Thursday, December 31, 2009

Ending the new year right

I know posts have been light, and I got some news: They're going to get lighter. Christopher and I will not be posting at all next week, due to travels, but we'll be back and better than ever as of Monday, January 11th.

So in this last post of 2009, I wanted to link to another blog that has done a fantastic job of exposing Amazon as a massive hype factory. Mike Cane over at The E-book Test has called out Amazon due to their refusal to provide numbers. How many of these stinkin' Kindles, the supposed top seller over at the mega-retailer, have actually been purchased? Amazon won't say.

In response, Cane has issued a challenge to trade publishers, to reveal sales of Kindle editions. And so far, things ain't lookin' too hot.

One anonymous publishing professional commented:

I work for a trade house, and while I am not going to reveal my identity or that of my employer, I can tell you that our top Kindle sales of any one title are in the range of about 1000 downloads life to date. I am someone who receives the sales numbers for our titles directly from Amazon and I look at them every week; and, I agree that the actual sales numbers are much LOWER than anyone is pretending to have achieved.

Not promising.

Another responded:

I also work at one of the big six trade houses, specifically in the ebooks dept. “200,000 ebooks sold” is laughable, even if it *is* Dan Brown. Our numbers track much closer to the above Anonymous posters’.

Amazon’s lack of transparency in disclosing these numbers is unconscionable, and is making publishers, who are already scared stupid, act even stupider.

Oh, and while I’m here: this silly business of labeling free ebooks as ‘bestsellers’ needs to stop, too.

Strike two. Here's hoping for a third one to knock this crap out of the park.

I should also note that Dennis Johnson, the publisher at Melville House whom I greatly respect, added his two cents:

It’s great that you’re questioning Amazon on yet another in an endless series of dishonest business practices, but why in the world are you laying it on publishers to tell the truth about Amazon, as opposed to simply calling upon Amazon to tell the truth itself? One would think it was even more morally incumbent upon Amazon to do so in the first place, and that it was as well legally incumbent upon it to do so as a publicly traded company. No matter how obvious a thing is in the book business, it seems it’s always the publisher that’s held responsible, and perceived as withholding the truth.

Mike Cane responded:

If publishers knew their “competitor’s” biggest-seller stats, they’d have a way of extrapolating some sort of data from that. Until they share this information, Amazon is using Divide & Conquer on them. Publishers can come to their own rescue.

All in all, a great post and an interesting conversation, which is what all us hapless publishing bloggers are going for.

Happy New Year, readers!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Someone Else with Hope

The posts may be a bit light if at all existant for the rest of this week given the holiday, but we're posting them fast and furious in the run up...

This is a quickie.

I wanted to post a link to Daniel Pritchard's post over at The Wooden Spoon about poetry. We of course did our small, small part - with Dan Gordinier's help - to encourage the reading of poetry, but Pritchard is must more knowledgeable than me and perhaps more invested.

In this post, Pritchard refers to comments by Ron Silliman on a year-end round-up at the Poetry Foundation blog, in which Silliman expresses his thoughts on where poetry stands in the current publishing landscape. Silliman is hopeful because small publishers can reach readers directly, but Pritchard in response complicates that sentiment in a useful way:

Poetry publishing has always been pretty niche. The changes are not so huge as to remove cultural authority altogether and make it so any random DIY-er chapbook publisher will thrive — someone with authority still needs to sign off on most things to convince readers to pick it up (hence, for instance, blurbs). And, as I've written here before, the fact of (almost) universal availability is not a sign of utopian egalitarianism; it's just a now-irrelevant a holdover from print. The internet is an amazing tool for making poetry available. Everything is equally available; that in itself is unremarkable.

But Pritchard, too, has hope:

Readers are getting savvier about the internet. Critics are beginning to engage more, to quote more, to take advantage of the resources of internet publishing instead of bemoaning the end of print. Authority can be re-constructed, with patience, over time, by helping readers make their own decisions through reasonable argument and justification. There is a new model emerging based on the quality of the writing and the criticism rather than monied interests. (I think of Reginald Shepherd, whose blogging introduced him to a whole audience.) That is what gives me hope for poetry.

So as we head into a whole new year, let's see if we can shore up some optimism, ignore endless Q&A's with Jeff Bezos about the wonders of the friggin' Kindle, and get good writing in front of eager readers.... preferably on a page rather than a screen.

Even though I hate eReaders, don't say I'm not diplomatic...

Here is my good friend, Dan Costa, executive editor at, reviewing the various eReaders. Shame on you, Dan. First you beat my football team in the semi-finals, then you go on FOX television, and, if that weren't enough, you put a positive spin on a device sent to destroy me. Ah, the holidays...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Theatre is to Film as Book is to E-book?

We offer a range of exciting posts here at SotB, from quickie news alerts to lists of great books in a genre to mid-range commentaries on news buzzing around the publishing industry. But in the last week or so, an idea has been bumping around my head, though I keep getting distracted by things like chocolate truffles (we made them ourselves!) and christmas movie viewing parties (hosted by SotB's own Christopher!).

Ya see, my partner and I recently re-watched All About Eve, the classic 1950 Bette Davis movie about the young starlet, Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. We own this dvd - quite frankly, every gay man should just be issued a copy upon coming out - and we brought it to some friends' house recently for a viewing. We all had to prepare to see the wonderful on-stage take off of the movie, the Gold Dust Orphan's All About Christmas Eve. This local (in Boston) production is only playing once more, this Saturday, but anything the Orphan's do is worth seeing. They are camp in the best sense, sure to offend and amuse and shock and impress and disgust. I can't say enough good things about this theatre troupe. I had to use the graphic from the play because it sums up a lot about the production
. Buy Tix  Now

But back to Eve, the movie. Now stay with me, because if I play this right, it will work on two levels. This would be quite a writing feat for us here at SotB.

As the story of the film begins, Eve, a nobody, manages to get herself backstage to meet the star of the show, Margo Channing, played by a sour, cross, inflated Bette Davis. She's middle-aged and knows it, but keeps starring in this one playwright's plays, even as the main characters stay the same age. Channing's boyfriend is the director, and he's on his way out to California in this, his first scene. Eve says no one comes back once they go out to LA, but he swears he will. It seems Margo never made the move to movies.

What strikes me as so curious is how much the movie plays off the theatre world - you have the playwright and his wife, the emotional director and dramatic star, the treacherous film critic, Addison DeWitt. There is talk of packed houses, papering the theatre, and names in lights. But this movie came out in 1950. Surely it followed a conversation in which people questioned how long theatre would last as movies became the go-to evening entertainment.

To make matters more intriguing, in 2008, the Gold Dust Orphans traipse along and turn the whole thing into a play, and pull in crowds to see it each night, finding such success that they brought it back this year. And it's exciting to see live, as the actors pull out subtle and not-so-subtle moments in the movie and exaggerate to satiric and hilarious extremes. (My favorite is turning the playwright into a closeted Paul Lynde character - it's inspired.) This reminds me of the success Jill and Faith Soloway found when they created The Real Live Brady Bunch in 1990, reinvigorating a tv show into a live performance.

So what does this mean for books?

It just occurs to me that readers can switch between different mediums in their urge to read. I know this isn't shocking, but I was resistant to this point. (I suspect Christopher still is, to some extent.) Last weekend, as my partner and I wandered through B&N (though we didn't buy anything!), I found myself picking up some books and thinking, "this should have just been digital." Do we need writers reflecting on their favorite beaches as a printed book? I picked up the new hardcover I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir, by Mickey Leigh. Did that need to be in hardcover, for $26? Wouldn't that make more sense in paperback and digital editions?

This is all quite simplistic. So many things have to change, and they are changing. While they do, I still maintain we have to watch out. People who get all whipped into a frenzy saying it's time to tear down those walls and get books people want into people's hands are too often the people who can afford to produce their own books, which doesn't help up and coming writers.

Again, I find myself looking to indie publishers and university presses - the line between the two is ever blurring, when you look at the new South End Press, the Dalkey Archive, and the new deal for Curbstone Press. That's one exciting barrier to come down! Universities should support exciting publishing that's not going to generate huge revenue necessarily. We need to pump money into this places and let editors organize lists and generate new projects and new writers with an open mind, but also a sense of collective spirit.

The point is, we can open things up, and we should. Let's explore digital platforms. But screw Amazon and its controls - the Kindle is useless. Sadly, I test-drove the Nook on my way out of B&N and it was a massive fail, with slow, blinking page turns and general clunkiness. But as we all know, people are reading on all kinds of devices.

It's clear that people are going to read books about novelists writing on typewriters on their electronic devices, and perhaps then someone can write a book about the experience of reading that novel on that device and turn it into a memoir that gets published as a $26 hardcover and then turned into a movie, which can then become a hit stage musical. Maybe it's the holiday spirit racing through me, but finally I'm curious to see what all this could mean. Suddenly I want to see the digital succeed for appropriate genres and titles - which is not every title and every genre. But I want it to work in a way that will make indie publishers money, and new writers money. I don't want this to be a gimmick for fat cats, but something innovative and useful and real, something readers actually want rather than something an ad agency tells us we want.

In closing, and only tangentially related, my crush Makenna Goodman from indie great Chelsea Green has a new article up at HuffPost, and you know I already read it. I haven't read the book she mentions, How the Rich are Destroying the Earth by Herve Kempf, but no one should be surprised by my heightened level of interest.

Oh, and one last thing: give money to a charity (including but not limited to a library, literacy organization, or cultural center) this week. It's just the right thing to do!

A Christmas Card from Etgar Keret...

...via our good friend Andy Hunter at Electric Literature. Enjoy. More from us soon...promise.

Christmas Card

by Etgar Keret

There was this guy who could walk on water. Not that that’s such a big deal. Lots of people can walk on water. They usually don't know that because they don't try. They don’t try because they don't believe they can do it. In any case, that guy believed, and tried and did it. And that’s when the whole mess began.

That guy had an apostle who was very close to him and sold him out. Not that that’s such a special thing either. Lots of people are sold out by someone very close to them. If they weren’t very close, then it wouldn’t really be considered being sold out, would it. Then the Romans came and crucified the guy. Which, also, isn’t very unique. The Romans crucified a lot of people. And not just the Romans. Lots of other nations crucified and killed lots of people. All kinds of people. Ones who performed miracles and even ones who didn’t. But that guy, three days after they crucified him, was resurrected. And by the way, even that resurrection thing didn’t happen here for the first time, or even the last, for that matter. But that guy, people say, that guy died for our sins. A lot of people die for our sins: greed, jealousy, pride, or other, less well-known sins that haven’t been around for such a long time. People die like flies because of our sins and no one bothers to even write a Wikipedia entry about them. But they wrote one about that guy. And not just any old entry, but a really big one with lots of pictures and blue-colored links. Not that a Wikipedia entry is such a big thing. There are dogs that have Wikipedia entries about them. Like Lassie. And there are diseases that have entries there, like scarlet fever and multiple sclerosis. But that guy, they say, unlike multiple sclerosis and Lassie, achieved what he achieved through the power of love. Which is something we’ve also heard before. After all, there were those four English guys with the hair and the beards too, just like him, except that they were a little less famous, and they sang many songs about love. Two of them are already dead, just like him. And they, by the way, have a Wikipedia entry too. But that guy, there was something special about him. He was the son of God. Except that, actually, all of us are God’s children, right? We were born in his image. So what the hell was it about that guy that turned him into such a big deal? Such a big deal that so many people throughout history were saved or killed in his name?

Anyhow, every year, around the end of December, half the world celebrates his birthday. In many places, it snows on his birthday and everyone’s happy. But even in places where it doesn’t snow, people are happy on that day. And all because of what? Because a skinny guy who was born more than two thousand years ago asked us all to live lives of love and morality and was killed because of it. And if that’s the happiest thing this weird race has to celebrate, then it deserves a Wikipedia entry too. And actually it's got one. Go to the nearest computer now. Type in “humanity” and you’ll get the entry. Short. Very short. Not a lot of pictures. But even so. One whole entry on a fascinating and slightly baffling race. A race that could have walked on water and never tried. A race that could have killed all those who believe the world can be a better place and in most cases, made sure to do just that. So merry Christmas to you too.

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret can be found at

The journal Electric Literature can be found at

Friday, December 18, 2009

"It's a major award!"

So, I opened up my email in box this freezing ass morning and what should I see but this:

For individuals, institutions and collaborative programs using innovative approaches to successfully inspire Americans to become lifelong readers.

Click here to access an application for
the Innovations in Reading Prize.
Application can be saved to desktop
and is editable within Acrobat Reader.

The application details:
Who is Eligible ~ What the Prize Consists Of
The Nomination Process ~ Evaluation Information

Each year, the National Book Foundation will award a number of prizes of up to $2,500 each to individuals and institutions--or partnerships between the two--that have developed innovative means of creating and sustaining a lifelong love of reading.

In presenting the National Book Awards and its other literary and educational programs, the Foundation’s goal is to expand the audience for the best of American literature. Through the Innovations in Reading Prizes, those individuals and organizations that use particularly innovative methods to generate excitement and a passionate engagement with books and literature will be rewarded for their creativity and leadership.

Postmark deadline for all materials is February 17, 2010.

Um, hello? How about someone nominate Survival of the Book? Strike a blow for a totally independent, completely non-professional, profoundly compelling website about "a passionate engagement with books and literature." We will, of course, remember to thank you in our acceptance speech.

Ok, for real, this seems like a fine opportunity for the reading community-as opposed to the backward publishing community-to make its voice heard. Is there someone you know or an organization you're familiar with which helps to foster the love of reading? Why not try and reward them? The NBF is looking for:

"...applications from individuals and institutions that demonstrate a commitment to literature and the promotion of reading for its own sake. Important criteria are creativity, risk-taking, and a visionary quality (honestly, I don't know how we haven't won this thing before - Eds.), as well as a novel way of presenting books and literature. We are less interested in programs where the focus is on basic literacy and the pedagogy of reading (whatever that is - Eds.).

The award is worth $2500 and could go a long way for a struggling yet innovative person or group who are already doing this kind of work. Take a moment and see if there is anyone in your community who deserves to be nominated.

You can find all the details at the National Book Foundation's website. Or, if you'd like to just get to it, the application can be found here.

Really, though, who loves books more than the two of us? I've freakin' eaten a book just to try it for goodness sake. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Contemporary Poetry Starter Kits available!

I'm all for writing and talking about activist writing, as I have done here multiple times, but more literary writing deserves plenty of attention from publishing / readerly folks, too. In that spirit, I give you some poetry.

A few weeks ago, Jeff Gordinier got in touch with us here at SotB to alert us to a charming post he contributed to the Poetry Foundation's blog, which we referenced in a post here. In this post, he confessed to having an addiction to poetry books. I then exchanged an email or two with Gordinier and he kindly passed to me a list he had put together for a friend, which he referred to as a "'starter kit' for anyone who’s interested in dipping a toe into the vast pool of (mostly) contemporary poetry." I for one am thankful for such a "kit" as I'm fairly useless in this genre, reading randomly and messily when I come upon someone interesting.

So here ya go, folks, just in time for the gift-giving season... It's contemporary poetry worth having!

Say Uncle, by Kay Ryan
The Niagara River, by Kay Ryan
Crush, by Richard Siken
Making Certain It Goes On, by Richard Hugo
The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck
Averno, by Louise Gluck
Landing Light, by Don Paterson
Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith
Teahouse of the Almighty, by Patricia Smith
Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, by Simon Armitage
The Shout, by Simon Armitage
Collected Poems, by Thom Gunn
Black Box, by Erin Belieu
Silence in the Snowy Fields, by Robert Bly
The Continuous Life, by Mark Strand
Made Flesh, by Craig Arnold
Rose, by Li-Young Lee
Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert
Amplitude, by Tess Gallagher
Moon Crossing Bridge, by Tess Gallagher
Hinge & Sign, by Heather McHugh
Lucky Wreck, by Ada Limon
West Wind, by Mary Oliver
Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler
Swithering, by Robin Robertson
A Painted Field, by Robin Robertson
What the Living Do, by Marie Howe
Given Sugar, Given Salt, by Jane Hirshfield
The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield
Love Poems, by Anne Sexton
Wind in a Box, by Terrance Hayes
What Narcissism Means to Me, by Tony Hoagland
Donkey Gospel, by Tony Hoagland
Embryoyo, by Dean Young
Skid, by Dean Young
The Pajamaist, by Matthew Zapruder
Collected Poems, by Ciaran Carson
Your Time Has Come, by Joshua Beckman
Take It, by Joshua Beckman
Selected Poems, by James Tate
The Dream Songs, by John Berryman
Hoops, by Major Jackson
Lunch Poems, by Frank O’Hara
No Nature, by Gary Snyder
Green Squall, by Jay Hopler
The Cinnamon Peeler, by Michael Ondaatje
Book of Longing, by Leonard Cohen
Stranger Music, by Leonard Cohen
Actual Air, by David Berman
Migration, by W.S. Merwin
No Nature, by Gary Snyder
The Complete Poems: 1927 — 1979, by Elizabeth Bishop
Selected Poems, by James Schuyler

(I'm sorry, but I cannot possibly insert links to each title from the Powell's site - I'll be here for years! If you're in or near Cambridge, MA, check out the Grolier Poetry Bookshop for these, in Harvard Square! In person!)

I can't attest to how good these are due to my own ignorance, except for one or two (Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems, for example). Christopher, however, saw the list and boldly one-upped Mr. Gordinier, mentioning poet Ellen Hinsey, and her two books: The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent. Like a good, mature reader, Gordinier was not threatened by such a challenge, but rather appreciative of the suggestion. It didn't turn into some kind of online barroom brawl.

A more enterprising blogger would suggest a poetry reading group and even somehow convene a discussion, hosted by the blog, for a few of the titles. I don't know how to even begin such an effort, though it could be an intriguing idea if there's sufficient interest. I'll mull, you can mull, we can re-convene.

For now, happy reading and shopping, new poetry enthusiasts!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writers as Activists

I am pretty delighted that writer and activist Sarah Schulman posted a video on her Facebook profile from the first OutWrite Conference, in 1990.

First, about Schulman. The link to her name is from a recent Salon article about her, which includes info on her new book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (New Press). The Salon article references a nice Q&A Publishers Weekly printed with the author, wherein Schulman confronts the ongoing reality of LGBT writers publishing books that openly deal with LGBT issues:
Gay press reviews have been superb, and I recently had a standing room only reading in Chicago. The excitement and embracing of the book’s ideas is very exciting. Ironically, of course, there has been a parallel blackout by the straight press. This interview is the very first engagement with a mainstream publication acknowledging that the book even exists. It’s a strange through-the-looking-glass experience, one that I have had all my life. It speaks volumes that work that LGBT people love and embrace is often ignored completely by mainstream institutions.

Schulman is quite an inspiring figure, who speaks with tough but plain language about ongoing oppression faced by not just LGBT folks, but all kinds of marginalized communities.

Back to the original video from the OutWrite conference in 1990. I have only listened to her talk, as she is first up on a panel that includes Essex Hemphill (a poet who died of AIDS-related complications in 1995), Pat Califia (lesbian writer at the time, who has since transitioned so is now a transmale), Susan Griffin, and John Preston (writer who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994). This panel was moderated by Roberto Belayo. As it states under this clip:

About Outwrite: "In 1990, the editors of OUTLOOK, a San Francisco-based magazine, conceived and produced the first OutWrite conference. The organizers of that inaugural event sought to bring together the mostly scattered threads of the queer writing community. The OutWrite conference created a place for literary lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered to meet, network, brainstorm, and do business en masse."

What prompted me to post was the end of Schulman's talk, her call-to-arms for writers in any marginalized community. I have transcribed this section, so apologies if I don't have every word correct. It is a powerful and angry call, meant for writers at a time when AIDS was running rampant through the LGBT community, with epicenters in NYC and San Francisco, but it can certainly be applied to other situations:

There is no book that got any drugs released, any drug trial open, or any service provided. Reading a book can help someone decide to take action, but it is not the same thing as taking action, and writing a book is not the same thing as taking action. The responsibility of every writer is to take their place in the vibrant, creative activist movements along with everybody else. The image created by the male intellectual model of an enlightened elite who claim that "their art work is their political work" is parasitic and useless for us.

At the same time, I don’t think that any writer must write about any specific topic or in any specific way. Writers must be free of formal and political constraints on their work so that a culture can grow in many
directions. But, when they’re finished with their work, they need to be at demonstrations, licking envelopes, and putting their bodies on the line like everybody else. We live in the United States of Denial, a nation where there is no justice. The way we get justice is by confronting the structures that oppress us in the manner that is most threatening to those structures. That means in person as well as in print.

I'm still thinking this through and putting it up against some of my favorite writers since literary biographies are a favorite genre of mine. But I wanted to share it widely, as I was immediately struck by the courage it took Schulman to stand before a crowd and say it, and to re-post now, almost 20 years later.

I also think this clip comes at an interesting point in publishing, when digital publishing can make the process of getting work out there easier. Ease of production and distribution can be incredibly useful for activists, just as mimeographs transformed activist work in an earlier era and eventually led to an explosion of zines. (For more on activists and technology, see Bob Ostertag's People's Movement, People's Press, a book I may have been involved with...) How do we use electronic resources for activist endeavors and maintain high standards so that artistic work can survive, and how do we ensure that truly high-quality artistic work comes to light and does not get lost in a glut of information and activist calls? How do we avoid, even within marginalized communities, a tyrant majority - something Schulman confronts in this talk, in reference to gay white men who have more resources than anyone else in the queer community - taking over and becoming the loudest and most visible voices for a marginalized community?

It's useful to pull from the past as we race so quickly forward, and think through the voice of those less heard as those so often heard rapidly acquire means to exploit the best of technology.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sad Boston news, and Useful Best-Book Lists

It's funny how, when Christopher leaves the country, I suddenly find so much to blog about.

First, I'm sad to have confirmed what I'd suspected was going on: the great indie/activist South End Press has officially left the Boston area. They had talked about opening this NY office, but it wasn't clear whether they were moving all operations there. It seems they have. They are now housed at the Medgar Evers College of City University of New York and are working wtih the college’s Center for Black Literature and DuBois Bunch Center for Public Policy.

I'm particularly sad as the Press is named after my neighborhood, which is showing fewer and fewer signs of the activist spirit that was once so strong, having fallen victim to serious gentrification. I take refuge in that gentrification, I suppose, but I also find it deeply troubling. Alas, the Lucy Parsons Center - the "independent, non-profit, radical bookstore and community space" - remains in the 'hood... for now.

Having said all that, I hope the South End Press prospers in their new home and continues to publish amazing, important books.

I also wanted to post today about best-of lists that are more than just your typical best-fiction round-ups of the year (which are so dominated by the usual suspects, both in authors and in publishers). Though there isn't much more indie cred found in these lists, I did enjoy two somewhat different takes on this idea:

  • The Guardian did a Best of the Decade list, including reviews of certain titles.
  • Details did a list of The 25 Greatest Gen X Books of All Time, which was their effort to show that men do, in fact, read, and read somewhat widely. I was surprised by some choices - such as Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies - and disappointed in others - including Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, which really is a fail, folks - but there was a lot to like on the list. (Thanks to Jeff Gordinier for giving me the heads-up about it, though they accidentally missed his own X Saves the World!)

For those who love to read every best-of-year book list you can find, head over to see the full list provided by Largehearted Boy. You can spend hours clicking away!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Publishers with Identities

Please don't think I'm over the whole non-profit community bookstore idea, because I ain't. This post, however, will be on a somewhat different topic. We here at SotB allow our sharp, analytical, ever-curious minds to wander.

And my mind wandered over to the Huffington Post, where I found this great piece by Eric Obenauf, one-half the brains behind indie press Two Dollar Radio. In this article, Obenauf explains how indie presses have created - and must create - identities for themselves, and in fact, these identities are now being marketed in creative ways to boost their sometimes thin bottom lines. Two Dollar Radio, like Small Beer Press and Featherproof Books, sells tee shirts to generate some income. (For shame - Obenauf did not link to these presses in his article. What's up with that?) I would add the very cool Moby Lives t-shirts from Melville House, one of which I am secretly hoping to find under the tree this year. 

Obeanauf explains why this works with indies, when it wouldn't work with corporate presses:

As a small press, it is much easier to craft an identity. If you buy a book published by an independent press, then chances are good you really did intend to buy that book. Either it was recommended to you by a friend, you read a review, or you discovered it on the shelf of an independent bookstore: small presses deploy no marketing sleight of hand, no clever gimmicks or paid product placement in order to finagle someone into buying one of our books. As a result, I would wager that consumers of small press books are more aware of who published the work than those of corporate presses, which makes it easier for an independent publisher to sell brand merchandise. I doubt anyone would buy a shirt that says "Random House" on it; it just isn't cool. Nor would it stand for anything: one person might stop you in the street imagining you share an affinity for raising the perfect dog, while another might be a John Irving or Kurt Vonnegut fan. But I've seen students at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, rocking McSweeney's shirts and I know their taste.

I love this point, because there is so much truth in it, and because it does signal a way forward in this world of soulless conglomerates and corporate houses chasing empty book ideas - blogs, reality stars, etc - instead of new and interesting work. 

In this holiday season, go forth, dear reader, and buy indie! Wouldn't the book nerd in your life love a tee shirt with a literary theme from a somewhat obscure press everyone the least bit interesting will wish they knew? Of course s/he would, and s/he deserves that.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Lambda Rising, RIP

Sorry for the one-two punch here, folks, but some sad news from bookselling to report: Lambda Rising, the wonderful, well-stocked, and lively gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (glbt) bookstore in Washington DC, is closing early in 2010. The story of this closing is recounted in three parts, starting here. In fact, the whole chain will now be closed, with the closing of the DC and Rehoboth Beach, DE store closings.

The three part story is worth reading, as it contains a lot of fascinating gay history. The owners accomplished so much in their 35 years opening and running these stores. In addition, Deacon Maccubbin, Lambda Rising's founder and co-owner, saved the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in NYC from closing in 2003, though it, too, had to close its doors in 2009. In managing Lambda Rising, Maccubbin and his spouse, Jim Bennett, reached out to communities with no lgbt stores, setting up outlets in these communities to get gay-themed books to folks in those areas. They also kicked off DC Gay Pride before turning over the event to special organizers when it got too large.

It is also worth noting what they did to help lgbt literature across the board at a crucial time in our history:

In another effort to encourage writers and publishers to produce quality glbt books, in 1987 Maccubbin began publishing the “Lambda Book Report,” a bimonthly review of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender literature. That publication spawned the “Lambda Literary Awards.” The first “Lammys” were given out in a black-tie awards ceremony held in Washington DC in 1989. Lambda Rising continued to shepherd both the review and the Lammy awards until 1986 when it turned the whole program over to a new non-profit organization, the Lambda Literary Foundation, which continues to run the annual awards program today.

In 1987, the AIDS crisis was in full force and the backlast against the gay community was intense. The owners don't mention this context but I think it's well worth mentioning, as it makes their efforts that much braver, and important.

I'm so frustrated by these closures. I know lgbt publishing and activism has changed, but I also know that queer people look for homes when they go to new cities, and I fear the only place they will find such homes will be bars and clubs. Now I'm all for such venues, but there as to be more. And if those places can stay open, why can't bookstores?

I then go back to what I have wondered before: can't these places go non-profit and survive?

I'm going to look more into this idea, as I think it's a valuable discussion to have, beyond glbt bookstores. Fortunately, Chad Post over at the Three Percent blog provides a good starting place in this post on the very concept. He mentions in that post the non-profit bookstore Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee. Of course, this effort failed with the Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

More to come on this concept, as we cannot let community minded bookstores - lgbt, feminist, African American-oriented, etc - fall to the wayside in a crap economy. I will mention in closing, however, that Boston does in fact still have a terrific gay bookstore: Calamus Bookstore, run by the tireless John Mitzel. Visit online or in person and you won't be disappointed!

So much for breakfast

The Q&A with Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, in the NY Times Magazine this weekend, done by Deborah Solomon, is a brief but frustrating read. I give Solomon credit for being bratty, though clearly she kind of puts Bezos on the ropes throughout. Still, there's no getting around Bezos' quest for retail domination. It's been edited down so I wonder how the conversation actually went. Judging from the end result in the magazine, it was somewhat tense.

Bezos' defensiveness seems a bit feeble, with him dismissing products that could be better and coming up with rather pathetic reasoning. The Nook allows you to share a book (file) with someone else, something you cannot do with the Kindle. Bezos is unimpressed:
The current thing being talked about is extremely limited. You can lend to one friend. One time. You can’t pick two friends, not even serially, so once you’ve loaned one book to one friend, that’s it.

But that's still slightly better than the Kindle, for those keeping score.

Then he's asked about the limits of reading an electronic device in a place like the tub. His suggestion to get around this problem is partially an attempt at humor, I think, but also real. His suggestion for modifying one's device to make it more bath-friendly puts him in line with friends who get a device that's too cool for school. "Look at this new calculator! It does everything!" "But can you do basic addition?" "Oh yeah, you just have to type these extra codes, which are totally, um, easy, and turn off this function..."

What do you say to Kindle users who like to read in the bathtub?

I’ll tell you what I do. I take a one-gallon Ziploc bag, and I put my Kindle in my one-gallon Ziploc bag, and it works beautifully. It’s much better than a physical book, because obviously if you put your physical book in a Ziploc bag you can’t turn the pages. But with Kindle, you can just push the buttons.

What if you dropped your Kindle in the bathtub?

If it’s sealed in a one-gallon Ziploc bag? Why don’t you try that experiment and let me know.

At that point, he's just sounding bitchy.

And then he once again confirms my concern that places like Amazon are desperate for us readers to move to a digital platform, which would mean less warehouse space for Amazon, less laborers for Amazon (see Ted Striphas' book on this issue), and probably more profit. This smells like the dream of a self-fulfilling prophecy lies beneath it:

Of all the books that Amazon sells, what percentage are digital books?

For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition. It won’t be too long before we’re selling more electronic books than we are physical books. It’s astonishing.

Astonishing, as if there are not major ads pushing the Kindle, including commercials on the tv. No, it's just what people want, right? Just like flat screen tvs and sports cars. It's demand - we retailers are just here to provide.

This isn't a man who loves books or ideas. This is a man who loves selling crap and making money. Books made him some money, but not enough, so he changed Amazon: as Solomon points out, Amazon is now "a retail omnivore that sells basketballs and vacuum cleaners and hamster food and everything under the sun." Then he found a way to increase book sales, by pushing an exclusive (and severely limiting) reading device and files to go on it.

I'm amazed that everytime I hear or see him speak, I get that same bad taste in my mouth. And then I go to Indiebound.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Sherman Alexie Strikes Again!

Sherman Alexie has again made his feelings about e-books known, now on The Colbert Report. (Link to Huffington Post) Alexie has made an appearance on this blog before, for the same reason: He hates the Kindle and other devices like it.

I like Alexie. I appreciate his humor in this interview, in the face of the idiocy of Colbert. (The act is getting tired.) I admire his commitment to his community, to books, to independent presses (he's published by Grove/Atlantic and publishes his poetry with Brooklyn independent Hanging Loose Press). He says a lot of useful things here. Someone like Alexie should use his pulpit to bring up concerns about electronic devices. But...

A few years ago, Christopher and I went to see Camille Paglia speak in Harvard Square. (Yes, Christopher and I do see each other in person occasionally, rather than only "seeing" one another here on SotB.) We both agreed that she was very entertaining, but once you give her comments a bit of thought, many didn't hold water. But the provocation was useful to push our thinking on issues. In the same way, I think Alexie's comments here are useful to start discussions. I don't agree that making books digital means the downfall of book culture. Many other factors have gone into the death of media around books. But good for him for talking about this death and airing his concerns, in a venue wherein he can reach many people who are not reading this or any other publishing blog.

And I was impressed to hear people applaud when he first mentioned his aversion to the Kindle.

Lastly, as an editor who just recently told two different authors that they each needed snappier conclusions to their book synopses, I must salute Alexie for a fantastic finish. Watch the whole 6 minutes to hear him nail it.

When you're done watching that and perhaps feeling a bit agitated, take a watch of this gorgeous video that Christopher emailed to me, which he wanted to post before flying the coop for Germany. It's called Going West, it was put together by Colenso BBDO in Auckland and animated by Anderson M Studio for the New Zealand Book Council, and it's really quite charming.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Another Christmas post

Ok, as promised yesterday, I am going to post a piece of writing I did when I was 13-years old. What is it, exactly? It is an imagining of Holden Caulfield reading "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Moore. Why did I do this? I'm not really sure. I remember loving The Catcher in the Rye when I was a teen and feeling like Salinger's book really spoke directly to me but other than that? I got nothin'. A little history before the post, if you don't mind?

In 1983, computers were just coming onto the scene and they were real exciting. I had a friend who had a Commodore 64 fresh out of the box. He was way more advanced than I was with it and somehow-I still to this day don't know how-he had an account on the fledgling UMass Amherst computer network then called "cyber-something-or-other." On UMass's servers, one could log on and chat with other people smart enough to have figured the whole thing out and that is just what we did. Sometimes we'd be chatting with other people for hours. I vaguely recall that some of the user names were things like "NCC-1701" or "The Klingon," perhaps attesting to the direct line of nerd-dom from Star Trek to computer literacy in the early days. Perhaps not.

Anyway, after a while people-I don't remember any names-put up electronic bulletin boards to post stuff...and, you guessed it, I posted this thing. I really don't know what it is but I remember the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. This past month, I 'googled' my name (C'mon, you know you do it too!) and was floored to find a small archive posted of things a former UMass cyber user had saved for decades. I took it from there and corrected the spelling of a teenage and am now posting it as is. Pretty cool.

Finally, what does this have to do with the survival of the book? I guess it shows how deeply ingrained a work of literature can become in a person as well as how books, whatever their technological faults, can reach us in ways that television, movies, computers, or even Kindles cannot.

Here it is:

“Twas the Night Before Christmas” read by Holden Caulfield (with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore and J.D. Salinger).

Oh hell, I hate this story, but I guess I'll tell it to you anyway. I'm in the right mood for it anyhow. Sometimes you gotta be in the right mood for this sappy story. I guess I am.

Well, here we go. “Twas the night before Christmas...” Twas? Is this guy serious? Twas? Obviously the people who wrote this didn't know how to spell. Maybe ‘cause they didn't have a good English teacher, or maybe just ‘cause they are British. British people can't spell anyhow.

“…when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that fat old St. Nick soon would be there.” Can I say something here about ‘Ol St. Nick? He's phony. Right down to his belly full of jelly. If he's so great, why does he want to get all that shit all over his suit? I'll tell you why! He's phony all the way through. (Although he does have great taste in the color hats to wear.)

Anyway, I wonder what ’Ol St. Nick's wife says about him traipsing across the countryside ‘til all hours of the morning. She probably doesn't like it! Then again, she is a moron anyway, living in the North Pole. Have you ever noticed that all the phonies and the morons end up together? Sorry, back to the goddamn story. "The children were all nestled..." Ha, ha, “nestled.” That killed me. “...while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads. And Momma in her kerchief, and I in my cap had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap.”

“When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutter, and threw up
the sash.” “Threw up the sash,” how stupid. That killed me though. I always wondered what it would be like if the line read “and I threw up on the sash.” Maybe that's what it really said and they had to censor it? Have I ever told you the time when I was so drunk, I could barely stand and then I puked? No? Good, I don't feel like telling you about it anyway. “Threw up on the sash,” that killed me.

“The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow gave a luster of midday to objects below.” Well, I don’t know about you but I sure am bored as hell by this story. Maybe what I'll do is skip the boring part and get to the toys. Aw, hell! I'll just finish the book. “When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. With a goddamn, fat rider so jolly and quick I knew in a minute it must be St. Nick.” Don't these people know by now? St. Nick is a phony. Some people won't realize things unless they are thrown at them. St. Nick gives me a headache. He really does.

“More rapid than eagle his coursers they came.” “Coursers?” Seriously, give me a break! “And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name! Now Dasher! Now Dancer! On, Comet! On, Donner! and Blitzen! Now Cupid!” I changed that myself because there are so many goddamn goats in this part. “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!” Haven't you had enough yet? This goddamn story has so many pages. By the time the parents finished the book it would be Christmas day already. Hey, I could be reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen to you instead. I loved that book even though I’m illiterate, but I do read a lot. I really did love it. Parents wouldn't read us this Christmas story anyway. They are too goddamn
stubborn. You practically have to pay them to read a story to you. Even then they use phony excuses like “it's too late” or “we already read that one.” How phony!

Next there’s this part about dry leaves and hurricanes here but it sounds too phony so I’m skipping it. You can read it for yourself if you aren’t too goddamn lazy.

“And then in a twinkle I heard on the roof the prancing and pawing of eight tiny reindeer. As I drew in my head and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was all dressed in fur from his head to his foot. His clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.” See what I mean? Soot all over his fur. Phony! I swear to god! “A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a goddamn peddler opening his sack.” I remember one of the only presents I ever got anyone. It was a record that Phoebe wanted for a long time. Boy, was I stupid. I ended up breaking the record into a million pieces. I gave it to her anyhow, and she appreciated it. She really did. Old Phoebe was one hell of a girl. She really was. I gotta stay on the story, ‘cause it will end faster.

“His eyes how they twinkled, his dimples, how merry. His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry. He had a broad face, and a round little belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly. He was chubby and plump…” Or “fat,” why don’t they just say it? “…a right jolly old elf, and I cracked up when I saw him, in spite of myself. A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread. He didn't say a goddamn word. He really didn't. He just kinda worked without stopping.”

Ok, this is the part that really kills me: “And laying his finger on his nose and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.” He is so phony, he can't fool me. I know why he put his finger on his nose! He wanted to pick it! Maybe he had a big one in there and couldn’t wait for Christmas himself? I guess that is human nature, but in public that is just gross! It really is. Onward, only one more page. Thank god this goddamn book is almost over.

“He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle…” And they crashed down on top of Stradlater's dorm. I hate him. He is a secret slob, which is the worst kind. Not exactly the correct ending, but it will do. If you really need it, the ending is “…and they flew out of
sight, like a down from a thistle. But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, I'm tired and I wanna go home.” Ha, ha, just kidding. I really am. He actually said “Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!”

Well, that was fun, but I am still bored as hell. Maybe I'll give old Jane a call? Nah, maybe not, she is probably busy anyhow. She probably is.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

SotB goes our own way that is.

So, I didn't really expect to post before I go to Germany for the Christmas markets and Gluhwein on Thursday but the spirit of the season is starting to creep up on me so here goes nothin'.

Score one for computers and handwritten novels! The New York Times has a piece today in the "Documents" section about the manuscript of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It seems that there is only one (!) copy of the original in existence and it has been kept under lock and key for decades by the anti-fun fairies, or the Morgan Library and Museum, whatever...

Charles Dickens left behind one, and only one, manuscript for "A Christmas Carol,'' the tale he wrote in 1843 of an unfeeling rich man and the boy who pricked his conscience. Kept under lock-and-key for much of the year at the Morgan Library and Museum, the manuscript is not widely available, one reason, perhaps, why it has been all but impossible to track the many revisions Dickens made to the manuscript as he struggled to get his story right.

In the article, the Times has given us readers a hi-res scan of each of the pages so you can see Chuck's crazy penmanship (maybe score another one for computers?) as well as all the edits he made to the book as he went along telling the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim. But wait, there's more! The Times also went so far as provide a typewritten transcript so we can view everything side by side with the handwriting as well as a series of annotations about certain edits which really bring the writing of the short novel to life as well as providing eye-opening insights into the creative process Dickens brought to bear on the book.

Not convinced? Check it:

Thinking Twice about Taking on Hamlet: Dickens seemed to think better of the extended jabs he initially took here at Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet. Michael Slater, a leading Dickens expert, said Dickens may have concluded that "it was too much of a digression" or a bad idea to be "making too much fun of Shakespeare.'' The sentences that were struck read as follows: Perhaps you think that Hamlet's intellects were strong. I doubt it. If you could have such a son tomorrow, depend upon it, you would find him a poser. He would be a most impracticable fellow to deal with, and however creditable he might be to the family, after his decease, he would prove a special incumbrance in his lifetime, trust me.''
See? Totally cool. Anyway, the entire thing is a real triumph of the old media (such as the grey lady) taking the rein provided by new media opportunities and technology and making a real treat for us at the start of the holidays.

If you want to read the whole article blah blah blah, you can find it here. If you'd just like to play around with the manuscript, you can find that baby right here. Enjoy!

Tomorrow, in celebration of Christmas, I will be posting something I wrote when I was 12 and recently found floating around on the internets. Suffice it to say that it is "The Night Before Christmas" as read by Holden Caulfield. For realsies...