This morning, the Guardian: ran an interesting piece recapping a session on the “global novel” at the Jaipur Festival—a session that got a bit heated when Xiaolu Guo called out, well, contemporary American writing1:
“Our reading habit has been stolen and changed” said Guo. “For example I think Asian literature is much less narrative . . . but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American . . . Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven . . . so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society.”
“I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen,2 “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature . . . I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.
Two cheers for Xiaolu Guo! I read a lot of books—written in English and from abroad—and find overrated shit from all over the globe. But percentage-wise—and this is a trick of reading in translation, since most of the really awful stuff stays in its own language—American books probably have the highest ratio of dreck to gold. There’s this whole “stylelessness” writing that’s invaded American prose, thanks to MFA programs? to the commercialization of publishing? to J-Franz? to lazy readers? to the competition of Breaking Bad and Archer? and it’s a bit of a bummer.
But that’s not my rant. I do agree with Guo in a lot of ways, and abhor the way mainstream culture hypes the shallowest of art works for reasons that are uninteresting to me personally. But we have a choice not to read/engage with this.3
The Pulitzer-winning Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri also laid into America’s literary culture, saying that it was “shameful the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market”. “It is embarrassing, to me, and I think just getting out of America for a little while makes you much more conscious of that,” said Lahiri, who currently lives in Italy and has not read anything in English for the last two years.
OK, here is the seed of my rant. Lahiri’s totally right on one hand—especially with her statement about how the Italian paper listed 7 American books in their “Best of 2013” list, and how that’s something that will never happen in the U.S.—but “lack of energy put into translation” strikes a little close to home.
I’ve been on about the number of books published in translation in America since the inception of this blog, and I do feel like the number could and should be higher. There are only so many books you get to read in your lifetime—and even fewer that have a life-changing impact on you—and for those books to remain locked off from readers . . . Also, this was the promise of the Internet—everything available from everywhere at any time—and the backbone of the long tail theory.
But let’s put that aside. As of now, I’ve identified 484 works of previously untranslated works of fiction and poetry that came out in 2013, and although this is a very modest number—how many of these have Lahiri or Franzen read? And shit, I know a lot of people who have put in a LOT of time and energy and whatever into translating, publishing, and promoting these 484 works. And I’ll bet like 5 of them were invited to Jaipur, and, and this is speculation, that these panelists know next to no details about the vibrancy of the translation scene in America. They know one thing—the number of translated books per year is paltry—and then use this to categorize the entirety of translation publishing in the U.S.
I don’t know any of these panelists personally—except for J-Franz, who I met at an event for the NEA where he publicly made fun of Dalkey Archive and the work I was doing there—but my suspicion is that, like with the generalization behind the “American fiction is massively overrated” comment, they’re all thinking and talking about mainstream publishing. The Big Five, Four, Two, whatever it is. Of those 484 books I mentioned above, Random House published 14 titles and Penguin 16. The largest publishing company in the world—responsible for 25% of the English books produced yearly throughout the world—accounted for just over 6% of all the translations published in America last year.
That’s pretty shitty for The world’s first truly global trade book publishing company.
So here’s my overall point: If you’re lamenting the lack of translations in America, you should start looking for them. There could always be more, but ENERGETIC people like myself are brining attention to hundreds a year, and you could easily familiarize yourself with what’s available—and maybe find a great book in the process—and with who’s doing what and what it is their doing with a simple Google search.
I’m all for popular authors sounding off on issues like this, but I’m kind of sick of them using the platform to lament something they’re only tangentially involved with. Use the Jaipur festival to sing the praises of Archipelago Books or Melville House or Restless Books. Talk about the recent increases in quality fiction from Russia and Brazil. Speak in specifics—this is the Age of Information and all that you need to know to make an intelligent comment on the translation situation is at your fingertips.4
1 I think this statement needs a lot of qualifiers. A sentiment that sort of ties into the rest of my rant. There are a ton, absolute TON, of lazy, bad, realist, mainstream, boring, shitty, Franzen-esque writers writing in English. And some others—a much smaller percentage to be sure, if only for the reason that qualifying something as “great” means that it’s in the top XX%—are writing really interesting, strange books. (A mere 340 pages into Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, I’d put her in that second camp.) But we all know the process and situation that Guo is talking about.
2 I hope she guffawed internally when she said this.
3 Sort of. There are commercial forces at work that draw in young, talented writers with promises of unlimited Petrón cocktails and trips to exotic literary conferences like in, well, Jaipur. In today’s publishing landscape, you can choose to write whatever you want and find a way to get it out to the public—via self-publishing, ebook only deals, any thousand micropresses out there—but the money still tends to flow down from the coffers of the Penguin Random Amazon Times.
4 Somehow I managed not to attack all my usual suspects in this rant. So, for good measure: Just saying something like “the only translation I’ve heard of recently is Bolaño’s 2666, so obviously there’s a problem” is like relying on Flavorwire to give you all the info you need on contemporary writing. BOOM. POST OUT.
Here’s an open letter from Jonathan Wright about some shit that went down with Knopf and Dr. Alaa Al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building. If nothing else, you MUST check out this set of corrections from Al Aswany. It is things. And something I’m using in my classes from now until forever . . . Anyway, the letter:
Why translators should give Dr Alaa Al Aswany and Knopf Doubleday a wide berth
For the sake of fellow translators who might find themselves caught up in similar circumstances and because I do not think that abuses should go unnoticed, I would like to lay out the facts surrounding the project to produce an English version of The Automobile Club of Egypt, the latest novel by well-known Egyptian writer Alaa el-Aswany. Firstly, I should say that I am not of an argumentative or litigious nature and have never before had any dispute with any of the authors or publishers of the eight of so books I have translated over the last few years. On the contrary, my experience of life is that, if you have a strong case and are willing to press it, your opponent usually gives way. That’s because, to paraphrase Descartes, a sense of justice is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, since no one ever desired more of it than they already have.
So when Aswany unilaterally and whimsically withdrew from an agreement arranged between me and his publishers, I assumed he would offer his apologies, honor his obligations and make speedy and generous compensation for the time and effort I had expended on his behalf. The more so since Dr Aswany and I are hardly strangers. I have met him many times, interviewed him on two occasions for television and he and his wife have visited me for lunches and dinners at home in Cairo and at my country house in Fayoum on two or three occasions. We had worked together since 2009 on his political writings, specifically the weekly columns he wrote for Egyptian newspapers, the English version of which I prepared for international syndication. He was always pleased with my work and I had great respect for the brave position he took against police brutality in the last years of the Mubarak regime, against plans to install Mubarak’s son Gamal as his successor and then against the military rulers who ruled Egypt up to June 2012. I remember meeting him in Tahrir Square in February 2011 as he shouted in outrage that police snipers were shooting at the crowd from somewhere near the Interior Ministry. After the revolution, I worked on a volume of his articles, The State of Egypt, which won good reviews and sold well in the English-speaking world. When the literary elite belittled Aswany’s novels, I always stood up for him, arguing that Egypt and the Arab world in general needed good story-tellers who put plot and character ahead of literary ostentation and obsessive self-analysis. I said there was room for everyone, and that Aswany filled a gaping hole.
I can no longer feel the same way about Dr Aswany, especially in his private capacity as an individual with social obligations towards those around him. The least I can say is that he is not an honorable man. But let others be the judge, as I explain the origins of our dispute:
In August 2012, I was approached by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, with whom I have an amicable working relationship dating back some years, to see if I would be interested in handling the English version of Aswany’s novel, The Automobile Club of Egypt, which he was then planning to finish by the end of November. I said I would be pleased to take it on.
I communicated with Dr Aswany about the book on and off between September 2012 and February 2013, mainly to get a clearer idea of when it would be ready. This was against the background of AUC Press telling me that they intended to recommend me as the translator, with Dr Aswany’s knowledge and approval.
On February 15, I sent Dr Aswany an email, saying, “Do let me know how you are progressing with The Automobile Club. I’m looking forward to seeing a copy and starting work on it.” He replied, “I finished already the novel I will send the Arabic version next week to my agent Andrew Wylie. He asked me to have the text first and then he will send it to the publishers. I think you will have the text through Wylie very soon.”
On February 20, AUC Press sent me the complete Arabic text of the novel and asked me to prepare a 15 to 20-page sample for submission to the New York-based publishers Knopf Doubleday, saying they would need to approve the sample before we went ahead with the project.
On February 27, I submitted an 8,600-word sample to AUC Press.
On March 14, AUC Press sent me an email, saying that Knopf has studied the sample and had agreed to go ahead with the translation. It then laid out the basics of what would become our contract—payment, deadlines etc.
On March 27, George Andreou, an editor at Knopf, sent me an email, saying, “I am writing to introduce myself as Dr Alaa’s editor at Knopf and to say how pleased I am that you have accepted the commission to translate his new book. I look forward to working with you on the editing of the English version. In the meanwhile, if I can answer any questions, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.” I said he could help by expediting the contract process.
On April 11, I reminded Mr Andreou of the contract and he replied, “It has been ordered. Sorry for the delay. We’ll be back in touch shortly as to when you might expect it.” The same day Jahua Kim of Knopf emailed me, saying, “There is a backlog in the contracts department at the moment, but we should have your contract ready in about a week. Please feel free to reach me if you have further questions.”
On April 25, Dr Aswany sent me a message, saying he thanked me for my “efforts translating The Automobile Club” and asked if I had any questions. I replied that I was making good progress but I would prefer to ask my questions all at once at a later stage. His assistant replied, “Dr. Alaa is glad you are working on it currently . . . and he will be very willing to help anytime.”
On May 1, William Shannon of Knopf finally sent me a contract (for text, click here), with a cover note saying, “If the agreement looks in order please print out and sign three copies and return signed copies to Juhea Kim in George Andreou’s office.” I returned the copies as requested, both as signed and scanned JPEGs by email and as hard copy by mail.
On May 11, I received an email from Dr Aswany’s agent, Andrew Wylie, saying, “On further reflection . . . and in consultation with Dr Alaa and with Knopf, we are obliged to withdraw the request for you to translate the novel.” The message gave no substantial explanation. I replied that I had already signed a contract and done a large several months of work on the project. I said Dr Aswany was free to choose another translator but Knopf and/or Dr Aswany had an obligation to pay me for the work I had done and for the time I would have wasted.
On May 12, Dr Aswany sent me an email, his only message ever on this matter, despite he long acquaintance and amicable relations. He said he wanted Mr X (his identity is irrelevant) to work on The Automobile Club. The explanation he offered for his decision was “I think you could understand that I feel comfortable to work with him.” He blamed AUC Press for what he called a misunderstanding and said he wasn’t aware I was working on it (although we had in fact discussed it openly several times). At this stage Aswany had not seen the sample submitted to Knopf in February. But he now asked for a sample translation and, strangely, also proposed giving Mr X a role editing my translation. I sent him the 8,600-word sample that Knopf had approved.
The next day, on May 13, Charles Buchan of the Wylie Agency sent me a message dictated by Andrew Wylie, saying, “Alaa Al Aswany has reviewed the opening pages of your translation of The Automobile Club, and he has found the translation unsatisfactory . . . The book will be translated by Mr X. I have notified AUC and Knopf accordingly.” Dr Aswany and his assistant had spent several hours overnight poring over the sample text, trying to identify aspects that they thought they might plausibly present as ‘mistakes’, apparently to justify retroactively their decision to withdraw from the contract. They were a little overenthusiastic and their efforts are risible. If anyone is interested in the details, the whole document is available here.] The relevant Arabic text and the relevant part of the English version are available here and here.
The document, which was circulated to several people, contains remarks that would be defamatory under British law. One of the most outrageous is Aswany’s objection to the spelling Fatiha for the first chapter of the Quran. Fatiha is of course the standard transliteration favoured by most academics and publishers. He writes: “Mr.Wright wrote ‘Fatiha’ instead of ‘Fatha’. The ‘Fatha’ is the most famous Muslim prayer and the only explanation of this mistake is that Mr. Wright is not able to read this very famous word correctly in Arabic.” The document continues in similar vein. I particularly admired Aswany’s ingenuity when he objected to ‘I felt lonely’ for the Arabic ‘aHsastu bil-wiHsha’. He would prefer ‘I felt solitude’. He insists on placing chalets rather than beach houses on the Mediterranean coast. No big deal, but it might give readers the impression they are in the Swiss Alps. The list goes on. But the bigger picture is that Aswany and his assistant appear to think that a translation must match the original word by word, with nouns replacing nouns and so on. Or perhaps they don’t really think that: maybe they just thought it would be a good wheeze to avoid their financial obligations under an inconvenient agreement. If Hell exists, I assume it has a special corner for those who bear false witness against their colleagues for the sake of financial gain.
To continue the story: on May 21, Mr Andreou, in a rare moment of honesty from Knopf in the course of various exchanges, wrote to me saying, “As you know, I was content with your sample. It is simply not feasible, however, for us, as Dr Aswany’s publisher, to proceed with an arrangement that displeases him: author’s (sic) have their prerogatives.” In other words, his justification for withdrawing from the agreement was based on the decision of the author, which itself appears to have been based on a whim. He offered me a small amount in compensation, and I said his offer was inadequate.
After a series of exchanges over the proportion of the work completed, Knopf has ignored my proposal, now about one month old, that we choose an independent arbiter to make an assessment—an idea that strikes me as eminently reasonable.2
Knopf has argued that we never had an agreement because I do not have a contract signed by them (they never sent me a signed copy), and that therefore their offer is ex gratia. My legal advice is that this argument is baseless and that all the elements of an agreement exist. The contract makes no provision for unilateral withdrawal and the only quality provision refers to a final text to be submitted in September 2013, which will never be completed. On October 15, Knopf tried a new approach, alleging that it never even approved the sample translation submitted in February. This is what in plain English we call a lie and, as I noted above, Mr Andreou said the opposite on May 21.
I did have one further exchange with Dr Aswany, when I informed him on May 22 that until our dispute was resolved I could no longer translate his political articles. His response illustrates his attitude to those he deals with. His only concern that my ‘unprofessional’ decision, which he didn’t appear to expect, had disrupted the worldwide distribution of one short article. Under ordinary circumstances, he said, he would have withheld the money I was owed for previous articles—a total of about $600. “Despite all this, I will arrange to give you your money, because I believe I should behave well to the end,” he added.
Thank you, Dr Aswany, you are very gracious, but you have not behaved well. In fact, your behavior has been despicable.
Aswany can be contacted at email@example.com
The editor-in-chief at Knopf is Sonny Mehta, contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org
I can be contacted at email@example.com or in London on +447586244484
Oct 23, 2013
1 Holy shitsnacks is all of this document insane. It’s the worst sort of authorial interference in a translator’s work, and is both rude and pretty lame.
One example: From the column entitled, “Mr. Wright’s wrong translation” (wow. WOW.), “My wife realized I needed some time alone.”
In the “The Correct accurate meaning of the word” column: “My wife understood my need for the solitude.”
The fuck? Seriously? Not only is the “Wright’s wrong” a terrible pun and really over-the-top, but “Correct accurate meaning” is redundant and sounds like someone who doesn’t understand English. That and “my need for the solitude.” Oh boy, oh boy.
And it goes on and on and on. “Like a bewitched city” to be replaced by “as if.” “I had a good look” versus “I had a look.” This reads like a hack job done by someone who wanted to create cause to get rid of Jonathan Wright as the translator.
2 This is a clause included in every single Open Letter contract. If we think a translation is awful, there is a system for sending it to three outside judges who evaluate it. No matter what, the translator gets 2/3 of the agreed to payment.
Just to make sure the sarcasm of the post title doesn’t slip by, I want to start by saying that BuzzFeed is AWFUL. Sure, thanks to Facebook shares, I’ve clicked on some of their asinine listicles and have rarely (if ever) come away feeling like I learned anything. Even more rarely have I laughed at their jokes.
Of course, I am a heartless bastard with unrelenting standards when it comes to literature, and next to no patience for things like Twitter or Flavorwire or click-garnering listicles. So take the beginning part of this post with a grain of angry salt.
BuzzFeed’s suckiness isn’t even the point; the shady way they’re going about spreading their lists to the world is.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, disclosed in a recent letter to investors1 that its traffic tripled over the past year, hitting 85 million visitors in August. [. . .]
Until recently, though, BuzzFeed’s towering traffic ambitions were held in check by a simple fact of global demographics. Everything BuzzFeed publishes is in English—and at the rate it’s growing, BuzzFeed may be running out of new English speakers to colonize. [. . .]
The site this month will launch versions in French, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese. These international sites will be populated with BuzzFeed posts that originally appeared in English, but BuzzFeed won’t be using professional translators to create them. Instead, BuzzFeed’s posts will be translated by crowds of foreign-language speakers who are learning English using an app called Duolingo. In theory, as part of their coursework, these hordes will translate a BuzzFeed post in a matter of hours—at a quality that rivals that of professional translators, but at the speed, scale and price that you’d get from a machine.
Let’s break this down: BuzzFeed, which receives more than 85 million visitors a month, and makes more than $60 million a year, is going to use unpaid (and generally inexperienced) student translators to generate even more wealth for themselves. Great. Sounds like a certain ad for unpaid interns that we all probably remember . . .
On the surface, the concept of Duolingo sounds kind of interesting:
Duolingo is something like a videogame version of Rosetta Stone, and it’s been found to be quite effective at teaching people new tongues. According to a study commissioned by the company, in about 34 hours with Duolingo, a person with no knowledge of Spanish will become as proficient as someone who’s taken a first-semester college Spanish course. As of last month, the app, which is free to use, had garnered about 10 million users.
When you first begin using it, Duolingo teaches you the most basic concepts of a new language. As you become more adept, you’re asked to translate texts as a test of what you’ve learned.
Great, great. I may even sign up to “gamify” my way to learning Portuguese, but in terms of Duolingo and BuzzFeed, capitalist impulses turn it all shitty:
But why should people waste their energies translating dummy texts? Shouldn’t their work amount to something?
Yes, it should. But what it SHOULDN’T amount to is translating stupid lists for free so that BuzzFeed (and Duolingo) can make money.
If BuzzFeed had any integrity (SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t), it would pass along some of its foreign language earnings to the people who produced the translations. I know it won’t, because BuzzFeed and capitalism and GROSS . . . But man, does this plan ever devalue translation. Way to go, BuzzFeed! Good thing that by 2015 everyone will have moved on . . .
1 Holy SHIT. You really should read the letter, it’s every bit of annoying that you’d expect and more.
It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m not a fan of Jonathan Franzen (a.k.a. America’s Next Top Writer). Not that into his books or his public persona. So, when the galley for the new Juan Gabriel Vásquez book—The Sound of Things Falling—arrived complete with an interview between Vásquez and Franzen, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a while now—and obviously still will—but having J-Franz’s mark on it sort of knocks it to the bottom of the pile for me. (As I’ve been told by my ex-wife and others, I’m an “angry little man,” and also someone who holds grudges, especially against overrated novelists who insulted me in a public setting eight years ago. ANYWAY.)
But how bad could an interview be, really? It’s just an interview. It provides a context. Information about JGV’s work. Right?
Jonathan Franzen: I’m struck by how different in feel The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling are from the Latin American “boom” novels of a generation ago. I’m thinking of both their cosmopolitanism (European story elements in the first book, an American main character in the new one) and their situation in a modern urban Bogotá. To me it feels as if there’s been a kind of awakening in Latin American fiction, a clearing of the magical mists, and I’m wondering to what extent you see your work as a reaction to that of Márquez and his peers. Did you come to fiction writing with a conscious program?
To be honest, this is all I’ve read of this interview, because it’s just so stupid that I can’t go on. I may well burn this promo material as soon as I finish writing this post.
First off, where the hell has Franzen been? Not only were there a lot of Latin American writers working in non-“boom” type aesthetics at the same time that Márquez was writing, but there have been hundreds of interesting authors since that time who ripped open the “magical mists” of Latin American fiction. And seriously, “magical mists”? That is some shit.
This is the kind of bullshit question that no one would ever ask an American author. Just imagine:
I’m struck by how different in feel The Corrections and Freedom are from the American “modernist” novels of a generation ago. I’m thinking of both their disinterest in language and representations of the inner workings of the human experience (the straightforward neo-realistic prose that dominates both of them) and the obsession with the suburbs. To me it feels as if there’s been a kind of awakening in American fiction, a clearing of the obfuscating mists, and I’m working to what extent you see your work as a reaction to that of Faulkner and his peers. Did you come to fiction writing with a conscious program?
Sorry. I’m just sick of this sort of approach to reading international literature—especially Latin American literature. Implicit in Franzen’s question is the idea that there was—or is—a certain “type” of Latin American writing and that anything different than that is some sort of political statement or bold move, as if Latin American writers can’t write about Europe or America or anything modern and universal. Get back to the banana plantations and bring us some talking butterflies! Beyond being insulting to Latin American writers, it really makes the person asking the question—Franzen in this case—seem like an ignoramus. So all y’all Mexicans actually know about Europe? Holeey shit!
As every poet/writer/creative writing associate professor already knows, the AWP Conference kicks off today in Boston. For those who don’t know, this is a wild weekend of panels, readings, more readings, book exhibits, more poetry readings, drinking, bad dancing by poets, readings, and general literary funtimes.1
Once again, Open Letter will be attending (both Kaija and I will be there), and once again, we have a table at the end of the end of the world. So if you’re lost up on the second floor of the exhibition center, come see us at Z24, which is probably next to the Dianetics stand, that weirdo puppet guy, and some grad student who makes bongs and bookmarks out of beer cans.2
If you do make it to our stand, we will greet you with a free Thousand Morons T-shirt, and will sell you any of our books—from The Canvas to Maidenhair to Death in Spring to Zone to The Private Lives of Trees to Ergo—for $10 each.
So come see us! And if you can’t find our booth, just check all the parties. We’re gonna rip this scene up and teach you flannel children how publishers party.
1 Oh, and desperation and skinny jeans. Lots and lots of desperation. The vast majority of attendees are young
hipsters writers looking to break into print. So yeah. It’s like a casting couch for lyric poets!
2 Seriously, AWP Adminstrators. Why the shit are we relegated to this part of the exhibition hall? Who do I have to sleep with to get Open Letter—one of the more prestigious independent presses in the country—into a space near our comprable presses? It’s really irritating to be floors away from NYRB and New Directions and Graywolf and all the areas where people actually buy books . . . Seriously. There are start-up presses publishing single poems on the back of napkins that have better placement than we do. These presses won’t even be around next year, after their bearded directors blow all their sales money (“Oh, I just love the concreteness of your publishing enterprise. Napkin poems make me feel so alive.”) on fake mushrooms and more skinny jeans. Then again, writers generally don’t, and creative writing programs definitely don’t have any sense of perspective, so I guess it only makes sense that your exhibition hall layout is so jacked. Congratulations!
OK, so first off, for anyone who saw my little Facebook hissy fit last night about Bookish, I apologize. I may have overstated things a bit (yeah, I know that totally doesn’t sound like me), and jumped the gun a bit on some of my insults.
That said, and before I get more fully into the Bookish conundrum, a few of the things I posted last night remain true:
When I was growing up my dad always told me, “Townes, college will be the best four years of your life.” He was rarely wrong about anything, so I couldn’t have been more excited to head off to school. High school was the minor leagues, and I was ready for the big show. Ready to walk onto the field under the lights, throw up on home plate, kick the catcher in the balls, and charge the mound.
By this point in time, a good number of you are wondering, Just what the hell is Bookish, and why is Chad being such a douche?
Basically, Bookish is supposed to be the “Next Big Thing” allowing readers—especially those who don’t go to bookstores or talk to people—to find out what books they should buy and read. And basically, after years of waiting for Bookish to come out, I’m extremely disappointed. And I’ve yet to learn how to express my disappointment in mature ways.
But let’s start at the beginning . . . Or rather, let’s start with this PW article about Bookish’s launch:
After three CEOs and a number of delays, Bookish launched at 9 p.m. Monday with approximately 2 million ISBNs from 19 publishers and a search recommendation function that its founders hope will make it easier for consumers to discover books. To help draw traffic to the Web site, Bookish will feature exclusive content about books and authors and will work with USA Today to integrate Bookish into the newspaper’s book page site.
That’s quite an opening paragraph—one that opens up a ton of things to pick apart. Let’s start with that “three CEOs and a number of delays” statement.
I’m trying to remember when I first heard about Bookish. I’m guessing it was around the time that the New York Times ran this article about a new “One Stop” Book Site—May 6, 2011. From the article:
Publishers have spent a lot of time and money building their own company Web sites with fresh information on their books and authors. The trouble is, very few book buyers visit them.
In search of an alternative, three major publishers said on Friday that they would create a new venture, called Bookish.com, which is expected to make its debut late this summer. The site intends to provide information for all things literary: suggestions on what books to buy, reviews of books, excerpts from books and news about authors. Visitors will also be able to buy books directly from the site or from other retailers and write recommendations and reviews for other readers.
The publishers — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group USA and Hachette Book Group — hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com for reviews and information. [. . .]
“There’s a frustration with book consumers that there’s no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need to try to recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment, but which we don’t believe is currently happening online.”
First off, who is this ridiculous reader who can’t find the “one-stop shopping” website named Amazon.com where they can find information about books and authors? Has Carolyn Reidy ever talked to this “book consumer”? I’m going to guess this is another instance of a publisher “knowing” what its readers want. (SPOILER! They rarely ever do.)
Instead of making fun of the fact that, as Reidy describes it, this site is 100% redundant and unnecessary, I want to riff on the part that I think is interesting: “The publishers hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com.”
Once again, not to make fun of corporate CEOs and shills, but Jesus fuck is it clear that the people behind Bookish have never visited Pitchfork.com. And that’s the real tragedy that’s driving my piss-offedness.
For better or worse—better because it has an editorial voice, worse because 75% of the music criticism is poorly written—Pitchfork is an incredibly influential site for people interested in “contemporary music” (loosely defined). It is a place that a lot of music connoisseurs visit on a regular basis.
Why? Well, there is the news section, which, due to Pitchfork’s popularity and influence, has become one of the best outlets for bands to release information. But it’s my belief that most everyone comes there to read (and internally argue with) the daily reviews.
Every day of the week (more of less), Pitchfork reviews 5 albums, ranging in musical style from death metal to dubstep to indie rock to dancetronica. (Or whatever.) The point is that taken as a whole, these 25 reviews a week are a decent starting point for finding out what albums have just come out and whether or not they’re worth checking out.
A key feature of these reviews is the 10-point grading system. It can be useful, illuminating, and infuriating, but it does provide a snapshot of what a particular review/editorial source thinks of a certain album. For instance, so far this week, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down received a 7.5 for “We the Common,” Lightning Swords of Death received a 7.8 for “Baphometic Chaosium,” and The History of Apple Pie received a semi-dismissive 6.7 for “Out of View.”
Obviously, these numbers are subjective, and readers will often disagree (seriously, the Thao album is much better than that, and the 8.4 for Foxygen’s new album is ridiculous—the first is way better, and neither is all that interesting), but it’s a representative of a particular “taste-making voice.” Read it long enough and you’ll know what makes a Pitchfork album and what doesn’t. Of course they love Local Natives and find Buke & Gase a bit confusing. The point is, a huge group of music listeners go there to find out what albums are coming out and how this website assesses them.
What people don’t go to pitchfork for: to buy albums, add them to their “listened to!” shelves, or rate them. And that’s fine. This is a more traditional “discovery” site in that it represents a particular point of view, and offers guidance by evaluating products.
When I first heard about Bookish, the word on the street was that it would be a “Pitchfork for Books.” (See this post on Melville House that echos this belief.) I believed/hoped that this would be a site in which 3-5 books from a dozen different categories (fiction, business books, sci-fi, health, etc.) would be reviewed on a daily basis. That it would serve that critical “discovery” function in which readers (especially those not reading best-sellers) could find out what’s coming out and if they should seek it out.
THAT would be extremely valuable to readers, and would have the potential to become a “taste-making” book site that is respected by a wide range of readers. A site that could take over for the loss of newspaper reviews and position itself as more reputable than most blogs. Also, by actually focusing on books instead of publishing news or gossip, it would be pretty damn unique. Something for readers, not just insiders.
But that sort of book discovery isn’t sexy anymore. The Age of Screens is also the Age of Big Data. An editorial vision has been replaced by an algorithm. Why hire 20 editors to curate reviews and cultivate a reading community when you can get readers to
piss away spend their time entering in gobs of information about which books they’ve read, bought, and liked, and then crunch that data and recommend that the next book they read is Hunger Games?
(My luddite tendencies are at full-force today.)
Looking at Bookish, it’s clear that it’s definitely NOT the Pitchfork for books. Before getting into what it is, I need to explain a bit more about why it WOULD NEVER be the Pitchfork for books. And why it’s kind of evil.
First off, this site (and it’s rather corporate, lame name) is funded by Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Hachette—three of the largest publishers in the country. (Especially if you consider Penguin being Penguin + Random House.) Can corporate publishers really ever be the “taste-makers” in the sense that Pitchfork is? Absolutely not. In fact, no publisher can/should. An independent group of smart readers evaluating all the books coming out and highlighting ones from commercial, indie, and university presses can have an editorial vision that gets passed along to readers. And even if Bookish has a separate staff, its editorial objectivity has already been compromised.
(Note that on the opening page of Bookish, you’ll find the tagline “We Know Books” above images of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. “We Know Certain Books” is a much more accurate statement.)
Secondly, a site that is aiming to sell books and feature advertising (mostly from it’s partent publishing companies), isn’t exactly in it to help readers . . . Or at least that’s not their only motive. Go back to Reidy’s seeming ignorance of that small start-up Amazon.com. Is that maybe intentional? It seems possible that these three publishers are thinking they could create their own Amazon, thus bringing them more profits and giving them more control over the way the books are presented and promoted.
Or MAYBE this is a way for the big presses to help out struggling independent bookstores? That would be pretty cool, since IndieBound kind of sucks, as do most indie store websites. From PW:
Any title bought directly from Bookish will be fulfilled by Baker & Taylor, which is also setting the price for the titles.
GodDAMN IT. Never mind. I should’ve known better than to think that a) this would be useful and cool and b) that it would be about more than just creating leverage for dealing with Amazon.
So what exactly is Bookish? Well, first and foremost, it’s a database of authors and titles that you can look at. PW again:
There are about 400,000 author profile pages as well as title pages for all books on the site and Bookish allows consumers to search for books in 18 major categories. Reviews from PW are also featured and customers can add reviews and rate titles as well. [. . .] In addition to titles from the founding partners—Penguin Group USA, Hachette Book Group, and Simon & Schuster—Bookish includes titles from 16 other publishers, a list that comprises the three other big six houses plus companies that range from Abrams to Workman as well as Perseus and all its distribution clients and the clients of IPG.
If you’re thinking GoodReads but with fewer books and options, you’d be right.
In which case, why did it take so damn long to launch? Initially this was supposed to be live in September 2011. It is now 2013. The moment for this site happened so long ago. At one point in time, I heard that the delay was due to one of the three CEOs wanting to create their own database of titles and metadata rather than pull it from some other source. Which, great, congratu-fucking-lations. You’ve just reinvented the wheel!
The core of Bookish is going to be its recommendation algorithm. And as much as I’d like these corporate publishers to put money into creating a review website featuring real readers, I do find the principles behind algorithmic recommendation tools really fascinating. So far, this one seems fine. My Two Worlds led to recommendations of Merce Rodoreda, Cesar Aira, and Isabel Allende. (OK, so it’s not fine, but passable?)
Other features on the website include the following:
Bookish’s home page will have new content each day and the site launched with an interview between Michael Connelly and Michael Kortya, an essay from Elizabeth Gilbert, and a look at the first chapter of Harlan Coben’s upcoming thriller Six Years. Excerpts, trailers and updated news will also be featured assembled by a team of seven editors overseen by Rebecca Wright, who is executive editor.
All of which feels pretty damn blah and corporate and void of personality. Why, come to think of it, it sounds pretty much like a website version of USA Today.
Bookish is counting on lots of pre-launch SEO work to help drive traffic as well as its collaboration with USA Today, a deal that replaces Bookish’s original media partner the AOL Huffington Post Media Group. USA Today readers who click on book information on the site will be linked to Bookish and the paper will syndicate Bookish content through its site.
Oh. Yeah. That. Congrats, S&S, Hachette, and Penguin! You accomplished your goal and disenfranchised interesting, intellectual readers once again.
Finally, in summary, this site is what it is. It’s no where near the Bookish I wanted and thought I was getting, but if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that corporate media dollars don’t often go to interesting things. But it’s GoodReads for other people. And a place that corporate publishing folks can buy their books without feeling like they’re betraying their employers. Again, all I can say is congrats.
But will it succeed? God, I can’t imagine that it will. There’s a huge First Mover problem going on with this site. One reason I thought it well could have been a Pitchfork with books is because that would make it something other than Amazon or GoodReads. Instead, publishers do what publishers do—copy what’s successful and dress it up a bit. Real innovation is hard to find at this level.
The point is, why would I stop buying from Amazon (if I don’t have huge moral issues), to go to Bookish? Why would I stop updating the GoodReads account I’ve been using for years to try and recreate it on Bookish?
Remember Riffle? Remember Google+? They both faced similar issues, and neither really overcame it. What I don’t understand is why these companies don’t get that. Create something actually new and you’ll get what you want. Improve slightly on what people are already sort of, pretty much satisfied with, and they’ll ignore you.
Late last night, I came across this article about a new book award—one to reward innovative writing:
[In reference to all the other book awards out there—Man Booker, Costa, IMPAC, Women’s Prize for Fiction, etc.] Enough to be going on with? Well, no. Not just because there can never be too many literary prizes (it’s a profession with precious few bonuses), but because the brief of all existing prizes is to seek out “the best” or “most promising”, rather than to highlight what’s innovative, ground-breaking, iconoclastic – fiction at its most novel. This is why Goldsmiths College, where I work part-time as a creative writing tutor, has just launched a new £10,000 prize, in association with the New Statesman.
The new fiction prize will go to a book that celebrates the spirit of invention and characterises the genre at its most surprising. Drawing up a description was tricky, not least because we wanted to avoid the word “experimental”, which no one seems to like any more. It’s easier to list the sort of writers who might have won the prize had it been around in recent years: David Mitchell, Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, Geoff Dyer and Tom McCarthy come to mind.
Further back, in 1922, James Joyce’s Ulysses would have been battling it out with Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room – whereas in 1962, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange might have edged out Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. And Julian Barnes might have got it for Flaubert’s Parrot in 1984, a quarter of a century before he won the Booker.
For anyone even halfway excited by this, you should go read the full article. The reference to Tristram Shandy is sure to give you a thrill, as is the bit about not excluding “hybrid” books:
[T]he prize won’t want to ignore is the number of texts that mix fiction with non-fiction. Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty is a good example. And then there’s WG Sebald, whose books blur the distinction between fiction, memoir and history, and who once compared his method to that of a dog running through a field – there might be nothing systematic or plottable, but he got where he needed to by following his nose.
Yes. Fuck and YES.
The one thing that breaks my heart about this prize is that it’s for “UK and Ireland residents only.” Why can’t America—home to any number of “innovative” writers, from David Markson to David Foster Wallace to Shelley Jackson to Lydia Millet—sponsor such an award? I have my (anti-capitalist) suspicions as to why something like this is pretty unlikely, but before laying out my biases and disgust, let’s take a look at the new format of the National Book Awards.
On January 15th, the National Book Foundation announced a few changes to the NBA’s, one of the three most important book awards in the U.S. (along with the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Awards):
One change in the process will increase the number of honored books by selecting a “Long-List” of ten titles in each of the four genres, to be announced five weeks before the Finalists Announcement. In 2013, the Long-Lists will be announced on September 12th (forty titles), the Finalists on October 15th (twenty titles) and the National Book Award Winners on November 20th (four titles.) [. . .]
In addition, judges comprising the four panels—Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature—will no longer be limited to writers, but now may also include other experts in the field including literary critics, librarians, and booksellers. The number of judges in each panel will remain at five.
These are both pretty fantastic changes that I whole-heartedly approve of . . . at least on the surface. I love “longlists” (see our own Best Translated Book Awards) since they provide readers with a slightly wider range of titles to check out, adds an extra round of excitement to the awards process.
Ditto for the expansion to include critics, librarians, and booksellers. Authors (who have been the only group to comprise the judging panels for years now) are great, but in my experience, there are tons of critics, librarians, and booksellers who are much better readers, and more well-read, than a standard author. This isn’t to slight authors (at least not most of them), but they’re spending time working on creating, whereas these other groups are readers first . . . Point being, I think this should be great for the award as well. (And maybe, just maybe, someday I could make it onto one of these judging panels, which would be probably the Greatest Thing Ever.)
But wait! All’s not perfect in book paradise—there are cracks in the press surrounding these NBA changes that make me sick and hateful. Just check these bits from the AP story:
[Grove/Atlantic CEO Morgan] Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”
“I think there are plenty of awards that recognize those kinds of books,” Entrekin said. “If one of those books is truly the best book of the year, that’s no problem. But it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors.” [. . .]
“We’re asking people to read a lot of books, but some of these librarians and booksellers we hope to bring in are reading a lot of books anyway,” Entrekin said.
Oh no, you didn’t. Please tell me you didn’t just say that. “Very eccentric”? “Little more mainstream”? And what do you think “mainstream” means exactly? There are really only two interrelated definitions: 1) more people read this, hence more popular or “mainstream,” and 2) more people know about it because it made lots of money. And those things have to do with something being the “best” book how exactly?
Way-too-obvious-to-waste-time-on-side-rant: America is The Worst for trying to equate popularity with quality. We do it over and over and over again and it drives basically everyone with taste nuts. And we lament it and gripe, but can’t really seem to do much of anything, since the system—those producing, promoting, and determining our tastes subtly and not-so—has all them money and power and influence.
OK, here’s another interesting quote:
“Our mission is to celebrate literature and expand its audience and we chose the path most consistent with our mission,” said David Steinberger, chairman of the foundation’s board and CEO of the Perseus Books Group.
I totally agree with the National Book Foundation’s mission to expand the audience for literature in all sorts of ways. Beyond the awards, the NBF—run by the brilliant and perceptive Harold Augenbraum, who I respect as much as any other person working at a literary organization anywhere in the world—runs a slew of really amazing programs, such as the Innovations in Reading awards, 5 Under 35, and BookUp, all of which are aimed at preserving and expanding our book culture.
But the awards are the main thing everyone knows about, and the balance that has to be kept between rewarding great literature and expanding readership may be getting a little bit tainted . . . (Here comes my paranoid of the military-industrial-complex bit.)
Did you notice anything about the two National Book Foundation members quoted above? One is the CEO of a very well-respected, and relatively large, international publishing house (Grove/Atlantic). The other is CEO of another large(ish) book publishing group (Perseus Book Group) that happens to own the distribution company (Perseus Distribution) responsible for selling Grove’s books.
I don’t necessarily care about that connection—this is publishing after all, a pretty incestuous and well-knotted industry—but about the fact that it’s these for-profit, pro-sales organization heads who are determining the shape of this very respectable award.
Just look at which companies are represented on the Board of Directors: Perseus Books Group, Grove/Atlantic, John Wiley & Sons, Google, Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble, Penguin Group USA, W.W. Norton & Co., Random House, and Janklow & Nesbit. This is quite a heavy hitting board—as it should be—made up of some very influential and brilliant people. People who have a lot invested in creating an award that would benefit their bottom line.
See! Paranoid. But read this quote in context of what I just wrote above:
Board members had come to feel that the awards needed a model more like that of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary honor, which is more integrated into popular literary culture.
“When a book is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, it sells another 50,000 copies,” Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic Press and vice chairman of the National Book Foundation’s board, told The New York Times last November. “It can transform the fate of a book.”
So what exactly is the mission of the National Book Award? To honor the best works of the past year by American writers, or create a system by which you can sell more copies of more “mainstream” works? If it’s the latter, then fuck it, this award is dead to me, and I’d cut it if I could.
But maybe these quotes are somehow taken out of context? Let’s look at the past few recipients of the NBA for Fiction:
2012: Louise Erdrich, The Round House (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
2011: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA)
2010: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
2009: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
2008: Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country (Modern Library)
2007: Denis Johnson , Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
2006: Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
2005: William T. Vollmann Europe Central (Viking)
2004: Lily Tuck, The News from Paraguay (Harper)
2003: Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
So, over the past ten years, with the exception of McPherson & Co., and to a lessor extent, Bloomsbury USA, the winning book has been awarded to one of the Major Corporate Publishers. What exactly did Entrekin mean by stating that the selections have been “very eccentric” and that it was less likely with these changes that a collection of short stories from a university press would be on the list?
OK, not to draw this out too much, but to build up to my final condemning point, we first have to look at the complete list of “small” or “independent” or “university” presses with books on the finalists list for fiction over the past five years: McSweeney’s Books, Bellevue Literary Press, Lookout Books (which is part of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and the book in question—Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision—_is_ a collection of short stories), McPherson & Co., Coffee House Press, Wayne State University Press (on there for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, which, yes, is a collection of short stories), and Graywolf Press.
In the greater scheme or things, that’s not terrible for the non-corporate presses of the world . . . Our of 25 finalists from the past five years, 7 were from this “second-tier” of publishers.
One last thing worth noting: The Lookout Books book that was a finalists—Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision—actually won the NBCC for fiction that year. How “eccentric” of a choice for an award honoring the “best” of American writing is that, really? Fucking crazy that authors and critics would both reward a book that certain publishers didn’t publish because they didn’t think it would be commercial successful. (And didn’t think it would win any major award.)
OK. Point being that if you tie all of Entrekin’s quotes together along with a cursory look at recent finalists, it’s clear (to me) that what he wants is a longlist of 10 titles that may include some of these “eccentric” small press books. But that these would be weeded out before announcing the finalists, which would then go on to sell 50,000 copies a piece—sales figures that commercial presses clearly deserve, since this is sort of their award . . . And that the winner would be even more mainstream that Louis Erdich, Richard Powers, Colum McCann?
(That’s one thing that totally scares me. These are all fine writers with sold literary credentials—McCann and Powers more than Erdich, but still—what would a “more mainstream” list of winners look like? Clearly J-Franz would be on there. Do we need an award that focuses on writers less literary/more mainstream than these? No. Absolutely not.)
As much as Entrekin retracts these statements (and don’t get me wrong, Morgan is brilliant and an awesome publisher and person who has done more for literature—especially literature in translation—than most anyone else), I think the tracks have been laid and that the NBA is going to move from an award honoring “writer’s writers” that deserve respect and readers and money, to an award helping generate revenue for commercial publishers. And that makes me puke in my mouth.
In other words, GO UNITED KINGDOM! Until they totally cock it up, this Goldsmiths Award is The Greatest. (Well, that and the NBCCs which, once again, have a really great group of finalists for this year’s award.)
This morning, the finalists for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize were announced, and it’s a pretty fantastic list:
U R Ananthamurthy (India)
Aharon Appelfeld (Israel)
Lydia Davis (USA)
Intizar Husain (Pakistan)
Yan Lianke (China)
Marie NDiaye (France)
Josip Novakovich (Canada)
Marilynne Robinson (USA)
Vladimir Sorokin (Russia)
Peter Stamm (Switzerland)
What’s really fricking strange though, is this first couple paragraphs of the press release:
Anyone who could have guessed even five of the 10 novelists who have just been revealed as the finalists for the fifth Man Booker International Prize deserves a mass cap-doffing from the wider reading public. The previous incarnations of the prize have included a large cluster of well-known and indeed expected names, from Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera to Amos Oz and Joyce Carol Oates. There is, however, nothing familiar or expected about the list unveiled today by the chair of judges Sir Christopher Ricks at the DSC Jaipur Literary Festival.
It is a list that will, for many readers, open up a wealth of possibilities since perhaps only two of the writers can be said to have a wide international profile, Marilynne Robinson and Aharon Appelfeld. Robinson, an Orange Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner is the only one of the 10 who has been nominated for this prize before.
“Nothing familiar or expected”?Only two with a “wide international profile”? What the shit, Man Booker?
Ok, so I’m not familiar with Ananthamurthy or Husain, but all the others are, if not household names, definitely familiar to readers of Three Percent or anyone interested in international literature.
In fact, we’ve reviewed books by all of the foreign authors on here (with the exception of Marie NDiaye, but we have two reviews of her books in the works), and everyone knows of Lydia Davis for either her writing or her translations of Proust and Flaubert. Have some self-respect Man Booker International Prize Press Release Writer—you don’t have to apologize for not including Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami on this list. (Besides, why would you?)
Not to kick a sleeping horse, but here’s another strange bit from this oddly written press release:
The list of finalists reveals other things too [Fiammetta Rocco] thinks. This is a young though very experienced judging panel (although not as young as Marie NDiaye who, at 45, is the most youthful Man Booker International finalist to date) and its choices show a taste for Modernism rather than conventional narrative: “the judges were interested in novelists who push the form”, says Rocco. Many of the novelists – NDiaye, Novakovich and Sorokin among them – are fascinated by cultural migrants which produces in turn a very rich literature. Nevertheless, as Christopher Ricks stresses, these are novelists whose work is different rather than similar.
One of the benefits of such a high profile prize is that it brings with it its own sense of momentum. It is a prerequisite of the prize that the finalists’ work should be available in English and since the MBI imprimatur is a guarantee of quality their nomination will hopefully lead to more of their work being translated in more countries. The winner of the £60,000 prize can also choose a translator of their work to receive a £15,000 award of their own.
The announcement of this year’s prize recipient will be made at a dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 22nd May and with this list the judges have already made sure the name will be a surprise.
In case you didn’t catch that, this will be a “surprise” because NO ONE KNOWS WHO THESE CRAZY MODERNIST AUTHORS ARE!
Sorry, but fuck off, Man Booker. I like this list of authors a lot, but your public relations spin is annoying and condescending both to readers and to the authors on your list.
Over at today’s Publishing Perspectives, there’s an interesting piece by translator Burton Pike about “Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation.” This essay was written in preparation for a German Book Office panel discussion, and as such, it focuses more on bringing up issues and asking provocative questions—ones that will fit in well with the class I’m teaching this semester, and would be fun to reflect on and respond to . . . But for now, here’s just a few bits that I found interesting (really, you should just read the whole article):
I used to tell my students in translation courses that in preparing to translate a writer they could never know enough about the writer’s culture. But looking at the writing coming out of Europe now, I’m not so sure. Now I ask myself: What other culture? Or, what other culture? A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders. A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures. [. . .]
American scholars and students who discuss French or German philosophers or continental European theory frequently see no need to consult foreign sources in the original language, or to take into account what circumstances and cultural traditions in the original language might lie behind them: a colleague of mine once described contemporary English departments as “the monolingual in pursuit of the multicultural.”
In an interview in Austria Kultur, the cultural magazine published by the Austrian government, the writer Jakob Lind describes himself as “a Viennese-born Dutchman turned Israeli with an Austrian passport, Eastern European parents.” Lind lives in England, writes in German. If I translate him, what culture am I translating?
I’m not sure what direction this took in the panel discussion, but what’s always interested me (mostly because of the publishing angle), is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, “[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!” Which totally bummed me out. The retaining of something unique about a country’s “book culture” is something I think is extremely important. And in some ways, it’s the responsibility of (certain) publishers to help preserve this by publishing and promoting works that are “uniquely French” (if there is such a thing), or at least not “from France, but just like Freedom!” Otherwise, what’s the point?
So, I’m in Paris this week. It’s a special editorial trip that came about last minute thanks to the fact that Laurence Marie and Anne-Sophie Hermil are the most wonderful people. They brought me here yesterday (Monday morning) for 18 appointments with literary folks in four days—a rather intense schedule given the fact that most publishing folk are on holiday time. But that’s cool, because French publishers and books are cool, and walking around Paris is cool, and the people I’ve met have all been cool.
This is the second time I’ve been to Paris—the first time was in 2009, which, to say the least, was an intense period in my life. But that trip . . . Wow. So many good people, so many good conversations, so much Three Percent material.
That was at a time when I still tried to write coherent “this is the state of publishing, yo!” type essays. Which I still love to do, but being back here where the buildings are more complicatedly beautiful than anything in NY, and where the people drip the sexy and the books reek of intellectual charm, I don’t think I can synthesize anything. So instead, I give you a few facts and a ton of opinons and jokes. Enjoy!
FACT: I have slept eight hours of the past 72. My mind is slipping.
FACT: The Irish bar across the street is having an “Apocalypse Party” on Thursday. Which brought home the point that I fly out on 12/21/12, right about practically maybe when the aliens invade the Mayan temples and rape the global warming. Or so I understand.
FACT: The French can’t dance.
QED: This post is probably offensive.
1) I arrived yesterday (Monday) morning at 8 am, and got a chauffeur cab to my hotel, where I arrived just a minute before 10, leaving me plenty (!) of time to shower and get my ass to my first meeting. Which, naturally, was with a woman who spoke next to no English. I have never received so many books at a meeting in my life. It was like compulsive giving. “BLAH BLAH DURR BALSH OPEN LETTER.” “Book, you like?” “SCHMEER TRANSLATION SLEEP HYPER BAD MOVIES BLAH.” “Other book? Is short erotic fiction?”
2) This same publisher publishes three Lutz Bassmann (aka Antoine Volodine) books, including his latest (Danse avec Nathan Golshem) and Haïkus de prison, which I assume are the haikus “Bassmann” “wrote” while in “prison.”
FACT: There is no one at work at a project as ambitious—and strange—as Antoine Volodine.
3) Everyone and their brother has tons of questions about a certain job posting that we all know I know about, and that we all know I can’t know about on Three Percent without knowing that a certain someone (who knows I know!) will get upset and knowingly call people and complain that I’m hurting their ability to succeed and therefore—PUNISHMENT! There’s no joke here, but shit, do I hate having to explain another’s actions at almost every single meeting. Keep the crazy in your own court! I have nothing to do with this!
4) Holy and fuck does Paul Fournel rock. First off, knowing next to little about it, I totally want to publish Chamboula. But for you Oulipian lovers out there—feast your sexy dreams on this: Paul took me into the room adjacent to his majestic apartment that houses a makeshift library of Oulipian works. Cool, no? Well, just wait . . . One of those works was a book by Perec and his mistress’s daughter (?) that’s in an oversized purple case lined with velvet and contains about 30 pages of text and photographs. Again—cool, no? Well it’s one of maybe 10 copies that exist in the world.
FACT: Duke would DESTROY Michigan’s overrated basketball team. This is old ACC >>> B1G 10 love. Nice try, but your coach will always be Elite Eight and out. PROVE ME DIFFERENT, WOLVERINES.
5) Dan Gunn and his partner Kristina Kovacheva treated me to the best meal I’ve ever had at someone’s Parisian apartment.
5a) When I told my daughter I was going to Paris: “Can I go with you?” “I wish! What do you know about France, Chloë?” “They have fancy cheeses! And I want to wear a pink beret!”
5a1) I bought her a pink beret today.
5b) I ate all the fancy cheeses at Dan and Kristina’s place. (Sorry, Chloë!)
6) Dan and Kristina and Daniel Medin should all be invited to the Sozopol Fiction Writers Workshop next May. That should maybe be a “FACT.”
7) When I was in the office of Editions Verdier receiving all the Bassmann books, I saw Damian Tabarovsky’s card—an author that Emily Davis translated while here at the U of Rochester and that Open Letter wants to publish. Apparently he was here recently, meeting with Verdier about rights to another of their authors.
FACT: French people move in a way that is automatically sexy. This woman working in the hotel restaurant got—and drank—a glass of water, standing in front of me in a way that can only be described as “illegal.” Every guy&girl here walks in a way that slithers with a certain something that makes it automatically beautiful. It’s indescribable, yet so there. My belief is that the angle between their hips and shoulders is like the golden fucking mean of sexy. Fact!
8) The ebook situation here in France is about the same as it was in 2009—less than 3% of sales are of the e-variety. One quote today: over a million print copies of a Gray book were sold, and like 30,000 e-versions. In other words, the French are basically like, “Suck a pixel, iPad/Kindle! And e-ink my ass!” Which is going way too far, and not recognizing the potential value of the Amazon/e-phenomenon—not to go all small scale on you, but I wouldn’t be teaching Mo Yan’s POW! in my class if the kids couldn’t get it for cheap—but is also so damn awesome. Bookstores exist here in France, and not because people like DLJ of the House of Moby wish they would, but because of the fixed book price, government intervention and support (suck an Obamacare stick, Ayn Randians!), and a schooling/cultural system that promotes reading not as entertainment, but as something valuable in and of its own right (suck a Survivor Mark Zuckerberg!). I love this country for that. And for the way people walk. And the absinthe.
9) TLHub is like Richard Nash’s Cursor + Kaija Straumanis’s Plüb – booze. (Well, officially.)
FACT: French people CAN NOT DANCE. I was at the Irish pub across the street and it was all 80s movie flailing and a dude wearing Mickey Mouse gloves groping ass. NO ONE WANTS TO SEE THAT, MICKEY. There was also a cougar (which, in France, they refer to as “a woman”) who was not-so subtly rejecting a dude with sunglasses pushed up on the top of his head. Really? Your style points just got rammed, France. That shit doesn’t even happen in Sixteen Candles.
9a) TLHub is a virtual space where translators can post a text they’re working on along with their translation and share it with other translators/members for edits/comments. It’s sort of brilliant in a very understated, yet essential way.
FACT: An American publisher asked the French government for a grant to cover the translation costs of doing a book PLUS $15,000 for marketing. In other words, $20-25,000 for a book. Great. So my FACT: There’s no way you, as a smart, savvy, educated independent publisher can spend $15,000 on marketing in a legitimate way that would actually result in an increased readership for that book, short of giving away 15,000 copies. You have a different idea? Email it to me. I’m curious to know how anyone would spend this sort of money in a non-pissing-it-all-away fashion. Ads? NOPE. Conferences? NO IMPACT. Reading tours? HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Review copies? 15,000.
QUESTION: I just got a text about the aforementioned job posting and the fact that this publisher has been “swamped” with job applications. Does anyone believe this? Really? Do you know anyone who has actually applied? Yeah, me neither.
9b) In addition to TLHub, the people at the Sociéte européenne des auteurs also run the news part of IF Verso and Finnegan’s List, containing a ton of books deserving international recognition recommended by a group of stellar authors from around the world. Both of these are also worth checking out.
FACT: I am ONE DAY away from being the FourSquare Mayor of the Eiffel Tower. FACT FACT FACT.
10) Buildings in France are something else. The entrance ways, the courtyards, the understated yet magnificent opulence. I am smitten with the architecture here. And the publishers, books, way people walk, and wine. Their beer blows, as does their dancing, attempt to make pizza, and book design (for the most part), but I totally love it and wish that I could have a semester sabbatical (HA! HA HA! HAHAHAHAHHAHA!) to live here, study the publishing scene, find books to get into English, love the shit out the Oulipo, etc. Instead, Rochester. Summer interns to tend to when all the academics are away. Women’s soccer (yay!).
FACT: The other night I had a dream in which the “greatest” of insults was to call someone a “donkey diddler.” This came from a dirty book everyone read, but no one admitted to reading. And I promised myself—as I woke up—that I would work it into a post. So, yeah. Donkey diddler.
A social media tool powered by Odyl, Riffle takes its name from the word for thumbing through a book.1 And that’s exactly the sense of discovery that Odyl founder and CEO Neil Baptista would like to re-create online. He wants to go beyond the current Internet phase where anybody can write a review. “We’re going to focus on bringing the audience to the table and curating the information. There’s a ton of online expertise, and we want people to push their content through Riffle,” says Baptista, who plans to work with book bloggers, booksellers, authors, and others to create a “distilled single feed” for books. [. . .]
Initially, Riffle is planning to invite avid readers, who Baptista believe are more likely to look to experts for book recommendations than casual readers. The platform also relies on checklists that convert well in Facebook, such as the 50 books to read before you die or the books you hope your soulmate has read. “Our whole perspective is that content will get people attracted to this,” says Baptista, who is following the Pinterest and Instagram models. “We want to invite people in and be part of its development.” One piece of that could include selling through online retailers.
I do have to admit that the phrase “Pinterest for Books” makes me vomit in my mouth, but I also have a borderline-compulsive obsession with online book discovery and how these things function, so, when I was contacted by the Riffle staff to sign up and
The first thing that I had to do was set up my profile, which is refreshingly sparse. Picture, short bio, link to Three Percent. You can see it by clicking here.
And while you’re there, you can explore the next level of Riffling. First off, you can choose to follow my Twitter feed (which is rather boring, since all I do on there is tweet my GoodReads stuff and offensive/funny comments about sporting events), or, if you’re a fellow Riffler, you can choose to follow me there. Which is what I really want you to do. That and click all over my lists.
The “lists” are the core of the Riffling Experience™. These are groupings of books that Rifflers put together to share with other people looking for a Riffling Good Read. So far I’ve made two: Books from the Iberian Peninsula and Some of My Favorite Open Letter Books.
And after making them, I shared them on Facebook, which is as simple to do as you’d expect in 2012, and as a result, at this exact moment, they’ve received 21 views (not bad?) and I have an “influence” score of 8!
This “influence” thing is interesting to me. First off, it’s basically just a “like” aggregation score. Eight people have “liked” my lists, WHICH IS UTTER BULLSHIT, since I think ALL 21 people who looked at my lists should’ve liked them.
But seriously, the thing this is kind of tapping into—although indirectly and in ways unaware—is our obsession with games and scoring. Follow me for a second: I would guess that around 20% of the posts I see on FB are status updates made solely to get “likes.” Shit, I do this myself sometimes. (“Look at me! LIKEMELIKEMELIKEME!”) Like a video game, “likes” and retweets function as the “score” signifying how well you’re doing at life. Or at least social networking.
When I see someone post something like an engagement or the birth of a new baby, and they only have a couple dozen “likes,” a small part of me dies on the inside. Which is sick and fucked because clearly FB is not a gauge of your importance or relevance or anything, but who doesn’t like seeing those little red circles in the upper right corner acting like little food pellets keeping us addicted to the whole FB game?
So yeah, I want a HUGE Influence score. I want to be The Most Influential of the “World Literature” Rifflers. (As long as it doesn’t require me to actually Riffle more than once a blue moon, cause I’ve got enough shit on my plate.)
What might be more interesting—theoretically—is if the “influence” wasn’t an actual number, but a percentage of people who “liked” your list. So if 8 of 21 people liked my lists, I would have a 38% influence score. WHICH BLOWS. But that would be a much more interesting way to judge the validity and usefulness of these lists. Under the current system, I could post 10,000 meaningless lists over the next 3 hours, and if one person was “influenced” by each one, I would be kicking some numerical ass. But if 500,000 people saw these, and the vast majority realized that I was just dicking around, that “influence” score would be 5%—a much more accurate way of determining the worthfulness of my lists. Just saying.
One last rant: The “questions” section of Riffle is AWFUL. This is one of the things that probably sounds good in a board meeting (“It’ll be like those questions on OKCupid! People love answering questions about themselves!”), but in practice is really kind of embarrassing. Here’s a sampling of questions you can answer to help build your Riffle profile (Riffle-file?):
What books remind you of the place(s) you grew up?
Name some books by your favorite author! (Exclamation point unnecessary, and please state in the form of a question, Riffle.)
What books have changed the course of your life?
Which books would you hope your soulmate has read? (A: Freedom. And the Bible. Natch.)
If you could only save a few books from a fire, which would they be?
I’m sure some people like these—I’m just a jaded cynical man. But really, I will never answer any of these. Ever. Never ever.
Anyway, at the moment you have to “request an invite,” unless you’re a Facebook friend of mine. (I think.) In which case, if you email me, I can send you an invite that (maybe) bypasses the request bit. So, go to it. RIFFLE AWAY.
1 OK, in my non-scientific polling, I think I’ve just identified a new Midwesternism. In Michigan, we always said that we were “rifling through a book” as you would rifle through a drawer to find matching socks. Even now, knowing that “riffle” is the appropriate term, I’m having a hard time saying, “hand me that 1Q84 I want to riffle through it” without feeling like a molester.
Although information started leaking last week, it wasn’t until this morning that the Penguin-Random House merger was made official:
Publisher Pearson says it has agreed a deal with German media group Bertelsmann to combine their Penguin and Random House businesses.
Under the terms of the deal, the two businesses will be run in a joint venture called Penguin Random House.
Bertelsmann will own 53% of the joint venture, while Pearson will own 47%.
First off, I think “Random House Penguin” is a much better name, mainly because of the ambiguity—is it a Random-House Penguin? or a Random House-Penguin? Makes the new über-publisher seem both literary and playful.
The tie-up between Penguin and Random House marks the first deal between the world’s big six publishers. The others are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It would bring together the publishers of the Fifty Shades series and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.
I keep reading this “Fifty Shades AND Jamie Oliver” line, and, to be honestly ignorant, I have no idea what it signifies. “This new MegaPublisher will publisher Super-Successful Book #1 PLUS Super-Successful Book #2!!!! ZOMG!!” Honestly, if you told me right now that Random House already published both of these, I’d totally buy it. It’s not like these are two random products suddenly being lumped into one administrative mess: “It’s going to combine Twilight and Gilbert Sorrentino!! Holy shitsnacks!”
Anyway, on to the real content: the creepy consolidation of two massive publishing entitles:
Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino, who is leaving the firm at the end of the year, said: “Penguin is a successful, highly-respected and much-loved part of Pearson. This combination with Random House… will greatly enhance its fortunes and its opportunities.
“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”
In case you’re wondering, “be able to share a large part of their costs” equals “eliminate redundancies, especially in terms of personnel.” I hate to be the voice of cynicism, but all the “No jobs will be lost! We will rule the world together!” lip-service being paid to Penguin and RH employees has about a 99.9% chance of turning out to be utter and complete bullshit.
Based on recent results, combining the two firms will create a business with annual revenues of about £2.5bn and about one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. [. . .]
“In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine.
27%?! That’s fricking INSANE. And in no way can this be good for the book world. I don’t want to get into all that right now—I have sales calls to make, classes to teach—but putting so much power into the hands of one entity that produces a limited amount of books, yet will be defining culture, is fucked.
Which, for many, will bring to mind Amazon’s position in the marketplace . . .1 Speaking of Amazon:
“Amazon has 90% of the ebook market – if [the competition authorities] allowed that to happen, how can they block a merger that gives Penguin Random House 27%?”
And that’s really what this about, isn’t it? Making a company big enough to negotiate with Amazon in a way that will reap it shittons more money and profit. Great.
By random contrast, I just want to point out this WSJ article about the “semi-socialist” Bundesliga. (Referred to as a “soccer paradise.”) It’s a really interesting contrast between the free-spending, unmonitored Premiere League in the UK, and the less-profit motivated Bundesliga in Germany. Not only is the quality of the Bundesliga better—there are more teams with a legit chance to win the title, in contrast to the Chelsea, Manchester x 2, dominance in the Premiere League, or the Real Barcelona duo in La Liga—but the clubs are financially better off (Munich made $230 million last year, which exceeds the commercial revenues of Arsenal and Man United combined) AND more people are attending the matches.
What does this have to do with RHP? Nothing, really. But the idea that there is an alternative model to flat-out late-age hyper-charged capitalism—one that can be more successful in all the key areas—is a very captivating one.
1 This is a bit of a flawed analogy though. Amazon is a provider, a retail outlet that takes what is made elsewhere and dominates the chain from production to consumption. By contrast, Random House Penguin will control what is made available. This is a stark and horrifying difference. Amazon is predicated on the idea that “more of everything is better”—more books sold to more people in more formats equals more money—RHP is all about the production and sale of products that will benefit itself only. For all of the issues that people have with Amazon’s corporate practices, they are geared towards providing customers with what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price—it’s their tactics to achieving this that are circumspect. RHP will be about blockbusters and leveraging its enormous impact to restrict buying options, or at least direct customers into buying its products for the benefit of the corporate shareholders. In my mind—in which product diversity trumps everything, since the things I like are often not in line with mainstream anything—this RHP situation is a million times worse.
OK, now that ALTA is over and the new catalog doesn’t come out for two months, I have a bit of time to concentrate on this year’s Best Translated Book Awards. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting information about the fiction and poetry panelists, along with an updated list of all translations published in the U.S. this year. Also might highlight some of the books I think will be favorites, announce official dates for the announcements of the longlist, shortlist, and winners, etc.
(And at some point we’ll figure out how to update the official BTBA website. With E.J. gone to Berlin, we’re still getting a handle on some of these logistical things.)
First up, I wanted to provide a general update about the fiction award. Here’s the list of this year’s Fiction Judges. Added to this year’s group are translators Bill Martin and Tess Lewis, and booksellers Stephen Sparks and Jenn Witte. They’re joining Michael Orthofer, Susan Harris, Bill Marx, Scott Esposito, and Monica Carter to determine this year’s twenty-five title longlist, and eventual winner.
Just to recap for everyone’s benefit, here are the general rules for this competition:
Right now, the nine judges are reading their way through all the books they’ve received this year, but to make everything easier on them, presses that want to ensure that their books are being considered for the award should send copies to everyone on this list by November 30th.
A certain press that will remain unnamed (but published more translations that any other over the past couple years, and probably receives more funding for “marketing” from foreign agencies than everyone else in the States combined . . . speculate as you will) recently expressed some dismay about the perceived “cost” of giving away “free books” to this many panelists, especially since they “haven’t won” the award in the past.
Before explaining why I think this is not just stupid, but damaging to book culture as a whole and a slap in the face to the translators this press claims to be concerned about, I want to reiterate that presses are welcome to submit PDF versions of the books to all of the panelists. It’s not preferred, but if a press is concerned about the costs of shipping their product to ten of the most adamant supporters of literature in translation in the United States, then they can save a few bucks and just email them to these addresses.
Now onto the rant: The “logic” behind “demurring” from sending books to the BTBA judges is totally insane. These are ten of the most supportive readers of international literature in the country—many of whom already receive this press’s books. (Sidenote: If a press has already sent a book to one of these reviewers, they don’t need to resend it. And feel free to email and check in before sending a duplicate.) If these reviewers and bookseller’s AREN’T already receiving this press’s books, where are they sending them? Have they decided that reading copies are an unnecessary expense?
As a publisher myself, I can say that the LEAST you can do for one of your books is send copies to readers who are likely to review or recommend these books. It’s not like there’s a ton of huge media outlets for experimental fiction in translation—presses depend on readers like these judges to help spread the word about their titles.
To claim that sending out ten review copies would “leave a smoking hole” in one’s budget is kind of absurd. What is the actual cost of this? In terms of cost accounting, the books themselves are valueless—the printing is a sunk cost, that’s already paid for, and copies that haven’t sold have no intrinsic value until a reader wants to buy them. So basically, the cost is about $20 for shipping these books by media mail to the ten panelists, and maybe an extra $10 for packaging materials. To get this straight, this press’s marketing budget can’t absorb $30 per title to ensure that these titles get serious consideration for one of the most prestigious awards for international literature? An award that would result in their author & translator receiving $5,000 apiece?
This is an award that was designed to benefit all of the translators and international authors whose books are published here in the States, and which tend to be underpromoted and overlooked. Our goal is to highlight the best books in translation as a way of creating a sort of “crib sheet” for readers out there looking to explore the world of literature outside of our linguistic boundaries. And I think we’ve done a damn good job of doing this. Looking back at the shortlisted titles, I’m impressed by just how awesome this collection of books is. And as relatively small as this might be in comparison to awards like the NBCC, NBA, Nobel Prize, I think it’s fantastic that the translators of these books get some recognition for the work that they’ve done. And it they win the $5,000, that’s even better.
The translation field is one that can be pretty lonely and disconnected, and can often leave you feeling unappreciated on the whole. It’s important that everyone involved in this—particularly publishers who are making their living off of the work of underpaid translators—do whatever they can to help raise the awareness of the great books that came out last year, and the people who made these possible. As cheesy as it sounds, I truly believe that every non-profit (or for profit) who has titles eligible for this award should put aside their differences to help make this award as impactful as it can be. It’s a step in the right direction for literature in translation, and to try and undermine it because of personal grudges or “marketing budgets” is small and pathetic.
And if Murakami Haruki wins, I’m calling in sick.
Those odds are plain out stupid. I sort of find the betting on literary prizes angle to be intriguing, but it’s so clear that the betting public is basically no more knowledgable than a herd of sheep, and just as likely to follow and loud dog.
And why is Bob Dylan have 10/1 odds? I’m calling in dead if he wins.
Hardcore Three Percent fans may remember some of my issues and troubles with the hack writer, John Locke (in comparison to the talented philosopher John Locke and the John Locke who featured prominently on Lost), who is the author of hundreds1 of Donovan Creed mystery novels, which feature midgets, pseudo-thriller plot-lines, and misogyny.
Last summer, I wrote a long piece for Publishing Perspectives with the inflammatory title “Why Selling Ebooks at 99 cents Destroys Minds.” I don’t actually think a 99 cent price tag is making the world a dumber place (American culture already has this locked down and doesn’t really need much help), but I think the surplus of self-published books by authors who rely on cheap pricing to attract readers clogs up the marketplace and puts an undue focus on ebooks as “cheap entertainment” instead of a more worthwhile (and valued) investment of time and attention and money.
If you’re interested in hearing more about all this, check out this podcast. The main point of this post isn’t to rehash that old argument, but to gloat over the egg on John Locke’s face as a result of this New York Times article about self-published authors who paid for favorable reviews.
Let me make one other prefatory remark to expose my anti-John Locke bias. If you click on that Publishing Perspectives article above, you’ll see that there are 103 comments—the vast majority of which are from John Locketards2 telling me that I “suck,” that I’m an “elitist,” that I’m an “idiot,” a “bad publisher,” an “ignoramus,” a “cretin,” and generally a “bad person.” This hurt my feelings. :( Which is why this NY Times article made me so jolly yesterday . . .
Just to summarize: This uber-capitalist Jason Rutherford, founded a company by which self-published authors could buy positive 5-star reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, which helps boost sales to the masses who care about things like that.
In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.
There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month. [. . .]
Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.
But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.
Of course, the vast majority of the reviewers who wrote these “enthusiastically ecstatic” reviews never read the books in question, because why? It’s all one big scam anyway . . .
Mr. Rutherford’s busiest reviewer was Brittany Walters-Bearden, now 24, a freelancer who had just returned to the United States from a stint in South Africa. She had recently married a former professional wrestler, and the newlyweds had run out of money and were living in a hotel in Las Vegas when she saw the job posting.
Ms. Walters-Bearden had the energy of youth and an upbeat attitude. “A lot of the books were trying to prove creationism,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know where I stand, but they make a solid case.”
For a 50-word review, she said she could find “enough information on the Internet so that I didn’t need to read anything, really.” For a 300-word review, she said, “I spent about 15 minutes reading the book.” She wrote three of each every week as well as press releases. In a few months, she earned $12,500.
“There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said. “But I had to produce 70 pieces of content a week to pay my bills.”
Of course, when this article came out over the weekend, Twitter exploded with writers, reviewers, and all other book people appalled by this process, which devalues the review process, customer ratings, and basically everything. Personally, I figured everyone already assumed this was happening—WE LIVE IN AMERICA THE LAND OF SCAMMING OPPORTUNITY!
I was half-bored reading the article—c’mon, shock me! give me some outrage!—but then found the John Locke part and starting giggling like a fricking schoolgirl:
John Locke started as a door-to-door insurance salesman, was successful enough to buy his own insurance company, and then became a real estate investor. In 2009, he turned to writing fiction. By the middle of 2011, his nine novels, most of them suspense tales starring a former C.I.A. agent, Donovan Creed, had sold more than a million e-books through Amazon, making him the first self-published author to achieve that distinction.
Mr. Locke, now 61, has also published a nonfiction book, “How I Sold One Million E-Books in Five Months.” One reason for his success was that he priced his novels at 99 cents, which encouraged readers to take a chance on someone they didn’t know. Another was his willingness to try to capture readers one at a time through blogging, Twitter posts and personalized e-mail, an approach that was effective but labor-intensive.
“My first marketing goal was to get five five-star reviews,” he writes. “That’s it. But you know what? It took me almost two months!” In the first nine months of his publishing career, he sold only a few thousand e-books. Then, in December 2010, he suddenly caught on and sold 15,000 e-books.
One thing that made a difference is not mentioned in “How I Sold One Million E-Books.” That October, Mr. Locke commissioned Mr. Rutherford to order reviews for him, becoming one of the fledging service’s best customers. “I will start with 50 for $1,000, and if it works and if you feel you have enough readers available, I would be glad to order many more,” he wrote in an Oct. 13 e-mail to Mr. Rutherford. “I’m ready to roll.”
Of course he didn’t mention it! How embarrassing that you’d have to pay to get fake five-star reviews! But that’s not even the worst part. I think this little caveat is the most offensive and ridiculous detail in the whole article:
[Locke] also asked that the reviewers make their book purchases directly from Amazon, which would then show up as an “Amazon verified purchase” and increase the review’s credibility.
Oh, John Locke, you tricky little man! So not only did you pay for positive reviews, but you paid for people to buy your books! That’s both dishonest, and a bit desperate seeming. Granted, you’re still a millionaire, and I’m sitting in a library trying to convince freshman to take translation classes, but well, I have my dignity. And when the Locketards invade the comments section below to tell me how much of an asshole I am, I’lll just smile and wonder how much you might have paid them for their allegiance.
1 This figure is exaggerated to approximate John Locke’s view of himself.
2 My term for fans of his drivel.
From The Guardian:
James Joyce’s Ulysses has topped poll after poll to be named the greatest novel of the 20th century, but according to Paulo Coelho, the book is “a twit”. [. . .]
Writers go wrong, according to Coelho, when they focus on form, not content. “Today writers want to impress other writers,” he told the paper. “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”
Here are just a few of the things that are wrong with these statements:
1) I’m willing to go out on a limb here and claim that Ulysses has had, oh, approximately 0% impact on the writing of the vast majority of today’s popular/influential English writers—J-Franz, Richard Ford, 90% of MFA graduates, most all Oprah book club authors, etc. etc.
2) Can a book even be a “twit”? That’s confusing. The other day I was on a rant that NBC should get crabs, but even I realized the absurdity of that statement. Hey, Paulo—Ulysses is a book. It is fiction. It is not a living breathing thing.
3) And “twit”??? Who even says that?
4) THIS sort of “I APPEAL TO EVERYONE” crap is what I think is ruining contemporary literature.
Speaking to Brazilian newspaper Folha de S Paulo, Coelho said the reason for his own popularity was that he is “a modern writer, despite what the critics say”. This doesn’t mean his books are experimental, he added – rather, “I’m modern because I make the difficult seem easy, and so I can communicate with the whole world.”
Nothing like a bit of stupid to get me back into the swing of this blogging thing . . . .
From today’s PW:
The week leading to Mother’s Day was a good one for print books in general and adult fiction in particular. Unit sales of fiction titles at the outlets tracked by Nielsen BookScan rose 20% in the week driven by sales of that new favorite Mother’s Day gift—one of the titles from E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy.
According to BookScan, sales of Fifty Shades of Grey jumped 40% in the week before Mother’s Day compared to the earlier week, selling almost 443,000 copies, pushing total sales to about 1.5 million at outlets tracked by BookScan.
For both of you who are reading this and have somehow avoided encountering this phenomenon, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy is basically smutty fan-fic that has become a massive thing among suburban moms. (It’s generally referred to as “mommy porn,” not because it’s about moms and porn, but because it’s the porn that mommies are willing to read. Apparently.)
But this whole thing raises a lot of issues for me. We’re such a creepy moralistic culture that people wig out with M.I.A. flips off the camera during the Super Bowl (and why not? ‘Eff you viewer and corporate America and self-indulgent, obnoxious, irritating NFL), but we’re totally cool with buying soft core porn for the women who reared us? Very strange.
I have no moral issues with any of this though. I’m glad that women in the suburbs are finding some pleasure in reading. My issue is with the smut that’s got them all on fire . . . Here’s a couple choice moments from the GoodReads quotes page for Fifty Shades of Grey:
“Does this mean you’re going to make love to me tonight, Christian?” Holy shit. Did I just say that? His mouth drops open slightly, but he recovers quickly.
“No, Anastasia it doesn’t. Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck . . . hard. Secondly, there’s a lot more paperwork to do, and thirdly, you don’t yet know what you’re in for. You could still run for the hills. Come, I want to show you my playroom.”
My mouth drops open. Fuck hard! Holy shit, that sounds so… hot. But why are we looking at a playroom? I am mystified.
“You want to play on your Xbox?” I ask. He laughs, loudly.
“No, Anastasia, no Xbox, no Playstation. Come.” . . . Producing a key from his pocket, he unlocks yet another door and takes a deep breath.
Xbox? GROAN. But wait, there’s more:
“Why don’t you like to be touched” Ana whispered, staring up into soft grey eyes.
“Because I’m fifty shades of fucked-up, Anastasia”
Really?! The “fifty shades” thing runs throughout this book? THAT’S SO ORIGINAL.
““I am going to have coffee with Christian Grey . . . and I hate coffee.”
Is this what the good people of the suburbs refer to as “character development”?
“Holy shit. What does that mean? Does he white-slave small children to some God-forsaken part of the planet?”
OK, total props for making “white-slave” a verb. That’s the first thing in this book I can get behind. (Did you see what I did there? “Get behind.”)
“I’d like to bite that lip.”
Holy Jesus this is just TERRIBLE. There are a million variations on that construction that are hotter and more interesting: “I’d like to ace your deuce on the tennis court,” or “I’d like to conjugate your verbs,” or “I’d like to entangle my neutrons with your protons.” Whatever. But “I’d like to bit that lip”???? DO YOU EVEN HAVE AN IMAGINATION E.L. JAMES?
This post has no real place here on Three Percent, except to point out that American mainstream tastes tend to suck. We make fun of Eurovision songs and then read stuff like this? Who are we to judge? And really, is suburban life that boring? I’m sorry, American moms—your plight is not getting the attention it deserves.
So, as with years past, Publishing Perspectives asked me to write up something about this year’s PEN World Voices Festival. I did so, but unlike years past, I wasn’t as effusively complimentary . . . I feel bad criticizing PEN WV because the festival has been such a huge boon for book culture over the years and because it was thanks to WV that Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie spoke here in Rochester back in 2008.
That said, no one can rest on their laurels, and after the past couple festivals, I think it’s worth taking a more critical look so that the festival can move forward and reach its full potential.
Here’s a bit of my piece:
Goals of the Festival
Before I start explaining what I think would make for an Ideal World Voices (IWV), it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what a festival like this is trying to accomplish. According to the “Letter from PEN” at the front of the program, “we seek to present the best of national and international literature and by doing so we adamantly focus on reinforcing the importance of the premise that freedom of expression is the foundation of meaningful existence and the essence of brave and great art.”
OK. That’s great grant writing speak. Seriously. I’d drain my life savings to fund “brave and great art” that gets at the “foundation of meaningful existence.” (Although the line about focusing “on reinforcing the importance of the premise” is pretty weak.) But this program isn’t written for the National Endowment for the Arts . . . or at least it shouldn’t be.
In my vision of the IWV, the festival would set out to accomplish a few things that I think are central to preserving and enhancing a healthy literary culture in America:
1. Raise the profile of international literature and translation, thus expanding the horizons of readers and fostering an international dialogue about art and writing.
2. Get books in the hands of new readers, because without readers none of this means anything, and sales will help expand the reach of the festival as a whole, thus encouraging more publishers, readers, and foundations to support it.
3. Focus on the average reader, NOT the members of the publishing industry who already are overwhelmed by book events and rarely actually buy anything.
4. Be entertaining, otherwise you’re just shoving medicine down the throats of the unwilling.
5. Offer something unique, something you can’t pull off anywhere else in the world.
To me, those things seem totally obvious, and like they were part of the original WV DNA. Perhaps it’s all a bit lofty to think that a festival can help improve book culture. I just don’t see the point of not trying to do this. And not to take grant-speak too seriously, but I don’t think anyone walked away from this year’s festival suddenly aware that “freedom of expression” is important. Readers don’t want to be preached at — they want to enjoy themselves and find out about interesting things.
Click here to read it all, including my recommendations on how to make this a better festival.
I think this press release speaks for itself:
Writers Omi at Ledig House Translation Lab, Fall 2012
Writers Omi at Ledig House, a part of Omi International Arts Center, has been awarded a grant from Amazon.com to fund Translation Lab, a weeklong special, intensive residency for five collaborating writer‐translator teams in the fall of 2012. Writers Omi will host five English language translators to the Omi International Arts Center for one week. These translators will be invited along with the writers whose work is being translated. This focused residency will provide an integral stage of refinement, allowing translators to dialogue with the writers about text‐specific questions. It will also serve as an essential community‐builder for English‐language translators who are working to increase the amount of international literature available to American readers.
The dates for Translation Lab are November 9‐16, 2012. All residencies are fully funded, including international airfare and local transport from New York City to the Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, NY.
Writers Omi will be accepting proposals for participation until July 1, 2012. Translators, writers, editors, or agents can submit proposals. Each proposal should be no more than three pages in length and provide the following information:
Proposals should be submitted only once availability for residency participation of the translator and writer has been confirmed. All proposals and inquiries should be sent directly to DW Gibson, director or Writers Omi at Ledig House at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m sure some people will object to translators, international writers, and literary readers benefitting from this, but I’ll save that snark for after the Salon.com article about this topic comes out. (How’s that for a tease?) . . .
. . . Although I can’t resist pointing out that this line is remarkably stupid: “Suddenly Amazon began giving money away, but only to specific organizations of its choosing.” Really?!? They chose who to give their money to? FOR SHAME. I wonder if the NEA—or, I don’t know, every foundation in the history of fucking foundations—has ever considered doing something so radical as only giving away their money to organizations they want to support. SO IMMORAL. No, that article doesn’t sound like sour grapes. Not at all. Especially since it’s written by a “for-profit” press, which, I’ll take to assume means “completely ignorant of the inner workings of a non-profit press.”
Sorry. Just had to get that off my chest. Now go on and apply for this Translation Lab. It’s much >> all the bitching and moaning by people who don’t do dick for translators.
OK, done. For real this time.
We also talked about my daughter and her “letter of hate” to the awful Dan Borislow, who, “ruined our summer of fun.”
(And in my defense for encouraging her to write this, there’s no amount of 8-year-old crazy that can approximate Borislow’s 50-year-old detached from all reality crazy. Just read the emails in the link above, and keep in mind that this jag ruined women’s soccer for tens of thousands of young girls in the most egotistical, asinine fashion ever. Chloë is 100% in the right on this.)
I’m not a big ebook fan for myriad reasons—including my dislike of John Locke and his $.99 empire and the fact that my memory is shit when it comes to reading on a screen—but I don’t think any of my concerns overlap with those of Jonathan Franzen:
The acclaimed and bestselling novelist, who denies himself access to the internet when writing, was talking at the Hay festival in Cartagena, Colombia. “Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring,” said Franzen, according to the Telegraph.
“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
OK, sure. Permanence. Thanks, J-Franz for once again conveying the fact to the world that you are a Victorian. (Both in terms of writing and thinking.) Even the title of this piece is strangely pre-1900 sounding: “Jonathan Franzen warns ebooks are corroding values.”
This reminds me of my favorite moment from this year’s MLA conference, when David Shields was teeing off on contemporary American writers in general (and Franzen in particular) who seemed unaware of aesthetic advancements from the past hundred years. As Shields said, it’s totally fine to write a novel like Freedom, but what’s the point of doing something so blatantly outdated?
Apparently, Putin wants to create a 100-title Russian Literary Canon- that every schoolchild would be required to read as a form of “subtle cultural therapy.”
At the same time, everyone outside of Russia will freak out and quote 1984 at each other.
But seriously, this is totally stupid:
Putin’s suggestion came in an essay of several thousand words long, one that is but a single brick in his campaign to reclaim a third term as Russia’s president in all-but-decided elections that will take place on March 4. He has said and written many other terrifying things; he routinely threatens, mocks and curses those whom he does not like or understand. But his cultural-unity-through-literature proposal is most chilling of all. For it is a rule of history that only tyrants are interested in what their subjects read.
Most of the tediously long essay, called “Russia: The Ethnicity Issue,” is shamelessly borrowed from the demagogue’s playbook, positing a confused West (“the melting pot of assimilation is highly volatile”) against a Russia that was almost destroyed not by communism, but the Soviet Union’s eventual downfall (“Russia did not vanish, even when the state as an institution was critically weakened.”).
What has allowed the nation to persevere through such cataclysmic change? Putin’s answer: “The Russian people and Russian culture are the linchpin, the glue that binds together this unique civilization.” His advice for all those Armenians and Tajiks who live in his country is to become more Russian, for “this kind of civilizational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture.” [. . .]
And now, Putin want to preserve “the dominance of Russian culture” with a reading list.
Social engineering through state mandated literature: Nothing else that Putin has done has been quite so nakedly Soviet in its desire to manipulate the human intellect into docility.
“Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read,” he writes.
“[Students] would be asked to write an essay on one of them in their final exams. Or at least let us give young Russians a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and world outlook in various student competitions. State policy with regard to culture must provide appropriate guidelines.”
If this sounds like it might be a literary canon mandated by the Kremlin, Putin wants to assure you that there will not be censorship of any kind. His goal is only “subtle cultural therapy.”
E.J. and Nate have censored this post for reasons that are probably obvious.
I swore to myself that I would never write about Amazon, pricing, price checking, and the suckery of NPR ever again, but
then of course, NPR has to go and run this insipidly stupid piece about a “predatory” Amazon. I’m half-tempted to go back to my normal argument that of course they’re predatory, in much the same way all corporations are predatory and take advantage of the system as it exists and tax loopholes and economies of scale and all of that shit. Bottomline: corporations only exist to make money, not to make the world a better place. Does that disturb me? Hell yes it does. I’m a pretty anti-corporate person, but trying to change the nature of Amazon by complaining that what they’re doing is unfair seems similar to trying to convince people to read translations because it will “make the world a better place.” Not to go all 2002 on this subject, but this is a time when the phrase “don’t hate the playa, hate the game” is pretty fitting. But I don’t want to talk about Amazon in this post . . . Instead I want to talk about how NPR sucks and is helping make this conversation about Amazon and other corporations really stupid and middlebrow and unproductive. Let’s start with a little thing called timing. Aside from the bit about Nancy Pearl’s new book series (which no publisher would touch until Amazon decides to publish it at which point everything is EVIL), everything in this article is at least a month old. The Price Check App? We burned that bridge long ago. And then there’s those pesky little things we call “facts.” This article, which is as typically lazy as all NPR journalism is, implies that the Price Check App applied to books, which is PATENTLY NOT TRUE. But why bother researching things when you can just throw shit at a wall and create a “controversy” by just riding whatever opinions get you the most hits. But the thing I really want to get at is how this article actually impairs any sort of intellectual discussion about the corporation vs. culture situation. Check this quote from O’Reilly’s publisher, Joe Wikert:
“The word ‘predator’ is pretty strong, and I don’t use it loosely,” he says, “but . . . I could have sworn we had laws against predatory pricing. I just don’t understand why that’s not an issue — because that’s got to be hurting other device makers out there in trying to capture this market.” Now what should follow this quote? If NPR had any journalistic balls, they would do a bit of research into anti-trust laws, and explain whether Amazon is violating something or not. If not, the discussion could be about whether anti-trust laws need to be updated, or why they’ve been corroded over the past half-century and what that’s resulted int. THAT would be an interesting article, and a fucking useful one. Does NPR go in that direction?
But Wikert is also well aware that Amazon has made life very convenient for consumers. GAAAAGGH! This is not journalism, this is explaining that we need air to breathe. Well done, NPR. Glad no one broke a sweat on that. One last example of the illogical crap that is this article. Dennis Loy Johnson (an amazing publisher and the face of the War Against Amazon), talks about an app he wants to create to promote independent bookstores:
Melville Publishing is trying to develop a number of products to help booksellers. One of them is the “shelf talker,” a digital display that helps customers browse through print books in a brick-and-mortar store but buy e-books from that store’s website instead of Amazon. Naturally, because everyone at NPR is so tuned in, they realized immediately that when you buy an ebook from an independent bookstore, it’s actually being supplied by GOOGLE, another corporation that is EVIL and should be investigated and could be violating anti-trust laws. Did they ask Dennis whether he’s uncomfortable favoring one corporate behemoth over another?
But such devices might be too little, too late. Johnson would prefer to see Amazon investigated for antitrust violations, but he doesn’t expect that will happen anytime soon. Why not? Tell me why no one will investigate them if they’re obviously breaking laws. THAT IS WHAT WE ALL WANT TO KNOW. Explain something useful to me, NPR. Please. Go out and dig around. Learn things. Pass along that knowledge. Just once, NPR, just once. God damn it.
OK, I got my heart rate back under control, but
then came across this piece about Kodak’s bankruptcy and how Rochester “hasn’t lost its sparkle,” and which may well be the most insincere article I’ve ever read. Thanks to Kodak’s inability to adapt to the world around it, Rochester is getting a ton of attention these days, with most pieces being of the “what will Rochester do without Kodak?” variety. Despite the fact that Kodak’s decline took place many years ago, and this bankruptcy just a formality, questioning Rochester’s future is a valid enough approach to the story. The problem I’ve had with all of these articles is that they address absolutely none of the actual problems present in Rochester, instead covering up everything with pollyannaish statements about how everything here “sparkles.” Seriously, Rochester (especially at and around the universities) is a very decent place to live, but the weird segregated nature of the city, the terrible impact of the soulless suburbs, the incredibly high teen pregnancy rate (one of the highest in the country), the laughably bad urban planning, the mismanagement of almost all beautification projects, the fast ferry failure, and the implosion of the city school district are REAL ISSUES. But rather than even mention that Rochester faces a plethora of challenges and has to be very ingenious to save itself from becoming yet another mid-sized American city whose main export is crippling depression, lets just reiterate that we love our hometown because it is wondrous good and filled with unicorns!
Every time I turn around it seems like there’s a new building in the medical center. There are gleaming spaces full of people in lab coats and blinking racks of computers. From new medicines, to computer chips — it feels like it’s all being invented here. People walk together with their heads down in deep discussion and you can just sense them going places no one has ever gone before. What does this even mean? The U of R Medical Center is stunningly impressive, but I’m pretty sure they don’t make computer chips there. (I know, I know, but this article is intentionally misleading in those juxtaposed sentences, which is exactly why it makes me furious.) So for anyone struggling to survive in a former blue-collar town, they should look ahead to the future with stars in their eyes because people in lab coats walk around talking about “deep” subjects?!?? Are you even serious? NPR has gone from being the alternative to the crap that is Fox News and CNN and MSNBC to being a voice of middlebrow authority that is absolutely unquestioned by most left-leaning thinkers. Which is a terrible mistake to make, and will only drive the conversation about important issues into a more banal and misguided place.
That is all.
This is likely to be the first of two or three “socialist-leaning” posts I’m going to write this week in honor of the New Hampshire primary. . . .
Anyway, to get to the point, I just read this PW piece and am feeling the rage.
A recently introduced bill in the House of Representatives would bar the federal government from mandating that the public have free access to the research it funds. The Research Works Act (HR 3699), co-sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), was introduced on December 16, 2011, and is strongly backed by the Association of American publishers, which, in a statement, characterized the bill as “preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers.” But critics, including academics and the library community, are blasting the bill, calling it a “perplexing turn of events.”
The bill, now headed to committee, is the latest effort by publishers to push Congress to outlaw public access policies since 2008, when the National Institutes of Health adopted a requirement that researchers, as a condition of receiving federal funding, must deposit their final research papers in a government archive to be made publicly available within a year of publication. In 2009, publishers pushed a similar bill, the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” which also sought to bar public access policies, but the effort was abandoned.
The text of the Research Works Act is brief, but in a statement AAP officials say the bill would “pre-empt” federal agencies’ “planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories,” which, AAP claims, “unfairly compete” with established publishers.
“The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers,” said Tom Allen, president and CEO, Association of American Publishers. “Journal articles are widely available in major academic centers, public libraries, universities, interlibrary loan programs and online databases. Many academic, professional and business organizations provide staffs and members with access to such content.”
Wow. So, let me get this straight. The NIH and U.S. Government want to make the final reports from the health research they fund available to the public which indirectly funds said research. THAT WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY INSANE. Access to health information for all?! What’s next, health care for children? Thank God (and Tim Tebow) that we live in a country where publishers can prevent this sort of useful information from reaching the people it’s meant to help. Phew.
But seriously, what backasswards logic. As I understand it (and I am still sleep-deprived from the raucous MLA and my nightmarish red eye), the publishers are arguing against “government regulations,” when the government “regulation” they’re complaining about is one that makes the information free and available. Thus, they’re effectively working to prevent publicly funded research from, well, reaching the public.
One of my personal resolutions for the New Year was to stop swearing so much online, but this deserves a hearty FUCK YOU. Not to adopt too radical a perspective, but this is the sort of situation that helps prevent breakthroughs in health and science from occurring, simply in order to maintain the status quo. By limiting access to this research solely to make money and continue running their businesses the way they always have, these asshat publishers are restricting the potential usefulness of this research and only allowing members of a certain class to access it. Great. Keep up the good work. And please go bankrupt. Based on this case alone, I’m pretty sure that would actually add to the greater good of society.
Following on my post from yesterday, which was following on Richard Russo’s op-ed piece, which was following on Amazon’s “Price Check special,” today Slate’s tech guy, Farhad Manjoo, has his own piece about Amazon and indie bookstores—one that has seemingly pissed off everyone I know.
If there’s one thing to say about this, Manjoo brings the provocation right from the get-go: “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you.”
That sound you hear is the sound of 99% indie booksellers exploding simultaneously. And for that last 1%? Check this:
I was primed to nod in vigorous agreement when I saw novelist Richard Russo’s New York Times op-ed taking on Amazon’s thuggish ways. But as I waded into Russo’s piece—which was widely passed around on Tuesday—I realized that he’d made a critical and common mistake in his argument. Rather than focus on the ways that Amazon’s promotion would harm businesses whose demise might actually be a cause for alarm (like a big-box electronics store that hires hundreds of local residents), Russo hangs his tirade on some of the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find: independent bookstores. Russo and his novelist friends take for granted that sustaining these cultish, moldering institutions is the only way to foster a “real-life literary culture,” as writer Tom Perrotta puts it. Russo claims that Amazon, unlike the bookstore down the street, “doesn’t care about the larger bookselling universe” and has no interest in fostering “literary culture.”
That’s simply bogus. As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books. With his creepy laugh and Dr. Evil smile, Bezos is an easy guy to hate, and I’ve previously worried that he’d ruin the book industry. But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him for crushing that precious indie on the corner.
Yep. “Crushing that precious indie on the corner.”
Before getting in to Manjoo’s argument, I just want to highlight some of the terms and phrases he uses in relation to bookstores and their fans:
“most mistakenly mythologized”
“frustrating consumer experience”
“no customer reviews”
“no reliable way to find what you’re looking for”
“dubious recommendations engine”
“difficult to use”
“my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist”
“hectoring attitude of bookstore cultists”
“allegedly important functions that local booksellers”
If I didn’t know better, I’d say that a bookstore must’ve stole Farhad’s girlfriend at some point in time. This is vitriol, or in schoolyard parlance, them’s fightin words.
Manjoo’s anti-bookstore argument mostly revolves around price—the idea that you can get 2 books on Amazon for the price of 1 that you can get at the local bookstore, and jumps from that to the conclusion that the only reason bookstores sell books at list price is because they are riddled with inefficiencies.
He does at least try and understand why some people like bookstores:
I get that some people like bookstores, and they’re willing to pay extra to shop there. They find browsing through physical books to be a meditative experience, and they enjoy some of the ancillary benefits of physicality (authors’ readings, unlimited magazine browsing, in-store coffee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I sometimes wander into Whole Foods for the luxurious experience of buying fancy food, I don’t begrudge bookstore devotees spending extra to get an experience they fancy.
Cause yeah, the experience of visiting a store like Talking Leaves in Buffalo, NY or Square Books in Oxford, MS is pretty much the same luxurious experience you get in any of the 304 Whole Foods locations littered across our country. Exactly.
But this starts to get at Manjoo’s prejudices and where he’s really gone astray . . . More on that in a second, first, here’s one last damning quote about the (non-)value of bookstores:
Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read. This is the biggest flaw in Russo’s rant. He points to several allegedly important functions that local booksellers play in fostering “literary culture”—they serve as a “gathering place” for the community, they “optimistically set up . . . folding chairs” at readings, they happily guide people toward books they’ll love. I’m sure all of that is important, but it’s strange that a novelist omits the most critical aspect of a vibrant book-reading culture: getting people to buy a whole heckload of books.
What this all boils down to is Manjoo’s unabashed desire to operate like a rational consumer. If the goal of every entity—business, consumer, etc.—is to “maximize surplus value,” then you should try and wed yourself to the principles of neo-classical economics, in which the free market determines the price (there’s nothing preventing bookstores from discounting, and thus increasing demand), and it’s your job to only purchase things in which you get the biggest bang for your buck. It is absolutely 100% economically irrational to purchase a book you’re willing to pay $30 for for that $30 if there’s a $20 version available through means that don’t entail a lot of opportunity costs. This is the primary consumer advantage for online retailers. It’s just as easy (or even easier) to buy the Steve Jobs bio via an online retailer than it is to drive to a store and buy one, and that way you’ve accrued surplus value.
OK, fine. Tech people and stock brokers and MBAs and some Slate writers think like this and want to live like this. Two things: first off, people don’t behave rationally, especially when it comes to price, and secondly, there are hidden opportunity costs in this scenario that relate to community.
Manjoo, in a myopic fashion that is stunningly boneheaded, equates the “buy local” movement with bookstores supporting local authors. That is foolish and beside the point. One of the primary purposes of bookstores is building a literary community. Sure, you can point to readings (which, unless it’s Richard Russo are generally attended by 10 readers and a few homeless) as a physical representation of this, but it’s actually something much larger. A good independent bookstores is a place where you know you can interact with people who read as much as you do. It’s a safe haven for the literati in a world that’s increasingly rationalized and scary. It’s one of the few physical spaces where you can talk about literature and art after college.
This all sounds sort of dreamy and pollyannaish, but bear with me for a few sentences . . . In a way, a good bookstore is the equivalent of Cheers. Sure, I could buy a six-pack for less than half of what it would cost in the bar, but I wouldn’t get to chat with my favorite bartender, laugh with my friends, or check out the pretty people. OK, this is maybe as shitty an analogy as the Whole Foods one, but the “value” of a store like Schuler Books in Grand Rapids, MI, is the social experience AND the book selection. Manjoo’s focus on cushy chairs and shit belies the gross materialism that underlies his entire worldview. (Which helps when you talk about tech, I suppose. And explains some of that social awkwardness thing.)
The reason bookstore lovers advocate for bookstores rarely has to do with the actual books available. We all know that we can find anything we want in quicker, easier ways that cost less money. The reason people sign petitions to save St. Mark’s is because of the enjoyment you get of people watching there, or chatting with Margarita about crazy Russian writers and the East Village poets. Things are learned in bookstores and in interactions that are not able to be learned in online experiences. And for some people, that value exceeds the $10 that you could save buying Steve Jobs online. This isn’t true for all people, but it is for some. Like, as he admits, Farhad Manjoo’s wife.
Anyway, to parallel yesterday’s post, here are three ideas:
1) If you value this community experience and feel like online retailing (especially the big-A) will eradicate it like polio, you should try and find ways to help your local retailers and rail against the online stores. This is the route a lot of booksellers take, and it is an admirable one based on beliefs. I’m not sure how much of a difference this makes in the end, since technology is molding society and our values, but it’s an option.
2) You can give up. Buy books online and use that extra $10 to meet your bookish friends at a local pub. Invest in anti-depressants and Match.com subscriptions. Pray that you become part of the 1% even as you watch hyper-capitalist companies suck your surplus dry in ways so insidious that you think you’re actually signing up for them.
3) Maybe there’s an evolution that could take place. The U.S. Government and other municipalities should make it easier for bookstores to become nonprofits or get grants or find ways to support their base costs. Maybe bookstores and libraries or museums or cafes or bars or other community spaces could join forces in creating spaces for post-grad thinkers to share ideas and passions and books and whatever. The idea of a bookstore a la 1990 starting up in any mid-sized town and surviving is difficult to imagine, but there are always places like Writers & Books and whatnot that can combine bookselling with writing with the love of books with the idea of desiring social interaction.
Oh, and as a friend (who is also writing about Manjoo’s “boneheaded” article) pointed out just now, this article reeks of link bait. Manjoo could be gaming us all, hoping we get pissed so that the read rate on his articles spikes leading to more money for him to spend on $.99 books at Amazon, thus maximizing value.
We talked about this very briefly on last week’s podcast, but now that Richard Russo has written an op-ed piece for the NY Times, I feel like it’s worth exploring this Amazon Price Check controversy in a bit more detail.
First off, for anyone not familiar with this recent Amazon vs. Indie Bookstore kerfuffle, here’s a quick synopsis: About a week ago, Amazon posted this offer explaining that on December 10th, if you use their Price Check App in a physical store, and then buy the product via Amazon.com, you’d get $5 off. Sort of.
To keep this as logical and accurate as possible, here’s the “fine print”:
Use the Price Check App with the location services enabled on your mobile device. See below for information on enabling your mobile device’s location services.
While you are out shopping, you may optionally provide the Price Check App the in-store advertised price of a qualifying product in the eligible product categories (Electronics, Toys, Sports, Music, and DVDs).
Place a qualifying product (shipped and sold by Amazon.com) into the shopping cart within the Price Check App.
Within twenty-four (24) hours of placing a qualifying product in your Price Check App shopping cart, complete your purchase from any Amazon channel (Price Check App, Amazon website, or other Amazon apps). If you do not make your purchase within this time period, the discount will expire.
Your discount of 5% off Amazon’s Price (up to a maximum of $5.00*), will be automatically applied at checkout within the Price Check App.
Naturally, indie bookstores (and Dennis Loy Johnson and many others) got PISSED about how this behavior (using customers to spy on competitors) was evil and would destroy all independent bookstores everywhere, and maybe cause Melancholia to crash into Earth. (Or something like that.)
What was pointed out in the comments section at MobyLives, and is absolutely evident in the instructions above is that books were not included in this program. Sure, some bookstores sell DVDs and Music, so they’re not completely unaffected by this program, but indie bookstores selling DVDs and CDs are making bigger mistakes and should be worrying about things other than Amazon.
Not that this “books aren’t included” argument had any impact whatsoever. Some of my favorite bookstores in the world took this Amazon program and used it as a marketing tool to reinforce local loyalties. Third Place had a special offer all day on the 10th, Diesel started an “Occupy Amazon” Facebook page and movement, and the ABA CEO Oren Teicher posted an open letter to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos that opens “We’re not shocked, just disappointed,” then builds off the sales tax controversy into an attack on the price check program.
Personally, I think the ABA should keep these two issues separate and deal with them on their own terms, but whatever. The point is, most indie stores seemed to follow a similar logic: Amazon may not be targeting bookstores with this particular offer, but they will in the future, and they’ve done enough damage that we need to react now. I worked in indie stores, I get this.
Yet, for some reason, this program didn’t bug me that much. I guess because a) I knew books weren’t included and that’s all I ever buy, aside from wine and b) I fucking hate Target/Best Buy/WalMart/Sam’s Club/Toys R Us and all the other crappy big box stores that sell Electronics, DVDs, Music, and Toys and make Henrietta, NY (and a billion other cities) a veritable wasteland of disgusting warehouse-style buildings and parking lots. To me, there’s little more depressing than driving down one of these streets in Anytown, USA passing by Applebee’s, Chili’s, Best Buy, a vacant Circuit City building, WalMart, and a nondescript sadness-inducing shopping mall. So, had I been motivated to leave behind the couch and my books to save 15% or $15 (whichever is less), to screw Target for its general state of sucking, I would’ve driven over to Sorrowville and scanned some toys that I would then buy from Amazon. Fuck em.
The thing is, shopping in all of these above named locations is an absolutely awful experience. And to pretend that even 25% of America is all quaint locally owned shops where customers get to know the owners and everyone smiles and bakes cookies for each other is foolish. Maybe in NYC and San Francisco and Seattle (ironically) and Chicago and large cities, this is the case. But where I live (where most people live), you can frequent the handful of decent locally owned restaurants and bars in town, but if you need to buy your daughter Mousetrap, you have to go into the bowels of hell. Or order it online. That is the truth.
I love shopping in indie bookstores. Whenever I visit a city, I check in at as many of them as I can. And buy books every single time. I have a problem. (I literally gave away 13 boxes of books when I last moved. And still have 10 in storage to go along with my 4 bookshelves at home, the 2 at work, and the growing stack of books next to my bed. DISEASED.) And I sincerely desire a situation in which indie stores populate the U.S. and most people have an actual choice between ordering books online (which you pretty much have to do if you live in Rochester) or buying from Bookstore X just down the road. I think that should be the goal of anyone advocating for buying local, or restricting Amazon’s influence, or whatever. What we want in the end is a healthy book culture in whatever form that takes.
Which brings me to Richard Russo’s opinion piece from today in which he goes after Amazon in praise of indie stores:
I first heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).
Books, interestingly enough, were excluded, but you could use your Amazon credit online to buy other things that bookstores sell these days, like music and DVDs. And, if you were scanning, say, the new Steve Jobs biography, you’d no doubt be informed that you were about to pay way too much. I wondered what my writer friends made of all this, so I dashed off an e-mail to Scott Turow, the president of the Authors Guild, and cc’ed Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Andre Dubus III, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Ann Patchett.
I’m not entirely clear that the first sentence of that second paragraph makes sense, but let’s let that go for a minute. Here’s my problem: Richard Russo and everyone he mentions in here are corporate authors. They are published by the largest media conglomerates in the world, who have used their power and money and influence to shape the book retail world to their advantage.
Who was the target of the last Robinson-Patman anti-trust ruling? Penguin and the other members of the Big Six. They were giving unfair discounts to B&N and Borders at the expense of indie bookstores? Why? Because they could make more money by aligning themselves with the big box stores. (Death to Big Box Stores!)
The reason I bring this up is because it’s worth wondering if the Big Six are in this publishing game for the benefit of book culture as a whole, or to make as much money as possible for their shareholders. The correct answer is the latter, and that’s reflected in nearly every decision they make. As a result, people like Richard Russo and Stephen King publish their books with Random House and Simon & Schuster so that they can reap the benefits of these corporate practices. Namely, Russo and King get way more cash and reach way more readers by being part of this system. They’re also not motivated by “doing the right thing for book culture” but by trying to maximize their impact, relevance, and earnings.
And that’s totally well within their rights. And by “their,” I mean Russo & Co., the Big Six, and Amazon. If one of these parties does something illegal, that’s a different matter, but as I well know, arguing against any of these entities from a moral “you shouldn’t maximize profits by being evil” perspective rings totally hollow in today’s business climate. Banks run rampant, oil companies are less than trustworthy, GE and all fellow corporations game the system to avoid paying any income tax whatsoever to the U.S. government. All in the name of capitalism and the free market, something that we’ve all unwittingly signed on to, and are still coming to fully understand the long-term impact of.
So it seems to me like there are three major ways to approach Amazon and this situation:
1) Acknowledge that what they’re doing is what every corporation would do if in their position (Amazon is not a bookstore, Amazon is more a tech company meets retailer), and that if you don’t like it, you should do everything in your power to benefit those outside of the corporate system and try and take down capitalism as a whole. Publish with nonprofits. Buy all books from local stores. Donate heavily to worthy literary organizations like PEN and Words Without Borders and Open Letter and the Center for the Art of Translation. Help foster and maintain a book culture that’s based in something other than price and hype.
2) Agree that capitalism rules the day, and go make your money in whatever way necessary. Amazon probably sells more Russo books than all the indie stores combined. (Maybe. I could be wrong, but if not now, then soon.) Random House’s colophon and publicity office gets Russo & Co. on the front of the NY Times Book Reivew. Use every advantage the current corporate and social structures give you to make as much money as you can, and if some presses and stores don’t make it, don’t worry—that’s capitalist Darwinism. The weak fail because they aren’t savvy enough. (I cringe writing that whole paragraph. Sorry.)
3) Figure out a valid third perspective or way of accomplishing what you really want. To say Amazon is a completely bad thing is to ignore the fact that someone living in a remote part of the country may not have access to books and other goods through their local stores. Or they have to deal with the obnoxious lighting of Target anytime they want to buy a TV or a copy of Twilight. That sucks. But it’s also true that book culture has been altered by the existence of Amazon. In some ways that are good (more people buying books), in some ways that are not-so-good (fewer communal places for book people to hang). Advocate for a fixed book price law. Work on finding ways to benefit local readers while acknowledging that a lot of people (especially in this economy) are very price sensitive. Find partnerships that benefit the culture as a whole.
I have no answers here. But I don’t think you’re going to get a capitalist company to stop acting in as capitalist fashion as possible, so rather than try and guilt them into “better” behavior, especially since MBAs around the world would likely applaud Amazon’s tactics, or say that they’re not going far enough, since the only goal there is in business is to make as much money as possible at the expense of your competitors.
So, today’s Inside Higher Ed has a piece about “OccupyMLA” the “newest Occupy movement,” which is currently only in Twitter form. My knowledge of this is based almost entirely on personal prejudices and this IHE article, but for any number of reasons, this bugs me immensely.1
First off, I’ll reiterate for the 10 millionth time that I am 100% behind the Occupy Movement. We post about it here as often as logical, and I spread the word to anyone who will listen (and many who won’t).
But this? OccupyMLA? It seems misguided, opportunistic, and, well, elitist. Sort of like the anti-Occupy Movement, movement.
Just check these early posts:
Your thoughts are more erudite than the venti latte you just served! Join us!
You did not learn Middle English so you could teach freshman comp! Join us!
Tired of making syllabi for courses you’ll never teach for jobs you lose to some assoc. prof. from an R1 Uni? Join us!
So let me get this straight: The main tenet of the OWS movement is the income disparity and the way the financial sector (and corporations as a whole) have screwed over 99% of everyone in favor of a rich elite. The percentage of Americans living in poverty2 is on the rise, something like 38% of college grads had to move back in with their parents, my generation is the first that is likely to earn less money than their predecessors (nevermind the fact that retirement is a pipe dream for 99% of us and health care a nearly unaffordable luxury), and I won’t be able to leave anything for my children.
Sure, all that stuff is going on with poor people and those who can’t afford a college education (at least not without going into massive, life-crippling debt), but god damn it, I know how to use an Oxford comma, so therefore I should only be teaching high level literature courses! I should be tenured!
Are there things about higher education—in terms of students and young faculty—that should be discussed and addressed? Hell yes. The rising costs of education, the rights of graduate students, the “rationalization” of the university which favors profit centers over good programs, the dicey interweaving of corporations and the academy, so on and forth.
One could even go so far to say that tenure should be abolished because it sets up a feudal-like system that abdicates responsibility and creates an inequality that favors reputation and doesn’t necessarily benefit students.
I’m not exactly behind this idea, but if I were to start an Occupy Movement that addresses higher education, I sure as hell wouldn’t be complaining about the fact that I’m too smart to work at a coffee shop. What this all comes off as is a sort of whinging desire to become part of the elite. These OccupyMLA folks don’t want to change the system and right inequalities—they want to be part of the privileged class.
And directing this at MLA? Don’t they know how the Occupy X moniker functions? It’s as if they’re factory workers upset about the overall inequalities of the manufacturing sector, and decide the best course of action is to OccupyUAW. Missing. The. Point.
Granted, there are a few hints that OccupyMLA isn’t as disconnected from the real world as I’ve just painted them. (Although, I suspect they really are that disconnected. Sorry.) For instance, two tweets that are more in line with actual issues are:
Don’t have any interviews at the MLA Convention in Seattle? Join us.
Manuscript rejected by outdated academic press? Join us.
These are things to discuss. What’s the future for young professors in an environment where money is scarse, and investments tend to go into non-position creating activities. And the university publication system is pretty busted. That’s a given that’s been talked about for a long time, but that never seems to change. (Q: What’s more resistent to change than the Catholic Church? A: Academia.)
So if you’re going to co-op a “populist,” inclusive movement to address issues in academia, do so with a goal of actually changing things for the greater masses, not so that you can have a sinecure that allows you to comfortably teach two classes a semester and have summers off. Don’t sound like a banker.
1 Although, in the case that this is a complete joke, then oops. It’s actually hard to tell, since a lot of the tweets are right in that strange spot where a parody of the tweet would be identical to the tweet itself. The fact that they’re retweeting a lot of messages from other parts of the Occupy Movement makes me believe that they are at least somewhat serious, but couching their position behind anonymity and globs of irony so that if this “movement” backfires, they are shielded from any and all critiques. Which, to me, is extra irritating. But in the event that this was never meant to be anything other than a place for professors to come up with witty quips about the “queering of the Mutability Cantos” or whatever, then this post never happened. Then again, if these “people” are retweeting legit Occupy messages to gain followers for their parody/joke, then they suck anyway. So . . . Yeah, I think that covers most of the potentially embarrassing outcomes.
2 Minor op-ed point here: What is considered the “poverty level” is bullshit. If you earn more than $22,000 for a family of 4, you’re above the poverty line. That is insane.
It’s a pretty decent, if wide-ranging, group of books, which includes everything from Paul Auster’s latest to Sofi Oksanen’s Purge to our own Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra to fricking Freedom. In glancing through this, it’s difficult to figure out which recent books aren’t on the list.
But I think that’s sort of the point at this stage: to provide library patrons and general readers with a list of titles that covers most every interest and aesthetic. You want sci-fi? Try China Mieville’s Kraken. Scandinavian thriller? How about Nesbo’s The Snowman. From a librarian perspective, this sort of makes sense, and provides a solid list for putting together a decent “new titles” shelf.
Personally, I’m too distracted by the continued ugliness of their website to give this as much attention as it might deserve. There are a good number of books on this list that I haven’t heard of, but I’ll be damned if I click through to see what they’re about. I know I’ve been relatively quiet about shitty website design as of late,
mainly since some people can’t take a joke, but how hard is it to use the same color scheme and template across a handful of pages? The home page, News page, and list of titles all employ different looks and menus and colors. And this page looks like a seven-year-old’s first attempt at learning HTML. (Note the changing font-sizes. Classic.)
Websites don’t have to be overly flashy to be effective, but seeing that this is one of the richest literary prizes in the world, you’d think they’d drop $10K into putting together a site that doesn’t suck. End rant.
I am looking forward to seeing the shortlist (which will be announced in April 2012), especially since Dubravka Ugresic is one of judges . . . I have a feeling that list will be a pretty cool collection of titles. And a lot easier to process than this overwhelming list of books written by people about things.
Over at NPR, Jesmyn Ward has a really nice write-up of Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring:
When a friend gave me Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, he told me it would blow my mind. Ten pages in, I doubted his claim.
The book begins when the narrator, a 14-year-old boy from a small mountain village, slips into a cold, sometimes savage river to escape a bee. His swim is interspersed with descriptions of his isolated community, with its pink painted homes and wisteria vines that “over the years, upwrenched houses.”
Rodoreda’s prose, even in translation, is bold and beautiful, but structured into short chapters and flashbacks. The effect is impressionistic, truncated and frustrating. I couldn’t orient myself in the narrative.
And then I surrendered.
Sure, I’m 125% biased, but Death in Spring is damn amazing. Rodoreda is one of the greats of the twentieth century. This novel, Time of the Doves, her Selected Fiction are all incredible.
But I’m going to digress for a moment and hate all over the NPR commenters on this post.
When this first went up, three separate people wrote in to complain that there was no “SPOILER ALERT”:
It would be really good if you posted a SPOILER ALERT. I unwittingly read something about the novel that probably should have been read only in the novel. I continued to read, thinking that would be the last spoiler, but it wasn’t. I only got past learning that his father was killed in a very unusual way when it appeared I was going to get more details from the book. I doubt you can do a rewrite but can you post a spoiler alert~? :o] Thanks~!
OK, so now, there is a “SPOILER ALERT” warning at the top of the page, but seriously, WTF? Some readers can be so god damn annoying. Yeah, the narrator’s dad dies, “in a very unusual way.” On page 15. And even if you only read books for the simple plot points (hey—you should check out this John Locke guy, he’s probably right up your alley), then wouldn’t it really be spoiled if you knew the unusual way in which he was killed? Whatever. These people piss me off.
And I know that’s wrong, and I should feel guilty about it, but they reduce books to the most basic of components and try and strangle actual conversation about literature because if you happen to mention anything, you’ve “ruined the surprise.” GAARRRRGGGGHHHH!
Here’s a brief description:
“Our program breaks a book up into 100 scenes and measures the ‘DNA’ of each scene, looking for 132 different thematic ingredients, and another 2,000 variables.” A reader can go to the BookLamp site, which was launched in beta last week, and do a keyword search for titles that meet the criteria similar to a title they plug into the site. Pundits have dubbed it the “Pandora for Books,” though Stanton prefers the term “Book Genome Project.”
“Say you’re looking for a novel like the The Da Vinci Code. We have found that it contains 18.6% Religion and Religious Institutions, 9.4% Police & Murder Investigation, 8.2% Art and Art Galleries, and 6.7% Secret Societies & Communities, and other elements — we’ll pull out a book with similar elements, provided it is in our database,” says Stanton. [. . .]
But can a computer really accurately assess the content of a book? Stanton thinks so. “Our original models are based on focus groups,” he says. “We would give them a highly dense scene and a low density scene, for example, and ask them to assess them, which gave us a basis for training the models. Then we looked at books that might exceed the models and tweaked the formulas. In this way, our algorithms are trained like a human being.”
BookLamp quantifies such elements as density, pacing, description, dialogue and motion, in addition to numerous nuanced micro-categories, such as “pistols/rifles/weapons” or “explicit depictions of intimacy” or “office environments.”
I’m totally a sucker for this sort of shit . . . I think it’s great that people are finally thinking about how readers find books; I think it’s maybe detrimental to only read books that fit your fiction prejudices. (Of course, what example does the founder of Booklamp use in the interview? The fucking Da Vinci Code. Dear god, please make it stop.)
Knowledgeable recommendations used to be the function of booksellers, but since we, as a culture, seem not to need them (or bookstores) at all anymore, there are a number of book sites popping up to fill this void.
I’m sure this is over-simplifying, but there seems to be two major approaches to automated recommendations: the “similar user” approach, which is what Last.fm and GoodReads use and is based on the idea that if you like A, B, & C, and a lot of people who also like A, B, & C, also like Q, then you’ll probably like Q as well; and the “similar component” approach, which is what’s in play with Booklamp and Pandora and uses top down analysis to recommend books/music with components similar to books/music you like.
Personally, I prefer the first approach, and have never really gotten Pandora, nor do I see how my favorite books can be accurately quantified (The Sound and the Fury is 25% suicidal tendencies and 25% narrated by a mentally challenged character? Or The Crying of Lot 49 is 48% paranoia and 88% too cool for school?)
Now that two of the three recommendation sites are at least in their beta phases—Bookish is still in the works—it seems sort of worthwhile to check and see what these sites recommend . . . It’s one thing to talk about the theory and drool over hot catchphrases like “discovery” and “genome,” but another to find out that no matter what you put in, you’re told that you should read Twilight.
I’m not sure I can convince you of this, but I’m doing this test live . . . I haven’t looked up any of these books yet, so I have no idea what I’ll find. (It’s like live blogging! Which I believe is now called “tweeting.” Anyway.)
So, first up, the book I have tattooed on my arm—The Crying of Lot 49.
Booklamp: No results. Well that’s unfortunate . . . Skipped right over the paragraph in the Publishing Perspectives article about how they currently only have 20,000 Random House books in their database . . .
GoodReads: The Recognitions by William Gaddis, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, Falconer by John Cheever, Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
OK, not so sure about the last couple, but the GoodReads recommendations are fine. Gaddis rocks, but I love JR more than The Recognitions, and Sot-Weed isn’t even close to my favorite Barth book. Still, not bad. Predictable, but not bad.
Since Booklamp is so limited in scope, I’m using their “Author Browse” function to find a good example . . . And oh, look, they have a listing for The Sound and the Fury! My snotty prediction about what the make up would be was pretty crap . . . Instead of confused narrators and philosophical issues about time, the five most prominent “StoryDNA” elements according to Booklamp are: Financial Matters, Family Connections, Domestic Environments, Automobiles & Vehicles, and Nature/Forests/Trees. The fuck?? Seriously? This does not bode well . . .
Booklamp: Sanctuary by William Faulkner, Moon Women by Pamela Duncan, Leo and the Lesser Lion by Sandra Forrester, Good-bye Marianne by Irene Watts, and Telling Lies to Alice by Laura Wilson
GoodReads: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, Loving by Henry Green, The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Although they aren’t the first authors that come to mind when I think of William Faulkner (I was expecting Flannery O’Connor), I do love me some Henry Green and Elizabeth Bowen. And to be completely frank, I have no fucking idea what any of the Booklamp recommendations are. Irene Watts? Leo and the Lesser Lion?? Maybe I’m just ignorant and missing out on great fiction . . .
Leo and Lesser Lion. Listed by the publisher as Juvenile Fiction: A heartwarming family story set during the Depression that reads like a classic.Everyone’s been down on their luck since the Depression hit. But as long as Mary Bayliss Pettigrew has her beloved older brother, Leo, to pull pranks with, even the hardest times can be fun. Then one day, there’s a terrible accident, and when Bayliss wakes up afterward, she must face the heartbreaking prospect of life without Leo. And that’s when her parents break the news: they’re going to be fostering two homeless little girls, and Bayliss can’t bear the thought of anyone taking Leo’s place. But opening her heart to these weary travelers might just be the key to rebuilding her grieving family.
Oh, my. Booklamp fail. “Juvenile Fiction”?? I’ll bet $1million that there’s not a single stylistically interesting about this novel. And I’ll also bet that there’s no possible way I’d read this book and be like, “wow, I’ve never read a book more like Sound and the Fury than Sandra Forrester’s little gem!” Fuck. And no.
So far Booklamp is coming in a distant second . . . And exposing all the flaws of this top-down recommendation approach. This system really doesn’t seem to account for writing style, which, in my opinion, is maybe the most important feature of any work of fiction. Sure, it’s got “automobiles” and I do like to read about people who move from one point to another, but if the writing is shitty, there no number of “automobile/vehicle” scenes that will save a novel. And how do you identify the “genome” for exciting writing? (Not to bang a dead drum, but this is why booksellers and librarians and actual readers are so goddamn important.)
Let’s try one more, this time with feeling: Independent People by Halldor Laxness.
Booklamp: the first four are all Laxness books, which seems a bit of a cheat, so I’ll skip those . . . The Writer and the World by V.S. Naipaul, Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett, and Walt Whitman’s Secret by George Fetherling
GoodReads: Njal’s Saga by Anonymous, Angels of the Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson, The Pets by Bragi Olafsson, The Blue Fox by Sjon, and Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun.
Interesting to end with this book . . . Booklamp’s recommendations are a lot less country-specific compared to GoodReads. But on the whole, I think I like the GoodReads recommendations better, especially since they include one of our books.
There’s no conclusion to this post except that I find this all very interesting in theory, and flawed in execution. I’m sure both of these sites (and Bookish) will get better and better as time goes on and data accumulates, and will play a larger role in how books find an audience as booksellers continue to decrease in number . . .
This past Monday I participated in LitTAP’s 2011 Facing Pages Convening, a day-long event dedicated to helping nonprofit literary organizations to better “Tell Their Story” in fundraising documents and marketing materials. My main role in the conference was to serve as the Simon Cowell of the “Marketing Clinic” and tell everyone that their websites and/or brochures were less than amazing. But in a gentle, positive-feedback sort of way.
There’s a lot that could be said about “telling one’s story,” but the part of the conference that was most interesting to me was the advocacy update. For those who don’t move in this sphere, nonprofit presses and literary organizations are pretty much always in trouble. Some of the larger ones—the Graywolfs and Dalkeys and Copper Canyons of the world—are a bit better off due to the number of years that they’ve survived, their typical sales levels, the number of donors who support them on a regular basis. But the vast majority of these places are a couple failed grant proposals away from shutting down.
Which is scary. These presses and reading series and literary centers and arts in education organizations are doing some really interesting programming—in part because outside funding mechanisms allows them a certain freedom from market pressures. And although great books would still be published if the nonprofits all folded, the whole of book culture would suffer a huge loss.
This is a hard point to get across for any number of reasons, but the idea of any arts field being 100% subjected to market forces scares the shit out of me. That’s partially due to my socialist tendencies, but mostly because I believe culture is best off if there’s a mix of money making endeavors and those that are serving a slightly difference audience/goal. I want to live in a world where not everything is valued solely by how much money it makes.
That’s a pretty traditional view (culture is good for civilization, arts need to be protected from marketplace pressures) and one of the reasons why things like the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts exist. For decades, these government entities have helped support thousands of artists and organizations. Sure, some of the organizations are better than others, and sometime the money distribution isn’t perfect, but nevertheless, NEA and NYSCA grants have been absolutely essential.
Well. The culture wars come and go, but no matter what, arts are always a target when it comes time to cut spending. (Which is utter bullshit, but that’s not the point of this post.) So now that the banks have ruined our world for the foreseeable future, NYSCA is facing at least a 10% cut in funding, and Obama has recommended a 17% reduction in funding for the NEA.
Just to put this in a bit of perspective, the NEA’s funding is essentially the same as it was back in the mid-1980. The mid-1980s! When gas was $1.20 a gallon and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 2,000.
Anyway, in talking about this, the conversation moved into advocacy and the need to advocates for not just funding for the arts, but funding for literature in general. Cause if the arts are in trouble, literature is especially screwed.
This got me thinking about advocating for literature, and it seems like there are three or four main obstacles to overcome if we’re going to protect the nonprofit literary organizations in the U.S.:
1) Most of the people involved in literature work for for profits. This is a huge difference from theater and museums and symphonies and dance companies and whatnot. In most (all?) of the other arts disciplines, 99% of the people involved work for nonprofits. They value the nonprofit ideal and are committed to fundraising and the concept of donation-supported arts organizations. But books? I suspect that 95% of the people working in the industry are working for Bertelsmann or its equivalent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the idea that “books should make money” sort of trickles down, and the remaining 5% of us are on an island, trying to convince the world of the worth of public funding for nonprofit presses. That’s a pretty shitty battle to be fighting. And a huge disparity from the other arts fields.
2) Kids don’t do advocacy. I’m not sure exactly how one advocates for the arts, but in talking about what we could do, the common refrain was that we should organize, meet with representatives, show up in their offices, etc. Which sounds so old fashioned. Anyone under the age of 40 would much rather send an email or write a blog post (witness) or something that’s much more in line with how we function in the world. But the olds like their meetings. And their way of doing things. Which is why all these other lobbyists are so effing successful. Since only a portion of the book world is even interested, we’d get a lot more done if we could seize on the passion of our young, underpaid, still quixotic constituents. But convincing them that they should meet with representatives about literature? Please.
3) No one is allowed to do this. My understanding is that most all of us have to do any and all advocacy work outside of actual work. There are tons of regulations and rules and all that, which are necessary and protective, but which don’t help the microscopic three-person press that’s doing any and everything it can do to stay alive from one $5,000 grant to the next. Other industries have a huge advantage here. Without getting myself into trouble, I’m just going to say that I suspect things are a little different elsewhere.
4) There’s no money for lobbyists. Even other arts disciplines have more lobbyists working to ensure that they’re part of the conversation. Literature has one part-time person who isn’t even based in D.C. He’s a genius, and an awesome individual, but still.
Thinking about all of this—most people in books aren’t concerned with this issue, no one has any time, no one wants to do things in the old-fashioned way—left me feeling pretty discouraged. All the issues surrounding arts funding, such as the allocation of funds, funding policies, etc., are fascinating, but it just seems so bleak . . . And like it would take a brilliant new group of 20-somethings who are dedicated to arts, interested in government, and savvy enough to figure out new modes of engagement to fix this system. Otherwise, a 20% this year will become a 25% next time there’s a budget crunch (or whatever) and over time things will become a bit less diverse. And you won’t even realize what is lost until it’s gone for good.
From The California Aggie, UC Davis’s student newspaper:
Parsa is not alone. Though reading textbooks and articles is high on many UC Davis students’ to-do lists, reading books purely for pleasure? Not so much.
A 2007 study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 2005, 65 percent of college freshmen said they read little or nothing for pleasure. Among adults, only 38 percent said they had read a book for pleasure the previous day.
Students frequently cited intense course loads and a lack of “free time” as reasons why they rarely read books purely for fun, a position UC Davis English professor Matthew Stratton sympathized with. [. . .]
The perception that reading books not only takes too much time but is also less accessible than watching videos or surfing the Internet was common among students. Books may seem more challenging to digest and require more attention than online articles and videos.
“Videos are so much more accessible, especially with Netflix. You can search for movies and watch them instantly, instead of going to the library and getting a book,” said junior biochemistry major Thomas Cayton.
No one reads . . . it’s too hard to find books . . . blah blah blah. All written a million times before, and all pretty obvious. I’m 99% sure that vast majority of students are more familiar with viral YouTube videos featuring cats than they are with European/American/Whatever books.
But the thing that actually struck me about this article was the books that college students actually admitted to reading: The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, and Mitch Albom.
What the fuck?
Not that there’s any judgement being passed here (yes there is), and not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with reading these books, but holy shit, these are the future leaders of America and they’re reading books that 13-year-olds find compelling. Just saying.
Seriously though, maybe if college kids actually read a few really good works of literature (in contrast to tolerable movies in word form) they’d be able to pause the video of James Earl Jones reading Justin Bieber long enough to experience the pleasures that are only available in books . . .
Coda: Instead of calling out the end of taste or whatever, publishers will fling themselves without abandon into capturing this market via Vooks and game apps and socially networked “novels” and videos of monkeys tearing apart the classics . . . Actually, seeing Joe Ape go crazy on Finnegans Wake would be sort of cool, no?
I resisted commenting on the $8.3 million of insane bonuses Borders is offering its top execs, but now that Borders has reached a new low and are having a meeting with skeptical publishers this morning to try and convince them that their reorg plan is viable, I think it’s time to really diss on this debacle.
According to PW:
Publishers are unhappy over the size of the executive bonuses, worried about Borders’ plans for returns, and annoyed that the chain appears to have overstated how well they are doing by combining going-out-of business sales with sales from ongoing stores. None of the major publishers has yet to resume shipping to the chain on normal terms, although a number are shipping the chain on a cash basis. Borders is eager to return doing business on regular terms.
The details of the reorganization plan are confidential, but according to the Wall Street Journal, part of the reorganization will include a move out of Ann Arbor and greater reliance on e-book sales.
First off, the bonus thing is bullshit and smacks of all the b-school rhetoric about compensation incentives. “Get us out of Chapter 11 and we’ll make you RICH!” Since 1999, no book person has been CEO at Borders. Instead, they started raiding Jewel-Osco for execs with grocery store experience. Which worked out . . . well, what’s the antonym of “awesome”?
But now, somehow, someway, I feel sure that Borders will work its way out of bankruptcy, pay off these newcomers, and then go totally bust 6 months after they flee.
It’s not that I’m entirely cynical about corporations (yes I am. Especially after this), but look at the two named points of their strategy:
1) Get out of Ann Arbor;
2) Greater reliance on e-book sales.
Forget about the fact that, in some way, Borders morally owes Ann Arbor, but in what part of America will they find a more affordable place to have their headquarters? Downsizing is one thing, moving when you have no money just seems sort of dumb.
And e-books?!?!??!? When was the last time you even noticed that Borders has a website? Yep, never. Well, they do. And you can even buy a Motorola Xoom from there. And some affordable e-books that you can read on your Kobo. I feel like an ass kicking a chain that I used to work for1, but if Borders has even 0.001% of the ebook market, I’ll be amazed.
(Really doesn’t help that they have to post this on the ebook page: “If you have any concerns about Borders’ recent changes, please be assured that your eBook Library is perfectly safe. Access and add to it freely..” Also funny that the Borders ebook software has been “liked” by 2,740 people on Facebook. Open Letter is “liked” by 2,248.)
Anyway . . . yes, focus on that. By the time Borders is shipping back trainloads of unsold merchandise after finally running itself totally into the ground I’m sure they can get their market share up to 0.01%.
The upside of all this is that the indie stores I’ve been talking to seem to all be having up years . . . Especially those located near soon-to-close Borders Stores. I suspected that a majority of Borders shoppers (something about using the words “majority” and “Borders shoppers” in a sentence feels wrong) would have turned to ordering online, but it’s reassuring to see that there are still a lot of people out there who want to visit a physical bookstore. It’s a great opportunity to indies to show a new group of consumers all the benefits they add to a community.
UPDATE: As I was finishing this up, I came across this piece on a new part of the “Teacher Appreciation Days” at Borders:
It’s an expansion on the BORDERS – GET PUBLISHED program that Borders runs in cooperation with BookBrewer, a self publishing service. For a measly $75 a teacher can sell their eBook through the Borders eBook store as well as other major eBook retailers, and receive a complimentary paperback version of their book.
I’m thinking that Borders is SO focused on e-books and potential e-book revenue that they’re totally unaware of the outside world. I’ll let MediaBistro take it away and deliver the parting shot:
Note: aside from the complementary paperback, this deal can be found anywhere for free. Teachers can publish through Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, or Kobo at no cost to themselves. You really need to ask if the $75 fee is worth it.
On a related note, Borders seems to have gotten a little scatter-brained since the bankrupotcy. The press release mentions two e-reader that Borders no longer sells. One is the original Kobo, which was discontinued months ago.
Yes, I’m sure this reorganization will go smoothly . . .
1 Schuler Books & Music, which used to have one of the greatest staffs and fiction sections in all the U.S., is technically Borders Store #04. We used the Borders POS and Inventory system, Borders sent us stock that we would always have to supplement/replace with “real” books, etc. I’m thinking that this arrangement is going to have to change, since Schuler has been expanding, whereas . . .
One of the most anticipated books of the year has to be Murakami Haruki’s (or Haruki Murakami’s) 1Q84, an epically long book that Random House is bringing out in October.1 And to warm up the publicity machine, they just released an image of the cover and a blog post from Chip Kidd discussing the design.
Logistically the title is a book designer’s dream, because its unique four characters so easily adapt it to a very strong, iconic treatment. The plot follows two seemingly unconnected stories that eventually weave together. The first involves a woman named Aomame, who in the opening scene finds herself descending a service staircase off a busy elevated highway in Tokyo to escape a traffic jam. Once she gets to the bottom and out onto ground level, she eventually comes to believe that she has entered an alternate reality, one only slightly different than what she had known. She refers to this new dimension in her mind as 1Q84 (the book takes place in 1984 and in Japanese ‘Q’ sounds just like ‘9′), with the Q standing for “Question Mark. A world that bears a question.” This concept becomes one of the novel’s major themes.
Upon reading the manuscript, it soon occurred to me that the duality of Aomame’s situation could be represented by an interaction of the book’s jacket with the binding/cover underneath. By using a semi-transparent vellum for the jacket, and printing the woman’s image in a positive/negative scheme with the title on the outside layer and the rest of her on the binding, once the jacket is wrapped around the book it ‘completes’ the picture of her face. But something odd is definitely going on, and before the reader even reads a word, he or she is forced to consider the idea of someone going from one plane of existence to another.
1 Now I’m not going to tell the largest publisher in America how to do their job, but please please please please please don’t publish this as a straightforward run-of-the-mill hardcover. This isn’t Stieg Larsson or Suze Orman—it’s a book that could be a major cultural event. And not only is the idea of paying $30 for a large, unwieldy tome totally insane, it’s also incredibly passé, as demonstrated by the genius marketing of 2666. I’m guessing you—the anthropomorphized version of an inanimate, heartless corporation that exists in my mind—are thinking that your “mature” readers will shell out way too much of their retirement income to read this “serious literary work they heard about on The NPR,” whereas the hipsters will download the $15 ebook and show off their iPads by flipping imaginary pages and posing in subway stations. And sure, you may well be right. But that’s totally irrelevant. What matters here is long-term image management. You don’t want to be “that dinosaur press” anymore, do you? I mean, you must know we all laugh behind your back at parties about how out-of-touch you are with your non-musty offices and your corporate stationary. Book publishing isn’t about money, it’s about showing off how smart you are and about creating intellectual objects that other people crave. Will I read 1Q84 when it comes out? For sure. But if it’s in a multi-volume form housed in a cardboard slipcase, I’ll read it in public. Rather than completely concede to the advent of e-everything, it would be a public service to the last remaining readers if you gave us all an object that we could cherish. An object that is inherently cooler (in a retro way) than the iPad. Instead of having Chip Kidd just design the cover, give him the opportunity to create a stunning object. Or don’t. I’m sure you’ll still make enough profit off this to feel justified. Justified, but incredibly empty on the inside.
Late on Saturday night, I came across this article by Virginia Heffernan about “video books.” Generally speaking, I like the pieces by Heffernan that I’ve read, in particular this piece about headphones. But this one on Vook? Oh dear god no.
Although to be fair, I’m not sure what’s more infuriating to me—her piece or the existence of vook.com. Let me back up a bit . . . I’ll start with the opening of Heffernan’s article:
A deep fantasy of most readers is that their books will one day come to life. Of course there’s the college-reader hope that reality itself will come to shimmer with the intense meaningfulness of books. But you get over that. The wish that remains is less romantic: the longing for a byte of audio here and there, among the pages of text, so you could hear what Uriah Heep really sounds like when he says, “ ’Umble to this person, and ’umble to that” in “David Copperfield,” or a video clip so you could get a sense of Jack Ryan’s appearance in “Patriot Games.” What if you could give your imagination a break and watch a clip of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan and be done with it?
The fantasy of giving your imagination a break, though, is an illicit one. Readers are supposed to relish hard mental labor. They’re supposed to enjoy all the work they have to do to conjure the scenes in their books — and at the same time disdain television viewers, who sit back and have it all handed to them on a vertical platter.
“The fantasy of giving your imagination a break”???? WTF is she on about? Aside from the latent sentiment that watching movies would be waaayyy more pleasurable, and not nearly so straining on your mind! And that’s what we all secretly want, no? To not have to think so hard with the reading of these words and the having to picture things in our head.
I’ve been a slavish fan of the Kindle almost since it was introduced — the way it lets you read, wholly read and do nothing but read. Not being interrupted by all the material distractions of an overdesigned book
“The material distractions of an overdesigned book”? I’m not entirely sure what she’s even referring to . . . All those page numbers? Chapter titles? The binding? Ugh. (It was at this moment on Saturday night that my head EXPLODED.)
Anyway, as it turns out, Heffernan has become a huge fan of “Vooks” or “video books,” “a software application that combines video and text” that apparently allows you to rest your imagination . . .
Just to recap: Reading is hard. It takes a lot of effort to imagine things. We all secretly want to take a break from this. Enter Vook! It allows you to not have to deal with all those pesky “material distractions of an overdesigned book” such as . . . “15-Minute Everyday Pilates”??????
Take Pilates. I like floor Pilates, but it’s traditionally a one-on-one kind of thing, and lessons are expensive. I like books about exercise, because the physiology in them is interesting and motivating, but I can’t infer Pilates exercises from still photos. The written instructions are entirely useless. Commands like “engage your core” and “feel the full support of the floor” must be meant to arouse and excite the exercise state of mind as much as to convey information. [. . .]
Vook offers a Pilates video book, Alycea Ungaro’s “15-Minute Everyday Pilates,” that has changed the way I exercise, and I’m now as devoted to Vooks for video reading as I am to the Kindle for reading reading.
OK, on some level, when it comes to “books” like “Yoga in Bed,” I can sort of get the usefulness of this. Maybe. I still think Heffernan’s piece is sloppy for conflating literature (David Copperfield) with books (15-Minute Everyday Pilates), and the “overdesigned” thing still irks me . . .
Shakespeare Made Easy is a fantastic compilation of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays shortened into easy to read stories. Included in this compilation is a brief summary of Shakespeare’s life and the following plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, King Lear, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Each play is retold in a shortened form to help you easily understand these timeless classic plays.
Fine, fine, fine. Some Shakespeare is better than no Shakespeare . . . Maybe. I can’t figure out how to embed it here, but you HAVE to click on the trailer for this Vook. Holy crap is it stupid!
Over semi-obnoxious folk music, we get images, bits of info about this “Shakes-peare,” including such gems as “Possibly The Most Famous Playwright in History.” (Capitalization theirs.)
Seriously, this just makes me sad. In part because I wish culture valued reading and thinking and learning and all that nerdy book culture stuff. In part because these Vooks feel like an idea hatched in a business school by people who hate reading. In part because, due to the popularity of apps and iEverything, this company will probably be successful. They’ll probably sell more apps in a month than we do Open Letter Books in a year . . .
Maybe we should just quit with this imagination-straining “literature” and turn all our titles into video books. Just imagine, Zone could feature images of Italy from a train, with text running across the bottom like: “He Fought In Wars,” “He Collected Information,” “He Slept With Women,” “He Reads Books,” “He Is Going Through Italy,” “Italy Is In Europe,” “Italy Is Home To The Vatican Which Oversees One Of The Most Influential Religions In History.”
At least you’d finally be able to give your imagination a break . . .
Over the break, while I was drinking mimosas and staying as far away from work-related email as possible, NPR did a story on literature in translation, namely, Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote and Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary. Before getting all screedy, here’s a bit of the piece that I liked:
Grossman says she had a lot of fear when she began translating Don Quixote. She spent two weeks on the first sentence alone, because she felt everything else would fall into place if she could only do justice to Cervantes’ opening line.
The key to unlocking what the author intended, says Grossman, can always be found in the text itself.
“The text brings you in,” she explains. “I think one of the things that happens when you read carefully is that you feel as if you are looking at the world through the eyes of someone else.”
Not sure that I completely agree with this, mainly because I don’t believe in “definitive” anything, but it is interesting:
After finishing her first draft, Davis takes a look at the work of other translators, and develops a kind of partnership with them as well. “I would begin to feel that we were a group sitting in the room together wrestling with the same problems,” she says.
Davis says reading many variations on a single phrase gives her an even better understanding of how complex the process of translation is.
“I sense how hard we’ve all worked,” she says. “It’s not easy. Even a not-so-good translation is not easy to produce. Somehow, I think we maybe should have been all together . . . doing it together, and somehow achieved the final definitive translation.”
OK, now on to the fun part . . .
Not to get all up in NPR’s grill, because, yes, any article on translation is better than no article on translation, but I have a few issues with this piece:
1) The Title. “When Done Right, Little Gets Lost in Translation” implies, to me, that the majority of translations are somehow flawed, and by extension, only the few, perfect ones, which only “lose a little” of the original are worth reading. I call bullshit on this. First off, I’d love for Lynn Neary to write out some specific examples of what was “lost” in a particular translation. Yes, I know this is a cliche made all the more popular by
Bill Murray Scarlett Johansson, and I know she probably didn’t really mean to imply anything by this, but still. (How about nixing “lost in translation” from all article titles for all of 2011? That’s a resolution I can get behind.) As Michael Emmerich has pointed out, any translation is basically pure gain, since you go from not having anything, to being able to read, enjoy, discuss, dislike, argue about, a work that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
2) Neverending coverage of the classics. It’s great that people are talking about Don Quixote and Flaubert, but I’m personally totally over these pieces on retranslations of the classics. Just reinforces my prejudiced belief that the mainstream media only really wants to write about translations that they’ve read in previous versions. Which is sweet. But doesn’t necessarily encourage the growth of a culture that appreciates literary translation of contemporary authors. And because I’m irrational like this, I blame Oprah for choosing P&V’s retranslation of Anna Karenina for kickstarting this bias.
The always interesting Publishing Perspectives has a great double-sided post today about publisher branding, with Erin Cox advocating for publishers to spend more time & money on this, and Sarah Russo arguing about why publishers shouldn’t “brand the brand.”
It’s not hard to figure out where I stand on this argument, but I’ll try and objectively summarize both sides, starting with Erin:
In the last decade or more, the trend in trade publishing has been to focus on branding an author instead of an imprint. There are some notable exceptions, but, for the most part, publishers’ branding rarely extends beyond the colophon on the spine and printed at the bottom of an advertisement.
Ask any publisher, and they will say that the average reader does not relate to a publisher, they relate to an author. This may be true, but is this merely because publishers are not doing enough to brand themselves and their types of books? Is there more that could be done that would make imprints stand out, thus attracting more readers, and allowing savvy publishers to be more competitive in an already-saturated marketplace?
Before I begin, I would like to define the term “branding” as a method by which a publisher or a publishing imprint defines who they are and the types of books they publish in order to establish a relationship with the reader.
Anything that promotes a closer connection between readers and publishers is a good idea in my book. But going on, here are a couple examples Erin includes on how to build a brand:
Sure, there is a colophon on the side of the book, but why not create a standard package that helps to assert that this is a book published by [INSERT PUBLISHER HERE]. It could be expanding the colophon to take over the whole spine (which might also inspire bibliophiles to want the whole collection for their library) or be something more dramatic like Library of America’s uniform edition or the consistently colored spines of the aforementioned New York Review of Books editions.
And here’s a slightly more embarrassing/meta suggestion:
Put a Face to the House
Go forth and talk to the readers. Train a few editors, publicists, marketing people to be spokespeople for the company. Get them out there doing interviews, host a book club in a local store, write a blog about the books they publish, get them on panels at festivals and fairs beyond the traditional writing festivals. That’s how magazines help to brand themselves, why not book publishers? Chad Post, Publishing Perspectives contributor and Publisher at Open Letter, is almost more famous than his imprint. He was recently on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer” and is regularly on local television in Rochester.
I agree with all of this—with the caveat that this makes most sense when the publishing house (or imprint) has a clear focus. It’s hard to brand a general house that’s appealing to one group of people with its cookbooks, another with its poetry, etc. Not that it’s impossible—I trust in Knopf for basically anything in any category (although recent conversations about Dragon Pizzeria have shaken my faith a bit)—just that it’s easier if you are a certain definable thing.
Flipping sides, here’s a few quotes from Sarah Russo about why publishers shouldn’t brand themselves:
I’m of the belief that publisher or imprint specific branding would be not only fairly fruitless for trade publishers but also hugely time consuming and a financial drain. Branding, specifically online branding, works in niches that allow you to reach specific communities. A branding campaign needs a defined target or it is destined to fail. [. . .]
The abundance of publisher Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter feeds suggest that publishers want to go direct to consumers, but many are not reaching that audience at all. Some market research on the bigger imprints’ Facebook pages would likely report that their “fans” are already in the industry (or want to be). Pantheon has 724 followers this morning. Sixty-five of those followers are publishing people that I know personally. That’s a hefty percentage. And that’s a lot of effort expended to get those 700 fans, a minimum of 10% of which are in the industry.
That’s the best paragraph in here, especially considering that Open Letter has almost 1,500 FB fans . . . It actually sort of proves my point that you have to be somewhat specific to be able to build a brand.
So we need to reach a new group of readers. I don’t think our reading public is spending hours watching TV each day. However, targeted TV ads could work in the right markets using the right TV programs. Slate tested an interesting TV ad experiment recently. It’s not out of the question, but it can be strategically limiting financially and production-wise. (I’m not intentionally leaving out radio but NPR ads are frequently used by publishers and are nothing new.)
I think I’m done quoting from her. Sure, this is all fine and good, but none of her suggestions address the fact that the old model is creaky and not very adaptable to an age of connectivity. I agree that it would be a huge waste of money for Random House to try and rebrand itself—that’s just plain silly. But entertaining the idea of TV ads strikes me as being as misguiding as launching a billboard campaign. (Does anyone actually watch live TV anymore anyway?)
Sorry—I thought I could write a balanced post about this, but I can’t. Even if general readers don’t necessarily pay attention to who is publishing which books, a savvy, strategic branding campaign can help build a loyal audience in a relatively cheap and easy way. And who doesn’t want a core group of fans buying and talking about their books?
I’m no marketing guru, but there is one rule of advertising that I think everyone should follow: if you dominate a market, never draw attention to your (smaller) competition. This is why Apple attacks Microsoft so directly in ads—for
better or worse, Microsoft has a market share the size of a Chicagoan’s shoulders and Apple wants to bite that. Thus the direct, negative advertising.
So when Russian Life brought out a new translation of Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf (or rather, The Little Golden Calf in Anne O. Fisher’s translation) at the exact same moment that we did, I totally ignored it. Sure, based on our contract it’s a violation of copyright, but shit, we all know how Russians deal with copyright issues (“the more the merrier!”), and really? Russian Life‘s entire distribution system seems to consist of their website and Amazon.com. Fine, cool, whatever. Open Letter’s not afraid of a little competition—the new translation we commissioned from Helen Anderson and Konstantin Gurevich is brilliant, and has received outstanding praise from places like the L.A. Times and PRI’s World Books. I know it’s great. And if more people end up reading Ilf & Petrov’s hysterical masterpiece because there are two brand-new translations, then so much the better. The point is getting people to pick this up; no one’s going to make an Koreiko-like fortune off of the sales of this book. At least not for a hundred or so years.
So we didn’t send the cease and desist letter to Russian Life that we could have. And I never even bitched up a storm here on the blog. Why draw attention? There’s maybe a thousand people in the country who realize that two versions of this book even exist, and the rest of the people familiar with The Golden Calf are probably reading our edition.
But then . . . yesterday happened. And this page on the Russian Life website was sent out to—at minimum—the SEELANGS (Slavic & East European Languages) listserv and Nicole Rudick, who reviewed our edition of The Golden Calf in the L.A. Times.
In case you don’t feel like clicking through—though trust me, this shit is hilarious—this page is a list of ten reasons why the Russian Life edition of The Little Golden Calf is superior to our version, ranging from the “Translator” to the “Cover Design”. Seriously? Propaganda is where you turn first in trying to jack our sales? (Before going any further, I want to point out what a stupid, stupid game this is . . .)
I’m not going to defend our book, or go through their list point by point rebutting each of their claims—it’s clear that Russian Life is bitter and jealous about the reviews we’ve been getting and this is their cry for attention—but in addition to having the collective back of our translators/editors/designers, I just can’t help myself . . . Some of the stuff on the Russian Life site is too much fun not to share with all of you.
First off, their criticism of the title. According to Russian Life‘s unattributed post (and by the way, in case anyone is wondering, this is Chad writing—all these opinions are mine and don’t reflect the views and opinions of anyone else affiliated with Rochester, Open Letter, Three Percent, or Russia. So if any of what follows pisses off anyone at Russian Life, e-mail me directly at email@example.com):
Ilf and Petrov did not actually use “zolotoy telets,” the set Biblical phrase for “the Golden Calf.” Instead, they called their book Zolotoy telyonok, using the everyday, normal word for “calf” to deliberately lower the register of the Biblical image. We feel that a translation that misses Ilf and Petrov’s sly, intentional desacralization of the image of the Golden Calf misses the whole point of the title; the care we took in conveying this intention of the original title is emblematic of the care we took throughout the edition.
In other words, “The Little Golden Calf” is >>>>> “The Golden Calf.” Well, this confusion of accuracy for quality (a motif that runs throughout the Russian Life post) is pretty silly. Sure, telyonok is “little,” but as someone else pointed out, the “desacralization” just doesn’t come across in English via “little.” This is problem in translating most diminutives, which is why we went with the straight “Golden Calf.”
And their “first complete translation” posturing is beyond insane. We’re all agreed that the previous translations are flawed, incomplete. And I’m willing to let pass the fact that our edition contains additional material that theirs doesn’t. Why? Because I know that Russian Life is placing the emphasis on first and not on complete. That they believe that they deserve special recognition since their edition supposedly came out a month-and-a-half before ours. Oddly, both of our pub dates were December 1st, but—again with the confusion—since the book was reviewed on January 15th, they assumed that was when copies became available. (We’ve had this in house and for sale since early-November. All real publishers know that pub dates are an artificial load of crap.) (Again, this is all so stupid.)
But sticking with the subject of reviews and confusion, there’s another page in which Russian Life breaks down a single passage, comparing the two variations, and finding that their edition is much superior, ‘natch. I’m not one to bash a translator, but I’m not above sucker punching a publisher, so let’s take a closer look at how they frame this “comparison.” First off, here’s the quote they use from our edition:
“Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time,” the character announces. “God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows. We are in a terrible bind. It might be a month, it might be a year. Either way, we need some legal standing. We need to blend in with the cheery masses of office workers. That’s what the bureau is all about. I have long been interested in  administration. I am a bureaucrat and a mis-manager at heart. We will be collecting  something very funny, for example, teaspoons, dog tags, or bells and whistles. Or horns and hoofs. That’s perfect! Horns and hoofs.  How about that?  Besides, I already have some excellent blank forms that are suitable for any occasion and a round rubber stamp  in my bag.”
Now, I’m not going to stoop to picking apart the Fisher/Russian Life version (although “We need to blend in with the office workers’ energetic masses” sounds icky), but I will point out two things: 1) the interjection “the character announces” is from the L.A. Times review. So rather than quote the passage in our edition, Russian Life quotes the review quoting the passage in our edition. It’s all the same right?—as careless as the rest of their diatribe. And 2) what the fuck is up with this footnote numbering system? I have no problem with them picking out lines to compare and pick apart, just do it in some sort of logical order.
I’m going to let their typeface bit just go, ‘cause really? WTF is this, high school? You’re bragging about your font choice? Ain’t nothing quite like judging a book by its Courier.
And the cover design? I’m hoping there’s some tongue-in-cheek that I’m just missing here:
Our cover was designed by the wonderful Ufa-based illustrator Julia Valeeva, who perfectly captured Bender’s iconic features (Bender’s cap and scarf) as well as other symbolic images from the novel (the suitcase of money, the little plate with a sky-blue rim, the Koreyko file, etc.). This makes our edition immediately recognizable to Russians who grew up on a diet of re-runs of one of the four television or movie versions of the Bender novels, ranging from the classic 1968 The Little Golden Calf to the 2005 version, where Bender was played by Russian superstar Oleg Menshikov.
First of all, the use of bold is simply unhinged. It’s like unnecessary quote sort of tactless. But if you’re looking to sell your book to Russians who already are stuffed on Bender, why didn’t you publish it in Russian? The whole point of translation is to introduce a book to a new audience that may not be familiar with the original. Who isn’t aware of Bender’s quintessential features. And although I hate to do this in a public place, I’m going to take a second here to explain a bit of elementary marketing. First, from the Russian Life website:
The edition as a whole was conceived as a way to introduce the English-speaking reader to Ostap Bender as he is understood in Russian culture, that is, as a household name whose quips and comebacks are still used in everyday Russian speech to this day. Thus our edition includes:
- an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, herself a respected scholar of Ilf and Petrov’s works;
- a translator’s foreword;
- a bibliography of scholarship on Ilf and Petrov available in English;
- the notes;
- an appendix deciphering characters’ names, which are “speaking names” in the tradition of Dickens and Gogol;
- a bilingual appendix of popular phrases from the novel.
First off, you know who’s a household name? Lady Gaga. Notes, bibliographies, appendices, and introductions a household name do not make. Sorry folks, but the above list appeals to academics only. For an author/book to reach a level of popularity, to even delusionally pretend to be on the “household name” level, it needs to reach an enormous general audience. A general audience that just fell asleep reading the words “bilingual” and “appendix.” No offense, Russian Life, but the Mel Brooks movie of The Twelve Chairs did more for Ostap Bender in the U.S. marketplace than ten million footnotes.
But while we’re on the footnotes, check this shit out:
9. “Giving the fig” in Russia is a mildly obscene gesture in which the thumb, positioned in that it sticks out between the first and second fingers, is brandished in someone’s direction; it means something like “take that!” or “you’ll get nothing from me!”
That’s one of their footnotes. Can someone explain to me what benefit the reader derives from ramming eyes-first into the phrase “giving a fig” and then having to flip to the back of the book and suffer through that dreadfully clinical description to get the gist of the passage they just read? This is why I hate footnotes—it makes for lazy translations that demand extra work from the reader. Which, FYI and back to Marketing Lesson 101, doesn’t help with reaching the whole “household name” goal.
OK, OK, everything above is a bit batshit, I know, I know, and I get what they’re trying to pull and where they’re coming from. And I really shouldn’t be making fun, or trying to bash a tiny publisher, but there’s a real sense of bitterness in these complaints that’s hard to ignore. Such as the bit where we’re criticized for using the edition edited by Alexandra Ilf (the same Alexandra Ilf who signed a contract with us for the rights to the book), whereas her preface is the GREATEST THING EVER.
But so be it. I can let that all go.
But not this. Seriously, even if none of the above was irritating or funny, I would’ve written this whole piece just to include this:
9. SIZE. Our edition is over 35% longer than the 315-page Open Letter edition. In order to include the Additional Materials noted above, our edition is 448 pages long, yet remains compact and lightweight.
10. PRICE. Our edition sells for $20, Open Letter’s edition sells for $15.95. But, as the Russia proverb goes, Skupoy platit dvazhdy (A miser pays twice.)
This is a joke right? Ignore the whole page-count/word-count fallacy and focus on the primary message: “35% more paper at a 20% higher price!” Is this the five-year plan of book publishing? Our book is better because it has more pages. Ever hear of page margins and the impact layout has on length? Or better yet, how about fact checking: our edition, which I have in front of me, is 336 pages . . .
OK, Russian Life, you win. I paid attention to you.
And now on with normal business.
Below is a special guest post from Jeff Waxman, bookseller at Seminary Co-op in Chicago (one of the five greatest indie bookstores in America) and managing editor of The Front Table. As someone who loves independent bookstores—and worked in them for years—I really want to see them survive, but Jeff’s post touches on some of the internet-related challenges that these stores face. And he doesn’t even get into the whole impact of eBooks on physical bookstores . . . Happy Monday!
Hello, everyone, and welcome to my anxiety. I am, you see, an independent bookseller, one of the many anxious denizens of the book world. And when reading Shelf Awareness and other trade news has become like reading obituaries, why shouldn’t I be anxious? Dutton’s, Lambda Rising, Olsson’s, Schwartz’s, Shaman Drum, Cody’s. This list will only get longer.
I tell myself sometimes that one day, I will have to tell my grandchildren what it was like when there were still bookshops. With windows, some of them, and a door to walk through. I will tell them about the people inside who knew you by name, or by sight, or by literary tastes, and how those fine people might recommend a book to you, and how they would know all about it. I’ll tell my grandchildren that there used to be lots of stores on the street, not just dry cleaners and chain restaurants, and that people used to make things, buy things, and sell things. And books, well, they used to be made of paper.
I am quite a young man now, but if my grandchildren are anything like my contemporaries, they will laugh and they will kick me down the stairs to die with my memories in the basement bookstore where I will hopefully still work.
Because we booksellers have let our livelihood become irrelevant to many, many people. Hapless, we flail and scramble to survive between the impending incorporeal reality of the internet and the tangible, comforting tradition of our past. Worst of all, bookselling is exactly where the two met. For Amazon. Sixteen years ago.
The American Booksellers Association has been dragging indies, painfully, into the present since the present overtook us sometime in the past. For more than ten years, they’ve been moving us, kicking and screaming, toward e-commerce; you might have noticed our websites, those painfully amateurish and poorly-designed rocks that we’ve hurled at Jeff Bezos to no effect.
Today, we are struggling to sell books online according to a fifteen-year-old model. And we’re not, respectively or together, even a pale shade of the polished and soulless retail machine that’s destroying us. But mimicking Amazon is too much like loving the beast that’s chewing our entrails, and what we do best, we still do in our stores. What we do online is a poor imitation. Amazon has done nothing wrong. and we have done nothing.
Recently, in a bid to bring us up to the Amazon standard, the ABA enabled Google Preview on our e-commerce sites. Are you aware of the degree to which Google previews these books? Something to the tune of 20% of the book is viewable at a time. Some books are long and some are short, but the effect is that Google is making one fifth of these books freely available. And to a bookstore like mine, one that relies heavily on rapidly falling textbook sales, this means that students will have free access, through our site, to more of their textbooks than they were planning on reading to begin with. Our new business plan includes facilitating a cost-free alternative to shopping at our stores. We are hastening our demise by underscoring our irrelevance to the few customers that still have the inclination to visit our website in the first place.
The isn’t just a battle for dollars. This is a losing war for the hearts and minds of our customers, for the folks that we know by sight, and that Amazon knows better by algorithm. Most booksellers aren’t out to make a killing or a dime. We’re trying to make a living, sure—but by putting the best of what we know in your hands. The best of our friends and customers ask often how business is, and the majority of us can only shrug. There is a time when the bookseller needs to stop his and her panicked breeziness about the state of affairs and tell our customers, point blank, the truth. Business isn’t good, and let me tell you: spending money is a political act, a ballot cast for the kind of world you want to live in. There is no right or wrong answer, but if you don’t shop locally, in the real world, there won’t be one left when you step outside.
- Jeff Waxman
So guess what’s not pictured above in the image of the brand new iPad and its crucial apps? IBooks, the “magical bullet” that’s going to “save” the publishing industry . . .
OK, so I’ll admit upfront that I was more than a bit skeptical about the iPad/Tablet/Slate before the lackluster (at least by liveblogging standards) Apple presentation this morning. I figured this would be one crazy-ass device that would allow you to do basically anything and everything you wanted anytime and everywhere you wanted. You could talk on the phone while surfing for new music. You could play video games while reading Moby-Dick. You could text while e-mailing. Crazy. Shit.
If you’ve been even somewhere near awake over the past few months, you’ve most likely been inundated with the hype and holler about how Apple’s
“mystery” “magical” device is going to change the world. And most importantly to everyone I hang with: Fix the Publishing Industry.
See, e-books are a tricky thing. I’ve written in the past about the promise and problems of e-books. (In summary: you can reach virtually everyone solving some significant printing and distribution problems, but damn, is that new way going to be co-opted, and pricing models are essentially screwed due to our supply-demand dynamics and the lure of $9.99.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about here. What I’m more concerned with re: the iPad is the all-in hope that the big publishers have that Apple and its overgrown iPhone will change the world and allow them to continue publishing in the way they’ve always been publishing with a model that’s decades out of date.
There are two elements driving the hope the big presses (Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin) have in Apple: better terms than Amazon.com and the coolness factor.
The first is a pure money issue. Publishers hate Amazon.com’s $9.99 price (even though Amazon.com pays out to publishers at whatever price publishers set their e-books at, occasionally losing money on the sale of these e-titles in hopes of capturing a larger market while pleasing cheap-ass customers like myself who would never pay more than $10 for what’s essentially a glorified .doc file) and the fact that Amazon.com has all the control and gives publishers only 50% of the revenues from sales of the e-books (same as what they give for sales of physical books, but let’s all ignore that for the moment). Apple on the other hand is like a godsend to commercial presses: you can set your own prices! and Apple will only take 30% of each sale! This translates into $$$$$!!!!!
If only it were that simple . . . I don’t have the necessary data or mental capacity (at the moment, at the moment) to crunch all the numbers, but my guess is that getting 20% and jacking prices a bit doesn’t really end up resolving all the cash flow and cost issues plaguing publishers. It’s a help, definitely, but it only delays the inevitable realization that a model based in publishing more faster to outrun returns is essentially doomed when people don’t buy that many books.
And there’s part two of the “Apple Will Save Us” argument: that the uber-cool of the iWTFever will create demand. That, like the iPod, this new device will totally turn the hipsters onto reading eBooks. Really? Who believes this? Listening to music does not equal reading a book.
But let’s go for it a second and witness the incapacitating neuroses that plagues book publishing today.
To recap: A huge part of the grand hope in the Apple “magical” (how many times did this come up in the Apple presentation? Like a million? And since when is technology magical? What kind of paradoxical shit is that?) is that suddenly, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs and the genius of Apple designers, an audience will be created that suddenly craves books. This is some god-like shit going down. From the barren landscape of gamers will rise a whole new generation of book nerds. Uh, OK.
These were the hopes going into this morning’s sermon on the mount. And in a way, they’re both naive and enthusiastically optimistic. Who doesn’t want to believe that Apple can revolutionize reading? If this “magical” device got kids hip to Open Letter books, I’d buy in. Fully. And if all my friends could keep their jobs because the revenue split suddenly tipped a bit—even better.
But the device? Well . . . I think we can all universally agree that the presentation was more than a little underwhelming. There was no big game-changing feature. Nothing you absolutely need but didn’t know about beforehand. Basically, this seems to be one big, powerful iPhone sans phone capabilities, camera, easily usable keyboard, multitasking capability . . .
Although the iBooks store may well have been the key new announcement, a lot of the focus on the gadget comment blogs was about the video—both for TV/movie-watching and for gaming. This is a bit iTouch with a cooler graphics processor and the possibility for some fierce video games.
I’ve been trying to figure out all day who exactly this device is for. I’ve read some convincing accounts about how this appeals to the general, non-tech-savvy web surfer who just wants to chill with a touch screen and doesn’t care about limited memory capacity and the way this device resides uncomfortably between a portable smartphone and an actual computer.
Will e-book connoisseur jump at the chance to pay
$499 $800 and $30/month to download e-books that can turn pages at the whisk of a fingertip? Time will tell, but I’m going to place my bets on “No.” It’s not portable enough, useful enough, or cheap enough to even come close to tempting me. And I desperately want to embrace the e-book world.
Who will use the iPad? All the teenage gamers who love the iTouch. It’s slightly more expensive, but a way cooler device. Bigger. BIGGER. And more colorful.
So good luck with all that. All props to Random House for staying out of the game for the time being, although I wonder if that’s because of some iPad doubt, or if it’s more about the epub format that Apple’s using. Cause lockdown Apple security be damned, if those books on iBooks are in epub format, book piracy is about to spike like never before. Which I still believe is good for the future adoption and cottoning onto of eBooks, but I can’t imagine any of the big presses are psyched to see that happen.
But what’s really insane to me is that the publishing industry is so blind to its shortcomings. Instead of trying to create a demand in good, interesting books that people want to read, they’re hoping some overly slick device will create that interest for them. And that way they can keep publishing heaps of drivel and not deal with the fact that they’ve lost touch with
reality readers and the ability to reach and cultivate an audience for books. When you need a third party’s device—a device in which the function most pertinent to you is like the third or fourth coolest thing about said device—when you need that device, that magical device to save you from yourself, you are fucked.
Cool device? Sure. Innovative? Meh. Magical? No.
Maybe I’ll be wrong. Shit, I hope I’m wrong. But if I had one of these things—and I read a hundred plus pages every day—and had the choice between video, gaming, and books, I’ll tell you what I ain’t going to choose . . .
There was a time when I thought Flavorpill’s Daily Dose e-mail was all right. Sure, there was the occasional annoying tone, the fact they never covered any of our books, and the hipper-than-thou sort of attitude. But still, it picked up where VeryShortList was before the New York Observer
drove it into the ground bought it.
The Assigned Reading: Ultimate Hipster Reading List killed all those good vibes. Made me hope Flavorpill gets a virus right up it’s server’s motherboard. Reignited my hatred for hipsters. (Didn’t N+1 declare hipsters dead like five months ago? Fucking zombie hipsters are the worst.)
Here’s the lead for this “reading list”:
There are a million suggested reading lists out there, especially now that it’s the end of the year/decade/life as we know it. So how’s an aspiring literary hipster to know which books are most important in terms of street cred and general knowing-it-all-ness? We decided to go straight to the source, and to that end, we’ve collected a few of our favorite and most knowledgeable lit-hipsters’ own hit lists for your cred-building convenience.
Most of the books and stories suggested here are completely awesome, and we’re pretty confident that these people know what they’re talking about (most of them create some not-too-shabby literature themselves), so we suggest that the anti-hipsters among you might do well to read on too. After all, we mean hipster in the good way (this time).
Ugh. Dry heave. And if that bit wasn’t crappy enough, just look through the list of the “most important [books] in terms of street cred” that’s compiled here? Notice anything? Like the fact that every single one of these authors is American? (With the exception of Miranda July’s nod to Rilke and Keith Gessen’s selection of his sister, who is technically Russian, but writes in English, and has spent a significant portion of her life here.)
And wow is this list lily-white. Like blindingly so.
1) Flavorpill is crap.
2) Hipsters—even literary ones—aren’t half as well-read as they think they are.
3) If I want to avoid simply being mean, I have to drink coffee before writing the first post of the day.
Today’s piece in the New York Times on indie rock sub-categorization isn’t particularly interesting . . . although when you apply what’s been happening in music to the world of books, there are a few intriguing outcomes.
The main thrust of Ben Sisario’s Times piece is that indie music has atomized into a trillion little genres—which is a confusing, yet good thing:
For those who has scratched their heads in confusion (or rolled their eyes) reading a music blog lately, the joke is uncomfortably close to the truth. Ten or 20 years ago it was relatively easy to define the term “indie-rock” as a handful of related styles and a collective audience slightly on the fringe of the mainstream. But by the end of the decade it has become an ever-expanding, incomprehensibly cluttered taxonomy of subgenres. So you say you like indie-rock — well, do you mean mumblecore? Freak-folk? Ambient doom-metal? Eight-bit?
Keeping track of it all can be exasperating, which makes it easy to overlook an important fact: Despite this flurry of hyphenation, indie-rock’s gradual atomization has actually been good for the music. The reason there are so many names is that there is more variety in the music than ever. Now, thanks to an accelerated feedback loop of musical creation, consumption and online discourse, a hundred schools of thought contend.
The point that he doesn’t really bring out here is about how these aren’t necessarily “categories” in the top-down, where-to-shelve-in-the-record-store sort of way, but are more like the “tags” you find on Last.fm, serving as clues to help lead an adventurous listener to new bands.
I could be completely wrong, but it seems like it would be incredibly helpful for recommendations and the like if people more actively created interesting tags and sub-categories for books.
This sort of exists for some genres: under “science-fiction” there’s “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” “alternate history,” etc., etc. And for “mystery” there’s “noir,” “detective,” “Nordic,” and so on.
But what about “literary fiction”? What does that even mean? And what is the difference—which can be found in some bookstores—between “fiction” and “literature”? (I’m sure we all know the answer to that, but isn’t it a bit like obscenity? Like you might not be able to define it, but you know “literature” when you see it?)
I have no idea what these sorts of tags might look like—or even if they already exist and I’m just not aware of it—but it would be really interesting to see how the proliferation of categories would impact reading recommendations. (And I don’t mean academic tags like “post-modern” or “meta-fiction,” which are rarely useful outside of dissertation writing.)
For instance, I just went to Library Thing to see what tags come up under Antonio Lobo Antunes’s Act of the Damned. This is one of my all-time favorite books, and in a certain mood, I’d love to read something as formally inventive and funny and engaging as this book. Here’s the complete list of tags for this book: 20th century, adultery, challenge, communism, contemporary, corruption, death, decay, dentists, drugs, family, fiction, first person, greed, incest, inheritance, Latin American fiction, literature, mental illness, political, Portugal, portugese_literature, Portuguese authors, Portuguese Literature, postmodern, poverty, revolution, Roman, romance, sex.
None of these are useful. (“Sex”? Seriously? Like there’s a book out there that’s not about sex?)
I know this is a digressive, meandering, possibly senile post, but it seems to me that readers would be the first group of people to be inventing interesting and creative neologisms to define what it is that they’re into. Shouldn’t there be some catchy tag that links Antunes to Cortazar to Calvino? Some label that a young reader could stumble across that would open up a new world of literature that they’d appreciate. There could be bookstore displays of these sub-genres, blogs about particular ones, etc.
Just a thought . . . And if anyone has any suggestions, or examples of how this already exists, please post them below . . .
Every time I feel like I’ve said all I really want to say about e-books and digital revolution (see all of these pieces from my recent trip to Paris), some crazy announcement or other is made, feathers are ruffled, barbs are traded, and I feel the insane itch to comment . . . And no matter how much I try and resist (just look away from the Simon & Schuster/Amazon.com pissing contest, just walk away), I always feel like I’m sucked back in.
This time it’s two separate and seemingly unrelated articles that got me to thinking about e-book release dates. First, from the Wall Street Journal:
Simon & Schuster is delaying by four months the electronic-book editions of about 35 leading titles coming out early next year, taking a dramatic stand against the cut-rate $9.99 pricing of e-book best sellers.
A second publisher, Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, said it has similar plans in the works.
“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
I’m sure any and all regular readers of this blog already know where this is going. There’s no point in focusing on the “predatory pricing” tactics of Amazon.com in this particular post. (Tactics which sound pretty similar to the “predatory pricing” tactics of the big box stores a few years back, but wtf? those price cuts helped corporate publishers to consolidate and expand, so there wasn’t nearly the same amount of hand-wringing as there is when a tactic starts to nibble at their bottom-line. I’m not making any judgments about Amazon.com or B&N or Borders or the business of bookselling as a whole, but fuck me does this whole thing sound hypocritical. To pull from my favorite bag of sports cliches—winning makes all problems go away. But once you start losing, it’s time to point fingers . . . And in this recession, big publishers are making the Detroit Lions look legit.)
But I can’t resist making fun of this: “with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
Yeah. Booming sales of e-books is a huge problem. Everyday publishers lament the fact that readers are buying their books. That activity must be nipped in the bud!
OK, to stop being facetious for a second: clearly Carolyn Reidy doesn’t hate the people who buy S&S titles, she hates the fact that they won’t pay the inflated hardcover prices that have kept this industry afloat and static for the past X number of decades. Those bastards! If these sales continued to expand, no one would be paying $29 for a 400-page book of questionable worth. And then S&S would have to figure out how to cut costs, how to publish more successfully, etc., etc. And that would suck. For Carolyn Reidy. So instead, she wants to at least delay you e-book readers from getting your e-book when you want it.
This decision follows a pretty standard model: You can see the movie at the theater now, or wait 9 months for the DVD; you can buy the hardcover now, or wait a year for the paperback.
You can buy the physical CD now, or wait . . . crap—that analogy doesn’t work. Wonder why . . .
The big gamble here is that readers value immediacy over price. That you want a book so bad that you’re willing to pay an extra $12-18 to get it rightnow instead of waiting four months for the discounted e-version. And that there’s no clear differentiation between p-book readers (god I hate that term, but whatever) and e-book readers.
Which could be totally wrong.
I don’t know how much market research S&S has done on e-book readers (I’ll guess zero, but who knows, maybe they polled their own employees), but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which there is a group of readers who have invested $250+ in an e-reading device and only want to buy e-books, and a different group of readers who only like to collect hardcovers, and a third group that will always wait for the paperback. (I fall into that category.)
If this is the case, and if e-books are booming, and if the people who read e-books help spread the word about titles they read and love to other readers who fall into one of these three categories, than S&S maybe handcuffing their own sales by preventing books from achieving their maximum sales velocity when released.
Just imagine if a CD came out, then we all waited four months to buy it through iTunes. Most of the reviews and publicity would take place at one point in time, whereas a massive amount of sales would happen at another. There’s a real disconnect here between marketing efforts and word-of-mouth, but whatever, Reidy gets paid the big bucks to make money for shareholders and increase the bottom line, not to increase the access readers have to great literature.
Over the weekend, Margo Rabb wrote an interesting essay for the New York Times called Steal These Books about which titles are most often stolen from bookstores. There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:
But this doesn’t mean that every reader is contributing to the bottom line. Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new, said Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry. The rest are shared, borrowed, given away — or stolen.
Those are some fascinating statistics, especially in relation to how we conceive of e-book readers. Granted, this is in relation to books that are actually read and we know most publishers really only care about books that are sold (a fine, but financially crucial distinction), but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the e-book world.
One reason publishers are so jacked with optimism for an e-book future (as long as it conforms to their present ideas re: pricing, DRM, etc.) is because it will allow them to cut down on all of this “borrowing” and “giving away” of books. Things will inevitably change, but for now, the idea of being able to sell a e-version to every single person who wants to read the book, jacking these percentages way, way up just through technological limitations, is very appealing. To some people.
I think blogs were created for the very reason of attacking articles like Lev Grossman’s Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. This article is so annoying and so preposterous that it’s actually dangerous.
It opens with Grossman’s praising “plot” as a sort of guilty pleasure that we crave but find our “attachment to storyline” to be “disgraceful.” That said:
If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.
OK, so I’m not entirely clear on what he means by “plot,” but more on that in a second. First off, here’s his bit on the Modernists—those assholes that destroyed our guilty pleasure of reading books with plots:
Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. [. . .]
But let’s look back for a second at where the Modernists came from, and what exactly they did with the novel. They drew a tough hand, historically speaking. All the bad news of the modern era had just arrived more or less at the same time: mass media, advertising, psychoanalysis, mechanized warfare. The rise of electric light and internal combustion had turned their world into a noisy, reeking travesty of the gas-lit, horse-drawn world they grew up in. The orderly, complacent, optimistic Victorian novel had nothing to say to them. Worse than nothing: it felt like a lie. The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did.
One of the things they broke was plot. To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the “Boy’s Own” war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in “The Mill on the Floss” and spat out “The Sound and the Fury.”
Granted, the Modernists did a lot of interesting things to the structure, form, content, and style of the novel. They did “break” the Victorian form; they made something new. But does this mean that The Sounds and the Fury has no plot? The story is out of order and told in a relativistic fashion, but there is a “story.” There are characters, events that follow one another, conflicts and resolutions. There is a plot—just not the sort of plot Grossman likes.
I’m going assume (from Grossman’s grand statement below about the future of the novel) that what he means by “plot” are fairly straightforward linear narratives that are realistic, recognizable, simple-to-follow, and tend to have genre elements. I hate even writing “simple-to-follow,” since something that’s difficult to one person can be easily comprehended and enjoyed by another, but, well, in Lev’s unfailingly rational attack on “plotless novels,” he sort of brings it up:
This brought with it another, related development: difficulty. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about. The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters.
We all know that Art should never be confusing, or challenging, or “difficult”! Why didn’t Joyce spend his life churning out detective novels? Finnegans Wake should’ve been a sci-fi novel!
I think we can all agree that some of the modernist masterpieces Grossman has in mind — Ulysses, Sound and the Fury, The Waste Land — are not brainless mind candy to be consumed on the beach or the toilet, but labeling them as “difficult” brings with it a ton of baggage that, in the end, can be extremely damaging to book culture and the appreciation of literature as a lasting art form.
Because what usually happens after someone labels a book (or group of books) as “difficult,” they then go on to belittle this book (or books) as essentially unreadable, not worth your time, or as “work”:
After all, the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward’s way out, for people who can’t deal with the real world. If you’re having too much fun, you’re doing it wrong.
There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it’s still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. [. . .]
Nam Le’s “The Boat,” one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn’t include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the “Twilight” series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You’ll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they’re lazy and can’t hack it in the big leagues. But that’s not the case. They need something they’re not getting elsewhere. Let’s be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel “The Hunger Games” instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because “The Hunger Games” doesn’t bore them.
And there we go. So here’s the basic argument: no “plot” = difficult = boring = elitist = doesn’t sell in a supermarket.
When I first read this article, I was totally outraged—this article essentially attacking all the books that I like, all the books that I publish, all the beliefs I hold dear about the power of literature as art. And all based on the belief that there’s a certain type of book that appeals to a mass audience and therefore sells astronomically well, and that sales figures trump quality every single time. It really shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve replaced critical appreciation with “units shifted” in our hierarchy of artistic values, but even so, it still pisses me off.
And letting my prejudices show for a minute: This sort of argument is intended to direct young writers into producing more “readable” books. Books with “strong plot” and “realistic characterization.” I don’t want to take away from these sorts of books, but there’s no reason that a certain portion of authors can continue to work in the Modernist (or Post-Modernist, or whatever label you want to apply to these “difficult,” “plotless,” “boring” books) vein creating art that requires a more sophisticated reader willing to contemplate and explore.
And on a really selfish note: I don’t want to live in a world completely dominated by genre fiction and “plotted” novels. I want more variety. I want books that I have to read twice. And yes, I realize that Stephanie Meyer and Jodi Picoult already rule the day, and yes, I realize that one WSJ article isn’t going to alter the course of the novel, but I don’t like Lev’s alone in his beliefs. In fact, his argument is perfectly in line with all corporate publishers—publishers whose accountants would love to eliminate every “unprofitable, difficult, plotless” book from the company’s list. (As I’m writing this, PW Daily arrived with news that Random House’s profits fell a whopping 35.5% for the first half of 2009. Goodbye, “difficult” literature!)
The one potentially redeeming part of Grossman’s piece is his list of authors who are revitalizing the novel:
The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century. Look at Cormac McCarthy, who for years appeared to be the oldest living Modernist in captivity, but who has inaugurated his late period with a serial-killer novel followed by a work of apocalyptic science fiction. Look at Thomas Pynchon—in “Inherent Vice” he has swapped his usual cumbersome verbal calisthenics for the more maneuverable chassis of a hard-boiled detective novel.
This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap.
These are all fine writers, and I wouldn’t dispute that they’re all doing good work, but in terms of the article, it once again falls back on binary divisions, praising this novelists for writing “entertaining” novels with “entertaining” being defined by what’s “fun” for Grossman to read.
What a complete mess of an article! I’m not going to list everyone that comes to mind, but Mark Binelli, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Meredith Brosnan, Dubavka Ugresic, Jose Manuel Prieto, Attila Bartis, Roberto Bolano, etc., etc., have all written very entertaining novels over the past couple decades that would be considered “plotless” and “Modernist” by Grossman. I know I’m rambling now, but I really don’t even know what the point of his article really is. A self-justification for his own reading habits?
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of the “fixed book price agreement” that’s in place in a number of countries around the world. (At least 18, according to Wikipedia, aka America’s Best Source of Information.) I’ve mentioned a few times in posts here on Three Percent, always emphasizing the way that it slightly levels the playing field by preventing massive corporations from offering discounts on
shitty best-selling books that are so deep that no independent store can possibly compete.
Harry Potter is the ultimate example of this. Several major retailers (ya’ll know who they are, and they know as well) essentially sold Harry Potter at a loss in order to increase the number of sales and customers. (I remember when I was at Quail Ridge Books, it was cheaper for us to buy copies of HP from Costco—god help us all—than it was to purchase them directly from Scholastic.)
One of the main arguments for the fixed book price—which, if I haven’t made this clear, is a law that ensures the same book is sold at the same price at all outlets—is that it allows smaller stores to carry a more diverse stock. It sort of hampers the blockbuster model and, in theory at least, promotes a more healthy book culture in which presses can publish poetry and survive, and bookstores aren’t overrun with stacks of
shitty popular books.
All that said, I was pretty surprised to come across this essay by Kim Heijdenrijk about why the fixed book price agreement (of FBPA) is damaging to independent stores.
Living in a country that prides itself on its
insane laws protecting free economic principles, I probably shouldn’t comment on how well (or poorly) the FBPA actually works. But wtf, it’s America, I’m writing for a blog, etc. So, here’s Kim’s main arguments, and my socialist cautionary counter-arguments.
It was then that I learned how much is earned on a book. Or better said: how little. And this particular shop got quite a big margin, since it is so large and well known. I was shocked. When speaking to my boss about it, he merely said: “Why do you think we also have a music store, a coffee shop and an office supply store?”. Point taken. It is almost impossible to survive on the sales of books alone. Even with a relatively big margin.
This particular Dutch bookstore is very fortunate. A success story if you will. But only because of the business strategy they chose. Books as a core business, other products to stay afloat. How many independent booksellers are in the position to do this? How do you get people to buy at your shop instead of the big chains that are on every high street? The obvious – if not the only – way is to do what supermarkets do. Have a sale. Lower the prices of particular products, in this case particular books. A very good idea, if the Fixed Book Price Agreement did not forbid it.
OK, yes, price is one factor on which a business traditionally differentiates itself, but really? As stated in paragraph one, the margin for books is pretty much shit. So a sale will only effectively improve your long-term business if the people you attract through temporarily lowering prices are converted into loyal customers. And unfortunately, that’s pretty unlikely. The second an independent store starts offering a discount, a chain store will offer a larger one. And if the tacit assumption is that customers are “rational economic agents” (this is a bullshit pro-capitalist belief, but I’m going to let it ride for now) that make decisions primarily because of price, they’ll end up shopping at the indie store’s competitors.
Now the idea behind the FBPA. The idea is that bookshops make the most money on bestsellers. These books, like Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code, cost little effort to sell. And hardly any advertising money for the bookseller, because these books get enough exposure. Without the fixed book price, a bookshop could offer these books at competitive prices to lure readers into their shops. With the fixed prices, the booksellers loose [sic] this advantage.
Wait a second here . . . So, you have a handful of mega-bestsellers, books that you don’t have to do much of anything to sell by the gaggle, books that you could sell at regular retail price and no one blinks—these are the books you want to sell at a discount? In an industry in which breaking even is a pretty significant accomplishment, this seems like a bad decision. Bookstore owners cherish the time when they actually made money on books like Harry Potter instead of fighting to breakeven, or having to expend a ton of rhetorical energy to convince customers to pay the extra $2 and buy the book from an independent so that that store can continue to serve its local community. Overall, this point seems massively misguided.
The publishers want the bookstores to promote lesser known – more specialized – books instead of the ‘high flyers’. They want to create ‘bibliodiversity’, as is stated in a paper by the International Publishers Association. To make sure that the shop owners practice this innovative word, the publishers offer a guaranteed/larger margin on the bestsellers. This way everybody wins. The publisher knows that the ‘big’ books will sell anyway and therefore they can give a good profit margin to the bookseller. The bookseller should be able to fund the promotion of the ‘small’ books because of this. And they live happily ever after . . .
The so called ‘benefits’ for these little shops can only be viewed as ludicrous. The fixed book price would protect them from the competition of supermarkets in their area that sell books at bargain prices. For this reason the independent bookseller in less convenient places would have a better chance of survival. I would advise the creator of this benefit to pick up an economy book. [Again, sic] The buyer of books in the supermarket is, of course, an entirely different person than the one purchasing a book in a bookshop. The books available at supermarkets are there for the impulse buyer. A person who does not read a lot and heard from a friend that he should read a certain book.
Veering off for a minute into socio-economics (and a totally different topic), I’m pretty much against books being sold in supermarkets. Not only is the selection totally weak, but Wal*Mart/Sam’s Club/Costco detract from the public perception of the bookstore as a unique, worthwhile business. Books in supermarkets are pure commodities, no different than frozen peas. There will always be a specialized group of bookstore lovers who would rather shop for real literature in a real bookstore, yet there’s a growing number of people who believe literature equals the latest Jodi Picoult book on sale for 25% off right next to the super-sized tub of KitKat bars. (I believe they call themselves “Pi-Cultists.”) Yeah, that’s what the world needs now.
One thing Kim doesn’t bring up are the other ways independent bookstores could differentiate themselves in lieu of discounts. The shopping/browsing experience is influenced by space, by design, by customer service. Independent stores tend to be more community-focused and customer-oriented than their corporate equivalents, and also tend to know a lot about actual books that they can recommend to their clientele. There are many more value-added aspects a store could emphasize than price. Trying to fight Goliath by knocking $1 off the list price is a slippery slope to utter bankruptcy.
Today’s Boston Globe has one of the most upsetting articles I’ve read in a long while. Entitled “Stimulus Funding for Arts Hits Nerve,” it’s about the furor over the $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts that was included in the stimulus package that passed the House, but is absent in the version before the Senate.
Representative Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, wants to transfer the proposed NEA funding to highway construction. He failed to get the House to vote on his proposal, so he is now trying to get on the conference committee that will determine the fate of the funding. “We have real people out of work right now and putting $50 million in the NEA and pretending that’s going to save jobs as opposed to putting $50 million in a road project is disingenuous,” Kingston said in an interview yesterday, adding the time has come to examine all of NEA’s funding.
And when it was pointed out that the unemployment rate for artists was the same as the entire workforce (although it’s worth noting that there’s 46% unemployment rate among actors, and 19% for dancers), you get gems of logic like this:
But opponents of the funding say that many groups of workers don’t receive special funding. Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Cantor, said the provision “uses taxpayer dollars on NEA programs instead of common-sense tax relief targeted to revitalize small businesses and create jobs for middle-class families facing economic challenges” and “fails to meet the standard necessary to be included in an emergency economic recovery plan.”
If I could do a videocast, everyone could see how visibly pissed I am about this . . . Putting aside questions about funding for the arts and how NEA’s money is allocated to both organizations and artists, and ignoring for a moment the oft-documented fact that arts spending does create jobs, let’s just look at the number for a second: this $50 million for the NEA is 0.006% of the total $819 billion package.
Not 6%. Or even 0.1%. But 0.006%. 1/16,380th of the proposed spending.
And that’s not even factoring in the $800 billion plus that allowed Wall Street firms to stay in business and give themselves $20 billion in bonuses. The proposed $50 million for NEA is 1/400 of the amount these people—“people” who essentially ran a Ponzi scheme that bankrupted the world and has damaged everyone’s quality of life for years to come—received just last month thanks to nearly $1 trillion in taxpayer money.
But politicians are pissed about giving money for arts organizations or artists? Really?
It’s silly to have to make an argument for the arts, and trying to change a typical politicians mind is about as easy as ending world hunger, but really, the value of what the NEA does goes well beyond the jobs it creates. The arts make life better. Plain and simple. And spending a infinitesimal part of a stimulus package on arts organizations benefits the entire country.
Dana Gioia has an awesome quote in this article:
Dana Gioia, a poet who was NEA chairman until last month, recalled that when top Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins was asked why the government wanted to hire so many artists and writers, he replied, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
Gioia, reflecting on that comment, said, “As far as I’ve heard, nothing has changed about the dietary needs of artists.”
I feel like we’re right back in the mid-1990s. . . . Initially, one might think that the arts would benefit with a democrat in the White House. But historically, that hasn’t really helped, and it’s during these periods that the NEA comes under the most scrutiny and loses the most funding. Clinton never stood up for public arts funding, probably due to the fact that from a presidential perspective there’s not much at stake and to use up political capital on something like this just isn’t worth it.
I really hope Obama is different. If he doesn’t go to bat for the arts and for including this pittance in the ever-ballooning (and rightfully so) stimulus efforts, all of his promises of change will ring awfully hollow to me.
Following up on yesterday’s rant about v-books, from what we can find, Amazon is the exclusive retailer for these videos. I’ll bet that’ll go over well.
When HarperCollins announced their latest innovation—“video books”—earlier this week, thousands of people around the country came up with the same joke: “yeah, video books . . . they’re called movies.”
But honestly, that’s just the tip of the stupidity iceberg. First off, here’s the idea in full from the article in the Washington Post, which is shockingly unironic (I think—the final sentence is really confusing):
For those who don’t have the time to listen to an audiobook, let alone read a hardback or e-Book, HarperCollins brings you: the video book. Perhaps fittingly, the first author to get the video treatment is BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis, whose book, What Would Google Do?, will be available in all the other formats as well, WSJ notes. News Corp.‘s HarperCollins has been noted for its digital experiments the past few years, but it’s still being cautious about the prospects for video books. It expects to produce about six titles for video in house, which will be available for download on iPods and iPhones. [. . .]
Jarvis’ video book goes on sale Tuesday and retails for $9.99. The 23-minute video has Jarvis speaking into a single camera with a white background. Instead of reading directly from the book, which was published last month by the company’s Collins Business imprint, Jarvis runs through the basic concepts in the book, such as how Google has been able to compete so successfully on the web and what can be learned from its practices. If HarperCollins can make a go of v-books, perhaps Google will be the one to pick up a few tips for generating revenue from YouTube.
Yeah, really. HarperCollins wants you to pay $10 to watch a v-book that’s not actually a book but a video about a book shot with a single camera in a white room.
On second thought, maybe this is some mad genius idea of theirs . . . I mean think about it, people like TV right? I mean, they’re not too keen on reading, or attending readings, or watching Book TV, or whatever other book related activity one might think of, but hey they like TV, no? So why not just put the books on TV! I mean, don’t act them out or any of that period shit, don’t even let the author read the book, just put him in front of a camera to talk about the book. He won’t read from the book or anything mind-numbingly boring like that, just talk about the big concepts. The things you need to know for cocktail parties. Kind of like video CliffsNotes. You know, it’ll be like an infomercial. But one that people will pay for . . .
I can only imagine how many hundreds of thousands of dollars were pissed away on this, and how many meetings took place without anyone pointing out just what a bad idea this is. Did they run this by a single reader?
Over at the Literary Saloon, — Litblogging’s Finest Source of International News — Michael Orthofer reports on Daniel Kehlmann’s article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung railing against the German Book Prize.
I can’t read the article in the original (which can be found here), but Michael’s summary makes it seem like Kehlmann’s shooting off in fairly uninformed manner. (Which is sort of what I’ve come to expect after seeing him at the PEN World Voices Festival last year.)
Apparently he first complains that if a book isn’t on the GBP longlist, it has little chance of being reviewed. Which smacks of bullshit and a bit of a personal grudge perhaps?
But this is the best (in Michael’s translation):
And one knows — I went through it myself — that nominated authors are unofficially informed that staying away from the ceremony would lead to an automatic disqualification. Even if a book is an epochal success, if its author is not willing to swallow some sedative and physically take part in the competition, he won’t receive the prize, a decisive distinction from the National Book Award or the Booker Prize, that as a matter of course regularly are handed out to absent authors.
Er, uh, not. In fact, as Michael points out, it’s right in the NBA guidelines that not only does the author have to attend the ceremony, but he/she “must agree to participate in the Foundation’s Website-related publicity, including on-line “chats” with readers across the country.” And the promotion synergy doesn’t stop there. Also according to guidelines, publishers of the finalists have to pay $1,000 to support promotional activities, pay for their author to attend the ceremony, and purchase medallions from the National Book Foundation to affix to finalists and winning titles.
I hate to suggest that such cooperation helps increase the reach and attention of the National Book Award and may be one of the reasons that so much attention is paid to the winner . . .
I also have to say that Kehlmann’s suggestion of abolishing the longlist is silly from the point of view of a foreign publisher. The German Book Office and others do a fantastic job of getting the word out about new German titles, but nevertheless, a number of books slide right by. This longlist (and Michael’s suggestion of making the list of 160+ nominees available) provides publishers like Open Letter with another source of information. Another list of potentially great titles. Instead of eliminating the longlist, I wish someone would provide sample translations of these books. . .
Over the weekend, the Huffington Post published Part 1 of an essay by Richard Laermer called “Why Book Publishing Is Dead.”
Now, I’m one of the first people to jump on the bandwagon and criticize the publishing industry (or book industry as a whole) for it’s lack of innovation and odd practices. (As a sidenote: why doesn’t the Borders “concept store” have a TV in the fiction section running book trailers? There’s one in food, one in magazines, one in travel—along with a computer where you can book your vacation—and a whole digital center . . .) It’s easy to pile on publishers for being slow and antiquated, but it’s helps if the one doing the piling has some semblance of knowledge about the industry. . .
After reading this Laermer piece—which does contain a few accurate points—I wasn’t sure who should be more embarrassed: Laermer for writing something so ignorant and ill-informed, or the Huffington Post for running this.
Here are just a few of the gaffes:
1. Who’s in charge here? How can a 22-year-old editor bid on a book? What does a post-graduate $32,000-a-year fresh-out know what will hit with the public? Why does this frequently appear to be a case of the nuthouse leaving the inmates to decide!
There really aren’t any 22-year-old editors acquiring books. At best, this 22-year-old editor has to convince his/her boss and the marketing team about a particular title. If you want to talk about the cliched “inmates running the asylum,” then at least blame the marketing folks who could give a damn about quality and really only care about the bottom-line.
3. The editing is done exactly how far in advance? If I write a book that is to come out in say December of 08—they have to have it in February. Why? ‘Cause they have a “schedule to follow,” but it would seem with digital technology you should be able to write right up to the deadline (like we do online).
Uh, wow. You’re right, design, production, pre-press promotion, and printing can take place in minutes these days. No really, isn’t there some P.O.D. thing or whatever? And galleys—screw that, we need to give our writers more time to tinker rather than promoting books to booksellers and reviewers. I’m sure that will work out well. (Granted there are some books—current affairs for instance—that benefit from a short lead time, but Punk Marketing? Kinda doubt it.)
8. You won’t publish me even if I’m the next Tolstoy unless I have a platform of my own? Yeah I get it. I’m all about the podcasts, the blogs, the articles, the mini-tours, the loud hawking, what is dubbed “relentless” push for my product…. In 2002 I got myself booked with the then-adorable Katie Couric on Today Show for trendSpotting and I told the people at Penguin-Putnam who thought I was kidding (“Well, let’s see”) —and when I was scheduled they didn’t bother to alert sales force, stores, or anyone. So 20 million watched me cavorting with that perky thing, and a dozen books were in stores. Publishers don’t know how to sell, that’s the fact. They wait. Very Darwinian. If something takes off THEN they start pumping out the marketing.
This point I think is valid. The sales links between author and customer (author —> agent —> editor —> marketing —> sales reps —> buyer —> bookselling clerk —> customer) can breakdown in a million different ways, and not taking advantage of publicity is a bit problem. But “cavorting with that perky thing” sounds a bit creepy to me . . .
12. Small publishers? Nah, don’t think so. I found they were just as cheap-headed as their older brother, and only provided support when the author paid his own way. Seems like the small publisher is a misnomer-like indie film. Neither exists except as marketing gimmick. In the long run, small comes knocking with finger-in-air offers like the Midwest publisher who nervily said “Here’s five grand” advance for a book about the porn industry’s history of influencing business decisions thru history . . . (Where’s Judith Regan when I need her!!!)
Wha?? Small publishers. . . . indie film . . . doesn’t exist except as marketing gimmick? Head. Exploding.
To answer my earlier rhetorical question, I’m the one who should be most embarrassed, for letting this bug me and wasting precious time writing and thinking about it.
The other day NPR ran this segment about Wordsmiths in Decatur, Georgia, and the store’s recent decision to ask for donations from customers in order to stay in business.
In its typical middle-of-the-road objective, NPR’s focus is on whether it’s good or bad for people to donate to a for profit business, presenting both “sides” of the issue in a half-ass, intellectually non-stimulating way. Aside from Wordsmiths owner (who has been successful in raising funds from his customers), they also interview an economist who presents the pat, anti-nonprofit viewpoint that if a business can’t break even, it may not deserve support from the public, and then follow up with Mark Sarvas who points out that maybe the rules for donations should be relaxed for literary efforts, since this isn’t exactly a growth, or even financial stable, industry.
It would take weeks of posts to really parse through an issue like this, but because of some activities I’ve been engaged in recently (including a couple I can’t really talk about until later this fall), the publishing/bookselling model and the nonprofit world has been on my mind quite a bit.
First off, to provide a bit of the contextual background that NPR didn’t, there is at least one very successful nonprofit bookstore in the U.S.—Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They became a nonprofit in 1979, and here’s a basic description of their activities:
The center houses a bookstore with over 25,000 small press titles otherwise unavailable in our area. Because we are nonprofit, our inventory decisions aren’t dictated entirely by commercialism. As booksellers and as presenters of art and literature, we want people to know that there is more than what you see at your chain book store, more than you are taught in school, more than what is reviewed in the papers. We hope to act as a catalyst, putting readers together with small press literature. Come browse our selection of poetry, chapbooks, fine print materials, broadsides, and multicultural literature. We think you’ll be impressed!
Our space also includes an art gallery where we present exhibitions, artist talks, readings, experimental films, concerts and writing workshops for adults and children.
A few years ago, Chapters: A Literary Bookstore in Washington, D.C. decided to become an nonprofit as well, in part by making the store part of a larger 501©3 organization called Wordfest that directed an international poetry festival. For a variety of reasons I don’t even fully know, this relationship didn’t work out, and Chapters was eventually forced to close. The remarkable Terri Merz is still looking for a space to reopen, which will hopefully happen soon, since D.C. needs a great indie store, especially since Olsson’s is struggling.
On the horizon is The Great Lakes Literary Art Center at Shaman Drum Bookshop. Karl Pohrt and I talked briefly about this when I interviewed him a couple weeks back. Karl’s a pretty modest guy, so on his behalf I’ll talk about how amazing this is. Rather than sell his store—which is a fixture of Ann Arbor life, and would probably find a buyer pretty quickly—he’s decided to give it to the community. A pdf of the complete GLLAC Development Plan is available online for anyone to peruse.
One of the things that went unmentioned in the NPR piece (in part because it was outside of the scope, and rather than look at Wordsmiths as an example of a expanding business model of the nonprofit bookstore, they went for the “fair and balanced” is-this-a-good-idea? approach) is what makes a nonprofit bookstore a nonprofit.
Almost everyone knows that most book related business don’t make much money. Sure the big media conglomerates (that are much more than just a publisher) have significant profits, but even then, the margin for a publisher or bookstore is incredibly low compared to other enterprises. As a result, people working in the book trade are usually very underpaid. Which is why it’s tricky to get younger generations to stay in the book business. And why B&N and Borders are filled with “clerks” not “booksellers.” (More on that later or in another post.)
As Richard Nash says, independent booksellers and publishers are just two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy.
But that’s not what makes a store/publisher a nonprofit. A tax-exempt 501©3 organization, can be literary, dedicated to the “advancement of education” or to “eliminating prejudice and discrimination.” Reading the actual description, this seems like a sufficiently broad category, and one that would encompass bookstores that are doing something more than just selling books.
For instance, both Woodland Pattern and Shaman Drum are dedicated to cultivating readers, in part by offering free literary activities, workshops, etc. They are engaging with readers and helping foster a better community through literary works and activities. They’re not just clerking books a la the traditional box store or a supermarket. They are interacting with the public in a different, more meaningful way. And these activities—if they are to have any impact—cost money. And, in my opinion, deserve to be supported through tax breaks, state and federal funding, and donations from individuals.
The current business models we have are totally broken. Distribution is handled by a select few, book coverage (at least print style) is decreasing, very few authors can survive on their writing alone, and people are working in the industry out of love and passion, surviving on small salaries.
Which is why the more I think about it, the more this NPR piece irks me. Granted, they might not find the idea of exploring this nonprofit model as interesting as I do, but the focus they went for is such an odd take that it’s almost ridiculous. And I never like it when economists sugges things about society (such as implicitly favoring the business that can make money instead of the business that enhances cultural life) since I tend to disagree almost 100% of the time with their suggestions.
OK, enough ranting for the moment. Tomorrow (or Friday) I do want to write something more about publishers and booksellers and how they interact (or don’t) with readers, which I think is another important aspect of the wider context for this story.
After a week of writing about how much I loved the editors week in Argentina I hate to do this, but I have to go on a bit of a rant about the U.S. Embassy in Argentina.
It’s important to provide a bit of background first: Fundacion TyPA supports a number of artistic activities in Argentina, including this “Semana de Editores,” which consists of ten participants from around the world who come to Buenos Aires and spend a week learning about Argentine literature, with the goal that they will then return home and publish a few Argentine works in translation. Or at least develop a greater understanding and appreciation of Argentine culture and be in a position to share information about what’s going on in Argentine literature. (Which is what I hope I’ve been doing through these various blog posts.)
Thanks to the economic collapse of 2001 (I almost wrote, thanks to the IMF’s mistreatment of Argentina, but this isn’t the blog for that kind of debate), the government doesn’t have a lot of money to invest in cultural activities such as this. (Just imagine losing two-thirds of your money overnight and watching the poverty rate in your country skyrocket . . . Cultural exchanges automatically fall into the “luxury” category following such a severe economic collapse.) Nevertheless, the Argentine government goes on, inviting ten people a year, paying for their hotels, meals, transportation around Buenos Aires, etc., etc. (And really, this was one of the most well organized, well constructed editorial trips I’ve ever been on.)
The only thing they can’t afford to pay for is the flight to Buenos Aires. Instead they ask the various embassies in Argentina to support the cultural exchange by providing $1,000-$2,000 to pay for an editor (or two) from their country to participate in this trip. Most agree willingly and see the benefits derived from such an experience. I know that Ori Preuss met with the Israel Ambassador to thank him for subsidizing his trip, and the two women from Germany were sponsored as well and had a long meeting with the Goethe Institut. And I’m almost positive all the other embassies supported their editors—France, Italy, China, etc.—that is, except for America.
I’d heard before that the American Embassy in Buenos Aires was never fully supportive of this program. That they’d paid a few hundred dollars here and there, but never the full amount, and never consistently. Which, in my opinion, is absolutely disgraceful.
It’s not about the money. To me, the experience I just had was worth every cent of the cost of a plane ticket, and I’m sure many other American editors and translators would agree. But, still, it’s absolutely ridiculous that the U.S. government can’t give the Argentines $1,000 in support of this trip. Absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing. Seriously, the U.S. pissed away many more thousands of dollars in the time it took me to write this sentence. But provide a minimal amount of money, a token amount really, more a symbol that yes, the U.S. does believe in cultural exchanges—that’s apparently impossible.
But it really is up to the government how they spend the people’s tax money. (And there are good cultural programs in place, such as the State Department’s support of the International Writing Program at Iowa.) And I wouldn’t really even be that upset if I hadn’t stumbled upon Embassy’s stand at the Buenos Aires Book Fair.
Seriously, it’s all about space exploration. Yes. Space. Exploration. At the Buenos Aires Book Fair. And no, I have no idea either what these two things have to do with one another.
Here’s the “explanation” from the U.S. Embassy’s website:
The United States Embassy will participate in the 34th Buenos Aires International Book Fair. During the 50th Anniversary of NASA (National Aeronautics and space Administration), the Embassy booth theme will focus on the important advances in science and technology developed by the United States. Books, videos and related items from space exploration will be shown at the booth. Visitors will have the opportunity to feel like an astronaut for a while and take a photo wearing a space suit.
Really? In a space suit? How, um, great. I can’t imagine that anyone goes to the book fair all manic about the possibility of learning about space travel . . . Of trying on a space suit! And if this isn’t disturbing enough, follow the thread of some of the other events the U.S. is sponsoring at the fair:
The Embassy has prepared a large number of activities during the Book Fair, including the celebration of the “United States Day” on April 29.
The Embassy is proud to announce the visit of the distinguished writer and journalist Tom Wolfe, who will give a lecture and sign books at the Fair. Mr. Wolfe will also meet with Argentine representatives from the cultural and media arena.
Fernando Caldeiro, American astronaut born in Argentina, will talk about his experience working at NASA and how to become an astronaut.
How to use Internet to start your writing carrier [sic] will be the theme of a roundtable by American authors.
Granted, some of the other events the U.S. is involved with (such as the panel featuring Argentine writers who had attended the Iowa International Writing Program) are pretty interesting, but from the above, it’s clear that exporting relics of American culture is much more important than facilitating a true cultural exchange.
I doubt anything will come of it, but I’m going to write to Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne (BNS-PublicOpinion@state.gov) to let him know how disappointed I am and to encourage him in supporting this editors week in future years. Really, it’s more for my own personal sense of closure, to express to someone in power that I think the U.S. should be supporting exchanges like these across disciplines and around the world, and that by essentially shunning Argentine cultural organizations, they’re acting as a poor representative of American culture—something that I’d like to distance myself from.
Just to make it clear, these are my opinions alone, and in no way reflect Fundacion TyPA, or anyone else. And I’m really just irked by this particular situation—the International Literature Exchanges and Translation Fellowship programs at the National Endowment for the Arts demonstrate that there are people/governments organizations concerned with supporting international literature and cultural exchanges. It’s just that when I arrived in the Atlanta airport to the shocktastic blatherings of CNN, I realized just how screwed up our priorities are.
For me, Kate Foster’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle of Lieve Joris’s The Rebels’ Hour perfectly illustrates some of the ridiculous hangups Americans have when it comes to nonfiction and the representation of “truth.”
The Rebels’ Hour is in an interesting postion—it’s a work of “literary reportage” that is “based on real characters, situations, and places, without ever coinciding with them completely.” The publisher—Grove/Atlantic—categorized this as history, and included the following note on the copyright page:
The Rebels’ Hour falls into a category—literary reportage—that has a long history worldwide, but does not have an established tradition in the United States. As Joris clarifies in her preface, “the facts in this book have all been researched in minute detail, but in order to paint a realistic picture of my characters I’ve had to fill in some parts of their lives from my own imagination. It was the only way to make the story both particular and general.” The end result, as one French review noted, is a book that is “even truer than truth” (Afrique-Asia). Having had to choose between fiction and nonfiction, we felt The Rebels’ Hour belonged on the shelf marked nonfiction.
All of this is why I didn’t include the book on our translation database. I even brought this up with Lauren Wein (the book’s super-cool editor) and she agreed that it shouldn’t be counted in the translation list, since it’s clearly not fiction.
Not so, according to the Chronicle. Instead, they label Foster’s piece a “fiction review” and she explains her own viewpoint right away:
This setup, which includes changing the protagonist’s name, will make some readers uncomfortable. After all, in a war-torn country with the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world, there is more than a story to tell; there is a record to set straight.
(To be honest, American readers need to be made uncomfortable. In fact, I would argue that making people uncomfortable is a mark of a great work of literature.)
Grove went out of their way to explain the book’s situation (written in a style that really is pervasive throughout the rest of the world) and Foster foregrounded that “questionable” position at the beginning of her piece—but did she then need to criticize the book based on its shortcomings as a novel?
Despite Joris’ vivid details – the putrid smells of sweaty young soldiers and death, generals constantly gabbing on cell phones, a protagonist partial to milk and Fanta – the story doesn’t read like a novel, and Assani never comes into clear focus.
And it’s not as lyrical as a book of poems either! I don’t know when this hang-up started—maybe with James Frey? (At Dalkey we encountered a bit of this in regards to Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of interviews with Chernobyl survivors that have been recast as (gasp!) monologues. Are the responses exactly the same as the actual people gave? How much did Alexievich pretty it all up? It’s worth noting that this won the NBCC Award for Nonfiction, so I think it’s clear that some people can understand and appreciate this type of “reportage.”)
Regardless, every month there’s a new scandal re: someone making shit up about their lives. Most of the time it’s an American writer elaborating on their past in order to profit and sell more books. And get on Oprah. And intentionally deceive the American public for personal gain. I completely agree—this isn’t cool and is more than shitty. But is that situation analogous to The Rebels’ Hour? Not by a long shot. But Americans, in their typical Puritanical way, are too uptight to understand that there are gray areas, that nonfiction is never objectively “true,” and that the memoirs everyone gets all bent out of shape about—when they find out they’re chocked full of lies—aren’t worth worrying about in the first place.
OK, I’m done for today . . . It’s just so discouraging that Americans seem to have a hard time enjoying/learning from other cultures because they can’t write books according to our prescriptive standards and rules . . .
The London Book Fair has always been one of my favorite conventions. London by itself is always fantastic—although way too expensive these days (thank you depressed American economy for making my dollars completely worthless)—and the fair is a more calm, friendly version of Frankfurt. (And, on a personal sidenote, the best thing I ever wrote—in my opinion—was a LBF report for the Words Without Borders blog a few years back. It helped that my fucking hotel room flooded, giving me lots of frustrating bureaucratic encounters to rank about . . .)
This year I’m skipping in favor of an Editors Week in Buenos Aires that starts on Saturday. (Two continents in two weeks was a bit too much for me.) What’s weird is the startling lack of coverage by American media outlets and bloggers about this year’s fair.
PW is doing their thing, but aside from that, the best coverage is overseas. (Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind has a good roundup of the little coverage that’s out there, and points to both Publishing News and The Bookseller for decent updates.) I know Bookslut is there covering the fair, but I can’t find any pieces by her yet.
Seems like the kind of thing GalleyCat used to cover until they co-opted Gawker’s tone, writers, and interest in book covers. (Still a very interesting blog—although I do take issue with the Unboring Book Blogs and the inclusion of the hardly bookish Fimoculous whose last post about books was from frickin’ April 7th! And here I thought I was being lazy!)
All this is to say that this situation kind of sucks. I know some of the LBF is insider baseball with the deals and digital announcements and whatnot, but there are events that would be interesting to the general public. In fact, come to think of it, I haven’t seen much about the Free the Word! festival either. I thought I could live vicariously and hear about the swanky parties I’m missing. The great book international books that are being shopped unsuccessfully or otherwise.
Hopefully I’m missing a treasure trove of LBF info . . . If so, please let me know where it is.
I hope I’m
We announced the first Titlepage.tv episode yesterday and then watched about 15 minutes before leaving it paused on a goofy Charles Bock grimace for the rest of the day.
That’s approximately 10 minutes, 33 seconds more than Jessa from Bookslut watched.
And Sarah Weinman has a list of ten ways to improve the show, including:
To my dying day I’m going to hold out hope that there could be a fun, engaging, intellectually stimulating, TV show about books. This may not be it, although here’s to hoping that Titlepage learns from its mistakes and blossoms over the next few episodes.
Here’s my prediction though: Lots of people will watch this and think—hell, it’s not that hard to put together an internet show that’s at least this good. A bunch of different programs will suddenly come into existence, a few of which are actually quite good. Around the time that we find out that one of these new ones is 10 times more popular than Titlepage there will be a big media backlash against these “amateur” programmers, dismissing internet programs as “not the real thing.” A divisive spat will ensue mimicing the whole bloggers vs. print thing, and readers will be back where they started with nothing worth watching.
The Winter List of the NBCC’s Good Reads program—where NBCC members recommend the best fiction, nonfiction, and poetry they’ve read recently—is now available online.
In addition to simply promoting this list, the NBCC is arranging 15 events in 15 cities to discuss this list and the recent NBCC nominations. These events really are taking place across the country, making it easier for non-New Yorkers to get involved.
Not a lot of translations on the list (by “not a lot” I mean one book), but it’s an interesting list:
My one criticism of this is that it’s functioning more like an NBCC best-seller list rather than a recommendation of the best books to read now. The eight titles with asterisks all appeared on the fall list, so less than half of these titles are “new” recommendations.
I have great hopes for this project—because NBCC is involved and its constituency is top notch—but I’d rather see a list of fifteen new books each time. Aren’t these the people who should be the most knowledgeable about the latest releases? I may be on my own here, but that’s what I’d like to find out about. After winning the NBA, getting truckloads of review praise, being on the fall Good Reads list, and everything else, what I don’t need is another recommendation for Tree of Smoke. I get it—it’s a book a lot of people like. I’ve moved on. . . .
Here are two wonderful, oh so inspiring quotes about reading that are perfect for a Monday morning. The first is from Steve Jobs and actually came out a couple weeks ago. In reference to Amazon’s Kindle:
“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”
All Jobs has to say is something like, “I don’t think we’re going to make an iReader, but books are cool,” and the lemming-effect would set in and millions of i-hipsters would rush out to bookstores across the country . . . instead, it’s door-locking, fetal position time . . .
And then, in today’s Shelf Awareness there’s this depressing news and quote:
Sadly the Reading Room in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas’s only general independent bookstore selling new books, is closing by the end of March. According to Las Vegas City Life, the casino owners are betting that a different kind of retail operation in the space will appeal more to the casino’s somewhat younger visitors. As City Life put it, “when that younger, hipper tourist hits a mall on the Strip, he’s more likely looking for designer jeans than the collected works of Jean Genet.”
What really bugs me about both of these quotes is the implicit belief that it’s perfectly OK to bash literature and reading. Tell someone that theatre is a dead art. Or that we should close down the symphony orchestra because it’s not hip. That art museums are only for old people. I’m sure people would be up in arms about any one of these statements. But when it comes to literature/reading, it seems like book culture just passively stands there taking the abuse. Well, of course no one reads Genet these days . . .
Screw it. No more Mac products for our office until Jobs recants this ridiculous remark. And screw Las Vegas. BEA should pull out and go somewhere literary in 2010. At least someplace with a frickin’ bookstore.
Do you love to read books but hate reading books? Amazon.com finally has the answer for you.
It’s called Kindle and it’s described as a “wireless portable reading device,” where the screen is so realistic and glare-free, it’s almost like reading a book. You can bring Kindle with you on long train rides, to class, the library, and anywhere else you can take an actual book. At $400, the Kindle is perfect for someone desperate to live out that book-reading adventure they could only fantasize about for years. [. . .]
You know what else feels like real paper and doesn’t require cables or monthly bills? Fucking books. [. . .]
Also, I know that when I go on long trips, I like to start reading a new book, get disgusted by its content and move onto another book immediately. I like to do this about 200 times, so I can see why the Kindle might come in handy. Further, it’s only 10.3 ounces which is great. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve just thrown out the window because, at 15 ounces, the bastard was just so damn heavy.
“Now, instead of spending years tracking down Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, you just print it out, go home with a copy of it in your back pocket and finally read it.”
Well, uh, there are two big problems with this. First of, “NYRB”: reprinted Anatomy of Melancholy a number of years ago, so “tracking it down” really consists of typing the words “Anatomy” and “Melancholy” into Amazon, or simply walking into any bookstore in the United States.
And as Evan says, “At 1424 pages, I don’t know that it would be all that easy to put this wonderful tome in your pocket!” Having seen an online video about the EBM, I think it would take about 4 hours to print and bind this book . . .
I’d be more interested in these ideas about the future of the book if they weren’t usually accompanied by silly, unrealistic statements, or if they didn’t involve a gadget with—as Ed Park put it —a “weirdly Fahrenheit 451–ish name.”
I frequently complain about how far behind the times the publishing field is when it comes to technology. I’m not talking about e-books or single-copy pod machines (although there is that), but simply about the fact that there’s a frickin’ TV station for cats, yet when it comes to books there’s nothing.
Well, except for Book-TV, which The Guardian does a better job explaining that I can:
Mercifully restricted to weekend broadcasts, it is quite possibly the worst channel in the US – worse than the KKK phone-ins and home-made comedy shows on cable access, worse even than C-Span, the non-stop live feed of all the men and women in Congress striving so selflessly to improve the lot of the rich. It’s bad. Really bad.
Let us begin with the issue of production, which could not be more amateurish. Usually a programme on Book TV consists of a single camera pointed at an author talking and reading in a shop, which is then broadcast unedited, after which another single camera will be pointed at another author talking and reading in a shop, which will then be broadcast unedited, and so on and so on for about 48 hours. Book readings are of course dull and pointless affairs at the best of times, but there are a few authors who can chat entertainingly, perhaps even informatively, and tell amusing stories. Unfortunately none of them ever appear on Book TV.
As they say in Britain, Daniel Kalder is spot-fucking-on. And it’s not just the quality of Book-TV (which really is shit), the topics and readings pretty much suck as well:
The channel lays emphasis on heavy tomes about history and politics, usually American, and if an author with knowledge of a foreign country appears then he will probably be interpreting it in relation to US foreign policy. The viewer is therefore treated to readings by smug academics flogging their most recent eruption of careerist logorrhea, books on the likes of Thomas Jefferson that will be read by no-one save their own unfortunate captive audience of undergraduates.
So please, before we scare the children off books forever, this really should be taken off the air, or revitalized into a station actually worth watching. How hard would it be to get some lively hosts—like Jon Stewart for example—who can discuss literature (including fiction) in a way that’s not mind-numbing and depressing.
And please, someone should buy C-SPAN a video editing program. The quality of Kige Ramsey’s YouTube sports videos make Book-TV look like a high school project.
I’m only half-kidding when I say that I think there would be great support for a slick station devoted to books with interviews, reality shows about publishing, half-hour shows devoted to particular genres, engaging events and readings, book trailers, and once again, coverage of fiction.
As a publisher, I would love for such an outlet to exist. In this age of declining book reviews, when we know that radio and TV are more powerful outlets, we should take advantage of the interest Americans have in channel surfing and create something that does a good job representing our interests instead of constantly lamenting the fact that not enough people read.
James Frey’s million dollar advance.
Taking into account all personnel, marketing, production, translation expenses, it costs about $35,000 for a publisher to do a work of literature in translation.
Using this figure as the base, just the advance for Frey’s new, and I’m sure, uber-craptastic, novel is worth 28 translations.
(Great that Gawker catches him in another lie re: writing short stories.)
Yesterday, Joe Wikert wrote an interesting post about publisher brands in response to a “post by Lissa Warren” on the Huffington Post.
Quick, name you favorite book. Now, quick, name who published it.
Gotcha, didn’t I?
It’s a bit cute, but Warren’s point is obvious—non-industry people don’t pay attention to who publishes what.
True, when browsing we may be mildly impressed by a title that has Knopf on the spine, or Norton, or Houghton, or Farrar, Straus and Giroux. We may select a Harvard University Press book over a similar one published by the University of God-Knows-Where. We may even smile and nod in recognition when we see that a collection of poetry has been put out by Copper Canyon or Graywolf Press. But I’d argue that recommendations by family and friends, and fabulous covers, and favorable reviews, and favorite authors are much more likely to catch our attention than a dolphin logo or a Borzoi silhouette.
And Joe Wikert backs her up:
Do you ever think about particular publishers when you’re looking for a book? If you’re like the vast majority of the book buying public this rarely if ever crosses your mind. You don’t care who the publisher is. You might be interested in the author or maybe the series but publisher names are a lot like record labels; they aren’t the primary (or even secondary!) brand on the product.
All this makes sense, especially when we’re talking about best-sellers or mainstream titles. Who really gives a shit whether Simon & Schuster or Penguin published French Women Don’t Get Fat? (It was Knopf.)
But I think the situation is different when you look at literary fiction and independent presses. Presses like New York Review Books, Archipelago, New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Soft Skull, Melville House, etc., all publish a certain type of book, and because of this, they all have loyal followings.
Record labels might be an apt comparison. Places like EMI or Columbia are so big and diffuse that the good music is mixed in with everything else, and the overall “brand” doesn’t mean anything. On the other hand, Matador, Merge, Thirsty Ear, Aum Fidelity—these labels have a focus, and I know what to expect from them. And yes, similar to the publishers mentioned above, I seek them out online and in stores to see what they’re up to this week.
America has always had one of the lowest literacy rates in the western world. The former book review editor of the LA Times, Steve Wasserman put it bluntly. “Reading has always been a minority taste in America,” he said, “and that’s OK.” But I think what we’re seeing now is something new which has to do with how a culture operates when all values become subservient to that of making money – when reading is not supported either from on top and from below.
I like Freeman’s take—and the aggressive way he points out the flaws in the overall system.
At the same time, the industries which support reading have been ground up and fed through the increasing corporatisation of American life. Book publishers and newspapers have been bought up by giant conglomerates. Publishers, once mildly profitable, have been forced to keep up with blockbuster driven media; newspapers, once wildly profitable, have been used as cash cows. And now that the media companies are done with these newspapers, those same owners are cutting back on all forms of news, including book pages.
This is something I completely agree with. To go a bit further, the rush for sales, for money, for readers, is, in my opinion, resulting in the production of a lot of craptastic books. Books I’m happy no one is reading. Great literature is out there, but you have to wade through mountains of shit to find it, and if people who don’t read a lot get caught up in the shit, I can’t imagine why they’d want to continue spending their time reading. TV is way more entertaining. . .
OK, I’ll get off my soapbox and let Freeman point out some of the good things going on:
In fairness, some attempts are being made to counteract these trends. The National Endowment of the Arts has started up a program called The Big Read, which turns entire cities into book clubs. Online sites and journals like The Complete Review and the new and improved Bookforum have started up to counteract the loss of book coverage in the media. On television, shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show dedicate half of their entire program to conversation with an author. And Dave Eggers has turned his McSweeney’s journal into an empire of generosity, starting up drop-in tutoring centers like 826 NYC and 826 Seattle. Visit one of these and it’s hard to doubt the lure of reading and writing.
Counteracting Stuart Walton’s Guardian blog in which he basically declared that drinkers make bad writers,, today we have A. N. Wilson’s proclamation that banning public smoking is pretty much the end of English literature.
What do the following have in common: Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis?
The answer is, of course, that if they were to come back to life in Gordon Brown’s Britain and wanted to go out to their club, or a restaurant or café, they would not be allowed to indulge in a habit which sustained them during the most creative phases of their lives.
Not afraid of taking a few steps beyond the bounds of rational thinking, Wilson pretty much declares that non-smokers putting pen to paper are destined for mediocrity:
I have been racking my brains to find a single non-smoker among the great English poets or novelists of the 17th, 18th, 19th or 20th centuries. Possibly, Keats had to lay off the pipe tobacco a bit after he developed tuberculosis.
Otherwise, from Swift and Pope to Cowper and Wordsworth, from Byron to Charles Lamb, they were all smokers.
Heroic Beryl Bainbridge keeps on smoking for England, but will there be any more writers in the years to come, following in her heroic steps?
According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, one in four adults didn’t read a single book last year. The typical person claims to have read four, and if you eliminate the group that read zero, the average number of books read was seven.
Of course, women and “older people” were the most avid readers, and “religious books and popular fiction were the top choices.”
As if all this isn’t disturbing enough, here’s a nice quote explaining the situation:
“I just get sleepy when I read,” said Richard Bustos of Dallas, a habit with which millions of Americans can doubtless identify. Bustos, a 34-year-old project manager for a telecommunications company, said he had not read any books in the last year and would rather spend time in his backyard pool.
Nice. Probably an atheist as well.
Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn’t read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious. (All quote via ABC News.)
The NEA’s Reading at Risk study (Executive Summary and full report available online in pdf format) is more comprehensive and just as fascinating. And also makes me want to go back to my corner with my tears and Speed Dating.
I remember seeing the larger-than-life posters at BEA a couple of years ago, but I naively believed that this was a fever-dream that would never become reality . . . unfortunately, the Harlequin-NASCAR partnership has been even more successful than anyone predicted.
Although this is a serious blow to my belief in humanity, I should’ve seen it coming. I mean, who doesn’t want to read Speed Dating, the cover of which prominently features a NASCAR car, a scruffy, blond-haired dude with passionate eyes, and the exellent slogan, “Feel the RUSH on and off the track.”
And after you’re done with that, who wouldn’t move on to read Full Throttle, No Time to Lose, and Speed Bumps?
Jesus, I’m going to go vomit now and ball myself up in the corner of my office. . . .
More on the LongPen via GalleyCat:
After limited success with Margaret Atwood’s device at the Edinburgh Book Festival – enabling Norman Mailer and Alice Munro to make “appearances” – the book-tour substitute device will make its debut into a record store and several bookstores in Canada, the United States and England for a trial run that could bring fans and their idols closer together. The London Free Press reports that kiosks will be set up at the World’s Biggest Bookstore and HMV’s flagship record store in Toronto, Barnes & Noble in New York and Waterstone’s in London beginning after Labour Day, and could expand elsewhere if successful.
And at only $2,000 per “appearance,” I’m sure publishers will be all over this to promote their up-and-coming authors.
So after commenting on the ridiculous LongPen a couple of times in the past week, I sat down to read the September issue of Harper’s last night and found this item in the “Readings” section from the LongPen website:
Where did the idea come from?
As I was whizzing around the U.S. on yet another book tour, getting up at four int he morning to catch planes, doing two cities a day, eating the Pringle food object out of the minibar at night as I crawled around on the hotel-room floor, too tired even to phone room service, I thought, “There must be a better way of doing this.” With LongPen, the author could make “appearances” in different countries all in one day. The in-store book signing would be enhanced. You could have an event with three different authors: a big one, a medium one, and a local one, in the same store on the same afternoon, one after the other.
Pringle food objects! Man, The price of celebrity is rough. I’m glad there’s an impersonal, mechanical object capable of making life easier for certain authors and totally commodifying the author event experience.
HarperCollins Publishers is pleased to launch Browse Inside for the Apple iPhone. Browse Inside digitally replicates the experience of browsing the pages of a book prior to purchasing.
Granted, I’m not a fan of the iPhone (I’ve already got my spam filter ready for your hate mail, so bring it), but regardless, this sounds pretty lame. They’re providing 10-page excerpts? Wow. I never would’ve thought that publishers could use the Internets to provide excerpts of books to readers. So revolutionary!
Doesn’t help that the list of available books is filled with suck, including Winning by Jack Welch & Suzy Welch and When the Game is Over It All Goes Back in the Box
by John Ortberg.
Disagree if you will, but to me this is yet another example of a company trying to take advantage of a flashy new toy but simply doing the same old thing in a way that doesn’t really add anything to the reader/customer’s experience.
For those unfamiliar few, the LongPen is a huge machine that allows readers in one place to “communicate” with an author through video-conference technology, and more importantly, get their book “signed” by a big-ass pen.
Or, as the LongPen people put it:
The LongPen™ is a pen, like any other pen, except it operates over the Internet using electricity and fiber optics. But from your perspective, it still works via your brain, eyes, arm, and hand, like any other pen. It’s just that the nib and ink are at a different location from you.
For the autograph session itself, you [the author] sit in a chair with an electronic writing tablet on the table in front. This tablet shows what you are signing at the event location. There is also a vertical screen at face level that shows the fan at the other end. That person sees you too. You have direct eye contact and can talk together.
According to fans, this is a more intimate experience than a traditional signing, as you are looking directly into the face of the fan, as opposed to briefly looking up from your chair when signing in person. The video conferencing also makes it easier for the fan to be expressive about your work, as the technological distance makes them less nervous.
More intimate? Really? I really love intimate encounters mediated by technology . . .
The book, or CD, or other object that you will autograph is placed under the pen at the other end. It is captured on camera, so you see it on the electronic tablet in front of you. You pick up the magnetic pen and sign it. You treat the tablet just like a piece of paper – you can rest your hand on it. Then you push “Send” and the pen inscribes the object, in real ink, at the other end. It writes everything exactly as you have written it at your end.
What’s most inane is that the LongPen is now marketing itself as “green,” and includes a graph of metric tonnes of carbon emissions saved by “pioneering” authors participating in the project. I can’t even type a snarky comment about how lame this is.
I have a million bones to pick with this—especially with the overly aggressive LongPen sales folks who pester people at BEA—but all I want to do for now is revise my statement that I “refuse to believe this will catch on,” to “I sincerely hope this idea dies a quick death.”
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .