Friday, May 28, 2010

Have a great Memorial Day Weekend.

For your viewing pleasure, check out this cool list of the 50 most iconic (or "ionic" as Mayor Menino would say) book covers.


More from me after the long weekend. Don't get bitten by a shark, ok?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Need for Dissent

Just this week, there was an event in Cambridge, MA celebrating the life and words of Howard Zinn, whom our own Christopher eulogized here. Zinn was a legendary historian and activist who prided himself on advocating for dissent. He worked with a number of independent publishers to this end, including Beacon Press, South End Press, and Seven Stories.

In the spirit of Zinn, I just have to question the way any voice of dissent against anything "e" - e-books in particular - gets either painted as Luddite whining or seen as conservative, as if the person questioning the e-revolution is some kind of guard against progress. The leading voice of this movement to squash any dissent against e-books et al seems to be Mediabistro's eBookNewser, which obviously has a dog in the fight. (Controversy = content.) Craig Morgan Teicher decided, on this site, to go after City Lights Books, a leading indie publisher, for supposedly calling for the trashing of Amazon Kindles. He based his accusation on the cover of City Lights latest catalog, seen here as eBookNewser displayed it.


Note Teicher's tone:

This is the current City Lights Books catalog. As you can see, it depicts a kind of Kindle graveyard. "Smash your Kindle," City Lights seems to say, "we publish books in print."

Is City Lights, the maverick publishing house founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1950s, against eBooks? So it appears. Or at least they're holding out a while longer. Though who wouldn't love to get a copy of Howlon their Kindle?

City Lights publishes many wonderful books, nonetheless, even if you do have to read them on paper.

This seems truly distasteful and childish, and in fact reminds me in fact of the Republican student group on the University of Texas campus, laughing loudly as the Socialist group protested the environmental degradation of the Amazon (fittingly) by corporations who had given money to the university. I mean, is mocking City Lights in this way necessary, appropriate, or in any way dignified, eBookNewser?

Publisher Elaine Katzenberger didn't think so and sent a smart, long, completely reasonable letter saying as much, posted here on Galleycat (another Mediabistro site, of course). I can't really say enough about her letter. I mean, it's awesome. Just awesome. In fact, I hope you don't mind, Ms. Katzenberger... I mean, I don't have to but... oh hell, I'm posting the whole damn thing. It's too good not to share directly with the good readers of SotB.

Hello there,

I'm the publisher and director of City Lights Books, and boy do I wish that someone from MediaBistro would've perhaps called or written for comment before posting such an inflammatory statement. "City Lights Says Smash Your Kindle"?? Oh, come on! We can do better! How about Smash Corporate Control of the Media? Now that's something we might be promoting.

I also wish they would've posted the entire image of the cover of our new catalog, instead of cropping off the bottom, where the caption for that photo of smashed electronics vs. old paperbacks asks in quite large type, 'PAPER OR PLASTIC?' (Maybe I'm showing my age, but I'm assuming we all remember when it finally became clear that plastic bags were ecologically unsound, and that question was asked to consumers over and over, with almost every purchase we made, right? Heck, there are city ordinances prohibiting chain stores from using plastic bags in San Francisco now...) Quite obviously, the caption would have helped cue folks to interpret the image a bit differently, and I'm perplexed at the notion that the good people at MediaBistro are somehow intentionally misleading their readers in this way. What gives?

Well, they say any press is good press, but I hear that folks are not only accusing us of being anti-technology, not forward-looking, a bunch of old Luddites without a clue who are doing an injustice to Ferlinghetti's vision, etc, but there's even an outraged Twitter feed circulating, citing the 'fact' that City Lights smashed up a PILE of Kindles (gasp!) in a monstrous act of gratuitous destruction that will prevent good people from reading just the kind of books we like to publish and sell in our bookstore. Ouch.

Honestly, I wish folks would take a deep breath sometimes. What all of us really ought to be paying attention to is the ways in which a major corporation has managed to somehow position itself and its product as something in need of outraged defense. When did the Kindle become a baby seal?! Amazon's marketing genius is certainly something to be studied.

Okay, let's get to the heart of it. First of all, that isn't a pile of Kindles in the photo (though there is one on top, obviously, and yes, we did add that to the photo to make a point about e-readers as a part of this eco-problem, but we didn't smash it ourselves. Who has the money to smash up one, much less a whole pile of 'em?? Here's a video post of book designers doing just that -- it seems designers have their own reasons to want to smash Kindles...). The photo shows some random digital waste, a bunch of broken and discarded gadgets, similar to a junklot full of smashed up cars. It's a stock photo that could probably have come from just about anywhere in the world -- and most definitely many so-called third world countries, unfortunately, where much of our "recycled" e-waste ends up, and people are exposed to horrific levels of toxicity. See, for example, [this story].

What is meant to be conveyed here (and admittedly in a manner that can be interpreted in other ways as well, for example, it could represent the rather over-heated sometimes apocalyptic discussion that rages in our industry about the direction being plotted for our 'digital future') is that the so-called 'green' nature of reading gadgets is rather a farce, when all one needs to do is to watch as each computer, each laptop, each 'smart' phone and each e-reading device is deemed obsolete and unusable and we are basically forced to upgrade and discard every one of those now useless devices every couple of years in order to continue to access information, entertain ourselves, communicate, and just simply do our work. Whatever else one might say about the conversion from print to digital, the claim for it's 'green-ness' is specious at best.

I think that all of us in publishing and bookselling realize that, like many industries, we have got to wean ourselves from ecologically unsound and unsustainable practices, and while we've made strides in that direction over the past couple of decades, there is still much to be done. This is not a defense of old ways, but a call for clarity when evaluating the new models being presented to us as something better.

So, in response to one of the comments posted in what seemed like real dismay I'd reply that no, we are not like the monks smashing printing presses (um, is that the way that story went?), but rather, we're doing what City Lights has always done, among other things, we're just sayin' Don't Believe the Hype!

Thanks so much,
Elaine Katzenberger
City Lights Books

As the kids now say, sigh....

I put in bold my favorite lines, but the whole thing is just terrific.

Here's to City Lights and Katzenberger's spirited defense! Here's to questioning the corporate greed of Amazon, and the "specious" claims of green-ness by those supporting e-publishing of any kind! And here's to Kelly Burdick at Melville House's MobyLives, that led me to this story in the first place!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Times When I kind of Hate Publishing

I have gone on and on about how annoying it is when editors acquire complete CRAP! It makes me crazy. In one post, I talked about blogs that are just blogs but are forced into becoming books, and in another, I discussed lame celebrity books. But today, I just want to briefly post news about a spin-off book that made me practically do a good old fashioned spit-take.

From Galleycat:

Just in time for the July premiere of next season of Jersey Shore, Gallery Books will publish Gym, Tanning, Laundry: The Official Jersey Shore Quote Book. Billed as "the only officially-licensed tie-in to the series," it will also contain a 30-minute DVD of bonus multimedia extras.

Here's more from the publisher: "MTV has long focused its lens on various subcultures and rites of passage, uncovering a host of memorable characters in the process. Jersey Shore, its newest and highest-rated series in two years, follows eight young adults as they move into a summer share. There, they indulge in everything popular summer hotspot Seaside Heights, New Jersey, has to offer ... 'You don't have to live in New Jersey to love this show,' said [Gallery Books publisher] Louise Burke. 'Quoting this crew has become a national pastime.'"

Earlier this year, Jersey Shore castmates J-WOWW (pictured, via her Twitter page) and Ronnie landed a book deal with St. Martin's Press. They will publish a "Guido guide" entitled Never Fall In Love At the Jersey Shore.

I know.... deep breaths... deep breaths...

I'll just say the trees deserve better, and all the assistants who have to work on this title deserve better, and everyone who gets this book as a GIFT will deserve better, and every 12 year old that wastes their allowance on this book after seeing it at the register deserves better.

For those who don't know, Gallery Books is not some weird fringey opportunistic publisher, like Beaufort Books who published O.J. Simpson's book If I Did It. Nope. Instead, it's an imprint of Simon & Schuster, formed last fall when things got shaken up over at S&S. (We posted on that here, back in September 2009.) So glad they reorganized and are now able to publish such fine literature as a quote book on the lamest, stupidest, most mindless, misogynistic television program, which revels in class-mocking and ethnic stereotypes. Always pleased when a corporate publisher can shake things up for the better, rather than laying people off so it can more efficiently publish trash.

The people that were laid off deserve better too, S&S.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bookstore Models Changing

In order to survive, books need bookstores - whether bricks & mortar or online. I've been interested to see what form these stores take nowadays, traditional or otherwise. And I'm always impressed when people go beyond the usual comment, however true, about bookstores being important for a community, and instead are pro-active about getting the community to blatantly support the store. It's the heady mix of capitalism and charity that is becoming a common model in many industries and social services these days.

At breathe books in Baltimore, proprietress Susan L. Weis has asked for help from her customers. She is hoping customers will invest in the store, not so she can merely stay open but so that she may expand. This is a bold move and one that seems in fact quite smart. It's not testing loyalty so much as sharing excitement. She says the store has turned a profit every year since opening and even hired on a full-time store manager. This isn't a plea to save a dying store, but an opportunity to be involved with an asset to the community, that is ready to offer more to customers. She even terms it "a community investment program." I love the simplicity of that phrase, as it seems to hide nothing.

Weis gives the potential donor options: "You can either donate money, invest in the store and receive interest on your principal (2% - 4% - you choose your interest), or purchase gift cards that never expire but have a start date one-year from purchase." Smart thinking - make it easy.

I want to wish breathe books the very best, and I hope other bookstores think through such models. If community's really do want to support bookstores - not just have them there so they can look at the books they might buy at Amazon or elsewhere online, as Mark Lamphier of Harvard Bookstore recounts in the video we recently posted - then it is entirely fair to tell them to pull out their virtual checkbooks.

And just quickly, I want to send out an apology to the woman on the train this morning who missed her stop on the Red line. I was smiling as she kicked the door and cursed, but that's only because she missed the stop due to a particularly engrossing book. Dean Koontz isn't my favorite author - I read one book after my mother took offense to my snubbing of him without having read him, and found it too trite - but I was just so pleased to see how buried she was in a book on the train! Poor gal - she was still cursing by the time we pulled into the next stop, as she ran off to catch the train in the opposite direction.

(Link to article on breathe books from today's installment of Shelf Awareness)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Shelf Life: A Movie About Independent Bookstores

Hello, all...

I just received this link from a student in the Emerson College documentary film program. It is about the continuing decline of independent bookstores in the marketplace. Yes, this is familiar territory but the filmmaker gets some delightful footage of Boston area independents and even gets Harvard Book Store general manager Mark Lamphier all teary-eyed about the mission of community bookselling in a very specific way. I am not saying that independent booksellers have more compassion than the giant chains but...well, yes, I guess that is exactly what I am saying.

Enjoy! (Oh, the filmmaker would like feedback so if you have any thoughts on her short film please put them in the comments, please.)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Further thinking through a model

I admit that I dismissed the Galleycat posting about Seth Godin's thoughts on publishing, and how publishers could do better. For one, aren't we all a little burned out on hearing everyone's opinion on this issue? When some people pipe up, like Richard Nash, I always listen, but many others are just chirping on about something that is ill-informed or so informed I can't follow it. (I fully recognize I'm just another commentator in this realm, btw.) I also got nervous when Godin started talking about the importance of "me" - in the royal sense, so to speak. He starts by talking about how consumers only care about their own interests, which is something I always find so disheartening.

But in my defense, I went back to this post and read the Q&A, and Godin is making some provocative comments that have stayed with me since I read them yesterday, popping back into my head while I'm running through the Common here in Boston, or as I stand in the shower.

Godin is talking about the need for publishers to change perspective, to stop pitching for bookstores and start pitching directly to consumers. This does make for a different way of presenting books and even subject areas. (This is particularly resonant for me, having just recently gone to our semi-annual sales conference to present our new books to our sales reps.) He says,

"...there's a huge opportunity here, because who knows better about ideas that matter than book editors? If a book editor stepped up and covered a micro industry, reported on important conversations and excerpted important books (from all publishers), then sure, maybe someone in that industry might want to read it.

And if you become the voice of that tribe, then yes, you will profit by selling more books, organizing conferences, etc. But as I said, this is a little like selling pork in the shtetl. Not an easy sale."

This is an intriguing proposition, along with other ideas that have been put out there by folks like Nash about publishing to niche readerships.

All this "change in perspective" is making me wonder if there would be room for such a role pertaining specifically to social justice - my general area of interest. If one were to set-up a non-profit agency and focused on writers - journalists, activists, even novelists - who write on social justice issues, and the agency became a kind of clearing house for this information, in article or book form, that agency could become an invaluable resource for a lot of individuals (reporters, activists in other areas looking for allies), organizations (looking for leadership or texts for motivation/education), and media venues (looking for new voices). I'm still wondering, though, how one makes money in such a model. Godin doesn't really address that. If it was non-profit, one could get grants, but keeping afloat with grants means constant treading - ie writing proposals and reports on an endless cycle. The idea of organizing a conference is useful to think through, as that could make money. (One could even use the successful, wildly (and from I hear, justifiably) popular Muse and the Marketplace, hosted by Boston-area non-profit writing center, Grub Street.)

Maybe I shouldn't be voicing my thoughts here, but I can't get too worried about someone stealing them. If they do steal this idea, then hey, some more voices for social justice will get out in the world. But for me, I'm still mulling over the possibilities, even as I continue to enjoy the great fortune of working with intelligent authors who have the skill and confidence to get their voice and their message heard.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Celebrities are often Stupid

I know I should not look to celebrities to save publishing, or to even contribute usefully to publishing. I mean I suppose they help independent bookstores, since celebrity books can sell billions of copies, and maybe they help the bottom line of some big corporate publisher and that in turn allows said big corporate publisher to take risks elsewhere (the questionable "blockbuster" strategy). But this week, I'm really tired of hearing celebrities mouth off about being stupid, even as they promote some new book.

Case in point: Sarah Silverman in the Boston Globe, telling Eugenia Williamson in a Q&A, "I’m not a fast reader and it’s always been discouraging for me. I read everything that was assigned to me at school, but I tended to obsess over TV." Outstanding. She also remembers her father's unrequited love of writing, with the following anecdote: "When I was growing up he would let glimpses of it out. I would get assigned an essay for school, and he would say, 'Take dictation!' and write the whole thing, pacing, while I scribbled down everything he said." She can't remember the name of the teacher who recommended a book that changed her life, though she fortunately remembers the book (John Berger's Ways of Seeing), and one of her favorite books is a Garfield title - yes, the animated cat. I know she prides herself on being irreverent and even openly stupid and offensive, but this is part of a larger trend, one where celebrities get their name on a book, most likely having used a ghostwriter and probably a lot of work from an editor, and then mock any commitment to writing in publicity.

I was in NYC this week for a conference, and I had the tv in my hotel room on as I took a shower in the morning. I came out and Regis & Kelly were on, interviewing comedian Damon Wayans. It seems he has a new novel out called Red Hat, but during this interview, he was telling the sad story about dropping out of school in the 9th grade, and how no teacher ever encouraged him. But he did tell a charming story about a biology teacher who told Wayans that if he let the teacher have control of the class all week, he (the teacher) would give him (Wayans) 10 minutes on Friday, to perform. Did he then commit to the class? No, he just shut up and waited for his opportunity to do a comedy bit, in the 8th grade. Didn't read, didn't learn, didn't respect.

I guess Wayans had a hard time growing up, with a lot of siblings and not much money, and he was in the NYC public school system. Fine. He dropped out. Okay, that's hard. But really, can't he now think about why he did not pay attention, or try to talk up the benefits of reading somehow? I mean, he kind of needs people to commit to reading on some level if he wants to sell his "moving debut novel about how a bitter and lonely woman rediscovers her ability to give and receive love." (I know, I know...)

To give credit where credit is due, at least Ms. Molly Ringwald talks in a writerly way as she does the rounds to promote Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick. Over at the Daily Beast, she tells Rebecca Dana about what she reads and how she came to commit to writing a book (she thanks her therapist - I can't win 'em all.) Elsewhere, she talked about how much work it was. Yes, it's work if done right! In this article, she's identified as "a life-long reader" (hurray!), and even is quoted as saying, “I really looked toward writers more than actors.” I may not buy her book, but I respect her soundbites.

I wish these celebrities would wake up a bit when promoting books and use the platform to promote reading, not just their schlocky products, most of which, as has been said, will end up in bargain bins anyway.

And just to keep up with the trend criticized in my last post, it seems another blogger - Jessica Shroeder of the blog "what i wore" - got herself a big fat book deal! And Jill Schwartzmann at Ballantine adds another quality product to the list... Actually, in fairness, this one seems like a bit more of a legitimate, if l-i-t-e, book, given that it's fashion tips, and not just blog crap. See, I'm big enough to admit that.

PS - BUT WAIT! No sooner had I posted this then I see the Onion has one-upped me with this video, about Drew Barrymore's memoir - a coloring book. Ingenious!

Drew Barrymore's New Tell-All Coloring Book Hits Shelves