Today's Picks: Joan Didion, BTS before BTS, and Olympic Sports Dramas
An Ankler newsletter about IP; I do the reading for you
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In today’s edition, I’ve got a crazy true story about seven Korean students at Howard University in 1896 who won over the campus — especially the women — with their singing. (Hmm, seven of them. BTS has seven members. Could you imagine…) Also there’s a cute YA romcom, a dark thriller about a perfect couple’s engagement upended, the inspirational real story of figure skater Gracie Gold and more. Also, I talked with one of the stewards of Joan Didion’s estate, Paul Bogaards, who just left Knopf to start his own PR shop, about his career, how “conglomerate publishing” took the fun away and what’s optionable in Didion’s catalog.
BOOKS I LIKE (current)
Young Adult, Romcom
Homecoming War by Addie Woolridge (Underlined, Fall 2023) No matter how old we are, we don't outgrow a good YA romcom (even this dude here). I love the hook: A Romeo & Juliette-esque tale about class presidents at rival schools who fall for each other and have to navigate friends, school loyalty and intensifying rivalry on the road to happily ever after. Lana Condor on line 1! REPS: Spencerhill Associates
The List by Yomi Adegoke (William Morrow, TBD) A contemporary social media thriller about a women's magazine writer whose picture-perfect engagement and impending marriage are upended by a viral social media post a.k.a. “The List.” The project is pitched as evoking such great recent works as the novel Such a Fun Age and the HBO show I May Destroy You that grappled with the dark side of influencer culture and race. More than 10 publishers bid on this story, described as a page turner about secrets, lies and life on the internet. REPS: Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency
Sports Drama, Gender Identity
The Other Olympians by Michael Waters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, TBD)
This is definitely an overlooked wow story from the past that speaks to the present: Several European athletes transitioned gender in the 1930s and were generally embraced by society until the always bad-guys International Olympic Committee intervened with rigid gender definitions. A fascinating what-if moment where things could have evolved differently and a great way to understand how we ended up where we are with gender and sports. It’s a little early in the game, but put a pin in this one. It’s a winner. This idea lends itself to being integrated in multiple ways along the road to scripted adaptation: A doc, a podcast and then a movie or TV show. Also, seriously, this one markets itself. Plus, I smell an acting Emmy. REPS: Dystel, Goderich & Bourret/UTA
Mental Health, Inspirational, Sports
Gracie Gold Memoir (Crown, TBD)
Even if you're not into sports, Gracie Gold's story is captivating: She’s a national champion and 2014 Olympic medalist in figure skating who stepped away from the sport to deal with her mental health and disordered eating and then returned on her own terms: not as a champion but as a happy competitor (and crowd favorite). Another property that could support multiple iterations. REPS: Park & Fine Literary
BACKLIST GEM (titles that deserve another look)
Biopic, Black History, Documentary
Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) by Stokely Carmichael and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (Scribner, 2005)
The great and controversial civil rights leader who coined the phrase "Black Power" —and whose character has a cameo in Spike Lee's BlacKKKlansman and is name-checked in Judas and the Black Messiah (both Oscar-nominated) — needs his own biopic. It's criminal no one has ever optioned one of the great civil rights memoirs. It is also one of the most adaptable. Ture and Thelwell (an old friend from the movement) were working on an autobiography when Ture died. Thelwell finished the book by essentially mixing transcriptions of recordings Ture made for the book with his own observations. The result is a book that brings alive Carmichael/Ture. And that voice is amazing: Charismatic, smart, controversial, just like Carmichael (bonus: he was movie-star handsome). Unlike, say, John Lewis, a hero and saint, Carmichael is a flawed man. There's three acts: The early years, where he alternates stints in Mississippi jails while at Howard (jailed at the notorious Parchman Prison). Second, the Black Power period, when he utters the phrase at a rally with MLK in Mississippi, and becomes arguably second only to MLK in influence. Last is what I call the "Madness of Stokely" and centers on the toll of being harassed and surveilled by the FBI. It nearly drives Carmichael mad, and he and his wife, South African pop star Miriam Makeba, leave the U.S. for Africa. There's a great doc here that could mix archival footage with Carmichael's words. (Whoever puts this idea in front of Mahershala Ali should get a promotion. Also, Ava, where art thou?) REPS: Ping me and I'll connect you.
Sci-Fi, Female Lead, Thriller
Earth Eclipsed (Podcast, The Lunar Company, 10 episodes)
In the distant future, a brilliant neuroscientist is on the brink of a discovery that will change the world and save millions of lives… until she is kidnapped by a renegade miner! Now she must outwit her captors, escape and complete her work and preserve humanity. The debut project from The Lunar Company is done as a very cool immersive audio experience that makes you feel like you're eavesdropping on the action. This thing has already won a host of podcast awards and been a featured selection at a number of festivals. REPS: The Gernert Co.
History, Musical, K-Pop, Black Culture
“Before K-Pop there was… the Arirang? The First Korean students at Howard University” by Karis Lee (Boundary Stones, Feb. 7)
Think BTS: The Gilded Age. A fascinating unfathomably true story from 1896 about seven Korean students, all sons of nobles, who robbed a bank to get to the U.S., ran out of money and got the Korean ambassador to the United States to pay for them to attend Howard University. Once there "dozens of damsels" swooned over their singing, especially their renditions of old Korean love songs. There were seven of them. There's seven in BTS. OMG OMG…what if you could actually get BTS to star in this? Or at least, you know, a cameo? What a cross-cultural blockbuster that would be. Heck, I bet even a next tier K-Pop band could blow this thing up, and maybe they could face-off with a great Black singing group too. Think Knight's Tale-style, or even Bridgerton-style, mixing modern K-Pop in a historical setting. REPS: WETA
Animation, Short Doc
“There’s no Korean Disney princess. So a Harvard student created her own” by Brittany Bowker (The Boston Globe, Feb. 5)
You're a Korean-American girl bummed that there's no Disney Princess like you. What do you do? Well if you're Harvard student (yeah, of course) Julia Riew you write one for your senior thesis. Hers, which tells the story of Princess Shimcheong, is based on an old Korean folktale The Blind Man’s Daughter and the clips on TikTok already have gone viral and landed her an agent. Riew's backstory is fascinating as well: She started off as a theater major, but switched to pre-med because as one of the only Asians she felt like an outsider. She then returned to theater because she missed it. Now she's got her sights set on writing for Disney or Broadway. This isn't a job board but for the love of god, somebody hire her. Also, again, you know, paging Lana Condor! REPS: CAA
Q&A: Paul Bogaards, publishing PR legend
When I first started covering books for The Hollywood Reporter a decade ago, almost everyone said, “You’ve got to meet Paul Bogaards. He knows everything and everyone in publishing and he’s good to reporters.” All this was true. Bogaards recently left his position as Executive Vice President, Publicity and Marketing, Deputy Publisher, Knopf and Pantheon, where he had worked alongside the great Sonny Mehta for three decades to start his own shop, Bogaards Public Relations.
I called up Bogey — everyone calls him Bogey — to talk about his career. True to his reputation he was full of great stories and shrewd observations. We talked about everything from working with Sonny to turning The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into a hit to how “conglomerate publishing” took all the fun out of his job and, of course, Joan Didion’s estate.
Tell me how you first got started in publishing.
I attended both McGill and Concordia universities in the early 1980s. McGill was attempting to make the university a center for international studies and they kept tuition disproportionately low for people who weren't from Canada [he hailed from New York]. I did a lot of writing. I had a play produced. I also did some acting. I had a screen test with Tony Richardson for Hotel New Hampshire and I was offered a role as one of the football players and the football players were, well, people who are familiar with the book will know the role they played. It wasn't really flattering. There just wasn't a lot of English language acting work [in Montreal] so I came back to New York — and this is going to sound like a very old story — and I went to work in publishing because I wanted to be a writer. I remember writing letters to 23 different publishing companies. There were that many then, which is hard to believe. I got a phone call from Barbara Spence, the personnel director at William Morrow. She said, ‘I read your letter. It made me laugh. We don't have any openings in editorial, but we do have an opening in publicity.’ And I said, ‘What is that?’ I started working in publishing October 10th, 1983 at a salary of $10,500 a year.
How would you describe what you did?
A publicist should be able to distill a book into its core essence and come up with a succinct pitch for colleagues in the media space because people don't have a lot of time. The other thing you have to be is an honest broker of information. I had the best career in book publishing, by far, because I worked with Sunny [Mehta] for three decades and we were completely aligned in being as transparent as we possibly could be with our colleagues in the media. When you are transparent, reporters return your phone calls. In fact, they'll call you and ask for guidance on books that you're not publishing or just about the industry. Conglomerate publishing today frowns on candor from embedded personnel, the soldiers, who are involved in trade publishing. Most of what you'll hear are soundbites from corporate spokespeople. The industry has become far less interesting as a result.
Did that make your job harder?
Let me just say it was made clear to me that the old way of doing business was not going to be the new way of doing business. (Knopf was acquired by Random House in 1960 which was bought by Bertlesman in 1998 which merged it with Penguin 2013 in a joint venture owned 57/43 percent with Pearson.)
Tell me about your new venture
I’m mostly saying no to people who wanna work with us because of bandwidth. One of the reasons I got out of publishing was because I was becoming further removed from the work I loved doing. What I've always loved to do is work with authors. I'm going to build the Tesla of PR for authors. And what that means is I'm not going to take on a lot of clients. I have been overwhelmed in a good way by the response. It suggests to me there's something slightly amiss in conglomerate publishing. I mean, I'm not that good to have that many people reaching out to me, truth be told (laughs).
Circling back: How did you end up working with the late Sonny Mehta?
We met in 1989. He was smoking silk cuts. He was drinking Famous Grouse. He said, ‘do you wanna drink?’ I literally think the first thing he said was, ‘so tell me about the Mysteries of Pittsburgh [the campaign that launched Michael Chabon’s rise]. The first thing I said was it all starts with the book. He asked some of my observations about what made things work. I remember Arbor House published Glitz by Dutch [Elmore] Leonard but it wasn't until Stephen King wrote about it on the cover of the New York Times book review that everything changed and I referenced that. It was just paying attention, being mindful to those details early on in my career, knowing what the prompt was that drove a sale or connected a book to a readership. You have to be attentive to that now more than ever, because it's constantly changing.
Is there a book where you really feel you made a difference?
Sonny is just back from Frankfurt. He comes in with a manuscript and says, ‘Bogie, I want you to read this. I think this can be a big best seller for us.’ I say, ‘Tell me.’ ‘Well, it's a thriller. It’s actually the first book in a trilogy. And the author is dead.’ I’m like, ‘Dead author novel in translation. First book in a trilogy. Sounds like a bestseller to me.’ But that was the magic of Sonny. He just had this ability to see the potential for a book. The book went on to sell millions of copies. I think Sonny bought all three for like $225,000. [The books he is referring to are The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels].
What media moves books and who are the tastemakers today?
NPR is still an enormous driver. NPR has been one of the most consistent drivers of engagement for as long as I've been doing this work. The morning shows are still huge but there's been a sea change in how morning shows cover books. They’re less interested in the talking head. What has come to replace that are those book club selections on the part of morning shows themselves. So you have Jenna's book club (Today Show), you have GMA, you also have Oprah and then you have Reese. When you talk about tastemakers and influencers, those are the people who are able to build community around a book and to bring in readers.
You worked closely with Joan Didion and one of your first clients is her literary estate.
I'm not sharing any stories about Joan here or in anything I might publish down the road. There are some relationships that are so important, so central to your life, that you just kind of want to let them be. My principal relationship with Joan is always going to be through her work as it is for many readers. The only thing I'll say about Joan is I was always amazed at her ability to just carry on. I'm gonna botch this quote, but there's a quote she gave at a commencement in 1975 where she says something to the effect of ‘I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it.’ And that's what Joan did and she reported out on it in a way that was just brutally honest.
What do you have planned for her posthumously?
We're working with the Didion Dunne Trust who are Joan’s literary executors. The first thing that we noticed was that there was a rogue Joan Didion website on the internet that was positioning itself as the official website. So we got that taken down quickly. We're building a robust legacy website for her. It will be a site for readers, educators and academics.
And other things?
We're also reviewing all of Joan's books that are in print, working in concert with her publishers to make sure everything is optimized for publication. And we're in the process of examining works that have never been in print for whom there might be a readership. What books might those be? We can talk about Telling Stories — I think those are the only three [short] stories that Joan ever wrote — which was put out by the Friends of the Bancroft Library but was never actually published or her 1975 commencement [at UC Riverside] which has never been published in book form. Then there are her archives — much of this work in her New York apartment. It's impossible to put a price tag on. We're also looking at film options that may have been executed in the past and never acted on. When you think about it, how is it that Run River [her 1963 debut novel] has never been made into a film?
The recent controversy over republishing Norman Mailer’s “White Negro” essay demonstrated that reprinting older works, even famous ones, can be fraught.
I'm not in conglomerate publishing so those decisions are obviously going to be made within those walls. And you're right. Pretty much every older author's gonna come up short against the current culture at some point. Iconic works of the past are absolutely guilty of infractions of the present. Publishers are going to have to course-correct some of those books or not, as they see fit.
What’s the relationship between Hollywood and publishing right now?
The tether between Hollywood and publishing has always been strong. And I would say that it has never been stronger than it is right now. We've seen book adaptations that have animated beyond core readerships. I can point to Station Eleven, Underground Railroad, Handmaid’s Tale, Queens Gambit, The Flight Attendant, Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere. That's why there's a fevered attempt to acquire book projects before publication, because prices escalate once a book gains traction in the marketplace. The beauty of book-to-film and book-to-television adaptations is that they are reinforcing for readers. People who have read the books come to watch the shows and people who haven't go out and buy the books as a result of the shows.
Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend and happy reading. See you back here next Friday. Please check out The Ankler, which the New York Times calls a “hit Hollywood newsletter” if you love the business of entertainment.