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!

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.