Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quality not Quantity

Since we seem to support this idea here at SotB - it's not about posting constantly or even consistently, but rather it's about posting important and relevant material, ya see? - I thought I would pull a quote I read recently and post it here. It's a quote that speaks to our deepest concerns in this ever-shifting publishing and reading landscape.

From Don Linn at Bait 'n' Beer:
We are, at bottom, a creative business. We are fighting for share of mind against hundreds of alternatives and if we do not put our best foot forward with regard to the titles we acquire, the care we give to the editorial process, and to the production quality of both our print and digital books, we won't (and don't deserve to) survive and prosper. When I see a poorly conceived, apparently unedited or copy-edited, badly designed book, that is produced (whether in hardcover, paperback or in a digital edition) in what is obviously the cheapest possible way, I fear for our future. Resources are limited, but if we can't produce consistent quality, then let's reduce quantities until we can. Nobody wants to buy a bad product.
For serious.

I also want to point out two recent comments I've heard regarding e-books and e-readers. First, someone told me that he travels a lot for work and relies on the iBooks app on his ipad to read digital books. But he has started buying "hard copies," as he said, as well, because often the plane pulls out from the gate but then taxis, and while everyone with "hard copies" is reading away, he can't read his e-book because passengers have been told to turn off mobile devices. Second, a coworker (though someone not in publishing) admitted that she followed my advice and read Jennifer Egan's fantastic book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad - but on her Kindle. Well there is a whole chapter done in Powerpoint, and it's a surprisingly touching and sweet chapter, and it simply did not work on the Kindle. This person feebly claimed, "I got the gist," but she clearly didn't. Such a shame. A whole chapter lost? That is just the kind of "bad product" Linn references above.

If this makes us seem like an irritating thorn poking into the side of the e-book world and nothing more, so be it. We are bloggers, after all. What else is the point??

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Philip Roth wins Man Booker Prize

This just in, Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Boo...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Sorry, I fell asleep while reporting this news as it bored me to death while typing.

Here's the story.

Here is a video of Roth accepting the award on Youtube.

Seriously? That is the best the Man Booker people could do? Roth sucks.

That is all.

Oops, nope, that isn't. Carmen Callil is now my new favorite writer.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Editors on Trial

I was interested in two recent pieces that address the hard choices editors have to make. We are punished at times because some writers feel we are punishing them - for not writing about fuzzy bunnies and cute puppies and pretty flowers.

First, we have Raina Wallace over at The Rumpus writing about the "trend" of grief memoirs, beginning with the publication of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Wallace references a post over at The Millions on this topic by Bill Morris, but then refutes the idea that this is a trend. In fact, she feels editors are avoiding grief memoirs - including her own work (though it's actually a novel). At this point, to me, it became clear that this post was similar in tone to the many articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the difficulties of getting a faculty job - by unsuccessful candidates. This isn't to say the point is not valid, but just that the writer is working through rejection in making her or his point.

Wallace explains that, in her experience, book editors believe the public doesn't want too many grief memoirs. The sadness of them scares off the editors. She states,
I deduct this from the experience I’ve been having in trying to sell my novel, which tells the story of a young September 11th widow who discovers a secret involving her late husband and some of their closest friends. While the story is fiction, it is driven by emotional truth–namely, the emotional truth of grief and mourning–and this is the aspect of the novel that most editors have expressed concern with.
She goes on to say that one editor even warned that s/he "couldn’t see myself reading it over and over again throughout the editing process, or presenting it to my sales force without crying, to be honest. The emotional impact, in this case, worked against it for me—which I know must sound ridiculous, but although AFTER [my book] came close to overcoming my general reluctance to work on stories prominently featuring 9/11, I still just don’t feel quite emotionally ready to plunge in wholeheartedly and give this novel the publishing support it deserves.”

I can appreciate the author's frustration. In fact, I'm quite surprised by the brutal honesty of this editor - not against such honesty, just surprised to read it. Wallace then admits that she can understand the mentality, that she saw it in her personal life as friends grew uncomfortable if she spoke about her husband's death too much, even fairly soon after 9/11 where he died suddenly. She sees this as our country's collective avoidance of dealing with death honestly, and directly.

I'm glad that Wallace is able to see the editors not as some rude gatekeepers denying her the right to get her voice heard but instead as symptoms of a larger cultural issue. She's right to place the blame on American culture at large, and not on the shoulders of the editors who sent rejection letters that were honest, and hard, I'm sure, to write.

I remember having to reject someone with a Holocaust memoir. I felt terrible, even as a colleague explained that I'd see more of them, and we just couldn't publish them all. They had to really stand out. This is where self-publishing becomes useful. The story maybe should be told, but it's not necessarily going to sell the number of copies a publisher needs to justify it. Get annoyed at readers in general out there, but don't take it out on the editor or publisher.

In another article, this one by Michael Goldfarb writing at the BBC, the question is raised about why books and films are not reflecting the current economic crisis as such art did during the Great Depression. In fact, I would argue that Goldfarb is asking why more mainstream writers and filmmakers are not grappling with the reality of our times directly. (The Left seems quite rightly obsessed with the struggle.) I'm not sure this is quite as much of an image as he makes it out to be. Is it that novelists and other artists are not addressing the recession, or just that when they do, those books (or films) don't attract fans?

Goldfarb concludes at one point:
I think the primary reason is that Hollywood and the publishing industry have learned just one historical lesson from the Depression: people want entertainment in tough times.
Perhaps this is the case, but I don't know. Look at the National Book Award winner last year, Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, set at a rundown horse track in West Virginia. A finalist, Lionel Shriver's So Much for That, seems to hinge on the wife needing the man's health insurance (admittedly, I haven't read this one - forgive any misunderstanding). I also think of the characters in Bonnie Jo Campbell's book American Salvage, which was also a National Book Award finalist, and which peopled very much by working class and poor characters. The books are there, simply put.

The question becomes how much more can we take. It might not be that we should publish a ton of material on tragic stories, but only the best. The classics will go into the canon, perhaps, and in 60 years when people are looking at this time period, as Goldfarb looks back at the output of the Great Depression, the best will still be there, reflecting this period in all its heartbreak and frustration.

As editors, we can only try to find the best and not publish anything less, even if the topic is important and the issue at the heart of it - grief, a very real and all too common financial struggle - is true to life and important.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Endangerment, Extinction

As an editor, I'm of course concerned about the publishing industry caving in on itself, gutting its own support beams in its mad rush to digital products that cannot sustain labor that is thoughtful, wide-ranging, with workers trying to be prescient, trying to work with authors on deep and thorough investigations, both the creative, artistic kind and the scholarly kind, and sometimes both. Sure it worries me when I read most recently this news:
Physical book sales will decline at a compound annual rate of 5 percent. While e-book sales will rise during that same period, the increase won’t cover the revenue gap created by the decline in the physical book market. By 2014, the research note predicts, e-books will occupy some 13 percent of U.S. book publishing revenue, more than twice its current level.
That blows. But even before I read this, I read something else that very well may come to an end in this ever-changing publishing landscape, where print books are increasingly devalued.
Ever since 1983, when one of the earliest book cart drill teams formed in Virginia, teams have been sprouting up at libraries across the country, rehearsing synchronized routines and making occasional appearances at conferences, festivals, and parades.
Yeah, that's right. Librarians doing choreographed dance routines with book carts. Try doing THAT with your fancy e-books, Cory Doctorow!

What else will we lose before we put the brakes on this digitizing nightmare, I ask you?
But keeping the spirit of book cart-pushing performance alive has been no easy task. Recruitment and education are key. Deyermond concedes that the past two years have been tough. When there weren’t enough teams to field a real contest last year, she held a tutorial session instead.
That's Gerry Deyermond, whom you may know betters as "the book cart queen," sounding the alarm. This is how (print) books may go: not with a bang but a whimper, from a lonely librarian standing - or even slow-dancing - with an empty book cart.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Generational shift?

Sad news today out of New Haven, CT, where apparently the Labyrinth Bookstore may close, as soon as two weeks from now. (I initially read this news this morning in the daily installment of Shelf Awareness.) I mentioned this store almost three years ago here, when we stopped there on a mini-tour of bookstores in Connecticut. It reminded me very much of Harvard Book Store, unsurprisingly.

The article makes the problem sound generational in a more blatant way than I've seen elsewhere. The store's manager, Martha MacDonald, is quoted as saying, “Kids will [buy a book], move seven feet away, turn on their laptops and see that Amazon is selling it for $15 less — and then say, ‘I want to return this.’” Obviously, this is troublesome.

(You'll recall that Harvard Book Store fought such behavior in a kind of mock-PSA video, "Don't be an I-Phoney, posted here.)

There was more youthful indifference mentioned, as well:
Undergraduate students generally were unconcerned by the news that the bookstore may close. Of 14 students interviewed, seven said they did not buy any books from Labyrinth in the past year, and six more had bought five or fewer. Marisa Karchin ’14 said she bought 10 books from Labyrinth Books in the past year, but said the closing would only be a minor inconvenience, as she would have shopped online instead.
Could this be true, even amongst Yale students? So college students now only see bookstores as fulfilling their reading needs, not their wants? Are we really the old people telling kids today what they're missing, while they roll their eyes and put their ear buds back in?

I think I hear Christopher sobbing, or shredding phonebooks with his bare hands in frustration. Oh wait, who gets a phonebook anymore?!


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Amazon Moves Forward with Strategy

It should come as no surprise to any of us - especially those of us who are *not* big fans of Amazon - that the (sometime) bookselling giant has just announced an even CHEAPER Kindle! Here's the cheap li'l harlot now, folks, marked down to the oh-so-reasonable $114. How do they do it?!

Oh, with ads in the form of screen savers. This means every time you settle down with your favorite e-book, you'll be greeted with ads, and again when you shut down, and maybe if you don't interact with the thing for awhile and it goes to "sleep." The ads will not be inserted into books - oh thank god, right? Because that would be horrible.

I hate this. I hate that it will make more people run out and get this thing, rendering them beholden to Amazon for future e-books. I hate that people will settle for being advertised to, just to save a few bucks. I hate that Amazon came up with this system to lock in more consumers, and it's going to work. And I hate that Amazon continues to hold an advantage over independent bookstores due to getting around state tax collectors.

And I think many of us scream in frustration when we hear from Ted Genoways, in a powerful and horrifying Virginia Quarterly Review article on the so-called paperless revolution, that "the New York Times recently calculated that the environmental impact of a single e-reader—factoring in the use of minerals, water, and fossil fuels along the manufacturing process—is roughly the same as fifty books."

Think twice before snatching up this cheap Kindle, just as I hope you do before purchasing anything at Wal-Mart or the Gap. We're paying a larger price than you realize, in a number of ways.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Of Hopes, Dreams, and Book Jackets

Before I get into this post let me get something out of the way. The whole book jacket issue thing makes me crazy. I have been on all sides of it as an editor, agent, and customer and my personal take on it is that it’s a big, fancy wank job. Has a book jacket helped in catching my eye? Yup. Have I bought a book based on the jacket design alone? I am pretty sure I have. Have I been let down by a book with the coolest jacket around? Hell, yeah. However, the whole business is just too fucking annoying when you are part of the process. Authors, agents, and advisers all think that the cover is the be-all, end-all of a book’s success and far too many authors, agents, and various and sundry advisers believe that they know best as to what the cover of a book should look like. To that end The Awl.com ran a piece on Monday about six writers discussing the book jacket design process and what it meant to each of them. I hated it. It just made me cringe. It took me back to my bad old days in Boston publishing.
"Writers by definition spend a lot of time on the inside of books, which is why what happens on the outside—namely, cover art and blurbs—can feel precarious and daunting. Often these elements are beyond an author’s control or expertise, which can be painful to admit, particularly when the "expertise" of graphic designers and marketers seems so subjective or at odds with an author’s “vision” for a book."
 The "author's vision" for a book is a phrase that makes me wanna stab my eyes out. If y'all out there knew how many times an author told me that the cover they were sent was "horrible" you'd never have time to read anything else ever again. “How,” I would ask them, “is it possible that every instinct they have telling them that the cover in question is horrible but that the press’s other books are selling and winning awards for design?” No answer. Or, better yet, another answer from the author in question that every person in publishing has heard a million times: "I showed the design to my family and friends and they all had the same poor reaction to it that I did. They, too, all hated it" OK, case closed. If your buddies say it’s horrible it really must be as one of your close friends is Chip Kidd, right? I digress.
To get some advice on navigating these issues, we asked a handful of writers—including Kate Christensen, Bennett Madison, Stefanie Pintoff, Mark Jude Poirier and Tom Scocca—who have been through the process these questions:
  • How important are covers in terms of selling a book?
  • Have your publishers asked you for your opinion or “input” on your covers, and to what extent do you think they listened? Did you ever meet with the designer? How important was “marketing” in making decisions about the cover of your book(s)?
  • Did you ever receive a cover that made you unhappy and if so, what did you do about it? Did you ultimately end up with a cover that made you happier?
  • How important are blurbs, particularly for a first-time author?
  • How did you go about getting your blurbs? Did your agent or editor help, or did you rely more on personal connections?
  • Have you ever offered someone else a blurb?
Alright, those are the questions to deal with…what are my reactions? 1) Important but not the end of the world if the cover sucks, right Geek Love? 2) Input? Usually publishers do what is best as they are the professionals and they almost always get it right. If we can’t agree on that, let’s at least agree that they are better at figuring out what works than your cousin Gus, OK? Meet the designer? What do you think this is Canada? Really, how would that help you? You already have a tangible example of what the designer thinks…it’s called the cover. Marketing? Let’s leave that sacred cow alone. I still believe to this day that the marketing decisions presses make include more closely guarded secrets than one would find in the North Korean supreme people’s assembly. One battle at a time, if you please. 3) Unhappy? Yes, I am sure every writer has been at some point but sometimes you have to trust someone else, yes? 4) Blurbs are important…and stupid. Discuss. 5) Usually the editor will do a lot of the searching for a blurb or two. If you are lucky you know a novelist with some public profile who will say something nice about your forthcoming book. Blurbs appear to be the most stressful aspect of the cover experience for all the authors in the piece. I agree with them. I hated asking for quotes for my writers. I found that many published and established writers were so ungenerous with their time that it made me feel like an old man. Some simply "had a policy" not to blurb. Others would just ignore the request. Look, a blurb from another writer none of us have ever heard of doesn't really help you. Sorry, the truth hurts. If you can walk through the mine field and get some great quotes, I ain't gonna lie, it really, really helps. For instance, tell me this guy didn't hit it out of the park when it came time to put some blurbs on the back of his original paperback release for Houghton Mifflin's Mariner line. For reals, right?!? However, blurbs aren’t always a good thing. Isn’t the following blurb the stupidest one you’ve ever read?

“This novel is so magnificent — in every conceivable aspect, and others previously unimagined — that it has occurred to me that the shadow of this book, and the joy I received in reading it, will fall over every other book I have ever read.” – Rick Bass on Cold Mountain

Seriously? I mean you have to be a grade-A asshole to send something like that in. Either Cold Mountain is the best book ever written in the history of humankind or Rick Bass has a bug up his ass about being asked to blurb a book he doesn't really like. In each case, you really don't want to put that on your book jacket even though Rick Bass is a famous writer and, on the surface, it appears that he has said something wonderful about you and your boring post-Civil War novel. I can offer new novelists no solace...trying to secure blurbs downright sucks. That's that. Anyway, back to the jacket discussion...

The authors in the Awl piece, which you really should go and read without the added acid I am throwing on things here, are split on their reactions to their book jackets. Kate Christensen said “The cover for the hardback of Trouble made me unhappy, but no one would budge on it, so there it stayed. My mother thought it was a picture of me; I thought it was flat-out weird. I still dislike it.” Bennett Madison was in deep loathing on his first jacket. “I absolutely hated the cover of my first book. I complained a little and they changed it enough to make me hate it so much more! So the moral of the story there is, no matter how bad it is it can always be made worse with hot-pink "I Dream of Jeannie" harem pants” I haven’t read his book so I don’t know what that last thing about Jeannie means but his point is well taken.

Mark Poirier had both a positive and negative experience with his two novel jackets. Poirier says, “I loved the cover they chose for Goats for which they had asked my input. I also loved the cover they chose for Unsung Heroes of American Industry. Again, I had some input. The cover they chose for Modern Ranch Living, however, sucked and continues to suck today.” Matthew Gallaway, Tom Scocca, and Stefanie Pintoff all had love at first sight with their covers. So it is a wash and--if anything--more of the authors were cool with their jackets than disliked them. But does a book jacket matter in the end? It does and it doesn’t. A cool jacket wrapped around a big pile of shit still makes for a bad read, right? All text covers of a type still used in French publishing houses can keep safe the best novel you’ve (n)ever read. So, why sweat it?

Finally, what’s my advice on this contentious issue? Trust in your airline pilot…your mutual fund manager…your lifeguard…your…you get the idea. I am not saying that presses don’t make mistakes but there has to be some kind of acceptance that the publishers and their designers are trying to create something in everyone’s best interest and no one is better at that than the designers at those houses. No, not always. Not exclusively, but it is what they do. I am sure that I could manage a professional baseball team better than many of the current managers but does that make it true? Nope. I have found that one’s life is better, less stressful, and generally more pleasant if one leaves things that one isn’t versed in to the professionals in the given field. Sure, I could suggest a typeface or a different color for a title but that hardly means that I am capable of discrediting a design because I don’t like “hot pink” or the look of “a bland and way-too-literal photograph of a curvy-road-ahead highway sign in the desert.” To his credit, Mark Poirier comes around to my way of thinking about it:
"I offered cover ideas to people at Simon and Schuster for The Worst Years of Your Life, an anthology I edited, and I’m grateful they went in another direction. The cover they chose features a diagram of a frog dissection that looks as if it were made on a '70s ditto machine. Created by Catherine Casalino, the cover went on to win design awards. While I approved the cover and approved the covers from Bloomsbury, it took me a while to believe that sometimes book-jacket designers, people who actually get paid to design book jackets, people who actually have a lot of experience designing book jackets, often know better than I. Because of my sour experience with Modern Ranch Living, I’m a little touchy, but I have come to let the experts do their jobs."
 Let the experts do their jobs. Good, sage advice…just breath, authors, and know that not only shouldn’t you judge a book by its cover but remember what your mother taught you: it’s what inside that counts. Of course, I've never had my baby covered in hot pink, tilt-shift photos, and terrible typefaces. Maybe I'd feel differently if I weren't just a boring blogger. It's an interesting point.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Op-ed versus blog post

When I post something on here, no one screens it for me. This is sometimes painfully obvious, as when I include a glaring error, from a misspelled word to something just plain wrong. But Christopher and I purposely use this space to mouth off about whatever annoys, amuses, pleases, or frustrates us. We try to balance it so we're not always ranting. I hope all of you out there appreciate that balance.

This morning, I read something in the paper that just plain pissed me off. (And yes, I still read a newspaper.) My local paper is the Boston Globe. You'd think this would be a good thing. Sometimes it is; other times, it's a damn shame. When news went out recently that they were laying off two great writers from their books/Ideas section - Amanda Heller and Katherine Powers - I was not a proud subscriber. Melville House director and general smart guy Dennis Johnson rightly called the Globe out on this move on MobyLives, stating correctly:

Under the helm of long-term book editor James Concannon, and now his replacement Nicole Lamy, it’s long been a bizarre boycott in a town that has more colleges per square inch — about 100 within the city limits alone — that is full of writing programs (at Harvard, MIT, BU, BC, Emerson, UMass and Northwestern, to name a few), is the home to numerous award-winning literary journals (such as Ploughtshares, Post Road, Agni, and others), and is generally, as my grandfather used to say, lousy with writers. It’s clear the audience is there, and a huge part of the newspaper’s demographic, but the Globe has clearly decided to ignore that part of its readership.

I mean, I'm planning on going to two great literary events in this fair city just this week: on Tuesday, Harvard's hosting an incredible event about Frank O'Hara, which will include O'Hara's sister Maureen, novelist Ron Padgett, and the John Ashberry. Then on Thursday, Irish writer Colm Toibin is speaking at Emerson College, first doing a q&a with novelist Christopher Castellani at 4 and then doing a reading at 6, on behalf of literary journal Ploughshares where he is guest editor. Pretty f'ing hot, right?

But the Globe is bored with it, I suppose. They can devote plenty of ink and pixel to the Red Sox but as little as possible to literary goings-on.

But wait! There was something just today in the op-ed page - not even in Ideas or in the official Books section - on books. Fantastic. It was an article about how books are dead. Yes, this is what annoyed me this morning, and this is why this post is going from joy - Toibin! O'Hara! yea! - to frustration.

The op-ed, charmingly entitled "The Last Chapter," is from Globe gadfly Tom Keane, who has been a reporter and an all around capitalist his whole life, it seems. And he uses as his jumping off point the fact that a large Borders is closing right in the Back Bay, a central neighborhood here in Boston. Now Keane takes this information and provides hardly any context. Instead, it conveniently serves as evidence of bookstores' collective demise, at least in Boston. Apparently Keane hasn't followed the annoyingly complicated reactions happening around the country as Borders locations close, as chronicled impressively by Shelf Awareness in the last couple of months. Nor has he heard my call for an indie in my own South End neighborhood in Boston, or my suggestions for groupthink on how to open a good non-profit bookstore. (One post with both here.) There are options.

He in fact announces simply, "The book is dead." Unfortunately, some of us keep getting out the paddles, I suppose, forcing the poor, sickly book to hold on another month longer. To those of us who like printed books, he offers a series of dismissive comments that I won't repeat. They're cheap shots, like jocks mocking the nerds with arrogance and swagger, with a sense of the inevitable. "It's done," he's saying, "so get with it and buy an e-reader."

Many people are saying this and we don't go after all of them, but this guy is saying it in the Globe. In fact, he writes for the op-ed page regularly. That's where I fit this into the Globe's larger disinterest in the literary world of Boston. How is this guy qualified to write this? And did he do any more research beyond noting that this specific Borders location is closing, and then getting sales figures on books from the American Association of Publishers, for ONE MONTH! (And it's January, the month after the holidays, no less.)

And I come back to my opening remark regarding this blog. We can shoot our mouths off all we want. We are not supported by any larger body here. But Keane is printed up (shocking!) and sent out over internet tubes with the Globe's branding all around him. Why are they letting this cheap shot become part of any conversation in their pages, online or off? This is just an ad for e-readers, nothing more.

And I'm again struck by the sense that some want to create this self-fulfilling prophecy to get us over the hurdle. It's okay now, it's okay, put your book down... there ya go... and here's a Kindle! Yes! Take it, hold it, it's okay... it's okay... click on something... And boom, now you're stuck with it. Now you must buy and read with it, and let Amazon track your purchases, and your files, and your highlighting. Anyone reading a printed book is a loser. It's a done deal.

Let Keane make this case as loud as he pleases, of course, but hey Globe? Ask your writers to do some work, and try to avoid these editorials designed only to alienate the few of us left who both read books and still read your paper.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Um, paging Dr. Freud!!!

It goes like this: a blogger gives a book a poor review and the author sees said bad review and posts a comment about the review in defense of her book. That's that, right? All over. Wrong. So wonderfully wrong. Next, instead of taking her lumps, all HELL BREAKS LOOSE with the author, Jacqueline Howett, throwing a temper tantrum, posting comment after comment after comment after comment and, in effect, challenging the blogger to a pissing contest. Absolutely fabulous. No, that's not right, it's perfect. It. Is. Perfect. Go watch the catfight happen right now...


This is the cover.

That is all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Fallacy of "the System"

With great trepidation, I went to see Tod Machover's Death and the Powers: The Robot's Opera, a production of the American Repertory Theater playing at the Cutler Majestic here in Boston. I may be a nerd, but I'm not really a geek. For example, the video art on display by Stan VanderBeek at MIT's List Visual Arts Center left me cold. I could see that it was inventive, but the chirping and blinking overwhelmed me and it all felt void of emotion. Call me middle brow, but I want at least a touch of sentimentalism in my art, it seems, or some kind of feeling. (That same day, I went up to see Tufts University's gallery show, Seductive Subversions: Women Pop Artists, 1958-1968, which was amazing. I was happily introduced to a number of great artists, including the hilarious May Wilson, but I digress...)

I went into this opera expecting a similar chilly production, with cleverness outweighing emotional resonance. Perhaps it helped that poet Robert Pinsky did the libretto. The music was beautiful and the performances - especially the two female leads, Emily Albrink and Sara Heaton, who truly stole the show - were simple, and powerful, and felt very honest. The technology at work - which you can hear more about here - was incredible, but again, if that were laid on heavy without care and consideration to these other parts, it would have failed, at least by my standards. But what made me think of this blog were the themes. A bit on the story.

The opera is about a wealthy man who is dying. He decides to put himself into his own belongings, downloading himself into "the System," represented by lit walls that become characters. His family - his wife and his daughter (from another mother) - must determine whether he is still alive, when he is part of the system and not in human, or "organic" as they say, form.

Of course, like any good opera or artwork in general, the play brought up many questions and led to many connections in my mind, but one issue that rose to the surface was how much we represent ourselves in digital form, whether on blogs, or Twitter, or Facebook, or IMs and emails, or text messages. In some ways, we are putting ourselves into "the System" to push past the limitations of our bodies to be in multiple places at once. I emailed a friend and her boyfriend recently, knowing she was in Taiwan, traveling. I got a text message from her, and I asked if she was back. She wasn't, but the news I gave her upset her so she texted. (It shouldn't have upset, but that's another story entirely.) The point is, she had to be in Taiwan seeing family without missing the daily dramas that unfold back home.

But as many have noted, communication and reltionships suffer with this need for constant connection. In an article in today's Boston Globe, reporter Beth Teitel writes about teens getting worn out from all night texting. (Admittedly, it's a bit of a media-hysteria piece. And btw, why the F did the Globe file it this way, "
  • HOME /
  • "? Lame, Globe, really lame.) Now let me herd this story back to the point of this blog: if you need to be in many places at once and cannot be alone - one teen says “When you don’t have your phone, you feel incomplete’ - then how can you possibly READ A BOOK?!

    And yes, I know that reading articles online, or blog posts like this one (for you 8 people reading), or ebooks on dedicated devices, is all still reading, but it is reading differently. When I read an article online at work, using Google Chrome as my browser, I find myself taking breaks in the text to look at the other tabs, to see if I have a new email. I may get interrupted by an IM on gmail or facebook. For anything I want to retain, I have to print the article out and read it on paper, without these distractions - and even then, my phone is close by to deliver text messages, 99.8% of which do not require any immediate response. My attention is pulled in various directions. This makes concentration difficult.

    At the end of Death and the Powers, which sadly is no longer running in Boston as it was a truly exquisite production, the daughter Miranda must decide whether to go and spend eternity with her father as part of "the System" or whether to remain organic, and face death eventually. The libretto raises these fascinating questions of what we sacrifice if we have complete efficiency - with no death, do you appreciate life? With unlimited memory, how do you choose what to think of if no memory is lost? Without struggle, what to appreciate? Without suffering, how do you appreciate relief?

    I'm not trying to be simplistic (sometimes I can't help it). But if my books are just files on my computer, do I appreciate themas much? Do I look at the ones I've read and feel satisfied, maybe even smug, and proud? Do I look at the ones I have yet to read, as I'm doing right now (The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar, Triomf by Marlene Van Kiekerk, Fidelity by Grace Paley, etc) and feel thrilled with anticipation of what I'll find?

    Because blinking files on a desktop or on a handheld device don't hold that allure. And to me, as of now, the convenience of that system, versus the supposed inefficiency of printed book, is not worth it. Because when I'm reading that book, without any access to the internet, without any blinking names or alerts to messages, I get into an alternate, interior world. The physicality of that book, disconnected from a buzzing network of needy voices trying to give an opinion, or sing a song, or be clever, is protection. It's very limitations are also its strengths, and in the interest of convenience - like the wealthy man in the opera - we are throwing out those limitations without thinking through what's to come, and what may be lost.

    Monday, March 21, 2011

    Shocking Blogger Revelation

    I hate to say it, but it seems... Christopher and I are Pluggers (tm).


    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    Disturbing look at dead library

    I was rather shocked to watch the video and see the photos posted over at deTROITfuUNK, of the now deceased Mark Twain Library. The images are a powerful look at what could happen in other communities if we allow the government to cut funding and close branches of public libraries. I'm not saying they must stay as is, but they need our support - as communities, and from the government.

    I tried to get a bit of a back story and discovered that a "Mark Twain annex" opened at a church in 1998. I wondered if they just never fixed the original building. I know nothing about Detroit so I was not familiar with the situation there.

    In the comments section, someone named Eastside Al gives the real story, apparently, which makes the tragedy of these images all the more frustrating:

    I’m horrified by these pictures of what was the library of my childhood. I spent many happy hours sitting and reading in the children’s room here while my mother tended to other business in the grown-up books section or at the nearby Sears store.

    I’m also furiously angry. The reason why there are so many books left here and so much furniture is that this library was only supposed to be temporarily closed. The people in the neighborhood just wanted the roof and the heat repaired swiftly, but the DPL insisted that they should do a major renovation and that we’d all have a beautiful like-new library when they were done in about a year. If anyone here remembers the late ’90s “empowerment zone” years, the money seemed to be there to do it then.

    Well, a year dragged out to 2 then 3, and little progress was made. There were apparently “contractor problems” Some of the books were moved to the “annex” library in a nearby church hall, after people in the area complained and complained. And then asbestos was “discovered” (what, they didn’t know it was going to be there in a 70 year old building?) which was used as an excuse to discontinue all work. We were all promised that this stoppage would be temporary too, while they worked out a plan to deal with the asbestos. Yeah, right.

    Then the building sat… and sat… and sat… and the library people and the city stopped answering our calls, and acted like they’d never heard of the building when we did get ahold of them. The interior got progressively more damaged by the original problem that had never been fixed – a leaking roof – and then, of course, the scrappers and ‘explorers’ came, and it ended up in the state you see today.

    This city can make me so sick sometimes.
    The blogger later notes, in the comments:
    And for the historical record, the building bears his name in direct commemoration of the man – by that I mean he was given the honor in person. His daughter Clara Clemons (she was married to the director of the DSO) lived in Boston Edison, and Mark Twain was therefore a person who was associated with Detroit during that time period. I believe the building itself deserves historic protection due to its history, as well as being a Wirt Rowland design.
    Here in Boston, Mayor Menino once again threatened library closures in January, after failing to get any closed last year. The same is happening in Los Angeles and surely other cities.

    I've said it before - we should take a lesson from the Brits, whose libraries are under general threat, and organize a strong resistance.

    Monday, March 14, 2011

    An opportunity for bloggers

    I recently heard from a friend of mine, Felicia Pride, who has become a one-woman force in publishing as founder of Backlist, about this opportunity, which I'm passing along. (I feel comfortable doing so as it's supported by public television station WETA out of DC.)

    (PS: Remember to support public broadcasting!)


    Are you a bibliophile who loves the smell of print, but can’t deny a growing affair with your Kindle? Do you love to converse about your favorite books and their connection to the broader world? Perhaps you think reading is more than fundamental—it is a cornerstone of society.

    If you want to grace the masses with your witty and smart writings about books, technology, and culture, we’d like to connect with you.

    inReads will be a new online home and social community for those of us who love books and can’t get enough talking about them, but also recognize the myriad of ways that reading is changing—young, cool, and plugged in nerds who listen to NPR, read the New York Times daily, have diverse, yet refined literary tastes, but also engage with the highs and lows of pop culture.

    inReads is a production of WETA, the Washington DC public television, media and radio entity, and the producer of such notable works as the films of Ken Burns, In Performance at the White House and Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal.

    We’re looking for writers, bloggers, book/product reviewers, and content producers who want a platform to riff on all things books, technology and culture in a thought-provoking and entertaining way. Our content won’t take itself too seriously. Serious is for the other guys.

    We want content of all types—from text to video to audio—and we like when they’re paired together. We’re slated to launch in March.

    Interested? Send us a few links to your work online and include some pitches for stories via email: inreadseditors@gmail.com. We look forward to the possibilities.

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Authors, liberate yourselves

    As I've written here before, I'm increasingly frustrated by this black/white divide between big publishing and self-publishing. Authors have more options than this. Self-publishing companies, out to make big bucks off the backs of authors who feel they'd be better off just doing it themselves rather than waiting around for some uppity editor to tap them on the shoulder for a dance, are ratcheting up the rhetoric with every new ad, article, and post they manage to get out there. As with most things put out there as black & white, there are valuable issues lost in the gray in between. (This is not the case with all issues, of course, such as the Wisconsin nightmare wherein a lunatic governor, Scott Walker, is showing blatant disregard for workers by doing all he can to kill collective bargaining, but as a proud union member, I digress...)

    I was reminded of this frustrating dichotomy with the slideshow/ad producted by Smashwords, the self-publisher, as featured at the Scholarly Kitchen. In this slideshow, which I'm not going to reproduce on this page, the good folks at Smashwords compare the author revolution, as they see it, to the revolution in Egypt. Yes, folks, *this* is heightened rhetoric. They see authors as needing to break down the gates that keep them out of being published by self-publishing. They have a list of ways in which self-publishing - with Smashwords perhaps? - is liberating.

    The points they make about the problems with "big publishing" are valid, but their conclusion, I would argue, is not always so. In fact, their manner of phrasing the problems and their use of these problems is... well, problematic. One reason you should self-publish your work as an e-book? Bricks and mortar stores are disappearing. Uncool, Smashwords. They're not disappearing, and in fact some of us hope to see a resurgence as Borders pulls back, leaving some communities in need of a bookstore. They also see "oppression of creative freedom," which they then paraphrase as "you suck and don't deserve to publish until publishers tell you otherwise." This is where a red flag went up for me, as Smashwords is obviously playing on the insecurity of writers and their frustration at rejection letters. I get that frustration, but this is cheap and easy exploitation.

    They then talk about the joys of self-publishing, which can be reduced to you're in control and you'll get more money.

    What I have long complained about in regards to this rhetoric is the lack of collective benefit. (Note the tangent above, re: unions and collective bargaining...) They are saying to authors, hey, you're sitting at home like an a-hole collecting rejection letters. Eff that, right? There is a world of money and creativity and a market waiting to be tapped! Do it for YOU! Let the publishers keep publishing Snooki - ha ha, right?!

    But what about independent, non-profit presses? What about presses that publish to a mission and support creative voices, alongside one another? What about finding a group - or even making your own group by starting your own press - that thinks along similar lines, such as The Nervous Breakdown did/is doing. Or find a leader who is committed to publishing and whose aesthetic fits yours - you'd be damn lucky if that person were Richard Nash, for example (an SotB favorite).

    Self-publishing works for many people and that's fine, but I hope many of the desperate, vulnerable, over-worked and non-paid writers out there looking to publish their work think through all this advertising being thrown at them by self-publishers. I know models are changing, but we need to beware of changes that become potentially exploitative, especially when there are opportunities to make a positive difference.

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    Always better to cooperate?

    I was intrigued last week when I read in Shelf Awareness that Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, is going co-op. Explains the "present owner," Gary Weissbrot,

    Four days after sending out my farewell closing letter, Bob Proehl put out a well considered and passionate proposal asking our community if they would consider creating a community-owned cooperative bookstore, and if so, to make a non-binding monetary pledge.

    It’s now two weeks later and the proposed financial target has been reached!

    In fact, they raised $50,000 more than they requested. Exciting stuff. I suppose this is in some ways similar to the model at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX, which I've talked about before.

    This also made me think of efforts in the Boston area to start up a bookstore, first in Davis Square up in Somerville (I talked about it here but there must be an update??). I'm hoping something similar develops in my own neighborhood of the South End, after the South End News published this op-ed by Billy Palumbo about the need for a bookstore here - a point with which I heartily agree.

    Do these campaigns work? As Borders stores close nationwide, some communities are crying out for bookstores. Can we come up with a new model, something between a library (non-profit) and a bookstore (things for sale, revenue-generating) that is sustainable and answers these calls?

    Monday, March 07, 2011


    Oh, Borders, you crazy!!!

    Opportunity calls!

    I have long held that Melville House is one of the coolest independent publishers out there, led by the a great director, Dennis Johnson. They have proven to be innovative, open-minded, progressive, intelligent, and mouthy - all qualities I admire in publishing.

    Now comes word that they're hiring! According to this job description, they need an editor as awesome as they are. We have many cool readers here - are you the person they're looking for?

    I've been pawing their Art of the Novella series for some time now - they look so uniform and modern and great. I'm a sucker for a consistent design like these, and the kind of counter-intuitive step of printing novellas at a time when everyone says go digital, go digital, go digital. Harvard Book Store has a great display of a bunch of them in their window (or did - don't know if it's still up) and inside. And now it seems you can buy a gift bag of them right from the Melville House site.

    So fine, you bought the gift bag. Good. Now, is your resume ready to go?

    Friday, March 04, 2011

    World Book Night?!?

    Tomorrow, March 5th, is World Book Night. Why the hell didn't we think of this?

    From the Guardian UK:

    World Book Night 2011

    The first ever World Book Night is being held on Saturday, with events across the UK being held and at least 1million free books being given away.
     Here are the books being given away. Here is a ton more about the Trafalgar Square event.

    Still, there are always assholes people who have a problem with EVERYTHING. Seriously.

    Vanessa Robertson, who owns the Edinburgh Bookshop in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh, has claimed that, far from spreading the joy of reading, World Book Night will simply flood the market with free books and devalue the work of authors in the eyes of the public.

    In a highly critical blog posted on the website State of Independents Robertson says many booksellers are "horrified" by the "misguided and misjudged" venture.

    "One million books flooding a struggling book trade; one million copies of books which make up a good part of many bookshops' sales (David Nicholl's One Day; Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; Fingersmith by Sarah Waters to name a few); one million books being given away, further reinforcing the notion that we're all there to provide a public service and that authors, publishers and booksellers don't deserve or need to make a living," she wrote.

    Others echoed her view. One independent bookseller, who would only speak anonymously for fear of being labelled "curmudgeonly", said: "We're champions of the book and independent reading and people enriching their lives and bringing people to appreciate the value of books. I don't see how giving stuff away will help." He queried whether World Book Night would bring in new readers, saying: "I suspect it will be nice bookish people giving the books to other nice bookish people."

    World Book Night has been accused by a number of authors and independent booksellers of damaging the struggling book trade, but Atwood – whose novel The Blind Assassin is among those being given away – responded by saying: "Other booksellers are enthusiastically participating, as it spreads the word on books and makes them available to people who would otherwise not have them or be able to afford them. Also: I gave a book by Kate Atkinson away recently and the person I gave it to liked it so much that she bought all the others."
     Curmudgeonly? Nah. One book per person isn't going to crash the book trade in the entire UK and if it does then they were fucked already. Sorry, but that's the truth.
    Andrew Bentley-Steed, who manages Robertson's Edinburgh bookshop... suggested that a better event would be a "Fair Trade Book Fortnight" at which all retailers agreed to charge the full cover price for their books to support authors.
    Um, I know what we could call that: Tuesday. No, wait, Thursday. No, no, no, I've got it: Saturday. For the most part, I buy my books at a great independent bookstore in Cambridge and I always pay full price. Always. So how is "Fair Trade Book Fortnight" an event? The answer is it isn't. Wah, wah. However the charmingly named Nic Bottomley has the right attitude:

    Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, called World Book Night "a great idea" likely to inspire people who received a free book to buy others to give away in turn. "I don't buy the argument that the market will be flooded," he said. "Giving away a million free books sounds like a lot, but in the context of the 250m we sell across the trade each year, it's absolutely nothing. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it works out at just three or four books for each independent bookshop. I don't think there's any independent that wouldn't give away that number if it encourages book-lovers."
     Phew! Haters just think of all the readers you might actually gain if you give an individual a book that changes their world and instills a lifetime love of reading . Anyway, I love this idea and for a nation like ours, which doesn't really read as much as we should, I think it would be totally cool to have something like this in the US but, of course, it would have to be more than 1,000,000 books since our population is a little larger than the United Kingdom. A little.

    So, what books would you like to give and/or get? I would love to give copies of Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell. It is the best, clearest, most simple Marxist fable kids book of all time. We might as well start 'em early, eh, regressive right? "Moo, bah, cluck, and that was that."

    Wonder what some of your favorite authors would like to give or receive? Glad you asked...the Guardian asked several dozen current writers what their choice would be. Check their suggestions out here.

    Have a good weekend.

    Tuesday, March 01, 2011

    R.I.P. Rev. Peter Gomes

    Another terrible blow to the intellectual life of our nation. Farewell, Rev. Gomes. He was a kind man of deep sympathy and a passionate intellectual rising from public school to Harvard. He was also my minister. What a loss.

    From the Harvard Gazette:

    The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University, died on Feb. 28 from complications arising from a stroke. He was 68 years old.

    Gomes, an American Baptist minister, served in the Memorial Church since 1970. He was a member of both the Divinity School faculty and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard. Gomes authored many books, including the best-sellers “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart” and “Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living,” as well as numerous articles and papers.

    Widely regarded as one of America’s leading preachers, Gomes participated in the inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was named Clergy of the Year by the organization Religion in American Life in 1998; in 1979 Time magazine called him “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America.” He received 39 honorary degrees and was an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge.

    “We are deeply saddened by this loss,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “Peter Gomes was an original. For 40 years, he has served Harvard as a teacher in the fullest sense — a scholar, a mentor, one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction. Through his wisdom and appreciation of the richness of the human spirit Reverend Gomes has left an indelible mark on the institution he served with unmatched devotion and creativity. He will be sorely missed.”

    “No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. The pair met in 1991 when Gomes was part of a recruiting committee that helped to bring Gates to the University. Gates quipped it was “love at first sight,” and said Gomes had been a loyal friend and adviser for 20 years.

    “He was one of the nation’s truly great preachers and one of Harvard’s truly great scholars,” said Gates, who directs Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Gates also praised Gomes for his expertise on the history both of Christianity and of Harvard University and for his “keen storytelling capacity.”

    “Peter has been a powerful presence in the University for more than four decades,” said William Graham, dean of Harvard Divinity School, who first met Gomes at Harvard in 1966.

    Graham recalled hearing Gomes offer parting words to graduating College seniors during Commencement. Those speeches “are masterpieces, both humorous and moving valedictions. That was something very special for undergraduates,” said Graham, John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity and Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

    Gomes preached and lectured across North America and the British Isles. In 2010, he gave The Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture. Harvard University in 2010 elected him Honorary President of the Alpha-Iota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. In 2009, he gave The Lowell Lectures of Massachusetts.

    In 2007, he was named a member of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the oldest order of chivalry in Britain.

    In 2005, he presented a series of sermons in St. Edmundsbury Cathedral, England; in 2004 he gave the convocation address at Harvard Divinity School; and in 2003 he delivered the Lyttelton Addresses at Eton College, England. In 2000, he delivered the University Sermon before the University of Cambridge and the Millennial Sermon in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1998, he presented the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School.

    He also preached at the inauguration of Deval L. Patrick as governor of Massachusetts.

    Born in Boston in 1942 to Peter L. and Orissa White Gomes, Gomes was educated in the Plymouth, Mass., public schools. He graduated from Bates College with an A.B. degree in 1965, and he received the S.T.B. degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1968. That year, he was ordained to the Christian ministry by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth.

    From 1968 to 1970, Gomes was an instructor in history and director of the Freshman Experimental Program at Tuskegee Institute, Ala. There he also served as a church organist and choirmaster. He came to the Memorial Church as assistant minister in 1970. He became acting minister in 1972, and in 1974 was named the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in the Memorial Church. In this capacity, he acted as the University’s leading religious officer and spiritual adviser.

    Gomes’ teaching and research interests included the history of the ancient Christian church, the Bible, homiletics, worship, and the history of the black American experience. He served as acting director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard from 1989 to 1991.

    The former president of the Signet Society, Harvard’s oldest literary group, Gomes published eleven volumes of sermons as well as numerous articles and papers. In 1996, he published “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,” which became a best-seller. Gomes described it to the Boston Globe as a book about the Bible “for the average intelligent lay audience, not for seminarians or Divinity School colleagues.” In it, Gomes analyzes the historical efforts to misuse the Bible to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, and gays.

    A self-described cultural conservative, Gomes stunned the Harvard community and reluctantly made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to gay bashing on campus. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.

    “I’m always seen as a black man and now I’m seen as a black gay man. If you throw the other factors in there that make me peculiar and interesting — the Yankee part, the Republican part, the Harvard type — all that stuff confuses people who have to have a single stereotypical lens in order to assure themselves they have a grasp on reality,” he said in an interview with the Boston Herald in 1996.

    Gomes served as a trustee of the Roxbury Latin School. He was also a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Advisory Board of the Winterthur Museum, and a sometime fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London. He had been a trustee of Wellesley College, the Public Broadcasting Service, and Bates College. He is past president and trustee of The Pilgrim Society, Plymouth, Mass.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    A big, steaming pile of intellectually dishonest horseshit...now a major motion picture!

    First the lead in from Matt Taibbi:
    While, outside of America, Russian-born [Ayn] Rand is probably best known for being the unfunniest person western civilization has seen since maybe Goebbels or Jack the Ripper (63 out of 100 colobus monkeys recently forced to read Atlas Shrugged in a laboratory setting died of boredom-induced aneurysms), in America Rand is upheld as an intellectual giant of limitless wisdom. Here in the States, her ideas are roundly worshipped even by people who've never read her books oreven heard of her. The rightwing "Tea Party" movement is just one example of an entire demographic that has been inspired to mass protest by Rand without even knowing it.
     Now the bad news: Atlas Shrugged has been turned into a movie.

    See for yourself:

    Again, Matt Taibbi:
    In the Randian ethos, called objectivism, the only real morality is self-interest, and society is divided into groups who are efficiently self-interested (ie, the rich) and the "parasites" and "moochers" who wish to take their earnings through taxes, which are an unjust use of force in Randian politics. Rand believed government had virtually no natural role in society. She conceded that police were necessary, but was such a fervent believer in laissez-faire capitalism she refused to accept any need for economic regulation – which is a fancy way of saying we only need law enforcement for unsophisticated criminals.
    I weep for the future and culture of America.

    Friday, February 11, 2011


    "People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book," Amis said, in a sideways excursion from a chat about John Self, the antihero of his 1984 novel Money. "I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book', but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

    - Martin Amis on writing a children's book.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    Tuesday, February 01, 2011

    "Aren't books worth kind of a lot? Won't you be sad when they are gone?"

    Sent to us from a vigilante propagandist.

    "Oh, look! Fresh iceberg ice for my drink!"

    An admission: I am a blog loser. I try to post on a regular basis but life gets in the way. (Don't we all say that except for, like, Bookslut?) Plus, I am as pessimistic these days about books and publishing as I have ever been...and that is saying something since my first job ever (literally the day high school ended for me I was offered a bookstore job) I have believed in the strength of this industry to plow through any of its various and sundry barriers. Today? Not so much. This morning I was checking my work email and I came across this quotation from Mary Williams, events manager, Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., in the store's February e-newsletter:

    "There's a lot of talk in the media about books being a dying format and bookstores being a dying business. If the people who said that saw the energy, inventiveness, and determination of the 500 booksellers from around the country at Winter Institute, they wouldn't be so quick to dismiss either books or the people who bring them into their communities. It's an exciting time in the book business and things are certainly in flux, but your independently owned bookstores, far from being relics of the past, are ready to meet the challenges of the future and continue to provide a service that is unique and valuable."
     Yes, it is true that there are still thousands of independent stores and many of them are making a go of it but I am starting to wonder is it too late? No, not for the stores but for what masquerades as the "reading public" in the U.S. An "exciting time?" That isn't the phrase I'd use. It is eye-opening that Ms. Williams has this sense while attending an ABA sponsored event. It is a bit like going to a baseball game and saying to yourself "Wow! This country is really into baseball...what a great time to be a fan of the sport!" Yes, the attendees and sponsors of the Winter Institute are really gung-ho about the future of bookselling and independent bookstores. Is that news? I am pretty sure that those attending the national ham radio convention would give one the impression that the state of ham radio is really strong, no? Who the hell "ham radios" or whatever anymore? The real proof is in the wider culture and I am afraid that, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to feel that we are all part of the buggy whip business. Sad, I know, but there it is. I've written it and I can't very well take it back. I am sure that this post will get picked up and sent into the blogosphere where smarter people than I will have clever responses, comments, and loads and loads of statistics on why I am full of shit but deep down, I am thinking even they know what the reality is and the reality is bleak. How else to explain the blockbuster mentality in publishing these days? Why the hell does Justin Bieber have an autobiography? There is a line from Matt Taibbi about Goldman Sachs but has some applicability here (especially when you think of books like Patterson, Grisham, and the new "Snooky" books)  about the way in which publishing has become blockbuster oriented. Publishing these days is like "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."

    Do books matter anymore? Is the success of Skylight Books in L.A. an antidote to the loss of Kroch's and Brentano's in Chicago, Gotham Book Mart in New York, Goliard Bookshop in Amherst, Cody's Books in Berkeley, Printers Inc. Bookstore in Palo Alto, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, Midnight Special in Santa Monica, Dutton’s Brentwood Books in Los Angeles, Oscar Wilde Books and Coliseum Books in New York? I guess. I know there is little rhyme or reason as to why a store in one place makes it and store in another doesn't but those cities above aren't exactly shabby, right? I mean, if the oldest (and maybe the most famous) gay bookstore can't make it in New York then we're all fucked...and not in the good way. My point is that I hope the independent world can survive and there does seem to be some evidence that they will but I am not so sure. (I am looking at you, Borders - king, daddy, papa of the indies. What the hell happened to you? Don't you realize that your demise leaves us to the whims of Jeff Bezos and Len Riggio?) Does the population that under girds all cultural activities seem to be losing its interest in books? Perhaps we aren't a reading/literary culture at all? Perhaps we are, in fact, a visual/popular culture where "straight teeth in your mouth are more important than the words that come out of it." Bleh. I am all over the place here but maybe you can feel my frustration? I don't see how books are going to continue to have any fascination for future generations. I want it to be true, I work hard to make sure that it will be true, but that may not enough to make it so.

    Are books are dying? AAP sales figures from 2009 (the most recent yearly stats available) are mixed. Some indicators are up, others are down. Popular culture is in the ascendancy. Let's look at the NYTimes best seller list for a second, shall we? Is there a single book on any of those lists that is there because it found an audience that didn't hear about it on Glen Beck, Oprah, or NPR? Sure, the usual suspects are still on the list:

    Tom Clancy (Seriously? Still?)
    John Grisham (Who?)
    Dean Koontz (Isn't he dead?)
    James Patterson
    W.E.B. Griffin
    and, of course, Stieg Larsson.

    I suppose there is a case to be made for Room by Emma Donaghue. That is a surprise actually, though it was one of the NYT's best books of 2010 so it isn't like it snuck up on us. I guess I can't have it all. I can't complain that people don't read any books other than what they are force-fed and then have an example in front of me and say "oh, that one doesn't matter." What all this ranting is making me think is that I am having a crisis of confidence. We never seem to get enough comments here to make a debate but that sure would help me as I am flailing around. What do you think, readers? Help a lifelong book devotee (I have worked in 5 bookstores in my 40+ years, 3 publishers, 1 agency, and a library) come to some conclusions about the state of books here in the US. What articles do you read? Which authors will help me through this long period of darkness? Where does the solace come from? E-books? Well, the six of you who stop by regularly know I am not really an e-book guy.

    I'm drowning. Can anyone help?

    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    A British Invasion We Need

    The Brits are talking libraries big time, as protests continue over the looming threats to their public library system. (I love the protest wherein community members checked out all the books! Brilliant.) They have planned for a Save Our Libraries Day of Action on February 5th, and I'm still wondering if anyone in the US is planning to join them. I know we have had many threats to our libraries here in Boston, which continue. Do the folks who led the fight to keep all branches open want to show solidarity on Feb 5th with their British counterparts, perhaps? This SaveLibraries seems to be a catch-all for news on both sides of the Atlantic.

    One powerful piece of oratory has emerged from this discussion in the UK: Philip Pullman's impassioned speech about the value of libraries. It's gone viral in a big way, as Benedicte Page writing in the Guardian recounts, and there's a reason. It's an incredible testament to the importance of libraries, but above the usual (and still valuable) personal stories about this great writer's various interactions with public libraries, it also cuts to the heart of the matter: libraries are disrespected for not generating revenue, for not actively participating in the capitalist game.

    He first introduces this point after discussing the British government's ludicrous and conservative plan to turn the libraries over to volunteers instead of paid, qualified librarians, and how volunteers will then have to compete to get some cash from some pot of money the government sets aside that is vastly less than what they now provide for librarians. It's all deeply insulting on many layers, which Pullman explains, but then he steps back and criticizes
    this whole competition, and where it comes from:

    It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

    Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

    Of course he's absolutely right. The government doesn't trust goodwill. It assumes the worst about humans, that it needs to give us a competition for pure hard cash as motivation. This mentality is blind to books and their value - Pullman's point.

    And then folks, he takes the publishers to task. Oh be still my heart. This man has got my number:

    In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

    Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

    So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

    Right?! And the fact is, this is all true not just at the most commercial presses, but also at many non-profit presses, whether attached to non-profit organizations or universities. It's the mentality that has given way to a huge business in self-publishing, which in turn has left readers skeptical of books.

    I have long said that we are asking too much of books. We put them next to other commodities that sell and say why can't they do more? There are so many readers, why can't we reach them all and make a bundle of money? We exploit them by testing markets with them - Ted Striphas explains this strategy, most recently used by Amazon who found their customers using books before moving on to tvs, toilet paper, toys, and more. We get too far from the importance of what is in books themselves.

    So we look to presses and stores and libraries and we demand returns, quantifiable returns. But they're not always quantifiable. Pullman may be getting nostalgic and sentimental but I refuse to fault him for that. We can sit around and mock readers who talk about loving the smell of a book and the feel of the page, in response to diehard Kindlers, but there is meaning there. The fact that places like Amazon can keep a close count of what people are reading and even how they are reading each book they purchase - when they stop, what they highlight - is not a plus, to me, but a minus. (It's also deeply creepy and invasive.) You're pounding the fun out of reading and books by demanding to know every bit of data about this market.

    With talk of Editors being replaced by Robots and Cyborgs, Pullman is right, and his call is increasingly important.