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.


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).