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 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.