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, 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 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.

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.