Happy Holidays!

AWREATH3 It’s Christmas break here at the Kill Zone blog. During our 2-week hiatus, we’ll be spending time with our families and friends, and celebrating all the traditions that make this time of year so wonderful. We sincerely thank you for visiting our blog and contributing to our rants and raves. We wish you a truly blessed holiday season and a prosperous 2010. From Clare, Kathryn, Joe, Michelle, John G., John M., and Jim to all our friends and visitors, Seasons Greeting from the Kill Zone authors.

See you back here on Monday, January 4.

The Greatest Dancer Who Ever Lived

by James Scott Bell


Tis the Season of Joy, and since this is the final post at Kill Zone for a couple of weeks, I thought I’d leave you with some of the purest joy I know. It comes from the world of dance.


If you ask the question, who is the greatest dancer who ever lived, you’ll get several responses. No doubt Fred Astaire will get a huge number of votes. Maybe Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Nijinsky, Margot Fonteyn, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a few others.


But there’s one name you’re probably not all that familiar with that deserves to head the list. I’m talking about Eleanor Powell.


I met Miss Powell in the mid-70’s when I was in film school. In the days before DVDs and TCM, we had to find our films at revival houses. One night I went with some buddies to see Born to Dance, the 1936 musical starring Powell and James Stewart. And she was there. She spoke, and afterwards we went up and met her. She couldn’t have been classier.


I wrote her a thank you letter and she wrote back and we started corresponding. At some point I invited her to come speak to a film class, and she readily agreed. So I drove my Ford Pinto into Beverly Hills, picked up her and her secretary, and drove us up to Santa Barbara. She gave a lecture and then, to demonstrate a point, she stepped out from behind the podium and started to tap. She was around 64 at the time. And she was still poetry in motion.


Ellie retired fairly early, after marrying Glenn Ford (a matrimonial misstep as it turned out). After her divorce from Ford she mounted a successful night club act, and was rediscovered by millions via the That’s Entertainment series. A quietly devout woman, she spent her latter years working with young people, inspiring them to a higher vision. “Who we are is God’s gift to us,” she used to say. “What we become is our gift to God.”


Why do I call her the greatest dancer of all? Because not only was she the equal of Astaire in tap (he was in awe of her, and that’s saying something); she was also a ballet dancer, a gymnast (she could kick to perpendicular, bend herself completely backward, and spin like a top) and, if modern dance had been in vogue, she would have been the equal of Cyd Charisse or Gwen Verdon.


In other words, she could do it all, and she does it all in the one film she made with Astaire, Broadway Melody of 1940. Here she dances ballet on point, taps, ballrooms, bends and spins, all with her singular grace. This film has what is, IMO, the greatest tap dance ever recorded, Begin the Beguine. Just look at how much fun they seem to be having. That’s another mark of their greatness, because they rehearsed this number for weeks, to the point of exhaustion. It was worth it. It is, without question, my favorite three minutes of film of any kind.

There’s also another great tap number from the film, the “Juke Box Dance.” It’s the first one they worked on together. So sit back and enjoy the two greatest dancers of all time, just diggin’ it. A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

UPDATE: Since the current state of dance has been brought up, you might want to take a look at the Juke Box Dance as if it were done with a little more up-to-date beat. I find this to be rather cool, and shows again how these two transcend time.

The Christmas Gift

John Ramsey Miller

I was twelve years old, it was 1962, and the struggle for civil rights was gathering speed and the social fabric and traditions of the old South were undergoing enormous strains and stresses, and the threat of violence was thick in the air. My father was the minister of the First Methodist Church in Starkville, Mississippi. I remember that September on a warm evening standing on our front porch with my father and my brothers and watching a torch-lit parade of citizens came into view and marched past the church and parsonage en route to the courthouse where they hanged an effigy of James Merideth, a young black man who was registering at Ole Miss. My father was a Christian and spoke each Sunday in a loud voice from his pulpit, and during the week in softer tones, but always steadily on message. His message was that regardless of skin tone, all of God’s children deserved to live their lives as equals. It seems odd now that we lived under an established and traditional social and economic system of apartheid.

It was three months later, and the weather had turned cold enough so that there was ice on the ground. I remember that my brother, Rush, and I were passengers in the family station wagon that afternoon. We stopped at a light on the highway and watched as a group of black children, who had been standing on the corner, hurried across the highway in front of the car. I remember there were six or seven children and that they were shivering in the wind, and that they wore tattered clothes and that one of the children was shoeless, and I remember horns honking behind us and how my father stared at the group until they were on the porch of a hovel, and had gone inside.

Later that afternoon, or that night, I remember one of the few loud arguments I ever heard my parents have. After a while my mother came into the den and told us that Christmas was going to be a slim one because our father had spend our family’s main Christmas funds on the needy. I think we were not happy about it at the time, but we had Christmas as a family and if it was slimmer than usual I can’t say because I do not remember and it matters not at all. The only thing I can say is that there was a family that lived in a house where the wind found its way through the cracks, but that the family who lived there had new coats and shoes, and enough to eat that Christmas because my father made sure of it. I don’t know what other gifts I got that Christmas, but I have never forgotten the one Christmas gift that my father gave me that day. But for him I might not have understood what Christmas is really about. The spirit of Christmas is in showing our love and appreciation to our family, our friends and to reach out to touch as many of the people we can who are in need of our love, our understanding, and our compassion.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

My Bad Self Redux

Well, dear readers, this is the last time we’ll be chatting for the next couple of weeks, so I thought I’d finish the thread I started a while ago, when I wrote about needing a new bad-ass photo of myself for Hostage Zero, coming next summer.
There were a couple of other options that we rejected, and this is where we ended up. Frankly, I like this one. I think it looks authorly, but more importantly, I think it looks like me. I’ve given up on the thought that my photo might actually sell books, but at least this one should do no harm.
I hope you all take time to hug your families in the nexet couple of weeks, and for those who are separated from family for whatever reason, I wish you all a blessed peace and fulfilling reunion in the near future.
Merry Christmas, everyone!

The eRights Grab

by Michelle Gagnon

So to end the year, I thought I’d close with yet another issue confronting the publishing industry: eBook rights. Ten years ago, these were rarely included in contracts, since the prospect of reading books in this format was still fairly far off on the horizon.

But we’re about to enter a whole new decade, by the end of which I suspect at least half of all books will be enjoyed on some form of eReader (and that’s a conservative estimate). Which makes the move by Random House last week pertinent to all of us, especially authors who have backlist books where eRights weren’t spelled out.
Here’s what happened, as detailed by the Author’s Guild:

“On Friday, Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent a two-page letter to many literary agents regarding e-books. Much of the letter is devoted to Random House’s efforts and investments to market traditional and electronic books.

On the second page, Mr. Dohle gets to the point. After noting that most of Random House’s backlist titles grant the publisher electronic book rights (we agree, since most backlist titles are from the past ten years, a period in which authors have generally licensed electronic rights in tandem with their print rights), he writes that “there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles.” He then proceeds to argue that older contracts granting rights to publish “in book form” or “in all editions” grant electronic rights to Random House.

The misunderstandings reside entirely with Random House. Random House quite famously changed its standard contract to include e-book rights in 1994. (We remember it well — Random House tried to secure these rights for royalties of 5% of net proceeds, a pittance. We called it a “Land Grab on the Electronic Frontier” in our press release headline.) Random House felt the need to change its contract, quite plainly, because its authors did not grant those rights to it under Random House’s standard contracts prior to 1994.

A fundamental principle of book contracts is that the grant of rights is limited. Publishers acquire only the rights that they bargain for; authors retain rights they have not expressly granted to publishers. E-book rights, under older book contracts, were retained by the authors.

There’s no need to take our word for this, however. A federal court in 2001 examined this precise matter in Random House v. Rosetta Books. Judge Stein of the Southern District of New York was unequivocal in his 10-page decision: authors did not grant publishers the e-book rights in the old book contracts at issue. Judge Stein specifically dismissed notions, raised by Mr. Dohle in his letter to agents, that the non-compete clauses of these old contracts in some manner acted to grant Random House electronic rights to the works, saying that this “reasoning turns the analysis on its head.” The court pointed out that the license of rights comes solely from the contract’s grant language, not from the non-compete clause, and that non-competition clauses, to be enforceable, have to be narrowly construed. Using the non-compete clause to secure future rights is unsustainable. An appellate court affirmed Judge Stein’s decision.

We are sympathetic with the difficult position the publishing industry is in at the moment. The recession has been tough on book publishing, as it has been on many industries. And everyone with knowledge of the dynamics of the industry properly fears that Amazon’s dominance of the online markets for traditional and especially e-books will give it a chokehold on industry profits. Difficult times, however, do not justify this attempt at a retroactive rights grab.

It’s regrettable and unhelpful that Random House has chosen to try to intimidate authors and agents over these old book contracts. With such a weak legal hand, it would be well advised to stick to its strength — the advantages that its marketing muscle can provide owners of e-book rights. It should also start offering a fair royalty for those rights. Authors and publishers have traditionally split the proceeds from book sales. Most sublicenses, for example, provide for a 50/50 split of proceeds, and the standard trade book royalty of 15% of the hardcover retail price, back in the days that industry standard was established, represented about 50% of the net proceeds of the sale of the book. We’re confident that the current practice of paying 25% of net on e-books will not, in the long run, prevail. Savvy agents are well aware of this. The only reason e-book royalty rates are so low right now is that so little attention has been paid to them: sales were simply too low to scrap over. That’s beginning to change.

If you have an old book contract in which you haven’t granted e-book rights, patience is likely to pay off. The e-book industry is still young — there’s no need to jump in. And we strongly suspect e-royalty rates are at a low-water mark.”

I feel the same way- can a publisher really justify a 75/25 split when the costs involved with bringing an eBook to market are dramatically less than those incurred by a mass market paperback? The fact that initially 5% was offered is almost laughable- clearly someone saw the writing on the wall. The question is, with the entire market beginning to shift in this direction, how can authors protect themselves? How do you prevent your backlist from being exploited? Since eBooks tend to retail for $5-$15, a more equitable distribution of the royalties means that even with this seismic shift, writers could still manage to earn a living from their work.

It’ll be interesting to see how this issue in particular shakes out. No matter what, I think that despite all the doom and gloom, this is an exciting time to be involved in the publishing industry. The world is changing rapidly, and the publishing industry is now being dragged into the modern millenium. It’s impossible to foresee exactly what the future will bring, but no matter what, the times they are a changin’.

Happy holidays to all of you. Thanks for taking time out of your lives this year to rant, discuss, and debate with us. I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2010.



All I Want For Christmas . . .

By Joe Moore

Last week I posted a blog about listening to music while writing, particularly motion picture scores. It works for me, and judging by the comments, many others like to use music when they write, too. Music is an amazingly powerful force in the world and can add to your memories of special times—there’s that tune from your first date, or the one you danced to as a newlywed on your wedding day. And so many countless other occasions.

One of the times of year I look forward to most is the Christmas season. And a big reason is, I love Christmas music. It must be playing throughout our house while we put up our decorations. And on Christmas day, it is nonstop in every room. There are so many great Holiday tunes to choose from; whether your tastes lean toward the traditional religious songs or the commercial pop hits, they all paint a warm and happy time of year.

My favorite has always been I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a poignant, emotional tune that never fails to bring back memories of a Christmas past with (hopefully) fond memories. It’s a short story with a surprise ending perfectly written for maximum impact.

From the Rock era, there are hundreds of great tunes, but few can get you smiling and moving like All I Want For Christmas Is You. And there’s no one that can belt it out better than the grand diva herself, Mariah Carey. So take a short break from what you’re doing, sit back and let Ms. C entertain you. If you’re not smiling by the time it’s over, check your pulse for vital signs.

Since TKZ will be on vacation from December 21 through January 3, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you next year.

A Christmas Carol

What really popped out about this book video for me is this:

“…an author found himself deep in debt, and wrote this story in six weeks.”

A Christmas Carol, indeed!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Santa List

Ah, the holiday season…time of looniness and mayhem… Today, being my last blog post for 2009, I’m going to channel the holiday spirit and write about conspicuous consumption (of books of course!) and my family’s current wish list for Santa.

Now first up (appropriately enough) are my parents. Notoriously hard to buy for as they devour their favorite authors’ latest books as soon as they come out, they have few books still on their list so I’m going for the audio book approach: I figure I can’t go wrong with Good Omens by Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (my father is a huge fan of both) or The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis…only problem, not sure Santa’s up on the whole ‘bureaucracy of hell’ or ‘the end is nigh’ stuff – might dampen the ho, ho, ho…but, bah humbug, that’s what they’re getting.
My twin boys are so much easier – I’ve already indoctrinated them into loving mystery books (the old fashioned, English kind, of course). Once again, Enid Blyton rules and my boys are already obsessed by the Secret Seven mystery series (seven kids, a dog named Scamper and lots of English village mysteries to solve) and are about to discover the Adventure series (four kids, a talking parrot and mysteries in exotic locations). Santa is fully up to speed on their book requirements though (sigh), Lego is still number one on their Santa list.

My husband is always a trickier proposition, book-wise. He barely has enough time to start a book let alone finish it, but I recently introduced him to a terrific Australian thriller writer, Michael Rowbotham, so I know he’ll be trying to read him over the holidays. As for his list, well I’m going for non-fiction instead with Michael Chabon’s latest, Manhood for Amateurs. I wasn’t quite ready to put his wife’s book, Bad Mother, on my Santa list (my fragile ego couldn’t cope with unwrapping it on Christmas Day…) but I’d love to read it all the same.

I have a veritable library of titles on my list for Santa…and certainly not enough time to read them all…but my top three are: AS Byatt’s Edwardian saga, The Children’s Book; Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic, The Road, and Juliet Nicholson’s non-fiction account of collective mourning in the aftermath of WW1, The Great Silence.

So what books are on your Santa list??

10 Things I Think You Need to Know About Agents

by James Scott Bell

1. Before you approach an agent, make sure your concept is killer. That means a) not shopworn (“We’ve seen this before”); or b) not so far off the map that anyone with a profit motive will run screaming from the room. It has to be fresh but not too weird. The characters have to jump off the page. There has to be enough at stake. Your opening pages have too move. Easy, right? Of course not, because if it was your Aunt Sally would be writing New York Times bestsellers. But here’s where you have to dig in if you want to interest an agent.

2. You are better off having no agent than having a bad agent. Anyone can print up business cards and call themselves “agent.” But what do they know about the business? Find out. A reputable agent should have a website with a list of their clients. Start there. What’s their background in the publishing biz? How long have they been agenting? There are some “watchdog” sites that issue warnings about certain names, so use your old pal Google.

3. You need to be businesslike about the relationship. Don’t jump at the first bite. Talk to the agent by phone. Ask some questions, see how you click personally. Be objective about this. From the agent’s side it’s business; it should be from your side, too.

4. You are probably unrealistic about what an agent can do for you. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee a contract. And just because an agent doesn’t get you a sale doesn’t mean he or she is the problem. It might be your writing, or your timing. A good agent will suggest ways to overcome market weaknesses, but ultimately you have to take charge of improving as a writer. And you’d better do it, because there are a bunch of other writers out there who are.

5. Your agent has many clients; you have only one agent. Don’t expect all the attention. Don’t expect immediate return of phone calls, unless it’s a publishing emergency. Don’t expect immediate return of emails unless it is an issue affecting your professional life, like, right now.

6. But agents aren’t mind readers, either. If you have a question or issue, contact them. Don’t let your frustrations build to the point where it affects your writing.

7. Agents are human beings. “Thank You” notes (real ones, made out of paper, sent with a stamp) do mean something. So do Starbucks cards and chocolate.

8. Agent Rachelle Gardner has a great post with her take on some “bad advice” she’s read regarding agents. Read it.

9. Read blogs by agents, but don’t let the plethora of information freak you out. Ultimately the most important thing is your writing, the thing you have most control over. Keep coming up with ideas and keep growing as a writer.

10. Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian, once said, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.” I get to tell that joke because I’m a former lawyer and had to put up with lawyer jokes all the time. But now the truth. The overwhelming majority of agents I’ve met at conferences love books and authors and want the best for both. So approach agents professionally. They want to like you. Show them what you’ve got. Don’t be dull and don’t be desperate. It’s a tough business out there right now and it’s not just writers feeling it, it’s agents, too. Everybody in this profession has to keep slugging.

I Try To Not Complain

John Ramsey Miller

I have been so very fortunate in my careers and my personal life that when I realize I’m complaining, I feel like crap. I have been lucky, and my hard work has paid off in spades. True I’m not a Dan Brown, but I’ve made a very good living from my writing, and in fact I have not had to work at a non-writing job since the middle eighties. That may no longer be the case, but I’ve got few complaints about that. I’m pretty grateful for this great resume template I’ve always followed, as I have a feeling it’s been the reason behind a lot of my success, and it will be even more so now as I’m seriously considering looking for a day job again, after two decades of writing. I shudder to think about jobs that I would be qualified for and businesses that would have me. Every time I’ve been to Walmart, I see they have the same greeter, and standing at the doorway and the thought of saying, “Welcome to Walmart” thousands of times a day makes my feet and my throat hurt.

Realistically speaking I’m a dead man when it comes to a job application. And can you imagine how “Contemplative Storyteller or Professional Fiction Author from 1994-2009” will read to the HR people at the local Piggly Wiggly? Even bagboys need better creds than that.

I never finished college. I suck at math. I can’t dance. I couldn’t sell ice water in the Mojave. Most of my clothes as of late are Levis, T-shirts and flannel shirts and I’m shy unless I’ve had a couple of shots. Even if sixty is the new fifty, I’m middle aged.

I’m good with guns, so I could be a night watchman, except that I am usually asleep by eight-thirty. I have some other ideas, but I’m still writing books thinking if I don’t write, I might have to actually get a real job. If I did spend my days saying, “Welcome to Walmart” I might could steer shoppers to my books in the paperback section of the Literary department.

God, I need a vacation.