Thursday, June 19, 2008

Loving, second-hand style

PopMatters has started a series of essays on the wonders of used bookstores. A website after my own heart!
In this PopMatters special feature section, eight writers—each their own unique breed of book-lover—step inside the world of secondhand books and demonstrate the diversity of the experiences it contains.
Check it out as it unfolds...

Sorry this week is quiet - please stay tuned for more regular updates.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Another Sacred Cow Slayed?

Like many suburbanites, I grew up in a home with an Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a gorgeous old volume from the 1960s, most likely not containing a single independent country in Africa. I loved it. It smelled dusty, and it was in a dark brown case with a hole on top for the similarly outdated atlas, which admittedly (and unusually) I used a bit less. I think it often went missing for some reason. With four kids in the house, it could have been under a couch for a few years or something.

I got very upset with my mother when I found out she gave it away. She couldn't believe I wanted it, and I don't know that I could have actually taken it given space limitations in my various apartments in Boston over the years, but I at least wanted the chance to keep it. It was out of date, of course, but it then offered a snapshot of the world at that point in time. I often went back to the copyright page to see the year it was published, even as a kid. I loved knowing that this was the world that year, this was how it was understood.

I got additionally upset when I saw that people were making these:

How cool is that?! omg.

So now the news that the good folks at Encyclopedia Britannica are going all... wiki. I guess they resisted for some time, but eventually gave in to this culture of consumers creating, right?

I want to trust at least this is the case:

By editing all changes to its core base of information before they are posted online, Britannica, which has been online since 1994, hopes to create a trusted source that takes into account the input of the crowd. Members of the company's community of scholars and registered users will be able to post about new topics without intervention, but the company says all articles on new topics will be fact-checked and vetted before appearing in the main edition.
But like organic produce or independent bookstores, I don't know if my actions follow my beliefs as closely as they should. I'm not clamoring to buy a new set of encyclopedias, and I too use google all the time. Of course I do! But I still hope they are monitoring contributions because I maintain that we cannot let any ol' idiot make claims on anything they have an interest in. We've all been at that party when some blowhard is trying to tell you about something you know, and he's got it all wrong but he's determined to make his point. Do you want that a-hole dictating content for the Encyclopedia Brittanica?! I don't.

But I don't use it. I mean, sure, I'm not writing reports like when I used it in 7th grade, but I still would like to think I'd use it if it were in my home, I'd just flip through it. But the internet is, admittedly, so much easier. That doesn't mean I want to contribute, though, and for the record I do not use or trust Wikipedia. I guess I worry that there's nothing stable and trustworthy in this ever-shifting, ever-morphing culture.

But how much value should we place on stability? The world is changing and maybe it's conservative to try to slow it down. Again, though, I see this as a capitalist notion of he who changes fastest wins; he who allows open content most wins. "I can contribute, so I'll do that and then purchase!" Doesn't that seem like contributors are getting duped into becoming customers with a sense of false empowerment?

Super stressed about a job change, heading to these great folks, so maybe I'm just overly sensitive.... Will still keep a connection to publishing and will still keep up blog, but won't be editing day to day. Yikes!

Once again, more to come on that.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Quickie for Poetry

I enjoyed this article by Jim Dwyer in the NY Times, with the tragic news about the end of Poetry in Motion. This was a program in which poetry was put up in the New York subway system. The article is worth a read, with anecdotes about people struck by the poetry they read while staring at the posting in a subway car. My favorite passing remembrence comes from the end of the article, from Alice Quinn, the executive director of the Poetry Society:

Ms. Quinn, who was the poetry editor of The New Yorker for 20 years, recalled the thrill of introducing transit riders to “Wilderness,” a poem by Lorine Niedecker, who lived in solitude on an island in Wisconsin and had an intense but troubled elationship with a poet in New York.

“This poem is just speaking to women who have had difficult relationships and the men who understood their part in that,” Ms. Quinn said. “I watched a woman memorize it from 14th Street to 96th.”

You are the man
You are my other country
And I find it hard going
You are the prickly pear
You are the sudden violent storm
The torrent to raise the river
To float the wounded doe

Friday, June 06, 2008

Who pays the writer?

No one pays this writer, I might mention, but that ain't the point.

For some reason that's not worth going into here, I stumbled across this interesting article by Carol Guensberg from the American Journalism Review, about foundations finding more creative ways to fund journalism. As I become increasingly suspiciously of the news around issues like toxic chemicals, global warming, fossil fuels, Cuba and Venezuela, and more, I was intrigued by this development. As Guensberg reports,
Beleaguered journalists who once clung solely to the business model of paid advertising and circulation now recognize the urgency of developing new revenue sources for labor-intensive newsgathering. For some, foundations hold increasing promise as allies in meeting the public's information needs — beyond superficial headlines and celebrity sexploits — so long as there are safeguards for editorial independence.
This makes sense to me. Of course advertising dollars are going to at least give a certain direction to editorial choices. The idea of a good foundation supporting truly independent research and reporting is pretty exciting to me. ProPublica is one such organization, bankrolled comfortably by California philanthropists Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler.

I know it's hard for small publishers to pay journalists enough money to support even a basic lifestyle long enough to write a book. This is something I've struggled to figure out as an editor coming up with the best advance I can for an author. It makes sense to find an arrangement where a foundation helps out, without dictating how the reporting should go or what the reporter can and cannot uncover. It's been done before, of course, but it should be done more.

Instead, we're often left, as readers, with whatever the corporate publishers have decided it is we want. I've become increasingly fascinated with this strange process: corporate publishers pick a title and decide it'll be a hit, so they throw tons of money at it. If it works, great, but if not, stop throwing and move on, and leave the author out to dry. It's a system wherein even books, which take so much work and so long, in the old-fashioned sense of actual time, are supposed to deliver immediately, or they miss their chance and are over. We want everyone to decide at once that this 300 page book is worth buying. Reviewers have to get it read and written about, commenters on Amazon have to digest and praise it, producers and editors have to decide the idea is original enough but not too different to alienate viewers/listeners/readers.

It sometimes seems like a big joke.

And then li'l Scotty McClellan's book hits and his publisher, PublicAffairs, actually uses Lightning Source print-on-demand for 7,000 immediate copies! I don't know why but this strikes me as amusing. I mean, what's to stop publishers from putting out fewer copies now and then waiting for the select titles to hit, and then pushing the POD button? Less risk for them, assuming the printing costs aren't too high. But that would mean authors would have less faith placed on them, and the ones that don't work as well will have fewer of their books in the world. It takes a certain amount of chance out of the equation, but it also allows us to avoid phenomenol failures, when massive numbers of a bomb sit around in bookstores across the land.

I guess I'd rather see independent publishers, which may have to be non-profit for this to work, get support so they don't have to risk as much by putting all their resources into advances. Instead, big publishers use their money but then often screw writers in the way they actually print up and distribute and publicize their titles. If Iraq isn't selling, Iraq don't get covered. I've seen this with veteran issues, a topic on which I've published, and it's maddening, but I feel helpless because I can't keep doing the books if no one's going to buy them.

As I make a career change (more to come on that), I think I may continue this non-profit/profit-in-publishing way of thinking to support writers doing good progressive work for the public interest. Watch this space!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Indiebound = Revolution!

I loved the language folks were using about the launch of Indiebound, as reported in Shelf Awareness, as reported as part of their BEA coverage.
IndieBound is not so much an updated marketing or branding campaign as "a movement, a manifesto," said ABA chief marketing office Meg Smith, who gave Shelf Awareness a sneak peek at the program two weeks ago. "We say this is a revolution consumers brought to us. We're giving it language."

American Bookseller Association CEO Avin Domnitz is quoted as saying:
"People are struggling to take back control of their lives and their communities. The big store on the highway doesn't do it anymore. What people want is good advice from people they trust. They want to stay closer to home and they're turning to people from their community. They want a local sustainable economy. And they are rediscovering what's important in their lives: local stores."
What great language indeed!

It's worth following the link to check out the site. They are trying to get actual consumers more involved than they may have been at the Booksense site. Probably a good idea - that site wasn't great for consumer use. I may have mentioned that I ended up visiting this store with my parents in Florida, which was not a good store. Actually, my dad stocked up on true crime mass markets, but I found nothing worth reading. Maybe Indiebound will provide a bit more useful information.

And for more fiery rhetoric, check out the Declaration of Indiebound, and sign on!