Wednesday, December 20, 2006

'Tis the season

I'm not keeping this up well, but other things get in the way this time of year. I'll try to post regularly in the new year - for the, ya know, legions of readers anxiously awaiting my babblings. I know, it's almost too much.

But for today, wanted to mention the Wall Street Journal article - I won't bother linking as its restricted access - about authors taking lower advances from smaller publishing houses ("The New Hot Advance: $0," Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg), which explains the trend:
Several top authors in some instances have struck deals with small publishing houses that don't pay them a penny in advance. Instead, these writers have been promised that their latest works will be promoted more substantially to readers in stores, online and in the newspapers. The authors also receive a higher-than-normal royalty rate and have a bigger say in how and where their books are marketed.

Much of this is good news. I like the concept, as long as authors appreciate the limits to their "bigger say." There's a fine line between having an established author who can bring prestige to your list and sales in the bookstores having more room to weigh in on things like the publicity list and design, and good ol' fashioned vanity publishing. An author has to come in understanding the limits to her or his control in publishing a book with a publishing house, as compared to doing it on their own. We bring you our resources, you trust what we do with your book.

David Morrell, who writes thrillers, explains it fairly:
"Traditional publishing functions as an assembly line," says Mr. Morrell. "Often by the time a book is published the project has gone through various departments and the memory of why certain decisions were made weren't passed along, so nobody can understand what's going on."

This is the problem with the ever-corporatizing publishing world. Editors cannot keep in touch with their authors as their numbers are pushed up and they're judged on how many sales their books can generate. They focus on acquiring many and then making sure the few big ones sell really big, thereby leaving the midlist titles to flounder. It's nice to see authors taking back control by going to smaller presses where they can actually get their editor or publicist on the phone.

It is a luxury sometimes to be able to go to a smaller press, it should be noted. As Trachtenberg explains:
For writers who don't need advances for their living expenses, the gamble may be one worth taking. Even the biggest publishers have limited budgets, and invariably they put the bulk of their marketing spending behind each season's most expensive books. The other writers often have to make do with less.

So I started thinking the literary agents must not love this trend, insofar as they don't get any serious profit from an increased marketing effort. I mean, they'll take a cut of the royalties, but we're talking 15% of a maybe 10% royalty - though maybe it's higher in these cases, as that seems to be part of the deal (lower advance, higher royalty = invested author in longterm sales). So the article mentions Eileen Goudge's agent - a "women's fiction writer" (what a genre title, huh ladies?) who moved to a small house, NJ's Melville House:
Susan Ginsburg, Ms. Goudge's literary agent, says she supported the move. Ms. Goudge's books were selling well but needed a lift. Although publishing without an advance is a risk, says Ms. Ginsburg, the allure of a six-figure marketing budget was hard to resist. "If you can afford to make an investment in your career, it's worth trying," she says.

A good agent should support this kind of thing, but a bad agent would go for the big advance money to the detriment of the author's career. Morrell's agent, Jane Dystel, explains that she benefitted from his move as she sold many of the sub-rights - that's the way the agent should do it. Hold back the rights you can sell so you can still rake in a li'l dough.

Now bizarrely, in Morrell's case (unlike Vonnegut's case at Seven Stories), he's just gone to a kind of "small publisher" division of a corporate house: Perseus Book Group. It's not clear whether Perseus is just their distributor or actual owner. Just wanted to throw that in.

It's nice to see established authors seeing their work as benefitting from the added attention they get at smaller houses. Should I ever establish my own publishing house - ya never know - I'd like to retain this quality. It's hard for huge corporate publishers to remember it's about the book, not just the sales, the prizes, the sheer numbers. Authors might have to be the ones, through acts like these, to really make that point.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Truth out of Advertising

I found the speech by Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, as posted on his blog, quite interesting. (I got there through mediabistro.)

He's basically going over the new media landscape - hardly anything new, but I think he phrases and identifies certain strains well. He explains that trust is the main issue in this age of blogs, and he envisions a world where blogs work with more traditional media - let's say, a large media producer, like... Reuters - to make traditional media more accountable. He asks,
What does the future look like in a world in which the consumer has taken over the printing press, the dark room, the television studio? What does the result of a mash-up of professional and “amateur” actually look like?

I continue to find the rhetoric worrisome - this concept of readers as consumers first and foremost. I know it's idealistic to think otherwise since media can only survive in this day and age if it's a successfully run business, if it rides the market successfully. But all the same, this rhetoric leads to this vision, then, of consumers taking over the editorial meetings and deciding content. This is what anyone in publishing anything grapples with. The consumer cannot stop consuming!! They're like goats, out of grass and chewing on the sheets! Save yourself!

So Glocer goes with this and brings up trust, asking the question I've asked: how do we know whom to trust in an age of blogging, when anyone can start disseminating information? He explains, "The comfortable one-way model of publisher to editor to journalist to reader has changed forever." And later, he admits, "we no longer have a choke-hold on the flow of information, whether technological, professional or financial."

He puts a positive spin on all this by celebrating "a truly engaged audience," controlling their media so it suits them and then revelling in it, really indulging in youtube videos and news headlines personalized to their interests. This goes back to the Future of the Book folks - this personalized media is creating an army of amateur specialists, if you will, well-versed in the areas in which they have a strong interest, be that wireless networking, romance novels, car engines, or antique dolls.

This army can then watch their favorite news sources closely - even Reuters - and call them out if something ain't right - as they did when a doctored photo appeared from Reuters. He goes on at length about this moment, which is admirable in terms of honesty. I like people who just point out the elephant in the living room rather than talking around it so as to not reveal a weak moment to people not in the know.

I like Glocer's idea, to have both traditional news providers with known standards who are open to criticism, but not control, from readers. To quote at length:

Our professionals bring something extremely important to a story. They write in accordance with a professional code and brand, and they are mindful of the standards they must uphold. They are trained to sift through facts and provide perspective and context, to provide insight without spin. And they are human beings born in places like Tel Aviv or Gaza City or Dublin or Belfast. They seek to leave their inherent biases at home, but they are human like you and me, and they also make mistakes – again like you and me.

Amateur content provides something else – they often bring immediacy that we cannot deliver, just like the tourist photographs of the immediate aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, or the London bombings on 7/7.

But in the excitement and enthusiasm of this new collaboration we mustn’t forget the value of trust. We mustn’t forget that our actions and ideas must remain guided by impartial accurate information.

I don't like all the rah-rah-Reuters that is inevitable given he's the CEO, and this might be a bit corporate, but I like how he states,
The real opportunity – besides more voices – is that in a world of multiple choices, brands become billboards guaranteeing an experience. If your brand stands for accuracy, for truthfulness, for trust, you become a beacon – a trusted source – a hub in a plural media universe.

I'm not a fan of the "branding" industry, but I think the fundamental point is important for anyone - authors, non-profits, anyone trying to get attention in the world these days. So a publisher establishes itself as a brand, builds trust, and then readers know. If readers want to point out a misstep, they can and they should and the publisher should respond. But in an age of corporate conglomerations controlling publishing and folks like Judith Regan pushing to ethical extremes - and did we all know that the writer hired for the OJ book was someone she met while working at the Enquirer, as the New Yorker reported? - there are no standards or accountability.

Rather than envisioning a world of online books that are actually just venues for discussions, I'd rather envision a publishing model in which the publisher, on all levels, is more accountable, providing a non-book venue for interactions with readers. Brands are more important, so maybe readers can start identifying the publishers they like - something only quite savvy readers do at this point, methinks - and going directly to those websites. The publishers should start blogs and have online discussions so the readers have a voice, but do not provide or dictate the content itself.

If publishers of all kinds, from newspapers to books, continue to rely on reader-provided content, the brand will fold. They are watering down their content by letting the readers provide it all, because in the long run, what is left? What is drawing the reader in? It's narcissistic, and readers will lose interest in their own content and then the brand if that's all that's being provided. The rich, unique content that built the brand and got the reader will not be as strong and new readers will not find it and it will be thrown out, like so much of our disposable culture.

I'm still working out the ideas here, but I think I've come to a point in this entry. It's kind of making me think of TRL on MTV - though, mind you, I don't currently have cable. I believe that's still on the air, and I don't really get how people can watch it. The high-pitch shrieks compete with mindless discussion. The success of TRL disproves my point. Despite it being more about the audience than original content - the videos don't play all the way through! - it continues to find new audiences, obviously. But it's a straw house.

Won't someone please, please blow it over? Anyone?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Letting Forbes weigh in on our industry

So Forbes decided to devote an issue to publishing - how kind. And they include all kinds of... wisdom. Yes, deep wisdom from the experts.

It's actually not a bad collection of pieces. My friends and I were just wondering the other day how McSweeney's does it, as I've asked here, so the article on Dave Eggers was rather, if you will, illuminating. It didn't touch too much on the issue of publishing online, like other pieces did.

Cory Doctorow's article about having his publisher, Tor Books, publish traditional books for a price while giving away electronic versions of his book for free. He explains how this works:
A tiny minority of downloaders treat the free e-book as a substitute for the printed book--those are the lost sales. But a much larger minority treat the e-book as an enticement to buy the printed book. They're gained sales. As long as gained sales outnumber lost sales, I'm ahead of the game. After all, distributing nearly a million copies of my book has cost me nothing.

Pretty handy. He even frames this as word-of-mouth with fewer downed trees. I can appreciate this sentiment, realizing full well that this is in part due to the genre. Again, as he explains,
Given the high correlation between technical employment and science fiction reading, it was inevitable that the first nontechnical discussion on the Internet would be about science fiction. The online norms of idle chatter, fannish organizing, publishing and leisure are descended from SF fandom, and if any literature has a natural home in cyberspace, it's science fiction, the literature that coined the very word "cyberspace."

So not every book could work in this way, I think we can safely say. What works for sci-fi won't necessarily work for romance, literary, non-fiction of all kinds.

I still find his notion of using the internet to kind of infect readers a little disturbing, but I guess he is a sci-fi writer after all. Of the e-book, he says: "It is so fluid and intangible that it can spread itself over your whole life." Okay, get your e-book off my leg, buddy. I ain't interested. You over-sold it.

And then we have Ben Vershbow doing his whole networked-book thing. Snore. He praises Wikipedia, and says "down the road we'll see similar kinds of open, distributed authorship of all sorts of books, from academic textbooks to travel guides." Terrific! I recently heard from a professor and a grad student that many students are now quoting Wikipedia in their papers - often without citing it. Ah, information sharing. It's the way of the future! It's like I'm pushing to videotape the Daily Show, fooling with VCR timers, and you're just watchin' the 2:24 minute clip on YouTube. Get with it, daddy-o!

I'm also bothered by his casual mix of scholarship and commerce. In one single paragraph, he mentions Neal Stephenson's use of the internet for edits to his novel, Quicksilver, and then cyberlaw scholar Lawrence Lessig's use of "crowdsourcing" for his "seminal text." He talks about building readership - important for any author, whether a scholar, activist, or novelist - but then says, "publishers are beginning to realize that giving away some or even all of a text online can lead to increased community interest that can, quite counter-intuitively, sell more books in the physical world." Capitalism, are you listening?!

And then later, "No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks." Again, this reminds me of the Boston Globe including readers' comments in the "You're Up!" section. Make the reader work a bit, feel that they've contributed, and you have a solid customer. Make them invest mentally and you can count on them investing financially. I'm not convinced this is good for authors or readers.

He ends by saying, "We're learning to read and write all over again." It's too arching, too large a claim here. I get itchy hearing it, and I'm allergical to fascism. Correlation or causation?

I know, I'm going too far. The Future of the Book people are NOT fascists. I just think their efforts to blur the line between author and reader are suspect. They say authors will be more important than ever as guides in these new worlds, so it's not as if they're eliminating the author's role. But the idea of entering a book with others... it feels like my role as reader is lessened, and I would have too much competing for my attention. I want to trust an author, have her show a world to me that's from her. I know it's not pure, that it has influences that may be drug-related (Huxley), unacknowledge personal experience (Harper Lee?), or just plain plagiarism (oops, Kaavya and Alloy Entertainment), but we usually find this information out and leave it outside the novel, not bring it inside in some community setting.

Not everything has to be social and immediate. Reading can be quite and solitary, a time to develop yourself and your imagination. I don't want bostonboi24 and hollagal38 reading with me or commenting on what I'm writing as I'm reading it. Maybe that's what I fear.

The rest of Forbes is worth a gander. I may very well never say that sentence again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How to Consume with Ease

A post today at The Reading Experience is about whether reading is inherently good. The blogger makes the point that reading of any kind isn't necessarily a superior use of one's time, compared to any other form of entertainment. He compares reading a sub-par Stephen King novel versus a great film by Robert Altman. Fair point, absolutely, but the blogger just passes by a point that I believe is worth considering:
If the choice for young people is reading a trashy novel or watching a trashy movie or tv show, perhaps the marginally better option is the novel (if only to stretch their attention spans somewhat), but really I can't see it is any kind of intrinsically "good thing" for them to engage in either of these activities.

Again, I agree generally, but there is something to be said for people forcing their minds to quiet down a bit. Isn't that one of the joys of reading? You go into this other world - whether it's fantasy or literary or sci-fi or history or some combination - and your mind settles into it and your imagination comes into play. This is a much different way of thinking than most visual media where images are produced for you. I still agree with the blogger that there are great films that are certainly well worth anyone's time, and much better than many books out there, but I would argue that books in general do a better job of focusing one's brain, of kind of forcing patience on a person's brain, in a way that most films do not.

I went to see a modern opera - my first - earlier this year, and my partner refused to let me say that I didn't like it in form. I just wasn't allowed. Now I still maintain, having seen a second, that I don't enjoy the form, but I appreciate the point: art does not have to be easy. In fact, maybe art should be a bit of work. This all goes back to the point of this blog: books should not necessarily be more accessible than ever, easier to consume and more interactive, more about YOU as the reader. Art should make us work, and then when we are moved or we have some epiphany, we will be that much more appreciative of it. I know books must be published at all levels for different kinds of readers, and readers should be generous with their books so those among us who cannot afford new ones can still get books used and/or at libraries. I love libraries, actually.

Books as discussions, as mere venues in which readers and authors all interact, are not books at all. They are something else, and maybe the Future of the Book folks can find a new name for this kind of media (though this would also force them to find a new name for their institute...). I might not read high literature all the time - I'm currently enjoying Around the World with Auntie Mame, people (and becoming very curious about the author's story, but more on that another day... still investigating). But I'm glad I worked through Ulysses and love getting lost in Nabakov (though I haven't for years, admittedly).

As yet another sidenote, let me say that trying to manufacture this tough reading as a marketing gimmick, as seen with Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, is bad news, but if a writer can do it in a way that impresses the people who know - reviewers, my partner, other serious fiction readers - like Thomas Pynchon with his latest, Against the Day, then well done. This is starting to feel arbitrary.

I appreciate the whole apparatus, in fact, that some find will be dispensed with when the revolution takes place - publishers, editors, authors, reviewers, etc... The Orlando Sentinel blog had a piece on the place of reviewers that I think tells the story, using movie reviews in newspapers. They are the "dying breed" of the headline.
The movie-obsessed have migrated to the Internet, where ethics can lead to co-opted opinions, phony "buzz" and bought-and-paid-for exposure. Are these honest opinions, are have the studios finally gotten their fondest wish, turning reviewing into just part of their PR machine? And career-wise, the fickle nature of the Net means that sites come in and out of style. How can you build a living out of that, unless you live in your mom's basement? The ones drawing traffic and turning profits today will be old news and off your "favorites" list faster than you can say "Whatever happened to Borat?" or "Ain't it what news?"

This sums up my concerns nicely. If art becomes easy, then inserting corporate interests into art comes easier. It's like slipping aspirin into apple sauce. "Bought-and-paid-for exposure."

The internet is too easy. My typing this is too easy. Publishing a book online is too easy. But it's all happening and I'm hardly some luddite fearing it. I just believe as consumers we should appreciate the high standard certain publishers maintain. I'd even at this point praise McSweeney's for the books they produce: creative, original, beautiful, interesting. The Chlldren's Hospital by Chris Adrian was gorgeously produced and at 480 pages, is not for the faint of heart. Well done, McSweeney's! Put it out there and produce it beautifully and let it get strong reviews. I hope it sold well, or decently, because books like this seem to be getting fewer and farther between.

I'm all for mass market books and libraries and I can't wait to see the new Bond film, Casino Royale, which will be all bells and whistles, flashes and chasing and big explosions, but I still find time and money to support literature of a certain sort, that is treated respectfully, that is published as a risk, and that is aiming for more than just shock and awe. Shouldn't we work to preserve this, if we're working at anything, rather than dismissing it and pushing for online everything?

(More on libraries-as-cafes soon, based on this article in the Boston Globe and other articles like it.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Get 'em young

Before discussing the Village Voice piece of interest today, a few points from a Guardian article on Judith Regan. To quote:
To an unusual degree in publishing, which tends to be a rather anonymous trade, Regan has, throughout her career, attracted great media interest, much of it critical. That is perhaps because she is a woman in high places. As she once put it: "When you're a woman doing battle, somehow you're an aberration." Much of the publicity she has drawn has been of the "very successful but ..." variety. New York magazine said she was, hands-down, the most successful editor in the American book business, but added that she may also be "the most combative victim in history". In an acerbic profile, Vanity Fair magazine said there was no question that "she rules by intimidation".

I hate when crazies use feminism. It's so offensive to us real feminists, ain't it ladies? And yes, I'm a guy. Your point? Anyhow, when you're doing battle to publish OJ Simpson, you're an aberration - male, female, trans. And speaking of trans...
On the other hand, you might say that it is precisely her warrior instincts, coupled with her eye for what the mass public wants to read, that have made her such a successful publisher. She is fond of quoting General George Patton and once shouted at her employees, "I have the biggest cock in the building!"

Well that last one is well put, isn't it?

Anyhow, the Village Voice has an interesting article about getting published too young, which includes this disturbing truth:
Publishers, attracted to the prospect of finding the next fresh voice, seem to love the idea of young—sometimes very young—authors. Just this year, students from Barnard College, Brown University, and Harvard University have received book deals from both independent and major book publishers.

And to this, I say some publishers are idiots. And the other side is:
Readers seem simultaneously impressed and envious when young people achieve publication, which would explain the public fascination with another young author: Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan. Earlier this year, she received seemingly endless media attention first for landing a $500,000 book deal and later for plagiarizing passages of her novel.

It's all true, folks. I do have some pity on this 16 - 20 year olds who get caught up in publishing, almost by accident. The adults in the situation see dollar signs, and next thing you know, someone else is not just editing but rewriting their books, but they themselves are still the ones holding the proverbial bag. I don't feel too too bad for that Kaavya, but a little. I do however feel quite bad for Ned Vizzini, the main subject of the VV article who published two books by the time he was 23, and then had a nervous breakdown. I can appreciate why it would happen. I don't know that it really justifies his later addiction to the online fantasy game Magic the Gathering, but I can certainly see why it would be you slip down the crazy hill.

I'm straying a bit too far from my point in this blog, which was to write about this kind of new frontier of publishing online. But these are distractions. I will try to get on message again.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

We're all a little relieved

I apologize for not posting for a week - this said as if anyone's noticing.

Well I leave for a few days, and OJ has a book deal! No, not really, and it's all yesterday's news already. I'm kind of glad about that, as I don't want to discuss details. I think we can all look at the situation now and see just how low some chose to stoop - and yes, of course I'm looking right at you, Miss Regan. Honestly, you actually stooped too low for Fox, a network that I believe has made shows out of people like Dustin "Screech" Diamond and Tanya Harding boxing other d-list celebrities. This is a network that is proud of Bill O'Reilly, one of the most dimwitted commentators on television.

So Publishers Weekly reported on Judith Regan's future:
Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, said "it's hard to say" what impact this turn of events will have on Regan's reputation and career. Gottlieb said that whatever happens, Regan's track record can't be overlooked. "Judith has brought in a lot of money through her imprint and is a major publishing player for News Corp., and has to be given her due for all her success. I do think it was poor judgment to publish a book of this nature, though, and I'm glad that it's coming to a swift conclusion."

She's a capitalist hero, even if immoral and perhaps off kilter mentally. Well, don't empty that desk yet! Nice to see publishing execs can be as baseless as the leaders in monopolizing corporations in other media. Keep strong, Jude!

So Rupert Murdoch of all people cancelled this trainwreck. Now that is astounding. This is a bit like George Bush realizing that maybe Henry Kissinger shouldn't lead the 9/11 Commission. But now we're all breathing a collective sigh of relief. Independent booksellers the country over are happy that they didn't have to deal with the awkwardness of not wanting to lose business, but also not wanting to sell this OJ Simpson trash. Borders, again not exactly the standard beacon of hope in an unethical publishing climate (mom and pop who now?), even took a stand, reports the NY Times (and many others): "Last Friday, Borders announced that it would donate the net proceeds from sales of Mr. Simpson’s book to a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence." Some independents were preparing to do the same, offering any income they earned from the book to local charities.

In another PW piece, PW editor-in-chief Sara Nelson editorializes that this cancellation is good for book publishing. After quoting Rupert Murdoch, she says:
Finally, a big city, big publisher had made the right decision! By canceling the project, News Corp. showed that it indeed has a heart, and maybe a soul: there are some things, after all, that are simply beyond the pale.

Wow. Our standards are truly low, people. She goes on:

While it could be argued that pulling the book because of public pressure is just a reverse sort of pandering—"Give the people only what they already want" turned "Don't give them anything they don't want"—it also just might help reverse the disturbingly prevalent opinion that publishers, especially big publishers, are soulless gatekeepers only out for the money. "The people spoke and shunned the book," one executive said. "That means that books matter."

It used to be that publishing declared its morality, its values, its world view by the books it chose to publish. Now, it seems, the business declares itself by what it refuses to publish.

I admit it's a weird turnaround. But, hey, I'll take it.

Thanks for that, Sara. And you know what? I won't.

Judith Regan and her type are foul. That's that. It's tough days for books, I understand that, but appealing to people's basest desires and getting paid big money to do so, until you are publishing books that openly glorify actual killings, murders, is truly twisted and pathetic.

And I am not prepared to forget that this is all being done under the publishing umbrella of HarperCollins. That's not to say I am boycotting all of their books by any means, but I think authors - especially those with some clout - should keep this in mind when they are seeking to publish their latest books. Anderson Cooper did not need to publish his book with the same company that tried to do this. Francine Prose could have found a better home. And it's just a shame that books like Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, not to mention things like Howard Zinn's A People's History, end up under this umbrella.

I hope authors do some research when they're ready to sign.

But this OJ incident brought into light the precarious situation of independent booksellers. I had a man once hand a coworker a book by Dr. Laura Schlessinger, when I worked at a Borders, telling her to take it off the shelf as it was offensive. We of course could not do that. As an editor, I'm fortunate enough to work at a house that doesn't publish anything I find offensive, but what would I do as a bookseller, if I were there trying to eek out a living? I appreciate the difficult call - especially since this particular book was sold into stores blind. And unlike Murdock and the other monkeys at Fox, I admire that unity so many store owners - even Border! - showed in refusing to profit off this book. I won't give the publisher credit here, but I salute the bookstore owners who stood in solidarity with the victims' families.

And may Judith Regan scuttle under a rotting log for awhile and stop publishing trash.

Monday, November 13, 2006

March on, citizen soldiers

This Publishers Weekly article is rather funny in reporting the rhetoric used recently by booksellers at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) meeting.
"We want publishers to view booksellers as part of their sales team," explained executive director Eileen Dengler. "We're telling publishers that the reason they're [at the show] is to take selected books and to tell booksellers how to sell them, why to sell them and every piece of information they need to know."

I like this idea, seeing booksellers as part of the team. I mean, it's not 100% realistic, as the booksellers are going to be discriminating and support some books over others - as they should. But it's nice to see the idea of all being on the same side. But then we get this, from new NAIBA board president Joe Drabyak:
"My basic tenet and the tenet of my presidency," said Drabyak, "is that booksellers like myself are the frontline of a publishers' sales force. There's a great book by Stephen Ambrose called Citizen Soldiers about the resourcefulness of frontline soldiers in getting the job done. That's what we are, 'Citizen Booksellers.' And all we're asking for is education."

Again, love to see publishers and booksellers on the same side... but this war rhetoric seems out of hand. I guess the end of this analogy is what worries me - us against the reader! We must win! You're either with us or against us! They hate our freedom! Oh wait...

I was in the great Harvard Bookstore this weekend, and as I always note, I was once again impressed with their set-up. These folks know how to display books better than anyone. But I was once again reminded of the problem many bookstores face: the employees themselves!

When running an independent bookstore, it seems important to me that the owner and/or manager balances the staff so that they are friendly to each other but not too in-group oriented. Employees should not be so casual, so that customers are interrupting their conversations about what happened this weekend to get help finding a book. As someone that has worked in bookstores, I really find this irritating. I'm not demanding too high a service here. If booksellers are stressing about the average American not walking into bookstores, then look at the environment your employees are creating in their interaction with each other and the customers.

Maybe I prefer to think of booksellers on on-the-ground operatives, but that's the same idea. Hell, let them be citizen soldiers, and let a tyranny of literacy reign supreme!

Who am I?....

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Digitizing your world, behind your back

Publishing News in this UK has this article about a report on the "digitisation of content" by Martyn Daniels, commissioned by the Booksellers Association of the United Kingdom and Ireland. As Francis Bennett, author of the article says, "THOSE OF US who are concerned about the future of the book trade – and that ought to be every publisher, bookseller, wholesaler, library supplier and librarian in the land – owe a debt of gratitude to the BA Board."

You can download the report here. I haven't had a chance to read this 122 page bad boy, but I'd like to try at some point. It surely is important. To quote Bennett again, "The problem faced by booksellers and publishers alike is that no one knows where the digitisation frontier lies, what ground is secure, what isn’t. Technology moves fast, not always in the right direction." Has me written all over it, eh?

I was amused by Bennett saying, parenthetically: "(How valuable it would be if the BA could update its web version of this Report regularly and provide the book trade with a unique continuing guide to what is going on). " I could just hear the Future of the Book folks screaming, "Or let READERS update it constantly! EXACTLY! Ha ha ha narf ha ha - oh shit, what's my avator doing in that room?!"

Okay, now I'm just being mean.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Something a-foot with newspapers

First of all, I'm pleased to use "a-foot" in the title. And second of all, what media blogger isn't writing about newspapers - falling readership, ownership, blah blah blah. Sorry to jump into the fray. I mean, what business do I have? I edit books, and wouldn't know how to write or edit a newspaper piece if my life depended on it. But hell, why should that stop me?

And ain't it curious that both in Los Angeles and here in Boston, rich locals are thinking of buying the newspapers. In Boston, it's retired GE chief exec Jack Welch and adman Jack Connors, and in LA it's David Geffen, bizarrely, and others like billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and Ron Burkle, who may all end up bidding against each other.

Now my interest in this phenomenon is derived from the same interests that started this blog - stay with me now. I have been thinking lately, due to a chat with a potential author and good thinker, about how we're more connected than ever, with the internet and all, but with the easing of such pathways, we seems to be getting less accountable. I know, this isn't mind-boggling, cutting edge thought, but it's baby steps. I'm getting there.

So offhand, locals trying to buy a paper is good news. These articles talk about local control. The Globe piece points out: "An effort to return the Globe to local ownership would put Boston in line with what is going on in several other cities as pressures from the Internet remake the newspaper industry." In discussing the philanthropist's bid for the LA Times, the article mentions "the Los Angeles civic leaders' interest in bringing The Times back under local ownership. "

The media map that could arise from this movement is not some idealistic, Vermont-esque system of independently owned and operated, mom-and-pop newspapers focusing on local issues. Anti-corporate and invested in community. I mean, I did say David Geffen and Jack Welch, after all - both kings of merger lifestyles. Though the Globe claims:
Like business leaders in other cities who have explored buying their local newspapers from large media companies, Welch, 70, and Connors, 64, see buying the Globe as a civic investment as much as a financial one, say the executives involved in the effort. Welch and Connors hope to return the paper to its community roots and stem continuing cutbacks in the editorial budgets and losses in advertising and circulation.

Instead, let's be honest: these businessmen must be envisioning a way to make these papers profitable. The money is driving the trend with the world's leading capitalists jumping in. What do they see? And what does it mean for the writing in these papers? The subject matter, the editorial choices, the mission of these papers?

Maybe monopolizing corporate control of media will change in newspapers, but I would say those of us with a vested interest in a free and diverse media world should watch this trend closely. The papers could end up competing with each other for the best content online, hoping for national websites linking up to their local paper websites due to the quality of writing - that would benefit the locals, who would hopefully see the benefits of good writing in their physical papers that drop on their doorsteps daily (see nytimes, to some extent). But if these fatcats buy up the papers and then find, as in Philadelphia - the same article in the Globe mentions, "In Philadelphia, the new local owners are already saying layoffs are "unavoidable" because of a "permanent" decline in national newspaper advertising" - that the papers are not turning a profit, we could see a bargain sale happening and the papers truly in freefall, as discussed by Jeff Jarvis in a Guardian piece last week.

I myself still enjoy papers like the Weekly Dig in Boston, the Houston Press, Seattle's Stranger, the Austin Chronicle, even the Village Voice (though less so these days) - free papers with locally oriented editors who insist on critical if often snarky writing. These papers are good for local issues, for my money, and have some great editors working for them.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

They are smarter than us?

Publishers Weekly had an article this week about a new business book to be published by Wharton School Publishing, an imprint of Pearson Education, entitled We Are Smarter Than We, to be written Wiki style. Almost 900 people have responded to an intial call to be authors, and the product manager, let's call him - Barry Libert, co-founder of - plans to be in touch with "as many as two million potential 'authors' later this month." That's ridiculous.

But the actual resulting book is going to be small and around 150 pages, which is quite confusing. From Libert: “In effect, we’ll be taking snapshots in moments of time.” I don't get how this will work but I'm not the editor, thank god. (For the record, a Donna Carpenter of WordWorks is - she'll "hone the text down to 35,000 words.")

So they plan on future books as well, all being this short, all being snapshots. Does this suggest an understanding that these kinds of collaborative books don't have as much to offer in the long run, but are only good to gauge the current thinking on a subject? I'm fine with that, even if the process is mysterious to me, and seems offhand like it would be horribly labor-intensive.

For my money, I'd rather have an astute observer and thinker articulate the zeitgeist in a way that will last - Allen Ginsberg's Howl, for example. I would rather that kind of art than a collaborative piece of art, in terms of art speaking to the current moment in time. This book is a business book, which is decidedly NOT art, but when we talk about novels as collaborative, or other non-fiction but creative books as collaborative, we might sacrifice that uniqueness, the character of the work by letting so many cooks into the kitchen.

As a final kind of PS, I just want to note how much I hate the title. It's too clever by half, it's condescending, it's snarky - I just hate it. And there's a whole website? It's like the gifted and talented kids in school. And in case you're wondering... FINE, I wasn't one. They would never have me.

Off to sulk.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Buy my lifestyle in hardcover

I'm sure every publishing, booky blogger is linking to this article in the NY Times today - but ya just got to. The piece, by Julie Bosman, was kind of ragged on, in today's Publisher's Lunch:
The specious passing off of a long-term business development as a recent "trend." The attempt to build a causal link to "statistics" that don't mean anything anyway. The age-old pejoratives (why are publishers always "pushing their books" and "peddling"?) And what high school English wouldn't go to town with a clause like this by itself: "even chi-chi clothing boutiques where high-end literary titles are used to amplify the elegant lifestyle they are attempting to project."

Fair enough.

Working for a small publisher, I have seen books come back to life or survive based on finding a niche market through a non-book store, so I appreciate the concept Bosman's discussing. At the same time, we return to the term "consumer-oriented" publishing:
The Time Warner Book Group routinely changes the color or design of book jackets at a store’s request so the book will color-coordinate with merchandise. And HarperCollins plans to design books for its spring catalog in shades of “margarita and sangria,” greens and reds that store owners have told the publisher will dominate that season’s color palette, said Andrea Rosen, vice president for special markets.

Now that is foul. C'mon. It reminded me of an article I once read in the Boston Globe, I believe, about how strongly Wal-mart controlled industries which produced goods it sold. The example was Wal-mart dictating to Gillette how to make, develop and price their products, since they held such a large share of Gillette's market.

It's hard for many of us to understand that Americans on the whole do not walk into bookstores. I don't get this. I understand that some rural areas don't have bookstores - which the article addresses, and which is a fair point ("At Penguin Group, sales representatives have begun pushing into rural areas that are short on big bookstores, selling at cattle auctions, among other places."), but it seems many Americans do not go in when they have them. Booksellers are constantly trying to come up with ways to get people to COME IN - events, signings, off-beat performances. But they often don't, and so we have books kind of dripping into these other markets.

I don't mind on the whole. The point about the rural areas is smart, and I've definitely published books (as an editor) that could benefit from this kind of niche distribution. I'm one of those geeks - and fortunately am dating someone of similar geekiness - who loves bookstores, and goes to visit good independents when I'm on vacation (thank you, San Francisco!). But is the market separating, breaking apart, and will bookstores be robbed of their product?

They're going to have to change, that much many of us can agree on. Places like Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge are just phenomenal bookstores that make people come in and buy, with fantastic front tables, smart staff picks, active readings and signings of all sizes, and nicely presented top sellers. But they also have a ridiculously ideal location, in the middle of an area that has one of the top universities in the world, with many rich students, and a city full of smart, active readers.

I'd love to open a bookstore, truth be told, and I've often wondered how I'd make it work. I've worked for the chains, b&n and borders, and I've seen the value and shortcomings in the way they each sell books. I think an indy store has to be very in tune with the local population, and has to have SMART folks working there (a major problem with the chains - for every smart employee, there's a complete idiot making you spell "Kafka").

So if specialty books are getting sold in Banana Republic or Restoration Hardware, I don't think that hurts a good bookstore and it gets more people reading. I support independent businesses first and foremost, but I'm not ready to get into hysterics about the phenomenon discussed in this NY Times piece... I don't think.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Insider Peek, but book's are boring

Info on Safari Books online, through two stories from publishers weekly.

The first story was in March, and explained:
Safari Books Online, a joint venture of O'Reilly Media and the Pearson Technology Group offering digital access to technical reference works, has launched a new service called Rough Cuts, which allows access to online texts well before the physical print editions are available.

So these are techie books, but the idea has some troublesome potential, and is much like the concept supported by the Future of the Book folks: give certain readers (you have to buy a subscription) access to a full manuscript before publication, with the idea that some of the work may be cut out before pub but you, o special subscriber, can still see it. The main motivation for such innovation? Consumer impatience. From general manager Sean Devine:
"Earlier is better in the tech community," said Devine. "Waiting out the editorial process, printing and shipping to the store takes time, and our users need info sooner." Devine described Rough Cuts as "user-oriented publishing."

What's the opposite of "user-oriented publishing?"If one employs an editor, does it become editor-oriented? Industry-oriented?

So PW had a new story about Safari today, about "Short Cuts," "a series of brief works about emerging technologies not yet worthy of book-length treatment." V-p of marketing Debra Woods explained, [We are] embracing new formats like Short Cuts and Rough Cuts—products custom designed for the online medium."

This seems like doing things half-ass to me. If we start focusing on getting things to the consumer asap and getting everything online even if it's not fully developed, aren't we sacrificing quality? I don't want a day to come when novelists throw up their manuscript-in-progress and let it become user-oriented, with online readers dictating what should happen to characters and how the setting should develop. I'm not trying to sound elitist... but I'm afraid this would lead to really stupid art.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

When Bloggers Became Authors, and Didn't

Just a short post because I thought this NY Times article felt familiar somehow. Some agents at United Talent in LA are now searching the internet for talented folks producing popular web videos and posting them on YouTube or wherever. They're signing them up and putting them to work "in Web-based advertising and entertainment, as well as in the older media."
“It starts with just helping identify people on both sides of the aisle,” said Brent Weinstein, head of the new division, UTA Online. “The barrier to entry is so low, everybody is now a potential artist. So there’s this great unwashed of talent out there, 99.999 percent of which is probably not good enough to have a traditional film and television career. But on the Internet, a lot of different types of things go. And yet for buyers, this is a wall of people, so how does a brand know which one of them can help it execute?”

This made me think of the rush to acquire books by bloggers. Editors signed anything and everything, and then Publishers Weekly did a piece discussing all these newly signed authors (reposted on a blog here). There was a skeptic quoted in that piece:
Not everyone, though, is convinced that bloggers' skills translate to longer-form books. "The style of blog writing is more oriented towards short form one page, set in the moment," said Scott Rettberg, an assistant professor of new media studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Pomona. "The sense of immediacy is quite important in blogs."

These United Talent folks might be smarter in their efforts to sign these folks:
“In the old days, i.e., two months ago, it was about signing up those clients and immediately figuring out how to flip them into traditional media,” Mr. Weinstein said. “Now we can look at an artist and say, that might be a goal, but in the interim, or while we’re doing that, or instead of that, how can we monetize their interests online?”

I guess this is a bit more like seeing a painter who does beautiful work, and encouraging her or him to take a commission from Coca-Cola. Seems pretty dirty to me, but maybe I'm giving too much credit to the people who post videos on YouTube?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Second Life and Publishing - told you so!

I mentioned in an earlier post that this was happening - and many others have of course been more prescient or intuitive or extensive or whatever. So now this article from the Guardian about Penguin publishing (or something) Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash in Second Life. The details can be found in the article, which is definitely worth a read.

I was particularly intrigued by what is most likely going to happen:
"I envisage starting small with something like a poetry or secrets wall where residents can leave notes about their Second Life experiences, and then publishing the best of them, like Paul Auster's True Tales of American Life. The book could even be brought back into the real world. We could open a fiction imprint list in Second Life, something that's really difficult for an independent publisher in real life."

That's Neil Hoskins, publisher at children's literature press Winged Chariot. I envision not so much book publishing within Second Life but as we know book publishing - they mention how a "bookshop" has ebooks to download, but as discussed, there's still not a good reader for it. Instead, I think we'll see something like Hoskins says: something interactive, created from a collective and then put back out there, maybe never in a final form. This doesn't interest me terribly, but I can see it working in this community.

So really, this post is just for the link. Check it out.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Argument Explained

Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor explains the phenomenon of publishing a book online using this Google Docs, in which readers can add their thoughts and notes. It's a good article sorting through the issues involved, allowing the folks at The Institute for the Future of the Book to push their agenda.

And they speak quite directly to my point:
"The skills of an editor are not going to become unimportant; it's just that it is possible that the few hundred editors that work in publishing in New York City may not be the only people who have really good opinions about what's worthwhile in the world," says Jesse Wilbur with The Institute for the Future of the Book in New York.

Well that says it, doesn't it?

The article is prompted by GAM3R 7H3ORY, the "book" by Andrew Wark. The Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on this guy and his manuscript prompted me to start writing, and the paragraph above pretty much sums up why.

I'm all for going against a small group of publishing elites in NYC, and I have written about ways to do that here . My concerns come from the last post about the sports betting combined with the following quote:
"If we can manage to teach academics and people who are used to getting personal credit for their work [this new] way of collaborating, the result, I think, could very well be revolutionary in a real sense," Sanger says. "The result is an enormously efficient, exciting, and productive method of content development."

Sooo.... the academic won't get all the credit. They need to get over their need for "personal credit." Who is getting credit then? The masses? Fine, give the masses credit a la Wikipedia, and then tell me who is making money! In the article on betting, we see that these websites are making money, by plucking the best of the betters and essentially selling their services. If books become a shared place, and authors become more like Oprah or Terri Gross (as this article explains) than individual artists, who will control that space? Again, Herbert Marcuse should have taught all of us to be skeptical of this technology. The internet is NOT public space, but commercial space. It's like a mall compared to a public square, or an open field in the woods. As Naomi Klein has nicely explained, you are not free to assemble there, it will mess with business.

And the article ends with this:
"You have to be a certain kind of author to do this, and you have to be able to attract enough people to your site," says Ms. Berinstein. For writers of these new collaborative works, she says, there's a new version of the writer's age-old self-doubt: "What if I made a book and nobody came?"

This is disturbing. A book, in the more traditional sense, is a collaborative effort - between the author and the employees at their publishing house. But if your publishing house is a corporate monstrosity, some behemoth of bureacracy, then you don't feel this. I say to writers, then, go to an independent press that answers the phone when you call. You won't be alone, sitting at home checking your site for viewers or visitors. You'll be calling your editor to ask what's going on, speaking to your publicist about media opportunities, etc...

I guess this is where you hit the wall with the internet, and one must ask oneself: does the internet connect people and form satisfying communities in the way that neighborhoods once did, or university dorms do? This last paragraph says no to me, and makes this concept of virtually collaborating, the concept of a book people a place online with the author as the host, into something soulless, sad, and ultimately unsatifying.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Worst of Capitalism Hides in the Shadows

Ominous headline, I know. But I find this Washington Post article creepy - or at least, what it could mean creepy.

The article is talking about how websites specializing in sports betting and stock portfolios are now moving from the "wisdom of the crowds" concept to the expert model - culling these experts from the crowd. Alan Sipress, the journalist, explains the wisdom concept:

According to its proponents, a large number of diverse, independent individuals will typically outdo experts because even experts lack perfect information and make mistakes. But with a crowd, the many small pieces of information and perspectives held by individuals come together to form a more complete picture while the mistakes can cancel each other out.

This sounds like the logic behind this book revolution that got this whole blog started. Take down the expert author, forget the gate-keeping editors. Just put the manuscript online and let's have at it. Let the readers update it as needed, adding notes or correcting facts.

But now the internet as a giant machine is kind of rolling over slightly, and I think showing its true, bare capitalist possibilities. You, too, could be plucked up from obscurity - in this article, we have James Acevedo, a schoolteacher from Ridgewood, NJ, who can forecast sports events. It has that reality show flavor to it. But there is this question in the article as to whether these folks are truly earning the label "expert."

Justin Wolfers, a business professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said collective wisdom -- reflected for instance in the stock prices set jointly by millions of knowledgeable investors in the open market, and in sports betting lines determined by large groups of avid gamblers -- is more likely to be accurate than Web sites claiming to feature experts. Someone must have a track record stretching back decades before it is statistically possible to conclude whether success results from talent or random chance, he said.

I can't help but interpret this again in terms of book publishing. You imagine people signing up on a site like Amazon, where they are really encouraged to voice their opinion about a book. (Hell, where AREN'T consumers encouraged to voice their opinion these days - it helps sales sales sales!) And they can rate the book - again, like Amazon, with their stars. But what if someone kept track of the books you're rating, and noticed you're giving high ratings to books that are in fact bestselling, and low ratings for books that end up not working, even if they have a lot of marketing money behind them? Some publisher pulls you out from the crowd and wants you to review books before publication. I'm imagining some movie mogul in a film from the thirties, slapping someone else on the back and shouting, "So, Joe, do we have a HIT on our hands!?!"

Of course, this is already happening. Top reviewers on amazon have been noted. Popular bloggers (alas, not this one) have galleys sent to them, so they can build buzz, just as booksellers do (though probably less now, due to fear of re-sale). And I'm sure some fairly obscure books published by small presses have benefitted from such tactics. Is that how the first book published by telephone company Working Assets came out so strong earlier this year?

I suppose I prefer this logic to the wisdom idea, when it comes to books. If people prove themselves adept readers, able to tease out strong points that will appeal to other readers - whether they're cheap, sellable points or deeper elements that prove resonant due to the zeitgeist of the moment - then more power to them. It's unfortunate when some excellent reader gets exploited so corporate publishers can make more millions, but I like the idea of a great reader drawing our attention to books easy to overlook. And I prefer the "expert" logic to the idea of putting a book out there and letting some mob tool it to their liking, so majority rules and nuances can get lost.

But of course, it's still America, and this article also shows that element of "getting something for nothing" - otherwise known as the New American Dream. Acevedo the betting king says that it's nice to know "that there's actually something to my gut feeling." Why is he an expert? Lucky guts, it seems, not education and not experience. Now I'm worried - who are we calling experts again?

Sipress makes the salient and potentially worrisome point:

While generations have looked to pundits for guidance, it has often taken a long time for their expertise to be recognized, and many have remained in obscurity. Now the Internet promises new ways to discover those who might otherwise get overlooked. And it can do so with breathtaking speed. Some business professors remain skeptical, warning that luck can often be mistaken for expertise. But as more Web sites try to find ways to tap the expertise of smart people, a great debate is shaping up between two competing models for harnessing the human mind.

Now he might have written this dramatic paragraph just to force us readers through to the jump page, it still did seem fair. Of course you should use your abilities - whether it's reading or betting or baking peach cobbler - to improve others lives. But are money-grubbing capitalists looking to "tap" your expertise, good reader? Let's hope they buy you a drink first.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Good PR for books!

It's funny that I'm often writing about fiction and novelists here, as I publish non-fiction, and definitely mix both up in my personal reading. But today's main link, found via mediabistro, concerns non-fiction books of a timely nature - things I don't often read and don't really publish, but whose power to change minds is impressive. I sold a lot of them when I worked at a bookstore near both an upscale neighborhood and a lot of office buildings and hotels. These business people would buy the expensive hardcovers by people like Richard Clarke without thinking twice - something I'm too cheap to do, but it was good to see others doing it.

Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz has an article today - requires registration, and will probably charge after today or tomorrow - about books like Ricks' Fiasco and Trainor's Hubris, which build solid cases against the Bush administration and sell very well. I like how Kurtz shows the unique ability of a book to convey certain information. With the time it allows in writing and the space it allows in volume, books let these kind of muckraking journalists really build their argument, attaining solid sources and slowly going through the story at hand.

He quotes former Wall Street Journal columnist Ron Suskind:

"What you can do in a book that gets around the daily battle over news cycles is you can say to subjects that they will be rendered in context," he says. "Sources often say, 'This is a complex situation.' I can say back to them, 'I've got plenty of time.' " In a newspaper, he adds, "you're probably not going to have space to write thousands of words on some philosophical debate or longstanding internecine conflict."

Nice to see. And as the media continues to move quickly land then get called out for providing false information - just look at the confusing accounts of the plane accident in NYC last week - books will hopefully become all the more valid for just this reason:

Once books become fodder for the media machine, the carefully constructed 300-page arguments get boiled down to a handful of scooplets and anecdotes. But it is their accumulated detail and intellectual heft that embosses the books with credibility.

Good stuff.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Suspicions of Charles Frazier Confirmed

Maybe I do like Slate! The review by Stephen Metcalf of Charles Frazier's new novel, Thirteen Moons, confirms my fear that Frazier sold out.

When Cooper reunites, after decades of separation, with the love of his life, he writes, "At sixteen I had thought Claire was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. And also at seventeen, eighteen, twenty-three, thirty. But now [deep into middle age] she was only some of the person I remembered. I had never guessed she could ever look like this. She had been awfully pretty, but now she was beautiful." In the margin of the book, I wrote: "Nota bene: To move 4 million units, fifty-something women must love me." A few pages later, the sexually awakened Claire, who had been mourning the death of her husband (not Will), throws off her black crepe to appear in a "shining silk dress of midsummer green." In the margin of my book, I wrote: "Hollywood."

Yikes. I just knew he went to a bigger publishing house and got a huge advance, but I didn't know he built in these sellable details, or let his editor include them. I think we can all agree that leaves a bad taste in one's mouth, no?

My favorite line: "The novel is a commodity disguised as an act of witness against the culture of the commodity." Metcalf shoots and scores!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Stupid Sexy Sony!

I kind of feel like Homer Simpson after he sees Ned Flanders in his snug li'l ski suit, looking like a fetching ski bunny. As Homer struggles with skiing, he says in frustration, about the hot distraction, "Stupid sexy Flanders!"

This is a bit like my reaction to today's article from the NY Times about the new Sony Reader. It's sleek, it's sexy, it's "'bound' in a protective leatherette cover." Leatherette? But reading this, like many, I thought "haha. We still don't want to read a computer screen." The writer of the piece, one David Pogue, knew this was coming:

The Reader employs a remarkable new display technology from a company called E Ink. Sandwiched between layers of plastic film are millions of transparent, nearly microscopic liquid-filled spheres. White and black particles float inside them, as though inside the world’s tiniest snow globes. Depending on how the electrical charge is applied to the plastic film, either the black or white particles rise to the top of the little spheres, forming crisp patterns of black and white.

The result looks like ink on light gray paper. The “ink” is so close to the surface of the screen, it looks as if it’s been printed there. The reading experience is pleasant, natural and nothing like reading a computer screen.

Huh. Got me. I'm intrigued. I have not - I repeat, NOT - added this device to my Christmas list, but I'd like to see it in action. Like Flanders, it's something in theory I don't want, but I find myself looking... Still, there are plenty of hoops and hurdles - software issues, availability, and the ubiquitous nagging feeling that something better and cheaper will arrives moments after you purchase this thing, rendering it prehistoric immediately.

I think Pogue has it right - this is a great piece, introducing this Reader. He concludes:

The Sony Reader is an impressive achievement, and an important step toward a convenient alternative to bound books. It will make certain niche groups very happy: gadget freaks, lawyers with massive document stashes, doctors and pilots who check hefty reference texts, high school students with 35-pound backpacks and anyone who likes to read by the pool for 20 weeks at a time.

Go take a look - and keep up with the slate discussion, which continues to be entertaining and interesting.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Items of note

A couple of things to note on this chilly fall day.

First, Slate has an interesting forum starting up on the novel in the internet age. The two contributors are novelists Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart. I hope people are not reading my opinion about online manuscripts to mean something like what Walter Kirn describes here:

Of course, one way to cope with Net America is to strip it clean of clutter in the way that Cormac McCarthy has done in his new post-apocalyptic novel, The Road: destroying all antennas, fiber-optic cables, Wi-Fi routers, and LCD screens and denuding the land of everything but dusty paths across the desert trod by laconic barefoot Nietzscheans seeking some phantom last gallon of potable water. The trouble is, this can only be done once.

I'm not that extreme... am I?!

I have to say, I preferred today's installment from Shteyngart.

The questions may well be: Who has the patience and inclination to read these (often lengthy) works, when so many Americans are already involved in their own electronic, Wikipedian journeys? And in a society driven by selfishness and the need to stand out on the false bright stage of reality television or on the pulsating Nintendo or MySpace screen, who has the empathy to travel into another person's mind?

Amen brother, my concerns exactly. There are no answers in this forum, mind you, but I like the dialogue happening. How do we stop this selfishness? Do we remind people of Darfur, of Zimbabwe, of floods and starvation and war-torn countries? Do YOU want to be that Debbie Downer who never gets a click, whom no one links to?

I was discussing with colleagues the changes in newspapers. It was one thing for a paper like the Boston Globe to allow reader feedback to their online edition, but that feedback has now crept right into the physical paper! The horrendous Sidekick section of the paper has a daft feature called "You're Up!" in which idiots with screen names like Daffy45 give their opinions. I don't care. I'll say it. I want you to be able to vote, I want you to be able to blog, I want you to be able to speak freely without persecution, but I am not paying to have you in my paper. I want paid journalists who know what they're doing filling these pages - NOT tons of ads masquerading as articles and NOT random opinions from people only identified by their screen names, sprawled out wherever the layout has room. Letters to the editor are entirely different, as people identify themselves and their locations, thereby taking responsibility for their opinion, and those are limited to opinion pages. Now reader feedback on inane topics - how do you feel about the Red Sox pitcher's haircut or some such - is actually considered a marketable inclusion!? This "need to stand out" is exhausting to witness, and deeply pathetic.

In other interesting - and by that I mean infuriating - news, we have this gem of synergy. It seems the corporate behemoth known as HarperCollins - publishers of Regan Books (thanks for Nicole Ritchie's li'l gem!) and many other subsidiaries - has teamed up with Starbucks to promote their 14 year bestselling book, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This was a book that a manager once told me, when I worked in a Borders bookstore, was a perenially request from shoppers. Well to continue its incredible sales, Starbucks is now going to run a quote from this meditative book on its cups - 5 million of them.

I find this truly repulsive - too much product is involved in this, and too little book. But the quote in question really REALLY made me crazy:

“Remember your dreams and fight for them. You must know what you want from life.There is just one thing that makes your dream become impossible: the fear of failure.Never forget your Personal Legend. Never forget your dreams. Your silent heart will guide you. Be silent now. It is the possibility of a dream that makes life interesting. You can choose between being a victim of destiny or an adventurer who is fighting for something important.”

A beautiful ode to capitalism, wrapped up in the fuzzy, fluffy illusion of spiritual wisdom. Kill your competition - look at Starbucks. Follow your dreams, just like Janice Dickinson, Regan author. Order your vente mochiato and then be silent while we prepare it on a machine that does everything for the barrista so the coffee tastes a bit like old dishwater. And then fight for something important, like James E. McGreevey, newly out former governor of NJ who has a new book... from REGAN!

When Walmart starts running Rumi lines on their plastic bags, I'm on the first ship out of Boston harbor. Good god.

Friday, October 06, 2006

File under "never again"

Despite this blog being called the "survival of the book," implying a look at what might happen as we make our way forth into the great unknown, I want to take a minute to step back in book time, to look at these fascinating books published by the Editions for the Armed Services.

My coworker mentioned such a book that she found in a used bookstore, and then she remembered to bring it into work today. It's quite incredible, most of all because of what they chose to publish in this particular instance: Selected Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. This is one of the editions, I believe, that featured a jacket on the front that was not from any actual volume - just a fun fact.

So the idea is that this group must have had contracts with big publishers - Vintage et al - to publish excerpts or digests in small editions that could fit into a soldier's pocket. These were published in the early 1940s, so patriotism was high as our boys fighting in WWII.

I'm quite amazed that they would choose Ms. Parker, a bitchy ol' queen, witty and cynical. Not what we think of when we think of the Greatest Generation. The other titles range from Willa Cather's My Antonia to stories by Mark Twain, H. G. Well's fantasies and Margaret Landon's Anna and the King of Siam. Just a bizarre, wide-ranging assortment. They also did samplings from New Yorker profiles.

However, the powers that be did not publish these things, they didn't make their choices, willy-nilly. Daniel J. Miller did a project on these books and explained, "Taft proposed Title V to prevent government-sponsored literature 'containing political argument or political propaganda of any kind designed or calculated to affect the result of any election.'" Some were banned because they seemed sympathetic to Communists, but at least one was banned for another reason: "Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, because of its anti-Mormon rhetoric."

Fascinating, and hard to imagine such a publishing venture now - though someone tells me they heard about a contemporary book series that is similar. I heard about this devotional, but that's much different. I'll have to look into it. Assisting women and men (though at that time, only men) in the military, during active combat, in getting their hands on various literature... it's a great idea, but considering that our soldiers haven't even had full protection from road bombs and what-not, and that we are not technically at war, I can't imagine Bush's budget includes money for books. And, in fact, I'd say conservatives would fear the idea of soldiers reading fiction of all kinds, that they didn't 100% control. It makes me wonder if our soldiers are reading a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interesting question...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fighting an Urge

As I've stated, I'm an unpredictable reader. I recently jumped from Denisa Mina's crime novels to Dorothy Day's autobiography right into my current book, a biography of Tennessee Williams. So I'm not much of a demographic for any publisher to target.

I read an article like this one this morning about author Mitch Albom and I'm left feeling a bit confused. His books? Well, I'm not a fan. They are the very definition of milquetoast. Two years ago around Christmas, my oldest sister - not a big reader, admittedly, but discerning nonetheless - put down his novel about the people you meet in heaven and said, to her, it wasn't just boring but actually quite bad. She has since had a child, become briefly illiterate, she claims, due to her lack of time to read while said child was an infant, and now is an avid reader of various Nora Roberts' series - just like her mother. Anyway, I've dipped into his books and walked away unimpressed with his writing, but not offended. He's aiming for a very solid middle ground and landing there. His publisher is packaging his books in a simple but effective way, and you can't beat that price point. And hell, in an article I read last week, he was being interviewed from a homeless shelter, where he was doing some volunteer work. Between that and the point of his writing, he's probably a real good guy, good people.

So what to say about the promotion of his books at Starbucks? Well I hate Starbucks. I find their coffee dreadful, and am quite convinced that anything they do that seems like a good thing - like when they started offering old coffee grounds for compost for free - is just another marketing scheme to make yuppies feel better about stopping for some over-caffeinated concoction with a name that makes any person using it sound like an uppity asshole. How often do these Ralph Lauren nightmares stop at starbucks while shopping in the Back Bay (or insert some other overpriced shopping district in your own city), strolling through designer shops with some tacky, oversized, over whipped-creamed, over sweetened, overpriced cup o' sludge? But alas, they sell coffee and coffee products, not SUVs, so they're not as actively destroying the world as others. They make an effort environmentally. And hell, they're selling books and thereby encouraging said yuppies to read.

They're selling books. Just let that sink in. I'm telling you, I don't know what to make of this. In some ways, it's good to make books more widely available. I think of the debate that happened in London while I was there, when a big box chain - B&N or Borders, I can't remember - opened on the Charing Cross Road. People wrote obits for the independent stores, new and used, up and down the historic street, remembering the crotchety cashiers, cranky owners, and overall unhelpful staff in some of these stuffy, elitist shops. And I remember saying to people that, while I'm not happy to see some garish store invading the charm and grit around an area of London I grew to know quite well, I did apprecite that the store would be accessible, that people too intimidated by the previously mentioned old guard in these small shops would happily (if anonymously) march right into this new bookstore that appears more like the Virgin Megastore than a private storage cellar on an old manor estate.

So now books are for sale at Starbucks. Talk about accessible! But the questions of what they're choosing - Albom in this case - and the question of whom they are squeezing out... I'd rather see independent booksellers throw a coffee machine in the corner than see Starbucks push into the bookseller's business. I've had this argument with my mother regarding Oprah: do you appreciate something that gets more people to read, or do you remain critical and even negative until the kind of reading you'd like to see is achieved? And if you have an idea of the kind of reading you'd like to see - of an engaged readership actively expanding their mind with a diverse collection of books, fiction and non-fiction, from foreign writers in translation, young writers just starting out, authors experimenting with style or shattering our notions of basic concepts we generally take for granted - are you saying you know what the masses need? I criticize Oprah, but am I the fascist?!

Starbucks selling books. I think it's a problem. I think they could have buddied up with local booksellers and done some cross-promotion - something independent booksellers and coffeeshops should be doing all the time. It seems Newtonville Books' "Books and Brew" event program has been successful in having readings followed by food and drink at local restaurants. We don't need Starbucks selling books. Maybe we don't need to make it quite this easy - can't people take their machiatos down a storefront or two to an indy store? This is interest in corporate sales not national literacy.

Albom isn't a bad guy, and I'm sure he's supportive of local, independent booksellers (I don't know him and his work well enough to prove this, but...). I don't blame the author in this case. It's an unsurprising partnership between his publisher - the corporate bohemeth Hyperion (part of Disney family, I believe) - and Starbucks, and it will result in many of the 2.2 million books being printed selling out.

I still maintain that a responsible author would not be filling Disney's coffers with more riches, and his own, but would rather find a press doing work that's changing the world for the better, and help fill those coffers. In the process, he'd help other writers looking for outlets through which they can publish books for positive change. But that could mean that Tim and Julia wouldn't be able to pick up his book while buying vente soy lattes. That's quite a price to pay.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Linky McLinkerson

I was curious to see Miss Snark's answer to an MFA student concerned about his/her work going online, worrying that its online presence could prevent a book deal. Snark was quite confident that even if loads of people downloaded this young writer's work as a pdf, they'd still want the book when it came out. I like her optimism! (I also like her defense of university presses and small presses, which this newbie mentions rather dismissively).

Another good post, found via a different blog, was on a blog I hadn't seen called The Mahablog. The post in question does a fantastic job explaining the production process in books, from someone you might call a traditionalist but whom you'd have to call an expert. Frightening but most likely true quote: "It is not unusual for a book to be published without anyone on the publisher's regular payroll actually reading it." YIKES! Despite getting into the murky politics of outsourcing - and a comment nicely rebuts his concern about copyediting and proofing getting outsourced to people who don't speak English, pointing out that they actually DO speak English in India - I think this blogger smartly uses this slip up on Andrew Sullivan's book to make a larger point on the state of book production. Having said that, I will shed not a tear about the delay in Sullivan's book.

I fear this is all I can bear after a frustrating run-in on my way to work with a crunchy-haired, aggressive nightmare in an SUV who tried to rush me across a crosswalk only to start honking and hit the gas before I was safely past her oversized vehicle. For anyone keeping notes, I'm pro-book AND pro-pedestrian. Thanks.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Style gets published, substance goes live?

A bit late to the game here, but Laura Miller posted a short piece about the style over substance debate, and I got to it through a few other bloggers (first this one and then this one). The part being quoted is really the only substantial part - pardon the repetition here - so I'm going to quote it as well:

The editor suggested that if a writer doesn't have a "voice," or a pleasing style, right out of the box, there's no point in persevering. I argued that bookstores are already overflowing with novels by people who write beautifully but have nothing very interesting to say and that once you got past all the forced stylistic pirouettes, Pessl's novel actually makes you care what happens next. He said "you can't teach voice," while I insisted that Pessl could and should be encouraged to stop tapdancing and streamline her style, and that this would make her a writer to reckon with.

Most of the comments then reflect on the idea of teaching "voice," which is of course a big issue, especially in this day and age with MFA programs in creative writing everywhere and places like Grub Street, etc.. But I was more interested in Miller's criticism in terms of the publishing industry. She doesn't name the editor, or the house where the editor worked - both points are worth noting.

But I think the editor's response speaks to the larger issue of marketing. I don't edit fiction, but I do know that whenever I have an author that wants to market him/herself largely based on literary merits, I have to talk them out of it. Literary merits alone, in today's over-crowded marketplace, will not sell too many books. If an author doesn't have a track record, I focus on the issue on which they're writing. If I was working with a novelist who was not jumping off a societial or cultural issue, how would I pull out something to market, besides their literary skill alone? How would I distinguish this new novel from a largely unknown novelist from the other 500 novels by new novelists being published by other major houses?

So then editors play up the style, which is marketable. The book in question, in Laura's post, is Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (which my partner bought last night), a book I have not read. This book has received a lot of media attention (and blogger attention - very meta) based on its style. I would imagine there are many literary people out there like me who know only that this book has been called Nabakovian in its style. The packaging certainly indicates as much. So of course the editor worked that angle in editing this book - and that process may have involved a watering down of the plot or some other element of substance (ie character development, poetic description, etc).

So many up and coming novelists, coming up against this Great (Style) Wall at big publishing houses, have every right to feel deeply frustrated, and deeply pessimistic about publishing. "Literary skill alone can't get me in the door, much less get my book READ?!" So they look for alternatives. One such alternative is simply posting it online somehow and getting people to merely click it. Low overhead, low level commitment from the reader, saving some trees in the process - I can totally get behind this concept. John Updike et al might cry fowl and say its denigrating literature everywhere, but I would say this is a fine way to get past a hurdle that Updike et al jumped years ago: the slush pile.

But while doing this, these young novelists must remember this initial hurdle (unlike Updike), and work to make it easier for others. If you post that novel online and get attention, and get a book deal for it or for your second, help a brother (or sister) out. Be smart in making your career decisions, and remember solidarity. Go to a house that supports new, bold writing that you yourself enjoy, rather than some corporate monster that will edit your novel for style over substance and then market the hell out of it. Because if there is one misstep - an ad that doesn't pay off, a print run that doesn't sell out, etc - you'll be off the list in a heartbeat.

The internet can be used like zines, like small indy literary magazines, but I can't believe it's a permanent solution. You can use it to get in there, but I hope authors can still respect The Book enough to aim for it and help preserve it when they get into that privileged format. If we let these marketable-style worshippers take entire control over books while the more literary work goes online, the book will be ruined, just an advertisement for the publishing house rather than a work of art.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


So Larry Sanger has this idea to create a fork off of Wikipedia that will similarly act as a compendium of all knowledge, but be edited - led if you will - by intellectuals. I for one think it's a fine idea, and will be curious to see how it develops.

In his essay explaining the origins and the actuality of the idea, Sanger points out the problems with Wikipedia, which I think speak quite directly to my larger concerns with such operations, including manuscripts "published" online that allow readers to interact, adjust, edit, and add. His problems:

    • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
    • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.
    • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
    • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.
A fine list of grievances, I'd say!

These are just the problems I have with the notion supported by the Future of the Book folks, wherein books are interactive, tagged, networked, etc... I'm all for citizen power - the vote, protests, petitions, etc... But when we throw off all authority - all of it - then who wins? The masses, some might say, or the majority, I might fear. I would recommend reading Herbert Marcuse's essay, Repressive Tolerance, to gain insight into the danger in disposing of controls for information transmission.

One link from the Future of the Book's blog, to a blog called (I think) Many 2 Many, has one writer breaking down the problems with Sanger's ideas. This Clay Shirky makes fine points, but his (or her?) resistance to the term expert strikes me as dangerous. I understand that the term "expert" cannot simply be separated out from institutional interests. But Shirky lays out three beliefs on which Sangor's idea is based, and says all are false. I disagree. The three beliefs:

  1. Experts are a special category of people, who can be readily recognized within their domains of expertise.
  2. A process of open creation in which experts are deferred to as of right will be superior to one in which they are given no special treatment.
  3. Once experts are identified, that deference will mainly be a product of moral suasion, and the only place authority will need to intrude are edge cases.

I refuse to strip all experts of a special title. I refuse to treat a person with an undergraduate degree in psychology as just as knowledgeable about the American Revolution as a PhD in American history who specializes in that time period. What is the point of higher education if people cannot earn distinctions? And if you earn a distinction, why shouldn't you check other people who have not?

I'm not software or computer savvy, admittedly, so I can't wade into arguments about software and information control in a technical way. I can only speak on the societal issue, and I put this kind of debate into a larger context in which no one is allowed to have authority. I am not arguing for more governmental authority per se, and certainly no more infringements on civil liberties and other freedoms, but I do believe that if someone proves themselves that they should have more stature when it comes to their specialty, whether it's a laywer, a carpenter, a professor, a plumber, whatever. They can still be questioned, but they can lead the way sometimes.

The resistance seems to throw that out. Power to the people! Now that's a call I can support, and I'm all for questioning, debating and investigating the information we receive. But claiming that something interactive online is the great equalizer is simple-minded, and lowers the value of that thing.

Sangor's call for accountability also strikes me as quite smart. I posted something on Second Life earlier - online aliases are par for the course in any number of virtual arenas now, and it does allow people to escape responsibility. When dealing with the transmission of information, this is incredibly problematic. Should we not know credentials? Should we dismiss any evidence of understanding and just allow anyone to speak on any issue, without anything but a self-created name to identify them?

I fear I'm making a conservative argument, something I rarely if ever do, so I'm going to continue thinking this issue through.