On the other hand…

7 04 2011

Caught this much more optimistic interview in the Atlantic with Marjorie Garber, the author of The Use and Abuse of Literature:

I don’t believe there’s a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it’s also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I’m very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I’m far from despairing and I don’t actually feel that there’s a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.

It’s nice to read something more up-beat and positive and focused on the act of reading of itself, as opposed to the publishing side of the discussion, which is sometimes so drenched with Kool-Aid on either side, one would think Congress has better chances of working together smoothly. Also, I think the last couple posts I’ve made have put me in the position of being a little snobby, but that’s not a position I really want or mean to take. I like to read for entertainment. I will buy every novel George R. R. Martin writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series without question (even though the 4th book just left me a little disappointed). I’m not saying that pleasure is all bad.

I do think, however, that truly meaningful works do more than just entertain. I think we can find those experiences in everything, but I do worry that left to just a mass-market, works with meaning and depth will be seen as “too hard” and will suffer diminished value to an even greater degree than they presently do. It’s the path of least resistance. In other news, people also don’t really go to see many independent and foreign films, they seldom go to art exhibits, and water is also wet. I find that a shame.

Garber’s focus on teaching “the power of reading” is what provides the ultimate glimmer of hope. That is, if it’s not neglected. It seems really important.

One part of the math

30 03 2011
Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

I dig Laura Miller so much. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in the book world.

Today she writes about the “particularly symmetrical bit of revolving door ballet” between the amazing self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who has signed on with St. Martin’s and Barry Eisler, who is leaving St. Martin’s to self-publish his own. Hocking sees the big houses as an opportunity to get a little help with the proofreading, editing, marketing and distribution of her works, thus giving her more time to write. Eisler sees the self-publishing route as a way to deal less with the hassles of big publishing and bring his novels more quickly to market, thus giving him more time to write. There’s plenty of Kool-Aid to drink on either side, by the way, but this little conundrum pops up and hits you in the jaw.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller raises the point that always resonates most with me:

With all due respect to Hocking and Eisler (and I’ve got plenty for both), I’d rather have “To Kill a Mockingbird” than any of their novels. Even though they are much better at interacting with their fans and orchestrating their careers than Harper Lee is, Lee (in my opinion, at least) is the better writer. Today’s conventional wisdom, in both traditional and indie publishing, decrees that someone like Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won’t find an audience unless she’s willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.

What this means for readers is troubling. Even if the next generation’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets published, the author’s inability to promote it effectively may prevent it from reaching the millions of readers who would otherwise embrace it. And while Harper Lee never published a second book, I want the writers whose work I admire to have as much time as possible to write as many books as they wish. As Hocking so astutely points out, the hours spent in self-promotion are hours spent not writing.

Miller is no doubt correct that this is a problem. One need look only at Jonathan Franzen’s non-trailer book trailer that was kind of about Freedom but mostly about how he hates book trailers to see shades of the disinclination and “profound discomfort” that some novelists have had towards the promotion and marketing business. I think that the artistically inspired and talent novelist’s reluctance to self-promote, which they’re obligated to do whether they self-publish or publish through a Big 6 house, is only part of that problem, however. The larger culprit : nobody will buy the good stuff. Good stuff isn’t commerically viable and the book market is a business. The market, on the whole, is not very good at picking quality. It’s very good at picking what provides the most entertainment value. These are not one in the same. Even when we have a Franzen moment (and no, I still haven’t read Freedom, but I swear I’ll get to it), I imagine that a part of the enthusiasm has less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with a nostalgia towards good writing.

This is where the division between a book market driven just by self-publishing (and its eventual king, Amazon) and one in which large houses still exist present very few good answers. Ideally, both remain viable on the long-term, but publishing houses at least put some of these works on the rolls and get them out in paper to sit on a library self until they’re discovered. I’m pretty concerned that the self-publishing, fast-to-market crowd will drown them entirely, but won’t even know it, presenting this curious, circular logic:

  1. The good stuff will rise to the top!
  2. So-and-so is a selling the most, so her stuff must be really good.
  3. How do you know it’s good? Because it’s selling the most.

The problem? So-and-so is going to be writing stories about vampires falling in love with werewolves for YA audiences and nothing more than endless variations on that theme. Just sayin’, if you want to sell books, that’s what does it. The idea that just writing better will result in these artistic works coming to the top, however, is a pipe-dream. The market just don’t play that way.

HarperCollins Puts Its Funeral Procession Into Overdrive

26 02 2011
2007 Disney Weekends #4: Darth Vader

"I'm altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further."

Just when you thought the publishing world didn’t need another fiasco, here one gets thrown in everyone’s lap. HarperCollins has elected to change the deal that they have with libraries in a mind-bogglingly myopic display of poor decision making. See, HarperCollins did allow ebooks to be distributed through Overdrive, which is a very clever system for treating ebooks like real books. A customer checks out a copy of the book via the Overdrive service, has that copy on their device for 3 weeks or so, and then the copy is removed and back on the virtual shelves for check out by another patron.

And it’s a system like that that has the potential to help libraries and publishers make the transition to the new digital world of books.

That is, until HarperCollins decided to go crazy and play the DRM card, as they announced that they will be limiting downloads of the book to 26 before nuking the copy completely. The library then has to buy another digital copy as we all pretend that 26 is the magic number of times that a physical book can be checked out before becoming an unreadable mess of tattered pages. The Overdrive scenario already employs the simulacra in allowing only so many simultaneous checkouts as the library owns, but this next step of treating the digital apple like a paper orange is too out there. Honestly, how much of the overall dollars going from libraries to publishers is from replacing books that they’ve already bought once before? I’m going to reckon that’s a pretty small piece of the pie.

Libraries and publishers need to be working together during this period of very rapid change or they’re going to kill themselves off. Overdrive is a great way that flows with the change and begin to define a space for libraries in the digital environment and that’s always been good for publishers, who need libraries because libraries produce readers. In other words, libraries overall are going to produce more value for publishing houses and books and reading than they’ll take away by checking out copies to patrons.

Instead of going with the change and looking for ways to make it better, however, HarperCollins appears to have gotten spooked and now stands with its arms outstretched against the oncoming train. This is not good for libraries and not good for them either. If you try to rein in change, you’ll just get flattened. DRM, folks, is bad. Real bad. What better way to encourage reading and readership than to strangle libraries with crippleware. Meanwhile, you can almost hear Amazon giggling in the corner, because they’ll be the big winners in all of this (especially since they’re the ones trying to actually make it EASIER for readers to read books).

Also, the entire fiasco is playing out over twitter now under the hashtag #hcod. Enjoy.

Aftershock: Not the most uplifting first read of the year

5 01 2011

I’m sure that Robert Reich, in the third and final section of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future meant for his suggestions on how America must move to come out of the Great Recession and back into a period of prosperity to sound uplifting and utterly possible. Would that it were so, but it’s hard to see an upside in the current climate. It’s really a depressing scenario overall and this is the type of book that linger and gnaws at you while you try to sleep the night after reading it.

The good part is that Reich’s a very solid and skilled writer. I find his voice on the radio (he’s a regular on APM’s Marketplace) both charming and grating at the same time and I could hear his voice in my head as I read. This made for a fast read as I was simultaneously carried by the pace of his voice but also by a desire to have it over. Sort of a weird little thing I have. But it is a good read, not nearly as dry as you might expect and very thought-provoking and approachable.

The basic premise and the central assumption that Reich’s operating with is income inequality, which is what he blames for the long-term effect that this recession hopefully won’t, but probably will have. It’s the reason that middle/lower class Americans accumulated so much debt, it’s the reason they lost their homes, and it’s the reason that we’re looking at a jobless recovery. He summarizes it all in one short and succinct paragraph:

The fundamental problem is that Americans no longer have the purchasing power to buy what the U.S. economy is capable of producing. The reason is that a larger and larger portion of total income has been going to the top. What’s broken is the basic bargain linking pay to production. The solution is to remake the bargain. (p. 75)

He makes note that after WWII, economic growth resulted in higher wages and living standards for everyone, including those at the top and he’s drawing off the well-established fact that in the last 30 years or so, only the upper 5% or so of earners has shared in the economic growth of the country. Everyone else’s wages and salaries, adjusting for inflation and what have you, have remained more or less flat. This results in all sorts of problems which he outlines thoroughly.

On the whole, the book is cleanly organized into three sections: an examination of the problem, what will happen if we don’t fix it (spooky), and how we can fix it in his view. Nothing to it, plenty of stuff there to agree with. Plenty of stuff there to disagree with. Ain’t life grand?

For the most part, he makes his assumptions very clearly known and only once or twice does he make a blatantly spurious connection between facts. Maybe nitpicky on my part, but he skirts the edge between correlation and causality a couple times. This is, I might add, something that just about every book I’ve ever seen on the subject does and his are pretty rare and pretty minor. For instance, and I draw this one out just because it stuck out in my mind, he links the dramatic increase in the sales of sleep aids, special mattresses and all sorts of sleeping medications to economic worries of  the middle class. That market, he reports, has increased some 25% or so (I’m not looking up the exact number he quoted, but it’s about there). He qualifies it as saying that that must be due, at least in some part, to economics, which is pretty flimsy. I mean, it must also be due, at least in some part, to the fact that someone convinced Snooki to write a goddamn novel and Simon and Schuster published it (and no, I can’t let it go).

I think it’s a very quick and approachable read. I’m no economist, but I’ll admit before that I’m also not a Wall Street banker and don’t have to be. I’d think if you are a Wall Street banker, you might not like it very much. You might not like it at all, depending on your politics, but he deliberately tries not to make this work into a partisan, finger-pointing debate. He’s keeping it on the real economic philosophy level and I really have to praise it for that. I would say, however, that it was probably not the best read to start off the New Year. New Year’s is supposed to be about hope and frankly, the reality is a bit more daunting even if Reich’s ending is on a very positive note extolling all Americans for being a reasonable people. We’ll have to see, but I do think it’s an interesting and, at least on that level, helpful perspective to have.

E-Book Publishing Ideological Battles?

4 01 2011

Everyone and their cousin spent most of 2010 wondering, and in many cases worrying, about the changing face of publishing and how it’s going to affect those seeking traditional publication via an agent and publishing house versus those many adopters of self-publishing through ebooks, Amazon, CreateSpace and Smashwords. The feeling I immediately get now, as those prominent names who weigh into the discussion have as much meaning associated with them as the positions they espouse, is that the debate is taking on an unfortunate ideological character that undermines the chance to really get to the heart of the issue itself.

The problem, of course, is that there’s never any way to totally escape ideology, especially once you get the market involved. Market capitalism has a way of gumming up most things just as we appear to be close to understanding them. Because the debate concerns only the financial viability of publishing in the long-term, we fail to consider whether that’s a good thing or not. The latter question, I’d argue, is the more important one, but we all know how that debate plays out: market concerns trump everything. The market has the air of infallibility. The market rules and values itself only.

The grounds for the debate have never been more clear, however. With ebook sales outpacing printed sales to a staggering degree and the mind-blowing press release from Amazon that the Kindle has become their best-selling product of all time, selling more units than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s no wonder that we will have to look back on 2010 as the year that e-readers have come into their own. And, we haven’t seen what 2011 has in store.

Which is why the topic of whither the publisher is going to become increasingly relevant this year. This morning I came across an  E-Read’s post by Richard Curtis, which asked the question of whether authors make good publishers. He cited Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin and, apparently, used an out-of-date quote by J.A. Konrath. I found the information by Doctorow very interesting, as his is a name that could sell just about anything, but his feeling is that it’s not worth the time he loses to creation when he must set aside a large portion of his day to marketing, distribution and the other million tasks that traditional publishing houses take over for authors. Konrath’s point is even more interesting, however, as he responds separately to Curtis’s post and underscores how deep in trouble traditional publishers are. With authors like Amanda Hocking selling over 100,000 ebooks in a month…. well, it’s hard to argue with the market. I think a lot of authors could feel happy about that.

The question that’s skipped over, however, is how Amanda Hocking fared versus those published by traditional houses. The answer? Pretty damn good. The first book of her trilogy, Switched, is currently #12 on the Kindle sales ranks, right behind Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Cross Fire by James Patterson. Of course, that doesn’t include how many print copies both authors sold via Amazon and I think it a rather safe assumption that the gap is probably a bit wider, but nonetheless, as the volume of book sales switches to an electronic format, that number and that rank are going to be increasingly relevant.

Still, it’s not surprising which side Konrath is on the calculus of publishing’s future. He’s become a voice for self-publishing in the new environment and is Amazon’s poster-child for the success of their product and their future hopes to muscle their way into the publishing market. Konrath coming in on the side of self-publishing is no more surprising than Rush Limbaugh shaking his fist and proclaiming that labor unions are some huge conspiracy. The name’s as good as the argument. Similarly, the commentary on Curtis’s post is pretty interesting, though-provoking and probably correct, but again, not very surprising. Curtis took a half-hearted stab at self-publishing and he reaped the whirlwind when the “Self-Publishing Emergency Response Team” jumped in like the SWAT to take him down. Necessary? Maybe. Classy? Not so much. It’s clear where the passion is, though.

Which all resulted in Curtis’s updated post this morning and underscored that he’s not really feeling much like the traditionalist (picture the pitchfork-bearing crowd screaming this in the same tone as heretic) that some of the commenters were making him out to be.

Again, that’s not to say that all of the comments there were bad. Some, even most, were pretty good. A few were borderline rude and a few (most comments that said he’s just a publishing house shill) were pretty useless. I think we should strive as an internet to be more respectful, considerate, imaginative and thoughtful in our discourse. Good luck with that, I know.

However, back to the topic at hand, we’re still only settling for the low-hanging fruit of the best method for selling genre fiction. That might be good enough to sink the traditional publishing houses in its own right, but there are larger things to consider. What about those services that traditional publishing houses do provide? Personally, I see the market eventually demanding more and more quality work done by professionals, designing covers, doing marketing and publicity, not to mention editing, as opposed to self-taught authors taking all of that on themselves. I’m sure some authors are much happier editing themselves. As a reader and bit of an amateur critic, I’m more than a little less sold on that particular idea.

Furthermore, if anyone can just upload their novel, what’s to prevent the same flood of bad fiction that chokes up publishing houses’ slush piles from gumming up the Kindle store? The market may be the one that chooses the winner, but the market isn’t very discriminating. Left to its own devices, the market does little to promote creativity and instead produces more and more clones of more and more accessible quality. It offers few surprises. It offers more young adult urban vampire fantasy. It punishes cruelly those who take too many risks. What is needed is the role of the professional critic far more than the opinion of random person #12,196 writing his or her Amazon review. That’s me being snobby. Forgive me, I just want more people who know what they’re talking about in the driver’s seat and I suspect that the market rather always chooses the path of least resistance. I do understand, however, that we’re fast approaching a pure democracy of words out there and, honestly, I’m not totally in love with the idea.

Of course, when I looked up and saw that Snooki’s book is due to come out today, I wonder really if both publishing routes aren’t completely lost to the market already anyway. That’s Simon and Schuster, folks. If publishing houses are willing to so easily give up their role as the “gatekeepers of quality literary production,” who are we all to argue with them?


30 12 2010

Came across this in the L.A. Times this morning: Quirk books is going to be publishing the Meowmorphosis, a mashup where Gregor Samsa is turned not into a cockroach, but into an adorable kitten.

I found the first several mashups coming out of the Quirk to be really inventive and fun ideas. There’s me proving that I’m not a total stick in the mud. But, honestly, it’s getting to the point that it’s just shtick, isn’t it? My wife recently read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I somehow managed to score off the new fiction shelf at the library. She said it was pretty fun, a fast read, and entertaining and all very good things. I, myself, would’ve liked to have read it, but as I’ve mentioned about 43 times in the past few posts, I sort of fell off the reading wagon for a bit.

Anyway, I’m not sure the Meowmorphosis is really speaking to me. It’s clever, but I’m a little tired of clever being enough for a book idea. Clever is really trying to become a substitute for substance. It’s pastiche, but doesn’t create anything good. It’s too much play. Not saying books are all serious bidness, but if it’s all a gag, doesn’t that get old? I’ve got a book idea: War and Peace and Aliens. There. I’ll be looking for my book contract any day now.

This after my sister in law asked me this morning if I had any good book recommendations right now, which I don’t. It’s not the time for new books lately. The bestsellers on the NY Times Book Review are the same bestsellers they have been for weeks. Nothing’s creating a lot of news and hype. This is an opportunity, though, to reach back and read older stuff that might’ve been missed. Discover something new. Something more fun.

Side-note: I’m leaving to visit my parents today for the weekend and looking forward to seeing 2010 come to a close, so I probably won’t be blogging much (but who knows, I do have access to a computer, so it might happen). At any rate, 2010 has been just a real shit and I’m happy that it’s nearly over. So, wishing everyone a wonderfully Happy New Year and a great 2011.

Reading Update

29 12 2010

As I mentioned before, I’ve fallen woefully behind in my reading, but I do think a little update to the Goodreads shelf is in order. My plan is to do a little better with this in the next year and actually set aside time to do the things I want and need to do. It’s not uncommon for me to set a billion goals for myself and often my reach exceeds my grasp. Still, as far as my personal reading goes, I am making a lot of use of the library and I do pick up a few books here and there:

Of particular note, I’m not really reading a lot of fiction right now. I finished Boneshaker by Cherie Priest a few weeks ago, as I had been reading it on my Kindle while at the gym, but other than that, I’ve not really touched anything fictional at all. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Boneshaker and thought it a fun read, but it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. I did think that Cherie Priest came up with a pretty compelling character in Briar Wilkes (who I kept calling Briar Rose in my mind. I just couldn’t get past it and I’ll admit the constant interrupting fault is more my fault than Priest’s, but it is what it is.), but the rest of the cast of characters did very little for me and, in particular, Zeke (Briar’s son) irked me quite a bit. Of course, I’m not looking forward to having my own headstrong teenager either and I hope when the time does come, that at least mine won’t run off into a zombie-infested plague cloud place. It is interesting, however, that you can really lay out Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero with Priest’s plot and it snaps neatly into place. So, kudos to Priest for telling a really well-formed and well-paced story.

The current Kindle read is still A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3). I’ve started and stopped this one so many times now, it normally takes me a day or two to figure out what’s going on, but I don’t yet feel like I’ve completely lost the whole story. I will get through it. I will! Like most of the Kindle books, I tend to read it at the gym during rest periods or when I’m on an elliptical, so the reading is slow but does keep me fairly entertained. And I like the book and I want to get through it so I can feel that I’m properly enjoying the show when it starts on HBO. Time’s just always a real factor.

Enough of that, though. Right now I’m slugging through Michael Kimmel’s very interesting historical analysis of American masculinity in Manhood in America: A Cultural History. I’m only about 1/3 of the way in because it’s not very light reading and is one of those things I simply haven’t set aside enough time for during the day/early morning. I’m not very good at reading in bed anyway, but my attempts with this one have led to me peacefully snoozing after about 2 pages. Time being set aside for this gets put on the calendar asap. What I have read so far has been utterly fascinating. Kimmel is one of, if not the leading scholar on masculinity studies in America and I’m trying to make my way through his work during the coming year. Best quote so far: “The great whale is both the more powerful man against which masculinity is measured and, simultaneously, the archetypal woman – carnal, sexually insatiable, other. What are we to make, after all, of the fact that Ahab, who had lost his ‘leg’ trying to plunge his ‘six inch blade’ into the whale, in now engaged in a ‘crazed flight to prove his manhood’ Moby Dick is ‘the most extravagant projection of male penis envy’ in American literature” (Kimmel 69). Nothing like a little Freudian analysis of Melville to get the motor running. Good damn stuff.

I also checked out/am checking out Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert Reich. I’ve had this one on hold from the Nashville Library since it was released and my turn in the queue came up early in December. I feel like a total schlub for not just plowing through it like I should. It’s not a difficult read, but with everything else, I’ve just not found the time and I feel guilty holding it since so many people were waiting on it. That’s just the fate of the hold queue in Nashville, though. As for why, I’m not real interested in delving too deeply into politics here, but I enjoy hearing Robert Reich’s perspective on Marketplace and I’m interested in the economy. I also think he’s a very good writer.

A final couple notes. I scored both the Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset and the 2011 Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition for Christmas. The former is something I’ve been meaning to read for a while and this just seals the deal. The case looks very nice on my desk and is also helping to keep the few books and papers I have there upright. My wife steamed straight through the entire trilogy in about 4 days and wouldn’t stop talking about it, so that encourages me to hop to it.

The latter book is also on my desk and is just a must-have. Beats going to the library to research markets. Now I can do it right from home. Glad I got it for Christmas, too, because I’m far too cheap to buy it on my own.

So, that’s where I am in my personal reading and I’m going to try, again, to make a better practice of reading more, reading more regularly, updating Goodreads more and writing more reviews here.