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!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Awards Time

Carla Jablonski is very proud to have been asked to be a judge for the 2012 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, sponsored by The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. This organization is dedicated to supporting young writers and artists through college scholarships.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

You see? Sometimes it actually DOES pay off!

I just want to congratulate client Andrew Davis for the publication of his informative and entertaining book, Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition, by Palgrave/Macmillan. It took him awhile to find the right home, but he did -- and the book looks fantastic!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Agents As Publishers--Is It Legit?

From Sandi Gelles-Cole: "I was fascinated by this piece in Publishing Perspectives about the conflict of interest of agents now acting as publishers.  Read it if you have a minute."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Your Unsolicited Manuscript Is A Sign That The End Is Near

Appalled by declining morality and expanding chaos, people have been predicting the apocalypse since time immemorial--incorrectly, of course. But this dire forecast from an Assyrian clay tablet dating back to 2800 BCE offers an unusual twist:

“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching” [my italics].

I can only assume that the Assyrian soothsayer was a freelance editor wearied by the constant stream of mediocre manuscripts--clay tablets, I mean--dropped on his doorstep by would-be authors . . . 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Remembering Carol Southern

It has been a steamy summer of unsettled weather here in New York as well as a time of stubborn recalcitrance and lack of progress in the economy and in politics.  But for us in CEA it will always be remembered as the summer we lost our friend Carol Southern.  In her years at Clarkson Potter she was known for editing beautiful books, finely designed and filled with colorful images drawn from life, which actually is a reasonable accurate description of Carol's personality as well.  Not only was Carol a long-time sweet and generous presence in our conversations, she also graciously hosted many CEA meetings in her West Side apartment filled with memories of life with her husband, the dangerously witty Terry Southern.

We miss her already.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Not Quite A Publisher In A Box, But A Step In That Direction

This is really interesting: From Seth Godin's Domino Project, successfully self-published author Jenny Blake provides her Excel spreadsheet listing the dozens of steps she takes from launch through publication and marketing of a new book.  It looks as though it would need quite a bit of customization to fit your individual needs, but I suspect this could be a valuable tool for someone getting started in the complicated world of self-publishing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Maybe Everything Old Really Is New Again

Back in 1922, DeWitt Wallace was recovering from shrapnel wounds he'd received in World War I when he got the idea that the flood of information being published was just too great for the average person to manage.  He got a pair of scissors and a pot of glue and made up a sample of a new magazine by piecing together the best bits of all the articles and books being published elsewhere for quick, easy reading by a busy person.  By the time Wallace's concept celebrated its 40th anniversary, Reader's Digest had 23 international editions and was the most widely-read magazine in the world.

Today, apparently, the same concept looks like this:
Gis.to is an aggregator of abstracts for the long-form web. It is a venue for the crowds to share the valuable nuggets of information held within long-form non-fiction content which often gets overlooked or ignored due to the massive amount of information produced by our society each day. . . .  
A directory of well-written abstracts (or Gists) that summarize the key points of information within long-form articles that offer readers a glimpse into what a further investment of their reading time will yield without skewing the original source article with a great deal of editorial opinion. 
Sort through the jargon and you quickly see that Gis.to is basically a Reader's Digest for the twenty-first century . . . with readers writing the "condensed" contents themselves.  If you find this idea compelling, visit the website and you'll have an opportunity to donate money to the people who are launching this thing--and who I bet are hoping to become millionaires in the process.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fame Makes Best-Sellers . . . Usually Not Vice Versa

An entertaining and fact-filled review of the history of American best-sellers (or as she corrects the term, "fast-sellers") by Ruth Franklin.  Most sobering observation: "A novel by a new writer has a smaller chance of becoming a best seller today than at any other time in history."  Of course, it helps if you are someone like Tina Fey or George W. Bush, famous from non-literary activities (in the case of President Bush, extremely non-literary).  The book business, much as we may love it (and with occasional huge exceptions as with the Harry Potter phenomenon), is increasingly an appendage to broader American culture rather than its core.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"And Thanks To The Editor Who Tortured Me Mercilessly"

I was amused by this article by Emily Gould offering do's and don'ts for author acknowledgment pages, although I must note that some of her tips (e.g., "Rule #2: Don't thank a deity") seem more broadly applicable than others ("Rule #7: Don't swing madly from throwaway jokes to forced gravitas").

Personally I judge the acknowledgment pages in books I've worked on based solely on how effusively the author praises me.  More effusive = better, in case you are wondering--although in my experience the level of authorial thanks I receive tends to be negatively correlated with my actual role in enhancing the book.  When I do little but spruce up the grammar and correct a misspelling or two, I generally get warm accolades; when I transform an unpublishable mess into a clear, interesting read, I often get tepid thanks or none at all.

In retrospect, of course, that's not surprising.  The dentist who discovers I have half a dozen cavities and spends three hours fixing them all does me more good than the one who gives me a quick, painless cleaning--but I certainly don't savor the process.  So I guess that when I tear apart and rebuild someone's painstakingly crafted manuscript, it's unreasonable of me to expect gratitude.  Yet of course I do, such is human perversity.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Genius Of M.O. Braschi: Authorship As Mashup

I used to think I was a reasonably productive writer--but that was before I heard of Manuel Ortiz Braschi, author of no fewer than 3,255 e-books. That is, "author" in the same sense that I "wrote" the music for West Side Story, since I downloaded the album from iTunes. Click here to read about a weird byproduct of the rise of electronic publishing . . .

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Note To Self For When I Write My Publishing Memoir

Remember to include plenty of "vaginal ectoplasm" (if I want a positive review from the Jewish Daily Forward, that is!).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Philip Roth: "I Wised Up"

I enjoyed this interview with Philip Roth (from the Financial Times, via Slate).  My favorite moment: When Roth says that he doesn't read fiction anymore, and when the interview asks why, Roth replied, "I don't know.  I wised up."  A cryptic answer that Roth declines to explain further.

Perhaps I like this exchange because it might seem to validate my own strong preference for reading non-fiction rather than fiction.  Although I am willing to make an exception when the fiction is by Philip Roth.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eek! Get Me Copy Editing!

As the writer (not the author) of a book, I recently sent the manuscript along to the editor, Judith Jones, at Knopf. The author’s agent commented that we could look forward to the book actually being edited. “So many editors today just send manuscripts straight to copyediting.”

I was not so surprised—we hear this sort of thing all the time—but then I read Ian Frazier’s review of John Darnton’s terrific memoir, Almost a Family. Frazier’s praise for the book was unqualified, but he closed with a paragraph expressing his disappointment with the editing of the book:

“Are books more carelessly edited than they used to be, or is it just my imagination? In general this book is not so bad in that regard. However, I was discouraged to see that Knopf’s copyeditors seem not to know the difference between “poured” and “pored” and “clamoring” and “clambering.” He goes on to note that the copy editors let “eek out subsistence livelihoods” slip by. “Eek!”

There is one obvious explanation: spell check. Whether the publishers are skipping real copyeditors and relying on that function or if lazy copyeditors are to blame, letting the computer do the job is an obvious factor. It isn’t enough. Spell check is great—for spelling—but writers, editors and copyeditors still need to be sure that the word itself is the right one.

Frazier closes with the hope that the next editions of Darnton’s book are corrected. And I suggest that more reviewers help by pointing out at least the most egregious flaws. Or is the age of shame also behind us?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Literature of the World in a Warehouse in Richmond, California

I love this story about Brewster Kahle, who has taken it upon himself to create an archive for hard copies of books scanned, digitized--and then mostly discarded--by Google.  Ultimately he hopes his collection will include some ten million books.

Is there a point to Kahle's mission?  There will be if, by some quirk of history or technological evolution, we arrive at a moment when the Internet is no longer available or useable, and we suddenly realize that one of those old tomes we uploaded decades ago contains information we actually need or want.

Digital technology is great, but I for one wouldn't want to bet our entire cultural patrimony on the continued viability of any single electronic data storage and recovery system.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Gap

And I am not talking about jeans.

Since I have launched an independently published novel into the blogosphere of book reviews and book bloggers I have come across an interesting phenomenon. I am sure it will straighten out eventually but for the moment, I am reminded of what our guest, Laura Von Wermer said about techgeeks scaring the book people away from our territory and how we have to take it back (I'm paraphrasing).

Reviews, a basic tool -- you send an ARC out to a list of time honored media representatives and they assign the book. Either the reviewer likes it or not, but there are givens: they know that the book is not proofed so they don't point out typos; there is the understanding that the font of a novel is probably not something to review.

More important-who gets the ARCs--if you are dealing with a virtual PR agency, as I am, this is wild. We are definitely not in the same world. I have been the host blogger on a mommy blog for a novel about Marilyn Monroe. I believe the thinking for where a book should go is fundamentally different. Rather than to a MM site, or dead celebrity, or Hollywood, the thinking goes in multiple directions. Blogs can take you deeper and sideways rather than staying on topic.

It's all a learning experience and once I've mastered it I am sure the entire landscape will change. C'est La Guerre.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A book of and for the ages

I am telling everyone these days about A TIME FOR EVERYTHING, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. I have not been so moved and awed by a book in years. The time you give this book will be repaid a thousand fold in honest emotion (one of the rarest things in art), spellbinding imagery, and profound ideas.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Why Is Someone Else In My Book's Author Photo?"

Check out this story from Salon to read about one of the weirdest publishing snafus I've ever heard about (and believe me I've heard about quite a few).

Incidentally if any of the publishers I work with is looking for a new photo of me to use on a forthcoming book, I'd suggest the shot to the left.  It might generate a few extra sales . . . 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Big Seven

re the back and forth between Karl and Toni about allowing consumers to vote on covers--Galley Cat reports that author Max Barry has convinced his publisher to allow the Reddit community to vote on cover for his latest book.

While this is not what we seem to be now referring to as the big six, it is a step towards democratic selection.

More important-How do we feel about Amazon hiring Larry Kirschbaum, the world's greatest publisher, to head their publishing group? I think this means that we will have a big seven. I wonder if the publishing arm will start to interfere with what Create Space and other printers put on their site? Hmmmm-Frankly, this worries me -- it feels like a blow to the Indie Publishing movement. But it probably is time to do some sort of weeding.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Only Advertisement Most Books Ever Get

I enjoyed the feature in the Times Book Review last week showing rejected book cover designs, but this version is so much better, since it presents the "winning" designs alongside for easy comparison.

The next logical step: Publishers should present two or three alternative designs online and let prospective readers choose their favorite.  Better still, the publisher could count the "votes" by inviting readers to click on book covers for more information or to pre-order the title.  The image that draws the most clicks would be the one to get printed.

This is such an obvious use of social media that I am baffled as to why it hasn't already been done.  Unless it has, in which case I would love to hear about it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why Go To A Bricks-and-Mortar Bookstore? Here's A Reason

Sign of the times: This afteroon I went to my nearest physical bookstore (a Barnes & Noble fifteen minutes away from my home by car) for the first time in months. And why did I make the trip? Because the author of a book I'm editing wanted to quote a passage from a book she'd read on her Kindle--which meant she didn't know the number of the page on which the passage appeared. So I volunteered to drive to B&N to look at a printed copy of George W. Bush's Decision Points and ascertain that the endnote should refer to page 427.

Which proves I guess that you can't do everything on Amazon.  Yet.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Next-Generation E-Book

Wow--you need to check out this presentation by Mike Matas of the interaction digital book for iPad and iPhone that he and his creative team have developed.  And be sure to watch the last thirty seconds of the four-and-a-half minute video, in which Matas explains the business model.  We live in exciting times.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Let's Debate In The Public Square, Not In The Courtroom

Whatever you think of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Zionism, apartheid, or former president Jimmy Carter, the rebuff to the lawsuit against him over alleged "falsehoods and misrepresentations" in his controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is unalloyed good news.  (Full disclosure: I am not unbiased in this matter since I have worked with President Carter and am an admirer of his, though of course I don't agree with everything he has ever written or said.)

Can anyone really imagine that the public debate over tough issues like the road to peace in the Middle East would be improved by the prospect of having every controversial book become the subject of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Bookish Is Coming

And what is Bookish? you ask.  It's a new social networking website, launching this summer, that will be built around the book reading experience, with members sharing their favorite reads, garnering recommendations based on their past preferences, getting news about authors, and so on.  Think of a literary version of Pandora, one that provides links to books for avid readers rather than links to audio files for music fans.

Sounds like a good idea if it is done well.  And the resources and connections will be there to support it, since Arianna Huffington's AOL, Hachette, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster are all behind it, as this press release explains.

Full disclosure: A close family friend has been part of the team working part-time to help create Bookish for the last few weeks.  Much to my frustration he has been utterly faithful to his non-disclosure agreement and so today is the first time I've even heard the name of the furshlugginer thing.  But I promise the minute he is authorized to disclose anything more the readers of this blog will be among the first to hear it.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

University Press Publishing: "This Is Madness"

Under the headline "Adventures in Deadweight Loss," blogger Matt Yglesias laments the nonsensical economics of academic publishing, citing the case of an important new book on political philosophy that is priced on Amazon--with a discount!--at $82.40. Key quote: "I do wish people working in the academic world would think a bit harder about this economic/scholarly model. Professors employed at research universities are getting public and charitable funding because we think the production and dissemination of knowledge is important. That means it’s important to think about what’s actually a good way of disseminating knowledge."

Amen.  Here's how the university press "model" has been described by one expert: "We publish the smallest editions at the greatest cost, and on these we place the highest prices and then we try to market them to the people who can least afford them.  This is madness."

Who said it?  Chester Kerr of Yale University Press.  And when did he say it?  In a once-famous report about university presses . . . published in 1949.

La plus ca change, etc. etc.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Marketing Books at the Bronx Zoo

Visited the Bronx Zoo with the grandkids on a beautiful spring Saturday and encountered commercial giveaways and promotions for a variety of businesses and products, from Fisher-Price toys and Chevy Volt cars to New York Life insurance and Stonyfield Farms yogurt . . . as well as books.  The Zoo is working with publishers to publicize children's books on animal themes, including a recent alphabet book by our artist friend Matt Van Fleet.

Can't help having mixed feelings about it all.  On the one hand, it's annoying to find the capitalist urge pushing its way to the forefront of yet another once-noncommercial public institution.  On the other hand, if kids are going to be indoctrinated into buying stuff, I'd rather have it be books than most other things.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Wait, I mean STEAMPUNK. Does anyone have any idea what this genre refers to? Now that Penquin is starting their Book Country line, whatever this material is has been formalized, along with Alternative History, into a bona fide slot. Oh to be in paperback publishing in the old days, looking for the right book to shove into the rack.

Seriously, does anyone know what this refers to?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Kindle Issue

Don't get me wrong, I heart my Kindle! But I was recently reading Inside of a Dog and saw that the author said she had fed her dog raisins. Since raisins are known to be toxic to dogs, I found this upsetting and actually e-mailed her (a first for me). She answered almost immediately saying that I wasn't the only one to have remarked on this and she was surprised because there was a footnote right there saying that more recently raisins had been found to be dangerous for dogs. I looked again, and the note wasn't there. Turns out that on the Kindle all notes are given at the end of the book, and since you can't flip around the way you do the pages of a book, you don't really see them until you've finished reading the whole thing. Even more problematic, because there are no page numbers, it's almost impossible to go back and find out what each of the notes refers to.

This is not going to cause me to give up my Kindle, but it seems like a technological issue that would be relatively easy to fix--Amazon, are you listening?


I am a technological idiot so if this link does not work forgive me. Galley Cat published the top 20 apps for books and here's the link.

Honestly I have no idea why people use apps. For starters, how do they see the screen? I suppose that's the point--I'm a dinosaur, quickly eating up all the vegetation because I am huge and unsustainable.

Happy Holiday

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Is This The Future of Publishing?

Intrigued by self-publishing? Looks to me as if Joe Konrath's blog, Newbie's Guide to Book Publishing, is a must-read.  Joe is a thriller writer who is selling thousands of self-published books (in both print and e-book editions) on Amazon.  He has also built up a substantial body of expertise in producing and marketing e-books, and quite a collection of followers who are using his methods.  I'm just getting into his work--there is a lot to absorb on his blog and it will take me a while to read it--but this looks like the real deal.

I'm surprised to hear myself saying this, but Joe Konrath may well be the future of publishing--at least one important piece of it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Last Chapter Problem

Ever since the topic was broached in a Times Book Review article by David Greenberg a couple of weeks ago, there has been a lot of buzz about the Last Chapter Problem--the apparent need for every serious nonfiction book to end with a chapter that offers solutions to the problems described.

Why is this a problem? Because the proposed solutions are usually hopelessly inadequate to the problem.  After all, as blogger Kevin Drum wrote, "[A]ny social or political problem that’s hard enough to be interesting is also hard enough to have no obvious solutions."  What's more, the typical writer is better at describing situations than improving them--otherwise he or she would be a political leader or social reformer rather than a writer.

It's not easy to know what to do about the Last Chapter Problem.  Simply omitting the last chapter is usually not the answer, since editors and publishers generally insist on offering the reader a bit of hope rather than concluding with the implicit message that the problem portrayed in the book--global warming, endemic poverty, child abuse, or whatever--is basically insoluble.  And they are probably right to do so; it's hard to imagine many readers enthusiastically urging friends to read a book that is fundamentally a downer.

Perhaps the only real answer--one that only applies in a few happy cases--is when it's possible to describe the problem with such clarity and insight that, even before arriving at the obligatory Last Chapter, the nature of the solutions has been strongly implied throughout.  For me, that was the case with Lewis Hyde's wonderful new book Common As Air, which deals with the growing tension between corporate control of intellectual property and the freedom and openness needed to encourage and facilitate further creativity.

Although Hyde does indeed write a traditional Last Chapter, I found that his vivid stories about how creativity really works--including, for example, his account of how Benjamin Franklin relied on inspiration, advice, and information from fellow scientists around the world in devising his famous kite experiment and the theory of electricity that grew from it--made Hyde's preferred approach to creating an "intellectual commons" for all to share and protect was abundantly clear even before I read it.  In fact, Hyde's detailed arguments and supporting narratives were so compelling that by the time I came to his policy recommendations in the Final Chapter, I just nodded my head and said, "Of course, of course."

If you're smart and creative enough to pull this off, this seems to me to be the ideal solution to the Last Chapter Problem.  But that's a big if!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing Groups: Help or Hell?

Have you ever been in a writing group, or thought about joining or starting one? This post about it got me thinking. I was in a writing group years ago, and it fizzled (first for me; then eventually for them). My fizzle was my fault, I'd say, for:

a) not having enough current writing to make it worth going, and worth the group's time to critique me;
b) not realizing that there's limited value in having critiques from people whose writing expertise is based in entirely different markets or styles of writing (unless they are very eclectic readers and/or very astute critiquers), and
c) not being willing to commit the time to prepare pieces that are polished enough to benefit from critique and set aside time for the meeting itself.

And although I didn't find competitiveness an issue in that group, I think that also has to be part of the process when deciding whether to join a group or figuring out membership if you're starting one.

It seems that while writers long to break the isolation and yearn for meaty feedback from people who aren't our "bosses" (our agents, our editors, or others for whom we work) or our friends/family (who may be biased and/or tired of hearing about it), finding people you can learn from, and who can learn from you, is not an easy thing.

If you've ever participated in a writing group that worked well for you, what do you think made it succeed? And if you've been in groups that tanked or weren't at all helpful, why?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

But My First Chapters Aren't the Best Ones

Recently I received a query from a friend of a friend who has just start submitting his novel to agents. He explained that the tone and rhythm of the first chapters of the book are not representative of the novel as a whole, because for reasons related to plot and character development, the protagonist is quite passive early on. Later, the protagonist becomes more active and the tone and energy of the writing change. His problem: the agents he has queried all want to see the first chapter or two before requesting the whole manuscript. But the friend of a friend believes that the early chapters would give a reader the wrong impression about what to expect from the rest of the book, and because they're more passive, he's afraid no one will ask to see more. Here's how I responded:

The opening pages are considered to be of paramount importance. There's even a book about them by agent Noah Lukeman called THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. The reason for their importance is obvious: 1) You need to interest editors and agents, who may see fifty to a hundred queries and proposals a month. If they're not hooked immediately, they're going to stop wasting their time and move on to the next one. 2) Just as important, it's a general belief in the publishing world that readers are not as patient as they were in times past, and so you need to engage them right away.

You need to find a way to make the first chapters as compelling as the later ones. The character can be passive early on and then undergo changes to make him more active, but there has to be something in the opening that commands our attention, even if it's not a lot of action. Perhaps it's that we're compelled by a confounding character, or a really interesting situation -- one that we don't entirely understand, with some unanswered questions that pull us forward. If you absolutely believe that the first chapter doesn't represent the rest of the book AND that it is as compelling as the rest of the book, then you might send the first chapter, as requested, and include a later one, too, saying that the tone (or whatever) changes, and in the interest of full disclosure, this is what most of the rest of the book sounds/feels/reads like. No matter how good the rest of the book is, it's the first pages of the book that have to make us (agents, editors, readers) want to read more. It's that simple.

Every book is unique, like its author. All they same, there are a few rules that apply almost universally -- to novels, at least -- and one of those is that the first few pages have to give readers a reason to keep turning the pages.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Really? What year is this?

Sadly, we actually DO still need to discuss the difference between reporting on male achievement vs. female. Still.


Author Penny Vincenzi is a personal favorite and I haunt the V section periodially until I find one of her new books. She is a UK author, published first there by Orion then here by Overlook.

Look, I know women's fiction--I read it, I edit it, I love it. Once I pick up one of her books I can't put it down. Last three nights I pretended to go to sleep with Ken, my husband, waited until he was out, then turned on the light to read some more. For the life of me, I don't understand why this author of ten titles, two of them composing a saga, does not make as much noise as any of our women, from Belva Plain to Luanne Rice to Danielle Steel.

My question-Have any of you reading this heard of her? If her name was the answer to a question on the NPR showv "WAIT WAIT DON'T TELL ME" or JEOPARDY if you prefer would you get it?

The mystery that defies publishers then, now, always-What makes it sell. Obviously we still don't know.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Interview about collaborating on Graphic Novels

CEA member Carla Jablonski and artist Leland Purvis discuss how they worked together on the graphic novel trilogy RESISTANCE, including suggestions for people starting out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

For All YA Lovers!

The line-up for the Teen Author's Festival has been posted! Panels, readings, and signings abound. (and yes, I'll be signing my graphic novel Resistance at Books of Wonder on March 20th.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Would-Be Book Banners Are Feeling Their Oats

Depressing news--the adoption of new, more aggressive organizing tactics by people who want to censor books in schools and libraries.  In the words of an ALA spokesperson: “Traditionally, when books are challenged, it’s usually a single parent. But we have found that groups are organizing around the principle that professional librarians don’t have the expertise, that they’re pushing porn on our kids.”

Most of the new book banners focus on works that relate to sex (especially of the gay variety), although I was particularly appalled to read about efforts to ban Barbara Ehrenreich's important social-economic book Nickel and Dimed on the wholly spurious ground that it contains "anti-Christian themes."  I guess if you think Jesus would be a big fan of forcing poor women to work under degrading conditions for minimum wage in order to maximize the income of chain-store companies, then, yes, Nickel and Dimed could be considered anti-Christian . . .

One more thing.  The author of the linked article succumbs, unfortunately, to the widespread habit of throwing in a criticism of liberals, in an apparent attempt to make the article feel "balanced."  In this case,  he refers to Huckleberry Finn as "long a target of the left."  But this assertion turns out to be evidence-free.  Follow the link to the supposed source article and you discover that it describes the exclusion of Huck Finn from the library in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1885--more a matter of Victorian squeamishness about "coarseness" than any "left-wing" political objections.  The article goes on to mention subsequent bannings in Des Moines, Denver, Omaha, and Fairfax, Virginia--not exactly a list of liberal strongholds.

Let's get real about this.  The danger to intellectual freedom in America comes overwhelmingly from the right wing, not the left.  That's the truth, and saying so reflects honesty, not "liberal bias."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who Will Pay for the Cheese Sandwiches?

Hilarious, charming, with an edge of perception. How many people can couple childlike drawn images of dead pantaloon-clad authors, blood-dripping knives, and a puffy-topped "publishing pie" with references to Elvis's shoelace, cheese sandwiches, and "the anchovies are restless"--and make a serious point about publishing, books, writing, and the future of it all--and what it means for authors, traditionally published and self-published alike? Only Margaret Atwood, in her talk "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" at last week's O'Reilly TOC Conference/Tools of Change for Publishing.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Turow, Shakespeare, and Copyright Law: Huh?

I join blogger Matt Yglesias in finding this op-ed piece by Scott Turow, which invokes the ghost of Shakespeare to defend copyright, quite bizarre.  (Check out some of the many all-over-the-map comments Yglesias received in response to his blog post and you'll see that lots of other people found Turow's comparison confusing too.)  Turow writes about how men with moneyboxes stood outside the playhouses in Shakespeare's day, collecting a penny admission from audience members.  Then he continues:
Money changed everything. Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.
The stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it.
Okay, I guess . . .  except that Turow uses this historical circumstance to highlight the importance of copyright law--which didn't exist in Shakespeare's day--and to decry piracy of texts--which was plentiful then.  (Printers or their assistants would attend plays at the Globe, take copious notes, memorize speeches as best they could, and then print the haphazard scripts that resulted, vexing Shakespeare scholars centuries later.)

So if Turow's historical analogy proves anything, it is that the great Elizabethan playwrights were amply rewarded and "incentivized" in the absence of copyright and despite widespread piracy--precisely the opposite of the cause-and-effect relationship Turow tells us to expect.

Funny, I had the impression that attorneys were supposed to be experts at logic . . . 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Financial Reporting, Book Promotion--Or Both?

I saw something in yesterday's New York Times that I've never seen before. In a fascinating article by Diana B. Henriques, a financial correspondent for the Times, Bernard Madoff said, among other things, that some banks had to have been at least passively complicit in his Ponzi scheme.

But what really got my attention was the information—right there, in a paragraph all its own--that the piece, which was based on an in-prison interview and a series of e-mail messages, is part of the reporter's research for her book on the scandal. That's one thing. But the book's title, publisher and that it will come out this spring all were included. I was torn between feeling that this is somehow unseemly—there was a whiff of quid pro quo about it—and wishing that other worthy authors could be so lucky: free advance promotion on the front page of the NYT. Wow. The only thing missing was a link to Amazon for pre-ordering.

The Secret Of Our Brilliance Is Out

Via Boing-Boing, here is "The Secret of the Million-Dollar Briefcase"--an old comic-book style public service announcement about the wonders of books and their most convenient and affordable source, your public library.  A nice reminder that, in these days of budget cuts and anti-government mania, our libraries deserve and desperately need our support.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Light in the Dark?

Every month, more indy bookstores close their doors for good. Recently it was Cody's in San Francisco and Davis-Kidd in Nashville, and soon it will be Bethel Avenue Book Co. in Port Orchard, WA, and The Muses Bookstore in Morganton, NC. But not all news from the world of independent bookselling is bad.

Oblong Books, a small bookstore in picturesque Rhinebeck, NY, was the subject of a front-page feature story in USA Today last Thursday. The 2,600-square-foot store is being increased by 1,000 square feet to make more room for children's books, educational toys, and touring authors. Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of the bookstore with her father, Dick Hermans, reports that 2010 revenue for both Oblong stores (the original, founded by Dick Hermans in 1975, is located in nearby Millerton, NY) was $2.5 million, up 2% from 2009. "We'll happily take that," the younger Hermans says. She credits customer service and her stores' popularity as a community gathering spot for the stores' strong sales. A growing "Buy Local" movement doesn't hurt, either, nor do the stores' vibrant series of author readings; last fall Stephanie Meyer visited Millerton for an Oblong-sponsored event.

In a forward-thinking and perhaps counterintuitive move, Hermans is embracing e-books. Her customers are able to buy them via a link on the stores' websites to the Google eBookstore.

The e-book offering is certainly something that could never have been foreseen when her father opened the first store thirty-six years ago and its stiffest competition was the Book-of-the-Month Club and other mail-order book clubs. "Back then, Amazon was only a South American river, Barnes & Noble sold college textbooks in New York City, and Borders was an independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan started by University of Michigan students and brothers Tom and Louis Borders."

While she is clear-eyed about the growing popularity of e-books and the ever-present shadow of Amazon (which accounts for an estimated 22.6% of the book market, according to Albert Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor who studies book retailing), Hermans is also clear about the role of the physical bookstore in today's world. "People may think they can live online, but in reality they live in real towns and cities, and physical bookstores help enrich those places."

No doubt the people of Rhinebeck and Millerton would agree.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Publishing By Subscription: Everything Old Is New Again

Here, via Boing Boing, is a new/old twist on the self-publishing model: Fantasy novelist Diane Duane has financed her latest book, The Big Meow ("third and last in the Feline Wizards sequence") by soliciting advance subscriptions from readers.  The completion of the book was delayed by health and other problems, as Duane explains on her website linked above, but it has now been written and will be made available to subscribers, primarily in ebook format, after it has been edited and designed.  I can't tell from her site how much subscribers were asked to pay, and Duane hasn't disclosed how many individuals took her up on the offer, so there's no way to know how successful the venture was.

This way of publishing books, in which the "author's advance" is generated by direct sales to readers without the intervention of a publisher middleman, goes way back: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary was financed this way in the eighteenth century, and Mark Twain raised money for the publication of U.S. Grant's autobiography by sending salespeople door to door to sell advance subscriptions.

Today, of course, marketing, payment, and delivery of the finished product can all be handled electronically, which saves time and money.  But it would seem that attracting a sufficient number of readers willing to fork over cash months or even years before the product is ready will be a difficult challenge, except perhaps for the handful of authors who already boast an avid fan base.

In the years to come, we'll be seeing more and more experiments with new business models for publishing, and I for one am hesitant about predicting with any assurance which ones will work and which won't. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

O My

Wow. If this story is correct, all I can say is: If you were looking for someone to write a savvy, gossipy, insider's take on Barack Obama, would you pick a former aide to John McCain as the most appropriate candidate?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Will Publishers Get Better at Incubating Talent and Selling the Niche??

I'm unaccustomed to coherent thought before the second cup of coffee, but reading Publishers Lunch's recap of one of yesterday's panels at the 2011 Digital Book World Conference & Expo, "A CEO’s View of the Future," might have triggered a neural blip.

Lunch quotes Perseus CEO David Steinberger as saying that he "sees a giant wave [coming] where the book that has a more modest audience is going to reach people in a way that's more seamless than ever before."

Much has been written about self-publishing as an increasingly viable alternative to fruitlessly banging on traditional publishers' doors as they've become preoccupied with the "big book" for lots of reasons, some of their own making and some in response to marketplace pressures and profit demands of conglomerate owners.

Two things publishers brought to the table for physical books were distribution machinery and major media connections. If publishers can become as good at mining niche markets through online marketing for e-books as they became at distribution and major media for p-books, they could become once again a fertile ground where the so-called "midlist" or "niche" book can succeed and contribute to everyone's bottom line. Maybe there could be a renaissance of sorts, where publishers could return to a cherished earlier role of incubating talent rather than buying it at nosebleed prices that don't do the industry or the next crop of talent any favors.

Maybe others have had this thought - I take no ownership for its originality. It arrived, as I said, before my second cup of coffee.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It Takes a Village to Make a Book

Imagine you've spent years laboring over your novel. Your publisher is waiting. Your agent is waiting. Your spouse is waiting. You finally send the first 80 pages to your agent. Next thing you know, your agent is standing on your doorstep. And the news is not good.

This, according to a recent article, is what happened to Tom Franklin when writing his bestselling novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (described in the article as "an ultimately sweet tale of two half brothers--one white and one black...a crime novel with a little mystery thrown in, a meditation on race and relationships, and a character study" titled after "the way children in the South learn to spell Mississippi").

To me, Franklin's process is a story of the village it takes to make a book--which includes an agent's tough love, a publisher's patience, a spouse's wisdom--but which begins and ends with a writer's absolute persistence and willingness to:
chuck stuff out
move stuff around
plow ahead
find and refind that knife-edge balance between trust in self and trust in others regarding one's work
..and then, if necessary, do it all over again. And again. And... .
And delivering the manuscript, in some ways, is just the beginning. Myriad minds, hands, and hearts engage with a book as it moves through the publishing process: being edited, copyedited, designed, typeset, proofread, indexed (if nonfiction), catalogued, sold in, printed, bound, shipped, and published. Every book, successful or not, embodies this massive exertion of time and will. Hats off to the writer, and to the village.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jason Epstein on Self-Publishing

The February 10 issue of The New York Review of Books contains a timely review (subscription required to follow link) of a book by British sociologist John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Jason Epstein's review provides a capsule history of the publishing industry (of which he was a notable member) over the past fifty years, and also looks ahead to a dramatically different future. Among other developments, he cites "the rapidly growing self-publishing industry."

Epstein believes the self-publishing industry, "relying on print-on-demand technology, has created infrastructure that groups of sophisticated editors might adapt to create their own lists for worldwide sale online while arranging with traditional distributors to market physical inventory to traditional retail accounts." He thinks these editors could be incubating the next Random House. From the man who invented the trade paperback, these might be prophetic words.

Epstein also points out in a footnote that "Self-publishing has an illustrious history. Milton published Areopagitica himself and Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. When he could not find a publisher for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane published it himself." Epstein also mentions Ulysses (published by Joyce with bookstore owner Sylvia Beach), The Joy of Cooking, and such recent bestsellers as In Search of Excellence and Christmas Box. Self-publishing has a distinguished past and the possibility of defining publishing's future.

"Don't Have Children" And Other Rules For Writers

From Britain's Guardian newspaper, a fun collection, in two articles, of "rules for writing fiction" offered by a potpourri of leading novelists. Some sound useful, others idiosyncratic, many mutually contradictory. "Don't have children" is from Richard Ford.  A few other samples:

"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."--Elmore Leonard.

"Hold the reader's attention.  (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.)"--Margaret Atwood.

"Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy."--Roddy Doyle.

"Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire."--Geoff Dyer.

"Read widely and with discrimination.  Bad writing is contagious."--P.D. James

"If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane."--Colm Toibin.

The first installment can be found here, the second here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Bookshelf Porn"

And on a very different note, if your idea of a beautiful room is one with lots of books, you will enjoy this website.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Waiting Game

One of my authors recently forwarded the link to this piece by Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy to me. Her subject is waiting -- specifically, waiting for word back from one's editor. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Will the patient need major surgery or just a few band-aids? Kennedy, who has won numerous awards for her novels and short stories, describes the experience of waiting for her editor's response to her most recent book over the Christmas holiday:

I have never met anyone who even remotely enjoys this part of the book-producing process. I've been writing professionally since 1989, but this will only be my 13th book. (And let's ignore the implications of 13.) This is only the 13th time that I have footled about, gone for walks, tried to start other things, sketched hollow-sounding plans for the coming months, stared blackly at the ceiling and generally failed to avoid the constant, low-level nausea generated by waiting to hear. I woke up in the morning and waited, I prodded at lunch and waited, I watched [Sherlock] Holmes ... and still I waited. For those of you unfamiliar with the heady emotional tumble drier which is the post-handover-pre-verdict hiatus, try to imagine one of those insultingly-lengthy TV elimination round pauses which somehow elongates over days or weeks, blends with your driving test outcome, the announcements of every important exam result upon which you have ever relied, every time you've asked someone lovely to have a coffee, or hold you hand, or subject you to intimate forms of relaxation and every naked-on-the-roof-of-Sydney-Opera-House-while-your-parents-and-in-laws-and-primary-school-teachers-render-you-in-watercolours anxiety dream you've ever had. Only it's less pleasant than that.

Only 13 books? Oh, my.

Kennedy's piece (the above is a small excerpt) started me thinking about all the periods of waiting that each finished manuscript demands of a writer. There's waiting for word back from whatever trusted readers you show it to for feedback; waiting for word from your agent -- or from the many agents to whom you submit it if you don't already have one; waiting for word back from all the editors that your agent submits it to; waiting to hear how the acquiring editor likes all the rewrites he or she undoubtedly suggests; waiting to hear what reviewers and the world at large (not to mention your mother, spouse, college roommates, and old flames) think of the finished book. And those are just some of the Major Milestones of Waiting. There are plenty more.

Which adds a whole new layer of meaning to "It's the journey, not the destination."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Shrinking World of Public Domain

Most writers and editors have at least a general awareness of how copyright law has been transformed in recent decades. But for a down-to-earth sense of the practical implications of the change, check out this site created by the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University Law School.

Among other things, the site lists some of the thousands of works--books, plays, films, songs, and so on--that would have gone into the public domain as of January 1, 2011, under traditional (pre-1978) copyright law, but which will remain under legal control by the creators' estates or some corporate entity until 2050 under current law.  The list includes copyrighted works published during the year 1954, ranging from William Golding's Lord of the Flies and the classic films Rear Window and The Seven Samurai to the plays Waiting for Godot and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  (Traditional copyright law protected works for 28 years after their creation, with a possible extension for another 28 years upon request.  The full 56 years of protection would have expired for these works at the end of 2010.)

The copyright law has been rewritten (most recently in 1998) to lengthen the period of protection up to a maximum of 120 years after creation in the case of corporate-owned "works for hire."  The 1998 copyright law is sometimes referred to as "The Mickey Mouse Protection Act" because one of the major forces behind it was the Walt Disney Company, which was eager to prevent films featuring its famous rodent from entering the public domain.

Opinions may differ, but I for one would like to see a return to the traditional standards of copyright protection.  Publishers have long been free to create new editions of classics like Pride and Prejudice and the works of Shakespeare, with the result that these works are available at very low cost in dozens of formats and styles.  To me, there's no reason why the same shouldn't be true for classic works of the twentieth century as they gradually pass the old 56-year yardstick.  Wouldn't our cultural heritage be enhanced by (for example) making it possible for high school, college, and community theatre groups to stage Waiting for Godot and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as freely as they can The Importance of Being Earnest?

Remember, the purpose of copyright law is to encourage artistic creation.  If copyright protection were abolished, or limited in some very draconian fashion--trimmed back to five years, say--it would clearly have a detrimental impact on writers' incentives to produce.  But does anyone really believe that Samuel Beckett or Tennessee Williams would have felt motivated to write more or better plays if only they'd known that their heirs would still be collecting royalties into the 2040s?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

We'll Miss Manie Barron

How sad to learn about the passing of Manie Barron--a talented book salesman, editor, and literary agent; one of the leading African-Americans in an industry where minority groups are still sadly under-represented; and, most important, one of the sweetest guys you could ever hope to know.

I met Manie years ago during my days at Random House.  His insights and advice were helpful to me when I worked on projects like Jimmy Carter's faith-based memoirs--and I quickly found myself turning to Manie during marketing and editorial meetings, knowing that he would usually have something smart to suggest.  Chris Jackson has written a thoughtful appreciation of Manie's legacy which expresses a lot of what many of us are feeling at this time.

Manie will be honored in a memorial service at St. Bart's Church on Park Avenue on Saturday, February 5th, at eleven a.m.  His family has established a college scholarship fund for Manie's daughter Veronica; details can be found here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Resistance Isn't Futile

Congratulations to CEA member Carla Jablonski, whose first graphic novel, Resistance (illustrated by Leland Purvis and published by First Second Books, an imprint of Macmillan), was just named a Sydney Taylor Award Silver Medalist. The Sydney Taylor Award is given by the Association of Jewish Librarians to books with Jewish themes. What's particularly exciting about Carla's book receiving this honor is that there's not a separate graphic novel category. Resistance, the first volume of a trilogy, was read with all the other books in the age group.

In addition, and equally impressive, Resistance was just selected for the American Library Association's Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Way to go, Carla. Your colleagues salute you!

And The Final Word on Huckleberry Finn

. . . has to go to this hilarious episode of the online comic strip "Tom the Dancing Bug." Follow the link to enjoy the whole thing. The art is taken from the first edition of Huck Finn--with a few slight and obvious emendations.

A Word by Any Other Name...

Among the defenses of his cleansing of the "n word" from his edition of Huckleberry Finn (posted on line today by Publishers Weekly) Twain scholar Alan Gribben states that "it is hard to open Huckleberry Finn without encountering the institution of slavery and the unsavory racial attitudes of the 1840s." In other words, by removing a single word he has not removed the offensive attitudes held at the time the book was written. Which begs the question: Why would removing the word make the novel acceptable? Is it only the word and not the attitude it represents that makes Twain's work unworthy of being taught in schools today? Does that strike anyone else as ridiculous as it seems to me?

"What Went Wrong at Borders"

That's the name of a column by my friend Peter Osnos (link available here) that offers a concise overview of the story behind the financial troubles of America's second-largest bookstore chain--troubles that threaten the economic status of many publishers as well.  The crucial graf is the final one:
Len Riggio, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and the successful independent proprietors, whatever their other business virtues and flaws, really have a deep attachment to books and the people who read them. But when Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse. Ultimately, a successful bookstore, on any scale, depends on a specific understanding of how to make the most of the outpouring of books and the digital transformation that will attract readers. Whatever else Borders does in the months ahead, it needs to recover its belief that real bookselling is an art (with all the peculiarities that entails), as well as a viable business.
I've worked on a lot of books about business strategy, and an unresolved tension in that world surrounds the question of whether a great leader can run any kind of business.  On the one hand, it seems simplistic to say that selling books is exactly the same as selling soap, cars, or cement.  But on the other hand, I am skeptical of publishing people who say "Our industry is so unique that we have nothing to learn from other companies."

I think in the end the right answer for book companies (whether publishers, retailers, distributors, or what have you) in these challenging times is to seek a tricky balance: Hire "book people" with a deep knowledge and love of the things readers value, but make sure they are willing to study and learn from the most creative minds in other businesses.  It sounds as though Borders had difficulty finding that balance.  Here's hoping they can find a way to survive.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A Glimpse of the Little-Known Prehistory of the E-Book

If you think the e-book was born with the Kindle, think again--and check out this cool slideshow (care of Fast Company magazine) which presents some of the many precursors to the Kindle that failed to trigger the not-so-inevitable revolution.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I'm Bowdlerized Over

Just to start let me say I have tried posting a few times to keep up and often my attempts fail because I am so technologically impaired--so please know, my colleages, that I am with you in spirit.

I actually heard about the HF bowdlerizing on MSNBC. I didn't think much about it because TV doesnt allow the time and accessability that the printed word does (for example, I did not remember what bowdlerized meant and if I heard it, I would not have had time to look it up).

Now having followed it in Karl's two blogs and the NYT twice, I grasp the horror in its entirety. The Times reports the origin of bowdlerize--really the original horror story concerning what editors can do to eviscerate iconic works. If anyone doesn't know, in 1807 a writer named Thomas Bowdler and his sister (she goes unnamed) tried to make Shakespeare more PG rated by expurgating double-entendres eg: in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio's line "the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon" to "the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon."*

What horror this!! Editors beware. Authors' blood will not be wiped from our hands if we Bowdlerize

*This material is paraphrased from NYT Jan 7, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

That Book You'll Write "Someday" (Right!)

Having not nearly the discipline of Anthony Trollope as cited in Karl's post about the website devoted to notables' daily routines, I recently lost myself in said site's attractions.

The ambitious writer side of me was, of course, was drawn to bestselling author John Grisham's description of how he approached his work in the early days: "The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I'd jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week." His goal: one page per day, after which he'd pick up his lawyerly life.

Most interesting, I thought, was his comment about this earlier routine compared to the present: "So I was very disciplined about it," he says, then quickly concedes he doesn't have such discipline now: "I don't have to."

It's not clear from what's cited whether he doesn't "have to" because of his success as a writer or because he has more time to devote to writing (or both). Either way, it got me thinking about the compression of time, which Trollope also used (writing with his watch in front of him), and how useful that is for producing forward momentum.

It appears possible to be most productive as a writer when one feels least able find a spare moment to write.

So there really is no excuse not to write that book that's been kicking around in your head for years, which you haven't gotten around to writing because of your day job, or because you're "so busy."


Sam Clemens Weighs In

Once again, on the notion of deleting the word nigger from Huckleberry Finn: My friend Jane sent me this link to a story in the Christian Science Monitor that quotes the reaction of Samuel L. Clemens to the news that the Brooklyn Public Library was considering banning Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer because of their "coarseness, deceitfulness, and mischievous practices."  Clemens wrote:
"I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote 'Tom Sawyer' & 'Huck Finn' for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave."
What a trouble-maker.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and Truth in Labeling

Political blogger Kevin Drum picks up a report from Publishers Weekly about a forthcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn in which all 219 uses of the word "nigger" will be replaced with the word "slave." The idea, of course, is to get Twain's classic (back) into classrooms in communities where the book has been deemed too offensive, in large part because of its use of the "N-word."

Somewhat to my surprise, the liberal Drum is okay with this, on the grounds that a bowdlerized Huck Finn is better than no Huck Finn at all: "[T]he only realistic alternative," he writes, "is that Huckleberry Finn vanishes from high schools and becomes a book taught solely at the university level. Maybe that's better. But I doubt it."

Not being a school teacher, I can't comment intelligently on the political pressures teachers face or on the maturity level of today's high school kids.  But I do have a problem with the bowdlerization plan on the grounds of its dishonesty.  The book students will read under the title "Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain" will not be the book Clemens wrote, and it does a disservice to students--not to mention the author--to falsely label it as such.

If we lack the nerve to confront our society's racist roots even in the pages of a book, then it's probably better to let Huck Finn vanish from the high school curriculum.  Anyway, it will likely have a greater allure for young minds if they first encounter it on the shelf of "prohibited books" rather than on a list of required texts.

Catching Up with the Critics

I've just finished reading the six essays on the role of literary criticism in last Sunday's Times Book Review, and once I got over groaning about the critics' self-congratulatory self-absorption, it got me thinking.

The first point that struck me was that literary criticism is the only type of criticism that discusses a particular art form in its own medium. Dance critics don't dance; music critics don't perform; critics of the visual arts don't paint--or maybe they do, but their criticism isn't presented in the same form as the thing being critiqued. Undoubtedly that's one of the main reasons critics seem to be so self-involved in the first place. They have to be concerned about their own writing since they're criticizing someone else's. That's really sticking your neck out and begging to have your head chopped off!

The second thing I started to think about was that there seems to be an essential difference between the role of the book reviewer and the role of the literary critic. In fact, we tend to call those who review books "reviewers," wheras we call those who review other art forms "critics." We don't say that so-and-so is the dance revewer or the theater reviewer, do we? So, in the end, it seems to me that the role of the book reviewer is to pass judgment on the style and subject of a particular piece of writing, while the role of the literary critic may be broader--to talk about a particular work or group of works in the context of other works to which they can be compared in some way and also to set them within a particular historic or personal context.

Am I getting too self-involved here? Have I fallen prey to having the aha moment that to everyone else is a duh?

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Great Book Giveaway--World Book Night!

There’s an exciting publishing event about to happen in England. According to an article in The Guardian, on the night of March 5, 2011, one million books will be given away to one million different people on one night.

Twenty thousand book lovers will have the chance to choose the title they most want to give away. Anyone can apply to be a giver, and each giver will be able to donate forty-eight copies of the book they love best to anyone they think might love the book too. Givers will choose from a list selected by booksellers, authors, and librarians.

The event is being backed by such prestigious authors as Margaret Atwood, John le Carre, JK Rowling, Dave Eggers, and Seamus Heaney, as well as well-known musicians, actors, and artists. Jamie Byng, chief of publisher Canongate, is the chairman of World Book Night.

Le Carre’s book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, is one of the books that will be given away. Le Carre is quoted as saying, “No writer can ask more than this: that his book should be handed in thousands to people who might otherwise never get to read it and will in turn hand it to thousands more. That his book should also pass from one generation to another as a story to challenge and excite each reader in his time—that is beyond his most ambitious dreams.”

Besides Le Carre’s book, a few of the other selected books are The Killing Floor by Lee Child; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; Selected Poems by Seamus Heaney; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; Beloved by Toni Morrison; and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

The printed book lives! Or as Robert McCrum says in a December article in the Guardian, “The printed word remains in rude good health, despite the merchants of doom.”

Organizers hope to go global in the future. First England, next America?