Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Don't Wait for Prince Charming

I used to think a heavenly apparatus would come along and save me from my multiple gadgets. I mostly thought about it when I was packing for vacation and had to make sure I had every cord I needed. It would be my prince charming. One gorgeous instrument with a phone, music player, camera, ebook reader, video player, and web browser. It would be so wonderful, I could wear it around my neck.

I’ve grown up a little. I’m not waiting for my prince charming handheld anymore. Nope. For the foreseeable future, I am stuck carrying all my needs in separate gadgets. I am referring to the Kindle and iPad, of course.

When the iPad was released this past April, foolish me, imagined the iPad and Kindle in a boxing ring, with oversized boxing gloves, going at each other. It was war. Which fancy reading device would Americans choose? Which little machine would prove victorious? I held my breath in anticipation. Publishers were in a frenzy.

Then both devices started selling rapidly. Apple has sold roughly 8.25 million iPads (the number varies) and while Amazon is mysteriously vague about their sales figures (they say they’ve sold millions but won’t say exactly how many)—it doesn’t matter. I don’t need any official sales reports telling me, I can just see it. Kindles and iPads are here to stay.

Americans, it seems, are not choosing between an iPad and Kindle. They are buying both because they are vastly different products. If we are choosing anything, we are choosing between reading devices (the new color Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, or the Kindle?) or between a new laptop or iPad. As I wrote in a post last summer, the iPad isn’t about ebooks. (There’s a reason why iPad owners tend to be young and male. More than half of apps downloaded are games.) And the Kindle keeps getting better at what they are designed to do as ereaders.

My minimalist dream of having one device isn’t here yet because it hasn’t been invented it yet and because I am not willing to give up the pleasantness of reading on the Kindle or the iPad’s web browsing and apps. We are spoiled kids in the candy store—we want, no, we need both.

Monday, October 25, 2010

You're Never Too Old to be Germinal

One of the best parts about being an editorial assistant on a mix of both fiction and nonfiction works is that it requires reading books on subjects you might not otherwise have been drawn to. As a result, you end up learning all kinds of fascinating facts on a variety of subjects. I’m familiar with the life stories and origins of a wide range of people—from John Cage to al-Zawahiri—and know little bits of trivia on the history of medicine in our country and the history of cricket alike. In all my time here, one of the facts that struck me the most profoundly and has stayed with me the longest is that human creativity peaks at the age of twenty-eight.

This little ray of sunshine in my cumulative bag of facts has, of late, become newly relevant. Last Thursday marked exactly two months until my twenty-eighth birthday. I find myself plagued with the question Am I two weeks away from AS GOOD AS IT’S EVER GONNA GET??? Though the specifics of my aspirations have evolved, I’ve always wanted to pursue creative fields (perhaps by default—math and science have escaped me always, the tricky minxes) and the fact that it might be all down hill from here in that arena leaves me with a furrowed brow that’s probably doing nothing to help the physical components of aging.

Needing a remedy for the implications of my favorite statistic, I decided to do some research on the various ages of some of the most creative minds of recent years: the last five winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Knowing that it probably wouldn’t be fair to look up the ages of these winners at the publication of the book that actually won the prize since it is often awarded to seasoned writers who have been perfecting their craft for decades, I was interested instead at the age these great minds were at the time they published their first book. (I.E. When do most people who eventually master the craft of storytelling first begin to create publishable works? At point does your creativity flourish enough to get you started on your journey?)

Perhaps it’s na├»ve to use extreme outliers on the scale of “normal” (after all, the point of the Pulitzer is to acknowledge individuals who have distinguished themselves, not fallen somewhere in the middle of the pack, or proven fairly average statistically), but nonetheless, I’m going to take heart where I can. And there’s much to be heartened by in the list below. Perhaps a little bit of the good news to be found there can be applied to the rest of us in moderation.

I may use my heightened powers of creativity to redecorate my living room this coming year, though, just in case . . .

The Pulitzer Prize Winners for fiction from 2006-2010:

2006: Geraldine Brooks:
Won for: March
Age at publication: 55
First book: Nine Parts of Desire
Age at publication: 39

2007: Cormac McCarthy:
Won for: The Road
Age at publication: 73
First Book: The Orchard Keeper
Age at publication: 32

2008: Junot Diaz:
Won for: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Age at publication: 39
First book: Drown
Age at publication: 28

2009: Elizabeth Strout:
Won for: Olive Kitteridge
Age at publication: 54
First book: Amy and Isabelle
Age at publication: 42

2010: Paul Harding:
Won for: Tinkers
Age at publication: 43
First book: Tinkers
Age at publication: 43

Friday, October 22, 2010

Written on the Body

On Wednesday night, I was fortunate enough to attend a party held in honor of the new book The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide. I have been an ardent, albeit voyeuristic, fan of the "literary tattoo" phenomenon ever since a friend tipped me off to Contrariwise, an excellent website that is devoted to them.

I would venture to say that most people (even people like me, who have a hard time remembering things like ATM pins and computer passwords and sometimes conversations completed less than ten minutes ago) carry around with them a line from a poem, or a phrase from a novel, that they will never, ever forget; a sentence or a stanza that set their synapses ablaze, ingraining itself forever in the intricate passageways of the mind.

Some of these words will leave their mark through beauty, whether it lies in their rhythm and assonance -- the way they roll off the tongue -- or the image they evoke; others remain indelible because of the deeper meaning they contain. Sometimes the association is indirect, related more to the context. A phrase, perhaps innocuous in itself, can be powerfully symbolic of an experience or a personal relationship.

However, it is a big leap to have these beloved, iconic words indelibly inscribed on your flesh. Permanently inking something onto your skin is a serious statement, and choosing to get a tattoo is a very conscious, and often deeply-pondered, decision. What spurs someone to get a line from The Satanic Verses etched into their flesh? Or, for that matter, a Charles Bukowski poem? Choices are drastically varied, as are the designs; some are straight calligraphy, whereas others incorporate illustrations.

You can while away many afternoons scrolling through the photographs on Contrariwise and also on the book's blog. Often, the featured tattoos are accompanied by an explanation from their proud wearers, each an illuminating glimpse into someone's deeply private interior life. The Word Made Flesh is also structured around this pairing of tattoo and essay, but the editors' thoughtful curation of its entries leads to bigger and broader inferences that makes the book almost anthropological in scope. It manifests a staggering breadth of human emotion and experience; it also provides incredible insight into the way we read, and the relationship that we as a society have with the written word.

For instance, some authors and quotations appear very frequently. At the event on Wednesday, the editors -- Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor -- described the process of choosing what to include in their anthology. They received many submissions inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, e.e. cummings, and Sylvia Plath; Shakespeare and J.K. Rowling are apparently also popular writers in the nation's tattoo parlors (as an observer, this trending is more apparent on the blogs because Talmadge and Taylor made a deliberate effort to avoid repetition in the book).

This leads me to what I consider to be a major issue regarding literary tattoos. Would you be pissed if you got "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt" etched on your shoulderblade, only to discover on some blog that at least fifteen other people have that same tattoo? Would it tarnish the special relationship you have with Slaughterhouse Five? Or would knowing you belong to a community of Vonnegut fans somehow it enhance it?

I'm not quite sure how I would feel. People seem to have mixed reactions; some of the people in the book clearly got intricate and obscure tattoos as an expression of individuality, whereas others seem to have wanted more to signify their fandom, their inclusion in a larger reading public. As I don't have any tattoos, I can't really claim to understand what it's like to select a design, get it done, and then live with it -- you know what I mean?

However, I have been thinking about the possibility for a while. I had back surgery earlier this year, which left a vertical scar about two-and-a-half inches long on my lower back; although it's perilously close to "tramp stamp" territory, I'm intrigued by the idea of disguising, or incorporating, it somehow with a tattoo. I even know what I would get (I think), but I haven't quite yet made the plunge into certainty. It wouldn't be a text tattoo, but it certainly would be literary-related... if I get it, I promise I'll show you guys a photo!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Children's Books to Read While Drunk...

...Yes, I realize that title is a bit of a desecration. But please, allow me to explain...

This past Saturday night, I was at a lovely party in Brooklyn with a handful of college friends, and as the night progressed, and the drinks flowed, we naturally became less and less adult. We giggled effusively at Mad Libs (where my contributions ranged from "duodenum" to "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed", leading to their use in extremely odd context), and around 12:30am, the host decided that it was time to pull out a few titles from her collection of children's books. (She works in children's publishing, but beyond that, she's just awesome.) Emptying our wine glasses, we proceeded to turn a previously fun evening into an utterly hilarious one--somehow diving into the simple, enthralling narratives of the picture books was the best possible entertainment we could have found. Even in an age where picture books are becoming less and less popular, they still are perfect models for the short-short story: usually 30 pages or less, with concise and evocative language, they are the petit fours of literature, and make for a ridiculously fun Saturday night.

Our selections for the night, and perhaps one we should've added to the list...

Miss Rumphius, story and pictures by Barbara Cooney: I think every girl has some kind of attachment to this book, and not just because it's the most lovely wistful portrait of an elderly single lady ever written. The central ideal being, you can travel the world, and build yourself a lovely home, but the final step is figuring out something you can do to make the world a more beautiful place. In this story, it's Miss Rumphius deciding to scatter lupine seeds throughout her little seaside town, and ultimately becoming known as "The Lupine Lady." Is there any more lovely expression of what it means to lead a joyous, generous life?

Whatever by William Bee: This is actually a rip-off of the very wonderful Maurice Sendak book, Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and A Prologue, but I don't think you can ever have too many books about annoyingly indifferent children. The one qualm we had about this one is that the boy's enthusiastic pleasure seems to take his son's ultimate demise in stride. Even in children's books (which should be light with the tragic touches), this was a little disconcerting...

A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, by John Irving, illustrated by Tatjana Hauptmann: Fans of John Irving will recognize this story's presence in his novel A Widow for One Year (and its movie adaptation, The Door in the Floor.) What Irving had to say about adult writers of children's stories in that book was quite ominous, and this story gave us all chills. It perfectly captures that frightful waking in the night when you hear a sound that you can't quite place running through the walls and around your room. Very haunting, powerful story, with equally haunting illustrations to boot.

Donald Has a Difficulty by Peter F. Neumeyer and Edward Gorey: Any evening that includes Edward Gorey is a win in my book. Poor Donald has a splinter in his foot, and his mother distracts him as she removes it with a needle, urging him to think of markets, strings, and battles. The splinter is removed without a care, yet when his mother daubs the wound with alcohol, Donald lets out a shriek of pain. A classically dark and twisted (yet utterly benign) Gorey tale.

The Story about Ping, by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese: This is when we knew that the drinks had kicked in, because it was impossible for us to get through this without additional giggles. The story of a little duck chasing his family's home boat down the Yangtze River caused us to wonder if this lovely little picture book wasn't in fact a pro-Communism missive designed to enchant impressionable children.
Tadpole's Promise by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross: Believe it or not, this is actually a book about mature adult romantic relationships. A tadpole and a caterpillar fall in love, and promise each other that they will never change. Yet one day, the tadpole sprouts two legs, then two more, and his caterpillar breaks up with him and goes off to cry in her cocoon. The tadpole sits on his rock, bemoaning the loss of his "beautiful rainbow", even after enjoying a snack of a tasty butterfly. Gorgeously illustrated, this is a lovely yet sobering story about the inevitability of change.

As we left the party, I wondered how all these children's stories had come to move us so deeply. Was it the wine, or was it a deeper desire to go back to the days of storytime? Then I thought of a final children's book that has never lost its resonance for me, and knew that it would have to be included in the next party's reading...

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz: Is there any children's book that has ever been so spot-on about the trials of everyday life as this one has? Poor Alexander suffers a wide range of disappointments--he wakes up with gum in his hair, there's no dessert in his lunch, he doesn't get the striped sneakers he wants, and he has to watch kissing on TV. He briefly considers moving to Australia. But as his mother reminds him, everyone has bad days, even the Aussies. And Alexander is a reminder to us all that sometimes, you just have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and tomorrow may be better.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wait, That's a Real Word?

Many of the people who walk our halls—and, presumably those of most large publishing houses across the city—have impressive vocabularies. At least once a week one of my colleagues will bust out a word I have to look up. Over the years this has proven a real boon (that means blessing—did you know that?) to my vocabulary. Foolishly fancying myself something of a wordsmith after five years in the trenches of book publishing, I thought the vocabulary section of my upcoming GRE exam would be a breeze with a capitol B. I took one look at the 50 vocab lists in a test prep book just to make myself feel better, and grew faint at the first look—I recognized about twenty of the eighty-something words in each list. Over the last four months, I’ve engrossed myself in said lists, and have had the delight of discovering phonetically pleasing gems that, though they haven’t made it into our colloquial vernacular, can be real fun to use in conversation. (It’s nice to be the one inspiring trips to the dictionary for a change!)

Below are six of the most surprising, foreign, or just fun–to-say words I learned this weekend alone (clearly I’ve taken up residence in the r-t sections—almost there!). Some of these words are more common than others, but in learning the exact definitions of the more familiar words I’ve discovered layers of specificity previously lost on me. (For example, “sinecure,” which I thought just meant “position or job,” actually means “a well-paid position with very little responsibility”—how handy is it to have a word for that!). I list the six words first, and then the six definitions, but not in the same order (half of the fun is guessing which is which, obvi!). Feel free to look them up, but if you never get around to trekking to the nearest dictionary, I’ll kill the suspense next week.

Peruse with glee—you might learn something new even if you, too, work in the world of professional wordage.

The Words

1. salubrious
2. sibylline
3. rusticate
4. scintilla
5. tipple
6. spoonerism

The Definitions

1. a shred; the least bit
2. to drink
3. prophetic; oracular
4. an accidental transposition of sounds in successive words (ie calling our former president Hoobert Herver)
5. healthful
6. to banish to the country

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Luxury of Reading

Good morning to you on this rather dismal, grey New York Friday. I apologize for being in absentia for the past couple of weeks; my mother slipped on some acorns and "broke" her knee(true story!). She did quite a number on herself and actually had to have surgery, and so I've been boosting Amtrak's profit margins this quarter by zipping back and forth to be with her.

One of things she managed to do was tear her quad tendon. The way they mend it is actually quite intriguing (but not for the squeamish) -- they tie wire sutures to the torn edge of the tendon, and then drill holes in the kneecap so they can lash it tight, like a sail to a boom. Then they staple up the six-inch incision and strap you in a medieval-looking metal brace that locks the leg straight...and you can't put weight on it for six weeks while it heals. SIX WEEKS.

As of today, my mother has been under medically-enforced house arrest for a month, with at least another two weeks stretching out ahead, and she's really bored. Especially now she's cutting back on the prescription narcotics and actually awake. People come to visit, of course, but there's a lot of "down" time. So, appealing to the charitable hearts of my publishing pals, I have been sending her a lot of books.

She has been whipping through them at a voracious pace: since last Friday she has finished The Cookbook Collector and the first two Henning Mankell mysteries, and she's now knee-deep in Bill Bryson's At Home. When I was visiting her this past weekend, while watching her tick off on her fingers the other books she's read since her accident, and what she has next on her stack -- Room is first up, if you're wondering -- I realized that I was...jealous. Jealous because she actually has time to read.

If you're reading this blog, you're most likely an avid reader. But, if you are anything like me, the daily demands of life and work mean that the reading you do is in bed, in the half-hour or so before you turn off the light; it's in brief snatches of time on the subway or on the bus; perhaps, on a Sunday morning, you allow yourself a few pages before falling back asleep. I do spend a lot of time reading for work, but for me that's totally separate to "real" reading -- reading for pleasure, reading books that I've heard about or had recommended to me, books that I've eagerly anticipated. Books that I read simply because I want to, not because someone's asking me for a report.

I can barely remember the last time I spent an entire day, or even a full afternoon, just reading. All I can rely on are the visceral memories of childhood, of being utterly engrossed in a book to the exclusion of everything else. It's a completely different reading experience, a whole-body engagement that truly releases the transformative power of books. You give the words time and attention, and in return they envelop you into their world. Hours later, you return, a little dazed and confused -- a bit exhausted, even -- but exhilarated, different from the person you were when you begun.

This kind of connection just can't happen in the brief engagements we make with books in normal life. But for my mother, "normal life" has been suspended, and she has been able to rediscover what it feels like to READ: to lie with a book from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., to be so deeply embedded in it that breaking the connection to eat or go to the loo is like ripping off a Band-Aid, or clipping a blood vessel. And, as I listen to her describe how she felt while reading Great House , I know I want to feel that again, too. More often than I'd like, the pages of books go by almost in a blur because I'm exhausted and already drained; I read the words but I don't get "in it," I don't experience the holy communion that will remind me once again why nothing will ever, ever replace books.

So, here is my vow -- to make time to read. To turn off my phone and shut down my computer, to lie on the sofa and offer myself up at the altar of the book gods, hoping they'll take me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Invisible Tweak of the Excellent Editor

During my college course in creative non-fiction, I often wrote pieces that verged on the confessional. Humorous essays on being a "control freak", mournful essays on first loves and far-from-last disappointments, I wrote with an eye towards becoming the next David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell, self-deprecating but never self-flagellating. Yet as much good reception came from my fellow writers, my professor's spot-on advice was almost always the same: "Kill your darlings." Take away that final declarative, summing-up sentence at the end of nearly every essay, trust that you've made your point with the reader, and leave it at that. She was right, of course, but I still have that tendency to add a little excessive flourish, a habit I've never been able to fully kick.

The editor's responsibility is much like that of a good director: take your performer, help them to give out all they possibly can, and then help them to trim away any unnecessary flash or fat. Agents may put writers on stage, but editors teach them how to clean up their act. Yet delivering criticism to a writer is no less delicate for an editor than it is for anyone else. Sure, it's the editor's job to make the work as good as possible, but how must an author feel when it always feels like the editor is "killing their darlings?" When confronted with a page of red lines and rejected ideas, I imagine a writer would find themselves quite reticent to accept their editor's recommendations. After all the work of writing the damn thing, now it has to be tweaked and tweaked, over and over again?

As I work my way through a major editing project, I'm having trouble distancing myself from what I imagine will be the author's ultimate response. When he sees I've questioned the clarity of a given sentence, will he think I'm calling him illiterate? When I recommend he add something to a less-than-fully-flavorful concept, will he think I'm trying to rewrite him? Surely many authors are well-primed to receive this kind of criticism--no good writer achieves success without receiving criticism from either teachers and professors or through a handful of rejections. This is all meant to stiffen the writer's spine--as many have said, "A published writer is a previously unpublished writer who kept submitting." But once the contract is accepted, a false sense of security could always sink in. Just because we've signed it doesn't mean it's all done...just because you've gotten the role doesn't mean the audience will give you a standing ovation. The writer has to be receptive to criticism, but also to be certain of what they want.

So it's the editor who has to be supremely diplomatic and to choose very carefully what they're going to suggest. And ultimately, the best editorial commentary is the kind that disappears once the book is produced--it is so seamless and well-placed that it is as though it came directly that way from the author. (My high point of directing theater in college was when someone approached a former actress I'd worked with and praised her performance while completely ignoring me. That was the point--if I did my job well, you didn't notice any directing at all.) An editor can't change the content of the book, she can only shape and trim, sparingly, to honor the author's original intent. And carefully, when absolutely necessary, she has to find the author's "darlings" and pin them to the wall. All in the name of good writing, of course...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Haunting of the Submission

I’d been lugging around this five pound manuscript for almost a week. It was a submission from a first-time author—an adventure and love story set in a far-off magical world. Not my usual cup of tea.

It came in last week. Once I was asked to read it, I dutifully printed it out and set it on my desk. And then I ignored it.

After a day or two, the manuscript began staring at me and appeared to grow in size. But I just couldn’t get to it.

I finally took a chunk of pages home with me, stuffing it in my bag. I pulled it out on the subway, like a rabbit out of a hat, in a row of tightly packed passengers.

I wanted the submission to be bad. Really bad. As in, I didn’t have to read more than ten pages to dismiss it and type up a report about how I wasn’t won over by the writing. (An editor here says he knows by page thirty whether he likes something or not—a good rule to follow.) But of course—cause lately nothing is simple—the novel was pretty good.

Crap. Now I had to read the whole thing, cause if you plan on writing a glowing report, well, you better know what happens in the end.

I figured I’d finish the manuscript at work. I didn’t want to bring it home again. I had other things I was reading and enjoying in a much more convenient size. But things got busy and reading the 400 page novel was not going to happen anytime soon at my desk. And I was running out of time.

When a submission comes in, and you are asked to read it, you have to read it fast. You want to avoid the agent following up on it, and the editor asking you about it and having to confess that you haven’t read it yet. It's a bad feeling.

Every time I looked, it was as if the manuscript had a time bomb strapped to it. Finish me. Finish me.

I started carrying the manuscript everywhere; anywhere I could get a few pages in. The novel’s protagonist became my little buddy. Always there, at Duane Reade, waiting for the light to change.

I thought, surely, in all my wandering around the city with the manuscript, the man who wrote it would recognize the words on the page and accost me. You are reading my manuscript? Did you finish it? Did you like it?

Well, brothers and sisters, I did finally finish it last night in the comfort of my bedroom. And I typed up a report before anyone asked about it. Phew, disaster avoided. The thing is, I doubt we will publish it. But maybe in a year or two, I’ll see a review of the novel in the pages of PW, maybe with a new title, but I’ll recognize the author’s name, and I’ll think, wow, you and me once had quite the week together.

Monday, October 11, 2010

High Drama in the Land of the Book Fetish

My boyfriend Ben and I have shared an interest in literature for as long as we’ve known each other. We both work in related fields (book and magazine publishing) and though we share an apartment that is appropriately small for two young people living in New York (we don’t even have room for a dinner table) we’ve managed to cram in three floor to ceiling bookshelves that are currently overflowing. There is one book related point, however, on which the two of us diverge: the extent to which we revere the physical book itself, as opposed to just its contents.

I’ve never been much of a journaler, and over the years my books have become a way to mark time and record important events. Years after I read a book I’ll remember that moment of finishing the last line and closing the book in satisfaction or disappointment and recall where I was, be it on a bus in Costa Rica, a plane ride home to Ohio, or a subway car to work or a party that later proves particularly fun. After enough time passes, what I won’t be able to recall is the date, the month, or even the year that those events and those book closings occurred (as Cesare Pevase said “We do not remember days, we remember moments”). So, I’ve taken to writing the time, date, and place that I finish a book, as well as any memorable or milestone moments that occurred right before or after. When I finished The Patterns of Paper Monsters on the way back from a college friend’s wedding I wrote a list of my Kenyon friends who made it and stuck my name card from the wedding in the middle of the book. I’ll open a book years after reading it and find a ticket stub from a movie or a plane ride and be taken right back. When I find myself without paper I use the margins of whatever book I’m reading to compose to do lists or write down blog ideas I have. My books, in short, become physical tributes to the personal eras in which I read them.

Though Ben reads at least as many books as I do, his relationships with his books are considerably more fleeting. At least once a month he hightails it to the Strand to swap out whatever bundle of books he’s just completed for spending money. When I ask him if he’s ever sad to not have favorite books on hand he cites a list he keeps of all the books he’d like to one day own when financial and spatial considerations allow him the luxury. His lack of physical or sentimental attachment to his books pervades his approach to and organization of our book shelves to the extent that, nervous that he might one day mistake a first edition of a book I worked on or a favorite novel no longer in print for one of his books, I childishly separated all of my favorite books from his.

Meanwhile, in a mental region far, far away, I remain addicted so the highly dramatic (and unrealistic) soap opera-esuqe show Gray’s Anatomy. This might sound related to the divide between Ben’s book ethos and my own, but last night I discovered that this is not wholly the case. About a week ago, when I finished Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus the somber ending of the book and the corresponding mood it had put me in lent a real Debbie Downer air to my routine act of looking up at the nearest clock and recording the time. There was something vaguely familiar about that silent, respectful pause to take in the severity and epicness of the book’s ending before looking at the clock but, unable to pinpoint what it resembled immediately I just recorded the data and went about my day. Last night I watched an episode of Gray’s in which a young woman dies right in front of her four year old daughter after surviving a fire. Her injuries were extremely treatable but because of intern error they kept getting worse and worse. Due to the chaos that ensued as her condition intensified, by the time she finally died almost all of the interns were working on her (i.e. potentially responsible) and when the dreamy head of surgery demanded that “someone call the time of death” they all looked down in an effort to avoid that duty. It was in that slight, somber pause that I recognized my own behavior when recording the “time of death” of my favorite books. Yes, my approach to sad books and recording their intersection with my life has become comparable to a ridiculously over dramatic show about people dying horribly. Deciding that I need to get a life, I immediately resigned that I would change my habits where book endings and book retention are concerned. Perhaps the organization of all the books that have colored my life need not be taken as seriously as I have been.

Don’t tell Ben he’s right, but I may need to make a trip to the Strand some time this week.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In Defense of Little, Brown

If you’re a James Patterson fan—or if you read The New York Times—you’ll know that, apparently for the first time ever, two Kindle editions are currently priced higher than their hardcover counterparts. The books, James Patterson’s Don’t Blink and Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, and their respective publishers, Little, Brown and Penguin, have subsequently come under some criticism on Amazon. The Patterson novel, for example, currently has 5 five-star, 6 four-star, 2 three-star, 2 two-star, and 31 one-star reviews. Let’s sample them, shall we?

“I refuse to purchase this book IN ANY FORMAT until the publisher lowers the e-book price. It's time for them to come to terms with the technology.”

“I join in the consumer outrage that a print publisher would charge more for a digital edition than a paper edition. I sense that the conglomerate publishers need to learn a lesson, and having a book or three fail because of consumer backlash is probably the only way to get that message across to them.”

“This is corporate greed on display as the suits in their ivory tower think they can set the price for the digital version of the book anywhere they please and people will buy it just so they can have the e-book reading experience. They think we're too stupid to realize they're price gouging us. I'd like to hear one these publishing executives explain the rationale for this pricing. I'd be very interested in learning how the publishing industry can save us money by not publishing a digital edition.”

“Electronic books are definitely the way of the future, like it or not, and this pricing is how we now know it is true. Commerce has seen the future and it is with us ebook readers. Therefore the higher price, even though it is infinitely cheaper to produce and transport.”

“The publishing companies will not see the next decade unless they come to terms with new technology. Pricing an ebook more than the hardcopy is not the right start.”

Ultimately, of the 31 one-stars, five actually evaluate the quality of the writing. The others are spent complaining about either the ebook/hardcover price gap or about a misleading free sample button that Amazon featured on the book page.

Before addressing the anger these would-be readers feel, and the points they bring up, I have another question to ask. When did Amazon reviews become a legitimate place to rate anything other than the book itself? Dear ranters: other Amazon readers are not looking at the ratings to learn more about your personal politics, your views on the author, or your views on the publisher. In fact, those readers might just have their own opinions on those various subjects, and they’ll hardly need the benefit of your thoughts. No, they’re looking for informed opinions about the book itself, and that’s probably what you should stick to. Any review prefaced with “I haven’t read this book, but” is useless. Write an op-ed or a letter to the publisher instead, as I'm doing right now in response to your reviews.

Anyway, back to the Patterson reviews themselves. After all of this anger, if you click on five-star reviews, you’ll find four reviews that evaluate the quality of the book, and then this lonely little voice:

“Amazon is underselling other booksellers by making almost no profit on each book. It's akin to an insider bank thief skimming pennies from millions of accounts and making a fortune. The problem isn't that the kindle price is too much, it's that the hardcover is being sold for too little.”


Well, let’s just (tentatively) follow Mr. Five-Star’s suggestion, that maybe there’s a misunderstanding here, and discuss some of the claims both explicitly and implicitly made in the one-star reviews, with that thought in mind.

1) Claim #1: Publishers are setting a higher price for the ebook than the hardcover.
Actually, as the New York Times article points out, there are two separate entities with pricing power here. The first is, yes, the publisher, because in these two cases, they have the ability to set the Kindle price. But the second entity is Amazon, and they’ve set the hardcover price on their website. Amazon’s business model, in case anyone isn’t aware, is to buy large numbers of hardcovers at the wholesaler’s discount and to resell them to consumers at more or less this price. It’s a decision that benefits the consumer but is ultimately in Amazon’s self-interest: as Mr. Five-Star above notes, such discounts mean that Amazon makes a very slight profit on each book but ultimately establishes a monopoly, meaning that those few pennies become a fortune. So in fact, publishers are still setting a lower price for the ebook than their hardcover asking price. It’s Amazon that is undercutting.

2) Claim #2: Ebooks are cheap to produce and should be cheap to buy.
Makes sense. But here’s a rundown of publishers’ costs from “Publish or Perish,” an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker: “Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. A simplified version of a publisher’s costs might run as follows. On a new, twenty-six-dollar hardcover, the publisher typically receives thirteen dollars. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price; this accounts for $3.90. Perhaps $1.80 goes to the costs of paper, printing, and binding, a dollar to marketing, and $1.70 to distribution. The remaining $4.60 must pay for rent, editors, a sales force, and any write-offs of unearned author advances. Bookstores return about thirty-five per cent of the hardcovers they buy, and publishers write off the cost of producing those books. Profit margins are slim.” To summarize: only a very slim portion of the price of a book represents what is spent printing it. The rest goes to the people who are making the book the best it can be: the author and the editor, as well as the publicity, marketing, sales, and art teams. One might argue, with some validity, that many publishing houses today are overstaffed and could be run more efficiently, but that’s ultimately beside the point here. The point to be made is that just because something is digital, it doesn’t mean it’s free or even cheap. The same effort goes into any good book that is published, and these expenses will remain regardless of whether reading goes entirely digital.

3) Claim #3: Ebooks are the wave of the future, and publishers refuse to accommodate that fact.
Actually, publishers recognize this—more than you could know—and are working very hard to change. It’s not easy, as you’d probably guess. Publishing houses, like any company, are made up of a lot of different people with different kinds of knowledge and different vested interests. There are young people, mostly assistants, who are perhaps more knowledgable about technology and more excited for its potential. There are older employees who can’t tell an iPod from an iPad. There are those on either side who don’t fit the mold, including young employees who are entrenched in orthodoxy and older employees who are excited for technology but don’t understand it and those who do. There are those, like me, who are mildly excited for innovation but are ultimately pragmatic, and just see this as the inevitable, mostly unscary next step. What publishers do refuse to accommodate, though, is the belief that what Amazon says is the future is indeed the future. Ebooks, as an employee here said recently, are media’s next frontier, an untamed Wild West. From royalty rates to ebook prices (two points of contention that are ultimately linked, contested between agents/authors and booksellers, with publishing houses in between), it’s a world of brawls and uncertainty, and publishers are trying just as hard as Amazon and Andrew Wylie to figure out what’s right and best for readers—and ourselves—as we push forward.

4) Claim #4: Publishers are greedy—and hate us, the readers.
This is both an explicit and an implicit claim. The reviewers above seem to think that Amazon is on their side and the publishers are out to get them, to squeeze every last drop from them. But this isn’t true. The thing is, the people who work in publishing love books. That’s why we’re here—it’s certainly not a career to go into for the money. And because of that, we also love you, the readers. We’re here to see that what we love, good books, is something that continues into the future, and that those books always get to you. Now, there’s been a lot of talk about the death of print. Sometimes the wild talkers have cast you, the ebook reader—or maybe you, the American non-reader—as some sort of philistine. Either you’re not reading or you’re reading trash. I apologize for that talk now, because when I see ebook sales, I know that it’s not true. When I see soaring ebook sales, sales that put hardcover results to shame, I’m hopeful: because it means you care. It means you want our books. Yes, we want to sell them to you—but we also want to just know you’re reading. A world of readers means a world where our passions are still important and relevant.

There are plenty of other things I could address here—things that I believe in, like the continuing importance of at least a small print run, and of the value of the people who work at publishing houses, especially editors and copyeditors—but this has gone on long enough. Although I’m sad to see Stieg Larsson deposed from the top of the New York Times bestseller list, best of luck to you, James Patterson, and to your devoted readers—solidarity is exactly what we need as we move forward into this brave new world.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Future of the Book

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

IDEO, the award winning design and innovation consulting company, has come out with a video about the future of the book. The video starts with a quote that applies to both print and digital books: "Books take us to faraway places and explain the world around us." In the video they describe three versions of a tablet device that each enhance the reading experience with a social component. The three different concepts are named Nelson, Coupland, and Alice.

Nelson: "Giving readers what they need to form their own opinions on important topics of our time."

Nelson has informational layers that add context to the reading experience. The various layers allow you to see the impact the book has had on popular opinion and debate, how people talk about the subject in the media, other perspectives on the subject, and a fact checking tool.

Coupland: "Keeping you up to date with what is going on in your field."

This version allows you to see what other people are reading within your organization or network. You can access recommended reading lists and join discussions about topic or projects. If enough employees purchase a title, the book would become available in the company library. An organization's reading list can also be available to the public.

Alice "An interactive and playful reading experience that invites interaction well beyond just turning the page."

This version is my favorite. It explores how we will experience literary narratives in new ways, so that the reader becomes a participant, bluring the lines between reality and fiction. The reader will stumble upon plot twists and turns that can be unlocked by being in certain geographic locations or talking to the character in the story. The reader co-develops the story. In time, a non linear narrative emerges.

IDEO is interested in hearing feedback about their video on a facebook page they set up where they ask: What is your vision for the future of the book?