Although I cringe in horror at seeing myself on video, here is Jason Boog's video of bloggers talking about the NBAs.
When I said, "I think that maybe 20 years is about the right time to actually have a fiction book written that gets it right," I meant 30 years. It's been roughly 30 years since the Vietnam War ended. I should definitely stick to blogging because a post could have been easily edited as soon as I realized the error.
Here are a few more photographs before I drag my exhausted behind to work. First, a shot of the ballroom:
This is Walter Mosley, who I recognized right away without any outside assistance—probably because of the hat. Not long ago, I read The Man in My Basement, which started out strong but turned into a disappointment in the end:
And here's my attempt at capturing Christopher Hitchens:
Eh, that one's pretty bad. But think about it: glass of wine...Hitch...glass of wine....Hitch. Which would you rather have?
Right after I took the headless picture of Joan Didion, Toni Morrison chatted with her for a few moments. They posed for a few photographs together, but it should come as no surprise that I didn't get the shot:
Michael Cunningham presented the award to Joan Didion, and I have no idea what he said because he nearly put me to sleep. After Joan Didion gave her acceptance speech, Ira Glass awarded Terry Gross The 2007 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
During all the speech-making, I started receiving text messages and a phone call from one of my old educational publishing cronies. She just happens to be in town for NCTE and—major, major coincidence—was just one floor above me in the New York Marriott Marquis.
As the authors took a break from the ceremonies to eat their dinner, I ran upstairs for a quick hello. The educational book world hasn't changed much. During my brief visit, I got to hear about a conference, be present as a cell call came in about a $1 million adoption, and catch up on some gossip about which book giant just bought which other book giant. And she pointed out Justin Timberlake, who happened to be up on the 9th floor at a private party.
Afterwards, Levi joined me outside for a cigarette break. An author, whose work I love, who also happens to be one of the judges for the best fiction novel, was outside smoking a cigarette. Of course, I had to introduce myself. In conversing, this judge happened to mention a few vague details about the winner and now Levi and I think we figured out who it is. I'm not going to give it away, but now I can't wait for the announcement so we can find out if we're right.
Since someone was designated as an official "stuff watcher," I headed down to the cocktail party for drinks and hors d'ouvres. I managed to nab three glasses of red wine and one bite of something called "lobster pudding."
And I recognized no one. I'm sure I was in the presence of many great writers, but I had no idea. Thankfully, Levi and Sarah were readily able to match up names and faces. They've been pretty pleasant so far about my constant question, "Who's that?"
At one point, I saw a bunch of photographers run over and begin frantically photographing someone. Someone who I thought was Francine Prose. So I ran over and snapped one of my own:
Yeah, I'm no Annie Leibovitz. And that isn't Francine Prose, who, I just discovered, isn't 85 years old. The headless cane holder you see there is none other than Joan Didion, the recipient of The 2007 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
I'm sitting at "the blogger table" at the National Book Awards at the Marriot Marquis in New York City, chilling with Marydell of BookBlog, Jason "Publishing Spot" Boog, Ed "Ed Rants" Champion and Sarah "Sarah Weinman" Weinman. There are decent sandwiches, wine and drinks, lots of literary schmoozing (I just chatted with two of my favorite writers, Fran Lebowitz and Ken Kalfus, and met several interesting people). We're now waiting for the ceremony to begin, and below us on the main floor is a representative sample of the entire literary establishment. As I gaze at the well-dressed crowd, I think to myself: are these *my* writers? Do I relate to this whole scene? What can I learn from seeing so many esteemed authors (Jonathan Franzen, Joan Didion, Christopher Hitchens, Toni Morrison) in one place, and how many of these writers do I truly esteem myself?
Well, like I said, Fran Lebowitz and Ken Kalfus are here, so we must be off to a good start.
And I'm glad to be at the blogger table with Mary, watching and waiting to see what we'll see.
Okay, so I'm sitting here in the press balcony at the National Book Awards...and feeling incredibly under-dressed. Going clockwise around the table, we have Sarah Weinman, Levi Asher, and Ed Champion. Jason Boog is off wandering with his video camera.
Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, just stopped by our table. Apparently, the judges for the NBAs only get a small stipend for their efforts, but their perk is being able to choose any restaurant in NYC for lunch.
As I typed the above, everyone in the press balcony left in order to check out the goings on at the red carpet and cocktail party. I volunteered to watch our stuff, but it seems as though one of the publicity people has been placed up here to do just that. Maybe I'll ask her if watching the stuff is her job.
Bob Minzesheimer from USA Today has just introduced himself, so I have invited him to join our table. He seems like a very nice fellow, and I have to admit that I actually enjoy USA Today's book coverage. It's short and straight to the point. Even better, he said he thinks he's heard of BookBlog.
Although I've sort of let the site slide while I've been trying to adjust to my new life circumstances, get ready for some blogging fever. Tomorrow night, I'll be attending the National Book Awards alongside fellow bloggers Levi Asher, Jason Boog, Ed Champion, and Sarah Weinman. We're planning on storming the press balcony and, technology permitting, liveblogging from the event.
To be perfectly honest, I love books but have no idea what most authors, including huge names, look like. Luckily, though, I recently received a review copy of Writers from The Quantuck Lane Press. It's a coffee table book featuring more than 100 author photographs paired with a short text from each on the art of writing. I think I'll bring it along to study during any available downtime, mostly to see if it will help me pick some writers out of the crowd.
Literary Kicks' discussion of book pricing has turned toward looking more closely at book formats. I've been working with Levi off-blog to present some ideas about alternatives to hardcover-first releases, but I've discovered that most of what seems innovative has already been tried before.
As book lovers, we're all used to them first coming out in hardcover with a paperback to follow a year later. But did you know that simultaneous triple-format publishing (hardcover, paperback, mass market paperback) has been tried?
And today it is moving, however slowly, toward a new reality—although the latest paper chase sounds like a fairy tale: the Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear deal. The term was coined to describe Tom Robbins' 1980 intermountain fantasy, Still Life with Woodpecker. The book was published simultaneously in a $12.95 hardcover (Papa) and a $6.95 quality paperback (Mama), with a $3.25 mass-market paper edition (Baby) that soon followed. The decent (and once profitable) interval between hard-and soft-cover editions may be a thing of the past. Traditionalists like Random House have begun issuing simultaneous clothbound and paperback editions. Nobody's Angel, by picaresque Novelist Thomas McGuane, is being issued with 5,000 Papas and 30,000 Mamas. Bantam, Ballantine and Pocket Books, three major mass-market houses, shortcut the hard-cover publishers with their own original titles. Jerzy Kosinski's just published Pinball is appearing as a Bantam Papa (5,000), Mama (150,000), with babies yet to be determined.
However, it must not have been very profitable since I haven't seen much news about books being released like the above today. And as far as I can tell, the following hasn't happened yet:
Industry experts predict that by 1990 more than half of all books will originate in soft-cover—a situation that prevails in Europe today. And many of the hard-cover editions will be mere tokens, published in small amounts for libraries, for reviewers who shun paperbacks—and as a boost for authors' egos.
It's possible the prediction could still come true, but I don't see publishers giving up very easily on the wider profit margins of hardcovers. That is, until ebook reader technology gets good enough to compete with paper. Does anyone know if Steve Jobs is working on this?
"The announcement ... is the crowning example of the chronic inferiority complex from which the book business in this country seems always to have suffered. I regard the decision of these publishers ... as shortsighted, unwise, and likely, if it has any effect whatsoever, to have a very disturbing effect indeed on the industry as a whole."
Thus last week did Alfred A. Knopf, book publisher, flay four other book publishers who had made the astounding announcement that they would hereafter sell for $1 or $1.50 books exactly similar to those for which they had for years been demanding $2 or $3.
According to Publisher's Weekly, the bestselling book of 1900 was a historical romance called To Have and to Hold by Mary Johnston. It begins:
THE work of the day being over, I sat down upon my doorstep, pipe in hand, to rest awhile in the cool of the evening. Death is not more still than is this Virginian land in the hour when the sun has sunk away, and it is black beneath the trees, and the stars brighten slowly and softly, one by one. The birds that sing all day have hushed, and the horned owls, the monster frogs, and that strange and ominous fowl (if fowl it be, and not, as some assert, a spirit damned) which we English call the whippoorwill, are yet silent. Later the wolf will howl and the panther scream, but now there is no sound. The winds are laid, and the restless leaves droop and are quiet. The low lap of the water among the reeds is like the breathing of one who sleeps in his watch beside the dead.
Following my last post, Levi and I had a lively email exchange regarding The Echo Maker's sales and profits. By my guestimate, the publisher made a profit of somewhere around $25,000 on the first print run of 20,000 copies.
Here's how I figured it out, using generous but simplified industry averages:
$25.00 - [list price]
less $3.75 - [15% author royalty*]
less $12.50 - [50% bookseller discount**]
less $5.00 - [20% publisher overhead]
less $2.50 - [10% paper, printing, and binding]
times 20,000 - [print run]
= $25,000 net profit
*Author royalties tend to run from 10% to 15% and can be based on either list price or net price. Considering Richard Powers has been in the biz for a while, I'm giving him the benefit of signing several contracts and having a kick ass agent.
**Some get more, some get less.
So, assuming a book sells through its entire print run, the publisher's profit tends to be about 10%:
$25,000 - [net profit]
divided by $250,000 - [net sales]
= 10% profit margin***
***Some do better, some do worse.
Although $25,000 might not seem like a lot, that 10% profit margin will get bigger with each subsequent printing because the publisher's overhead will decrease. By a second printing, money is saved in lots of places: editing, typesetting, plates, proofs, etc. In addition, a successful hardcover has the potential to sell twice as many (or more) units in paperback. And if a paperback manages to remain on the backlist for a long period of time, well, it's money in the bank.
Flipping through TV channels last night, I paused on video of hardcover books sliding along rollers fresh from the binding machine. CNBC's The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch was profiling million dollar businesses begun with less than $500. In addition to the inventors of capsaicin pepper nasal spray and a high-speed beer tap, Deutsch profiled Vickie Stringer, CEO of the world's largest African American-owned publishing company. Triple Crown Publications spawned from a $300 self-published book and has grown its catalog to include titles from 25 authors.
I couldn't find a clip from the show online, but here's Stringer's story for those of you who have wondered about starting your own publishing company:
Stringer served five years in jail for drug trafficking and money laundering.
Queried publishers and agents and received 26 rejections.
Spent $300 on editing and typesetting in order to self-publish.
Asked 15 friends and family members each for $100 in order to raise $1500 to print 1500 copies.
Sold the novel out of the trunk of her car at beauty salons, barber shops, the bar where she worked, and any place she thought there might be a reader. Asked friends and family to also sell cases of books. In the first weekend, she sold 1200 copies.
As word of Stringer's novel spread, publishers and agents began to take notice. They wanted to get into business with her, and Triple Crown Publications was born.
Obviously, Stringer had the right kind of tenacity and gumption in order to turn her self-published novel into a success. According to Deutsch, there are two lessons to be learned from her story:
Never take no for an answer.
If the bookstores won't carry your book, create your own distribution channels.
The overarching themes of the discussion were that mainstream publishing sucks, corporate megaconglomerates have sucked the lifeblood from the book and newspaper industries, and the average reader has been suckered into accepting substandard titles that have won flawed awards. The biggest revelation of the evening: positive reviews don’t guarantee increased sales. The success of a given title hinges on an ever-nebulous factor called “word of mouth.” But whose word? Whose mouth?
The fact that word of mouth moves books is a "revelation?" Publishers have known about and exploited it for years, which is one reason why you don't see a whole lot of publisher-paid advertising—except for the books and authors everyone has already heard about. Another reason would be that publishers are notoriously cheap. And, yes, positive reviews don't always translate into sales.
Although word of mouth advertising is not immediately measurable or apparent, it does have long-term and exponential impact on book sales. Think about the following simplified scenarios:
Alpha - Let's say Critic Alpha positively reviews Book Alpha and Reader Alpha buys it. If Reader Alpha hates it, Reader Alpha is not likely to recommend it to friends. As a result, Book Alpha could possibly be dead in the water soon after publication. Not all hope is lost yet, though.
Beta - But if Critic Beta positively reviews Book Beta and Reader Beta also loves it, Reader Beta will likely suggest it to friends. To borrow from a classic shampoo commercial, those friends will tell friends who will tell friends and so on and on. If this process happens quickly, Book Beta might be a blockbuster while it's on the frontlist and will surely continue to sell well when it hits the backlist. If it happens slowly, it will earn its keep over the long haul of the backlist.
Gamma - Then there's Reader Gamma, who, in my opinion, makes up the overwhelming majority of book buyers. Reader Gamma doesn't run out and buy books based on the latest reviews and is slow to pick up titles recommended by friends. One day, Reader Gamma stumbles across Book Alpha. The book is bought, read, and loved. Reader Gamma tells friends who tell friends and so on. As word of mouth spreads, Book Alpha becomes a sleeper and makes steady money from the backlist.
So, based on the above, who sold more books: critics or readers? Surprisingly, neither. The success of Books Alpha and Beta resulted from word of mouth advertising, which originated both with a critic and a reader.
"Literary blogs are okay." [What some critics don't seem to understand is that the vast majority of people blogging about books are readers making recommendations to their friends, be they real life or virtual. It's word of mouth on steroids, and is just as good for books and reading as serious criticism.]
"Print lingers." [Print critics have both more and less influence than they think. Although reviews may not translate into quick sales or advertising dollars, a reader might remember good press from months earlier during a browse through a bookstore. However, such influence is on the decline and hanging onto the Ghost of Critics Past is not a viable way to move reviewing into the future.]
Although I haven't made it a secret that I'm not thrilled by the NBCC, I will be in the audience at a panel co-sponsored by them tomorrow night in Manhattan:
"Save Our Book Reviews!"
June 13, 2007 at 6:30 p.m.
General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library
20 West 44th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)
The New York Center for Independent Publishing sent me a few emails about it, and—despite how I feel about critics—print reviews are an extremely valuable source of advertising to the small houses. They don't have scads of money to buy ads in the media or prime retail space in bookstores, and sending out review copies via media mail is inexpensive. If a book manages to win the review lottery, it helps get the sales ball rolling.
In any case, I care about good books enough to want the small, independent guy to continue to have outlets allowing him to compete with the big guy. Plus, M.A. Orthofer of The Complete Review will be on the panel, and I'm curious to get a look at him in person. It should be an interesting evening.
Although I'm usually a weenie about leaving my comfort zone, I went to the Litblog Co-Op's Book Expo America (BEA) gathering on Thursday night. Levi of Literary Kicks had sent me an email about it, and I have wanted to meet him since I've been a longtime fan of his site. Despite what happened at the last blogmeet, Eddie agreed to be my escort and we squeezed our way into the bar after fortifying ourselves at a Thai restaurant.
Drinks in hand, our goal was to find Levi. At first, I thought it'd be impossible because A) the place was crowded, B) I had no idea what he looked like, and C) seeing trade show badges momentarily made me flash back to my first American Booksellers Association convention in the old days before Reed took it over and renamed it. It was not a pleasant experience and included repeatedly wondering, "What am I doing here?" This question became a mantra at every subsequent conference I attended, including our own biannual sales meetings. (Well, maybe not every conference. I always liked NJEA in Atlantic City even though "naughty" doesn't come close to describing what it feels like to gamble alongside a clutch of habited nuns.) It took considerable effort to shut off the mantra, which had automatically engaged and was running on autopilot, in order to push through to the back of the bar.
Luckily, Levi was conspicuously wearing a name tag. He gave me a warm greeting, instantly setting me at ease, and so the ice I had built up around meeting other litbloggers was finally broken. Thank you, Levi.
Eddie and I had stepped into the middle of a conversation between Levi and Miriam Parker, who surprised me when she said she worked at Little, Brown. Had I been in her shoes, standing among a lot of litbloggers, I might have said that I worked for Hachette (the parent company) and saved Little, Brown for conversation with dead tree media. Miriam, though, was lovely, certainly didn't seem to think litbloggers are "some sort of interstitial or synovial fluid," and restored my respect for her employer. She graciously said I should let her know if there was anything from Little, Brown that I wanted, so, in my usual tact-filterless style, I asked for Shannon Byrne's head on a plate. Poor Miriam.
From there, Levi introduced me to Ed Champion, the one blogger I instantly recognized. Ed and I have a long history, which goes back pre-BookBlog in the days when I operated under my real name. He might not remember it since being nearly dooced forced me temporarily off the Internet as a step toward unGoogling myself. In any case, Ed and I have butted heads on more than one occasion so I said, after shaking his hand, "It's the slattern herself—in person." He is both taller and more affable than I had imagined, and I would very much enjoy getting to know him now that he has relocated to the East Coast.
I met C. Max Magee and his entourage from The Millions and Sarah Weinman from Galleycat. Bud Parr of MetaxuCafe looked uncomfortable when I introduced myself. He and I know why, and I'll leave it at that. On my end, though, there are no hard feelings. At a later point, I found myself in a group with The Written Nerd but the ongoing conversation prevented me from properly saying hello. I also met a handful of authors and other bloggers, and I wish I had thought to write down everyone's name immediately after the gathering.
Since Thursday was a school night for Eddie and things were going well (i.e. I survived making small talk.), we decided to cut out early. I found Levi to say goodbye and ran into Ed upon exiting the bar. He introduced me to Richard Nash of Soft Skull and then it all went wrong. Soft Skull was recently sold, and I curiously asked, "So at BEA, are you standing in your booth or Charlie Winton's?"
Before I explain what happened next, I must first point out that I meant nothing by the question other than to find out which booth he was physically working. When my publishing employer was a tiny house, we used Publishers Group West for left coast sales representation and I found myself—more than once—standing in a booth with Winton as he made nice-nice with us. (Me being in international sales, he very well may have been asking himself, "What's she doing here?" as I simultaneously wondered, "What am I doing here?") Later, when we were sold to a media giant on the eve of a Frankfurt Book Fair, I spent the show in a booth making nice-nice with the new bosses. So I know, from both ends, what it feels like to be in Soft Skull's situation.
My question caused Richard to gasp, "Well, I suppose it's my booth."
Ed next let out a hearty guffaw and said, "Now that's a ballsy question. I may have to blog this."
I was confused at first by their reactions, but I soon realized the implication behind what I had asked when Richard turned to the woman next to him and began a quiet tete-a-tete about the sale. I hung around for a few extra moments hoping to break in to explain where I was coming from, but it was clear damage had been done and I was being ignored. Sigh. [Update: Checking the comments below, Richard popped in to let me know that I totally misread the situation. Misunderstanding cleared; blogging rocks.]
Eddie and I made a quick getaway. I felt much better when we stopped for ice cream on the way home. However, he brought me right back to reality when he refused to let me taste his flavors despite repeated requests and offers of a lick from my cone. He shoved the last of his ice cream into his mouth with a smirk because nothing pleases him more than making my usually spoiled self pout.
I hope it's a technical glitch. If it isn't, then it's more confirmation of my thoughts from yesterday: "it appears as though they care more about expressing one-way opinions than engaging in dialogue, can't take our criticism, and have no regard for their site's audience." I can't help but feel censored and am thankful I have a forum for my opinions, even if Critical Mass finds them less valid than their own.
Here's a copy of the comment I left:
Although I'm sorry you've been the undeserving recipient of angry emails, I am frankly, as a blogger, tiring of what I read here. You say that what's posted does not represent the views of the NBCC, but this is the NBCC's blog. It represents your organization to the blogging world, whether or not the opinions expressed are held solely by each individual poster.
Besides being word play on your occupation, "critical mass" refers to the sum total of many things needed to fuel momentum. From what I read here, your momentum is headed toward alienation from the very people you need in your corner if you truly want to save newspaper book reviews.
Many of you are editors, and some editing here would do you good. The frequent vitriol against bloggers does not earn sympathy for your cause, especially since we likely comprise the majority of your readers. One reason often cited for the decline of book reviews in newspapers relates to them being out of touch with the books most people want to read. I'm inclined to believe it, considering how out of touch this blog is with its audience.
Although I wasn't paid for my opinion and have now self-published it in a lesser medium than print, I still think I have a right to it. Of course, those of you not reading this—since no one reads blogs—might think otherwise.
Update: The comment thread to the post mentioned above has reappeared. Whew.
I have just unsubscribed from the NBCC's Critical Mass feed because, frankly, I am tired of them and their efforts save their jobs while continuing to dump on blogs. And, really, that's all their "campaign" is about. From my end, it appears as though they care more about expressing one-way opinions than engaging in dialogue, can't take our criticism, and have no regard for their site's audience.
Despite repeated pleas from bloggers to lay off, items like the following have been posted to Critical Mass in recent days:
Seriously, though, blogs are kind of like parasitic microorganisms which feed off of a primary host. For the sake of this discussion, the host is clearly print media. Some are the good bacteria and some are transient and viral. Or maybe I can upgrade blogs to the status of some sort of interstitial or synovial fluid, buffering the vital organs of the media (newspaper, television, radio, the Internet)? But, c’mon, if newspapers are dying, then blogs are the maggots come to feast upon their corpses. —Shannon Byrne, publicist for Little, Brown
Another impression: I would take issue with the notion that blogs will somehow replace newspaper book reviews. During a recent visit with a local book club, a group of 16 well-read, highly intelligent women, I asked how many of them had recently read a book review on a blog. The answer was, nobody! Then I asked if any of them had EVER gone to a blog to read book reviews. Again, nobody. The average reader---the average person---just doesn’t do this yet. Maybe we read reviews on Amazon, but that’s it. Readers read book reviews because they happen upon them in the newspaper. —Lee Smith, novelist
First of all, calling blogs "parasitic microorganisms" from a posting on a blog is beyond hypocritical. And, um, did I just read that no one reads blogs on a blog? Let's say there are a million—just to keep it simple—active bloggers out there. Bloggers naturally read other blogs, so it's not hard to generalize that at least a million people read blogs. Asking 16 book club members who don't blog whether or not they read blogs is not much of a revealing survey, no matter how well-read or intelligent they are.
Yesterday, Rebecca Skloot, the Critical Mass blogmistress, posted yet again that the opinions represented do not belong to the NBCC. She is clearly and understandably frustrated at being the recipient of angry emails. I sympathize, but I also left a comment to point out that Critical Mass "represents [the NBCC] to the blogging world, whether or not the opinions expressed are held solely by each individual poster." In other words, it makes the NBCC look bad. I also suggested they put their editing skills to some good use before they alienate their entire audience, most of whom are probably bloggers.
Rebecca responded with:
I understand why this can be confusing, but Critical Mass is actually not the blog of the NBCC. It's the blog of the board of directors, which is entirely different.
Oh. But this makes me wonder. Isn't it the job of the board of directors to represent the organization? Don't they care about image? And:
I've said many times that I'm with all the people who are annoyed by the nasty anti-blogger statements in some of the posts, so I won't go into that again here.
She certainly shouldn't be a punching bag just because she handles the technical side of the site. Yet:
But I will say, when reading any any group blog, it's a mistake to conflate all posters as one.
I'm still not moved. However, I am now curious to read future essays and op-ed pieces posted on their blog. Specifically, I wonder what the new arguments for saving book reviews in print will be.
The print vs. pixels issue reminds me of the "Introducing the Book" video that made the rounds a while back. I wonder if Gutenberg had to suffer through so much criticism for his revolutionary technology.
Right now, I'm not sure what to make of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). I began reading their blog, Critical Mass, for news and information about books I might want to read. In the United States alone, something like 175,000 titles are published each year, and even if I had unlimited time, I'd never be able to browse them all to determine the ones I should add to my repertoire. The critic does the work for me by flagging the newest releases, culling the good from the bad, and pointing out important works.
Although I look at reviews, I'm not much interested in them as a genre of writing. For my taste, some tend to be a bit too long and a bit too heavy on critical analysis. Rather than read thoroughly, I do a quick scan because my interest lies in finding out the name of the book and author, a description of the plot, and whether or not the prose is worth my time. Frankly, I don't need to spend time with 3,000 words before deciding to buy a book and I don't need a critic to set the standard for my taste or influence my opinion. After all, I maintain this litblog because I love reading and have plenty of opinions of my own.
With the decline of book coverage in newspapers, the NBCC has launched a campaign to save reviewing. So now when I visit Critical Mass, I don't hear much about books. Instead, they fill their space with news of layoffs and the disappearance of stand-alone book sections. They tell me critics are the front line to dialogue about books. They flaunt the superiority of print over pixels. They say frothed rantings of litbloggers are inferior to the measured opinions of professional critics. And they believe reviews in newspapers bring prestige to authors while reviews on blogs, written by the book buyers to share passion for reading, are insignificant.
What am I to think? I am both a reader and a blogger. As a reader, I want to know about books. As a blogger, I have an interest in other blogs. Visiting Critical Mass is a natural fit, but the very reason why I was drawn to their site—book blogging—has been replaced by frantic pleas to save their jobs. And most of the arguments behind their cries disparage things I do every day, find valuable, and enrich my life. How is such a tactic supposed to engage my sympathies for their predicament?
The newspaper is clearly important to me because I am a paid subscriber to New Jersey's The Star-Ledger. I enjoy its well-rounded smatterings of international, national, state, and local news. Since I subscribe to their plan for extended coverage of Morris County, it arrives at the end of my driveway on Sundays and Thursdays. Two days a week are enough because I'd never be able to keep up with a daily.
The Star-Ledger does not have a stand-alone book section. On Sundays, they offer a books page covering four or five titles through a combination of staff and wire articles. But I don't subscribe because of books. If this page were to disappear, I'd sadly make a note and go on reading the rest of the paper. However, I would drop The Star-Ledger like a hot rock if they eliminated their local subscription plans or cut back on coverage of my county. I'm sure the Daily Record wouldn't mind picking up my business.
I don't regularly go to the Los Angeles Times or Chicago Tribune for news, so I'm not sure why I should concern myself with changes in their book coverage. If readers buy these papers specifically for their book sections, I can certainly see reasons for upset. They should complain to management or cancel their subscriptions.
In terms of job losses among journalists, I also have personal reasons for not caring much. During a previous life, I worked for a book publisher under a large media parent company with holdings in newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet. After eight years in books, I transferred to an online group. Two years later, my group was sold to another, larger media conglomerate which proceeded to lay us off one by one because we failed to bring in enough business to justify our existence. There was no hue and cry from sister companies, including the newspapers. I and my colleagues moved on to other jobs, and I have no doubt critics would do the same.
Much of the talk I've seen regarding the NBCC campaign boils down to saving criticism for criticism's sake, but I can't jump on the bandwagon. A newspaper is a business in the business of making money. If book sections fail to draw ample revenue or readership, of course there will be cutbacks. Asking us to sign a petition is a meaningless, albeit virtuous, gesture. If you really want to save book coverage in the newspapers you buy, cancel your subscription and tell them you're doing so because of failing book coverage. Or gather up the masses to demand stand-alone book reviews and subscription plans for that section. Or stop buying books from booksellers and publishers who never advertise in your paper and write letters explaining why you're no longer interested in their selections. Find a way to protest with your dollars.
And shame on the NBCC. In one breath, they trivialize the Internet and blogging. In the next, they ask for my help using the very media they scorn. Sorry, but I'm not moved.
First, I recently read in the local paper about BookSwim's intent to break into the book rental business. Their business is located in Middlesex County.
Now, via Book Patrol, I hear that The Mayhem Poets, a Jersey-based slam poetry trio, have taken the prize in Microsoft's ideaWins. As winners of the contest, which sought the best small business idea from over 5,000 entrants, they will receive $100,000 and free retail space in New York. Although it's a shame their storefront will move next door, I can't fault them for following the money. However, their program, dedicated to bringing performance poetry into the classroom, travels. I am sure students in New Jersey will continue to benefit from The Mayhem Poets' most excellent cause.
It's an interesting concept, and I wish them the best of luck since the founders are a pair of Jersey boys. But, come on, $15 to $20 a month for book rentals? Are they serious? I mean, I understand how people make Netflix or Blockbuster Total Access worth the price. Watching a movie takes only a couple of hours, so such rentals can be mailed back on the same day they're received.
Books, on the other hand, require a longer commitment for most people. I'm not sure if anyone—besides speed readers—would be able to return rentals fast enough to come out ahead on the BookSwim membership cost. With the same amount of money and some smart shopping, I could easily buy three or four books a month and keep them forever. Free from the public library is an even better deal.
Or I could be totally wrong. It will be interesting to see how this venture makes out.
When I first got the news about HarperCollins' offering, I soon drifted away from their site to friendlier environs because I couldn't get it to work. I tried it again today and finally got the larger browser to launch after much insistent clicking. It has an advantage in that you can, with some squinting, read an entire page without scrolling, but its interface feels clunky. Plus, having to watch "loading" dots between every page tries my patience.
Google Book Search also has its own widget, which The Millions says, "points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them." Maybe I'm unable to see the big picture, but I haven't yet found much useful about Google Book Search other than finding quotes. And even then I only get exactly what I'm looking for maybe half of the time. Besides being gigantic in both vertical and horizontal form, Google's widget is exceptionally ugly. And certain book covers are unreadable. And I haven't been able to figure out if you can force it to point at specific titles. And it serves up blanks when a suitable match can't be found. And the flashing between each set of search string results makes me go into seizures.
And its code doesn't always play nice with other elements on a web page. If all you see above is "Loading...", Google's widget is being naughty.
In terms of who has the better viewer, I agree that Random House wins "the first round of the 'Widget Wars.'" Although, like HarperCollins' widget, it seems to launch the larger browser when it feels like it, I still think it's cool. I like being able to point to specific books, how the pages flip, and the search function (accessed by clicking on the binoculars). It also convinced me to want one of their books after reading the first chapter of the title I mentioned yesterday.
But, The Millions says, "These widgets...are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return." This is very true of the ones from HarperCollins and Google Book Search. Random House, however, allows you to customize the "Buy" button to point to your preferred online bookstore. For people like me, who have to monetize to cover the bandwidth bill, I applaud Random House for allowing site publishers to send buyers to a preferred affiliate program. Unfortunately, the customizable "Buy" button only works for the small viewer. If they change it so that I can also embed my affiliate code into the large viewer, I could be persuaded to promote more of their books.
If you click on it, you should get a larger, more readable window and be able to look through the first 57 pages of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The widget is kind of cool, and, after reading the first chapter, I will probably pick up a copy of this book. Although there's been lots of teeth gnashing lately over scrotums, this story, written by Death and telling teens they will eventually die on the first page, seems much more titillating to me.
Update: If you ended up here because it's near the top of Google's search results for Random House's widget, you are surely disappointed. This post, which reviews three book widgets, is more informative: What the Widget?
It gave me a good chuckle since I've been to ALA a few times as a vendor. The penguin metaphor fits the biannual librarian migration quite nicely, and I especially appreciated the narrator's line, "There's a hungry vendor looking for a meal."
A little while later, I ran out to do errands. Since I was in the municipal area of town, I decided to stop at the public library to:
track down a 1040 booklet because the IRS stupidly sent me the wrong form and following convoluted tax instructions via the computer is making me rip my hair out, and
get a library card. Although I've lived here for more than a year, this task has been near the bottom of the priority list since I own several hundred unread books.
By the way, there were no forms at the library. Despite doing my own taxes by hand for more than 20 years, I think I should finally get with the times and file electronically.
Anyway, the librarian at the main desk fit the stereotype perfectly and was not unlike those in the video. She was oldish, wearing glasses, and had a sweater, complete with embroidered flower embellishments, pulled over her shoulders. I asked for a card and handed over my driver's license. The librarian was pleasant and accommodating as she silently tapped at the computer's keyboard.
As I waited for my card, I glanced around to check the place out. I'll be damned if there wasn't a glass case displaying several stuffed penguins and featuring books about penguins. It made me laugh. Aloud. I almost asked the librarian if she had seen the video, but my sudden outburst caused her to eye me with suspicion. I decided it was better to leave quietly. Although it's probably only conspiracy theory, I don't want my reading habits ending up in a secret government database.
Since last week was discussion week, I took time off from filling the in-between days with my own bookish drivel. I still surfed the book sites, though, and have been following a particular story with a lot if interest.
We just discussed a book by a Haitian American, so Black's plight and the flurry of activity around it stood out to me. Posts have been all over the place on this: from making early predictions to suggesting Black is white. I'm just a person who likes to read and have no idea of what's true or untrue. And I'm not writing to throw in my thoughts on racism since, being biracial myself, I have my own issues and don't have to go beyond my own family to encounter it. I simply find the situation and speculation fascinating. As I see it, three distinct voices are at the heart of the brouhaha.
Black has a champion in Monica Jackson, a romance and soon-to-be mystery novelist, who has tried her darndest to bring the issue of racism in publishing to the forefront. She's posted thoughts on her own blog, Romancing the Blog, and has left numerous comments in variousplaces discussing Black's predicament and complaint. In essence, Jackson argues against forcing an author into the African-American niche when the merit of the work should be enough to stand on its own. A noble cause and position even though the publisher's motives behind rejecting the book likely have more to do with money than racism. Yet, it's refreshing to see one passionately stand up for another in the face of knee-jerk reactions and criticism.
I really like Return of the Reluctant, and I tend to see Edward Champion as the charismatic villain of litbloggers. From his posts, I get the impression that he hates most books that are wildly popular, wants everyone to know what an insider he is, and likes to stir up controversy, both sincere and feigned. Most of the time you can tell when he's trolling for an argument, but his recent mentions of the Black lawsuit are uncalled for. He declares "The Last Word on Millenia Black" but quickly reneges with an attempt to discredit a post on her blog and out her from behind a pen name. But, I have to laugh at how he took it upon himself to call the court, marvel at his litblogger turned Columbo gumption, and remind myself that his url isn't edrants.com for nothing.
Although The Publishing Contrarian may have had good intentions by wanting to point out that there's nothing wrong with niche marketing, her message is lost because she goes about it in such an insensitive way. Whether racism on the part of the publisher is real or perceived, TPC has no business scoffing at Black's feelings about the directive to recast her characters as African American. I also love how she quotes Black's use of "nigger treatment" then adds her own aside: "I can barely type that phrase, it is so offensive, but I am quoting her." Offensive to whom? An African-American person subjected to it or a white person being accused of it? Oh, and thanks for letting us know you're quoting because a) it'd be terrible if we thought you'd actually use that word and b) we're all so stupid and uneducated we missed the quotation marks.
Misguided attempt to disprove accusations of racism aside, TPC actually lost me on a marketing point. Yes, cross-shelving sells books and I like her idea of moving Black's books around various sections. But "New Fiction, Literary Fiction—Female Authors, General Fiction, and African American Fiction"? It's been years since I worked in publishing, but I think literary fiction denotes writing that doesn't fall into a specific genre, like mystery or sci-fi. I also believe that female, general, and AA are not necessarily subsets of literary fiction. And if I'm not mistaken, Black writes suspense/family saga. As a result, her books would have no business being in literary fiction, and such bad advice provides further proof that many people connected to the publishing industry have no idea what they're talking about.
Good or bad, I happen to have some of my own advice for TPC. First of all, you ruin your own credibility when you make a harsh criticism and then close your comments because you can't take the criticism back. Use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks. And finally, your blog is currently set to turn post titles into urls, so when-you-create-long-ass-post-titles-you-create-long-ass-urls-and-there-is-no-excuse-for-having-a-url-with-256-characters-in-it.
Today is Friday the 13th of the scariest month of the year, which aptly marks the release of the 13th book in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Although titled The End (Oh, Snicket, you rogue! No alliteration for the last book?), I strongly suspect that this will not be the last we hear of the Baudelaire orphans (Or is it? Could the abrupt flatness of the title mean it really is the end?). After all, there are paperbacks to release and promote. I'm still not over the fact that some of the books are already available in paperback for $3.99 to the school market, so I'm curious to find out what the pricing will be when mass market editions hit bookstores.
When I was teaching, I read the first 12 books during an informal competition with a student to see who could get to the end of The Penultimate Peril first. I beat the kid, but it wasn't a fair fight. I bought them from Scholastic for my classroom and didn't release each one to our library until I finished it. And then he had to contend with the rest of the class over who would actually get the book. He did ultimately read them all, but had to resort to going through a few of them twice while waiting for the next. Unfair or not, at least the competition generated some buzz over reading.
Even as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed the Lemony Snicket books. From a marketing standpoint, the back cover blurbs are the best I've ever seen and the next-in-series teasers creatively generate anticipation for future books. They're fast-paced and easy to read, which was also noted by my former fourth graders, and you have to be pleased at kid's sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing 300+ pages. I especially liked the digressions on vocabulary and idiomatic expressions which subtly teach irony and wordplay in a fun way.
If you haven't read the first 12 books or need a refresher before tackling the 13th, here's a link to a Tim Curry narrated video, 12 Books in 120 Seconds. Other trailers and information about the series can be found at lemonysnicket.com.
When the 2006 Quill Book Awards were announced, I had noticed flack on several literary blogs bemoaning the People's Choice-like voting as well the additional publicity for titles from already big presses. Some simply don't like popularity. Personally, I didn't pay the announcement much attention because I'm really bad at being up on book news and mostly read backlist anyway.
Although consumer-driven voting is sort of redundant since the masses already cast votes with dollars, I'm more looking forward to the Quills now that I've had a chance to read The Observer article What's the best novel in the past 25 years? The newspaper polled "about 150 writers and 'literary sages'" and I think their pick is crap. Maybe I'm too American or don't understand post-apartheid South Africa or am not literary enough, but I found the winner, J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, to be tediously boring. Tediously boring is not always a bad thing, though. I read it while house/cat sitting and it certainly helped me fall asleep in a strange bed. And I'm comforted in knowing I'm not alone in my opinion.
The Quills will be awarded tomorrow, which happens to also be the day for the Man Booker Prize announcement. Disgrace is a past Booker winner. Hmm. I think I'm more interested in what the people have to say.
Having worked for a Chicago publisher for eight years, I was a little surprised when I began reading Jessa Crispin?s article in The Book Standard about the lack of publishers in The Windy City. I mean, I had a publishing job and knew plenty of people who worked at local competitors because of the incestuous nature of the business. If you stayed in it long enough, your career could take you to several houses by being hired, being folded into a larger company, or being sold off as parts. During my tenure, I worked for two publishers without switching desks and left just as we were about to be bought again. As far as I know, there are plenty of publishers in Chicago.
Once I got into the article, I realized that Crispin is writing about trade publishing and, more specifically, literature. Aha. No argument there. A Chicagoan with aspirations to edit the next Great American Novel will need to consider moving to New York or Los Angeles.
However, it is absolutely possible to have a publishing career in Chicago if you can handle not being cool and hip. I worked for a decidedly unsexy educational publisher and was able to do well enough to live in an apartment on a private beach with a view of both The Gold Coast and The Sears Tower. Of course, my neighborhood was also neither cool nor hip but I never felt like complaining whenever I looked out the window.
Throw a rock in Chicago, and you?re likely to hit a big-name educational publisher:
Spread out to the suburbs, and there are dozens more in the metropolitan area. Add trade nonfiction houses, the many university presses, and book distributors and a very fine living is to be had in the Chicago publishing industry. You won?t necessarily rub elbows with famous authors, but there?s always a chance The Rock Bottom Remainders could get together again for a future BEA.
During my most recent visit with Kate, the first thing I asked was for her CD collection so I could stealcopy borrow some music and the second was whether or not she had WiFi so I wouldn?t have to type all the song titles. When I stealcopy borrow, I prefer to expend no more energy than necessary. Since I?m all into being wireless, Kate sent me an e-mail about WiFi service now available at most Barnes & Noble stores in New Jersey.
Being a person who is into both books and WiFi, I already knew. The last few times I went to B&N, I noticed several people flipping through books, sipping Grande White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccinos, and surfing the Internet all at the same time. And in public no less. Sure, I have access to books, coffee, and the Internet at home. But B&N has more books, better coffee, and Wifi that probably doesn?t break down every half hour because the idiot neighbor?s wireless signal constantly interferes with yours. As I waited for an Iced Venti Soy Latte on one particular outing, I picked up a brochure on B&N?s WiFi service. $3.95 for two hours or $19.95 a month. Oof. At least fighting with the idiot neighbor?s signal is free.
(By the way, thank you, idiot neighbor, for not being smart enough to secure your network. Whenever you take us down, we stealcopy borrow your broadband.)
You know, I really enjoy books that are outside the mainstream. They're weird and interesting and make for good book conversation. Plus, I've heard that Carlton Mellick III, who writes bizarro punk speculative fiction, is supposed to have some wild plot ideas. And some of his books are set in dystopias, a subject I find fascinating. But...
I'm not exactly sure I want to be seen on the subway holding any of these:
Here's something about publishing that really gets under my skin.
Before becoming a teacher, I worked for an educational book publisher. I realize that I made a backwards career move since a lot of teachers go into educational publishing in order to make more money. However, the money isn't all that much better and most publishers have scummy ethics.
Anyway, I read a lot of children's books. When I'm finished, I either put the book in my classroom library for my students or give it to an upper grade teacher if it's too difficult. Each year, my school has a week-long book fair at which parents, students, and teachers can purchase books at a discount. I've wanted to read the Lemony Snicket books, so I bought one of each volume available at the fair because they were fairly cheap:
Children's series books are usually designed so that you can read any volume without having to start at the very beginning. For example, every single Magic Tree House book includes an opening explanation of who Jack & Annie are and what the deal is with the tree house. A Series of Unfortunate Events, like Harry Potter, doesn't include background information. As a result, I want to read The Bad Beginning (Book 1) before starting in on the rest.
Yesterday, I went to Barnes & Noble to pick up the first book. They only had hardcover books so I asked a clerk if they had any paperbacks. He said that they weren't available in paperback. I begged to differ since I had four paperbacks at home. I left without The Bad Beginning after spending $70 on five other books including next month's selection. Sure, I could have plunked down the extra $9 (after my educator's discount) for the hardcover, but it was the principle. I should be able to buy a full-priced paperback for $5.
Upon closer inspection of my paperbacks, I noticed a note on the back cover: "This edition is only available for distribution through the school market." I went to the publisher's web site and ordered The Bad Beginning in paperback and the rest of the titles I'm missing. But, I was a little put off by the fact that they don't have The Austere Academy (Book 5). They also won't ship my order anywhere except school, as a means of making sure I'm part of the "school market."
So, long story short: Anyone should be able to walk into a bookstore and buy a $5 paperback when one's been printed. However, the book industry would rather sell a $12 hardcover and run away with your $6.