Friday, March 26, 2010

What "Fair and Balanced" Meant When FDR Was a Journalist

Guest post: John Q. Barrett is a professor of law at St. John's University and a scholar who is writing the biography of one of America's great Supreme Court justices, Robert Jackson. John discovered and edited (and I published) a wonderfully engaging memoir by Jackson of his friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, titled That Man. John maintains an e-mail listserv that features news and comment about Jackson and his times. It seemed particularly poignant, in this week of war-by-soundbite over health care, to read the following message, which John Barrett has allowed me to repost here. 

In summer 1928, a time of pitched policy debates and impending electoral contests, a New York State lawyer who was active in Democratic Party politics began to write occasional pieces for his local newspaper.

The column was called “Between Neighbors.”  In his first output, the columnist explained that his writing would be “more or less serious,” and that it would be aimed at his politically diverse upstate neighbors:

These neighbors of mine are a representative cross-section of the community, and are made up of Republicans, Democrats and people who are not affiliated with any party.  Therefore in talking about politics, I am keeping that fact in mind and have no intention of using the shop-worn methods of condemning everything on one side and praising everything on the other side of the political fence.

The day has gone by when you can fool people into believing that the nation, or a state or a country or a city is going to the dogs just because one political party happens to be in power in it.  People are sick of the kind of editorial writing which sees only good in every measure and every man sponsored by one party and only bad on the other side.  So, too, it is the little provincial papers that today in the news-columns magnify as first page news any disagreements in their opponents’ camps and run only a half inch on the back page about any trouble in their own camp.

That is one reason why the bitterly partisan press is losing its influence in this country.  The other reason is that there is more and better education everywhere and readers do not as much as formerly take the views and news of a one-sided paper as Gospel Truth.  I told [the local newspaper editor] I hoped he would get some Republican to write each week in this paper, but if he can’t find one, I shall try to be as fair as I can.

Although these ideas were as wise and fitting in 1928 as they are today, the lawyer did not, in the end, have much time to live up to them as a newspaper columnist.  He earlier had held political office.  That fall, after publishing ten columns in two months, he gave up the pastime to accept his party’s nomination to be a candidate.  (Robert H. Jackson, another upstate New York lawyer who was the candidate’s friend but also had a more booming law practice, became involved sporadically in the campaign.)

That November, the former Beacon Standard columnist, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was elected governor of New York.  In that office and in his next office, he got, at least sometimes, the fair and balanced media coverage that leaders and policies, and also we neighbors in the audience, deserve.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Doctor Dolittle's Dog, or, An Editor's-Nose View of The Future

My favorite passage from The Story of Doctor Dolittle describes how the doctor's faithful (and very intelligent) dog Jip takes in the world through his nose. He's on a ship far out at sea at the time:
Then Jip went up to the front of the ship and smelt the wind; and he
started muttering to himself,

"Tar; Spanish onions; kerosene oil; wet raincoats; crushed
laurel-leaves; rubber burning; lace-curtains being washed--No, my
mistake, lace-curtains hanging out to dry; and foxes--hundreds of
'em--cubs; and--"

"Can you really smell all those different things in this one wind?"
asked the Doctor.

"Why, of course!" said Jip.  "And those are only a few of the easy
smells--the strong ones. Any mongrel could smell those with a cold in
the head.  Wait now, and I'll tell you some of the harder scents that
are coming on this wind--a few of the dainty ones."

Then the dog shut his eyes tight, poked his nose straight up in the air
and sniffed hard with his mouth half-open.

For a long time he said nothing.  He kept as still as a stone.  He
hardly seemed to be breathing at all.  When at last he began to speak,
it sounded almost as though he were singing, sadly, in a dream.

"Bricks," he whispered, very low--"old yellow bricks, crumbling with
age in a garden-wall; the sweet breath of young cows standing in a
mountain-stream; the lead roof of a dove-cote--or perhaps a
granary--with the mid-day sun on it; black kid gloves lying in a
bureau-drawer of walnut-wood; a dusty road with a horses'
drinking-trough beneath the sycamores; little mushrooms bursting
through the rotting leaves; and--and--and--"

"Any parsnips?" asked Gub-Gub.

"No," said Jip.  "You always think of things to eat.  No parsnips

I think a good editor is like Jip. The job is about sticking your nose into the wind and trying to figure out what's out there. Your sense of the marketplace, or of what's happening in the literary world, comes at you not in a sharp, high-def picture, but a jumble of impressions and images, some of which you can read more clearly than others.

It's the same for me with the future of publishing. I have a pretty potent whiff, for example,  of an explosion of e-books and e-readers for the next few years. But I can't yet smell on  the wind the future for bookstores, which are surely challenged by this development. I have caught distinct notes that the digital marketplace is going to start erasing the distinction between books and magazines, but no scent of what that means for writers or book editors. One thing I can say for sure: the wind on deck in publishing offers a bouquet at least as rich and confusing as the breeze in Jip's nostrils.

Illustration by Hugh Lofting from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Looking into the Future: Partially Obstructed View

I have already referred on this page to a classic children's book, Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle. I thought of it again this past weekend, when I attended the Writing the Future conference at the Writers' Center of Bethesda, organized by Creative Nonfiction magazine.* I joined a  group of panelists discussing various topics around the central theme: that question we have all been asking ourselves for some time now, What's going to happen to writing and publishing in the digital age? 

There were several sharp and articulate presenters:  Creative Nonfiction will be posting information and videos from the conference on Facebook, and many of the key points can be plucked from the Twitter stream of attendees here

Nonetheless, this gathering brought home to me once again: nobody knows what the future of publishing is. In some sense, editors are always hoping to guess the future, to anticipate what people are going to want to read about a year or two down the road. But it's a chancy business, because as I said at the conference, to make such guesses based on the present or recent past is a great way to be disastrously off base. A mistake our industry repeats over and over is rushing to sign up books on a topic that's all over the news today. Alas, when that book comes out a year or two from now, the hot subject du jour is yesterday's news. And I mentioned in my last post, publishers who decided at one point that science was a hot category quickly glutted the market and made it ice cold. 

Predicting the future of reading or writing--what kind of devices will be used, what kind of writing will sell (long or short, fiction or memoir, etc., etc.), what can be "monetized" and how--is even more challenging than predicting the sales of a book on Bernard Madoff or the Tea Party, because there are so many more variables.  I came away from the conference reinforced in my enduring belief that fresh ideas and good stories, well told, will always have an audience, and a market. As my fellow panelist (and, full disclosure, Bloomsbury author) Pagan Kennedy pointed out, Thoreau's Walden would have made a terrific blog.

So what does this have to do with Doctor Dolittle? More on that tomorrow. 

*Creative Nonfiction has just revamped its format and its first new-look issue is out, featuring Dave Eggers, Richard Rodriguez, Bill McKibben, Carolyn Forche, and others.  Take a look here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Most Interesting Publishing News of the Week: Penguin Launches a New Science Imprint

I was intrigued to see the announcement a few days ago that Penguin USA is launching a new imprint, called Current, specializing in science titles.  Its publisher,  Adrian Zackheim, already heads two other imprints, Sentinel and Portfolio, devoted to conservative books and business books respectively. As Adrian observed in the press release, Penguin has had good success with niche publishing in those two areas: expanding into another niche seems like common sense.

To me there are two interesting features of this news. First, that Penguin is expanding its array of special-interest imprints (it has several other small lists in addition to the ones mentioned above).  The estimable Mike Shatzkin has long argued that mastering niche audiences is the only viable future for publishing companies, and I think he may well be right. Penguin, with its vast and broad lists in paperback especially, is a long way from being a niche publisher--but are they beginning to steer the ocean liner in that direction?

And I'm pleasantly surprised to see that the area they have chosen to expand into is science. For some years now, popular science has been a category underserved by big publishers. Ten to fifteen years ago, in a great publishing tradition, every house in town piled into science books, chasing blockbuster successes like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and James Gleick's Chaos.

The inevitable result, after a couple of years in which there were some further, moderate successes while advances for science books went into the exosphere, was: the market was glutted and collapsed. Then, equally inevitably, the word went around the business,
"Science books don't sell." It became difficult for even a first-rate science book to find competitive bidders.

Of course, the audience for good, accessible science titles never went away--it was first surfeited, then starved, by publishers. Other categories have gone through similar cycles. After the rage for science, we had a rage for history books--then that bubble burst and we heard, "oh, you can't sell history any more." Anyway, Adrian Zackheim is a smart publisher, and if he thinks science is a category on the upswing he probably has some solid evidence.   I enjoy reading, and editing, science titles so I'll keep an eye on Current with interest. Meanwhile, I and my colleagues at Walker & Co. have been quietly publishing popular science all along (as have several other fine editors elsewhere). We'll all be here to provide Penguin with some competition.

Two Books for St. Patrick's Day: the Irish in America, and an American in Ireland

With St. Patrick's Day upon us I have to toot the horn, or the uilleann pipes, for two books that every good son or daughter of Erin should know about--one that I published, one that I didn't. 

The first is Jay P. Dolan's sweeping history The Irish AmericansIt surprised me to learn, when I began talking to Jay about the book he was planning, that no general history of Irish-Americans had been written, at least for a trade audience, since the 1960s. Any field of historical research throws up new insights over such a span of time, but social history and ethnic history in particular have boomed in the past few decades. Jay, who had written pioneering works in this area, was an ideal author for the the topic. He drew on his own research and wove it together with the other recent scholarship in a richly colorful narrative. 

The Irish Americans follows the Irish from their first arrival in the American colonies through the bleak days of the potato famine that brought millions of starving immigrants, right up to the election of JFK, the triumphant moment when an Irish American attained the White House. The book manages to evoke the ghastly ships crowded with men and women fleeing the potato blight; the backbreaking toil of Irish navvies digging the Erie Canal; vibrant life of Catholic parishes in cities like New York and Chicago; and the world of machine politics, where ward bosses often held court in the local saloon.  It's a grand tapestry of the Irish experience in America,  and I might add, the perfect gift for your Irish da, gran, or brother-in-law. Don't just take my word for it--the Wall Street Journal's excellent review is here

If you'd rather read about the old sod itself rather than its diaspora, you might seek out a lovely, more personal book, The Irish Way: A Walk Through Ireland's Past and Present. Full disclosure: the author is my Irish (-American) da, Robert Emmett Ginna. A few years ago he walked across the whole island, north to south. To stroll across the Irish landscape is to travel through time, so his account becomes a mosaic in which encounters with history and encounters with a profuse variety of present-day Irish characters are interspersed.  (Again, don't take my word for it. James Salter wrote, "Ginna takes you along with him into the ruined abbeys, the villages and towns, the great houses with their extraordinary histories, the talk-filled pubs, and, more than this, into the soul of the country.")

Pour yourself a Jameson's, or if it's not that hour, brew a cup of tea--in my family we ask for it "strong enough to trot a mouse across"--and settle in. 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

When the Publisher Gets the Last Word, It's Often "Goodbye"

In my last post discussing why publishers, in general, don't fact-check their authors' work, I mentioned that it's accepted in the business that the author has ultimate say over the text. While an editor may request, urge, pester, or cajole an author to make a certain change (I have done all of the above), the author gets to say yes or no to it. But as one reader, Judith Ingracia, pointed out, that's not the whole story. 

Publishers have one final recourse if the author refuses to make a change we think is critical: we can refuse to publish the book. Boilerplate contract language requires the author to deliver a manuscript that is "satisfactory" to the house. So if the author digs in her heels, and refuses to revise something that the editor feels will make the book unmarketable--or perhaps, may make it libelous or otherwise legally questionable--or again, let's say, untruthful--the author and publisher may simply part ways. 

Judith asked, 
the book belongs to the author, but if the author wants a *published* book, he/she better listen to the publisher, at least that's what I gather. Am I mistaken in this view? 
Good question. My answer is, you're not mistaken, but the threat of cancellation is almost too blunt an instrument to use as a tool in editorial negotiations. canceling a book amounts to using the "nuclear option," laying waste to the whole project and vaporizing the time everyone has invested in it. (Quite likely vaporizing the publisher's money, too, as on-signing advances can be difficult to recoup.) I'm happy to say this situation has arisen very few times in own experience, but it has happened--it's very unpleasant for all parties involved. 

In general, editors will sigh and let an author get away with some pretty misguided writing before they try reject a manuscript--threatening termination is so traumatic to an author that I at least rarely mention it unless it's a real possibility. In fact, with nonfiction, one would rarely cancel a book for mere differences of editorial opinion: it would most likely be over issues of veracity, accuracy, or legal liability. 

(National Lampoon cover from January 1973, 
photograph by Ronald G. Harris from a concept by Ed Bluestone)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Should Publishers Trust Their Authors? or, Hiroshima Mon Cul

[Thanks to the Huffington Post, which ran this piece on their lively Books page today. You may see future posts of mine there from time to time.]

The kerfuffle of the week has been the news that an acclaimed new book, The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino, had to be withdrawn by its publisher following the revelation that important details in it, including the testimony of a supposed eyewitness source, were apparently fabricated. 

As happened in earlier cases of authors doctoring the truth, some readers have raised questions about "quality control" problems in publishing, and asked, don't publishers fact-check their products?

Well, no, actually. A major difference between book and magazine or newspaper publishing is that publishers don't have fact-checkers on staff, and never have. This is not, as some cynics might suppose, because book publishers don't care about accuracy as long as a book sells. It's partly because, unlike those media where advertisers support (or used to) a large editorial staff, book publishing has been a far leaner enterprise (or as some would say, a cottage industry).  But a more important reason, I believe, is that in book publishing, unlike journalism, the content has traditionally belonged to the author, not to the house.

This is reflected in book contracts, where copyright is typically retained by the author; more to the point, it's firmly established in publishing culture that you never make editorial changes without an author's consent. As an editor you may lean pretty hard on an author to make revisions you feel are necessary (Gordon Lish's interventions with Raymond Carver being the extreme example)--but ultimately, "the book belongs to the author," and to change it or not is his or her prerogative. With that prerogative goes, inevitably, a greater responsibility for the quality of what you write.

Now, any good publisher wants to produce the best books possible. While we don't have fact-checkers, we have copyeditors who go through manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, after the editor has already worked with the author to get the book in shape. I have done my own fact-checking from time to time when an author's statement seemed questionable, and the best copyeditors will frequently check sources as well as spelling and punctuation. Furthermore,  any manuscript that might raise issues such of defamation or privacy goes through a careful legal review. In the end, though, we have to trust our authors.

I don't take on a work of nonfiction, especially a controversial or even unconventional one, without satisfying myself, perhaps just at gut level, that the author is presenting the truth responsibly. But I have to recognize that I can be fooled. Reading about the case of Charles Pellegrino, who supposedly produced--or at least, said he had--documentation of his bogus souce (who was a real person, but apparently not present at the event he claimed to witness), I suspect I might well have accepted the author's account.

Once we have decided to trust an author, we usually give him or her the benefit of the doubt on matters of fact just as on matters of style or argument. Of course, this leaves us vulnerable. But in book publishers' defense, the impulse to trust the people you work with is a hard one to overcome. Look at the cases of Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, or Jayson Blair, whose fabrications sailed through the presumably gimlet-eyed fact-checking operations of the Washington Post, New Republic, and New York Times respectively.

(Photo of the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of Truth, at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, via Wikimedia Commons. It's said that if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it will be bitten off. Maybe every publisher needs one of these?)