Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reasons I'm E-Worried, but not E-Scared

Ya see, I don't mind this so much, and I may even not scoff at the promises made by Apple boosters (though I'm not convinced of all things Mac, and have seen some diehards become quite disappointed in the last year or so with various Apple products). This is a pretty large reader - the article says 10 inches diagonally, but in one photo with a guy holding it, it looks larger. If it's going to have color graphics and multiple columns, it will need to be a decent size. So fine, bring it. Newspapers and magazines and books can use this thing and feel their content is being displayed in a respectable way.

What concerns me more is this kind of news, about Sony working with Smashwords and Author Solutions to adapt self-published books to their readers. I guess it's not the news that worries me, but the idea so celebrated by many folks that anyone can upload files and make books available on readers, and then HA! They are as good as your fancy-pants published books that go through a whole, ya know, editorial process.

I like the editorial process. I make my living off of it. And I find it disrespectful when it is dismissed so casually by folks in such a rush to get their words into print, or onto screen. Eliot Van Buskirk, who wrote this article on Sony, states,

When books and shelves are digital, rules about scarcity go out the window, allowing unheralded scribes to bubble to the surface based only on the crowd’s reaction — just as many self-motivated bloggers have become old media mainstays and video entrepreneurs have become YouTube phenomenons.

To publish your own book (or other people’s books if you’re a publisher) through Smashwords, one uploads the manuscript in a specified Microsoft Word format, sets a price, and selects affiliates: Stanza on iPhone, ldiko on Androi, Barnes & Nobles’ website, and now the Sony eBook Store. After that, there are no editors, publishers, copyeditors or other gatekeepers to worry about — or, for that matter, to improve your work — just readers.

I really dislike crowd sourcing. I don't trust crowds. I see this as just civilized, not elitism. Crowds have led to things like lynchings and putting people into camps, and a whole slew of the worst kind of reality tv programming on VH1. Why would we want to entrust crowds with our reading choices?

I worry less about Apple, which seems to have found a product that replicates the publishers' efforts in some ways with a device that, I hope, will highlight design and placement, as compared to the devices now that just display text, in one font, with no artistry.

David Crotty gets into what crowds often settle upon in making choices, in this post over at The Scholarly Kitchen. It is not a hopeful post, I can tell you, but I appreciate how the comment section is playing out. The post is about "the good enough revolution" as described in this Wired piece by Robert Capps, which offers "a variety of markets where highly advanced, feature-laden products are shunned in favor of cheap, low-quality products." The most obvious example is mp3 files over better sounding CD and album tracks. I'm constantly amazed at the tinny noise coming from college kids' headphones. Wouldn't they rather listen to that music in slighly higher quality form? Often not, which is the point. They settle, and they're fine with it. Crotty considers what this may mean for e-books:

E-books lack much of what a paper book offers: color, layout, typography, design, and actual ownership and the benefits that come with it (re-sale, loaning, etc.). The question is whether these things are really necessary, and whether the lower quality e-books are good enough for most readers, particularly given their lower price point and advantages in convenience and immediacy. If historical precedent is any indicator, the answer is in the e-books’ favor. While e-books open up new avenues for content and interfaces, cheap dumps of unformatted text may end up the dominant form.

Yes, "cheap dumps of unformatted text" is exactly what I meant, exactly what I hate.

Ted Freeman from something called Atypon Systems adds a comment later that I found amusing:
Another “good-enough” product to add to your list, David: blogs. We now seem to think that reading 500-word hastily-written opinion pieces by people who don’t read widely or write very well can substitute for finding (and sometimes actually paying for) thoughtful, carefully planned and well-written articles and books by knowledgeable people who look beyond the latest fads and press releases. As someone who scans dozens of blogs and a smaller number of Twitter feeds every day, I have reluctantly come to accept as “good enough” the half-baked observations about technology and publishing that pass for insight these days, and I accept them because it is my job to ferret out the significant trends in these subject areas from all the noise that is the blogosphere. One gets better at knowing where to look for the likely nuggets, but even the good stuff is often only “good enough.”
A fair point... and I apologize for wasting your time, good reader, when you could have been reading a more quality publication, online or otherwise!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Everybody Poops!?! They wouldn't dare!"

This is Banned Books Week. Piss off the conservatives and regressives, read a banned book.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Boston book and author events this week.

Tuesday, September 29

10:00 am, Porter Square Books
Shannon Hale, Forest Born

7:00 pm, First Parish Church Meetinghouse, $28
*E. L. Doctorow, Homer & Langley: A Novel

7:00 pm, Harvard Coop
Andrea Batista Schlesinger,The Death of Why?

7:00 pm, Porter Square Books
Nancy Kehoe, Wrestling with Our Inner Angels

7:00 pm, Brookline Booksmith
Franz Wright - The Wheeling Motel

Also, Harvard Book Store is having the grand unveiling of their new Espresso book machine. Here's the deets:

Join us for the


for our new

Please join us for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Harvard Book Store's new print-on-demand machine. This public event will include speeches from On Demand Books founders JASON EPSTEIN and DANE NELLER; Harvard Book Store owner JEFF MAYERSOHN; distinguished, award-winning novelist E.L. DOCTOROW; Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library ROBERT DARNTON; and a demonstration by the Google Book team

Wednesday, September 30

6:00 pm, Brookline Booksmith
Coolidge Corner Theatre, $5
Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked

7:00 pm, Harvard Book Store
Tad Friend, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor

7:00 pm, Harvard Coop
Matthew M. Chingos, Crossing the Finish Line,

7:00 pm, Porter Square Books
Deborah Tannen, You Were Always Mom's Favorite

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Eerily Prescient

View Larger Image
I just finished this book: Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, by Kenneth C. Davis, and I would heartily recommend it. It is dated, to be sure, as it was published in 1982, but the story of the Paperback Revolution that Davis chronicles is fascinating, with plenty of stories from the women and men at the forefront of 20th century American publishing.

As I got to the end, I was struck by how in agreement I was with so much of what Davis wrote over 25 years ago:
The paperback business in the 1980s is characterized by a failure of nerve an creativity. The result is a monthly outpouring of "lists" highlighted by artless imitation, a frightful lack of imagination, crass pandering to lowest-common-denominator tastes, and a slavish adherence to supposedly sound management practices that limit creativity and risk taking... [he goes on to talk about all the corporate consolidation of hardcover and paperback houses]

All of this has led to a fearfully homogenized output from American publishers. Always an imitative field, publishing - paperback publishing in particular - has become dominated by me-too-ism and an alarming dependence on ephemera. There are successes today, but where are the books that will still be read five, ten, or twenty years from today?... Ian Ballantine, the crafty old pioneer of the paperback who is still actively pursuing paperback projects, graphically described the problem as "publishers devouring each other's genitals."

Davis later nails the future - the future! - in this section of the final paragraph of the 1982 book:

Can such a revolution come again? Certainly. But it is likely that the paperback will not be the vehicle driving it. Perhaps books will play only a small role in the next wave. One vision of the future rests with the twelve-year-old who is not merely playing with a computer but programming it. The time has come when the computer has begun to take the raw materials of the Paperback Revolution - low production costs, accessibility, and inexpensive materials or software - to make a new and probably more radical revolution. One can only hope that there are people wise enough to take these elements and see what can be made of them.

Quite a charge! It might be a good start to get the history. Find this book at a library or used bookstore (as I did). 

Monday, September 21, 2009

You can pick your can pick your nose...

As if there aren't enough award ceremonies in our culture, along comes the National Book Foundation "you pick the winner" contest. Between now and November 18th you, gentle reader, can select "The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction" from a list of 6 famous works that have won the National Book Award for Fiction in the last 60 years. The nominees are:

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (Zzzzz...)
The Collected Stories of William Faulkner (Sorry, Billy this here contest is going to Ralphie.)
The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (Woot!)
The Stories of John Cheever
Gravity's Rainbow - Tommy Pynchon (A weariness comes across my eyelids.)
Invisible "The best novel written in America since the war hands down" Man - Ralph Ellison

All you have to do is supply an email address to vote and maybe, just maybe, win "two tickets to the 60th National Book Awards on November 18, 2009 and two nights in the Marriott Hotel Downtown, compliments of Marriott! "

You can find the ballot here. The current results (as of 4:21 on 9/21/09) are:

Not voting for Ralph Ellison makes puppies and babies cry, just sayin'.


Go Philly Go!!

I can't believe the Free Library of Philadelpia almost closed down, but thanks to a letter-writing campaign - who says they don't work?! - it looks like the system will remain open.

Just minutes ago, the Pennsylvania State senate passed bill 1828 by a vote of 32 to 17. For all of you who have been following the saga over the city's budget crisis, this is indeed the legislation that was needed for the City of Philadelphia to avoid the "Doomsday" Plan C budget scenario, which would have resulted in the layoff of 3,000 city employees and forced the closing of all libraries.

We cannot shut major urban public libraries! This is a great victory, folks.
[Thanks to Galleycat and Boing Boing for spreading the news.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

Good Advice for Writers

I appreciate the advice provided by the good folks at Georgetown University's Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications via their blog, where they explain:

Authors frequently ask "Why didn't the publisher advertise ME more," whereas editors more typically ask "What's the best use of promotional resources for the group, for the imprint, for the house?" It's not that authors are all ego-maniacal while editors are altruistic. That simple split can't work, since so many editors are also authors. But their goals are sometimes at variance when they inhabit their respective roles. It's also no wonder that some editors become successful authors, because they learn to think like editors and so they often make more successful publishing bids. The more that authors focus on editors' complete lists, the more likely the two camps are to gradually share goals, or at least come at divergent goals from more harmonious bases.

This applies pretty widely. As an Editor, I can only hope more authors take such advice into consideration.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Insider Scoop on Quartet's Demise

Kassie Krozser provides some insider info about Quartet Press's brief lifespan over at Booksquare. She tries to maintain a hopeful tone with lessons learned, and ends with this moment of optimism:
One thing I took away from my summer of digital publishing — other than the fact that you can’t take a few classes and learn this stuff, no, in this case, doing was everything — is independent publishers, small press, has so much opportunity in the digital marketplace. The model is viable, and, most amazing of all, there are many people who are willing to experiment, iterate, revise, and rethink.

Alright, indie folks, get to it!

Don't Blink!

In odd news, Quartet Press has announced that it is disbanding, after only starting up 2 or 3 months ago. The announcement, linked above, states:

For a variety of reasons large and small, Quartet Press has decided to discontinue operations. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, a hard-working team, and the support of the community, things just don’t work out.

This is one of those times. It’s disappointing to all of us, but it’s reality and we will all move on. We are truly grateful to all of you who have wished us well.Your support and enthusiasm for our venture was humbling, and we hope you will not see our company’s disbanding as an indication that any of us doubt the viability of digital publishing. Far to the contrary — if nothing else, we have learned that the future of digital publishing, while overwhelmingly complex, will be bright indeed, and we will each be working toward that bright future via our individual efforts.

It launched as a "digital publishing house" with the following mission: Quartet Press was founded on shared principles to create a high-quality, community-centric, and reader- and author-friendly digital publishing house. They expected to publish their first digital titles in a romance imprint this fall.

The team was led by Don Linn, formerly of Taunton Press and also included Kassia Krozser of; Kirk Biglione of; and Kat Meyer, long-time book marketer for trade and academic presses.

I want to be clear that I am not celebrating, as a fan of the printed book, and in fact hope that all these folks land on their feet in this uncertain publishing world. Best of luck.

I am, however, celebrating the well-deserved public pillorying of ignorant South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson, for his obnoxious heckling during President Obama's speech last night. I'm not blindly applauding all things Obama these days - because I'm too left rather than in anyway right, to be clear - but common decency should not be too much to ask of our elected officials. His apology ain't gonna cut it, either. Throw this man out of office - he's too childish and mentally unstable to have any power! And do *NOT* give him a book deal or I may have to leave publishing for good...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How to Move Forward

I'm all for the old adage, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It's a large part of my interest in the current book I'm reading about the "paperbacking of America," which obviously has many parallels to the painful, awkward transition to e-books. But at some point, nostalgia gets in the way of progress.

This is how I read Joni Evans' recent fluff piece in the NY Times, but perhaps I'm being harsh. I mean sure, the photo is fun. Perhaps this article suffers from being linked in Shelf Awareness today, so I went to it expecting a bit more substance. If I had stumbled upon it in the actual Times, maybe it would have had context that made it more... palatable somehow. Oops, an accidental moment of advocating for print culture again!

The same way everyone's obsession with Mad Men reads to me as a slightly coded frustration with multicultural living in which straight white men are challenged (a criticism admittedly stolen from my partner's reaction to the latest pop culture product to benefit from nostalgia for the fifties), I worry that our tendency to stare longingly and bleary-eyed at publishing's good ol' days is in fact a reaction to the loud-mouthed brats who have upset the old gentlemen's club of publishing - not just the literal gentleman's club of postwar publishing, but the elite group of white ivy-leagued publishers - including women - that held power really until the 1990's, when zines and other indie efforts starting making real headway on a big scale. Ah, what happened to the days when a handful of editors decided who read what and could all lunch with ease at their favorite little spot in Union Square, smoking and drinking and carrying on?

I guess in my mind I want to preserve some good elements of old publishing - strong editor-author relationships, for example - without preserving the elitism and the extreme centralized manner of publishing. Just as many people have taken back up victory gardens for a new era, can we take back up a thoughtful way of publishing for a new era, using the benefits of our online age without flushing the printed word down the toilet? Can we harness the explosion in reading that's happening into a newly organized publishing industry that keeps people employed and improves the written word, creating a useful and fruitful dialogue about issues alongside exciting, engaging, and intelligent fiction and poetry?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Recovering in Time for the Weekend

I know Christopher upset everyone by passing along a link to that depressing article in today's Boston Globe, to which I will *not* link. (Insider information: No sooner did Christopher post that then he was out the door for a looooong weekend away from the home of the Globe. Nice for some, hm?) I wanted to uplift us all with something fun and inspiring and PRO-book!

This'll have to do. As many have already read, Alexis Mainland has a nice piece in the NY Times about subway reading:
Reading on the subway is a New York ritual, for the masters of the intricately folded newspaper like Ms. Kornhaber, who lives in Park Slope and works on the Upper East Side, as well as for teenage girls thumbing through magazines, aspiring actors memorizing lines, office workers devouring self-help inspiration, immigrants newly minted — or not — taking comfort in paragraphs in a familiar tongue. These days, among the tattered covers may be the occasional Kindle, but since most trains are still devoid of Internet access and cellphone reception, the subway ride remains a rare low-tech interlude in a city of inveterate multitasking workaholics. And so, we read.

Of course this applies to other cities, at least those with public transportation in actual use. I myself can be found on the buses and trains of the MBTA reading a fat paperback I purchased at Isiah Thomas Books, a great used bookstore on the Cape. Sadly, the spine is busted so it keeps flipping over to page 134 or something, a page I have fortunately just read past, so I'm hoping it's less cumbersome now. I'd hate to return to Jim Thompson just to make train/bus reading simpler. I should also note that my partner insists on bringing a book on any bus and/or train ride, even though we are together and even if we are going a very short distance. He has a great fear of getting stuck without a book - a fear I appreciate, except when I have to carry the bag with a fat academic hardcover in it.

So we're still reading! And reading books! Let's go forth, this Labor Day, and flip some pages, folks - and let curmudgeonly Christopher harumph all he wants.

That's it. I quit. Books are dead.

I don't even really know how to respond to this article in this morning's Boston Globe. Read it for yourself and weep...but they have a $12,000 espresso machine! That's pretty good, right?

The only quote and question I have is:

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

Ok, Headmaster Tracy, how many books have you read on a computer screen?

Nice work. Now, I'm going back to bed with the covers pulled over my head...for the whole day.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Sad news from Simon and Schuster

We here at SoTB are sad to hear breaking news this week about three editorial cuts at Simon & Schuster.

Two editors at Pocket Books - editorial director Maggie Crawford and editor Margaret Clark - and an unnamed editorial assistant (rude) from Simon Spotlight Entertainment. Clark handled the Star Trek books, so Trekkies are pretty miffed. This follows 35 lay-offs at S&S reported last December.

I know I critize these overgrown corporate publishers for chasing shallow ideas based purely on sales potential, but no one likes to see folks laid off. Best of luck to Crawford, Clark, and the anonymous ed assistant.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

It's not about you

Christopher recently addressed his concerns as a reader having too much access to low quality information - why read a book on the bus when you can check email and read blogs on your i-phone? But I must also wonder, coming at this a different way, if technology is making our writing a bit sloppier. Yes of course it is in terms of grammar in emails, typos every which way. But I mean book authors. Why pore over drafts when you can just edit on screen and email chunks or even the whole manuscript off to your editor, just like that?

This is being too simplistic. Other pressures come to bear on the modern author. Timelines are always getting shorter. Editors are ready to launch a book the minute they sign it up, ready to publish it a minute later. Manuscripts are in demand and authors are being told to work on that elusive "platform," get the website ready and start a viral campaign, make a book trailer. (And by the way, I know others disagree, but book trailers? Fail.) If the editor, pushed by marketing, feels the idea works, even if the idea seems horrendous to some of us, the author should type up some words and then get to publicizin'.

Example? Here is a completely pathetic idea for a book that has now been published, and the author has created this trailer. The idea? Ask a question on Twitter every night, get results from followers, and publish it. I know, people. I purposely waited to eat lunch until after I typed that for fear of a mess on my keyboard. Beyond stupid. My nephew Nicholas has come up with better ideas over breakfast, and he's four. This is a parody of a book idea in a world of online media. But my point is that the idea was good enough in one instance in time for an editor to say yes and the author to do this experiment and jot it down and for the publisher to hit print - whatever whatever whatever DO THE TRAILER!

Elizabeth Kolbert busted someone with a flimsy idea recently in the New Yorker, calling out writer Colin Beaven on his "eco-stunt" that did not serve any larger purpose. Well played!

My point is that books are not articles, they are not blogs, they need stronger ideas in place to make them worth putting between cardboard and binding. A book is not merely based on an experience - that should not be enough to qualify you as an author. It should be based on that experience processed - and readers should be willing to pay for a good execution. As a reader, I'm often perplexed on how to find a good non-fiction book amidst all this junky product published and forced into bookstores in huge numbers.

Something that doesn't entirely bother me as much as perplexes me are memoirs that are half-baked, that could have been great novels or perhaps memoirs if the author hadn't stopped short and just gone with it as is, rather than taking it to the next level of processing. Unfortunately, this is how I felt reading The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott, published by wonderful independent Graywolf Press. Let me first say this is a great cover and very well crafted title and subtitle, and I say that knowing exactly how hard these aspects of any book can be. The packaging works beautifully. And I should also say now that I got the galley because the author put out a call on his website, The Rumpus, asking if anyone wanted a copy. I wrote about it on the blog. I had to read it and then send it on, making it viral. He has since emailed everyone who requested a copy multiple times about doing talks, inviting us to local events, asking us to spread the word, etc... He's handling it well, not overdoing it but keeping us in the loop, and I imagine I could be taken off the mailing list if I wasn't interested.

So all the goods are there, right, but the problem is the book itself. It's very readable and includes some really nicely crafted passages, but... what is it about? The writer is given free range, to roam from his addiction to Adderall to his connection to a murder in San Francisco, from memories of his early childhood to his masochism with various women. There is not a central narrative. Perhaps this is intentional, but it feels half-cooked, and hence frustrating. Maybe it's just the editor in me. And what was even more disturbing was how easy it was to read, because of the confessional tone. It's like reality tv! I can thoughtlessly go over pages enjoying the voyeuristic aspect of hearing about an untoward sex life, of tough life on the streets, private conversations...

What gets me even more is when someone like Steve Almond, who crafted a smart, readable memoir WITH A POINT in Candyfreak, praises this book in the Boston Globe! As I read the review last Sunday, I was thinking, "Don't say it, Steve. Just don't sa... d'oh!"
Although “The Adderall Diaries’’ is being marketed as a true crime book, it is not the sort that serves up its felonies in a lurid gravy of gore. When he chooses to focus on the Reiser trail, Elliott writes with a grace and precision that calls to mind Truman Capote’s landmark work, “In Cold Blood.’’ He, too, is fascinated by questions of motive, how our capacity to love is disfigured into evil, and our tangled mechanisms of denial. But the prime suspect in this book is not the murderer. It’s the author.

This is not Capote, people. Please. Truman had his issues and certainly was not above some hardcore vanity, but he still took the time and patience and steady hand needed to craft something substantial and lasting. Is In Cold Blood voyeuristic? Of course, but he still builds in some distance and pace and structure. He engages more than just blood lust. He has processed, and then he wrote, and then he edited and edited and edited (with help from William Shawn). Capote spent 6 years on that book.

I guess I just wish Elliott had taken those questions, his fascination with his own experiences, and maybe crafted them into more fiction, instead of just putting them nearly formless (but titillating) on paper.

But in an age of immediate everything, could we still wait around for 6 years for a book?