Friday, December 19, 2008

Think on it

Not much time but I wanted to post two links, with a bit of commentary.

First is the fantastic Citizen Reader offering something to cut through the syrupy and stupid sweetness offered by magazine year-end top ten lists. Yes, CR has instead posted The Worst Books of 2008 - with nice summations following each title. Scott McClellan's a weenie, Thomas Friedman's a jackhole, and that person creating so called "buzz"? "I'm thinking he and I don't share the same taste in books." Well done!

Second is this rather irritating but often right-on op-ed from author Lawrence Osborne (*not* actor Laurence Fishburne), in which publishers are given the what-for. Osborne makes some good points. For one, he lists the problems editors are reporting, with his own critique of their reports:
Industry insiders provide a depressing catalog: a failure to acquire the kind of franchise authors now topping the bestseller lists, a lack of editorial insight and supervision (resulting in longer, sloppier books that bore readers stupid), extravagant author advances, agents all too happy to sacrifice the long-term interest of authors for short-term profit, incompetent management at the top and a lack of books that have commercial impact.
Then he offers some nice feedback, often in blunt form:
But just as newspapers are dooming themselves by cutting the very thing they alone can provide--in-depth, on the spot reporting--so publishing houses are dooming themselves by trying to run in somebody's else's rat race and cutting the very thing we turn to them for: writing itself.

Amen! The problem is in fact commercial publishers who are not even going after "the next big thing," but instead are chasing "the big thing to follow the last big thing."

He ends by suggesting publishers reach the post-college, literate folks like, oh, the author's son.

My son and his friends, who are in their early twenties, read Houllebecq and Bolaño and Sebald and Coetzee without any problem at all. Those writers speak easily to their anxieties and concerns. And yet none of these writers would have found American publishers if they hadn't first succeeded in their countries of origin.

We the readers, the people, are not dumbed down media serfs obsessed with celebrities, dosh and movie rights. You are.


This man has the leisurely tones and metaphors of a posh English dandy lazily blabbering in a hotel tea room, but his points are true. I fear they may not reach the needed audience, however - especially seeing as this was published by Forbes!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A little late to add this NPR audio about "dreaded returns" but it seems more prescient than ever. No?

Lynn Neary did a 7-minute looksie at the archaic process of publisher returns back in June of this year. Take a listen for a simple, clear primer on the problem of returns.

Publishing slowly moves forward

If we're going to be trapped in some recession or depression, we best make the most of it, right? So we need to institute some changes to publishing that will make it a more efficient industry.

Shelf Awareness is linking to a Wall Street Journal article (sorry, think it's subscription-based) by the ever-reliable Jeffrey Trachtenberg on news that Borders will buy books from HarperStudio on a non-returnable basis. This is unusual, for folks not in the know:
Under the terms of the deal, the nation's second-largest bookstore chain by revenue will get a deeper discount on initial orders of books published by the new imprint of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers -- 58% to 63% off the cover price, instead of the usual 48%. In exchange, Borders won't return any unsold books to HarperStudio, instead probably discounting them in the store.
Borders needs the discount and probably assumes it can use the inventory, if it doesn't go under, and HarperStudio can send off the books without having to worry about them coming back. The return system in publishing is archaic, so this is progress.
"Returns have never made sense in our business, and with the recent economic downturn, publishers and booksellers are more open than before to experimenting with models that might decrease waste and increase profit," said Robert Miller, president and publisher of HarperStudio. When he started the imprint earlier this year, Mr. Miller said he intended to shake up traditional book-publishing economics.
Shelf Awareness added their own two cents with the link, noting: "If selling nonreturnable spreads and everyone isn't too exhausted by the effort, perhaps the industry will then re-examine another of its 'quirks': the manufacturer's suggested retail price printed on the book."

PS I wanted to add a worrisome update, also posted in Shelf Awareness, regarding a place I've mentioned before: the Bookstore Restaurant in Wellfleet, MA. I have not been here still, but I want to go now more than ever after reading this story in Cape Cod Today about its struggles - not over the ever shrinking economy, but because of their inability to update their septic system. If it's not one thing, it's other! The place still looks amazing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Going forward or looking back?

As the publishing industry squirms in the pressure cooker created by an ever weakening economy, blogs and other media outlets are scrambling with how to portray this unique world of editors and publishers.

I was less impressed with Ethan Hill's article on Barney Rosset than I wanted to be, in Newsweek. Actually, I should say that if I came across the article in Newsweek, I would have just been impressed that they were devoting so much space to someone in publishing, but coming across it as a link posted by The Casual Optimist, I was less impressed. For those who don't know and don't have the time to click through, Rosset purchased Grove Press for $3,000 in the early 1950s, when it was nothing to speak of and he wasn't much either, and turned it into the leading home for avant-garde and popular literature, fighting seemingless endless obscenity laws with writing from Bertolt Brecht, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, and many other white guys (sorry!). I appreciate the article's objectivity - Rosset's no hero in some ways, but he's fascinating and important - but even with the article's length, it still seems to be skimming on the top of this topic, not delving into it in an intriguing or particularly useful way. It's worth a read as this kind of history in publishing is often quite fascinating, but it may leave that bad taste in your mouth that said history often does - rich white guys being rich white guys, isn't this one rich white guy great because he "took such a chance."

And then looking forward, we have all these open forums for discussing what will become of modern book publishing. The Penguin blog (yes, that Penguin) is looking forward by "inviting authors, typographers, cover designers, printers, technologists, retailers, literary agents, publishers and geeks to come along and consider if and how technology can transform and perhaps improve on The Book." Don't know how much "buy-in" will happen there. I mean, they have a vested interested in hosting such a discussion that makes the use of their blog or somewhere else on their website a less-than-desirable venue for a frank discussion. And in a truly mainstream but strikingly pedestrian manner, over at the Huffington Post, Hugh McGuire asks about "hybrid readers" - those of us who like printed books but are open to e-books and other digital creations. I don't think the name works, quite frankly, and I am shocked by how basic this article is given McGuire's other work (namely, LibriVox AND the Book Oven Blog). I blame the Huffington Post, which is publishing too fast and loose, having contributors churn out light content written up on the fly.

So the best plan is to look back as we go forward, but where to look and then where to go?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

There is a whole lot of crash-and-burn talk going on with writers these days. I was just talking to one author I edited who is a freelancer, and he was talking about places - magazines, websites - wanting more for less. And the big problem is, it's not even a matter of the publishers holding back necessarily! In many cases, no one is making money. So if you go chasin' it, you might end up staring down a big empty hole.

So what to do? Call Obama!

Two new articles have come out about whether President-elect Obama should revive a Federal Writers' Project like the one that we had in the 1930s following the Great Depression. Are we ready for a literary bail-out? (So asks Jennifer Schuessler at the NY Times' Papercuts blog.)

Paul Greenberg's piece will appear in this Sunday's NYTimes, arguing not to resuscitate the old FWP model, but to instead model the AAA - Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which worked to lower the production of produce. Why? Well...

Overcapacity has been something generally acknowledged across the writing industry for at least 10 years. In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, the onetime best-selling novelist and story writer Ann Beattie mourned the situation of the modern writer, living in a world where people are more interested in “being a writer” than in writing itself. “There are too many of us, and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness, which has resulted in everyone getting lost,” she lamented. That Ann Beattie must now compete on Amazon with a self-published author named Ann Rothrock Beattie is proof of how enormous the blizzard has become.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who claim to be or want to be writers, versus the smaller number of people who really and truly read books.

Greenberg's piece is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but still of interest to those of us who worry about just how much garbage clogs your modern corporate bookstore.

Greenberg ends with a biting quote from Graham Greene:
“Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.”

Yowser, huh?

The other article considering this idea is by Mark I. Pinsky over at The New Republic. A bit more straight-forward, this article includes a nice brief history of FWP and does at least imagine, if not call for, a resuscitation of the federal program.
This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media. At the same time, the multimedia fruits of this research would be open-sourced to all media, as well as to academics.

Interesting concept to consider. However, try to sell this idea to anyone who gets a whiff of the blog Daily Routines, which chronicles "how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days." Some show discipline, sure - Toni Morrison writing before dawn, when her children would start to wake, or J.M. Coetzee writing seven days a week - and then you have the others who are a bit more... eccentric? Says Truman Capote:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

Can you imagine the conservative reaction to that man getting a federal subsidy? Not so much, but I'm certainly glad his writing made it into the world.

Back to the drawing table perhaps...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

More Discussions on the Future of Publishing

Given "Black Wednesday" in publishing, how should we go forward in the book world? This conversation is occurring around water coolers, online, in papers, etc..., and most of it has been said before.

But I was intrigued by the ideas offered up by David Nygren over at The Urban Elitist, in a post titled "The Future of Publishing (Maybe)." How humble. (I will admit I have not followed his blog, so I don't really know his usual p.o.v.) His vision of what publishing will become is actually quite promising, without being extreme or nihilistic.

I appreciate his point about the end of corporate publishing dominance - appreciate in that I'm pleased by this forecast, but also that I agree with its logic. He posits that theory while still allowing for gatekeepers - but these gatekeepers, egotistical or not, will not necessarily be driven by profit, or by shareholders looking only at the bottom line:
I expect the rise of “super readers,” such as Oprah has become (though not on that scale). Each super reader will have his or her own following. Many of them will be mini-tyrants, but at least the power will have moved from the profit-centered board room to those who truly care about and appreciate the content. As we have currently, various reading groups, online review journals and bloggers will also drive readers to content that might otherwise have been ignored.

This is exciting to me, and offers more promise for writers than counting on editors at corporate publishers who have marketing people and shareholders breathing down their necks, shouting to find the next big thing.

I also agree with his not-so-shocking concept of independent publishers needing to build a community, to know their niche. The concern there is always profit, or even staying afloat (forget making money), but Nygren explains that production costs and even marketing will be lower and the royalty arrangements we now have will change, so cash will flow differently. There also won't be the same warehouse costs.

I do worry that this new arrangement means less labor, as in fewer people employed by the publishing industry. Everyone can get published but no one can get hired. With print culture moving online, and being more accessible for less money, are we just discarding manual labor in the world of books and magazines and newspapers? Will there be unskilled labor jobs created? Like the discussions around environmental changes, with green collar jobs now becoming a real expression with meaning, I wonder if we need to discuss this aspect in the culture of writing and disseminating information.

Sorry I can't post as much, this week and running up to the holidays. Christopher has an idea for the top books of 2008... only I don't read many new books. If mine can be old books read in 2008, I may be better off?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Publishing News Flash II - Random House re-org

Publishers Weekly is reporting some changes at Random House, which is being seriously reorganized. See the letter from Markus Dohle, RH Chairman, here. Welcome! to the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group!

This document is interesting to read just to get a sense of how many imprints exist under RH, which has gobbled up a number of publishers over the years. But have no fear! Dohle says: "I want to stress the fact that all the imprints of Random House will retain their distinct editorial identities. These imprints and all of you who support them are the creative core of our business and essential to our success." Ah, what a relief...

Lines like this - "Because of the current economic crisis, our industry is facing some of the most difficult times in publishing history" - are scary indeed, though. And best of luck to two departing bigwigs - Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin, freshly out of work with the re-org.

I hear PW and Publishers Lunch email alerts are filling inboxes all over the publishing world. Corporate publishing employees must feel under siege!

Publishing News Flash - More Houghton Trouble!

It seems Houghton's publisher has gone and resigned! This just in from the New York Times' ever-reliable Motoko Rich:

In a sign of further setbacks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which represents authors like Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer and Günter Grass, the publisher of the company’s adult trade division has resigned.

The publisher, Becky Saletan, who took the job in January, will leave the company Dec. 10.
Last week, the publisher temporarily stopped acquiring new books as its parent company, Education Media and Publishing Group, an Irish private equity concern, said it was not allocating as much capital to the consumer book business.

Josef Blumenfeld, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, confirmed that Ms. Saletan had resigned. Ms. Saletan did not return calls or an e-mail message, and Jeremy Dickens, president of Education Media, did not return calls. The news of Ms. Saletan’s resignation was first reported by The Associated Press.

Literary agents who knew Ms. Saletan were upset by the news of her departure. “I think that Becky is a woman of extraordinary integrity and had quickly become a terrific publisher,” said David Black, whose clients published by Houghton include the cookbook author Dorie Greenspan and the sports columnist Ian O’Connor. “It’s a significant loss.”

Ms. Saletan became publisher earlier this year after the merger of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, edging out Janet Silver, who had been at Houghton Mifflin for 24 years.
Houghton Mifflin, based in Boston, was acquired in 2006 by Riverdeep, an Irish software company backed by what is now Education Media. The next year the company bought Harcourt, an educational publisher.

In an interview last week, Mr. Dickens of Education Media said Houghton had about $7 billion in debt and that other publishers had expressed interest in it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama and Publishing

Lori L. Tharps over at the Root offers an article about President-elect Obama's impact on publishing, specifically for black writers. (Via her blog, she directs readers interested in the topic of "Black people in the publishing industry" to the blog WriteBlack, run by Anika, which I hadn't read before. Looks like a fun spot worth visiting.)

Tharps doesn't make any definitive point in the article but nicely opens up this conversation, which is about publishing and of course more, in terms of a national conversation. How do we all discuss race with a black president coming into office? Publishing gets pulled out from other media because it's slower, and Tharps (and many others, myself included) feels it's also slower to publish by and for black people:
In the past month, those of us who make our living from the written word have started to ponder the possibilities. We are imagining the different ways the incoming president might inspire the overwhelmingly white publishing industry to get a clue about our stories... In the world B.O. (before Obama), publishers seemed to operate under the impression that black authors appealed only to black readers. Even worse, that those black readers were interested only in books that involved a lot of sex and ghetto baby-mama drama. For the past decade, support for authors of color with literary ambitions, or even those who just wanted to tell a different kind of story, has been dismal.

Fair play. She gets into the ghettoization of black writing and how publishers only seem comfortable with black authors writing "street" or "gangsta" lit, but what she doesn't address is the problem with corporate booksellers and how they truly segregate black writing separate from other writing, even black fiction versus "literature." That's definitely a part of the equation. When does a writer get to the point where she's next to Toni Morrison rather than Lisa Lennox?

I do appreciate the point Malaika Adero of Atria Books makes: "Sometimes there's this notion that publishers introduce the hot new thing," she says, "but we don't lead, we follow." I don't know if this has to be the case, but I do know, especially in this point in time with the economy shrinking and publishers less willing to take risks, it's gonna be the case for awhile.

But here's another possibility: maybe when the dust settles on this recession, as our economy reorganizes itself, with banks and sellers restructuring credit and consumers shopping in more educated ways - locally, sustainably - maybe there will be an opportunity for a publisher or publishers to go out with a new direction and challenge the kind of thinking that says every new project brought to the editorial board as an acquisition has to have 2 or 3 or 200 precedents, that every new book has to fit the XXXX meets XXXX model. If national, independent publishers are not desperate to make enough to stay open, maybe they will be able to lead - like Soft Skull has done with fiction in recent times. And maybe this can bode well for black writers wanting to break out of the segregated publishing AND bookselling world.

I return to a phrase I find myself saying or thinking a lot these days: Here's hoping!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

And another update to publishing's turmoil

Or is it turmoil?

Yesterday's NY Times article by Motoko Rich suggests there is not turmoil necessarily, but there is chaos. Rich juxtaposes the acquisition freeze at Houghton with news from Hachette Book Group: "Hachette is giving bonuses equal to one week’s salary to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible." Congrats to those employees, living large in a time of such financial instability. (This calls to mind hearing about HarperCollins, I believe, in the UK, who were having a bad year while I worked for an agent there in 2000. They supposedly gave their employees a copy of a book for their holiday bonus - not any copy of any book, but one copy of the same book, left on each employee's chair.)

Ah, but in fact this is all evidence of instability, and as ever, it all seems terribly unsustainable. Hachette has some valuable product - books by Baldacci and James Patterson and of course, it-author Stephanie "bloodsucking" Meyer. But Houghton is no slouch, folks. In their backlist, they have such familiar brand names as Curious George, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Philip Roth. Okay, it's not altogether consistent, but it's all successful. So why are they in such dire straits?

Well they diversified, and they have had some serious struggles with owners, most of whom have been European... not that there's anything wrong with that. My point is not xenophobia, my point is that these literary backlists are not served by those with bottom-line, profit-driven interests. I am not convinced I want to cozy up here, but Rich ends the article by quoting agent Peter McGuigan of Foundry Literary & Media:
“I think there’s a tendency to overreact in general, whether it’s firing people or canceling submissions because we have a dip in the economy or paying $6 million for Tina Fey because she does a good impersonation of somebody we’re not
even going to know who she is in a year.”

If you're just trying to sell your first novel, I don't expect you to have the assuredness to think of these issues, to consider who will care for your book if it becomes a classic, to think about who will best manage your backlist when you eventually have one. But publishers have this responsibility. You can't leave editors to extol the virtues of their historic literary press and then sell the whole operation off to the highest bidder, regardless of where that bidder made their sheckles (see Alec Baldwin's character in 30 Rock discussing cross-promotion with GE and NBC).

I am sad for Houghton, who is now off the shelf but still open to offers for company purchase, and I'm thinking Hachette employees should proceed with caution. As someone that made little money in publishing and was always resentful of the industry's reliance on independently wealthy employees, I'm not convinced this meal ticket will pay out forever more. And as for those Hachette authors... enjoy it while it lasts!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Radical Reaction to Recession Concerns

My apologies for the boring heading. It's rainy and the morning and a short week for work... let's face it, no one wants to be in an office. But I'm just throwing in a bit of commentary on the news Christopher posted yesterday.

There's a general feeling in publishing, as in any industry, that these are tough times and if you're working, if you have a job in publishing, you're fortunate, and you hope that fortune lasts as long as possible. I spoke to an agent last week, who is also a friend, and I asked her whether her agency, a strong and productive one, was changing strategy at all to deal with the current economic crisis. She said publishers still needed books, they still had lists to fill, and they were still hoping for "the big one," so submissions were going out the same as ever. She said advances may have been down somewhat, but if they could sell an editor on a strong project, the editor could find the money for it.

But then we hear that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has suspended acquisitions for its trade and reference division "until further notice." Claiming that "they" - editors? - are going to focus on what they have already acquired, a spokesperson for the publisher explained “In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature. We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.”

Agents are not angry, obviously, but deeply confused and concerned. Most are saying, like my aforementioned colleague, that it makes no sense as publishers need to have projects in the works, and plenty of them. I worked with a director who always explained the value in having too many manuscripts under contract: regardless of the delivery date, you can get them all in and then decide when to publish them, picking and choosing strategically. If an author had to wait 18 months to see their book in print, the editor could simply explain the value of waiting and timing it just right. This course of action creates the risk of never publishing a somewhat weak title, of course, but most hope no such titles end up in-house.

So it's hard to know how Houghton can get out of this freeze. How can they move forward? And it's disheartening to hear of such an action at the same time as all the bad news on the corporate bookselling side: shares of Borders Group dropped below $1 for the first time last Friday, down 19% by closing, notes WSJ and Shelf Awareness, and Steve Riggio at B&N has been complaining about the "significant drop off in customer traffic and consumer spending." We can take heart in this campaign and others like it to give Books as Gifts (from the good folks who brought us Book Bloggers Appreciation Week!).

I'll buy what I can from local booksellers - most likely the Harvard Book Store - whose former owner, famed bookseller Frank Kramer, was profiled here - though I'll try to get to the Brookline Booksmith as well. (RE: the Harvard Crimson article on Kramer... I believe this line contains an error: "He sits on the board of both the Harvard Square Business Association and Beacon Crafts, a local but world-renowned publisher. " I think the writer meant Beacon Press, on whose board he does sit.) As for those in Houghton... good luck? I worry for you, friends.

PS A nice round-up of not-so-nice news from the great blog Moby Lives, under the tragically appropriate headline, "Whew! For a minute there I thought we were fucked!"

Monday, November 24, 2008

Publishing News Flash...HOLY COW!!!

**Houghton Mifflin STOPS ACQUIRING BOOKS**

(Wait, what?!? How can that be?-Eds.)

It’s been clear for months that it will be a not-so-merry holiday season for publishers, but at least one house has gone so far as to halt acquisitions. PW has learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books.

Josef Blumenfeld, v-p of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts.” The directive was given verbally to a handful of executives and, according to Blumenfeld, is “not a permanent change.” Blumenfeld, who hedged on when the ban might be lifted, said that the right project could still go to the editorial review board. He also maintained that the the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.

“In this case, it’s a symbol of doing things smarter; it’s not an indicator of the end of literature,” he said. “We have turned off the spigot, but we have a very robust pipeline.” The action by the highly leveraged HMH may also be as much about the current economic slowdown as about the need for the company to cut costs in a tight credit market.

While Blumenfeld dismissed the severity of the policy, a number of agents said they have never heard of a publisher going so far as to instruct its editors to stop acquiring. “I’ve been in the business a long time and at a couple of houses I worked at, when things were bad, we were asked to cut back,” said agent Jonathon Lazear. “But I’ve never heard of anything so public.” Lazear added that, in the past two weeks, business has been more “sluggish” than it had been all year.

Another agent who had also heard about the no-acquisitions policy at HMH called the move “very scary” and said it's indicative of an industry climate worse than any he’s ever seen.

Thus far one agent has confirmed that at least one of his manuscripts has been declined at HMH per the policy. But perhaps an editor at the house put it best; in an e-mail, the editor mentioned the policy and added, “Who knows what’s next.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Book Award Winners...with a comment by Christopher

The 2008 Winners in...

Fiction: Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen*

Nonfiction: The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

Poetry: Fire to Fire by Mark Doty

Young People's Literature: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* L-A-M-E! Peter Matthiessen won for rewriting and revising three novels into Shadow Country. You might not hear this at any other book website but that sucks. The New York Times review of the book which appeared on 4/27/08 concludes that "
It offers a quicker and easier passage through the swamp, but fewer shades and shadows." So, according to the paper of record, it wasn't even a successful conflation. What really pisses me off about this award is how original works of fiction were ignored to get Mr. Matthiessen his NBA. Charles McGrath did an investigation on this whole thing on 11/11/08 and doesn't really come out for or against but included in his investigation is one sentence from Mr. Matthiessen that is the smoking gun in my opinion. In the second paragraph of the article, Mr. Matthiessen says: "There’s hardly a sentence in the whole damn thing that’s exactly the same." Uh huh. But that isn't the same as an original work of fiction is it? A bigger man than I once said that "you can put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig." (Ahem.) A rewrite, a revision, a reworking no matter how you frame it amounts to the same thing: a previously published book(s). Simple, right?

The writer most screwed by this bit of sneaky subterfuge by the National Book Foundation? Charles Bock. His novel, Beautiful Children, is the best novel of the year and it's a completely original piece of writing unlike that other guy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Uh oh, Michiko got her groove back!

In case you missed it today, Michiko Kakutani has returned from her "month in woods" (by which I mean her piece on the closing of Yankee Stadium-'bout time, I say-and her strange Jon Stewart profile) to get back to the business of reviewing books for the Times and man-o-manischewitz has she ever returned. A quick look at the snippets of her most recent books includes the following bits of reviewing delight:

On the Kerouac/Burroughs collaboration:

"The best thing about this collaboration between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs is its gruesomely comic title."

On the new John Updike novel:

"“The Widows of Eastwick,” while deeply flawed, is a less tendentious, more emotionally credible work than its predecessor."

On the new Philip Roth novel:

"Philip Roth’s latest book in which a dead man tells of his too short life reads like an elaborate, blackly comic joke. And it’s a joke, in the end, that doesn’t amount to a full-fledged novel."

With these knife slashes drawing fresh blood from the book jackets of internationally known authors, it was obvious that she was in no mood to have Malcolm Gladwell's newest volume Outliers land on her desk.

“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe (as his previous books-Eds.), but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing."

Well, "glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing" isn't so bad, right? Sheesh. I must admit that I generally enjoy Gladwell's New Yorker essays but Michiko's article reminds me that I never question where he gets his stories or anecdotes. I just simply accept his theories as having some rigorous, studied background...the tipping point, for instance. However, I can't rightly say I checked to see if "the tipping point" was a proven theory, accepted by social scientists (or just scientists period), or just a clever vehicle where several instances seem to have the same set of characteristics so the theory must be "true."

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.

Right. Why haven't I spent more time on that when I read his first two books The Tipping Point or Blink? Perhaps, just perhaps, the internet mentality of writing things without much research, consideration, or rigorous reviewing by others before publication has finally been exposed for the empty neo-pop psychology that it really is? It is possible. I haven't read Mr. Gladwell's new book yet (I'm a paperback guy...I can't stand the publishing industry's reliance on hardcovers) but I shall and when I do, I am going to read it with a red pencil to see if what is concluded by Mr. Gladwell is borne out by the research. Makes sense, no?

Writing of a transcript from the doomed flight, Mr. Gladwell says of the first officer’s failure to communicate his plight: “His plane is moments from disaster. But he cannot escape the dynamic dictated to him by his culture in which subordinates must respect the dictates of their superiors.”

Such assessments turn individuals into pawns of their cultural heritage, just as Mr. Gladwell’s emphasis on class and accidents of historical timing plays down the role of individual grit and talent (grace under pressure? Hemingway lives, no? - Eds.) to the point where he seems to be sketching a kind of theory of social predestination, determining who gets ahead and who does not — and all based not on persuasive, broadband research, but on a flimsy selection of colorful anecdotes and stories.

In one way, Mr. Gladwell lucked out. She could have done one of those reviews where she writes the review in the manner of the book she is reviewing. Those are always ugly for her and the author in question.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rewards for Stupidity

Some of us like to pretend that books offer a more intelligent form of media, existing on a higher plane than dvds or cds or online news, above the sensationalism of some blogs that run on gossip fumes. If nothing else, the long production time should minimize the book publishing industry's ability to benefit from tawdry subjects in a big way.

And then you see news like this, from an article by Tony Allen-Mills as reported in the Sunday Times (UK): "Literary agents are queueing up to sign her to a book deal that could earn her up to $7m. " Who, you ask? Sarah Palin, of course! The article suggests some think she could "emerge as the saviour of the American publishing industry." Now *that's* hype, I believe.

I mean honestly.
With publishers as nervous as everyone else about next year’s economic prospects, Palin’s popularity has become a boon. “Nobody is waiting for George W Bush’s memoirs,” one New York agent noted.

Well fair enough, but any book by Palin would have to be ghost-written within an inch of its life. I don't think she is necessarily stupid, but I refuse to believe she is intelligent or thoughtful. She's all presentation, clearly, and quite frankly, she has a bad attitude. Any book by her would be a defensive tirade against the media, most likely. There are endless things to criticize about American media, but she would most likely skate by each useful critique and instead land punches that offer soundbites at best.

But lest we overlook one brave woman's opinion...
Camille Paglia, the radical feminist, declared that she had “heartily enjoyed [Palin’s] arrival on the national stage”. She had been subjected to “an atrocious and sometimes delusional level of defamation”, Paglia added. “I can see how smart she is and, quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones.”

I sometimes enjoy the provocations of Paglia, but I think she's off here. Palin was subjected to serious defamation, but I do not think she's smart. If anything, she's a heck of an actor.

So do us a favor, Palin, and just skip the book idea. Make an inspirational dvd or something, but leave books out of it!

As I type that, though, I'm aware of the money that could go to independent booksellers if such junk was published, which gives me pause. Also, maybe she'll hang herself by her own rope - metaphorically speaking. Hell - put those thoughts together and you have my hearty support - gulp - for a book by one Ms. Sarah Palin.

Books are as low as any form of media, folks. It just saddens me to envision such a stupid book with a cover of her and her glasses trying to look smart sitting on a used bookshelf 3 years after pub, with 5 other copies, all marked down to $1. In the longterm, does this devalue all books?

To answer, here's a comment on the article posted by E. Joyce Moore of Indianapolis:
This will rank right up there with Monica Lewinski's, and the future Joe the Plumber books. No wonder the publishing industry is in trouble. Millions of dollars for books to be returned from the bookstores unsold. You could have had at least ten really good writers/books for the same investment.

Point!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sweet and bitter all at once

The story by Richard Perez-Pena in the NY Times was downright overwhelming. The article, published today, was about Dan Mirvish and Eitan Gorlin, two men who created a hoax that reached the top tiers of our pathetic media system, apparently built on a house of cards.

Many of us read about Sarah Palin thinking Africa was a country rather than a continent. It was a cheap joke, an easy tidbit of information for all us liberals to smugly point to as evidence of her grand stupidity. Irony of ironies, it was reported by Carl Cameron, a Fox News Channel correspondent. Oops! Though it was actually MSNBC that came forward to retract the story.

The truth is that these two gues, Mirvish and Gorlin, went all Yes Men-style and made up a blogger named Martin Eisenstadt who was a McCain advisor and fellow at the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy. The man, like the institute, does not exist.

What made me think of my li'l blog here was this part of Perez-Pena's article:

They say the blame lies not with them but with shoddiness in the traditional news media and especially the blogosphere.

“With the 24-hour news cycle they rush into anything they can find,” said Mr. Mirvish, 40.

Mr. Gorlin, 39, argued that Eisenstadt was no more of a joke than half the bloggers or political commentators on the Internet or television.


This is always the hard part. Is it the people who did its fault or the people who let them do it? We all went through this with JT Leroy, not to mention bad tv movies about washed up celebrities, the ones who just wanted to keep the crowds happy.

These guys have to take some blame, yes, but the story provides a useful example of the dangers our fast-paced media must address. Everyone is in a rush to break the story and with the internet being what it is, you can get the story out there very quickly, right to readers.

And who are the readers? We were all gorging on media leading up to and just following the election, and many of us still are. I used to scan, but now I zip right through headlines, going forward and back with speed heretofore unreached. Why? Because I can. And because there seems to be endless news to read!

But like many publishing/bookish types, I appreciate the solace of a good book, with a finished ending just waiting for me to reach it. It's not changeable, it's not anxious, it's not going to be taken down or altered. And I'm not reading in a bubble - I often go online for supplementary material: to see the author's website, or see images as I did recently, as I wanted visuals to go with the story told in And the Band Played On. But this story is a good reminder to take what I read online with a grain of salt.

This also affirms my belief in the need for strong gatekeepers, and if those gatekeepers delay a process somewhat, it can be a valuable delay that strengthens the credibility of the material you're reading.

So just chill already.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I can hardly believe it

To think that we are soon to have a president who reads poetry... It is the dawn of a new day!

It was Derek Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984, it turns out. Nice choice! I know we were all supposed to be impressed that he was reading Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World during the campaign, but it's nice to see him balancing the issue book with something more artful.

So maybe there can be a run on Walcott's poetry books now, just in time for the holidays. If you think your favorite Obama fan is interested, be sure to follow IndieBound's advice and buy at an indie!
(In the photo, it appears he's reading Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin book about Lincoln and his peeps. Snoooooorrrrree... Gimme Walcott anyday.)

Friday, November 07, 2008

More fun on the web

I know this has been blogged about on publishing / reader blogs, but I still want to spread the word as I find this website by the New Zealand Book Council pretty hilarious. Here you can read to your heart's content at work, all the while appearing as if you're going over a powerpoint presentation. It's simply bizarre.

I don't see that as much more than a novelty, of course. I mean, one cannot truly appreciate the works of Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Oscar Wilde in this format, with stock images alongside verse, with useless charts littering the page. If anything, it's more interesting as an artistic statement about the hollowness of modern business presentations.

This project brings to mind David Byrne's Powerpoint presentation, Envisioning Emotional Epistemoligical Information. My partner's a big fan of Byrne's - as am I now - and so this is in our home, and it's odd. I enjoyed seeing this project, but you know how you sometimes don't know how to move, or what to do with your hands, when you're at a museum? It was similar. One doesn't know how to react to watching an artistic powerpoint. Where to look, how to sit, what to say. I suppose it is a sublime experience in some ways, or absurd.

Who am I kidding - we all still have one thing on our mind. I still cannot believe we are finally getting rid of that joke known as George Bush and bringing into office someone who seems to be intelligent, thoughtful, humble, open-minded, reasonable, and prepared. I know Obama will have his faults but I'm still, like so many, incredibly hopeful. And with the world on the evening of Nov. 4th, I breathed a sigh of relief!

Monday, November 03, 2008

I scored 1 outta 10...

...shows what I know! Ordinarily we here at S.o.t.B. are always writing with gravitas but today? Not so much. Have a little fun trying to judge a book's Amazon rating by its cover (just like your mama always told you not too).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Categorize this!

There's a nice, very short interview with author Mary Roach over at Paper Cuts, the NYTimes' book blog. She tells an amusing story about contacting Borders after seeing her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, shelved in Medical Reference.

I call up Borders headquarters in Minneapolis and I ask to speak to Guy Who Decides Where Books Get Shelved. Of course, there is no guy. The receptionist asks for the title of my book, she checks a list, and she puts me through to Guy Who Deals with Medical Reference. What I don’t know at the time is that this man has taken a liking to my book. He spends his days with “Healing Your Sinuses” and “Dr. Jensen’s Guide to Better Bowel Care.” “Stiff” is high art to him... I fill his voicemail box with a whingeing ignoramus request to be moved to, what, Sewing Craft? Gardening? A few hours later my publicist e-mails me. There is panic in the land. Damage control is underway. “Mary,” it concludes, “please don’t ever call Borders headquarters again.”

As far as I know, “Stiff” is still shelved in Medical Reference. I told this story to a Borders employee a while back. “That’s not so bad,” she said. “We put ‘The Perfect Storm’ in Commercial Fishing.”

Having worked at a location myself, this sounds about right for Borders. Even worse, I'm sure her new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is getting put right up in Erotica. Many of these employees do not and some might not be able to read. That's what happens when you hire teenagers at $7 an hour. Now I know this is not true for all Borders floor staff, or the staff of chain stores in general, but sometimes... (This caused a flare-up recently at Shelf Awareness, so I should just let it go.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are you the Gatekeeper?

There was a good if short post on Critical Mass - "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors" - about the NBCC/PEN discussion Beyond Margins: A Critical Perspective, wherein authors and editors dicussed "the question of gatekeepers in the publishing, book reviewing and awards communities." The publisher involved in the event was the terrific Brooklyn-based independent Akashic Books, with appearances by two of their authors, Chris Abani and Amiri Baraka. They all discussed marginalized writing, with two resources those of us committed to such voices should keep in mind: blogs and academic departments, such as ethnic studies, LGBT studies, etc... It's worth a read.

Joseph Marshall III had interesting comments to make regarding the efforts of native writers:
"Anyone who's native deals with various attitudes," he said, including "narrow-minded condescension" and "benign curiosity." "Gatekeepers who work for publishers are no different," he added. "Once we get past the gatekeepers, we have things to say."

The post is a good reminder that some of the most important, prescient, and ultimately valuable writing comes from unexpected or overlooked places with their ears to the ground. Sometimes "the next big thing" isn't manufactured to be just that by a big corporate house, but instead bubbles up and demands attention. So... what's next?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is It Always a Bad Thing When an Independent Bookstore Closes?

The little hamlet of Amherst, Massachusetts (my home town) used to be a mecca for book buyers. While I was growing up there were no fewer than 7 bookstores in a downtown of two streets: The Goliard Bookshop, Valley Books, Book Marks, Food For Thought, Wooton Books, Albion Bookshop (which morphed into Amherst Books), and The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop. I am sure I am forgetting one or two but these were the heart of the book industry in Amherst. Today only three of the 7 remain with the just-announced closing of The Jeffrey Amherst. You can read about it here in my hometown newspaper.

Now, on the surface, it is a bad thing for a book store to close...I feel the same way about closing bookstores as I do about closing a church: it can't possibly make the community better, can it? However, perhaps this kneejerk reaction should be revised? The Jeff hasn't been able to find a buyer even though it is situated cozily next to the primary stationary and news shop in town. The foot traffic is great, the community is literate and educated, the store has a built-in clientele, so why isn't it working? Well, I think a look at the three survivors in town will tell you why it might not be a bad thing. The three survivors in Amherst are: Amherst Books, Food For Thought, and Valley Books. Let's start with old gray beard, Valley Books.

(Valley Books interior, from the website)

Valley Books will never close unless its owner, Larry Pruner, chooses to close. In business for 30+ years, Valley Books has been located in four locations around town (that I know of). With the best blend of used books, rare books, first editions, new and recently published titles, a HUGE used/half-price fiction section, Larry has carved out a niche in Amherst as the place to turn for a cheap copy of Catcher in the Rye (always in demand in a college town), an out-of-print book by Paul Tillich, as well as a copy of the recently published book on the Celtics's 2008 season. Know your audience...and Larry does. (Plus he kinda looks like a character out of a Dickens novel...just don't tell him I wrote that!)

(Exterior of Amherst Books on the corner of Main and South Pleasant Street)
Amherst Books, run by Amherst bookstore stallwart Nat Herold, is the where the academic community goes for Lacan, Badiou, Islamic history, west Indian poetry, or any other scholarly need. Amherst Books and Nat Herold have been around in other guises for decades. Amherst Books used to be Atticus Bookshop which used to be Albion Bookshop. Whatever the name, it has been one of Amherst most popular stores for years. Nat Herold, on the other hand, is one of the saviest booksellers the town has ever seen. As the owner of The Goliard Bookshop, he put together one of the best academic bookstores in the history of the profession. Back in the heady '80's when the continental thinkers were invading English departments and bookshops, all of them could be found at Goliard...sort of. There were books everywhere. On the floor, piled up on tables, sometimes in boxes. They had it, but you needed to find it. All that charm plus if you were lucky you could play a round of Nerf H-O-R-S-E with Guy Spencer, poet Jim Hoag, or poet James Tate on any given Saturday afternoon. The academic trend continues in Nat's new store, Amherst Books. He, also, knows his audience...

(Exterior of the Food For Thought Book Collective from the website)

Finally, there is Food For Thought Books. First and foremost you need to know two things about the store that has always set it apart from almost every store in not just Amherst, but the whole country. 1) They are a worker's collective. 2) They are a leftwing, multicultural (for lack of a better word) store. Their politics are their identity. All the sections are stuffed with books from New Press, Verso, and myriad other academic and left leaning presses. The history sections as well as the sections focusing on women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies and literature, as well as various sidelights which will appeal to all manner of lefties make Food For Thought more of an "experience" than the other two shops. But, again, Food For Thought has carved out a political and social niche within bookselling and it is the place you are most likely to run into Robert Paul Wolff or John Bracey.

What these three survivors have that The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop did not is specificity. Used books, Academic books, Progressive books...each one knows who their audience is and they cater to them. The Jeff didn't. It was a general interest bookshop that, excluding the owner's community involvement as separate and should continue even once the store is closed, didn't offer much to any of the communities listed above which make up the lion's share of the residents of the Amherst area. The locals in the "happy valley" are almost all uniformly interested in a bargain (a la crusty New Englanders)-used books; are almost all connected to the five colleges (three in the town itself) and draw their money and livelihood from academics-hence, academic books; would have elected John Anderson, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry respectively-so, yeah, progressive books would sell. All of this written, I would be remiss if I didn't add that all three remaining stores also carry general interest books too. You can always find the NYT bestseller in town-even with The Jeff's shutdown.

In the final analysis, Amherst is losing a good community member but that is really it. The market is now about specificity and the closing of The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop is, I hate to write it, good news for the remaining stores in Amherst.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stop the whining!

Thanks to BookNinja for today's link.

Book Editor David L. Ulin of the L.A. Times has a good article on his reaction to reading yet another article on "the crisis in book publishing." Ulin makes the point that many are making about the economy in general: the coming (or current) recession will be/is painful, but maybe it will have some good effects in slowing things down, curbing over-consumption and getting people to live within their means. Rather than just rolling over and dropping dead, maybe, Ulin says, something else in publishing will occur:
What's more likely, I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform "synergies." At least, I hope that's what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing -- in culture in general -- over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.
Here's hoping, Ulin!

It's true that this "publishing is DYING!" call has gone out numerous times before. Everyone who works in publishing is told they missed the really *good* times. It's an industry surviving on an end-is-near mentality, where a success is greeted as a delay of the inevitable. And so everyone is out chasing the next big thing, thinking that's all they can count on to make it through another day.

Ulin talks about the problem facing a new novelist, say, who has her first book published to low sales numbers. Then what happens? "According to one agent I know, you almost have to hide your numbers, moving from publishing house to publishing house to stay ahead of the curve." That's partially true, but now with Bookscan so widely available, those numbers are nearly impossible to hide, so the next publishing house, despite agent attempts to maintain the illusion, knows the score.

But Ulin holds out hope:
This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.
Can we keep some of the "breathless gossip" please?

Actually, I'll back this, and I see modest independent houses leading the way - heads up, Soft Skull! You in, Chelsea Green? These are the places that hopefully have not overextended themselves, that have built strong lists with readers who know them and their authors, and these are the folks that can maintain a steady hand and keep publishing quality material that folks who need a break from the bad news around them may turn to.

Keep up the optimism, Ulin. As you know, in publishing, it's in short supply.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Street lit

I'm a bit late on this story by Anne Barnard in the NY Times today, as other bloggers and such (including Shelf Awareness - thanks!) have linked it. It's even one of the most emailed stories. But hey, I had other work to do.

The story is about literature "variously known as urban fiction, street lit or gangsta lit." Street lit is my favorite term, though I'd like to see it expanded to include different subjects. In this case, the article is focusing on mass market (mostly) novels, soap opera styled, written by and for folks in impoverished, urban black communities.

I've long been fascinating and appreciative of the economy around books for and by this demographic. African American literature, fiction and non-fiction, is often woefully underrepresented in big box bookstores, for many reasons. So you have this vibrant economy of self-published authors and street vendors getting books to readers, who often blow through them. In this article, reader Shonda Miller "devours a book a day, enforces a daily hour of reading time for her entire family and scours street stands and the Internet for new titles." Very nice. Barnard adds, "She also acts as an unofficial guide and field scout for the Queens Library as it builds its collection of a fast-growing genre, written mainly by black authors about black characters."

I'm also increasingly fascinated by the role of the library, which is clearly ever-changing. The debates come down to whom it is serving, and the awkward, unwieldy answer is the public. But there must be a healthy sense of the mission, to both serve the public and work toward enlightening the public. I think it's important for a library to have street lit but also have more difficult lit, so readers who want to go for something more challenging at some point can do so. The head librarian at Far Rockaway library in Queens is quoted in the article, responding to all the folks heading straight to the urban fiction section:
The head librarian, Sharon Anderson, who said she grew up on Donald Goines and was now obsessed with spy novels, says that sometimes she recommends something harder: “If you want sex, dirt and murder, read Shakespeare! We have the CliffsNotes!”
Makes sense to me. You got readers into the library, now let's see what they'll find. Maybe that's idealistic, and it's clearly subjective as I love exploring the library, just wandering around through sections and taking home books I never knew before walking in. And I may not so much as crack them before I return them, but who cares?

It's exciting to hear a librarian say that she will go out to a street vendor and buy copies of a book she hears is popular, a self-published title not available in her usual catalogs, to keep library users satisfied, even users who are not there to delve into deeply intellectual matters. Libraries need to know the public, to know how to keep them informed on everything from their history to their tax forms.

Now keeping the homeless warm at the BPL? That's a whole different post, I imagine... (but look at that hot new redesigned bpl website!)

Monday, October 20, 2008

When Authors / Publishers Succeed

As I come down from a very nice if incredibly brief visit to nyc - 1 night - seeing my friend Damian Barr, a fantastic British writer and one-to-watch, I wanted something to keep my spirits up. I looked to my google reader and the blogs tracked therein.

This story by Sue Fox at the UK Times may not be entirely uplifting, as our heroine Doris Lessing is surely struggling with some typical ailments of aging, but I still appreciated the Nobel Prize winning author's point:

I give away mountains of books to Africa and Oxfam and anyone else who comes here. I get The New Yorker, which is always inviting readers to read more books. I buy armfuls from the local bookseller in West Hampstead. I phone up and somebody collects them for me.

It’s lovely to have money to give away — that’s the bonus of winning the Nobel. I support Oxfam, Shelter and Centrepoint. I’ve also got a fondness for a local cat-and-dog home and an organisation to help writers. I was much too proud to write begging letters when I was broke. Miraculously, two people I’d never met said they’d heard I was hard up and enclosed some money. They were communists and told me that when I had enough I should pass on the money to somebody else who needed it. I’ve been doing it ever since.

It's nice to see a writer who is financially comfortable, and because of that, is generous. I would expect nothing less from what I know of her, but it was still nice to read. (And thanks to BookNinja for the link.)

And publishing folks are all coming down themselves, from the Frankfurt Book Fair. It sounds like it's busy but not the best and brightest fair in recent memory - fair enough, given the current state of the global economy. This report from Motoko Rich at the NY Times follows Mizzi van der Pluijm, presumably because of her outstanding name. Well done! She is the Dutch publisher at Contact Publishers, and using her as a focal point is a nice way into reporting on the fair. But this paragraph stood out, not necessarily about the fair but about the love of publishing specifically:

Ms. van der Pluijm knew she wanted to become a publisher when she was 16 and read a biography of Nancy Cunard, the cruise-line heiress who first published Samuel Beckett. “To be paid for reading all interesting stuff, and meeting very interesting people,” Ms. van der Pluijm said, “that is a wonderful job.”

To uplift, I should also reference this story by Simon Romero at the NYTimes about Luis Soriano, a Columbian who brings scores of books to poor rural folk by way of donkey. It's already one of the most emailed articles today. Given my love of bookmobiles, I was of course drawn to the story of this man's "Biblioburro."

More original content soon. My brain is still in a cab heading downtown it seems...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BREAKING NEWS: NBA Finalists Announced

As if you haven't heard...


FICTION
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

Fiction judges: Gail Godwin (chair), Rebecca Goldstein, Elinor Lipman, Reginald McKnight, Jess Walter.

NONFICTION
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Company)
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday)
Jim Sheeler, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin)
Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Harcourt)

Nonfiction judges: Marie Arana (chair), Farah Jasmine Griffin, Russell Jacoby, Megan Marshall, Kevin Starr.


POETRY
Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Doty, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems (HarperCollins)
Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day (Louisiana State University Press)
Richard Howard, Without Saying (Turtle Point Press)
Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press)

Poetry Judges: Robert Pinsky (chair), Mary Jo Bang, Kimiko Hahn, Tony Hoagland, Marilyn Nelson.


YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

Young People’s Literature Judges: Daniel Handler (chair), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, Cynthia Voigt.


It's always nice to see some smaller presses on there. Good luck, Graywolf!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And yet another model, but this one means FREE BOOKS!

To start, let me explain how my route here. I started with this post at the Written Nerd, which took me to this post at Books on the Nightstand.

So where did this all lead me? To the website of the Concord Free Press, based right here in Massachusetts, which is offering a whole new publishing model. Ya see, these kind folks are going to publish 2 books a year, with print runs of about 1,000 copies, and give them all away for free. In getting a book, though, you are promising to "make a voluntary donation to a local charity or someone in need in their community." They ask that you then log your donation at the website, with the number on your copy of the book, so they can track where the money is going.

Obviously, this is a non-profit organization, but I was of course still confused as to how they could sustain this model. This page partially answers that question by explaining that the design is free, due to the kind folks at Alphabetica Design, and the actual printing is discounted by the kind folks at Recycled Paper Printing. And then they get support from their board and whoever feels so inclined to throw them some change. Their advisory board includes writers Russell Banks, Stephan McCauley, and others.

I'm pretty fascinated by this model, and I've already requested a copy of Stona Fitch's Give and Take. (The perceptive among you might have noticed she's also the Editor-in-Chief of the press...) I'll donate somewhere and report it. I do worry, of course, about how this kind of model impacts writers and publishers who need to make money, not to mention bookstores. I love giving away my books and taking from others, I can't get enough of the library, and books prices can be out of control (Christopher was recently reporting the shocking list price of Nixonland - $37.50!). But there is something to be said for people willingly putting down money for a book, investing in it with their hard-earned cash. It makes the transaction more of a commitment for them. If they just have a book handed to them, even if they give $50 to Doctors Without Borders, they still may not feel that obligation to read the free book in their hand. They may have given the money to the org anyhow.

And if you're a fiction writer and you're hoping to do it at least a bit closer to full-time, you may not appreciate this throwaway line on the publisher's website: "Do writers get paid? Writers rarely get paid, ask one. In our case, we can definitely guarantee that they won’t get paid—can a traditional publisher promise that?" I don't know if this is the right answer to the question of how to get funding for innovative writers, not just commercial writers who know how to deliver a really sellable product. I appreciate the fact that it's a limited print run, but the idea that a bigger publisher could put out the book after Concord Free Press is tough as some publishers will not want a book that is out there in one edition already, especially when readers are being encouraged to actively share their copy of that one book.

I'll read, though, and I'll keep watching this space. If nothing else, I give a big kudos to their logo. It's fantastic! And I look forward to trying out Give and Take. You?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Publishing into a Recession

First off, I'd like to ask that the Great Depression NOT be invoked anymore, at least for a few weeks. I just can't.

Next, I'd like to send you readers away, with some interesting links. First, courtesy of BookNinja, is this article from the UK Guardian, on how British publishers are handling the financial crisis. They note that guides explaining how to save money - making things, growing things, etc.. - are on the rise, with more to come. But they also note that in other times of similar crises, trashier fare did quite well - romances, biographies of the rich and famous, etc...: "Back in the recession of the early 80s, cash-strapped readers were lapping up Jackie Collins sex, rock'n'roll and shopping saga Lovers and Gamblers." Something to keep in mind.

The next link is to a blog entry that has received tons of comments, and for good reason. I didn't even know this blog before I was pointed to it by The Written Nerd.

The blog is called Editorial Ass and the entry in question is here. In it, a "recovering editorial assistant" explains sales figures for literary fiction in a way that I would deem totally fair. People get very nervous talking numbers. I always wanted to be honest with my authors about sales figures but I also had to be sensitive. They wanted the truth, but how much truth could they handle?

On her blog, this "Moonrat" decides through an admittedly unscientific process that 7,000 copies is the magic number. That or above and you've done nicely for yourself. And I agree. She then breaks down less than that and correctly explains what the publisher's reaction might be. It's not entirely bad until we hit 1,500 or less, and then you're stuck.

The comments are well worth reviewing as readers ask good questions and Moonrat offers more strong answers, including a lengthy one where she explains how the credit crisis may impact publishers. She explains how literary fiction is kind of luxury publishing, something many editors want to do but can only do with more reliable non-fiction books on the list. Literary fiction is a big risk. But then she goes on to explain the pressure publishers get from the sales force who want to see more paperbacks, as they sell quicker in stores. I've seen this pressure firsthand. It puts the publisher in a pickle because the margin on paperbacks really blows, especially if a book is a paperback original. The publisher has to sell many more copies to earn back the advance. For the author, it also means a lower royalty rate usually, and of course less money in general as each book costs less than it would in hardcover.

What I also find interesting is that Moonrat is not distinguishing between an independent and a large corporate press, because in this non-scientific way, it's not just about financials but about morale and one's sense of the market. A book is most likely celebrated more at a small independent when it sells 7,000+, but especially for literary fiction, it's still great news at a much bigger house with bursting coffers.

I hope writers reading about this stuff don't get too hung up on this number - just as I hoped my authors wouldn't - because it cannot be one's focus. It'll throw you off your game. But for the rest of us, it's a really useful contribution to online discussions of publishing. Thanks, Moonrat! I'll be going back soon to check out this entry on creating a platform. Great stuff.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

News You Can't Use

Well raise your hand if you're shocked by this news. In this day and age, of course Tina Fey is writing a book. Don't get me wrong, I'm as amused by her as anyone, but why does every joanie-come-lately feel the need to put pen to paper? But what am I saying, if the price tag reached $6 million as the New York Post reported, why wouldn't she?

And I can see a fun book coming from Fey, based on her writing over at 30 Rock, which is a fantastic show... mostly. And I suppose it's good to see publishing as quick-moving as other media - her agent, Richard Abate at Endeavor, apparently employed a "no meeting, no proposal pitch." Outstanding! Did he just show youtube clips?

While watching the excruciating VP debate last week, a fellow viewer at a friend's house took issue not just with McCain's choice of Palin, but also with Palin's acceptance of the VP role. This young woman - a PhD in political science, it might be worth mentioning - is tired of the entitlement Americans have, shown by Palin who didn't question her own ability to be in this incredibly powerful position. Instead of saying, "Am I qualified?" she thought "Why the heck shouldn't I?!" Is Fey showing the same ignorance here? Did her agent say let's do this, even though she apparently could not even make time to meet with publishers, much less put together a proposal? He said strike while the iron's hot, and she said why not.

But then we have the publisher, Little, Brown. This is not some small outfit that may go under from this deal, I realize. Still, book publishing is sloooooooow. By the time Fey's book comes out, god willing, Palin will be a distant memory, perhaps reporting on quirky stories from Fox News in the same way Jeanne Moos does for CNN, but with a more moose-huntin' flavor. She'll find the oddest, funniest Joe Six-Packs and Hockey Moms around and report on their goings-on under the oppressive Obama regime. "How are you all survivin'?" she'll ask with a wink. This won't be SNL fodder, enjoyed only by the fringe still left watching this backwards channel, and Fey won't necessarily be the most watched comedienne on tv. The book may have to stand on its own, needing to earn out $6 million. This seems like a shaky business model to me.

And in other publishing news, Soft Skull has published the complete collection of David Rees' Get Your War On, and the author has been busy self-promoting online. I admit it, his ridiculous blog cracks me.

I'll also just admit, though I fit the demographic a bit too well, that I'm ready for Sarah Vowell's new book, The Wordy Shipmates, about the Puritans. Now there's a writer who can deliver a book. Just sayin', Tina Fey.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Your Side of Deceit

I was in the bookstore today looking over the new arrivals - it was the Harvard Co-op, which of course is a B&N college store - and I noticed GirlBoyGirl by Savannah Knoop. The subtitle offers the reveal: "How I Became J. T. Leroy." Yes folks, it's out: the true story of the person who played the part of the mysterious, genderqueer it-author a few years ago - the actor, not the writer - who was found to be a fraud. Now that the fracas has all died down, what of the person behind the sunglasses? Hmmm....

I picked it up to confirm it was what it was, but I must be honest in saying I can't imagine actually reading it. I mean, at this point, who cares? And then I was a bit disappointed to see the logo on the spine. The book is being published by Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher famously run by Dan Simon, a press I have long respected. (I thought the Open Media pamphlet series was very cool, if somewhat impractical.) Then I looked at the acknowledgments page and saw mention of Amy Scholder, who is the current editor in chief of the press. I know Scholder's name because she was the US Editor at Verso, and after she left, I (unsuccessfully) interviewed for that position. She has certainly worked on some very cool books - I'm intrigued by the use of her name in association with David Wojnarowicz's The Waterfront Journals - and she knows how to get attention, start fires, and force discussions of the first amendment and art, which I'm all for. It looks like Verso may have been set to publish Scholder's anthology, Dr. Rice in the House, but they lost her and it to Seven Stories (or gave both, it's not clear). Perhaps they felt it was straying too far from their rather rigid (and dry) approach to politics, which has a more European, old-school feel to it.

So Scholder is more pop and art (worked with Karen Finley et al), and she was clearly the editor of this GirlBoyGirl business. But it hardly seems all that substantive, and in fact seems instead like part of an ongoing genre of confessional - and boring - books. Now a press like Seven Stories needs to have some money makers to keep publishing more risky, less popular books - their fiction, especially first time novelists, are a huge risk. But I'm much more impressed with big sellers like Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, a model of how an indie press needs to publish, getting a huge name and getting him to do this with you rather than a giant commercial press, and showing booksellers and readers that you can publish something this popular in a way that looks top-rate and is readily available. Derrick Jensen's forthcoming graphic novel on global warming, As the World Burns, also looks great, and very accessible, with definite commercial appeal. So why'd they stoop to this JT Leroy hot mess?

In terms of genre and not indie publishing, holding this new book in my hand also brought to mind Can You Every Forgive Me?, Lee Israel's relatively new book about her years forging author signatures on literary classics. It was celebrated in the Sunday Book Review, much to the frustration of many, and I was curious about the book. Reading a review on a blog later turned me against it. But is this kind of confessional book, by someone we have every right to hate or at least be angry with, interesting in that car-accident kind of way?

It seems the genre, long a mainstay of commercial publishing, got a serious boost from the whole scandal involving James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. I remember my sister getting the book after the truth came out, because she was "just so curious." And that's it, right? We're so curious as to why you'd dress up like this fake author, or sign Noel Coward's signature and sell it, that we actually go out and buy these books, thereby supporting the very people we can't stand!

But morals aside, really, aren't these confessions just articles? Do they really need to be whole books? And this is what worries me: editors are pushing these as books based on an idea and not the content, so they have authors, some of whom may not be particularly skilled at crafting a book-length narrative on most given subjects, expand their story to make it a product they can sell. And they run with it. This is what I felt reading Robert Leleux's The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, which was over and done with in 3 days (thanks, Boston Public Library - here's an early return!). The author wasn't a bad writer, but he had a schtick - gay kid in TX with fabulous mom - and he went on and on for about 200 pages. Book's done!

And we hear about the pressure from publishers to find authors, to find books that are not going to take long to write. I don't know. I suppose most really commercial books are l-i-t-e - it's the nature of this kind of book. But is that seeping into other areas, even into genres we expect to be weightier? And is it lowering standards for even our best independent presses?

I should say that Terri Jentz's book, reviewed here recently, was an example of a book that seemed to have come from a painstaking writing and editing process - in a good way. It may have been very long, but it was also very well done, with polish, and nuance, and consistent style, and intelligence. Let's hope publishers keep producing these books even while they slam lighter fare into their catalogs to get in quick cash.

Sociable