Friday, January 30, 2009

Branding Authors Causes Pain

This article by Jill Priluck in Slate's The Big Money is all about authors becoming brands. Publishers and people within publishing clearly have a conflicted notion about this concept, and Priluck does a nice job unpacking why that is and what branding means in the changing landscape of publishing: "In the book world, where the word "brand" is either sacrosanct or dirty, there's little consensus."

The article demonstrates the kind of classic doublespeak employed in publishing, where commercial publishers want a strong product but also want respect from the literary community. I mean, can we really not refer to Mitch Albom as a brand? Really? His agent says no, but the marketing department at his publisher has already made the bed. Sorry, buddy.

But Priluck also shows the downside of being branded - the pigeon-hole effect: "In their desire to fulfill the dictates of a brand, authors can compromise their integrity as writers, especially if they cubbyhole themselves." And this is where you see the ongoing problem in publishing that many of us online have discussed, even ad nauseum. Publishers want a reliable product and they want to put it out quickly, and writers who get sucked into the system can wind up with the very short end of the stick. As Priluck explains,
With limited choices, [authors] trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances. Ironically, their longevity, supposedly the marker of a good brand, falls by the wayside. It seems that unlike a detergent or a car, an author who is branded too quickly will often fizzle out just as fast.
This is when the speed of publishing runs into the commitment a writer must show to a topic or idea to execute it well. Delivery dates get pushed up, demands increase, corners get cut. Sometimes an agent is in on it, sometimes an agent is helping the author carve out necessary space and time.

Somehow we need to find the balance with high-speed communication - Twitter being the at-times comical example - and smart, thought-out, patiently crafted writing. Even cellphone novels, much buzzed-about right now though they scream of lame trend to me, can be crafted rather than hammered out. (See a nice parody of this idea blogged here by Peter Hyman.)

I do like when newer technology meets older writing, as with the George Orwell blog. So are we going to see classic novels translated into text messages and serialized, or twittered? I'm sure we are, just as we now have an LOLcats version of the Bible (egads, man). I'm not opposed to this kind of serialization, which could drive readers to great books. And authors can let readers into their process to some extent through Twitter, as long as it doesn't lessen their discipline to the actual writing (or result in leaked manuscripts, as famously happened with Stephenie Meyer last summer).

I'm all for sharing writing quicker and in various formats. The formats are not going to give the writing a shelf life; the quality of the writing is, so writers should keep that in mind even as they stare down demands from publishers in need of that product.

(Thanks to JasonB at Galleycat for the branding link.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hating on Hardcovers

I'll admit it: I don't buy many hardcovers. Even as someone who loves books and bookstores and authors, it pains me to part with $27.95 + tax. I know Christopher has a strong stand against most hardcovers. And now I know that the ever- knowledgeable and punchy Pat Holt dislikes them too!

I previously covered Holt's "Things I'd Love to See" 3-part sequel, and now she's added a fourth: "Stop Starting with Hardcovers." In this post, she rails against the old publishing model in which publishers bring out hardcover editions first to get some money to offset printing and to get review attention, and then bring out the more affordable paperback later. Holt points out that this model is particularly hard to maintain in our current ever-shrinking economy, and suggests we change things up:
Publishers could print enough sheets to cover a small hardcover printing for the institutional (library, etc.) sale. They could release the trade paperback with pride as the first and most affordable horse out of the starting gate. The more copies it sold, the more it would become what we used to call permanent backlist (trade talk for a long-term spot in every reader’s heart). As people began to buy the hardcover edition - for gifts, or for their personal libraries (yes, readers still have them) - the title would begin to earn its way into increased hardcover publication.
What I like about Holt is her realism, that she doesn't suggest band-aids or just think aloud, but rather offers thoughtful responses to problems.

I also appreciate her ability to weave some historical context into her arguments. In this case, she mentions that publishers in the 1980s tried out original fiction in paperback editions to start, and they failed, and publishers still recall that failure and cringe at the idea of replicating it. But Holt dismisses their concerns: "As I recall, the experiment was a disaster because the process became so labor intensive (just to build up sales from ones and twos) that publishers decided the whole procedure got too costly. What they missed was that too many houses went after too small an audience at the same time. "

I have been at the meetings where we are all trying to figure out if we should go paperback original to capture a younger audience - students, activists, etc - or hardcover for review attention. Sales reps, without looking at production costs but particularly sensitive to pricing, would cry out for paperback originals, while the business department, looking at little more than our bottom line, would cringe when we presented the margins for paperback originals. But Holt's idea to go back to simultaneous publishing, something done quite commonly at university presses, is a smart one. Also as she points out, what review attention? With the Washington Post Book World the latest casualty in the war on book sections in newspapers, maybe publishers need to worry less about old-fashioned print outlets for reviews and more about bloggers and other online venues.

Soon I'll follow up Christopher's smart post on reading to show that both of us here at SoTB are NOT anti-technology, but would like to see books survive in some form. For now, I'll just side with Pat Holt in saying we need to rethink this hardcover business model. I'm still thinking through how booksellers can weather this change, however. It's hard to make money in a store full of $15 products. See this BusinessWeek article by Stacy Perman - and the accompanying comments - to start your thinking on how indie bookstores can survive. Clearly we need to factor e-books into the equation - again, for a future post. (I have no problem with e-books at all but I have a hard time imagining reading something like Emerson "incidentally," while in line at the grocery store, the way Robert Gray does. More tk.)

Before I sign off, I'd like to link to a nice if quiet behind-the-scenes article from Peter Osnos, the editor of Barack Obama's Dreams From my Father. See the value in editors? Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Disaster? No. Difficulty? Maybe.

About a week ago Larry McMurtry gave an interview to the Houston Chronicle ("H-town" as Brian would say) in advance of delivering the 2009 Friends of Fondren Library Distinguished Guest Lecture about the the culture of reading in the US. He is, as you would expect, pessimistic about the future life of books and reading but he continues to slog through both as a novelist (I've only read Lonesome Dove) and bookstore owner, Booked Up (never been). However, toward the beginning of the interview he provides an answer that seems troubling to me. After being asked about what his talk will be about, he responds:

A: The end of the culture of the book. I’m pessimistic. Mainly it’s the flow of people into my bookshop in Archer City. They’re almost always people over 40. I don’t see kids, and I don’t see kids reading. I think little kids love to have stories read to them, but when they get to 10 or 11 or 12, they run into this tsunami of technology: iPod, iPhone, Blackberries. They don’t resist it, and it’s normal that they wouldn’t; it’s their culture. I’m not so sure they ever come back to reading. Some will, but most won’t.
Now I don't want to get into a big fight with any of our 3 readers but I am sick of the technology is ruining reading argument. It is a canard. It is similar to the number of times "experts" have declared the death of rock 'n' roll-during disco, the rise of rap, new wave, techno dance, etc. (NB: Rock 'n' roll will never die!!!) In fact, I would argue that if simply reading were the goal I could make the case that with the advent of the interweb more people read more words everyday as that is what the world wide web is more or less about...excepting porn and You Tube. So, by my estimation people are reading more than ever before but that isn't the point, is it? It's the decline of book purchasing, borrowing, reading, and discussing that worries Larry, Brian, me, you, Oprah, etc... But, as I think about it more, I wonder why it bothers me? Larry McMurtry goes on to say that:

Q: Does that portend disaster for our culture?
A: It portends difficulty. I don’t know about disaster.

Difficulty? Hmmm. I am not sure. There are cultures in the world that don't have the written word. Is their existence from individual to individual made any less difficult than, say, some pimply-faced teenager who can't or doesn't read Kafka to understand that feeling alienated is as old as time? I think not. I don't have any evidence to support my argument, just a sense that reading isn't ever going to be popular or important to American culture. It just isn't. I am not sure that is a bad thing, either. If you read, great...if you don't, fine too. Some of the smartest people I know don't read even one book a year. Also, how do we reconcile the privileging of reading books over, say, being able to grow a field of tomato plants to feed yourself and your family? Isn't the loss of the latter far more devastating for a culture than not being interested in reading the newest John Grisham novel? Just playing devil's advocate here (a real office in the Vatican by the way!) to look at an issue which continually gets brought up as proof of the atrophy of our culture. How long can we continue to think that we are turning into a poorer and poorer society because we don't read more? Maybe, just maybe, more of us need to know how to grow tomatoes or build a stone fence instead.

Of course, I could be completely wrong...I often am.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Is this the best thing to happen to books since...

The good, kind folks over at n+1 have started a new bi-monthly book review blog. If you aren't familiar with n+1, do yourself a favor and surf on over and have a looksie at one of the strongest intellectual journals publishing today. Yes, they can sometimes be wankers-you know, "the smartest kid in the class" syndrome-but oftener and oftener they publish some damn fine literary work. N+1's new venture fills a hole they knew they were digging when they first started publishing the journal:
In n+1, we never wanted to run book reviews. Our purpose was to print the long arguments—unexpected flashes—wild visions that mattered to us, but that no one else would publish, naked as they came. "You need a peg to hang that on. How about a new book on Daniel Bell?" A generation hid its real ideas in book reviews, the way previous generations, wary of the Inquisition, hid theirs in arcane tracts.
See? They can be wankers...but they are also doing some exciting shit, too. To that end, they have started N1BR. The reviews will be of varying lengths depending on the book under review and in the first issue they feature:
Gideon Lewis-Kraus on a study of Richard Rorty, Charles Petersen on Marilynne Robinson, Molly Young on Hugh Hefner and Playboy, and Saul Austerlitz on Tony Judt and perceptions of Israel. In the future, we look forward to bringing you more ambitious criticism on a wide range of subjects, including the best and most interesting books from independent and academic presses. We also promise to run one non-review each issue: this time, an account of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington.
In an the age of shrinking book review pages in most, no, all American newspapers, any new initiative to continue the great art of book reviewing is to be commended. Go check 'em out...particularly the review of Tony Judt's Reappraisals which is the first review I've read that deals with the pros and cons of his work in an honest, non-ideological way.

Just don't tell them that I called them wankers...they can be mean.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Year, New Ideas

Here at SoTB, we try to balance the good with the bad, the exciting with the mundane, the intellectual (Christopher's "currently reading") with the trashy or at least common (Brian's). So today, I wanted to share a project that is fun and kind of exciting and if nothing else, optimistic. My apologies for being a bit late to this game - this project kicked off closer to the actual new year, on January 5th.

The project in question is freelance publicist Lauren Cerand's "The New Your Project." She explains in this post that kicked off the project and the blog that she decided to take on a project she normally would have had to turn down: doing publicity for a novel published last January by a publisher that has since gone out of business. The novel is Jonathan Baumbach's YOU or The Invention of Memory. (Sidenote: this "____, or ____," repetitive, old-fashioned title formula seems to be making a bit of a resurgence, which is interesting as one of the books I acquired and edited last spring uses just this formula, at least in the subtitle, and will be published this summer.) Merand loved the book and the author so much that she decided to take on this challenge by starting a project to spread word about this book.
Here’s how it works: email me (correspondence at laurencerand dot com) between now and February 14 to request a free copy of the book (limited to the first 365 requests) and I will send it to you in the mail. Free. You can read it. You can give it away. You can sell it to the Strand or Powell’s, depending on your coast. Whatever. The point is, this is a book that I believe in. I believe it belongs in the world. I believe it belongs with you.
Now that's a believer! I admire her passion, as do the commenters to this initial post. And I also admire her promotion of smaller literary endeavors that are supporting this book, in subsequent posts.

I'll follow this blog, sure, and I wonder if this is yet another example of what has to happen as we enter this supposed new age of publishing. But I should point out that Cerand states her credentials up front as she starts this project: "I’m fortunate to be highly selective about my projects, probably pickier than the college that gave me my degree. I book most of my projects 6-12 months in advance, sometimes more, sometimes less, and I only take on a handful a year." She is saying "trust me, I know what I'm doing," just as editors must do in-house. As we move to get authors to the finish line quicker, with self-publishing or cutbacks to editorial departments, we will lose one gatekeeper, even if we have others like Cerand down the line.

Galleycat referenced this issue recently, linking to Lev Grossman's article in Time magazine about how novels are getting published, how the landscape has changed, and how it will all lead to the novel turning "into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever." Grossman's lede is somewhat obvious: the story of the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which was ignored by the publishing establishment, then self-published, then noticed by the publishing establishment, and then a bestseller. Fine. We always love to hear these stories, right? (iUniverse really loves when reporters tell these stories - they must see a bump in business.) So Grossman goes on to say why publishing is changing, and makes good points about the f'ed up system we have now:
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn't "earn out," in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. "They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.


He then goes on to say that self-publishing is no longer the death knell is once was: "Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball." Fair point.

And then Grossman hits me where it hurts:
And there's actual demand for this stuff. In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn't serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one--an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.
Hm. I appreciate the point, and I appreciate the historical perspective he goes on to offer. (Really, the article is definitely worth a read.) But first of all, I worry when we rely too much on "the market," and secondly, I don't know how everyone - writers, editors, publishers - will be able to survive in this New Publishing world he describes, "promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste." I am ready to jump in, folks. Perhaps my recent reading of Walt Whitman's biography has made me more appreciative of all tastes, high and common. But how can we proceed in a way that doesn't favor those with resources, some of which from questionable (ie corporate) origins, behind them? I don't want a moneyless sytem that is only moneyless in that it doesn't generate money, as those who put in will be those who can afford it.

And this is where my brain blows up. Maybe more on another day...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oxford University Press joins the trend

More cuts were announced in the publishing world today. Oxford University Press has laid off 60 employees from their New York and North Carolina offices, according to Galleycat. Out of 700 employees in the US, that's a significant number - and for each employee laid off and for the coworkers around them, that's a serious loss.

Sorry to hear it.

Part of me can't help but wonder where all this publishing might is going as people get laid off? All this knowledge and ability has to go somewhere, into some industry that is more profitable and sustainable. Where are the start-ups? Are smaller presses getting better candidates for open positions?

Where do publishers go when they get laid off?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop the Returns!

So I was looking through the posts on Google Reader from the blogs and papers I read, and while places like MobyLives and Galleycat had interesting news, nothing really inspired me to post. Then Galleycat posted a link to Scott Esposito's interview on Conversational Reading with Declan Spring, Senior Editor at the outstanding literary independent publisher, New Directions. The interview was part of Con Rdg's series on publishing into a recession. Esposito plans to interview players from smaller, independent presses to see how "publishing beyond New York's giants is faring." This is a great idea for a series, so I'll be sure to keep an eye out for his other interviews.

Spring is a worthy first choice, and he makes some useful observations from his position at a venerated press like ND that still needs to work hard to survive in this financial climate. He is less convinced that ND will increase acquisitions based on authors not getting picked up by big commercial houses, and more concerned about how badly returns will ultimately hurt the company: "The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains. " He goes on to explain the incredible value of ND's backlist and the strategy of repackaging some of those classic titles with introductions by big current names - a fairly common and wise publishing practice. They then "are absolutely making sure that on each list we have important backlist reissues that will have a guaranteed sale." His fears of digitization make sense, then: readers won't need these backlist titles in hardcopy if they can just download the text itself. Spring admits,
Coupled with the economy is at least MY rising fear of the digitization of text and the popularity of downloading books on computers, ipod,s and digital readers like the Kindle and the Sony Reader. Riding the subway to work, I see less people reading and more listening to their ipods. Fewer of my friends are reading in the evenings, more are emailing friends and surfing the Internet.
I think many of us have seen this trend. This statement was not followed up by Esposito, unfortunately, leaving it isolated so Spring seems more resistant to technology than I'm sure he actually is.

Excessive orders that are then returned in bulk are killing independent presses - that's the message here. It's a bit boring and pedestrian, but it's a huge problem that I've written about before. Authors should appreciate this problem. As Spring later explains further,
As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

Okay, folks, so time to head over to ND and get to buyin'. I recommend Tennessee Williams' Memoirs, with a foreword by John Waters. Fantastic reading!

PS For those wondering either what was up with Elizabeth Alexander's poem (note: I'm not linking to the poem itself b/c I'm not convinced there are authorized versions online, but maybe I'm wrong...) at the Inauguration or what is up with all the whining happening about it since, check out this wrap up over at BookNinja, with useful links to discussions elsewhere. He doesn't include the NY Times Opionator, which has many interesting comments and links. All the references to Whitman certainly made me more forgiving of the poem...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Insider baseball - Agency Finances Revealed!

Galleycat over at mediabistro is getting nitty gritty, talking about agent-agency splits!

First they posted this news in which they revealed that an agency that, I suppose, shall remain nameless, was adjusting their splits with the agents they employ - and employed previously. When the agency gets 15% of royalties from a deal, as is customary, they will no longer give 10% to the agent and keep 5%. Instead, they will drop the agent share to 8%, allowing current agents to somehow work their way back up to 10%. Former agents at the agency are stuck at the 8/7% split.

What's more important than percentages is the reasoning, according to a leaked memo from this agency: "we... had to re-evaluate this because of the recent and unprecedented surge of industry panic, editor and other firings, collapsing of imprints, and general slowing down in the delivery of owed payments to clients." Later, management is quoted as saying, "publishers are, in effect, using the delays in paying agents such as you and us to help balance their books."

Today, galleycat posted new information. First of all, agents current and past are apparently revolting, and second of all, one insider anonymous agent refuted the management's attempt to blame publisher delays in payment, saying: "We haven't really noticed a slow-down in payments from publishers. At least not any slower than usual." Oops!

This could be a case where all this internal bickering will have a general impact on writers getting turned off by agents, as there is already plenty of skepticism out there. Having worked for an agent, I would recommend them to aspiring writers, but I don't envy the search. Don't pay fees, look at who else they represent, follow your gut instinct, and find a good match, someone who takes the time to speak with you and work with you, not someone just looking to turn something around and sell it. That's all easier said than done. And then let them bicker amongst themselves and their bosses about percentages - as long as you, young author, get your own fair share.

The reality is, many interests are fighting over pieces of a tiny pie (ie, incoming money from your book!).

Remember that optimism and whimsy I tried to offer in previous posts? Here's a much more pessimistic reading of the NEA's report, from Caleb Crain, the blogger at Steamboats are Ruining Everything. I would argue he's getting a bit in the weeds here, which is valuable for some but should not take away from the momentum that may be building around reading since the release of this report.

So new kinds of reading are leading to new kinds of publishing, including Melville House's "Live Book" project, which I'm quite enjoying. A brief description to whet your appetite:
In urgent response to the occupation of Republic Windows & Doors, Melville House has commissioned journalist and author Kari Lydersen of the Washington Post’s Chicago Bureau to write a ‘live book’ tracking unfolding events in what Jesse Jackson has called “the beginning of a larger movement for mass action to resist economic violence.”

Go take a look!

And please blame the extreme cold for my scattered order in this post... thanks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Whimsy with your recession?

More happy responses to unhappy times...

And the much-shared Macmillan marketing department clip...

Happy recession, readers!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Good news for the survival of books!

(not for the Survival of the Book (tm), necessarily...)

As many of you now know, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report with startling news: adults, especially young adults, are actually reading books! Hurray! Before you mock this enthusiasm, please note: "For the first time in the history of the survey - conducted five times since 1982 - the overall rate at which adults read literature (novels and short stories, plays, or poems) rose by seven percent. " So yes, worth celebrating.

And to continue on this wave of optimism, there's Boyd Tonkin's piece in the UK Independent in which he wonders whether this economic downturn, like the 1980s recession, might just produce some incredible literary voices.
Might the flight of big – or even middling – money from literary publishing prompt a quest for bolder choices and wider horizons from authors who know that their finely-finessed debut now stands no chance of reaching the Richard-and-Judy sofa or the Waterstone's front table? If slimmer cheques and smaller expectations force some novelists to give up altogether, surely they might inspire others to thumb their noses at a deep-frozen marketplace and go – as it were – for broke.

Tonkin points out that online commenters - mm-hm - "have effectively done their print ancestors' old job, charging into battle for the overlooked visionaries and the unsung avant-garde – who write for print. " He then mentions something I must look up, which has folks buzzing apparently in the UK: Paul Griffith's Let Me Tell You, a novella composed of words spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet.

So let's go forward with good thoughts - more readers, better writers, and an exciting literary future in the midst of a dismal economic reality! (Um... do I sound at all convincing?)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Editor Fired, Not Re-hired!

Ugh, more bad, bad, bad breaking news:

Pantheon Publisher FIRED!

Layoffs have re-commenced at Random House with the firing of Janice Goldklang, the publisher of its legendary Pantheon imprint. Goldklang had been in the position for nearly 30 years. In the Random House reorganization announced on Black Wednesday, Pantheon had become part of the Knopf group to be headed by Sonny Mehta. The company is one of Random House’s most prestigious imprints, founded in 1942 by German emigre intellectuals Helen and Kurt Wolff, and published nuermous works that are now considered classics, such as Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. It was run by Jacques Schiffrin, another European escapee from Hitler, then by Schiffrin’s son Andre Schiffrin, who ran the company after it was bought by Random House in 1960. Eventually Schiffrin was succeed by Gladklang, who in turn transformed the company into a more modern, slightly more comercial publisher of contemporary literature with a specialty in graphic novels such as Maus by Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware’s he Acme Novelty Library . No word yet on who will replace Goldklang.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Editor Fired, Editor Re-Hired - Go Authors!

Well color me impressed. It seems veteran editor Drenka Willen was laid off from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December only to be re-hired now, thanks to outcries from authors, including Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco, and Jose Saramago. Every editor's dream!

See the Galleycat scoop here.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Mourning for Publishing?

As this is Survival of the Book, perhaps I shouldn't post an article that reads as a kind of elegy to publishing and books as we know them. But alas...

Andre Bernard, former publisher at Harcourt, wrote this article in the Washington Post late last month, using Robert Giroux's funeral as a jumping off point to discuss publishing's "Black Wednesday" and the larger state of books. (Thanks to BookNinja for the link, as well as another link to an article on Giroux and publishing.) It's a dreary article by Bernard, admittedly, with an argument I don't entirely buy, but it's a nice summation of what's happened recently and a worthy addition to the endless discussion on where to go from here.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Bookselling Legend

I noticed on the NYTimes' PaperCuts blog some news about Gotham Book Mart's stock going to Penn, to archives there. It linked to a larger story from the other Times' blog City Room, which linked (and borrowed heavily from) the obituary of the Gotham's founder, who started the history bookstore in 1920 and passed away at 101 in 1989. The founder's name was Frances (Fanny) Steloff, and she sounds amazing, like the kind of integral individual figure, often overlooked, who makes reading, publishing, and bookselling important, exciting, and historic.

First, this is one of her most important contributions:
She championed the experimental and challenged the censors. Her courage in purchasing shipments of the banned ''Lady Chatterley's Lover'' directly from D. H. Lawrence in Italy in the late 1920's and in ordering smuggled copies of ''Tropic of Cancer'' from Henry Miller in Paris during the 1930's led to lawsuits and landmark decisions on censorship.

But what's of larger importance is her creation of a kind of literary greenhouse that allowed such figures to prosper. Tennessee Williams lasted less than a day as a worker there - "he couldn't get here on time in the morning and, also, he wasn't very good at wrapping packages.'' Allen Ginsberg and Leroi Jones worked there, while Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Stephen Spender, Marianne Moore and Saul Bellow shopped there regularly.

And her story is an incredible one, as someone who came from poverty, stopped formal education in 7th grade, and went on to create this landmark. Her thoughts on it show her true satisfaction with what she created:
''I used to feel bitter and cheated about not having a formal education. But why should I? How could I, no matter what my education, ever have had the wonderful chance to have Thornton Wilder and other people talk to me personally, and right here in my shop! As if they were in their classrooms! I couldn't ask for anything more.''

Amazing! According to the Anais Nin website (yep - another buddy), there is an autobiographical essay by Steloff in the Winter/Spring 1972 issue of Confrontation, but they do not provide a link. Instead, they have a link to a profile of her by Adele Aldridge. I suppose she may not demand a full-length biography, though I'm definitely intrigued.

The photo above had this caption:

The Gotham Book Mart was famous for its literary eminences. A December 1948 party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell (seated, center) drew a roomful of bright lights to the Gotham Book Mart: clockwise from W. H. Auden, on the ladder at top right, were Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (cross-legged, on the floor), William Rose Benét, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal and José Garcia Villa. (Photo: Gotham Book Mart)

It's a shame that obituaries lead us to these amazing booksellers. I had a similar reaction reading the obituary of Provincetown Book Shop owner Elloyd Hansen in 2007. This is a wonderful bookstore with charming employees, and Hansen's partner who took over after Hansen's death also had some great book and town stories for me when I chatted with him the summer after Hansen's death. But the obituary tells the story of the man who bought this store and ran it at an exciting time, and it led me to further research the store. At that point, I found this interview with John Waters, a personal favorite of mine and a mainstay still in P-town, in which he talks about working at the store one summer in the 1960s:

The third summer,1967, I came back and Elloyd Hansen and Joel Newman offered me a full-time job, which was weird because they were kind of competitors.They sought me out, I don't know why, but probably because I was passionate about books. I decided to work there because it was the only way I could afford the outrageous summer rents.

It was great because, as part of the job, you could have any book as long as you read it. I didn't abuse the policy, but I got free books that I'd never heard of in my life. I also got $100 a week, which was really a fortune then, more money then anyone I knew. But the greatest thing was that every winter they closed up, and I could go anywhere in the country and collect unemployment, and some of the early movies were financed by that.

When I showed my movies in P-Town, the Bookshop let me turn the window into a billboard. Elloyd and Joel were such good bosses they didn't care if my friends hung out. Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary would come in every single day.

These stores add more to culture than just sell books. That's important to keep in mind as we struggle with a new economic downturn. Support your local independent!

(It's also of interest to see this line in her obituary from 1989 regarding the store, technically open until 2007: "It is still thriving at 41 West 47th Street in Manhattan, an anachronism in a time of failing independent bookstores." Yep, that was 20 years ago, folks, and these stores are still going!)

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Links to Occupy You

My apologies for keeping SOTB so quiet in the last nearly two weeks. I headed down south to warmer climates and then came back and lazily sat around and read about Walt Whitman and got ready to read my new book (gift from partner) and played trivia with Christopher et al (2nd place!).

For now, please accept these links while I think about what I have - or have not, as it were - done.

~ Bookseller John Schulman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wonders if the book is dead. Kudos with the graphic that went with the article! Can I keep it?

~ Now where has Pat Holt been all my life?! California, I suppose. She has posted three terrific recommendations for publishing on her blog:

1) Online royalty accounts for authors - "If royalty statements stay the way they are, bogged down in nineteenth-century thinking, the industry appears to send out a negative statement: Authors, who used to be respected and honored as the driving force in publishing (i.e., the people behind all our paychecks), have been tossed to the bottom of the heap. They are expendable and replaceable, and they’ll be sorry if they make a fuss about their royalty statement."

2) Publishers leaving New York - this one is in two parts. The first part includes a fantastic take-down of the NBA dinner, while part two has a good comment from Tim Brown plugging the Independent and Small Press Book Fair.

3) Returning Editorial Power to Editors - First she reels me in, and then she rips me out of the water! Fantastic post giving a bit of historical perspective to this reality:

"Nobody wanted editors to live in a bubble without knowing about P&L statements, but waking up to commercial reality happened too quickly, and terms emerged that made veteran editors cringe: Don’t take a chance on an unproven concept, they were told. Wait until other editors lose their shirts risking The Next New Thing. Then acquire something safe – i.e., the exact duplicate, but cheaper. With our marketing muscle, we’ll elbow the competition out of the running."

Holt's vision of editors getting out of NYC and away from the marketing folks does give me hope and puts ideas into my head, as someone who recently left my job as an editor but is still looking to freelance. I love finding new, original, and powerful voices, and maybe I can find an opportunity to continue this pursuit without the confines of a publishing house led largely by marketing demands (which is not to say that of my former employer, for the record).

I will definitely keep watch of Holt Uncensored! There's few things I enjoy more than a smart, tough, punchy broad (with all due respect).

~ As I may have mentioned here, author Carleen Brice had a brilliant idea for December that got a fair bit of attention: buy books by black authors to give to white readers. Brice was honestly one of the best authors with whom I worked as an ed asst - she was kind, thoughtful, quick to respond and even quicker to show gratitude, so I'm thrilled things are going well for her (Orange Mint and Honey, her novel, moved off the shelf this year! see her blog for great reviews). She even created a blog to help white folks find the best in African American literature. I love the tagline: "Your official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore!" In many ways, that says it all...

So those should keep you busy, folks - and my apologies for the nightmare formatting. (I had to actually do some html myself - yikes. Still a mess.) More to come soon - I promise!