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:

Big Sellers, Decades Later
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 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!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hype for hype's sake

I know we all love a good celebrity biography. I've read a few myself, if I'm going to be entirely honest. And we publishing types also like to read about and talk about buzzy books, big projects promised to be the next big thing. In my position, I don't get involved in auctions for such big projects, but it's of interest all the same.

And, I should add, I love me some pop culture - I'm an Entertainment Weekly subscriber, and have even been amused by Tyler Durden's blog, though the rampant homophobia, sexism, and racism has made me stop reading it. I never read the comments, but when I looked at them once, it was like bad lockerroom talk and then some. (Gross. Go for fugging instead.)

Anyhow, my point is that I still, despite all of this, I still don't get the hype over late comedian Chris Farley's bio. I mean, really?

To summarize the article linked above, agent Peter McGuigan got rights for the biography of Chris Farley. Yes, the overweight comedian who starred in such classics as "Tommy Boy" - which I admittedly think is hi-larious - "Black Sheep," and of course, a few seasons of "Saturday Night Live," and who died of a drug overdose in 1997, at the age of 33 I believe. Tragic.

The book will be written by the late comedian's brother, Thomas Farley, along with Tanner Colby, as "an oral history." And get this, Wendy Wolf at Viking bought it from McGuigan, for a deal that amounted to "substantial six figures." The publishing world has officially lost me.

I can get why the original publisher, the now defunct Rugged Land (or is it defunct?), planned to publish this book this year, 10 years after his death. And I could understand Pocket Books doing something, or the Virgin book publishing arm, which I think is still getting its bearings in the US.

The schizophrenia of some of these big houses continues. One publisher where you can find this bio and J. M. Coetzee, a very literary novelist whom I enjoy, on the same list. So why should I trust that name, Viking, when I see it on a spine...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Margaret Spellings is not a good reader

Well Alberto Gonzales is an unethical lawyer and and Michael Chernoff is a horrendous administrator and Dick Cheney is just an evil human being, so I should not be surprised that Bush's Education Secretary is just a bad reader. She was the summer reader on NPR, and the piece featuring her summer reading was included in the NPR Books podcast I listened to on the way to work this morning.

She lurvvvved Eat Pray Love, unsurprisingly - and that's fine. But repeatedly referring to books as "entertaining" seemed a bit daft to me. I grew suspicious, I must admit, when she not only mentioned how excited she was to start Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, but also said she was chatting with the First Lady about it. I guess Senorita Bush loved it. Hm. "It's about women in Afghanistan, you know," she said, very knowledgeably... actually, in a tone that resembled someone dimwitted trying to impress a colleague.

I know it's easy to romanticize the past, but remember that photograph, possibly from Life Magazine, of Jacqueline Kennedy on the campaign trail, in a plane, reading On the Road? I'm ready to have two smart people occupying the White House again.... two smart readers with smart readers in the Administration who do NOT say, as Spellings did, that given all the time in the world to read any book, they'd read the Harry Potter books. Are you f'ing serious?!!?!?! I'm all for the books, but surely you don't need all the time in the world to read 7 kids books, lady.

Egads, right?