Aug 262014


Josh Getzler

So, have YOU been challenged yet?

Wait! Wait! Don’t click off. I realize that between summer and shoulders I’ve not been that active recently, and I missed the initial rosy glow of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Now, when I want to write something supporting it, I look around and see the Backlash. Money being raised will take away from other charities. Less funding will be available to use for developing cures for diseases with more victims. Why are we pouring ice on our heads when there are water shortages? When ALS uses genomes? When scientists test on animals? When we should be thinking about ISIS and Gaza and Ferguson and Ukraine and Ebola and…

Stop it. Pull back for a minute.

A few weeks ago, ALS—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—was mostly known about by friends and relatives and colleagues of people who have, or more likely died, of the disease. My wife’s aunt, the incorrigible, powerful Carol Kaufman, was my link. She died several years ago after a terrible, painful illness where the humiliation was only lessened by the incredible love and dedication of her family. But beside Carol, I have never been affected by ALS directly, as opposed to cancer or Parkinson’s or MS or many other illnesses. There are only (only…) a few thousand people suffering from ALS at any time. There is no cure, and researchers are not overly well-funded. Last year, at this time, the ALS Association had raised somewhere around $2.5 million.

And then someone dumped a bucket of ice over his head, made a donation, posted it on Facebook, and challenged some friends to do the same. And all of a sudden the game had changed. It was 50 Shades of Grey or Gangnam Style, but trying to help eradicate a disease. And it’s all done by taking a video, talking for a minute, dumping some cold liquid on your head, and paying it forward. And what is wrong with that? It’s been absolutely rejuvenating for my Facebook surfing (and by the way, it’s been fascinating to see, as in the article here (, how users are staying of Facebook for this, while tweeting the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown.) And it’s raised more than $80 MILLION in real money for ALS. And what’s wrong with THAT?

Well, folks are saying that it’s taking away discretionary charitable donation money away from other charities, and this is going to be a giant money suck away from other places that need it. Here’s the thing, though. The Challenge isn’t necessarily forcing anyone to give, or even suggest an amount. People are giving because they feel like doing good. It has felt to me (non-scientifically, so you can roll your eyes if you wish—but I suspect if you’ve read this far you likely aren’t going to do so) that this is the charity version of the impulse buy—the pack of gum or Us magazine at the checkout counter, where you aren’t going to stop buying bread (or, I suppose, the New Yorker, so stretch a metaphor until it screams) because one day you saw Oprah or Benedict Cumberbatch being shown doing something and feel like getting involved. I’m not going to give less to the American Cancer Society or my synagogue or my animal rights charities or my alma mater because I made a small donation to fight ALS because everyone else is doing it and it feels good.

Finally, another thing that’s happening is that people are starting to read about and understand ALS; and whether they are directly impacted by it or not in the future, they might have a little more understanding the next time they read about it or see a tv news story about it.

So that’s it. The ALS Challenge was a great, simple idea that took off unexpectedly. It has done good for the world. And it almost singlehandedly justified Facebook’s existence. There’s enough tragedy and despair in the world; let’s enjoy something good. OK?



Aug 252014

Jeff Cohen

UnknownMy home state of New Jersey has something of an image problem, and it is one that can teach us all something about first impressions, images, perception and memory. In other words, you can learn a lot about writing a story and promoting it if you think about New Jersey.

Yes, I'm serious.

The thing about my beloved home--and no, I don't mean that ironically--is that it is a Activity_2006compressed version of the United States. Very compressed. We're the third smallest state, and yet we have the most densely packed population per square mile. There are almost 9-million people here, and you have to figure at least some of them are not being held against their will.

In New Jersey, one finds some of the most famous beaches in the country. We have lovely suburban areas sitting right to some very accessible and cosmopolitan cities. Great restaurants, hiking, historical areas, theme parks, skiing (if you're into that sort of thing), Aerial-view-of-atlanticprofessional sports teams, casinos, performing arts centers, cultural events, theater, swimming, fishing, music, comedy, film, nature, and one-of-a-kind sights like Lucy the Elephant, which I will not picture here because you just have to see Lucy to believe it.

But there's a problem with the state's image: we are seen, for the most part, as a toxic waste dump run by the mob. Yes, there's political corruption in Pinelands_bridgeNew Jersey and guess what--there is wherever you're living, too. We actually seem to be better at uncovering and dealing with it than other places, so it gets more publicity.

I believe the problem with New Jersey's image is much more basic, and much simpler to explain than a perception of politicians who close down bridges as forms of retribution or gangsters who somehow aren't quite good enough to work in the big city.

It's Newark Liberty International Airport.

To be more specific, the problem is that most people who don't live in this area come to New Jersey through the airport, which is mostly in Elizabeth, if the truth is told. You get out of the airport, and no matter which way you're headed--onto the train to get to Manhattan or south on the NJ Turnpike--you have to pass through the area surrounding the airport to get to any of the other lovely images I've posted today. And this is what you'll see:


That's the first impression you'll get. So people come to New Jersey--admittedly they're usually on their way to New York or Philadelphia and too cheap to fly into those airports--and when asked about the Garden State, their minds will flash onto the image above. (And we're not even discussing the smell.) When they could be seeing something completely different:




o what's the lesson to take away? If you're writing, make sure you start off at a gallop. Get something into your first chapter, preferably your first page (bookstore browsers are notoriously fickle and have short attention spans) that will grab the reader's interest and make your book a must-buy.

And consider the first words anyone will see online about your book. Think about how you want to introduce it. As Terri's post last Thursday points out, cover copy is written well in advance of the pub date. Be involved with your editor, the publicist on your book and anyone else on the team that creates the final package. Make the right first impression.

Be the Pine Barrens. Be Met Life Stadium. Be the Jersey Shore. Be Atlantic City, if you must.

Don't be Newark Airport.

Jul 232014

Josh Getzler


This week, I was lucky to have one of my newest clients, Nikki Trionfo, visit our Chelsea offices. Nikki has written a terrific, searing young adult novel about a girl in California who’s trying to investigate her sister’s death. The girl, Salem, is the daughter of a peach grower in California, and the novel, called Shatter, brings into play the conflicts among white middle-class growers, Hispanic migrant workers, unions, and gangs.


One of the things I enjoyed about Shatter is the way Nikki brings in characters of different races and socio-economic statuses and shows their interaction in a natural, unforced way. When I took her on, I told Nikki that one of the more sought after elements in fiction these days, both in children’s books and books for adults, is Diversity. My colleagues on both the buy and sell side of publishing are actively looking for books that address cultural, racial, and sexual diversity, and I felt that when she finishes her revisions and we go out on submission, we will have a very enthusiastic response from editors.


This afternoon I was looking on Nikki’s website,, and I saw her latest blog post. It was fascinating. In it, Nikki brings up this conversation, and how it took her aback. She hadn’t thought she was writing a book with a Diversity theme in it at all. Rather, she was writing from her own experience growing up in the orchards of California, where different cultures mixed all the time—it felt so natural because it was.


Often, we spend our time in our own bubble of similar-looking and –behaving communities. And often writers, working off their own experiences, create homogenous casts. And part of the need for diversity in literature is to give future readers and writers role models to look to—so sometimes we strain ourselves looking for diversity. (And that’s not a bad thing, and has great cultural relevance and worth.) Which is why I’m so excited when I get a book like Nikki’s where the diversity is so second nature as to be that much more powerful. I can’t wait to see where it lands.

Jun 162014

Jeff Cohen

I know; I promised this week would be the antidote to last week's post, in which I would show you how to write a really good query letter to an agent. And I still will post on that, even after Josh's rebuttal last Tuesday (which made very good points), but not until next week. If you were waiting with baited breath for that one... it's possible you need to reprioritize.

Instead, I felt the need to vent a little on the "holiday" of Father's Day, which if you're keeping score at home, was yesterday.

Today, Father, is Father's Day

and we're giving you Necktie-The-Best-Collection-Men-Necktie-Formal-And-Poly-Silk-Tiea tie.

It's not much we know;

it is just our way of show-ing you 

we think you're a regular guy.

You say that it was nice of us to bother

but it really was a pleasure to fuss.

For according to our mother,

you're our father.

And that's good enough for us.

--Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, "Father's Day"

Just a few short weeks ago, Americans (and for all I know, people everywhere else) celebrated Mother's Day, a holiday designed by florists and greeting card companies to exalt the concept of motherhood and move some inventory. 

I have nothing against Mother's Day, nor mothers in general. I think they should in fact be exalted and recognized for the impossible job they do raising children every single day. And that is exactly what happens on Mother's Day. You can see it in the respectful, reverent advertising that goes on for weeks before the Day itself:

Square_200_5922d8805ef7921354a78930 Tokyo-lebanon-mothers-dayKhoury-home-Mothers-Day-Ads-in-Lebanon

Mothers are, then, then, to be honored and celebrated on their day. Bravo (brava, actually). A nice idea. I always felt bad before the holiday at school for the kids who didn't have mothers while the rest of us worked on a card that (supposedly) looked like a flower, but okay. 

Good for you, moms. More power to you, and thanks for all you did and do.

So imagine my delight when this lovely specimen arrived in the mail days before fathers were to be equally well feted:


Father, Groucho Marx once said, is the town schlemeil. (That's something of a buffoon, Gentiles.) And while I could easily dispense with the once-a-year Hallmark fest because I have two children who show they love and respect me all the time, it's the presentation that rankles a bit.

Father-fruit-loom-hed-2014     Wearable-Sleeping-Bag-10-Fathers-Day-Gifts-So-Bad-Theyre-Awesome

Yes, that's right. All Dad wants is bacon in bed, a remote control, and a nap. Or a sleeping bag he can wear. (?)

The image of fatherhood has taken a pretty harsh beating since he Knew Best in the 1950s. Of course the antiquated idea of a man's home being "his castle," (which one assumes means he should have a crocodile-infested moat around it and parapets from which to pour boiling oil on rampaging Visigoths) has been swept away, and that's good. The family unit gets stronger when everyone has a voice.

But what's happened in addition to that is that fathers have become comic figures, and not heroic ones.  (I subscribe to the theory of Heroic Comedy, and this ain't it.) They are figures of ridicule, cliches, easy and fair targets. Make fun of mothers and you're a beast. Turn Dad into a grotesque figure who just wants to sit on the couch and drink beer, and you're the showrunner of a sitcom, making millions in Hollywood.

Oh, and by the way: Buy this Double_34855power tool for the old man. It's what he REALLY wants. (No, it isn't.)

So Father's Day? Eh. We didn't do much. Errands, mostly, some for my mom, some for my spouse, one for my daughter, recently back from wandering Europe following her graduation before starting work in August. The baseball game wasn't worth watching.  The only gift given was to my wife, whose birthday was a few days ago (we waited until the whole family was on the same continent). It required some assembly. Guess who did that.

And when you think about it, that's how fathers should spend Father's Day--reiterating the idea that we are essential, useful, and worthy of respect and love.

Maybe it isn't such a bad gig after all, huh?

May 142014

Josh Getzler

There’s been a lot of talk and outrage the past week or so about the conflict that is currently going on between Amazon and Hachette, which is very similar to the fight several months ago between Barnes and Noble and Simon and Schuster.

The short version in both cases is this: The retailer either a) believes that it is paying too much for the publisher’s books, or b) believes it is able to use its leverage as a large distributor of the publisher’s books to improve its purchasing terms with the retailer. Whatever the reason, the retailer says to the publisher, “Hey, until you give us better terms, we are not going to sell your books as well or as efficiently, and you will suffer. Readers won’t be able to find your books. We won’t put them out on the front tables/best landing pages. Your sales will drop. Your authors will not be happy. We have enough other customers that we won’t be materially harmed, but you will feel the pain. So improve your rates, and we’ll go back to normal.”

The publishers then need to decide what to do. Do they hurt their business one way, by giving in to the pressure of the retailer and lowering their rates? Or do they hurt their business in another way by sticking it out and trying to outlast the retailer? After all, the retailer’s not helping its own bottom line by selling badly and inefficiently.

There is, of course, great hue and cry by the readers and authors, who are caught in the middle. The readers just want to find and purchase the latest Philippa Gregory or James Patterson novel, and the authors want them to. Of course, readers want reasonably priced books, and authors want to sell as many books as possible at the maximum reasonable price, in order to have a chance to earn out their advance and make a few bucks in royalties. So on some level the readers ought to be somewhat on the side of the retailer--after all, the better the deal the retailer gets from the publisher, the more likely it will be (theoretically) to pass long those savings to the purchaser--ie the reader. On the flip side, the author should hope for the highest price that will still allow maximum sales.

In many ways, this conflict is the same as any price negotiation between supplier and retailer, where each side uses its leverage to get the best deal. It's even the same thing, fundamentally, as the negotiation that just took place in my apartment building between our co-op and its building staff. The staff's union wanted its workers to get a raise; our co-op wanted to keep rates more or less the same, otherwise it would need to raise our monthly maintenance. We received a notice that this negotiation was taking place, and that if an agreement couldn't be reached, there would be a strike.

Really, the issue was between the union and the Board, not between the tenants and the staff. We'd go downstairs and commiserate with the super and handymen, find out how things were going. We were slightly on the side of the Board, since we didn't want our monthly costs to go up, but we certainly didn't begrudge the workers the chance to make a decent living. The workers wanted to run the building efficiently and well, but didn't want to undervalue themselves.

They didn't end up striking--the sides sat down and hashed out a deal before it started to get nasty.

This scenario is the basis for what's going on with Amazon and Hachette now, and what happened between B&N and S&S. it's not fundamentally more nefarious than that. The tactics are visible, however, and seem heavy-handed in both cases--but also effective. It's business, and business isn't necessarily sweet. And in both cases, I think the optics were particularly bad for the retailer because it LOOKS like Amazon and B and N are punishing specific authors for no good reason, when what they are actually doing is using the authors and their books as bargaining chips against their publishers.

There's not an obvious outcome here, except that at some point the sides will make a deal and the Hachette Slowdown will end. And unfortunately it looks like, whatever the result, neither the reader nor the author will win in the end.

Apr 142014

Jeff Cohen

In a little less than five weeks, Condoleeza Rice will deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University, just a hair under two miles from where I live. This impending event has raised a good deal of angst and ire among the faculty and some students of the university. I'm an alum and a part-time lecturer there, so I have some perspective from a number of angles.

I don't like to discuss politics in this forum, but without going into detail we can assume that Dr. Rice and I might agree on some pieces of classical music and little else. Since it is highly unlikely we'll ever meet (there will be upwards of 50,000 people at the commencement, and we're not all getting face time), the point is probably irrelevent. But I do have my objections to some of her actions and policies, which I note simply for context.

The debate that has gone on since Ms. Rice (I'll refrain from future references as "Dr. Rice" because I don't want people to go to her for a diagnosis--see your primary care physician) was announced as the speaker has been vivid and spirited. Many have called for a retraction of the invitation issued by the university for her to attend the event and speak. They have been met with bland statements from the Rutgers administration about how we should have free discourse on campus and little else.


I should point out at this moment that I will definitely be attending the commencement despite my sincere objections to the speaker. Normally, I would ignore the event as I have done pretty much every year since 1979, when I was required to show up so I could get my diploma (yes, I know I could have gotten it without showing up--that's called "artistic license," or "laziness"), and to introduce the speaker that year, John Kenneth Galbraith. As vice president of the senior class, I delivered what would have no doubt been a rollicking speech if the echoes in the newly built Rutgers Athletic Center had not obscured my words to everyone, including me. But this year I will attend, breaking a string of 34 years that I had assiduously not shown up, essentially due to indifference.

The Rice speech evokes free speech issues for me. I believe that a university especially should be a place where all points of view are respected and debated, but I think common sense demands that a line be drawn. I don't think this year's speaker crosses any line I'd consider a deal breaker. I simply disagree with her.

But I do think that a university commencement is not the place for such a debate. It should be a celebration of the accomplishment of the graduates. It should be about them. (It never is, by the way, no matter who is invited to speak.) The controversy over this year's speaker distracts from the students, and I object to that.

I also believe that any speech, particularly one at a celebratory event, should be entertaining. I think everything should be entertaining (as loyal readers of this space will hopefully attest), but understand that when the occasion is a somber or tense one, it's possible the laughs should be kept to a minimum. When I was asked to suggest a speaker in 1979, I brought up the names Mel Brooks and Bill Cosby. We got John Kenneth Galbraith. Such is the nature of higher education.

Personally, I think every commencement address should go like this. But I'm reallistic enough to know they can't. It's a shame.

Still, I believe the invitation by Rutgers was wrong. I disagree with the presentation of an honorary degree because that constitutes an endorsement of the speaker. I don't think that's appropriate here. That being said, I don't think the invitation should be revoked. It would simply be rude. No, the invitation should never have been issued to being with. That's my point of view; your mileage may vary. 

Free speech is a funny thing: We're all for it when the speech involved takes up our position on something, and not so crazy about the concept when it applies to those we wish with all our hearts would shut up. That's not how it works; if you believe your point of view is sacrosanct, then the other must be just as well protected.

We won't discuss hate speech. Who needs that kind of topic on a Monday morning?

I'll go to the commencement this year. I'll listen to the speaker, and I'll no doubt hear some boos or see some people turn their backs (this is New Jersey, and asking everyone to be respectful and polite is just unrealistic). That's fine. Those are two other forms of free expression. I probably will end up being bored by the oration. I'm not going for that part of the event, anyway.

I'm attending this year's commencement because someone far more important than the featured speaker will be in attendance. And I would show up if Satan himself were being given an honorary doctorate in, I don't know, brimstone management. Nothing is keeping me away in 2014.

My daughter 1622775_10152010060873721_1467737281_nEve Cohen will be among the graduates this year. That trumps any speaker the university could have put up on the marquee. I'll be there if I have to walk (and I might). And that woman up on the platform, blathering away about whatever she'll be blathering away about, couldn't matter less. I'll stand and applaud at another time during the program.

That's my idea of free speech.

Apr 132014

You guys! Some thieves tried to steal a pair of ruby slipper replicas from a Staten Island hotel! The best part is, there were three of 'em, a woman and two men, so it's almost as if Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were to blame (I'm figuring the Cowardly Lion would have been too cowardly to participate.) Mystery writers, wouldn't this make a great heist story, with a few modifications? Someone please write that novel. Thank you. And thank you, Jezebel, for calling my attention to this theft.

Mar 032014

Jeff Cohen

You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"

How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.

I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate. 

So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person. 

It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.

Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.

Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?

So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.

My Hoped-For Famous Fans

  • Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
  • Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
  • Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of 8096523-standardFrank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
  • Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
  • Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
  • Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
  • Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
  • Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
  • Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
  • George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
  • Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
  • Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.

To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:

Thanks-But-No-Thanks List

  • Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
  • Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
  • Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
  • The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
  • The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
  • Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
  • Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
  • John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
  • Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
  • Isabel Allende: You know why.

For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?


P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.

*Added after the Oscars

Jan 212014

Josh Getzler

So the snow is falling, the wind is blowing, the kids got out early, and I have seventeen manuscripts to read (plus one more I just asked for despite myself. Sue me, it's a Tudor thriller, with an Abbey.)

As I settle in with the Kindle and a glass of Uncomplicated Red (and no, Everyone I'm Supposed To Be Reading, I'm not putting your ms aside for the Tudor Abbey...), I leave you with a photo of Chelsea out my office window, when New York City is just so beautiful.


Snow day

Jan 162014

The Mystery Writers of America has announced the nominees for this year's Edgar Awards, honoring mysteries in various formats that first appeared in 2013. Among the honorees are two fine authors being recognized as Grand Masters, Carolyn Hart and Robert Crais.

The awards will be presented at the MWA's annual banquet in New York City, being held this year on May 1. It's also worth noting that this year marks the 205th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth.

Congratulations to all the nominees and honorees for a job well - or perhaps fiendishly - done.