Friday, August 28, 2009

To the Inevitability of Human Error

Technology is great and all, but many of us still love seeing its weaknesses. I don't want a machine to run so perfectly, so efficiently, that one cannot see the human inventiveness behind it. Hence, I greatly appreciated this post over at the blog kept by the Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications at Georgetown, about fingers getting scanned in with pages, and then appearing on Google Books. Oops!

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Holy Book City!

Buried in today's installment of Shelf Awareness is a link to this amazing article from the Financial Times by Edwin Heathcote, about a place in South Korea called Paju Book City, about 30 kilometers northwest of Seoul. This urban space, zoned as industrial, "bounded by a motorway and the heavily guarded edge of a demilitarised zone," is a vision of ultra modern architecture and full of publishing companies and printers. It truly sounds amazing.
Plans for the Book City were first proposed in 1989, as the country was emerging from a period of political repression. Publishing had gathered momentum and status after years of underground activity and censorship, and it re-emerged after the liberalisation of the regime in 1987 in an explosion of small, often family-run publishers. Their beautifully crafted books attempted to re-engage the nation with the history and culture that had been distorted, manipulated and lost over a period which included colonial rule from Japan, brutal civil war and military dictatorship. The project was also, at least in part, a reaction to the rapacious redevelopment of Seoul, the loss of the city’s historic fabric and its rapid embrace of the culture of bigness and congestion. That it was christened a “City to Recover Lost Humanity” tells us much about its creators’ intentions.

It is useful to remember that in this time of everything and everyone being networked, there is much to be learned and resources to be used. In America, we push to be ahead of the curve, to build on what is there and get to the next frontier - often chasing profit. In this case, worthy of an even longer article it seems to me, we have a culture that was so badly damaged by immense political forces, that is being rebuilt with values rarely if ever found on this scale in America. As the writer states in a less than artful manner, "The idea that a city, right now, be dedicated solely to print and that an industrial estate could be a place of architectural pilgrimage could not be more heartening, more encouraging to anyone who delights in those very old information technologies – books and buildings."

So let's fantasize for a moment, especially those of us from hastily built suburbs who grew up in the shadows of strip malls that grew obese with box stores... what if these towns built around parking lots and warehouse buildings were converted into regional publishing centers, if the Walmarts and Bed, Bath & Beyonds and Best Buys and Michael's and Circuit City's and Targets became publishing houses and printers and IT centers for self-publishing, the architecture repurposed and opened up, made sustainable and innovative and more organic.

I gotta get my hands on the MIT Press book Big Box Reuse, by Julia Christensen. I saw it at Harvard Bookstore and really should have bought it!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A form letter rejection sent to an agent?!?

For a while now I have been increasingly annoyed by an aspect of our industry that few people on the outside ever see but those of us inside the business come up against on a daily basis. I am not writing about poor acquisitions (hello, book version of Awkward Family Photos), no I am finally fed up with the form letter rejection. Look, I'm an adult. I know that we are all overworked in publishing and the never ending river of submissions lend themselves to form letters as a way to alleviate the pressure but truly, they are a scourge in publishing.

I am sympathetic to overburdened editor. I was one once and I used to save up all my slush submissions for a slow day usually every 8-12 weeks when I would write all my rejection letters. I hated that day. I called rejection day "Black Friday" because I knew I was smashing dreams all across the country and sometimes the world. Brian can confirm this because I was usually grumpy on Black Fridays and he often got the blowback. However, I never wrote a form letter. I felt that I owed it to the writer to say something to them about their manuscript that they could accept and not immediately call me up to tell me I got it wrong. So, when I write that I understand why editors write form letters, believe me, I get it. I'm not all ginned up thinking I was some special editorial visionary.

Which brings me to today's mail. I went to the post office this morning and I received this rejection:

Thank you so much for submitting the proposal for [book title] to Chronicle Books for consideration for future publication, but I'm afraid that it does not suit our present publishing program. We appreciate having had the opportunity to consider this project. We wish you the best in finding the right publisher for it.

Now, I assure you I couldn't care less about receiving a rejection. I have drawers of editorial rejection letters which I have saved to keep me focused on how fragile and tenuous a career in publishing can be. However, what is the point of the letter above? I don't need an editor to go into detail about why they don't want a book but compare the lazy letter above to this rejection:

Before I leave for vacation, I wanted to get back to you regarding [book title]. [The author] is a fine, fine writer, and I liked especially the descriptive passages about the architecture of the town’s buildings. I’m afraid, though, that the whole love story just didn’t come alive for me, and that ultimately there just wasn’t enough tension in the novel as a whole to make it work the way I would want, so it has to be a pass for us.

Thanks, as always, for a chance to consider something from you, and I wish you and the author all the best with this book. Please do keep trying me.

Much more intelligent right? They both accomplish the same thing and the latter lets the agent know that they are still receptive to future material from the agent as well as providing something intelligent to tell the author in the agent's role as bad news breaker (not that I need that little perk it's just nice).

What gives? We are supposed to be the guardians of the culture of a nation. When did our gatekeepers decide that anything goes in the interest of saving time and energy? This may make me an old school throwback but doesn't our business require a certain amount of decorum as well as formality? How about a little caring? Creativity? It doesn't require to much time or brain power. Indeed, it might just teach you a little something about presentation, attention to craft, the ability of manage time, and plain old letter writing skills.

I don't need a two page rejection but does the young editor who wrote this letter have any idea who is on the receiving end? I'm not the most powerful agent in the world but I do have significant connections in the business as well as enough success that my inclination is not to submit anything to this editor again. Why? Because being satisfied with a rejection such as the first one points to an attenuated ability to think critically or create an argument. If such a mindless letter can be sent off as the one above was, what does this say about this editor's attention to detail in a manuscript they accept or, for that matter, all the other various and sundry elements which entail the publication process from receiving the manuscript for the first time to the inevitable pulping of the remaindered hard cover copies?

I am not asking for a revolution but a little pride in our craft. After all, we are already peddling what is, essentially, an obsolete object in our digitized American culture. If we don't care about the details and formalities who the hell will? Ultimately, a rejection letter such as the one I received from Chronicle Books says more about the failings of the business than it does the quality of the manuscript.

Too bad.


Wanna pretend that you are the President vacationing on Martha's Vineyard? Well, get readin'! The Big O apparently has brought along the following books to last him through August:
  • The Way Home by George Pelecanos
  • Lush Life by Richard Price
  • Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Tom Friedman
  • John Adams by David McCullough (a Vineyard resident)
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
I don't think he will make it through all 5 plus David McCullough is a boring writer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Reading good. iPhone bad.

Hello readers,

Yes, I'm a-writing to all six of you who still check in with us from time to time to let you know we haven't forgotten you. After essentially a summer hiatus, Survival of the Book returns in September with a vengeance. (If we had that voiceover guy, that last line would sound totally cool, right?) Our apologies for the space between posts. With Brian adjusting to domestic life and me jetting around the world, we really haven't been able to keep up with the blog as much as we should. But that stops today, or, well, actually in September. I, at least, will make a concerted effort to post as often as I can so we warrant all of those blog roll inclusions we seem to be on these days.

Today, good friends, I write to you about the survival of own reading! About a month ago, I purchased an iPhone (I know, I'm a man of the people) thinking that it would really help me in running my business as an agent. I could get my websites, email, texts (you get the picture) from anywhere and I'd never be out of touch. Except, I haven't ever been as out of touch with books as I have been in the last few weeks. This was supposed to be the "Summer of Steinbeck" and, while I have read several of his books, I am really slowing down now with the project and not because I dislike what I have been reading of his. I just haven't been interested in carrying a book with me since I have my trusty iPhone in my pocket. Heck it lets me read the Wall Street Journal for FREE whenever I want! Oh, yes, my dearies, there is a spectre haunting the readers of the United States...

For a while I thought it was just my imagination that I wasn't reading as much as before but then I stumbled on this article in the Los Angeles Times by David Ulin describing my affliction in precise and exact terms. Titled "The Lost Art of Reading" its focus is on "the relentless cacophony that is life in the 21st century can make settling in with a book difficult even for lifelong readers and those who are paid to do it." Yup. That's what was happening to me. I mean, books are my vocation and avocation, so my recent dip in productivity has me running confused. So, too, Mr. Ulin:
Sometime late last year -- I don't remember when, exactly -- I noticed I was having trouble sitting down to read. That's a problem if you do what I do, but it's an even bigger problem if you're the kind of person I am. Since I discovered reading, I've always been surrounded by stacks of books. I read my way through camp, school, nights, weekends; when my girlfriend and I backpacked through Europe after college graduation, I had to buy a suitcase to accommodate the books I picked up along the way.
I think if you read this blog, you'll probably recognize yourself in that paragraph. I know I do. Heck, one suitcase? Sometime I need two or more. Since I know, exactly, when this dry spell started I figured it would pass as the novelty of the iPhone wears off and I'd go back to the old standby, books. But that hasn't happened yet, I'm afraid. Is this some kind of Apple mind trick to keep me pacified until their version of an ebook reader comes out (not that I would use it. See here for more unfiltered grumping)? Perhaps.
So what happened? It isn't a failure of desire so much as one of will. Or not will, exactly, but focus: the ability to still my mind long enough to inhabit someone else's world, and to let that someone else inhabit mine. Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves.
Preach it, brother. My will is weak, weak, weak. I look at my shiny iPhone and know that on the short bus trip into Harvard Square I can check my email, send Brian a bratty text message, and review the days headlines on the Washington Post all with a few finger, um, touches, I guess. If the bus is crowded there is nowhere to stand such that my book doesn't jab some attractive woman in the arm or some muscled dude in the pecs. The iPhone solves that problem. I think, also, that the iPhone does provide some of Mr. Ulin's wistful "waiting stillness...filing us with thoughts and observations...make them part of ourselves" as I do read serious and literary articles on my iPhone while waiting for the light at Coolidge Avenue to FINALLY turn green. I learn stuff. I am often in awe of some prose pieces I find on various websites but his point is well taken. I still feel unfulfilled. Why?
Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.
I agree. In effect what I have fallen victim to is what much of the nation already thinks but isn't aware of: we have conflated knowledge and information. I have created a monster in my head via this electronic device that somehow reading newspapers, blogs, and websites constitutes the same kind of intellectual activity as reading a book does. I don't know how it happened. Worse, I don't necessarily know what to do about it as technology becomes faster, more portable, and easier to use. I am worried that this confusion could continue as our beloved but obsolete industry continues to work its way to "the wrong side of the grass," as a friend of mine once said. "What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age," David Ulin writes. I think he has nailed it. The iPhone has allowed me to feel "connected" to what is happening but in reality it has just amplified the "the buzz." I have parsed my time incorrectly thinking that any reading, irrespective of how trivial, is important when really jumping from one website to another while on the T is just an overvaluation of "a series of disconnected riffs and fragments." I worry that I am losing the ability to be contemplative.
How do we pause when we must know everything instantly? How do we ruminate when we are constantly expected to respond? How do we immerse in something (an idea, an emotion, a decision) when we are no longer willing to give ourselves the space to reflect?
This is easy. I shall simply choose to not to be in touch all the time. What I have always loved about books is that they allow me to shrink the huge size of the universe and human experience down into a size where I can see myself as part of a narrative which began with the first humans and extending through past my death until the sun expands in 5 billion years. Specifically, there is already someone who has experienced what I have and reading it in a book makes me feel connected in a way I have a hard time explaining with language. Mr. Ulin uses Saint Augustine's Confessions as an example of what I am writing about here:
There is the fixity of the text, which doesn't change whether written yesterday or a thousand years ago. St. Augustine composed his "Confessions" in AD 397, but when he details his spiritual upheaval, his attempts to find meaning in the face of transient existence, the immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide.
"[T]he immediacy of his longing obliterates the temporal divide." Perfect. Much more poetic than I am able to pull off but spot on what I mean. The iPhone, even with the ability to look at my beloved while I speak with her, does not accomplish the same thing. Ever. Consquently I am more convinced than ever that there isn't an app for quite everything yet.

So, what is to be done? For me I need to remember that I am a wanderer. We all are. I have always valued discovery via investigation and that only happens when you let go of the idea that you can always be plugged in. Indeed, why would you want to be? Last fall, I attended the Nobel Lectures at Harvard given by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero on "The Work of Doing Nothing: Wandering as Practice and Play." Professor Prothero focused on "wandering as one of the great themes in the world's religious and literary traditions, and as an antidote to contemporary obsessions with efficiency, productivity, and the purpose-driven life. Adam and Eve were wanderers, as were Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Paul, and the Buddha. Ulysses wanders across the pages of the Odyssey and the Pandhavas across the chapters of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. To wander is to move without destination into the unknown, and to open up to surprises." My iPhone--no, technology--took that away from me but now I am reclaiming lost ground.

I will prod myself to remember that books contain multitudes and infinities and when one reads a book, one's self expands even if we aren't aware of what is happening to us. It is telling that I have never had a similar experience with reading that I have had with the iPhone. Namely, I have never said "reading books has really made me feel more out of touch than ever before." Mr. Ulin, meanwhile, is still struggling but also still reading:
All these years later, I find myself in a not-dissimilar position, in which reading has become an act of meditation, with all of meditation's attendant difficulty and grace. I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It's harder than it used to be, but still, I read.
Now, where the heck is that copy of Bombs Away?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's a disease, man

We're all talking about healthcare right now, right? And what a conversation! I'm not going to go into the endless frustrations I experience in even hearing the word "healthcare" at this point, as this isn't the venue. I'll just briefly say that Kai Wright nails it here over at The Root - thanks to Mr. Wright for it - and when you weren't looking, the Columbia Journalism Review started saying everything right about the media and the endless goings-on in this crazy new info-saturated world. In relation to the healthcare "debate," see this fine post from Megan Garber - and thanks to Ms. Garber!

But my concern is how is Obama's crazy new vision of healthcare going to deal with a little disorder you and I might just share? I'm talking, of course, about bibliomania. And Alan Bisbort is talkin' about it too over at the Hartford Advocate:
On many Saturday mornings, I load the trunk of my car with whatever used books are piling up in my basement and drive to Whitlock's in Woodbridge or Niantic Book Barn in Niantic. Some of this is a holdover from the days when I sold books at a flea market in Washington, D.C., and, before that, worked at a bookshop on Capitol Hill. Most of it, however, results from my chronic case of bibliomania. I don't want cash for the old books. I want to trade them for more books. I just can't seem to ever have enough books.

Ah, the confessions of an addict. I'm pleased he mentioned one of my favorite used bookstores, Whitlock's. It's a helluva barn!

I've always gone there with my partner, who glories in an image of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg looking "distinctly as though they might have just ducked behind the jetty for a quickie" on a book jacket on his blog here. More thoughts on book jackets to come, apparently. Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Think before you Acquire

I'm all for those with good ideas getting credit, but with book publishing in free fall and everyone trying to figure out how to fix it, maybe some of the larger NY houses can stop acquiring flash-in-the-pan projects that will only clog up shelves in sad used bookstores that people who like reading avoid, where cheap people buy birthday gifts on the way to the party, sitting in their car erasing the price written in pencil inside the book.

Case in point: Three Rivers will publish a book version of Awkward Family Photos, the blog that is funny once but not really worth a second visit. This follows HarperStudio announcing a book version of the This Is Why You're Fat blog, last March. Again, funny once.

I guess there should be a place for just plain ol' product, but this is only feeding the whole "if I come up with a basic concept, I can sell it as a book!" idea, which in turn creates persistent, misguided people pestering editors who are hustling for new ideas to reach their acquisition targets.

I just want to try to at least slow if not stop this trend before we see Awkward Boners: The Book.

Thank you.