Thursday, December 31, 2009

Is This the Future of the Book?

The Doctor is IN, and back from a refreshing holiday hiatus. As we look forward to 2010, it seems appropriate to look at an intriguing invention from one of our leading futurists. 

2009 has been the year of reading about the Kindle, the Nook, and various other kinds of e-book readers. But the latest invention for electronic reading technology is not a gadget, it's a software application called Blio. The creation of tech genius and futurist Ray Kurzweil, Blio is a tool, or platform, that can run (as of now) on PCs, iPhones or iPod Touches. Unlike "e-ink" based readers like Kindle or Nook, Blio can display illustrations at high resolution and in full color. It can also include video and animation.

On one hand, Blio offers the advantage that it can preserve the typography, design, and illustration you find in a printed book. Much as I like my Kindle, I dislike the way it presents every work in the same generic typeface with none of the individual design touches that you find in a well-made print volume. On the the other hand, Blio has the possibility of providing a much richer package to the reader, adding soundtracks, video clips, 3D maps, animated diagrams, and so on to plain-vanilla text. 

I think Blio's biggest plus right now is something simpler: the fact that it can work on multiple devices. Kurzweil argues, and I'd agree, that most people don't want to carry several gadgets around with them. If there's a tool that allows them to read a book on their laptops or their iPhones just as pleasantly as on their Kindles, the Kindles may wind up gathering dust in the cupboard. I believe that in a few years the e-book landscape is going to look quite different from the way it appears now, with Amazon far less dominant in the future than its current market share suggests. But that's maybe something to discuss in more depth at anothe time.

Meanwhile, Wired's Gadget Lab sees Blio as something much grander than a new way to read e-books. It declares "Blio looks solid, but it signifies something much bigger: the end of the paper book. Right now, e-books are poor copies of paper books, with a single advantage: convenience. A book is just a container for text, not its natural home." 

Are paper books obsolete? I have my doubts, for reasons I'll discuss in my next post. Meanwhile I'll welcome comments from you. 

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Christmas Poem: Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen"

One more poem for the Christmas break.

Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen" was first published on Christmas Eve, 1915. It was printed in the Times of London, cheek by jowl with news of the horrific conflict that was ravaging Europe; nearby was the advertisement shown below, touting Bovril as the tonic for men in the trenches. The second line refers to the folk belief that farm animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve. I have always loved the understatement of this poem, which seems even more poignant in a time when "holiday mix" blares from the speakers in every mall (and war is still ravaging).

 Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

There's an interesting article at The Victorian Web about the poem and its context (including the ad, with its "sacramental" portrayal of Bovril).

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How Bad Was 2009? It Could Be Verse

Now any writer sane or dotty
Calls himself a twitterati,
Producing literary treasures
In hundred forty unit measures.
The future Milton, Pope, or Keats—
Immortalized in deathless tweets!

I have referred more than once on this page to the very astute commentary of the literary agent and e-book publisher Richard Curtis, who blogs at  Richard's blog is worth reading not only for his insights into the changing book business but for his sense of humor. And in this week's issue of Publishers Weekly, he sums up the past year in a very witty poem.  A couple of brief excerpts above and below, but treat yourself to reading the whole thing here.

Two thousand nine—the year that we
Were taught the benefits of “free.”
A book is now considered bought
When it is sold to you for naught.
This paradox makes perfect sense
Unless you hope for recompense.
We learned that zero is a price.
If you’re the buyer? Really nice!
If you’re the seller? Lots of luck.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to Make a Small Fortune in Publishing, or, A Bit More on the E-Book Wars

Whew. As I might have expected, last week’s posts on the E-Book Wars (part 1 here and 2 here) attracted a lot of lively and thoughtful comments. They expressed several points of view but two opposing themes can be seen.

One group of commenters asks: Who needs publishers? In a digital marketplace authors can readily reach readers directly. Sure, editing is important but, wrote one, “what’s to stop authors from forming consortiums that hire editors?” Instead of settling for a big publisher’s split of royalties, you could distribute the book yourself and keep 100 percent of the profits, or use a service like Smashwords that offers an 85 percent share. This commenter continued, “Right now the business model is that writers are the suppliers of publishers. But it is conceivable that it could become the other way around.”

Another group sticks up for publishers. In defense of Random House’s claim to control e-book rights, these commenters noted that “Books are words in a precise order and meant to be read,” and ask why an e-book is any different. They also point out “the amount of time, effort and money [involved in] making what goes between the two covers of a traditional book.” They ask, not unreasonably, shouldn’t the publisher be entitled to a significant share of income from an e-book whose value is enhanced by the careful editing, copyediting, proofreading, and so on that go into it?

Both groups have legitimate points to make. The book business looks from one perspective like publishers “buy” content from authors and then resell it. But from another perspective, we’re providing a service—enabling the author to reach readers (and collect money for his content). Around Bloomsbury we sometimes say “the author is our customer.” In a sense we are selling the services of editing, design, printing, marketing, distribution and so on. Could a group of authors do the same things themselves? Yes. Of course, then in effect they’d become….publishers. An authors’ co-op might produce more money for writers than a conventional publishing contract, but I don’t know if it would make either writing or publishing radically more lucrative.

As old hands in the business like to say, “If you want to make small fortune in publishing, start with a large one.”

Much ink and many pixels have been spilled on the Random House e-rights issue discussed here last week, and I don’t think I’ll wade into that still-unsettled question again now. I would observe here that although I raised questions about Random’s position on backlist contracts, I agree with them, and most every other publisher, that e-book rights should not be separated from print rights.

Reading a book is reading a book, whether the item being read is a hardcover, a Kindle, or a PDF on a laptop. Amazon and other e-vangelists argue that e-book sales are additional to print sales—that e-book lovers wouldn’t be buying print copies if they weren’t reading them on their Kindles. I’m sure that is true for some books and some readers, but to some extent we know e-book sales replace print sales. It’s clearly essential for a publisher to control all versions of a book that their readers might want to buy. That much is widely accepted by both houses and agents, though there is still debate about what royalties should be paid.

I also agree that those who want to chop down publishers’ share of e-book royalties are often neglecting the big picture. Not only do publishers enhance the value of an author’s work by editing, proofreading and performing those other tasks that go into producing the product you find in a bookstore. They perform a range of other functions that contribute materially to that value. And one of the most important things that publishers do to market electronic books is—sell printed books! I’ll talk about this more in a future post.

(illustration: Grub Street, later known as Milton Street, from Chambers' Book of Days)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The E-Book Wars Have Really Begun, Part 2

Yesterday, in Part 1 of this post, I wrote about a flurry of events that suggest the phony war over digital publishing is over and live ammunition is now flying. First, three big houses tussled with Amazon over “windowing,” or delaying publication of e-books relative to hardcovers. Then, more momentously, Random House attempted to put barbed wire around e-rights to its backlist.

Next, the most aggressive move yet: mega-bestselling author Stephen Covey—who has long published with Simon & Schuster—announced he had made a deal with Amazon to sell Kindle editions of two of his biggest titles via another electronic publisher.  This, of course, is exactly what big publishers have feared and what Random House’s bluster is trying to forestall. To the extent that e-book sales of Covey’s books supplant sales of their print editions, that’s vital backlist revenue disappearing from S&S’s p&l, not to mention potential growth the house is losing out on. Covey will apparently be releasing some of his new titles through Amazon exclusively, so S&S won’t see those dollars either.

What I don’t understand is why Simon didn’t pre-empt this move by issuing their own Kindle edition: they have already released e-books of several other Covey titles so you’d have thought the terms of an arrangement were in place. You’d also have thought S&S would hustle to get the Kindle edition of a backlist leader like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People into the market-especially given that Amazon reports Covey stands 13th on their all-time bestseller list. 

I can only assume there are other issues in play or that some negotiation between S&S and Covey broke down--quite possibly over royalties: the author is apparently receiving more than 50% of the net proceeds from his e-publisher. (Adding piquancy, the e-publisher who’s handling Covey’s Amazon title is RosettaBooks, the same one Random House sued over backlist e-rights in 2001.)

This creates an interesting situation.

Simon & Schuster has not conceded that they don’t control e-book rights to backlist titles; they say it’s “their intention” to publish those books digitally. They probably don’t want to pick a fight with Stephen Covey, one of the biggest authors on their list. He says he is happy with them, and they are surely hoping to publish new Covey titles in the future. But if they let him walk away with e-rights to backlist bestsellers, how do they hold the line with other authors? They may suddenly find the whole backlist vanishing.

And if that happens, it will leave Random House—and the other Big Six publishers--in a very awkward position, trying to cling to electronic rights that one of their biggest competitors has given up. 

In short, it looks to me like the free-for-all we have long been expecting has begun. 

(Illustration from "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Soldiers, Starring Sgt Rock," at Chris's Invincible Super-Blog)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The E-Book Wars Have Really Begun

It seems quite likely that we will look back on this week as the moment when the e-book wars officially began. We may have forgotten it, but electronic books of one kind or another have been with us for a couple of decades (beginning with ill-fated ventures into books on CD).  For most of that time, the actual market was negligibly small. In the last few years the e-book market became significant, but although it generated vast amounts of chatter—ranging from dark mutterings by publishers to utopian visions from technophiles—a sort of uneasy calm prevailed at the frontier where authors and agents, publishers, and Amazon and its competitors eyed each other warily.  There were occasional skirmishes and plenty of saber-rattling (over matters such as Kindle prices or Digital Rights Management) but no party seemed ready to make a move aggressive enough to start a real fight.

But that has now changed—inevitably, because the e-book market has exploded and digital books are the hottest (perhaps the only) growth area in the industry. The calm is over, and real punches are being thrown. You might say the first jab came from three houses (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins) who announced they were going to delay releasing e-books of their titles until several months after hardcover publication. I agree with the analysis of Mike Shatzkin that these houses are not so much concerned over pub dates as trying to find some leverage to use with Amazon over the pricing issue. 

But the timing kerfuffle was minor compared to the dustup that broke out on Friday when Random House CEO Markus Dohle declared, with chutzpah one can only admire, that the house controls e-book rights for thousands of backlist titles whose contracts made no mention of such rights. This was drawing a line far out in the sand.  Dohle’s bold assertion is, essentially, that e-books are just another kind of “book,” so the contractual language that gives Random exclusivity over all editions of a work includes e-books—even though they had not been invented at the time most of these contracts were signed. 

It’s hard to believe Random can make this claim with a straight face. They went to court with this argument years ago and didn’t get very far. But you can see why they’re trying it on. At stake is potentially millions of dollars in backlist revenue that the house could lose out on if authors take e-rights of their old titles elsewhere.  Even though Random’s argument may be legally weak, by making a show of defending this territory they are presumably hoping to discourage authors from battling them for it. Agent Richard Curtis, who is himself a an e-publisher, observes at his blog, "Someone would have to have a lot at stake to be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to go up against Random House in court.”

Random may be betting that for individual authors, it won’t be worth the fight. But now that we are seeing explosive growth in e-book revenues, I believe there’s too much money at stake for authors not to contest this ground. The Authors Guild has already blasted back at Dohle, calling Random’s position on the backlist a “retroactive rights grab.”

The Guild also points out that Random House rewrote its contract boilerplate in 1994 and specifically added language to cover e-book rights, which wouldn’t seem to be necessary if they were already bundled in with the rights acquired. I worked at Random House at the time, and well remember sitting in meetings where we discussed the new contract language. I certainly don’t remember anyone saying, “well, we already have these rights, but let’s throw in some extra language about them just to make sure.” The conversations I recall were much more like, “Hm, our old contract language didn’t say anything about electronic books so we’d better make sure we get them from now on.”

In the end, just as the fight with Amazon over pub dates is largely about pricing, the fight over who owns backlist e-rights is largely about royalties. After all, Random House is a hugely potent marketer of books and content; to an author, it’s not clear there’s any company out there that’s going to do better selling your backlist title, and there’s clearly an advantage to marketing print and e-editions together. But Random is paying an e-book royalty of 25% of net receipts, while others offer a 50-50 split or better. That’s a lot to leave on the table.

And that brings us to the second roundhouse blow landed this week. I’ll talk about that in tomorrow’s post. 

(illustration: The Taking of Lone Pine  by Fred Leist) 

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Book-Lover's Stocking Stuffer

There are all sorts of momentous topics I could be writing about, like the battle instigated by Random House this week over e-book rights to backlist titles. But let's lighten up for a moment. With Christmas approaching, let me recommend a new offering from my colleagues at Bloomsbury that has made me laugh every time I opened it. If you're looking around for Christmas presents for your bibliophile friends--especially anyone in or around the publishing game--get your hands on a few copies of Do-It Yourself Brain Surgery, and Other Implausibly Titled Books. I can do no better than quote the catalogue description of this work:

The Diagram Prize is awarded by the Bookseller magazine each year to the book with the oddest title. Since its creation at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978, the Diagram has had some worthy winners, including Bombproof Your Horse, How to Avoid Huge Ships, and People Who Don't Know They're Dead.

And though these titles may seem like surefire winners, each year of this ingenious contest has seen stiff competition across all genres: fiction (Fabulous Small Jews, 2003); instructional (Knitting with Dog Hair, 1994); and even erotica (The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, 2002). Last year's competition featured I Was Tortured by the Pygmy Love Queen—which came in second. Here, collected for the first time, are the fifty best entries the Diagram has ever seen. Presented complete with their (equally outlandish) jackets, these books are memorable, perplexing, and riotously funny. A perfect gift for a book lover or anyone in need of a laugh. 

For some more of the goodies contained in this volume, see this post at the Los Angeles Times's Jacket Copy blog.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Value of Prepub Reviews, or Why We're Going to Miss Kirkus

There was some wailing, and some gloating, at the news announced today that Nielsen, parent company of Kirkus Reviews, was closing the publication. Kirkus was one of the four sources of "advance," or prepublication, book reviews (along with Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly). Those who gloated, like ICM agent Esther Newberg, noted that Kirkus was the prepub review most likely to be negative: in fact it was often kind and sometimes effusive, but it's true that the other three prepubs were less willing to slam a book.

Ironically, consumers at large often think that Kirkus or its kin are puff machines, simply because the only time the "reader in the street" sees a quote from Kirkus or PW, it's on a book jacket. All the prepubs are capable of a stern critique, but of course when Kirkus says a novel is "jejeune" or your bio is "boring," you don't see that on the back cover.

The truth is, it's precisely because they are sometimes negative that the prepubs have value. With thousands of titles being published every year, book editors, news producers, movie scouts--anyone trying to make sense of the tsunami of books--are desperate for anything that can help them weed through it.  Chip McGrath of the New York Times said, almost plaintively,
"At the very time that we're inundated with stuff, that's the moment when you also need some gatekeepers, tastemakers, guides. Not that any of these are foolproof, but without them, it's just sort of chaos. How do you get your head around it at all?" Booksellers and others commenting on the web and Twitter today had similar sentiments.

The former managing director of Kirkus wonders "whether the industry still needs advance reviews the way it used to. Like it or not, they’re worth less every day in a world where everyone’s sister’s friend has a handle or a blog like Readermommy or Bookluvah."

It seems to me that is exactly the point. Because there is such a cacophony of voices out there, where it could be the author's "sister's friend" touting a book, we need more services like Kirkus, not fewer. Especially because so many other trusted venues, such as newspaper and magazine book reviews, have also disappeared. I published a book--an excellent one, if I say so myself--this year that received only one single review. Yes, it was from Kirkus.

I'm honestly a bit surprised that, in this age of information overload, a viable business model can't be found for a service that provides quick, pithy, trusted reviews of forthcoming books. We keep hearing that the skill of "curation" and "filtering" is what is most in demand in a limitless marketplace. That's what the prepubs do. Kirkus may have been idiosyncratic or even unkind from time to time, but how is that different from any other reviewer?

I suspect that even those who have shed no tears for Kirkus Reviews may find they miss it when it's gone.

(Illustration: Hokusai, The Great Wave of Kanagawa)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What E-Readers Will Never Replace

Mor liked to tear a book apart as he read it, breaking the back, thumbing and turning down the pages, commenting and underling. He liked to have his books close to him, upon a table, upon the floor, at least upon open shelves. Seeing them so near and so destroyed, he could feel that they were now almost inside his head.   
--Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle

The Kindle and other e-readers have received an obsessive degree of attention in the press this year, with some people declaring the Kindle a great leap forward (see Jacob Weisberg in Slate) and others saying it's not nearly as good as a book. Nicholson Baker test-drove one for The New Yorker and found it disappointment: the screen "wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray." 

I'm a little surprised that so far, all the commentary I have read both pro and contra e-readers has focused almost entirely on the reading experience. Most people agree that a printed book--especially a well-designed, well-printed one--is more pleasurable to read, but Kindle partisans love the convenience of carrying many books in a one-book-sized package, not to mention the instant availability of so many titles. I was a Kindle early adopter and I can still remember the first time, stuck in an airport lounge, I zapped a book into my hands out of the ether. It felt like something out of Harry Potter. 

But as any book lover knows, the act of reading a book is only part of your experience of it. You have a relationship with the volume itself, not just with the text it contains. And the physical book, in fact, becomes the symbol of that relationship--in the precise sense that it partakes of what it signifies. When I sit in my armchair and look at my bookshelf across the room, the spines of each volume I've read summon up memories and sensations just as if I were going through a photo album.  

When I think of books I have loved, what comes to mind is not disembodied words, but the actual books. I can remember the way the type lay on the page, the feel of paper and binding in my fingers. But the intensity of my feeling for certain books isn't the product of their aesthetic quality--my disintegrating, shoddy paperback of Le Grand Meaulnes is just as numinous as four elegant hardcover volumes of Virginia Woolf essays that I have preserved much more carefully.

I have always felt slightly disappointed in myself as a reader because I treat books rather gently, unlike Iris Murdoch's Mor, who ravages his books in the course of reading them. It is only by almost destroying the printed pages that he gets them "inside his head." This passage captures something primal about how, in an almost literal sense, we consume writing. You can't consume an e-book quite the same way.

Don't get me wrong: I think my Kindle is great--and reading Kindle books on the iPhone, which I can carry in my pocket, is even better. For me, it's not while I read them, but afterward, that e-books fall short.  

Not only do I remember that magical moment in the airport lounge. I also remember when I turned, or rather clicked, the last page of my first Kindle purchase. Suddenly the book was gone--vanished back into the ether. Perhaps possessing books "in the cloud" alone is a purer way of appreciating literature. But I hope I will not be accused of Luddism or fetishizing print if I say that much as I love my Kindle, the satisfaction of closing a wonderful book and slipping it into a shelf in my library, where I can enjoy its company, will never be equaled by the satisfaction of watching a screen go blank.

(photo of Neil Gaiman's library via

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Trailers: Two More Worth Watching

I posted about book trailers yesterday with a somewhat disparaging comment about how often they fail to sell me on the titles in question, but it would be fairer to say that as with any promotional device, there are hits and misses. Here are two more trailers that totally won me over. It's interesting that one looks very elaborately produced (lots of photoshop, animation, original art--all brilliantly executed), and one could hardly be simpler. But both, I think, are highly effective.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Trailers: From the Sublime to the Sublimely Ridiculous

While I firmly believe that publishers need to make greater use of the internet for marketing, I am often skeptical of video book trailers. Few of them have actually made me want to go buy a book. But occasionally one succeeds brilliantly. This one, from the New Zealand Book Council for Maurice Gee's Going West, is so dazzling you almost wonder whether the book can live up to it. But it was enough to make me order a copy.

On the other hand, it seems almost superfluous to create a trailer for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Quirk Books' followup to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. They had me at "Sea Monsters." Still, if you've sat through enough hours of Masterpiece Theater, this bit of Regency gone awry is hard not to enjoy:

Do you think trailers are effective at selling books? Let me know about examples that you think have done the job.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I was really happy to see that the Los Angeles Times listed Miriam Pawel's The Union of Their Dreams as one of their 25 favorite nonfiction titles of 2009. I have written about Miriam's book before on this blog so I won't do that again here. I will just say that I concur with the word the LAT review applied to it: "masterpiece."

Miriam Pawel has also put together an unusually rich website which offers much more than a typical author page. It contains not just information about her book but archival materials, interviews, photos and other documents connected with her subject, the history of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. If you're interested in that topic, or simply want to see an excellent example of online outreach by an author, pay it a visit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What Publishing Needs Much More Of : Failure

The Twittersphere, or at least publishing's corner of it, has been chattering about Rick Moody's experiment with Twitter-fiction--an original story, "Some Contemporary Characters," that he wrote and posted in tweet-size increments over three days, commissioned by the innovative journal Electric Literature. I won't rehash the details of what happened (see accounts here   or here), but for various reasons the venture seems to have attracted a great deal of negative commentary on Twitter and elsewhere. Vroman's Bookstore, which joined the project by co-streaming the story, dropped out midway:  They reflect on the experience here, calling the project a "noble failure."  A blog post at Telereads asks,"Twitter a flop as a book promoter? Or just a failure with SOME books?"

Maybe the Moody project was a failure. If so, my reaction is: HOORAY! What we need in publishing today is much more failure. The one thing people in the industry can agree on is that the current methods of doing business are showing diminishing returns. The only way we're going to arrive at new methods is by trying dozens, scores, hundreds of new ways of reaching readers, building awareness, and ultimately selling content. Of course, some, probably most of these won't work, but it's through large-scale, repeated failure that we're going to find out what succeeds. As Clay Shirky puts it, "Failure is free, high-quality research, offering direct evidence of what works and what doesn't."

However, I would argue that "failure" is the wrong word to apply to Moody's Twitter story. In science, an experiment is only a failure if you don't learn something from it. Simply reading the comments on the Vroman's post one can see that a few basic tweaks  to how the story was presented (like adding hashtags) could have avoided many of the problems that bothered readers. Electric Literature can do it better next time. (And one commenter says they attracted thousands more followers thanks to the story, which is surely a success for them.) Twitter may not be a great new medium for fiction but it may yet be a great way to attract the interest of readers.

By the way, I personally thought "Some Contemporary Characters," as a story, was well worth reading-- intriguing, sometimes funny, and sometimes touching. Try reading it in its entirety in the @ElectricLit Twitter stream (and remember to read upward from the first post, dated 10:04 on November 30th). Maybe it wasn't a masterpiece, but I'd say Rick Moody is to be applauded, rather than criticized, for making the effort.

Someone asked Wayne Gretzky how he became the most prolific scorer in hockey, and he answered, "I figured it out. I missed a hundred percent of the shots I didn't take." 

(Photo from

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Risky Business

If I weren't careful I could spend all day just surfing blogs about writing and publishing (and sometimes I have)--there's an astonishing amount of commentary out there, much of it worth reading, and more than I can keep up with. I just recently discovered the blog of literary agent Nathan Bransford, who offers frequent and savvy posts about the book business and very good advice for writers.

In a recent report on a tour of New York publishing houses, Bransford talks about the buzz phrase of the moment, "moving the needle," which is tossed around by editors looking for blockbuster books. Only the phrase is new--commercial houses have been obsessed with big books for some time.

And in the comment thread he nicely phrases the paradoxical situation of much commercial publishing now:
I think the weak link right now is that publishers are increasingly taking huge risk and shying away from small risks.
Publishing is always going to be a risky business. Publishers should take risks. I'd even say that by and large, the best publishers are the ones who take the most risks (successful risks, that is; the ex-publishers are the ones who take the wrong risks....) But the perceived need for blockbuster books, for some companies, pushes them to chase books that seem to be potential blockbusters, even if that means overpaying for them one after another--and overpaying for those titles means overpaying by hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars. 

The industry, and readers, might be better served by more houses taking a greater number of modest risks--on new authors, titles with niche or regional markets,  word-of-mouth, hand-sell kinds of books.  There are serious challenges in the "small ball" business model, too, which I'll talk about in an upcoming post.  But it's a workable one.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Keys to Good Writing--48 of Them

So Cormac McCarthy is selling his typewriter. Traditionalists need not fear: he's replacing it with another one. The retired machine, bought circa 1963, has just got a bit worn down after almost half a century of clacking away, churning out a dozen novels and a sheaf of other works.

Today the Guardian's Books Blog lists a few other old-school authors who still love their old-fashioned typewriters. Don DeLillo says "I need the sound of the keys...The hammers striking the page. I like to see the words, the sentences, as they take shape." Will Self says that with a typewriter, "You don't revise as much, you just think more, because you know you're going to have to retype the entire fucking thing." (I, and several of my fellow editors, believe that since the word processor came into widespread use, the tendency of manuscripts to balloon to excessive lengths has become more pronounced.)

I know exactly what DeLillo means about the sound of the keys. The photo of McCarthy's trusty Olivetti reminded me of my mother's Hermes Rocket, another slim but sturdy portable whose keyboard I gleefully bashed away at long before I knew how to actually read or write. I remember exactly how satisfying it felt to hear the clickety-clack and see the letters marching across the page. Who cared if they made words?

But when I learned how to make words of my own, using the typewriter got to be even more fun.  I even, at age 5 or so, wrote a very, very short novel titled "Sandy the Sandpail." I honestly don't remember the plot of S. the S., but I do remember chapter 6, because other members of my family have enjoyed, for decades, quoting it at me in its entirety:
"Sandy the Sandpail had a friend called Goldie. Nothing happened to Goldie."

Obviously, the use of the typewriter has influenced the elliptical style that Cormac McCarthy and I share.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Grave in Provence

A few years ago, on a holiday in Provence, I dragged my family to the village of Lourmarin to visit the grave of Albert Camus. Lourmarin is a pretty, well-preserved medieval town, but the nondescript cemetery outside its walls must be its least alluring feature. The graveyard was hot, dusty, and indifferently tended. My wife recalls the place as "depressing." But for me it was, in Michelin-guide terms, worth the journey to pay my respects to Camus. 

There are not many authors I would classify as my heroes, but Camus is one of them. He was not just a superb writer, but a courageous man. Camus edited a Resistance newspaper during the occupation of France, and throughout his life consistently stood up for individual choice and dignity in the face of all forms of oppression and conformity--whether Stalinism, Naziism, or religious orthodoxy. 

Camus' gravestone is simple and unadorned: just his name and dates. It took some time to find, because it was not specially marked.  I stood by the slab for a few minutes. In the hot August afternoon, the Provençal sun pressing down on my head, I thought of the shimmering heat of the beach in Algiers, indelibly rendered in The Stranger. The humility of this resting-place touched me; it seemed perfectly suited to the man who lay there.

Now France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is lobbying to move Camus' remains to the Panthéon, the imposing (some would say bombastic) tomb that holds other great men and women of France--Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie. His plan has stirred a heated controversy. It seems like the rankest ploy of an unpopular politician hoping to appropriate the aura of a figure revered in France. But even if Sarkozy is acting from the best of intentions, to move Camus from his provincial grave to the Panthéon is a stunningly wrongheaded idea. While Camus' daughter has apparently assented to the scheme, his son Jean is sticking up for the Lourmarin cemetery. The move, he says "would be contrary to his father’s wishes and [he] does not want to have his legacy put to work in the service of the state." 

Jean is right. Camus should be allowed to remain in his quiet, sun-baked plot in the south of France--closer to his native Algeria and far from the machinations of the Elysée Palace. The Pantheon speaks of the greatness of France, but not the humanity of Camus. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I'll probably post briefly and irregularly over this holiday, as I'll be on the road visiting friends and loved ones. It occurs to me that as a publisher, I have many things to be thankful for (not least, at the moment, the fact that my company is healthy and I have a job). The thing I am most thankful for in my working life is that it has brought me into contact with so many smart, funny, interesting, and congenial people--colleagues, authors, booksellers, and readers. For all the transformations publishing is going through, I don't think that aspect of the business will ever change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Bit More on Darwin: How the Origin of Species Evolved

One more note on Darwin's The Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary of publication was yesterday. The Origin was not just a scientific milestone, it was a publishing success story. It went through six editions in the space of 13 years after 1859. Darwin revised and expanded it from 150,000 to 190,000 words in response to the comments and critiques he received. (I was interested to learn that the word "evolution" did not appear until the sixth edition. I knew that it was the philosopher Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," which he derived from Darwin's ideas; I didn't know that Darwin then borrowed it from him, including it in the fifth edition.)

Ben Fry has created an arresting animation that graphically unfolds the revision history of On the Origin of Species. Below is just a screenshot; the full animation is here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Charles Darwin, Denis Dutton, Kurt Andersen, and Stephen Colbert

150 years ago today, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published. Appropriately enough, Kurt Andersen, on public radio's Studio 360, is airing this week an interview with Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Dutton's stimulating and erudite book looks specifically at human tastes in the arts, and argues that we need to think much more carefully about the way artistic values have been shaped by human evolution. The Art Instinct is a gleeful, two-fisted assault on much of the academic orthodoxy surrounding all the arts, but it's also full of deep and sincere appreciation of works ranging from Jane Austen's novels to Marcel Duchamp's notorious Fountain (the urinal Duchamp treated as a piece of art). It was one of the most widely reviewed books of the past year. I recommend it as a Christmas present for anyone you know who's interested in art, or at the same time, for readers who enjoy accessible explorations of evolutionary psychology--books by authors like Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, or Richard Dawkins.

Click below to listen to Kurt Andersen interviewing Denis Dutton.

Or for something a bit lighter, but equally informative, you can see what happened when the philosophy professor met that highly evolved work of art, Stephen Colbert.

The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Denis Dutton

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor
U.S. Speedskating

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Publisher's Secret Weapon: Book Designers

One of the most fun parts of being a publisher is working with incredibly talented designers. I love the visual and tactile elements of bookmaking. In my first publishing job, I worked in a very small, very fine independent publishing house where, in addition to answering the phone and reading the slush pile, I sometimes got to design book interiors and jackets. I'm not sure I have ever enjoyed my work more than I did then.

I don't design books any more, because we have a highly experienced creative director who does it full time, and can call on gifted freelance designers. But I can still muse for hours over whether Janson or Baskerville is a more appropriate typeface for a new biography we're about to publish.

One of the highlights of any season, for me, is when our creative director (formerly Amy King, now Patti Ratchford) brings in the jacket comps for the upcoming list. Going into one of those meetings I always feel like a kid coming downstairs to look under the Christmas tree. You don't know what you're going to see but you know there's going to be something great.

I'll usually talk to our creative director about a direction for the design of a given jacket, and sometimes we'll talk about specific images or an author may supply some. And on a very few occasions I'll make specific suggestions about how I want a jacket to look. But I have learned it's usually a lot better not to micromanage designers and instead to let them come up with treatments on their own. What's remarkable to me--since as an editor I usually think I know the work more intimately than a designer can--is how often they will create a jacket that I would never have dreamed of, yet suits the book perfectly.

Every once in a while--maybe one time out of five or ten--you get a design that just doesn't work and have to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes it's because the designer just doesn't "get" that title. Very often, if the designer is having trouble with the jacket, it's a sign that the editor or publisher haven't positioned the book clearly enough. Is it a coming of age novel that happens to be set in India, or a gritty portrait of the slums of Mumbai? Is it a history of American foreign policy since 2001, or an argument that we should play a different role in the world? If the editor hasn't figured that out, the designer is going to have a hard time nailing the jacket.

On the other hand, I have sometimes seen our designers create jackets that made a book look more interesting than I thought it was when I heard about it in a launch meeting. Could it be that my colleagues sometimes think that about my titles? I'd prefer not to dwell on that possibility.

It occurs to me that as I write this that I should post some examples of beautiful Bloomsbury Press jackets. I'll do that a bit later on. What got me started on this train of thought was a Wall Street Journal slideshow of nifty new covers for some classic Nabokov titles. I suspect designers enjoy a commission like this, because when the title is a classic, it's already "branded": you don't have to worry so much about conveying what's inside and have more visual freedom. In this series of reissues, nodding to Nabokov's interest in butterflies, each one is designed as a specimen box. They are all distinctive and witty; I think my favorite is Carin Goldberg's understated cover for Pnin, above.

Update: William Drenttel has pointed out that all 18 covers in the Nabokov set were first published on Design Observer. I should have given a hat tip to John Gall, art director for the series, who talks about the project there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hanging Out with Poe, Coleridge, and Terry Jacobus

A recent post by Mike Shatzkin about "verticals" (a key publishing topic that I'll write more about later) led me to This is a really interesting new site that brings together all sorts of content for poetry lovers, including not just the text of classic and new poems, but audio recordings and in some cases videos. You can read or listen to Shelley's Ozymandias, Poe's The Raven, or Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade. (The sound quality on the latter is so poor I wonder whether it's a very early recording of Tennyson himself? Fascinatingly, it's listed as the most popular poem on the site.). You can hear contemporary poets reading their work. Or you can even upload your own spoken-word recordings to a section called "YourMic."

Speaking of Poe, an unexpected benefit of being in the Twitterstream is that I learned about the funny and poignant poem below from a tweet. Here are just the first few lines.

So Edgar Allan Poe Was In This Car
Terry Jacobus

So Edgar Allan Poe was in this car goin' the wrong way on ol' 66
and it's snowin' hard and he's pissed off and worried about
everything so he manages to pull over to the side and his woman
gets outta the car to check out the situation but Edgar won't get
out and his woman realizes that he isn't gettin' out so she goes
to wunna them phone stands near a big pole by the Wrong Way
And calls up his friend Sam Coleridge and Sam says, "Okay,
Hold on, I'll be right out there." ...

The full text (and audio) is on PoetrySpeaks here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Kindest Word in the English Language

I've often heard my father say, "sometimes the kindest word in the English language is No." He has been both an editor and a writer, and I think his views on this point come from the latter perspective. When you have sent a manuscript or a pitch to a publisher, what you want to hear, of course, is Yes. But failing that, a quick No is a lot more helpful, and merciful, than a long, agonizing silence.

When I was a junior editor, I wanted to impress agents with my keen editorial brain, so I would sometimes take an hour or more to craft a rejection letter that showed my incisive understanding of the flaws of the manuscript I was sending back. It wasn't that easy to find an hour or two with everything else I had to do, so sometimes it would take me a few weeks actually to compose my brilliant decline. Now that I have been at the game longer, I've realized that a brief, even brusque "no thanks" sent in a day or two is generally more welcome to an agent or author than an extended critique that arrives weeks later. I still sometimes hold onto submissions longer than I should, either because I'm genuinely on the fence or because I've got the bad old feeling that I need to explain why I'm saying no. But I try to err on the side of promptness rather than well-meaning delay.

If editors need to say no more promptly, writers need to learn to say no, period. Nothing is worse for a writer's productivity than, well, all the things he or she does beside writing. Going to conferences, reading other people's galleys to blurb them, doing a book review--these are all worthwhile activities, and if you do enough of them, your own book will never get written.  Another memory of my days as a junior editor: I was publishing a novel I was crazy about and I knew a famous literary novelist would be a perfect reader for it. I composed a fervent, personal blurb request and sent it to her with a bound proof. I soon received a letter back from her that read something like this (I'm quoting from memory):
Dear Mr. Ginna,
Here is a partial list of things I am responsible for at this moment: one dog, three cats, a parakeet, two book reviews, three magazine articles, and one novel. Much as I would like to read what you have sent me I cannot possibly take it on at this time.
Yours very truly,
(the famous novelist)
Needless to say I was disappointed and a little miffed; I was even more miffed a couple of months later when I found a colleague of mine had received the same letter, with her name typed in where mine had been. The famous novelist was cranking out form letters in reply to our heartfelt entreaties!

By the time I got to be a grizzled senior editor, I felt differently about these form letters. I had realized that most people who got my begging letters didn't bother to write back at all, so the prompt form letter was comparatively courteous. And having worked with many more authors, I had seen how many of them got nibbled to death by well-intentioned requests and projects, and were months or years late on their commitments, because they were too nice to say No. It is not a coincidence that the famous novelist has written more than two dozen books in the two decades since our exchange.

The problem is not confined to the literary world. I recently came across the printed postcard that Francis Crick, who became a world celebrity for his role in deciphering the structure of DNA, used to fend off the stream of requests that came his way.

Sometimes saying No is a kindness to yourself, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bono, Bill Gates, and How "Philanthrocapitalists" Are Trying to Save the World

One of the most original books I've published in the past year is Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, by Michael Green and Matthew Bishop. "Philanthrocapitalism" is a term coined by Bishop, who writes for The Economist, to describe the new-model approach to charity of many of today's super-rich.

Most of them--like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Michael Bloomberg--come from a business background, and while they're prepared to give their money away, they want to get the maximal bang for their charitable bucks. Others, like Bono or Oprah Winfrey, are celebrities who are deploying their fame as well as their money--but they too understand the concept of leverage. All together, this class of megadonors is truly changing the world. Not only because their money is making a difference, but because their strategies and tools are making many organizations more savvy and effective. So the book has something to say to anyone interested in social entrepreneurship, NGOs, or volunteerism.

Bishop and Green have recently launched a very lively website with lots of information on this topic, and one-one-one interviews with figures such as Bill Gates. Worth a visit if you are involved in charity, volunteering, or you are trying to figure out with to do with a spare billion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google and the Future of Publishing

Joe Esposito, at the Society for Scholarly Publishing blog, offers tough-minded comments about Google in a post titled "Publishing in the Google Ecosystem." He notes widespread misgivings, especially in Europe, about Google's ever-expanding array of online book content, to which his response is:
Google is now the defining entity in the information landscape.  To flourish, as best as publishers can hope to flourish, it’s necessary to find a place within the Google ecosystem.  There is no world elsewhere, no little pocket of commerce beyond the reach of Google’s audience aggregation, no opportunity to erect protectionist barriers or to appeal to the legacy of one’s own institutions.  To those who resent Google’s huge bulk and ambition, it has to be said:  Get over it.
There are some interesting replies in the comment thread, disputing some of his premises--the whole discussion is worth reading. My own take, as of now, is much along the lines of Esposito's. I worry about any one company having so much power, not just over my industry but in the cultural marketplace in general. But: a) Google is a fact, and it's simply not going to go away and b) Its products and tools have already been enormously beneficial to publishers and authors (and we have by no means fully exploited them). There's no single more pervasive, more perennial, more frustrating problem in selling any book than the number of people who don't know it exists. 

I'll talk about this more in a future post. But to me it seems clear that Google is the best solution for this problem that we've ever had. We may be skeptical as to whether Google is a force for good or feel that publishers and authors should have a greater share of the revenue Google reaps from book content. But since Google's not going away any time soon, our task is to use it to the fullest.

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's the Value of an Editor?

Trevor Dolby, publisher of Random House UK’s imprint Preface, wrote on BookBrunch the other day about the undervaluing of editorial talent around the industry: the failure of big houses to nurture their best editors. He makes an essential point: publishing is a creative business, and a publishing house is only as good as its editorial staff. Dolby is writing of the UK specifically but one could argue we have a similar problem here.  True, we celebrate some veteran editors with distinguished track records (and deservedly so—see my post from last Thursday). And from time to time a younger one earns public attention—whether it’s a Gary Fisketjon inventing Vintage Contemporaries or an Elizabeth Schmitz seeing the promise in a partial script of Cold Mountain. But as a whole it’s a weakness of our trade that we don’t do as well as we should at spotting, training, or retaining the talented editors of the future.

One of the problems is that the criteria by which editors are judged are fuzzy in the extreme. It might seem horribly crass to evaluate editors purely on the financial results of their acquisitions, and few houses do so. At a few places—the most sensible ones in my opinion—editors are judged partly on their dollar contribution, partly on more subjective measures such as the quality of the titles they have published or whether they have developed authors with future promise. But at many houses, no consistent analysis of editors’ value is ever done. Editors are expected to “bring in big books,” and they go off, lunch furiously, and bring them back as ordered, but what this means is they’re rewarded for huge, splashy acquisitions that frequently turn out to be economic disasters for the company.

Lacking a rigorous method, or simply the habit, of determining which editors are really valuable, management sometimes seems to conclude they are fungible. So some really bright younger ones—or “expensive” older ones—get scythed when it’s time to downsize, as we have seen this year.

And it’s not just the young talent that we find ourselves missing. I remember the downturn of the early 90s, when it seemed a whole generation of veteran editors, along with many of my junior peers, were laid off. Literally hundreds of years of publishing experience and institutional memory walked out the doors of Publishers Row. A great many of those editors are working full time as freelancers today—supplying editorial skills that the houses who fired them found they needed after all. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Heavy "Whither" Ahead: The Changing Business Model Continued

I asked in an earlier post this week, "Whither BookExpo?" The "Whither"-led headline is the journalist's ironic rubric for the inconclusive, chin-pulling article that muses on the future of Literature, the Iraq War, Marriage, or whatever. We have seen a lot of these pieces in the publishing trade in the last couple of years and we certainly have a few more years ahead of us. Almost every aspect of the business is in flux.

One of them is the role of agents. It's hard to say who is more threatened by the prospect of "disintermediation," as it becomes ever easier for writers to sell their work to readers directly--publishers, booksellers, or agents? Right now the first two are feeling the stresses and strains of change more than the agents are, but I think it will soon become apparent that agents have no less to lose. I don't believe that any of us have become obsolete, but we're all going to have to reconfigure our roles in the literary ecosystem.
This thought is prompted today by a Mike Shatzkin blog post about a conversation he had with three agents about this very topic. If these three are representative, agents are also groping for a handle on how their business can and should change.  "Whither Agenting?" is another question in the air.

Hat Tip to Two of 2009's Top Twenty-Five

The Atlantic's December issue features Literary Editor Benjamin Schwarz's list of the 25 best books of 2009. Schwarz, whom I'm sorry to say I don't know, is a book reviewer of consistently intellectual leanings--something that's very welcome to a slightly eggheaded editor like me who has watched the coverage of serious books get slashed in almost every print venue. His top 25 of the year includes 9 titles from university presses, including Michael Burlingame's biography of Lincoln (Johns Hopkins), Gordon Wood's magisterial history of the early United States (Oxford), and Carmen M. Reinhart and Keneth Rogoff's history of financial folly, This Time It's Different (Princeton). 

I was naturally happy to see two Bloomsbury Press titles included in the Atlantic's list--both were titles that, if I say so myself, made fresh, lively contributions to their respective fields. Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct argues pugnaciously for a new approach to thinking about art, and to art criticism, with insights from evolutionary psychology. And Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants does what seems almost impossible--finds something new to say about Woolf and Bloomsbury (the "set," not the publishing house). Light offers a revealing window, or perhaps it's a back stairs, into the lives and thoughts of Woolf and her fellow literati by exploring the experience of their domestic servants. That sanctum Woolf wrote of, "a room of ones's own," was not a sealed-off chamber: it was cleaned, heated, and attended by a series of maids, cooks, butlers and the like. Benjamin Schwarz rightly calls Light's work an  "elegant, sparkling book"  and observes that  "it probes the deeply intimate, often sordid, always fraught relationship between women servants and their female employers."  Mrs. Woolf and the Servants has probably received more, and more effusive, reviews than any other title I have ever published. (I should mention that it was acquired not by me, but my sharp-eyed former colleague Katie Henderson, now of Other Press.) 
Especially if you're a history lover--or Christmas shopping for one--the Atlantic Top 25 is worth taking on your next trip to the bookstore.