Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If John McPhee says so, who are we to argue?

From this morning's Shelf Awareness:

"I’m really concerned about it. And nobody knows where it's going-particularly in terms of the relationship of the Internet to the print media. But writing isn't going to go away. There's a big shake-up-the thing that comes to mind is that it's like in a basketball game or a lacrosse game when the ball changes possession and the whole situation is unstable. But there's a lot of opportunities in the unstable zone. We're in that kind of zone with the Internet. But it's just unimaginable to me that writing itself would die out. OK, so where is it going to go? It's a fluid force: it'll come up through cracks, it'll go around corners, it'll pour down from the ceiling. And I would have counseled anybody ten, twenty, and thirty years ago the same thing I'm saying right now, which is, as a young writer, you should think about writing a book. I don't think books are going to go away."

-John McPhee, in a Paris Review interview earlier this year.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rethinking Done Right

I know I just posted on something said over at Booksquare, and here I am writing about another post there, but I've gone back to this post multiple times in the past few days, which makes it seem worthwhile to talk about here. Right? Right.

The new post in question is from Sept. 14th, and in it, Kassia Krozser imagines new roles in the modern day publishing house. Now here at SotB, I know we get a bit prickly with changing things up too radically, but we try to clarify what kinds of changes freak us out. Speaking for myself rather than Mr. Christopher, I'd say that things that heighten corporate competition in a way that threatens new voices and makes vulnerable valid if currently under-recognized voices worry me. I also cry foul when the media goes apeshit about a product in a way that seems suspicious, too cozy with the maker/seller of said product. In our modern age, I think it behooves us not to read any and all media with a very critical eye.

I'm getting around to a point, I think.

Krozser, as far as I can tell, is not selling us anything here, but is instead explaining some possibilities in a level-headed way, and in a way that's very accessible (as compared to some who either go off on theory or go off on metadata in a way that makes an old-school editor like me a bit numb). She's going through and exploring how work within job titles will change. I'm going to stick with how she imagines the changing roles within editorial, since that's the department in which I happily exist. To quote:
However, acquisitions editors will change how they think about — and there’s no way around this word — projects. There will be booky-books. There will be multimedia extravaganzas. The type of project will drive the final product. Just as authors and agents are starting to think big picture when it comes to works they are shopping, so, more and more, will editors. Is it text, is it a web-based community, is it an application, is it a living, interactive experience? One or more of those?
I know, I know. Deep breaths, y'all, it'll be okay.

The fact of the matter is that I, like some of the commenters, have unconsciously or sub-consciously already started thinking in this way, as an editor. I admit it. The way she's described it has made me feel better about this reality. As I advise authors - those I am publishing and those I'm not - I find myself raising this issue more and more. I don't see this as leading to the death of books, but it will lead to the slimming down of what we all publish, in a way. I hate the idea of reading what could be a straight-forward novel and having that novel interrupted with a video or an mp3 file or something. If that had happened while I made my way through The Man with the Golden Arm - "Algren may have been envisioning a bar like the one featured in this clip!" - I would have hated it. But when I hear about certain books and I hear authors urging - or wanting to urge - their publishers to include this or that, I do see opportunity, for added material online and/or embedded somehow in an e-file that includes that text and the extras.

But how much can we possibly do? She goes on later to suggest,
Someone needs to be in charge of all aspects of the book — whatever form it takes — from beginning to end. This is particularly true if the book is slotted as a transmedia project. Nobody — nobody! — is better positioned to execute the vision than the acquiring editor. It’s a different kind of job. It’s a visionary kind of job.
Now I appreciate this point. There are always times when an editor stops and wonders if he is the only person in-house who has read a manuscript, or even a chapter of a project. We often do know the material best, having worked closely with the author on finalizing it. And I love the idea of building on the "visionary" aspect of being an acquisitions editor. At the same time, I might want to farm out some of this work....
Editorial staff will be on the front lines of coding manuscripts; they’ve already started this. Yes, I did say coding. There will be tools to make this job easier. They will be awesome tools. They will work the way they’re supposed to work the first time. Because this is the future and things work in the future.
Right? Some basic coding maybe but it seems to me, this can fit into production. Now we're just squabbling.

My point is that this is all great, but we must keep in mind what readers want, and the question becomes how we figure this out. We shouldn't base it on media - see my point above - and random polls don't seem particularly scientific. I suppose all of my reading about past editors and publishers comes into play here, and what's left is that we need folks to be visionary not just with individual projects, but with whole publishing plans. Hell, we can try to be those people here at SotB, but I'll warn you, our vision will involve fairness for all parties to a painful degree, support for new literary endeavors with a sense of history and skill rather than mere cleverness, and a commitment to big ideas wherever they appear, including outside of NYC and outside of the US.

Oof. I best get to visioning.

Before I leave you, however, two more quick points:

1) Thanks to Christopher's lead, we are now on Twitter. Check us out here. Follow us, and we can follow you, and we'll all tweet each other stupid.

2) As I mention in that first tweet, Craig Fehrman has a great article in today's Boston Globe about author libraries that's well worth a read. (Btw, it seems they are hiring a staff person for the Ideas section of the Globe, where this article appears. I can't find the listing but it's out there, so interested parties should apply! It'd make for a pretty awesome job for a smart journalist.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Two links

On this wonderfully cool fall day, I want to offer you two good links, one of which may bring a smile and the other, a bit more thoughtful.

First with fun: LOOK at this library information desk made from books!

Can you believe it?! So friggin' fun. It's at the Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. Leave it to the Europeans, eh? Well done, folks.

And another link, this to a kind of bitter sweet article of sorts from author Steve Almond, who has had many great moments of writing (as when he publicly resigned from Boston College when Condeeza Rice was chosen as a commencement speaker - how bad ass is that?!) Anyway, Almond in this link is writing about the tragedy at the Virginia Quarterly Review, wherein managing editor Kevin Morrissey committed suicide, after which allegations arose regarding editor Ted Genoways' supposed hostility as a supervisor. It's all a mess, and Almond nicely captures the sadness of it all, but in a somewhat useful way, as he uses it as an opportunity to think through the relationship between editors and writers.

Almond mentions his own unpleasant interactions with Genoways when the editor was considering his writing, though of course he does not use this as an opportunity to, as he says, treat "Morrissey’s death as some kind of lurid whodunit." In going over all that is sad about the situation - and there's is a lot of sadness - Almond adds,
And yes, it’s also sad that certain editors, endowed with so much power by a growing army of insecure writers, don’t exercise that power more responsibly.
Fair point. Almond references an article Genoways quite famously published in the Atlantic, which I wrote about here, and points out the hostility in that article to many writers, including those who would/should be submitting to VQR. This adds to his consideration of frustration, from the author's side (his own) and from the editor or agent's side, based on letters he has received from a few, including Genoways. Almond tries to be fair, stating,
That’s what most editors and agents dream about – that one story or novel or memoir they can’t dismiss. And we all want to write it. We all want to summon within ourselves such a voice, such courage, such attention to pain and beauty. But most of us fail. Our days rank as failures. And so we send out work that – as Genoways did me the great favor of pointing out – doesn’t honor our talent. And who do we blame? We blame the editors and agents, who are often merely stand-ins for the parents and siblings who thwarted us long ago.
I appreciate the point. I try very hard to be sensitive to writers, including the authors I'm publishing, those I am having to reject, and friends or colleagues who do me the honor of letting me read their writing and provide feedback. (I'm thinking of this as someone recently sent me a short story that really surprised me, with strong and varied language and great characterization, and I didn't even know she was a writer. I don't know that anyone did!) And having read this article now, I will only keep trying, and also try for more. Almond offers a useful mission for all of us, though he directs it primarily at his fellow writers:

Our job, then, is two-fold: to focus on our own failings as writers. But also to speak more forcefully as advocates for literature. Books are a powerful antidote for loneliness, for the moral purposelessness of the leisure class. It’s our job to convince the 95 percent of people who don’t read books, who instead medicate themselves in front of screens, that literary art isn’t some esoteric tradition, but a direct path to meaning, to an understanding of the terror that lives beneath our consumptive ennui. It’s hard to make this case, though, if all we do is squabble with each other and lament our obscurity.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Way to Reader's Manifesto

If you haven't done so already, I would recommend you head over to the Booksquare blog to read Kassia Krozser's post about the "question of value" in books. Krozser nails a lot of problems in publishing these days. She calls into question the gatekeeping role of publishers who get so hung up on an author who sells well that they publish anything that person sells, even if it's utter shite, resulting in a loss of faith from the reader. The reader is left wondering whom to trust. Krozser goes on to make a point we have certainly made here at SotB:
The truth is, as readers, we have no idea how good a book is when we purchase it, nor can we guess at the quality of what we get, generally, until we read the entire work. Yes, there are publishers (hello, Unbridled Books) who have a tight, focused list that reflects a consistent point-of-view while publishing a diverse list. I love it when I can trust a publisher. I feel the same away about Harlequin. It’s a compliment to both publishers. Readers may not love every book published by these houses, but they know there is a certain focus they can trust. Very few large publishers offer this kinda, sorta guarantee.
I know we're not going to return magically to a world where a publisher's name, at least a big corporate publisher's name, means a whole helluva lot. But I'm always pleased when folks point out how independents are often still defined enough that, if you find one that aligns with your taste, you can really learn to trust them.

So Krozser asks the hard questions about what publishers are adding in value to books:

Rather than accusing retailers and cheap consumers — and we are cheap, particularly in this economy — of devaluing content, how are publishers enhancing the consumer perception of the value of books?

Are they rejecting crappy books from established authors? Are they offering advances based on reality, the marketplace, rather than fantasy? Are they pricing books base on that same reality? Are they listening to what readers say?

Whoa. These are good and fair but very tough questions for publishers, but questions that must be asked. An an Editor, I appreciate someone basically asking, Are editors able to do their jobs and create lists that are recognizable? She also pushes for more transparency, which I've had mixed feelings about but I'm kind of coming around to. More on that in another post.

I appreciate Kroszer adding to this discussion and I'm very pleased to see many comments beneath the post. We need to keep thinking through these issues as we move to a digital world where more and more content is free, but is also of incredibly mixed value. But you may not know the value, good or bad, until you've already invested in the book.

Who do we trust these days?

Friday, September 10, 2010

How to clear your weekend reading list in 4 minutes.

Trying to catch up on the classics during the weekend? Why bother? Just watch this instead. 50 spoilers in 4 minutes. You're welcome.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Break Free from the Chains!

I was giddy like a schoolgirl when I read this article in the Guardian (UK) by Julia Finch about the bookstore chain Blackwell turning into an employee-owned firm. I know, right?! There is a model in place in the UK, as a major department store, John Lewis, has already made this move, and found success with it. In fact, as Finch states,
The John Lewis partnership has proved more resilient than many of its rivals in the recession and research by the Cass business school says there is evidence that staff-owned firms performed far better than shareholder-owned firms.
Put that in your capitalist pipe and smoke it.

The model will work this way, 81 year old chain owner Toby Blackwell explains:

He and two long-standing associates will retain control of Blackwell's A shares – the voting shares, which have no dividends attached. They will be placed in a trust. The B shares, or wealth shares, will go into another, employee, trust.

"No one will own shares," said Blackwell. "There will be an annual bonus, paid out of profits, and the chairman will get the same percentage [payout] as the part-time lady on the till in a store."

I'm not going to pretend like I fully understand this arrangement, though I'd like to think I could if I had it explained to me slowly. But the more important question becomes, for us here at SotB, could such a scheme ever work with our whiny chain bookstores?

I wondered this aloud, as it were, over at Ted Striphas' blog, and he responded. Pop over and see for yourself.

I know it won't happen. Borders and Barnes & Noble are much larger than Blackwell, which has only 37 permanent shops and 40 that open temporarily near college campuses. Compare that with 700+ B&Ns. And having worked at both Borders and B&N, I can tell you that any independence you sense is just an illusion. Each shop is controlled from above and every story manager has pretty tight orders.

But the article states that employee-owned businesses have happier employees... Now that would be a sea-change. I know there are always stories about people who love their local chain store and have great experiences with staff, but I also know - and have seen - some truly miserable people working at these chain stores. And I know as a cashier at B&N, it was hard to always be happy when I knew that, at the end of my shift, I would have to count out my drawer and then stand at a dry erase board, writing down the exact difference between my actual count and the receipt (manager: "in the first space, put '-25 cents'"), the amount of returns I processed (was it somehow my fault they returned merch?!), and the number of B&N memberships I sold (manager: "In the last place, put... ZERO.") It was degrading and insulting, for me and often for the manager.

But hey, I don't want to be all fa-la-la, employee-owned means never having an unhappy employee again. I know that's simplistic, but I also know this is an interesting turn-of-events at a chain bookstore that is getting little to no play here in places where the futures and fortunes of B&N and Borders are discussed ad nauseum.

Are we, as Striphas suggested in response to my comment, just afraid of anything that sounds the least bit socialist in this country? If so... egads, man.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Book Club Strikes Again

Last year, I posted about my experience with McSweeney's Book Release club, which was not altogether horrible but not my idea of perfection. You might recall my fit as the All Known Metal Bands book arrived at my door. But I still like the idea.

Well The Rumpus, the hipster literary site, a kind of scrappy version of the Daily Beast, has launched their own monthly book club this summer (as reported by PW here). What is different is that they will choose books from various publishers, indie and otherwise, and will ship the books out to members a month before pub. Well played, Rumpus. They are charging $25 a month, which includes shipping I believe, or $250 for a year.

Author Stephen Elliot started Rumpus and it should be no surprise that he's being innovative, given that for his own book last year, published by great indie Milkweed, Elliot sent out galleys to folks who signed up, asking that they then send them onto the next person on the list. I participated in this plan and actually found it very smart, and though I didn't love love love the book, I respected it - and the author - a great deal and liked the process. I like the way this Elliot guy thinks.

I also respect how he's not overhyping this idea, but just putting it out there in a laidback way. Probably the San Francisco in him talking, but in this case, I'm going to let it slide. He says in the PW article,

Elliott also picks books from authors he thinks have an affinity with The Rumpus. "We're doing Tao Lin's new novel, Richard Yates, coming from Melville House in September. We're really interested in Tao as a writer on the margins of the mainstream literary world, really fond of some of his other books, and we've discussed him a lot on The Rumpus. We haven't read the book yet, but we're looking forward to it, and think it's a book that people who read The Rumpus are also interested in. I really hope it's good," said Elliott.

Stepping back further, I also appreciate the curatorial quality to this whole set-up. So many books are published, so the folks at Rumpus, with a sense of what their readers like, will help you out, picking books from Melville, Milkweed, McSweeneys - but also, perhaps sadly, Penguin and Little, Brown - and give you a community of fellow readers for that book.

Lastly, I love that they have also started a poetry book club. Now with that move, Rumpus, I may be smitten.

I am watching with some trepidation as they start their own book publishing imprint, Paper Internets, with an anthology of writing by women. Good luck, Rumpus!