Sunday, June 28, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I wanted to point out two recent instances of how the not-so-new digital age can include good ol' fashioned books, as the two often complement one another. I figure it's a useful strategy for keeping books around, at least for now. Right?
The first example was on CNN, not a station I watch all that voluntarily. Well, I don't have cable, so I can't watch it either way, but it is on at the gym and it's much more bearable than ESPN. I was there this weekend, running and watching Fareed Zakaria GPS. It was, of course, all Iran, all the time - as it should be. But after working with his guests to incorporate online information, especially snippets pulled from Twitter, on a giant flat screen that lay in front of them as a desk, Zakaria then looked up and ended the segment with... wait for it... two book recommendations! Though I cannot vouch for these books, the ones he recommended were:
- The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd
- ... I don't remember! Sorry, but I was running and just pleased to see BOOKS being promoted. It was a travelogue, by an American who may or may not been of Persian descent.
Everyone's been discussing the Twitter effect with this news story, the amount of uncensored voices coming off the streets of Tehran right into homes across the world, and it is astonishing. It's also fascinating to see the way media is handling media - so there is old stalwart CNN, suddenly risking being seen as dated, clicking through online and recommending, on air and online, Andrew Sullivan's blog. It's nice to see in this enthusiasm for all things immediate that someone thought of books, for those of us that want to see real time but also want the full back story.
The second item I wanted to note here was new Granta editor John Freeman's plea for print in the UK Independent. While I admire his rhetoric here in arguing for the importance of print publications, I also appreciate how he ties in the importance of literary voices, first:
Publishers are still buying multi-million celebrity "books" but grow antsy when it comes to signing up literary writers, the type whose fourth or fifth book (such as Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) might someday underwrite an entire season. It's always the end times in publishing, sure, but due to the anxiety over new technology and the comeuppance created by far too much corporate merging these are especially dour ones...
A week ago, a friend told me that one of the largest publishers in the US had recently done a survey. The pure cost of making a book, they discovered – before paying any advance – was roughly $65,000. That was the number editors had to keep in mind before they made any decision about signing up a new title.
Could it conceivably earn back $65,000? This question puts most types of literature at an instant disadvantage. Do any books of poems earn back $65,000? What about a short story collection? Can any book in translation stride over that mighty financial hurdle? Or a collection of novellas? Maybe that number was revealed to editors as a reminder, not a rule, but it points rather unsubtly toward what sells: entertainment, scandal, politics, and famous writers with known audiences.
And then pulls in international voices in particular, combining his perspective on technology with the reality of new literary voices emerging from anywhere and everywhere:
While American literature remains enormously vital and restless – could England ever have produced a Thomas Pynchon? Junot Diaz? – a literary journal cannot in good conscience pretend that an Anglo-American dialogue is at the heart of our cultures. Not when Nigeria alone has given us Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila and Uwem Akpan. Not when Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta are exploring New York more viscerally than most writers born there, or when some of America's most exciting young novelists, such as Dave Eggers and Tony D'Souza, are finding a way to tell vital stories set in Sudan and Western Africa...
In troubled and violent times, we do not have the luxury to avoid the hard questions which have stalked English language publishing in recent years. What stories are made visible? In what syntax do they appear? Why are writers in translation made to speak on behalf of their entire country?
Another fair point.
Freeman makes a solid case for the importance of print as he wraps up, spinning ideas around but somehow having them land on their feet: "If the forces at work in publishing persist, we're moving towards a world with less and less available in print. Publication on an actual press upon paper which was once a tree will become special again, as it should be - a cause for celebration." Once again, a vision I can support.
May Granta live on, then, and prosper!
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Over at The Millions, Edan Lepucki has posted a nice long interview with Meno about his new book, The Great Perhaps (Norton), that strays into questions of publishing and writing. Meno shares many of my views, it seems, including the frustation with sameness:
There's a sameness to the book covers... there's an aesthetic sameness to the way books are being sold, the kind of books that are put out, the content. There's a sameness to the background of the writers - how many novelists graduated from Columbia... or Iowa. There's a sameness to the style, and what New York publishing deems serious. [The style] is heavily realistic. It's become increasingly in years bent more towards memoir, and almost journalistic. The era of inventive writing, writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon and Barthelme, outside of McSweeney's, is almost non-existent... If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you write a certain kind of book, a certain tone, a certain style.
I even appreciate his mention of McSweeneys, a place I both enjoy at times but also can find predictable. Like Harvard Square, it's well-meaning and politically in the right direction, but as it's gained in popularity, it's lost a bit in inventiveness. (Perhaps this will be rectified as they find new columnists.)
Meno sees good things happening though and, as the writer of the interview notes, maintains a hopeful tone. He mentions:
"There are plenty of writers who I admire who work outside of those boundaries but few of them are published by big houses, and few of them are known in America. They're certainly not being reviewed in the New York Times, and excerpts aren't being placed in the New Yorker. And I also think there's an aspect of age and generation. As new media comes into it, there's going to be shift."
This again is a reference to the great promise of the internet, to widen the net so smart folks - he names drops Richard Nash and Melville House, two SotB favorites - can find good, inventive new writers without relying on NYC lunches with a handful of agents.
I'm all for some hope in publishing. I'll add Meno to the list as one of the good ones, and try to remember to grab one of his books for my next read.
A classic novel has become twitter fodder:
Two devotees of Ulysses have adapted its 10th chapter to Twitter, which limits users to 140 characters per post.
Called Wandering Rocks, the chapter is especially well-suited to Twitter because it follows 19 Dubliners going about their daily business.
I guess I don't care, really. All's fair. I just don't want to read something in 140 character (not even word!) chunks. But for those of you who do, go nuts.
Georgia Tech prof Ian Bogost has something larger than just novelty in mind: "Perhaps in so doing, we can shift people's interest in social media technologies from egomania and immediacy toward deliberation and cultural reflection."
Some part of me prefers the idea mentioned on Galleycat recently, of creating a twitter feed for a fictional character. I've long appreciated novels that jump off from another classic - such as J. M. Coetzee's powerful and odd Foe, a "reshaping" of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. And this could be where advances can be made incorporating people who love reading with Twitter - Huck Finn's feed, or Holden Caufield's.
Oh, maybe be careful on the latter...
Monday, June 15, 2009
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
You get the idea...but wait there's more! There are some pretty clever picks that I didn't think of when I perused the list (but I will let you discover those for yourself). However, there is one huge problem with the list. Apparently, and I may be wrong here but it seems like anyone who has ever heard of New England can make the list. For instance, the #1 book on the list is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I agree that he once lived in Massachusetts or that the book is set in Boston but so what? What, really, does Infinite Jest tell anyone living outside of New England about New England? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearnes Goodwin checks in at #7. Again, so what does this have to do with New England? Not a thing really other than some of the politicians in the book are from Massachusetts and DKG lives here. Here are a few more of the books which stretch the category of the list to its breaking point (with Globe commentary added):
Couldn't Ms. Messud's book be thought of as really about New York, not Boston? Isn't the DaVinci Code really about the Catholic Church or, at least, Europe? And no one-absolutely no one-thinks of New England while they are reading On The Road. Sorry, the truth hurts. What about Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama? I mean, he attended Harvard and, until recently, had a family member living in Boston. Seriously, I think that the plan was a great one but the executionof that plan really suffered by allowing anyone who once vacationed on the Cape to be eligible for inclusion on the list. Am I being too nitpicky? I don't thing so because our region of the US is often used as the butt of jokes around the country about elitism, over-intellectualism, snobbery, etc...and all this list does is suggest that if you are smart enough to have written a book and either set said book in New England or lived in New England yourself then "you are one of us." I think that does a disservice to the reality of New Englanders who have lived in this great area all their lives and understand far more fully, in ways that David Foster Wallace simply couldn't, that New England is mostly a state of mind and disposition not geography.
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, 2006
Somerville resident and Yale graduate Messud wrote this bestselling, critically acclaimed 2006 novel about three privileged friends in their early thirties, living in Manhattan in the months before Sept. 11, 2001, and their struggles to achieve lofty expectations in their personal and professional lives.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 2003
Born in Exeter, N.H., Brown has become one of the giants of contemporary fiction. In this wildly popular mystery novel, Brown’s plot describes the efforts of Robert Langdon, professor of religious symbology at Harvard University, trying to solve the murder of renowned curator Jacques Saunière of Paris’s Louvre Museum.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957
Lowell-born Kerouac’s great road novel remains a monument of the entire Beat Generation. Kerouac’s improvisational, experimental writing style, and his unconventional way of living, is everywhere on display in this classic 1957 story about freedom, the open road, friendship, art, and adventure.
Oh, and any list which includes Andre Dubus III to the exclusion of his father Andre Dubus, Sr. is not worth its weight in computer pixels. If you really want to learn about the New England mindset and what it means to live here, please, please, please go pick up any of Andre Dubus's first 4 collections of short stories: Separate Flights, Adultery and Other Choices, Finding a Girl in America, or The Times Are Never So Bad. Though not all the fiction here is set in New England the pieces that are deal with the lives of New Englanders in ways not even imagined in most, if not all, of the Boston Globe's list.
Finally, just to show you that New England is more a state of mind than a location I present as evidence that the books from Andre Dubus I referenced above are written by a son of Louisiana who moved here and made this area-with its history, its religious pressures, it permissiveness, its intellectual attitudes, etc-his own.
Plus, no one really thinks those Yankee fans along the beaches of the Long Island sound are really New Englanders anyway. Just sayin'.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Not being a sci-fi/fantasy guy at all, I was still intrigued by her thoughts on where the potential lies in publishing, given the grim year we've experienced:
I think it's premature to be sounding the dealth knell for traditional publishing just yet; however, the landscape is changing. It is certainly true that in these times of economic upheaval, the larger publishers are not just tightening their belts, but also becoming even more concerned with escaping the unpredictability of success. I believe we are going to see (and have already seen the first suggestions of) a hopefully temporary shift back towards the "basics" upon which many houses were built, and acquisitions will become more conservative both in scope and in cost. This retraction leaves the field open for the independent publishers, many of whom are flourishing where other larger beasts are floundering because they are more nimble and more focused, serving a smaller, carefully targeted market rather than trying to reach all consumers, and serving that market with dedication and alacrity. I think of the large houses as ocean liners--their weight and bulk makes it easier to disperse pressures evenly across the ship, and they are less immediately affected by the sharp lifts and falls of the market, but that same solidity renders them slower and and difficult to turn. It's a trade-off. I think that people are frightened that the market will contract and harden, becoming an impossible playing field for the unusual or unproven, but I don't think that this is entirely the case. I think that you will certainly see this kind of contraction from the umbrella houses of publishing, and a fair bit of trimming the fat to stay afloat, but those imprints that have branded themselves successfully and are quick to move with the winds and embrace the changes in both our economy and our society will find their feet. I expect that rather than dying out, the independent press will be the fertile ground from which a new vision of How Publishing Works will emerge.
I know we've heard this before, but hey, I think it's fantastic, and I agree, and I hope we're all right!
The beauty of this kind of article is that Kirschner is being openly subjective - she loves audio, for example, unlike many of us. (My mother summed it up best in referring to how much she enjoyed her time in the car on the way to work, listening to books: "I guess I just like being read to." I appreciate her translating a book format into some kind of luxury, like a spa day.) And as it turns out, Kirschner really can't stand her Kindle, which leads her on a bit of a tangent:
I've been dreading this, but let me get my prediction out now: The iPhone is a Kindle killer.
I abandoned the Kindle edition of Little Dorrit almost as soon as I read one chapter on my iPhone. Kindle, shmindle. It does almost nothing that an iPhone can't do better — and most important, the iPhone is always with me. Woody Allen had it right: Seventy percent of success in life is showing up. Yes, the Kindle's reasonable imitation of a book is an advantage, but not enough to outweigh the necessity to carry an extra object and its power plugs. The Kindle screen is a permanent dishwater gray, not exactly "just like paper," as promised by the ubiquitous Amazon ads. With free software like eReader or Stanza, iPhone readers have the same capability for customization (font size, footnotes, highlighting, bookmarking) and a more-elegant interface. The new Kindle2 has an intriguing capability to turn any book into an audiobook, but even if that survives the legal challenges from publishers, the computer-generated voice is more R2-D2 than Jim Dale. Worst of all is Kindle's clumsy way of turning pages, only slightly improved on Kindle2. The momentary blackout is a constant annoyance, especially compared with the delicate swipe or tap that changes pages instantaneously on the iPhone (and which even has an option for cruise control, where the pages scroll automatically, though too slowly for speed readers).
The only time I relied on my Kindle was on vacation last year. All the grown-ups on beach chairs seemed to have one, as if we all had obeyed some secret command to buy Kindles and wear sunscreen. In fact, readers 50 or older are the largest group of Kindle buyers. Therein lies the clue to Kindle's short life. Middle-aged readers think that the dimension of the screen is critical. It's not: The members of the generation that grew up playing Game Boys and telling time on their cellphones will have absolutely no problem reading from a small screen. Let us pray that they will. Right now, they aren't buying Kindles — and they aren't reading books.
Nor will the newly announced large-format Kindle DX halt the death spiral of newspapers and textbooks. The days of prearranged and rigid formats are over. Sadly, so is the editorial intervention that authenticated and improved content. The future of all publishing is an open question.
This confirms various suspicions here at SotB, most especially those aired by Christopher. I'm fine with leaving the Kindle behind, or more accurately never going down that path, and my curiosity is piqued about the iPhone. But everytime I think it may be promising, I remember my dentist showing me his iSomething (don't remember - not the iPhone but some similar "i" device), on which he was reading Peter Canellos' book on Ted Kennedy, The Last Lion. It displayed all of 30 words on the "page," which meant that this book, 480 pages in hardcover format, was something like 1200 pages! Oy vey. It made me wonder if this kind of format could make even relatively short books seem daunting. But the display was coupled with my dentist's strong endorsement: "I'm reading now!"
Kirschner's point about the Kindle is of particular interest today with this big news, that Simon & Schuster will begin selling their ebooks through Scribd. "[A]s a Wall Street Journal report details, the S&S ebooks sold on Scribd will be available as Adobe Acrobat files that can be read but not printed out on computers and iPhones and Sony Readers — 'but not on Amazon’s Kindle.'” Take that, Goliath!
(I purposely chose to link to Melville House's excellent and up-to-date blog, MobyLives, rather than a more "objective" news source, such as GalleyCat, because I appreciate the commentary that goes with the news. -ed)
Thursday, June 11, 2009
In this case, Stephen Elliot is hoisting him up via Elliot's smart new sit, the Rumpus. Elliot has a long Q&E with Eggers about his new non-fiction book, focused on a Muslim family living in New Orleans during and after Katrina. The interview also touches on Eggers recent I-heart-the-printed-word campaign:
Rumpus: You have a lot of optimism about print in general.
Eggers: Well, there are still a billion books sold every year. And there are about a billion newspapers printed every day. I understand when people are worried about aspects of the business, and as a small and always struggling publisher, we worry at McSweeney’s too, but there’s an element of doomsaying that’s just premature. The Kindle, for example, has a comparatively tiny portion of the overall book sales, but I have friends who already assume that new books won’t even be printed on paper in a year or two. It’s kind of extreme, and it ignores a fair bit of reality.
Rumpus: I know a lot of your optimism comes from your working with kids at the 826 centers.
Eggers: The students we serve at 826, by and large, just aren’t addicted to electronic media—not in the way we’re led to believe all kids are. Most of our students don’t have cellphones of their own, and they don’t have computers at home. So they come into 826, and they work with paper and pencil on their homework. Honestly, that’s about 80 percent of what we do. Even at the high-school level, the students we work with aren’t soaking in the Internet all the time. To some extent all the doom about the printed word is a class thing. Wealthier kids who can afford their own phones and computers are probably spending more time online and in some cases, less time with books, but the kids we work with are honestly pretty enamored of books and newspapers. It means a lot to them to have their work between two covers, an actual book that they can see on a shelf next to other books. There’s a mystique about the printed word. And the students who come into 826 every day really read. These middle schoolers have read everything. Judy Blume came into the center in San Francisco one day, and she was mobbed. Fifty kids swarmed her. They practically tackled her. Same thing with Daniel Handler, who writes the Lemony Snicket books. These are by and large kids whose parents immigrated here from Latin America, and English isn’t spoken at home. But they’ve read all thirteen Lemony Snicket books. So I have optimism about print because I see these kids and how much they love to read. And they work on our student newspapers and anthologies and a dozen other print projects. They really have a thing for print. And I do too. I fear sometimes we’re actually giving up too soon. We adults have to have faith. And we have to rededicate ourselves to examining what in any given issue of our daily papers is really speaking to anyone under 18. That’s a challenge. I was just in Chicago, and the Tribune there does all kinds of very interesting stuff to reach out to younger readers. It’s something that we all have to think about.
Rumpus: So you’re not looking at a post-paper world.
Eggers: My admittedly strange opinion is that we need to try harder with print. We can’t just give up on it. Inevitably there will be some loss of newspaper readership, but even that will stabilize. Not everyone wants all their news online. Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum. I guess that’s one of the things that’s always frustrating to hear, that the rise of the Internet means the death of print. There’s always this zero-sum way of painting any given industry or trend, while the reality will be more nuanced. I think newspapers that adjust a bit will survive and still do great work. But we do need to give people reasons to pay money for the physical object. The landscape right now does require that we in the print world try harder. We have to think of the things that print does best, and do those things better than ever before. We need to use the paper, maximize the physical product.
See what I mean? I'm down with him, I'm pleased to hear kids aren't all determined to read on screen only, I'm in agreement about newspapers, I'm growing skeptical of how in agreement I am, I have to stop reading.
Maybe it's me.
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
I kept picking "neither." How about you?
There's also an odd list of the "Eighteen Challenges in Contemporary Literature" on Wired. There are some odd pronouncements here, and most readers of this blog will be familiar with the issues, but I suppose it offers a nice summation.
More content soon, I promise!
Thursday, June 04, 2009
As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they're giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1.
I don't have time for commentary now but perhaps later, from me or from Christopher. For now, jump over to Gawker (sorry to send you there...) and enjoy!
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
About different sales venues for books:
Sherman Alexie, winner of this year's inaugural Indies Choice Book Award for Most Engaging Author and National Book Award winner for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown), said that his career was made by independents. In Costco, he said, "I feel like an eight-and-a-half pound jar of peanut butter." When he pays with a credit card in a chain bookstore, he said, maybe 10% of the employees notice his name, but in an independent bookstore, they see his card and begin whispering, "Is that him?" or "He's taller than I thought."
He also spoke out in favor of independents:
"I'm all for elitist bastards," said Alexie, "if you're an elitist bastard bookseller." The uniqueness of each store is based on who works there, he continued. "One of the good things we're doing [as a nation] is going back to local." He cited the film Smoke Signals [Alexie wrote the screenplay, based on his short story "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"], for which Alexie insisted that the film's publicist organize an event in Albuquerque, N.M. The publicist didn't understand why. "Because 100,000 Indians live there," he responded.
But Alexie has reason to be skeptical of the current digital landscape for books. Shelf Awareness provides better context for Alexie's thoughts - now mildly retracted or at least softened - on e-books and the Kindle:
"I'm the last author whose fiction is not available digitally, a lonely man on an island--I don't know how many of us there are," said Alexie. He called the e-book "the opposite of the Gutenberg press," adding, "Mass printing was egalitarian. Machines are elitism. Maybe because I come out of a poor place. Poor places have very little access [to technology]--still." Alexie also argued that a movement toward e-books could result in a few entities monopolizing and homogenizing books. "There's less chance for eccentric writers. Publishers will consider [in the acquisition process] the question, 'How will a book do electronically?' The Kindle homogenizes books, and e-books homogenize them even more."
Again, fair point! I'd like to see him write up an essay on this point soon and go into more depth, because most people are not hearing it at that kind of big, national level.
There is potential for digital books to reach niche audiences, but only audiences that have access to the technology. How do we account for that component?
I remember going into a used bookstore in Humble, Texas, all excited as I was in high school and had discovered how cool book culture could be. This store was full of very cheap mass markets - probably $1, mostly romance and westerns. I kept trying to find other things in this tiny space while an overweight, older woman stared at me, clearly knowing I was in the wrong place but refusing to tell me outright. But that was a niche readership being well served, and the people reading those books will not have access to a Kindle, other reader, or even a computer necessarily. How do we in publishing address that?
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
At a panel of authors speaking mainly to independent booksellers, Sherman Alexie, the National Book Award-winning author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” said he refused to allow his novels to be made available in digital form. He called the expensive reading devices “elitist” and declared that when he saw a woman sitting on the plane with a Kindle on his flight to New York, “I wanted to hit her.
In the aftermath of my recent public comments about my fear and loathing of Kindle and its kind, I have received a few dozen amazing, passionate, and compelling emails about the power and beauty of electronic books (and many more hilarious ones questioning my sanity, my morality, my anger management ability, and my writing skills). I have been especially humbled by those Kindle readers who, because of various physical issues, can only read with the machines. While I still have serious qualms about the technology, I have been challenged and emotionally moved enough to take a long-requested meeting with the folks at Amazon and Kindle and listen to their arguments for the machines. I'm on Amazon's list of most-requested authors whose fiction is not available electronically, so now, thanks to the beautiful emails I received, I will do my best to enter the meeting with an open mind. And I definitely promise that I will not beat up anybody at Amazon or KindleYou can see the smirk, can't you? But honestly, how sensitive must we demand Alexie be!I respect him for listening to readers and taking the meeting, but I also hope he holds his own as being against the monopoly Amazon has on these readers. He has the popularity to make demands. He needn't promise violence, but he should continue to boldly demand answers.
The new publisher on the scene is OR Books. I'm not sure if this is supposed to reference the abundance of media choices we have in this day and age - dvd, cd, i-pod, Kindle... OR books?!. But the tag line of this new venture is: Progressive Publishing - On Demand. The video about its launch is here:
The authors will be "intelligent, cosmopolitan, and progressive." Not too shabby.
Colin Robinson, who wrote a powerful diary of being laid off late last year, is the other person featured in the video who is at the helm.
OR launched at BEA by boat. Good luck, boys!
Colin Robinson Colin.Robinson@orbooks.com
John Oakes John.Oakes@orbooks.com