When is a book out of print?

More on Simon & Schuster’s power grab

…with the advent of technologies like print-on-demand, publishers have been able to reduce the number of back copies that they keep in warehouses. Simon & Schuster, which until now has required that a book sell a minimum number of copies through print-on-demand technology to be deemed in print, has removed that lower limit in its new contract.

In effect, that means that as long as a consumer can order a book through a print-on-demand vendor, that book is still deemed in print, no matter how few copies it sells.

The Authors Guild says that is not fair. “If a book is only available in print-on-demand, it certainly means the publisher isn’t doing much to promote the book,” said Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild. “We’re not against the technology; we’re just against the technology being used to lock up rights.”

Mr. Aiken said that authors often ask to take back the rights of out-of-print books so they can place them with new publishers and give their work new life. He cited the example of Paula Fox, a novelist who had six out-of-print novels when Jonathan Franzen, the author of “The Corrections,” cited her work in an essay in Harpers Magazine. Ms. Fox took back the rights for her novels, resold them to W. W. Norton and revived her career.

For mid-list authors (and people like me, who aspire to be mid-list), The Authors Guild has been able to bring many OOP books back to life with its Backinprint.com program, which has also made Lazaruses out of neglected works by masters like Mary McCarthy’s The Oasis and Thornton Wilder’s American Characteristics.

(Thanks to the MSM for letting me be a parasite and cite it on this site.)

American Academy of Arts and Letters Awards announced

I always look forward to seeing the annual ad on the New York Times book page announcing the American Academy of Arts and Letters new members and awards recipients. Today’s the day, and although some of the awards are in music, architecture and the visual arts, many are in literature. I’m thrilled to see a passel of my favorite writers on the list:

New Academy Members
Deborah Eisenberg
Mary Gordon
Allan Gurganus
Jim Harrison
Robert Irwin
Harper Lee
Annie Proulx
Steven Stucky
Billie Tsien

Gold Medal for Fiction
John Updike

Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts
Michael R. Bloomberg

Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story
Charles Baxter

Academy Awards in Literature
Joan Acocella
Charles D’Ambrosio
Barbara Ehrenreich
David Markson
Robert Morgan
Joan Silber
William T. Vollmann
Dean Young

Benjamin H. Danks Award in Drama
Adam Rapp

E.M. Forster Award in Literature
Jez Butterworth

Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction
Tony D’Souza, Whiteman

Addison M. Metcalf Award in Literature
Suji Kwock Kim

Rome Fellowships in Literature
Junot Diaz
Sarah Manguso

Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award in Literature
Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document

Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award in Literature
Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Congratulations, all.

Oh, and if you have never seen the Academy’s gorgeous headquarters, along with its sister institutions, on Audubon Terrace in way upper Manhattan, you owe it to yourself to visit this architectural marvel some summer afternoon.

Authors Guild Alert: Simon & Schuster Rights Grab

I joined the Authors Guild in 1978. It’s a terrific organization, one I’m always glad to pay annual dues to. Its Backinprint.com program has brought back four of my out-of-print hardcover books in print-on-demand paperbacks; I’ve got a really sweet deal on an author’s website through the Guild; and, before I became a lawyer myself, got great legal advice from their counsel. I urge everyone who’s published a book to join the Authors Guild.

Anyway, they also send out e-mail alerts from time to time. This one just showed up in my inbox:

Simon & Schuster has changed its standard contract language in an attempt to retain exclusive control of books even after they have gone out of print. Until now, Simon & Schuster, like all other major trade publishers, has followed the traditional practice in which rights to a work revert to the author if the book falls out of print or if its sales are low.

The publisher is signaling that it will no longer include minimum sales requirements for a work to be considered in print. Simon & Schuster is apparently seeking nothing less than an exclusive grant of rights in perpetuity. Effectively, the publisher would co-own your copyright.

The new contract would allow Simon & Schuster to consider a book in print, and under its exclusive control, so long as it’s available in any form, including through its own in-house database — even if no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores.

Other major trade publishers are not seeking a similar perpetual grant of rights.

We urge you to consider your options carefully:

1. Remember that if you sign a contract with Simon & Schuster that includes this clause, they’ll say you’re wed to them. Your book will live and die with this particular conglomerate.

2. Ask your agent to explore other options. Other publishers are not seeking an irrevocable grant of rights.

3. If you have a manuscript that may be auctioned, consider asking your agent to exclude Simon & Schuster imprints unless they agree before the auction to use industry standard terms.

4. Let us know if other major publishers follow suit. Any coordination among publishers on this matter has serious legal implications.

Feel free to forward and post this message in its entirety.

The Authors Guild (www.authorsguild.org) is the nation’s oldest and largest organization of published book authors.

Miriam Sagan: The Survivor

It seems weird to me now that there were only two women of the ten “Young Writers I Admire” article from 1979’s A Critical (Ninth) Assembling – and no writers of color – but in any case, Miriam Sagan was a standout poet on the 1970s small press scene.

A graduate of Harvard with an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University, Miriam published her work in many of the same little magazines that Tom Whalen, Peter Cherches and I did. Her work attracted me from the beginning with its deceptively matter-of-fact voice, its subtle lyricism, its sense of wisdom and humor.

Miriam was one of the editors of the legendary Boston area-based Aspect Magazine, the 1969 brainchild of the late one-man phenomenon Ed Hogan. I’d meet Ed and Miriam at the yearly small press New York Book Fairs in the 70s, meeting at such weekend venues as the Customs House, the Park Avenue armory and the parking lot under Lincoln Center.

Aspect lasted through the whole decade of the 1970s, morphing from a political to a literary magazine in its long and storied run. In 1980 Ed shut Aspect down and he, Miriam and others founded Zephyr Press, still active as a publisher today although Ed’s death in a 1997 canoeing accident definitely caused it to break stride for several years. (Full disclosure: Aspect‘s 1978 double fiction issue contained a story by me and the first critical article about my work, Susan Lloyd McGarry’s “Twenty-seven Statements I Could Make About Richard Grayson,” and Zephyr published my 1983 collection I Brake for Delmore Schwartz).

In 1982 Miriam moved from the Boston area to first San Francisco and then Santa Fe, where Miriam has made her home since 1984. She’s published over twenty books, including Searching for a Mustard Seed: A Young Widow’s Unconventional Story, which won the award for best memoir from Independent Publishers for 2004; her poetry collections Rag Trade, The Widow’s Coat, The Art of Love and Aegean Doorway; and a novel, Coastal Lives.

Miriam has also co-edited such anthologies as New Mexico Poetry Renaissance and Another Desert: The Jewish Poetry of New Mexico and co-authored with her late husband Robert Winson Dirty Laundry: 100 Days in a Zen Monastery: A Joint Diary. Robert Creeley called her book Unbroken Line: Writing in the Lineage of Poetry “a work of quiet compassion and great heart.” Miriam has written a poetry column for Writer’s Digest and articles for the Albuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico Magazine, and she directs the creative writing program at Santa Fe Community College

I’m not often in touch with Miriam these days, but we did catch up after nearly 15 years when she came to South Florida to give a talk at the Palm Beach County public library in Boca Raton in November 2003. And last year I got to watch her in action as a poetry workshop leader and lecturer when she was a featured guest at the Celebration of Writing at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix, where I taught AP English.

I wasn’t surprised what a fine teacher she proved to be, because Miriam has always been as good with people as she is with words, the kind of writer on whom nothing is lost. Driving her to the Miami airport during her 1982 visit, I detoured to show her the decaying mock-Arabian Nights architecture of slummy downtown Opa-Locka – only to open a literary magazine a year later and find that in our five-minute drive through town she’d seen enough to create a terrific, haunting, melancholy poem.

Last year in Phoenix, I got to meet Miriam’s second husband, Rich. (He was her high school boyfriend, I think.) Here’s her poem “Remarriage”:

My second husband says
He wishes my first husband
Would get married again—

My first husband
Has been dead for years,
But I dream about him.

At first, he was angry,
Or calling on the phone
Wanting to come home

But I was already
With the man who would become
My second husband.

Recently, I began to dream
My dead husband was dating
A very pretty—

But obviously not Jewish—
Blonde woman,
She seemed very nice.

My second husband
Was getting sick of my dreams—
He said he hoped they’d get married.

In my next dream
My first husband told me
He was indeed marrying her

But he enraged me
By inviting his sisters
But not our daughter to the wedding.

My friends politely mention
They think I am in denial
After all, my first husband

Is dead, not getting married.
But it is as if
He has some kind of life

That goes on without me
Perhaps because I have had
So much go on without him

Tom Whalen: The Most Underrated

The “oldest” writer, and by far the most underrated, from my 1979 “Young Writers I Admire” article was Tom Whalen, who was barely 30. I praised his poetry chapbook The Spare Key and the stories I’d seen in some of the same little mags I also got published in: Nantucket Review, Interstate, Panache, Laughing Bear, Iron – as well as his editorship of New Orleans’ Lowlands Review (the first publisher of soon-to-be-household-names like Madison Smartt Bell, then a Princeton undergrad).

Later Tom would become a close friend when he asked me to be a guest teacher at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he founded and directed the most rigorous high school creative program in America from 1977 to 1999, giving teenagers the equivalent of a pre-undergrad MFA. Named New Orleans Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 1984, Tom has published literally hundreds of stories, poems, prose poems and reviews, as well as works of literary and film criticism and screenplays. It’s hard to think of a major literary publication of the last thirty years that hasn’t published Tom Whalen’s astonishing work, which The Review of Contemporary Fiction has called “thickly lyrical and meditative, interrogating the relation of language to things, of books to life.”

Now retired in Germany (but retired like I am — in other words, still working part-time, Tom as a visiting professor of film and North American Studies at the Universities of Stuttgart and Freiburg, respectively), Tom gets my vote for the undisputed world champion in the heavyweight division of Writer You Should Know About But Don’t.


So you never heard of the little mags I mentioned in the first paragraph? Since Tom’s first story appeared in INTRO, the AWP anthology of graduate student work, when he was studying at Hollins back in 1972, he’s endured, like Dilsey, while many of the publications he’s appeared in have gone by the wayside. What has he done lately? See his recent stories “History Lesson” in AGNI Review, “Prose Piece for Martha Stewart” at Pindeldyboz and “Surviving Death” at Barrelhouse, for one. (Okay, I guess that’s three.)

The author of Roithamer’s Universe and other novels, Elongated Figures and other story collections, Winter Coat and other poetry collections, co-author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Afterlife and distinguished translator of Robert Walser, Tom has two new books out:

In the story collection An Exchange of Letters, just released by Parsifal Editions, levels of reality are exchanged, shuffled, made to dance, fuse and vanish. In “After the Rain”’s post-apocalyptic landscape, “Children congregate around the puddles and point to the reflection of the planes crashing at the water’s edges.” The eponymous “Jorinda and Joringel” (from the tale by the Brothers Grimm) appear trapped forever in their past, but the generative nature of the form of their discourse resists despair. “Report from the Dump,” “Twenty-six Novels” and “Critical Tendencies of the Middle Ages” present Tom’s chiseled prose in all its remarkable diversity.

And just out in the last couple of weeks (I got my copy in the mail only a few days ago) is Dolls, Tom’s winning entry in the 2006 Caketrain Chapbook Competition, judged by one of my favorite poets, Denise Duhamel (we’re old friends, I’m old friends with Tom, but like too many of you, Denise had never heard of Tom before she discovered she’d selected his anonymous manuscript). This is what she has to say about Dolls:

“Baudelaire wrote that ‘the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys.’ Rilke claimed that when children realize that their dolls are inanimate, that their toys have no souls at all, they grow disgusted with their dolls. Enter Tom Whalen….these beautifully crafted prose poems are as animated and frightening as voodoo dolls—think the American Girl collection in the hands of Cindy Sherman. Dolls delighted and scared me beyond belief.”


The penultimate word on Dolls comes from Sven Birkerts:

“Tom Whalen’s book is malign and unsettling and darkly outré – he re-Wittgensteins the world that used to be the case through the impassive, but vigilant, eyes of his dolls, and returns it to us strikingly changed.”

The last word on Tom Whalen comes from me: Don’t just sit there, read him. What have you been waiting 35 years for?