Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Galleycat Frustrations

I have aired my complaints about Mediabistro's Galleycat blog before. I guess it's always easy to go after the biggest players in the game, who post so much that they're bound to put up stuff that isn't agreeable to everyone, but this one-two punch really rubbed me the wrong way today.

First, at 12:03pm, Jason Boog posts this story on Fox News Chicago trash talking libraries, questioning why we even need them when we have "the internet and e-books." Boog nicely calls foul.

But then, at 1:23pm, Mark Byrne posts this story about the wonders of the non-profit Open Library, where folks from around the country - or the world? - can check out e-books. Fine, fine. Byrne points out how this could challenge Google's monopoly on e-books and, though he doesn't say as much, this reminds many of us of debates wherein librarians were irritated that we all let Google - a private company - scan everything, meaning they now have it all and can offer it back to us in whatever form they, as a private company, want. Anyway, Byrne ends with a point that annoys me, as he celebrates this Open Library initiative:
Much as we love brick-and-mortar libraries, we can't help but imagine how much money we'll save on late fees when our eBooks automatically return themselves.
Hey, look, it's a joke. I get it. It's a nerdy joke, so I should love it. Right? Well, not so fast. Because Byrne is playing right into the mentality of "e" standing for "easier," and that's just not necessarily the case. I have no problem with Open Library but I think with all of these digital initiatives, which we are seeing of course at publishing houses as well, we need to be careful not to set up a black or white paradigm. Jokes about the expend-ability of the old "brick-and-mortar libraries" are not that amusing in the context of massive lay-offs of librarians and shuttering of smaller branch libraries - something I know we here in Massachusetts are seeing all around us.

And can't someone at Galleycat watch posts as they go up, so we don't have one celebrating and defending libraries followed by another that jokes about the convenience of a massive online library, in place of the bricks-and-mortar?

(I was actually at the Boston Public Library just today, and was reminded once again of how that courtyard is one of Boston's best kept secrets, but you didn't hear that from me.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


I know this is old news by today's standards, but I am pretty impressed with Nathan Ihara's article in L.A. Weekly titled, "Tyranny of the New: Why the future of books might be old books." This is a simple article, but one of those that I read and wonder if Ihara tunneled into my brain to get his idea.

And his idea, his point, is that publishers are always pushing new pubs as the best books ever, so good they'll blow anything you've read right out of the water. But Ihara doesn't buy it, and he calls them out by saying, "all the middlemen along the way — the publishers, publicists, critics and book sellers — know the truth: The book they are hyping probably is not the book you ought to read, not even the book you would most enjoy reading. That book lies hidden in the back of the bookstore, or perhaps not even there. It is 10-, 20-, 35-years-old. However good it is, no one talks about it anymore. You might not have heard its title or its author's name." BAM.

Ihara goes on to explain why this happens, that we all want to feel we're moving forward and the endless march of exciting new fiction and revelatory new non-fiction is evidence that yes, there are yet new things to explore and discover. But then he does his magic trick, throwing together the sound argument he has just made - luring us bookie technophobes in with that line about the bookstore, that dog! - by bringing up the opportunity offered by the digital future:

The potential for the iPad to contemporize and repackage novels is endlessly exciting. Novels could get the full "Criterion Collection" experience and come with a wealth of supplementary information: a comprehensive history of a novel's covers, links to online book communities, reviews, biographies, photgraphs, authors interview, short stories, etc. Zeitgeist would come included.

Now wait - when did Apple get to this party?! And how dare you give Jobs et al good ideas for what they can do with books! (I should note that I was getting on a plane last weekend and as I walked through first class - ahem - I saw no fewer than THREE ipads.)

Yes, I do think Ihara is offering something fun and intriguing here, but I also must salute him for offering resources now available for those of us who prefer to find our reading material not in the review sections in newspapers - though those are important and I do *not* want to see any more cut - and not in the "just published" section of Amazon, but more idiosyncratically, with no regard for how recent but instead how fitting for our own quirky literary sensibility. Ihara mentions The Second Pass, which offers "spirited reviews of older books," and The Neglected Book Page, which "contains essential gleamings from our literary amnesia." I'll add both sites to our sidebar, which needs cleaning up anyhow.

I won't even get into the mind-blowing that was the Association of American University Presses meeting in Salt Lake City last weekend. Too much, too soon. Too many ideas, too many experiments, too many talking heads - almost all of whom are worth listening to, but at the expense of my sanity. I'm still sorting through it all. For now, I just want to take a moment to slap Nathan Ihara on the back and thank him for this article, before I dive into my massive pile of old books purchased at a library sale recently and find some gem.... most likely published before I was born.

To old books!

(Thanks to Shelf Awareness for including a link to the article way back on Monday, when it came out!)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rhetoric vs. Reality

I felt justified in my thinking when I read these "six takes from academics" on the e-book reading experience, from The Chronicle Review. Not all six takes are against electronic reading devices, but mind you, I'm not entirely against them, either. But some of these folks offer observations that fit with some things I've been thinking, or raise issues that have concerned me, as well.

My sister recently called to ask me what I thought of e-books, and about this new Kobe eReader coming out at Borders in particular. She had gift certificates to use there, adding up to a good sum, and this thing was going to be much cheaper than the Kindle. She explained that she's been buying tons of books lately, and not books she felt the need to display - ie, paperback fiction, perhaps even at the level of Nora Roberts (not that there's anything wrong with that). I said I could see her point, and that I've assumed that these devices could be useful for folks like her, who read a lot of throwaway fiction. (This is not to say the writing is bad in such novels necessarily, but just that the editions readers like her purchase are not made for display, ie they're mass market. And the term "throwaway" is not literal - library donations, selling to Goodwill, and more are all likely.) She liked the idea of being able to increase the font size, so when she cannot use her glasses, such as when she's having her hair dyed (I know, I know), she can compensate for her poor vision with the device. She is not looking to mark up these books at all.

But then the conversation went somewhere that I found troubling. She pointed out that people she knows often borrow books from each other. My other sister wanted her to bring the third book from some trilogy when they meet for vacation, and a friend recently asked to borrow another book of her's. She did not mind, however, that she couldn't share books on these e-readers, generally speaking. (You can do limited lending on B&N's the Nook, I believe). Here she was part of this reading community, and yet she was still thinking more of personal convenience rather than community needs (ie, lending). My frustration was balanced by talking to my mother, who had pointed out to my sister, she reported, that she herself would never bother with such a device as she reads three books a week, and does not want to pay for them, in e-form or p-form. She goes to the library, and this system works very well for her. Ain't mothers so often right? This is a classic case of not overthinking a system that works.

So after this rare family discussion on something so near and dear to my (professional/blogging) heart, I then read these "six takes," and first up, a provost and professor of classics from Georgetown has all kinds of interesting observations on the technology not quite being there yet. He articulates his points so well. Two in particular:

1) He lists some books he's bought for his Kindle, and confesses: "I've read chunks of all of them on the Kindle at odd moments, but not a lot of any of them yet."

2) of the Kindle store: "...still feels like the old B. Dalton, with best sellers, schlock, and not much selection. It has no Nabokov, and only three Sebald volumes, for example."

He feels the devices mean well, but they have not caught up to match the sophistication with which he reads, and even the way those of us who are not professors read.

The rest of the takes are mixed, but on the whole, the message is that the technology just hasn't gotten there yet, despite the assurances of all the sellers. Some take issue with the selection of e-books available, as noted above, while others express disappointment that publishers have not found a way to use the technology more creatively. As these are all academics, they almost all express frustration with not being able to interact with books in the way they are accustomed, even just putting in simple notes. Could this just be a learning curve?

I suppose what I liked about this article was that you didn't see some underlying message of technology = superiority. It did not seem infused with some corporate interest. These takes are honest grapplings with this technology, with assessments that are negative and positive.

But most of all, I loved that all the folks take their books and their reading so seriously. Perhaps it's time to do something similar with other types of readers?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Another Shop on the Block

I just wanted to send word out for those who didn't hear that another great bookstore is going up for sale, though this time not in Boston or in Western Mass. It's the quite legendary Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, as reported in the Washington Post. It's not due to the economy, per se, but more a matter of the two owners, Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, deciding to pass the baton. In fact, they explain that they turn a profit - this is hardly a sinking ship.

Start the bidding!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Afterlife of books

Two somewhat disparate things are on my mind today, though I may be able to link them up. We'll see how that works out.

First is this post over at Writer 2.0 by writer extraordinaire Pagan Kennedy, who explains that authors can get the rights to their books reverted back to them if the book in question has been out of print for at least 6 months. (Christopher wrote about Kennedy's launching of Writer 2.0 briefly here.) As Kennedy rightly points out, this is standard small print in publishing contracts.

I really appreciate this practical information for authors. Kennedy takes you through the steps - when you know it's been out of print for at least 6 months, write to the publisher and formally request the reversion of rights, and then it's all yours. There are, however, some bumps. First of all, books can go out of stock but not be out of print, meaning the book is not available if someone wants it, but the publisher is happy to take back orders and not declare it "o/p," out of print, quite yet.

Kennedy says, "Eventually, if publishers are smart, they will begin to change the rules and hold onto book rights forever. But for now, the system works to the author’s advantage." But... many publishers are getting wise, and are seeing the potential for the so-called "long tail." They can keep the book "o/s," out of stock, but make it available as a print on demand. This is a tough one. In one sense, it's great because it keeps the book available for new readers, and print on demand has improved in production quality, generally speaking, a great deal. (The interiors are much less smudgy in appearance and even the covers reproduce pretty well.) On the other hand, though, this means the publisher may be reluctant to revert rights, preferring to make that little bit of cash off each sale of the POD (print on demand) version and paying the royalty to the author.

The author could pull in more money with the rights reverted if she were to go, as Kennedy advises, to a place like Smashwords or Scribd. The author can manage things in an easier way. But the book will no longer have the imprimatur of the publisher's name on it. Is that a problem? If you have a catalog of books, like Kennedy, you may feel confident in your own name as a brand, but others might want that publisher branding visible. If you're published by an activist press - South End Press, for example - or an established literary, independent press - let's say Graywolf Press - and you don't have other books to sell alongside your own, you might rather stay with these institutions so your book remains for sale next to big names in your genre or political position.

The second thing on my mind these days is something that is not a new phenomenon necessarily, but it's been made more efficient by technology. Ya see, a friend of mine has recently become obsessed with library book sales, which he watches out for at this site, which lists them all. I can appreciate a good library book sale so I have joined him at a few, or gone after he mentioned them even if he couldn't. I hit Somerville, Needham, South End, and Dedham sales. What I have seen at these sales is troubling.

Yes, most of the folks are people from the communities, mostly women, mostly older, who are probably patrons of the library, some of whom may have even donated books for the sale itself. There are also families stocking up on cheap books for the kids. Then there are academics and readers of varying ages - I'll put myself in this category - who are looking for interesting fiction and quirky and/or scholarly non-fiction.

But then there are the scanners.

People go to these LIBRARY sales - offered as a way to help the meager budgets at these community public libraries - and scan all the books with handheld scanners to see if any of them are worth money. They then stock up on those books - first editions, rare copies - and buy them for nothing, only to resell them. To or in a used bookstore? Online? At Amazon? I have no idea, but I do know this unbelievably sleazy. A quick google search finds a discussion of this going back to 2006, with some folks talking about doing it in the late 1990s. I guess I'm just now seeing it so visibly.

One man in Needham was particularly irritating. He was in his 30s, I'd guess, with the classic shlubby look of a man living in his parent's basement, making pennies on Ebay and feeling like a real mogul. My friends and I sat in the corner of the sale room to go over our findings, to see what we were going to keep and what to put back. (Mind you, hardcovers were mostly $2, paper $1, mass markets $.50.) We looked at this massive pile near where we chose to sit and found a couple more. This guy then comes over and points out that those are HIS books - there must have been about 150 - 200 in this corner. He asked we put back anything we pulled, including a hardcover of Helter Skelter my friend had, which this guy recognized as one of HIS. He then returned to scanning every single book in the sale. My friend commented that this was "uncool," all this scanning, and he didn't even look up, just answering "whatever" as he returned to this task. We happily went back and stole Helter Skelter and multiple paperbacks from his pile, most of which we had no need for, but hey, it was worth the $4 or whatever it was (and we let the woman taking cash keep the change, for the library).

Now he could do the right thing here, which would be offering this service to the library ahead of their sale. He could scan the collection and help the library sell the valuable books separate from the rest, making some extra money. But he didn't care. He was being such a nasty little capitalist and banking off used books on offer from a community library. We were all enraged.

I guess there is a connection that goes back to all my rambling in the past, that we need to think collectively to get through tough times - both on a larger economic level, as the unemployment rate remains disastrously high, and in publishing, with books. This is not to stop e-books (necessarily) but to say as we move to the digital realm that we cannot lose perspective, and use technology in a way that's so exploitative of weaker parties. We should also be careful in labeling the good guys and the bad guys. Publishers that keep books "in print" by keeping them available may be doing the right thing in some cases, using POD technology to keep a stable of books that belong together for sale alongside one another. And we could use book scanning technology to be charitable instead of trying to make enough money to buy a new Playstation 3 - which would be even more fun to play on the big tv in the living room but my MOM says she has to watch her shows. (That was another dig at the Dedham scanner - I'm telling you, he was a total ass.)

Most of us in publishing, whether editors or authors or booksellers, are not going to make much money, so can't we share what little there is out there more fairly?

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Story Behind the Names in Our Digital Future

Let me start this post by saying I'm a bad blogger. I'm such a bad blogger. It's been weeks since my last post. (And yes, for those of you that can spot evidence of a Catholic upbringing...) As I have said before, if I could get this day job / salary / healthcare situation taken care of - ie, get salary and healthcare without the non-blogging day job - then I would be at your beck and call, reader.

But back to the point of this blog...

I followed a link today from Book Ninja to get to a Wall Street Journal article that is not, as of right now, restricted, that fits the usual formula for omg-self/digital-publishing-will-overthrow-the-establishment articles that happens more and more frequently.

In this case, this article by Geoffrey Fowler and Jeffrey Trachtenberg uses the lede these articles always use: author rejected by mainstream publishing houses self-publishes and reaps major rewards - big sales, movie option, glory. The author here is Karen McQuestion, with her first novel, A Scattered Life. I suppose this is available heuristics - the media always finds these isolated incidences and puts them out there, to please... whom? The authors? Well sure, but that's not enough reason to publish these stories. To annoy publishers? Well there's no good reason for the WSJ to slam Random House et al. What about the folks providing the self-publishing tools? Ah, now we're getting somewhere.

See, providing the tools for authors to publish their own work is big business, and e-books provide even lower risk for these places. They can move you from manuscript-on-Word-on-your-laptop to published "book" - digital edition - in very little time, and they can set the rates, with the "publishing" process remaining something of a mystery to the writer who is thinking of Karen McQuestion and her ilk. Will that be me now?!

If anyone doubts the viability of this business, here's an excerpt from the article that shows how many big kids are jumping into the pool:

Apple last week announced a digital self-publishing program for its iPad giving 70% of revenue to authors, similar to Amazon's formula. Last month, Barnes & Noble also announced a service called PubIt!, allowing authors to post and sell e-books online.

Last fall, Jane Friedman, former chief executive of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers, started Open Road Integrated Media LLC, which focuses on e-books, including authors who are willing to be published digitally before going into print. Traditional publishers such as Nashville, Tenn.-based Thomas Nelson Inc., a religious publisher, have struck alliances with Author Solutions Inc. for print and online self-publishing.

And a flurry of tech-focused startups now offers self-publishing services, including Smashwords, FastPencil Inc. and Lulu Enterprises Inc. Website says it publishes 290,000 independent books annually on its site, which authors sell at a price they set themselves.

Hot damn - Christopher, why ain't we in on this action?! (He may be spitting up his huevos rancheros in Albuquerque right now. My apologies to his hosts.)

While I'm all for writers finding the right venues for their work, I also find strength in solidarity. Yes I know, more leftist ranting, but seriously - this is capitalism in its purest form. These companies are giving writers the false sense of empowerment. They are helping you help yourself. They are helping you reach your readers, and now that everyone is going digital, it's easier than ever. Don't worry about those fatcat publishers - we're giving you THEIR tools! We'll show them! We'll stick it to th- wait, did you say the last four digits of your Amex was 3355 or 3356?

Anyone who reads this blog - and god knows I don't want to see hands up, let me live under the delusion that more read it than I know - should be doubting me, if you think I'm saying to screw these self-publishers and go to mainstream, corporate NY publishers. I ain't, I swear. In fact, there may very well be self-publishers I'd recommend - I'd have to do some research. What I am saying is that we should be reading articles such as this one with a healthy level of skepticism.

One point: the writers of this article say, "E-book sales could reach as high as 20% to 25% of the total book market by 2012, according to Mike Shatzkin, a publishing consultant, up from an estimated 5% to 10% today." Um, Shatzkin is in on the game, folks. I'm not saying he's a bad person, but I am questioning the way in which he is plopped into this article uncritically.

But hey, there's no getting around that a place like Amazon can offer features to authors not available at publishing houses. Sure, you won't really get edited, but get this action:

Amazon executives say they signed Ms. McQuestion to the Encore imprint after noticing the positive user-generated reviews of her books. Thanks to its vast database, Amazon not only knows what people buy but also how they consume e-books—such as which passages readers most often highlight

As a reader, I cannot hate this idea any more than I do right at this moment. I hate the crowd-sourcing concept, which I blame for such cultural highlights at Jersey Shore, and I hate using technology to spy on consumers. It makes me want to run screaming from Amazon.

I know it's hard. You're a writer, you are frustrated by rejection. That rejection is so much about the lack of control - who is rejecting me and on what criteria? It's maddening, I know. As an Editor, I've struggled with rejection letters.

Self-publishing may be the way to go for some, but collective production with a point appeals to me so much more. I appreciate the model offered by The Nervous Breakdown, which publishes short pieces and hosts readings and parties, and has now announced that it will start publishing books through Hukilau - which admittedly, I know nothing about. But if you're going to get into the self-publishing game, this is the model I prefer. They have a community, they have standards, they have shared interests, and now they'll publish each other, for each other, and for others to learn more about and possibly join this community. I don't believe they are overtly political, but they are a community - and that I respect.

I must also say how impressed I am that bestselling author Brad Listi created this community after finding success. Now there's an author I can applaud - use him for your lede!