bea2014women

BookExpo 2014: The Future of Gender Balance and Why Conversations Need to Grow Up

It became clear on Friday morning at a BookExpo America panel devoted to “Packaging, Positioning and Reviewing in the Fiction Marketplace” that all the VIDA counting and the justifiable grandstanding is getting in the way of building on heartening truths: namely, that women have gained significant (and in many cases dominant) ground as authors, as editorial tastemakers, and as reviewers in the past year.

“I met two of my counterparts,” said New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul. “The books editor of the Chicago Tribune is a woman. The Los Angeles Times editor is a woman. USA Today is a woman. People is a woman. New York Magazine is a woman. There are more women book critics than there are men. So that’s kind of the good news, I think.”

Paul picked up a recent issue of the Review and shuffled through the table of contents. “Woman, woman, woman, man, woman.” She claimed that there was nothing deliberate in these review assignments. It was a practice that the previous editor, Sam Tanenhaus, also engaged in. So is there really gender bias?

“I agree,” said Jennifer Weiner. “A lot of it is affinity, not bias.” While commending the rise of women editors, Weiner insinuated a sinister gender bias that emerged from the top. “I think if you gave us the roster of who those women report to, it might sound different. I wonder if they answer, at the end of the day, to men. Does that matter or make an impact?”

Later in the panel, Paul was to correct Weiner, claiming that the Review had full editorial independence. “Not once did Jill [Abramson] or Bill [Keller] ever interfere with my editorial choices.” And while that may be true, it became clear during the conversation that Paul doesn’t really reflect on what her editorial choices mean. Still, I’ll take Weiner’s speculations — even when woefully wrong, such as the notion that men’s reading habits are limited because they are guided by cover design or that people are somehow shamed by what they read on the subway — as a more useful indicator of gender bias than Paul’s high-handed remarks. Because unlike Paul, Weiner was willing to use case examples to bookend her thorny ideological sentiments.

illtakeyouthereWeiner cited the wildly divergent covers for Joyce Carol Oates’s I’ll Take You There — the Ecco hardcover a striking drawing, the paperback being composed of flowers — as an example of how drastically publishers are willing to alter their covers for women audiences. And she mentioned her own battles with Target, who demanded that the cover for her new book All Fall Down be tinted blue, with the street in Philadelphia considered too gritty for audiences coveting the usual sunny hues.

“As publishers, you’re working with the availability of images,” said William Morrow Executive Editor Rachel Kahan. She pinpointed one big reason why some of the women’s fiction covers all look the same: the clip art is usually comprised of skinny white yoga models, not regular people. This may account for some of the whitewashing seen on YA book covers and why every book about Africa tends to look the same. When the images used to sell women’s books don’t resemble what’s contained between the covers, much less a reader’s real world, then it seems only natural to ask why we’re still talking about gender balance. The issue is far more complex.

There are still disheartening yet treatable statistics. Moderator Rebecca Mead looked into the gender bias of the New York Times‘s daily reviewers over the course of one year and discovered that it still skewed mostly male: Janet Maslin reviewed 42 male authors and 23 women. Dwight Garner reviewed 43 men and 21 women. Michiko Kakutani reviewed 69 men and 16 women. But the issue is largely a matter of waiting for the old boys to croak (namely, Robert Silvers) and for the VIDA pie charts to include more matching sets of semicircles. [UPDATE: Please see 6/2/14 Update below on the gender ratio numbers. Please see my independent audit reflecting troubling gender parity.]

Covers, said Paul, have never factored into the Review‘s assignments. I already knew this. So I took the liberty of asking a provocative question at the panel’s end, pointing out to a recent Facebook thread which dared to ask, “Large novels (600+ pages) by women whose dominant mode isn’t narrative realism? I can only think of two offhand: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.” I then cited five literary and/or risk-taking titles that The New York Times Book Review had not reviewed:

  1. Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  2. Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine: (publication date: May 13, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)
  3. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing: (publication date: April 15, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing mere capsule)
  4. Mona Simpson’s Casebook: (publication date: April 15, a review had not been published until this afternoon and I obviously did not see it)
  5. Cynthia Bond’s Ruby: (publication date: April 29, link to screenshot of NYTBR search showing no results)

Paul claimed, “We’ve reviewed four of the five.” [UPDATE: See 6/14/14 UPDATE below.] But it’s clear from the evidence that she was either lying through her teeth or is now so hopelessly slipshod at her job that reviews of books that aren’t huge will never run on a timely basis. That would certainly fit the Review‘s abominably dilatory standards for two National Book Award winners: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (published August 30, 2011, reviewed December 30, 2011) and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule (published November 25, 2010, reviewed by Maslin and profiled by Chip McGrath, but never reviewed in the NYTBR). I mentioned these two names. Paul brushed it off.

I asked what could be done to encourage more wild, edgy, and ambitious literature from women? Books from outsiders. Ambitious books written by women that can be included, now that women are, thank the heavens, storming the gates. For this, I was informed later on Twitter that I was insulting. An amental agent, whose superficial sensibilities are writ large in her most recent sale (“a guidebook for those of us who can’t afford diamond encrusted pacifers or superyachts but still aspire to our own version of the glamorous life”), also misquoted and condemned me as a moron:

And the Women’s Media Group suggested that I was oppressing the room with my loud voice:

The mystery of plentiful 600 page novels written by women and not rooted in realism — one that I’d actually like to know the answer to, which is why I bothered to ask it — remains unsolved. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was offered. (Sorry, it’s 496 pages.) And so was Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which many in the Facebook thread insisted did not count. The reason I asked the question was not to suggest that women couldn’t write ambitious novels, but to get people to consider why women aren’t allowed to. As this Wikipedia list of longest novels points out, only Ayn Rand and Madeleine de Scudéry have been permitted doorstoppers. And I’m hardly the only one ruminating on this.

But the goal is no longer to have challenging discussions, to consider opposing points of view (or even the strange exotic men who enjoy reading both Weiner and Knausgaard), or to ask uncomfortable questions. The goal of organizations like the Women’s Media Group and people like Pamela Paul is to drown out the outside voices because they’re too busy congratulating themselves over opinions and sentiments they’ve already made their minds about and have no intention of changing. But I do want to thank Rachel Kahan, who made an attempt to address my question after the stunned hush, Jennifer Weiner (who has always listened to my loud voice with respect), and Rebecca Mead, who was a good moderator. These three women understood that I was not the enemy. I’m not so sure about the other ones.

[6/2/14 UPDATE: I’ve been informed by a reader that the gender ratio numbers from the three New York Times daily book reviewers were incorrect. I have performed a full and detailed independent audit (links to all reviews and methodology are provided in article) for the period between June 1, 2013 and May 30, 2014. The breakdown is as follows: Dwight Garner — Male Authors: 45.5 (65.9%), Female Authors: 23.5 (34.1%); Michiko Kakutani — Male Authors: 37.5 (69.4%), Female Authors: 16.5 (30.6%); Janet Maslin — Male Authors: 68 (68.7%), Female Authors: 31 (31.3%).]

[6/14/14 UPDATE: Two weeks after the panel, two more reviews of the five books that I cited to Pamela Paul appeared in the June 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times Book Review: Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeleine was reviewed by Dayna Tortorici and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing was reviewed by Malie Meloy. This brings the total up to three books, out of the “four out of five” claim Paul uttered at the panel. While I approve of these coverage decisions, this nevertheless brings up another sizable problem at the NYTBR: the tendency for reviews to run quite late after their publication dates. I will take up this issue with hard data in a future post. Pamela Paul continues to refuse to discuss these issues, as does public editor Margaret Sullivan. I stand by my “mendacious” charge until Paul produces a fourth review.]

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How BookExpo America Turned Into A Ponzi Scheme for Booksellers, Exhibitors, and Readers

Imagine being forced at gunpoint to attend the world’s most useless corporate retreat without a compassionate euthanasist offering suicide capsules and you have a pretty good idea of what BookExpo America has turned into. The conference is now so cheap that the badges no longer come with lanyards, leaving one to pin the back of the badge to one’s coat using the feeblest metal imaginable. The printed schedules don’t list all the sessions, much less offer a detailed description. The website is unnavigable, leading one to use arcane Google skills to extract the most basic details. And the information offered at ABA is less helpful than the world’s most ineptly written self-help book.

In short, this trade show is now a racket. And everybody knows it. On Wednesday afternoon, John Ingram looked especially embarrassed to be spouting off such horseshit as “To me, it’s about engaging community and creating innovation” at “The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers” panel. And I genuinely felt sorry for him. Was there any need for Ingram’s time to be wasted like this? There was no mention of the recent Amazon-Hachette dispute, except in knowingly veiled code. And that approach seemed especially condescending given that the great and irreplaceable Maya Angelou had passed away that morning.

I couldn’t help but contrast this panel against Richard Russo’s candid and inspiring words (with much healthy vitriol directed at Amazon) to booksellers only two years before. Indeed, BookExpo now carries a bizarre prohibitionist instinct. For the first time ever, there are signs forbidding people from filming the panels, as if tired sentiments about the “either and” future of print and digital were on the level of Coronado discovering the Seven Cities of Gold. The annoyingly peppy moderator Dominique Raccah kept referencing a “pre-interview” she conducted with the five participants, as if this atoned for the vapid predictability of her questions. I had to stop myself from approaching the stage to pin a gold star on her lapel for the job well done she courted. I counted twelve disappointed souls storming out, the telltale screech of the heavy doors competing with the unfathomably soft levels of the amplification system. The crowd was half as numerous as last year.

Now I’m no stranger to complaining about BookExpo, but I’ve always found something that I could take away from it. Yet this year is easily the worst of the nine I’ve attended. It is slapdash, slipshod, motivated by a kind of naked avarice more cartoonish than The Wolf of Wall Street. It was clear from the giant posters devoted to Jodi Picoult and David Mitchell that the chief goal is to eliminate the trade element entirely and turn this into a Comic-Con for books.

How did it get like this?

Well, BookExpo went after the book trade until much of the small and midsize exhibitors could no longer afford to pay for the exorbitant booths (the pricing remains secret, but like anything in business, getting the right rates are about who you know). Then BookExpo somehow persuaded bloggers to pay for the privilege of feeling special with the Book Bloggers Convention (still happening this year, but will it be around in 2015?), fleecing these amateurs of their hard-earned pin money. But the bloggers aren’t nearly as plentiful or as influential as they used to be. BookExpo remains stuck with Jacob Javits Center through 2017. So what do you do? You turn to ordinary readers, viewing them as boobs that fit the Barnum ideal. You charge them $30 a pop, get eight thousand of them to pay, and hope that the reckless math holds out with BookCon, a new last-ditch attempt to salvage your Hindenburg by opening the show to the public on Saturday.

“I always joke that every BookCon fan should have at least six figures of student loan debt,” said BEA flack Lance Fensterman to reporter Boris Kachka. “We’re trying to find the passionate fan base.” One can’t help but ponder the perfidy of this statement. BEA isn’t about sharing the wealth or even learning from the booksellers. (At the B&M panel, Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meksis was rightly cheered for the 500 to 600 events she organizes yearly.) The strategy involves fleecing the last few dollars from the public and encouraging them to demand free books from the publishers, who will in turn have to pay for galleys that are usually offloaded to avid booksellers. And no one seems to see the disastrous conflagration ahead at the air station.

The people who make books their business are not to be blamed for this. I watched many of their spirits brighten once they emerged from the crippling Kafkesque church of Jacob Javits Center. Their minds purred upon their escape, pondering the creative accounting they’d need to exact to justify the raid on the minibar. Yet while Jacob Javits’s dull white corridors still retain their architectural power to crush robust souls, it was more empty this year, even emptier than it usually is on the first day. The publishers and booksellers are going elsewhere to do their deals. Most people know that this is not their space. BookExpo has failed to learn that you don’t just need a showroom for books. You need heart, soul, knowledge, and instinct. While Fensterman and his cronies are cynical enough to believe that people will give that all up for a pittance, I remain quite confident that this gargantuan exposition won’t last long beyond the Javits contract. Unless someone replaces the lifting gas.

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BEA 2013: The Editor and the Translator

On Friday afternoon, mere minutes after the frazzled feline star of a viral video had been flown in from Morristown, Arizona and dragged against its will onto the Javits floor to receive the kind of superstar adulation that literary geniuses toiling for decades would die for a tiny piece of, three dozen people met in the rank underbelly of a cold corporate convention center to contend with issues of translated literature.

This was the clearest indication I have ever seen of what Chad Post has identified as the “three percent problem” — whereby a mere 3% of all published books in the United States are works in translation. The underattended panel made me hang my head in shame.

I had not known that Grumpy Cat was at BEA, nor did I care to meet the animal or wait in line upon learning of this intelligence. There were more meaningful ways to fritter away two hours of my life. Indeed, I had encountered Open Letter‘s Chad Post on the loud floor just before the panel and personally apologized for not doing enough for translated literature. He then told me about an insane man in Italy and secured my attendance.

There were several translators and foreign language enthusiasts in the crowd, including Michael A. Orthofer and Scott Esposito (both tireless proponents for literature in translation), but the panelists pointed out the paucity of editors in the audience and seized upon this absenteeism to talk freely.

“In the long view,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of literary translation for Columbia’s School of the Arts, “we want to find an English language voice for our foreign language author. In the short run, editors want very different things. Editors want books that will read well in English and that sell. The translator wants to represent what the language said.”

Bernofsky pointed to FSG’s Elisabeth Sifton as an editorial paragon. Sifton gave Bernofsky carte blanche to translate Gregor von Rezzori however she wanted. He wasn’t especially edited in German. So he had wanted his English translation to be well edited, even if it meant obliterating whole pages and paragraphs.

I was not as well-versed on translated literature as the assembled crowd, but I was surprised by how liberal the editing process was. Post described going much further on a memoir that had a plodding section set in the 1980s. The ten page section began with the sentence, “I remember nothing good from those years.” Post felt that cutting everything that followed that sentence was an improvement.

Translator Mary Ann Caws pointed out to several fraught experiences she had encountered in her years. She described working on an anthology, where her translation was taken out of her hands and given to someone else who dumbed everything down. She described battles translating André Breton’s most famous poem, “Free Union.” The first two words of the original poem is “Mon amour.” One translation of the poem’s first line reads “My wife whose hair is a brush fire.” Another reads “My woman with her forest-fire hair.” The difference between “My wife” and “My woman” is substantial because of the connotation of the relationship. But Caws pointed out that “there’s a way of doing it without her or she” with phrases like “My dear one has gone into the streets of the city.”

Caws had also suggested publishing several translations around a sonnet to demonstrate the impossibility of a perfect translation. The editor replied, “How will they know which is the right translation?”

Victoria Wilson has been an editor at Knopf for forty years. And she insisted that cutting text has little to do with saleability, but how the book reads. “A book is going to sell if it’s 150 pages shorter,” said Wilson, who was also careful to note that she had published William Gass for twenty years.

“People ascribe motives to the publisher,” continued Wilson. “We’re all just people. I bought the book. I fought for the book.”

This was all constructive chatter, but the panel’s fireworks really started when Polish crime writer Marek Krajewski began speaking with gusto through a translator.

“In my mind,” said an animated Krajewski through his translator, “the editors who work with people who have huge egos really can’t adjust and are narcissistic. These kinds of editors treat their authors as total failures. There are editors, on the other hand, who tend to do work just for the sake of doing it. To justify their presence there.” Krajewski bemoaned editors who didn’t understand his work, including one who was “basically taking out the F words.”

“Some of them tend to be shy and don’t ask that any questions,” said Krajewski of his translators. He pointed to one who couldn’t be bothered to flesh out an abbreviation. “I had the full information. And I do know she knows how to do it. Well, sometimes, it happens that the editor is very detail-oriented.”

One of Krajewski’s books concerned multiculturalism, which turned out to be a problem for the editor and the translator. “It’s not only translating language,” said Krajewski. “It’s translating cultures.”

Bernofsky noted that she had just done a new translation of Jeremias Gottheif’s The Black Spider for NYRB Classics. Because Gottheif’s work was a horror story, the editing was much different from what she had usually experienced.

“The prose is not that amazing,” said Bernofsky. “Edwin Frank did a very heavy edit on some of the prose. He was editing both me and Gottheif. He rearranged the sentences.” Bernofsky signed off on the translation, even though the reviewer comparing the original with the translation will find it inaccurate. But for prose stylists like Robert Walser, Bernofsky said that she would “fight for keeping the complexity of the sentences.”

There was a question concerning changes in publishing over the past 40 years, in which the publishers were blamed for the drop of translated fiction in bookstores. “You can’t just look at the publishers,” noted Wilson. “The chains changed everything in terms of their ordering.” In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether a corporate behemoth owns a big publisher or not. The fate of translated literature in the States is entirely dependent on what the bookstores order. And while the recent health of independent booksellers has suggested new prospects for translated fiction, without massive orders from chains, it is often difficult for these books to be published.

This reality was simply too much for Chad Post, who began talking fast and angry.

“Every book out there is shitty,” boomed Post into the mike. “Mitch Albom? What the hell? We do not need him.”

There were some faint suggestions that Post was prepared to overturn the table, fire a pistol into the air, and demand the rightful liberation of the book industry.

“Malcolm Fucking Gladwell,” shrieked Post. “I’ve never been quite disturbed by the book business than I have been in the last few days.”

I squinted to see if the veins on Chad Post’s neck had popped out. I waited for Post’s instructions to don the balaclava carefully folded in my left inner pocket. I waited for Post to announce the Occupy Javits movement.

“I would shoot myself if I had to publish most of the books out there.”

With this suicidal statement in full swing, Post’s phone began to ring on stage. Mitch Albom’s people were coming to shut the wild-eyed revolutionary from Rochester down. Post was referred to as “that angry young man” by the next questioner.

To be clear, Post was not all froth and spittle. I could relate very much to his fury. We live in strange times when Amazon Crossing is the number one American publisher for translated fiction. As Post pointed out, it isn’t easy to secure advocates for translated work when the pitch is “Here’s a great book about a woman in Latvia who is depressed.” But perhaps with more passion, we’ll work out the kinks and expand the egregious percentage.

neilgaiman

BEA 2013: Neil Gaiman

There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).

“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.

He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.

“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”

The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”

The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.

“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”

Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”

“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”

Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”

After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.

“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”

Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”

“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”

At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”

He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”

As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.

He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”

In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.

Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.

“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”

Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”

He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”

He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.

There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.

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BEA 2013: All’s Fair? Book Reviews & The Missing Code of Ethics

I was fully prepared to ignore the National Book Critic Circle’s latest effort to organize a confab parroting prefab guidelines for how to review books, influence the few, and otherwise eat your own tail. But when I espied a Great Publishing Professional sitting on the floor in a secret access area that I am not at liberty to reveal, I abdicated my seat to this valiant soldier and proudly cried out to the Great Publishing Professional (and others), “You, sir, have decided my fate. I shall cover this panel so that you, good sir, have a physical seat to do your work!” It’s possible that I left the room with a spin on my heel, my arms gliding with the desire to hold an umbrella and leap into the air. But I must confess that the opportunity to ridicule that mendacious puffball Carlin Romano was also too ripe to decline.

But here’s the big surprise. While the panel got off to a lumbering start — ten minutes of introductions (Romano’s, of course, being the longest), reiteration of NBCC wonkery, business serving in lieu of sleeping pills — I was surprised by how smooth it ran. Indeed, it would have been drastically improved had Carlin Romano, a man so in love with himself that he seemed to think the panel was entirely about him, been rolled into the Hudson River, attempting to deliver his gant-inducing gasbag banter with his nose just above water. America the Philosophical indeed!

The panel sprang from the froth of an uncooked souffle concerning whether a universal code of reviewing ethics should be adopted to combat the “Wild West” feel of outlets that were online and offline, print and digital, short form or long form, missionary or doggy style, coffee or tea, and any other dichotomy that comes to mind when overthinking an insoluble problem in needlessly complicated terms. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan seemed to flail against this right out of the gate.

“Why would you want to read a review that was so flensed of bias that it was almost written by an automaton?” she said. She pointed out that the late, great critic John Leonard accompanied Toni Morrison to the Nobel Awards and that seeing how an interesting mind reacted to a book outweighed issues of partiality. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sign on to any kind of contract that required me to leave my biases at the door. My biases have made me worthwhile as a critic.”

After Carlin Romano rattled off points he had delivered in 2007 (and, as a source informed me, reportedly identical to a recent Romano appearance at a biographer’s conference and thus not particularly reportable here), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal stepped in to rescue the discussion from these unnecessary displays of narcissism. Citing Virginia Woolf’s reviews, Sehgal pointed to the idea of a critic creating a shared space for newer writers. Sehgal was not only the sharpest panelist, but she also valued criticism as a passionate place for expressive possibilities.

But The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein looked to criticism as a place for bright iconoclastic writing. He bemoaned “when a book review editor assigns a novel to a young novelist. I think that creates an impossible conflict of interest.” He stood against what he deemed “tepid, polite reviews.”

I am not entirely sure why agent Eric Simonoff was on the panel, but he did feel that readers of book reviews and blurbs were “pretty smart.” And he agreed with Stein that the “logrolling in our time” that has crept into a few recent publications needed to be avoided. Because this was precisely what a smart reader would detect. “When you feel the tepid poetry of someone who doesn’t want to give offense, you’re reading between the lines.”

Sehgal seemed surprised by much of this. She saw criticism as its own pleasure. “To miss the chance to write an interesting piece of writing for its own sake is what’s done.”

I have neglected to note the contributions of moderator Marcela Valdes, who I really wanted to hear more from. But she was obliged to read back recent responses from an NBCC survey on ethics. Two starkly different responses provided a conversational starting point. The first: “I think that even a very casual acquaintance can inspire undue generosity or vitriol.” The second: “I think the idea that there can be a permanent hermetic seal between author and reviewer is an ideal.” (To be clear, an impossible ideal.)

Addressing these points, Sehgal saw no problem with biases or connections, provided they were explicitly stated in the review.

Romano then raised his impatient finger, beckoning for attention like an impatient five-year-old talent show contestant who wanted to play his violin first.

“There’s one feeling I have after years of thinking,” said Romano. “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” He pointed to “the very short memoir about the Sri Lanka woman who lost her family.”

“Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave,” cried out the more informed majority in the audience.

“How do you review a book like that if it’s bad?” asked Romano, who clearly had not considered the plentiful finesse established by countless critics over the last few decades. But Romano wanted to matter. He had played his violin. Now he hoped to inveigle the crowd with a few bluntly thrown Molotovs. This was BEA! This was Romano’s Moment!

“Any biases can be overcome by ruthless honesty,” said Romano. “A best friend could write a devastating review of a friend and lose that friend.” Thus, in Romano’s view, objectivity was not possible.

This led Maureen Corrigan, bless her heart, to push back against this hogwash.

“You’re not reviewing the Holocaust,” replied Corrigan. “You’re not reviewing the tsunami. We’re reviewing the book.”

Romano, clearly not listening to Corrigan, then tried to pull himself out of the choppy waters he had created for himself by suggesting that a reviewer might write that the author of a tsunami memoir “should have gone under the waves also.” It was telling how swiftly such blunt asininity sprang from the Great Carlin’s lips.

Lorin Stein had more interesting things to say about being provocative: in large part because his finger appeared more firmly on the pulse of recent newspaper developments. He and Simonoff both noted how outlets had declined in recent years. But Stein saw an equivalency between a blurb and a tepid review. “There are bad books that need to be shut down and that seems to me a very important service to do,” said Stein.

But I think Seghal best comprehended why a review’s identity was so important. “There are some reviewers I read,” said Seghal, “because I want to know how your mind works. I want to be in a space with you.”

Valdes then asked the panelists if there were any hard and fast rules. “You really have to read the whole book,” said Romano. Stein disagreed with this, suggesting that better reviews might be honed if the reviewer wrote about why she didn’t read the whole book. He wanted to avoid writing performed by people who clearly weren’t critics. Seghal was committed to getting the facts right. Corrigan wanted a review to consider a book on its own terms.

“Actually,” added Stein, “a black author said to me, ‘Goddammit, you have to stop reviewing bald white guys. If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive away readers.'”

“In some ways,” said Corrigan, “writing the short review is writing poetry.”

With that sentiment in mind, here is a haiku devoted to Carlin Romano:

Vested man falling
Ground below, boiler plate, ouch
Can’t repeat the past

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BEA 2013: Shaping the Future of the Book

On Wednesday afternoon, Open Road Media CEO and co-founder Jane Friedman demonstrated her commendable skills in repeating the same talking points that she delivered at IDPF last year: (1) don’t ignore the elephant in the room (that is, the e-book), (2) we have to think of books in terms of p and e, and (3) Open Road is not a self-publisher. One wonders how many times she has enacted the part of a tottering robot. At least she had the honesty to tell the audience, “All of what you’ve heard so far, I’ve been hearing for 40 years.” But this year, Friedman was speaking before booksellers instead of wild-eyed evangelists who would erect a small nation of geodesic domes if it meant a universe where people read nothing but digital.

Two booksellers attempted to tell Friedman very politely that she was a misguided fool on the subject of e-book implementation in independent bookstores. The first bookseller was a respectful man with long gray hair who informed Friedman that customers would happily download e-books from their computers rather than patronize a physical bookstore. “it’s too easy to get somewhere else,” he said.

“You’re dealing with a universe that’s telling you what they want,” replied Friedman.

This was a sharp contrast to John Sargent’s strepatements this morning, in which he declared with confidence that “the growth of e-books is pretty much pegged.” But then Friedman keeps the Open Road portfolio tied up in digital only and has a natural interest in ignoring any stagnation realities if it means squeezing a few more dollars. (Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch was careful to point out, “Our job is to be nondenominational.”)

When the first bookseller respectfully shambled away from the microphone, Word Brooklyn manager Emily Pullen stepped up to point to the problem more lucently: “If I were to sell an e-book to every consumer coming through, I would go out of business in a week.” Friedman replied, “Not all e-books are 99 cents,” which severely misses one of the chief reasons why consumers are attracted to e-books.

If that condescending remark wasn’t bad enough, Friedman continued by telling Pullen, “if you sell one e-book to a customer in your store, that person comes back to your store and downloads ten books.” But there’s a fundamental problem with this thesis. When the consumer can simply press a button and have a new book turn up, why would she want to spend the time and gas to hit an independent bookstore? And why should the independent bookseller have any reason to shack up with a snake oil saleswoman — indeed, one who referenced “back to the future” three times during the interminable hour — who undercuts her business.

For the bookseller who was concerned, Friedman took a cue from the 1990s informercial king Tommy Vu. She couldn’t explain to the booksellers in person why her strategy would work, but insisted that they come to her seminar…er…BEA party.

This was the high point in a fairly dull panel moderated by a gentleman who was dull in his relentless agreement with various points and whose questions revealed the regrettable patina of inexperience. I wanted to scream. So did several other booksellers, many of whom offered audible sighs at the people entrusted to “shape the future of the book.” Well, I’ve seen the future. It involves smug people making enemies out of booksellers with hubris (“Maureen Dowd, who is a columnist at the New York Times” — yeah, I think most literate people know this), left in the cold when the bubbles have long fizzled out in their champagne.

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BEA 2013: Publishing, Bookselling, and the Whole Damn Thing: A Conversation with John Sargent

John Sargent is a lean man who could be north of fifty, yet dresses and moves like a dude just south of that tetchy line of demarcation sealing a nervous breakdown. He has closely cropped hair with the soft beginnings of gray gently cloaking around a neat skull. He looks a bit like the Christopher Eccleston incarnation of the Doctor. He doesn’t wear leather but he dons muted jeans and a trim light blue dress shirt. He is the CEO of Macmillan and he is something of a maverick, simply for having the gumption to stand up to the Department of Justice. He is here on Wednesday morning to inspire booksellers gathered in a basement room of Jacob Javits Convention Center.

“It is dangerous for us as an industry if everyone lives under a pall of the Department of Justice,” says Sargent. And he means it. This is the man who famously stood up for the agency model as publishers were under fire by that august authority for alleged collusion and price fixing. Sargent was forced to settle for $26 million and the agreement with the DOJ expires on December 2014. (When asked by ABA President Becky Anderson if he would move back for the agency model in 2015, he did not wish to discuss future strategy.) But he’s willing to speak his mind at a trade show if it means firing up a few uncertain souls. And if that means calling the DOJ “extraordinarily myopic” to win some applause, he’ll do it. Even though he’s due to testify next week in the ongoing trial.

He tells the audience that he doesn’t do interviews and that quietude is his natural inclination. Elaborating on this, he says, “I put myself in other people’s shoes who aren’t in the middle of it each day.” But if you look at his feet, you won’t find sneakers.

“I have a great fear of what I think of as the victim effect,” says Sergant when he talks about what he owes the community of booksellers. Under the terms of the settlement, he is not allowed to discuss price. But he can discuss piracy, which makes him feel “pretty bad,” but that he sees as a mild scourge as best. He famously made digital editions of Tor Books DRM-free and it hasn’t hurt his business. He’s quick to point out on Wednesday morning that despite “an explosion of screens,” “the growth of e-books is pretty much pegged.” Macmillan sees 33% of its business goes to e-books; the remaining 66% holds with print. He compliments booksellers on being superb at reacting to “cataclysmic change.” “You guys adjust to that,” he says. “What you need is some time to adjust.”

But the booksellers are watching Sargent for something more than knowledge. They see Sargent, a man who likes to splay his fingers and slice his hands through the air to articulate points, as something of a cowboy. And Sargent lives up to this image with the big square buckle, which looks as if it’s been plundered from the closest thing Manhattan has to a dude ranch. Sargent’s regaling his points from a pad that’s not quite as big as a yellow legal pad but not as small as a memo pad, a clean metaphor for the tone you need to hit when you’re playing a slightly recalcitrant libretto.

But make no mistake: Sargent will follow the consumer’s desires. For all his charisma and his refreshing candor (rare in an industry that is spearheaded by introverts who can sometimes be dry and inarticulate before a large crowd), if the industry were to shift entirely to digital, then Macmillan would veer that very direction. What’s holding Sargent back from extreme digital adoption (rather than highly competent adaption) are sensibilities that he defines as “old-fashioned.” Sargent has been hesitant to release YA books in digital format. As he puts it, “There is something pretty magical about a kid sitting on your lap and reading a book.” He is not a guy who returns home and looks at a screen. And it could be these emblematic 20th century qualities that make him a draw.

Sargent points out that he answers every question he gets on a card, no matter how tough. And he is unafraid to point out certain prejudicial observations, such as the fact that the only people in Congress who want to talk with him are representatives from New York. Publishing is, after all, based here.

But even though Sargent’s talk purports to cover “the whole damn thing,” it’s really more about the innocuous modifier than the noun enchilada. Much as Richard Russo revved up the booksellers last year, Sargent is the confident patriarch encouraging booksellers to shout “damn” in a crowded bookstore.

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BEA 2012: The African American Literary Marketplace

There were only six people who weren’t panelists sitting at the start of a Thursday morning discussion devoted to the African-American literary marketplace. But the spectator shortage didn’t faze the participants. “Less is always more in my world,” said moderator Vanessa J. Lloyd-Sgambati, a publishing consultant called “the literary diva” by peers. She said that there were twelve African American bookstores operating in Philadelphia when she started her business and that, today, there was one solitary merchant serving the City of Brotherly Love. As I was to learn from Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literature Book Club, magazines and websites devoted to African American books have also closed up shop in recent years. What you needed to get by was hope and grit and stamina and hard work and whatever flash you could pluck from the bottomless barrel of ingenuity.

“There may be a different way that is not book-centric to reach the African American marketplace,” said Marva Allen, CEO of Hue-Man, a bookstore in Harlem. She expressed frustrations that people don’t always know how to promote African American books. Did people really not know how to sell books to this audience?

Enter radio personality and author Michael Baisden, a bowtied Robert McKee acolyte who had a few admirers planted in the crowd as it mushroomed from two handfuls into several dozen.

“I always know there’s a purpose in what I do,” said Baisden. “You’re looking at the old school in the business.” He compared the book industry to a team sport and insisted that it needed stars to bring people on. Baisden had sold two million books because African American bookstores had supported him when other booksellers would not. “Target doesn’t value African American literature. It can’t be guaranteed that it will be in stock.” He was understandably skeptical about BEA, which he didn’t even know was going on until his manager informed him about it. “The expense of this is too much,” he said. Baisden said that African American booksellers needed their own convention and was a bit rueful over losing so many African Americans to other industries.

Baisden certainly has a point. But Nakea S. Murray of the As the Page Turns Book Club (and the Literary Consulting Group) said, “What others have to remember is that a book club is a selling opportunity.” But it’s also a place for quality discussion. As she was to elucidate later in the conversation, her book clubs “have zero drama” and Murray has adopted a “no frolic with the talent rule” to maintain the caliber of talk. This regulation came about because of unexpected entanglements between smitten women readers and the authors who arrived at their homes. “I know male authors use this to their advantage,” said Murray, who did not expand upon the nature of these mysterious hookups.

But while such peccadilloes are inevitable in any industry, some of the larger concerns offered by Troy Johnson were also quite serious. Troy Johnson noted that two thirds of independently operated African American bookstores have bitten the dust in the past five to ten years. “In 2012,” said Johnson, “there should be more competition in this space.” The books that got attention in the African American market were devoted to celebrity and scandal, with even established authors finding it difficult to nab a deal.

“The profit-driven market discourages talented writers from entering the marketplace,” said Johnson, who initially clutched some paper like a life preserver but whose offerings became looser and more vital when he stopped reading so closely from his sheet. “Readers need more than ever to critically assess and identify quality product.” But without the critical mechanisms in place (those dying review venues for African American books), this was increasingly difficult to do. “If we’re going to move forward and improve and regain what we’ve lost,” said Johnson, “we’re not going to do it in isolation.”

“You have to create an experience for that consumer,” said Allen, who cited a Tokyo bookstore that had appealed beyond its physical space. “Beyond the Americas, there is a huge audience. The geographical boundaries must be removed to reach all of our audiences.”

Baisden believed that expos had allowed African Americans to reach audiences. “You have to go where the people are,” he said. “You have to find out where the organizations are and go to where the people are. You’re looking at the ultimate hustler.”

Baisden wasn’t interested in hundreds showing up to an event. He identified himself as “a thousands guy.” He felt that taking an event on the road with only authors wasn’t going to be successful. You needed music and social activism as well. “One thing I’m going to say,” said Basiden, “and it’s going to sting. We’re not writing enough good books.”

But Baisden’s notion of “good books,” as befitting a man more keen on Robert McKee than Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, was more about “the entertainment business.” He insisted that audiences were “not coming for your blackness or your soul or your issues. Go to a college campus and speak power to the people.”

“My bestselling books,” said Allen, “are The New Jim Crow, things like Sister Citizen and The Warmth of Other Suns.”

This led Baisden to get somewhat defensive.

“But I can’t stay on the radio if I’m not entertaining you and playing music,” he said.

“But that’s a different medium,” countered Allen. Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out that literacy was down everywhere. Getting people to read wasn’t just an African American problem.

But as one audience member observed, “If we don’t have a naked lady on the front of the book, or somebody with muscles or something, they think we know nothing but that.” But Baisden had to catch a plane for another gig. And as this entrepreneur retreated, it was not only clear that the African American literary marketplace needed to be considered by those still in bed nursing last night’s hangovers, but that it needed far more than a hour of BookExpo programming.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to panelist Nakea Murray of As the Page Turns as “Lynda Johnson of the >Go on Girl! Book Club.” Murray replaced Johnson at the last minute. We apologize to Ms. Murray and Ms. Johnson for the error.]

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BEA 2012: Science Fiction & Mainstream — Crossing Over

They congregated just before lunch at the Upstairs Stage, hoping to get some thoughts on a future weirder than ham on rye. Some of their faces were young and fleshy, and I heard a few talk about authors who sent work contained within a pizza box. Some were older bespectacled men who might have still believed in a dream cut out of the cloth of hard independent labor. Whatever their reasons for being there, this did not prohibit author John Scalzi from waving an impish toodle-oo just before this business of “crossing over,” or perhaps “passing” as genre in the mainstream, was initiated just after the stroke of noon.

The moderator was a man named Ryan Britt, his gray vest insinuating some classy authority. But his promising role waned a mite when he stated, “Everything that relates to genre fiction is extremely weird.” Plenty of us have experienced “weird” moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre. That’s the problem. How do the glories of “weird” in any form get any self-respect?

The other big question was whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.

But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer, co-editor of a massive new anthology devoted to weird fiction called (what else?) The Weird (the other editor is his wife, Ann VanderMeer, who was also present at the panel), wisely suggested that weird fiction contributed to the 20th century in much the same way that fairy tales had bolstered the years before that.

These stories “take a look at possible futures based on what we were in the past,” added Ann VanderMeer. “It’s an exploration of the unknown.” Did looking at a “weird” future offer an explanation for the present? For that matter, why did “weird” have to be so time-sensitive?

John Scalzi, author of Redshirts and the sharpest and most vibrant contributor to the discussion, pointed out that the flip phone had emerged because some engineer at Motorola had wanted to talk like Kirk on Star Trek. And while Scalzi was wearing a red shirt undoubtedly for the sole purpose of pimping his novel, it was evident that he was making a larger point about how fiction offers cues for how we live in the real.

“My daughter was freaked up beyond measure about the dude who chewed off his face in Florida,” continued Scalzi. “And it wasn’t just her.” The government had actually issued a statement clarifying to the public that what was happening was not the zombie apocalypse. “Well, that’s what the government would say,” responded his daughter. But it was, Scalzi added, a metaphor we could all relate to.

Stories may “take place in the future or they may be written in the alternative world. But they’re being written for today.” Such a distinction was not limited to fantasy fiction, but was eminently pragmatic applied across the whole. “The idea that you take what people know and give it a twist makes absolute sense as a writer.”

Jeff VanderMeer suggested that good weird fiction was comparable to “a frog in a hot pot” or “the idea of being acclimated by something.” Mosley took this idea of tangibility with narrative further, noting that Gogol’s Dead Souls carries the notion of a man buying and selling dead people for a profit.

But Mosley wished to stir people up. So he brought up the pre-Lando installment of Star Wars. “As far as I can tell, everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes. That may be unconscious wish fulfillment.” I had hoped that the moderator would be brave enough to tell Mosley that Carrie Fisher not only had brown hair and brown eyes, but even had the temerity to put up her hair in a bun. But nobody wanted to mess with Mosley. He was doing just fine carrying on his impersonation of Hooper X from Chasing Amy, except that he didn’t have the benefit of Kevin Smith writing sharp dialogue.

“One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.”

There wasn’t really much that people could say to this, and I didn’t see any fist pumping in response to Mosley’s remark. I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks. (But to his credit, he was the only one up there who brought up Samuel R. Delany. Nobody mentioned the New Yorker‘s recent science fiction issue.)

Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own. “It was the kid who was watching Star Trek and said, ‘Wow, I would want to make that!'” Hadn’t we heard a more concise version of this story only minutes earlier?

Scalzi attempted to steer the conversation back on track, pointing out that Ayn Rand and Steve Jobs were likely to be just as significant to culture ten years from now. “Technology has always been about keeping the threads of the past continuing to be in the fabric of the future,” said Scalzi, “regardless of whether the technology is a codex or the technology is a hologram of Tupac.”

To this, Jeff VanderMeer added cynical relish, “I think technology comes off as too bloodless for me.” He pointed to a story he had written about half-dead bears that devour you alive if you expect to engage in transdimensional travel. “If you want to travel, you really have to want to travel.” He praised the later iterations of steampunk for exploring these issues. “It’s great to aspire to perfection. But actually achieving it is a kind of insanity.”

Did the panel turn into a dead shark?

“I’ve been on these panels before for the last twenty years,” added VanderMeer. “I’m less optimistic that they really mean anything aside from cross-pollination.” He then added that one future pastime might be “sorting through the rubble for the remains of books that were published before the ebook revolution.”

“Jeff VanderMeer,” asked Scalzi. “Do you need a hug?”

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BEA 2012: What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew

The librarians didn’t come for the muffins. But the publishers came for the librarians. And even if, during the Q&A, the publishers bolted out the door like hunters rushing to the other side of the isle with spears and a renewed lust for prancing porcine, moderator Nora Rawlinson handled the panel with a deft hand, squeezing three librarians and a Harper Collins library marketing rep into the fifty fresh minutes. It almost demanded another twenty.

Libraries are often forgotten when considering the brick and mortar part of publishing. But it became very clear during the talk that, with 9,000 library systems across America, libraries are robust places to discover and share books. Of those 9,000 systems, a good thousand have four or more branches. And according to Rawlinson, when libraries survey their public, libraries translate into books.

They are places to promote books, but they are different from bookstores. “Libraries can’t do the stack ’em high, watch ’em fly,” said Rawlinson at the panel’s start. But the big difference is that when a library accumulates tomes, they’re guaranteed to go out to the public. Libraries continue to promote specific titles on their websites. And as Michael Colford, Director of Library Services for the Boston Public Library, pointed out, the Boston Public Library website received eight million hits on its website last year.

“A library’s mission is to connect readers with books,” pointed out Colford. But the BPL puts much of its resources into midlist titles and nonfiction, rather than the sturdy bestsellers. And it is this multifaceted focus that drives readers to Boston libraries. “We’re telling them about books they’re not going to get. What we really should be saying is ‘Here are ten books you really should be reading if you like these books.'”

A library, Colford was keen to remind the audience, is also a great physical space. But the BPL has developed a fairly intricate system — including establishing an online catalog shared with the New York Public Library — to ensure that patrons can find the books in an instant. If the book isn’t there, there is the option to input a ZIP and find the nearest independent bookseller. And while the BPL wants to support independent bookstores, Colford noted, “Once you shell them off to another retailer, it’s not a library experience.”

Sari Feldman, Executive Director of the 28 branch Cuyahoga County Public Library, started off her part of the panel by pointing out that 40% of her library’s $4.5 million budget was devoted to overall materials. (There was a running pop quiz before every panelist, in which audiences were asked to shout out a figure in response to a question. And although Bob Barker is not yet dead, he apparently could not be coaxed out of retirement to aid these proceedings.) Her philosophy on purchasing bestsellers differed from Colford. She was more inclined to stock her libraries with them. “We want our customers to have the shopping experience.”

One way that Cuyahoga County has rehabilitated its library system in recent years is through an initiative called Reconnect with Reading. Noted independent booster Nancy Pearl came in and “infused her positive energy” into Cuyahoga. Over the course of a year, Pearl spent one week out of every month getting people to think about what they love to read and rethinking systems on how to connect customers to the reading experience. This included digital billboard ads, Google ads, bus ads, and considerable awareness.

But this awareness has translated into library patrons “knowing us for the authors we bring.” Feldman revealed that there were often hundreds in attendance for a debut author. And, equally interesting, Cuyahoga has used Facebook to woo readers, with librarians leading an online book discussion and suggesting three new books to read if the patron fesses three recent volumes.

Lynn Wheeler, director of the smaller Carroll County Public Library, revealed more impressive results. Carroll County is a six branch system. Yet despite serving a population of 170,000, it was able to bankroll 6,330 programs during the 2011 fiscal year. The library once purchased 73 copies of Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker for its branches and, because the library displayed the book in all of its branches, it ended up stocking 433 copies. And because there was so much excitement for the book, local historical reenactors were tapped.

And through the simple act of pitting one book against another — an idea borrowed from neighboring Howard County — and encouraging schoolkids to vote on the book, Carroll County was able to get numerous children excited about books. In this “Battle of the Books,” the books in question were given to competing schools. There were 72,000 votes involved. Kids became experts on the books in knowledge bowl-style quizzes. (The accompanying photos during Wheeler’s presentation revealed a Little League-like excitement on the kids’ faces.) An all-boy team won.

By the time that Virginia Stanley, director of Library Marketing for Harper Collins, spoke, there was little time left in the panel. So Stanley didn’t get much to say, despite wearing a tiara telegraphing a Queen Victoria-like fickleness. She did say that she was trying to accommodate libraries by getting authors to “appear” via Skype. But given the hearty discussion about how physical space and community produced serious results for libraries big and small, why should publishers and libraries settle for anything less than face-to-face?

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BEA 2012: Richard Russo at ABA

Just hours before Amazon announced that it was gobbling up independent publisher Avalon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author addressed booksellers on how they could help save the industry, reminding them why they mattered while he and his interlocutor Lynn Sheer referenced many New Yorker cartoons. Neither Richard Russo nor his audience had become a mundanely ironic punchline quite yet. But Russo knew that he wouldn’t be standing in front of the audience if independent booksellers hadn’t given his first novel, Mohawk, that essential admixture of faith and attention. Most in the room agreed that Amazon’s threat to independent bookstores was comparable to a bully, perhaps even more insidious than the paperback revolution that had made books affordable for the mass population.

The kernel for Russo’s ABA talk had come from an op-ed for The New York Times published last December. While Amazon had been good to him over the years, what pushed Russo over the edge was when Amazon encouraged its customers to go into a brick-and-mortar store and scan items with a price-check app. All Amazon shoppers had to do was scan a bar code and they would earn a 5% credit on Amazon purchases. “Is it just me,” wrote Russo, “or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with its own algorithms?”

Now Russo, dressed in a black shirt, khaki pants, and a dark jacket, was before a crowd of booksellers who were loyal to him as an author and, perhaps more importantly, as a man who had their backs.

Russo’s talk went further than his op-ed piece, suggesting that Amazon was killing off what remained of humane business practice. “What really frosted me about all this,” said Russo, “was how cruel it was. They wanted to fill brick and mortar stores with people. So if you looked out, you’d see all those people out there. And you’d get the sense that commerce was taking place. The cruelty of it was so shocking, so stunning, so cold.”

It was an independent bookseller that had helped Russo garner his early reputation. “At Barbara’s Books, I remember they optimistically set up six or seven chairs,” said Russo of a vital appearance at a now defunct bookstore for Mohawk, which had then been released in a then daring paperback original format. “I got the sense that the employees at Barbara’s Books had read the book and they seemed to like it. Those people who filled those five to seven chairs, they were going to be hand selling that book. They were going to be hand selling that book and my next book and the next book after that. And as disappointed as I was, they weren’t disappointed at all strangely enough.”

This early crowd of adopters had more faith in Russo than he did. Russo pointed out that his daughter, Emily Russo Murtagh, had carried on in this proud tradition by writing a review of a Ron Rash book. Rash viewed this as one of the central tipping points of his career and has only just received his first New York Times Book Review. Russo insisted that there was a whole crop of young fiction writers worthy of recognition and wasn’t sure if a world with only Amazon would permit similar waves of face-to-face enthusiasm to help future generations of authors.

“There have been significant changes as a result of Amazon,” said Russo. “B&N is hanging by a thread. There’s nothing like Walden Bookstores. The Amazon threat is real.” Russo pointed out that Amazon has 75% roughly of the online market for both print and electronic books. “And if the Justice Department wins,” continued Russo, alluding to the recent ebook collusion suit, “Amazon will be able to go back to the practice they had before all this. And they will again be able to sell certain frontlist books for less than it costs them to buy. Because they know that they already have the backlist basically cornered.”

So how could the indie bookstore fight back against this threat? For the independent bookstores that have survived, Russo suggested that “what didn’t kill them made them stronger.” He compared indie bookstores to “curated shows” and suggested that the superstore days of yesteryear were done. “We’ve passed the point now where you’ll find everything.”

But while Russo remained opposed to the word “boutiquey” and wanted bookstores to thrive rather than merely survive, Russo had little more than instinct and accepted wisdom to uphold these views. While he copped to owning an iPad, he confessed that he didn’t really comprehend social networks (“You’re speaking to a dinosaur”) and that his love of physical books was perhaps generational (“The generations do react very differently”), noting that kids today are being trained to sit before a screen for twelve hours.

He didn’t understand why publishers simply accepted the manner in which online booksellers dictated the $9.99 price point when they offered the hardcover for $27. “Why would they have agreed to do that? It was like allowing Netflix to stream The Avengers on the weekend it comes out. Why would they have conceded the most important point?”

He received the greatest applause when he said, “What publishers need to do more than anything else is just find a spine.”

But how can independent booksellers stand up against a force when realtors (Russo’s wife is a realtor) are now encouraged to tell their clients to get rid of their books when they’re selling their homes? Or when Amazon can send an email telling people who have previously bought Richard Russo books and dramatically alter the ranking of the latest Russo volume?

Russo argued that bookstores had physicality and people as hard advantages. “You’re hoping to discover what you never knew existed,” said Russo, expressing a distaste for search engines. “When you go to the customer service desk, you’re not going to the engine.”

Russo remained cautiously optimistic about the future of publishing. But while hope made the crowd feel good, the unity he had inspired in being more explicit about Amazon suggested that these troops needed a hell of a lot more than a pep talk.

(Image: Steve Piacente)

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BEA 2012: IDPF Publishers Roundtable

They were gathered young and old around round tables at the International Digital Publishing Forum. They sipped hot coffee and cold Frappucinos and didn’t really touch their breakfast remains. But they hoped to snatch a foolproof map outlining the proposed routes on a misty Monday morning.

There were a few long-haired lads in suits, mimicking Steve Jobs in look if not in attitude, and some veterans who had fled from other industries. One man had witnessed the rise of digital photography and the closing of 4,500 Fotomats and he wanted to know if something like that was happening on the books front. He didn’t really get an answer, but these things happen in cycles.

How much could anybody spill while the Department of Justice ebook collusion suit played on? It was tough for the top dogs to talk. These settled professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs were informed at the head that there would be no questions on agency model or pricing. But there was steady banter about “consumers.”

“Most consumers won’t know who is publishing the book,” said Open Road’s Jane Friedman with the calculated swagger of a recent digital convert. She would be corrected later with some subtlety by Richard Charkin, who pointed to the prominent Bloomsbury found on his front covers (that ten word name, associated with the Harry Potter books, had been one of the fine ingredients that had moved the fish and chips across the pond). Random House’s Madeline McIntosh said that her work was “less about establishing a brand name and much more about serving the author’s relationship with the consumer.”

Why didn’t these capable titans refer to readers by their rightful name? Perhaps talking about readers in human terms interfered with business operations. Freidman said, “We want to get to them quicker, more efficiently.” This would be done by “marketing extensively.” I didn’t know whether to be more alarmed by Friedman’s crude reliance on adverbs or her suggestion that passionate readers are malleable cyborgs.

Perhaps because booksellers still factored into her business plan, McIntosh expressed a more inclusive perspective. “I don’t think we add value to the author or the reader by competing with the booksellers,” she said. “They have a hard enough job making a fantastic customer service environment. Trying to compete with them is not productive.” She mentioned how booksellers were asking publishers to help them retain customer data and how passing this onto the retailers represented a “lost asset.”

Hours after McIntosh uttered these words, I got into a near violent altercation with a pushy clerk blocks away from Javits at B&H Photo Video, because he insisted on my name, my phone number, and my address if I wanted to purchase a $20 lithium ion battery charger. This was after I had stood in line for ten minutes. I thought collecting my personal information on such a trifling item was both unreasonable and time-consuming. But the bastard was uncompromising. I snapped, “Hey, buddy, do you want a sale?” He didn’t and repeated his request for customer data. So I left, and B&H lost a customer for life.

* * *

There was the suggestion that McIntosh had her authors poll her customers, getting a sense of what they liked on the cover. But was this really the case? Is every conversation between an author and a reader transactional? Or is that merely the viewpoint you see when you’re sitting top of the world, ma?

Charkin was an old school gentleman dressed in white. He was British. All he needed was a sword and John Boorman’s direction. Perhaps some of this explained why he brought up a Cricketers’ Almanack to make a point.

“I don’t think we should draw conclusions,” said Charkin. “We publish something called Wisden, which is the annual thing. It’s been going for 149 years. It comes out with statistics.” It was this annual cricket “almanack” which sells 40,000 copies in hardback and costs about $80 a pop every year. 35,000 of these books are sold to the same loyal souls. But the book trade doesn’t keep tabs.

“They don’t keep a record of who’s buying them,” said Charkin. “Essentially it’s the same people.”

It was this community of cricket enthusiasts which permitted Bloomsbury an influx of loyal regulars. Charkin made the point so eloquently that he didn’t even need to use the word “consumers.”

“But that is very promotional,” rejoined Friedman, who identified passionate communities as “people who very specifically want to look for a specific topic.” The important issue was to have passionate communities “see what they want” even if “they don’t even know they want it.”

* * *

It is an irrefutable fact that one cannot attend a publishing conference in 2012 without someone mentioning the success of Fifty Shades of Grey on a panel. It took only ten minutes for the erotic trilogy, which has sold ten million copies, to pop out of the pants.

“For those who rise up to a certain level,” said McIntosh in relation to self-published wunderkinds bumped up by the undoubtedly selfless motivations of publishers, “that’s where a scale publisher such as ourselves jumps in and makes it available in print and digital.” Five million copies of Grey had been sold through print. The other half had been purchased through digital. Print copies flooded into the market and had a positive effect on digital sales.

But there was talk about an elusive cash register effect that wasn’t available online. Again, I had to wonder why these savvy business leaders avoided mentioning the very human booksellers that, in fact, make such a “cash register effect” possible.

Unsurprisingly, Friedman disagreed with this assessment. “Discoverability comes from marketability,” said Friedman. I looked up from my note taking to see if there was an accompanying Powerpoint slide that Friedman was reading from. There wasn’t. She pointed to the success of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and seemed to take credit for helping Henry Holt sell its paperback version and pushing a 55-year-old book to the New York Time‘s bestseller list. There was no mention of the obvious possibility that the recent 3D reworking of James Cameron’s 194 minute tribute to spectacle and cheesy dialogue, to say nothing of the Titanic’s 100th anniversary, may have factored into the increased sales.

Charkin had a more reliable example. He pointed to a book called The Twitter Diaries. Some literary agent had persuaded Bloomsbury to publish it. It was published in ebook format. He decided to publish a print version. Piers Morgan and others spread the word on Twitter. And the book climbed up on Amazon – conveniently enough, on the very day Bloomsbury was announcing its financial returns. By 11:00 AM, it had hit #1,000. By lunchtime, it was #100. By the end of the day, it was #4. Word of mouth through the right people had made it a hit.

* * *

“Anyone who isn’t acting like a startup has a serious problem,” said Charkin in response to another question. “Actually, our industry is about nickeling and diming. We have to pay what we have to pay.”

Unfortunately, this means that Charkin, despite being a fairly charming guy on stage, is all about the bottom line. He pointed to a time in the early 1990s when the scientific publishing community was challenged by the Internet. At the time, print copies were sold to university libraries at high prices. But the industry, after investing hundreds of millions dollars into digital platforms, found ways to make scientific publishing work online. It worked. The industry’s profitability has held. “It is absolutely possible to be a publisher in the digital world and hold gross sales and digital profits.” Alas, the price of the scientific article has fallen tenfold, perhaps a hundredfold, since the halcyon days. And while a publisher can remain confident about finding new ways to keep the coffers full, it wasn’t immediately apparent how this translated into steady labor for the very scientific writers who had produced the work in the first place.

Despite the panel’s prohibition on certain strains of shop talk, this didn’t stop McIntosh from calling digital rights management a “red herring.” In her experience, DRM did not lead to an increase in piracy, but was neither pro nor con on the issue. “I don’t think our people are buying onto the Kindle because handcuffs are on them,” she said.

Friedman said that “there was more piracy on the p side than the e side in my experience.” But she didn’t cite any specific figures. Perhaps she had been recently burglarized. Expanding further, she said, “You know what? You can always put it back if you make a mistake. And if it doesn’t work, you can always put it back on.” It is my understanding that some especially pious hymns to hymenorrhaphy have a similar line of reasoning.

I figured the talk had cleared up all thoughts on DRM, but a libertarian-minded fellow paraphrased Howard Zinn during the Q&A, mentioning something about how hard it was to be indifferent on a moving train. McIntosh, to her great credit, tried to explained to the young man that most regular people (i.e., 99% of readers) were too busy mastering one device to care about how well a format transfers onto another device. If the young man didn’t have his question answered, then I’m sure the young man will probably express his concerns with similar nuance on a Slashdot comment thread sometime soon.

“I’m willing to grab any format of media that will work to expand an author’s audience, but I do need to stay pragmatic,” said McIntosh.

Friedman begged to differ. She pointed to an enhanced book of James Gleick’s Chaos. “When you talk about pendulum theory, you want to see something going like this.” From my angle, Friedman’s accompanying gesture looked very much like the beast riding the two backs. And for reasons I could not discern, any lingering desire I had to learn about pendulum theory, much less purchase a book written by James Gleick, instantly evaporated. Who needed a book, either straight or enhanced, when you could see something going like this?

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BEA 2011: Seven Years of Google Books

Seven Years of Google Books: The Next Chapter
Presenter: James Crawford, Engineering Director, Google Books

On Thursday morning, a crowd of forty, sprouting into about seventy as the aspirin and hangover cures kicked in, listened to a engineer with a Spartan mien. Like many crunchers from Mountain View, James Crawford had the warmth and physique of an Eames lounge chair. He liked to explain things. He was confident he knew all the answers. He did, after all, work at Google.

“Google’s mission was and continues to be to organize information and make it accessible,” said Crawford early in his run. There were many sentences phrased like that. Had I known Crawford was going to speak like this, I would never have imbibed so much gratis scotch the night before.

The sense I got was that Crawford had delivered this speech many times. He ran down the stats. More than 15 million books had been scanned. That’s over 5 billion pages and 2 trillion words in 478 languages (including three books in Klingon, 82 titles in Kalaallisut, and none in Kutenal), with the earliest going back to 1473. Library partners include Stanford and the University of Michigan.

“For a lot of these books, we can simply chop off the spine and scan the pages.” For a moment, I feared that Crawford was some digital Robespierre who had recently discovered the guillotine. But I was reassured when Crawford pointed out that Google was “required to scan nondestructively.” Thank goodness for libraries and their preservation policies. To accomplish this scanning, Google holds the books down with cradles. The images are then put “through fairly sophisticated series of image algorithms,” with the curve of the pages flattened through software. Every word on the page is indexed. There is also a system of ranking algorithms to ensure, for example, that the right Hamlet rises to the top.

Crawford pointed out a “cluster problem” with the metadata. If you go to the Library of Congress, The Fellowship of the Ring (listed this way in Books in Print) will be listed as “Lord of the Rings, Vol. 1.” And J.R.R. Tolkien will be listed as “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.”

But the biggest problem was, by far, digital rights. There are three million books in the public domain: those published before 1928. “So they’re not exactly the latest and greatest pageturners,” said Crawford, who revealed himself with such statements to be more interested in digitizing books rather than reading them. Less than a million books have clear ownership. Two and a half million books are available though partnership programs with publishers. “And then there’s all the rest in the middle: out of print but under copyright.”

The Google eBookstore, launched in December, aims to fix some of these problems. “We view the ebook as a thing you purchased,” said Crawford. “Once you’ve bought it, we feel you should read it on any device.” But what about the device known as the printed book? Crawford didn’t mention this. He was on a roll.

“We have the only really serious web reader in the business,” boasted Crawford. And it suddenly occurred to me that Crawford was referring to these Google tools as “an ebook ecosystem.” This seemed a bit Napoleonic to me, almost like insisting that one automobile plant was singlehandedly responsible for the car industry.

Crawford also brought up Google Cloud Sync, which collected a surprising amount of personal information. “We have in the cloud both the content of the book and we store the databases of what people have bought and what pages you are reading on.” In other words, if you shop at Google, they know all the books that you’ve bought. Crawford didn’t specify the degree to which this information is shared to other vendors. But he did point out that retailers had much of this intel at their disposal.

I was also troubled by Google’s tendency to dictate to the market what it wanted. “We want to help the independent bookstores do well in the digital age and not be hurt by digital.” Now I happen to share Google’s view that bringing in independent bookstores into its eBookstore is one method of preserving independent business. On the other hand, why should Google decide what’s right? Isn’t that the job of the FTC or an antitrust legislator? And what’s not to suggest that the Google eBookstore could prove harmful towards independent bookstores? On Tuesday, Tom Turvey — another Google Books representative — had said that he had “some of his best engineers working” on the experience of replicating a bookstore. Google may say that they are trying to help the indies now. But what’s to stop them from changing their policy if the books market shifts direction? This affiliate program for this is presently invitation only, but there are plans to open it up.

Crawford also revealed how libraries, faced with limited budgets, had relied on Google’s viewer for electronic versions of books. “They can take our viewer and put it on their website.” I don’t think it occurred to many in the crowd that commingling public and private resources may not necessarily be the most ethical solution. Wasn’t it vaguely predatory? Such questions had led the European Union to develop Europeana.

Crawford pointed out that many books published in the 16th and the 17th century were now available through Google in full color. But I was dubious when he said, “You can see them as if you’re the librarian.” Until we are able to touch these tomes, this statement will never be true. When Crawford brought up L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, observing “there are all these chapters that didn’t make it into the movie,” it was evident that he was on boilerplate and had not tailored his speech too much for the publishing crowd.

Google had recently signed an agreement with Hachette to work together on out-of-print titles in France. This would be the model for further uplift contracts. Google had also been experimenting with maps for books. Crawford brought up this interactive map for Around the World in Eighty Days. Google Books has also been used to chart how irregular verbs turn regular over time (e.g., “spoilt” transforming into “spoiled”) and, of course, the infamous Ngram Viewer, in which you can (for example) compare “The United States is” against “The United States are” over the course of time. But Crawford was disingenuous when he suggested that the dropoff of books referencing the start of a decade (as seen through the Ngram viewer) demonstrated “scientifically” that memories are getting shorter. Before making such a statement, one must account for the number of books published over the years, the speed of life in 1900 vs. the speed of life in subsequent decades, and any number of independent variables. Unfortunately, that kind of rigorous consideration isn’t always compatible with a slick Powerpoint presentation that must be delivered in nanoseconds.

Crawford also had a rather naive faith in international titles. One of his slides championed how “cross-boarder [sic] sales increased access to content,” but didn’t account for the territorial restrictions that Andrew Savikas and Evan Schnittman duked it out over on Tuesday. “As long as the publisher has worldwide rights,” said Crawford, “they should be able to move around the world.” Right. As long as I wake up tomorrow with wings on my back, I’ll be able to fly. In other words, that qualifier was a big if. If this was the type of vision that Google Books was promulgating, I wondered if Crawford’s work was clunkier and less state of the art than he realized.

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BEA 2011: Deadbeat Dorchester Coughs Up Funds for Booth, Won’t Provide Answers

Dorchester Publishing, a company whose track record is so scandalous (refusing to pay authors after years, refusing to abide by contracts, selling ebook titles it doesn’t have the rights to) that it has inspired a boycott, was spotted with a booth at BookExpo America. (See picture above. Booth #4549.)

Many publishing insiders I talked with were surprised that Dorchester had the guts to show up, but expressed a reluctance to confront them on the floor for their negligence — largely because the company, demonstrating its commitment to cowardice, was hiding behind young assistants who were hawking their products. It reminded me of the way very young and very inexperienced soldiers take bullets in the battlefield.

Fortunately, on Thursday morning, I spotted an older woman.

“Who’s in charge here?” I said.

Hannah Wolfson, Marketing and Promotions Coordinator for Dorchester, identified herself and demonstrated the extremely limited nature of her vocabulary.

Why hasn’t Dorchester paid its authors, some of whom have been waiting for years?

“No comment.”

How did you cough up the several thousands of dollars for this booth when that money could have gone to paying off an author? (According to BookExpo America, the bare minimum booth size (100 square feet) costs $3,960.)

“No comment.”

Do you have any comment beyond “no comment”?

Silence.

Okay, how about this? Do you believe Dorchester to be a deadbeat?

“No.”

No elaboration.

I was then told told that Dorchester is maintaining its commitment to paying its authors. I was given no specifics on how this commitment would be upheld.

What about your vendor LibreDigital? You can’t pay them. So they won’t remove ebook titles that Dorchester doesn’t own? (Because authors are struggling, it’s difficult for them to mobilize on the class action front and uphold their rights.)

“No comment.”

“You’re not going to get much beyond ‘no comment,'” said one of the young assistants.

Wolfson than claimed that Robert Anthony, the Dorchester CEO, would be there “this afternoon.”

What time?

“He’ll be here this afternoon.”

As of early Thursday afternoon (with only two more hours to go), Mr. Anthony has not been seen on the Jacob Javits floor. So it looks like Dorchester’s team are liars as well as deadbeats. When a CEO and his minions lack the guts to offer direct answers to vital questions, chances are that they aren’t part of a serious business.

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BEA 2011: Interview with Book Country’s Colleen Lindsay

Correspondent: Okay, so I am here with Colleen Lindsay, who has something called Book Country. Which may in fact be a realm or may be something else. Why don’t you tell us about it?

Colleen Lindsay: Let’s see. Book Country is an online writers workshop for writers of genre fiction. Specifically science fiction, fantasy, romance, and thriller.

Correspondent: Well, what can it possibly do for writers and editors and fanboys?

Lindsay: Oooo, fanboys. Fanboys probably will not find a date on Book Country. But they can post their writing on there. What Book Country is for – it’s a safe place for writers to upload portions of their manuscript. Any kind of fiction that they’re writing, as long as it falls into one of our genres. So they can upload flash fiction, short fiction, novellas, short stories, partial chapters, full chapters, full manuscripts. And they can get feedback from their peers. So they’re going to get peer reviewed by other writers. There are industry professionals on there. Agents and editors. Some of them who are there under their own names. Some of whom are incognito. Because they’re also there as writers. And we’re forming a cool little community up there where we’re getting really supportive and constructive feedback.

Correspondent: Well, let me ask you something. Why is the feedback for Book Country better than an MFA workshop or a serious editor who’s going to devote her time really looking over a manuscript? What are the advantages here? Why would someone do this?

Lindsay: It costs zero dollars. (laughs)

Correspondent: Aha! So because you’re willing to give it away, it’s somehow better? You’re going for the free/cheap/discount culture approach?

Lindsay: What we’re hoping to do here is – this is for people who maybe don’t live as close to a metropolitan community as some other writers. If you live in a major metropolitan area, it’s really easy to find a writers community or writers groups. Critique groups, classees, writers conferences. But sometimes if you live out in the middle of nowhere – in the middle of Ohio, in the middle of Dakota – you don’t have access to all of these things. And it would be nice to find a place online where you could get feedback, build community, get support, and hopefully learn to be a better writer. One of the things that we are offering on here – Danielle and I both have many, many years of publishing experience. And we’re on there. We’re hands on all the time. We’re reading things. We’re answering questions in the discussions board. We’re having some published writers in there who are also giving feedback. So they’ve been very helpful. And we see it as a way for some published writers to pay it forward. So that’s one thing that we’re hoping some writers will use. We’re hoping it will be useful for people out in the middle of nowhere.

Correspondent: What makes Book Country different from what Richard Nash is doing with Red Lemonade? Have you actually been in contact with him? Because he also has a community online where people can put their manscripts up and critique them as well. It seems to me that there’s a strange schism because you’re going more genre and Richard Nash is going more literary. Have you considered some sort of collaboration? Have you talked with each other? Have you considered working with each other?

Lindsay: We’ve actually been in contact with Richard and with other communities like figment.com and Wattpad. I think that there’s room for a lot of these different communities. I think that what Richard is doing is, as you said, very different. We are focused on genre fiction, which is not his forte. Although he does have a good track record with some speculative fiction. I think he’s really gearing towards the literary writer, which is something that we don’t have on our site. Also the feedback is a little bit different. With Richard’s site, you can actually go into a manuscript and annotate it by leaving comments. So it’s a different kind of commenting system. Not better, not worse. Just different. Actually, his annotation system on Red Lemonade is really cool. I love playing with it. On our site, it’s more people upload a chapter, you give critique on a particular chapter. You give critiques based on overall feedback. And then the writer who uploads gets to pick two different criteria that they feel they need the most help with. So we give them different criteria to choose from: POV, plot, dialogue, pacing, character development, continuity, setting. And the writer can say, “Well, my character development isn’t great. I can use some help with that.” So they can ask for specific areas of feedback. One thing I wanted to say. I think there’s room for writers to belong to more than one of these communities. Because I think that it’s always good to build more community. And it can’t hurt to get different feedback than the feedback that you’re getting.

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BEA 2011 — Michael Moore

A somewhat trashed Michael Moore arrived ten minutes late for his Wednesday morning “signature event” (“a unique new opportunity here,” according to the man who introduced him, who also declared that Moore “forces us to react”) at BookExpo America. Moore, dressed in a red baseball cap and green cargo shorts, began his presentation by offering tepid yet crowd-pleasing quips about the Republicans cutting the Veterans Administration, eliminating traffic lights, and getting rid of kittens.

“Enough picking on them,” said Moore. “They’ve got a rough road ahead of them.” He then continued with a lot of football metaphors for the audience, which didn’t really look like sports enthusiasts. “I was saying last night, you know, they caught this great pass back in November and they started running in the opposite direction back on the football field away from their goal!”

It appeared that Moore didn’t quite understand the type of audience that comes to BEA.

“I assume most of you work in bookstores?” uptalked Moore. “The librarians are here?” When a handful of teachers responded to his Catskills act, he replied, “Some teachers? Oh great. Of course teachers are to blame for everything. All the money that they’re taking from us.”

Then having secured a low-key audience, Moore announced his new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life, due out in September. The book, a collection of two dozen short stories (“but they’re all nonfiction”), chronicles Moore’s life before Roger & Me.

“There’s a short story about getting lost inside the Capitol building at eleven years old,” said Moore. “I didn’t see the sign that said SENATORS ONLY.” A man reading a newspaper — who turned out to be Robert Kennedy — helped Moore find his parents that day.

Another story involves Moore asking his parents if he could leave home at fourteen. “I said I wanted to be a priest. So I went to the seminary at fourteen years old.” Moore explained that the story allowed him to investigate his Catholicism.

“There’s a whole bunch of things like that,” said Moore. “I found myself present at a terrorist incident in the 1980s.” That incident allowed Moore to “write about what it’s like to actually be present at one of those terrorist incidents and live.”

The book, continued Moore with his masterful aw-shucks put on, “explains how I got to be where I got.” Yet he never explained how any of his stories, which also concern how he hired many ex-Navy SEALS for his security detail, would be of value to someone who was unemployed or trying to pay off a subprime loan. Moore reported that the stories were “interesting and wild. Some are funny and not so funny.”

Moore than read an excerpt from his book (and most of his presentation time was devoted to this). The excerpt recreated his infamous night at the 2003 Academy Awards. “It’s weird,” said Moore in the middle of reading. “It’s the first time I’ve read those words out loud since that night.”

Moore’s excerpt revealed that Moore was convinced that he had let everybody down. “I ruined their night and I suddenly sunk into a pit of despair,” read Moore. But there was more than a hint of self-aggrandizement in his excerpt. “People stepped away from me for fear that their picture would be taken.” This correspondent had to wonder if other people considered Moore to be as important as he clearly thought himself to be. Moore noted that film studio executive Sherry Lansing came up to him and said, “It hurts now. Someday you’ll be right. I’m so proud of you.” Moore’s excerpt revealed that he “believed they were right. I got to listen to more boos over the next 24 hours. Going through the hotel. Walking through the airport.”

But Moore’s excerpt was disingenuous. Because he failed to observe that when you say something outrageous and/or contrarian before a large crowd, they’re not exactly going to welcome you in open arms. When he returned home from the Oscars ceremony, he saw signs tacked up on his property.

“It was time to call in the Navy SEALS,” Moore read with typical subtlety. Moore explained that he had hired a security group composed of former SEALS, that he had been assaulted and people had tried to assault him, and that one person had tried to blow up his house. “The SEALS basically saved me and kept me alive.”

Kept Moore alive? Moore has certainly said and filmed many brave and provocative moments in his career. But I wasn’t quite sold on his pity act. Perhaps there’s an additional moment in his forthcoming book in which he comes to terms with the fact that he’s a loudmouth. But that pivotal introspection and unapologetic acceptance of his nature seemed to be missing.

This discrepancy proved especially troubling when Moore painted two of his enemies as obsequious types seeking an apology. One guy who called him a “shithead” allegedly recanted. “I told him that we had more in common than not. Eventually I got a smile from him.” Another man working the boom mike on The Tonight Show approached Moore shortly after his guest appearance. He had apparently yelled “Asshole” at the Oscars. According to Moore, this man had tears in his eyes and said, “I never thought I’d see you again. I can’t believe I’d get the chance to apologize to you.” “You did nothing wrong,” replied Moore. “You believed your President. You’re supposed to believe your President. If we can’t expect that as the minimum in office, then we’re doomed.”

To turn Moore’s logic around, if we can’t expect the filmmaker to consider that there may be problems with his approach and that not all of humanity will bow in sycophantic deference, then perhaps his book project is a doomed prospect for anybody who disagrees with his politics or his methods.

When he finished reading, there was a loud applause.

“That was really cool,” said Moore. “I got to do this for the first time.” Moore didn’t thank the crowd.

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BEA 2011: The Future of Ebooks Publishing Executive Panel

The Future of eBooks Publishing Executive Panel

Participants: Tom Turvey (Google Books – moderator), Andrew Savikas (O’Reilly/Safari Books Online), Evan Schnittman (Bloomsbury), Amanda Close (Random House), and David Steinberger (Perseus)

If you were an industry type giving a half goddam about the future of publishing on a late Tuesday afternoon in New York, you had two venues at BEA to deposit your worries. If you were a squeaky kidult wishing to rah rah rah rather than stare into hard reality, there was the 7x20x21 series of self-congrulatory dispatches competing with the floor’s mad transactional noise. But if you were an adult and if you understood why the maxim “follow the money” is not one to blithely ignore, then you headed downstairs into a spacious room, where corporate executives discussed the future of ebooks.

It was a packed house attracting no specific type. Italians chatted behind me. There were guys in the back finding ideal standing positions to make a quick escape if the panel went bust. But nearly every seat was filled through the end. I suppose that when you promise an audience some glimpse of the future, it’s a guaranteed draw. Except for the young people too busy with the collective adulation upstairs.

“The book business is a very long tail business,” began moderator Tom Turvey. I knew he was with Google even before he even said “long tail.” For not more than a minute before heading to the lectern, he checked his phone: one final hit from the electronic communications crack pipe.

As one of the Google People, Turvey had the nerdy nihilism you’d expect from a director of strategic partnerships. He was careful not to express too much enthusiasm, but he did seem to relish the idea of print being as dead as the gramophone, especially midway through the discussion when he asked three of the panelists (excluding Amanda Close) if the agency model was a feature or a bug. “Personally I think it’s a bug, not a feature,” replied O’Reilly’s Andrew Savikas. “It was a moment in time,” replied Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman. Perseus’s David Steinberger was the most practical of the four: “I would just say it’s too early. I think we’re overexcited about this issue.”

But Steinberger’s wise response didn’t stop Turvey from pushing further on the topic. Indeed, there is little doubt in my mind that the man spends many evenings in hotel rooms wiping the gushing drool from his chin after marinating his mind in some Bradbury-like vision of a world without books. (When asked by an audience member if Google was working on replicating the experience of a bookstore, Turvey replied, “We have some of our best engineers working on this very topic.” Never mind that the panel demonstrated that ebooks have created problems for consumers that these five corporate titans didn’t really wish to address.)

“Publishing does not know how to market ebooks yet,” said Schnittman. “You’re looking at bestsellers tracking with bestsellers. Everything that we’re marketing in the stores is selling just as well.” I became skeptical of Schnittman when he started clenching his left hand, a gesture reminding me of some dodgy villain from a melodrama. Schnittman liked to talk quite a bit.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” continued Schnittman. “We’ve never marketed backlist before.”

These rather assumptive generalizations had me wondering if Schnittman had ever settled his precious hands onto the raw joys of genre or contemplated the way in which an author winning an award often results in backlist titles being repackaged. And what about presses like the University of Chicago Press, finding new life for Anthony Powell and Richard Stark?

“The big challenge that we’re all facing is the digital world,” said David Steinberger. Steinberger was more interested in the way in which consumers discovered books. “Digital is very good for hunters and not so for gatherers.” These were metaphors that a male computer geek could understand, but when he presented specific data about the bottom 50% of Perseus’s titles earning 2% of the print revenue and 12% of the ebook revenue, these statistics helped steer the conversation away from Turvey’s regrettable Gladwellian terminology.

“Those books are not easily found in the physical world,” continued Steinberger. He brought up Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, which had very poor distribution, but managed to nab 62% in ebook revenue. The same went for Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Not a sexy title for the Grisham crowd, but the book managed to secure 60% in ebook revenue. “I think you are seeing a lift in the tail,” said Steinberger. “If you’re publishing John Grisham or Tom Clancy, you have another set of rules.”

Random House’s Amanda Close didn’t close the deal upon her turn at the mike. Overly general in her answers and needlessly self-congratulatory in tone (though not haughty like Schnittman, of which more anon), Close wallowed in general corporatese. “I would argue that it’s early days in retail and that we are working with our partners every day to collaboratively work on that browsing experience. That discoverability is really coming through online to replace certain things.” But if Close admitted her desire to argue, it was all for naught. For she brought no argument to the table. “Things in the physical world can reiterate things in the digital world.” You can probably say this about getting lucky after a long dry spell downloading porn. “Our challenge is to deeply understand the dynamics of the marketplace.” Close’s challenge was to deeply understand that a panel of this ilk requires something a bit more than reductionist statements. From the perspective of this observer, she failed. It didn’t help that she smiled brightly and nodded her head after spouting off some of this malarkey.

“Digital distribution is extremely efficient at meeting demand,” offered Andrew Savikas. Yet he also conceded that much of the demand is due to consumers discovering the books. He was right to note the “popularity within the store which generates the feedback loop,” but he wasn’t willing to distinguish the differences between discoverability in a physical bookstore (accompanied by a skilled bookseller) and an e-bookstore. Perhaps it was because he preferred to hawk Safari Books, which has “both lengthened and fattened the tail.”

“While I do expect there to continue to be perhaps a need for the biggest players to focus on those hot titles,” continued Savikas, “I think this ecosystem offers an opportunity for smaller players to find a niche.”

But who are these smaller players? Safari Books? Authors who self-publish at the Kindle Store? Much as yesterday’s panel failed to establish terms, I kept wondering why a thoughtful if somewhat long-winded guy like Savikas couldn’t espouse the pragmatism offered by Steinberger. Savikas was holistic enough to consider Netflix’s current domination of bandwidth, but does this even apply to books, which are an entirely different medium requiring an entirely different commitment?

“I think everybody starts seeing the phenomenon where something hits the list and it becomes self-perpetuating, you know?” responded Close on a question relating to bestseller lists. “I actually look forward to the retail experience evolving so that we can see some segmentation.”

But how can you have an evolving retail experience when there’s a reluctance to experiment? Turvey questioned Close minutes later when he asked her, quite fairly, if Random House’s organizational attitude had changed in light of the fact that more self-published authors had entered the ebook arena.

“Um, you know the way I would actually answer that is we are always testing things with our new authors.” But how? “It’s not a phenomenon that has been driven by the self-publishing platform.” I’m guessing that Amanda Hocking would disagree with this.

Steinberger brought up Go the Fuck to Sleep as an example of online conversation translating into sales. He then quoted The Cluetrain Manifesto: “A market is not me telling you something. A market is a conversation.” But while it’s undeniable that some conversation has started with Go the Fuck to Sleep, nobody on the panel wanted to admit that this was a bit of a fluke. But it did cause Schnittman to reveal more than a bit of resentment towards the consumer.

“Consumers need help,” he said. “We throw at them how many thousands of books?” He then hunched forward. “What matters is there’s an authority. It’s the free market, baby.”

When Turvey asked why all the book recommendation engines sucked, he allowed Schnittman to fall into his Socratic trap. (The unvoiced assumption: what is a bookseller but the ultimate book recommendation engine?)

“I think people do use it,” huffed Schnittman, when Turvey brought up the failed Genius feature in iTunes. “You use it with a caveat that it sucks.”

Then he got a little defensive. “You in the world of algorithms, you’ll figure out something theoretically better and better.” He then suggested that “the tail was wagging the dog,” before attempting to retract this because he had “used it yesterday. Nobody quote me on that one.”

I kept wondering why this apparent professional was more concerned with l’esprit de l’escalier rather than legitimate ideas. But at least he wasn’t as bad as Close, who again declared her willingness to argue in lieu of a legitimate argument: “I would argue we have always cared deeply about our consumers.” But for Close, that care has more to do with “buzz meters” and point-of-sale data.

Schnitmann got very riled up about territorial sales, which has presented many ebook customers from accessing certain titles. “Where we see the Internet as a world that doesn’t respect any borders, we’ve actually set up the system to present consumes to buy.”

This caused Savikas to question the wisdom of such an approach: “The notion that we can or should enforce geographic restrictions on web-generated content is a lost cause. And I feel sorry for your customers.”

“I don’t have the rights to them though!” whimpered Schnittman.

“I don’t believe territorial restrictions make sense in relation to content.”

Savikas elaborated on this, believing that electronic sales would eventually become the primary way of doing business and that territorial restrictions don’t reflect the fabric of the Web. Schnittman countered, with more Palpatine-like hand cluthing gestures, by suggesting that “different economies have different needs.” Savikas replied, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong in adjusting the pricing geographically.”

Territorial copyright is certainly an issue. But when a woman approached the mike and declared herself a “frustrated customer,” explaining quite pasionately to Schnittman, “I don’t think that you’re respecting the consumer at all,” it became clear that the panel didn’t want to discuss the real issue: the customer is always right. “Do you have a question?” sneered Turvey from the podium. “Why don’t you think more about the consumer?” said the woman, not missing a beat.

Schnittman did not offer an answer. Nor did any of the other four. And their silence spoke volumes about their collective comprehension of business-customer relations.

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BEA 2011: “The E-Book Era is Now”

The E-Book Era is Now: What Does It Look Like From the Consumer Perspective? And What Do We Do About It?

Participants: Kelly Gallagher, RR Bowker; Angela Bole, Book Industry Study Group

On Monday morning, approximately one hundred besuited souls assembled in a large conference room without a single distinguishing architectural feature. Like much of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, it was an ideal place to commit suicide if you were having second thoughts.

But the occasion on Monday morning was slightly cheerier. After Angela Bole, an executive director at the Book Industry Study Group announced, “Shrinkage is not an option,” leaving me to wonder whether there was some detumescent publishing commodity comparable to cold water, a man with a speaking style somewhere between a regular guy and one of those obnoxious autistic types who fly in from Mountain View and walk into a room as if they own the place prepared to discuss a “most unique” [sic] situation.

Kelly Gallagher, a vice president at R.R. Bowker, delivered a presentation called “The E-Book Era is Now.” I didn’t realize you could call a two year period an “era,” but I was curious to learn how this “looked like from the consumer perspective.” I also wondered if Harry Selfridge’s maxim was applicable in the Internet age. Was the customer right? Or were much of the players full of hot air? As it turned out, it was a little of both.

Five minutes before the panel began, I was handed a flyer announcing a study conducted by the Book Industry Study Group. Some of the cited results: print customers who have download ebooks have jumped from 5% of the total in October 2010 to almost 13% in January 2011. Fiction has dominated downloads as a whole. Free samples and low prices win customers. There are “power buyers.”

What the hell was a power buyer? Well, as our somewhat suspicious friend from RR Bowker informed us, it was a catch-all term not unlike “artificial sweetener.” You could call a power buyer (as Gallagher did) a 44-year-old woman who made $77,000 a year who sits on a beach buying predominantly fiction (mostly romance). Or you could settle for a more general idea: the power buyer as someone who purchases an e-book every week. As a Powerpoint slide later revealed, that definition wasn’t entirely right either. I was told that, in March 2011, about 18% of power buyers acquired ebooks weekly, that about 52% purchased ebooks once or twice a month, and that about 28% “rarely/sporadically buy.” I suppose that if you fall into that latter category, everybody with a portable reading device can be called a “power buyer.” So if you happen to own an e-reader, feel free to shout “I’m a power buyer!” just after the Romans nail you to the cross. Either that or someone in the Bowker office had that catchy Snap! song on repeat.

When Gallagher opened his presentation with an awkward metaphor about the blue people from Avatar, it was clear that he hadn’t quite studied the film’s imperialistic message – even if he did close with a slide suggesting a sunny if somewhat backhanded multiculturalism. But he did offer some information about the state of ebooks that was helpful for today’s digital movers and shakers.

“That’s what we call the hockey stick,” said Gallagher as he presented a line plotted by rising percentage points with a noticeable dive last month. In April 2011, ebooks had fallen to about 11% of the market. This was the first dip that ebooks had seen and the closest thing this Gallagher had to a Sledge-O-Matic. But Gallagher was careful to suggest that this had more to do with “fluctuations” of a nebulous nature.

“The e-buyer today is really moving the market,” said Gallagher. But he didn’t quite say how. He did note that “power buyers” were very dedicated to their personal devices and had largely abandoned their PCs. And the power buyer, whether a 44-year-old woman or a guy wearing nothing but his underwear in a dark room compulsively hitting a one click button, was different from the core e-textbook buyer, who is a 23-year-old male grad student (or distance learner) who was more likely to pirate than underclassmen and who purchased 17% of his textbooks in “e.” (Wild stab in the dark, but I’m guessing that Gallagher didn’t attend a lot of raves back in the day.) This textbook buyer, whoever she may be, does not have a clear sense of download. Unlike ebooks, there are certain barriers with e-textbooks — namely the fact that e-textbooks cannot compete with physical textbooks — that prevent the e-textbook from growing. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that the laptop (51%) and the desktop (20%) reflect the top shares of the e-textbook market, with dedicated devices not really fitting the bill. Students want highlighting, note taking, and searchability. But the e-textbook market isn’t giving it to them. 75% of students still want the physical textbook.

But on the trade front, Kindle is the dominant source, still growing in market share. It is estimated that Kindle reflects about 65% of the ebook market. Dedicated e-readers have replaced the PC, which was once the #1 device for the ebook market in 2009.

Gallagher presented some interesting stats on price. For both ebooks and e-textbooks, price comes in as the sixth most compelling reason (behind portability and convenience) for why people purchase them. Topping the wishlist of wants on ebooks? “Give or lend ebook after you’re one with it.” This suggests very highly that present DRM factors are not the way to win your customers. What was especially interesting about Gallagher’s presentation is that the Kindle has only just recently reached a 50% customer satisfaction rate. And the Nook hasn’t made that much of a customer satisfaction dent at all. Gallagher didn’t elaborate on whether this was the tendency for customers to complain or a closet loathing for portable readers. But as he put it, “We still haven’t delivered the ultimate experience for the consumer if they’re not operating over 50%.” (One also wonders how e-readers would stack up against smartphones. This seems like a pivotal customer satisfaction comparison to run if one is to talk about being in “the e-book era.”)

Gallagher brought up “digital fatigue” as one explanation for the poor performance of e-textbooks. “They are continually wired in their lives,” he said. “Many are indicating they just don’t want to go there with books.” On the other hand, another slide informed the audience that it was “too early to tell” about the effect that digital fatigue is having.

While some “power buyers” were still buying print books, the numbers suggested that 45% of “power buyers” were buying a decreased number of hardcovers and 50% were buying a decreased number of paperbacks. If this sounds gloomy for print acolytes, the other side of the coin is that ebooks have greatly helped to expand the total market. Gallagher didn’t have specific numbers or dollar figures on this front to offer. I presume that one will have to cough up the dough to buy his report. But near his conclusion, he did say, “We need to understand which part of the market we’re really talking about. Are we focusing on the right power buyer?” That’s a good question. But if a “power buyer” is such a plastic idea, shouldn’t the ebook industry focus on solidifying that before talking about “focus?” Especially when it comes from a guy who claimed that authors can “manage their own destiny” online. While Gallagher’s data was mostly useful, I felt at times that the audience was collectively reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel rather than seriously considering the future of publishing.

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BEA 2010: An Impromptu Conversation with Gary Shteyngart

The following is a transcript from an impromptu conversation with Gary Shteyngart at BookExpo America. Due to inexplicable file degradation, the color within the video is not what it was in reality. Mr. Shteyngart’s skin proved so stunning that it caused at least 300 heads to turn during the course of the interview. And we only talked for two minutes! 300 heads in two minutes isn’t a statistic to easily discount. We regret to report that the video degraded, thus sullying Mr. Shteyngart’s charismatic complexion. There were several attempts at color correction, but the technical team proved too lazy (and too deadline-challenged with paying work) to do anything about it. So we present the results from the decent elements we could cobble together. You can listen to the conversational madness by playing the file at the bottom of this post. This Shteyngart guy, who is apparently under forty and designated as “hot” by The New Yorker, has some novel coming out called Super Sad True Love Story, which we hope to read more closely. We were unable to perform the appropriate tests to confirm Mr. Shtyengart’s “hotness,” but we hope that some scientific authority will gauge his body temperature in the immediate future and prove the inevitable.

Correspondent: Okay, so I’m here with Gary Shteyngart, who has a new book that’s apocalyptic. You’re apocalyptic-minded now!

Shteyngart: I’m apocalyptic-minded! (mimes plane crashing into an illusory horizon)

Correspondent: Yeah. Would BEA be the apocalypse?

Shteyngart: This is the end of all-known literature. After today, no more books.

Correspondent: Oh really?

Shteyngart: Yes.

Correspondent: Super Sad Love Story is your final book.

Shteyngart: Super SadTrue.

Correspondent: Yes, I know. It has too many modifiers.

Shteyngart: Oh my God! Modify this! This is definitely it. I’m hanging up my gloves and I’m becoming a duck farmer in Maine.

Correspondent: Okay. Duck farming is easier than writing novels?

Shteyngart: It’s what Henry Roth did. After he wrote Call It Sleep. he became a duck farmer. Every good Jewish boy becomes a duck farmer.

Correspondent: And there’s a new Henry Roth novel coming out from scraps! So you have a bunch of scraps you’re sitting upon while you’re writing. While you’re doing the duck farming.

Shteyngart: And plucking. And plucking the duck. Oh my God! It’s called dressing the duck.

Correspondent: Well, this is apocalyptic. There are credit poles involved. And there are numerous aspects. I’m curious. Was your checking balance poor these days? Or what happened?

Shteyngart: Well, you know, Ed, I grew up in one failing empire. And now I’m living in America. So I’m sick of doing Russia. I said, “Hey, why not try something new?” And this country is giving so much now. Everything’s falling apart! And I love it. So I really had a good time with it. When I started writing the book in 2006, I predicted stupid things like the collapse of the financial system. And then it actually started happening. So I had to make it worse and worse and worse. So in the end, everything gets bought by a huge Norwegian hedge fund.

Correspondent: So you contrived all these apocalyptic aspects years before they happened. And yet the novel takes two years to come out.

Shteyngart: That’s the thing! That’s the thing with goddam novels. You can’t keep up. That’s why my next book will be set thirty years in the future. We don’t live in the future anymore. We don’t live in the present anymore. There’s no present. It’s all the future now.

Correspondent: Really? So I’m not actually talking to you now. I’m talking to you in 2018.

Shteyngart: You’re talking to me in 2018!

Correspondent: You’ve aged very well.

Shteyngart: Thank you. You too!

Correspondent: Hey!

Shteyngart: Oh my God! We’re looking pretty good for our age.

Correspondent: I know.

Shteyngart: We’re what? Like 73 at this point, I am? Excellent.

Correspondent: I don’t know. You do the math.

Shteyngart: I can’t do math.

Correspondent: All right. You can write novels though.

Shteyngart: Yes, I’m trying. I’m trying so hard to write them. Oh, but this is the last one. From now on, duck farming.

Correspondent: Unless of course, you’ve already written three before this in the future.

Shteyngart: Yes! And somebody bought the options to the movies. Then we’re set.

BEA 2010: Gary Shteyngart (Download MP3)

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BEA 2010: The CEO Panel (“The Value of a Book”)

Moderator: Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Participants: Bob Miller (Workman), Esther Newberg (ICM), Skip Prichard (Ingram), David Shanks (Penguin), Oren Telcher (ABA), Scott Turow (Authors Guild)

It didn’t take long for Tuesday morning’s CEO panel to dredge up the same tired tropes about eBooks, which is just as nauseating whether you hear it from the tech-oriented libertarians or the old codgers who continue to pretend that the Kindle never came out. Moderator Jonathan Galassi, failing to provide a sufficient balance between these two extremes, opted to pretend that eBooks didn’t exist. “The title was supposed to be ‘The Value of a Book,” said Galassi, referring to the print variety twenty minutes into the panel, and hoping to steer the conversation into variables more applicable to the Carter Administration. Alas, with the exception of Scott Turow (nearly as as ill-informed as Galassi), the other panelists very much wanted to discuss reality.

It didn’t make much sense for the panel to escape these hard questions. After all, as ABA President Michael Tucker announced during the panel’s introduction, speaking in a lifeless and sleep-inducing tone, “In a fast-changing digital world, there is extraordinary value in an event like BookExpo.” I’m not sure if Tucker believed it. Certainly I didn’t. I had worn my Night of the Living Dead T-shirt to Javits for a reason. But if I were an FSG author, I would be very concerned indeed about Galassi’s present understanding of the industry.

Galassi, growing visibly flustered as the other panelists politely informed him about present market conditions (with limited comprehension on Galassi’s end), not only maintained the old warhorse position that hardcovers would still be desired by 100% of book purchasers, but clung to such feeble driftwood as “We’re always going to need warehouses” and, on the position of enhanced books, “Who has time for the enhancement?” He also claimed that no author is going to want to publish his work online for free. Obviously, Galassi hasn’t heard of the Huffington Post.

More preposterous than these pronouncements was the chestnut Galassi lodged midway through the panel. Shortly after Galassi declared, “I feel that there’s something radically wrong about the way a market has been determined.” Well, that’s fine. But it’s the customers who determine the market, not Galassi. Galassi then seriously suggested that Scott Turow had the right to a career. “People should be willing to pay $4 million,” Galassi said of Turow, shortly after offering a declaration that Turow had paid his dues.

Turow may very well have paid his dues. But if the customers don’t want to buy his books, then perhaps he shouldn’t be entitled to the staggering advances that most authors can only dream about. Ingram’s Skip Prichard then politely explained to Galassi the realities of the free market: “We’re in a competitive market. Scott’s not in a vacuum. You have to look at the options.” And after this high school economics supply and demand lesson, Galassi stayed quiet for a good share of the panel. This allowed Prichard to point to how libraries had reinvented themselves over the past ten years, digitizing their archives and adding coffee bars and seats. Bookstores, indicated Prichard, were also going to change.

Brian O’Leary and Authors Guild members will be interested to learn that Turow claimed that piracy was the biggest risk to the books industry. Never mind that present indicators suggest that piracy isn’t particularly ubiquitous and that the stakes remain relatively small.

At least Penguin’s David Shanks understood that the eBooks market remained quite small, understanding that less than 10% of the total books market could hardly be called a mass market. After all, purchasing a reading device was a sizable investment for the average Joe. “The mass audience is not right now buying those reading devices,” said Shanks. The time would come later for serious adoption “as the publishers start to get better information,” said Shanks, “and realize the efficiencies of not printing.”

Prichard also pointed out that tomorrow’s readers “will not want to have their next book on a single device.” While he didn’t offer any immediate remedies on how to make this happen, he was forward-thinking enough to observe that tomorrow’s books are “not going to be about the device.”

At one point, Turow asked, “Why did publishers ever agree for the eBook to be available at the same time as the hardcover?” To which one can sufficiently reply, why hasn’t Scott Turow ever paid attention to what the customers want? If he hasn’t tracked the omnipresent fury over this issue, then is he really qualified to serve as Authors Guild President?

The ABA’s Brad Telcher thankfully made a case for the inclusive middle ground. Observing that physical and digital space need not be separated into a binary value, he stated that booksellers needed to be focused on the content and that the books industry needed to meet any and all customer needs. “We should be format neutral,” said Telcher.

Bob Miller, having recently departed from the imprint HarperStudio for Workman, was perhaps the most austere eBook evangelist on the panel. He noted quite rightly that customers wouldn’t want to wait for the eBook edition, but seemed to exude an off-putting Dunning-Kruger vibe when he boasted of attending eBook conferences from ten years before. “I was at those conferences,” he said. “We were really excited.”

I much preferred the quieter and more easygoing Telcher (along with the zinger-spouting Esther Newberg), the panel’s best advocate for unity. “What we do,” said Telcher, “is put the right book in the hand of the appropriate customer. We believe that there are a significant number of consumers who want to come to a place.” He pointed to the importance of preserving the showrooms, noting that declining record stores had taken away much of the community within the music business. Telcher wasn’t naive enough to dismiss the idea of selling eBooks within physical spaces.

Indeed, Turow proved both uninformed and somewhat condescending towards those who enjoy eBooks — presumably because it cuts into his million dollar advances. “A lot of those people are buying more books,” said Turow, “and they enjoy playing with their toy.” He insisted that most users of “reading machines” were part of “the flying class.”

As these men began huffing about various format limitations, the heel-wagging Newberg, who served almost as a second-string moderator after Galassi’s eyes seemed to glaze over permanently, asked how a physical book can compete when book tours have been cut back and when newspapers have cut back. She pointed to online word of mouth, and also noted that physical books needed to be beautiful in order to matter. She pointed to a forthcoming Steve Martin book constructed of vellum paper.

Prichard would have none of this. “There’s going to be a niche that cares about that.” He pointed to the enormous pressure from the digital market, but concluded that “the vast majority of readers don’t care.”

“We are a niche,” replied Newberg. “We’re not a giant business.”

Miller, to his credit, did observe that a book’s look and feel was important. But I looked to Prichard and wondered if he was going to blow a gasket.

“You’re making it sound like choices,” interceded Telcher. “Consumers are different too.”

My notes indicate that Prichard used the word “choices” five times in less than a minute. I thought immediately of Rod Steiger’s over-the-top general in Mars Attacks and I wasn’t alone. I noticed that the gentleman sitting to my left, the veins in his neck popping out with apparent outrage, was talking back to the panel. “You’re not a creator!” he seethed in response to Prichard. I wondered if he needed a hug. Perhaps more than Galassi.

At this point, the panel then more or less rehashed the same arguments and my notes became less frequent. Perhaps the panel’s truest sentiment came from Newberg, who remarked that one of the nice things about getting old was not having to worry about the resolution of all these arguments. I can’t say that I blame her. If many of these executives won’t pay attention to contemporary realities, then we may have to wait for some of these pigheaded types to die off before a cooperative fusion between authors, publishers, agents, and customers will keep this industry alive. Maybe then we’ll get some of that “extraordinary value” that Tucker was sleep-talking about.

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BEA 2010

Since there have been some inquiries, here’s the deal. Due to a number of ongoing projects that require my vital attention (along with this tricky little thing called life), my BookExpo America participation will be severely reduced this year. But I will be offering some modest coverage of an amusing and vaguely informative nature. I won’t be attending the Book Blogger Convention. But feel free to email me if you’re in town and interested in meeting up.

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Sinatra’s Corpse Disinterred for BEA Keynote

Facing considerable indifference shortly after the announcement of has-been Barbra Streisand as a headliner, Reed Exhibitions announced that they had disinterred Frank Sinatra’s corpse to replace Streisand as BookExpo America’s opening night act.

“We recruited some mob guys in Hoboken to dig up the corpse,” said BEA spokesman Lance Fensterman. “They were very helpful and worked for a reasonable price, but there were a few other agreements we reached that I can’t discuss on the record.”

Sinatra, who has been dead since 1998, will be asked to perform a series of rousing numbers to awaken the increasingly dwindling booksellers and publishers who will be attending this year’s event. It is not yet known precisely how Sinatra will perform before this crowd, given that Sinatra has spent the past twelve years being chewed on by the maggots. But an expert team of touchup artists has been recruited to make Ol’ Blue Eyes look a little less like a corpse. But efforts to clear out the stench of death on Sinatra’s corpse haven’t started yet.

“They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them,” elaborated Fensterman. “But we remain confident that Sinatra will be in fine shape before the end of May. If we can’t reconstruct his face, we’ll simply replace it with a large watermelon.”

Fensterman’s audacious publicity move has attracted hostility from the Sinatra family, who have expressed a strong desire not to undergo a second round of bereavement. Nancy Sinatra has entered negotiations with Reed, offering to perform a version of her famous song called “These Books Were Made for Reading,” in an effort to keep BEA’s opening night tasteful.

BEA 2009: The Truth About Book Piracy

At BookExpo America, Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield entered into a lengthy conversation with Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media. And it became necessary to capture their quasi-caffeinated colloquy for reasons that will soon become apparent.

I had seen O’Leary earlier in the year at the “Challenging Notions of Free” panel at Tools of Change, along with O’Reilly’s Mac Slocum and Random House’s director of business development Chelsea Vaughan. O’Reilly and Random House had agreed to participate in a study hoping to pinpoint the effects of P2P distribution — namely, the impact of digital books, both in pirated and legitimate form, on print book sales. And they were standing in a conference room in February to present Magellan’s results to the public.

The results were a bit surprising. According to O’Leary’s subsequent report, “Impact of P2P and Free Distribution on Book Sales,” book piracy wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous as some had suggested. While O’Leary’s report had only O’Reilly and Random House as participants, it appeared that some of the publishers’ fears about piracy were unsubstantiated. Only eight frontlist titles published by O’Reilly in 2008 could be located as torrent files. When these books did become available as torrents, the torrents were uploaded to the Internet far later than expected: some 20 weeks after publication date on average. Furthermore, for the titles available as torrents, on average, sales were 6.5% higher for these books during the four weeks after they were uploaded.

Despite the braying of New York Times guest bloggers, book piracy was hardly the Manichean scenario that some of the DRM advocates had implied. And the chances of Stephen King and Toni Morrison riding on motorcycles appeared to be unlikely. In his report, O’Leary suggested “a less binary model to evaluate the use of free” — one doing away with the parallel experiences from music and movies and accounting for tangible interface realities.

But before the “information must be free” acolytes begin offering a Nelson-like “Ha Ha,” it’s important to note that this isn’t a scenario in which a partisan can dance a jig jig one way or another. O’Leary is pointing out quite rightly that both publishers and open source advocates are making statements about piracy without specific correlative data to draw from. O’Leary’s results are a great step forward, but with Amazon offering a new version of the Kindle seemingly every two months and publishers remaining understandably mum about sales data, it isn’t exactly possible to locate the theory of everything.

In the interview, O’Leary pointed out that not only were there differences in book piracy between fiction and O’Reilly books, but even within specific types of fiction. And getting publishers to participate in ongoing efforts to study this unexamined issue might allow reliable correlations to be formed. O’Leary also alluded to additional studies conducted by John Hilton that involved studying the effect of free digital books on print sales. Hilton was surprised to learn that Tor Books gave 24 of its books away, but saw 20 of the titles with decreasing sales. Random House’s ebook experiments, by contrast, had seen increased print sales for all four titles that it had used for the experiment. But was it the type of books? The specific titles? The way the free ebooks were introduced?

“Certainly when you see that big a swing, you want to look at the type of book or the type of genre or the type of test,” said O’Leary. “I mean, keep in mind that not all digital tests are the same. If you’re using digital content on the first book in a science fiction series to promote the tenth book, it’s different from using digital content to promote the current book. So you want to capture all those things and then start to mix and match over time.”

But with only O’Reilly and Random House willing to use the machines in O’Leary’s laundry room, one wonders if anyone can iron out all the wrinkles.

BEA 2009: The Cool-Er Reader

As widely reported over the past week, BookExpo America featured several $249 e-readers. And while I certainly observed many people salivating over e-readers as a whole, a good deal of drool congealed around the edges of Interead’s Cool-Er Reader. Teleread’s Paul Biba reported that the Cool-Er is “very light and feels good on the hand.” (The Interread people did not allow me to corroborate Mr. Biba’s findings. While I don’t desire to undermine Mr. Biba’s understandable excitement, I would not be doing my duty if I didn’t point out that the same words might be said of a freshly washed and folded beach towel.) Wet Asphalt’s Eric Rosenfield reported that the Cool-Er people were very defensive when their device was compared with other e-readers. And I suppose that companies are indeed prone to getting a little defensive when are greeted with legitimate questions instead of marketing opportunities.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, I was more or less off-duty and somewhat hungover. I had devoted the morning to baking cookies and alotted the afternoon to my theatrical appearance at the Firebrand blogger signing. Under such conditions, the only apparel you can really wear is a Cocaine Fiends t-shirt. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to check the Cool-Er Reader out for myself. I talked with marketing director Phil Wood and did my best to separate the booth’s beach imagery from all the hype.

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BEA 2009: Michael Lewis

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As the above photo reveals, I did indeed talk with Michael Lewis at BookExpo. Unfortunately, it appears that we didn’t get audio for this three minute conversation. This was due to a regrettable technical glitch with the equipment. But in my defense, this interview occurred on a day in which I didn’t really intend to do interviews. But the Norton people suggested it. And I had the equipment on me. And I had precisely 90 seconds to get everything out of my backpack. It seemed a good idea at the time.

Mr. Lewis, known predominantly for his financial writing, has a new book called Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. The book has cobbled together numerous journals that Mr. Lewis kept as he became a father. I asked Mr. Lewis if, over the course of this journal writing, he had viewed fatherhood in the same manner in which he viewed denominated bills, or whether he possibly arranged the book in chapters that lined up to specific monetary units. Mr. Lewis became a little confused by this, but he denied that he had set out to reconsider fatherhood in ones, fives, and tens. When I asked Mr. Lewis if his book had mentioned any dead presidents, he said that the book did not. I did not understand why Mr. Lewis dropped eye contact with me as the interview progressed. I thought we were having a pleasant conversation. Perhaps his throat was parched and he needed a bottle of water.

But let me assure you that Mr. Lewis does take fatherhood very seriously. And anyone who needs a serious book about fatherhood may want to consider purchasing Michael Lewis’s Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood for the family home. I thank Mr. Lewis and Norton for the three-minute conversation, and I apologize that this post serves as an accidental guide to a conversation in which I did not get audio.

I should also observe that Michael Lewis’s shirt was somewhat liberally unbuttoned. Apparently, fatherhood is something in which your neck may require additional contact with the air. I sincerely hope that there is a chapter in Home Game that explains Mr. Lewis’s sartorial decision.

BEA 2009: A Few Positive Words

It has been suggested by more than a few parties that my BookExpo coverage betrays a sourpuss disposition. It has also been insinuated that I was predisposed to find negativity within this three-ring exposition. Not at all.

Here are some positive observations: The fine folks at Firebrand managed to set up a booth at BEA that proved to be a popular destination point for any number of quirky literary types. The many perspectives that will emerge from the fairly open press credentials policy will certainly assist Reed Exhibitions (and others) in determining BEA’s future. There are a number of passionate people who still believe in books — perhaps epitomized best by the emerging consultant/communal evangelist Richard Nash, who has hit upon the very sensible idea that writers are also readers — and who are making slow but steady progress in getting others to understand present developments. 7x20x21 suggested that there was no shortage of young energy willing to take on the troubling problems of the future. If the interest and presence from the big publishers were reduced, there remained many small presses and university presses who saw a consistent level of foot traffic comparable to previous years. (I didn’t quite find the crazy guy hawking his self-published book in a rented booth, much less the guy with the toilet seat around his head who had showed up at previous BEAs. But there did seem to be a larger makeup of aspiring authors cropping up at panels.) If Penguin wasn’t exactly promoting Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice at BEA (as Kirk Biglione wisely observed) and China Mieville remains one of those names that people get excited about on the floor but that Del Rey seemed strangely diffident in pushing, there remain numerous advocates under the radar. The book bloggers panel, which seemed to me a strange repeat of the 2004 litblog panels, attracted a fairly packed house. The wheel may be reinventing itself, but the one-two shuffles haven’t stopped and the enthusiasm hasn’t permanently quelled. And for all of my complaints about the Book Reviews 2010 panel, there was nevertheless a healthy swarm of spectators. People may not understand the present forms, but they certainly want to. It’s just a question of how much they are willing to adjust their thinking. And it’s also a question of whether the publishing industry wishes to latch onto the unhelpful panacea of Chris Anderson-style generalizations.

My suspicions about BEA have more to do with whether this massive conference is presently in the right form with which to bring together these many viewpoints. Perhaps the manner in which we unite publishers, booksellers, authors, and assorted parties needs to match the drastic manner in which the industry is changing. The digital enthusiasts need to understand the perspective of a 60-year-old publisher who will never use a Kindle. And the frightened publisher needs to comprehend why readers aren’t jumping up and down about DRM. It has become vitally important for us to listen to the opposite perspective. We can’t just keep to the comfortable corners of the room.

BEA 2009: Book Reviews 2010 Panel Report

Panel: Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?
Participants: John Reed, The Brooklyn Rail (Moderator); Ben Greenman, The New Yorker; Otis Chandler, Goodreads; Bethanne Patrick, The Book Studio; David Nudo, Shelfari; Peter Krause, Tactic Co.

I certainly went to this morning’s NBCC-sponsored panel with an open mind. Alas, with stiff moderator John Reed reading word-for-word off of his list of questions and the question of whether book reviews were even worth saving largely ignored, this was, as you might expect, business as usual, with Ben Greenman and Otis Chandler offering the only real substantive commentary. The rest was buzz words and bullshit dichotomies. Expert content vs. user-generated content, book reviews versus book recommendations, Coke vs. Pepsi. While Bethanne Patrick was very careful to ask everyone not to contain their silent fury, I kept my hand raised during the Q&A and was not called upon. I presume that they found out about the cherry bomb I planted in the boys room toilet.

You knew that something was off with this panel pretty early. But the question percolating in my mind had more to do with whether these people even loved books anymore, or even cared about lively writing. And I suppose it was answered when Reed asked the question, “Is there anything that you’re looking forward to leaving behind?” There was uncomfortable silence from the quintet, before Bethanne Patrick replied that she was very interested in leaving behind the idea that there were plenty of places for authority.

(It is worth noting that as I type these words in the BEA Press Room, I am listening to a robotic-sounding author talking in a very stilted tone about the “emotional charge” in his book. I have no idea who he is, but that’s part of the problem. Yes, this is the mechanical level of excitement here. Dare to express even the slightest feeling and you will be dragged away by Jacob Javits security.)

I think the fact that these five people don’t have any value or excitement for what they are offering — or are diffident about expressing such value or excitement — should say it all. Don’t sit there in silent fury or anything. Except that there’s really no place for you here.

“What is authority?” asked Peter Krause, who offered several dollops of generalized Gladwell/Anderson-style terminology for the crowd, including some of the silly dichotomies I have described above. How does Twitter give you authority? Does it come when somebody follows you? Or is it the way in which you link?

I wanted to get the panel discussing the all-important question of whether one should tweet in one’s underwear or not. Or perhaps they might consider the side effects of drunk tweeting. Or how you might lose a few followers if you tell an off-color joke that offends a few people. That seemed a far more intellectual discussion pertaining to “Book Reviews 2010” than anything presented at this joke of a discussion.

At least Ben Greenman was wise enough to suggest to the crowd, “You should probably listen to yourself.” He cited John Leonard as a critic whom he disagreed with 70% of the time, but who wryly pointed out the benefits of adversarial writing. Yes, I thought to myself, if only we could have some of that right now to counter all this groupthink bullshit.

“We do need a guide to navigate through the wilderness,” said Otis Chandler. “Who are the experts?” All well and good, but it all seemed comparable to some rich guy hiring a guide to hack his way through a jungle. It also seemed to me that Chandler’s position — despite the apparent egalitarian nature of Goodreads — was very much rooted in discounting the audience’s intelligence. Part of the success of Goodreads, as I ranted and raved to a few gracious listeners after the panel, is because there is no longer a place for enthusiasm or excitement in the newspapers. While I did agree with Chandler that people are more inclined to listen to their friends, what Chandler (and the other panelists with the possible exception of Greenman) missed was the possibility that critics never present themselves as trusted friends to the readers. They dictate rather than get people excited. And the hoary heads stuck up the sad ass of this industry seem to misunderstand and underestimate the ability for people to find an alternative when they’re talked down to as if they’re wearing dunce caps.

Forget about Book Reviews 2010. What about Book Reviews 2009? Or Book Reviews 2004? These are the real questions these people should be asking. But they won’t. Because I don’t think they really have any answers.