Friday, February 27, 2009

Kindle kindle KINDLE!

I'm so over even the word Kindle. Right?

But still, it's what we all must talk about, all this week and at least until the middle of next week. If you have any interest in books or publishing or words or really communication or really even information, talk Kindle non-stop. It's an order.

If you need yet another assessment of this product to end all (publishing) products, check out Farhad Manjoo's article in Slate, in which he admits to loving this device but fearing for how it will impact the publishing industry. He praises the device and the system in place to update it, but he rightly points to the complete monopoly Amazon holds on this market and the futile efforts to resist it. He puts it into context, talking about other industries, but then explains how books are different than music et al:
But we've come to a different cultural consensus on books. First, we've decided that books should be sharable—when you buy a book, you can pass it along to others freely. In fact, governments and large institutions actively encourage the practice; we build huge, beautiful buildings devoted to lending books to perfect strangers. We've also decided that there should be an aftermarket for books: When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to sell that book when you're done with it.
He sees the Kindle's stranglehold - not the concept of an e-reader or digitized books - as killing the publishing industry and the actual book as a form of communication: "And even if the publishing industry isn't devastated when a single bookstore takes over the e-book world, the marketplace for books will be diminished." Scary stuff. (thanks to bookninja for the link)

I'm still annoyed by the separation between the product itself - existing in some secret warehouses and in the private homes of consumers only - and the marketing of it - which is evident everywhere you look! Surely some theorist can draw out how this is the ultimate capitalist experiment wherein the illusion of the product becomes more important than the manufacturing of it.

I need to change the tagline of this blog, though, because as e-reading becomes a reality, I'm not against it, but we need to open the field to allow something useful and prosperous through, something that has potential to share different voices and ideas and viewpoints. Amazon is the new Wal-mart and has too much power - even high-powered agents like "Binky" Urban are saying it - and we must find a way to topple this giant.

Until we do, Bezos is like the Wizard of Oz, and I ain't feeling it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The New Era of the Kindle, the Old Era of LGBT Bookstores

Yes, yes, everyone is abuzz about the new Kindle. In fact, Amazon keeps a link to info about this device in the corner of the screen throughout the website, so you really can't miss it. There's plenty of love - especially from Walter Mossberg in the WSJ - and there's some gentle mocking - thanks to the Onion - as well as flat-out anger - most notably, perhaps, in Roy Blount's targeted op-ed, which takes aim at the audio feature as infringing on audio rights, one of the sub-rights negotiated in author contracts that can generate revenue.

I for one am just boggled by this new era of online product where one cannot *see* the product in question! I have yet to see a Kindle on display somewhere. I have not touched one, played with one, saw how it functioned. I can read all about it, but shouldn't I get a chance to demo this badboy? Bizarre. And to me, this is a larger problem with Amazon. In fact, my partner, as an academic, has had problems with Amazon in that he orders academic books from them, and when it shows up, it's a print-on-demand edition, which was never indicated on the Amazon page. So he pays full price and gets something inky with a fuzzy cover. This is avoided in a bookstore where a customer can pick up a product - a Kindle, a book - and then know what she or he is getting. I don't want to sound reactionary here, but we've all had our run-ins with ordering products online that end up being disappointing, no? I'm not ready to run out and order this Kindle without a test drive.

So I prefer independent bookstores, but as we know, they're struggling... This segues us to some bad news from Los Angeles: LGBT bookstore A Different Light, located in West Hollywood, is closing. The San Francisco store will stay open, says owner Bill Barker. Ironically, as this blog posts notes,
But one thing that A Different Light has going for it, in addition to its storefront in the Castro in San Francisco, is a robust online marketplace, where it sells books, DVDs and "adult selections." And you know how the Internet loves "adult selections."

Well maybe some things are better off online - though you could be in for some painful disappointment when you're talkin' "adult selections." Just sayin'. It's 2009, people, can't we buy our porn and what-not in person?

This closing follows the closing of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in NYC, which Christopher mentioned earlier this month.

And I just have to mention the most annoying news item of the days: the announcement of a new book of Twitter tweets. I just threw up in my mouth. HarperCollins will bring out the collection from former Gawker Nick Douglas. This strengthens my dislike for Gawker and will embolden many upset with HarperCollins for recent layoffs... though admittedly they paid "five figures," so I don't think this one will break the bank.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sad News but Great News

This just in: Richard Nash, the publishing maverick whom I have mentioned about two dozen times in the last 2 weeks, is leaving Soft Skull. He indicated something big on a comment on this very blog recently.

Here is the press release with this news.

Here is Nash pointing to the press release.

Here is Publishers Weekly.

Says Nash:
When I explained to my colleagues yesterday that I would be consulting and freelancing, some were concerned this was a euphemism for leaving publishing. It is anything but. For me, my departure is actually about my passionate belief in the future of publishing, in the future of community built around long-form edited narrative texts, in the future of connecting writers and readers, in a Web 3.0 that's about the filters. I'm going to take this opportunity to go even deeper into publishing, to double-down, to go all in...

So I'm sad for Soft Skull but deadly curious about where Nash will go. I'll follow him on the soon-to-be-launched He explains on Facebook, "Hey y'all, my new Twitter name is r_nash (that's r[underscore]nash). Also about to go live, and already live." This could mean big exciting things!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Random Notes

Two interesting items to note.

First off, what is most interesting about this ridiculous news that comedienne Kathy Griffin landed a $2 million deal with Random House's Ballantine to publish her memoir is perhaps the comments beneath the article in the NY Observer. Christopher was just bitching to me about Diane Keaton selling her book recently, also to Random House, for the same - $2 million, but at least that's about her taking care of her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's. The most they're sayiing about Griffin is that she "has a passionate fanbase that includes lots and lots of gay men." U-G-H. I don't mind being targeted by brands but this? Disgusting.

But the comments below show a backfire a'brewin, folks. One anonymous commenter sums up multiple reactions to this news: "Talk about bad timing and bad judgment. They can pay $2 million dollars for a D-list comic but can't find a way not to lay off good editors? Something is seriously wrong." Many in the publishing industry read this paper so it's unsurprising that many of the commenters would have such awareness in responding to this article, but it's good to see multiple people making this connection. Says another, "If I were a laid off Random House staffer, I would be thinking homicidal thoughts." Yikes. That's a bit extreme, but this does seem like a case of publishers feeling like they want to be in with the big kids - movie execs especially - and blowing tons of money on a book that, as yet another commenter points out, "will have a [shelf]life of about 6 months."

On a much different note, I wanted to link to the final Q&A in Scott Esposito's terrific series of interviews over at Conversational Reading with editors at independent presses. This latest interview is with David Godine, who runs a press of that very name right here in Boston. He's an eccentric man, as one may note somewhat in this interview, and he's a bit safer than others from the series. But in line with some comparisons folks have made to the music business and the way many companies have expanded into digital music while also boosting vinyl, sometimes even pairing the two, Godine mentions how at his press, they "provide a fairly identifiable 'quality' product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base- both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better. " He does produce gorgeous books - take a look. I think he's right to see a continued share of the market staying with books produced with such care.

So some like these gorgeous books, while gay men flock to washed out comedienne memoirs about drinking too much, having regretable sex, and saying inappropriate things. Is that right? Well, I wish I could help Godine, but my demographic calls!

(please note sarcasm - thanks)

Monday, February 23, 2009

More Futuristic Concerns

I would like to point out that I have made my peace with emerging re-definitions of the concept of a "book," and I have no beef with the clever, very active folks at The Institute for the Future of the Book. Having said that, I was amused by the way Alice Waugh wrote about them in this post over at MobyLives, the blog of independent Brooklyn-based publisher Melville House. Even more amusing, perhaps, is the article she links to from the UK Telegraph, by Granta editor Alex Clark. (Mind you, the Telegraph is known to skew toward conservative politics in the UK.)

Waugh and Clark are both talking about the ideas of Bob Stein, the executive director of The Institute, as portrayed in Publishers Weekly following his presentation at O'Reilly's recent Tools of Change conference. In this PW link I've included the comments the article received, which Clark points out is kind of Stein's ideas in action: readers can respond to the text and the author can respond to the reader, flattening (as Stein characterizes it) the hierarchy between author and reader. There are some good comments in which people explain what they feel are the limits to Stein's theory. Put quite simply by reader Cheryl Peebles, "if everyone weighs in on how sue grafton should make kinsey milhoune respond to a situation, her books (and any book) would be infinite and impossible to read to a satisfying conclusion." Fair point. Maybe comments are useful then?

Again, I fall back on a concern of economics, and that's what Clark points out in part in his Telegraph piece. How can writers make money in this situation, or how can publishers? I can see the value in publishing more projects and getting them online, saving money on production costs and therefore being able to reach fewer (but more dedicated) readers. But will readers pay for something that's changing, that they can then contribute to and watch change? This does seem quite tedious. Waugh envisions revisions coming and coming and coming, so "the poor old writer has to go back again. And again and again and again -– until he is sick with boredom and ready to murder anyone who has a single word to say about his masterpiece. It sounds like a Borgesian nightmare." Another fair point!

I'm still thinking through this future of publishing and can see possibilities with emerging technology, but I fear we are putting it to the lowest common denominator if we go forth with books as social spaces, where anyone can add input. I already can't stand newspaper articles with a bunch of inane comments underneath, do I want to see that in my books too? And won't the author's voice get lost in the cacophony? And if there is not enough money in the system, who will continue to contribute voices? The people who can afford it. Madison McGraw who has her own project online on the PW article says outright: "I'm not worried about the decline of the publishing industry - I''m motivated by it. I have two things that the publishing industry lacks: a sense of humor and nothing to lose." People have jobs to lose, and have lost them, and that's enough to make one lose their sense of humor.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A smaller issue with much larger implications for our culture.

In May of last year, the shortsighted government in the town of Norton, Massachusetts cut the budget of the public library 35% which lead directly to the Norton library being decertified by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. As reported yesterday in Library Journal:
Last May, at a Town Meeting, the library received a 33 percent cut for FY 09, which meant that, since July 1, the library has been open only 26-hours per week...the library is among four that have been decertified by the State Board of Library Commissioners owing to a 35% budget reduction that severely impacted open hours and materials funding. That means a loss of $28,000 in state aid and virtually no interlibrary loan.
No interlibrary loan is a killer for any library but if your library also has 28 large in funding taken away, well that is just a perfect storm of anti-intellectualism and it is this kind of thinking that has dominated American political culture for decades. The residents are shocked by these developments.
“So many people are shocked,” Head Librarian Elaine Jackson said. “They just didn’t know that this would happen or could happen.”

But library officials have been warning of decertification since last May, when the library was handed a 33 percent cut to its fiscal 2009 operating budget at Town Meeting.

“We’ve been telling people for a long time that this might happen,” Jackson said.

Due to the cut, the library was forced to reduce its staff and hours of operation.

How does it harm the larger culture? Well, only a fool would suggest that it will have much of an impact on anyone outside of the Norton, Massachusetts town limits. It isn't a catastrophe but it is a harbinger of things to come. For years arts funding of all kinds has always been viewed as non-essential to the health and well being of a community. In Norton-a town I have never been to by the way-the thought process of "arts are a luxury" has reared its ugly head again. I know that town budgets are in trouble all over the county, state, and country but arts funding just continues to get trimmed down to a sliver of its former self. (I also know that the state of MA has increased the funding of libraries from $9,489,844 in FY '08 to $9,989,844 in FY '09 but that money has to be shared among all the state's libraries. More population, more dough for you. Sorry, Norton.)

How did we get here? The devaluation of education-or simply reading-in the United States is nothing new. We have mediocre schools and underpaid teachers because our culture doesn't value education. It is paid lip service-I mean who the hell is against schools for goodness sake?-but that never translates into full funding, or state of the art schools, or into truly pure academic just leads to cuts in a library's budget because, really, who the fuck reads? In the past, social values such as educational commitment, personal refinement, self reliance, or simple cultural curiosity were communicated across the decades by our institutions. Our churches, our schools, our social clubs, our workplaces, and yes our libraries used to help Americans if only to become the kind of people who couldn't conceive of cutting the funding for schools, libraries, social clubs, or arts organizations.

Instead, in the last half century, we have developed a mindset of suspicion and or resentment of "the life of the mind" and the people who choose to follow such a life to creep into our thought processes. We are our own worst enemies. We have allowed town managers and meetings to think it ok for them to cut a library budget by a third because the money has to come from somewhere to help balance the budget. I just hate that kind of thinking. What I particularly resent is that to make the kind of argument I am making here-that non-support of our cultural institutions by our governments is an irresponsible, backward act-opens me up to precisely the kind of charge that is leveled against people who live the life of the mind: they are soft, they are spoiled, the haven't ever worked a honest day, they are elitist, is a regressive and insidious argument and one which, unfortunately, has taken root in our society. It is precisely why town leaders would rather let their library sink into the ground instead of really making hard choices about how to keep a library open its state mandated 40 hours a week. Think about that for a second. The Norton Public Library isn't open even 40 hours a week. Perhaps the next patron walking through their doors helps to unlock the secrets of cancer or world peace...that might happen and that isn't a waste of time. Sadly, if he or she needs a book from another library they won't get it as the town meeting members (who probably learned about governmental proceedure from the freakin' librarians) have deemed the library expendable in the face of budgetary concerns. I am sure there are a million reasons why they just couldn't afford it but in the end, like all things, if you really want something to happen, you can make it so. No one said it is easy to fund our cultural institutions but just wait and see what happens to us as a culture when we don't.

Still, there is hope for tiny Norton, Massachusetts.
With proper funding, October 2010 is the earliest that Norton could meet the state standards to reapply for certification, she said. The state vote would be in February 2011.

Voters must increase the library's budget at this May's annual town meeting, Head Library Elaine Jackson said.
The patient isn't dead, just very, very sick. We here at Survival of the Book will keep an eye on the fight and let you know what's what as it unfolds. If you want to know more, you can find local write ups about the situation here, here, as well as the library's press release here (Adobe Acrobat required).

Finally, maybe this should be a clarion call for any of us who live in small towns to find out what the current financial health is of our public library? Why not pick up the phone and see how your local librarian is doing and if there is anything you can do to help? No one wants what happened in Norton to happen in their town. If you are reading this on the public computers at the Cambridge Public Library, or the BPL, or the Concord Free Public Library then you already know the value of access to information in your community.

As the quote by Anne Herbert on Norton Public Library website says: "Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

And a li'l something for the writers....

I wanted to post this link to Jofie Ferrari-Adler's article in Poets & Writers, a Q&A with four editors that may be of interest to some. I only got through the first page but will print out the rest to read on my way home from the office. (I know, I know, a handheld electronic device would be so handy right now!) The article is more geared toward a writer crowd than a publishing crowd, but there are some good behind-the-scenes tidbits in there. The editors involved are:

LEE BOUDREAUX was an editor at Random House for almost ten years before leaving to become the editorial director of Ecco in 2005. She has worked with Arthur Phillips, Dalia Sofer, and David Wroblewski.

ERIC CHINSKI worked at Oxford University Press and Houghton Mifflin before moving to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he is vice president and editor in chief. He has edited Chris Adrian, Rivka Galchen, and Alex Ross.

ALEXIS GARGAGLIANO worked at Simon & Schuster and Knopf before moving to Scribner, where she is an editor, in 2002. Her authors include Matt Bondurant, Adam Gollner, and Joanna Smith Rakoff. (The 2nd Scribner editor I've mentioned today, though the first is no longer there...)

RICHARD NASH worked as a performance artist and theater director before taking over Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, in 2001. His authors include Lydia Millet, Matthew Sharpe, and Lynne Tillman.

Again, I've only read page one. Forgive me if it contains offensive language or mis-characterizations... though I somehow doubt it will.

In the bit I read, I particularly appreciated Boudreaux's description of what one must consider, as an editor, when sizing up a project:

The necessary quotient comes up when you ask yourself, "Is this something that really fires me up? What's going to happen when I give it to these two reps to read? Are they going to have the same reaction to some pretty significant extent and feel the need to convey their enthusiasm down the line?" Because I think word of mouth remains the best thing we can ever do for a book. So is there that necessary thing? Is there that urgency? Is it in some significant way different from any number of other novels that purport to talk about the same topic? It's almost like an electrical pulse traveling down a wire. It starts with the author, then the agent, then the editor, and then there are a lot of telephone poles it's got to go through from there. If it's lacking in any way, you know that the electricity is going to peter out. Sometimes you can almost see it happen. You can watch it happen between one sales rep and another sales rep. You're like, "Oh, that just petered out between those two telephone poles." And the book is only going to do so much.

This is a useful way to consider what is happening when a proposal is sitting in front of an editor in a trade house.

I also appreciate how Nash - whom I'm mentioning a lot lately - cuts through the more amorphous reactions the other editors have to fiction proposals to say what he likes to see in fiction:

For me it's also when a work of fiction has the force of society behind it on some level. Which is not necessarily to say that it has to be political—I do far less political fiction than people think—but I do want to feel that the writer has access to something larger than himself. To me, the energy you're talking about is something that possesses social force and a concatenation of relationships and responses to the world lived in a certain kind of way. I try to forbid myself from using the word authenticity because I don't actually know what the hell it is, but that's one way of talking about it.
I appreciate him differentiating what he's describing from just straight-up political literature - which has its place, I think. And he usefully articulates what makes Soft Skull fiction stand out.

So enjoy, readers and writers, poets and otherwise. And if I find something shockingly offensive in the later pages, I will quickly withdraw this post. Oh thank god for the malleable publishing that is blogger!

ADDENDUM: I read most of this incredibly long Q&A last night and wanted to add some thoughts here. The more I read, the more Pat Holt came to mind, specifically her smart post about "publishers leaving New York." In particular, this paragraph from Holt came to mind as I read 3 out of 4 of the editors' responses (Nash clearly being the odd-man-out):

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist.

Yes indeed. The other editors here had a mentality of being the keepers of culture for the nation if not the world, but at times they also revealed the privilege that got them into this position. Says Boudreaux about her "benediction" when she became an editor at Random House, in a rather shocking answer for those of us in publishing outside of NYC:

You know, Ann Godoff was doing the benediction and it was kind of like, "You are now an editor. On your tombstone they can say you were an editor." I had this little glimmering moment of, "Yeah! I came here, I didn't even know what publishing was, barely, and now..." Thank God for the Radcliffe Publishing Course. I wouldn't have had any idea of how anybody moves to New York or gets a job had I not ended up doing that. I had been working at Longstreet Press in Atlanta, where we published Jeff Foxworthy's You Might Be a Redneck If... That's actually my proudest moment—what was I doing forgetting that? But seriously, I did that course because I didn't know anything about anything and I thought I'd go back to Longstreet and work there. But then I thought, "Well, gosh, maybe I'll try New York for one year. I'm sure I'll end up back down in Atlanta before long, hoping that somebody at Algonquin would die so that somebody from the South could get a job at a slightly bigger publisher whose books you actually occasionally heard about." You know, I think actually getting promoted to editor was sort of like, "Wow, here I am. This is really a job that I'm really going to get to do." I still sort of feel amazed at that.

Oh goodness. This is a problem. First and foremost, the Radcliffe course is a prep school. You start with the non-refundable $50 application fee, then move to the $1,000 non-refundable deposit if you get in, and then you have tuition for this 6 week course: $4,400. Oh, and room and board? $2,590. Six weeks. As someone who came into publishing not all that long ago with a starting salary in the low $20k's, this is shocking and offensive. This is elitism. This is some kind of financial hurdle put up at the start of the NY publishing community - jump it, and they may let you into the select circle that will then decide what we read and how we read it.

Richard Nash provides a very necessary foil to this inside-corporate-nyc-publishing mentality in this Q&A. He explains how the new model of publishing will be reaching niche audiences who more deeply or significantly appreciate the work. So publishers save money on the whole returns problem and get to the readers more directly, online or in other ways, and then the author can have more face-time with the readers and everyone is more satisfied. But this won't work when you drop $500k on an advance and then have to print as many copies and force them into chain stores and force them into mainstream media outlets. I'll end with this long quote from Nash that makes me, actually, much more excited than I have been about how publishing is changing and how the book might survive, using a mix of electronic venues and traditional printing. It put me in mind of other pro-active indies who know their readers like Chelsea Green, whose publisher Margo Baldwin recently predicted that independent bookstores would have to become "community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers." Exciting times! From Nash:

For a long time, racism, classism, and sexism prevented a whole array of talent from having access to a level of educational privilege that would allow them to write full-length books. That hasn't been completely solved, but it's been radically improved since the 1950s. Far more persons of color, women, and people below the upper class have access now. An entire agent community has arisen to represent them. But finding the audience is the big problem. I guess I'm imposing my own question on the question you asked—"Is it too hard to get published?"—and I think we all may have heard a slightly different version of that question. The version of it that I heard was, "Are there too many books?" I personally don't feel that way. And I get a lot of submissions at Soft Skull. I get about 150 a week. And it's hell having so much supply. But we didn't exist before 1993, and you guys all existed before that, so you are feeding off a different supply and we're enabling this new supply. I love the fact that Two Dollar Radio exists, and all the other new indie presses that have erupted. I think that's healthy. I don't think a solution to the problems we face as an industry is to say we're going to reduce consumer choice by publishing fewer books. Now, at the level of the individual publisher, I totally understand it as a rational decision that a given executive committee would make at a large company. My comment that there are not too many books published has to do with culture rather than a given economic enterprise. I think we could publish more books. You just have to recognize that they may be read by five hundred people. And that's perfectly legitimate. Blogs can be read by fifty people. You just have to think, "What's the economically and environmentally rational thing to do with this thing that has an audience—but that audience is just 150 or 250 people?" It may not be to print the book. It may be to publish it through a labor-of-love operation that is completely committed to a given set of aesthetic principles and will print it in a way that is environmentally sensitive—chapbook publishing, let's say. The poetry model could have a lot to say to fiction and nonfiction publishing.

Inside Look at Layoffs

Well this won't uplift you, but it's interesting reading all the same. (Thanks to Galleycat for the link.)

Colin Robinson was laid off from his job as senior editor at Scribner's on publishing's Black Wednesday. He gives his perspective on this dark day and the problems with publishing, in the US and in his native England, here in a long article in the London Review of Books. He covers a lot of ground and covers it very well. Robinson has been in publishing for many years, working for 20 years I believe at Verso and also working at the New Press.

He opens and closes the long piece with his personal experience, demonstrating his skill as an editor in his role as a writer. He then pulls back to talk about Black Wednesday and the refusal of his British colleagues to acknowledge the problem coming their way. He then identifies "the problems that led to this state of affairs."

For one, he breaks down where the money goes:
Publishers now regularly give bookshops a 50 per cent or even a 55 per cent discount on the retail price. The distributor that warehouses and delivers the book will typically take 10 per cent of what remains, or more if you are a small publisher; 15 per cent goes on production (printing, paper, typesetting). Add another 10 per cent for the author’s royalties and the publisher is left with 10 per cent to cover promotion costs, rent and office expenses, wages – and profit.

This is a useful way to explain who gets what, and to show how badly the decks are stacked against smaller presses, unless they negotiate contracts with more advantageous terms. It does not mean they are screwing the author, but are instead trying to create a structure that will keep them in business.

Robinson then explains the co-op business in chain bookstores, which is always odd to see in black and white but is useful for reminding people or opening eyes to this odd system. His run-down of how we've ended up with this ass-backwards system of returns is worth reprinting here:

This arrangement, of enormous advantage to the retailer, is unique to the book publishing industry. It was introduced in the United States in the 1920s, when Simon and Schuster, in an effort to get ahead of its competitors, offered to take back unsold copies of its crossword books. Soon everyone adopted the system. Today returns are ubiquitous and running at higher levels than ever before. In the US, they represent nearly 40 per cent of all new hardbacks shipped. The practice is open to abuse: publishers regularly complain that bookstores are returning books and then reordering them in order to extend their credit periods, a practice that can only become more common now that finance is no longer available from banks.

That's how it happened! This system needs to be revisited STAT.

So I'm very sorry for Robinson's loss, but I'm thankful for this article - a cold comfort, I know.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hope in an Age of Uncertainty

I felt like titling this post something big. My apologies in advance if the content doesn't live up to the title - too often the way in publishing, huh?!

First I am a bit self-conscious about linking to Motoko Rich's latest entry into a longstanding (or at least spread out) NY Times series on The Future of Reading, but this article on a school library, one of the most emailed btw, did surprise me a little - in a good way. The lede was much more appealing than most of these articles on kids, the internet, and reading, because it focused on teacher Stephanie Rosalia demonstrating to students how they need to sift through online information, separating out the false from the true. Now this offers me hope! The article goes on to show Rosalie integrating books into these kids' lives, even when they feel they've researched a subject sufficiently online. The larger point of the article is that kids still want to read, but they need to be engaged, and the internet can offer one useful site of engagement which can still lead to books. This is the world, a very real one, where the internet is not killing books, but working in conjunction with books, with readers just starting to pick and choose what they'll read next, if at all.

I also wanted to link to this Claire Kirch article in Publishers Weekly about Featherproof Books' new imprint, Paper Egg Books, which will be subscription-based. I have written about my interest in subscription based publishing before on this blog. I like the concept but I have some thoughts after my year as a subscriber to McSweeney's Book Release Club. Look, I like this publisher and admire their perseverence and pluck, not to mention their commitment to helping kids. But... this subscription has been an overall disappointment. Just last week, I received two books in one package, I believe as my last installment. What books? How could they be so generous? Well they sent Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids' Letters to President Obama and Cold Fusion by Dr. and Mrs. Doris Haggis-on-Whey. This blows. I would never buy either of these books as I am most certainly not the demographic. And hey, that can happen - but it happened too much with this subscription. Because I am very very far from the demographic - whoever they might be - who appreciates a book that is exactly what the title suggests, All Known Metal Bands - a book now on sale for $15, down from its list price of $22 I might add. Awful. They had a few good choices - I enjoyed Here They Come by Yannick Murphy and Out of Exile should prove interesting - but they were inconsistent in a way that suggested a lack of forethought. Why didn't they just focus on sending edgey new fiction? That would have pleased me. A paperback original filled with cutesy letters from kids to the new president? Dreadful.

My thinking on the subscription is similar to what I believe people have realized about publisher blogs: if you're going to offer it, keep up with it! Do not conceive of the idea and then fail in the execution, because you've really shot yourself in the foot. You've tarnished what could have been a good relationship by giving yourself a bad reputation. I love Soft Skull, but I do get frustrated by the giant gaps between blogging (most recently, a month between posts) (my apologies to this public nagging of the tireless Richard Nash!). On the other hand, Melville House's MobyLives is often updated, filled with a wealth of information that keeps me coming back, which means they're on my radar. Since returning to blogging, they have really invested in their site.

To pick up on the Community Support Agriculture analogy I drew before, maybe the publisher can at least help put the books they send to subscribers into context, like CSAs suggest ways of preparing the vegetables they send out monthly, so readers know how to read these books. Include press releases and / or some sense of the market, what they're thinking was in acquiring the book, etc... Honestly, I just have no way into a quirky science book for kids!

So I hope Paper Egg goes into this with a real commitment to offering subscribers quality products consistently. I hate to sound so demanding, but I'd like to see this system work! And if it does work, perhaps this model can take off and capture those readers Ms. Rosalia is training so well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Corporate Interests in Publishing

I once again am curious about how much our current publishing crisis can be traced to all the corporate interests that bought up book publishers when they thought book publishing could be profitable. The crisis in newspapers has a similar story to tell, right?

Today, though, thanks to links over at BookNinja, I was going to mention the ugly story of McGraw-Hill deciding not to publish Bailout Nation: How Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy by Barry Ritholz (who is a blogger himself) because it was critical of Standard & Poor's, which is owned by McGraw Hill. It is fun to note the difference in reporting: here is the business take from Bloomberg and here is the publishing / author take from the Bookseller. But perhaps most interesting of all is the take straight from the author himself. This is one of those fantastic inside-baseball, behind-the-scenes posts where you hear how editors sometimes must act as corporate shills - and note, the editor in question was not rewarded for it: He told the author that "the ratings agencies discussions would have to be handled 'delicately and diplomatically.'" That was over the summer. This same editor, Herb Schaffner, would be laid off "in a big Q4 round of firings" at McGraw Hill.

It is well worth reading through the details as posted by Ritholz - it's a gruesome tale. He'll be fine, as he now has multiple publishers swooping in to publish this book and use its back story to further advance copies. (Fair play!) But this is a powerful example of the problematic ties between corporations that own a number of subsidiaries in a number of fields and try to keep them all friendly with each other. When one of those fields is publishing, something built on new ideas and free speech, we see serious problems. (As I've mentioned before, I do appreciate the mocking this kind of corporate insanity receives on 30 Rock, mostly in the form of fatcat Alec Baldwin.)

I feel bad for the editor, and all the editors that must balance corporate interests in with all the other issues they're trying to address in their work.

It's also interesting to note yet another example of an author going right online with his case, and with a whole lot of material, to prove his innocence. On this post, he includes revised versions of pieces of the manuscript and footnotes, all of which he has every right to post. He's making the case the he himself did not expose this story to the media but now that it's out there, he can explain himself and his position as an author at a massive corporate publisher. As more such cases emerge and more authors speak out and get attention for it, perhaps publishers will work more in partnership with authors rather than seeing them as disposable manufacturers churning out products they depend on. As authors are expected to do more marketing, more publicity, more leg work all around on behalf of their books, then publishers must also know that they are armed with tools to broadcast their complaints.

And for us? Sometimes it makes for some damn good reading.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Authors Fight the Power

Because SoTB cannot be held back by arbitrary national boundaries, I will now leap across the proverbial pond to look at one British author's attempt to assert some control over his book, after his publisher let him down.

My good friend Damian Barr, a fantastic journalist, author, playwright, etc himself alerted me to this story.

It seems English author Will Ashon was not satisfied with his treatment from publisher Faber & Faber when they published his latest novel, The Heritage. Earlier this week, Ashon posted this on his blog offering readers a free download of the novel, explaining crassly and concisely:
So, the good burghers of Faber & Faber have decided against publishing a mass-market paperback edition of "The Heritage". I would've been pissed off, anyway, I guess, but I think would have understood this hard-headed business decision. After all, if you wanna kiss the ring of the Leather Pope then corporate capitalism's where it's at and fuck any of the considerations (art, literature, quality) you may pay lip service to. But I think my sense of fair play was piqued by being told less than two weeks before said paperback edition was supposed to be out. I mean, really, how shit is that? Sorry? Pardon? What was that I heard about putting authors first? Anyway, as the only way left to me to build any sort of a readership for what I think is a pretty good book (not a great book by any means, but not as bad as a lot of the shit out there), I'm posting it here for you to download.

How's that for an author asserting himself?

This is a fine example of how the internet may offer a good way for authors themselves to take back control of their work. I naturally thought of bestselling author Stephanie Meyers posting her partial manuscript for Midnight Sun after drafts were leaked last summer. I appreciate the impetus for these postings, but I'm also acutely aware of how clearly they expose the limitations, as of now, that authors face in trying to take control of their own work.

In the comment section of Ashon's post, an anonymous commenter notes that the formatting of this electronic version he's posted is a mess. Ashon responds:
It's a print-ready pdf, with identical formatting to the book itself but laid out on A4 sheets. It should be fine on a computer monitor (or printed out) but if you're trying to look at it on a reader of some sort, or any device with a small screen, it may be tricky. I don't know anything about those sort of things, but maybe there's some way you can tweak the settings..? I don't have it in any other format, I'm afraid...

Exactly. This is a service a publisher provides, and it's a useful service even in an increasingly accessible digital age. I know more and more programs are out there for formatting texts and creating designs, for even lay people, but let us not forget the power of good design and consistent formatting. Let us not forget the so-called middleman!

If nothing else, I like that Ashon's throwing this virtual molotov cocktail out there, exposing the inside workings of a press that is not treating its authors fairly. And due to the limitations placed on him by the contract he signed with the publisher, he could not have gone to another press to get the book out there in a different format - and in fact, may get in trouble with Faber & Faber for putting this up online if he signed away electronic rights, which are in standard publishing contracts. These contracts need to be revisited in our new age and authors need to think through what they're signing - this is where another middleman comes in, a good agent. Authors need to think about how to protect themselves in an age of online leaks and unresponsive publishers.

Have there been similar cases to Ashon's here in the States? Canada?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Would you like that book with or without links?

I swear, Christopher, this is *not* "doom and gloom." I won't even mention layoffs, at HarperCollins or elsewhere.

So a lot of people are buzzing about O'Reilly's Tools of Change conference, which is all about the changing face of books as we move our culture online. The energetic folks over at the Future of the Book Institute have obviously been front and center, with the executive director, Bob Stein, opening the conference with the institute's usual song and dance:

“A book obscures the social relations that underlie a book. They are much more a social experience than we realize,” he said. In this conception of the book, writing is a collaborate event. Authors will no longer sit alone conceiving of a book entirely on their own. Nonfiction authors “become leaders of communities of inquiry” and fiction writers will be “creating a world together with their readers.” Books will, he suggests, be created transparently and collaboratively, largely online, with the participation of readers.

In this brave new world, the key role of publishers “is to build and nurture vibrant communities for authors and tend to their readers.” They will be judged on their ability to “curate and build communities for their authors around their readers.”

I'm warming to this idea, readers, I swear I am. I'm comin' around, slowly but surely. I really appreciate the idea of an activist putting a book out there in this sense, creating a community around it or inside it I suppose, and linking to the world outside, and updating the information. But I'd like us to proceed with some caution.

Where my interest in this movement hits resistance is more visible in comments by Jeff Jarvis, author of the new What Would Google Do? (nice title!) and founder of one of my favorite sources of "news," Entertainment Weekly. On this latter accomplishment alone, I feel confident saying this is a very wise man.

Galleycat quotes Jarvis at the conference, since he caused a bit of a ruckus by boldly announcing, "Content without links is content without value." But they also link to this mediabistro interview with him, by Jason Boog, in which he's not quite as extreme. Here's an excerpt:

In your book, you explain that "middlemen are dead." How has this philosophy influenced your career as a book author? You chose to follow the traditional publishing model for this book, but last year saw massive problems at big publishing houses. How much longer do you think new writers can trust this model?

As long as the traditional model works, I'll choose it. In publishing, they add value. A middleman isn't a middleman if they truly add value. My agent clearly added value in the current marketplace. She gave me great advice on developing the book and formulating the idea. We got to the publishing house, and I learned a lot about the middleman's value there -- my editor improved the book immensely. I wanted the public to be involved in the ideas, pushing me in peer review. My editor is Ben Loehnen, a brilliant line editor. They are promoting relationships with booksellers, which still exist, by god.

In some ways, I say hyperbolically that middlemen are dead, but there are some ways that they are alive more than ever. We have so much content, we can't find the
content we want. Clay Shirky calls it "filter failure." The solution is to help curate or aggregate the content -- that's a value added. The opportunity is saying, 'How can I help?'

Jarvis leaves me wanting more. Or maybe I'm just seeing that I'm more in line with his thinking - I'm all for including links and making books friendly to readers who prefer a different format. But I question whether reader involvement will disrupt the authority of a book to the point that it loses its attraction altogether. I don't mind comments on news articles as long as I can avoid reading them - because sometimes I just want the news, not the opinion of some moron in Los Angeles with too much time on his hands, who is ill-informed and cocky. And then there are times when places like don't edit their comment sections and you have racist, sexist speech happening all over them until someone on Morrissey Blvd has time to glance at them and start removing some of the language - and we're not talking racist-based-on-opinion, we're talking you-are-a-racist-and-don't-even-mind-showing-it type language. Bad news. (And before you get all free speech on me, let me remind you it isn't public space, it's private space owned by the good corporate board over at the Boston Globe... er the New York Times now... Jack Welch? Who knows these days.)

Like Jarvis, I don't want to overlook the people who help us, readers of news or books or whatever, sort through the information. And I hope as we move forward to a heavily networked landscape, we as a readership, as consumers, continue to show our appreciation of the folks editing out the chaff so that we don't end up inundated with celebrity biographies and tell-alls from the mother of those friggin' octuplets.

And that is *not* doom and gloom, thank you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ok, that's it! No more doom and gloom for the rest of the day.

Instead of the terrible crap we have been reporting for the last year, er, no, week, here are two links that should remind us why we all care about books and authors. First, and I swear I have seen this before, is a new way perpetuate book a vase, for instance! Artist Laura Cahill has found a way to use those old copies of Milton's Paradise Lost (ahem)...put flowers into it. See? Pretty amazing, right? She calls it "readable furniture." Good enough for me. You'll find many other photos are at her designer-y type person website. Tell her we sent you...we can use all the traffic we can get.

Next, and I may be alone in this one here, but there is an Associated Press story out just now about "thousands of letters" that have been found which shed new light on Ernest Hemingway's life in Cuba, his various and sundry women, and his allegedly "wild" life.

"There are lots of intimacies in these letters," researcher Rosalba Diaz told the daily Juventud Rebelde, saying she had been impressed by how many letters had been found which "break with his image of being a wild man."

Now, as I understand it, they don't precipitate a sea change in our study and understanding of Hemingway but the letters do "give a much better idea of who Ernest Hemingway really was," according to Diaz.

Awesome. No? Too much? Ok, ok, ok! I'm a member of The Hemingway Society and this kinda thing gets me pretty excited. Maybe it gives y'all an example of how bad the book business has become if this is what passes for major news now!

Another HarperCollins link that got lost in the shuffle...

From The Vulture.
Collins, the confused stepchild of HarperCollins, grandson and last avatar of the venerable publisher William Collins, and relic of a more optimistic time in America — the year 2004 — died today at the age of 4. The causes were multiple: neglect, mixed messages, gluttony, and an epidemic of stagnation that has decimated American book publishing.

And the round-up of HarperCollins Meltdown

The great blog of publisher Melville House, Moby Lives, has the follow-up on HarperCollins' layoffs. It pulls various articles from NY media, including:

- Boris Kachka's obituary in New York Magazine for Collins

- Motoko Rich's article in the Times putting these layoffs into context with all the other layoffs happening in publishing. Rich names some names:
HarperCollins declined to say how many others had been laid off, but people familiar with the changes said at least five editors at Collins had been let go, including Gillian Blake and Caroline Sutton, well-respected executive editors who had been with the company for less than a year. Several sales, marketing and publicity staff members were also let go from Collins and other divisions.

She also mentions this comment, which makes the news a bit sadder for many: "Literary agents were surprised to hear of [Lisa] Gallagher’s departure, as she was described as very pro-author."

- Leon Neyfakh's article for the Observer articulates the boom 'n' bust mentality at work here, which led to Collins' fantastic growth and now, what many see as untimely death. And once again, we have the mystery of the management's choices pointed out:
One person for whom Tuesday’s news might have been somewhat bittersweet is Jonathan Burnham, whose record as publisher of HarperCollins’ flagship imprint has been marked by a number of expensive acquisitions that did not meet expectations. Several publishing executives who spoke on background yesterday wondered aloud why Mr. Burnham—who declined to comment—was staying on at the company while certain others, like William Morrow publisher Lisa Gallagher, had been asked to leave.

And I'm guessing we won't get answers.

I don't meant to get all 2nd wave feminist here - or hell, maybe I do - but this restructuring seems to be disporportionately impacting women. I'm also thinking of Jordan Brown keeping his imprint, Walden Pond Press, despite only joining HarperCollins in 2008, even while Brenda Bowen leaves and watches The Bowen Press close before even launching officially. Maybe women in the workplace won't end up on top after this recession like some suggested...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

And HarperCollins Keeps Cutting

And now this news, about HarperCollins closing The Bowen Press and letting Brenda Bowen, who joined in '07, go. Bowen was to release children's books under this imprint, with two books out now and its official launch this spring. Reading the blog, linked above, is a bit like reading a Facebook page of someone who has passed away. It's very odd.

But while HC is dropping the imprint, why this?:

The company is keeping the fledgling Walden Pond Press imprint, which Jordan Brown, who joined HC in 2008, will continue to focus on as it gets ready for a launch in winter 2010. Brown, who was reporting to Bowen, will now report to Katherine Tegen, who continues to lead her own imprint. The company is also keeping the new Balzer & Bray children's imprint, which is set to debut this fall.

Who knows? These re-alignments follow their own warped logic somehow.

The employees at HarperCollins must be watching their emails with great caution these days...

More HarperCollins Layoffs

Oy - it continues. This was just announced through Publishers Weekly:

In a dramatic turnaround, HarperCollins announced this morning that it is closing its Collins division and integrating its operations within different businesses in the General Books Group. As a result, Steve Ross, president and publisher of Collins, and Lisa Gallagher, senior v-p, and publisher of William Morrow, are leaving the company. Ross was brought over by Jane Friedman two years ago from Crown to rebuild the Collins brand. In addition to closing Collins, CEO Brian Murray issued a memo today saying that despite efforts to avoid layoffs, a reduction in the workforce will be necessary. “Given the continued uncertainty in the market and soft revenues for the company, we need to take further action to align our cost basis with expected revenues,” Murray wrote. “I have asked each division to evaluate their business and begin the process to meet this goal. Unfortunately, in some HarperCollins divisions, implementing these plans will result in a reduction in workforce.”

Click through the link to see the restructuring - it is truly incredible. I dare anyone to chart that mess of re-alignments!

Good luck, though, to the employees lost along the way, as well as the authors whose projects get orphaned. This is tough for both.

(As for the employees, have you been noticing the section of the Daily PW emails that includes contact info for people recently laid off? A useful service, of course, but so tragic!)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Only You Can Help the Book Survive, Mr. Pynchon!

Details of the new Pynchon novel have just been released:

Inherent Vice

Penguin has posted its Summer '09 catalog online, and it includes some details as to Pynchon's new novel.

The title will be Inherent Vice, and it deals with a private eye in '60s Los Angeles. Here is the catalog copy:

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . .

It's not just the books, it's the manuscripts

I'm just putting up this short post today to comment on author Sara Paretsky's post from last week, regarding her editor's comment that, "this is the last time the company will let her send me a marked manuscript. After this, all corrections will be in an electronic file, and I will have to respond to them electronically."

Paretsky is most famous for her series of novels about V I Warshawski, a female detective, though last year she published a memoir in 2007 with lefty publisher Verso called Writing in an Age of Silence that in part heralded that publisher's attempt to get some trade books that were less predictable, and I think it paid off for them. (I spoke to the good folks at Verso about this strategy in an interview for an editor job that, alas, I did not get.)

Anyhow, back to this blog post... I found this interesting because it shows that it's not just books becoming increasingly electronic, but also the book-making process. And this news comes from a prolific and strong selling author who is none too pleased about it: "I need paper to see where I am in a book, either as a reader, or as a writer."And then she states outright the fear many of us have: "I think the blogosphere and 24 hour web news makes us sloppy as readers and as writers, and that going to a strictly electronic book will make books sloppier, less carefully written, less carefully edited."

I don't agree with her entirely, though she has a point. The post elicited some interesting comments worth reading through, as well. As an editor, I always prefer to do one full developmental edit on the page, in pencil, and send back the whole thing to the author (after photocopying it of course, so I have a copy). After this full edit, I can often go to electronic edits. When looking for an excuse for this behavior, I found some in the comments section, including this from Chicagoan Tamale Chica: "The brain simply interacts with the media, and if we read online we interact with that media; when we read a piece of paper, we interact more in our mindspace."

So if online media inherently urges readers to be participants, does it inherently have an element of narcissism to it? Or is it inherently more democratic, thwarting attempts to issue forth statements that cannot be questioned?

For purposes of editing, I just know I prefered to flip pages and break out chapters in binder-clipped chunks to get a sense of the book as a whole, and this was a good early practice that was later complemented by similar electronic exercises - counting words per chapter and looking page lengths, searching for breaks or word repetitions. But what was more taxing on my brain and what forced me to truly conceptualize the book from start to finish was the hardcopy, because I couldn't rely on each searches to find repeated ideas. So if that taxing moment is removed, the process may be easier but it might also create a less thoroughly considered products. That's Paretsky's point and, I fear, it's a good one. But I also hope we can find a balance of electronic and physical that allows us to create just as thoughtful a product as we did with all this paper.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Meek Inheriting the Market

Maybe it's not fair to refer to bold, creative independent publishers as meek, and some religious types like Christopher - ahem - may take offense to my use of "market" when paraphrasing, ya know, the Bible. But moving on....

Tom Christensen, who usually blogs here, posted a great article on "five lessons corporate publishers can learn from independents" over at Foreword Magazine's site. I suppose if I had my druthers, he would reframe this article less as helping corporate publishers and more as saluting independent ones, but the idea still works. The article comes as a response to Steve Rubel's declaration that, "By January 2014... in the US almost all forms of tangible media will either be in sharp decline or completely extinct."

The lessons are all good ones to keep in mind, and within them, Christensen reminds us why so many indie presses are so important. He mentions the presses he's considering for a translation prize, which are worth mentioning here: "City Lights, Dalkey Archive, Green Integer, Kaya, Melville House, Milkweed, New Directions, North Atlantic, Omnidawn, Wesleyan, Whereabouts, and Yale. They are all independents and university presses -- not a single corporate publisher is represented!" (Take some time to click through these - many are favorites, like City Lights, Melville, and Milkweed, but it was fun to meet some new ones, too!)

Christensen's points are a bit vague, however, even sounding like a term paper. He states at one point, "The internet offers many opportunities for social networking that publishers would be wise to take advantage of. " In another example, it's not clear where he falls on digital publishing. He mentions that publishers should not cut costs on printing books, but I assume he does not believe they should avoid investments in digitizing their lists.

But once again, we see that perhaps the era of Big Publishing is over, and smaller, more malleable, niche-oriented publishers will surpass the catch-all corporate publishers that have dictated our reading for so long. Perhaps, then, we can read this article about Random House founder Bennett Cerf as history, as the way it once was. If it's history, then I shouldn't feel guilty for enjoying this tidbit of information: "[Head publisher of Boni & Liveright] made Cerf an unusual offer: If Cerf loaned him $25,000 and took author Theodore Dreiser to a ballgame that day, he could come in as vice president." Who knew Dreiser could be bought so easy!

Another product of Big Publishing was Big A-hole Norman Mailer, who had immense talent and ego to go with it. I wrote about my brief shared experiences with Mailer - meeting him at a party, then seeing him shortly before his death - here. But then this article by Mailer buddy Lawrence Schiller from the new book section of Tina Brown's latest production, the Daily Beast, made me feel a bit nicer about the guy - or at least appreciative of his love of books/authors and his love of Provincetown, a favorite place of mine. The article talks about the creation of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, which looks absolutely incredible.

So let's take advantage of the money created by Big Publishing even as publishing moves out of Manhattan's best restaurants and spreads itself over a network of well-run, passionate independent presses who credit, in part, independent booksellers for getting word out about their new books. We can still have bestsellers, but perhaps we'll have more midlist books too that get the care and attention they deserve.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sink or Swim for Independence

I'm suddenly looking at that title - Independents and Independence - and feeling downright grad student-like in my use of pun. This is awkward.

Anyhow, I was saddened to read this news today about the non profit New York Center for Independent Publishing laying off their executive director, Karin Taylor, who has been at the helm for more than 20 years. I don't really get why they did it, unless her salary had ballooned over years of hard-earned raises, and they wanted to start someone over. It's unfortunate and it reads as bad management, but I'm glad to see the NYCIP will go on. Apparently, the goings-on will go on for 2009, including the Small Press Book Fair in March, the New York Round Table Writers Conference in August and Splat! A Graphic Novel Symposium.

And lay-offs continue elsewhere: it seems Rodale "has eliminated four jobs" - how's that for mechanized speech? Their catalogs are always interesting: one page gives you An Inconvenient Truth, another gives you the the trillion-selling South Beach Diet, and then there's Paul Watson's Where War Lives, a fascinating book I considered when US rights were available. (Oddly, it was published in September '08 according to Amazon, and yet it is not listed in Rodale's online store. Here's hoping they didn't just put it out of print...). Interestingly, Rodale bills itself as "the largest independent book publisher in the U.S." I had no idea!

So back to my point, that I'm sorry to hear about these lay-offs. But to get a larger perspective on the wacky world of independent publishing, I've really enjoyed Scott Esposito's interviews on Conversational Reading with indepedent publishers, where he asks smart questions about how the recession is impacting them and their thoughts on how it's impacting publishing in general. I wrote about Part I, the interview with Declan Spring of New Directions, here.

Esposito's second interview is with Fred Ramsey of Unbridled Books, a publisher I'm afraid I didn't know before reading this interview. Ramsey is convinced that the new landscape offers great opportunities for independent presses. Good news! I've always been perplexed on how one can generate any significant income from such a diversified base, but Ramsey seems to be doing it:
[A]s I—and the company as a whole—have become more involved in social media, we have been invigorated to find connections to a reading community that we always knew existed but that had previously been put out of our reach by the stranglehold
that the MSM has too-long had on book discussions and publicity. Quite simply, our books are genuinely good; and, I think, it is actually becoming easier to connect with readers who want exactly that.

I can understand the connection and these folks are smart to have this "family" list on their website (follow "social media" link), so I will have to assume it's working in terms of actual revenue. He continues, "we’re shifting to an online approach to the community of readers we need while simultaneously pushing our dedication to the independent bookselling community even further." I'm legitimately pleased to see this kind of thinking, supporting a network of readers and independent booksellers that can help you reach that community. Ramsey sees chains and huge commercial presses hurting because of their huge overhead costs, and envisions smaller presses and shops picking up the slack. Here's hoping!

I also appreciated Ramsey's take on the book buying public, the elusive consumers. He sees a promising trend:
I don’t want to be an ameliorist here, but I do think that as we analyze and plan we need to think in terms of what I call the Text Entire. More simply, I think that what may be ahead of us is a sales environment in which it matters more what you publish than how you publish. By this I mean: What’s full (textually) is full; what’s not is disposable. Celebrity connections might not be enough any more.
Thoughtful acquiring and editing? Fewer celeb books?! Oh god, may he be right...

I also thought noteworthy his mention of the model employed by his own independent press:
We publish about ten new books each year (plus five or six backlist pb reprints). Each of those books we wholly believe in; none is released quietly into the world with unsupported hope. Each one receives our full dedication to reach that break-even; and each book has a realistic chance of doing so.
Sound familiar? Ah yes, it sounds a bit like the model on offer from a massive commercial press' imprint: Jonathan Karp's Twelve, part of the Hachette Book Group. Karp, a Random House veteran, demonstrated real publishing savvy in crafting a mission statement that touted this new imprint's care and concern for each book published, but I think one can see through this fluff and realize that what binds these books is commercial potential, not theme or audience or relevance to any one or thing in particular. There is something particularly off-putting about a huge commercial press falsely modeling their mission off something that truly works for an independent press run by hardworking, underpaid, devoted staff.

One of my favorite voices in publishing is Richard Nash, editorial director of one of the best independent presses, Soft Skull. He's interviewed for Part III of Esposito's series, and he fluctuates between punchy and almost drowsy in his responses. He offers a somewhat brainy, useful context for what is happening in publishing, taking into consideration media consumption in general. A strong point he makes is about retailers shifting burden to publishers:
Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they'll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they're printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title.
This is always something to keep in mind. It may be just technical enough to be out of reach to many readers, so I try to reiterate it when possible.

His point that a fringey press like Soft Skull has always had to keep costs down, always had to struggle to convince buyers to pick up titles for their stores, makes the case for these smaller independents being better able to handle the current economic situation. His forecast for larger publishers regarding lay-offs, however... well, I'll let you read that bad news.

Keep your head up out there, publishing professionals! And let's muster the strength of independent booksellers and publishers to weather the storm, from the bottom up.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Few silver linings

Christopher's post below on the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in NYC is sad news indeed. A Boston LGBT bookstore in the city's historic gay neighborhood, with the terrible name of We Think the World of You, closed a few years ago (though Calamus Books remains - and is quite a store, well worth a visit, with a good website). It's amazing to read this article by Loren King from years ago on PlanetOut, when We Think the World of You opened, that references "three independently owned bookstores, each catering to a different segment of the gay and lesbian community." Times they have changed.

I am sad about gay bookstores closing, though it is inevitable given the access we all have to resources online as well as larger LGBT sections in the chain bookstores. These LGBT stores have to diversify and offer more than books. (Calamus does well with a healthy selection of porn, for example.) I wandered into the Oscar Wilde Bookshop a couple of years ago and if I remember correctly, I struggled to find something to buy. In addition, I do recall two problems: 1) an employee made a point to come out from behind the register and check out the other room in the store only after an African American customer wandered back there, which may have been a coincidence or may have been profiling, and 2) the photo Christopher included aside, the place had a surprisingly limited selection of titles. I don't know if this store could have survived but I do know some places are surviving even with online bookstores and our current recession.

On a lighter note, this profile by Justin Richards of Revolution Books/Libros Revolucion in NYC was a nice somewhat insider look at a store that is unapologetic of its "proud and unambiguous agenda: the replacement of the political and economic system that currently dominates the world—i.e., America’s—with transnational communism." I'm not falling in line with their politics necessarily, but I do find it interesting to see this profile on the same day as news of the closing of this other store. Would LGBT institutions do better to follow a cooperative model rather than demanding a profit from places - stores, bars, etc - that they sell as vital for "the community"? They sell their companies with such earnestness, almost to the point of acting like a non-profit, but then can't make it work in the marketplace. The formula is flawed.

So will bookstores across the board disappear, cooperatives or not, in an age of digitization? Noam Cohen's recent NY Times article usefully navigates the ever ongoing debates about Google Book Search, something increasingly used by scholars young and old as well as us more casual readers. It is not clear when we will see money charged, who will be charged, and how much.
Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia and a free-culture advocate, puts it this way: if the fight over digitization of books is like horse-and-buggy makers against car manufacturers, Google wants to be the road.

I do appreciate how the article ends, and think this conclusion has been borne out:
Google is “creating a new reason to go to public libraries, which I think is fantastic,” he said. “Public libraries have a communal function, a symbolic function that can only happen if people are there.”

Once again, there could be a way forward that preserves the hardcopy books while moving forward with digital versions - or at least I like to think. If I thought too much about it, though, I may recall the eerily empty rows of books during my recent visit at the Boston Public Library, the silence particulary notable in contrast to the bustling computer rooms...

Oh, and well done to George at BookNinja for providing a context for this news about Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's seven-figure book deal with Viking. Says George:

Dear longtime, unsuccessful-to-mildly-recognized writers,

Considering suicide after reading the above article? Well, please send your final thoughts and screeds to so we can post them on the web for all to see! How better to shuffle off this mortal coil with a clear conscience than by telling the celebrity authors and opportunistic publishers of the world what you really think of their entitled, artless, piss-midget ramblings. Empty your mind before you put a bullet it.


Another Bookstore Waves Goodbye.

Rats. Sooner or later Brian and I are going to have to change the title of this blog. No, I am not talking about the Buddhist idea of the"impermanence of everything," I mean that, like the Dodo bird, bookstores will one day disappear, methinks. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore (right) is shuttering its doors. As reported in today's Shelf Awareness, owner Kim Brinster told The New York Times that the current economic crisis is a primary factor in the decision.
The closing of what is "believed to be the oldest gay and lesbian bookstore in the country . . . came nearly six years after the store was about to close, only to be given a last-minute reprieve when a new owner bought it," the Times added.

In an e-mail message to customers yesterday, Brinster shared the news "with a sorrowful heart . . . We want to thank all of our customers for their love and loyalty to the store over the years. You have helped make this store a world wide destination and all of us at the store have enjoyed welcoming our neighbors whether they are next door or half way around the world."

Brinster told the Times that "sales had declined by double-digit percentages, compared with a year ago, each month since August. On Tuesday, she noted, the store had only two paying customers."
Stop the madness! Two customers? As I wrote before: rats. Them's the facts, folks.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A death rattle from a once proud publisher?

For those of you outside of Boston, you may have missed this article in the Boston Globe about the, let's be honest, inevitable end of Houghton Mifflin. The picture that media reporter David Mehegan paints is grim. Really grim. In paragraph three of the article, Mehegan writes:

Moody's last month reported that Houghton, with a debt load estimated at more than 10 times gross earnings, is "a likely default" unless its loans are renegotiated.

Um, I'm not too good with numbers but I think that is bad. How did they get here? There are a few things which have contributed to their dire situation:
  • Sales of school textbooks, Houghton's bread and butter, are slumping as school districts nationwide cut back orders in the deepening recession.
  • Since 2001, it has had three owners since then, none of them book publishers.
  • Combining two similar publishers-Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt-is not as simple as the addition of equals. In merging them, a company could lose the separate value of one or the other.

    "The problem was that they bought the same kind of list," said Darehshori, who now heads Wellesley-based educational publisher Aptius Education. "By buying Harcourt, they had two reading programs, two math programs. So how does the sales force know what to sell?"

  • The crushing recession couldn't have come at a worse time. Houghton recently laid off at least 400 employees nationwide, and many survivors are being pressed to work extra hours to take up the slack.
Perhaps this is a good time to look again at the topsy-turvy finances in book publishing? One would think that some of the properties they have as a backlist-Carson McCullers, Philip Roth, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rachel Carson-would help sustain them in tough times. Those authors still sell and they have acheived what all publishers and authors hope will happen to every book they publish, namely become stable, year-after-year sellers that provide an income stream both parties can count on. Unfortunately, good publishing doesn't seem to be the problem here. They edit, publish, and market great books at "the dolphin," but it seemingly isn't enough. While in this case returns and outrageous advances don't seem to be the problem either, aglomeration of publishing is the culprit.

In recent years the industry has continues to shrink. Mehegan tells the backstory:
Independence once was considered important to publishers, but today they're bought and sold like pork bellies. In 1978, conglomerate Western Pacific Industries acquired a large stake in Houghton Mifflin and was thought to be considering a takeover bid. But it backed off after a group of famous Houghton authors, led by Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. threatened to bolt from the company if the sale went through. "It's hard to imagine any band of authors that would do that today," said Richard Todd, a former senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, "or any company that would listen to them."
However, independence was not part of Houghton's future:

In 2001, chief executive Nader F. Darehshori sold Houghton for $2.2 billion to French wheeler-dealer Jean-Marie Messier, head of Vivendi International. With a $19 billion borrowing spree, Messier had built a stodgy water utility into a world media empire that included Houghton Mifflin, Universal Studios, theme parks, TV stations, and telecom companies. Within a year, the empire was crushed by debt, Messier was forced out, and in 2003 Houghton Mifflin was sold - at a $500 million loss - to a Boston-based equity partnership including Thomas H. Lee Partners, Bain Capital, and Blackstone Group.

The equity firms sold in 2006 to Riverdeep Group of Dublin, a $392 million educational software company (since reincorporated in the Cayman Islands) that was controlled by O'Callaghan, for $3.4 billion. Like Messier, O'Callaghan was on a spree, with other people's money. He borrowed most of it from Credit Suisse and Citigroup, along with other investors. A year later, he bought Florida-based Harcourt, which has educational and trade lines much like Houghton Mifflin's, from British-Dutch publishing giant Reed Elsevier. The price: about $4 billion, also mostly borrowed from Credit Suisse and Citigroup, as well as since-collapsed Lehman Brothers.

Not a publishing professional in sight anywhere. I mean, Credit Suisse? Ugh. Houghton is the perfect storm of what happens when a publishing company gets mixed up in a world where the only thing that matters is the bottom line. It has happened to the best of them: Hyperion, Random House, HarperCollins are all small parts (comparartively) of gigantic media conglomerations which, if they actually were honest, really couldn't care less what happens to a book publisher in a country which doesn't, isn't willing, or can't make reading a center of the culture. So, book sales look stupid when they are compared dollar for dollar with WALL*e, Gruner + Jahr magazine sales in Europe, or Horton Hears a Who which each represent just one small media success in the companies Disney, Bertelsmann., and News Corp which own the publishers mentioned above respectively.

Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press, thinks that:

Houghton's stellar backlist - previously published books - makes it too valuable to just disappear. But if it were to leave Boston, she said, "it would be a terrible loss to the city. It's a great cultural institution."

I disagree. The parents don't care about who Houghton has published in the past nor do they care about what they Houghton means to the culture life of Boston. Actually, there is an obvious case to be made that their backlist is the only valuable property they have left. Textbooks are in flux and tend to induce queasiness in its industry professionals because of its volatility and no one in the US buys hardcovers, right Pat Holt? It is easy to envision another publisher-say Random House-purchasing the backlist to beef up their own backlist. I mean, it seems like an easy transition in the physical object to imagine the publisher name on the spine of Ms. McCuller's transcendent books to change from Mariner (the Houghton paperback imprint) to Vintage (Random's industry-leading paperback imprint). I can see it. Can you?

Not so fast. Even selling the popular trade division won't necessarily help.
The sale of smaller parts, such as trade (i.e., noneducational books, only 5 percent of total sales), would barely scratch O'Callaghan's debt. Even a sale of the whole company might not clear the ledger.

"The debt is so overwhelming, there's just no way," Darehshori said. "They borrowed more than the value of the company. They will be lucky if the value is half of what they owe."

When you owe ten times what you have, you really can't be picky about what you sell to pay your debts, right? At least, that is how it works in the real world.

Although, who ever claimed that book publishing is the real world?