Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pine Cones and Penguin Putnam

Do you ever wonder what agents think about?

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, as I stood waiting for the elevator at the Sheraton Hotel in Portland, that writers might be surprised at what agents sometimes think about. This occurred to me because, although I was on my way to do consults with writers at the Willamette Writers Conference, I was, at this particular moment, thinking about pine cones.

Yes, pine cones. Remember, if you will, that I was in Portland, Oregon, which is one of the most naturally beautiful places on the face of the earth, and filled with all kinds of geologic wonders that never fail to take my breathe away. It is also full of trees--big, beautiful trees in several varieties of the conifer family. Even as close as we were to the airport, there were still trees. To put this in perspective, in Indiana, we have made a concerted effort to cut down as many trees as possible to make way for industrial entities who, more often than not, decide at the last minute to locate in other countries. We, of course, because we live in a manufacturing town, assume this eleventh hour fickleness is due to the fact they don't want to pay a living wage or offer benefits; however, it may be because they really like trees and we have cut them all down. The irony never ends in a state with a struggling economy.

Anyway, I looked out the window as the elevator made its way up and noticed that a tree had deposited about twenty pine cones on the roof of the hotel. At that moment, my Hoosier kicked in, and I first mentally calculated how much I could get for each at a garage sale and then immediately tried to figure out how I could get them off the roof and through airport security. This response to pine cones may seem rather odd to some people, but in Indiana we use them extensively in crafts and interior and exterior design, even going so far as to stick a bunch of them in a bowl and set them on a table as a centerpiece. They give our homes that woodsy, natural look we lost when we cut down all the trees. While I am sure residents in other states have a similar affinity for pine cones, they probably do not have it in conjunction with our affection for cement ducks, for which we buy outfits--including Halloween costumes and bikinis--that we dress them up in for no other reason than we just really want to.

Welcome to Indiana.

Anyway, contrary to the popular belief that agents detest pitches, I wasn’t grousing about them and cursing my fate. Although I think, as many agents and editors do, that there might be a better way to implement this type of event, I actually enjoy meeting with writers and talking about books…and thinking about Portland’s lovely pine cones.

My dear hubby, however, was all business this trip. I say this because as I am thinking about ways to sell ornamental conifer droppings, he’s thinking about nothing but publishers, even after the conference. While we were on the West Coast, we had taken the opportunity between the conference and client business to see my sister and her boyfriend, who both live in California and who work at a library and bookstore, respectively. Naturally, we talk about books (what else?), and on the evening they rescued us from the airport—after an arduous three-hour delay—it was very late and we were exhausted. That, plus the jetlag we hadn’t gotten over yet, made us both a little punchy. But we were still gabbing about books when the subject of the “Big Five” came up, meaning the five major publishers. Now, on any given day, you could ask us what the five majors are and we could recite them backwards while typing three different e-mails, reading two contracts, and resisting the constant advances of an incorrigible cat determined to chew the keys right off our keyboards. As a matter of fact, here is the list right now: S&S, Random House, Hatchette Book Group, HarperCollins, and…



Okay, all of you know this, I am sure, and you are shouting the words at the screen right now, but for the life of us, none of us, at that moment, could think of the last publisher. So, we gave up. Or so I thought we had. I thought it had completely left our flight and time zone-addled brains until the next morning when I woke up next to my dear spouse. He was lying on his back with one hand waving above him in an open five position, counting something off on each finger and quivering with excitement.

“Great! You’re awake,” he says jovially. He apparently has taken my deer-in-the-headlights expression for rapt interest. My eyes wide, I say nothing. He points to his thumb.

“Okay, stay with me here. Simon and Schuster...” he begins, and he looks at me, his eyes gleaming. I still say nothing as he counts off the next three publishers, “…Random House, Hatchette, HarperCollins, and…and…” he leans closer and peers at me expectantly. He’s obviously been trying to remember this publisher all night. He wiggles his eyebrows at me.

“PENGUIN PUTNAM!” he shouts suddenly, counting off the elusive publisher on his pinky and rattling me right off the futon. He smiles a smile of the truly victorious. “Penguin Putnam!” he says again, in case I missed it the first time, and drags me up off the floor. Then he turns over and tries to go back to sleep, but I think the adrenaline was still pumping too hard, so we got up to start the day.

That, dear writers, is dedication. Robert even thinks about publishing in his sleep. In his sleep! Who said agenting isn’t a 24/7 job? Okay, maybe a 23/7 job, if you take an hour for the pine cones.