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. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Power of the Spoken Word (Rogue Edition)

In case you missed this the first time around, as I did, and in honor of her forthcoming memoir: William Shatner performs the poetry of Sarah Palin.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Max Perkins Lives!

When I am not wearing my Bloomsbury Press hat or my Dr. Syntax periwig, I serve on the board of the Center for Fiction--a literary organization formerly known as the Mercantile Library. The original name reflects its origin, in 1820, as a lending library organized by Wall Street businesses so their clerks could improve themselves through literature. This fall, the Library has renamed itself and embraced a new mission toward which it has been evolving for many years. It is now the only organization in America exclusively devoted to the art of fiction--including the reading, writing, publishing, and most importantly, enjoyment of it. I like to think this makes us simultaneously one of the oldest and one of the newest cultural centers in the country. 
Monday night was the Center's annual benefit dinner and awards ceremony. We awarded the our First Novel prize--chosen by a panel of first-class writers including last year's winner, Hannah Tinti--to John Pipkin's extraordinary Woodsburner. (For the full list of finalists, which all had ardent supporters, visit the Center's website.) And I had the enjoyable task of presenting the Maxwell Perkins Award to Doubleday editor Gerald Howard. 
The Perkins Award, named named after the legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, honors a publishing person who has, over a career, discovered, nurtured, and championed writers of fiction. (Past winners are Nan Talese, Gary Fisketjon, Drenka Willen, and Jonathan Galassi.) Launching and sustaining fiction writers is demanding and sometimes lonely work; we hope to provide one ink-stained wretch a year with some recognition, and at least one night away from the manuscripts. 
I can remember being an editorial assistant and shirking an hour of work with some colleagues while one of them read aloud from a hilarious and brilliant first novel by one David Foster Wallace. It had been published as a paperback original by Gerry Howard. He's still publishing surprising new writers twenty years later. 
One of our colleagues called Gerry “the champion of the transgressive,” and I know she meant that as a high compliment. It’s challenging enough, at this cultural moment, to publish books by authors that everyone admires and those who have a track record of success; it’s far more demanding to find writers whose work is unfamiliar, against the grain, or that makes people uncomfortable, and to publish them with skill, energy and commitment. But this is what Gerry has managed to do for a few decades now. He has published, among many others, Gordon Lish, Don DeLillo, William S. Burroughs, A. M. Homes, Walter Mosley, Paul Auster, Ana Castillo, Walter Kirn, Kate Christensen, and Gore Vidal. Chuck Palahniuk, who has published with Gerry since his first novel, flew to New York from the Pacific Northwest just to present a tribute to Gerry at Monday's event.
It's a wonderful irony that Gerald Howard once wrote an article titled “Mistah Perkins--He Dead.” In that essay, published in 1989, he unflinchingly considered the many pressures that squeeze editors in the commercial publishing business; how difficult it had become for a would-be Max Perkins to find and acquire work of the best quality; and how hard it was to publish that work with success in the crowded, noisy marketplace that we operate in.

Many of the problems Gerry identified back then have only grown more acute; but I think he himself has given the lie to his article. Even in a book industry dominated by blockbuster titles and mass marketing, dedicated editors still ply their trade. Whether you think they are bucking the system or justifying it, editors like Gerry--and many others, too many for the Perkins award to recognize all of them--continue to find and publish original, challenging, and enduring books. 

(Disclosure: some of the above is drawn from remarks I made in presenting the award. If you were there on Monday, please forgive redundancy. You also got to listen to Chuck Palahniuk's far funnier appreciation of Gerry so you've come out ahead.) 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Whither BookExpo?

I enjoy a good rant, and Richard Nash has a fine one today at the Huffington Post about BookExpo America. BEA used to be a bona fide trade fair, where publishers took orders from booksellers. In recent years, when the chains and Amazon have come to dominate bookselling, the business of meeting and pitching to individual booksellers has become a much smaller part of the fair—it doesn’t really generate enough dollars in itself to justify the costs of exhibiting.

In response, publishers have cut back on their booth space, parties, promotional expenses, etc. Some have skipped the convention altogether. Now, with profits drooping and expenses being slashed all over the industry, BEA is planning further economies, including a move to midweek instead of being held over the weekend as in years past.According to Richard, the BEA organizers have now abandoned an idea proposed after last year’s fair, to open the exhibits to the general public for an afternoon before the programming began and hold an opening night party as some other book fairs do. He argues, 

the explosion in the number of books available means that publishers need to motivate readers to read their books, and not take for granted they'll walk into bookstores and buy… the event needs to be about exciting readers/customers, not hustling the retailers.

I agree that this is a real missed opportunity. Granted, BEA has never been about marketing books to the public, and there are all sorts of logistical complications in moving in that direction. But this seems a classic example of industry shortsightedness. BEA has been all about traditional channels of bookselling, which everyone agrees aren’t effective enough anymore. Publishers are concerned they’re wasting their money at BEA, and with good reason. But instead of reinventing the show, transforming it into a new, better way to market our product—yes, to the public as well as booksellers, librarians, and media--the current approach seems to be to try to do the same thing in  a cheaper way. 
Hm, sounds like the general strategy most big publishers have adopted over the last couple of years. Bashing mainstream publishing for its stodginess and lack of imagination is all too easy, and many of those who do so have no idea of the constraints we operate under. Still, I am pretty sure that the way forward for publishers, in an environment where so much is changing, is never going to be “do what we have done before but spend less money on it.” 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Book Obama and the Joint Chiefs Should Be Reading

News reports say the President Obama is "soon" going to decide on a strategy for the U.S. in Afghanistan. While Obama and his military advisers ponder whether to continue the American presence there, and on what terms, there has been inevitably much discussion of Vietnam and the missteps we made there five decades ago. Evidently a few recent books about Vietnam are being avidly read around the Pentagon and West Wing, including Lessons in Disaster by Gordon Goldstein and A Better War by Lewis Sorley.
I have a better suggestion: Jungle of Snakes by James Arnold. Arnold looks not only at Vietnam, but three other counterinsurgency wars of the 20th century: the U.S. in the Phillippines at the beginning of the century; the British in Malaysia following World War II; the French in Algeria; and the U.S. in Vietnam. The first two of these were successful campaigns that defeated insurgencies, the second two were failures.

As many observers have pointed out, Afghanistan is different from Vietnam in many ways. Nor is it exactly like the other conflicts I just mentioned. But all counterinsurgencies have features in common, as Arnold's work makes clear--for instance, any counterinsurgency must begin by assuring security of the civilian population; the success of any campaign depends on quality intelligence; and no counterinsurgency can succeed in the absence of a central government that earns the population's trust.

Rather than obsessing over Vietnam--admittedly, the most painful wound in the nation's military psyche--our strategists might profitably expand their data pool by considering what has worked, or failed to work, in other settings as well. Arnold, a veteran military historian, crisply and dramatically conveys what it was like for American boys plunked down in a Phillippine jungle, or French officers trying to tell friend from foe in Algiers (where, disastrously, they resorted to torture). And he steps back to sort out some key principles that any commander facing outlaws and guerrillas needs to know. I recommend Jungle of Snakes to anyone who wants to understand the kind of "asymmetric conflict" our nation is likely to be involved in for the foreseeable future.

How Should an Author Respond to a Bad Review?

The Kerfuffle of the Week in the book reviewing world was the dustup between Mark Danner and George Packer over the latter's mostly negative review of Danner's new book, Stripping Bare the Body, in the New York Times Book Review. Danner responded to Packer with a 1400-word rebuttal, or rather a 1400-word critique of Packer's review and of the Times for assigning it to him in the first place. (Packer than riposted in a shorter answer also published in the TBR.)

I admire both writers' journalism, and not having read Danner's book, I won't try to pick sides in the dispute. I merely want to point out how lucky Danner is to have been given so many column inches to punch back at a review he didn't like! Usually trying to rebut bad reviews is a losing game. Few publications can, or care to, allot much space to an author with a chip on his shoulder (justified or not) about a poor review. As you can imagine, the wronged author typically has a lot to say about what was wrong with his review--then he or she finds his epic fulmination edited down to a 200-word bleat. Making it worse, the reviewing organ gives the original reviewer space for a re-rebuttal that is often longer than the author's critique.

This is one reason why I often suggest to authors that they ignore bad reviews. It's better to be philosophical and figure that any publicity is good publicity. (I have come to believe this is usually true, with some ghastly exceptions.) But even if you believe that your book has been misrepresented and the record must be set straight, the result of the tit-for-tat-for-tit exchange rarely comports with your sense of justice.

My advice to authors is to take the approach of one notoriously controversial writer, who--at least according to literary legend--had a pre-printed postcard that he used to reply to readers who wrote in to excoriate him for a some column or article.  It read, entirely, as follows:

Dear Sir or Madam,
You may be right. 
Sincerely, H. L. Mencken.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Remarkable Life of the Pink Lady

As Congress debates health care, and opponents of the current proposal for reform label it "socialist," one of their chief villains is naturally Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A Google search for "Nancy Pelosi socialist" turns up 630,000 or so hits. I'm not an ardent admirer of Pelosi, but observing the contumely heaped on her this month made me think of one of her predecessors, Helen Gahagan Douglas. 
I have just published a biography of Douglas by the veteran journalist and historian Sally Denton, and I confess I was fascinated to learn about Douglas's life, of which I had known little--except that she lost a famously bitter Senate election to Richard Nixon, who portrayed her as, not just a socialist, but a communist sympathizer. It's unfair that Douglas is known mainly for losing to Nixon: she was a remarkable woman, who went to Barnard and then became one of the biggest stars on Broadway.  Gifted with a beautiful voice as well as acting talent, she even performed opera and thought about becoming a prima donna--but instead followed her husband Melvyn Douglas to Hollywood. 

The plight of the poor during the Depression--and the urging of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt--moved Douglas to enter politics. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1944, becoming one of the earliest women in the chamber. There she was a staunch and fervent supporter of the New Deal and other liberal causes like disarmament, until she ran into the Nixon buzzsaw. (By the way, she also carried on a long-lasting affair with a young Congressman named Lyndon Johnson.) 
When you think about the resistance, condescension, and outright abuse that has confronted contemporary figures like Pelosi or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Helen Douglas's achievements of six decades ago seem all the more impressive.  For more on Helen Gahagan Douglas and Sally Denton's biography The Pink Lady, including an interview with Sally, visit this page. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Spite of Fires on the Horizon

The publishing industry has been through ups and downs many times before, and has faced numerous challenges, yet books continue to be written, published and read. Whenever people are fretting about e-books or bookstore closings, I find reassurance in this poem by Czeslaw Milosz, which reminds me that books have been here for a long time and will be here after all of us worrywarts are gone. 
I confess there's a part of me that wonders if these words are still true in the age of Kindle. The oldest physical book I know of is 2500 years old, while the longest projected lifetime of any digital medium today is about 100 years. Will books always "be there on the shelves"? I can't be certain. But if I look at the novel I'm reading now on my iPhone, it still seems to be "derived from radiance." 
Perhaps if Milosz wrote in a hundred years' time, the line would say "the books will be there in the cloud." That seems no less poetic. 

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings, 

That appeared once, still wet 

As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn, 

And, touched, coddled, began to live 

In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up, 

Tribes on the march, planets in motion. 

“We are,” they said, even as their pages 

Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame 

Licked away their letters.
So much more durable

Than we are, whose frail warmth 

Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.

I imagine the earth when I am no more: 

Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant, 

Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley. 

Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born, 

Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

(From New & Collected Poems 1931-2001 by Czeslaw Milosz, Ecco)

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Program No Professor Should Be Without

Everybody complains about academic writing, but nobody does anything about it. Now, some brainiacs at the University of Chicago Writing Program have at last brought technology to bear on the crisis. Tired of reading turgid, jargon-laden, politically correct prose? Sorry, can't help you there. But if you're tired of writing it, the U of C has just the tool for you: the Automatic Academic Sentence Generator. Just pick a few terms from the drop-down menus--like "the gendered body", "the nation-state," or "epistemology"--click, and you can get something like this:
The politics of normative value(s) may be parsed as the (re)formation of the nation-state:
Is that not quite what you meant? No problem! Click again for an instant edit, and you get this:
The (re)formation of the nation-state may be parsed as the politics of normative value(s).
This little device is good for a department meeting's worth of amusement at least. Try it for yourself, and don't miss the avatars Pootwattle, the virtual academic, and Smedley, the virtual critic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

My Clouded Crystal Ball: Advice for Aspiring Publishers

I was interviewed yesterday by MediaBistro about where publishing is going and my advice to people interested in getting into the industry. My thanks to the energetic Jason Boog, editor of GalleyCat, and Matt Van Hoven, for having me on. I don't claim to be able to see very far into the future, but you can listen to what I have to say here. The interview lasts about 15 minutes, so forgive me for not going into depth on each question. (I've talked about the future on this blog already. Forecast: exciting with scattered patches of terror.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Power of the Spoken Word

Christopher Walken performs the poetry of Lady Gaga.

Seeing Great Things

I've spent a significant portion of my publishing career in the Flatiron Building, first at St. Martin's Press and now at Bloomsbury. As many readers will have noticed the Bloomsbury Press logo alludes to the shape of the Flatiron. The FIB, as internal e-mails sometimes call it, is somewhat more wonderful to look at than to work in--it was built in 1902 and still has the same plumbing and heating--but it makes me happy every day to walk in the door of a New York landmark with so much character.
The Flatiron's unique appearance makes it one of the most photographed structures in New York and probably the world. The first of the photos above, by Edward Steichen, has been reproduced so often it is now a cliche'--but it's still lovely.  I like the Steiglitz image below it, in which the photographer has found a tree that perfectly matches the shape of the building. But just yesterday, my colleague Pete Beatty discovered an equally wonderful picture online that reminds us why, according to urban lore, the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street gave rise to the expression "23-Skidoo": this was where the cops had to shoo away fellows who would ogle the ladies.

P.S. Thanks to reader Tinker Greene who pointed out that the original version of this post I reversed the names of Steichen and Steiglitz. Even editors need editors. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to Do a Hook Slide, and Other Improbable Things I've Learned from Books

When I was younger it used to be a source of great mirth in my family that I would turn to books not just for entertainment, but for instruction on all sorts of things that other kids would just, well, go and ask somebody about. When I was trying out for Little League, I went to the library and took out a volume I can still see in my mind's eye, Sports Illustrated's guide to Baseball the Winning Way. My mother laughed for the rest of her life that her son was the only boy who would try to learn baseball from a book.

But when tryouts started, I was the only kid who knew how to do a hook slide. (Alas, this skill would have been much more useful if I had ever got on base. Hook sliding into first is rarely effective.)

I still have the habit. I am a sucker for instructional books, on anything from sports to XML coding. (OK, I haven't tried that one yet. But the day may be coming.) But here, off the top of my head, are just a few of the things I have learned from books since my Little League days.

How to putt. (In truth, I learned this from my wife. But she didn't teach me, as the little volume in the pro shop did, How To Putt in Two. Results not guaranteed.)

How to make a Sazerac cocktail (puh-leez, not with bourbon)

How to manage files in Mac OS X (and many other Mac things--thank you, David Pogue.)

How to paint watercolors (I actually took a class on this but could never master laying a wash until I practiced with the instructions right next to me.)

How to blog. Actually I'm lying. I bought a book on this but then I lost it and I finally realized the six months I spent "looking for it" were really just an excuse not to sit down and do it.  Maybe this blog would be better if I had found it, but at least it's getting written.

Probably the coolest instructional book I've ever read was The Great International Paper Airplane book. Not only did it show you how to make scores of different paper airplanes, but it showed how to make an awesome rocket from a paper match, tinfoil and a paper clip. You haven't lived until you've launched one of these.

I still have a great fondness for books of practical advice and I find it very satisfying to edit them, as I occasionally do. A forthcoming one by Chris Farrell of public radio's Marketplace Money seems well suited to the present moment: The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better.  Is there a practical book that has made a difference in your life? I'd be glad to have a list from readers of this page--just post a comment below.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Which Section of the New York Times D'You Read?

I haven't seen one recently, but the New Yorker often used to run newsbreaks under the heading "Which Paper Do You Read?" where two newspapers had laughably contrasting accounts of the same event. I thought of this yesterday when the New York Times reviewed a new Bloomsbury Press book: Peter Clarke's short, crisp biography of the brilliant economist John Maynard Keynes. It's subtitled The Rise, Fall and Return of the 20th Century's Most Influential Economist.

The Times reviewed Keynes twice in the same issue--once in the Book Review, once in the Business section. For a publisher, this is like getting the Daily Double on Jeopardy--at least when they're two good reviews. These were very favorable, but as sometimes happens the two reviewers seem to have read two different books. Devin Leonard calls Clarke's "the liveliest" of three new works on Keynes, and says his prose "sparkles." But Leonard thinks Clarke's "gossipy" account of Keynes's life is "the place to begin if you want to understand the economist’s personality and charisma." He thinks other authors are stronger at explaining the economic ideas that helped pull Britain and (even more so) America out of the Great Depression. 

Over in the Book Review, Justin Fox thinks Keynes's life is too interesting for Clarke to do it justice! He says, by contrast, Keynes "takes off" only when it gets to the economist's work. "Clarke lays out the development of Keynes’s economics from the mid-1920s to his General Theory, and it’s a gripping journey," says Fox. 

I'd have been happy with either one of these reviews. Together they go to show once again that much of any book review is in the eye of the beholder. And I hope they suggest that whether you're interested in Keynes's life or his ideas, Keynes is a little book with a lot to offer. 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How I Met Someone Way Ahead of the Curve

Back in the early 1990s I was an editor at Crown and I got a really smart proposal from a new author/packager for a book with a novel idea: it would show how to find a job using the internet. This was way before or Hotjobs came into being--in fact as I recall it was before most people even had web browsers. You used clunky services like AOL or Pipeline to access the net (in my case, on a Mac SE with a screen the size of a coaster).

I thought this was a terrific, ahead-of-the-curve idea. But it was too far ahead. We finally turned down the proposal because a) for the reason just mentioned, very few jobs were actually listed on the internet back then and b) it was going to be too much of a hassle to package the required 3.5 inch floppy disk with the book.

The really smart guy