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.