The Harper Lee Question

On February 3, 2015, a bold wave of joy and jubilation jolted the dry fields of the publishing industry. Harper Lee had written a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. It was set to be published in July. It was a 304-page sequel to her celebrated masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, and was set twenty years later, following Scout’s further adventures as she revisits her principled father, Atticus Finch, in the 1950s.

It didn’t take long for the skeptics to pop out of the funhouse. One cri de coeur came from Jezebel‘s Madeleine Davies, who cited Lee’s problematic relationship with her attorney Tonja Carter and pointed to how Alice Lee claimed that her sister did not always understand the contracts she signed (a charge that can equally apply to many writers, who traditionally aren’t in the habit of minding the store). There was also Lee’s copyright lawsuit against her agent Samuel Pinkus, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Pinkus had transferred the Mockingbird copyright to his company Veritas Media Inc. as Lee’s health declined. It was a classic case of a venal opportunist exploiting an undisputedly brilliant artist and moving in for the kill. With the settlement terms behind closed doors, we still don’t know how much of the copyright or the Mockingbird commissions Lee has actually received. (Lee and Pinkus’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment from Business Insider‘s Erin Fuchs.)

So there are underlying concerns about Go Set a Watchman. Was the publication of this second novel motivated by financial need? Had Lee been pressured to dust off a manuscript that had been sitting around for decades? Why did Lee’s attorney, who discovered the manuscript, push to have Watchman published? This was, after all, the manuscript that Lee had set aside before writing Mockingbird. It may be an embryo rather than a bouncing baby.

Watchman will undoubtedly be of great interest to the waning population that still reads. But doesn’t an author have the right to keep her early manuscripts unpublished? Lee obviously made the choice, but if she was squeezed into this last hurrah, there’s something unsavory about an author so beloved and renowned, one who has steadfastly avoided publicity, being coerced into showing off her apprentice work, especially if this manuscript has not been significantly edited or revised in the years since.

Indeed, when a genius’s undercooked work gets published, it can often backfire. In 2012, David Foster Wallace’s remaining nonfiction scraps were published as Both Flesh and Not and the mixed results, accompanied by a condescending list of vocabulary words used by Wallace, diminished his clear talent. And because of efforts like this (and the rushed D.T. Max biography), a DFW backlash developed.

It’s possible that Watchman will be a great book. As someone who was deeply moved by Mockingbird the three times I read it, I certainly hope it will be. Of course, one should certainly not venture an opinion about it until reading the damn thing in full. But if Watchman is a dog and there are any honest literary critics left in this gutless age of “No haters!” and trigger warnings, then Lee will be alive to witness the excoriations. The public may likewise measure Watchman by Mockingbird‘s yardstick.

Harper Lee is a national treasure. Given Mockingbird‘s great reach into the American cultural landscape, she has more than earned her right to be heralded, celebrated, and otherwise declared the bee’s knees. But Watchman is not Lee’s most recent work. To Kill a Mockingbird is. Watchman is a historical document, a book that should be published after Lee’s death when people are in a better position to judge her totality. It is a crassly commercial decision, not a scholarly one, that motivates this publication.

Interview with Keir Graff

In the wake of Kirkus Reviews‘s folding, I asked Booklist senior editor Keir Graff a few questions on the future of book review publications. He was very gracious and offered considerable answers.

Do you foresee Kirkus‘s closing having any editorial impact on present Booklist editorial policies? Will you be expanding your reviews? Changing the tone? Attempting to fill in any gaps left by Kirkus?

keirgraffInteresting question. Ron Charles eulogized “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” And, accurately or inaccurately, there is a definite perception of Booklist reviews as being “positive.” This is because of our recommend-only policy, which, briefly, means that we only review books we can recommend. Our core audience is librarians who use our reviews to buy books. And when the policy was implemented, the thinking was that, by publishing reviews that ended with a “do not buy,” we were wasting librarians’ valuable time.

Of course, the uses of Booklist reviews have evolved, and they are now used by readers’ advisors, licensed to Amazon, etc. And, as those uses have evolved, the concept of “recommend-only” has evolved, as anyone who reads our Upfront reviews knows: there are books we recommend because there will be patron demand, but that we think are horrible, and we say that — hopefully helping larger libraries know how many copies to buy.

But the short answer is that we won’t suddenly be doing more negative reviews. Despite the economic downturn, we have been able to review more books with each passing year, in part by reviewing more of them online. And while Kirkus‘s demise certainly leaves the whole industry poorer, I imagine there may be an opportunity in trying to fill the gap for Kirkus‘s subscribers. Our format is different, but for the harried Hollywood development exec, the volume and breadth of our review coverage could help fill a void, I’m sure.

(For more on our reviewing policy, you can go here.)

What is Booklist‘s present prognosis? Do you feel the worst has come to pass? Is there a timetable in place concerning Booklist‘s commitment to the future? Do you plan to maintain the present levels of compensation to reviewers?

Our fiscal year runs September to August, and the last fiscal year was, as you might guess, pretty awful. We’re doing better this year, especially in terms of new initiatives such as e-newsletters and webinars. And by using the word “initiatives” I have just sounded I work in marketing. But, yes, the worst has come to pass — at least for the foreseeable future. There is no timetable, but as we draw up next year’s budget, we’re going to have some big-picture talks about the future. The online environment is pretty key to all of that. Our compensation to reviewers has always been very modest, almost an honorarium, but we have no plans to cut it. (And we do pay our bloggers!)

You have reached out to the online world with your blog and through Twitter. Have these had any unique effect on Booklist? Do you see Booklist stretching out more of its review coverage into online waters? Concerning the balance between news and reviews, do you feel that Booklist needs to work more on the breaking news front to attract eyeballs and readers? If so, why?

Yes, we now have five blogs and two twitter feeds. That, and the free content on Booklist Online, have both helped us reach a wider audience and helped that audience reach us. We’ve always felt that Booklist reviews, though written for working librarians, could appeal more to the general public, simply because they’re written by smart book lovers who use rich language to make their points. But because Booklist is not available on newstands, we had a hard time reaching that public during the print era. Online, there have been great opportunities to broaden our reach without commensurate cost. Perhaps ironically, though, our biggest successes haven’t had to do with social media, but have come through plain, old e-newsletters.

Earlier I said that we’re reviewing more and more books, and this has been possible through our Booklist Online Exclusive reviews. In 2006, we published 32 of them; in 2007, 185; in 2008, 669; this year, 1,205. We’re able to quickly turn around embargoed and hot-topic books but also to flesh out coverage of the kind of meat-and-potatoes titles that libraries need to know about but that we might not have room for in the print magazine (for example, a brief mention of book 7 in a long-running hardcore sf/fantasy series). (All of our web-exclusive reviews, by the way, are made available for free via our Booklist Online Exclusives newsletter.)

Covering breaking news has never been our primary mission. But, yes, once you’re online, you need to keep current, and book reviews and author interviews will only get you so far. Our bloggers do use other peoples’ reporting as a way to link to our content. For example, when awards are announced, we often publish the list with book titles linked to our reviews. But because our web presence is only one part of our publishing program, we’re not in a desperate race for eyeballs the way, say, Gawker Media is.

How important are reviews to Booklist’s long-term strategy? Have we reached a point in which prepub reviews have less of a valid position in the marketplace? Or do the present financial hits upon book-related publications have more to do with other economic developments? If so, can you identify these and explain your position.

Book reviews remain central to our long-term strategy. Given our mission, helping librarians decide which books to purchase, any radical change of direction would be like breaking a contract. Librarians need and use our reviews, as we’re reminded every time we go to a conference.

As you know, the topic of print vs. online, of The Man vs. The Bloggers, has been talked to death, often in terms as unfortunately oversimplified as those I’ve just used. And in defending the importance of what we do, I’m leery of getting drawn into that unwinnable argument. I believe that coexistence is not only desirable but essential to a healthy literary ecosystem. Publishers can get excited about the immediacy of much of the blog coverage they get: they send out books, and all of a sudden reviews start popping up. Some of them are thoughtful and well written, like yours, and some of them are excited summaries by fans. All great. We can’t compete with that because we receive them, assign them to reviewers, send them, edit them, lay them out in print, format them carefully for online, etc. — but by the time they’re published, they’ve passed through many hands and received the benefit of a great deal of collective experience and perspective. Old-school crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I think, too, that journals such as Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, all in some way perform the kind of function that newspapers do, or should, or used to, which is to offer readers a selection that they wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Much is made of the web’s ability to give people exactly the experience they’re looking for, and that’s exactly why people should be wary of it. So it’s my belief that niche or specialist or genre blogs are terrific but should be balanced by some more general-interest reading, which, at least in terms of book reviews, is what we offer.

But back to your original question, which was about the marketplace: many people have questioned of late whether a New York Times review can actually sell books, and many people have said it cannot. But because prepublication reviews are written expressly for people who buy books, they do sell books. Maybe one starred Booklist review only sells a few thousand books (anecdotally, I have heard this is the case); taken altogether, that becomes a significant amount for any midlist title, while also providing the early buzz that can help a book gain momentum. But maybe the true relevance of prepublication reviews will only be known once they disappear from the landscape, and, at that point, I suspect that many publishers would be desperate to get them back. After all, they can send one book to Booklist and reach tens of thousands of readers (both via print and online). They often send books to blogs whose regular readers number in the hundreds.

I’m no financial expert, but it appears to me that Kirkus‘s immediate failure, and the troubles of any other prepub journals, can’t help but be tied to the fact that it’s a precarious climate for business in general, a precarious business climate for magazine publishing, and a precarious climate for book publishing as well. Add that to publishers’ fears of missing the boat with new technologies, new business models, etc. — even when they’re not sure where the boat is going — and it’s no wonder that advertising support for print publications has suffered. Although, as I said, this year has been better for us than last.

At Booklist, while we’re somewhat insulated from the full, Darwinian reality of corporate ownership, we do need to earn a profit to help fund the activities of the American Library Association. Like everyone, we’re working harder and have had to do more with fewer resources.

Five years from now, what will the environment of magazines and publications, mostly devoted to book reviews, look like?

Boy, do I wish I knew. It’s going to be a lot leaner, and using a lot less paper. But Booklist will still be here, reading and reviewing away.

(Our motto: “We read everything so you don’t have to.”)

Kirkus Reviews (1933-2009)

kirkusRomenesko has published an email from Nielsen Business Media President Greg Farrar, revealing that both Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher, unable to find a buyer, have folded. The move comes five years after a controversial attempt to raise revenue through the online-based Kirkus Discoveries and failed efforts to sell advertising. Kirkus never really had much of a sizable circulation, but, as Washington Post books editor Ron Charles put it shortly after the announcement, Kirkus was “the last reliable source of negative reviews.” (Interestingly, during his days at the Christian Science Monitor, Charles pondered whether authors could get an honest review under the failed Kirkus Discoveries venture.)

What will Kirkus Reviews‘s folding mean for the book industry? Kirkus Reviews was one of the four major all-purpose review publications that libraries and booksellers relied upon to anticipate future titles. The other three pubs still remain — Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. But with Publishers Weekly recently cutting its freelance rates, firing editor Sara Nelson, and facing shaky revenue, its future remains uncertain. It may fall to Booklist and Library Journal to pick up the slack. But with Kirkus‘s opinionated style obliterated by the ongoing financial apocalypse, it’s very doubtful that will be seeing Kirkus‘s helpful and often gloves-off approach reproduced anytime soon.

This is a major hit. With newspapers scaling back their review sections, it has become even more necessary for any outlet — whether print or online — to subsist in one of the toughest business climates seen in decades.

UPDATE: Ross Rojek, editor of the Sacramento Book Review and the San Francisco Book Review writes in:

In your final paragraph, you mention that it is necessary for any book outlet to survive. Well we’ve been publishing the Sacramento Book Review since September 2008, and just started the San Francisco Book Review this last September. We review about 250 books a month between both publications and even more that end up only online. We cover about 40 categories of books, from Romance to Science & Nature; big expensive coffee table books and mass market paperbacks.

Sure we’re not Kirkus or PW, but we do reach about 40,000 active readers and buyers each month in the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay areas. And more importantly, we’re starting to license our concept in other cities. San Antonio just started up, and we have 3 more cities we’re about to announce. Each of these licensees will be developing their own local edition of the paper, covering national, regional and local authors and books and promoting local events.

Just thought you should know. We’ve found a niche for print book reviews, and it seems to work.

02138 Shut Down

This afternoon, the New York Observer reported that 02138 was suspended by Manhattan Media. Editor David Blum assigned me to write a Books column, which I turned in a week ago.

This was a shame for many reasons, and they extend beyond my own involvement with the magazine. There seems to have been a lot of snark from the Gawker crowd that this version of 02138 was going to be a trivial magazine, a vanity project, a bauble. I can assure you that this wasn’t the case at all. Blum and his staff were going out of their way to reinvent this magazine and make it something that mattered. When I asked them specific questions about their audience, and when I queried them on very specific ideas, they had specific answers. They were hiring contributors who could spice things up with intelligent commentary, and one of their sticking points — and this cannot be overstated as we see long-form cultural journalism vanish from magazines — was lengthy and meaningful cultural coverage. Had my column continued, it most certainly would have continued along this trajectory.

I modeled my column partly on John Leonard’s monthly offering in Harper’s, but took it upon myself to emphasize small presses and overlooked books. I also attempted to look at books from an entirely different vantage point. (Of the four books I reviewed, one was devoted to a major item of pop culture. But I examined the larger educational and societal impact that arose from this seemingly frivolous subject — indeed, pointing to a very specific Harvard connection that happened to crop up.) I devoted 1,300 words to a mammoth and ambitious novel that I knew would require that kind of space, and that would probably not be granted it by The New York Times Book Review and other outlets. (I will be very surprised if The New York Review of Books covers this novel, for it certainly warrants 2,000 words.) I had very little time to assemble the first essay, but I’m always a workhorse under pressure and we managed to get a piece that was taut, meaningful, and variegated under the circumstances. I had great ambitions for future books coming up the pipeline. (Had it continued, I most certainly would have made a case for Vollmann’s Imperial and its relationship to other historical books making the same inquiries.) And I should also note that, although I ended up turning in a 2,700 word piece (I was contracted to write 2,000 words), Blum ensured me that I would get the space I needed.

I want to thank Mr. Blum for trusting me with the assignment, which I was greatly honored to have, and for giving me a chance to improve my critical writing. I certainly hope that the good people at 02138 land on their feet in some capacity. I’m very sorry that Blum’s great plans didn’t quite materialize, and that this relaunch never saw the light of day. But hopefully, we’ll get some sense of it, should it emerge online. I will most certainly link to the column if it becomes available.

The New Guy at Random House

Peter Olson’s surprise resignation as CEO has caused several to wonder what effect this will have on Random House. Publishing News reports that Markus Dohle (hereinafter referred to as “The New Guy”) won’t be hindering the present autonomy and independence of the imprint. The Observer‘s Leon Neyfakh pointed out a few days ago that the key modifier used in relation to The New Guy is “entrepreneurial.” Also interesting is The New Guy’s determination to strengthen the publisher’s defenses against the “might of the retail chains.”

One detects more than the faint whiff of Sturm und Drang. But while there may be a sense of panic in the air over whether this sudden decision may involve layoffs, nobody appears to be particularly clear on what “entrepreneurial” really means. Does it mean giving the Random House imprints full autonomy provided that there are more profitable blockbusters? Does it mean shifting the emphasis away from distinguished midlist titles to a company that prizes more profitable titles?

In a New York Times article, Bertelsmann chief executive Harmut Otrowski (hereinafter referred to as “The Big Cheese”) said that The New Guy was chosen over a more traditional candidate because The Big Cheese wanted a fresh perspective. The New Guy, said The Big Cheese, “has shown he has been able to turn a mature business into a growing business.”

Did longtime editor Marty Asher, who mysteriously stepped down only days before The New Guy was given the throne, know something we don’t? Again, we have only modifiers to go by. By “growing,” does The Big Cheese mean a more unpredictable business model that will yield greater profits in uncertain economic times? In drifting away from “mature” waters, does The Big Cheese have a frenetic Neutron Jack-style backup plan in mind?