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 wearesmarter.org - 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.