Sunday, March 30, 2008

"autueur! auteur!" = tacky

I supported you in the early days, Governor Patrick, but this is a bit tacky. Please settle down.

If you're in publishing and/or you're in Massachusetts, you probably heard all about our governor, Deval Patrick, scoring a $1.35 million advance for a book about his life, which he himself will write. The Boston Globe, apparently seeing little happening in the world yesterday (Saturday), included two separate and fairly long articles about the deal in the newspaper, with one on the front page and the other on the first page of the City/Region section, with both jumps leading to one big Patrick page, with information repeated every which way.

In the more local piece, by Matt Viser and Frank Phillips, the focus is a bit more on local reactions to the deal. In the second paragraph, we learn:
Republicans immediately attacked him for appearing to signal ambitions beyond Massachusetts in only his second year as governor. Even some prominent Democrats privately worried that his new role as political memoirist could give ammunition to his enemies in the State House.

Yes, I'd hate to have a governor that was just using this office as a stepping stone for bigger things...

Anyhow, it seems clear that's just what this book will be, especially as its planned pub date for now is the year he's finishing his first term as governor. But he says it's not just about this one role in his life. Here's what Viser and Phillips, presumably having attended his last-minute press conference in Waltham, reported:
"The book's not about being governor," Patrick said at a press briefing in Waltham yesterday. Smiling, he entered the room calling out, "Auteur! Auteur!"
"The book is about life. And I have a life that did not begin on the day of my inauguration," he said. "I appreciate you being interested in the book. I hope you'll buy a copy."
He said he would write on nights and weekends, building on substantial material he has put on paper in the past decade. He will be working with Stacy Creamer, a Random House editor who has done books with Elizabeth Edwards, Lance Armstrong, and John McEnroe.
The governor attempted to downplay the financial gain from the deal. "That is not the central part of this project for me," Patrick said when asked about the large advance.
"I'm very excited about the project. They are very excited about the project," he added. "There's a catharsis in it, actually, as well, which I am looking forward to."

I love this - it feels like old-school city reporting. Rushing off the press conference to get the soundbyte! Letting politicians spew this crap and reporting for others to judge. Viser and Phillips, on the scene! And man does this reporting make Patrick look a little bit foolish. Oh, and he's giving "a portion of his earnings" to A Better Chance, the group that helped him get a private school education back in the day, getting him from the South Side of Chicago to Milton, MA. I think it's fair that he can say how much just yet because royalties are complicated and it is probably hard to know how it should all work out.

The piece from the front page, by Keith O'Brien, seems to be more of a debate as to whether Patrick can actually write a book. O'Brien brings up how much work such an endeavor entails:
Still, Patrick could be in for a long slog, particularly given his assertion that he will be writing his book without a ghostwriter or collaborator. Literary agents and authors believe he has a story to tell. Who can resist a tale of a poor boy raised on the South Side of Chicago going on to become the first black governor of Massachusetts? But telling that story, in a way that someone else might want to read it, is something else altogether, said Ipswich author William Patrick, who is of no relation to the governor.
...What usually trips up the aspiring memoirist, he said, "is the rewriting, the honing. It's the architecture. It's knowing how to write a book."

I'm glad this Patrick has this sense. Just because it happened to you don't mean it's easy to chronicle. That seems obvious to some of us...

I don't mind that the governor just cashed in on his story, but I think some of the publishing types have it right when they make the point most succinctly here, in Viser and Phillips' article:
"That's a hefty advance," said Sara Nelson, editor of Publishers Weekly. "My guess is that they're doing it so they own the rights to this book so when he becomes a real player on the national stage, they'll own the rights for the next book. It's a flag-planting."

In this age of intellectual property disputes and preparations, this is exactly how the advance got that high. And while comparisons to Barack Obama based on race alone are ridiculous and cheap, make most offensive by a feature on in which photos of their rise are put side by side, there is a similar story here and Gov. Patrick does have a lot of supporters. He is a great speaker and clearly as political aspirations. If he achieves them in 8 years, Random House wants to have those paperback rights available and send through to one of their many subsidiaries to print out, just like they did with Obama's Dreams of my Father, a book originally published in 2004.

But please, Governor Patrick, no more grandstanding, no more entering rooms called out "auteur! auteur!" No more patting yourself on the back. Get to writing!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Used Book (file) Store?

Once again from Christopher, this link to a quite fascinating article on Gizmodo about what it means when you buy an e-book. In short, it means you are licensing that material, not buying it outright, which means you cannot resell it. It's all intellectual property and information control folks - read up.

What I particularly liked was the extensive, exhaustive comments section. No, I wasn't merely envious that a posting could generate such discussions in comments - hm. - but rather I liked when a known author threw in his two (hard earned) cents - which I'll quote (for free) at length:

I make my living as an author, and the numbers involved in publishing are tiny compared to music and movies. That is, a book that sells 10,000 copies in a week can easily make the New York Times best-seller list. That kind of number would be a joke in music or movies.

When MP3 downloading took the profit out of selling recorded music, bands changed their revenue model to performance. What used to be a long commercial to sell the record, now is the main source of income for performers. Authors can't charge $60.00 and up per ticket for performance. All of our income is based on royalties, which is based on sales.

We accept that people will borrow books, will get them at the library, and will sell them back to used book stores, and that is built into the business model, but I'm a little worried about a time when books can be peer-to-peered the way music is. I think a lot of authors are going to have to go back to waiting tables for a living.

(Please, please, please, don't bring up Cory Doctorow. He doesn't make a living on his novels. He is not representative of most professional writers.)

For those of us who make our living on this, I think it would be better for Amazon and Sony to change the "term" for electronic books. Yes, you rent them. You can keep them as long as you'd like, but you rent them. Like Amazon Unbox, say. I have the movie on my Tivo or computer, but I have limited use of it. The average e-book of my novels costs $9.99. The hardcover usually goes for $24.00, the paperback $14.00. So there is a discount for the cost reduction in production and distribution -- maybe there can be a limit to use as well. It's all how you look at it.

Oh hell, nevermind. Wuld you like rice or baked potato with your steak?

Christopher Moore

Useful addition to the conversation, I say, even if later commenters talked up some serious trash.

Though I worried about the aesthetic loss to going all e- all the time, I hadn't considered the resell aspect. I know many of my colleagues cringe at the use of the term "used bookstore" but I love 'em, could live in one. I'm one of those cliches: I like the smell and the dust and the finds. I find them whenever I'm on vacation, and I try to spend money in them whenever I do.

So yes, this article I found useful in my fear of the book's extinction. Luddite for life?

Well in a non-Luddite turn, I've discovered the catalog of blogs on Blogged and am adding favorites all over the place, so I should start linking soon. Bear with me, and if you found me through there, welcome!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Et tu, New York Public Library?!

Now this really blows, folks.
The New York Public Library’s venerable lion-guarded building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street is to be renamed for the Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman, who has agreed to jump-start a $1 billion expansion of the library system with a guaranteed $100 million of his own.

And now read David Morris' Alternet piece to understand just how badly this blows.
The 42nd Street library is a poster child for the public, for the we, for generosity and openness and sharing.
Stephen A. Schwarzman, on the other hand, is a poster child for the private, for the me, for greed and secrecy and accumulation.

I love libraries, I love their public-ness, especially in urban areas. I was in the Boston Public Library last week, finding myself once again entranced, in a way, with this diverse desire for knowledge. I even made a point to do my work in the main part of the library rather than the gorgeous, majestic reading room, just to be with the other folks who were working on their English, writing college papers, taking a break from teh cole in lieu of a home, and more.

Yuck. This news is just tragic.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Personalized reading

I can't blog much now as I actually have to, um... edit, but my friend Christopher passed this info along and I thought I should share it.

Don't you hate it when you walk into your local independent bookstore and you can't find a thing to read? The staff picks aren't working for you, the new books all look vaguely the same. You're an individual! What do you want? Well... apparently, you don't just want, but need is a system for matching readers to books through an analysis of writing styles, similar to the way that matches music lovers to new music. Do you like Stephen King’s It, but thought it was too long? The technology behind BookLamp allows you to find books that are written with a similar tone, tense, perspective, action level, description level, and dialog level, while at the same time allowing you to specify details like... half the length. It’s impervious to outside influences - like advertising - that impact socially driven recommendation systems, and isn’t reliant on a large user base to work.

Yeah. I don't know about this. I've actually used Pandora before and I kind of like it, but don't love it. And in my previous post, I complained about too many choices, and this would lessen that problem, right? But...

This whole idea of such targeted marketing seems so futuristic as to be terrifying. I don't want a computer to know what I want to read next. I'm not claiming to be rational here, admittedly, but watch the video on the site and tell me you're not freaked out.

I mean hell, I get disturbed when I hear about any science that can predict behavior or occurrence, but isn't it fair to have some concern that there won't be "happy accidents," as my Holga camera promotes? I want to accidentally read something I wouldn't, because I may find pleasure I never would have expected.

In the words of Andy Rooney (and in honor of my friend Kristin), I ask - "How 'bout it, science?!"

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My self-publishing threshold

So I was a bit surprised to find this article by Kimberly Blanton on the front page of the Business section, in the Boston Globe. But yes, I suppose it is business... and really, what other news is there to report in this section anyhow?

So the article is about aspiring authors going to sites such as TheNextBigWriter and YouWriteOn to get editorial suggestions from similar scribes, folks toiling away alone on a novel or poetry or what have you. It's an industry now, these websites, so while they're just essentially writing groups but online, now there's money being made. And the man who started at least two of these sites, Sol Nasisi, "sells ads on the sites and said he's turning a profit from his ventures, though he declined to disclose the amount." Curious, eh? This is once again an example of the promise the internet holds, and also the money-making opportunity for those willing to take a risk. So enjoy the promise of an instant writing group, but be prepared to drop almost 50 bones a year.

I do, however, like this system, with which I was entirely unfamiliar:
TheNextBigWriter uses a novel technique to give writers a strong incentive to help each other. At the center of the editing room is a bank. Each writer has an account and is rewarded with credits for editing fellow writers on the site. They then use the credits they earn to "pay" fellow members to edit their own work.
Seems smart to me, and kind of cool. Again, this used to be done a bit more "naturally," if you will, when people formed a writing group and then just workshopped, but whatever works for folks.

But why does the article have to move to publishing? This is where these ideas get tricky and where, quite frankly, we - me and some of these entreprenurial folks - part company. It's one thing to have an online writing group, but another thing to publish online. I don't think it's a bad thing, but I do think there's an anti-publisher drive behind it, and that could be problematic in terms of strong writing.

First, there's truth to this:
The websites operate far afield from the big East Coast publishing houses that dominate The New York Times bestseller lists. But they are still in their infancy, and they see themselves setting the stage for publishing's next phase: Books, they say, will move slowly but surely away from paper and find their way to readers' computers, e-books, and iPods, diminishing the influence of the big publishing houses just as the online distribution of music altered the role of the major music labels.

Fine, I get it. And I was listening to someone talk about this change in the music industry in a way that actually made sense recently. And publishers are slowly getting it. I'm all for this e-change on some level.

My point has always been a question of who is determining what is good, what is strong. Institutions and individuals work to build a stable of authors or books that readers like me come to trust, so that we know if they like it, we might like it.

Now we all know that we are getting saturated by media, so when people argue for choices, choices, choices, let's keep in mind that 1) it can be overwhelming, and 2) each choice provides an opportunity for an entrepreneur who may or may not divulge his or her profit margins. Our friend Nasisi, after not admitting his profits, is quoted as saying, "Every individual now can become their own publishing house to some degree." I hear that and I groan.

Why? Because it's chaos! Let's expand publishing and work to get independents out there, but let's also hold people to a high standard. I don't want to read something just because a marketing department had enough money to throw it into every bookstore on the East coast, but I also don't want to lose bookstores and find my reading my scanning website after website. Podcasts are hard enough for me... and again, it's because so many are crap. I end up going back to the Guardian or NPR just because I know, with these names attached, there's a bar in place. If I find an independently produced podcast I love I'll be loyal, but only being able to search online, I get irritated and go back to the stand-bys. If I'm only looking for a new book, e- or otherwise, on an Amazon-esque site, with every Mary and Bill and Jaclyn and Terrence publishing their own work, how am I going to find a good book?

So, um... I am an elitist?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Oh the vanity

I found this article by Claire Kirch from today's Publishers Weekly quite interesting, and no, not because I'm a huge fan of romance novels.

The article concerns Tsaba House Press, a small Christian publisher, and their frustration with the Romance Writers of America, an organization that will not allow them to nominate one of their books for a Rita Award. Why, you ask, should poor li'l Tsaba be shut out so harshly? Because the RWA has decided they are, in fact, a vanity press, and I guess our tiny Tsaba don't really agree.

According to this article, the RWA is particularly concerned with Tsaba's boilerplate contract, which includes "such clauses as charging authors if manuscripts have to be retyped or if the press considers it necessary to add frontmatter and backmatter to the manuscript that the author didn’t provide." This makes the publisher "a subsidy or vanity press."

Tsaba, though publishing Christian fiction, has a dog in this fight:
“I really feel that this is an affront to independent publishers to try and once again group us in the category of subsidy presses and try to take away the advances the small publishers have made in the industry,” said Schwegerl. She founded Tsaba House in 2002 and uses a boilerplate contract she bought from self-publishing guru Dan Poynter’s Web site as part of a package of contracts and agreements.

The debate is about where we put the line between publishing and self-publishing. I've seen clauses in contracts about charging the author if they fix errors at too late a date, and I've seen language about the publisher having someone other than the author revise a book after publication if the author is unable to do so (don't think it's a matter of being unwilling - that would seem unfair). I'm not entirely clear on why these are the terms that are being used as the red flag.

But I do appreciate that someone is monitoring the line, as I think it's an important distinction to make, even if readers don't bother making it. Publishers should have an identity and take a certain ownership over a work. That seems fair to me. As an author, you come to an agreement with that publisher, and that agreement inevitably involves a certain amount of sharing. It's no longer just your work. I can appreciate that being scary, but one must remember the benefits. To put it in leftist terms, you're now in solidarity with other authors!

But of course many corporate publishers have abused this ownership and made it all look pretty nasty. They don't call the author back, they don't reprint the book, they package it horribly, etc.... Other authors are more like step-siblings battling for a parent's attention rather than fellow travelers. So self-publishers spring up and say they're giving you, dear author, the power to keep ownership of your work, with no sense of shared identity with other authors. And these self-publishers are becoming more sophisticated, getting books into better distribution and even promoting them or giving the author the tools to promote them him or herself. Hell, Alan Thicke did it! But it's all a paid service, and that makes me nervous. I don't want to outlaw them, but I also want to be clear that these companies are not endorsing the books they publish, but rather putting into print anything that comes their way, within reason, with a bit of cash. Thicke's "publisher," the Jodere Group, lists this as their philosophy: "Good books change lives." Huh. How might an editor build a cohesive list around that philosophy?

So it has a place, but more and more, it's pretending, to some extent, to be what it's not.

Is that you, Tsaba?! I can't say for sure myself, even if the RWA has made a ruling. I let my membership in the Romance Writers of America run out years ago...

I should also mention that my friend Christopher, now a star literary agent, sent me a link to this article by Ursula K. LeGuin for Harpers on the supposed "decline of reading" (sorry, need subscriber info to see whole thing - or go to library and get February's Harpers!). It's an excellent article that I'd highly recommend, and I may lift from it for my header here on this blog. She nails it in many ways. She critiques the concerns on reading, as well as the work of corporate publishers, announcing brazenly, "For years now, most editors have had to waste most of their time on an unlevel playing field, fighting Sales and Accounting." Here here!

I guess my favorite paragraph, typed by me so excuse any errors, is this one, for your enjoyment:
The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn't have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you're fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you're reading a whole new book.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Link Couplet

I always say such things as this headline, and then include more information and the headline stops making sense and I hit "publish post" and I probably look like an ass. So if this post ends up with a dozen links, just understand that was not my initial intention and move on - though passing links don't count, as I'm referring to two main (article) links. As an Editor, I'm quite focused on details; as a blogger, I'm usually quite rushed. If someone would only pay me to write this stuff, I could really clean this blog up!

Anyhow, the first link is to a New York Times piece on Seattle, by Julie Bick. This was a "most popular" article for a day or two, so forgive me if it's old news. The article was in the Business section, so it rightly gives a bit of insider dirt on bookselling, explaining how three companies in the Seattle area are largely controlling reading tastes in this country: Amazon, Starbucks, and Costco. I know, can you believe it?!

Amazon is not a surprise, but hearing this detail is somewhat creepy:
The “editorial team” there, a group of four men and three women, mostly in their 30s, constantly reviews books and recommends its favorites. Computer programmers create suggestions based on algorithms of what people have bought in the past.
That sounds like a fun job. Who are these people? It brings to mind This Film Is Not Yet Rated, in which director Kirby Dick exposes the people behind the American movie. But this has something more: algorithms.

And we all know about Starbucks and there books. What I didn't know was this:
With suggestions from the William Morris agency winnowed down by a three-member team, which may review up to 100 books a week, Mr. Lombard puts the final stamp of approval on the single book Starbucks will feature in 7,000 stores.

William Morris?! Does someone actually think they're objective? Bizarre.

And I just can't get interested in Costco. These warehouse stores are too much - too much soda, too many paper towels, too big a carbon footprint, etc... Too much. All the same, the article's profile of Pennie Clark Ianniciello was pretty fun.

I heard about the other article - an annoyingly private WSJ piece by Jeffrey Trachtenberg - from today's Shelf Awareness email. It's about Borders face out strategy. I'll just reproduce Shelf Awareness' information about the article from today's email:

The Wall Street Journal offers a long feature--face out in its own way -- about Borders's decision to display "as many as three times the titles as in the past" face out. As reported here last week (Shelf Awareness, March 5, 2008), the new approach has led to sales increases "in the double digits" and has led to the removal of 5%-10% of the average store's titles--many of which sell only one copy a year in each store.

Among new information: the change will be apparent in most Borders stores within six weeks and be most noticeable in categories like children's, food, cooking, travel, art and photography but less so in fiction. Still, at its "new concept" store in Ann Arbor, Mich., Borders is "testing a special display that highlights covers of classics from Charles Dickens and Jack Kerouac, as well as movie tie-in titles such as Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men."

At a typical Borders superstore, the reduction of inventory will be between 4,675 and 9,350 titles out of about 93,500. Borders said customers at its new concept store had the impression that more books were available. The Journal speculated that the change could "make Borders vulnerable to a marketing campaign from Barnes & Noble that promotes its own vast selection. The average 25,000 square-foot Barnes & Noble superstore stocks approximately 125,000 to 150,000 book titles, and the chain says it has no intention of cutting back."

Interesting to note the possible move by B&N, which gives me some hope. Surely Americans will find more selection more appealing... right? But then really, is it worth celebrating the idea of more B&N spreading like a rash across the country?

There - there's your two. Now back to news on Gov. Eliot Spitzer in NY.... [SNORE]

Monday, March 10, 2008

Express post

I don't have time to write as much as I'd like - my apologies. Am I always apologizing in this way? Well, blame a Catholic upbringing - I blame it for a host of negative personality attributes, but blaming it for my guilt complex is totally legit.

First, the latest on the memoir scandal, or one of the many articles on it, is in a somewhat unexpected place: on Alternet. It's not a shocking piece, though it's a bit off-center from the rest of the buzz, possibly due to the source. And Peter Osnos weighed in, saying in today's "The Platform" installment:
Editors, publishers, and publicists offered stories powerful enough to justify large advances (the New York Times said that Seltzer received around $100,000 for her proposal) have an obligation to their editorial and business instincts to do some checking before the project is acquired and to stay on guard while the writing is under way. One of the more amazing aspects of the Seltzer story is that, in the three years she worked with her editor, they never met face-to-face. So Riverhead was in the unfortunate position of placing its confidence and credibility in the hands of a stranger. That may have been possible in simpler times, but it no longer is.
(Please note: link is to archive, but today's installment is not yet archived.)

That sounds familiar, don't it? Hm. Just saying is all.

But enough with Selzer et al, because there is something exciting happening overseas. It may be time for the US to copy the UK, as we have done before. One of my best friends, Damian Barr - author, journalist, playwright, presenter, leading member of British intelligentsia, etc - will be a Reader in Residence at the posh Andaz Hotel in London, for 2 weeks in April that overlaps with the London Book Fair. Amazing, no? He'll be there to read to you, to read to himself while you read, to host interesting people, and to make all things literary that much more interesting. Then, on Sunday, April 27th, he'll host a read-in, Lennon/Ono style. Don't know if it's clothing optional - check back. Bit more here and here.

It's bibliotherapy, and it's very fun and exciting, and it's making books sexy. He tells me some of his choices: Brothers Grimm, Pride & Prejudice, Miriam (short story by Truman Capote), and American Psycho... some serious range, but it's all about mood. So who will do it here? NYC, Boston, San Fran? I could see a Baltimore bookseller and hotel doing something moody and interesting with their literary past. Oh - Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge! This has you written all over it. But perhaps you could indie and not buy books from the Borders in the mall around the corner? Please?

To book a visit with Damian at the hotel while you're in town for the book fair - well worth it, I'm telling you - email To talk to him, let me know and I'll put ya right through. I'm telling you, talk to him now before he's too big for all of us.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mags Jones/Selzer and the State of Publishing

Like the Judith Regan story, this one is already getting tired, even though it's less than a week old. And yet, after following a link from today's email from Shelf Awareness, I feel the need to say a bit more.

The link was to an article by Ben Yagoda on Slate, entitled "Believe it or Not: Why Memoir Fabulists Getting Caught Means the System is Working." It's an interesting piece worth reading, even if the writer is in fact writing a book on this topic... for Riverhead! He discloses that he shares a publisher with poor Maggie Jones nee Selzer. But anyway, he makes the point that a friend and I were discussing at lunch this week, regarding fact-checking by publishers:
In the wake of the Frey and now the Jones scandals, there's been hand-wringing about the need for fact-checking—or lie-detector tests or something!—at publishing houses. But you're never going to stop people from making stuff up. It is a fact of human nature that a substantial number of people have the capacity and inclination to lie.
Well... fair enough. As an Editor, I can't be sure my author isn't lying. In the Riverhead case, they even had the author sign an extra statement assuring it was all true (though this is of course in author contracts anyway). I don't go out and fact-check. How could I, for a personal narrative? All I can do is ask enough questions myself and look for red flags.

Yagoda supports my initial point on this case made earlier this week:
Moreover, in today's competitive literary market, editors and other gatekeepers want to believe. That's in part because people are naturally credulous (the alternative—reflexive skepticism—is unattractive for many people to contemplate) and in part because the rewards are so great.

The Editor and the Publicist and the Marketing department all want the most outrageous, interesting story - which Yagoda puts in some historical context - so perhaps they overlook the most glaring of exaggerations, closing their eyes to them while praying they're true. "Please let the dad have really snorted coke off the girls' barbie dolls... please please please...."

Yagoda's ultimate point is that the public shame that occurs is fact-checking enough, but of course it isn't always quite this public. I guess he's unconcerned with smaller books that go out unchallenged. I mean isn't this just availability heuristics at work? Isn't this just avoiding the bigger question of ethics, not to mention the desperation in publishing?

The desperation angle, I believe, is this: big commercial houses need more and more outrageous product, as Yagoda points out, so editors may just be encouraging this kind of book, if not directly these kinds of lies. At the same time, chain bookstores, as reported yesterday, are carrying fewer books, face out!, thereby tightening the space available. Now big houses already have this problem, as I hear from authors, wherein they drop a book/author close to publication if it doesn't have enough potential, and some houses mean "sales of 50,000+" when they think potential. So this author with a book that very well could sell 20,000 copies isn't prioritized, isn't even called back, because the publicist et al are focusing on the Today Show, Oprah, NY Times front page, whatever for The Big Book.

So I could hope... I could dream... I can envision more of these giant lies being exposed, as Yagoda says happens, for a number of houses, crippling them enough to allow some smaller players into the fray. But of course, I look at Riverhead and I think they won't really be hurt. Sure they have a whole bunch of copies of Love & Consequences lying around, but they can play with numbers and make it all okay. Maybe an editorial assistant will get the axe, but the house won't be really wounded.

I better keep scrounging for my optimism, I'm sure I can find it somewhere...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

And more and more and more

I believe it was Publishers Lunch that had a link to Stephen Page's article in the UK's Guardian newspaper regarding e-books and publishing and reading in general. Page, who judging by his name was born to be in publishing, is the Publisher at Faber & Faber. His point in this article is that publishing must change to accomodate a changing world. We can still offer readers a diversity of books and authors, but we may have to publish this diversity with heightened awareness to online communities, which he likens to "intellectuals gathered in cafes in 1900s Vienna." Readers fascinated by considerations of early sci-fi novels may not all be in one geographical place, but they are found "gathered" online, so publishers need to find ways to reach that readership.

He explains how his house will start making 20th copyright titles available as print on demand, a system which has "a transforming effect on the long tail of books." This makes sense to me, though it is of course controversial as we know from the flair up with the Author's Guild and Simon & Schuster last year. What I find interesting is how Page's frustration with the lack of diverse books in bookstores fits so well with other industry news out today: the success of Borders' concept store.

Page says:
As has proved the case for film, music and television, the book world is now experiencing a concentration on fewer books derived from an obsession with bestsellers and celebrity, and an increasing sense that what is good is that which sells large volumes. As a result most serious or marginal books now begin life with a decreasing exposure in bookshops.
And Publishers Weekly reports on the Borders store:
Jones said Borders' two-week old concept store has greatly exceeded expectations. He noted that while the company has reduced the number of titles in the store by about 20% from a typical superstore, unit sales have increased, something he attributed in part to displaying more books face out.
You see how that works? Fewer different books to overwhelm the customer. They buy more when they have fewer options. And then everyone's reading the same thing!

Borders has been working on this strategy for years. When I worked at a Borders store in 2001-2002, the store manager was already telling me this plan, how they'd decrease volume and put more books face-out, with whole sections bought by publishers, all their books in that section on prominent display. I guess the concept store is bearing this out. Frightening.

These stores do not owe the public as much as the libraries do. In fact, they don't owe us anything unless we make demands. Where is the leverage? Well, they are taking up space in your community. They are pushing independents out, some of which are run by smart owners who listen to the community and sell books that fit that community's needs and desires. So Borders or B&N for that matter barge in, bankrupt the other stores, and then limit your choices.

But realistically, people will natually just go online rather than seek out an independent. (When I was traveling recently, I wanted to go to an independent store, so I got on the Booksense website and looked one up. The closest indie was 16 miles from where I was - and ya know what? It sucked hard: a few new titles and then a bunch of used mass markets. If I lived here, I'd end up online or in a chain store.) And then we're back to Page's point, that this is where publishers can find communities interested in more niche titles.

The question then is, do we throw up our hands and go with this, leaving the bricks-and-mortar behind? And if so, how will we manage to get new ideas into this closed system? I guess that's viral, and viral marketing will only increase.

I'd like to point out two more things today, because there's a lot happening, I guess. First, also from Publishers Weekly:

PW has learned that Riverhead editor Sarah McGrath, who acquired Margaret Seltzer’s Love & Consequences for Scribner but brought it with her to Riverhead, was involved in another book, in 2006, that was cancelled because of fabrications and plagiarism. The book, How to Wear Black: Adventures on Fashion's Front-line, was purportedly a memoir of Emily Davies's four years as a fashion writer for London's Times, and according to Publishers Lunch, it lifted the lid on "a surreal, luxurious and terrifying world of lavish gifts, fashionably skeletal obsessives and couture warfare." According to Lunch, Sarah McGrath bought the book for Scribner; the announcement was posted in mid-December 2005.

In March 2006 Galley Cat reported that the deal, "rumored to be up to $900,000 for U.S. rights alone," was struck down after a story in Women's Wear Daily outlined Davies's fabrications and plagiarism. Scribner
cancelled Davies's contract and the NY Daily News quoted Scribner's Suzanne Balaban as saying "we've dropped" Davies's book.

Oh Sarah!

And from Alternet, speaking of new ideas and free speech, it is well worth checking out this interview with Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o. A good quote from the interview:
But I think a repressive regime always fears people who are awakened -- particularly ordinary people. If they are awakened, I think governments all over the world feel uncomfortable about that; they want to be in control. (Laughs) They want to be the ones telling people: "This is what we have done in history" but when people begin to say, "No this is what we have done in history" it's a different thing.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

E-book no A-plus

I'm still now totally down with the art of headlining.

Anyhow, I meant to post this before the hilarious Margaret Jones scandal (that's an updated link), and before Barack's not winning Ohio and Texas, which was stressing me last night. Yes, let me just come out and say I'm an Obama supporter.

But Publishers Lunch reported on HarperCollins' less than stellar attempt to make a book available online for free while publishing it. The best criticism, it seems, came from e-gadfly Cary Doctorow, on his blog, BoingBoing.

The book in question was Neil Gaiman's American Gods. This seems like a sensible choice given Gaiman's particular fan base, which is absolutely massive and generally techie. But of course, let the leader of the demographic, Senor Doctorow, then find fault:
They've put the text of American Gods up in a wrapper that loads pictures of the pages from the printed book, one page at a time, with no facility for offline reading. The whole thing runs incredibly slowly and is unbelievably painful to use.

Don't anger the nerds, Murdoch!

So because of such technical inefficiency, HC is not doing something exciting to note, as Doctorow further explains:

We take our books home and read them in a thousand ways, in whatever posture,
room, and conditions we care to. No one chains our books to our desks and shows us a single page at a time. This experiment simulates a situation that's completely divorced from the reality of reading for pleasure. As an experiment, this will prove nothing about ebooks either way.

So no point in putting up a Book: E-Book scoreboard here, as we're dealing with one team sorely unequipped for now.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Big enough news to start writing again!

My apologies for the weeks that went by without a peep. I was out of town, and bogged down before and after the trip. I clearly don't leave the office enough: my colleagues acted as if I may never return, nervously requesting things before my first day out, and then work piled up while I was away.

Anyhow, I saw something in Publisher's Lunch I'll try to pull up momentarily, that I didn't get a chance to post about earlier, but this, now THIS is the real news: an author who is an impostor! We all love it a little bit, don't we? Well, not Riverhead so much.

So in this piece in the New York Times by Motoko Rich, one of their book peeps, we hear about Margaret P. Jones, nee Margaret Seltzer, who published an entirely false memoir, which is fast becoming its own genre, entitled Love and Consequences. (The description on Powells, presumably from the publisher, mentions the "unforgettable voice," saying it's "a memoir like no other." That smarts.) Ya see, Seltzer is a wealthy young gal, brought up with all the perks of the modern day debutante:
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members. Nor did she graduate from the University of Oregon, as she had claimed.

Of *course* she didn't attend a public university. I say!

She says she felt she could be a mouthpiece, people would listen to her, so she had to do it, but how long would she have stayed quiet if her sister had not seen media about her and exposed her to her shocked and horrified publisher? They pulled the book and canceled the tour just in the nick of time: her first event was to be in Eugene, OR, on Monday.

What I find most fascinating about these cases - J. T. Leroy, and remember James Frey? anyone? - is that it's always publishing folks getting caught out when they want something soooooo bad. They want a gender freak with a hustler past who can also write. They want an ex-addict who recalls all the drug abuse. They want someone who ran money and drugs for gangs. But they want them in the form of nice, malleable, educated, middle class white people!

I love love love this paragraph from Rich's article:
Ms. Seltzer added that she wrote the book “sitting at the Starbucks” in South-Central, where “I would talk to kids who were Black Panthers and kids who were gang members and kids who were not.”
Publishing people want authors who work in Starbucks.

What don't publishing people want? Uneducated people who need writers ($$), who may flake out because they don't fully understand the publishing process, which they have never experienced and which no one really, ya know, bothers explaining. They don't want someone who is going to have family drama that may disrupt publication, or may have medical problems due to past drug use, or violence they've experienced. They want the experience to only still exist on the page, not in the person. So these actors waltz in and BAM, get a book contract. But really, Seltzer's editor, Sarah McGrath swears she paid "under $100,000" for the book. For the record, $99,000 is under $100,000, so let's not worry that Seltzer got shafted here.

Says McGrath in the article:
“It’s very upsetting to us because we spent so much time with this person and we felt such sympathy for her and she would talk about how she didn’t have any money or any heat and we completely bought into that and thought we were doing something good by bringing her story to light,” Ms. McGrath said.

One wonders if the "us" McGrath mentions are people who actually know anyone who struggles this bad, who gets heat cut off, who has worked to get out of gang entanglements. Later McGrath says that over 3 years, the story never changed once, in any way. No cracks were exposed.

I believe her, but one wonders how much attention was paid. How much did publicity and marketing say "let's go, let's go, let's get this out there, let's make her what we need her to be," shutting their eyes and ears to anything suspicious? Once the publishing train gets started, everyone wants the book and the author to be what the market wants, and it takes close attention and serious willpower to control that train. Riverhead, part of Penguin, like most other large commercial presses, had dollar signs in their eyes.

I assume Rich was thinking this kind of thing as she mentioned one point in particular. It seems ol' Riverhead even let this woman *create* a character named Big Mom, a large-hearted African American woman who raised grandkids and at least one foster kid. So.. this white asshole created a Mammy for her memoir? It's just shocking.

A good parlor game could be what might come up next. Mental illness seems ripe for the picking. Any fake writers claiming autism out there? It's a spectrum, so there may be some wiggle room...