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.