Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

I've been waiting patiently for Christopher to post again, but he's really dragging his heels. Apparently the London Book Fair and other assorted Euro-traveling really took it out of him. I know, I know, it's pretty pathetic. I mean, he didn't exactly sail around the world, but still...

So Shelf Awareness had a link to this post from a Barnes & Noble employee who also blogs. In the post, this "tgrJams" argues that his Barnes & Noble store, in fact, is "local" to Bakersfield, CA, since he and the other employees are very much a part of that community and he, as store manager (I believe), plans events and charitable donations that are geared towards the community. He's resisting this call to buy local in which people forgo his store for a locally owned one. He adds to this argument in a response to the one comment posted (when I was there anyway).

So I wrote an eloquent, cutting but kind response and tried to post it, but the blog is connected to a newspaper and you have to log-in and it all went to crap, so I'll just comment here. Why am I so insistent on commenting? Because his post is infuriating. I fear this man has really taken a giant gulp of the B&N Kool-Aid.

He keeps acting like a massive corporation like B&N is no different than a bookstore owner. The owner gets the profits, the owner might invest those profits in a house outside the "local" town, the owner just follows the "book craze" of the moment just like B&N, so they're all putting out the same books. He even, at one point, makes a pitch about buying B&N shares! He did it - you can too!

Holy crazy.

In my reply that will never get posted there, I mentioned that I have worked at a B&N, as well as a Borders. The control from the national headquarters - HQ if you will - is strong. Those front tables - and endcaps, and A tables, etc - are not following book crazes, they are manufacturing them based on how much $$ publishers have paid for the space. This disproportionately hurts small presses who can't afford the space, obviously. And the blogger does not go near distribution issues. The fact is, an order from B&N can set a print run, and that includes a small order that really hurts the book. I've seen that happen in my job. The orders are made with a vast majority of shoppers in mind, not minority shoppers - and I mean that in every sense of the word. This system hurts niches, most visibly African American fiction and non-fiction. Walk into most B&N's and the selection of books by and for African Americans is sorely lacking. Now I'm all for this being the case if a store specializing in books of African American interest is or can open, but if B&N puts that store out of business, they are not picking up the slack and serving those customers. They are similarly lacking in glbt books and books in woman's studies. Some of these niche areas have strong books that are self-published, and authors can get them sold at local bookstores by going in personally and making arrangements. That will be difficult at a B&N, where all decisions for display or products to sell are made nationally.

He also tries to say something about the great B&N staff. Ya know, if the B&N is near a college or in a city, they can get desperate liberal arts majors looking for work who are often good readers. Great. But they are paying practically minimum wage. I think I may have made $6.50 or $7 an hour in downtown Boston. So if you get a staff person there who actually knows books - wonderful, you're a lucky shopper. But let's face it: you're benefiting from a marketplace in which there are few jobs for those interested in ideas, valuing instead one's ability to use powerpoint and glad hand. With independent bookstores, these employees are much more a part of the process often times, and can take a bit more pride in their work. They get to know their store and their customers, and their customers' interests.

The worst is that those under payed employees cannot wear jeans or sneakers. Ridiculous. And when I worked the registers at B&N, I had to go into a little windowless room every night at the end of my shift, count down my drawer as an assistant manager watched over me, and then mark on a dry erase board the amount my drawer was off and the amount of money coming in and the number of B&N membership cards I sold. I had to write it myself so I'd really see those numbers - off $.25! Only sold 2 cards! And then a manager at one point sat me down to get me to push the $25 membership cards harder. At that conversation, he also told me that books were a stagnant market, so B&N was re-arranging the store to sell more gifts and stationery and things.

Yep, they bankrupt local bookstores so they can sell you the Disney version of Monopoly.

I don't know what I want from this "tgrJames," but the mix of supposed straight talk and corporate propanganda was just too intense for me to ignore.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I don't love Publishers Weekly's columnist Sara Nelson, but she makes some good points. I just read the hardcopy of her April 14th column, and I appreciate her optimism about publishing as being, at times, innovative. (I don't, however, love "the common wisdom - publishing is so not about innovation! - gives us license to cling to models we know are outdated." That kind of "Sex and the City" knock-off style writing is mucho irritating.) I also appreciate her writing about Bob Miller's new "studio" at HarperCollins. I've been so slack. Please follow this link to a good write-up on Miller's announcement over at BookSquare, and try to forgive me.

I'm curious to see the Book Industry Study Group's forthcoming report she mentions, even if it's full of things that are "so back-office-y as to be beyond un-sexy." Thanks for that, Sara. Another cosmo?

Now I probably won't post until next week - again, sorry! I feel so... Catholic right now. I know the media is Pope-crazy so that's probably trendy but yuck.

Rushed post

Less than no time here - editing calls in every kind of way - but wanted to post this link to a UK Guardian blog post that is fascinating, about Dmitri Nabakov choosing to publish his late father's final manuscript - actually a collection of index cards! - despite his father asking him, from his deathbed, to burn it. It's called The Original of Laura.
From his winter home in Palm Beach, Dmitri justified his decision by saying, "I'm a loyal son and thought long and seriously about it, then my father appeared before me and said, with an ironic grin, 'You're stuck in a right old mess - just go ahead and publish!'"

Now be sure to read the article, follow some terrific links in the piece, and then read the comments. They're terrific! My favorite, from someone calling themselves "rowbottom":
Dimitri, I hope you read GU blogs, I am your father's spirit. I tried reaching you at Palm Beach but you'd gone somewhere warmer. Whatever. The other voice, the one telling you to publish, was a bogus shade. I'm the real thing, and I'm telling you, don't do it. Don't publish. The title's awful. And one more thing, really very very important... ah... wait... I'm fading fast... can't come back... last chance... listen... the cards... I didn't actually...

Why can't you people post this well?

When I worked with an agent, we had some kids of major authors hitting us up for money, and it was always awkward. Sometimes siblings, no longer in touch, would be separately contacting us regarding their share of their dead parent's dough. And you couldn't help but think, perhaps unfairly, "What did YOU do for this money, pal?" But it was rightfully there's, more than it was for some fatcat publisher at times.

But this is pretty slimy, if the great one said not to publish it. You don't mess with Vladimir, surely!

(Thanks to Publishers Lunch for initial link.)

Friday, April 18, 2008


So two points for today's post, one on bookselling and one on publishing. Does that work?

On bookselling: today's Shelf Awareness includes a short article by Robert Gray about a visit to Melville House Publishing offices in Brooklyn's DUMBO - on Plymouth Street, for those nearby. (Note: Gray link is to archives but this story ain't there yet.) Melville does some cool books, I've watched them for awhile. They seem to be particularly strong in experimental fiction and lefty politics, both things I can get behind. But their offices... I want to visit. And I can, because it's also a bookstore, and performance space, and other things, it seems. To quote the article:
My first impressions upon entering the new Melville House digs were of light, space and words. The storefront, corner location features two walls of windows. A third wall consists of bookshelves, which separate the retail space from the publishing offices. These bookcases swivel--like secret passages in a Gothic mansion library--allowing entry to the Melville House biblio-laboratory. During events, they can be reversed for striking visual effect, with the books displayed face-out through clouded plexiglass.
And later:
Display tables--some on wheels so they can be moved out of the way for events--are arranged with evident care and artistry. The bookshop showcases all of Melville House's titles as well as books from other independent presses, including Verso, Europa, New Press, Akashic, Haymarket and Soft Skull. Soon to join them will be Feminist Press and City Lights. Cutting edge literary journals and magazines are also sold.
So this is about bookselling and publishing all in one, actually. And yes, I am green with envy. I feel like I should be lying on a bed, legs in the air, hands under my chin, staring at the wall dreamily and telling my best gal pals, in their pjs for the sleepover, all about the Melville offices....

The other link was sent from my good friend Erin Meister - I hope that link is the best, scoop! - who works at Time Out New York, aka TONY. (She's also coffee-crazy, and crazy knowledgeable about coffee - hence the link to her business.) So she sent me this interesting article by Michael Miller that TONY did on publishing, wherein he tries to give some definition to what he calls the "nexus of agents, editors and publicists who collaborate in the attempt to push a book toward the tipping point." Like the Rachel Donadio's article in the NY Times on why authors must wait so long for their books, it offers a nice behind-the-scenes peek at publishing. I'd like to offer commentary on the piece - of course!

Some literary agents are great and trustworthy, but others... as an Editor, you have to get to know the agent. So Ira Silverberg at Sterling Lord says: “We are the first line of defense—we keep it safe to read in America, because most of the stuff that people write is shit. That’s not to say that we don’t make mistakes, but at least we vet the writing first, and thus we are trusted by large houses and thus most large houses have a no-unsolicited-manuscripts policy.” I don't know Ira - I don't work at a large enough house to qualify for his submission list perhaps - but not all agents weed out the shit, and some even tart it up so it doesn't look like shit. I suppose that's when agents are like car salesmen, and some sell you lemons.

Then Miller talks to novelist James Hannaham, a man who should get a few bonus points for that surname. He got a publishing contract with McSweeney's without an agent. Now I'm a subscriber to the McSweeney's Book Release Club - I just got the new Chabon! - so I'm no hater, but this isn't going to make him a star most likely, and certainly won't make him rich. This is a small literary publisher, so one would hope an agent would not be involved - it's not worth their time. It's a huge pet peeve of mine when someone with a relatively small but quality project, especially one that could use some editing, has an agent who is driving up the advance. It takes away from the project itself, because resources get devoted to getting this agent paid, when they should go to the author and the project itself.

And I don't know how I feel about Random House Editor Julia Cheiffetz, in this article, both telling the world that her author's book, in proposal form, could find no love in publishing, and then taking credit for turning it into such a sellable product: "My author Karen Abbott’s proposal for Sin in the Second City was rejected all over town, but the book we ended up publishing was substantially different from what she initially proposed. I like fixing things up.” Bit of an ick factor, no?

Since I'm essentially going through this article paragraph by paragraph - sorry, Miller, I don't mean to dissect - I'll just say about the publicity paragraph that it's pretty spot on. I would warn folks about independent publicists: they do a lot of great work, but they are working for you, if you as an author hire them, so they may deliver a lot of radio interviews whcih are satisfying and good practice, but may not sell a ton of books. I'm just putting that out there. Miller quotes independent publicist Lauren Cerand, whom I don't know: “In publishing, so much time is spent only talking to people who are perceived as already sold on the idea of the book, whereas I’m going to try to talk to everyone in the world who has $20.” That's a better spin on it than what I said. It's more a micro-outreach.

Lastly, I had drinks last night with my friend from the great Midwest, Jason: academic publishing insider and blogger and smart guy. Good times!

So that's my low-level round up, people. Back to, ya know, editing and stuff.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A quote of the day

I feel a bit conflicted about quoting an article by Michiko Kakutani, she of the sharp pen at the NY Times, but I'm not actually quoting her, but rather replicating her quoting of the new collection of William Styron essays, Havanas in Camelot. This blog is about loving the physicality of books, right? And this quote celebrates books and knowledge and the places where it's all held together.

The quote is about Styron's time at the expansive library of Duke University, just before he was sent off to fight in World War II:
“I read everything I could lay my hands on,” he remembers, some 50 years later. “Even today I can recall the slightly blind and bloodshot perception I had of the vaulted Gothic reading room, overheated, the smell of glue and sweat and stale documents, winter coughs, whispers, the clock ticking toward midnight as I raised my eyes over the edge of ‘Crime and Punishment.’ The library became my hangout, my private club, my sanctuary, the place of my salvation; during the many months I was at Duke, I felt that when I was reading in the library I was sheltered from the world and from the evil winds of the future; no harm could come to me there.”

The rest of the article is a review of the book and not particularly interesting; one of those descriptive reviews. But I do want to pick this book up, perhaps in paperback next year.

I have a special affection for Styron, as I worked for his UK agent when I first got into publishing. Before I left, Vintage UK put out all his books in matching paperbacks and I stole one of each. I spoke to him a few times, but never had a memorable conversation with him. His books, though, seem in some ways like the last gasp of a certain kind of writing, one that took skill and time and patience and craft. It wasn't the last gasp, of course, and he wasn't without his problems, but he is definitely one of those writers whom I read and admire, for his solid skill and thoroughness.

And as people say all the time, Darkness Visible is just a beautiful and illuminating explanation of depression. As someone who has not experienced but, like all of us, knows many who have, I felt that much more understanding having read the slim book.

In you case you didn't realize, Styron passed away in November of 2006. He was 81.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Yuck factor in corporate publishing

Publishers Lunch had two links today, both relating to HarperCollins, that I found a tad disturbing.

First, folks, we have this piece by Josh Getlin at the Los Angeles Times, about a new model of acquiring a book from an agent with a film producer at your side, who snaps up film rights right there and then. In this case, it's a book called The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian. Now to the author I say, best of luck. May you have a great publication and a resounding page-to-screen transition for your literary baby.

But get this:
"We would have bid on this novel anyway, with or without a movie deal," said Lisa Gallagher, Morrow's senior vice president and publisher, describing the company's quick move to snap up the book with a preemptive bid. "But having Jeff right there in the room with us is definitely something new. It's a different model when someone like him is in on the ground level, participating in the conversation and watching as decisions about books get made."
What decisions? Cover design or... editorial decisions? This makes me nervous, and might make the author take stock as well. If that producer is stuck on Brad Pitt or Jodie Foster playing some role, you can see them weighing in on the plot. "I can't see this character - and look, I'm seein' ACTION FIGURES for this guy! - being that mean. He has a likability factor we have to protect." Etc etc... I know, ever the pessimist, and an editor could just as easily push a novel in this diraction or that for marketing reasons, but film people seem even more commercially driven.

And then there's Heidi Benson's piece in the San Francisco Chronicle, a profile of 39 year old Mark Tauber, publisher at HarperOne. Tauber's a marketing guy, not an editorial guy. I'll give him that. But he seems a bit too pro-Murdoch for my liking - and of course, Rupert Murdoch runs the show over there.
In 1999, he boomeranged back to New York to help start Beliefnet.-com, a spirituality Web site that was purchased last year, reportedly for tens of millions of dollars, by Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. also owns HarperCollins. Lured back to HarperOne in 2002 as associate publisher, Tauber was promoted to vice president in 2005 and, in January, became senior vice president and publisher.
He is tight with that old Australian monopolizer, and it's served him quite well.

And then the article ends thus:

"Books are not going away, ever. Far from it," he says.

"Digital music? It's better. Digital video? It's better." But nothing can replace what he calls "the actual experience of reading a book, taking a book to the park or propping
yourself up on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee."

He allows that today, books must be carefully marketed, and that some categories, such as reference books, will become obsolete.

"But narrative nonfiction, self-help and fiction?" he says. "They're not going anywhere."

Can we just insert "corporate" before "narrative" in that quote? I mean, he says that with such obliviousness to the indie presses and bookstores getting crushed. But again, maybe I'm just a cranky editor who watches as some books get so little distribution and media, while everything HarperOne puts out goes right on the front table or page.

I need to go do something a bit more uplifting. Is it (community) gardening season yet?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

More bookselling stuff

I must say, a fine first post from Christopher! He may also do some live blogging from the London Book Fair, so mark your calendars. That should be fun reporting, folks.

To take off of his post on bookselling (though of the antiquarian variety), I wanted to link this piece from a few weeks ago, a post on bookseller Arsen Kashkashian's blog, Kash's Book Corner. It's a fine place to visit. But this post in particular had resonance to me as it was about the Bookstop in Houston, in the art-deco Alabama Theater. As I started reading this entry, I realized that this place was my first big bookstore, too.

I drove into Houston from a suburb about 40 minutes northeast, where we relied on the local library for books and sometimes wandered into the B. Dalton in the mall for a gift for someone else, or perhaps some self-help or how-to. As I got into high school in 1990, I wanted a bookstore culture of some kind, and in retrospect, I think this is when the chains started their real push. So my mother and I drove into Houston one day, because I read about this Bookstop.

And it was the real deal, just as Kash describes it. The magazine rack alone was staggering. The rows of books were endless, like the library, and similarly, you could just stand and pull books, one after the other, off the shelf, reading the jackets and the first few pages. I went through the fiction, the history, psychology, literary criticism, religion... After only knowing the fluorescent glow of the mall stores, with a dozen short aisles and an emphasis on the most commercial of titles, this store was quite a revelation.

Soon they opened a Bookstop in a shopping center near the mall that replicated this style, though to a lesser degree. This was Humble, Texas, people, known to some as Scumble, so that Bookstop in the shopping center was a bit of a lifeline. (I believe I have written about looking up a used bookstore in the yellow pages, and driving to Humble's old downtown to find this shop. It was piles of dusty romance novels. I was so bummed.) There was no cafe at this Bookstop so no reason to hang out as long as you might these days, but you could feel somewhat anonymous as you perused any number of topics. There was a bookish smell. There was Buddhism and Beats and mopey poetry and photography books with naked people and environmental magazines and feminist manifestos. It was pretty awesome in 1992 or thereabouts.

This is always the struggle, though. Bookstop was bought out by Barnes & Noble, after spreading as a Texas and Florida chain (according to Kash - I didn't realize). But it brought the book world to me. It wasn't a funky independent - would that it were! There was not a real book culture in Scumble then, just highway and quiet old ladies selling fading softcore porn books across the street from the town's oil derrick.

But now I can't stand these chains, as they've turned into beasts, consuming markets where there were indies. Should we celebrate the chains for spreading a book culture or demonize them for killing it? It's the Oprah question, and I for one would like an answer.


Friday, April 04, 2008

A "wytchnienie" from the bad book news business...

Often SofB brings you information about the book business bound to make you want to pull your hair out. From phony memoirists to snakeoil salesman gov'nors who use the people's time to secure million dollar book advances. But not today. (Not from me, anyway.) Buried in today's New York Times is this little nugget for those of you in NYC or going to NYC sometime this weekend. Scroll down the page about half way and you will come across the announcement for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. This is a great opportunity to remember just what it is that humans have cherished about books for so much of our shared history. I am not sure if everything you see there will be "affordable" but I am sure that you will see something things you weren't expecting. Perhaps you will be even surprised by the sheer joy of it all.

One final surprise of the fair is that "on Sunday the fair will sponsor “Discovery Day,” during which ticketed guests can bring up to five of their own treasures for appraisal." So if you have always wondered if that Jay McInerney paperback of Bright Lights, Big City is really a first edition you can finally find out. (NB: It probably is since the first edition was published in paper initially.)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

A beast eating itself, perhaps

I know it's a disgusting image, but it's what came to mind while I read this NY Observer article by Leon Neyfakh about Collins' new president and publisher, Andy Ross, and how his big ambitious changes, including the hiring of many aggressive editors for the imprint, has caused some questions over who acquires what in the giant many-headed beast that is Harpercollins. Has the ship become too unwieldy with all the captains?

The article offers some nice insider-baseball info and is worth a read, even if you're not cackling, knee-slapping, and carrying on as I may have been at points. Thanks to Publishers Lunch for link.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

New Yorkers Love New York and NYCulture

The headline is true, folks - sorry - but all the same, this NY Times essay by Rachel Donadio from the Sunday Book Review is sweet enough, and at times amusing. The crux: "Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast." Yes, the article is true. Say what you will about the death of books, they can still end a relationship between two smart, readerly people.

Sadly, booklovers-but-not-man-haters, it makes the point some us don't want to hear, even if we believe: “It’s really great if you find a guy that reads, period,” said Beverly West, an author of “Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives.” Augusten Burroughs, who has some talent as a writer but who I always dislike as a character in any of his books, makes a similar point: “Generally, if a guy had read a book in the last year, or ever, that was good enough.”

I beg to differ, Aug. I couldn't date a guy who read once in awhile. I don't know how I'd do with someone who read loads of sci-fi or fantasy - wait, I do know actually. And I know there'd be a serious problem so much as passingly chatting with someone like a friend's roommate, who had an Ann Coulter book on his shelf but always claimed, "I was just curious." Maybe I have high standards, but a guy I so much as sleep with has to read and read right.

Ugh - I feel the same as I do after listening and even enjoying a podcast of "Fresh Air." NY Times? NPR? I may as well buy a G-D PRIUS!!

Ultimately, I'm with John Waters: "If you go to someone's house after the bar, if they don't have books, don't sleep with them."