Friday, August 16, 2013

And now for something very different: agent Marly Rusoff talks about her new venture, crystal balls, publishing as well as agenting, starting with Cassandra King's Moonrise!

Why would an agent go into publishing? Marly Rusoff is here to explain. Along with her is her first author in her new imprint, Maiden Lane:  Cassandra King, talking about Moonrise.  King is the author of five other  novels and is a New York Times' bestselling author. Moonrise is her first book in nearly five years, her homage to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

Tell us, Cassandra, what made you decide to write an homage to this classic book? What were the difficulties? And the surprises?  Did writing Moonrise make you experience or feel differently about the original?

I like to think that we as writers don't find stories, they find us. So I didn't really set out to write an homage to Rebecca; instead, it happened in a serendipitous way, as these things often do. I was spending a summer in a dark old house in Highlands, working on a book set there, and beginning to flesh out the different characters, story lines, etc. One day, I made an interesting discovery hidden away in the garden of the house I'd rented. Exploring, I found the final resting place of the previous owner's wife. As we writers are apt to do, I became intrigued by the lonely yet lovely site, and was drawn to it again and again. And I'll confess, my imagination came into play as I wondered about the woman who had once walked those garden paths and now rested in a secluded spot that must have been beloved by her. By sheer coincidence (or maybe not!), among my stack of books for summer reading was an old copy of Rebecca. When I'm working on a book, I relax at the end of a long day of writing by watching old movies or re-reading books I've loved in the past. I've found it's the only way to keep myself on track; the last thing I need is to get engrossed in a new thriller or bestseller that I can't put down.  It was only when I returned to the familiar pages of Rebecca did I see the connection with my new-found fascination with the previous wife of the house and du Maurier's unnamed narrator. By chance, I'd found a new approach to my Highlands book.

If I had set out to write a retelling of Rebecca, I'm sure the difficulties would have been numerous. Certainly, creating a believable modern woman to play du Maurier's shy, overly-intimidated narrator would have been major. But one of the things I love about Rebecca is the way that same woman comes into her own by the end of the book. Having Helen, the counterpart in my book, be so intimidated by her predecessor without coming across as a wimp, was a challenge, but one that I enjoyed struggling with. It always comes as a surprise to me when my characters take on a life of their own, and this time was no exception.

Yes, writing Moonrise gave me a new appreciation for the mastery of du Maurier's craft in writing Rebecca. The suspense is perfectly timed, and the characters are unforgettable, even the minor ones. I look forward to the next time I sit down to read one of my all-time favorites, Rebecca, yet again.  CK

Marly, please tell us about how and why you decided, as a highly successful agent, to go into the publishing business?

I spent twenty years on the publisher’s side of the desk and have no illusions about how difficult it is to publish well. When it comes to our clients, our first choice has always been and will continue to be working with publishing houses as we have so productively done in the past. We are now and will remain primarily literary agents. However, we know that in the evolving and dynamic literary marketplace, non-traditional publishing opportunities will arise to advance our authors’ careers, and, in partnership with our writers, we want to be able to move quickly to take advantage of these opportunities. 

In the case of Cassandra King’s Moonrise, a novel inspired by the gothic classic Rebecca, we believed her fans would want a beautiful, classic, hardbound book for themselves, but we also wanted to create something lovely enough to give as a gift for the holidays. The opportunity to align ourselves with a powerhouse like Ingram Publishing Services for sales and distribution gave us the courage to move ahead. Besides, as the daughter of a book collector and bookbinder, working with others to create a marvelous book was a pure joy for me.  Bookseller Jake Reiss of The Alabama Booksmith recently made my week when he called to say that an early copy of Moonrise had just landed in his shop and that it instantly became “the most beautiful book in the store.” Jake, who specializes in signed books, called it a “double collectable”  – the first Maiden Lane Press book and a first edition of what he is convinced is the best novel yet by an author he admires. I have a rule. When it comes to books, I agree with Jake. Here is where he agrees with me: In this era of easy access to ebooks, if you’re going to create a physical book, you should make it special, something worth keeping on your coffee table or on your bookshelf. And that is what we always aspire to do when we publish. But that certainly does not mean we won’t offer our titles as ebooks too.  Our goal is to make books available in all formats. Moonrise is available as an ebook and as an audio book as well.

Like many agents, we may decide to selectively reissue out-of-print books by our clients. And I have been itching to produce a few beautifully designed small editions that will appeal to my current author’s fans or to collectors.  One example that comes to mind:  I was in the audience when Arthur Phillips delivered a brilliant lecture at the Minneapolis Public Library last year about his attempt to enter into the mind of Shakespeare while writing his last book, The Tragedy of Arthur, a novel that included an entire “lost” Shakespeare play, written by Phillips.  He has a fantastically original mind and is an amazing speaker. I am sure this lecture would make a wonderful small book, but we would only do so if Random House is not interested in publishing it.  They have been wonderful partners in introducing Arthur Phillip’s work to readers.  

What are some of the old and new methods you will use to help find new readers esp. in changing publishing environment?

Even though we constantly hear that the publishing environment is in flux, as someone who had a bookstore herself and who came up within the ranks of the major publishers, I still see some things that have not changed: readers and writers are striving for communion and community. Whether a writer is publishing a first novel, tweeting, putting up a blog post, posting a status update on Facebook or uploading a video to a Tumblr blog, the objectives are the same as they always have been: making something worth reading  (great art if possible!) and connecting with readers. It used to be that writers and readers came together only every few years when an author published a book. Now it’s possible for writers and readers to know each other and communicate in exciting new ways. True, some writers are just not interested, and I understand the desire to have a private life, but others find that Twitter, Facebook, and/or blogging can be a creative outlet that gives them a break from solitude and hard work of writing a book. . And for many readers, “knowing” a favorite author online provides them with an opportunity to learn more about the person behind the work and the process behind some of the books and stories that resonate with them. They bond with these authors in a more intimate way.
Just as interesting for me are the online communities that have sprung up around reading and books. Goodreads, LibraryThing and others serve as virtual salons for passionate book lovers, giving readers a chance to interact with other readers just as excited about books as they are.  As a publisher, we’re entering into this new world in ways we never did as a literary agency. Frankly, I was reluctant to enter into the world of social media. But now we are on Facebook and Twitter, and doing our best to become a small part of a lively online community of readers. I’m a bit late to the party but am now dancing none the less.

At the same time, I have longtime relationships with booksellers around the country that I value and that have been extraordinarily meaningful to my authors and to me both professionally and personally over the years. The books I represent are what I believe are wonderful books that I would have enjoyed selling to customers if I were still a bookseller. We plan to publish the same kind of work through Maiden Lane Press. I hope booksellers will be proud to have them in store.

I have to ask, how you decided to call your imprint Maiden Line.

There is a stop on the London tube called Maiden Lane and it always intrigued me. Quite honestly, I never got off at that stop, but the name stayed with me. I loved the sound of it.  Perhaps because I’ve always been fascinated by the mews and back alleys of London I well remember how happy I was to find streets named Maiden Lane in many of the oldest cities in America. One exists in Charleston, SC; there is one here in New York, and another in San Francisco.  But the one Maiden Lane I knew best was the little alleyway that ran near the large mansions on Summit Avenue in historic district of St Paul, MN, the place where I was born. I always imagined that these modest homes housed the working women and domestic help needed to staff these grand homes. Recently when I searched for the history of New York’s Maiden Lane I learned that it was the first busy market in Manhattan dating back to the early 1600’s. A river now buried under Manhattan ran along that lane; it was where local woman came to wash their laundry.  A now- buried river? What is it that good writers do but plumb the depths? Besides, publishing is hard work, and it is my nature to work hard so I can’t help but identify with those who do. And once I learned that Maiden Lane was the first street in Manhattan to have gas lamps, I had the idea for our lovely logo. Books: a way to light the darkness.         

What question I should have asked?

Would you recommend this solution to other agents?

It depends on an agent’s goals and resources available to enter this experiment. It is more risky if you print physical books, as we are doing. Electronic publishing is after all much cheaper. But with so much changing in publishing and bookselling, it is hard to predict the future. We are not willing to rule out the pure pleasure of reading a wonderful book printed on paper. 

When I was a bookseller some thirty years ago, Madame Sarah, a dark, long- skirted fortune teller who looked as if she came straight out of central casting appeared in my bookstore in Minneapolis and asked me to order a new crystal ball for her practice. It took me a few weeks to find one, (this was long before the Internet), but I needed the sale so I eventually found one and was able to fulfill her order.  Perhaps I should have ordered two. The future for ventures like ours is uncertain, but I suspect if agents and authors keep in mind that we are all working for the reader, we have a chance to succeed.
Marly Rusoff 

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