketing teams only reach Canada and maybe the US, but the foreign rights department deals with the rest of the world. While not every territory sale is guaranteed to do spectacularly, every sale is good for the author. It makes it easier to sell the author’s backlist or future titles in that particular territory.

At a Book Expo America panel, Richard Nash said something along the lines that instead of sitting on the rights one holds waiting for the biggest payout to come along, one should find the best way to exploit them. Or something. I wrote it down in a Moleskine and proceeded to rip out all the filled pages months later, so I can’t find the quote anymore. The sentiment remains, though, and that’s what I’d like to think is what I’m doing as a foreign rights guy: trying to find the best way to exploit the international rights on behalf of the author and my company.

I agree, we’ve gone way past the 48 hours we were allotted. I’m going to bend the rules and assume that the 48 hours starts and finishes every time we write something, so in reality we’ve only really used a couple of hours. I doubt that it’ll fly, but… oh, hell. Okay, let’s talk about books as things we’re enjoying and learning from, as opposed to discussing them qua commodities. I bought a bunch of Kobo books, on my trip to Asia, to avoid lugging print books around. Plowed through The Imperfectionists on the flight. I thought it was great, very poignant and funny. And a sad look at a newspaper’s slow death. Tried to get into C, and will try to finish it. I’m not getting as much out of it as I thought I would. Over there, got Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read her Time Quintet when I was in grade three, and funnily enough, while on a trip from Canada to Hong Kong. So I tried to repeat the experience but only managed to get through A Wrinkle in Time. Coming back to Canada, I went through her A Wind in the Door, Many Waters and now A Swiftly Tilting Planet. L’Engle’s books have that sense of fantastical science fiction cloaked in spirituality. There’s a lot of human kindness and warmth in her books that I loved. Oh, and I’ve looked at The Hunter. Very noir, and as you mention, like Don Draper kicking ass.

On the nonfiction side, I recently read Eric Haney’s Inside Delta Force, which inspired The Unit, a series I really liked watching. I also read Jason Williams’s Boozehound, where he’s on the trail of obscure liquors and liqueurs.

The Waterproof Bible is a great book. I read and enjoyed it before I was friends with Andrew. He’s a fantastic author and great at events. Hey, he won the Literary Deathmatch Toronto edition! That says a bundle!

As for future reads, the sky’s the limit. I’m looking to read more nonfiction, more than I already do. Anyone with recommendations should drop me a line. I probably won’t listen to you, but you never know. ;)

DW:

Your last answer was really thoughtful — actually all your answers have been pretty thoughtful — so I don't think anyone will have a problem with you taking a bit of extra time. And hey, what are they going do anyway?
Thanks for clarifying the rights issues. It's not something I really know a lot about so I appreciate you going into some of the details.

As for book recommendations, that John Vaillant I mentioned is nonfiction. It's about a Siberian tiger that turned on its hunters and it's supposed to be great (it also has a rather nice cover design by Peter Mendelsund!). I plan to read The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee sooner rather than later. It was on a lot of best of 2010 lists, as was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I know that I will just have to read Keith Richard's memoir Life — I just won't be able to help myself. If you liked Inside Delta Force, maybe you should check out War by Sebastian Junger — I had mixed feelings about it afterwards, but it is undoubtedly a cracking read.

OK, so we really, really have to wrap up this. Thanks for taking so much time with your answers. Any final thoughts?

KK:

Thank you — I hope the readers will find it thoughtful as well. Trying to move away from the potty mouth ALL CAPS persona a tad. It was so 2010. I don’t know what the editors can do to us…maybe replace our interview with the text from the first five pages of the phone book? That would be an equally entertaining read, I bet.

I’ll check out War. Emperor of All Maladies is on my list as well, as my friend Max from S&S sent me a copy as a present. I forgot to mention, I’ve also been reading a lot of articles from http://www.longform.org, that Nic Boshart mentioned on BookMadam and Associates. It’s a site that picks and links to articles that are longer than should be read on a web browser (though they’re perfectly readable on one). They’re all nonfiction articles from magazines, newspapers, etc. In one day, I’ve read about North Korea’s counterfeiting operation, the life of a porn professional, a detention camp for teens based in Jamaica, Roseanne Barr’s Multiple Personality Disorder and the New York Chinese Gangs in the 1970s. It’s perfect for an ADD like me to read — everything’s just the right length. And it works with Instapaper, so you can read later on the iPad, iPhone, insert electronic device here. And they’re curated — articles are handpicked by the editors, and they tell you why they should be read.

As for closing statements — I’ve got a few, but I’m just one person in a complex industry, so I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching. But, I will say that this is an interesting time for publishing, here and everywhere. There’s a lot of talking about what should be done, and not a lot of doing, and what we need is the latter. Try new things. Fail smartly. Be agile. Have good metadata. Engage and collaborate with our readers, our booksellers and each other. I think I’ve just dropped about every buzzword that’s been going around, but what I mean is that there is a lot of turbulence, and we need to start adapting to the change that’s happening right now. But again, that’s just me, and I could be wrong about this.

Thank you, Dan, for the co-interview, and Open Book: Toronto for the opportunity, it’s been a pleasure. I know you were expecting more ranting, swearing and fur flying between myself and Wagstaff, but I hope we’ve provided something equally entertaining.

DW:

Well, hell, we've covered a lot of ground in *cough* 48 hours and didn't come to blows (which is an achievement in itself!). And Open Book: TO can always illustrate this with hilarious pictures of kittens....

I've been following Longreads, which also curates long-form articles, and I subscribe to A LOT of blogs in my RSS. It's hard to find time to read all the great stuff that's being written, but that's a great problem to have isn't it?

Thanks for being so game Kelvin, and thanks to OBTO for asking us to do this. Cheers.

Kelvin Kong.jpg/magazine/winter_2011/articles/1_Kelvin_Kong.jpg"/>

Kelvin Kong has worked most jobs in publishing, from production to editorial to rights. He enjoys making sales and large advances. Kelvin currently works as a foreign rights associate for a children’s publisher.

Dan Wagstaff/magazine/winter_2011/articles/1_Dan_Wagstaff.jpg"/>

Dan Wagstaff works in online sales and marketing for Raincoast Books and blogs about books, design and related matters at The Casual Optimist. He lives in Toronto.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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