Friday, October 31, 2008

Categorize this!

There's a nice, very short interview with author Mary Roach over at Paper Cuts, the NYTimes' book blog. She tells an amusing story about contacting Borders after seeing her first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, shelved in Medical Reference.

I call up Borders headquarters in Minneapolis and I ask to speak to Guy Who Decides Where Books Get Shelved. Of course, there is no guy. The receptionist asks for the title of my book, she checks a list, and she puts me through to Guy Who Deals with Medical Reference. What I don’t know at the time is that this man has taken a liking to my book. He spends his days with “Healing Your Sinuses” and “Dr. Jensen’s Guide to Better Bowel Care.” “Stiff” is high art to him... I fill his voicemail box with a whingeing ignoramus request to be moved to, what, Sewing Craft? Gardening? A few hours later my publicist e-mails me. There is panic in the land. Damage control is underway. “Mary,” it concludes, “please don’t ever call Borders headquarters again.”

As far as I know, “Stiff” is still shelved in Medical Reference. I told this story to a Borders employee a while back. “That’s not so bad,” she said. “We put ‘The Perfect Storm’ in Commercial Fishing.”

Having worked at a location myself, this sounds about right for Borders. Even worse, I'm sure her new book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is getting put right up in Erotica. Many of these employees do not and some might not be able to read. That's what happens when you hire teenagers at $7 an hour. Now I know this is not true for all Borders floor staff, or the staff of chain stores in general, but sometimes... (This caused a flare-up recently at Shelf Awareness, so I should just let it go.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Are you the Gatekeeper?

There was a good if short post on Critical Mass - "the blog of the national book critics circle board of directors" - about the NBCC/PEN discussion Beyond Margins: A Critical Perspective, wherein authors and editors dicussed "the question of gatekeepers in the publishing, book reviewing and awards communities." The publisher involved in the event was the terrific Brooklyn-based independent Akashic Books, with appearances by two of their authors, Chris Abani and Amiri Baraka. They all discussed marginalized writing, with two resources those of us committed to such voices should keep in mind: blogs and academic departments, such as ethnic studies, LGBT studies, etc... It's worth a read.

Joseph Marshall III had interesting comments to make regarding the efforts of native writers:
"Anyone who's native deals with various attitudes," he said, including "narrow-minded condescension" and "benign curiosity." "Gatekeepers who work for publishers are no different," he added. "Once we get past the gatekeepers, we have things to say."

The post is a good reminder that some of the most important, prescient, and ultimately valuable writing comes from unexpected or overlooked places with their ears to the ground. Sometimes "the next big thing" isn't manufactured to be just that by a big corporate house, but instead bubbles up and demands attention. So... what's next?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is It Always a Bad Thing When an Independent Bookstore Closes?

The little hamlet of Amherst, Massachusetts (my home town) used to be a mecca for book buyers. While I was growing up there were no fewer than 7 bookstores in a downtown of two streets: The Goliard Bookshop, Valley Books, Book Marks, Food For Thought, Wooton Books, Albion Bookshop (which morphed into Amherst Books), and The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop. I am sure I am forgetting one or two but these were the heart of the book industry in Amherst. Today only three of the 7 remain with the just-announced closing of The Jeffrey Amherst. You can read about it here in my hometown newspaper.

Now, on the surface, it is a bad thing for a book store to close...I feel the same way about closing bookstores as I do about closing a church: it can't possibly make the community better, can it? However, perhaps this kneejerk reaction should be revised? The Jeff hasn't been able to find a buyer even though it is situated cozily next to the primary stationary and news shop in town. The foot traffic is great, the community is literate and educated, the store has a built-in clientele, so why isn't it working? Well, I think a look at the three survivors in town will tell you why it might not be a bad thing. The three survivors in Amherst are: Amherst Books, Food For Thought, and Valley Books. Let's start with old gray beard, Valley Books.

(Valley Books interior, from the website)

Valley Books will never close unless its owner, Larry Pruner, chooses to close. In business for 30+ years, Valley Books has been located in four locations around town (that I know of). With the best blend of used books, rare books, first editions, new and recently published titles, a HUGE used/half-price fiction section, Larry has carved out a niche in Amherst as the place to turn for a cheap copy of Catcher in the Rye (always in demand in a college town), an out-of-print book by Paul Tillich, as well as a copy of the recently published book on the Celtics's 2008 season. Know your audience...and Larry does. (Plus he kinda looks like a character out of a Dickens novel...just don't tell him I wrote that!)

(Exterior of Amherst Books on the corner of Main and South Pleasant Street)
Amherst Books, run by Amherst bookstore stallwart Nat Herold, is the where the academic community goes for Lacan, Badiou, Islamic history, west Indian poetry, or any other scholarly need. Amherst Books and Nat Herold have been around in other guises for decades. Amherst Books used to be Atticus Bookshop which used to be Albion Bookshop. Whatever the name, it has been one of Amherst most popular stores for years. Nat Herold, on the other hand, is one of the saviest booksellers the town has ever seen. As the owner of The Goliard Bookshop, he put together one of the best academic bookstores in the history of the profession. Back in the heady '80's when the continental thinkers were invading English departments and bookshops, all of them could be found at Goliard...sort of. There were books everywhere. On the floor, piled up on tables, sometimes in boxes. They had it, but you needed to find it. All that charm plus if you were lucky you could play a round of Nerf H-O-R-S-E with Guy Spencer, poet Jim Hoag, or poet James Tate on any given Saturday afternoon. The academic trend continues in Nat's new store, Amherst Books. He, also, knows his audience...

(Exterior of the Food For Thought Book Collective from the website)

Finally, there is Food For Thought Books. First and foremost you need to know two things about the store that has always set it apart from almost every store in not just Amherst, but the whole country. 1) They are a worker's collective. 2) They are a leftwing, multicultural (for lack of a better word) store. Their politics are their identity. All the sections are stuffed with books from New Press, Verso, and myriad other academic and left leaning presses. The history sections as well as the sections focusing on women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies and literature, as well as various sidelights which will appeal to all manner of lefties make Food For Thought more of an "experience" than the other two shops. But, again, Food For Thought has carved out a political and social niche within bookselling and it is the place you are most likely to run into Robert Paul Wolff or John Bracey.

What these three survivors have that The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop did not is specificity. Used books, Academic books, Progressive books...each one knows who their audience is and they cater to them. The Jeff didn't. It was a general interest bookshop that, excluding the owner's community involvement as separate and should continue even once the store is closed, didn't offer much to any of the communities listed above which make up the lion's share of the residents of the Amherst area. The locals in the "happy valley" are almost all uniformly interested in a bargain (a la crusty New Englanders)-used books; are almost all connected to the five colleges (three in the town itself) and draw their money and livelihood from academics-hence, academic books; would have elected John Anderson, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry respectively-so, yeah, progressive books would sell. All of this written, I would be remiss if I didn't add that all three remaining stores also carry general interest books too. You can always find the NYT bestseller in town-even with The Jeff's shutdown.

In the final analysis, Amherst is losing a good community member but that is really it. The market is now about specificity and the closing of The Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop is, I hate to write it, good news for the remaining stores in Amherst.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stop the whining!

Thanks to BookNinja for today's link.

Book Editor David L. Ulin of the L.A. Times has a good article on his reaction to reading yet another article on "the crisis in book publishing." Ulin makes the point that many are making about the economy in general: the coming (or current) recession will be/is painful, but maybe it will have some good effects in slowing things down, curbing over-consumption and getting people to live within their means. Rather than just rolling over and dropping dead, maybe, Ulin says, something else in publishing will occur:
What's more likely, I think, is that publishers will scale back some of their higher-end advances, especially in regard to certain risky properties: books blown out of magazine stories, over-hyped first novels, multi-platform "synergies." At least, I hope that's what happens, because one of the worst trends in publishing -- in culture in general -- over the last decade or so has been its air of desperate frenzy, which far more than falling numbers tells you that an industry is in decline.
Here's hoping, Ulin!

It's true that this "publishing is DYING!" call has gone out numerous times before. Everyone who works in publishing is told they missed the really *good* times. It's an industry surviving on an end-is-near mentality, where a success is greeted as a delay of the inevitable. And so everyone is out chasing the next big thing, thinking that's all they can count on to make it through another day.

Ulin talks about the problem facing a new novelist, say, who has her first book published to low sales numbers. Then what happens? "According to one agent I know, you almost have to hide your numbers, moving from publishing house to publishing house to stay ahead of the curve." That's partially true, but now with Bookscan so widely available, those numbers are nearly impossible to hide, so the next publishing house, despite agent attempts to maintain the illusion, knows the score.

But Ulin holds out hope:
This, of course, may be the silver lining to our current economic contraction: No more will publishers or writers have time or money for ephemera. During the Great Depression, even popular literature got serious: The 1930s saw the birth of noir. As the money dries up, so too, one hopes, does the gadabout nature of literary culture, the breathless gossip, all the endless hue and cry.
Can we keep some of the "breathless gossip" please?

Actually, I'll back this, and I see modest independent houses leading the way - heads up, Soft Skull! You in, Chelsea Green? These are the places that hopefully have not overextended themselves, that have built strong lists with readers who know them and their authors, and these are the folks that can maintain a steady hand and keep publishing quality material that folks who need a break from the bad news around them may turn to.

Keep up the optimism, Ulin. As you know, in publishing, it's in short supply.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Street lit

I'm a bit late on this story by Anne Barnard in the NY Times today, as other bloggers and such (including Shelf Awareness - thanks!) have linked it. It's even one of the most emailed stories. But hey, I had other work to do.

The story is about literature "variously known as urban fiction, street lit or gangsta lit." Street lit is my favorite term, though I'd like to see it expanded to include different subjects. In this case, the article is focusing on mass market (mostly) novels, soap opera styled, written by and for folks in impoverished, urban black communities.

I've long been fascinating and appreciative of the economy around books for and by this demographic. African American literature, fiction and non-fiction, is often woefully underrepresented in big box bookstores, for many reasons. So you have this vibrant economy of self-published authors and street vendors getting books to readers, who often blow through them. In this article, reader Shonda Miller "devours a book a day, enforces a daily hour of reading time for her entire family and scours street stands and the Internet for new titles." Very nice. Barnard adds, "She also acts as an unofficial guide and field scout for the Queens Library as it builds its collection of a fast-growing genre, written mainly by black authors about black characters."

I'm also increasingly fascinated by the role of the library, which is clearly ever-changing. The debates come down to whom it is serving, and the awkward, unwieldy answer is the public. But there must be a healthy sense of the mission, to both serve the public and work toward enlightening the public. I think it's important for a library to have street lit but also have more difficult lit, so readers who want to go for something more challenging at some point can do so. The head librarian at Far Rockaway library in Queens is quoted in the article, responding to all the folks heading straight to the urban fiction section:
The head librarian, Sharon Anderson, who said she grew up on Donald Goines and was now obsessed with spy novels, says that sometimes she recommends something harder: “If you want sex, dirt and murder, read Shakespeare! We have the CliffsNotes!”
Makes sense to me. You got readers into the library, now let's see what they'll find. Maybe that's idealistic, and it's clearly subjective as I love exploring the library, just wandering around through sections and taking home books I never knew before walking in. And I may not so much as crack them before I return them, but who cares?

It's exciting to hear a librarian say that she will go out to a street vendor and buy copies of a book she hears is popular, a self-published title not available in her usual catalogs, to keep library users satisfied, even users who are not there to delve into deeply intellectual matters. Libraries need to know the public, to know how to keep them informed on everything from their history to their tax forms.

Now keeping the homeless warm at the BPL? That's a whole different post, I imagine... (but look at that hot new redesigned bpl website!)

Monday, October 20, 2008

When Authors / Publishers Succeed

As I come down from a very nice if incredibly brief visit to nyc - 1 night - seeing my friend Damian Barr, a fantastic British writer and one-to-watch, I wanted something to keep my spirits up. I looked to my google reader and the blogs tracked therein.

This story by Sue Fox at the UK Times may not be entirely uplifting, as our heroine Doris Lessing is surely struggling with some typical ailments of aging, but I still appreciated the Nobel Prize winning author's point:

I give away mountains of books to Africa and Oxfam and anyone else who comes here. I get The New Yorker, which is always inviting readers to read more books. I buy armfuls from the local bookseller in West Hampstead. I phone up and somebody collects them for me.

It’s lovely to have money to give away — that’s the bonus of winning the Nobel. I support Oxfam, Shelter and Centrepoint. I’ve also got a fondness for a local cat-and-dog home and an organisation to help writers. I was much too proud to write begging letters when I was broke. Miraculously, two people I’d never met said they’d heard I was hard up and enclosed some money. They were communists and told me that when I had enough I should pass on the money to somebody else who needed it. I’ve been doing it ever since.

It's nice to see a writer who is financially comfortable, and because of that, is generous. I would expect nothing less from what I know of her, but it was still nice to read. (And thanks to BookNinja for the link.)

And publishing folks are all coming down themselves, from the Frankfurt Book Fair. It sounds like it's busy but not the best and brightest fair in recent memory - fair enough, given the current state of the global economy. This report from Motoko Rich at the NY Times follows Mizzi van der Pluijm, presumably because of her outstanding name. Well done! She is the Dutch publisher at Contact Publishers, and using her as a focal point is a nice way into reporting on the fair. But this paragraph stood out, not necessarily about the fair but about the love of publishing specifically:

Ms. van der Pluijm knew she wanted to become a publisher when she was 16 and read a biography of Nancy Cunard, the cruise-line heiress who first published Samuel Beckett. “To be paid for reading all interesting stuff, and meeting very interesting people,” Ms. van der Pluijm said, “that is a wonderful job.”

To uplift, I should also reference this story by Simon Romero at the NYTimes about Luis Soriano, a Columbian who brings scores of books to poor rural folk by way of donkey. It's already one of the most emailed articles today. Given my love of bookmobiles, I was of course drawn to the story of this man's "Biblioburro."

More original content soon. My brain is still in a cab heading downtown it seems...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BREAKING NEWS: NBA Finalists Announced

As if you haven't heard...


FICTION
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Riverhead)
Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba (Scribner)
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
Marilynne Robinson, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Salvatore Scibona, The End (Graywolf Press)

Fiction judges: Gail Godwin (chair), Rebecca Goldstein, Elinor Lipman, Reginald McKnight, Jess Walter.

NONFICTION
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Alfred A. Knopf)
Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (W.W. Norton & Company)
Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday)
Jim Sheeler, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin)
Joan Wickersham, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Harcourt)

Nonfiction judges: Marie Arana (chair), Farah Jasmine Griffin, Russell Jacoby, Megan Marshall, Kevin Starr.


POETRY
Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Mark Doty, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems (HarperCollins)
Reginald Gibbons, Creatures of a Day (Louisiana State University Press)
Richard Howard, Without Saying (Turtle Point Press)
Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press)

Poetry Judges: Robert Pinsky (chair), Mary Jo Bang, Kimiko Hahn, Tony Hoagland, Marilyn Nelson.


YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE

Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains (Simon & Schuster)
Kathi Appelt, The Underneath (Atheneum)
Judy Blundell, What I Saw and How I Lied (Scholastic)
E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion)
Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now (Alfred A. Knopf)

Young People’s Literature Judges: Daniel Handler (chair), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, Cynthia Voigt.


It's always nice to see some smaller presses on there. Good luck, Graywolf!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And yet another model, but this one means FREE BOOKS!

To start, let me explain how my route here. I started with this post at the Written Nerd, which took me to this post at Books on the Nightstand.

So where did this all lead me? To the website of the Concord Free Press, based right here in Massachusetts, which is offering a whole new publishing model. Ya see, these kind folks are going to publish 2 books a year, with print runs of about 1,000 copies, and give them all away for free. In getting a book, though, you are promising to "make a voluntary donation to a local charity or someone in need in their community." They ask that you then log your donation at the website, with the number on your copy of the book, so they can track where the money is going.

Obviously, this is a non-profit organization, but I was of course still confused as to how they could sustain this model. This page partially answers that question by explaining that the design is free, due to the kind folks at Alphabetica Design, and the actual printing is discounted by the kind folks at Recycled Paper Printing. And then they get support from their board and whoever feels so inclined to throw them some change. Their advisory board includes writers Russell Banks, Stephan McCauley, and others.

I'm pretty fascinated by this model, and I've already requested a copy of Stona Fitch's Give and Take. (The perceptive among you might have noticed she's also the Editor-in-Chief of the press...) I'll donate somewhere and report it. I do worry, of course, about how this kind of model impacts writers and publishers who need to make money, not to mention bookstores. I love giving away my books and taking from others, I can't get enough of the library, and books prices can be out of control (Christopher was recently reporting the shocking list price of Nixonland - $37.50!). But there is something to be said for people willingly putting down money for a book, investing in it with their hard-earned cash. It makes the transaction more of a commitment for them. If they just have a book handed to them, even if they give $50 to Doctors Without Borders, they still may not feel that obligation to read the free book in their hand. They may have given the money to the org anyhow.

And if you're a fiction writer and you're hoping to do it at least a bit closer to full-time, you may not appreciate this throwaway line on the publisher's website: "Do writers get paid? Writers rarely get paid, ask one. In our case, we can definitely guarantee that they won’t get paid—can a traditional publisher promise that?" I don't know if this is the right answer to the question of how to get funding for innovative writers, not just commercial writers who know how to deliver a really sellable product. I appreciate the fact that it's a limited print run, but the idea that a bigger publisher could put out the book after Concord Free Press is tough as some publishers will not want a book that is out there in one edition already, especially when readers are being encouraged to actively share their copy of that one book.

I'll read, though, and I'll keep watching this space. If nothing else, I give a big kudos to their logo. It's fantastic! And I look forward to trying out Give and Take. You?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Publishing into a Recession

First off, I'd like to ask that the Great Depression NOT be invoked anymore, at least for a few weeks. I just can't.

Next, I'd like to send you readers away, with some interesting links. First, courtesy of BookNinja, is this article from the UK Guardian, on how British publishers are handling the financial crisis. They note that guides explaining how to save money - making things, growing things, etc.. - are on the rise, with more to come. But they also note that in other times of similar crises, trashier fare did quite well - romances, biographies of the rich and famous, etc...: "Back in the recession of the early 80s, cash-strapped readers were lapping up Jackie Collins sex, rock'n'roll and shopping saga Lovers and Gamblers." Something to keep in mind.

The next link is to a blog entry that has received tons of comments, and for good reason. I didn't even know this blog before I was pointed to it by The Written Nerd.

The blog is called Editorial Ass and the entry in question is here. In it, a "recovering editorial assistant" explains sales figures for literary fiction in a way that I would deem totally fair. People get very nervous talking numbers. I always wanted to be honest with my authors about sales figures but I also had to be sensitive. They wanted the truth, but how much truth could they handle?

On her blog, this "Moonrat" decides through an admittedly unscientific process that 7,000 copies is the magic number. That or above and you've done nicely for yourself. And I agree. She then breaks down less than that and correctly explains what the publisher's reaction might be. It's not entirely bad until we hit 1,500 or less, and then you're stuck.

The comments are well worth reviewing as readers ask good questions and Moonrat offers more strong answers, including a lengthy one where she explains how the credit crisis may impact publishers. She explains how literary fiction is kind of luxury publishing, something many editors want to do but can only do with more reliable non-fiction books on the list. Literary fiction is a big risk. But then she goes on to explain the pressure publishers get from the sales force who want to see more paperbacks, as they sell quicker in stores. I've seen this pressure firsthand. It puts the publisher in a pickle because the margin on paperbacks really blows, especially if a book is a paperback original. The publisher has to sell many more copies to earn back the advance. For the author, it also means a lower royalty rate usually, and of course less money in general as each book costs less than it would in hardcover.

What I also find interesting is that Moonrat is not distinguishing between an independent and a large corporate press, because in this non-scientific way, it's not just about financials but about morale and one's sense of the market. A book is most likely celebrated more at a small independent when it sells 7,000+, but especially for literary fiction, it's still great news at a much bigger house with bursting coffers.

I hope writers reading about this stuff don't get too hung up on this number - just as I hoped my authors wouldn't - because it cannot be one's focus. It'll throw you off your game. But for the rest of us, it's a really useful contribution to online discussions of publishing. Thanks, Moonrat! I'll be going back soon to check out this entry on creating a platform. Great stuff.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

News You Can't Use

Well raise your hand if you're shocked by this news. In this day and age, of course Tina Fey is writing a book. Don't get me wrong, I'm as amused by her as anyone, but why does every joanie-come-lately feel the need to put pen to paper? But what am I saying, if the price tag reached $6 million as the New York Post reported, why wouldn't she?

And I can see a fun book coming from Fey, based on her writing over at 30 Rock, which is a fantastic show... mostly. And I suppose it's good to see publishing as quick-moving as other media - her agent, Richard Abate at Endeavor, apparently employed a "no meeting, no proposal pitch." Outstanding! Did he just show youtube clips?

While watching the excruciating VP debate last week, a fellow viewer at a friend's house took issue not just with McCain's choice of Palin, but also with Palin's acceptance of the VP role. This young woman - a PhD in political science, it might be worth mentioning - is tired of the entitlement Americans have, shown by Palin who didn't question her own ability to be in this incredibly powerful position. Instead of saying, "Am I qualified?" she thought "Why the heck shouldn't I?!" Is Fey showing the same ignorance here? Did her agent say let's do this, even though she apparently could not even make time to meet with publishers, much less put together a proposal? He said strike while the iron's hot, and she said why not.

But then we have the publisher, Little, Brown. This is not some small outfit that may go under from this deal, I realize. Still, book publishing is sloooooooow. By the time Fey's book comes out, god willing, Palin will be a distant memory, perhaps reporting on quirky stories from Fox News in the same way Jeanne Moos does for CNN, but with a more moose-huntin' flavor. She'll find the oddest, funniest Joe Six-Packs and Hockey Moms around and report on their goings-on under the oppressive Obama regime. "How are you all survivin'?" she'll ask with a wink. This won't be SNL fodder, enjoyed only by the fringe still left watching this backwards channel, and Fey won't necessarily be the most watched comedienne on tv. The book may have to stand on its own, needing to earn out $6 million. This seems like a shaky business model to me.

And in other publishing news, Soft Skull has published the complete collection of David Rees' Get Your War On, and the author has been busy self-promoting online. I admit it, his ridiculous blog cracks me.

I'll also just admit, though I fit the demographic a bit too well, that I'm ready for Sarah Vowell's new book, The Wordy Shipmates, about the Puritans. Now there's a writer who can deliver a book. Just sayin', Tina Fey.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Your Side of Deceit

I was in the bookstore today looking over the new arrivals - it was the Harvard Co-op, which of course is a B&N college store - and I noticed GirlBoyGirl by Savannah Knoop. The subtitle offers the reveal: "How I Became J. T. Leroy." Yes folks, it's out: the true story of the person who played the part of the mysterious, genderqueer it-author a few years ago - the actor, not the writer - who was found to be a fraud. Now that the fracas has all died down, what of the person behind the sunglasses? Hmmm....

I picked it up to confirm it was what it was, but I must be honest in saying I can't imagine actually reading it. I mean, at this point, who cares? And then I was a bit disappointed to see the logo on the spine. The book is being published by Seven Stories Press, an independent publisher famously run by Dan Simon, a press I have long respected. (I thought the Open Media pamphlet series was very cool, if somewhat impractical.) Then I looked at the acknowledgments page and saw mention of Amy Scholder, who is the current editor in chief of the press. I know Scholder's name because she was the US Editor at Verso, and after she left, I (unsuccessfully) interviewed for that position. She has certainly worked on some very cool books - I'm intrigued by the use of her name in association with David Wojnarowicz's The Waterfront Journals - and she knows how to get attention, start fires, and force discussions of the first amendment and art, which I'm all for. It looks like Verso may have been set to publish Scholder's anthology, Dr. Rice in the House, but they lost her and it to Seven Stories (or gave both, it's not clear). Perhaps they felt it was straying too far from their rather rigid (and dry) approach to politics, which has a more European, old-school feel to it.

So Scholder is more pop and art (worked with Karen Finley et al), and she was clearly the editor of this GirlBoyGirl business. But it hardly seems all that substantive, and in fact seems instead like part of an ongoing genre of confessional - and boring - books. Now a press like Seven Stories needs to have some money makers to keep publishing more risky, less popular books - their fiction, especially first time novelists, are a huge risk. But I'm much more impressed with big sellers like Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country, a model of how an indie press needs to publish, getting a huge name and getting him to do this with you rather than a giant commercial press, and showing booksellers and readers that you can publish something this popular in a way that looks top-rate and is readily available. Derrick Jensen's forthcoming graphic novel on global warming, As the World Burns, also looks great, and very accessible, with definite commercial appeal. So why'd they stoop to this JT Leroy hot mess?

In terms of genre and not indie publishing, holding this new book in my hand also brought to mind Can You Every Forgive Me?, Lee Israel's relatively new book about her years forging author signatures on literary classics. It was celebrated in the Sunday Book Review, much to the frustration of many, and I was curious about the book. Reading a review on a blog later turned me against it. But is this kind of confessional book, by someone we have every right to hate or at least be angry with, interesting in that car-accident kind of way?

It seems the genre, long a mainstay of commercial publishing, got a serious boost from the whole scandal involving James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. I remember my sister getting the book after the truth came out, because she was "just so curious." And that's it, right? We're so curious as to why you'd dress up like this fake author, or sign Noel Coward's signature and sell it, that we actually go out and buy these books, thereby supporting the very people we can't stand!

But morals aside, really, aren't these confessions just articles? Do they really need to be whole books? And this is what worries me: editors are pushing these as books based on an idea and not the content, so they have authors, some of whom may not be particularly skilled at crafting a book-length narrative on most given subjects, expand their story to make it a product they can sell. And they run with it. This is what I felt reading Robert Leleux's The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, which was over and done with in 3 days (thanks, Boston Public Library - here's an early return!). The author wasn't a bad writer, but he had a schtick - gay kid in TX with fabulous mom - and he went on and on for about 200 pages. Book's done!

And we hear about the pressure from publishers to find authors, to find books that are not going to take long to write. I don't know. I suppose most really commercial books are l-i-t-e - it's the nature of this kind of book. But is that seeping into other areas, even into genres we expect to be weightier? And is it lowering standards for even our best independent presses?

I should say that Terri Jentz's book, reviewed here recently, was an example of a book that seemed to have come from a painstaking writing and editing process - in a good way. It may have been very long, but it was also very well done, with polish, and nuance, and consistent style, and intelligence. Let's hope publishers keep producing these books even while they slam lighter fare into their catalogs to get in quick cash.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Harvard Book Store SOLD!!!

Here's the scoop for you courtesy of Survival of the Book:

Cambridge, MA, October 1, 2008 – After forty-six years as the owner of Harvard Square’s landmark independent bookstore, Frank Kramer is handing over the keys. As of today, Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seamonson of Wellesley, Mass., are the new owners of Harvard Book Store. Mr. Mayersohn will serve as president of the company.

On May 27, 2008, Frank Kramer announced that he was putting Harvard Book Store up for sale. In his announcement, Frank underlined his commitment to maintaining Harvard Book Store as the vibrant independent bookstore it has been for over seventy-five years. Frank asserted his dedication to finding a new owner who knows and loves the store for what it has been—and who has a vision for the future that honors the store’s unique history.

Yesterday, Frank Kramer and Jeff Mayersohn completed the sale, two months in the making. Of the closing, Frank noted: “I couldn’t be more thrilled. Jeff is both a book lover and a businessman who has a tangible affection for Harvard Book Store. When I met him, I liked him immediately. And when I found out that he and his family plan their vacations around the locations of great independent bookstores, I liked him even more.”

Jeff Mayersohn was equally effusive: “As a customer of Harvard Book Store for over thirty years, I’m overwhelmed and elated by this opportunity. My wife and I have wanted to own a bookstore for many years—I never imagined that it could be Harvard Book Store.”

Mr. Mayersohn takes over ownership of the company effective immediately. Over the next few months, Frank Kramer will act as a consultant for the company. Carole Horne, who has been with Harvard Book Store for over thirty-five years, maintains her role as General Manager alongside the company’s committed management team. Ms. Horne is enthusiastic about the transition: “Frank said he wouldn’t sell the store unless he found just the right person, and I think he has. I’m very happy for Frank, and I am excited about working with Jeff.”

Self-described as politically progressive and an avid baseball fan, Mr. Mayersohn is pleased to continue running Harvard Book Store as the community’s locally owned and independent bookstore. He is also interested in bringing his technological experience to the store. “I understand that Harvard Book Store was one of the first independents to adopt inventory-control software, in the 1980s. I’d like to find new ways to continue the store’s tradition of being on the leading edge of bookselling.”

Mr. Mayersohn has attended the bookselling school for prospective booksellers, sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, as well as several national book industry conventions and the New England Independent Bookseller Association’s regional conference.



Originally from New York City, Jeff Mayersohn has been a resident of New England for nearly four decades. He graduated from Harvard College in 1973 and received an M.Phil. in physics from Yale in 1977. He has worked at several high-tech companies in the region, including internet pioneer Bolt, Beranek and Newman. For the last ten years, Mr. Mayersohn has been an executive at Sonus Networks, a market leader in IP communications infrastructure. Mr. Mayersohn and Ms. Seamonson are married and have three children: Andrew, a sophomore at Yale, and Rebecca and Anna, who attend the Wellesley public schools.

Mr. Mayersohn is a passionate reader across many genres, with a large personal book collection. Mr. Mayersohn and Ms. Seamonson contribute to many worthy causes, including a scholarship at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and their other alma maters, Yale and the University of Wisconsin. Mr. Mayersohn’s mother, Nettie Mayersohn, is a member of the New York State legislature and is running for re-election this year.

Harvard Book Store is pleased to host a special event on Tuesday, October 21, inviting the community to meet Jeff and learn about his history and love of Harvard Book Store.

After forty-six years as owner and president of Harvard Book Store, Frank Kramer looks forward to new endeavors. He plans to spend more time working on the development and growth of Cambridge Local First, a shop-local campaign he co-founded in 2005. Frank will also function as an industry consultant, and would like to learn Italian in his spare time.

Sociable