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.


Richard Nash (Soft Skull) said...

Hey Brian:

There are a couple of problems, one of which I'm unable to discuss right now, but which I will make public within the next 7-10 days, the other of which is that I'm Twittering about 3-8 times a day. My thought had been to run a Twitter feed into a revamped website in which blog-ish content would be one of maybe eight different feeds of content, but that's falling victim to the problem-that-may-not-be-spelt-out-yet...

Brian said...

1) Now I feel even guiltier about calling out one of my favorite presses, and;

2) I can't wait to hear this news, but I really hope it's good and not bad. I've already been through stress with Soft Skull! I'll stay tuned.

And Richard, thanks for making the point about Twitter taking up your time. That's entirely fair.