Friday, May 29, 2009

For those interested in the ongoing Kindle debate...

The NY Times provides this list of reader comments, prompted by Charles McGrath's article on the device. The comments are interesting in that together they represent both sides of the argument.

What emerges, it seems to me, is the usefulness of a Kindle to those who rip through commercial fiction or non-fiction - mystery novels or romances. Says one reader, "The trip included not only two 9-hour flights to and from China, but six several-hour-long flights within China. In addition, I like to read at bedtime. Exactly because I wanted to avoid taking a suitcase full of novels to read during those times, I loaded my Reader with mysteries and thrillers, as well as several dozen "classics." It did the job beautifully." That makes sense to me. The point is, the reader does not feel the need to keep these books around. They are temporary entertainment, and when they're done, they're done.

I also agree, however, with the reader who envisions these two scenarios:

1. You have 900 books or more on your Kindle, and you leave it behind on a bus. Voila!! You lose your entire library in an instant, as well as a very expensive toy.

2. Again, you have 900 or so books on your Kindle and after a year or two the thing breaks. Now what? My hardcover books never break. I guess you can get it repaired, but I suspect it might cost more than buying a new Kindle, if it's anything like a printer.


Those of us who love our books and want to see them again, may be smart to avoid the Kindle. But when we want a quick fun read? It's not a bad idea.

I'll parse the economics of this from the publisher's point of view another time, not at the end of the day Friday when I have a wedding reception in TriBeCa to attend over the weekend... Sorry, folks!

When Print Journalism Beats Blog

We here at SotB write witty little entries on all things publishing, from new books and smart authors to publishing strategies and disappointments. The nature of this venue is just that: it is best suited for quick responses rather than wholly original and thought-out concepts. In line with my view on book publishing, I would argue that newspapers and magazines in some form need to survive so they can pay writers to write longer, thoughtful pieces for their publications, even if their publications rely less on print and more on website postings. They are still better edited and more conceptual than your average blog.

This is quite evident in Elisabeth Sifton's piece in the Nation, "The Long Goodbye?: The Book Business and Its Woes." I know, we've heard this one before. But Sifton does a fine job pulling in history and contextualizes the current debates on book publishing's future. It's a nice long piece, thoroughly grappling with what happened to US publishing, what is happening, and what may happen if we continue down this road. I would definitely recommend it.

Some highlights include her mention of her own experience in corporate publishing, which allows a lens on the gobbling up that occurred:
The eponymous boss of the house where I first typed rejection letters and checked proofs sold his company to Encyclopedia Britannica in 1966; The Viking Press, which I joined in 1968, was sold by Thomas Guinzburg, son of its founder, to Pearson in 1975 and went through many permutations of a merger with Penguin Books, also owned by Pearson; Alfred A. Knopf, where I worked from 1987 to 1992, was a jewel of a firm that in 1960 had become a dépendance of Random House, in turn owned by RCA, then sold to the Newhouse brothers in 1980 and sold by them to Bertelsmann in 1998; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which I joined in 1993, lost some of its independence when Roger Straus sold the company to Holtzbrinck in 1994, and more after his death in 2004.

Amazing.

She also gets into the economics of publishing, writing about who pays for what and when, touching lightly on not just advances but printing costs and bookseller invoices. I was intrigued by this point:
Hubristic, ill-considered follies reached notable highs under the Great Deregulator, President Reagan, but to be fair, book publishers then (many still carrying the names of the confident men who had founded them twenty-five, fifty, 100 or 150 years before) were panicking, for they were losing their once dependable base, and Reagan made things worse by cutting federal funding for libraries and other appropriations that had helped to fuel America's postwar advances in literacy and book-based education.

Reagan strikes again!

Again, it's worth reading through this long article to get a sense of the history at play in the current book market. I won't quote too much as I don't want to water down her points by taking them out of context. (She's weaves it all together well.) But I do want to pull out her point on the internet and the pitfalls of relying on this virtual landscape:
This prospect is even more alarming than the crisis threatening brick-and-mortar stores, for the World Wide Web is an ocean with few buoys to mark navigable channels of meaning. The channels we navigate on it are mercantile channels, designed to be lucrative--but not for us. The omnipresent money-grubbing--far removed from the pure, open-access Eden that the Internet's founders claimed they wanted--may seem natural to Americans used to wearing corporate names on their clothing and seeing their public spaces defaced with company logos and ad slogans, but the habitat is unnatural for the true life of the mind, politics or art. In this dystopia, one can scarcely get attention paid to new books except those that fit in with the flora and fauna already found there. True, you can easily reach niche audiences and specialty communities for your oh-so-unique book, but what of the general culture? How is your book being read? And in what manner might you try--say, ten years from now--to write something new? How will you know if it's any good? How will it become known? Will it be a book?

I would like to hear a response from Richard Nash on this point. She's agreeing with the argument he has put forth on the potential the internet offers smaller presses to reach niche audiences, but given the networked world at play on the internet, will communities become isolated and will books that previously might have started with a niche and grown out to a wider audience not have that chance? Will there be a different trajectory for sleeper books?

Maybe Sifton is a bit of a doomsayer, but she backs up her doom with solid history, useful personal insight, and legitimate questions. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thumbs down to Kanye

I'm all for Kanye West's music, but he has now proven that he's an idiot. Damn shame.

In breaking news already making its way swiftly through the blogosphere, Mr. West has declared, in time for the publication of his new 52 page book Thank You and You're Welcome:
“I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.”

Beyond lame, sir. I wish I had the power to prevent young people who, like me, enjoy your music from buying your pathetic book, which is full of useless platitudes he calls "Kanye-isms," such as "Get used to being used" and "Be leery of the free gift bag!"

The article also mentions,
West’s derision of books comes despite the fact that his late mother, Donda
West, was a university English professor before she retired to manage his music
career. She died in 2007 of complications following cosmetic surgery.

On his blog, he pulls a lot of interesting designs from all over - furniture, videos - and shares them, which is great. Too bad he's broadcasting this new message celebrating stupidity, eh?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Congratulations to Alice Munro

Alice Munro won the third £60,000 (US$95,813) Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a living author for a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage. Previous winners were Ismail Kadaré in 2005 and Chinua Achebe in 2007. Munro will be honored during an award ceremony on June 25 at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

"Alice Munro is mostly known as a short story writer and yet she brings as much depth, wisdom and precision to every story as most novelists bring to a lifetime of novels," observed the judging panel. "To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

So, You Think You'd Make a Good Bookseller?

Hello, dear readers near and far. I have just received word that a extremely close personal friend of mine is going to close up his book store on or by July 31st. "It is time," he told me in an email. His initial thought was to simply shutter the brick and mortar store and make a go of it on the internets and I think that is the way he will go. However, maybe someone out in cyberspace (do we still use that term?) might be interested in a life/career change so I thought I'd send out the word. The store in question has been in business for 34 years and is located in one of the most picturesque New England villages in any of the 6 states of the Northeast. He has a mix of new titles, used books, and rare and collectable volumes as well. It is primarily a used book shop but the shop usually has a large selection of new titles. Now, I realize that July is only a couple of months away but he has agreed to let me post about the availability of the store here on Survival of the Book to see if'n anyone is interested. So, what helps books survive? In this case, it might just be you! If you have ever given any thought to getting into bookselling, this might be the place to start.

I have set up an email address you can use to contact me and I will provide more details as well as the contact information for the store. I look forward to hearing from you...this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get into bookselling with a store that has been active and profitable for nearly 35 years.

Serious inquiries only to:

whowantstobuyabookstore@gmail.com

That is all.

Christopher

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I [heart] non-fiction more than ever

The Guardian in the UK covers publishing so well!

I would definitely recommend this rather long, quite smart article by Andy Beckett in the Guardian all about the current, potentially troubled state on smart non-fiction, in the UK and the US. (Link came from BookNinja.)

It reminded me of a book I read some time ago, that clearly influenced my thinking:

The literary agent Peter Straus, previously a publisher at Picador, is also worried: "It is more and more difficult to place good books. Retail's changed. Advances have come down in the last two years. So many books haven't sold. There are too many books published. The harsh realities of the market will impinge on certain writers, certain publishers, certain agents."

In his 2000 polemical history The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, the veteran American publisher André Schiffrin calls this process "market censorship". But one person's market censorship is another person's market realism.


Market censorship - must remember that and give credit where credit is due.

Enjoy the article, folks!

The sharks are hungry for e-books!

With the recent fairly rabid online discussions of e-books, some in the publishing world are pushing forth into a feisty, barebones capitalist world. I am amused by how much some publishing folks shudder at the idea of pricing and selling, preferring the market of ideas to the market of sold products, but this other extreme leaves a much worse taste in my mouth. Take this guest post over at The Millions, from Bryan Gilmer, who self-published a "crime thriller novel" called Felonious Jazz through Amazon's program. He writes about making it an e-book, and how he sold the novel in that format by marking it down from $7.99 to a price of $1.99. "As of 5 p.m. Friday - about 36 hours later - Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers." Then he quietly put the price back up to $4.99 and "sales continued, but at a slower pace." One lesson he's learned: "A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign." He uses this to show the advantage he had as one guy selling his own book versus corporate publishers who have other expenses, though he doesn't know why they are charging more - he suggests perhaps "higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales."

Reluctantly at the end, Gilmer admits quickly:
A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.

A-ha! Herein lies my problem with a new frontier, this every-man-for-himself concept. If publishers disappear and everyone publishes her or his own book, with those with the best reviews rising to the top... I just don't trust that system. And I refuse to hear that it's democracy at its best, as we cannot make social darwinism and capitalism into democracy. I don't mean to be some naysayer, some kind of brahmin calling for some protected reading class, but having someone discover the wonders of marking down a product to increase sales is not exciting to me, and in fact it's politically and artistically dangerous.

We can take these lessons but should use them to form collectives, whether inspired by particular artistic and/or social justice movements. An author bragging about his rankings is just frustrating. It has the painful tone of a late-night infomercial to me. "I found success, and so can you!" I prefer Mike Shatzkin's ideas at the Idea Logical Blog (linked from MobyLives), though I have not fully digested his close critique of Motoko Rich's recent article on e-book pricing. Shatzkin poses the question, "if the looming problem for publishers with ebooks is their margins (and I think we can agree on that), then why not mention the ultimate solutions: publishers selling digital downloads directly to consumers and, at the same time, reducing the discounts off retail (the margins) offered to intermediaries?" Again, this idea can be incorporated into a collective idea to keep schools of thought (and action) together in a publishing model, with significant changes to keep on top of the retail environment.

One voice of reason in these debates happening everywhere on e-books is PublicAffairs founder and editor-at-large Peter Osnos, who writes over at the Daily Beast about publishers packaging formats together to meet the needs of today's readers. Now I'm listening.
For readers, the ideal development would be to make books portable. In this scenario, you would buy a printed hardcover or paperback book for, say, $25 and could then activate it as a digital file or downloadable audio from an embedded password. Ergo, the book becomes a multiplatform object transferable wherever the reader wants to go.

Smart - like records with codes for free downloads. This is the kind of not-throwing-baby-out-with-bathwater approach I can understand, that can offer a way to incorporate technology and reader interests without scrapping some good aspects of the current publishing model.

This e-book stuff is exhausting, but the debate is very necessary. What still amuses me ultimately is the snail's pace at which publishing moves, but I'm also thankful for it - so books should survive for at least one more generation, right?!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Expose the Publisher!

I appreciate the concept Carolyn Pittis is voicing in this article over at Book Business (my first time to the site, I followed a Harper Studio link). She frames this changing publishing landscape in a way that emphasizes the need for editors to come out from behind the protective wall put in place by publishers.
Publishers have little tradition of revealing what is inside their black box that isn’t focused on meeting specific author and title marketing goals. They have little practice of turning the spotlight toward their contributions in ways that are authentic in today’s marketplace—and that simultaneously support their authors and a community of readers. This is rooted in old conceptions of publicity as a department, as a discrete function with one-way, outbound messaging. Yet today, authentic, personalized, continuous engagement is the way the social economy works. Publishers need to be personally and organizationally engaged with the tools they are asking their authors to use. There are no wallflowers at this digital dance.

I appreciate this point and agree. I think the pressure point lies with the people running the houses, though, not the workers inside. The change needs to happen at the top, and that will make things messy. A corporate controlled blog, full of approved posts, will bore any half smart reader, so the publishing house would have to take into account the editor's ability to present her or himself online in a way that is once again conducive to acquisitions and selling books. This is a whole new level of interviewing!

And in some ways... I kind of love this idea. The publisher can blantantly hire engimatic personalities rather than just looking at the bottom line - can you acquire XX number of books and hit this profit margin? Now that's a surefire way to hire a line of robots to front your editorial initiatives. But hire an editor and give her room to create a list using her personality and smarts and good sense, and authors AND readers will be drawn to that person and to that person's list.

Pittis is a marketing gal, so her language is in that direction. Things get interesting when she raises the concept of digital publishing and the new challenges this format presents, as readers have more choices than ever:

Book publishers will need to help reinvent reading for the 21st century as well as help readers know about the best of the best, whether published by them or by someone else. And consumers will reward those who find ways to engage readers during the content creation process.

D'accord! If a reader comes to trust an editor and/or the publishing house she represents, there will be brand loyalty even as books and other assorted products emerge from its doors.

I like the idea of publishers throwing open their doors to involve readers and authors and creating community, though I maintain my concern about involving "textual content that integrates rich media audio and video" - ugh, seems like such a mess. But this community can be used for (political) good, so let's jump on this idea and make some progress, folks.

(Pittis saves some harsh words for fellow blogger Moonrat over at Editorial Ass, who I assume will respond. Pittis notes, "While Editorial Anonymous is to be commended for creating valuable content for aspiring writers and engaging online in concrete ways, I am saddened by his or her perceived need for anonymity." It will be interesting to see how this develops...)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Amazon Will Soon Control Your Thoughts

Amazon has taken the mantle in my conversations once held by Wal-mart, when I lived in Texas. I'd criticize all the people, including my own parents, who made the trek to the nearest Wal-mart a part of every weekend's plans. I watched in horror as my view from behind the steering wheel of my '86 Toyota Corolla, from Houston/East Texas to Austin, became crowded with Wal-marts, the distance between each one becoming a mere dash in the mid '90's. I came to realize the moment when people went from being casual shoppers - "I have to go to Wal-mart," it was something to think consciously of including in your day - to being regulars - "And then we'll stop at Wal-marts and come on home." I don't know why regulars always added an -s to the store title, but once they did, they were a lost cause.

And as I've become immersed in publishing in the last 10 or so years, and left the Lone Star State behind, I once again see a rising behemoth. And I see people giving into Amazon in the same way they did to Wal-mart. Most amusing is today's post over at The Millions:

Our ambivalence about the Kindle has been on full display of late. Still, when Amazon recently opened up its Kindle blog subscription program to all blogs it seemed worth trying, if only to satiate our curiosity about what it entails.

With The Millions freely available for all readers, its hard to imagine why someone might be compelled to pay $1.99 to subscribe just to be able to read it on the Kindle, but now you have the option. (We only get 30%, which, as TechCrunch points out, is rather paltry.) If anyone tries subscribing, let us know. We'd be interested to hear how the experience is.


I don't blame the good folks at this blog. It's a classic case of give in or lose out. As I've said, I have no problem with e-readers, but why does Amazon specifically have to suck all the air out of the room?

Fine, they have taken over bookselling, and most other retail. And now they have taken over the manner in which you read all the books they're selling. But wait, what's this new development? Courtesy of the good folks at Mobylives:
Amazon’s vicious discounting has made it clear for quite a while to publishers strong-armed into those discounts that the online retailer has been intending to go where, yesterday, it finally announced it’s going: into publishing. And for those few in the business who thought that wouldn’t happen because Amazon has no editorial apparatus and wouldn’t be able to put out books that were, well, any good — guess what? They don’t care. There’s the world of self-published books that they can pretend is the same thing.

That cry you hear is all the editors being replaced by crowdsourcing. Yes, Amazon is going to make "editorial" choices by way of reader comments. They're calling the program AmazonEncore.

If this blog is set up to help books survive, than it seems very worthwhile to point out the danger this new publishing initiative offers. From the press release:
AmazonEncore is a new program whereby Amazon uses information such as customer reviews on Amazon websites to identify exceptional, overlooked books and authors that show potential for greater sales. Amazon then partners with the authors to re-introduce their books to readers through marketing support and distribution into multiple channels and formats, such as the Amazon Books Store, Amazon Kindle Store, Audible.com, and national and independent bookstores via third-party wholesalers.

It's particularly telling that they're kicking off this program with a self-published novel penned by a 16 year old.

I am no snob. I like mysteries, I like mass markets, I read the first two Harry Potters before I lost stamina and moved on. But this is blind marketing, with no significant creative assistance offered to the author and no thought to what is being put into the world. It's publishing at its worst with the strongest muscle in the business behind it.

And if you think crowdsourcing for books is a brilliant idea, take a look at this recent article by Peter Selgin over at The Rumpus, where he checks out Amazon reviews of some of his favorite books. Of The Catcher in the Rye:
Indeed, Salinger’s book still has its fans, as indicated by the four- star average. But the bad reviews come fast and furious, with Linda “Ayeldee” warning potential readers that, though funny in parts, Catcher will make you “want to kill yourself,” and pitying those forced, like her, to read it in school since “you can’t throw it out the window and get rid of it.” Two reviews down, another involuntary reader, “Cher630” of the Bronx, calls the novel’s protagonist a “whiney, immature, angst ridden teenager who need[s] a smack in the head.” Cher goes on to brand Salinger’s hero “a phony.”

The worst part is the name, AmazonEncore. It sounds as if this monster will just keep churning out garbage, again and again and again.

In a book world already overstocked, do we really need this initiative? The book market is about to get more clogged.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Embracing Change

We must embrace change or we'll be wiped out by it, right? So here at SotB, we have been embracing the e-revolution, slowly but surely... some of us more than others (read: Brian = progressive, anti-Kindle Christopher = grump).

It was with great interest then that I read the coverage of the Book Industry Study Group's (BISG) Making Information Pay seminar last week, in Shelf Awareness. There are a lot of numbers and statistics and hell, we're word not number people! So I'm more drawn to the assessment provided by Leigh Watson Healy, chief analyst of Outsell, Inc. From Shelf Awareness:
In the longer term, "the world will be more global for the knowledge economy but is becoming more national and local for physical goods." She suggested that in these times, companies with "market share" and those that are "brand leaders" are doing well. "They have big names that carry weight with consumers and in distribution." The other types that are doing well are "the innovators and niche players with something unique to offer."

The publishing world's strengths, then, are bifurcated. On this side we have the corporate giants who run after the market, whose catalogs are an incredible hodge-podge of sellable books. On one page is the new James Patterson, on the next a new trendy cookbook, and then a hipster debut novelist, and then a celebrity memoir, and then... espionage (fiction or non-fiction). The only thing holding the list together is the sales rep's excitement as she or he thumbs through it before making a bookseller call.

But then we have the independent that knows its readers, the "innovators and niche players with something unique to offer." And in trying to be reasonable and play nice, I'll just throw my lot in with the latter without trash talking the former. The point is, both have an audience and neither can be overlooked, as they are going to move forward, god willing, through this economic shit storm.

But, I imagine, they'll be on much different tracks. The corporate side will possibly thin their lists to focus more on the blockbusters and less on any risks, if any are left in their catalogs, and the independents will have to be smart about embracing technology. They cannot afford to be safe and rest on their laurels. Independent presses need to talk to their readers and work that crowd, and socially network to form communities online for their products. But then it seems they need to come up with a business model that is not based on the big corporate publishing world, that allows for flexibility: e-books without hardcopies, effective serial publishing that matches the most used handheld technologies, a space for visuals that capture the spirit of the communities, and a strong brand and maybe even a leader to give the brand visibility. It will be interesting to see who moves forward embracing these changes and in turn benefitting from all this change.

While I'm considering the future, I was also enjoying the past this weekend, thanks to the persistent posting of one Citizen Reader, who manages to mention writer Helene Hanff in almost every post. So I stopped by the Boston Public Library, which remains my favorite building in Boston, and picked up both 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, and I was of course quite charmed. One would have to be. I was also struck with how modern Hanff sounded in her correspondence - the first book is a collection of letters, the second diary entries. She even includes a conversation by Teletype at one point in The Duchess, that could be Tweets. But in general, what appealed to me is what appeals to most readers, I would assume: she's just a demanding, smart, independent gal who likes a good book, a nice pour of gin, and a city walk on her own. The anglophile stuff is a bit tiresome but I don't blame her.

Oh, and it made me miss London terribly, of course.

Friday, May 08, 2009

STUPIDEST BOOK EVAH!

I really wish I could come up with some pithy, witty snip about this new book but I just can't. All it really makes me do is throw up a little in my mouth. It's official, publishing professionals can no longer complain about the economics of the industry...we are, it now seems apparent, all whores. That is all.

Flirtexting: How to Text Your Way to His Heart

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Amazing Use of Pulp

I know everyone cool knows about this guy, but for those few uncool kids like me, you must see Thomas Allen and his incredible work made from pulp covers. See example below, Fancy. Fantastic!



Camp, inappropriate, sexist, suggestive, threatening, emotional - this art is everything that makes pulp great.

[via Mark Frauenfelder at boingboing]

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

One More Boston Moment

I don't mean to become hyper-focused on the local - not that there is anything wrong with that - but here's what happened: I had to leave my apartment early this morning so I did not get to read the Boston Globe, as I usually do. (Yes, I'm one of the mere 300k + who still have a home subscription to this paper.) So I missed something pretty big on the front page.

Yes, the Globe put this article about 29 year old debut novelist Rief Larsen, who is now preparing for the publication of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet. Front page. Admittedly, Larsen's from the Boston area and the Globe loves hometown kids, but he's in Brooklyn now, like every other under 40 novelist, right? But it's quite amazing to see this coverage on the front page.

Though the point of the article is the cleverness of this book, with all the marginalia involved - "exploded hyper-text" - it also has quite a bit on the money involved in this publishing deal, as well.
In addition to selling US rights to Penguin Press in last year's bidding war, Larsen's agent, Denise Shannon, has secured separate deals - with separate advances - with publishers in two dozen other countries. Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter, reported that Penguin advanced Larsen roughly $900,000; Penguin will only confirm the advance was in the high six figures.

"I thought it was a unique, very highly original debut novel of a new voice," says Penguin president Ann Godoff. "He really was the auteur of this book with all of its moving parts and pieces. The uniqueness of that made me very excited to edit it and publish it."

Boston literary agent John Taylor Williams is surprised Penguin's advance was for US rights only. "That would have been in the top 10 percent of deals if it were a world deal," says Williams, who is also a Larsen family friend. "Usually a book gets foreign rights after it's a bestseller in the United States. It could be the story of the year, to get this amount of money for an unknown author for a complex book and to get this many licenses before it's published."

A typical advance for a first novel is less than $50,000, says Jim Milliot, senior editor at Publishers Weekly. He estimates Penguin must sell at least 150,000 copies to earn back its advance. "A good first novel will sell 50,000," he says. "People would sign up for another one if it sold 50,000."

With only 10 percent of books earning their advance, Larsen professes a belief in modest expectations. Godoff insists it is unfair to encumber Larsen with the burden of their investment in him. "The marketplace made that decision," she says.

Someone did well by this young Larsen. And Godoff refuses to hold him accountable to the advance. Well done!

Sometimes a novelist gets big attention because her or his book is a local dark horse, but other times we're just seeing good old fashioned corporate muscle. I mean, the front page. And I'm afraid this book just sounds like an irritating schtick, clever for clever's sake. But the article gives some insight into how it got this much power behind it. The most telling aspect perhaps is that the author has Boston's most high powered agent as a "family friend."

Let's not be too naive, but let's also keep myths from developing here. The book was kind of meant to be, set up to succeed, so if it does, I don't want to see the stories calling *this* one a dark horse.

And I say all that wishing young Mr. Larsen only the best.

PS (added morning after initial post): This seems unnecessarily bitter. I fear I'm smearing the author's name and work unduly just because he has one of the biggest, most powerful publishers and that's not fair. I have not read the book and I should therefore withhold judgement and focus on the fact that a book, a li'l old, old-fashioned, printed up book, got front page coverage. That's good news! -Brian

Boston IS a Literary City!

Boston has a strong intellectual and literary community that often gets overlooked. Sure we don't have the publishing power lunches of New York and the national media headquarters within walking distance of each other, but we have some very, very bright people who are writing and thinking and generating ideas and innovation. No, really!

So I was excited with this news in the still-standing (though struggling) Boston Globe today: this fall will see a brand spanking new Boston Book Festival, launched at the Boston Public Library and in Copley Square! It will be free and it will focus on - get this! - "literary and technological creativity." Nice one!

More from the article:

Some of the writers will be Anita Diamant, author of "The Red Tent"; Joseph Finder, who wrote "Vanished"; and Walter Isaacson, author of "Einstein." Presentations will include "Books Without Pages: Discussing the Future of E-books"; "Eat Your Words: Food Writers and Chefs "American Writer Idol: Literary Agents Critique Unpublished Work"; "Whither the Weather: Climate Change"; and "We are the Champions: Sports Writers and their Love of the Game."

Other features include programming for children, teenagers, and families; writing workshops and publishing seminars; and theater, spoken-word, and music
performances. The theme of technology as it relates to reading will be woven through the festival activities.

Looking forward to it! And perhaps SotB can play a part? If nothing else, me and/or Christopher will try to do some reporting from the event. I'm psyched for it - if the website is any indication, it could be very cool.

Speaking of, who do we have to sleep with to get a report on the London Book Fair out of Christopher?

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Category Failure"

On the blog A Lil' Sumpin' Sumpin', blogger liznwyrk noted that at a reading of his new novel Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead, right, got "huffy" when asked if his book would be considered YA (young adult). I guess this blogger took offense to his dismissal of this label, being herself an aspiring author of children's books.

Ever his ear to the ground, Edward Champion allowed Whitehead to respond to having his name dragged through the mud a little bit, over at Reluctant Habits. Champion notes,
Sherman Alexie and China Mieville have both written specifically for a YA crowd. And it might also be argued that David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time could swing both ways as a YA and an adult title. If Whitehead had indeed said these things, it seemed counterintuitive to reduce his novel’s possible audience.
And then he lets Whitehead explain why, as he says, "labels bug me":
But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. What I’m saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again.

I don't know if this is all an author can do in this day and age, but at the same time, I appreciate Whitehead's larger point, that he's a writer so he wants to write, not decide on marketing and argue with people about where it ends up in the bookstore and do all this other stuff. Authors need advocates whom they can trust - ideally their editors, but as editing jobs disappear (trust me) and publishing houses put more money behind marketing, an author might not know whom to trust. This is another place where agents can step in and do something more than just sell books to editors.

But the problem is bigger than that. The internet is built on categories, and yet the system is incredibly fallible - lest we forget the #amazonfail debacle of 2009. Books don't fit into categories in the old bricks and mortar stores, so what happens when they are largely sought out on the world wide web? How will they be found - this is the question for publishers right now.

To bring it back to this book, though, this Sag Harbor. Let me start by saying that I don't read a ton of fiction. I like to mix it up, but I'm unreliable: I may read something quite literary one minute, such as Nabakov, and then go to something very commercial, such as Dashiell Hammett, and then leave for non-fiction. Having said that, I have read Sherman Alexie and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident..., and while I enjoyed these books, they were rather simple. I've been in editorial meetings where people discuss how to get a novel to a YA audience without keeping adults away, but isn't this sneakily dumbing down our fiction? Is this some way to get adults reading books at a teenager's reading level without realizing it, so they pat themselves on the back for finishing a novel that a 13 year old could finish just as easily?

Everyone has their own reading level but I don't want this trend to hurt more difficult fiction.

I'm currently reading Chris Albani's Graceland. Now I earned a Master's in Comparative Literature focusing on African literature so I was pleased to see this book score such accolades, with a Nigerian author: a Today Show pick, one of the best books of they year according to the L.A. Times. But I gotta be honest and say, it's simple. It's YA-ish. And quite frankly, Sag Harbor looks like it may suffer from the same problem, though I greatly respect Whitehead and really enjoyed John Henry Days.

I should look into who has written more about the YA trend, which I first heard about in reference to Yann Martel's Life of Pi when I worked at a bookstore. Rumor was they were going to rejacket an edition to make it more YA friendly and catalog it with that categorization while maintaining the old jacket in the regular fiction section for adults. That was probably 2003?

And now where are we?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

More Viral than Swine Flu

Another author is doing what he can to go all viral - this time, it's Stephen Elliot with his new book, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder. In this post on The Rumpus, Elliott offers to send a review copy of the new book - due out in September - to a few people who email, with the understanding that if you are a lucky recipient, there will also be a name and address to which you should send the book when you're done. Viral, see?

I admire the author's idealism but worry it's a tad naive. I also admire his attempt to make a little (of the advance copies, he says "I’ve only got a couple") go a longer way.

I wrote in asking to receive one so here's hoping!

(Sidenote: I'm amused that the photographer chose to snap his official author photo next to an old ashtray, clearly to give the shot some literary, artsy atmosphere... which led the author to then include in the credits: "Author photo by Katherine Emery (Stephen Elliott doesn't smoke)."

Friday, May 01, 2009

Another Look at Where We Are

It's nice to hear that a panel on the internet and the future of the book industry at the L.A. Times Festival of Books attracted a "standing room only audience." I'm not sure what to take from the rest of this Publishers Weekly report.

Sara Nelson also made strong points, noting that "We need more midlist novels and less of the celebrity books that challenge the bottomline of publishing conglomerates." Here, here! Richard Nash sounded like the voice of reason, as ever: "“Writing and reading are doing just fine. It’s the intermediaries that are failing." When Nelson suggested the need for "gatekeepers" to help people navigate "the morass of choices," Nash said he preferred the term "concierges." (This is where one might want to be careful to avoid calls of elitism.) I'm not sure who makes the best and most effective gatekeeper in this new age, as more selling happens online in non-traditional places. I'm not convinced bloggers will do it, but perhaps they will as they can deliver messages on a mass market level in a way that reads as incredibly personal.

Also participating in the panel were Otis Chandler, founder of the Goodreads Web site, and Patrick Brown, Vroman’s Books’ webmaster and blogger.

Sociable