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.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Charles Frazier Loves Money

As if to prove my point, we have this Newseek story about Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier. After being painted as soft, sweet, and humble by the writer of the piece, we get this wee bit of information:
By April 2002, Frazier had already done some legwork on the book, but knew what he'd written was too woolly to show prospective publishers: "It'd go from a pretty finished scene that was five or 10 pages long, to 10 pages of plant names, to the recipe for yellow-jacket soup." Instead, he wrote a one-page proposal for "Thirteen Moons" before coffee one morning. Random House paid $8.25 million for it, and producer Scott Rudin ponied up $3 million for the movie rights. Frazier was admonished in some newspapers for leaving the small publisher, Grove Atlantic, that had discovered him, though he's still friends with his former editor. (Grove had bid $6 million in partnership with Vintage paperbacks.) It was not an entirely pleasant time for such a private person, although, sure, there are worse problems a guy could have.

We're then told the new novel has "pacifist undercurrents." Huh. And then the poor author explains himself:

Even now, after advance raves for the new novel, there is still the occasional snipe in the media about Frazier's rich deal—evidence of our peculiar, self-fulfilling notion that art should never sell and that only hacks should get the big bucks. "All that stuff about money—I sort of understand where it comes from. Do I like it? No, I don't, but it comes with the territory," says Frazier. He's sitting in a coffee lounge, waiting for a meeting about a translation project he's funding to render portions of the novel into Cherokee, part of an initiative to keep the language alive. "I saw something that said I was 'the symbol of greed in the publishing industry.' I'm not the one who decided what the offers were gonna be on the book. And it's not like I went into this just looking to take the highest offer." Several offers were in the same vicinity, he says, but the strength of Random House's marketing team was a factor. The publisher could hardly be handling the novel with more gravitas. [my emphasis]

Art can sell, and great, literary writers can make money, but an artist in it for the art, who has a true love of writing and reading and books, would not join up with a corporate body intent ONLY on making money. Random House with a strong marketing team... amazing. It's like saying you should move to America because of the strength of security offered here. And just as companies that make sneakers cut costs in the manufacturing end with sweatshops so they can boost their marketing budgets, relying more on sales than production, so publishers boost their marketing budgets and load up on these big sellers while ditching mid-range books - and then authors who know they can sell celebrate this move by letting these companies publish their books! And for Frazier to shrug and say, "I'm not the one who decided what the offers were gonna be on the book. And it's not like I went into this just looking to take the highest offer." It's criminal, and he should be ashamed.

A friend rightly pointed out to me that not all bestsellers are crap - I truly agree with her. But my point is not that a book automatically is crap if it's a bestseller, or if its published by Random House. Charles Frazier's new book sounds incredible (though at least buy it at an independent bookstore, people). My point is that authors at a level like Frazier or like Updike, mentioned in my earlier post, could do other writers a service, could do the book culture a service, by showing some solidarity and publishing at independent presses - even Grove Atlantic, large and powerful but independent. And mind you, the offer was with Vintage already in for the paperback, meaning there was no fear of the book being dropped after hardcover publication and certainly no real concern about publicity and marketing.

I just had to add to my last rant, as I think bloated advances from corporate houses are just as responsible for the weezing of quality book publishing as these new fangled electronic-manuscripts-as-books. Maybe that's just me.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Now What: The Long Tail of (some) Lit; $; A Shift in Lit Culture; What's This Blog For?

This post, on "Now What" blog, was very interesting to me:

Now What: The Long Tail of (some) Lit; $; A Shift in Lit Culture; What's This Blog For?

I don't agree with it 100%, but I think it brings up many valid points and does a fine job unpacking some issues currently in discussion.

Strangely for a blog that bills itself as a "collective," it fails to bring up solidarity. Writers need to support other writers. And if you're in it for the money, you're playing a different (and in my opinion, dirty) game. As an editor, I'd like to point out that most of us working in publishing aren't making much, just for the record. The fact is, if you bring your work to an independent publisher and take a lower advance and don't rely on royalties to allow you to live like a king, you could end up with a book that has "a long tail," and you could end up getting the kind of attention you want from your publisher - a responsive editor, hard-working publicist, dedicated marketing (again, none of whom are making a ton of money themselves). And this way, you're not "giving away the content" but putting it out in a way that supports independence in the media, and if you do well, supports other writers with the same mentality (ie, other authors on the publisher's list).

I guess I worry about this YouTube culture, this giving away of content. That's what this blog is about. And my concern is that it can in fact be just a base form of capitalism wrapped in the guise of "independent artistic expression." Stories about 24 year old kids in the middle of nowhere being made famous by their entry on YouTube feed this kind of thinking - you can be famous too online, without anyone's help! But then who are you, in turn, helping? You think you're just doing it for you, but the people making chump change off your mock dance video are the advertisers. The internet is not free space, people, it's bought and paid for by corporations that want a return on their investment.

So this idea of authors going online and disseminating their books for free, celebrating the fact that it's reaching more people... I appreciate this sentiment, especially when we're talking - as the folks at Now What are here - about poets who are largely shut out of book publishing. (sidenote: there was a great piece in publishers weekly about the reality of publishing poetry). But rather than claim artistic purity for transmitting your art electronically, to the supposed masses, why not envision this as a way to build a name, at best. When that name is built, start looking out for others.

In some ways, this reminds me of the many people I meet who say they want to be writers, the unsolicited proposals for memoirs - and when these people are asked what they themselves read, they come up blank or mention only bestsellers. This is not always the case, of course, but when it happens, I get incredibly frustrated. You want to be a writer? Then read. You want to publish your work? Then support independent publishers and bookstores (they are, in fact, NOT dead!). And you want to benefit from your writing financially? Fine, but don't forget about the others.

Without solidarity, we get writers that are just out for themselves, and readers get choices, choices, choices - but I'm not convinced they won't eventually throw up their hands and go back to Danielle Steel. My argument ultimately is that there is still something to be said for a publisher's list, and for readers going to that publisher because they know their books. But for this to exist, you need editors (like me, yes) who can act as gatekeepers, and that's when people call "elitism!" and claim people are unfairly shut out. I'm not convinced that the answer is to run to the internet and disseminate for "free," because the wrong people end up making the money, and the art is compromised.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Voting for Avatars, the real world again moves to a "real world"

News came yesterday that Former Virginia Governor and potential Democrat presidential nominee Mark Warner will be conducting an online interview - as a Second Life avatar. Wagner James Au will conduct the interview, sponsored by Warner's PAC Forward Together, and posted on his own non-partisan blog New World Notes.

The reason I bring this up on a blog about publishing? In this age of authors having their own or collective myspace pages, it's just a matter of time before authors will need to create avatars to interact with people online. I have no problem with this - a blogger friend of mine, also in publishing, just recently posted about his introduction to Second Life.

The fact is, we're in a new phase of marketing authors - especially novelists, who are working in such a crowded market, who realistically cannot rely on their literary skill alone to get them at least the initial attention they need to sell books. There are endless debates of course, and I for one admit that I'm a bit put off by people who embrace these publicity opportunities with so much relish. James Othmer wrote about his efforts, comparing himself to Mark Twain. Bold, indeed! He used the skills he learned in advertising for himself, as a novelist. But what else to do? As an irregular reader of fiction at best, I find books the old fashioned way: by browsing stores and finding a novel (always in paperback) that intrigues me, or by hearing about a classic novel that I've been meaning to read and then going out and finding it, oftentimes, I admit, used. I can't say I'd be won over by a myspace page, though I do appreciate a good author website - Steve Almond's, for example. But when I send my authors from editorial into marketing and publicity, I do all I can to prep them for self-promotion. If one of them had a background in advertising... wouldn't I coerce them into putting it to use? If Anderson Cooper came a'knocking, wouldn't I tell my author to shower up, dress pretty, and start selling books?

But I guess I still wonder whom this reader is, the reader convinced to buy a novel based on myspace or, soon if not already, a Second Life avatar. I suppose it's all about word of mouth, and getting your name as a writer in the place where people are communicating. And people are not communicating with each other, are not holding conversations like they used to, in newspapers. Instead, they are moving towards more immediately interactive sources - websites like myspace and virtual realities like Second Life. The line between "being told" and just "hearing" about things like books and authors is blurred. I frequently hear people complain about reviews, especially for movies: they don't read them b/c they don't like being told what to think. They might allow for Rotten Tomatoes because there are multiple posts, choices, an interactive element.

So we end up back at this fundamental debate, just where we were in discussing posting manuscripts online. People want works of art they can get their hands on, interact with, they can alter and personalize. A gatekeeper of any kind - an editor like me, a curator, even a reviewer - becomes a symbol of elitism. The individualist in me - I'm rarely a joiner - admires this concept, but in practice, it's shaky, and put into the hands of money-grubbing capitalists, it's terrifying. It seems we need to allow room for both - give people what they want, because they'll find a way, but provide for those that still respect the vision of artists and gatekeepers working together to create something unifying, consistent, expressing a certain voice that becomes an identity - as a single author or a publisher or a museum. If we were to make this political, I am still figuring out if this kind of individualist future, this handing over of art to the masses, this watery line between artist/art and spectator, is progressive. My sneaking suspicion is that it's sold to us as freeing, as empowering the artist, but is in fact a bit like the Virgin cell phones are liberating - just an advertising line used while corporations expand their markets. But I also mentioned the term "identity" up above, which suddenly sounds very corporate, like "branding." The corporations have co-opted this language and now it's untrustworthy. What do I want of these poor authors?!

And then we're back to Mr. Othmer, the ex-ad-exec, selling his wares using the skills of the trade, while comparing himself to Oscar Wilde while attempting to both get himself on the Daily Show and reviewed in the NY Review of Books. But I read that article, directly from the author, and I don't know the first thing about his novel. That's just plain creepy, no? Has his self-promotion overpowered his actual interest in his art? Do my pushing of an author to self-promote take away from their passion for the subject?