Thursday, October 29, 2009

Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas

Perhaps I should start by saying outright that Columbia University Press' publicity department sent me a copy of this book. There, is everyone happy?

The book in question is The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, by Ted Striphas, who is Assistant Prof in the Dept of Communication and Culture and adjunct prof in American Studies at Indiana University. He also blogs about the issue he raises in the book here. (Points to Striphas for linking from his faculty page to his publisher's page rather than Amazon...) The book got a nice bump in attention when it was reviewed by publishing gadfly Richard Nash in The Critical Flame (an online literary journal started by Daniel Pritchard of publisher David Godine, blogger of The Wooden Spoon (where he's been posting a lot lately, and good stuff, too), and others). Okay, I think credit and links where such things are due are done.

The book is a pretty great read for all of us publishing / book nerds. Striphas takes us on quite a rollicking ride, from faux books to decorate shelves in the 1930s, as having books became a symbol of middle class identity, to very public controversies around Oprah's book club - James Frey, Jonathan Franzen, et al - to Amazon warehouses to the creation of the ISBN... it's all here, and it generally comes together. I applaud him being thorough even if it left the book not as much a page-turner in certain sections, but I don't go far enough to agree with Nash when he suggests frustration in referring to this book being "very much a university press book in structure." (God forbid anything be academic...)

Striphas uses all these episodes to illustrate where we are right now, in the "late age of print." This does not mean a final stage in print culture, before we pass into a digital one. The printed book and digital versions, generally captured under the umbrella term "e-book," complement one another, in Striphas' mind, and I can see his point. This book is not heavy on the kind of on-the-ground argument we're used to hearing, on blogs and in industry publications, but instead is slightly more philosophical in argument with very on-the-ground examples - making for a useful book as we weigh changes that are happening everyday.

I appreciated how often Striphas knocks down notions many of us cling to, or rather complicates them. He problematizes our general demonization of big box stores. He makes a point to capture the past failures of e-books in many variations to take off. He won't let us just take a stand and run with it, but as any good scholar, he instead teases out the finer points. Perhaps some readers will find this frustrating, as if he's holding them back from strong feelings that will make change. I don't feel held back, however, just better informed. I see his point about big boxes, but I also find myself looking for hope when I hear about B&N closing stores in the future. Maybe indies will spring up in their place, and I can't help but think that will be better for communities. The reality is, smaller communities may not be able to support an independent bookstore, and without a B&N, people may just move online for book purchases.

So read the book, get educated, but stay angry - that's my short and sweet review of The Late Age of Print.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I'm Hopeful

I have a bit of optimism today due to the incredible turn-out at the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square. Despite some rain and intense wind, even the tents outside were crowded - and not just for the free coffee and ice cream hand-outs. There was a huge line for Ken Burns, who was signing books, and crowded booths for Symposium Books, the New York Review of Books, writers' meeting and training org Grub Street, and Brattle Bookshop (which has a nice Twitter feed on their site!). The events themselves, held in multiple venues in very close proximity throughout the day, were completely swamped. I tried to get into a talk moderated by novelist Jennifer Haigh and I was turned away because it was full. I ran into a former colleague who was standing in a huge line to see Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, and she reported that an earlier event she attended had an overflow crowd in a second, standing-room-only room.

It was incredibly gratifying. People in Boston care a lot about books, reading, and writing. 

It was particularly gratifying following the scene on CNN I witnessed while working out just before heading to Copley Square. Ivanka Trump was being interviewed in support of her new book, The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life, proudly published by Touchstone. She's 27 years old and sees this book as a peer-to-peer book to young people, especially (but hardly limited to) young women, just entering the workforce and going through all those early experiences - interviewing, entering an older workforce as a young person, etc... 

To put it mildly, this is not a book worth publishing. This is a privileged child who has followed in her offensive father's footsteps. There is something a little weird about a kid who doesn't rebel, but that weirdness becomes dangerous when the parent is Donald Trump and the kid is explaining that real estate investments a few years ago were a bad idea, but now as the economy is in the crapper, it's time to "shore up your resources and take advantage" of the low market. 

CNN mentioned that she's getting married this weekend to "millionaire publisher Jared Kushner." I'm always amazed to see words like "millionaire" or "wealthy" or "not mired in debt" next to words like "publisher" or "editor." Turns out, Kushner is publisher of the New York Observer, based of course on his family. These people live in an alternate reality. (The Wikipedia snarkily mentions that his family gave ample sums of money to Harvard and NYU, where Kushner "earned" his undergrad and law/business degrees, respectively.)

Later, I got home from the Book Fest only to have my partner emerge from the bathroom with a copy of the Oct. 19th issue of the New Yorker. (For the record, I do not condone reading in the bathroom.) He hands me the issue featuring an article titled "The Gossip Mill" by Rebecca Mead, all about Alloy Entertainment. It's quite a fascinating look into a seriously successful book packaging firm, which actually packages concepts for YA audiences, for books, tv, film, whatever. The guys running it and their female staff - a nice posited fact that is not pursued, as it needn't be - are portrayed as a bit vapid, which is probably fair. The meetings come across like a bad joke - pick something in the paper or randomly from pop culture and think about how it can be translated for kids, in the dumbest way possible. 

I don't know how worthwhile it is to complain about Alloy in particular, but the article does demonstrate the kind of short term thinking that passes for editorial process in some NY houses. These are not books built to last, they are books built to become trendy and sell. Let the idea run its course and, hundreds of Sweet Valley High books later, move on. But as the publishing industry reels from changes in the economy and the culture of reading, these kinds of products - Gossip Girl, Ivanka Trump's trash - seem unnecessary, clogging up the pipeline and making the books the rest of us low paid suckers are trying to publish that much more obscure.

But really, I'm optimistic! I promise.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Publishing overload

Not only am I overwhelmed at work, but I'm also overwhelmed by publishing news. I can't follow it all! There is...

- the endless chatter about the Amazon vs Walmart vs Target vs Sears - SEARS?! - price gouging with bestsellers. It's kind of turning back on itself as indie booksellers go from frustration to a kind of Zen-like attitude. From Shelf Awareness:

Arsen Kashkashian, inventory manager at the Boulder Book Store, Boulder, Colo., writes:
Perhaps the price wars are really a positive thing for independent bookstores. We are looking at canceling our orders from the publishers on these books and ordering them from Amazon, Wal-Mart or Target. We will save almost $10 per book on some of the titles. I figure we can cut our billing by close to $1,000 and offer our customers significant savings while still maintaining a healthy margin. If these companies want to become wholesalers at a loss why should we discourage it?

Deb Sullivan, co-owner of the Book Oasis, Stoneham, Mass., writes:
As a very small retailer of new hardcover releases, I'm embarrassed to say I might consider buying them from a big box at these prices. Why would I want to be forced into buying case quantities of hot titles when I only want three? With free shipping, I can still sell them at 30%-40% off cover and make a profit while getting customers into my store that will hopefully buy other full price items or more profitable second-hand titles.

Fair enough!

- Cory Doctorow is now an author trying to give books away for free. Actually, this article does a fine job of making sense of how giving stuff away for free can still allow for revenue, even if Doctorow's case is a bit funky.

- I would say MobyLives has the best write-up of B&N's new e-reader, the Nook. Melville House's Dennis Johnson is right - "worst product name in recorded history."

- I haven't even processed Marion Maneker's article with the cheaply provocative headline: It's the End of the Book World as we Know It. I don't think I disagree with it whole hog, but who has time to know for sure?!

- I still haven't read Richard Nash's presentation from Frankfurt, or had a chance to check in with his new creation, Cursor. (Points for the name, though.)

- I really want to go to the Whitney to see Steve Wolfe's exhibit, but I also wouldn't mind someone building me a book tree.

Okay, egads... back to editing!

Monday, October 19, 2009

AIDS is over

It's been a crazy last week, but I wanted to post after attending an incredible conference in pieces on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week.

The conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts titled ACT UP NEW YORK: ACTIVISM, ART, AND THE AIDS CRISIS, 1987–1993. This exhibition and conference seemed to generate very little media, but I don't know if that is despite efforts from the organizers or due to their focus being on within Harvard. If it's the latter, it's a damn shame. I would highly recommend a visit to the Carpenter Center to see this exhibition, which includes plenty of great posters and pamphlets from ACT UP New York, produced in conjunction with the group's groundbreaking and often effective AIDS activism. Also set up as part of the exhibition is a sea of monitors playing the interviews Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard have conducted about this work, as part of the oral history they are still producing. (For those unable to make it to the Carpenter Center, click through the link to see the interviews online and find out more about this great - and important - project.)

How does this relate to publishing though?

If you read some of Schulman's writing, you will see her constant fight to get published as a queer woman writing about queer people. And at the conference, you could hear underlying much of this struggle the way in which the media, including book publishers, ran hot and cold on AIDS. ACT UP was a grassroots movement that became hip and got the attention of the mainstream media, and helped launch some incredible and important people and books into the national spotlight. But at some point, the publishers had to look for the Next Big Thing, the demographic of choice for the typical book buyer who was willing to shell out money.

Many minorities can tell this tell - black women have had their day, as have Indian writers. Publishers chase non-fiction in the form of memoir, typically, as well as fiction. But they move on. This isn't political publishing, this isn't commitment to a group or cause. This is chasing a buck.

The AIDS publishing fad, which produced such books as Paul Monette's heartbreaking Borrowed Time, was dangerous, because it was playing with lives. Bringing attention to this disease and the devastation it was causing, particularly among gay men in urban centers, was vital for survival, and when corporate publishing decided it wasn't earning out and left it, many were left in the wake of this fad. Some might argue that once the face of AIDS realistically was not as much artistic young gay white men but in fact people of color, increasingly women of color, people who were poor... it just did not sell as well.

This is where independent publishing becomes more than just hip or funky. It becomes integral for keeping voices in the world of books in the form of memoirs, fiction, poetry, and informational books. At the same time, university presses have done an incredible job saving the history of AIDS activism during the early onset of the disease. This is why universities need to support their publishers and step aside to allow independence on their part, so editors can pursue projects left aside by corporate publishers chasing a buck and overlooking issues with serious impacts on the lives of many of us.

And now I have to chase some projects to see if I can contribute to salvaging some history!

Monday, October 12, 2009

One Crass Dracula

I just read a Q&A in Entertainment Weekly with Dacre Stoker, great-grandnephew of Bram, and I had to post. Sadly, I don't believe the Q&A, from the 10.16.09 issue, is posted online. 

It seems ol' Dacre felt it was time to write a sequel to Dracula, titled Dracula the Un-Dead. I must salute the person conducting this interview, Kate Ward, for letting the author hang himself by his own rope. His answers basically sum up most of what is wrong with corporate publishing. This is how books get written too often now, and as readers, we have got to NOT support it! (In this case, we have Dutton Books, part of Penguin, to thank.)

It starts right out the gate. Ward asks why Dacre wrote a sequel, and he explains,
We grew up thinking, Isn't it too bad that the copyright was lost in the 1930s? Everybody else has been able to take what Bram created and go in a million directions with it. And that's good and bad.
Ward later points out that, despite Dacre's claim that he and his co-author, screenwriter Ian Holt, tried to honor Bram in writing this, Dacre made this novel in third person rather than using the journal format used by Bram, to which Dacre replies,
We just said, "We're going to make it an exciting book because that's what people want these days." Kind of like a Dan Brown thriller, or Tom Clancy, or Clive Cussler. A real page-turner.
Ward also asks about how they wrote about sex in this book, which apparently is described quite overtly. Dacre explains, "We felt if we didn't make it juicy, people would go, 'Oh, this is boring.'"

And finally, Ward hands this guy the noose by asking if he's trying to capitalize on "the vampire craze":
Ian and I met about six years ago, but we had other things going on. When [the craze] was just beginning to pick up, we said, "You know what? We better get this thing done."
And there you have it. He was not savvy enough to hide his motivation here, to take advantage of a very current craze by creating a rip-off of something with pop culture resonance that appeals to the most common reader possible, with no effort at crafting something literary or lasting. I greatly appreciate this man's honesty, even if his publicist and editor don't.

Friday, October 09, 2009

On Steve Ross, a minor clarification to really kick his point in the ass.

First, let me say, dear readers, that I too am surprised by Brian's recent tone in his past few posts. Surprised and in love with it, that is! Yes, publishing is a polite business but sometimes you have to holler...and so he has. Bravo! Look, when something is bullshit there really shouldn't be any other way to deal with it other than call it what it is, try not to step in it, and address just why it is. While Brian has written much in the most recent post to delight in, my favorite part was when he took Mr. Ross to task for trying to use the old Rodney King canard and just have everyone buy a corporate press book already. Much like Noah Cross's Christmas Eve special in the movie Scrooged, you can almost here Mr. Ross's sales pitch ending with "your life might just depend on it!" Like the executives who had to watch the Cross commercial for his Christmas vision, I too, have become ill from his presentation that we are all in it together. Brian writes:

Ross frustrates me with his feeble defense of corporate publishing, because he wants us to change our focus. Don't worry about the owners, whom I too can't stand, but think of the people: "Why do we demonize publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward when they are peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust well before the economic collapse placed icebergs in the water?" This might be neoliberalism, though it's too early in the morning for me to tease out why and how. I just know it's short-sighted and, again, meant to merely silence critics. Ross wants to make salient points about posts and publishing, but would rather others just run out to a chain and buy a Random/Harper/S&S book already - for the industry's good.

The problem is that I don't know who the hell Steve Ross is talking about. "Idealists and lovers of literature?" I don't doubt that there are some out there, but I seriously question the altruism at the root of the plea. "But, I need an example of what you are talking about," I can hear you asking me. Glad to help. For weeks and months now here on SotB, we have often put up snarky little posts about the newest, stupidest idea to get published. First, it was a book about Facebook. Next, it was a book based on the blog Hot Chicks with Douchebags. As if that weren't enough, soon after arrived Flirtexting, or how to flirt on you cellphone (you minx!). Cynical, money making books all but the corporate publishing world does have to make a little scratch from time to time. However, these three books and that kind of merchandise publishing isn't really even the problem (though it certainly sucks). No, the problem is the economic system those poor, handwringing presses have had to live under since the go-go '80's. The corporate publishers may read Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas, C.P. Cavafy, or Carson McCullers while they are falling asleep in bed at night, but they certainly aren't out looking for next one of any of them. The big houses want the next big thing. Period. No development. No taking a chance. Nothing. Just give me the next big thing. My proof? Even after the presses swear that they are just "peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust," that only goes so far.

To wit, from this Wednesday's New York Times comes this beautiful nugget from Mokoto Rich's column about declining book sales:

Her Fearful Symmetry, the second novel by Ms. Niffenegger, author of the best-selling Time Traveler’s Wife, sold just 23,000 copies in its first week, according to BookScan. Publishing insiders suggested that was a disappointment given that Scribner, the unit of Simon & Schuster that published the book, paid Ms. Niffenegger close to $5 million for it.

We all expect miracles, and some miracles take a little while,” said Susan Moldow, publisher of Scribner.

First, 23,000 copies is only 23,000 more than me, and I've never published a book. But, I digress. The real kick here is the advance paid to an author who has only had one other book-Time Traveler's Wife, which did sell incredibly well but other than that doesn't have a track record and, if I may be so bold, isn't really a book people will read in 15 or 20 years. [Editorial opinion. Take it or leave it.-CV] Now, why was one author's second novel worth 5 million? Yes, agents have something to do with it. It seems unlikely, however, that they will earn their money back now after a disappointing roll out. Publishing, in case you don't know, is all about "the launch" so-uh oh-there could be a lot of red ink on the ledger for a while to come.

But, is it possible that maybe-just maybe-some of that 5 million could have been spent in some more constructive way by executives who are "idealists and lovers of literature?" Of course. You know it could. There are hundreds of voices out there writing right now who deserve a chance to be published by the major presses. Instead, most of the exciting new voices come from the smaller literary presses and then are whisked away by the major presses too busy to go out and find the writer in the first place. Ms. Niffenegger's first novel was published by one of the 5 best literary presses in the country if not the world-MacAdam/Cage. There are many others. Um, Alison McGhee, who has become a major press darling-"a miracle," in the words of Susan Moldow, was first published by Papier Mache Press in California. Enough.

The point being is that Mr. Ross is either naive or fooling himself when he writes that he can't understand why people demonize corporate publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward." I think we all know why. When something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck, chances are...

Why Should We All Get Along?

As soon as someone trots out that tired old Rodney King reference - "Why can't we all just get along?" - you know there's trouble. Chances are, the person using it is trying to take the air out of her or his opponent's sail and quiet a whole debate, and usually that person is the person who is on the side with more to preserve, if not gain. (I'm not saying this was the case with King himself - the phrase has clearly taken on a life of its own after the single, bizarre media moment.)

I read, then, Steve Ross' piece in the HuffPo with some skepticism. Ross is of course the former president of Collins within that beast known as HarperCollins, who recently lost his job in the re-org. He is a publishing veteran and probably a fine guy, and I did agree with some of what he said, but I disagree with his attempt to tamper down disagreements about e-books, and I can't sympathize when he whines, "at a time when it is in the best interests of everyone who loves books to help the major houses endure, they're being scapegoated, demonized and ridiculed for trying to survive with the crippling business model they've been handicapped with for decades." In his defense, however, he does come back around to explain why these big houses are screwed, and in fact manages to throw in some digs at the owners of these houses by noting "the audacious and perpetually unrealistic demands of the parent company for a 12 percent return on investments."

I also appreciate him calling out Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for his post about the need for $4 books. I agree with Ross that this post is fallacious and simplistic, dressed up to appear straight forward. Ross pulls out details to show Coker's inaccuracies, with the larger message that Coker has a dog in the fight. Some of his one or two-sentence paragraphs do contain some logic and make useful points, such as when he states, "Lower cost ebooks help publishers retain customers who might otherwise abandon books altogether in favor of lower cost alternative media options." But then, as Ross points out, he says things that are just plain false, such as, "Since it costs the author or publisher next to nil to "print" each copy of an ebook, ebooks are extremely profitable on a per-unit basis, even at a low selling price." I can tell you from working at small publishing houses that converting files into digital formats can be costly and labor intensive. But again, dog in the fight.

Ross frustrates me with his feeble defense of corporate publishing, because he wants us to change our focus. Don't worry about the owners, whom I too can't stand, but think of the people: "Why do we demonize publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward when they are peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust well before the economic collapse placed icebergs in the water?" This might be neoliberalism, though it's too early in the morning for me to tease out why and how. I just know it's short-sighted and, again, meant to merely silence critics. Ross wants to make salient points about posts and publishing, but would rather others just run out to a chain and buy a Random/Harper/S&S book already - for the industry's good.

I can't help but mention this post over at HuffPo's competitor, Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, wherein Lloyd Grove uncovers some nasty news: Sarah Palin's editor at HarperCollins, Adam Bellow (yes, Saul's son), was co-author on a joke book Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles last year, during the election. Grove describes the book:
Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles—which has a cover featuring a Photoshopped governor in skin-tight leather and brandishing an automatic weapon—is a sophomoric send-up of Palin and her family, featuring digitally altered images and derisive captions, and packaged in a 5-by-7-inch, 96-page trade paperback. A representative gag: Palin’s face superimposed on a painting of Joan of Arc, with the mocking commentary: “In between junior high and high school, Sarah heard God's call to save France.”

Welcome to corporate publishing, Ms. Palin! The good (or not), the bad (her new one), the ugly (this pathetic joke book) - all under one big flashy roof! Suffice to say, Bellow wouldn't 'fess up, since he's obviously too busy bragging about the complete trash he's just edited that is number one at Amazon. Thanks for helping make Going Rogue a reality, Bellows!

I suppose it makes sense that Ross, someone from HarperCollins, which insists on publishing whatever can make the most money regardless of the ideological beliefs of the authors, should argue for us all to get along.

Pshh, forget it.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Great Internet Burning Panel

I mentioned the Great Internet Burning Panel held in San Francisco last month, sponsored by Books Inc. It sounds like it was, well, hilarious. It was billed as a one-sided event, clearly:
"When I think of Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit,” says Alan Kaufman, poet and editor of the Outlaw Bible series of anthologies. It has been clear for many years that the Internet has been changing the book business, but according to Kaufman and this panel of outlaw thinkers, Peter Maravelis, Peter Plate, Herbert Gold, Ethan Watters, and Brenda Knight, the change amounts to nothing less than wholesale destruction. Join them to learn more about the problem and find out how to fight back.

Some folks like Axel Feldheim didn't blindly agree but were still had a good time:
The panel was prejudiced & condescending. Herbert Gold quipped, "The computer is a really useful tool. I wish I had one." Peter Plate correlated the rise of texting with the fall of teenagers' vocabularies. Brenda Knight admitted that she wouldn't hire someone who played MMORPGs, because they wouldn't be able to do the things expected of them. I disagreed with everything the panelists said, & I found the discussion absolutely engaging.
I was sad to see on this post that "about 25 people plus one occasionally restless dog" attended. I'd like to think more people would be interested, but hey, I still read printed books! What the hell do I know?

I originally read about the panel over at Shelf Awareness, which described it at a bit more length:

Kaufman began by reading an essay soon to be published in Barney Rossett's Evergreen Review, which is now an online-only publication, he noted. "The book is fast becoming the despised Jew of our culture. Der Jude is now der Book," he read. "High-tech propagandists tell us that the book is a tree-murdering, space-devouring, inferior form of technology; that society would simply be better off altogether if we euthanized it even as we begin to carry around, like good little Aryans, whole libraries in our pockets, downloaded on the Uber-Kindle."He called the book a "sacred object" and admitted he might be crazy for resisting an e-book-only world, but said: "I will fight it. I will resist. For not only is this effort at consolidation of the world's literature into the hands of a single central repository a demoralizing cultural prospect, but it is a move towards a new form of high-tech totalitarianism."

Peter Plate disagreed--somewhat. He pointed out that all technologies, social and political interactions and life itself are "always at the service of language." He continued: "Language, regardless of the technology, is in the hands of readers and writers, and it cannot be reduced."

Ethan Watters said he did not see parallels to the Holocaust and thought technology offers some democratizing opportunities. But he does worry, he went on, about some of the trends and does not want to see blogging replace the thoughtful work in books. He observed that right now some of the best bloggers are skilled, former magazine writers. What about the next generation?

"I think we need to have an electronic civil rights movement," said Brenda Knight. She noted that Google CEO Eric Schmidt said Google's purpose was to help people decide what kind of lives they want to live. To much applause from the audience, she asked, "Doesn't that sound like control to anyone?"

Herb Gold remembered fondly the time when literary writers were rock stars and lamented a technological world where casually finding out what those around you are reading is impossible. You can't exactly go up to someone reading a Kindle and ask what they are reading, he pointed out.

It was a cranky, contentious panel, to be sure, with exaggerations thrown around demanding debate.

I appreciate that folks are airing the concern about control, as the debate on e-books and digitized platforms is so often framed as the great democratizing of the reading experience. In some cases, this may be true, but too often, corporations like Amazon pick up this same rhetoric and throw it around, creating the exact opposite situation where the folks at Amazon dictate what you can and can't read, on a device they have trademarked within an inch of its life. Now they are going international. America exporting its finest, as ever! Now you can download a book on Amazon while waiting at a drive-thru at McDonald's, in downtown New Delhi. Fantastic. This BusinessWeek article by Olga Kharif even opens,
Nearly everyone I know who owns a Kindle travels internationally. So Amazon’s latest move, to allow e-reader buyers to download e-books wirelessly not only in the U.S. but also in more than 100 other countries comes as no surprise. Amazon is simply trying to increase the device’s appeal to its core, business traveler market segment.

So as you're flying overseas to train workers at a phonebanking operation where you've outsourced labor, you can enjoy the convenience you've become accustomed to at home?

Let's talk revolution in books, in a way that isn't so easily cooptable. No, I'm not talking Nazi talk as used by Alan Kaufman. That's a bit much. But let's remember the great potential of the book in its present form and expand it in a sensible way that does not play into the hands of feverish capitalists invested in destroying small, independent businesses and free-thinking. Sound good? Good.

ADDENDUM: Alan Kaufman was sweet enough to send me a link to his Evergreen Review essay. Now you can enjoy his thoughts in their full, proper context. Thanks again, Alan!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Positive Post!

Though admittedly I voiced support for Stephen Elliott's recent criticism of the Huffington Post's new book publishing coverage over at the Rumpus, I am now linking with great enthusiasm to a HuffPo piece. But hey, the Books page is edited by an editor from Dutton, Amy Hertz, while the piece I'm supporting here is from one of my favorite independents, Chelsea Green, in one of my favorite parts of the world. I'm sure Hertz is a lovely person, but she's definitely working for a corporate extreme at Dutton.

But then there's Makenna Goodman... Insert crush here.

Ya see, Goodman threw off the shackles of corporate publishing and left that world behind for Vermont farming, as she says, "leaving the world of possibility to shovel SHIT and get frost bite." But when she needed some extra money, she stumbled upon Chelsea Green and it was a match. She quotes the publishing house's mission regarding their model: "a perfect example of what is called a 'triple bottom line' practice, one that benefits people, planet, and profit, and the emerging new model for sustainable business in the 21st century."

Reading Goodman's list of the four things that make CGP the place to be was like seeing a language in print that you thought had gone extinct. It was logic in an illogical world. For example,
While all the big corporate houses are laying off and cutting back, Chelsea Green is doing better than we ever have. Ours is a mission-based business, whose employees respect the lives (and values) of the authors they're promoting. We put out books on fermentation, and make pickles at home, in other words. We don't do one season Howard Dean, one season Ann Coulter. We just don't.

How many times have I flipped through a catalog for a big corporate house and seen the big lefty of the moment - Michael Moore, say - only to find a Glenn Beck type 5 pages later, followed by some great literary novelist? It's a list built on chasing profit, and if you ain't profitable - I'm staring at you, the messy, bedraggled, unkempt lefties - then you ain't on the list.

And then Galleycat, a blog that symbolizes more than any NYC publishing's misguided attempts to speak to the rest of us off the island, strolls along. This blog shocks me in its cluelessness, even as it legitimately posts some useful news quickly. The endless self-promoting - our radio show/podcasts - and constant posting of video clips, including 2 minute clips of people in taxis reacting to press conferences, and their painful attempt at multiculturalism with Jeff Rivera's "featured Book of Color Pick of the Day" - no offense of Rivera and his organization, which seems great, but this set-up feels painfully ghettoizing, like African American lit sections at Borders - it all adds up to NY telling us what NY is thinking, with the understanding that this is what matters. And maybe 4/5ths of the time, I don't even click on the links in google reader.

So blogger Jason Boog links to Goodman's post and asks, "does the future of publishing begin outside of New York City? " Wha-wha-wha?! Well obviously. And if the fat cats in the big houses don't see that while they hire "digital managers" and abuse 23 year old trust fund kids and ignore conversations happening off the island and outside of their boardrooms and lay off people who need and deserve support, healthcare, and job stability and snap up and drop authors without giving a second thought, then I don't know what to say. Maybe Makenna Goodman can help - but only from afar.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

For the love of independents

If you're like me, you want to hear all of the wonderful news coming out of independent / university presses. Now you can follow them all on Twitter. (See how comfortable we are here at SotB with new-fangled interwebs stuff!)

Jessie Bennett, blog editor extraordinaire over at the Beacon Broadside, the official blog of Beacon Press, created this TweepML in which you can mark all the best independents and in one fatal swoop, BAM, sign into your Twitter account and hear from them all.

More later on the Great Internet Book Burning Panel out in San Fran, hosted by Books, Inc. Wish I could have attended! Here's a teaser, a quote that's been reproduced widely online:
"When I think of Kindle I think not of imaginations fired but of crematoria lit,” says Alan Kaufman, poet and editor of the Outlaw Bible series of anthologies.


Friday, October 02, 2009

A quick note about my co-editor...

Hello, dear readers,

I just wanted to respond to one thing I read in the comments over at Teleread about Brian's perceptive and honest post here on self-published ebooks and the possible disappearance of editorial work in the process of making said ebooks.

1) Brian is not a "disgruntled editor." If anyone here at SofB is, it's definitely me.

To be honest, I think Brian didn't go far enough. Let's be honest...when was the last time that you bought a self-published book? I haven't. I don't know if Brian has or not but I seriously doubt it. Writing, like baseball, is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. As Noel Griese wrote in those Teleread comments:
There’s a simple reason why most self-published books are bad. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in the Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything – playing a violin, playing professional sports, writing a book. Most of the amateurs who self-publish have come nowhere close to paying their dues as authors.
Those who succeed at it have always-ALWAYS-had a professional editor at their side. Period.

As for copyeditors? I agree with what Shakespeare initially wrote in Henry VI before he changed it to lawyers: "First thing we do, let's kill all the copyeditors."

Who says blogs can't generate excitement?

- Christopher

Sticking Head out of Hot Water

It seems my last post caused a bit of a ruckus online. Unfortunately, most of the discussion happened over at Teleread, so the many comments about my thoughts sit there. I still managed to read it through and I'm now processing reader reactions. Funnily enough, the news that prompted the piece may have been false or exaggerated. Welcome to the 21st century media world!

I will respond more thoughtfully soon. I don't have time now. But I will say that I am not just frustrated but legitimately concerned by authors calling for editors to leave publishing companies, which have clearly become the enemy, and work with authors directly. Perhaps editors can come together and do this as an agency of some kind, I know that is being done and discussed, but too often, editors have been laid off and have had to start freelancing - a problem faced by graphic designers, sound editors, and many others in creative industries. I know many people in this situation. That would be all well and good if freelancing did not mean getting buried by insurance costs and scrambling for your next paycheck. This is a labor issue. Writers of all people should appreciate this.

I would want to look into how many self-published authors who are so invested in throwing aside the shackles of publishing companies are either independently wealthy or have a day job, and just see writing as a hobby. For some of us, writing and editing is our only livelihood. Am I worried about someone stealing my lunch, to paraphrase a commenter here? Yes. And my dinner, and my mortgage, and my health insurance.

Publishing does not have to be as solitary as all that, and as reliant on the market in the way some folks are demanding. Reading may be something many of us do for leisure, but getting the books made and distributed is labor. That labor needs to be protected.

To me, just to be clear, the ideal is a small, focused, smart, independent publisher with a defined list. I applaud Akashic Books , Chelsea Green, New Directions, and more. They know their community, they take risks, and they support their authors and their employees. (I particularly wanted to be clear on this in response to Michael Pastore's misreading of my post, in which he thought I was arguing that only big name, corporate publishers could responsibly find books for readers to read. Hardly the case!)

More on this soon.