Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Subscribe to an indie!

I mentioned the idea of a cooperative bookstore before, in my last post, but of course some bookstores are offering different subscription services. What, no reader could mention this in a comment section? Thanks for nothing.

The one mentioned in today's Shelf Awareness is Powell's Books and their Indiespensable (points for the cute name!):

Powell's new subscription club delivers the best new books, with special attention to leading independent publishers. Signed first editions. Inventive, original sets. Exclusive printings.... Every six weeks, another installment to read and admire.

All titles are thoughtfully selected by Powell's staff. PLUS: Every shipment is stocked with exciting surprises.... Maybe a pre-publication copy of some great new book, or a bonus DVD or CD, or a literary periodical, or handmade chocolate — always something extra for your pleasure. It's our booklovin' Cracker Jack prize.

I've only been to the Powells in Chicago, but I definitely want to check out the mothership in Portland, Oregon. Hell, I'd just like to check out Portland - I hear nothing but good things. I just need to find a way to get there and stay there for a bit at a reasonable price - it's the hotels that kill you on trips, no? But wait! I've just noticed on the li'l history page at Powells that the original is the Chicago one, and the Portland is an offshoot, but a child who overtook her parents. Ah.

Anyhow, my point... these subscriptions are very cool. I know locally, in the Boston area, the Harvard Book Store has started something similar, the Signed First Edition Club, wherein subscribers can purchase, at the publisher's list price for the book, a... well I think it's obvious. I kinda wish they'd actually have a subscription service, where you pay a flat rate and get whatever comes up, but maybe that's not economical from an independent business standpoint. (And as anyone who is anyone knows, this book store is top rate, probably the best indie in the metro area.)

I myself have just started a subscription of a different kind, at McSweeney's, and I love it. It's their Book Release Club. (Join now! We can talk about our selections!) Got my first book and can't wait to read it, but I'm still trudging through David Michaelis' Schulz & Peanuts: A Biography, which is very well done and quite interesting, but ya know, biographies... You read 200 pages and realize the subject is just out of diapers. So I don't know when I'll get to read my McSweeney's pick, which is a novel called Arkansas by John Brandon. It looks quite good.

So I'm loving these models and anxious for more. In the meantime, I feel inclined to wish good fortune on Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (link to her blog, Written Nerd, well worth a visit), who won $15,000 from the Brooklyn Public Library - who doesn't love libraries? they're just the best - to start her own indie bookstore. Nice work! And best of luck! I'm green with envy.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Though I think I hate the WSJ...

this story is a good one. Mind you, however, that they will probably make you pay for this article after today, maybe after this afternoon, so get it while you can and please don't hold me responsible when "the man" at WSJ starts blocking access. I mean, they are the main news source for capitalists everywhere.

Which is why it's all the more surprising - but not, also - to see this story by Nathaniel Popper, about the new model of ownership happening with bookstores around the country. It starts by talking about the struggles faced by independent bookstores, and then:
But these days, a number of independent bookstores have been drawing more than pity from devotees. From Chicago to Brooklyn, N.Y., and from Houston to Eugene, Ore., loyal customers have been stepping up and putting down serious cash to save their neighborhood bookstores. These individuals see themselves more as donors than investors, committed to saving the ambiance and personal service of their local store.
I suppose one might see that as similar to Community Support Agriculture (CSA), where people pay a subscription to a farm and then get produce. But in this case, you are an investor, which I suppose might involve dividends? It's really more about keeping someplace you love in business, for yourself and your community. It's one of the most joyfully anti-Republican things one can do.

And it's not just a trickle-down (pardon me), peter pan system:
The contributors to the stores are often well off. John Turturro, an actor who became an investor in Brooklyn's Community Bookstore, had the disposable income to spare. But another of the store's seven investors, Rebeccah Welch, took out a loan with her partner against their apartment to kick in $10,000. "It's not as though we have extra money," says Ms. Welch. "We invested because it's almost like an educational institution; it's an anchor for the community."
I like that term, "an anchor." I went into the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, which is mentioned in the article: "At Brazos Bookstore, near Rice University in Houston, 25 people put up a minimum of $10,000 each to buy the store from the owner who was ready to close it in June 2006." I asked the manager about the set-up and she seemed quite pleased with the whole thing. I was there on a random weekend in February and business seemed to be moving right along.

And now I want to invest a bookstore - with what money? Who cares, my neighborhood is in desperate need of an anchor. Somehow, designer boutiques just don't feel comfortable to me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Different but just how different...

I don't want this to be a case of "that is sooooo weird!," like when people talk about seeing clips late at night on cable of Japanese game shows where the contestants get, I don't know, thrown in the air by a giant sling if they answer a question wrong. So this is most definitely not like that.

In fact, this Norimitsu Onishi story in the New York Times is quite fascinating and entirely believeable. It seems, cellphone novels have become quite the rage in Japan, written by young women on their cellphones as text messages. And what's amazing is that these serialized stories have successfully transitioned to printed books: "last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cellphone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it."
“Will cellphone novels kill ‘the author’?” a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.

One can see the parallels, with all this talk, certainly outside of Japan, of whether bloggers can write books. Often, they can't, but the printed word can still co-exist and even complement the virtual literary world, it seems.

That's all well and good, but a note on this particular form of writing: it may be dumbing down Japan's culture a wee bit. Here's my evidence:
"They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them,” she said. “On other hand, I understand how older Japanese don’t want to recognize these as novels. The paragraphs and the sentences are too simple, the stories are too predictable. But I’d like cellphone novels to be recognized as a genre.”

That's a problem. But I would like to see one of these novels - sadly, it would have to be translated - to see if it's really overly simply, to the point of being problematic. I mean, do these things read like picture books?

At the risk of sounding like a real shill for this paper, another New York Times article caught my attention: this one by Richard Perez-Pena, about James O'Shea's "parting shot" as he was ousted as editor at the L.A. Times. Though of course he was a pissed off employing firing a final shot at the boss who sacked him, I think the man probably made some good points regarding the owners of the paper, the Tribune Company. They own many, many papers and some have suggested - sorry, don't have time to find links - that they and media conglomerates like them are the reason our newspapers are in crisis. It isn't that people are not reading papers, but that shareholders are demanding more and more returns from papers when they own stock in these conglomerates, so companies like the Tribune cut costs, shutting bureaus and slashing writers on staff, to increase profit margins. Jimmy Boegle made this point last summer at the Tuscon Weekly blog, with rightful indignation, I'm sure (but pardon the language):

Most of these cuts (although not necessarily all of them) are typical of the dumb-ass greed of today’s newspaper companies. It happens all the time: A newspaper has an off quarter or year, profits-wise (they’re still profitable, mind you, just not AS profitable as shareholders or management wants); they respond by cutting staff/resources to keep profits high; the paper’s quality invariably suffers; readers/advertisers notice this and stop reading/buying ads; a newspaper has an off quarter or year, profits-wise; repeat cycle.

This is slightly oversimplifying, yes, but the fact is that GREED–not Craigslist or the Internet or these young whippersnappers today who have short attention spans–will kill off most newspapers as we know them by 2020.

It’s sad. I just hope newspaper shareholders and owners get their heads out of their asses and realize that innovation and reinvestment, not insane budget cuts, are the keys to the future. I am not optimistic.


This is similar to O'Shea's point, I believe, though this article doesn't quite say it as bluntly. In more coded language:
“Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers,” he wrote, “so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and Web sites.”

There are clearly some internal issues at that paper, but I am deeply suspicious of that Tribune Company, and, on a personal note, I'm sick of reading the Globe and feeling like it's not much better than the Metro, which just collects AP articles. These papers need originally reporting to sustain national reputations, so why is half their material AP, NY Times, or the Washington Post?!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Recycling in publishing

I just want people to read this story by Susan Dominus in the New York Times, about homeless people scavenging books from trash bins in New York City and bringing them to the Strand (thanks for the link, Shelf Awareness). I admire the enterprising folks doing this. I can't quite get my head around whether I should be happy to see books surviving in this way, themselves showing the perseverance Tommy Germain said is necessary to survive on the streets, or sad to hear about them getting tossed out. (Of course we'll all bristle when Dominus mentions that paperbacks can be recycled, says the city's trash services, but hardcovers need to have the covers torn off, "a request that for booklovers is tantamount to asking 10-year-old girls to rip Barbie’s head off before discarding her in the trash.")

But hearing about Neil Harrison getting $600 for a treasure trove of classics he pulled out of a dead man's storage facility - done with the help of a charitable door man - and peeling off $20 as a tip to the clerk? Fine, it's patronizing, but still has a certain charm to it as a city tale.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Assorted

I'm posting this morning for two reasons. First, it's been too much time since my last. Second, a friend recently harassed me to add her link to the blogroll you see to your left. She's got sunshine, her heading says at the blog, but the content is often rants on her new identity as a hong kong housewife - and that's not a racial slur that you don't know. She left the nice, nice land of Canada for Hong Kong with her husband and child, leaving her days as a high-powered lawyer behind (but not for good). It's a modern Baby Boom, but rather than canning apples, she's doing all she can to keep from publicly abusing her child in HK's Ikea. Just read it - and as noted, hold me in no way responsible for anything that offends or upsets. She's a loose cannon, people.

So anyhow, I was pleased to see this op-ed in the New York Times by Nancy Kalish, about how much sleep teenagers need. Now look, I don't particularly like teenagers. They are like exotic animals to me - I don't get them, I can't predict them, I don't know what's going through their heads at any given moment. It's a bit unnerving. But in this article, Kalish smartly starts with the fact that teenagers' sleep is dictated by a hormone, and that we gotta roll with it and adjust their school schedules accordingly to get the most out of their education. Fascinating.

The best I can do to tie this article to this blog? If they get a good education, they'll be good readers. Done!

Next up is this good news from the ever-reliable Shelf Awareness:

Census Bureau: Bookstore Sales Rise Again in November

Bookstore sales in November were $1.186 billion, up 7.5% from $1.103 billion in sales in November 2006, according to preliminary estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. For the year to date, bookstore sales have been $14.654 billion, up 0.8% from $14.532 billion in the first 11 months of 2006. This marks the fifth month in a row that bookstore sales were up over the same period last year--and the second month in a row that year-to-date sales have topped last year's comparable figures.

By comparison, total retail sales in November were $347,688 billion, up 6.4% over
November 2006, and sales for the year to date were $3.665 trillion, up 4.1%.

Note: under Census Bureau definitions, bookstore sales are of new books and do not include "electronic home shopping, mail-order, or direct sale" or used book sales.


Hoorah!

And lastly, this nice post from the Guardian's book blog on blurbs, by Boston-born Meg Rosoff - check out the post. It's from the author's perspective - blurbee and blurber - and provides a nice "inside baseball" kind of scoop.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What a load of Farsi

I just read my latest email from the fantastic Grist, which may explain the punchy and slightly irreverent headline. They have mastered this art form - as well as environmental journalism that is informative and entertaining. That's my endorsement for the day.

Except that I also have to mention another website that sends me incredibly useful emails, though everyDAY!, and that's Shelf Awareness, which had a link to an article I wanted to send out on this blog.

So the article is from the UK's Guardian newspaper - which, for those not in the know, is kind of like the New York Times insofar as it is smart and very arts-friendly, but it is openly considered somewhat left-leaning. The Nation it ain't - but maybe like the opposite of the Washington Times? (No, no link) Maybe not - I don't know just how rightwing that rag is. I often go to the America section of the Guardian site for good news on our very own country! And I look forward to their launching of an American version of their paper.

Anyhow, the article today is by Saeed Kamali Dehgan about publishing and literature in Iran, and it's quite fascinating (if too brief). Naturally we can't help but read this and wonder "could this happen here?" It's incredible to imagine turning in manuscripts and waiting for government approval to publish, or worse, to prepare a publication and have it blocked by the government.
A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.
But I'd like to hear more about what he mentions at the opening of the piece:
There was a time when great Persian poets such as Hafez, Rumi or Khayyam were present in people's daily lives, permeating their speech even in the very rural regions, but now books scarcely figure in a country once recognised by its literature.
So was there a time in America where literature was discussed in the countryside, by even those who were not been fortunate enough to receive a strong education due to living in an impoverished community? I recently read Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre, which was about poor country folk down South. This man, now in print with a university press, wrote bestsellers about this contingent, but I don't know if poor folk were reading him.

As we all celebrate the reading happening in the middle class thanks to Oprah's book club, should we be settting our sites higher? I guess I'd be interested to see statistics on working class folks - though it's never clear how such a demographic is defined - and their reading habits. While working at Borders near a few working class communities, we sold a good deal of mass market books to folks, and of course library use would have to be figured in as well - and those are probably under-funded, as libraries often are these days. Those stats must be out there. Is there great literature mixed in amongst the sci-fi and romance novels? Where are the classics figuring into the reading material of people making closer to minimum wage, and can we include audio in the term "reading material?"

I know most people, regardless of class, get home from their jobs, irritated and/or unsatisfied, and switch on the television, leaving it buzzing all night. But I also know I grew up with parents who turned on the tv every night AND opened a book, so I'm not ready to give up yet. But hell, my livelihood depends on it, so I could just be clinging to the raft here.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Newspaper book blogs

The Dec. 17th issue of Publishers Weekly, which I'm only just getting to, has a list of newspaper book blogs, which I thought I should link up to. I should probably add these to the sidebar, as well. We'll see if that gets done.

The Los Angeles Times has Jacket Copy.

The New York Times has Paper Cuts.

The Washington Post has Short Stack (which did not load well for me, just fyi).

And I added the Boston Globe's blog, Off the Shelf, already on the sidebar.

I don't mind these sites, based on the quick tour. They're a bit gossipy, which is good, but also active and engaged. What do you all think of them?

I also like that the Globe's lists author appearances, which supports authors and, sometimes at least, indies.

I also like, just for the record while I'm listing things that I like, that River Run Bookstore, a great independent in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (which is a great town, for books and beer and other charming things), is "tackling affordable housing" with events in partnership with the United Way and local housing orgs. Well done, River Run! I don't hold you in any way responsible for Dirty Work by Larry Brown, which was a fairly awful novel I purchased at your store last winter.

EDIT: Wanted to add the Dallas Morning News' blog, called Texas Pages. Has short, to the point entries and, again, focuses on local events. Nice job! The paper ain't so bad either - when I lived down there, I was a subscriber. The Austin American-Statesman, at the time, was not quite up to speed on national and international events. I believe that's changed, though.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

And another, now on self-publishing

I guess I'm making up for lost time.

But I had to post about this article on Yahoo! news, by Candice Choi, an AP writer, on the latest in self-publishing opportunities. There are many. This is a bit of a fluff piece, but I should note that the article was listed as one of the most popular when I went to Yahoo! news.

I have to say, the tone of her first line irritates me: "Getting a book published isn't the rarefied literary feat it once was." Oh, hoorah! But as the article continues, I can appreciate what Choi is saying, and I respect the use of self-publishing for niche audiences, whether local or just specialized, as in the example they mention of a group really into roses. Fine, publish for them, and self-publishing is a smart way to do it. Let's just all be clear on what comes out the other end. As Choi notes,
Printing quality can vary, with images possibly emerging denser or brighter in some copies. Some in the industry say the quality of on-demand publishing has improved greatly and few would be able to distinguish the difference from those printed on traditional presses. And on-demand books are priced according to their length, making them pricier than books printed en masse.

So there's all that.

And I did appreciate this mention from Tina Jordan:

Big companies like Random House Inc. or HarperCollins Publishers can promote authors on a national scale and get titles in major bookstores. Professional editors also polish copy in the traditional publishing world, a step that can transform a manuscript into a best-seller or perhaps a masterpiece.

"The value and cachet of being with a larger house is still something authors value," said Tina Jordan, vice president of the Association of American Publishers.


But ever the editor, I must ask: what about independent presses? How American, to only think of the extremes: self-publishing or Random House.

And another thing not mentioned here is how often publishers themselves use print-on-demand technology, meaning that if the author gets her or his book published by a publishing house, that same book could end up looking like a self-published book in a few years time, albeit with a professionally designed cover and interior (just reproduced in the same way as self-published). Publishers, too, have to appreciate the better quality of this technology, even if its accessibility is causing a glut in the book market.

Amazon getting involved feels a bit dirty, like B&N publishing their own editions of classics or, possibly worse, their own supposed literary review. Egads, man! Isn't this vertical integration gone amuck, and mucking up our industry?

The results are in

Happy new year, folks.

So a quick post to mention a piece from today's email edition of Shelf Awareness, on America's most literate cities. Click the link, it's interesting stuff. It seems Dr. Jack Miller of Central Connecticut State University compiled the list - the info is on the homepage.

Nothing shocking when it comes to beantown, as tourists call it. While the overall rank for our fair city is 10th place, our ranking for booksellers is nothing short of disastrous - and humiliating. Yes, folks, keep clicking and you'll find that Boston ranks 48.5 in the number of bookstores per 10,000 people. That is pathetic. And yes, we can weep and moan about the giant Borders in Downtown Crossing and the new one in the Back Bay and the Barnes & Noble in the Pru. It's true - they are huge and we all use them. But as a Boston resident, who lives in the city itself, I'm always frustrated by the lack of any indie bookstore. Can't we at least get a book version of Newbury Comics? I fear that store / local chain is just being grandfathered in.

I was pleased to see Boston's much higher ranking in other areas, including internet access. But really, we must do something about this bookseller problem. But then again, that means doing something about this commercial real estate problem, or real estate problem in general. Apparently, new commercial properties don't sit on the market for 2 days before being snapped up, and it's all high end. Snore.

I don't mind the rain, a bit of cold... is there room for a book editor in Seattle (number 2 overall, number 1 for booksellers)?

Sociable