Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Banned Book Week!

How could I not post about this exciting week! "Free People Read Freely" is the tagline for Banned Book Week. Check out the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, too - they're fantastic.

Shelf Awareness did a great round-up of news stories on Banned Book Week, which I will just copy and paste:

Banned Books Week in the News

"'Dangerous' books are a big reason to keep reading," noted the Winston-Salem, N.C., Journal

In the Asbury Park, N.J., Press, librarian Marian R. Bauman wrote, "Books are not evil and do not harm anyone."

A Fort Myers, Fla., News-Press editorial advised, "Read, do not ban, books."

"SoCal rediscovers banned books" was the headline in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend, followed Monday by "Banned Books Week--does it matter?" and David Ulin's "Banned Books Week a thorny issue."

BiblioBuffet, the online literary salon, features several pieces about Banned Books Week, including one by SIBA's Nicki Leone, also managing editor and contributor of A Reading Life; a letter from Lauren Roberts, editor-in-chief; a column by author Lev Raphael; and a contribution from literary critic Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

Inevitably, the Sarah Palin controversy has been invoked in many articles, including this from the Christian Science Monitor: "Given the recent public scuffle over Sarah Palin’s conversations while mayor with a Wasilla librarian about the possibility of banning books, there probably couldn't be a better moment for the American Library Association's Banned Books Week."

"Oh, those evil books," cautioned the Albany, N.Y., Times Union.

"Banning books is not a way to run a country," according to the Contra Costa Times. "Transparency and censorship issues are nonpartisan."

The American Thinker offered an opposing viewpoint: "Apparently 99% of Books Have Been 'Banned'!"

So what banned book will you read?!

Strange Piece of Paradise 4-sentence Review

I finally made it through all 700+ pages of Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise, a big odd book wherein the author recounts her experience being attacked at a campsite while traveling across country, far from home, as a 19 year old by an axe-wielding nutjob in small town Oregon who was never caught. She revisits the crime and the area 15 years later and begins her own investigation, interviewing law enforcement, friends, and more, while also ruminating on the experience that she's reclaiming and gauging reactions from people who, bizarrely, still think about this incident often, sometimes everyday. This is kind of western goth, with respectfully drawn characters from an outsider perspective with a strange, eerie tie to this place. Maybe all this Johnny Cash has made me overly sympathetic to criminals, but I was uncomfortable with some of her work going after someone she's convinced did it, but ultimately, the story is worthy, and at times beautifully quiet, and speaks in a small way to the very large issues of masculinity, violence, and the expected silence of victims.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Slow return

My apologies for letting the blog go dark, as theatre folks say. I was down in the wonderful Austin, Texas for a family wedding. Have you been? Why not? GO! Trust me, it's a beautiful place.

Anyhow, I don't have time to catch up on much publishing news just now, but I did want to pull a great quote that the good folks at Shelf Awareness alerted readers to in today's email.

In covering the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show, Melanie Lauwers at the Cape Cod Times opened with this great lede:
Apparently, there's an old saying that in a tough economy, booze and books continue to sell. The former, because people don't stop drinking no matter what, and the latter because books represent a purchase of lasting value, plus you can find anything in the world within the covers of a book — including a new career if you need one.
Very nice - and optimistic. So I offer that up, with a promise to write more very soon. So grab a book and a drink, and don't worry so much about this bail-out.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

For whom the bell tolls....

So I have now had a chance to read Boris Kachka's much-discussed New York magazine article on "The End" of publishing as we know it. I want to say upfront that we should not forget the magazine in which this article appeared. Of course it includes a fair bit of gossip - including that disturbing image of Jane Friedman's retirement/not-so-fast party in which everyone wore masks of her face. It's the nature of this particular magazine, right? And because of it, I now know that Sarah Palin spent $2500 bones on a Valentino jacket (zut alors, hockey mom!). It's New York, not the New Yorker... which couches its gossip in more bourgeois stylings.

But I digress. So this publishing article is long and includes gossip and, as the folks at HarperStudio pointed out on their blog, it doesn't have much interesting new information. Anyone who has followed the discussions going on in modern publishing for the last 5 or 10 years will read a mere re-cap rather than a forward-thinking piece. In fact, the blog's conclusion in the above-linked post is a bit more valuable than any conclusion I found in the article. Says the folks at HarperStudio:
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “so it goes.” And goes, and goes, until the once-profitable middle is the worst possible place to be. And we’re left with an industry that can only do two things: gamble bigger and bigger on the next big thing and milk the backlist for all the new formats it might be worth. If this trend continues, we’ll all be the poorer for it, because the middle should be a place where we can take interesting chances without risking the farm, not a place we go to put our careers—and our corporate parents—on the line.

It sounds a bit like one of the presidential candidates crying out for the elusive middle class - which defines no one and everyone all at once - but in fact, these folks are making a good point.

It's useful also to counter the old celebration of publishing's heyday in mid-20th century America with wise(r) words from Soft Skull's Richard Nash. Says Kachka of the good ol' publishing boys:
They took poor writers drinking, put them up in their homes, and defended them in court. They made handshake deals, spent their personal wealth in lean years, and built backlists out of modernist classics. Discovering Faulkner was like buying Picassos in 1910.

All well and good, and of course we can all pick out favorite books from this era, but as Nash says in reference to a review of the new books, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors by Al Silverman,
I'm completely astonished that an era that consisted of white men publishing white men could possibly be described as golden. Frankly, we should be ashamed of ourselves to go along with this hypocritical drivel.

Amen!

This article does have some useful information about how all these ol' boys formed houses that got gobbled up by bigger corporations, and a brief history of our bizarre advance and royalty system. (The latter is a structure that cannot hold our modern competitive and short-term thinking ways, hence the experiment that is HarperStudio.) It also shows the desperation of editors under the gun, told to hit targets by bosses culled from marketing departments rather than from editorial departments - or worse, not even from publishing houses! I also liked this point in the article:
This would mean far more than just the few book “trailers” you see online. “They’re all the rage right now,” says Bloomsbury’s Peter Miller, “but I would love to see an example of one video that really did generate a lot of sales. There’s a sense of desperation.”
Those trailers have long mystified me. Why would anyone watch them?

I was intrigued by this paragraph, but of course, I also feel used because Kachka is baiting me as the reader:
One indie publisher has been pitching an imprint around town that would go beyond what Miller’s doing—expanding into print-on-demand, online subscriptions, maybe even a “salon” for loyal readers. He envisions a transitional period of print-on-demand, then an era in which most books will be produced electronically for next to nothing, while high-priced, creatively designed hardcovers become “the limited-edition vinyl of the future.” “I think they know it’s right,” the publisher says of the executives he’s wooing, “but they don’t want to disrupt the internal equilibrium. I’m like the guy all the girls want to be friends with but won’t hop into bed with.”

Any hints on who this publisher is? Someone with a pretty serious ego, the way Kachka paints him, but also with some potentially crucial ideas. I thought of McSweenys, given my subscription there to the Book Release Club, only to see it mentioned in the next paragraph. (I better be getting that Out of Exile book with narratives from Sudanese people displaced, to make up for that hideous heavy metal book!)

We do need to think through how to get targeted lists to interested readers in a way that creates profit, at least enough profit to keep publishing. Bob Miller has a plan that makes sense but might, perhaps, as Kachka suggests, require too much sacrifice for a writer who needs money upfront to write a book. Too many publishers are trying hard to find writers who don't need the money, which will result in a big void of voices. But where will the money come from, if not very commercial blockbuster books? Foundations perhaps? I'd like to see that, but how does one navigate that world without having the author's/editorial vision being too beholden to the sources of money?

Lastly, though, let me say what I found truly distasteful in this article: the final section about books that have not earned out massive advances, which includes future books to watch to see if they flop. Seriously lame. To me, publishers who spend money badly are fair game, but authors trying to get by should not be targeted in this adolescent, bullying way. Maybe I'm being delicate here, and I'm not looking to run out and buy a book about "a small-town library cat" admittedly, but I still would recommend backing off, especially with a novelist. That's blood, sweat and tears in there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

So much to read!

And I'm not just talking about in my tbr pile, people.

I blame BookNinja, who put up many links to end-of-publishing articles today. I just can't get to them all right now, but I want to make them available to anyone who passes through here so you can get started as well. I hope to throw up comments to these as soon as possible.

Ironically, I scanned this article by John Walsh from the UK Independent, and I appreciated what he was doing but feel he may be trying to be a bit extreme. At one point, he explains how Victorian literature is full of slow narratives, because readers slowly devoured books: "readers would settle in for long evenings letting Barchester Towers or Our Mutual Friend wash over them. This was the period when, say, William Gladstone could tell friends, with every expectation of empathy, that he had stayed up all night to read The Woman in White." While I appreciate that this isn't entirely normal, I do have friends who will stay up too late reading a novel, showing up at work the next day exhausted. And in fact, look how many children and adults spent whole weekends or evenings reading Harry Potter books. I see his point, I just don't like this dichotomy being too strict.

What I really like in this article is the second half, when different bookish folks are interviewed about our changing reading habits. Agent Clare Alexander makes a point I've seen firsthand: agents spend much of their time bickering with publishers over digital rights based on fears of what's to come. I also appreciate Richard Ovenden the librarian's point:
"Our reading rooms are still as busy as ever: the most high-quality digitisation does not replace the power of seeing the original artefact. However, people are now more aware of what we've got: a recent report identified a generation that felt that if something wasn't online it didn't exist. So if you digitise things, it does exist to that generation."

That puts things into perspective a bit. Jeremy Ettinghausen, publisher at Penguin, follows Ovenden and mentions "Spinebreakers," Penguin's website for teenagers. (The name makes me a tad uncomfortable, perhaps in its violence.) His piece makes clear the point that publishers, like many media companies, are trying to engage people online as a way to capture them as consumers. "In the past it's been hard to talk to teens – so we gave them a platform where they could talk to each other about books." This is where the internet has this creepy quality, kind of like a church that gives teenagers a place to hang out and then quietly proselytizes. It's too cold to play basketball so they go inside, but when they come out... they're Methodists!! WTF?!??!

I don't entirely buy Andrew Cowan's discussion of his MFA students: "Ahead of this interview, I talked to them about digitisation and not one of them had heard of Twitter, and they were all hostile to the idea of e-books." That's weird. His next point I believe - and appreciate: "They're not immersed in digital fiction, either – some have been published online, but feel it's second-best; they're concerned about the lack of editorial control on the Net and only pursue it because there is a dearth of [print] outlets for short stories."

So I guess I did cover that article, but I cannot get to this lengthy article from New York magazine by Boris Kachka, which opens with a visit to Bob Miller and his exciting new project, HarperStudio. I know I rail against corporate publishing much of the time here, but I'm really intrigued by this HarperStudio and will keep an eye on it. I appreciate the concept, and Miller is obviously an incredibly smart guy. On their blog, in this post, they jump off the New York article to get into publishing issues. The blog seems quite well done.

So I'll try to get my head around that long article and write on it soon.

Then there is this UK Telegraph article by Alex Clark, editor at Granta, about editors. I did read this because it's relatively short, so I can comment on it now. It's sweet. Clark writes about the value of editors, jumping off from the sad news of Robert Giroux's recent death. Summing up the editor's role, he says:
But there is something special about the peculiar skill of editing - which requires the patience to pore over a succession of drafts and redrafts until no further improvement seems possible, plus the tact integral to encouraging and containing writers (rumoured, occasionally, to be highly strung creatures) and, finally, the self-effacement to bring to fruition someone else's work without much public recognition.

Yeah, I'll admit it: I miss editing. I did well at this role, and wouldn't mind a chance to do it again in some capacity. For now, I'll keep trucking along with this blog to stay in the publishing loop.

Clark talks about the value of editors to writers, even as we usher in this digitial age - going back to the point Cowan makes about young writers still being skeptical of getting published online due to the lack of editorial control on online content. Writers who spend time on their craft, as compared to those who throw everything they write right up online and demand readers, will continue to appreciate the rigorous feedback they get from a good editor.

Thanks to BookNinja for these links!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sell with a whimper, or a bang?

Today's issue of Shelf Awareness included an article about a presentation by Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse regarding the theory of "the long tail." We all know about this by now, right? The theory goes that in the Internet age, companies - let's say publishers specifically, as that is what we're talking about here, can sell a larger variety of products, each with lower numbers, than in the past when publishers had to sell more copies of few products to make margin - the blockbuster effect. Booksellers don't have to keep all these different books in storage, because people can just go to Amazon, which has huge warehouses, or get an e-book or what have you. So publishers, by this theory, should keep books available for longer and plan on them continuing to sell. Even if each title sells few copies, it's in a publisher's interest to keep as many available so as to have more opportunities for profit.

Professor Elberse, in a presentation to the Book Industry Study Group's annual meeeting and in a Harvard Business Review article (you can view the first page and then they make you pay), refutes this theory. She explains that people want to share in the experience of blockbusters, whether it's the hot cd or the big movie on opening weekend. In fact, according to her research, even people who like more niche things will also like the blockbuster. Moving away from having the big star products in favor of more diversied products will lead to consumer disinterest, even from those consumers who want the more obscure products. I appreciate this point, especially in talking about readers who are by their nature, to some extent, loners. We read alone, but that doesn't mean we don't want to discuss what we are reading alone. People read book after book in genres like fantasy and sci-fi, but then they get giddy with excitement when they can join others who appreciate these genres.

I found the opening to Elberse's Review article particularly interesting:

In a typical year, Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) goes to market with 275 to 300 book titles spread across two catalogs—its fall and winter lists. For each list the company identifies the handful of books it believes have the greatest sales potential and gives them the full benefit of its marketing capabilities. Of those, it spotlights just two “make” books, one fiction and one nonfiction, for which the company’s publisher is willing, in her words, to “pull out all the stops.” In the fall of 2007 those books were David Baldacci’s Stone Cold and Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You!). The effects of this strategy show up in sales figures and profits. Whereas the 61 hardcover titles Grand Central put on its 2006 front list, on average, incurred costs of $650,000 and earned gross profits of just under 100,000, a wide range of numbers contributed to those averages. Grand Central’s most heavily marketed title incurred costs of $7 million and achieved net sales of just under $12 million, for a gross profit of nearly $5 million—50 times the average.

Grand Central is pursuing what is known as a blockbuster strategy—a time-honored approach, particularly in the media and entertainment sector. With limited space on store shelves and in traditional distribution channels, and with retailers and distributors seeking to maximize their returns, producers have tended to focus their marketing resources on a small number of likely best sellers. Although such an approach involves substantial risk, they expect that the occasional hit’s huge pay-off will cover the losses of many misses, and that a few big sellers will bring in the lion’s share of revenues and profits. In 2006 just 20% of Grand Central’s titles accounted for roughly 80% of its sales and an even larger share of its profits.


That really throws things into a certain light. Part of me sees that and thinks, ya can't argue with numbers.

I appreciate Elberse's point, that it's naive to hope you can achieve profitability through a series of niche items. Most small publishers have a break out hit at some point that helps the rest - George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant surely offered Chelsea Green the opportunity to pursue more niche titles, and I'm sure Lydia Millet novels help Soft Skull's bottom line. It's important for an author, when s/he prepares for his/her book's publication on a list, appreciates this dynamic and does not inappropriately demand the same marketing dollars and effort for his/her book as the star is getting. It's in your best interest! That does not mean the publisher should just ignore a book on their list, but even small publishers are going to have this dynamic where effort is distributed unevenly. The publishers then can reinvest the profit from the blockbusters into the smaller books.

Publishers lose their way, it seems, when they start chasing the blockbusters and ignoring the smaller books. These smaller books are often the ones they use for credibility, whether that's literary or scholarly credibility. Nothing is more tragic than flipping through a new catalog from a big corporate publisher and seeing blockbuster after blockbuster, big name mystery authors next to big name political authors next to big name animals authors, etc..., with no cohesion. I know most readers don't read by brand, by publisher, but if a publisher has this eclectic mix held together by profit alone, authors should be weary of the kind of treatment they'll get if their particular genre falls out of favor before their book comes out.

Elberse's advice, then, should be followed by independents. You have to get a few big names, but they should be books that still fit your larger mission so bringing people to the list with the big name might help the smaller names. Even university presses publishing regional cookbooks still makes sense as they are reminding readers that they are regional publishers, and they probably have local history books on their list as well.

And if you're a star player, maybe publishing the big book for an independent can really pay off. I don't hear Lakoff complaining! You can still get your book out there in a big way, but unlike ending up on page 13 of a catalog next to a book about a puppy who changed some suburbanite's life, you'll be on page one, on the cover, and pulling along behind you some original and valuable voices that may not get heard otherwise.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

New Discovery for Me

Given the time, I like to head out to Harvard Book Store from my job in Harvard Square. Given rain and less time, I to make due with the Harvard Co-op, now a B&N college store. It has size on its size, but it also has that special sterile corporate feel that has come to define modern chain bookstores.

Anyhow, I noticed a very cool looking book entitled A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-day Iraq, by Fernando Baez. I wasn't quite prepared to buy it as my TBR pile, as apparently it's known (I've noted from emails I now get as part of the Book Bloggers' Appreciation Week), is far too high just now, a bit higher after a quick trip to Brattle Book Shop on Saturday. All the same, this thick book with an odd, small trim size looks intriguing, quite fascinating actually. From the description online:
With diligence and grace, Báez mounts a compelling investigation into the motives behind the destruction of books, reading man’s violence against writing as a perverse anti-creation. “By destroying,” Báez argues, “man ratifies this ritual of permanence, purification and consecration; by destroying, man brings to the surface a behavior originating in the depth of his personality.” His findings ultimately attest to the lasting power of books as the great human repository of knowledge and memory, fragile yet vital bulwarks against the intransigence and barbarity of every age.
Right?

But I was also curious about the publisher, Atlas & Co. I didn't recognize the logo or the name. As it turns out, they are just launching a new season of very cool titles after previously, I believe, working in conjunction with other publishers, with series created presumably by James Atlas, current president. It's all explained here. I'm hopeful about their books and will definitely keep an eye out for what they're publishing. The current brand new list is briefly described:
International in scope, the list features a memoir by a former factory worker in China, a stunning collection of photographs of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders, a worldwide survey on the history of book destruction, and a spirited account of one man’s journey through Kazakhstan, among others...

Bring it!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Fun Things in the World

I've become a bit link crazy in recent posts, and I won't slow down now. I blame Google Reader.

First, a quick and provocative quote from Critical Mass, by author Wilfred Sheed:
“The ideal reviewer writes no books at all, lives outside New York but doesn’t resent New York, has no credentials--because every credential is a trap. He simply-- well, how to put it?--has an interest in books.”

Perhaps that's sarcastic, but it seems like a good start to me. Then again, I occasionally groan loudly at awkward reviews from the Boston Globe, so perhaps not.

I know I'm not just link crazy, but Soft Skull / Richard Nash link crazy, but he has another good post, this one on giving books away / selling books. He starts with a quote on giving books as gifts from John Fox but then moves into the awkward equation independent publishers must work out to stay afloat.

Then this article in the NY Times' Sunday Book Review by Jess Row profiles the publication of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (found via BookNinja). I don't love this Styron book, but I am a fan of Styron, and I don't think he gets his due. As I've mentioned, I worked for the literary agent who represented him in the UK for a year, and actually spoke to him on the phone a couple of times. And according to this article, I have yet another connection to him via a book called William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, published by my last employer, where I edited books. Who knew?! Anyway, the article is an interesting consideration of using fiction, historical fiction in this case, to wade into contemporary political issues. It also speaks to the ongoing dangers of having writers depict characters from different ethnicities, especially prominent historical figures with so much undocumented myth around them. Styron's pride in this novel, and subsequent defense of it and then shame from it, are all quite fascinating to consider. Perhaps it's useful to keep in mind the debilitating depression he faced as well, chronicled beautifully in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a slim book I'd strongly recommend to anyone who has wondered about friends and family who suffer from clinical depression. He transcribes his experience clearly and movingly, which is why this book holds up so well.

And finally, like many publishing bloggers, I wanted to post a link to the NY Times' obituary for Robert Giroux, editor-in-chief and publisher at the great Farrar, Straus & Giroux who passed away on Friday at the age of 94. This obituary tells of all the great writers who worked with Giroux, as well as the two projects that got away from this legendary editor. The projects? Jack Kerouac's On The Road and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (which I just saw someone in a bookstore reading last night). I love editor stories about the ones that got away!

Not to ruin the obit for you - ugh, how macabre - but the ending quote is wonderful:
[Giroux's ] ambition to write might have prompted an exchange with [T. S.] Eliot, then in his late 50s, on the day they met in 1946, when Mr. Giroux, “just past 30,” as he recalled the moment in “The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes,” was an editor at Harcourt, Brace. “His most memorable remark of the day,” Mr. Giroux said, “occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied, ‘Perhaps, but so are most writers.’ ”

A short article in Publishers Weekly quotes current President and Publisher at FSG, Jonathan Galassi: "He was one of the great editors in the history of American publishing, a man of impeccable discernment and sensibility, generosity, and humor, a wonderful raconteur and, above all, a champion of literature.”

And just to throw in a cranky reminder of why I'm writing this stuff, it's sad to go to the FSG website - a publisher of such renowned, literary classics, known for thinking ahead and taking chances - and see the Macmillan banner*, and see no mention of Giroux's passing. If it were still an independent house, there would be a memorial up right away. Instead, you actually have a header on the banner with "Publishers," which, when you put your mouse over it, lists a dozen different publishers all working under Macmillan. That blows. I'm sorry for Giroux, to see that. It makes me especially sad as I was just flipping through the fantastic book The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin, all snippets of things from the great founder of New Directions - a press still proudly independent.

* In 1994, FSG sold controlling interest to the German publisher Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a company which also owns Henry Holt and St. Martin's Press. Nonetheless, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has retained much of the freedom of an independent publishing house. (from NY Public Library archive)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Let's blow this joint

It's almost the end of the day Friday, but I did want to send out a couple of links.

First, can we all just agree to love Soft Skull? I do. I know they were acquired by Winton Shoemaker Co. last year after the whole disgusting PGW fall-out, but as the inimitable and perhaps even visionary Richard Nash said at the time, "Soft Skull is not no longer independent. Had I won the lottery and bought Counterpoint from Perseus, instead of Charlie Winton buying Counterpoint and then Soft Skull, we would not have ceased to be independent." I don't fully get that but I know Nash is still a champion of independent publishing in every way.

I am grateful to him most recently for pointing me to a wonderful series of posts at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind on large corporate publishers and their many imprints. This Sarah Weinman is doing a remarkable job breaking down all kinds of information, so I heartily recommend spending some time reading about who owns what and how. It's invaluable work!

I'd also like to point out this tidbit of information about the horror show that is Sarah Palin. Yes this is going around amongst us bookish types, but it's important to broadcast:
[John] Stein [admittedly, incumbent mayor of Wallinga whom she beat in election] says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. "She asked the library how she could go about banning books," he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. "The librarian was aghast." That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn't be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving "full support" to the mayor.

For anyone the least bit irritated by this - surely anyone reading this?! - check out the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. They do amazing work, including the defense of librarians getting intimidated, and deserve any bit of attention they get.

I don't know how much more Palin coverage I can stand, so I may have to look away for a moment... and check out Sarah Weinman's fine research!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Will slush evolve?

This article in the UK Guardian by Aida Edemariam has been written before, but it's useful to keep republishing. (I found it via BookNinja.) It's about the much-feared slush pile, found in most publishing houses and magazine office, where unsolicited writing accumulates. I met my first slush pile as an assistant to an agent in London, and then spent time with one for about two years in my first editorial job. In both cases, I did read most of what I found there, but as I always told interns who handled this pile more often, it's easy to just reject 90% of what you find. So much of it is flat-out nuts.

As a sidenote, I'd like to say how tired I became of stories from the slush pile. It's a bit like what we're seeing here in Boston now with college kids, all talking as if they're the first to live in a dorm, go grocery shopping without their parents, etc... Interns going through the slush pile inevitably think they're going to thrill you with hilarious jokes at some unknown writer's expense. "This one says 'My novel knows no boundaries, and will exhilarate you beyond measure," and look how he spelled exhilirate!!!" I suppose it feels good to mock these writers when you're a sophomore in college with your own literary ambitions, but I learned to really hate it.

And sadly, Edemariam is not above it in this article, mentioning submissions from "prisoners who think it a good idea to include a picture of themselves with a gun pointed at the viewer (true story)." Who cares? It's just so tiresome. And it's a bit annoying that she writes about her own experience though she only did this for 5 months.

Anyhow, the article on the whole, despite my grumbling, makes some good if not mind-blowing points. Larger publishing houses often won't even consider slush, preferring to leave it to agents and then wait for the more reputable agents to bring them the best of the crop. This has created some opportunity for smaller, independent presses - in this case, Tindal Street Press in the UK is the example of that:
"Because we're small and we've been building a reputation, we haven't been an obvious choice for agents," says editor Luke Brown, "so the slush pile has been vital for us."

I certainly glanced into the abyss as an editor, even after it was my responsibility, and did find at least one book in there. It's a frustrating process though, as multiple people explain in this piece. Other success are added at the end of the article:
There will always be someone hoping to be like first novelist Rawi Hage, picked off a slush pile at Anansi Books in Canada to win the world's most lucrative literary prize, the £80,000 Dublin Impac Literary Award; or Nobel prize winner William Golding, rejected by 20 publishers then picked off the slush pile by Charles Monteith at Faber; or JK Rowling, picked out of the post by office manager Bryony Evens, even though she knew the agent she worked for didn't publish children's books.

So dare to dream?

But in this day and age, there are so many other ways to get your writing out there, so surely the whole mentality of publishing will change. I still say, as I've long maintained on this site, that we need gatekeepers to find the best and brightest, to hold us to a standard for arts in general, and literature in particular. But editors and agents have so many more resources now, so the field is changing, and publishers must take chances to get returns. It's an unless, desperate game of seeking out the next trend. Writers may go into it not realizing that they are being put into this game, if they are not away of the currents in publishing and the up-and-coming markets, and then they'll be dropped just as soon as that trend ends. (Look at the author of the book on the hideous candidate Sarah Palin, who wrote a book about the Alaskan governor only to see the publisher slammed with orders after McCain's disastrous decision.)

So writers, beware. I would recommend waiting until you are really confident in your writing, until you have shared it with others and feel good about it, and had smaller pieces published. At that point, put together a writer's CV and really present yourself well and find an agent who you known likes the kind of writing you're doing (look at the acknowledgments sections of your favorite books!). That's the best way forward, just to generalize. And if the agent is a good one, they'll steer you through the trends and keep you grounded on your own identity as a writer, whether you're on the bestseller list or keeping your day job to pay the bills.

Perhaps I'll wait for a future post to talk about pedestrian but innovative ways of sharing books, from BookMooch to a table with a box labeled "Honor System" (just walked by that in the rather boring Harvard Square, where I know work).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

They read and they write, write, write!

Full list of book bloggers can be found here. It's overwhelming but a terrific resource for all the blogging on reading, writing, and publishing you could want! Enjoy, folks.

(I believe there is a voting component to this whole thing too, so feel free to vote for this blog if possible. Just sayin' is all.)

Author in the Middle

In internet time, I'm a bit late to this game, but I was saddened and frustrated, like many, to read about Stephanie Meyer putting her latest novel "on hold" after a draft was leaked to the internet. I haven't read her work, admittedly - my partner read the first novel in the current series and did not exactly praise it, and quite frankly, it's not my proverbial cup o' tea - but like many bloggers, I can't help but see this as a modern and particularly undignified problem.

The author's explanation on her website is just tragic, for anyone who appreciates the process. This woman may not be writing novels that are going to become literary classics, but she's writing successful novels with legions of fans, so she clearly has talent (again with the disclaimer, I haven't read a word). And she is showing respect for both herself and her fans in explaining how she feels:
"I did not want my readers to experience Midnight Sun before it was completed, edited and published. I think it is important for everybody to understand that what happened was a huge violation of my rights as an author, not to mention me as a human being... I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn't dovetail too well with the original story. In any case, I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely.

I'd rather my fans not read this version of Midnight Sun. It was only an incomplete draft; the writing is messy and flawed and full of mistakes. But how do I comment on this violation without driving more people to look for the illegal posting? It has taken me a while to decide how and if I could respond. But to end the confusion, I've decided to make the draft available here (at the end of this message on the Midnight Sun page). This way, my readers don't have to feel they have to make a sacrifice to stay honest."

Good for the internet for making it possible for an author to respond to immediately and to respond so directly to readers, but shame this same technology led to such a disruption to an author's process of writing.

I should say that the ellipsis you see above is where I skipped her sentences on copyright, which is not to say I don't respect her explanation of copyright and her legal rights as the owner of this intellectual property, and her use of this angering moment to explain copyright to fans seeking her out, but I think readers of this blog know all about our nation's copyright system, with its warts and all. Right?

Naturally, we all recall when the final Harry Potter book got posted online just before it went on sale. Who are these people? I suppose they're opportunists looking to get a jump, and I'm sure it has happened in different incarnations for generations. But like McCain picking someone wholly unqualified to be his VP, this action, putting drafts of an unfinished novel unline, shows such a fundamental disrespect to the thing itself - in McCain's case, the office of VP, and in the Meyers case, a final book. Is respect for a book, worked to completion by an author working in partnership with an editor and a publisher, being devalued by e-readers and such so much that people don't care about anything but how the words themselves get strung together? It's one thing to not care about packaging - hell, I sometimes can suck it up and read a mass market novel - but it's quite another to scrap everything and just download an incomplete manuscript so you can say you read it first. How much can one enjoy such an experience? On some level, I guess I have to wonder, "what are you after?"

As ever on this blog, I worry about sounding like a Luddite, but are we really so enamored at the thought of an immediate experience, and the thrill of being first, that we are willing to throw out the value of the larger experience so entirely? Damn shame.

I would just like to add before closing, are you reading The Root? Because I think you should, it's pretty amazing, very smart stuff over there. This article by Gary Dauphin on the website Stuff White People Like is a good one, but their stable of writers in general are quite top-notch.

Sociable