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, 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?