Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Libertine Christmas

Christmas is a good time to remember Jean Shepherd, the iconoclastic radio raconteur of the 1950s and 60s who is best remembered today as the author of the stories on which the holiday film A Christmas Story (1983) was based.  But he was also the driving force behind the most hilarious hoax in book publishing history, the "best-selling novel" I, Libertine.

Back in the mid-1950s, the Times best-seller list was based not only on actual book sales but also on reader requests for new and forthcoming books.  Shepherd always had an eye for the ridiculous, and one night on his radio program he not only talked about how odd and prone to manipulation this system was, but also suggested to his listeners that they do something about it.  He urged them to visit their local bookstore and ask for a copy of I, Libertine by the noted British author Frederick R. Ewing.  If the manager asks for a description of the book, Shepherd suggested, say it's a bawdy tale of life in eighteenth-century London.

Of course, neither the book nor the author really existed.  But Shepherd's prank, abetted by his thousands of loyal fans, caused an uproar.  Soon booksellers everywhere were contacting distributors and demanding deliveries of I, Libertine.  Publishers Weekly was flooded with inquiries about this hot new title.  Gossip columnist Earl Wilson boasted about having lunch with "Freddy Ewing" to celebrate the success of his novel.

Eventually the publisher Ian Ballantine, himself a colorful iconoclast, decided this situation was too good to pass up.  He took Shepherd and a mutual friend, science-fiction novelist Theodore Sturgeon, out to lunch and convinced them to actually write I, Libertine.  Sturgeon reportedly tried to finish it in a single marathon session but fell asleep on the Ballantines' couch, whereupon Betty Ballantine wrote the final chapter.  The book was published in 1956 with a suitable paperback cover by Kelly Freas, best known as one of the creators of Alfred E. Neuman for Mad magazine.

It has been too long since we had a really entertaining publishing hoax.  (Anyone remember Naked Came the Stranger?)  Where is Jean Shepherd now that we really need him?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Story

This has nothing to do with Christmas but I am writing it on Christmas Day so Merry Xmas to one and all.

For those of you who actually read your PW you must know that they have added a seperate section to cover self-publishing, seems to be the 'S' section. This week my client, Cathie Beck, and a few other authors who made the "leap" from self publishing to a conventional publisher are covered.

Ironically the cover of the magazine features Robert Kiyosaki's (RICH DAD, POOR DAD) latest book which is published by Plata, which has to be his own or a very limited imprint. The book is distributed through Perseus, a distributor available nation wide and used by many small publishing house.

What's the point? You are asking. The point is that PW, just like all the rest of the retro aspects of conventional publishing still believe that being published by a huge publisher who takes 85%of your royalties and does not promote your book should be the end of the rainbow for authors.

I protest. I will continue to protest until independently published products achieve statehood rather than being kept as territories.

Enjoy the eggnog if people still drink it. Up here in Woodstock one of the the volunteer fire men or women dressed as Santa came out of the sky on the village green at about 5:30 last night to throw candy. They do it every year. I live in Paradise.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

For Trollope, Writing Novels Was No Different Than Laying Bricks

Here's a favorite new website I've discovered--Daily Routines, a collection of descriptions of the daily work routines of well-known architects, artists, filmmakers, musicians and composers, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, statesmen, and writers. I love this kind of shop talk and have often found it a source of useful little ideas and tricks that help me overcome writer's block and enhance my productivity.

Here's an awe-inspiring example involving the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope:
Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”
Unlike Toni's cat, it doesn't sound as though Trollope set aside much time for stretching or napping.  What's that saying about different strokes--?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from My Cat

Perhaps you've had animals who've taught you lessons--about loyalty, love, and what's really important in life. So perhaps you can be persuaded that the title of this post, while admittedly exaggerated, is more than just whimsical.

As I write this, my dainty black cat Lucy is curled up in her fleece bed, head tucked under paw, snoring so loudly I can hear her from across the room. She has no idea how much writing advice she has given me. And of course, being a cat, doesn't care. But since we aren't cats and need to live to write another day, I thought I'd share some of Lucy's Lessons for Writers:

Be True to Your Nature: You are your own animal. Find that writing self. Don't try to be other animals. It never works. They won't thank you. And you'll feel crappy.

Staring Is Good: Observation (external, internal) is the foundation of all good writing.

Keep Your Business in the Box: Separate your writing time from your business-of-writing time. They don't mix. One is a marathon; the other a sprint. Some writers even hire people to sprint for them.

Get Up and Stretch. A Lot.: You'll breathe easier, think better, and in general be more tolerable company for all, including yourself. Corollary: While you're up, pet your cat. Repetitive motion is soothing.

Editing, Like Licking, Should Be Thorough, Though Not Obsessive: Just when you think you can't stand any more, do one more round, nose to tail (including under the hood). When you realize you're going over the same wet ground, stop.

Practice Active Napping: When you take time off, really take it off. Tuck your nose under your paw and lose yourself. Don't worry, the blank page (and maybe some ideas to fill it) will be there when you get back.

Although You Did Nothing Today, You're One Fine Specimen: Do you ever see cats express self-doubt? Wonder what they've done with their nine lives? Think they don't deserve treats? I thought not.

Happy writing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What Books Are You Giving This Year?

With holidays upon us, I was reminded that a literary agent friend once told me that every few years, he makes it a "books-only" Christmas. Even while writing this I feel the excitement of browsing a favorite bookstore (online or bricks-and-mortar--or even LinkedIn's program where people share what they're reading), trying to match a lusciously tempting book with the recipient most likely to relish it. What fun! For all the brouhaha over the fate of book publishing and of books themselves, I think there's still no argument that books in all their forms (physical, electronic, enhanced e-book, and audiobook) remain among the best values for the money spent. I'm perpetually late with my shopping, but the start I've made is, so far, books-only. If you're buying books as gifts this year, what are you choosing, and why?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Outsourced to India?

Last night I had dinner with a friend who is the managing editor of a major New York publishing house. In the course of our discussion of all things publishing, she mentioned that her company is now having some of its books composed, that is "set into type" electronically, in India! This results, not surprisingly, in ludicrously small typesetting costs. Indians, as we know, make pennies on the dollar. Publishing seemed like the last industry that would be sending jobs overseas, yet it's happening. What's next? Editors working from call centers in Mumbai? The mind reels.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Mess with Oprah

The current issue of The American Scholar carries a very good piece (“Unauthorized, But Not Untrue”) by Kitty Kelley that touches on her most recent biography, on Oprah Winfrey, and the power of her subject to block publicity for the book. Some of our leading intellectuals, Larry King and Barbara Walters among them, banned the author, and Charlie Rose somehow did not think a biography of, arguably, the most influential woman in the country was worth a sit-down. Given the immensity of the subject, the negative impact on book sales was huge.

Kelley addresses the curious criticism now routinely hurled at books like hers: that they are “unauthorized.” Frank Sinatra tried to stop her book about him by filing a goofy lawsuit that claimed that only he and he alone or someone that he authorized had the right to write his life story. Kelley says unauthorized now seems to mean something nefarious, as if the writer was being charged with “breaking and entering.” “Authorized” biographies can have value, but Kelley points out that they also frequently are sanitized and homogenized and cites valuable “unauthorized” books like Robert Caro’s on Robert Moses or Seymour Hersh’s on Kissinger as examples.

The piece is not simply a laundry list of complaints nor a rant; Kelley’s tone is fairly good-humored. She is a really good journalist, if not a literary biographer, diligent and comprehensive. I was at Simon & Schuster when her biography of Nancy Reagan was published and I remember that the legal vetting process was exhaustive. Nevertheless, once the book was published, Kelley was criticized and accused of fabrications, including that she had made up sources (sources, fearful of the subjects, sometimes lied afterward), but no lawsuits followed. The reach of the powerful did: Barbara Bush was so incensed—her husband did not come off well—that once she achieved the White House, she was able, apparently merely by striking fear, to have Kelley’s books on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Nancy Reagan removed, so far permanently, from a display on First Ladies at the Smithsonian.

Convincing the public that “unauthorized” when applied to a book is the same as illicit, even criminal, is a kind of propaganda. Readers can decide for themselves if the “private” part of the life of a presidential candidate should be off-limits even when, say, a false impression of family harmony is purposefully constructed to create an attractive image.

What matters most in all this is the power of unhappy subjects to control, by intimidation, the publicity, and thereby the discourse. It gets worse when the press self-censors. I know of one editor who thought the Kelley-Winfrey story a good one but laughed off the possibility of running a piece about it: it seems there are reporters who write books or may one day write books and who might like to get some really great exposure on a certain daytime program…

Friday, December 3, 2010

And the Award for Most Dramatic Publishing Event Goes To...

OK, I admit it. I've fallen behind on my publishing industry reading. So although I, like most publishing folk, had a ringside seat at the showdown between the "Big Six" publishers and Amazon over e-book pricing (including the high drama of Amazon's removal of the buy buttons for Macmillan books), I missed the memo that went around explaining, in uber-simple terms, how it all played out in the end, what the "agency model" means as regards book pricing, and why that is such a BIG DEAL for authors, publishers, and retailers.

In case, you, too, missed the memo, here are two excellent posts from longtime publishing pro and observer on the digital publishing scene Mike Shatzkin. One posits the Big Six/Amazon showdown as "the most dramatic publishing event of 2010." There you'll find an explanation of the agency model compared to the wholesale model of pricing, why it matters, and the challenges it has presented (and likely will present). The other (which you can link to from that post or from here) gives you the royalty math comparing print, wholesale, and agency models.

I'm sure I won't be able to debate this over lattes anytime soon, but I found these to be excellent summations. I'm hoping they'll ground me for future showdowns--of which I'm sure there will be quite a few.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter

Books Versus Soup

Here's a link to “Books After Amazon,” an article by Onnesha Roychouduri about the economic and cultural impact of the growing power of Jeff Bezos, online selling, and the Kindle.  It's an interesting article about which I may have more to say when I get time, but for the moment let me just quote the words that are used throughout the article as a kind of indignant, wounded refrain: "You can’t sell a book the same way you sell a can of soup."

Of course, we've seen this metaphor many times before, but I must say it rubs me the wrong way.  What exactly is so demeaning about selling a book like a can of soup?  Soup is food.  It nourishes people, sustains life, and when well-made it provides significant physical and esthetic enjoyment.  Producing and selling soup provides an important and valuable service to humankind.

Maybe we in the book business like to imagine that our work is far more noble, exalted, and high-minded than selling soup.  If so, we should get over ourselves.  (And maybe we would sell more books if we spent as much time and energy thinking about the needs and wants of readers as soup companies spend thinking about the nutritional requirements and flavor preferences of their customers.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


So many books, articles, and screeds have been written about the perils of MFA creative writing programs that, any day now, someone is going to pen an attack piece called “The Decline of the Anti-MFA Jeremiad.” Chad Harbach’s article in N+1 magazine, excerpted in Slate, starts by discussing Mark McGurl’s new book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing and then changes the terms of the standard indictment of the MFA mentality--the academic-based system of literary professionalization that critics claim has marginalized and enervated contemporary literary fiction. He gives the back of his hand to just about all kinds of writers out there, whether MFAer’s or not—except his heroes Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. But the essence of his article is his distinction between fiction from what I'll call MFA World and fiction from Literary Commerce World (i.e., the realm of New York publishers).

I’d argue with much in Harbach’s premise, but I do confess that in my own editing and teaching I’ve seen a difference between writers with an MFA mindset and those more fiercely ambitious for mainstream Manhattan publication. Writers from MFA World, whether they are teaching in it or have graduated from it, tend to focus on short stories because that is what can easily be taught and published in literary magazines; Harbach makes much of this. I find that when they venture into novel-writing, their fiction can be diffuse, admirably subtle yet underpowered. They are writing for a default audience of other writers. As a result, their fiction can be hermetic, derivative, domestic, polite. Novelists aiming for the Literary Commerce World see their audience as readers, not writers. While this is admirable of them, it also means that they can pander to those readers (and to their publishers) with easy effects. Too early in the writing process, they can envision their novels via the 10-word tagline by which all books are pitched today and end up with predictable fiction. (As Frost said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.) They gain readers at the risk of resonance, of art.

Whether you’re a flyover-country MFAer or a Manhattan boldfaced name—or neither--somewhere in here is happy balance between writerliness and readability, texture and suspense, craft and commerce.

Chad Harbach himself may have found that happy balance. An unpaid editor at N+1, he had been laid off from his job as a copy editor when his agent sold his novel to David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch at Little Brown for $650,000. No word on whether he has an MFA.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Best Lack All Conviction, So American Publishers Prefer the Worst

In this article from the Financial Times, journalist Gillian Tett describes a difference between British and American book marketing that she encountered after writing a book about the financial crisis:
Initially I planned to start the book by admitting that I was not a true expert on high finance: instead I crashed into this world in 2005, after a background spent in journalism-cum-social anthropology – making me a well-intentioned amateur, but without complete knowledge.
My friends in the British publishing world loved that honesty; in the UK, self-deprecation sells, particularly for “well-meaning amateurs” such as the writer Bill Bryson. But my American friends hated it. In New York, I was sternly told, absolutely nobody wants to listen to self-doubt. If you are going to write a book – let alone stand on a political platform or run a company – you must act as if you are an expert, filled with complete conviction. For the US version, the preface was removed entirely.
Based on conversations I've had with publishers, marketers, and publicists, this rings sadly true to me.  Which raises discouraging questions about the long-term future of book publishing in America.  After all, what are serious non-fiction books for if not to explore the subtle nuances of complex topics?  If Americans have little tolerance for the uncertainty and ambiguity that is inherent in such exploration--preferring, I suppose, the shout-'em-down self-righteousness of cable-TV "debates"--then why bother reading books at all?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Longtime Associations and Loyalty

Sandi's November 19 post celebrates the fact that this year's NBA winner, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, was published by Mcpherson & Co., an independent press located in upstate New York. That in itself is exciting -- and here's more. A second in the group of five finalists, I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, was also published by a small indie. And both authors have relationships with their publishers that go back decades -- twenty-one years in the case of Yamashita and Coffee House Press, located in Minneapolis, and forty in the case of Gordon and McPherson.

Bruce McPherson and Jaimy Brown first met at Brown in 1970. When, in 1973, Brown couldn't find a publisher for her wildly inventive comic novel Shamp of the City-Solo, McPherson decided to publish it himself. Apparently he hadn't really planned to make a career of publishing novels, but that didn't stop him. Subsequently, Gordon went on to be published by both Algonquin and Sun & Moon. She didn't have an agent until Lord of Misrule's nomination, which came about solely because McPherson encouraged her to let him publish it in time for an NBA nomination. We know what happened next.

In 1989, Allan Kornblum of Coffee House Press received a query and first chapter from the previously unpublished Tei Yamashita. He published that novel, Through the Arc of the Rainforest, and three more by Yamashita. And then another: the NBA-nominated I Hotel.

Had the two authors been able to get contracts from larger houses, would they have accepted them? Maybe. And maybe after a book or two that didn't meet sales expectations, they would been been graciously or not-so-graciously dumped. Hard to know. But clearly, there's something to be said for both longtime associations and loyalty.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Authorship: A Winner-Take-All Game

Ever heard of the Gini Coefficient?  Invented by Italian statistician Corrado Gini in 1912, it's a mathematical tool used to measure the inequality of a statistical dispersion.  When a group of numbers has a high Gini Coefficient (approaching the theoretical maximum of 1.0), the numbers are widely scattered from very high to very low.  By contrast, when the Gini Coefficient is low (approaching the theoretical minimum of zero), it means that the numbers tend to cluster close together.

The most common use of the Gini Coefficient is to measure income inequality within a population.  In a country with a low Gini Coefficient, very few people are either really poor or really rich; instead, most people are middle-class.  Sweden happens to have the world's lowest Gini Coefficient, at 0.23.  By contrast, a country with a high Gini Coefficient has a few very rich Haves and a lot of very poor Have-Nots.  The high end of the scale today is Namibia, with a Gini Coefficient of 0.70.

What does all this have to do with the book business?  I'm so glad you asked.

I just read this 2005 study about the economics of book authorship in the U.K. and Germany, sponsored by the Authors Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS), which is in charge of gathering copyright fees due to book authors as a result of, for example, photocopying (a system which if course we don't have in this country).  The ALCS study surveyed some 25,000 professional writers and came up with some rather depressing but predictable information--for example, that "The typical income for a professional author is one third below the national average wage," and that "The earnings of a typical writer are deteriorating in real terms."

But what I found most interesting, because I'd never seen it calculated before, was the Gini Coefficient among book authors.  It stands at 0.74--higher even than Namibia and basically off the scale as far as inequality is concerned.  (For a comparison, among metal and electrical workers, the Gini Coefficient is 0.22--even more egalitarian than Sweden.)  This reflects the fact that, as the report's authors say, "The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bottom 50% earn less than 10% of total income."

In other words, we have here hard data supporting what you may have long suspected--that a relative handful of authors enjoy the bulk of the rewards of the profession, while thousands of others labor largely in vain.  And this situation seems to be intensifying over time: ALCS found that the Gini Coefficient had actually increased from 0.60 to 0.74 in just five years (from 2000 to 2005).

I'm not aware of any similar study of American authors, but I wouldn't be surprised if our Gini number was even more extreme, especially since recent Census data show that the overall distribution of assets in our society is now more heavily skewed toward the wealthy than at any time since the 1920s.

Friday, November 26, 2010


In the last week or so I've accumulated quite a collection of links to interesting articles about books and publishing without having time to write posts about them. To deal with the backlog, I've decided to write this omnibus post describing them all briefly. I bet you will find something worth reading here--perhaps several somethings!

If you're interested in the current state of American fiction, check out this article by Chad Harbach (from n+1 via Slate) on "the two literary cultures of the US"--one based in New York City, the other centered in MFA programs around the country.

For a personal, rather touching account of what motivates an unpublished fiction writer, see this piece by Alix Christie from The Economist.

To learn how the savvy Mark Twain manipulated twenty-first century readers from beyond the grave, read Craig Ferhman's Slate piece about the arrangements he made for the generations-long embargoing of his autobiography.

For instruction in "how to write" all kinds of things, from a Mamet-esque TV drama to a sentence that might have been penned by David Foster Wallace, look at this charming collection of pieces on The Browser website.

And finally, if you're a Norman Mailer fan, you might like reading this account of a visit to his house in Provincetown and the case of writer's block it induced in the visitor, Amy Rowland.

Hopefully this will keep you pleasant busy over your computer as you recover from your tryptophan-induced Thanksgiving weekend stupor . . .

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Recommendations on Practically Every Topic Imaginable

Here's a great idea for a website: FiveBooks, which interviews experts about the five books they would recommend to someone who wants to learn about their subject.  The array of topics covered is quite amazing, ranging from the straightforward (Opera, The Enlightenment, Investing, Wonderful Cookbooks, Military History) to the surprising (Pioneers of Intelligence Gathering, Uyghur Nationalism, Chaos in the Seventeenth Century Mediterranean, Why We Live in a Mad World).  Most of the experts appear to be British and the site is written in British rather than American English ("Maths" for "Math," for example), but there are plenty of American topics and experts, including even Karl Rove selecting his five favorite books on the topic of Compassionate Conservatism (I skipped that one).

Visit FiveBooks sometime when you have half an hour to waste--I bet you will enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Up Late with Liebowitz

Let me say right now that this isn't going to have anything to do with editing, collaborating, or the trials of freelancing--deadlines, waiting for payments, getting people to get back to you... It's just about the simple pleasure of staying up past my normal weekday bedtime last night to watch Fran Liebowitz's documentary Public Speaking and laughing out loud all alone (except for the dog) in my room while said dog dozed contentedly with her head draped over my shoulder. It strikes me that real wit--albeit of the acerbic New York variety--is thin on the ground these days. There were no barbs based on current events--the kind of humor best left to late night talk show hosts--just the deadpan delivery of pithy truths about the large and small "facts of life." One observation was that Dorothy Parker's movie reviews are still funny more than half a century after they were written, even if you've never heard of--much less seen--the movie. That seems like a good litmus test for true humor. We could do with a lot more of it in these parlous times. If you didn't see the program, try to catch a rerun (there are always reruns on HBO) or look for it on HBO on Demand. Meanwhile, have a great Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Quantity, Not Quality?

I wonder how many of you knew that this month, November, is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo). The aim is for writers to crank out about 1,500 words a day in order to complete a novel by the end of the month. In other words, the emphasis is on quantity, not quality. Most writing manuals will tell us that the essence of writing is revision. But here we have, as the NaNoWriMo website explains, "a kamikaze approach {that} forces you to lower your expectations, take risks and write on the fly." The site even has a Procrastination Station that gives advice like "Plot while driving," which prompted the New York Times Book Review to question "Is that legal?" But the big surprise is that this crazy writing competition has actually given birtto at least one huge best-seller, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Go figure!

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Huge Indie Success Story

Unless you have gone into hibernation with the black bears (I hate when the Style Section does this because I never know what they are talking about) you now know that Jamie Gordon's LORD OF MISRULE, published by an Indie publisher, McPherson, won the NBA for fiction.

I have lived in the Woodstock area on and off since 1978, that is about ten minutes away from Kingston, twenty tops. Never heard of McPherson. I would have noticed them. All I know about is Overlook because Peter Mayer is famous. So what have we here?

I looked them up online and for certain McPherson is a highly literary press but so is Godine (where is Godine anyway, has anybody heard?). My point is that since Indie publishing now has a brand the folks involved are more apparent, no longer flying below the radar. It's like when lace up shoes move from Florsheims to whichever designer it is that puts skulls and bones on them. No longer nerdy, now hip.

Congratulations to this author. I am going to buy the book. Everyone should support Indie publishing.

I hope this blog actually gets posted but I have no idea if it will pass the cyberbar.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Endless Editing

A while back I tweeted something I often have to remind myself when I'm writing: There comes a point where you're not making it better; just different. Knowing when you've done enough is sometimes as hard as admitting you need to do more. Once my editor's hat is on, I can endlessly dither about whether I've found precisely the right word or phrase to do the job...or whether this metaphor is more affectation than apt comparison...or whether any of this is any good at all, and whether the fundamental problems I always feared lurked at the bottom of the piece might actually be there, and glaringly evident now that it's been polished (in the way that a drawing, poorly blocked in, just looks more and more wrong the more you develop it). Eventually either the deadline snaps me out of it or the cycle of anxiety collapses on itself and I come back to, "Just bang it out for now; move on through; trust yourself; you can fix it later (maybe); don't dither!" or any of the other prods that work from time to time. I'm curious what other people do to break that "endless editing" cycle???

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Re: The Cream of This Year's Fiction According to NBA

I've already commented in demurral to Karl Weber's argument that a cost-benefit analysis supports ignoring contemporary fiction and reading only the classics of the past. Although I find little of interest in contemporary fiction, I would be sorry to miss the occasional, mind-blowing encounter with present greatness that may be ratified into a classic by future readers. To add two living fiction writers to those I mentioned in my comment on Karl's post, I am glad to be able to engage immediately, with no bridge of time to cross, with writers like Thomas Pynchon and Alice Munro.

To speak mathematically, the shrecklich ratio of greatness to dreck is a shallow curve that never rises far above, but also never sinks to, zero. The electric excitement of encountering a writer of my own time who speaks to me honestly and deeply makes periodic sampling of contemporary fiction a worthwhile experiment.

Why I Love Memoir

I was understandably intrigued by the cover line on this week's New York magazine that reads "James Frey's Fiction Factory". Turns out the piece wasn't about Frey's own venture into fictionalized memoir (which he continues to defend), but it once more reminded me that I've been telling people for at least a couple of years that, for me, memoir seems to have become the new fiction.

I don't mean that I consider all memoir fiction, and I certainly don't condone making stuff up, but if one reads fiction to be transported into a world different from the one in which one lives, then memoir has been doing that for me on a fairly regular basis--with the added fillip of knowing (or at least assuming) that it's true. And no, I don't expect memoir to provide the same level of fact as biography (that's why they're two different genres), but, to me, there's an added level of emotional content that derives from the writer's having actually lived what he or she is writing about. Maybe that's why fiction writers are advised to write about what they know.

In fact, many years ago, I edited a wonderful collection of loosely linked short stories only to discover purely by chance and well into the editorial process that there was a lot of fact to this fiction, and the names of the characters were actually the names of the author's living relatives! Luckily we were able to change those names before it was too late.

The Cream of This Year's Fiction According to NBA

If like me you haven't gotten around to reading the finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction, you might find this article handy.* It's a kind of crib sheet with impressionistic descriptions and brief excerpts from each book, as well as the author's own opinion as to which book should win (it's one of the long shots). The winner will be announced tomorrow.

* Truth be told, I rarely read contemporary fiction because I am acutely aware that there is so much of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Philip Roth that I have yet to touch--to say nothing of Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since life is short, I keep getting pulled back to this calculus: Why invest X hours in a book from 2010 that has a 1 in 500 chance of being truly great when I can instead read a classic that has already passed that test? Honestly I have yet to hear a truly compelling counter-argument--although I feel guilty about the fact that, if everyone followed my logic, the impact on the royalty earnings of my fellow Authors Guild members would be devastating.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Ultimate Vanity Book

Looking for a few new menus to spice up your family dinners? How about buying a new cookbook? Here's one that'll soon be available, and it costs only $625 (a mere $500 on Amazon). I know it sounds like a lot, but the money buys you six lavishly illustrated volumes totaling 2,400 pages and described by Tim Zagat as "The most important book in the culinary arts since Escoffier."

I'm thinking I can't afford not to buy it.

But if you're wondering who on earth would publish a book like the massive Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, the answer is the author--Nathan Myrhvold, a billionaire who used to be in charge of technology for Microsoft and has now devoted a large fraction of his free time to mastering contemporary cooking techniques. This article from BusinessWeek describes the amazing process by which Myrhvold created the book, which he admits cost "millions" and included hiring as many as 36 experts in cooking, technology, photography, design, and other fields. Publication is planned for March, 2011, unless the author dreams up some new material to include which could increase the book's size and price still further. (After all, when you're both author and publisher, who's going to enforce a deadline?)

This all may sound like wretched excess and a classic illustration of what happens when someone has too much time and money on his hands. But Myrhvold is apparently very serious about cooking and is making a conscientious effort to produce a book that will be a genuine contribution to the field. And anyway, writing and publishing a book, no matter how eccentric, is one of the most harmless ways I can think of for a billionaire to disburse some of his wealth. I wish more moguls would take on projects like this rather than (say) financing TV campaigns in support of tea party politicians. So I say, Go, Nathan, go!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Canon For Generation X

Reacting against the idea that there is no more literary canon of must-read books, one writer offers his own list of the ten most significant books of the last twenty-five years--or, as he puts it, a canon for Generation X. His list starts with Cormac McCarthy's The Road and ends with Dave Eggers's Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's all fiction, too--unless you count James Frey's Million Little Pieces as non-fiction.

Which raises two questions. (1) If you're a voracious reader of fiction, what do you think of this list? Any egregious omissions or outrageous inclusions? (2) If like me you are more interested in non-fiction, what titles would you nominate for the non-fiction canon of the past twenty-five years? My list might start with Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, which was published in 1988, 22 years ago. What about yours?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Schadenfreude-Women's Books?

I am reading the new translation of Madame Bovary, this one by Lydia Davis. The introduction tells us that the book is based on two actual stories, one woman a shopaholic and the other an adultress. The novel was really "faction" for Flaubert's time.

Certainly it is this book as well as Camille, Anna Karenina, The Bell Jar, novels and memoirs of women with big trouble that shaped my early career as an editor of women's fiction. Also these suffering women's stories that sold over time for lots of money formed my overarching theory of commercial publishing. Other people's problems make for great escape. And top sellers.

Over the summer I walked into the local Barnes & Noble and there in front was a table labeled Books of Affliction. Substance abusers practically back from the dead; eating disorder horror tales; victims of sexual and physical abuse; survivors of horrible incidents and illnesses. And all of them were women.

I am not sure when memoirs overtook the tales of fictional women in trouble. Perhaps it was the publication of Barbara Gordon's I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can, the story of the high powered TV exec's descent into valium addiction so terrible she had to be tied to a chair by her lover to constrain her anxiety, but it seems to me that was when other people's real problems began to be the winners in the melodrama competition. Or maybe that is just my marker. Anyway the point is they are all women.

So why women? Is it still true that men don't like to share their feelings? Or am I missing something? Enlighten me.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An "Orphaned Book" Success Story

The UPS guy delivered a package today containing a book I'd asked a friend at HarperCollins to send. Inside was a double gift: the book I'd asked for, and another "newborn" book that this proud and happy editor wanted to share: The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume by cultural historian Tilar J. Mazzeo. It was a proud and happy moment for me, too: I, too, could call Tilar one of "my" authors. And there'd been an editor before me who could, as well.

I had, in the parlance of the trade, "inherited" Tilar's previous book--The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, about the shrewd, passionately determined, inventive grand-mere of champagne Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin--when the enterprising editor who had acquired the project left the company. I came on the scene at a delicate moment: just as Tilar was poised to deliver her manuscript. Fortunately, we hit it off, and what followed was not so much an editing process as a stimulating conversation between author and editor as stand-in for the reader. I saw the project through that stage and the initial set-up to publication. When I left Harper, my friend came on board as editor No. 3, shepherding the book through production and into publication, where thanks to the efforts of Tilar and many others who had a hand in the process, it hit the New York Times Bestseller List.

Writing conferences and blogs abound in stories of the traumas visited upon authors by the business of publishing, including stories of "orphaned" books that slip between the cracks. I'm not here to say that disappointments don't happen (I'm an author, too). But there are many, many people in publishing who work with care and dedication on behalf of authors and their books. In that spirit, from having been fortunate to have had a ringside seat at a happy ending, I offer this example. Congrats, Tilar. Can't wait to read this!

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter

E-Books Will Get Their Own List in the Times

The latest breakthrough for e-books: The New York Times says it will publish best-seller lists for fiction and non-fiction e-books beginning early next year.

The fact in the article that gave me pause: the Times already publishes fourteen different best-seller lists! I'd never bothered to count them and I was faintly amazed that the number was so high. With that many options, I guess I should feel mildly embarrassed when one of the books I work on fails to make any of those lists . . .

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How's Your Attention Span?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently, during which she asked if I was seeing a shift in the kinds of books that people are reading and writing. We eventually got around to the question of whether attention spans have gotten shorter, and if so, did that translate into the reading and writing of shorter books, or books that could be read quickly even if they were long because they didn't require deep thought.

"No," I said pretty quickly myself. "I'm not seeing that." I was thinking of the gorgeous 162,000-word novel that I worked on last spring. "I see plenty of long, complex novels." But then I got to thinking about it. Actually, I don't see plenty of long, complex novels. As usual, I'm seeing plenty of good books with plenty of good writing, but for the most part I'm not seeing novels that create a spacious, compelling world and then sustain story, depth, and elegance of writing for many hundreds of pages. Nor am I reading many of them after publication. It would be too simplistic to say that people aren't reading and writing roomy, complicated novels because attention spans have gotten shorter, but I have to wonder if that's part of it, if indeed there are fewer of these books being written.

Two exceptions come to mind: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, published two years ago.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, published last year. Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, fits into the ambitious-in-scope-and-achingly-beautiful category, too, but I'm really looking for more recent titles.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005) is a possible addition to this list. Ultimately, however, the scope of her story is not quite as quite as broad, and there are too many unsympathetic characters for my taste -- but boy can Zadie Smith write.

Does anybody have any other ambitious and relatively recently-published books that I can add to my reading list?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Linotype: The Film

We've been spending a lot of time on this blog lately debating the long-term impact of the e-book, but if you (like me) are fascinated by the story of how old technologies revolutionized publishing, check out this trailer for a movie now in production: "Linotype: The Film" (link via Boing Boing).

BTW did you know that Mark Twain went bankrupt investing in the Paige Compositor, a rival to Linotype that Twain was convinced would quickly conquer the world of automated typesetting? I'm guessing that if Twain were alive today he would have turned down the chance of investing in Google and would have sunk all his money into AOL instead . . .

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Read At Your Own Risk

If you're considering writing that novel for National Novel Writing Month, you might want to read this first . . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sex and the Single Moomintroll

Sex may be sublime, but writing about it is hell, or so novelist Jojo Moyes claims in this charming little article from Britain's Telegraph. Best graf:
As the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards testify, the more “literary” the book, the more determinedly unlyrical the descriptions. Anyone for a vulva as a “gorgon’s head, a motionless Cyclops”? (Jonathan Littell)? Care to linger in Tom Wolfe's decidedly unerotic “otorhinolaryngological caverns”? Norman Mailer may well have been America’s Finest Novelist, but I am haunted by his description of a penis “as soft as a coil of excrement”, as I am by David Mitchell’s climaxing woman who “made a noise like a tortured Moomintroll.”
(That's a Moomintroll in the picture. Don't ask.) Thank God I write mainly about business and politics, where the jargon may be soporofic but at least it doesn't make you squirm with embarrassment . . . !

Friday, November 5, 2010

Freeing Hostages

Recently I had dinner with a literary writer friend. She has slipped, so to speak, from Little Brown to another mid size publisher until finally her last book was published by a small press known for literary fiction. It never appeared in paperback. In fact, none of her books have. And forget about digital availability. We were talking about the possibility of her letting me reprint one of her books on my new tiny publishing list. But her agent is about to market her new work and the possiblity of annoying the publisher with the right of first refusal nipped the conversation in the bud.

Recently the estate of Ian Fleming refused e-rights to his publisher (whichever flag Penguin flies). Agent Richard Curtis is buying back his authors' e-rights and publishing the digitals (is that a word?).

My literary writer friend doesn't have these options though she has representation. She is powerless. My kneejerk reaction is to admonish conventional publishers for their abuse of power over the meek and mild. I once worked for a publisher who accused me of "being on the authors' side" (!). Whose side was a publisher supposed to be on, I wanted to ask. Instead I resigned.

I guess that's why I am an independent editor. Free Writers Rights. I wonder if I can sell the tee shirt.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Another e-book Rant

I know; I'm beginning to sound obsessed. Plus, I seem to be talking out of both sides of my mouth. I've already extolled the virtues of my Kindle, and now I'm about to go off on the new color Nook from B&N. But it's not the device itself, it's what B&N so proudly claims it will do that bothers me. They associate the introduction of this new product with their ability to now provide e-versions of picture books for little kids. That really upset me.

Will this generation of kids be growing up without knowing what it's like to hold a book, turn the pages, carry it around, keep it forever? Yes, I know, I've said that I'm getting over that need myself. But I grew up with books. I've spent my entire adult life working with books. I already know the value of the book as object. It's not something I'm likely to forget. (And I still have the beautifully illustrated copy of Heidi given to me and inscribed "To Judy, Love Nini, 1947.")

To me, the book as object is far more than the words; it's typeface, design, paper, binding, top stain, ragged right, jacket design--do I need to go on? I think there's a correlation between learning to love reading and loving the thing itself. Am I right about that or am I just trying to stop the flow progress by sticking my finger in the proverbial dike?

I mean, after all, the typewriter was a pretty nifty object, too, but I never regretted the loss of my Royal electric portable, changing the ribbon, using White Out (a relatively recent innovation in itself), or making carbon copies once I got a computer.

So, does anyone else feel this potential loss as I do? I'd love to know.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Affordable Market Research for Authors Via Google

I was blown away by this story. Timothy Ferriss was writing a self-help career book and wondered which of several titles would appeal to the greatest number of readers. Most authors (and publishers) make such decisions by gut instinct or, perhaps, by soliciting opinions from a few friends. Ferriss decided instead to take a leaf from "real" businesses and actually conduct market research.

He created Google Adwords campaigns for several possible titles, including "Broadband and White Sand," "Millionaire Chameleon," and "The 4-Hour Workweek." By running each of these campaigns on Google for a week and seeing which title attracted the most click-throughs, he determined that "The 4-Hour Workweek" was a potential winner. He published the book with that title, and it went on to be a major bestseller.

Cost of this research program? $200.

In book publishing, we tend to assume that success is a matter either of luck or of sheer ineffable instinct, which you either have or you don't. Stories like this suggest to me that we could probably achieve success a lot more often if we used our ingenuity to find ways of pre-testing our ideas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Writing as Gardening

I recently heard a great interview with Barbara Kingsolver in which she compared the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction to the difference between gardening in the desert and gardening where it's lush.

When you garden in the desert, you point to a spot on the ground, bring in soil, fertilizer, and seeds, and you water, water, water. Basically, you supply everything yourself, creating something from nothing. Like you do when you write fiction.

When you garden where it's lush, you point to a spot on the ground and then get rid of everything you don't want or need -- vines, leaves, and weeds, weeds, weeds. Then you plant your garden and continue to do battle with those pesky weed intruders, which are always competing to share space and nutrients with your flowers and vegetables. This is like writing nonfiction -- I'll narrow it to narrative nonfiction, though it could apply to all nonfiction if we used different vocabulary -- when you look at everything that happened in the universe of the story you want to tell, and then you get rid of each thing that doesn't support that story. You eliminate things that weaken or don't serve your narrative arc, your character development, and your theme. Even if something's interesting and it really did happen (honest it did), if it doesn't support or add to your story, you pull it out. Because ultimately it's a weed, even if it's a really nice one.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Indie Publishing Success Story

I tell this story often but new information has come in for CHEAP CABERNET so for those who have heard it, put your ear plugs in. One of my clients worked with me on a memoir for ages and then got a great agent. The agent attempted to sell the book, shopping it for a year. No luck.

The client decided to take matters into her own hands and published the book herself. One month later three conventional publishers cherry picked the book from the net, bid on it. Hyperion published it.

I learned today that it has been picked as one of the top 15 Books For a Better Life award sponsored by the National MS Society.

You can't keep a good book down. I truly believe cream will always rise to the top and that is why book publishing will go on and on no matter how many generations of doomsday cynics think it is doomed.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Paris Review Interviews

Dwight Garner in the Saturday 10/23/10 New York Times wrote about the latest issue of the Paris Review. It has a new editor, and he was assessing the latest issue. But the important information he provided is that its famous interview series--all the interviews with writers published since the magazine's founding in 1953--are now available (free) on the magazine's website. And as he says, they "long ago set the standard, for better and occasionally worse, for what well-brewed conversation should sound like on the page." He continues: "They're so tangled, funny, and unexpectedly revealing that they could be mounted on Broadway ..." The authors range from E.M. Forster, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway to Mary Karr and Ian McEwan. As he says, the Paris Review's website "feels, for now, like the best party in town." One example: About the notion of a writer explaining how he writes, Philip Larkin said, "It's like going around explaining how you sleep with your wife." But as Garner comments, "Then again, Larkin never married."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Self-Publishing Pops Up in Soho

As a sign of the increasing interest in self-publishing, The New York Times reported yesterday on a pop up store in Soho offering self-publishing services to the public until the end of the month. The San Francisco-based company, called Blurb, is expecting an increase in interest around the holidays, because, as Eileen Gittens, chief executive of Blurb, was quoted as saying, "There's something about giving the gift of a book. It's difficult to gift a link." And who could argue with that sentiment?

For anyone interested in self-publishing, the staff will be offering workshops and advice in this temporary facility at Broome and Mercer. Go before this resource disappears.

Confessions of a Recovering Book Hoarder

In the "Paperback Row" section of last Sunday's Times Book Review I saw a small squib for a book called The Man Who Loved Books too Much. It described the work (which I haven't read) as "a series of fascinating vignettes about how the love of books can turn to madness, sometimes eccentric, sometimes sociopathic." I'll admit that description sent a tiny frisson down my spine. While some might accuse me of being a bit eccentric from time to time, I don't think I'm actually sociopathic. But I do know how loving books can verge on hoarding behavior. I still have all my college English course texts, many of them in those Holt, Rinehart and Winston paperback editions--green for English novels, brown for American. I also have all my lit crit texts, except for those my sister "borrowed" years ago that are now in her bookcases. As I scan the shelves I see rows and rows of titles I remember loving even if I can't remember exactly what was in them. I have done two or three purges over the years as things in my small apartment reached critical mass, but it's never been easy. I have no problem parting with clothes I know I'll never wear again, but parting with books I'll never reread (even ones I never read in the first place) is different. They don't go out of style (although some might argue with that as well), and they'll always fit me, no matter how much weight I gain or lose.

When I go to someone's house for the first time, I almost always catch myself scanning their shelves. Seeing what's in someone's library can be very revealing. And if they don't have any books--well that's a whole other story, as they say. But all of that may be changing at this very moment with the growing popularity of the e-reader. I've always bought books rather than borrowing them. I've always wanted to own the object. So I can understand the reluctance of people who say they don't have, or want to have, an e-reader because they want to hold the book, feel it's weight, turn the pages, etc. Had you asked me, I'd probably have said the same thing--until I got my Kindle. Now I look upon it not only as a source of instant gratification (I can acquire almost any book any time anywhere in about 30 seconds) but also as a savior from my book hoarding behavior. Now, when I finish a book I can archive it in what I've come to call Kindle heaven and get it back at any time, but I don't have to find a place for it on a shelf or add it to a stack on the floor. I can indulge my love of books to my heart's content without fear of becoming a candidate for the A&E series Hoarder. It's different. I will no longer be able to reconnect with a book I read twenty years ago by seeing the jacket spine from across the room. But I still have plenty of those (some would say more than enough), and I'm learning to just "get over it."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New York Emanations, Literary and Otherwise

If you love New York, books, or both, please check out this cool feature from the New York Times Book Review--an interactive map of literary history in our city.

It has just one E.B. White reference--Stuart Little sailing his toy boat in Central Park--but the spirit of the whole thing reminds me of this favorite passage from White's classic essay Here Is New York:
I am sitting at the moment in a stifling hotel room in 90-degree heat, halfway down an air shaft, in midtown. No air moves in or out of the room, yet I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings. I am twenty-two blocks from where Rudolph Valentino lay in state, eight blocks from where Nathan Hale was executed, five blocks from the publisher's office where Ernest Hemingway hit Max Eastman on the nose, four miles from where Walt Whitman sat sweating out editorials for the Brooklyn Eagle, thirty-four blocks from the street Willa Cather lived in when she came to New York to write books about Nebraska . . .
And White continues like this for another third of a page, adding parenthetically "(I could continue this list indefinitely)."

Sigh. Isn't New York wonderful? And isn't it wonderful being in the book business?

Friday, October 22, 2010

GalleyCat Shouts Out to CEA

Recently GalleyCat referred to the panel CEA presented at this year's SPBE -- How A Professional Editor Can Be Your Best Friend.

Worried that the editorial services offered in the packages of on line publishers would obviate the need for professional, designated editors, I submitted an anonymous query to one of those firms including an editorial dilemma. No matter how I phrased the question concerning the developmental editing I required, the answer kept coming back that the publisher could not supply me with the service I required.

Thankfully they know their limitations.

If we welcome Indie Publishing then authors need to act as quality control. If too much junk is thrown out there just because it is easy to do so, what will happen to the joy of reading?

Congratulations to our colleague Karl Weber for his contribution to the best selling WAITING FOR SUPERMAN.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Writing for Love or for Money?

I was recently emailing with a prospective client, and after I had told him about my editing process and what my terms are, he said, before I give the go-ahead, I'd like you to tell me frankly whether I'm going to make any money on this book. Well, I said, first of all, you should know that very few of all the published authors actually make much money on their books. So why does any one keep writing? Probably somewhere in his mind is the fantasy that his next novel will catapult him to stardom, as did The DaVinci Code with previously little-known Dan Brown. But I have a strong feeling that any real writer is writing because of love of the craft--because inside him there's a story he has to tell, an idea he has to develop, a period of history he has to research and write about, etc. So all of you writers out there: think about why you're writing. Is it for love or is it for money?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Who Do You Write For?

It's a good question, and Michael Cunningham had a terrific piece in the NY Times recently addressing it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When Less Is More

I think this announcement from Amazon makes a ton of sense:

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century--works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the "heft" required for book marketing and distribution. But in many cases, 10,000 to 30,000 words (roughly 30 to 90 pages) might be the perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea, well researched, well argued and well illustrated--whether it's a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event.

Today, Amazon is announcing that it will launch "Kindle Singles"--Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book. Kindle Singles will have their own section in the Kindle Store and be priced much less than a typical book. Today's announcement is a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.

Readers have long complained about books that are little more than articles padded to book length. The problem hasn't normally been long-winded authors or greedy publishers, but rather the realities of book marketing: It's hard to sell short books in a bookstore. Retailer margins on a book priced at, say, $4.99 are very small; and even finding a skinny 90-page book that is placed spine-out on a shelf amidst the usual 300-page tomes is very difficult!

The e-book format eliminates these problems. On Kindle, a 25,000-word book looks the same as a 100,000-word book. And clicking on an Amazon website to spend a few bucks for a pithy, insightful book I can read in a single sitting will feel exactly the same as buying a big $30.00 book I will have to invest several nights in.

This is exactly the sort of innovative publishing that digital technology makes possible. I'm happy to see Amazon leading the way once again.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

We Got a Right To Brag

Just got the news that Waiting for "Superman," the book I edited as a companion to the current movie of the same name (directed by Davis Guggenheim of Inconvenient Truth fame), will be number one on the New York Times bestseller list (Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous category) on October 24. (Yes, people in the publishing industry get advance copies of the bestseller lists.)

If you've seen the movie, have followed the controversy surrounding its take on education reform, or are simply interested in this important topic, you might like to read the "Story Behind the Book" page I just posted on my personal website. I even answer the burning question I've gotten from a lot of my editor friends: What the heck are those unnecessary quotation marks doing in the book title?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Maybe I'm Crazy, But . . .

. . . isn't it perverse for a writer to argue that the problem with ebooks is that they make reading too easy?
So here’s my wish for e-readers. I’d love them to include a feature that allows us to undo their ease, to make the act of reading just a little bit more difficult. Perhaps we need to alter the fonts, or reduce the contrast, or invert the monochrome color scheme. Our eyes will need to struggle, and we’ll certainly read slower, but that’s the point: Only then will we process the text a little less unconsciously, with less reliance on the ventral pathway. We won’t just scan the words – we will contemplate their meaning.
So writes Jonah Lehrer in his article "The Future of Reading" in (of all places) Wired magazine.

Personally, I like the idea of people reading my words deliberately and thoughtfully, contemplating their meaning. But I'd prefer they do so because of the profundity of my insights rather than because the print is so darned difficult to decipher.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Must-Read For Every Lover of Literature

Here's a fine appreciative blog post by Lorin Stein, until recently an editor at Farrar Straus Giroux, about the wonderful Paris Review interviews with great writers. If you don't know these, and you are even vaguely interested in the process by which life experience gets transmuted into literature, then you should discover them.

One good way to start is by visiting the online archive that contains excerpts from the reviews. Then once you've discovered which of your favorite authors have been included--in my case, the list includes Thurber, Borges, Huxley, William Carlos Williams, Auden, E.B. White, S.J. Perelman, and many more--you'll probably want to read the full interviews, which are downloadable or available in book form in a four-volume set.

BTW Lorin Stein has just taken over as editor of the Paris Review--which means he is now responsible for carrying on this wonderful tradition. Good luck, Lorin! We'll be reading.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Instant Books, Circa 1937

From one of the curious byways of publishing history . . .

E-books may be new, but the impulse behind them certainly is not, as this story about a 1937 invention called the Penguincubator illustrates. As the story explains, Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, was motivated to create a vending machine for paperback books by his frustration with the limited availability of reading material while traveling:

"After a weekend visiting Agatha Christie in Devon, he found himself on a platform at Exeter station searching its bookstall for something to read on his journey back to London, but discovered only popular magazines and reprints of Victorian novels.

"Appalled by the selection on offer, Lane decided that good quality contemporary fiction should be made available at an attractive price and sold not just in traditional bookshops, but also in railway stations, tobacconists and chain stores."

Today, of course, we have the Kindle, with its instant download capability, for just such moments. And not just the Kindle: My wife Mary-Jo will happily tell you about downloading books to her iPhone when she finds herself in an airport without a good novel to read. It's true that the tiny screen only has room for 75 words or so at a time, but she has had no trouble reading entire books that way. And the selection of books available is a little more varied than that offered by the Penguincubator!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Future of Publishing is in Their Hands

The hands of those who best understand e-publishing? The hands of the buyers for the chains, whose choices dictate what is carried by Borders and Barnes & Noble? The hands of all those authors who will now be self-publishing? Possibly, but it's also in the hands of the 92 students who are about to graduate from the University of Denver's Publishing Institute, the 35th group of publishing aspirants to complete the month-long summer course since the institute opened its doors in 1976.

Karl Weber and I (following in the footsteps of Arnold Dolin and the late Gladys Topkis) recently had the pleasure of working with these very smart mostly twenty-somethings, trying to cram as much as we could about book acquisition, the role of the editor, and nuts-and-bolts editing into two short weeks. In the weeks that followed our Editing Workshop, the students got a thorough introduction to trade book marketing with Carl Lennertz, VP of Marketing for HarperCollins, and overviews of many, many different facets of the book business. On Friday, August 6, the students graduate, and most have already begun the process of looking for work in publishing, whether in New York or elsewhere.

After spending two weeks with these dynamic young men and women, I'm here to say: Authors take heart. There are still plenty of people out there who care about finding, developing, and publishing great books and who bring with them the passion, curiosity, and intelligence necessary to do so. I've just met 92 of them. I don't know what form those great books will take, and I don't know what forms of social networking or electronic marketing will be used to promote them. But I do know that there are an abundance of talented young individuals out there who care deeply about books, and that their energy and commitment bodes well for our industry.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

E-Books Rising

A couple of interesting book stories in the news lately. First, an announcement from Amazon that its sales of Kindle e-books have surpassed its sales of hardcover books for the first time. This is measured by unit sales, which makes a significant difference: Most e-books are priced at $9.99, which is a lot less than the typical hardcover. So hardcover sales are still a bigger fraction of Amazon's bottom line than e-books.

Nonetheless, this is a meaningful milestone, which, together with other recent events (including continuing strong sales of the Kindle device itself as well as the positive response to Apple's iPad), suggests that e-books are in fact here to stay.

I happen to like my Kindle very much, although I don't use it for all my reading. Perhaps partly for this reason, I don't share the fears of some that the rise of the e-book spells the ultimate doom of printed books, either in hardcover or paperback form. History shows that people like their entertainment and information delivered in many different forms depending on the specific content, circumstances, and other factors.

For example, live theater was invented thousands of years ago. Much later, similar content began to be delivered through movies, radio, and television. None of these new technologies led to the demise of any of the earlier ones--in fact, all still exist and each has its unique role. In the same way, the birth of the paperback book didn't lead to the demise of the hardcover. I strongly believe that my great-grandchildren will be well acquainted with electronic books, printed books, and probably a few other ways of delivered verbal content, and that they will use and enjoy them all.

The other news story I enjoyed today is this article from BBC News Magazine about the art of typeface design. As an editor and writer I am not involved in this aspect of the book business--in fact I am often not even consulted about the design of my books--but I am fascinated by it and have an amateur's hankering to dabble in the field. (One of my retirement dreams involves running a little one-man letterpress operation printing fine limited editions of poetry and other artsy stuff. Don't hold your breath waiting to receive my catalog in the mail.)

If, like me, you are intrigued by the esthetic and psychological impact that various typefaces have on readers and their responses to books, you will enjoy the story. And if you haven't already seen the recent documentary film Helvetica, check it out--it appeals to the same rather specialized taste.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yes, We Still Need Libraries

In the Wall Street Journal, Cynthia Crossen writes about the budget crisis now hitting many public libraries. It's easy for many of us to assume that free libraries are less important today than in the past, but they play incredibly important roles for millions of Americans, from school kids who might otherwise have no place to encounter a wide range of books and senior citizens on fixed incomes who want to nurture a lifelong love of reading to immigrants studying for their citizenship exams and unemployed people who need a place to scan the want ads, read advice books, and work on their resumes. To say nothing of the fact that, in towns and neighborhoods across the country, the public library is often the only place where community events (speeches, lectures, conferences, meetings, exhibits) take place that are centered on books, literacy, and learning.

Supporting public libraries is one of the best things every book lover can do to maintain our society's culture of the word and transmit it to future generations.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Laura Miller on the Brave New Self-Publishing World

It has taken me a little while to get around to linking to it, but Laura Miller in Salon has written a decent article about the rise of self-publishing and its potential impact on the art and commerce of literature.

Read it for yourself and see what you think, but for what it's worth I think Miller is right about some points, a little off-base on some others. She's right, of course, about the abysmal quality of 99.9 percent of the material that finds its way into book publishers' slush piles. It's simply not true that there is a sizeable universe of unpublished masterpieces languishing in obscurity because of the blindness of the editorial gatekeepers.

She's also right, I think, when she says that, over time, new kinds of gatekeepers will inevitably develop to help readers sort through the flood of newly self-published manuscripts being enabled by the new online technologies. We don't yet know what form those new gatekeepers will take, but they will identify the blockbusters of the future and, by their neglect, consign the vast majority of self-published books to more-or-less complete oblivion.

But Miller is a bit off-base, I think, in taking a somewhat monolithic view of book publishing and readership. She writes, in effect, as if the entire industry consists of novels (and perhaps memoirs) that are suitable for a broad, general public and that are competing to attract that kind of readership. In reality, many, many books are nonfiction works aimed at very specific niche audiences--and this is where the new self-publishing technologies can play an important positive role.

There are thousands of topics that are of interest to small but devoted groups of readers who would be willing and able to buy books about those topics, generating sales not in the tens of thousands but in the hundreds. The new technologies make such "long tail" offerings more economically viable than in the past. And the Internet should make it possible for interested readers to find out about those niche books quickly and easily--without having to randomly wade through the flood of slush that Miller envisions as the brave new world of publishing.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Power to the Author!

While publishing continues to evolve away from the paper and print medium it has been for centuries, power seems to be shifting gradually away from large-scale publishers and toward individual authors. Writers, who in the past might have resorted to self-publishing hardbound books and storing them in their garage, now have a range of e-book options. Now anyone with an electronic manuscript can be his or her own publisher, no longer dependent on one of the big houses for distribution , publicity, and promotion.

With publishers increasingly focused on the big books, first-time authors and others have been pushed to search for new options. One has been smaller houses, which can make books with sales in the four-figures work financially for them, but another is self-publishing and the rise of the e-book. New ways of approaching e-book publishing continue to be devised by companies and individuals. A recent article in PW online details some of these new options.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


This blog is about Search Engine Optimization (SEO)'s and my opinion on where editors, writers, books might end up if we depend too much on using key words to get our message across.

First we had access to 15 minutes of fame; then the populist attention switched to pulling stunts like those of the Salahis or parents of the hot air balloon child to get on reality TV; now we have another tool for individuals to attract attention--plant the right words and your rank goes up a notch on Google.

This takes those of us involved with the written word to the obvious place. Creative artists will be forced to spend time embedding the word that gets them ranking rather then the one that is graceful or connotes exactly what they mean. Soon articles will be collections of SEO's strung together and the gift of writing will be given over to those people who now respond to jobs listed for "applicants familiar with SEO."

As I am writing this out there someone is putting together a collection of key words in a book similar to collections of names for babies.

The editorial function is bound to be shifted from helping authors with writing craft to how successful the editor has been in lifting past clients' place on various search engines. Much like editors' reputations were improved by helping authors make best seller lists, we will be graded on success with raising ranking.

If I had the mental energy I might have taken the time to write this piece with more Google, archival material, but it seems like such a waste of time. Will this put me out of business?

What do you think out there?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing the First Draft of a Novel

Last week, I conducted a roundtable discussion with best-selling mystery author Margaret Coel in a session of the Introduction to Publishing course at the University of Denver, billed as "How a Book is Born." Our focus was on Margaret's 15th--and latest--novel, The Silent Spirit. One of the students asked Margaret about how she works. Her answer was that she usually goes into her office at about 9 in the morning, starts writing, and keeps going until about 12, when she takes a break, then resumes for another couple of hours. Her average, she said, is about 10 pages a day. She works from a rough outline of the novel--which she calls her road map--but said that occasionally the characters start heading for a different ending from the one she had originally projected. Interestingly, she said that she does not stop if she's stumped for the right word, but just puts a question mark there and keeps going. And she doesn't even think about revisions until she has completed the first (very) rough draft of the novel. Only then does she begin the revision process, which she said could take her through several reworkings of the novel. I was struck by this headlong pace she described for the writing of her novel because I felt this same kind of headlong energy as I read the completed work.
Obviously each writer will have his or her own unique way of working, but there may be something to be learned from this one writer's working style.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Read, Read, Read

Not long after Sandi wrote her REALIA post, I heard a terrific interview with Marion Roach Smith, the author of the book to which Sandi referred. (Full title: WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW: REALIA.) When asked the most important piece of advice she could offer to writers, she said Read, Read, Read. Now Arnold's posted a piece on that very topic -- with a thoughtful comment by Irene McGarrity that I am echoing here -- and both of those posts dovetail very nicely with something I've been thinking about a lot recently.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking about point of view in my writing workshop, and I recommended to a woman working on a memoir that she read and analyze a few successful memoirs in order to see how others had solved a particular problem she was having. Another participant, a very gifted writer, then shared that she had gone through Tobias Wolff's THIS BOY'S LIFE line by line, marking the text with a yellow highlighter, in order to understand how he was able to seamlessly insert the adult voice into his story. Then later, as she was struggling to get the action to move forward in time, she went though again with a green highlighter marking passages where he accomplished that.

This talented writer is not relying solely on her talent to help her write her book. She is studying her craft by reading purposefully and thinking deeply about what she's reading. And let me tell you, it shows. So I'm with Marion Roach Smith. Read, read, read. And then write, write, write.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Advice for Writers

Last Sunday's New York Times (May 2) had several items of interest to writers. Deborah Solomon, in her weekly Magazine column, interviewed best-selling author Charlaine Harris about her vampire series (basis for the HBO series "True Blood") and concluded by asking Ms. Harris whether she had any advice for writers. Her answer: For any writers at all, read everything you can and then put your butt in the chair and write. That's all there is to it." Of course there's a lot more to it than that, but there's still great truth in what she said. Everything you read can be a learning process for you--not so you can duplicate what another author has done, but so you can understand how that author has made the novel work.

And continuing in this vein, I was struck by the opening sentence in the front-page review in the Book Review by Christopher Buckley of a new (and first) novel by Tom Rachman called The Imperfectionists, which is garnering raves everywhere. Buckley wrote: "This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off." A highly successful writer himself (Thank You for Smoking and Losing Mum and Pup, among others), Buckley is still open to learning. He's so impressed with this novel that he wants to figure out how the author did it.

One more reference: Again in the Magazine, Virginia Heffernan writes about "how the digital age is making self-publishing respectable." As she writes, back in analog times, self-publishing reeked of "vanity presses" and had the unmistakable look of something that could only get published if the author paid for it. But times have changed, and she cites that last year 764,448 titles were produced by self-publishers and so-called microniche publishers--up an astonishing 184% from the previous year. She points out that "cheap, digital-publishing technology ... has been a godsend to writers without agents or footholds at traditional publishing houses." And she reminds us that "luminaries like Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, and Edgar Allan Poe self-published books." So there's a whole new way for authors to get their manuscripts published. And Heffernan cites the names of some companies that writers can go to for printing and, in some cases, distribution and promotion.