Sunday, August 29, 2010

Announcing Paravion Press from Atlantis Books

I've mentioned my love for a very magical bookstore perched on the cliffs of a small island in the south of the Aegean Sea in a previous post, and I've been thinking about my friends at Atlantis Books of Santorini, Greece again lately, because the shop needs our help.

After 3,000 years times are tough in Greece. Atlantis Books is only seven years old but needs to find a new bag of tricks to stay in business. It's run by a group of designers, educators and book lovers who've long dreamed of doing more than just selling books, so now they're making them too. This new publishing venture and imprint of Atlantis Books is called Paravion Press and you can find their website here.

The books they are publishing are handmade editions of short works. They're beautiful editions and you'll help Atlantis Books continue to do their good work by owning one. Once you have read them you’ll want to share them with friends, so they're packaged in envelopes that are ready to mail onward.

Five titles are available now: short stories by Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Saki, and Sherwood Anderson, as well as an essay by Mark Twain. Additionally, you can pre-order the Paravion Compendium edition, a hard-bound collection of their first complete series of stories.

Here's how you can help Paravion Press:
* Order some books.
* Refer retailers who would enjoy stocking Paravion editions.
* Refer exceptional artists to illustrate forthcoming Paravion editions
* Submit ideas for perfect stories to print, either public domain or previously unpublished.

Again their website is You can contact them at

I'm excited to see what the future holds for my friends at Atlantis Books, a bookstore that was recently on a list of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Every order and kind word will help Paravion Press and Atlantis Books stay afloat in the Mediterranean Sea.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Everything Has Its Price is one of my favorite websites to browse when underoccupied, and given how quiet it’s been here lately I’ve been spending quite a lot of time on the site. One of my favorite things yesterday was a blog post about a close reading of Cat Fancy magazine. Which is a real magazine. It got me thinking about doing a close reading of my own – but what magazine? I rummaged around my desk until I alighted upon a copy of Publishers Weekly, our industry’s cornerstone publication.

What simultaneously amuses and irritates me about PW is the magazine’s practice of allowing different entities to sponsor its cover. Not a tear-off sheet, but the actual cover. This week, honors were obviously bought by the Church of Scientology, as the cover features the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest as announced by a banner and also an apocalyptic graphic of a flaming quill set against a galaxy of stars. It’s a glossy, fancy fold-out design, with an inside panel celebrating Hubbard the writer (not Hubbard the mad man, sadly) that unfolds to a double-spread celebrating some previous winners. I wonder how much this cost them? (They also bought the back cover, too)

Next comes the table of contents, which I never really look at because PW has a pretty predictable structure. We jump past the audio ad to the following page and BAM! It’s Google. I’m so sick of Google. They have an article about Google every week. This week’s anxiety attack is about the Google/Verizon settlement (purported existence of), and what this means for the Google Book Settlement. The answer is: we’re fucked regardless.

Underneath the Google hysteria page are the first items in the “News Briefs” sections: People, Places, and Things. Molly Stern has moved to Crown after resolving a contract dispute with Penguin – apparently 375 Hudson Street wouldn’t release her as she had eight months left there per her employment agreement, so she stopped coming into the office. It’s an interesting move because Stern primarily edits fiction, a genre that Crown doesn’t really publish. Obviously there’s an aesthetic shift for them on the horizon, so keep your eyes peeled: a new imprint or an acquisition spree? Agents, make your lunch dates! There’s also more dirty business going on in the Barnes & Noble ownership struggle (what else is new?), and some scandal about a teen lit festival in Texas. Apparently censorship is alive and well in the Lone Star State, which (sadly) is hardly suprising.

However, even more disturbing than this is the letter from the president of PW announcing PW Select, a new quarterly publication for self-published authors. I have many issues with self-publishing, the primary one being that, unless they are very careful and thorough, people often get massively ripped off. And now here’s PW, a venerated publication, joining in the merciless free-for-all! For a simple “processing fee” (just like an infomercial) of $149 -- $149!!!! – self-published authors can have their books listed in this supplement. PW will review 25 of them: “we briefly considered charging for reviews,” says president George W. Slowik, Jr., “but in the end preferred to maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy.” Thank god they maintained some integrity. But only a little, as they are marketing this thing as a legitimate publication when it is really just a glorified advertising circular, the kind that supermarkets sometimes stuff into the Sunday New York Times.

This “circular” format is apparently how PW got started way back in 1872, but the magazine definitely does not present itself as such now; as a major review format, it cultivates a reputation for independent criticism and journalism that is unaffiliated with any particular publisher or author. By naming their new circular PW Select they are clearly abusing this reputation, using it to confer a false sense of legitimacy and integrity upon a wholly commercial product. Essentially, they are sullying their name for the sake of conning people out of $150 a pop, and I think it’s a big and disturbing mistake. If you want to read more, check out this GalleyCat post.

Now I’m actually quite angry. So angry, in fact, that I kind of don’t want to read PW anymore. This is too much. People already criticize legitimate publishers for putting profit above aesthetic integrity; how is this going to help counter that ill-founded reputation? URGH. I'm off to find something less ennervating to read.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Publishing Beyond the Big Apple: San Francisco

A minor character in a great musical (prizes for the person who knows it) once insisted, “New York is the center of everything.” The lead character, and increasingly myself, has to respond, "New York is the center of New York!”

It's easy to believe that, if you want a job in book publishing, you must submit yourself to the will of New York City. You may pay high rents and endure long crowded commutes, but the trade-off is that you will be at the epicenter of the publishing business. The bulk of the major houses--and some increasingly spectacular independent publishers--have their offices based in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But with the proliferation of online media, and the changing landscape of contemporary publishing, other cities are quickly becoming literary meccas in their own right.

As the first of what I hope will be a series of installments looking at the fruits of publishing outside the Big Apple, here's a quick glimpse of our first literary city: San Francisco.
San Francisco has lots of things to recommend it: long storied history, beautiful architecture, fantastic food, brilliant professors at great universities, and a culture entirely distinct from the rest of California. The crispness of the air and the lovely citizens of the city already made it a welcome destination for me over the past weekend. But what I really fell in love with was the literary scene.
The locus of San Fran's literary history sits between North Beach and Chinatown, a neighborhood that houses the former Montgomery Street residence of Allen Ginsberg (whose New York apartment just went on the market), the site of the Golden Era, the city's first literary journal (which had Mark Twain and Bret Harte as regular writers), the Black Cat Cafe, the bohemian cafe where John Steinbeck, Truman Capote and William Saroyan hung out, and Vesuvio Cafe, the bar where both Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac were kicked out (and where Dylan Thomas once inadvertently spent the night in a booth). These locations are literally around the corner from one of the best bookstores in the city, the famed City Lights.
A sign above the door to the main fiction shelves reads "Abandon All Despair, Ye Who Enter Here." And it couldn't be more correct--City Lights is the mother of all independent bookstores, with a huge selection of fiction and non-fiction, and, in its third floor annex, a room dedicated to the Beat writers and poets who made the city their home. Photographs of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Saroyan, and Hunter S. Thompson cover the walls, and every major author who has spent time in the city appears on these shelves.
But San Francisco isn't a literary city whose reputation is based solely on its history; remarkably, the city can boast about the plethora of contemporary critics and writers reside there. In a terrific map made available by the organization 826 Valencia (founded by Dave Eggers and N'nive Calegari in 2002), you can find a list of over 70 independent, used, and rare bookstores, as well as over 26 publishers (which includes Artemis Press, Chronicle Books, McSweeney's, and Ten Speed Press) and 36 journals and magazines (including The Believer, Mother Jones, Threepenny Review, and Zoetrope). Recent additions to this esteemed roster of literary attractions include Stephen Elliot's cultural site, and events like LitQuake and Alternative Press Expo keep the city moving into the online media era.

With five major and utterly distinct literary communities--North Beach, Chinatown, The Mission, The Fillmore, and the Haight--and with hundreds of writers and artists throughout the city, it's no wonder that people would come to the city by the bay to appreciate literature. As 826 Valencia's map notes, "Today, maybe, it's sunny. The next draft of your manuscript can wait until the fog rolls in at 4:00pm. So go out, see something inspiring, then come home and start on chapter two. San Francisco literary history is a work in progress."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Where the Cool Kids Shop

Last week I wrote about the sad state of Barnes & Noble but I’ve always been partial to the other chain.

The first Borders store opened in Ann Arbor in 1971. It’s an unobtrusive two-storey building with Borders Books & Music stamped on its brick façade. In college, I’d sit in the store, touch the book jackets, flip through the new releases and try to stick to the back of the store. I didn’t want to be seen there.

Borders wasn’t where the English majors were supposed to go. The independent bookstore—Shaman Drum―was where the real literary junkies hung out. The store held book readings; the staff was tattooed and punctured; they showcased high quality literary magazines in the store windows. It was a pretty cool place, I’d admit. And I spent some money there on overpriced textbooks. But the store didn’t give me that breezy, everyman feel of Borders.

To be clear, the Borders in Ann Arbor didn’t look like some corporate chain store―it wasn’t very big or surrounded by a concrete sea of parking lot. But when I wanted to take a break from dusty academic life, I went to Borders to look at what shiny things the rest of the country was buying and check out which books were marked down with a “20 percent off” sticker. I wanted to feel like a regular person out shopping, not an undergrad sleeping on the top bunk, trying to catch up on last week’s reading of Moll Flanders.

Shaman Drum just didn’t give me the comfort I wanted. Looks like I should have browsed at Borders but bought at the hip independent store. Shaman Drum went out of business last summer after almost thirty years and I hear a Five Guys Burgers and Fries is opening in its place.

I’ve moved beyond ramen noodles and library stacks, and that cool little independent store is looking pretty good about now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New York's Literary Failing

We’re down to the last summer Fridays, and this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were eager to take advantage of the free afternoon. We thought about going to the Met’s Big Bambú exhibit, but thanks to its wacky hours—we would have had to have picked up tickets at noon—we missed out.

(For some reason the Met thought it would be a good idea to release tickets twice a day, in person, at the museum. Dear Met: you are not Shakespeare in the Park. If you have an ongoing exhibit, why not let people reserve their free tickets online for a fixed date in the future? Hm?)

Anyway, so there we were, looking for something to do. We were both in a museum-going mood, so I scoured a list of museums in New York, looking for an exhibit we’d missed or simply a museum we’d never been to. And I put together a few options: the American Folk Art Museum in Midtown; Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (to see Herman Melville’s grave, of course); or the Queens Museum of Art in Corona Park, with a stop in Flushing for Vietnamese food. The last possibility won.

To anyone who hasn’t been, I would recommend a visit to the Queens Museum of Art. First reason, for literature lovers: when it was first constructed, Corona Park replaced the valley of ashes (remember T. J. Eckleburg?) in The Great Gatsby. Another reason, for those of you who grew up in the mid-nineties: you’ll recognize the unisphere near the museum from the final scenes of Men in Black. In addition: the museum is largely a tribute to the World’s Fairs of 1939 and 1964—the building was the New York City pavilion in ’39—and some of the information on the Fairs is amazing. Easily the best thing about the museum, however, is the Panorama.


All five boroughs of New York, scaled down to fit inside one large room, with models of every building in the city built before 1992 (including, eerily, the World Trade Center towers). I was able to find my current apartment building, my old one, my boyfriend’s parents’ building, and on, and on. It’s an incredible thing to see. You should go. Now.

But to go back earlier that day: looking at the list of museums in the city, I was struck by how few literary museums there are here. In fact, there’s only one one that comes to mind—the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx—and even then, it pales next to many of the literary museums in the country.

Why is this the case? My boyfriend noted that there are gestures to memorializing the literary all around the city—the plaques, the bars where your favorite poets drank, and the the landscape of the city itself, preserved, as Corona Park’s ashy past was, in its literature. We considered the constant destruction and reinvention that New York passes through, sometimes depriving us of the buildings that might otherwise house these museums. (On this walking tour of Melville’s New York, for example, the best you can do in many cases is to see “how the boarding house in which Herman Melville was born probably looked” or to stare at the place where Melville’s house once stood, at 103 Fourth Avenue.) When apartments and buildings do survive, my boyfriend noted, they’re often occupied by new tenants.

It’s still surprising, though. Compare us to Moscow or St. Petersburg, where it seems that every building in which Pushkin ever took tea has been converted to a museum, and where statues of him dot many street corners. Or even just hold us next to Concord, Massachusetts. While certainly a hotbed of literary production, does it really make sense that Concord should outnumber us four to one in literary museums? (That’s not counting the reconstruction of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.) Or that Lenox and Pittsfield, in the Berkshires, should boast both Arrowhead (Melville’s house) and the Mount (Edith Wharton’s home), with the Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s house) just a short distance away?

New York has managed to restore some wonderful historical buildings (the Dyckman Farmhouse and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, for example), sustains incredible museums in many different areas, and is one of the most vibrantly literary cities in the world. So why have we failed so spectacularly to unite these three strengths? The Queens Museum of Art’s Panorama preserves the New York of 1992, but what will preserve—beyond their books themselves—the New York of Melville, Walt Whitman, Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Ralph Ellison?

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Greatest Perk of All

We in book publishing love to talk about and relish in the perks of our jobs. We may not ever make six figure salaries, or even ever be able to afford to live outside of Brooklyn, and our days sometimes stretch out into ten or eleven hours or more, but hey, we get free books, engage in our fair share of 4 pm champagne toasts on week day afternoons to celebrate the success of one of our books, or an award won. And then, of course, there’s the greatest perk of all: proximity to our heroes.

I’ll never forget the first time I spoke to a favorite writer of mine on the phone about two weeks into my time here, one so epic I had studied her in college two years earlier. She asked me about the placement of a comma and I nearly fainted with joy. Entry level jobs don’t get much better than this, I thought. Since then similar delights have ensued: a dinner out with one of my favorite poets, a pair of earrings from a novelist as a thank you gift for my work that I daydreamed about giving to my hypothetical great-great-great-granddaughter (people will live longer in the future, right?) on my death bed after telling her about my first job in New York.

Four years later I’m slightly less of a kid in a candy shop, having grown somewhat accustomed to working with some of the lovely, esteemed writers that I have the pleasure to know. I sometimes kick myself for forgetting just how lucky I am to get to meet some of my idols. What would your book nerdish 16-year-old self think, I ask myself. Just recently, though, a writer proved that small gestures from immensely talented people are still capable of wowing me, and there are some things you just don’t get used to.

Having come across an extra box of his books in the back room awhile ago I sent them to this author with a note saying “I found these extra copies and thought you might like to have them.” Last week, on a long, lazy, nondescript day, a package was delivered to my cubicle. Inside was a first edition of one of his earlier books that was published by a different house and on the title page he had inscribed “Caroline, thanks for the extras. Here’s one of mine.” Bowled over that such a talented, successful (and presumably busy) person would recognize such a small act with such a thoughtful gesture, and knowing that I’ll be honored to have this for years to come, I’ve been glowing ever since.

Perks don’t get much better than that, regardless of your salary.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Quaint, Midafternoon Panic Attack

After Jess’s heartfelt post yesterday, which is simultaneously depressing and inspiring – not to mention well-written and absolutely on point – I feel the need to lighten the mood a bit here in the land of [tk]. So I am going to share with you my current internet obsession:

It’s a potent formula for humor: ostensibly, the site’s concept reflects and caters to the lowest common cultural denominator, but its humor doesn’t fully translate unless one actually possesses an extensive knowledge of the literary canon. The Reduced Shakespeare Company relies on exactly the same equation, the same self-reflexive sort of hilarity that mocks intellectualism by relying upon it.

The success of this depends on what I have come to call, rather pretentiously, “the arc of literary development.” English majors probably embody this most concretely because they receive a formal, collegiate induction into the world of literature. Texts are treated reverently and dissected thoroughly; new depths of meaning are plumbed as undergraduates get used to their instruments of theory. There is an exhilarating sensation of power as students realize that they can distill insight and meaning from almost anything.

But then, somewhere along the way, the bubble pops: the novelty abates, and though the principles and concepts remain and are respected, the constant anticipation of discovering something mind-blowingly new no longer dominates. Intellectual voraciousness is now tempered by cynicism and world-weary experience, an acknowledgment that almost everything ever created by humanity is in some way inspired by just three main motivations and preoccupations of the human consciousness: sex, God, and death.

Stripping down the canon like this is perversely pleasurable. Yes, writing can be beautiful and breath-taking and transportive, but underneath its dazzling trappings lie recycled dilemmas that are can be absurd in their predictability. When boiled down to their core, the books to which we attach such great cultural import often reveal themselves to be bizarrely base and trivial.

This might seem an awful, or even heretical, position for someone who works in publishing to hold. Maybe it is. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s partly a mechanism of denial for me, an effort to compensate for the loss of my literary innocence. On one level I laugh at McSweeney’s “Ten Reasons We’re Not Going To Grad School,” but on another I desperately yearn to once again feel that intellectual invincibility, that feeling that the meaning of the world and life can be mine for the taking.

And now look. We’re all depressed again. So go back to that website and laugh yourself up a storm before cracking open a copy of One Long Sentence About Handjobs. At least this time around, you won't have to write any papers when you've finished it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aspiring Grown-Ups: Editorial Assistants

I know my generation doesn't always get the best reputation for being self-motivating and self-sufficient. Those who grew up economically stable may take a lot for granted, and may have had the luxury of participating in enriching experiences (unpaid internships, world-traveling, taking time to "find oneself") that would make the rest of the world cringe and mutter with disgust. But when I read Robin Marantz Henig's piece in this weekend's NYT Magazine, which asks the question, "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?", I started to wonder if the writers currently pontificating on my generation have ever met a twenty-something editorial assistant.

The basic premise of the article is this: twenty-somethings, once a group that consciously made efforts to grow up by taking on jobs, marriage, and children, are now prolonging the point at which they have to call themselves "grown-ups." We're delaying marriage and children by cohabiting with roommates or significant others (and sometimes "sowing our wild oats," depending on how monogamous we feel). We're delaying careers by having as many as seven jobs in one decade, which usually means never rising beyond a certain income bracket. We remain financially dependent on our parents, and emotionally dependent and easily prone to breakdowns. Henig says that this thing called youthor "emerging adulthood," which makes adulthood sound like the air into which we emerge after the sticky chrysalis of childhoodcan only "be in fullest flower only when the young person has some other, nontraditional means of supportwhich would seem to make the delay something of a luxury item."

Henig's not entirely off-base, and she's right to note that this is, predominately, a trend for the children of the economically prosperous. This sounds about right
you can only afford to act like a child when you are still provided for like a child. We all know twenty-somethings who are putting off the approach of real life: people who drift from job to job, people who stretch their graduate degrees into longer and longer periods of time, people who haven't deeply thoughtor have thought, but without purposeabout who they want to be when they grow up. Those twenty-somethings who would coast on the good graces of their parents and their parents' bank accounts . . . one would sometimes like to grab them by the shoulders and ask, "When are you going to grow out of this? But if you try to apply this portrait to that of a twenty-something in publishing, you couldn't be farther off-base.

Here's your typical editorial assistant: she grew up devouring literature, constantly pushing herself to expand her view of the world. She went to a great school where she strove to stand out among her peers. She developed passions through what she studied, and never neglected to examine how those passions might be applied to developing a life in the real world. She graduated, got a job, and worked long hours for little pay, learning as much as she could from the brilliant, funny, engaging people whom she felt proud to call colleagues. She did this for about two years with little to no pain, because she still considered herself somewhat of an apprentice in this industry. She was a merry sponge, a proactive sponge.

But like all sponges, you can only absorb so much before you need to be squeezed to become useful again. This assistant wanted to be held accountable for something important, contribute something uniquely valuable, and become indispensable. So she asked for more responsibility, and got it
a little of it. But a pattern kept revealing itself: with no grownups leaving, and the responsibilities being given to those more senior, there was little means of growing into something more than what she was. (She's also female, and the likelihood that she'll get promoted over a male assistant is slimmer than ever.) So she remained an assistant, subordinate, stuck in a bad economy with few options to grow into the future she so deeply hoped to attain.

If the ambitious twenty-somethings among us want to be treated like adultswant to emerge from their adulthood, not linger in limbowill we able to do it without opportunities being extended from those more senior? Publishing is, in its structure and its ethos, a hierarchy of experience and wisdom. Senior editors are considered wiser than junior editors, just as an 18th-century author will often be considered more brilliant (or more worthy of reverence and respect) than his 20th-century counterpart. The chances to show one's talent are reserved for those who booked an audition spot twenty years earlier, and so those young'uns chomping at the bit to gain some respect often get left in the wings. It feels just like the quandary from A Chorus Line: "Too young to take over / Too old to ignore / Gee, I'm almost ready... / But what for?"

There are plenty of twenty-somethings out there who'd like to be
running things, to gain some form of expertise that no one else possesses. This generation would like to be treated just like non-twenty-something coworkers: like they are valuable. And in an industry where assistants indefinitely go without recognition or promotion, when snarky authors blog to rail against editors for delegating work to a "lowly assistant," it makes my blood boil. As an unpublished author, would you consider yourself so above the fray that you would deny a highly educated, highly ambitious and motivated assistant—who hopes to be an editor somedaythe privilege of reading your work? Really?

I don't have a solution for those twenty-somethings who want to stay in their emerging-adulthood stage, and I appreciate Henig's discussion of programs that put the not-yet-adulthood period to good use. City Year, Teach for America, Peace Corps, and even military service create a stop-gap period between youth and adulthood, and give a person an opportunity to assess their options and to see if they can give back to society. It can take a lifetime for people to discover what they want to do with themselves, if they have a calling, a passion that can be put to work. And I'd be the last person to push twenty-somethings towards major life commitmentsmarriage and children, especiallybefore they truly have the opportunity to think things through. But as someone pursuing something that feels like a lifelong passiona career that could define me as much as I hope to define itI want to slam Henig's theory that all twenty-somethings are lost in the pre-adulthood haze.

Henig concludes, "If this longer road to adulthood really leads to more insight and better choices, then [the] vision of an insightful, sensitive, thoughtful, content, well-honed, self-actualizing crop of grown-ups would indeed be something worth waiting for." Dear writer, your crop of grown-ups is here and ready for harvesting.
Now please, put us to good use already.

The Good News

It’s a changing industry. People are just not buying books anymore. Pretty soon we won’t need publishers.

It’s like listening to an annoying song that’s constantly played on the radio. And then we have the publisher’s lament that usually goes along with it: Books used to matter to people (stamp feet and cross arms). I don’t know what’s worse.

But sometimes bad news hits me like a punch in the stomach. Last week, amid news that Barnes and Nobles was putting itself on sale, I came across this quote on why the store was having such a hard time competing with stores like Wal-Mart or Costco:

“[Consumers] might pick up a book when they’re buying hand sanitizer or Band-Aids, rather than actually seeking out a bookstore as a destination and then buying a book at that point,” said Michael Norris, senior analyst at Simba Information, which provides research and advice to publishers.

People are now picking up books stacked next to antiseptic and adhesive bandages? It seems that buying a book is like grabbing a pack of gum while waiting at the checkout. People are purchasing books by accident.

The only thing that helps against this constant onslaught of bad news, is good news. A writer—Jonathan Franzen—on the cover of Time magazine (the first time an author has graced the cover in a decade). And that the casting of Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, everyone’s favorite book character, was important enough to make it in the top news round-up on the morning shows. I dare say it, books do matter to people, at least this week.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pack . . . Your . . . Bags . . .

Ah, it’s that magical time of the year again: August in book publishing, when our book-lined halls become quiet enough to hear a pin drop, and the email pile-ups grow burdensomely heavy, impossible to clear from our boxes. That’s right. Despite working two cubicles away from each other, Caroline and I seem to be having entirely different end-of-summer work experiences.

August can be a slow-moving, lazily and delightfully paced month. Or, as bosses leave town and with the mounting spectre of autumn before us, it can be the time of year when we (and, alas, others) look around our cubicles and realize just how much work remains to be done. The proposals that have been neglected. The editorial comments required on manuscripts. The permissions—oh, the permissions!

In between projects both small and large, I’ve taken a few moments to imagine where I should head next. Alas, I’m afraid today left me somewhat poorly equipped to dream of any exotic locales:

5. The bathroom. I’ll pass Katie’s office. Maybe she’ll have cookies? Cookies? Cookies!

No. No cookies.

4. Back to my cubicle. Passing Katie’s office again. Are there cookies yet?

3. The cafeteria. Time for iced coffee.

2. Back to the bathroom. And Katie’s office. And… nope.

1. The snack machines: screw this. I’m getting Mrs. Field’s.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pack Your Bags . . .

Ah, it’s that magical time of the year again: August in book publishing, when our book-lined halls become quiet enough to hear a pin drop, and the email pile-ups thin. Things are so blissfully slow and unharried around here that I’ve had time today to dream up the top five places that the entire book publishing industry should head to en masse for one industry-wide vacation.:

5. Any beach, anywhere. Not exactly publishing related, sure, but is there any place better to read a book?

4. Seattle. Our West coast counterpart city when it comes to books, there are plenty of coffee shops there to duck into with a good book when the rains come, and it would be nice to get a peek at Amazon’s headquarters and see where the online buying magic happens.

3. The place where all of our old manuscripts are recycled, so that we can see first hand that they become something new and aren’t wasted, so we can finally put to rest the guilt we feel every time we print out a five hundred page manuscript!

2. A train tour across the country stopping at the museums that the homes of literary giants of yesteryear have been turned into. (Minnesota for a glimpse of F. Scott’s stomping grounds, up to New England and Dickinson’s Amherst, you get the idea . . . )

1. Off on a nice long sojourn to Sweden, aka Stieg Larsson territory, to read in full his epic Lisbeth Salander /Mikael Blomkvist trilogy on the soil of their origin. It is, after all, the summer of Stieg.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Dispatch from the ASA Book Exhibit

In academia, each area of study holds an annual conference that is identified by an acronmyn—AHA (the American Historical Association), MLA (the Modern Language Association), APSA (the American Political Science Association) and AAS (the Association for Asian Studies) to name a few. Professors come to these conferences to give papers, interview for jobs, and attend sessions on a variety of predetermined scholarly topics. Publishers attend conferences to display books in the conference hall book exhibit, in the hopes that professors will adopt the books as required reading in classes (and therefore encourage students to buy the books themselves).

This weekend, I'm attending ASA, the American Sociological Association Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. When I arrived, I unpacked the twenty boxes of books I shipped to the conference hall in order to set up my booth by category—African-American, Cultural Sociology, Asian/Pacific, Education, Race, Criminal Justice, Economics, Medical Ethics, Psychology, Religion, Women's Studies, Sexuality, and Urban Sociology. I hung posters, set up displays, and put out catalogs.

In the morning, the conference hall opens strictly at 9:00am. Professors wait outside while conference organizers only allow exhibitors to enter the conference hall, and when the hall opens, the professors dramatically rush in, visiting their favorite publishers first. Traffic slows during morning sessions, but picks up again in the afternoons when there are wine and cheese receptions and author signings.

Conferences are a great place to meet professors and it's fun to help them find appropriate books for their classes. Academics are usually interesting and quirky, and I always end up learning something from our discussions. I also meet quite a few characters, including this sociology professor below who is demonstrating two of the highlights of working the book exhibit at at academic conference: interesting facial hair and free wine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Do Books Go To Heaven?

I usually read the Sunday New York Times with a lazy eye, dissecting the weddings and skimming the "Week in Review" before finally ending up at the Magazine. Sometimes the feature stories catch my attention, but this past week I was more intrigued by one of the magazine’s regular columns, Rob Walker's CONSUMED. His topic? Now that e-book sales are rising, and electronic readers are increasingly prevalent, we’re facing a culture in which the physical book , in its traditional context, might become obsolete. However, he says, don’t cart them to the dumpster just yet – there are many possibilities for reincarnation in other areas of life.

For me, this is a disturbing thesis, not least because I work in publishing and saying the word "e-book" is akin to uttering "Macbeth" in front of a troop of actors at rehearsal. As I've discussed on this blog before, I am very attached to my books; as tangible objects they are beautiful in their own way, but they also hold a deeper significance. Arranged on my shelves, they are anchors of memory, testaments to knowledge, milestones of my life. And so Rob Walker’s edict --"set aside any emotional attachment you may feel toward the reading of physical books; the truth is that creative uses for books that do not involve engaging with words on a page already abound" -- is deeply jarring.

However, I know that people’s feelings towards books qua books vary. In his article, Walker references Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker essay about books as physical objects (highly recommended reading), which traces their role as socio-cultural signifiers: “aspirational” people have been ordering books by the foot for centuries in order to fill their library shelves, so it’s not that much of a surprise that stacks of older books are sold as decorating accessories, their value based on what’s outside rather than in.

Though I don't agree with Walker's pronouncement that we're in a "post-book" culture (i.e., that attachment of any kind to physical books is démodé) I do think it is important to draw a distinction between the use of books as “props” – to reinforce an image – and the repurposing of them to perform some other function. Buying old books on eBay by the stack to enhance a décor theme, to impart a fabricated air of lived-in intellectualism, is not the same as taking one with a particularly beautiful cover, or with a title of specific significance, and repurposing it as a

Perhaps this is an irrational view for me to hold, but I feel the latter is a more genuine and respectful afterlife; the book is being appreciated in and of itself as a physical object, and its symbolic representation is a reflection of its owner’s values. It is a celebration of books and what they add to our existence; carrying a book clutch suggests that you are a book lover who wants to outwardly manifest your interest. On the other hand, occupying the bookcases in your new sitting room with bundles of color-cordinated books you bought on Etsy is not quite the same. It sullies them by demanding their complicity in a falsehood; rather than celebrating them, it is using them as a means to achieve your own aggrandizement.

Having said this, I would still feel uncomfortable taking a hacksaw to a book in pursuit of a purse, or a bonsai planter, or a lamp, or one of the many other things people are making out of books these days. I must confess, though, that I am tempted to take a big stack and punch an awl through them all every time I go into
McNally-Jackson and see the ceiling in their cafe. Wouldn't that just be awesome to have in your bedroom?


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#WomeninPublishing: Interview with Faith Black, Berkley Books

Sometimes we TKers strap on our pith helmets and venture outside our house, to find those inspiring forces in publishing in other offices…this week, one of my favorite #womeninpublishing (for more, go check this Twitter hashtag), Faith Black, editor at Berkley Books (a division of Penguin), answers my questions about genre fiction, gets her to 'fess up to e-love, and asks what advice she has for people entering the publishing business.

What kinds of books do you edit?
I’m an Editor at the Berkley Publishing Group and I handle mainly mysteries (mostly of the cozy variety for our Prime Crime imprint) and Westerns.

How did your career lead you to this kind of position/material?

My dream was always to work with fiction, and the transition ended up being a pretty easy one, in the end. I was very comfortable at an academic press, considering myself a bit of an academic at heart (I was in grad school getting my Master’s in English at the time). From there I moved over to Avalon Books (for whom I had previously done freelance work) where I took on genre fiction (specifically romances, mysteries, and Westerns), which I had never worked on before. But a good story is a good story across the board and I was thrilled to be working with fiction and interesting stories, it was a nice break from textbooks. From there it was an easy leap to Berkley where I continue my work with mysteries and Westerns.

Genre fiction has a lot of rules, especially the romances you were working with at Avalon. Is editing a romance that’s supposed to avoid sex different than a conventional romance? Avalon romances are intended to be family friendly. So there’s no sex and everybody keeps it clean. However, anyone who’s read more conventional romances will realize that this definitely isn’t the norm. It’s challenging to find the line between "just enough steaminess" and "too much."

What about the difference between a straight-up western (say, Louis L’Amour) from a novel set in the West (say, Cormac McCarthy)?

Well, for the Westerns, you can pretty much set anything you want in "the West," but that doesn’t necessarily make it a Western. Most of the Westerns I work with tend to be fairly traditional and involve a lot of standard Western themes—gun fights, saloon girls, sheriffs, Indians, etc. They’re historically set, as opposed to contemporary and any sort of romance involved is usually secondary (separating a Western from a Romance with a Western setting, another tricky line to find sometimes). That being said, though, I’m working on some new Westerns right now that are a little more outside the traditional mold and I’m really excited about that.

When you’re editing a manuscript, what do you focus on, the reader or the story?

I tend to focus more on the story itself than any sort of typical reader. I suppose, self-centered creature that I am, that I tend to use myself as a yardstick when need be. But mostly I’m concerned with the book as a whole and how everything fits together and does it flow and does it make sense. Am I hooked? Do I like the main character? These are all more important to me than tailoring a book to some sort of specific audience. Especially when reading is such a subjective experience anyway.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about genre fiction today?

I think the most common misconception about genre fiction (because I used to think this way too, before I became more aware of it) is that it’s less worthy somehow than other forms of fiction. That it’s not as worthwhile as, say, literary fiction. I was definitely a snob about genre fiction before I started working with it on a day to day basis. I made the inevitable jokes about romance novels and Fabio, etc. But having worked with genre fiction now for about 4 years, I can say that this really isn’t the case. Some of the genre fiction that I’ve read both as an editor and just as a consumer (now that I’ve gotten past my initial snobbery) has been some of my favorite reading of the past few years. For instance, I really adore the cozy mysteries that I read—both the ones that I edit myself and the others in the Prime Crime line that my colleagues work on. There are certain series that I make sure to snatch up as soon as the newest installment comes out. Genre fiction is more rewarding reading than most people give it credit for. And it’s started showing up on the NYTimes bestseller list, so people do seem to finally be taking notice.

Where do you stand on the e-book question: do you think they’ll replace hardcovers, or evolve into their own kind of reading phenomena?

I think we’re all sort of feeling our way through the whole e-book thing. For myself, I always said I would NEVER get an e-reader and that I had NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in ebooks. Well, turns out I lied. I have a Kindle that I adore. However, it will never replace real books for me. There is still something about having the physical book in my hands (and if it’s a mass market book, then it fits in my purse better than my kindle does, which is handy when I need something read on the train). I think both physical books and e-books have their place and that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other.

In general, there seems to be a crisis in reading in this country; literary fiction and non-fiction rarely reaches a point of mass readership, which sometimes makes a girl wonder if people are reading at all. Yet genre fiction--romances, mysteries, westerns--are all over the bestseller lists. Why do you think these books catch on...and who's reading them?

I think maybe it's a question of genre fiction being more accessible to a wider range of people. Maybe people find literary fiction more intimidating. But I also feel like there's been a surge in literary fiction and nonfiction as well recently. But maybe that's just in my own personal reading habits. If I were able to tell you why certain books, or genres, catch on, then I'd save all the information for myself while I went out to hunt down all the bestsellers.

What has been the biggest challenge in your editing career?

I needed to learn to trust my instincts. When I first started out in publishing I was reluctant to speak too strongly. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by rejecting their work or suggesting a rewrite. Who was I to make these decisions? But over time I realized that my instincts were good ones. And I have worked with and been trained by some amazingly talented people. Their faith in me taught me not to underestimate my own judgment. I am, after all, a lifelong reader and I know what I want out of books and this helps me talk to my authors and explain to them how to make their book the best it can possibly be.

What aspect of the publishing industry do you think deserves a makeover?

Insanely massive advances have always seemed a bit silly to me (except in those fantasies I have where I write an amazing novel and get a big fat one myself). It seems to make more sense (except in extreme circumstances where you know it’s going to earn out) to have more moderate advances and spread the wealth around a bit more.

What do you read in your spare time?

Spare time? What’s that? I kid. I read a little bit of everything and often find myself in the midst of multiple books at once. I like nonfiction (specifically of the narrative variety—Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, A. J. Jacobs). And of course I love fiction as well (Alexander McCall Smith, Jasper Fforde, Tana French). And that’s to say nothing of my own authors, of course (Joyce and Jim Lavene, Casey Daniels, Diana Killian, Terri Thayer, Peter Brandvold, Dusty Richards, Jory Sherman, Lyle Brandt, I know I’m leaving some out, but I love them all).

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in publishing tomorrow?

Publishing can be an immensely rewarding career and I have loved every second of it. If you’re looking for big bucks and glory, then publishing isn’t the place for you, but I have found that the rewards in a career in publishing are far more important than money or fame (cheesy, I know, but true). Finding a new author or acquiring a new book and seeing it out in print, flipping through the pages of something that you had a direct hand in producing and bringing to life—it’s an amazing feeling, for me at least. It can take a while to get to a place you want to be, but have patience. It make take a few years and you’ll have to start out as an assistant and pour through slush and do endless filing but it’s all worth it in the end.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Scared All the Time

Embarrassing but true: due to a misspent youth of compulsive horror movie watching with my cooler, older (and apparently braver) sister, I cannot sleep alone. Until now this has never been a problem. During my first four years out of college I lived with my three best girl friends so at least one person was always around, and since then I’ve lived with my beau, Ben, and often times when he’s away on weekend trips, I’m with him. For the past ten days, however, he has been out in California visiting friends and is now heading out to Colorado to hang out with his parents on a well deserved vacation. The monsters under the bed are seeking their revenge.

For the first time ever I’ve been plagued with a problem the general existence of which has always baffled me: insomnia. Feeling obligated to stand ready to investigate every creak and thump in an old, creaky apartment, I find myself groggily watching the clock as 2, 3, 4, and 5 am zoom by. Realizing that my mental sharpness is hardly at its peak in these half sleeping, half waking dream-like states, I’ve refrained from doing any work reading because I don’t feel on my game enough to absorb anything I’ll later need to speak intelligently on. Thus, late night television and old sitcoms on DVD have been my pastimes of choice. This past weekend, though, I hit my limit on the amount of mind poison one can take in the form of the bottom-of-the-barrel pop culture that these late night TV sessions have proven filled with, and I finally picked up a book. Laurie Colwin’s Happy All the Time, to be precise.

Colwin’s novel is forthcoming in the line-up of books to be discussed by the very book group from which this website sprang. While I love our discussion sessions and most of the literature up for discussion, between work reading, blogging, and reading books to be reviewed, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up, and often times book club reading is, by necessity, the last item on the to-do list. Figuring that a groggy, out-of-it read of Colwin’s novel would be better than no read at all, I decided to make it my latest late-night source of companionship.

Thank God I did.

Dorothy Parker meets Woody Allen meets Nora Ehpron, Colwin’s delightful little book is filled with social contexts, hang-ups, and insecurities that still ring remarkably true thirty years later. Even if literally every sentence weren’t as e-card worthy in its wit and dry humor as they all prove to be, the characters at the book’s heart would’ve kept me reading fast and furious through the night. Having developed my first ever girl crush on a fictional character in the form of Holly Sturgis, I was shocked when even she was given a run for her money by the equally enchanting, and idiosyncratically loveable Misty Berkowitz. I was both surprised and elated to find such strong women who might read as progressive even by today’s standards in the extent to which they ruled their households and turned their beaus to putty with both their intelligence and strength. By the end of the second night I was far too worried about whether these neurotic New Yorkers would ever settle down into the comfort of the wonderfully original and one of a kind love-affairs they’d spun for themselves to concern myself with silly matters like whether those footsteps in the hallway were just a neighbor returning home late after a night out or an evil intruder in a ski mask coming right toward me.

There’s still a big chunk of time before my book group meets to discuss Happy All the Time (there is, in fact, another book before it on the line-up that I bypassed in my reading only because I didn’t have a copy handy). There’s a solid chance that all of the enchanting details that my muddled, sleep-deprived brain took in will cloud after a few nights of real sleep and I may fail to offer any solid insights when the time to discuss the book comes. Three cheers to book club nonetheless. It introduced to me a writer I would likely never had read (or, admittedly, even have known about) otherwise, one who created a vivid and thought-provoking enough world to coax me out of my own sinister fantasies.

So, feel free to let your future children indulge in any horror movie fascinations they might develop—it may give birth to a wholly more worthy obsession. Until then, I highly encourage you to start your own psychologically redemptive book club. Or, better yet, go read Colwin’s brilliant book.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Subtitle That Changed The World

Ah, the poor subtitle. Even its name implies second class.

I’ve been thinking about subtitles as I’ve typed them up for my reviews (check out the subtitle for the last book I reviewed, it’s 23 words long).

The title is big and splashy on a book jacket. The title is supposedly born from divine inspiration. Meanwhile, the subtitle is placed somewhere below the title, in small mouse dropping font. It’s the subtitle that tells you what the book is about. The subtitle is the title’s right-hand man, you know, the one doing all the work with little fanfare.

But lately I’ve noticed that subtitles are doing it for themselves. I decided to read Fifth Ave, 5 AM because of its subtitle: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. It was the ‘dawn of the modern woman’ part that hooked me. It sounded so grand. So important. Something I had to read. While I enjoyed the book immensely, I don’t know whether you can call the light 256 page read really about the dawn of the modern woman.

These subtitles sometimes read like headlines snatched off a magazine cover. Like the ones that read, The One Thing Your Man Wants To Hear From You Every Night . . . and you furiously flip to page 48 where its revealed in a boring article with pictures of a generic couple that that your man just wants to hear that you care about him.

Bold statements seem to be the mark of a good subtitle. For example, Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century.

Marriage of the century? Wow. A century is a really long time.

I was looking at the subtitles of non-fiction best sellers and noticed a few words kept popping up in subtitles: hidden, inside, story, everything… For example, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (subtitle for Eat, Pray, Love).

There are subtitles that just try to be cheeky (Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook) and ones that try to explain everything about the book (The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun). Whoa that was a mouth-full.

And then sometimes, the title is self-explanatory and the book doesn’t need a subtitle at all, like, Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says. Well said.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Searching Outside Scandinavia

Following up on Jessica’s last post about the difficulty of casting Lisbeth Salander, I’ve got my own quick note on the Stieg Larsson craze. As this article in The New York Times notes, “the series is seemingly at an end just at the moment when the public’s appetite for Mr. Larsson’s brand of Scandinavian mayhem is at its peak”; as a result, “Publishers and booksellers are in a rush to find more Nordic noir.”

My boyfriend, who hasn’t read the Larsson books yet, and I were discussing this last night. I had mentioned recommending the Larsson to a friend who had read Henning Mankell’s most recent novel, and told my boyfriend about the Times article.

“So they’re looking for the next Stieg Larsson,” he said.


“But why does he have to be Scandinavian?”

Why indeed? I laughed, but then suggested, after a moment of thought, that I thought the next Larsson might be Latin American. The exotic locale, the moodiness of the literature, and the rich history of crime and politics—it seemed possible. And that’s when my boyfriend mentioned Roberto Bolaño.

Readers: this idea makes a lot of sense.

Our book club read 2666 last fall, and a few comparisons had been made then. But let’s think about this for a moment. What do the Millennium trilogy and 2666 have in common?

Millennium trilogy
serial killings
a more conspirational context for those killings (Lisbeth Salander vs. the Sapo)
author’s preoccupation with and political statement about violence against women
a main character who is a journalist
an enormous cast of supporting and main characters
divided into somewhat arbitrary parts (where the last two books seem like one long book)
bleak setting (the frozen wastelands of Sweden)
published posthumously, unfinished

serial killings
a more conspirational context for those killings (women enslaved to drug cartels)
author’s preoccupation with and political statement about violence against women
a main character who is a journalist
an enormous cast of supporting and main characters
divided into somewhat arbitrary parts (where the “Part About the Crimes” feels like its own book)
bleak setting (the desert bordering Ciudad Juarez)
published posthumously, unfinished

It seems to me that what the Millennium trilogy offers doesn’t have much to do with its taking place in Sweden—aside from the long passages on coffee, sandwiches, and Ikea furniture. What it does offer might be subject to debate; many would argue that its strongest and most compelling feature is Lisbeth Salander (2666 notably lacks such a strong female character). 2666, on the other hand, is distinctly more literary, significantly more heartbreaking, easily more beautifully written.

But Stieg Larsson and Roberto Bolaño are united by plenty of other things, including everything in the above lists. They were both former journalists and left-wing activists who participated in foreign disputes, Bolaño working for Salvador Allende in Chile and Larsson supporting Eritrean rebels in Ethiopia. In their books, they both work very hard to capture place, even when those places are empty and inhospitable. They both manage to write books that succeed as mysteries while investigating questions of politics, prejudice, and the role of a writer in society. And both intensely evoke specific moods in their books: nervy and methodical in Larsson’s books, sultry and subtle in 2666.

So for those “finished with all three books and pleading for something similar,” I’d suggest not another trip to Iceland, Norway, or Sweden, but one to Mexico—it's a reading experience to move and thrill even the hungriest of Larsson devotees.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

How to be a Superstar

Sometimes we read books for a good story, to escape reality, or to see the world in a different way. But sometimes we read books for practical reasons--the genre of "how to."

When my dad's cousin wanted to build a house, she went to her local library and checked out books like How to Plan, Contract and Build Your Own Home. When my boyfriend and I broke up, I admit I went to the bookstore and bought How to Heal a Broken Heart in Thirty Days (the book told me to eat chocolate and cry a lot, which was fairly helpful).

And apparently, when Lady Gaga decided she wanted to be a superstar, she read a biography of Andy Warhol-- a "how to" guide to getting her 15 minutes of fame. In an excellent profile from March 2010, New York Magazine described Lady Gaga's journey from being Stefani Joanne Germanotta to becoming a superstar. According to the article, after being dropped a number of times from record labels while trying to go the singer-songwriter route, a turning point in her transformation to becoming the most famous woman in the world was when Lady Gaga picked up a book. It might have been Warhol: The Biography, Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, or maybe his own The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again).

Whichever Warhol biography or book it was, his philosophy "freed her to invent herself, like so many before her, expand herself, make herself a spectacle." The New York Magazine article quotes her friend Darian Darling: "Andy's books became her bible. She would highlight them with a pen." Lady Gaga is definitely a superstar in the Warhol sense today and she knows everyone is listening: “It’s as if I’ve been shouting at everyone, and now I’m whispering and everybody’s leaning in to hear me. I’ve had to shout for so long because I was only given five minutes, but now I’ve got fifteen. Andy said you only needed fifteen minutes.”

Celebrate Andy Warhol's birthday and a new book, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol, on August 6th at the Gershwin Hotel!