Tuesday, May 29, 2007

If you don't buy 'em, we burn 'em

Via Shelf Awareness, an amazing story out of the state full of curious incidences... okay, I hesitate. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess to being from Texas, and with the whole "glass houses" thing, I should watch myself.

Anyhow, I mean Kansas, and this story by AP writer David Twiddy about a used bookstore owner there who is using his stock to create a "funeral pyre for thought in America today." The article reports, "he envisions monthly bonfires until his supply — estimated at 20,000 books — is exhausted."

[Edit: Please note that it has been brought to my attention that the story is in Kansas City, Missouri - a point that must annoy folks from that fine city constantly. Thank you to Prof. Hex for correcting this silly mistake on my part!]

And a quick note from the article: the customers came running before the bonfire, grabbing stacks of books for as low as $10. I'm all for a clearance sale, but it is hilarious that the books have to be this cheap, and the bookseller this desperate, to bring people out. Is this the new bar? Holding the books hostage and threatening to burn them unless bought?

I'm sure every book blogger will be linking to this today. It's obscene, bizarre, shocking, sensational, tragic, and frustrating. Some folks see the bookseller, Tom Wayne of Prospero's Books in Kansas City, as a hero (and follow that link to see his take on the burning). He's making a point. Written thought has become disposable, and Americans no longer value reading books, having books, getting to know books.

I'm still processing this. Because, to be honest, every bibliophile has had the struggle of looking at a book that you no longer want, but that you know is worth nothing. Used bookstores like the wonderful Brattle Book Shop snottily turn up their nose at your tattered copy of some obscure book on Catholic martyrs. So what do you do? I cannot throw away a book, so if I did, or even worse, if I burned a pile.... it would be a dramatic and very difficult act for me to do, with grave meaning.

Interpreted like this, maybe Wayne is a hero, a book-lovin' man driven to extremes. Please please please, though, do not let this become a trend...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stockholders revolt!

Now this is kind of terrifying to me, folks.

Galleycat reports that CBS stockholders are unhappy about Jimmy Carter's book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. (She is basing her link on a New York Sun piece, but I'm just not linking to them. I've already linked to other gross publications, and maybe even the Sun, but I have to draw a line somewhere.) CBS of course owns the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

So terrifying, yes. That stockholders, led by a woman named Carol Greenwald of the organization Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (surely there's dirt on THEM - what's their agenda?), are trying to dictate what to publish and how to publish it is just bizarre, but are we surprised? As a subsidiary of a big corporation, you have to take the benefits, such as "synergy" (read: 60 Minutes exclusives), with the nasty.

In fairness, they're taking issue with the fact that the book may be "error-filled," which it very well might be, and yes, that's a huge problem. And this does call into question the publisher's responsibility on fact-checking, which as I understand it has weakened over the years, along with contractual language putting the responsibility back on the author as much as possible. Publishers do need to step up and take more responsibility for the content of their books.

But it also calls to mind my general reaction whenever I flip through a catalog by one of these giant corporate publishers. It's a chore any author who may sign up with one should do. It's schizophrenic at best! HarperCollins, for examples, sends their batch of catalogs, with all their imprints, and my friends, your head spins as you flip. From business books appropriating language of revolution to tawdry novels to high-end literary fiction to books on adorable puppies, it's just a mess, with no mission or over-arching raison d'etre. It's page after page of product, full of whatever might sell. You can imagine a stockholder flipping through, seemingly unaware of this wild range of topics, of books that blatantly argue against each other within the same catalog, and thinking, "Now THIS STUFF will fly off the shelves!"

I'm all for a variety of voices, but this increasing corporatization of publishing leads to a loss in identity for publishers, which in turn weakens the consumer's ability to sort through books. More immediately, it weakens the bookseller's ability to build any trusting relationship based on quality of books over quantity that could move. I know there are economic realities, for booksellers and publishers, but in weakening brands, publishing house names, this corporate culture weakens the book world and will lead more quickly to the movement toward electronic books that are all about the final product and not about the process (editing, production). Soon, what we love about books is gone.

Go crazy stockholders, but the rest of us should see this as a warning. If you *have* stockholders, they'll weaken your list, force you to sell sell sell, and ultimately ruin book culture. That's my dire, dramatic, "why isn't anyone thinking of the CHILDREN!?!?!" moment for the day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Had to add this

I followed a link from Conversational Reading, a blog, to this LA Times piece on online versus in print reviews, by film critic Richard Schickel (who gets points for the name alone). It's contentious and fiesty and very interesting - a worthwhile read, especially for those in the so-called blogosphere.

The most quotable quote comes early on:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.
So you get he point. He's rude, sure, but he's also irritated the many readers and, on the other end, publishers are giving bloggers equal weight to reviewers. I agree with him. As with books and their publishers, we need to trust the source of this information. As he says smartly later in the article regarding why we read critics, "We do not — maybe I ought to make that 'should not' — read to confirm our own prejudices and stupidity. "

He later quotes writer D. J. Waldie, who says that blogging is a form of speech, not of writing. Youch... but fair. As someone blogging right now, I realize the impermanence of these comments. I recognize the short shelf life of this piece. I have made peace with the fact that this most likely will never be archived. It affects my approach, and therefore affects the quality of writing. If a blogger denies that, then there's a problem - and many people are struggling to deny that.

I was following a friend's links to two bloggers, both of whom were writing very personal chronicles of their lives online, who have gotten book deals out of their blogs, and I was kind of horrified. I was willing to read a post now and again, but the fact that they had been told that their lives were interesting enough and important enough, having been blogged about to death, to warrant publishing, having in print for years to come... it seemed tragic.

I suppose that gets at issues of deserving. Does online journaling make one deserving, or is the journal a possible way to work through issues and feelings, possibly to develop writing skills or at least approaches? That's what I think. Then take those developed skills, concentrate, and write something new, and interesting, and worthwhile, and beyond yourself. That's more of what I'd like to see, as that would be more substantative and engaging to me as a reader.


New links, more soon

I have added a link to a new blog by Grub Street, called The Penny Dreadful. Grub Street is a non-profit here in Boston helping writers in any number of useful ways, lead by creative director / novelist Christopher Castellani. He's a good guy and it's a smart, active group, so any local readers and/or writers should check it out.

And I should post about S&S and this contract change, and their rather pitiful claim that print on demand is a legitimate and perfectly acceptable way to keep a book in print and hence in their possession. From Publishers Lunch:

S&S Replies Further To Guild

Simon & Schuster is sending a letter to agents and authors that asserts the "Authors Guild has recently perpetrated serious misinformation" about changes in their contract language and criticizes the Guild for not "having undertaken any effort to have a dialogue." They say that "contrary to the Authors Guild assertion, using technologies like print on demand is not about 'squirreling away' rights, nor does it mean that 'no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores.' Print on demand is simply a means of manufacturing a book, making it widely available to retailers and consumers."

But the publisher concedes that their standard position has changed as previously described--now believing "the current high quality andaccessibility of print on demand titles indicates to us that such minimums [levels of sales activity] are no longer necessary." They do note that "as always, we are willing to have an open and forthright dialogue on this or any other topic."

But commentary on that, perhaps, soon...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Maybe I'm just a skeptic

Shelf Awareness had a link to this New York Sun story - and please accept my apologies for linking to this newspaper -about Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. The writer is wondering why the book, despite glowing reviews, didn't become a New York Times bestseller. Must have made for quite a disappointed author. Oh the poor, poor dear...

The writer does mention that: The book's publisher, Little Brown, says it has shipped 50,000 copies. It's in its fourth printing, and still selling well. That's a goal rarely achieved by any writer, let alone a debut novelist. Just to throw that out there, since everything's relative.

Oh, and it was optioned by HBO Films.

The writer of the piece, David Blum, strikes me as.... well... not bright. I get to this point by noting that part of his "research," used to support his theory that people are too stupid to buy well-reviewed novels because they're too busy buying Jodi Picoult (?!), involves going to the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble and noting that the staff couldn't find the book. I've worked at these chains, my friends, and this doesn't surprise me. I'd like to see this Blum character walk into an independent bookstore and try this out. Speak to a bookseller who actually reads book reviews.

Blum goes on to suggest that bookstores should have sections for well reviewed books, so people can read reviews and then go into their local Borders or Barnes & Noble and find it. At this point in my reading, I think I actually spewed oatmeal. Independent bookstores almost always have great staff reviews and often are in touch with media reviews, especially in local papers. At the Brookline Booksmith here in the Boston area a few weeks ago, I listened as a bookseller made a call to someone who handles the inventory asking how many copies of a new book they had on stock, because the laydown date was the next day and he had read in pre-pub (illegal) reviews that it had some explosive material that was generating a lot of press. Meanwhile, when I worked at Borders, I once watched as an assistant manager got on the computer to look up a bestseller whose title she didn't recognize. As a lowly employee making $7 an hour or something, I had to take the customer away from customer service and walk her to the front of the store for the book, sans computer assistance. It was shocking.

But what also bothered me was the writer's tone, and my suspicions about this book. Look, I didn't read it. I'll admit that. But I did read at least 2 or 3 of the praising reviews of it, and I had no interest. Why? Because it looks like a smug, hipster, ironic book for smug, hipster ironic people. On the Powells page, they reproduce Nick Hornby comparing it in part to Seinfeld, which sums up my frustration. Because Seinfeld, while enjoyable at the time, was about adults not taking responsibility for their actions. It was an exercise in demonstrating that we have come to such a point of "civilization" that we can be ironic without any sensitivity. We can be self-obsessed without guilt in the service of humor. Blah blah blah.

And at the risk of turning people off with language that reeks of leftwing revolution, I don't want to read about smug clever twentysomethings mocking marketing plans and cubicle culture, khakis and computer wallpaper, boss emails and commuter woes. All the while, I'm sure they'll refuse any criticism of class or economic disparities. Maybe he'll go to Wal-mart but maintain ironic distance, eat at McDonald's but make it quirky by scraping the cheese off a Big Mac.

So the reviewers who are of this ilk - went to the right colleges, working in offices, young media types - write up raves and then sit back and wonder why everyone isn't out to buy it. Instead, these IDIOTS are out buying Jodi Picoult's novel about a Columbine-style killing. Maybe Nineteen Minutes is over dramatic or sentimental, I don't know, but obviously it's having a stronger effect on readers, and I'm not ready to dismiss Picoult, as Blum does, as some kind of hack churning out books. I'd even wonder if there isn't a certain level of sexism here. I mean, who does the kind of smug office humor best, folks? From Seinfeld to the Office (which is also mentioned in the Hornby blurb, I might note), it's almost always straight white middle class men.

So keep book review sections in newspapers, just diversify them and write about an array of books with an array of writers in the stable. And for god's sake, if you want to find a good book, whether you read about it already or don't even know what it will be, go to a good independent bookstore! (I know they're not all good, but when they're good, they can be great).

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Worth the wait??

No, this won't be worth my 2 month hiatus. Hey, I had two manuscripts to edit and multiple books coming out by my fine authors. Give an editor a break!

Nice piece that was linked at Shelf Awareness, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Bob Hoover. He's writing about the book business being alive, and it not just being all bad news, all the time. After sitting in on a meeting of sales reps pitching books to local bookseller Joseph-Beth, he realizes:
They proved -- to me, at least -- that the future of books and reading was never in doubt. Literacy programs abound, both here and nationally. Despite fears of a digital takeover of our minds, finding information and entertainment on the Internet requires the ability to read.

I guess his optimism was so powerful, it got me posting again.

More soon, I hope.