Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sometimes What's Been Done Should be Done Again

I tried to make that headline sound like some kind of old-world proverb. Any luck?

I've written about African book culture before, and now I want to reference a great post from Alice Waugh over at Moby Lives, with the wonderful headline "African literature in flight." Waugh writes about the surprisingly good in-flight magazine available on Kenya Airways, Msafiri. (Look at the great cover!) She described the magazine as "the most interesting and varied example of this type of literature I have read." There's even literature:

Best of all, there was a short story by Henrietta Rose Innes. “Poison” won the 2008-09 Caine Prize for African Writing. It’s the tale of the aftermath of a chemical explosion in Cape Town. Amid the falling debris, one woman resists the exodus, standing alone in the middle of a highway littered with deserted cars. How the writer manages to make it lyrical, I have no idea, but she does and it’s wonderful.

I'm starting to think Kenya knows how to support their writers, though Ngugi Wa Thiong'o might beg to differ.

And back here in America - snore - I was pleased to hear about Hard Case Crime (via galleycat). They have a good ol' fashioned book club! I may have to look into this, but only after I read the $2 mass market copy of Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress that I bought in the used section of the Harvard Book Store. Kudos to Hard Case Crime, though, for doing what they do. Looks like a lot of fun! (Starting with Jonny Porkpie's The Corpse Wore Pasties, of course!)
It's nice to see stylish and smart magazines for jetsetting folk and hardboiled trashy crime novels for the rest of us. You know what else is coming back? Fanny packs. You heard it here, folks. The question we here at SoTB will have about the trend, however, will only be what's inside: a book, or a KINDLE?!?!?!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sometimes we here at SotB are just too far ahead of everyone else. Wait, what?!?

Just now, Brian was kind enough to send me a link so I could take a look what Galleycat had just uncovered about a "pay what you think a book is worth" program Faber & Faber is running in the UK. Loyal readers to this blog--ahem--will remember that I wrote about this development last month here. Brian thinks that I should add that "I look forward to seeing how this project develops" or some crap but really sometimes it is just too cool for school to scoop the big boys. Maybe there is another, more gracious way to highlight that SotB has its finger on the pulse without showing sour grapes but nah, I love me some vinegar. Just sayin'.

And now for the Sarcasm

With all the heated rhetoric around debates we like to join here at SoTB, why isn't there *more* sarcasm, I ask? Well, today is my answer.

First is this post on The Rumpus by novelist Steve Hely, in which he takes on the mock role of "Post-Paper Evolution Consultant" to "various terrified publishing companies." In the post, he goes through the changes that are now at work in publishing, with suggestions of how to weather the storm. It's ridiculous, but amusing.

I especially like his take on the Kindle:
Electronic readers like the Kindle are going to have a huge impact. This will mostly benefit publishers of vampire erotica and books about Hitler. People enjoy both these kinds of books, and now they can read them without fear of creeping out their fellow subway riders.

And over at McSweeney's, Robert Lanham has posted his "Internet-Age Writing Syllabus and Course Overview," which has as its objective, "writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era [that] focuses on the creation of short-form prose that is not intended to be reproduced on pulp fibers." Pre-reqs include ENG: 102—Staring Blankly at Handheld Devices While Others Are Talking and LIT: 209—Internet-Age Surrealistic Narcissism and Self-Absorption, while topics include - yep, the Kindle:
Week 4:The Kindle Question
Is Amazon's wireless reading device the Segway of handheld gadgets? Should it be smaller, come with headphones, and play MP3s instead of display book text? Students will discuss.
I know, a little snark goes a long way, so the two-for-one is a bit of a whammy. My apologies - try to enjoy?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sara Nelson has landed!

Many of us are pleased to hear news today that publishing gadfly Sara Nelson, formerly of Publishers Weekly, has landed a new regular gig, at least part-time, as a publishing consultant to Vook. What's that, you ask? "Vook is a technology platform offering storytellers the best digital tools to deliver written stories with integrated video, photos, social media, and community features." I know, still not really clear.

This NY Times article from Brad Stone might help. It's a profile of Vook and its founder, Silicone Valley entrepreneur Bradley Inman, that explains the founder's hope, "to create great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream — and then roll them all into a multimedia hybrid that is tailored to the rapidly growing number of digital reading devices." This makes me feel a bit sick to my stomach, kind of like hearing the spread at a particularly large buffet. I'm not against it, just overwhelmed, and not clear offhand what I want from it.

Though this article was published at the beginning of this month, Sara Nelson was already weighing in. She's quoted in the article:

"Publishers are going to be confronted with the idea that either the words on the page have to be completely compelling on their own, or they have to figure out a way to create new sorts of subliminal draws in the new medium,” said Sara Nelson, the former editor of Publishers Weekly and a publishing industry consultant.

Ms. Nelson has seen the Vook prototype and says it is intriguing, but the challenge is to avoid feeling gimmicky. “If you are going to put video in a book, it has to flow so naturally into the story that readers don’t even realize they are switching mediums,” she said.

It's a heady concept, mixing these formats in one product, but they are smart to bring on a consultant who knows books but isn't so invested as to not see potential beyond the printed word.

I'll be curious to see where Vook goes from here - even if I don't subscribe to their Twitter feed. I only have so much time and attention available, people.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

How Did I Miss This Blog?!

Sorry for loading one post on top of another, folks, but Galleycat just alerted me to a blog I should have been reading regularly. They mention this post by Brendan Sherar over at For the Love of Books - which appears to be an outstanding blog published by Biblio, "a marketplace for used, rare & out-of-print books" that is big into independent, socially-aware companies in publishing. Hooray!

Sherar's piece is about how he witnessed the newspaper industry's blase attitude about moving content online, and how he worries that book publishers are replicating this attitude. He posts a series of smart questions publishings folks should be considering at this juncture:
  • Who will control access to digital books - will libraries merely trade their expensive-to-maintain collections for a subscription to Google books? Are libraries hastening their own obsolescence by allowing Google access to their collections?
  • Will Amazon’s closed-platform standard for e-books prevail (the Kindle)?
  • Will an author’s share of revenue on e-books be a traditional fixed percentage, or a variable, we’re-not-going-to-tell-you-what-we-received-from-your-work-but-here’s-a-quarter-go-buy-yourself-something-nice percentage of advertising revenue that Google might deign to dole out (as it does with ad revenue to site/blog owners)?
  • Will e-books have ads in them? If you’re reading a romance book, are you going to see an ad for C14L1S in it?
  • Will any company be able to realistically compete in e-book sales that isn’t a megacorp? For that matter, will any megacorp even be able to realistically compete with Google?
  • Will authors simply bypass all traditional distributors, publishers, and retailers, producing and promoting their books directly?
  • In a world of digital books and DMCA, what becomes of your ability to pass a book on to a friend, or re-sell it?
  • Will Google be given permanent, court-ordered indemnification against breaking copyright law?
All worthy questions for us to ponder as we move rapidly into a world where digital publishing is no longer futuristic. Now I have a few older posts to catch up on over at For The Love of Books...

Authors and Persecution

Authors don't have it easy. I'll just put that right out there. Anyone who has been in a position to read query letters can quickly ascertain that there are crazy authors, there are some who are demanding, inconsiderate, and self-righteous. But many who make it through to having a book published get screwed by the system.

Literary agent Janet Reid posted a reference to a lawsuit that was written about here (second story after Tracy Ullman - but it's not a good link - I had problems, so my apologies), in which authors Sue Callaway and Shelly Branch, both professional, qualified, established writers, are suing Penguin's Gotham Books. It seems they wrote a book called What Would Jackie Do about getting through life by being more like Jackie O. They feel the publisher then dropped them, not notifying them of the fact that their publicist left the company (not unusual - sorry!) and failing to tell them that their book tour was canceled. They claim that Gotham Publisher William Shinker “expressed his irritation with plaintiffs through the use of expletive-laced speech" - again, not unusual in publishing. But not right, either. Gotham went on to publish Pamela Keogh's book, What Would Audrey Do, which was branded as the next in a series started by the Jackie book (the covers styled identically). Callaway and Branch did not know they were launching a series with their book.

Reid is amused by the story, noting "I've got to get that 'no expletives' clause in my next contracts. Oh wait. The PUBLISHING contract only; if it's in the author/agency contract, I'm ....ahem...fucked." Well put! But I do wonder if the authors are in fact right in their lawsuit. From this very short summary of the case, I would guess that 1) the authors are difficult for a publisher to work with, whether due to their own disagreements or strong opinions, both of which may be justified but can also lead to frustration on the part of the publisher and, yes, cursing; 2) the publisher is annoyed that the authors wouldn't just shut up and go away so the company could make plans to make money of these branded products. It seems to me that when you publish with a big corporate publisher - which is not always a bad thing - you have to realize how far away you are from the room in which many decisions are made. It's a sacrifice one makes. I can only hope the author gets a few shillings out of it to make the frustration of not having calls returned, not seeing one's book in a bookstore (or seeing it in bargain bins, as these authors claim), and not getting much publicity a little easier to swallow.

But how much do authors really make? We hear advance figures thrown around, but author Lynn Viehl did something incredibly useful on a blog: she posted her royalty statement, with contextualizing info, for her book Twilight Fall. (Thanks to Moonrat for link!) Viehl offers a useful perspective into the mysterious world of the NY Times bestseller list. She explains how she did not buy anyone off, buy copious copies of her book at specific bookstores, or even really do a number of appearances to generate the market that landed her at #19 on the list. What did it then? The readers she had built up with 5 other books in the Darkyn (romance) series (and maybe the new interest in vampires from Twilight helped).

But then she lays out exactly where the money went:
My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.

(It's worth glancing at the statement itself, just to see how confusing they are. When I worked as an assistant to a literary agent, one of my jobs was to pour over royalty statements from various publishing houses and check them for accuracy - a painful, painful exercise. Each publisher had a different and more confusing format from the last. But it was a fascinating way in to a different side of publishing, since financing in book publishing is so... how shall we say... whack. Out of whack. Screwed up. Etc.)

Here we see, once again, that even strong advances get whittled down between the announcement on Publishers Lunch and the author's bank account. Now the trick is to find a way to better support authors as we move into niche audiences using e-formats (as Richard Nash described - I discussed here). If we couldn't do it with the blockbuster model, we may have to start from scratch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Unsung Praises to Editors

I love editing books. I love standing between the talented, nervous, ingenious author and the bottom line, embattled, crowded-list publisher and staking ground. I love walking the author through all the steps, with falls possible at each one: the cover she hates, the copy editor who doesn't get his voice, the publicist who won't call back, the royalty that is so much lower than expected, the paperback that is... not to happen. It's all hard, but it's an amazing journey to re-live with different folks.

But as an editor, I can't wait around for too big a pat on the back. Yes, we check the acknowledgements page. We do. This blogger has admitted as much as well (while also explaining other uses for the page). But beyond that, we editors need to get over ourselves.

The Guardian book blog is hosting a whole discussion about editors and acclaim here, with a spirited (as ever) comments section. After blogger Damien Walter talks about the attention sci-fi book editors have received, he notes:

Editors within mainstream literature are no less influential and creative. But they are less celebrated. There are reasons for the lack of editorial recognition – the larger size and scope of mainstream literature, the mainstream's relative neglect of short fiction, the idolisation of The Author in literary culture. And even without public recognition, editors still wield great power within publishing. So why should we care if they do not receive awards?

As anyone who has engaged with publishing on any level in recent years will know, the creative editorial role is under increasing pressure. As publishing corporations push for ever greater profits in a market of declining sales, editors have less and less time to actually edit the work of writers. The choice of what is and is not published is increasingly being made by marketing managers and accountants who have an eye for the bottom line, but no real knowledge of literature. As editorial influence declines mainstream literature is becoming less original, less adventurous and consequentially less interesting. Perhaps if we start celebrating our editors, we might see them given more time to practice what is actually a fine art.

I don't know if editors need an award, per se (though a commenter mentions they do have one in the US - the Maxwell E. Perkins Award), but it is nice to see someone note that editors are increasingly under pressures that make choices that much more complicated.

On this blog, I've long advocated for publishing houses to have relatively distinct visions, led by a stable of respected editors who are given the power to shape lists. Readers will come to know the tastes of these editors and come to look to the publishing house to provide consistent reading material. As editorial roles change, as book production changes, there is still a need for strong editors to shape lists and define the kinds of books a house will publish.

And here I'll post yet another look at the future, at a world full of tagged e-books. This WSJ article by author Steven Johnson (sorry if subscription only) does a nice job clearly explaining what very well might occur with e-books, but only once does he mention a note of caution:

My impulsive purchase of "On Beauty" has another element to it, though -- one that may not be as welcomed by authors. Specifically: I was in the middle of the other book, and in a matter of seconds, I left it for one of its competitors. The jump was triggered, in this case, by a sudden urge to read fiction, but it could have been triggered by something in the book I was originally reading: a direct quote or reference to another work, or some more indirect suggestion in the text.

In other words, an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

That is a concern, because an author will toil over that narrative (with an editor's help, one hopes!) only to have it interrupted constantly, so that every paragraph, every sentence, every word has to compete with the entire world wide web. This brings to mind the image from this past weekend of my sister trying to speak to her 4 year old with Spongebob Squarepants on the tv behind her head. How could she compete with something intentionally made to distract a child? It's ludicrous! I worry about books in the same way.

And Johnson sees books being edited to fit this new reality:
A world in which search attracts new book readers also will undoubtedly change the way books are written, just as the serial publishing schedule of Dickens's day led to the obligatory cliffhanger ending at the end of each installment. Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google's results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

This is an editorial nightmare.

If Walter at the Guardian blog is worried about acquisitions decisions being made by "marketing managers and accountants," now let's also worry about editorial choices within a manuscript being made by whomever is overseeing the way in which a book gets networked. This really will impact editing, and not for the better.

Is editing going to have to play into our need to have only the recognizable before us? Will all books turn into shadows of pre-existing books?

I know I'll look once again to the independent presses willing to take a risk and offer something innovative and challenging, as they have in the past (New Directions, Soft Skull, Chelsea Green, etc). Let us hope they don't fall into this trap and instead break the mold so that creative and daring authors can find a home - with an editor not looking for glory, but looking to craft a list full of uncompromising voices.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Robbing Graves

It seems there is a real blossoming lately in dead author books, no? And with this trend comes the inevitable debate about whether we should be publishing books deemed unworthy by authors after their deaths.

The project getting the most airtime, if you will, is The Original of Laura, the collection of notecards that make up an unfinished novel by Vladamir Nabakov, a novel the author expressly did not want published. His son Dimitri has decided to publish anyhow.

I was really creeped out by this decision at first. I'm a huge Nabakov fan and love just reading over anything he has written, but what I love is that the author clearly took the time to write and sometimes to translate his own work with such precision, such careful creation and then editing. He chooses each word and phrase and sentence so well. With that in mind, it seems particularly profane to publish a manuscript that he did not feel met his own standards. His high standards are what make his novels and short stories so incredible.

My outrage is dampened with news that Penguin is going to publish the book in a more transparent way.
The Original of Laura was written, like all Nabokov's novels, on index cards. Penguin will reproduce all 138 cards, with a transcript of the text on the opposite page. [Penguin Classics editor] Kirschbaum said the cards add up to "a good chunk” of text taking "several hours” to read. "I'm an avid, obsessed fan of Nabokov and for other fans it's incredibly interesting to see his handwriting and read his prose—not necessarily extremely polished, but you can still see kernels of genius in everything he wrote,” she said.
As someone who enjoys reading collections of letters and diaries sometimes, this seems intriguing. I'm a huge fan of The Way It Wasn't: From the Files of James Laughlin, the odd snippet-filled A-Z book about New Direction's founder Laughlin's opinions on everything and everyone. I appreciate that Penguin is at least doing this as a nod to the fact that Nabakov didn't want it published as a novel, and once I scan a copy at my favorite local independent bookstore, perhaps I'll even consider buying it.

There, I said it!

It is still very clear that Penguin is chasing the money here. Let's not pretend that this corporation is being an honest broker in trying to get this important work into circulation for the good of the author's reputation. I also find this troubling in the case of Kurt Vonnegut: it was announced last week that Delacorte Press will publish 14 new short stories by the author in a collection titled Look at the Birdie. Maybe my line will be arbitrary here, but something smells rotten to me, when a publisher rushes into print a book by a recently deceased author. I also think there is something unfortunate about this collection coming out from an imprint deeply, deeply buried in the Random House stable, when his last collection of non-fiction writing, the bestselling A Man Without a Country, came out from independent press Seven Stories (though admittedly the paperback was Ballantine). In fact, it's interesting to note on the Press' website that they are actually getting ready to publish Nelson Algren's unfinished novel. This is a writer who died over 25 years ago.

I would be more comfortable if there was a period after an author's death where any unpublished work is put on hold. If the writer's reputation holds up, it can be published, say, 25 years later and still be well-received. Nabakov died in 1977, so his book would work, just like Algren's. With Vonnegut, perhaps the stories are terrific, but if he had not submitted them for publication, out of respect for his recent death, they should be held back. Novels that are not edited by the author, or in the case of Vonnegut, stories not assembled by the author (PW reports, "Bantam Dell publisher and editor-in-chief Nita Taublib and editor Kerri Buckley put the collection together"), should just not be published quickly. It's clearly capitalizing on the news of an author's demise.

As noted at the beginning, this has been an ongoing discussion since books began. Recently, the UK Guardian's blog asked these very same questions, using the publication of Roland Barthes' Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) as a starting point. The comments are worth scanning as opinions are strong. They mention a number of such publications, including David Foster Wallace's novel, an excerpt of which accompanies a lengthy story in the New Yorker. Suicide brings up another whole level of questions, I'm certain, but also makes an author's death that much more newsworthy, providing an even bigger media hook for publishers. And that is seriously slimey publishing, isn't it?

Going back to the point about Seven Stories and Vonnegut, it seems to me that an unpublished work by a great author, published transparently with notes and context provided, offers terrific material for an independent press to have on its backlist, but most independents could not afford an unpublished work by a major author just after the author's death. 25 years later? Possibly (see, again, Algren and Seven Stories). This puts the onus on the estate to be respectful, and I appreciate the difficulty of publishing decisions so soon after a death - in short, I get that it's complicated. But I hope there are publishing advisors out there who will recommend exercising restraint in this instances, so an author's legacy isn't tainted by a quickie collection tied to front page obituaries.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Amazon is Taking Over the World

I'm sick of even seeing the word "Amazon," aren't you? Enough already.

Having said that...

First I want to point out an interesting post on BoingBoing, a blog I can't read with any regularity because there's simply too much content, much of it of little interest to me. But Cory Doctorow's recent post about the Kindle was troubling:

Ian bought a Kindle and some Kindle ebooks from Amazon. He also bought some real-world stuff from them, some of which he returned. Amazon decided that he'd returned too many things, so they suspended his Amazon account, which meant that he could no longer buy any Kindle books, and any Kindle subscriptions he's paid for stop working.

After some phone calls, Amazon granted him a one-time exception and lit his account up again.

Leaving aside losing your subscriptions, this would not be such a big deal if the Kindle had graceful ways of putting competitors' ebooks on your device.

Pretty f'ed up, right? This is where the monopoly that is Amazon shows its true colors. They have this level of control. As ever, I do not want to sound like some kind of luddite, but I also refuse to blindly chase technology that may erode my control in the interest of convenience. Christopher wrote his compelling post on why he does not want a Kindle, but he didn't quite address this point. Others of course have. You are paying for a device over which the seller maintains control. It's a crap deal! Says one anonymous commenter on the BoingBoing post:

The Kindle is a DRM device for books.
Never, ever buy one.

And then of course, we have the big gay Amazon debacle. Oy vey. What still fascinates me about this whole situation is that it offers a remarkable example of the internet perhaps organizing people too fast.

Internet guru (I use this in place of another title - I hardly know the guy) Clay Shirky has posted a much-referenced take on the experience, in which he actively participated. This post is useful as Shirky has been involved with the web for many years in a significant way, and he has a background in creative undertakings - a degree in art and theatre work. This isn't some wonk.

In his post, Shirky admits that the outrage he saw in others over Amazon's supposed homophobic delisting of LGBT books appealed to him emotionally:

When trying to explain one’s actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont.

It's fascinating to get this information from someone so clearly well-versed in network systems. He knows about "the problems of categorization systems," and yet he jumped to the conclusion that anti-gay bias was the root of the problem, even if from a single employee rather than the corporation itself:
This isn’t because I am a generally stupid person; it was because I was, on Sunday, a specifically stupid person. When a lifetime of intellectual labor and study came up against a moment of emotional engagement, emotion won, in a rout.

And it's amazing to see he was not alone, that he joined a mass of people who all had their own reasons to jump on this idea. (And in their defense, let us not forget the witch hunt led by the Republicans over the last eight years, where they systematically passed constitutional amendments state by state, some of which were so extreme as to bar any two people of the same sex to sign contracts together. I lost at least one friend to this era, who overlooked my own concerns about Texas, where I grew up but realized I could never go back to with a partner, if I wanted to have any legal partnership with him.)

Shirky explains the real case one could have made against Amazon:
it was stupid to have a categorization system that would allow LGBT-themed books to be de-ranked en masse; it was stupid to have a technological system that would allow that to happen easily and globally; it was stupid to remove sales rank from sexually explicit works, rather than adding “Safe Search” options; it was stupid to speak in PR-ese to the public about something that really matters; it was stupid to take as long as they did to dribble an explanation out.

But then explains how this is now how the movement played out:
If it had been a critique of those stupidities that circulated over the weekend, without the intentional mass de-listing, it would have kicked off a long, thoughtful conversation about metadata, system design, and public relations. Those are good conversations to have, we need to have them, but they are not conversations that would enrage thousands of people in the space of a few hours and kick off calls for boycotts and worse.

This is where technological convenience does us in. We can move this fast, so we do move this fast, and then we regret it. It gives us a way to play out our anxieties en masse, with little forethought. It lets the loudest lead and lets others follow, often anonymously so they do not have to worry about repurcussions.

Once again, I want to move forward with technologies if we can find a way to maintain the public interest over corporate interests, and we have to admit our mistakes (as Shirky does quite eloquently) when they happen using this technology.

Allowing Amazon such a massive role in public discourse is a mistake - a fail, in modern parlance. We have given it so much significance that it controls discussions and media. It has simply become too big. The convenience it offers has holes, and they need to be addressed. In that sense, the LGBT debacle offers a useful lesson - yes, it cautions against the mass action that technology allows that is not based on thoughtful interpretations of political actions, but it also points to Amazon's control of our books. And this new realization that the information can be held back from your Kindle as punishment - no more books or papers for you! - does the same. We must choose wisely as we consumers come back to the surface and start purchasing again. Can't we find a better alternative to Amazon?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Three who helped books survive are lost.

With all due respect to the previous entry about Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are (which is adorable), I felt I had to remark on a terrible confluence of deaths which I happened upon in the Obituary page of the New York Times today. We have lost three individuals who have helped books survive and I couldn't let this moment pass without a short comment. In the last three days we have lost Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, John Maddox, and Judith Krug.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was a pioneering scholar in LBGT studies and was recruited by Stanley Fish to help form Duke University's high-powered English department during the 80's when Duke was an epicenter of cultural theory and criticism. She changed how a great many of us read novels with an new eye toward psycho-sexual dynamics within the text. "While [at Duke], she published...her best-known work, Epistemology of the Closet (1990), which argued that Western culture could be understood only by critically dissecting the socially constructed concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality." She will be missed.

John Maddox was the editor of the journal Nature which, under his stewardship, was transformed into "an internationally influential showcase for the most recent developments in scientific research."

Mr. Maddox, a chemist and physicist by training, drew on his experience as science correspondent for The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) to bring a new sense of competitiveness and timeliness to Nature in his 22 years as its editor. Rather than waiting for scientific papers to come to him, he beat the bushes in search of exciting material, a practice that, over time, guaranteed that the most interesting, provocative papers found their way to Nature first. Such was the competition to be published in its pages that one desperate physicist, after repeated rejections, threatened to set himself afire on the magazine’s doorsteps.

It was a mark of his skilled editorship that Nature could publish a paper on, say, the Loch Ness monster without sacrificing its authority."

And finally, and closest to our heart here at Survival of the Book, was the loss of Judith Krug.

It is hard to describe just how completely awesome and inspiring Judith Krug was. She led the campaign by libraries across this great nation to fight against the banning of books. That you or someone you love can still walk into a school or public library and check out a copy of Catcher in the Rye means that you owe Judith Krug a quick moment of silence today. She ardently believed that censorship is never-NEVER-the answer. As co-founder, her legacy is Banned Books Week which is coming this year at the end of September. However she wasn't just a warrior for ideas she favored. She fought for everyone.
As the American Library Association’s official proponent of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech since the 1960s, Ms. Krug fought the banning of books, including Huckleberry Finn, Mein Kampf, Little Black Sambo, Catcher in the Rye, and sex manuals (ahem, Brian - Ed.).

She also fought for the inclusion of literature on library shelves that she herself found offensive, like The Blue Book of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. The book is a transcript of a two-day monologue by Robert Welch at the founding meeting of the society in 1958.

“My personal proclivities have nothing to do with how I react as a librarian,” Ms. Krug said in an interview with The New York Times in 1972. “Library service in this country should be based on the concept of intellectual freedom, of providing all pertinent information so a reader can make decisions for himself.”

Integrity. Either you have it or you don't and Ms. Krug had it. If you took the final two sentences of her interview as an epitaph for all of us working in the culture industry we would be a happier, healthier society going forward. I, for one, will raise a bourbon shot to Ms. Krug tonight. With her death yesterday, we have become a less free country today.

Another Sign of Better Things to Come

I don't want to seem like I'm in Pres. Obama's pocket. I've criticized the guy and I will again. But this video of the President reading Maurice Sendak's classic, Where the Wild Things Are, posted at a number of other blogs such as BookNinja and MobyLives, is just too charming to ignore. Besides, look at the President and First Lady interact while reading this book. No nervous chuckling, no bullying jokes, no stumbles... I just can't believe we Americans managed to get this guy after electing a complete moron twice. Twice.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Amazon Fail Madness

What's most amazing about the Amazon dust-up is how quickly it occurred, was protested, and was answered by the company. I chatted on gmail with my co-blogger here, Christopher, and we decided to perhaps just post our chat below, awkward formatting and all, as it was an interesting (I hope!) discussion of what happened. I think we both come out as thoughtful enough to avoid offending anyone...

me: I've thought about doing something on this amazon thing but it already seems played out - no?

Christopher: It is over. I think it was just a mistake anyway.

me: things happen so quickly online

Christopher: Seriously. Unfortunate and inconvenient but a mistake.

me: did you see nash's comments on it?

Christopher: no, what did he say?

me: you might wanna school yourself, not be too flip...

Christopher: school myself? sometimes a cigar is a cigar.

me: “The onus is on us, as Tim Wise has taught so well on the topic of white privilege. We cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, because it is always us who get the benefit of the doubt in our society, and if we are to take the pink and lavender dollars, and if we are to say, you don’t need A Different Light, or Oscar Wilde Bookstore, we’ll hook you up just fine, then we can never let this happen.

The vigilance and outrage demonstrated on Twitter are necessary, not because the folks at Amazon are bad people, but because the books that were de-ranked were de-ranked because it is always the outsider whose books get de-ranked and “mainstream” society and the capitalist institutions that operate within it, whether my old company or Amazon, must self-police ruthlessly in order to guard against this kind of thing happening.”

if I was going to post anything on this, I would probably just quote him anyhow, and he has 22 comments on his post

Christopher: I agree with what he is saying but mistakes do happen no?

me: but if the mistake hurts a minority group then shrugging it off doesn't take away the damage

Christopher: If we never allow for mistakes-especially in the realm of computers-well then the world is really just a shitty place and one that I don't want to be part of.

Was there damage?

The outrage was fast and loud and everything was restored.

Plus is there any evidence that has any problems with gay men or lesbian women?

me: so you're saying b/c of the outrage, everything's fine, now everyone needs to stop the outrage, but if people hadn't been outraged it would have just happened

Christopher: I am as conspiracy minded as anyone I just can't see the angle here. I think you are right in some ways but...

me: it's like east boston

Christopher: you all hate mcdonalds?

me: something like this happening just reminds you of the ghettoized status of lgbt books

Christopher: I agree with that.

me: just like the talk about raising tolls or cutting the T service reminds you of the distance of east boston from the actual city. I'm sure the woman at the credit union didn't have a conspiracy against me when she assumed my co-applicant Aaron was an Erin, but it still is worth pointing out, and she should feel awkward and I shouldn't

Christopher: So it might be more of a symptom than an actual sickness. Like if all gay/lesbian fiction were simply part of FICTION then this kind of crap wouldn't happen? Kinda like Border's "Black Voices" section.

me: it's always hard though, b/c we need those spaces too

the question is whether there was any impact - its not like the records were deleted

did any fewer people buy any of these books b/c of this?
did they disappear from searches?
was it just a matter of the ranking disappearing, and if so, how does that impact sales?

I haven't read all the material on it b/c it was all generated so fast but maybe an interesting post would be on how fast it all happened, how amazon's far reach makes it susceptible to speedy online protests en masse

Christopher: I didn't either b/c I figured once it was fixed it was fixed. Amazon only caring about the almighty dollar, couldn't afford to sabotage one entire demographic but obviously that is my inherent bias. I am just a wee bit uncomfortable with Nash's response so quickly. What if it was an error? (and I am not saying that it was, but what if it turns out to be simply a programming error-is all the anger justified b/c of past behavior. I guess it must be but I am just curious b/c they never seemed like that kind of company to me...hell they gave the Big O almost 100K last year and 0 to McCain.)

me: plenty of "Big O" supporters are still homophobic so I wouldn't clear anyone based on that, and Nash's point is privilege, which is always more visible to those who don’t have it than those who do

Christopher: Right, but kind of an impossible point to argue in any way right? Not that he isn't right, but where is the dialog there?

me: I think he's only arguing that amazon shouldn't ignore this even if it was just a mistake, they have to recognize the message that the lgbt community felt

Christopher: That I absolutely agree with.

me: I don't think he's calling for the overthrow of amazon or labeling them as homophobic, though others are

Christopher: Maybe he isn't but that is what happened REALLY quickly.

me: yeah, and that's the post topic

And so it is!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Buzzworthy News

Please excuse my lack of posting. If you're annoyed, blame the current housing crisis, which is making my life very busy (but not in a bad, foreclosure kind of way, admittedly...).

I followed a link posted over at Editorial Ass to Michael Meyer's NY Times article on author advances. I appreciate that this article is from an author's perspective, which may be why it includes this useful point:

The numbers can sound much bigger than they are. Take a reported six-figure advance, Roy Blount Jr., the president of the Authors Guild, said in an e-mail message. “That may mean $100,000, minus 15 percent agent’s commission and self-employment tax, and if we’re comparing it to a salary let us recall (a) that it does not include any fringes like a desk, let alone health insurance, and (b) that the book might take two years to write and three years to get published. . . . So a six-figure advance, while in my experience gratefully received, is not necessarily enough, in itself, for most adults to live on.”

I'm the first to shake my head in disbelief when I hear about huge advances, but its all relative. Advances are paid over the course of a schedule that can have a long timeline, over the course of years. Keeping this in mind, I'm going to try to reserve my anger for more legitimate outrages - such as the fact that books by Spellings keep getting published. (Simon Spotlight and St. Martin's, please please please stop.)

But I was surprised by Moonrat's (the Editorial Ass blogger) response to this article. Those who follow her blog know she's a hardworking editor who frequently admits being overwhelmed, especially since the latest industry rumble that left fewer hands on deck. But she didn't seem to get the above point. She expresses frustration at one author in the article who says his six-figure advance "allowed [him] to work for less than minimum wage for three years." She responds:
I wonder when the last time he looked at minimum wage was? That attitude frustrates me a little; there are a lot of people (frankly, a lot of us right here at this blog) who manage to work a job to support us and who find time to write even though no one is paying us a penny. What makes an advanced author worth so much more?

Huh. Now I don't mean to say employees at publishing houses should sacrifice all for authors like nuns to Jesus or what-have-you, but this is an odd reaction for someone whose job it is to advocate for authors in-house and work with them to create the best book possible. The blogger did not seem to hear Blount's point that even a six-figure advance spread out over years, and minus agent commissions, don't work out to a ton of money sometimes.

She goes on to make fair points about how authors and agents should remember to fight for marketing effort and not just bottom line money, but I know I have been frustrated as a publishing employee when people get this "we're here for the work, for the books, not the money" attitude, forgetting that bills cannot be paid with enthusiasm or intellect or creativity alone. It's almost shameful when you push for a raise at some publishing houses because so many employees are trust fund kids who don't need it and will work nights and weekends for the love of literature. Authors have a right to fight for money because, once again, it's spread out and they need a certain level of security to be able to spend the time it takes to write a really good book, and not some quickie piece of crap (see Spelling books referenced above). It's a different story at smaller, independent publishing houses, but at the big corporate houses, they need to find a way around it and not bellyache about advances.

The article makes the point that:
Today, some publishers are experimenting with low or no advances. In exchange for low-five-figure advances, the boutique press McSweeney’s, founded by Eggers, shares profits with its authors 50-50, as does the new imprint Harper Studio, which offers sub-six-figure advances.

We've talked about this, I know, but it always interests me. And Harper Studio... I'm kind of coming around to them. I still think there is an element of chasing the flash in the pan to their acquisitions, and I don't think they always think through what they buy (buying blogger projects is a real risk, for example), but they have supported some cool projects, such as Isabella Rosselini's Green Porno. But what I've really come around to is one conceit of their blog, the 26th Story, which I wish was more consistent. I like when they update with insider information, even on their own books. When I noticed this pattern on their posts, which I read on Google Reader, I thought it was self-indulgent and a little gross. I had a hand in creating a publisher's blog at one point and remember discussing how we needed to avoid making it look like a series of press releases or just an excuse to spread publicity. But Harper Studio gets around this by also talking in a kind of gushy way about projects they've just acquired. Somehow, their unbridled enthusiasm for what they're publishing works - it can be infectious and not seem self-serving, perhaps because they also mix in news from other places. I don't always follow the link to the post, but I appreciate their way of putting up a blog. I've been meaning to say that for awhile.

And I'd like to see a real book publishing journalist - if any are still employed - do a new profile of Harper Studio to let us all know how this new model is working out - though perhaps that journalist could also profile an independent that doesn't have Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets from which to draw.

The fact is, very few authors are sitting on piles of money at this point, so when people start talking trash about fat author advances, let's let that point stand while also expanding the question to see if there is more money to go around, and to see how else publishers are spending money. That inevitably brings up the blockbuster strategy, which is a conversation for another day...

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Survival of the Book means survival of reading, right?

Who says we aren't a people who cares about others? I know that in New England where the weather is cold, the people are colder, and "good fences make good neighbors," we often get the rap for being totally unfeeling and disinterested in the plight and welfare of others. We give less to charity than most other regions of the country (a fact that is in dispute by the Boston Foundation) but does that mean we are heartless? Hell no. In today's Boston Globe is a story that needs wider distribution. Retired women are leaving the warmth and safety of their homes to help the next generation to read. This is real.
Even when the sidewalks are slick with ice, the retired women make their way to the small brick schoolhouse in Roxbury. A few walk or drive their cars; others take door-to-door van service provided to the elderly and the disabled by the MBTA.

The women are on a mission to ensure the pupils at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School learn how to read, but they also provide some much-needed nurturing for a group of students who often come from some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

"They come in snowstorms - Now, that's commitment," said C. Sura O'Mard, the school's principal, who witnesses such scenes unfold from her office window. "We are out there trying to make sure they don't slide on the ice."

Too often we spend time debating whether the Kindle is the future of books or whether print is obsolete or whether publishing will survive. What we rarely discuss here is whether or not reading will survive. It is certainly under attack (the recent NEA statistics notwithstanding). These elderly women, in concert with the National Experience Corps program, are helping to give the gift and wonder of reading to young people all over Boston.
The program, which trains adults 55 years and older to tutor children in reading, was first adopted by a few Boston schools about 10 years ago. Recently, it has seen a resurgence in popularity as the district confronts stagnant reading and English scores for elementary school pupils.
Now, I don't know about you but I bemoan the lack of reading all the time. I am consistently stunned by the number of people who don't read even one book a year. I have written elsewhere on Survival of the Book that not everyone needs to read but children sure as hell need to know how to read. Remember that Mark Twain taught us that "the man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." Well, these youngsters of Roxbury will be able to read those "good books" soon enough. These women have answered the call to arms and have helped the Boston school system instill a love of literature in our young people. How has it worked so far?
Yesterday, a national study found that students enrolled in programs like these in Boston; New York City; and Port Arthur, Texas; made 60 percent more progress in word deciphering and reading comprehension on standardized tests than peers who were not enrolled in the program.
That is pretty good. Admittedly, there have been some problems integrating the program with Special Education students but a minor setback isn't a reason to rejoice. The Atlantic Philanthropies, the company which paid for the study showing both progress for many students and some small problems for Special Education students, said that the program in Boston is also beneficial for the seniors doing the tutoring.
By providing them with an opportunity to get out of their homes and join a social network, the experience helped boost their mental health and reduce their everyday aches and pains...
Ah, the power of community service and the power of reading. It turns out that this tutoring project is good for both tutor and student. The student learns how to read and the tutor is rewarded by interaction with young people, making a difference in our community, as well as feeling valuable to our wider culture. However, as with everything else the jerky bankers on Wall Street have ruined, the program is having some budget problems which will be felt next year.
Such connections could become rarer in Boston next year, as Generations Inc. grapples with a decrease in charitable giving that probably will cause it to scale back the number of schools it serves. The program has a budget of about $2 million, which covers such things as training programs and $185 monthly stipends that about a third of the volunteers receive.
If you are curious about Experience Corps in your city, go to their website and see if they have an active program up and running where you live. In a program where everyone wins-the students, the retirees, the society-what else can be said? Let's let the principal of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School have the last word:
"The program has been quite a blessing for us," said C. Sura O'Mard, the principal. "It's not just an outside group coming in. The women become part of the fabric of the school. I see them at literacy nights and the Christmas party. . . . And the expectations they have for children in reading are just as high as those set by teachers."
And that, gentle readers, is how reading-how books-survive.

Friday, April 03, 2009

NY publishing may be short-sited, but now Houghton Mifflin is short-handed

This just in...okay, it's already out there but Tony Lucki is retiring from Houghton Mifflin.

CEO of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Tony Lucki, 60, is retiring on April 15 according to an internal memo reported by the WSJ. Barry O'Callaghan, the 39-year-old genius who built the parent company with a mountain of over $7 billion debt will make himself CEO, while still running Education Media & Publishing Group. Lucki will keep his title as nonexecutive chairman of the publisher, and O'Callaghan says "he's going to continue to be my publishing mentor."

"Our biggest challenge is the U.S. economy," O'Callaghan tells the Journal. "Our biggest customers are the states of Florida and California, and we all know what has happened to their sources of revenue regarding sales taxes and property taxes. But this is a timing issue. Core curriculums [sic] will have to be modernized." When the company renegotiated terms on their debt earlier this year, they said they expected flat revenue and 20 percent growth in ebitda this year.

The FT adds that "EMPG remains in talks to refinance $1.7bn of second lien debt on the operating company and $900m at the holding company level. The negotiations, which are expected to result in debt for equity swaps, are progressing well, a company spokesman said.

More details at The Wall Street Journal site but it is a pay-to-read site (sorry 'bout that).

One last thing: the new publisher of the one of our country's biggest educational publishers as well as one of our most outstanding literary presses used the phrase "core curriculums" in his interview? Um, I'll take curricula for $200.00, Alex.

Boston Report

I don't often focus on local stuff, but a few things have come up so I think it's worth pulling it in and looking around at my own community here. Though the events certainly have national implications anyway.

File this one under the old Banned in Boston. I was beyond irritated with Boston College last week for canceling an event featuring Bill Ayers, the batted-around activist featured with such ridiculous prominence during the waning days of the presidential election. It was such a drawn-out affair, too. First making the students move it off-campus, then killing it completely. It was an odd conflict, as it seems BC was particularly annoyed that the Weather Underground, of which Ayers was a leader, may have been involved in the killing of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder in a 1970 bank robbery. Mind you, Ayers himself was not specifically accused. From the article linked above:
Patrick Rombalski, BC's vice president of student affairs, said in a statement yesterday that administrators would not allow the visit nor the teleconference "out of concern for the safety and well-being of our students and respect for the local community where the alleged actions of the Weather Underground continue to reverberate today."

Bizarre. Of course, Ayers was coming to speak about urban school issues, which is what he's been talking and writing about for years, but no matter. The Catholic university is responding to being inundated with calls after a local radio dj complained about the visit. Pathetic! This is a shot against free speech, of course, but it's also just another sign that this college is headed down an ugly path, perhaps due to influences from the Vatican. (We shan't forget the college having Condoleeza Rice as its commencement speaker in 2006, most notably and nobly protested by Steve Almond in this letter of resignation.)

This mess was followed by news today out of Illinois: Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL, canceled an event featuring Ayers and his wife, fellow Weather Underground leader Bernadette Dorhn, who also has become a major leader in progressive education circles.
Anderson reported that “disturbing” phone calls condemning the store for hosting Ayers and Dohrn, whose book was released by Third World Press in February, started on March 26 and continued through April 1, with the bulk of the calls received Saturday, March 28, resulting in booksellers on duty fearing for their safety. As the store does not have caller ID, Anderson said he has no way of knowing whether the calls were local, or were part of some organized effort orchestrated from elsewhere.

So it remains to be seen whether this is some national group stoking local flames or what, but it's all an embarassment.

It's worth noting that many events are going on without a hitch, btw:
Catherine Compton, marketing director at Third World Press in Chicago, reports the company has not received “any kind of negativity at all” after releasing Ayers and Dohrn’s book with a 20,000-copy print run on February 19. The press is piggybacking on Ayers’s speaking engagements in scheduling author events across the country, in bookstores and at other venues. While several of Ayers’s recent speaking engagements have been canceled because of pressure put on event organizers, no other event scheduled by Third World Press to promote this book has been canceled. “We had 300 people at an event sponsored by 57th Street Books and held at International House on the University of Chicago campus,” Compton said.

So may he press on.

As Ayers gets censored, longtime lefty Howard Zinn gets published by his upteenth publisher, this one a new press coming out of a Boston area independent. Alex Green, owner of Back Pages Books in Waltham, Mass, has published his first book: The State of the Union 2009: Notes for a New Administration, by Howard Zinn. Green is seeing this as a kind of City Lights model. This first book is adapted from a speech and sounds, quite frankly, a bit unappealing. Green admits that he edited so that "We basically just pulled it apart and put it back together in bullet-point sections." Not promising. I suppose I'm excited about the model he's using, but less inspired by the editorial vision as expressed thus far. Let's hope it develops!

And lastly, I was pleased to see front page coverage of independent bookstore Brookline Booksmith in the Boston Globe recently, with a story about how well its doing in light of a B&N down the street closing. Hurrah!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

NY Publishing May Be Short-Sighted

I'm harping here, I know, but this whole Twitter-as-source-of-new-books thing is making me a little crazy, because it once again strikes me as short-sighted. Won't it just produce a ton of crap, kind of like in the late '80s/early '90s when publishers began signing up every comedian - Ellen, Seinfield, that guy from Mad About You - and clogged mall bookstores with books that all would become dated within 6 months at best? Haven't we learned our lesson about over-publishing with the 2008-2009 crisis?!

In the latest article over the Twitter craze, Isabel Wilkinson writes at the Daily Beast about Twitterature. Seriously. But people are talking about separate things in the piece. I'm all for authors using Twitter to spread word about their book - as agent Kate Lee of ICM says, “Anything an author can do on their own behalf is important, and is absolutely a plus for the publisher—and a plus for the author. They’re building their own fan base.” Sure. It can be a marketing tool.

I do not, however, believe it provides a strong source for new projects. This is where I might differ from editors and agents chasing a buck. Lee says she will "look at blogs, Tumblr, Twitter—whatever you want to call it—as just another platform for finding talent.” As an example, the article mentions her getting a book out of the blog Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves. This is a bit like HarperStudio signing up the creators of This Is Why You're Fat. The latter at least is a funny site, whereas the pet site is amusing once every 20 posts from what I can tell. But the problem remains: there is no sign of WRITING TALENT in these blogs! Even the idea runs out of steam after a single conversation or email about it. Even using the word trend is too longterm for these sites, and yet editors are throwing money at the creators to do a book.

Handily, A.V. Club's Ellen Wernecke provides a list of sites that became books, offering critiques on what was lost in translation. For example, regarding Hot Chicks with Douchebags: "It's a sort-of funny gag that wears extremely thin over 200-plus pages, especially once you realize that, like hipsters, those most likely to call out and mock so-called douchebags most likely have a whiff of doucheness themselves." (Well said!) It's not all bad. What Wernecke does well in this piece is shows what was added to make the site a book - lists, glossaries, etc... It's mostly silly stuff but it makes the point that these bloggers and/or publishers have to be smart and include added value to convince the reader to, as the headline indicates, buy the cow despite getting the milk for free. My gratitude to Wernecke for providing this great service! And kudos on generating so much conversation in the comment section...

So back to Twitter. Can we just let it be what it is - a short shout-out meant to last at best hours, most likely minutes until the next one. I fear folks are devaluing books by printing and binding this not-even-ephemeral stuff. Just email it out to a buddy - and move on! Editors and agents, let the publicity/marketing folks have this venue, and go back to looking for more substantial sources for intelligent writers who are more than a flash-in-the-pan idea.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Women Bearing the Brunt?

I have mentioned previously that it seems these rounds of layoffs happening in publishing are hitting women worse than men.

Well I heard about the University of New Mexico Press laying off some employees, but then the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that some of those employees are fighting back. It seems Press employees have been questioning the management since at least December 2008. But what I wanted to mention here was a comment from Glenda Madden, the sales and marketing manager laid off in this round of cuts, who reported to the Chronicle that "those laid off are all women and include the press’s only Latina employee." (thanks to Galleycat for link!)

Looking at the "comings & goings" list at Publishers Weekly, there are 131 people listed. Of those 52 are men, from my quick count (with an error of +/- 2 for gender ambiguous names). This ain't exact science, but that still puts more women losing their jobs than men, and that's only the ones who are high enough in their career to add their name to the PW list. If you are an ed. asst., you may not feel confident enough in your career to post your name. Most of these people had fairly significant titles.

I'd be curious if more people are noticing a trend wherein the layoffs are inadversely impacting women in publishing. Are women still considered more expendable in this day and age, treated as if they are not the sole breadwinners and therefore can afford to lose a job? I know, I know, crazy talk... right?