Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It ain't quite news, but...

I would recommend popping over to Caleb Crain's article in the New Yorker, entitled "Twilight of hte Books: What Will Life Be Like if People Stop Reading?" Yes, it's more of this kind of talk about reading, and you may not learn any shockingly new information, just that people read less and it sucks. And it does suck, folks.

But this was intriguing to me:
There’s no reason to think that reading and writing are about to become extinct, but some sociologists speculate that reading books for pleasure will one day be the province of a special “reading class,” much as it was before the arrival of mass literacy, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They warn that it probably won’t regain the prestige of exclusivity; it may just become “an increasingly arcane hobby.” Such a shift would change the texture of society. If one person decides to watch “The Sopranos” rather than to read Leonardo Sciascia’s novella “To Each His Own,” the culture goes on largely as before—both viewer and reader are entertaining themselves while learning something about the Mafia in the bargain. But if, over time, many people choose television over books, then a nation’s conversation with itself is likely to change. A reader learns about the world and imagines it differently from the way a viewer does; according to some experimental psychologists, a reader and a viewer even think differently. If the eclipse of reading continues, the alteration is likely to matter in ways that aren’t foreseeable.

I know, it's a bit ominous and speculative, but I did say "intriguing." I just wonder if there isn't already a reading class. Isn't this what these studies are showing when they give us these high percentage numbers of people who haven't read more than a street sign in the last decade? How much more proof do we require? And we all just know that there is certain topics you do not bring up in certain groups, that you hold your tongue about a new literary novel if you're with, say, my family. If Oprah hasn't mentioned it, they are not likely to know it, even if it's ubiquitous in other circles of people. Those circles? Reading class.

The reading class maybe be a disparate group, though. While working in a very upscale Barnes & Noble, I was always amazed at these business folks coming in, whether after work or while in town and heading home, and buying the latest politico or business hardcovers, full price. (The business ones were the worst - oof, those titles looked painful, and all very very similar.) These were readers, but what they were devouring, what they were consuming at a high price, was not what I think of when I hear "reading class." I suppose it's a matter of literature, as I think of new fiction (which I don't read much, mind you) and literary, New Yorker-esque non-fiction, and maybe leftist screeds, which I sometimes enjoy. But the group I'm thinking of reads this stuff and talks about it and then forms this little elite circle - "you must have read ____ - and I hate it. And I think of my mother reading Nora Roberts and I think, so she's a reader, too! But then I cannot discuss Nora Roberts. And I think of those business folks reading Jack Welch or some other evil business fascist and I think, they're readers! But I don't want to know.

So when they say a "reading class" will develop, it seems to play into this concept of reading as just what I think of as "reading class," of somewhat elitist, highly educated, middle class folks, not reading about hunting or investing or Maeve Binchy. But while I don't want to read about any of these, I do think we have to balance some of this crying about the death of reading with a celebration of the diversity of books out there, and the unique pockets of markets - sorry to use business speak. What's going on in women's near-romance fiction, or real estate titles, or test preparation books? What other ways do we have of engaging a variety of people with the written word?

I'm not ready to give up on Americans, even if they sit in front of the television every night. Crain's article is definitely interesting, but I'd like someone real real smart to write something more promising instead of predicting this reading class - because I worry, might it be self-fulfilling?

Thank you, galleycat, for a brief but smart rebuttal, concluding: "the solution isn't so much about convincing people that reading is fabulous as it is about figuring out how they ever forgot it in the first place." Kudos.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Brattle Book Shop

I thought this article would be more substantial when I saw it linked from Shelf Awareness, but it's from the very lame "Sidekick" section.

Anyhow, it's a Boston Globe mention of the wonderful Brattle Book Shop, the best used bookstore in Boston. I link it here as we approach a very big gift-giving holiday, as a reminder to people that they should use this place, for everything from stocking stuffers to major gifts (first printing/first editions!).
And this, my friends, is apparently my 100th post. Hot damn.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You know I had to

I could not let this article by Motoko Rich at the NY Times go without linking. It's kind of the whole point of this blog, right?

Note the quotes:
“I think books are still things, thank goodness, that people want to own,” said Michael Jacobs, chief executive of Abrams. “The package of the book and the way it feels is something apart and separate from being able to read it online.”

and later:
Some readers are already catching on. Mel Odom, a writer and father of five in Moore, Okla., ordered a copy of “Shooting War,” because he “wanted something I could put on my shelf.” Mr. Odom, who also bought his youngest son a copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” after he read the entire thing online, added: “There’s nothing like holding the weight and smelling the paper.”

The article has a few stories about people putting things online and then selling it in book form later. It makes a quick, somewhat buried point about there being many bad examples of this as well, when bloggers' books dissapoint.

But all in all, the point is that things can work online and later in print. On the academic end of things, check out MIT Press and their advancements in making titles Open Access. Pretty exciting stuff.

It's snowing hard here in Boston, so more later perhaps...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Author scams - big time in the small time

I know political books are a strange game, and that people mess around with these books because they fear the ideas. When I was working at a Borders, once, I heard a customer bring a Dr. Laura Schlessinger book up to a fellow cashier and ask us to remove it from the shelf because she's homophobic. (my apologies for the link - click at your own discretion, as it's really her site.) Now, see here: this woman is NUTS. I've heard her show, sadly, and I've glanced at her books, with are written with her trademark shrill, overly moralistic tone. And I would hardly argue against accusations of homophobia. But I'm not sure it's at the level that it needs to be expunged from box store shelves. I've written about this before so I won't go into it, but I just wanted to mention the story as an example of how customers react to political books and authors.

When I was in the BookHampton in South Hampton last winter, which was a lovely little store with helpful staff, the cashier told me that they had had a political book table set up for the 2004 elections, and they had nothing but trouble. People were moving piles of books out of sight and turning books around, trying to silence the ones they didn't like. In an age of people calling books obsolete, these are visceral reactions.

But Shelf Awareness, in their daily email today, has this story from Kerry Slattery, general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, that is completely nuts:
"The author Eric Alterman [a columnist at the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, When Presidents Lie and more] was scheduled to appear at our store, and C-Span was planning to cover it. I got a call that morning from 'Eric Alterman's assistant,' who told me that he was terribly sorry, but that Eric woke up with a serious case of bronchitis and would not be able to catch his plane to do the event and wasn't able to talk at all--and that he felt just terrible about it. It was a very busy moment at the store and I didn't think to get the number, etc. The first thing I thought of was to call C-Span and let them know. I don't know why I didn't think to call the publicity person at the publisher, but I didn't have it handy and I was really busy, and the call seemed convincing to me. When I called C-Span, they contacted the publisher and found out that Alterman was indeed planning to appear and that the call was a scam (apparently from someone who didn't agree with the author's political views)! Fortunately, I hadn't sent out a cancellation e-mail, and everything was fine, but I felt so foolish for being taken in."

What is wrong with people? And Eric Alterman is not exactly calling for the overthrow of the media entirely - something I again would not necessarily oppose. And yet he elicits this kind of scam from some whackjob.

Well good - let books and authors anger people. It annoys me when you have talking heads screaming at one another on primetime "news" shows, but it's somehow satisfying to know that people who *don't* like Alterman and thinkers like him are nervous. Booksellers, however, watch out for these ridiculous scams!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Osnos on Kindle

So this email has been sitting in my inbox, waiting patiently to be read, for a few days. I didn't delete it as I knew I wanted to read it and would probably post about it, but who had time? Not me, not this week. Until today.

The email in question was the the latest Platform "column" from Peter Osnos, as published by the Century Foundation. He's writing about - what else? - Amazon's Kindle. This li'l device is like the electronic version of Britney Spears - I am sick to death of hearing about both. But he makes good points about the Amazon business model and the need to embrace various ways of publishing books, as the music has done (or in some cases, has resisted, futilely).

But I did like this strangely circular story - circularly insofar as he's a book editor trying to edit on the latest gadget to electronicize books:
As an editor, I was especially interested in the promise of downloading documents and manuscripts from my computer so I could read them and take notes without hauling wheelbarrows full of paper. My first effort ended in a two-hour session with Kindle customer service that reflected how much supplier and user still needed to learn. But after a bit of practice, I succeeded in a sending myself a PDF of a manuscript.

I had heard that you could take notes on this thing, which is an improvement - my partner, an academic, was particularly pleased to hear this, though I am not running out to buy one and throw it under the tree. But as an editor? I just never conceived of using it in this way. But I'm old-fashioned, obviously: I still do my first full edit on a manuscript with paper and pencil. I know, I know.

So I'm over Kindle. Maybe others are just getting excited, and more will open a Kindle on Christmas morning and squeal and play with it and download John Grisham, etc etc. I might like to play with a display model, but that's about as much interest as I can muster. Blame media saturation or stodginess.

I was more excited to hear about JetBlue getting WiFi on their planes. Airlines have no excuse for moving along on this. Mind you, I don't travel much and my laptop is not sleek and light, so I never take it on flights, but still, this seems like progress.

Monday, December 03, 2007

On design

So galleycat mentioned in his post this morning that it-boy design Chip Kidd had commented about the Kindle and what it and such things will mean for book design. I tried to go to the site where he commented, A Brief Message, but I couldn't see his post, which had generated over 100 comments. The image, at least on my display, is right over his post, but I could copy and paste it to read it. I'm just going to reproduce it in full here, though again, it originally appeared on A Brief Message:

On Monday November 19th, Amazon released something called Kindle, the latest “e-book” reading device. I’ve been asked to comment on what effect I think this will have, if any, on book design as we know it. Here goes.

None.

Sincerely, Chip Kidd

PS: What no one seems to get through their thick skulls, even after untold millions of dollars have been wasted on the concept: PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO READ BOOKS ON A SCREEN. Why is that so hard for someone as obviously smart as Jeff Bezos to accept? The reason the iPod took off is that music was never meant to be a “thing” in the first place. It was born as pure sound, and pure sound is what it has returned to. But books were always physical objects, and the printed book as a piece of technology has yet to be improved upon. And won’t. Certainly not by something that looks like a prop from Charlie’s Angels and has, are you ready, a whopping ONE typeface. For everything! Yay! For further explanation as to why this is doomed, go to Amazon’s own website and read Kindle’s Customer Reviews. Ouch. Caveat emptor!

Well said, sir! So "Chip Kidd" of him to put the content in the post-script.

My own PS: Chip Kidd's usual site seems to be down, hence the link to the NY Times piece on him.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Poor freelancers

With the writer's strike in full swing - a fight worth fighting, doing wonders for that heroine Tina Fey in terms of PR admittedly - I was interested in this NY Times story by Richard Perez-Pena (pardon the lack of accents, don't know how to do on blogspot), linked through Shelf Awareness, regarding freelancers getting compensated for electronic distribution of their work.

It seems a federal appeals court has thrown out a settlement made between publishers - the list includes the New York Times Company, the Tribune Company, and Thomson Corp - and journalists, presumably represented by the National Writers Union, led currently by Gerard Colby. The settlement would have compensated the freelancers to some extent, with a cap for the publishers of $18 million - which, quite frankly, doesn't seem like a ton of money on the whole. But the judge decided that a federal court should not have jurisdiction to allow for such a settlement since most of the writers did not register the material in question for copyright, seeing as they were articles done before 2001. Judge Chester J. Straub claimed the lower court had erred in accepting the settlement.

The internet is still, it seems, the Wild West, and corporations are desperately trying to eke every last cent out of it regardless of whom they have to trample to do it. While the internet offers great promise, it seems vital to note this other side of it, the opportunity it provides for corporations to take the ball and run with it, giving no credit to the quarterback who threw the pass. (Did I just make an awkward football analogy? wtf?)

I of course think of authors who are thrilled to have a division of Random House, say, acquire their proposal, but then watch as their book disappears into the maze. They don't know the cover design, phonecalls aren't returned, the pub date may have changed - why does the catalogue say December? Why isn't my book in this catalogue? Where did that image come from? PAPERBACK?! But it was never in hardcover!

Some agents do a fine job protecting clients from such abuse by publishers, but offering content to a giant corporation is still a scarey endeavor. I feel for these authors. When it's a complete book, authors often say it's like their baby. In this court case, it's not quite the same, but we should all imagine our words and our names going up online without fair compensation, without our permission. It's fundamentally unfair.

I enjoyed this rant about writer compensation for dvds from writer/director Harlan Ellison - not safe for work - that was taken from the film, "Dreams with Sharp Teeth."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

More inside dirt

I thought it was worth posting some insider perspective - the latest article from Peter Osnos at the Century Foundation, called "What Is a Story?" He explains how the posting of the Spring 2008 PublicAffairs catalogue online could cause a media frenzy, about a book that will not be published for another six months.

The book, of course, is Scott McClellan's What Happened. I find these insider politico books a bit boring. I glanced at David Kuo's Tempting Faith and just couldn't muster interest (though I kind of appreciate the author's blog on Belief.net, J-Walking - the "J" being Jesus). But Osnos' recounting of how the media takes something and runs with it, in this world of viral marketing and endless tagging, is of interest. I suppose it could happen with a smaller press than PublicAffairs, but the media would look to PA for such politico stuff and McClellan's book is an obvious one to watch.

Lest we forget, Osnos is also defending the book in this piece - he has a vested interest, so this is not a clear-eyed, objective accounting. It's not history, it's current, and he has to do some damage control for this book in its pre-publication phase. But here we have, folks, a little glance behind the curtain. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Myth of Utopian Online Communities

I have no problem with social networking sites. I have used them, and they can be a quick and easy way to connect or re-connect with people. But I don't think we can pin our hopes for a more communal future on these sites, which are generally run by corporations. Myspace is, of course, owned by News Corp. But Facebook remains independent, still run by the Harvard grad who started it. So this is the key to our utopian community!

Um... well....

Have you been on Facebook? I signed up reluctantly after I kept getting request from friends, and they are all pretty serious users, it seems. At first, I was getting bizarre emails daily, with these people sending me things that required me to add features to my page - you got a drink from X, Y wants to share a movie clip, Z wants to play you in this game. I didn't like the adding of these features because I didn't know what they were and I didn't want to get so involved in a website like this. To stay on message for this blog, I'll say that I wanted to read instead - you know, a book, a quiet, solitary book.

But I started writing this post because of this article by Jessica Guynn in the LA Times (linked from MediaBistro). It seems MoveOn.org is mad at Facebook for a new feature that allows users to "notify friends about movies they rent, items they auction and movie tickets they buy at partner sites elsewhere on the Web." They see this as too corporate and a violation of privacy. I'm sure they're right - but why are they surprised to find it on Facebook?

I was also surprised and creeped out by this article in the Boston Globe yesterday, by Robert W. Welkos (and also, originally, in the LA Times, as it turns out). It's about Paramount Vantage, the company behind the film version of Khaled Housseini's The Kite Runner, creating this network of "clubs" to promote the film to people who liked the book. Each club as a "captain," and the captain who pulls in the most members gets to share a meal with the author. But before you mutter "pyramid scheme," here's the film co.'s justification:
"We wanted to develop a platform to give those very engaged fans an opportunity to take their love of that book and spread it around and give them an opportunity to meet Khaled Hosseini," said Bladimiar Norman, head of interactive marketing at Paramount Vantage. "The idea is to allow word-of-mouth for the film to spread in the same way that love for the book spread by word-of-mouth."
I found this so odd. An opportunity? You're just creating a network of essentially unpaid help! And people are doing it! I'm all for helping the book and I've heard it's wonderful - though I was put off my Laura Bush's endorsement. Sorry, Housseini, guilt by association. I wonder, is the First Lady or even the President looking into becoming a "captain" for a DC club? But anyway, this is again a corporate giant creating a kind of social network in order to promote their product, something done in various forms, it seems to me, on social networking sites all the time. But if you put a feature on Myspace that allows unknown musicians to put up their music, that's great - how can you stop people from putting up their favorite song, which happens to be some bland corporate rock that already has millions of marketing dollars behind it? It's like when people call radio stations and request a song that's already on the station constantly - at some point, the marketing works and/or the product has some cultural resonance and people promote it themselves. People are not always going to promote indie music or publishers or bookstores.

As the kids say on these sites, sigh. All we can do as concientious consumers and readers is try to use these tools for good and not evil, right? But I can't get too upset by corporate infiltration of Facebook. That's my point. It's ripe for this kind of thing. Moveon should probably do just that. But if someone called as a "club captain" and tried to get me to join some group, saying "it'll be fun" and/or "do it for me - we're friends," I'd have to call foul. But I guess that's what I do after all - join Facebook and resist add-ons. That shouldn't make me feel any better than the person with every feature bouncing around their page - it just makes me feel better about my smugness. Harumph.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Holy Crazy, Judith...

Publishers Weekly kindly summarizes the Harpers Bazaar article by and about - of course - Judith Regan. They rightly note with amazement the accompanying photo of Regan, by photographer David Turner:

Oh my crazy.

I love a good martyr as much as the next fallen Catholic, but this woman makes herself out to be a modern St. Francis of Assisi, and I think she needs a bit of perspective. I'd like to note that, at one point in reading her article, I actually was hearing it in Michael Jackson's voice. I think it was when she called the media "vicious," which was hilarious, like a longstanding politician going on about how much he hates politics.

People, click now. This article is just... it's like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Dolly Parton at once, with a dollup of syrupy sugar on top. It's Lifetime meets Bravo. It's like the photos of a tabloid coming to life, speaking, using the same rhetoric employed by the tabloids themselves.

They tried to hurt me, and maybe they did, but I know this much is true: You can take your punches, and you can take everything away from me, but no one will ever hijack my imagination, my drive, my creative spirit, or my dignity.

Judith, you're my own personal Dreamgirl...

She made her fortune selling books like Drew Barrymore's Little Girl Lost and Howard Stern's disgusting tomes, not to mention Rush Limbaugh! And really, I'm honored that you've given us the James McGreevey story.

And as for OJ...

With time came my vindication on the O.J. front, people say. The Simpson book, published by another company, was a number-one best seller: number one on Amazon and Barnes & Noble online, number two on the New York Times list. Though some had buried their heads in the sand and said they'd never carry it, they
did. Now, as I'd always maintained, the book is regarded by many, including the Goldman family, as a confession.

Yes, you win, Judith. American culture was certainly bumped up a notch with this publication. We got smarter, our reputation the world over improved, and I'm sure the Goldmans are hardly even grieving anymore. I hope they sent a Thank You card.

And I didn't even mention that people claimed, she said, that she had male genitalia. I spit up my yoghurt like a one year old when I read that line. Just gorgeous. Oh, would that Ann Coulter writes such an article...

I can appreciate her realization of her own controlling nature, her need to leave her office. We editors have this problem, we don't know when to let go, when to move on. People do spend many hours at work in publishing, and most of us aren't saving lives, we're not fighting evil. Books are important to me, but my office ain't the ER. So good, she got some perspective on that, but... um... It was Aaron Spelling perspective, like a rich person giving their "help" a Christmas bonus to make themselves feel better.

Good luck on your journey, Judith. But please suspend the inevitable production of any album of music, and just keep writing this tripe. It's delicious, if not a bit rich. You could do a column with Billy Masters (note before clicking: gay content! and may not all be SFW) and you'll surely find a whole new and very excited readership. Be strong, woman, and don't let the haters get you down!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Consider it launched

I am already sick of the AmazonKindle. Isn't that how we're writing things now, without spaces between words? When will Coke become CocaCola? Just a matter of time.

Anyhow, it's worth watching the KindleVideo in the link, above. First of all, I'm amazed by how ad agencies find the most inoffensive, generic looking white people. This guy reminds me of the one who does irritating ads at the local AMC. They wear Filenes-style button downs and slacks and sneakers and plenty of gel and have very even skin, sans blemishes - but are not overly attractive.

Anyhow again, this device doesn't seem all that great, to be honest. The page turn buttons look like they're just asking for trouble -a bump here and there and they'll be hanging off the sides. And I'm also not clear on how it's so easy to log on from anywhere, though I assume it's like a Blackberry. I do enjoy how the actor was clearly told to look as casual as possible, carrying the device and moving it around like it was just a $10 paperback. "Clutch is in your hand, not in the bag, and look unconcerned with its well-being!"

There's plenty of media about the launch, including this big Newsweek piece on Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO. Huh - that title sounds about as big and corporate as it should, I suppose.

Publishers Lunch in today's email brings up other big news in conjunction with this in a way I certainly appreciated:
But right before Jeff Bezos took to the podium to introduce a device designed squarely for core "pleasure readers" with disposable income, the NEA dropped their latest reading scare release. Analyzing a wealth of government data (approximately two dozen studies) instead of a single survey, this report sounds a new alarm--that "reading for pleasure" is in decline.NEA Chairman Dana Gioia sums it up this way: "We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life."

More on the NEA's announcement here (WaPo, may need to subscribe).

My favorite line from Gioia was: "I guarantee that if we could expand the coverage in the media, you'd immediately see people responding. People are looking for things to do that aren't dumb. I don't think that Americans are dumber than before, but I do believe our public culture is." Very well put, sir.

So maybe electronic devices will excel when younger, hipper people start demanding them, and maybe they'll become more user-friendly and accessibly priced, and people will read more. Great! For now, this Kindle ain't got me on fire.

Ouch. My apologies.

Friday, November 16, 2007

An Editorial Snapshot

I thought this nice post from Random House editor David Ebershoff about working with Norman Mailer on his last few books, posted over at Critical Mass, might be of interest. It's a sweet, short piece. (I'm a fan of that site, a blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors).


The last time I saw Norman Mailer was at a public memorial service for William Styron held last year at the Boston Public Library. I thought I blogged about this, but maybe not. He was the final speaker, after Michael Lowenthal and others, and he made some rude comment about how the men spoke louder than the women, and if Hilary wants to be President she'll have to take a lesson from men, blah blah blah. Your usual Mailer stuff. Everyone laughed, including my former boss and her friend, both proud second-wave feminists who surely shook rightful fists at Mailer in another time. I'd like to say he wasn't just a caricature at that point, and truly his stories of Styron were interesting - both self-aggrandizing and conflicted, apologetic but somehow still boastful.

I had met Mailer at a party at the Museum of Natural History in London, for the Orange Prize. It was the year when Zadie Smith was nominated for her first book, and she was there and she was gorgeous, but she was also a loser. My boss, a literary agent, was representing another lesser known nominee who, it turned out, knew Mailer, so I found myself meeting him and his wife, whom I vaguely recognized as an actress in a television show played late at night in syndication about waitresses who worked in a restaurant at the top of a building, with Ann Jillian - "It's a Living," I see from imdb. And turns out, it wasn't her, she's actually a novelist herself. Anyhow, Mailer was much more charming on this more intimate level, and incredibly kind about up and coming authors. It was P-town Mailer, perhaps.

With his passing, I read a few obits of him and listened to an old Terry Gross interview from Fresh Air. Do we still have literary characters like this in pop culture, I wonder? Dave Eggers was almost one with his first book, but I don't know that we have many more literary turks. Jonathan Safran Foer and people like him have a certain hipness, but I don't think they're found on primetime television or on late night talk shows. Too bad - where's Dick Cavett when we need him? (Blogging at the NY Times?!)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hard to find the tears

Stephanie Miller, on her often-amusing radio show, has a segment or maybe just often mentions stories of the Right eating their own. One good example is Mitt Romney firing Larry Craig as head of his Idaho campaign team after the bathroom sex scandal.

I thought of this eating of their own when I saw the latest news on our old colleague Judith Regan. It seems she's suing HarperCollins, her former employer, and parent company News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for a cool $100 million. I just assume this woman doesn't get out of bed to slap her assistant and order a few mimosas for any less than $10 million, right?

Now the case itself is about her relationship with Bernard Kerik while she published him - she may have done some more personal editing, it seems. Honestly, this woman turns more into a Dynasty character by the second!

But regardless of the details, one can't help but view this story through the lens of her love of sensationalism and media coverage, and I think that's just fine. It'll give the fatcat media lawyers at HC something to do. Ultimately, HarperCollins could just cut her a check for $50 million and tell her to buy herself something pretty - and no one will be the worse for it. It's just too difficult to be concerned with Murdoch and co.

Maybe I'm just bitter because I recently lost an author to HarperCollins, but then what editor hasn't? One sometimes feels, with all their divisions, that they're just sucking up good projects from all corners. And to be honest, I hope this media story begins and ends with this, because my interest is already waning... UNLESS there are stories of Regan and HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman getting into fights resulting in them both, fur shawls and all, toppling into the pool, a la Krystle Carrington and Alexis Colby. That'll keep me reading for at least one more article.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Voice of Reason

Admittedly, this "voice" is not mine, at least not originally.

It's Clayton Collins over at the Christian Science Monitor, with an article posted on Alternet. (Pardon the general link to CSM, and follow the "article" link to the actual piece. I couldn't find the article on the CSM site - I wanted to link to the initial source. Though I should say, I did read it on Alternet. I should also say, how good is that CSM site looking? I went and poked around and left, but in that limited time found an article to print out. I'll bookmark that for later.) The article had me at its opening with Caitlin Lyons at the Brattle Book Shop, a place that some believe is the kind of shop on every street corner here in Boston. The good news and bad news is that this is a myth, that this bookstore is a unique and wonderful place full of great used books - and some real garbage that's really fun to peruse outdoors and possibly even, on occasion, buy for $3. Anyone in Boston should schedule a monthly visit, and anyone visiting should put it on the list. You won't find it by accident so plan ahead.

Anyhow, Collins wades into the e-book discussion here with a fairly short, smart article considering the reality of where we are with e-books. This isn't futuristic prediction or luddite whinging, but a straight-forward assessment, and I appreciate that. The e-book is no more a threat, ultimately, than audio books, which certainly have their audience (my mother among them). And this audience is not exclusively audio-reliant - they still buy and read books. So some folks might want to download books to read on some kind of e-reader, but they might still get excited in a bookstore while holding a book, and they might buy it. The real question is, are they going to read more or less, ultimately, with an e-reader of some kind?

I suppose I'd like to think that we in publishing are all on a mission to get people to read the ideas of our authors, but the reality is that corporate publishers are in it to make money. Again, they are creating product. And even people like me must look at the cold hard facts because a company cannot stay afloat on good intentions alone. Even a place like the New Press, amongst other things, relies on big sellers like Studs Terkel books to support more experimental or risky projects. He's doing fine work, culturally and politically, and one must respect that his choice to publish with this press helps the other books on the list.

My point is that the non-profit, mission-drive publishing world should embrace this technology as another way to spread the ideas of their authors, but they must find an economically advantageous way to do this. It's probably necessary to find a way to do it collectively, showing some solidarity and spreading the risk a bit more. Maybe there are models out there. But we can all do it and still have the books we cherish, and I'd like to think, as this article seems to suggest, that they'll be around for awhile even as people start reading digital print more and more.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

And then they ate their own?!!?!11?!1?1?1?!/1/1!?!

Can you help feeling a little bit of satisfaction after reading this article from Motoko Rich at the NY Times about authors suing their own publisher, the freakishly conservative Regnery? I mean, George Saunders could not come up with this kind of perfection - the Swift Boat Veterans suing a conservative publisher. Sigh. It's just beautiful.

The lead:
Five authors have sued the parent company of Regnery Publishing, a Washington imprint of conservative books, charging that the company deprives its writers of royalties by selling their books at a steep discount to book clubs and other organizations owned by the same parent company.

Conservatives being dishonest in their business practices?! As the kids say, wtf?!

Read this piece, please. Add this news to a sunny, cold fall day in New England, and I must confess, for a generally grumpy guy, I am one happy (lefty) editor.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Oh, reader, please forgive me

It's been almost two weeks since my last post.

I've realized this is such a huge component of a successful blog - regular posts. Simple point, but people who post consistently and often are more likely to have return visitors. Sadly, this is not a strong suit for me, due to various busy-ness on my end.

Alas, I wanted to link to an interesting Slate piece today about the controversy around Tess Gallagher's threat, if you will, to publish her late husband Raymond Carver's writings pre-editing, before famous - infamous? - editor Gordon Lish got ahold of them. From the above-linked NY Times article:
Tess Gallagher, the widow of Raymond Carver, one of the most celebrated American short-story writers of the 20th century, is spearheading an effort to publish a volume of 17 original Carver stories whose highly edited versions were published in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” his breakout 1981 book.
Shocking stuff, with potential to set a precedent or a trend or have a ripple effect.

The Slate piece is by Gerald Howard, an editor at Doubleday who himself edited Mr. Lish on the novel, My Romance, while at Norton. Some interesting insight into the editorial process, even if in a most extreme case.

So much of publishing is based on reputation and personality. The defining paragraph in this piece makes that clear:
My wariness had to do, however, with Lish's reputation as a bit of a madman, of the sort publishing houses no longer welcome. I was at Viking in 1988 when we published his second short story collection Mourner at the Door, and I'd seen his antics up close. He'd bulldozed his editor into allowing him to write his own over-the top flap copy which ends in this way: " … no reader will go away from these pages unshaken by the force of his sentences, nor will any reader not know why it is that Gordon Lish has so powerfully and indelibly entered the literary history of this century." Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back! An office wag dropped a dime on Lish's authorship to Harper's, and they ran the jacket copy verbatim in their "Readings" section, under the heading "Enough About You." It was mean and it was funny and Lish went ballistic, stopping just short of suing.
Yikes.

It's amusing that Howard then bought his new novel and did not edit it at all, but maybe he's making a point by noting later that it sold 500 copies. It's not clear whether that's because Lish had so many enemies, as is noted, or a bad reputation in general. It's also useful to note that Howard was avoiding looking at the number sold for a long time - something every editor can appreciate. Sometimes you want to hope for the best and not look at that bottom line.

There could be more material here, but I thought it was a fun link nonetheless.

More on the Tess Gallagher - Carver controversy in Publishers Weekly.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Depressing

Maybe it's not depressing as much as maddening, annoying, frustrating, etc...

It's this irritating blog entry on the perennial "print is dead" argument. The post is jumping of Print is Dead the book, much of which is or is going to be posted online here. I'm not taking issue with that project, per se, but this entry by David Rothman, posted on the Publishers Weekly website. It's full of interruptions and asides and bad jokes - which is a general problem, I find, with e-writing, if you will. I'm probably even guilty of this error, if my contention that it is somewhat inherent to online writing has any merit.

My larger problem, with this post and the concepts endorsed therein, is still the same: I worry for the quality of the writing being published electronically. As I've said, I don't spend a ton of time on these posts, for example, as it's so easy to publish them. I spoke to someone interested in posting his manuscript online as I work to publish it in print - something that does not entirely worry me - but he complained about the "snail's pace" of print publishing. But there's value in fixing errors before text goes public. There's also value in presenting it in the best way possible. We can put things out electronically in various ways but that should not lessen the quality of the writing and the presentation of the text. Spoken like a true editor, I suppose.

I also worry about the opportunities for corporate involvement - also seen in this creepy post. Rothman says:
So how can publishers still turn a profit off e-books and related technologies such as print on demand? Jeff's book is more diagnostic than prescriptive. However, I actually see an upside in his accurate observation that few Americans are serious readers or heavy book buyers; that's all the more opportunity for our industry to grow. As an example of gaps begging to be filled, check out my thoughts on Wal-Mart's disgraceful book-DVD ratio and the dearth of bookstores in small-town
America. I offer some specifics on how the chain could merchandise p-books better, to the advantage of shareholders.

Oh good, you're thinking of shareholders! Then we're all set! I have to run off and infect some villagers in a developing country with an experimental "bug" but once I'm done, let's talk more about how to help these shareholders, 'kay!

Yes, folks, he has found a way to make publishing work for... Wal-mart. It's just astounding. But then again, I don't read business books. I get the impression that such thinking in this field is standard, though it is not often discussed quite so graphically and crassly in publishing circles.

I'm sure there is a way to e-publish and p-publish - ?? - and still make a bit of change, but I'd like to see a model where there is enough money going around - and not just to Mac and Sony - to fund the proper production of these texts - editing, copyediting, text design. If an author has no interest in that then fine, let them just hammer out words and get them into consumers' grubby little hands. But is there room for something more polished? Because I think the more polished work is what will more likely stand the test of time.

Is it so wrong to consider preservation in this discussion? It's like email versus letters. Is it worthwhile to take the time and exhibit the patience necessary to type up and mail a real letter when email is so much easier and faster? Would anyone in the future find value in the email exchanges of two great writers, like they do now in great literary figures' letter?

PS - I just have to add, from Publishers Lunch, in today's email, this sad note:

Learning Annex president Bill Zanker paid people to line up outside the BN store on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street yesterday for a signing by Donald Trump of their joint book THINK BIG AND KICK ASS IN BUSINESS AND LIFE. Zanker dispensed $100 each to the first 100 people in line, $50 each to the next 100, and $10 each to the next 1,000 or so people.

Link here. Now *that* is crass, embarassing, and just... hilarious in its absurdity. Pathetic!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

NBA - I feel somehow obligated

Even though I find it a rather boring list, I feel I should let anyone under a rock who only has access to this sad li'l blog know about the National Book Award finalists for this year:

FICTION
Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End (Little, Brown & Company)
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway (Alfred A. Knopf)
Fiction judges: Francine Prose (chair), Andrew Sean Greer, Walter Kirn, David Means, and Joy Williams.

NONFICTION
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Alfred A. Knopf)
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve/Hachette Book Group USA)
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf)
Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday)
Nonfiction judges: David Shields (chair), Deborah Blum, Caroline Elkins, Annette Gordon-Reed, and James Shapiro.

POETRY
Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North (Houghton Mifflin Company)
Robert Hass, Time and Materials (Ecco/HarperCollins)
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard St. (Louisiana State University Press)
Stanley Plumly, Old Heart (W.W. Norton & Company)
Ellen Bryant Voigt, Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006 (W.W. Norton & Company)

Poetry Judges: Charles Simic (chair), Linda Bierds, David St. John, Vijay Seshadri, and Natasha Trethewey.

Kinda boring, no? And Joshua Ferris? I wrote about this book here, and I cannot believe it's getting this kind of distinction. I have yet to hear justification for its presence on the NBA finalist list.

Maybe I'm just out of touch.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Hate to hear conservatives cry

I really do. The whining...

Par example, Roger Ailes as quoted in a WSJ article which was in turn discussed by Jack Schafer in this Slate Press Box. He's discussing how one gets published, at a most basic level:
You can't sell a book in America if you don't dump on Bush. That's the cheapest shot in the world. You cannot get an advance, and you can't sell a book because the publishers are all people who hate Bush and hate Republicans.

Oh puh-lease. This is so pathetic. And check out Regnery if you don't believe me.

But even that far right insane press aside, there are plenty of books that do not necessarily talk trash about our Commander-in-Chief. These conservatives are mad because Greenspan is doing Bush ugly - as if he's some leftie nut. Hardly! That man is not on my side. But he's smart enough to see the damage Bush has done, and so he's branded The Enemy and dismissed as riding another publishing trend right to the bank.

I can appreciate that the Bush bashing gets old, but should people have let up on ol' Nixon?! So Bush is reaping what he's sowing - don't kill the messengers. (Don't torture them either, okay?)

Having said all that, I'm glad I don't have to acquire and publish books that are just anti-Bush screeds. They're worthy books, but they can be tiresome, and editing one after the other would probably make my eyes cross. There, I said it.

Friday, October 05, 2007

As the kids say, :-(

Did any other Boston Globe readers out there catch this story tragically headlined, "Bookmobile's Final Chapter?" Oh bookmobile...



As most of you smart folks can probably figure out, the article is about the end of the bookmobile, those roving vans full of books that typically travel to places where people cannot easily get to a local public library - rural areas, low income areas, and senior centers especially. I was heartbroken by this story, but truth be told, they had me at the photo of driver Linda Caravaggio from Beverly's Bookmobile, above. Look at the interior of that vehicle! Ah, sweet, sweet chaos...


I guess the luddite in me still resists seeing the internet and its technology as the savior of the future, resists giving online communities the same value as in-person communities. Like farmers markets, bookmobiles and libraries give people the opportunity to talk to, ya know, other people. As online reviews and tagging replaces handselling and word-of-mouth, there seems to me so many possibilities for covert corporate involvement. Am I sounding all conspiracy-theory-ish? I don't mean to. I just trust Caravaggio, on sight, a lot more than a pop-up.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Creativity we can't afford

Via one of my usual sources, Shelf Awareness, comes this story from China Daily, about some interesting bookstores in that country. Now I know full well that China has all kinds of problems - from the government to unethical management and more. I'm not singing the praises of China here. But I'm always amazed with what these newcomers to capitalism come up with in their businesses.

So for bookstores, for example:

*Sculpting in Time Cafe
Located near Renmin University, Diaoke Shiguang boasts a large customer base of college students. Combining the function of cafe and book bar, Diaoke Shiguang has books mainly for reading instead of buying.

It was founded in 1997 by a young couple who just graduated from college. That year they went to Xinjiang Autonomous Region and they were struck by the grandeur of the natural scenery. It was then that they decided to embrace a quiet life. That soon led to the idea of opening a café. They named it after an autobiography by former Russian movie director Andrei Tarkovsky. Sculpting in Time means that people are molded by the lapse of time, which is recorded in movies. The name is a reflection of the café’s humane ambiance.


and

*The Bookworm
A combination of a lending library, a café and a bar, The Bookworm is one of Beijing’s best places for people to find a quiet place to read with a rooftop terrace. Its library boasts over 16,000 English books. By paying 200 yuan for 6 months or 300 yuan for a year’s membership, readers can borrow books from this extensive selection.

In addition, The Bookworm readers can also attend lectures given by visiting authors as well as a number of other informative events. To know the latest upcoming activities, readers can check out its website at www.beijingbookworm.com.


Now Boston is a bit extreme, given real estate prices, but these could not fly. I guess the Athenaeum is a private library that one can join, but it definitely has a certain serious, even elitist sense about it - it's hardly some lending library. Having said that, it's a gorgeous space and well worth a visit.

I know there is some experimentation with bookstores going on here in the US, but Boston seems a bit more stagnant. Are there government subsidies going into these places, I wonder, or just owners willing to take a plunge? It is because of their version of capitalism that they can swing this? I'm no economist, admittedly.

And anyway, where's my Sculpting in Time?!

Friday, September 21, 2007

First siestas, now this

The Spanish are a very, very smart peoples - not to mention a beautiful peoples.

The latest evidence of the former is this wonderful quote from Francisco Puche, a bookseller, owner of Proteo-Prometo Bookshop in Malaga, Spain:
"A book with printed pages still has a great future, especially literature, because a book is a tangible object, something you can see, pick up and take with you wherever you go. . . . The thing is that books are great companions. They help us pass the test of being able to spend time alone. If we can achieve that, we can escape the anguish and stress surrounding us."

It was quoted in today's email from Shelf Awareness, taken from Franciso's article in SUR in English, "the newspaper for Southern Spain."

Earlier this week, as I watched a guy next to me play a game on his phone while listening to music on his headphones, and as some girl on the T anxiously played her phone, desperate for the train to get above ground so she could talk to someone, I was thinking something similar.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

You must know about Frey by now

But in case you don't, here's the article all about his new novel, which will come out next year and will be fiction fiction fiction.

His agent, featured heavily in this piece, comes across as very slimey, running a campaign to suggest that every editor in New York was positively clamoring for this proposal. I think potential readers, the market I suppose, are to understand that editors wanted it, so they should want it.

But then, unnamed editors who suggest otherwise. One told Leon Neyfakh, the reporter:
“When I called, I was talking to [Luke] Janklow [of agent Eric Simonoff’s employer, Janklow & Nesbit] about something else and asked him if, by the way, Eric really had Frey’s new novel,” said the publishing executive. “It wasn’t anything that struck me as so significant that I wanted to hunt it down. I was curious about it, if nothing else. Would I have stopped everything and read it? No.”

Oops!

And the new novel will be called Bright Shiny Morning, which has a disturbingly - and mostly likely purposeful - cadence very similar to Million Little Pieces.

Do I care? Nah. Just idle gossip to pass along to anyone who finds themselves here...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Don't Cry for B&N

Everyone has to take a certain immediate pleasure in seeing the link from the main New York Times page to this article: "High Rent Chases Out Chain Bookstore." Of course, the details are less satisfying: B&N is closing their Astor Place store due to rent, but fear not! They're opening a new location in TriBeCa, so they will still have a total of 16 stores in New York City.

Eh. It was exciting for a minute there...

The opening of the article - blog post actually - is all about the recent high-profile closings of independent stores, making the reality of what they are reporting - that B&N is just fine - a bit more depressing. Thanks for nothing, Times...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More OJ

Sorry to do this, but there is an interesting article by Julie Hilden on FindLaw about the free speech issues surrounding the publication and subsequent boycott request of OJ's If I Did It.

I'm not entirely convinced by her argument that the publication and boycott offer a fine example of free speech at work - that the book should be published to allow the issue to be discussed, and a boycott is a good way to deal with our moral squeamishness about it. I appreciate her point that the trial and the leaking of the manuscript have allowed those with prurient interests to find out more about the murders already, but I'm uncomfortable with Hilden's casual dismissal of Denise Brown's argument in protection of the victim's children. I'm not one to cry "think of the children!" too quickly, but surely there is something to be said about good taste?

I'm conflicted. The free speech advocate in me agrees with Hilden - ultimately, I'm afraid I do think it can be published but should be boycotted - but the crassness and exploitative nature of the whole thing can't help but make me feel sick. I know the money is going to the Goldmans, but isn't this a bit like saying reality t.v. shows are okay because the people volunteered to be on them? That should not change one's opinion that something is distasteful and bad for our culture. This book is undoubtedly an embarassment to our culture.

I'd be curious to see where this book sells. I imagine there will be many online sales, and after that, chain bookstore sales, as customers will want some degree of anonymity. As we distance ourselves from the production of what we're buying, more danger lurks, it seems: more evil products get into our food, more bad things happen to make our cheap t-shirts, and more union busting occurs in car factories. What will it take for Americans to take responsibility for their consumption? I don't just mean buying less plastic or sweatshop clothes - though I do mean that - but also in terms of cultural consumption. I'm not calling for an embrace of the high brow, people, but can't we leave the OJ's and the Paris Hiltons alone, and stop watching all these VH1 graveyard shows on washed up actors?

My sympathies are with the Goldmans, of course, but I don't see this as a valuable way forward. I wouldn't vote to legally stop the publication, but I sure as hell won't secretly get online to buy the book or sneak a peek.

And I had to wonder, as Beaufort Books, the publisher of this atrocity, gets so much press, why was this news on Shelf Awareness this morning?

Effective September 17, Dave Nelson is joining Union Square Press, the Sterling Publishing imprint, as executive acquisitions editor, in which role he will focus on mind/body/spirit titles as well as health and self-improvement books. He is currently publisher of Beaufort Books, recently in the news for the impending publication of If I Did It by O.J. Simpson.

Union Square's Philip Turner commented: "I've known Dave Nelson more than 20 years, since he made a selling visit to the bookstore I owned then, and always admired his knowledge of the market and his creative approach to publishing quality authors and their books. As a senior sales executive who's created competitive strategies for marketing hundreds of notable books, Dave helped launch such bestselling authors as Garrison Keillor, Terry McMillan, Mary Karr, Geneen Roth, and Peter Kramer."


Did someone get uncomfortable with the direction of Beaufort?....

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Times Recycles

Surely we've all seen some version, at least, of this article before? No? Since it's listed under "most blogged about," so I shall.
It's an interesting concept that I'd be willing to test drive, this new Amazon e-book reader, the Kindle. I ain't looking to shell out $400 for it, but I'd like to see a demonstration. And downloading remotely is good - you can jump online and download a book without hooking up to a computer. I'm not convinced that it will gain wide acceptance, and see it more in line with past efforts at such innovation, but I can see we're moving slowly closer to this kind of thing being normalized.
It's real, real ugly though. Let's just say that right now. The Microsoft Reader is prettier.

I don't have much more to say as, again, much of the article sounds exactly like every article on this subject - some innovation, some problems, executives from places like B&N offering ambivalence...

Another link to a somewhat boring Fall List of Books from USA Today, with few if any surprises. The Boston Globe had a Fall Book article earlier this week by ubiquitous book guy David Mehegan. Nothing is exciting me, quite frankly, except maybe the graphic novel Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, being published by Grand Central, mention in the USA Today article. I guess Lawrence Hill's book, described by Mehegan as an "epic historical novel (Hill's first book published in the United States), told in the voice of an old African woman enslaved before the American Revolution," could be of interest, though I probably won't buy it, truth be told. I don't know the last time I bought an "epic historical novel." But really, these lists don't appeal to my sensibilities. I'd be more likely to buy something off a staff recommendation shelf at an independent.

But it must be an exciting fall for the person ready to pull out their Kindle and read the new Sebold novel on their flight to Tucson! That came out much bitchier than I meant it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Irritating, very very irritating

It's like she opened my mind and found something incredibly frustrating, and posted on it.

Lissa Warren has this post on the Huffington Post about how publisher names don't matter anymore. (I came to it via The Reading Experience, btw, which includes a lively comment section about it.) ARGH! I don't know Lissa, but this post is infuriating.

Many readers appreciate small presses and know they can trust what they publish. My partner and I gave $100 to Soft Skull, before they were saved by Counterpoint and were desperate for funds. Soft Skull, in turn, sent us a fun box of books, a very nice assortment. McSweeney's had a similar plan. And McSweeney's, like David Godine and others, has a very recognizable look to it, and puts out books that are reliably consistent. If you love one, you can safely buy another.

If smart readers all agree to do away with any brand loyalty and just don't bother noticing that hey, this great environmental book came from Milkweed, then we can all just hand our money to corporate publishing giants - Random House, HarperCollins, etc.. Trust their editorial departments, sometimes run by marketing experts, to put out books we should read.

And if you're an author, watch where you're publishing. I just got Simon & Schuster's catalogs the other day in the mail, and they were typically schizophrenic. The imprints were interchangeable. And you could expect to have a steamy bit of fiction on one page next to a political thriller the next, followed by a book on dachsunds - this isn't literal, bien sur. As I said in my comment on the Reading Experience, if you as an author write a book that does well for one of these imprints, then you could be supporting the Rush Limbaughs who are having a bad year nationally but are still beloved by the moronic far Right. The far Right gets their offensive book with a limited print run but still priced reasonably, and the publisher doesn't lose money because your book sold through the print run. You could be supporting all kinds of things! It's worth considering.

So don't listen to the Lissa Warren's of the world, and watch independent brands, and support them. Take the article as a reminder to look at the spine and/or the title page, and show some loyalty. It'll mean good things for publishing and for your future reading lists.

Boston has (indie) Bookstores?

I'm not a big fan of the Phoenix, but this article nicely pairs independent bookstores with bars around Boston and Cambridge. I don't know that it would have killed them to include Brookline, so they could add the Brookline Booksmith and, I don't know, that bar down Harvard Ave that looks like - er, is a townie dive. Don't know the name but I believe it's Irish, unsurprisingly.

Stopped into the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vermont, this weekend, which is always pleasant, but I must confess to not buying a thing. Nothing grabbed me. I really should stick to that pledge to always buy something in an indie store...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Local is the new National

I sound like quite the parrot, I know, but it does seem like media is realizing the potential in moving back into local news, local interests. I know in Boston, I sometimes find surprisingly relevant news in the ultra-local Boston Courant* that gets reported in the Times-owned Boston Globe much later, if at all. (*note - they don't even have a website, which is somehow endearing)

The New York Times discusses this trend via the Edible publications. The model is, I think, quite a good one. There is a parent company, which you can see if you follow the link, but then the magazines are local - Edible Brooklyn, Edible Sante Fe, Edible Portland, etc... And it turns out, it's gaining in popularity in certain areas. From the Times:

The business model, in which local publishers pay a franchising fee in exchange for the title and some editorial support, is not unique. In fact, tailoring a single prototype to multiple cities or regions is an increasingly popular publishing format, adopted by magazines focused on weddings, society and restaurant menus.
More specifically:

Edible Communities makes it relatively easy to become a publisher: $30,000 down, the remaining $60,000, financed by Edible Communities, to be paid over five years.

For this the owner gets a crash course for the first four issues in layouts, photographs, advertising, marketing, editorial content. And the owner gets easy access to the other editors, who willingly share their expertise.

The contract requires at least 51 percent editorial content, 75 percent of which must be local. The company offers one national column, but publishers are not required to use it. After the first year the parent company takes a 5 percent royalty of gross advertising revenues.

I guess I wonder how this can apply to books. Publishers haven't really abandoned local markets, and one can certainly see that in Boston. Local publishers publishing on the city and region's history abound. But independent bookstores, in the city itself, do not. But if one were to create something like this for independents, when would it just become a B & N?

Well I suppose one thing is if you had some kind of cooperative system rather than shareholders. It makes me crazy to see Borders and B & N numbers, when profit goes up but not by enough of a percentage to please shareholders, so they start dumping shares, and the price drops. At this point in time, if either one of those corporate giants went out of business, even declared bankruptcy and had to reorganize, it would be a massive blow to publishers and to reading in America. I mean, during the last quarter alone, Borders opened 4 new superstores, and now has 506 across the country.

So what if some kind of bookseller cooperative opened, with national headquarters that provided start-up funds for locals who would focus on local authors and issues? Could be interesting. I'm no economist and this has probably been done, but I know I'm constantly frustrated by the lack of independent bookstores in the city. I know Brookline Booksmith and the Harvard Bookstore, both great shops with terrific events, are a mere T ride away, but still...

Monday, August 27, 2007

The bookstore ain't a library

When I worked for large chain bookstores - having spent time with both Borders and B & N - I was often struck by how much people treated the stores like libraries. They wanted to sit quietly and read the books off the shelves, without interruption. And they wanted me, when I was at the information desk, to help them in ways that went, at times, beyond the usual "Do you have the new novel from Colson Whitehead?"

At the same time, certain functions overlap with the library and the giant bookstore. This issue arose in a recent column in Randy Cohen's "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine, as noted by Shelf Awareness:

I work for a large bookstore and often process mail orders from prison inmates. Most are in for assault or burglary — I sometimes research them online — and reading might in some way better them. But I fight the feeling that sex offenders, particularly those who harm children, should rot in a cell with nothing but the walls to occupy them. May I decline to handle their orders, or must I treat all my prisoners the same? — L.T., Ohio

Your let-’em-rot theory of penology notwithstanding, these people are not your prisoners; they are your customers. And yes, you should treat all your customers the same — that is, fill their orders.

Every merchant — pharmacist, greengrocer or milliner — should do likewise, but a bookstore clerk, dealing in the exchange of ideas, has an even greater obligation. You are not a librarian, bound by a librarian’s code of ethics, but you should be guided by it. Your duty is to provide books to anyone who walks (or writes) in to the store, not to determine a person’s worthiness to read (or have a prescription filled or buy lettuce or wear a fetching hat).

What’s more, if buying a book required people to “better” themselves, hardly anybody would read anything. Were your criterion universally adopted, the
real losers would be John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel — bettering to no one, beloved by millions, bewildering to me.

Your sympathy for the incarcerated does you credit, even if it is strained by those who’ve committed particularly heinous acts. There is small virtue in giving people only what they deserve. As Hamlet has it: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”


I found this intriguing. Generally, I agree with the ethicist, and I like his specification that a bookseller is not bound by the librarians' code of ethics, but should be guided by it.

I didn't always want to help a customer find Dr. Laura Schlessinger's moronic new book, but it wasn't up to me. And I debated in my head whether I was just feeding into "The Man," in this case the corporate powers of B & N or Borders, by helping them sell product indiscriminately, even product that I felt was doing damage in the world, but as a staunch supporter of the ACLU and freedom of speech generally - as anyone in publishing should be - I had to overcome my objection and locate the asinine book in question.

I should note briefly that I did once encounter a customer who disagreed. He proudly handed a cashier a book by this idiotic woman, Schlessinger, and said we should not have such offensive garbage on our shelves. The cashier was a dimwitted but brazen young woman who started defiantly, even belligerently paraphrasing the first amendment. It was one of those moments that I could recreate as a heroic instance, evidence of bookstore employees battling for free speech on the frontlines, but the reality here, as it so often is, was just awkward and felt anti-climactic.

My overall point, patient reader, is that bookstores must enforce free speech, must be guided by the librarian's code of ethics as Cohen suggests, if they are to stay valued in society. Many booksellers are of a progressive bent, and I'm mostly likely even further to the left, but conservative voices can be offered with the understanding or even hope that once people educate themselves and become aware of their privilege, they'll realize the emptiness of the words the Coulters and the O'Reillys of the world are offering.

How do I square this with my distaste for the OJ Simpson book? Hmm... Well that's not really a book, is it? It's an article. I guess, if I owned a bookstore, I would pull a B&N and have it available to order but not carry it. But then you see what's happened - it's easily in the top 50 at B & N's website. D'oh!

Friday, August 24, 2007

If I Watched It and an RIP

And now, in another painful pop culture moment, the Goldmans and Denise Brown will be on Oprah to talk about If I Did It. Egads, man. The Goldmans are behind the publication while Denise has publicly called for a boycott, so the show will be a debate.

Am I the only one who just doesn't care? Publish the book, let people gossip and sell papers and magazines and get people to read blogs about it, and it'll all be over within 2 weeks. Right? If anyone buys this book on or after October 5th, I'll be shocked. Unfortunately, I'm not ready to say no one will buy it when it's published, though I won't be in line.



And in an effort to retain even a slight shred of dignity after writing on something so tacky, I'll join the many others in expressing sadness over the death of Grace Paley, a legend, a strong advocate of writers and writing and smart lefty politics, just as comfortable behind a typewriter as under a protest sign.

Grace Paley, RIP
(1922 - 2007)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Everybody's talkin'

Some useful links to the few hot stories in publishing this week:

OJ, OJ, OJ... The best and latest round-up of the debate around Beaufort Books' publishing of If I Did It is found on the omnipotent publishing blogger, Galleycat (along with an image of the book jacket). She brings up interesting questions around these publishers who allow authors to subsidize their publication, but who do not identify as printers who let authors self-publish. Beaufort Books' CEO, Eric Kampann, is quite offended at the suggestion. They're planning on having books available as soon as mid-September, which is quite incredible, really.

Barnes & Noble won't stock If I Did It.... How noble! But you can special order it or buy it on their website... Not so noble! Kampann, in the Galleycat posting, is now playing this with a competitive angle, ie saying places that are ordering it upfront will win and B&N will lose out if it starts selling, b/c he'll have to do a reprint and with no copies in stock, B&N will have to wait for that reprint to fulfill orders. (Also not noble, I should note, actions of B&N corporate, from today's Shelf Awareness: "The creation of the position of general counsel was one of several recommendations made earlier this year by a special committee that investigated B&N's stock option policies and found that they had been misdated and improperly backdated to the tune of $45.5 million.") My favorite is Borders reaction - they'll stock it, but NOT publicize it. Ah, you and that high road, Borders...

In other news...

Only 25% of adults read, and they're who you think they are.

Harper Lee said something - not much, but something.

Not much time to expound on these pieces, but wanted to link them up as they're buzzy. Fair?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How to Manufacture a Bestseller in Three Easy Steps!

Why was this post on the Huffington Post?

The article is about how Tim Ferris' book, The 4-Hour Work Week, got on the New York Times bestseller list, and other lists, so many he feels the need to list them out, proudly. Oh wait, I should list the subtitle, too: "Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich." As you can imagine without even clicking over, it's an inspiring tale.

My problem... well, I have quite a few. First of all, the book was published by Random House, with the paperback by Crown Business. So don't get your hopes up that this is a little-book-that-could tale. It's not. It's about how something destined to be a bestseller in a messed up, elitist publishing world that favors oversized corporate publishers BECAME a bestseller. Kind of a non-starter, really.

And the book was written to be a bestseller. I know it's a business book, not literature, so the author wouldn't claim that it is an artistic book. But an article on how to create a bestseller? Not how to get your labor of love into the hands of more readers, but how to make money. With a book. Um - you're in the wrong business if this is your goal - sorry! And I always find it so odd when people create books based on marketing ideas. What can sell? This is just my ongoing squeamishness regarding books-as-products, which is a reality and exposes me as being too delicate. But hey, I work in publishing and I edit great books - I'm allowed to be squeamish about this kind of crass thinking in publishing.

The guy is obviously an ironic hipster type, and so his tone is hard to read. Whenever someone establishes that tone, they have a built-in defense if you question them. "That? Oh, THAT was a joke." So while I'm all for only checking email twice a day - a point one amazon reader found really helpful in his work life - I cannot get behind the overall idea of a person outsourcing as much work as possible so that s/he can travel, hang out, get out of the cube, etc... He talks about joining the New Rich, but it sounds like a get-rich quick scheme based on exploitation - what's "new" about that?

Here's how he got his book published:
My basic process is this: write proposal à get another author to help you get an A-list agent à agent refines proposal and helps you sell to a editor at a top publisher ideally after an auction

Amazing! So know someone who knows someone. And make that "someone" someone important and in a position of power and don't waste your time on talent or interests or ethics. Don't research who else the agent represents, who else the publisher publishes, just think of the bottom line: $$.

Fine, I am being a tad delicate.

The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I return to my initial point: Huffington Post? wtf? Are they trying to offer a diverse collection of writers? Why are they publishing a guy who is forwarding the conservative agenda of amassing personal fortune?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Citizen Journalist Warning

Slightly off the usual book publishing subject, but still in line with the point of this blog - point? - I wanted to link to this interesting article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I found via MediaBistro. I really like their news summaries, btw.

Anyhow, the article by journalism professor Larry Atkins, talks about the values but also the dangers in our news media increasingly courting and relying upon citizen journalists. I'll leave the summary at that, and just put in this particularly powerful paragraph from the piece:
Mainstream media have their flaws, including incidents of plagiarism and ethical breaches. However, unlike the army of pajamarati bloggers sitting in their bedrooms, reporters are in the field cultivating sources, interviewing policymakers, investigating and fact-checking. For every insightful I-report, there are thousands of valuable articles, videos and photos produced by veteran reporters.

This is exactly it, especially that last part. We get so impressed, in this fast-paced age, with someone who can deliver something with speed, that we overlook precision or artistry or craft, and that's cheap and will leave us with a world of plastics, articles and books that are disposable immediately after consumption, that lose their worth a day later.

In publishing, I know for a fact that it would be difficult to get a book published about 9/11 now, or even Katrina, despite how necessary it is for us to re-evaluate these events after time has passed. Academics might be able to do it, but most trade houses, I would say, would turn down such projects as being done, and would miss out on the chance to publish something that truly stands the test of time.

These instant books that come out right away - I just saw one in the local Borders on the Duke University rape case (from evil Thomas Nelson) - have their place, but we can't over-prioritize them, or rather we do so at the risk of losing great books - and so, all books - in the very near future.

Reprints as profitable?!

I'd love to work with paperback reprints, finding lost treasures and bringing them back to life. But with used bookstores and used copies of books so easy to find online, not to mention that nasty programs at B&N wherein they publish cheap paperbacks of public-domain classics and then display them prominently in their stores, I just don't see how it could work well. But sometimes, you see it done well, and you realize it can happen.

I've always admired the titles published by the New York Review of Books, both in terms of the ones they pick to bring and in terms of their aesthetic. They're identifiable, and really nicely designed. I also have long been a fan of David Godine's reissues from the Black Sparrow backlist, which he acquired a few years ago.

So Publisher's Lunch today featured a link to a Wall Street Journal article about this phenomenon. Now because the WSJ often has content online that is not available to the public, I'm copying and pasting the whole thing. This also allows me to give the writer credit, but I still feel like I'm stealing.

Anyhow, here it is:

THE WEEKEND ADVISER
Big Sellers, Decades Later
By ROBERT J. HUGHESAugust
10, 2007; Page W2
Sometimes the second time's the charm in publishing. Two publishers -- Persephone Books and New York Review Books -- are finding unlikely success in the overcrowded book industry by turning out reprints of decades-old titles. Some are even getting noticed by Hollywood.

Author Kate Christensen discusses her new novel about a dead painter and the women who loved him. New York Review Books, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has published more than 200 adult and 30 children's titles, most of them reprints. Out next week from the Manhattan publisher is "Novels in Three Lines" by a turn-of-the-century Parisian anarchist, Félix Fénéon. The book is a collection of short, sometimes epigrammatic lines about incidents from life, which appeared in the French newspaper Le Matin in 1906.

The new volume is translated by Luc Sante, a New York Review of Books contributor whose own works include "Low Life," a study of New York's underclass.

Persephone specializes in novels by women. Among the London company's most popular releases is 1938's "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" by Winifred Watson, about a governess sent by an employment agency to the wrong address, where she finds a glamorous nightclub singer and helps her through misadventures. The reprint has sold 22,000 copies -- exceeding the sales of many well-received new novels today. And "Miss Pettigrew" has spurred a film adaptation starring Frances McDormand set to come out next year.

Some publishers find hits reprinting books from years ago. New Persephone titles this summer include Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Shuttle" from 1907, about American heiresses marrying English aristocrats. Its books are sold through Persephone's Web site and Amazon.com. Next year, it plans to sell a few titles through U.S. bookstores.

Reprint publishers aren't under the same pressure to create instant hits as are publishers of new material, says NYRB publisher Rea Hederman. His books often take a year to gather momentum compared with the month or two that bookstores give a new title before they pull it from shelves. When NYRB last October released "A Savage War of Peace," about France's occupation of Algeria, it didn't take off at first. But what some people see as parallels to Iraq in the 1977 book have since turned it into a hit with American armed services. The title has sold more than 20,000 copies.

Some NYRB books also have attracted filmmakers. Darcy O'Brien's 1978 "A Way of Life Like Any Other," about the son of a fading star, was optioned by Ben Stiller's company. And "Dud Avocado," a 1958 comic novel about Hollywood by Elaine Dundy, is being developed into a film by producer Sara Risher, who is working with longtime rights holder Twentieth Century Fox. "The re-release made me realize it was timeless," Ms. Risher says.

Some independent booksellers embrace NYRB's list. Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, N.C., says her staff recommends John Williams's "Stoner" from 1965, about a farmer who becomes a college professor, and has sold 60 copies so far. "They're not the kind of titles you'll see pushed in big commercial bookstores," she says.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Borders = Kind Boss/Parents to their Employee/Children

In an official press release, Borders Inc. has announced a contest for employees to get their manuscripts published, "under the company's exclusive and proprietary publishing program." First Barnes & Nobles and now Borders, publishing their own books. Now that is a huge pet peeve.

According to the release, the contest is for fiction writers who also work at Borders, and who now have until January 2008 to submit their work. A rather ominous sounding "panel of judges at the corporate office" will decide on the winner, who "will be awarded a book deal including the full support of Borders merchandising and marketing arsenal." It may just be a War on Literacy!

Now in all fairness, is there anything wrong with the contest? Maybe not, but I think many of us feel the slime when reading this. Total corporate parent vibe, no? Oh, you're unconvinced. Well try this on for size:
"Our employees are talented and creative individuals who have atremendous passion for books, and we believe that there are many who alsohave undiscovered writing talent," said Rob Gruen, executive vice president, merchandising and marketing for Borders Group, Inc. "We are excited to discover new authors within
our company and to promote their novels to the millions of loyal customers who rely on our recommendations.We have such confidence in the talents of our staff that we are anticipating multiple winners and hope to publish fictional works ranging from mysteries and thrillers to romance and historical novels."
There goes that pop-tart I just ate.

And will this VP of MARKETING and MERCHANDISING be on the judging panel? I'm guessing so. You know what role that fulfills in the tired old traditional book publishing model? The editorial role, and this guy is a marketing guy. Another pet peeve - running a company whose editorial vision is based 100% in what-might-sell. Good luck.

And, I hate to sound like a broken record here, but I worked at a Borders once and watched as a customer came in looking for a bestselling book, and the employee - an assistant manager, in fact - had to go to the computer to search, even though there were probably 3 dozen copies at the front of the store. That location, as far as I could tell, included one employee who could sustain their attention long enough to finish a book and, fortunately, he was the store manager. Now those same colleagues could be penning the next big release from Borders Publishers, or whatever crap name they've chosen.

Well good luck, Borders employees. I have no doubt that there is some real talent working in Borders stores, amongst those 30,000 employees. I do have doubts about Borders going through with it, and I can't imagine how they'll treat an employee who may have been slaving away at a store part-time with crap wages and no benefits, who is suddenly their product to push. It's surreal. It may even be post-modern, but I'd have to check some theory books on that to confirm.

For better, and more interesting and pithy and bitchy reactions, please consult the Comments section of this Gawker piece on the contest. My favorite title suggestion is "The Five People I Just Met in The Restroom," suggested by Bertyapple. Or "Biscotti, manhood and other things you keep in a jar," suggested by Vandusen. Well done!

Sociable