Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Economics

Metal Machine Is Back

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 17, 2009 12:22 am


1. A sheriff in Chicago just can't stand evicting any more people. This is one of the better things Andrew Sullivan has ever posted.

2. Xkcd brings in Quixote.

3. Bob Dylan has a new album coming out. The title? Together Through Life. Not sure who Bob Dylan is together with -- last I heard, a whole lot of people and nobody in particular -- but I am sure the album will be worth a listen.

4. Just for fun: the "Rock Island" opening bit from Meredith Willson's The Music Man... on a real train.

5. John Updike was preparing for the publication of My Father's Tears and Other Stories when he died.

6. Lou Reed's legendary Metal Machine is back. Now it's a trio, the Metal Machine Trio, performing something called "The Creation of the Universe". Guitar, noise, no vocals. Should be good.

7. From HTML Giant: literary doppelgangers (Spy Magazine used to call these "Separated at Birth"). The Salinger/Pacino resemblance is pretty funny. I always thought Douglas Coupland looked like Norm McDonald, but that didn't make this list.

8. Cartoonist Lynda Barry, meanwhile, looks exactly like her main character Marlys!

9. Also from HTML Giant: a really fun interview with Noah Cicero of Youngstown, Ohio.

10. Perspectives on online and traditional publishing: Clay Shirky on what's happening with (to?) newspapers, Kassia Kroszer on a particularly lame SXSW panel discussion.

11. Ken Kalfus, Gary Shtynegart and others will contemplate the ever-relevant Russian humorist Nikolai Gogol at New York City's 92nd Street Y on March 30.

12. Go Steve Wozniak! Once a nerd hero, always a nerd hero. Who remembers the US Festival?

13. I appreciate that Tim Barrus posted some thoughts about my memoir in progress. I've been sweating out every damn sentence and paragraph of this monstrosity, and I often feel discouraged, so it helps to learn that Tim Barrus seems to get what I'm trying to do here. (I've also gotten very encouraging feedback from many, many of you, and I appreciate it all!)

Tim Barrus is also challenging me with some of his remarks about what I'm doing. Barrus knows a bit about writing, and about memoirs, and he's absolutely right that attempting this "can be a real bitch". I guess it's a no-brainer that the balance between private and public is especially hard when writing a memoir, and that it's easy to get lost in the hall of mirrors. But Barrus says "There's an edge. It rocks" and that's exactly what I wanted to make sure of. Next installment tomorrow night ...





Corn Be Heavy Soon

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 18, 2009 12:50 pm


1. I love it when people disagree with me about something and explain why, and even if offense is sometimes intended, I make it a point never to take it. Daniel Pritchard is sick of me "beating the expensive drum" via my endless complaints about book pricing, and this is what he says:

At Conversations in the Book Trade, blogger Levi Asher is interviewed; he does less than well, I'd say. He claims that 'There is no decline in reading,' that electronic content 'will soon dominate the publishing field' and argues 'You can see a movie or download a record album for about ten bucks. That's the correct price point. New books come out with price tags between $24 and $30 and then they wonder why the whole industry is suffering. Somebody's out of touch with the consumer here . . .' He's been banging this expensive drum for a while. Put the first assertion and the last together, and try to make some sense of it in the context of every reputable study being done that shows a decline in reading in America; Levi is either fooling himself or trying to will the world into the image of his choosing. Aside from that, the average price of a CD in 2008 was $12.95 so Britney Spears' album was that price; the equivalent of Ms. Spears would be, say, a Grisham novel, and The Innocent Man (2007) has a list price of $7.99 in softcover. Newer and less popular albums cost more, as it is with books. Hardcovers are pricey, and for a smaller market, but books are not generally too expensive. And as long as used books are $3.00 or so, and the library is free, digital readers are still a ways off.

Not so quick there, Daniel. First, a Britney Spears CD costs $12.95 when it's new. A John Grisham novel costs between $24 and $30 when it's new and getting media attention, and then drops in price a full year later, after reviewers and award committees have forgotten the book exists. This self-defeating "buzz-kill" effect doesn't exist in music publishing or any other industry -- in fact, some music publishers wisely release CDs at reduced prices to increase their chances of building audience momentum. Movie tickets cost slightly more when a movie is brand new, but the difference is small relative to the total price. Sorry, Dan, but you're wrong on this one.

Also, there is no contradiction between my first point that reading remains widely popular and my second point that the mainstream/corporate publishing industry is suffering. "Reading" and "publishing industry product" are not the same thing. The literary publishing industry in the USA is clearly unable to find the right format and price point to appeal to consumers, and consumers are increasingly bypassing the mainstream/corporate publishing industry's preferred formats for this reason. Does that mean we're not reading? Hell no, hell no, hell no!

According to Ron Hogan at GalleyCat, quoting a recent press release from the Association of American Publishers:

Adult hardcover sales were down 10.3 percent in December and down 13 percent for the year, but adult paperbacks saw a 12.5 percent increase in sales for the month and a 3.6 percent increase for the year. Adult mass market sales, though, are reported as down 3.0 percent for the year, and we can't help but wonder if that has anything to do with the 68.4 percent increase in electronic book sales in 2008 and certain genre reading tastes.

See what I'm saying, Daniel? Sorry, but I'm claiming myself as the victor in this argument. And there's plenty of good stuff happening on the affordable paperback books front -- see my recent post about Jason Epstein and the Espresso Book Machine.

2. A superb recent Words Without Borders panel discussion featuring Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago on Don Quixote reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Edith Grossman's translation (it's not like I've read any other translation, but you know what I mean) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In the Time of Cholera. The film version of this great novel recently turned up on a cable channel and I sat through it. Awful, horrible, seriously not good.

3. A few favorite literary New York City personalities have been releasing good new stuff lately. The spooky and moody East Village presence known as Edgar Oliver, whose written and theatrical works I've enjoyed in the past, got a great review from Ben Brantley of the New York Times for his East 10th Street: Self-Portrait With Empty House. Poet Simon Pettet has a new book out, Hearth. And, here's the YouTube debut of New Jersey poet Eliot Katz reading his poem "Death and War".

4. Some cool new Poe graphics via Books Are People Too (yes they are).

5. Poet W. S. Merwin on Design Observer: Unchopping a Tree

6. I was admonished via email to pay more attention to independent bookstores and link to Indiebound.org. I'm not as obsessed with indie bookstores vs. chain bookstores as some other book-lovers are for two reasons: I'm allergic to cats, and Barnes and Noble/Borders restrooms can sometimes really come in handy. Still, I'm down with the cause.

7. This just sucks: the Times Square Virgin Records mega-store (which also had good restrooms, and a basement bookstore!) is closing down. Shea Stadium, now this.

8. Katharine Weber at Readerville: Dear J. D. Salinger.

9. Nigeness contemplates The Wine-Dark Sea.

10. John Updike, cartoonist fanboy.

11. Roald Dahl's Writing Hut.

12. Daniel Scott Buck's The Kissing Bug gets some 3:AM praise.

13. Barnes and Noble review gets visual with Ward Sutton.

14. Dan Green's literary blog The Reading Experience has launched the blog equivalent of a Greatest Hits album, TRE Prime.

15. I'm looking forward to Summertime, apparently the next J. M. Coetzee novel. When Coetzee writes about summertime, you can just bet the living will not be easy.

16. The Shirley Jackson Awards committee is holding a lottery. Though they picked the wrong month -- remember: "lottery in June, corn be heavy soon".

17. Via Q-Tip The Abstract, of all people, this Mars Volta performance on David Letterman is something special.





Morning In E-Bookland

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 11, 2009 11:36 pm



My second day at O'Reilly's Tools of Change electronic book publishing conference kicks into high gear in the early afternoon with Kassia Krozser's "Smart Women Read eBooks" panel. It's fascinating to hear from Malle Valik of Harlequin that this romance publisher has long ago figured out how to profit from electronic books, and is patiently waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up. Another good speaker is Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches Trashy Books, who lays out in clear and concise terms what she wants from book publishers (digital, available, open, now). There's a lot of substance to this panel, because these panelists are not pondering a future with E-books but instead actually use them now.

After a coffee break I take my seat for four afternoon keynote presentations. I'm happy enough with Jeff Jarvis's perky pep talk and Sara Lloyd's impressive record of achievement at Pan Macmillan. But I'm less impressed by the third speaker, Jason Fried, who offers a very lackadaisical prescription for success in e-book publishing: you just, kinda do it, just throw a PDF up there, and then a million people will buy it. Easy!

The problem is, this little trick only works if you run a software company that has a million customers. Most of us, unlike Jason Fried, do not run a software company with a million customers. So if we "throw a PDF up there", a million people will not show up to purchase it. It's really difficult to see what practical business lesson Jason Fried intends this hungry audience to gather from his success story, though the success story gets a hearty round of applause.

I'm much more impressed by Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, author of an excellent publishing memoir called Book Business and now a technology entrepreneur with his Espresso Book Machine. Epstein is a feisty octogenarian who manages to insult USA's Middle East policy and environmental policies several times during his excellent speech, in which he also argues for a writer's privacy, and speaks up (Cory Doctorow be damned) for the fairness of DRM. He mostly talks about his company's new Espresso Book Machine, a portable device that produces perfect individually selected paperback books from digital files in multiple languages at a low cost.

After the speech I go to see a demo of this machine and find Jason Epstein standing quietly with a companion, so I introduce myself and try to find out if he has any memories to share of his friend John Updike. Epstein quickly changes the subject, asking me what I think of his Espresso Book Machine. I tell him I'm very impressed by it, and can easily see the practical benefits of affordable, portable on-demand book publishing. I also tell him that the machine's bulky appearance seems to be turning some people off (I want to say "it looks like something from The Office", but I don't know if Jason Epstein watches The Office). He then asks me how I can make a living as a blogger (I don't, I explain), and then I take his picture and blubber a bit about how much I enjoyed Book Business and how cool it was that he founded the early paperback house Anchor Books until he gets tired of me and waves me away.


An evening of enjoyable and friendly conversation at a downtown TOC party is rudely followed by an alarm-clock morning, because I want to be back at the Marriot Marquis by 8:45 to catch Neelan Choksi of Lexcycle, the software company that created the iPhone application Stanza, currently the most popular mobile platform in the world for e-books (sorry, Kindle, but Lexcycle does release its numbers, and they're good).

I'm very fond of Lexcycle's business model, and in fact I predicted their success here fourteen months ago, seven months before Stanza was launched, when I wrote this:

Here's a hint (a hint worth more than $400) to those companies looking to profit from electronic books. Forget standalone devices. Consumers want their devices to serve multiple purposes -- camera, music player, internet browser, phone, organizer -- and that's the way we're going to want to read electronic books. If you want to succeed in the e-book business, find ways to make full-length books look good on existing high-end devices (iPhones, Blackberries).

Neelan Choksi is a charming and relaxed speaker with a strong technical background, and his rundown of Stanza's past, present and future is refreshingly sensible and bullshit-free. When he opens it up for questions I get my hand in the air before anybody else and ask my question: "I'd love to use Stanza, but I have an LG Dare". I wave my phone in the air, as if to show that I am not ashamed to admit that I'm not rocking an iPhone like everybody else at this damn conference, and Neelan consoles me by saying that the tech team is working on this right now. As a team of enterprise Java developers, he explains, they are all too happy to move off the iPhone's Objective C language for a while. Good answer, I think, because as much as I like the idea of Stanza, I just don't see why I should have to switch phones and phone providers to use it.

Second keynote speaker Nick Bilton of the "New York Times R&D Lab" is next. He's a very funny and engaging speaker, he bursts with confidence, and he's one of the only presenters at this conference who actually bothers to make his slide show look good. I'm amused to hear that the New York Times has an "R&D Lab" (and something tells me this "R&D Lab" is just Nick Bilton's office), but this smart and energetic person is probably the best choice for the thankless task of evangelizing technology at the New York Times, and I'm sure the Times is spending their money well on him (until they lay him off). Bilton's main thesis is that media companies must adapt to serve the needs of the growing generations, who demand instant media gratification at all times. Makes sense to me. I wonder what they think of Nick over at the Book Review.

The eponymous Tim O'Reilly, humble and rumpled hero of the venerable O'Reilly technical publishing firm, is the last keynote speaker this morning. He doesn't have to say much to impress; there are few book publishers in the world right now whose stature matches Tim O'Reilly, who began by cornering the market in serious Unix expertise two decades ago, and has been an evangelist and a success model ever since. O'Reilly basks in the glory for a few minutes, wrestles with his Powerpoint presentation (not his most impressive technical moment, but let's move on), and fields questions from Cory Doctorow, who is still pissed off that anybody involved with E-books would even contemplate DRM.

Because I care very much about the potential of electronic book publishing, and I believe that 2009 will be a year of remarkable success in this area, this was the right conference at the right moment. Sure, there was plenty of fluff (did we mention that Jeff Jarvis was there?), a few cookie-cutter presentations (did we mention that Jeff Jarvis was there?), some demographic weirdness, and one or two dull moments as well. Still, what I value most are the conversations I had with others who are as fascinated by this emerging technology as I am.

Also, I finally got my picture taken at a GalleyCat party. Hah.






Tools of Change

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, February 10, 2009 01:56 am



1. It's fitting that O'Reilly's electronic book publishing technology conference Tools of Change is happening at the Marriot Marquis in swirling Times Square, still the publishing bellybutton of this city, with the New York Times toiling down the street, Conde Nast fretting across the block, Simon and Schuster, Time Inc. and Random House not far away. Well, are the smartest people in publishing here on the 6th floor at the Marriot Marquis today? Time will tell.

The big news at the conference when I arrived at noon was the earlier nearby Amazon Kindle 2.0 announcement, complete with an amusing Stephen King fly-by. The buzz about the Kindle is not positive among this crowd (closed single-vendor technologies do not play well here in O'Reilly country). My afternoon session turns out to be a grueling but satisfyingly information-packed three and-a-hour introduction to E-book formatting specifications and methods. Many of the attendees were sweating or looked pale by quitting time at 5 pm, but we all felt smarter. I was most impressed by Garth Conboy's evangelism for the open EPub format, which seems to be emerging as the much-needed industry-wide digital publishing format. I enjoyed Keith Fahlgren's helpful real-world tips for E-book publishing, as well as his Kindle-bashing. One of the three speakers, Joshua Tallent, was a Kindle expert, and I enjoyed his presentation as well, though it seemed like divine justice for the Kindle's intrinsic isolation model that his presentation on Kindle publishing crashed halfway through. Why? The projector didn't have the Kindle-specific fonts. Ah ha haaa ... anyway, it was a moment of levity that this audience of tech-exhausted publishers and technologists didn't mind.

Tools of Change goes into full swing tomorrow with presentations by Bob Stein, Jeff Jarvis, Cory Doctorow, Laurel Touby, Kassia Krozser and Jason Epstein.

2. Chasing Ray tells us about a children's book about Gertrude Stein, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter.

3. Bad news in the magazine biz as a major distributor ceases operations.

4. Are the creators of Twitter living in the last Dreamworld?.

5. Three Percent is getting angry about funding cuts.

6. Will Self ponders W. G. Sebald.

7. Let xkcd explain the mysterious base system. Funny.

8. Like many a Long Island kid, I grew up listening to Jackie Martling on Bob Buchmann's morning show on WBAB. He was always terrible, but in a really good way.

9. My old boss's boss Walter Isaacson has written a rather surprising article about micropayments for online content, and he's on Jon Stewart right now speaking about this same proposal. There may be long-term possibilities here, and I like it that Isaacson is thinking outside the box. However, his proposal lacks immediate appeal, especially since online advertising remains a perfectly viable support system for many content websites. If Isaacson thinks this idea is ready to take off right now, I think he may be reading too many books by Bruce Judson (but that's an inside Pathfinder joke).

10. Saturday night's benefit for humanitarian aid in Gaza at McNally Jackson was a surprisingly moving event, featuring readings from Mary Morris, Wesley Brown, Alix Kates Shulman, Elizabeth Strout, Dawn Raffel, Melody Moezzi, Beverly Gologorsky, Chuck Wachtel, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Robert Reilly, Jan Clausen, Barbara Schneider and Humerea Afridi, and I was proud to be a part of it. I also heard an exciting update from organizer Leora Skolkin-Smith (reading, below), whose novel Edges: O Israel O Palestine will soon begin film production in (remarkably enough) Jerusalem and Jordan. Tools of change? We can hope.






Reviewing the Review: February 1 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 31, 2009 11:21 pm



Sunday morning, praise the dawning
It's just a restless feeling by my side
Early dawning, Sunday morning
It's just the wasted years so close behind

Watch out, the world's behind you
There's always someone
around you who will call
It's nothing at all
-- Lou Reed, "Sunday Morning"


The litosphere has been furiously debating what it means that Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement Book World will cease publication in two weeks. The overriding opinion, at least from the chatter I hear online, is "let it die". This is not unanimous, of course -- Steve Wasserman and Douglas Brinkley are asking for action, and the National Book Critics Circle is trying to scare up a petition to save the weekly publication. Theatre critic Terry Teachout, meanwhile, says the decision to kill Book World "means nothing to me, not because I don't like Book World but because I read all newspapers (including the one for which I write) online".

Many literary bloggers and critics I know feel similarly blase about Book World's fate (though I have to honestly wonder if these bloggers and critics would feel differently if they'd been able to break into Book World themselves). Well, we're all biased. I am in the DC area often and have spent many an enjoyable Sunday morning reading Book World, and I will surely miss the print edition. I love digital formats, but I also love good print publications -- why should there be a contradiction there? It's a simple shame that the pleasure of reading an appealing print-edition Sunday literary supplement over breakfast and coffee will be denied to the readers of the Washington Post.

The readers, the readers ... oh yeah, remember them? The National Book Critics Circle apparently doesn't remember the readers, since they put out an open call for their petition, and then reported this hilarious result more than a week later:

"Within a matter of hours, more than 100 authors and critics who had contributed to the Washington Post Book World signed a petition and sent letters of support to save Book World as a stand-alone book section. A hundred or more readers signed, as well."

A total of 200 signatures?! Are we protesting the closing of a local library here, or a decision by one of the largest newspapers in the world, a newspaper with a circulation of 670,000? Does the National Book Critics Circle even know where to find readers?

200 signatures, after a whole week! I'm sure the Washington Post is quaking in their freaking boots. The NBCC's failure to generate any type of public reaction at all only proves (as if this needed any more proof) how solipsistic and impotent our fine Ivy-League educated literary intellegentsia has become.

I wish our community of talented book critics had tried something more effective than a tired old petition, because the cause is a good one. Newspapers are in financial trouble right now (the New York Times too) and they will have to drastically cut costs and shift quickly to online formats. But that doesn't mean the decision-makers on the executive boards of companies like the Washington Post or the New York Times can be easily trusted to make the right decisions about what to cut (my own experience working for major media corporations like Time Warner has shown me that top publishing executives are capable of making horrible decisions, often and repeatedly).

I believe the Washington Post is making a big mistake in choosing Book World as one of their first sections to cut. I bet many loyal readers value the supplement highly. I don't know if the Washington Post executives have based this decision on actual research into how their customers feel about Book World (my guess is that they haven't done any significant research) and my guess is that subscriptions will gradually and steadily drop as a result of this loss. The Washington Post just kicked many loyal readers where it hurts -- they took away Sunday morning.

Naturally, I'm worried that the New York Times Book Review will be the next casualty, especially since the New York Times Company appears to be in financial free-fall and is shedding real estate and other properties. Meanwhile, there is no longer a Sunday literary supplement in Los Angeles, Chicago or Washington DC. Of course, the New York Times Book Review has always been the leader in the field, and I truly believe -- I hope I'm not wrong about this -- that the NYTBR's special status and high out-of-town subscription rate will guarantee the print edition a longer life. I love digital formats as well as the next guy, but destroying the print edition of the New York Times Book Review would be like destroying Penn Station.

Then again, they did destroy Penn Station.

Either through kismet or a good inside joke by Sam Tanenhaus, this weekend's NYTBR features three articles on Charles Darwin and "survival of the fittest". I particularly like Anthony Gottlieb's coverage of Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, a study of "evolutionary psychology", though Frank Wilson doesn't. The cover review is Joanna Scott on T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Women, which tries to do to Frank Lloyd Wright what his Road to Welville did to John Harvey Kellogg. This brainy and biographically-minded Book Review also features Luc Sante on Susan Sontag's posthumous Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963.

John Wilson walks us through Donald Worster's promising biography of John Muir, Alex Beam stirs my interest in Henry Alford's book of elderly wisdom How To Live, and my favorite article is probably Leah Price on Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, two biographers who have dared to write new lives of Samuel Johnson. Leah Price is highly engaging and makes me want to rush out and read Boswell's original Life of Johnson. However, Price does need to work harder in places to find le bon mot. It's hard to understand what she means when she flatly reports that Samuel Johnson was "afflicted with Tourette's syndrome" (who made that diagnosis?). And Boswell could not have been Samuel Johnson's "groupie" because Samuel Johnson was not a group.





Auditing the Review: January 18 2009

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 17, 2009 03:33 pm


It's terrible news that Book World, the Washington Post's Sunday literary supplement and one of the New York Times Book Review's few remaining near-peers, may quickly cease to exist. Like the equally important Los Angeles Times Book Review last year, Washington Post Book World does not appear to be able to generate enough ad sales to justify its editorial and production costs.

This one hits close to home for me, because the Washington DC/Northern Virginia area has been my secondary residence for the past several years. The Sunday Book World really doesn't compare to the New York Times Book Review in terms of quality, influence, star power or reach, but it has provided me with good reading on many a lazy Sunday, and many I'm sure countless citizens of the Capital District would consider this a tragic loss. Is it all over for Book World? Critical Mass asked Marcus Brauchli:

Responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, "We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas."

This is what's called a bullshit response, an answer that doesn't answer, and I wish Critical Mass had rendered their paragraph accurate by the addition of a single three-letter word:

NOT responding to our question about the speculation that the Washington Post Book World’s days are numbered, new Washington Post honcho Marcus Brauchli tells us, "We are absolutely committed to book reviews and coverage of literature, publishing and ideas in The Post. Our readership has a huge interest in these areas."

Brauchli's refusal to answer the question points to the obvious conclusion: Book World is probably gone. So, is the NYTBR in trouble too? I really don't know. I scoffed at the idea last July, but I've also been tracking the diminishing number of ad pages in weekly issues since December, and the situation keeps getting worse. Yet again, this week's issue is an anemic 24-pager. Every issue in January has been a 24-pager. I know that book publishers are cutting costs, but I don't think I've ever seen a NYTBR so completely devoid of industry support. Not a single ad of any size appears between page 5 and page 21. The opening and closing pages include a few partial page buys from Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt, Vintage, Hyperion, Other Books and the Annemarie Victory Organization, and there's not one full page buy other than the usual Bauman Rare Book back cover. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this must represent a historical low point for ad sales at the Book Review.

The conclusion is clear: despite its exalted position in the American book marketplace, the New York Times Book Review is probably in trouble. I can't imagine that our big New York publishers (who love the Book Review) will let the publication wither and die. I don't understand how they could. But, yeah, they're not buying ads, so they obviously see it differently, or else they simply can't get their acts together to support an important publication that has long helped them.

Unfortunately, the articles this week are exactly what we don't need: lots and lots of Obama. It's an "Inauguration 2009" special, but I stopped watching inauguration chatter on TV about three weeks ago (which means I've mostly stopped watching TV news, since they talk about nothing but). I'm very interested in and enthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but I'd rather wait for him to do something before I read all about him. I'm also just not in the mood for a NYTBR that reads like a Week In Review section. Despite appearances by the likes of Gary Hart and Alan Brinkley, nothing in this special section compels me, so I'm just going to take a quick look at the fiction offerings today and then make a paper airplane with the rest.

Fiction? Kathryn Harrison loves Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite. I can't remember Harrison ever giving a novel a bad review, so this fact alone doesn't mean much, though her explication of Phillips' book is appealing and piques my interest. Sylvia Brownrigg's summary of Hugo Hamilton's Disguise is probably as close to Hugo Hamilton's Disguise as I'll ever get. I'm very interested in the archeological milieu of Barry Unsworth's Land of Marvels, in which historians and oil-minded geologists mingle in the land now called Iraq, and Christopher de Bellaigue's summary makes the book sound pretty good.

At least a translated novel (by acclaimed translator Edith Grossman, no less) called A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Milona shows up in this NYTBR, though Colin Fleming doesn't much like it.

Finally, there's an endpaper by Ross Douthat titled "When Buckley Met Reagan" about which I can only say: not William F. Buckley again. The ship is sinking around him, and Sam Tanenhaus is still stuck on the good old days at Yale.

Will Sam Tanenhaus be the editor who presides over the demise of the New York Times Book Review? I sure hope not. Maybe I'll have a chance to ask him myself this Wednesday at a Tribeca NYTBR live event also featuring Joseph O'Neill, Liesl Schillinger and Dwight Garner. The topic is "Best Books of 2008" but I hope the conversation will stray to more interesting areas, like whether or not we can rest easily about this publication's future. I hope Tanenhaus will say something at this event to put the obvious fears to rest.





A Memoir In Progress

by Levi Asher on Friday, January 2, 2009 01:51 am


I was a frustrated software developer and unpublished novelist working at a Wall Street bank in 1993 when I first heard of a strange and exciting new phenomenon taking place on our computer networks: email, Usenet newsgroups and the World Wide Web. A new communications technology was about to change the world, and I quickly made up my mind that I wanted to be part of the change.

I left the banking industry to join Time Warner's new media division, where I played an integral role in the now-famous disaster known as Pathfinder. I also launched my own website, Literary Kicks, was hired to build Bob Dylan's website, and had my own first taste of creative satisfaction and personal success. In 1999, I finally struck it "rich", cashing in on one of the biggest IPOs in stock market history, just as my marriage broke up and my workaholic tendencies reached a hysterical peak. A year later, the high-flying dot-com stock market began to crash. My paper wealth disappeared along with my job and much of my remaining sanity. I was beginning to gather my resources back together in 2001, only to face new shocking events of a completely unexpected kind. This is the memoir of a software developer who learned how to be a survivor, and a record of the life lessons learned along the way.






Black Wednesday in Publishing-Land

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 09:52 pm


1. It won't make the evening news, but this was a rough day of historic proportions in the book biz. Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson all announced layoffs, top-level firings or, in the case of Random House/Doubleday/Alfred A. Knopf/Dial/Bantam Dell/Crown/Nan Talese/Broadway, major consolidations that will affect the future of book publishing in America.

In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.

2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".

3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.

4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.

5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.

6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:

"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

All your base are belong to us, Nixon.

It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.

7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.

8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.

9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

10. Jay-Z gets typographical.





Reviewing the Review: November 30 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 30, 2008 02:25 pm


I learned about "thick" and "thin" during the years I worked for Time Inc. When an unusually heavy issue of Time came off the presses, executives and others in the know would smile and augur good things for the company (and, by extension, for the American economy). A particularly slender magazine brought scorn, bowed heads and concern for our job security. However, the magazine contained the same amount of editorial content each week. The difference between a thick and thin issue was the amount of ads the sales team was able to sell that week.

At 24 pages, this week's New York Times Book Review feels mighty thin. Doesn't anybody besides Bauman's Rare Books, AuthorHouse, Bose Audio and Penguin Young Readers Group have something to advertise? Can't somebody get Knopf or FSG or Simon and Schuster to take a phone call? It's three and a half weeks before Christmas, so I don't think we can blame the downturn on the season. Let's just say that, as much as I often criticize this frustrating but important publication, I really hope the New York Times Book Review will weather our current economic problems well in future months. This is a forum we cannot afford to lose.

Of course, that doesn't mean we should accept sub-standard writing. Here's how Caleb Crain begins his review of Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America by Ann Norton Greene:

Once upon a time, America derived most of its power from a natural, renewable resource that was roughly as efficient as an automobile engine but did not pollute the air with nitrogen dioxide or suspended particulate matter or carcinogenic hydrocarbons. This power source was versatile. Hooked up to the right devices, it could thresh wheat or saw wood. It was also highly portable -- in fact, it propelled itself -- and could move either along railroad tracks or independently of them. Each unit came with a useful, nonthreatening amount of programmable memory preinstalled, including software that prompted forgetful users once it had learned a routine, and each possessed a character so distinctive that most users gave theirs a name. As a bonus feature, the power source neighed.

If I live to be two hundred years old, I still won't need to see this tired, tired opening device used again in a book review. Since we already know from the book's title and the review's subtitle and illustration that we are reading about horses, this whole thing feels like a long joke with a well-known punchline.

There are better articles today: Noam Scheiber summarizes Robert J. Samuelson's The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath and Richard Holbrooke adds a personal touch to Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Virginia Heffernan is simply vicious to Sarah Vowell's chatty rumination on our Pilgrim heritage, The Wordy Shipmates, which she considers marred by "sarcasm, flat indie-girl affect and kitsch worship". I doubt this review will cost this book any sales -- in fact, it makes me curious to evaluate the book myself. But Virginia Heffernan does express her feelings amusingly well.

Today's best article is David Gates' clear and admiring cover piece on Toni Morrison's A Mercy. It was only two years ago that I finally read Beloved, and liked it very much. A Mercy also dives into America's primitive history and appears to be a short and bracing read. I guess I'll check it out too.

There are also competent considerations of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers by David Leonhardt, Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies by Gaiutra Bahadur and David Vann's gloomy Legend of a Suicide by Tom Bissell. This last review is illustrated, for some reason, by a photo of a crushed Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Maybe sardonic product placement is the Times' ad sales team's last chance.





Too Literary to Fail? Houghton Mifflin, Writers in Trouble

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 24, 2008 10:56 pm


This is not good news. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a publishing group with a literary legacy dating back to 1832, is temporarily not buying new manuscripts, and apparently no longer accepting submissions from either agents or individual writers.

What does this mean? It's difficult to tell. Browsing online sources (including Houghton Mifflin's oblique website), I quickly got caught in amazing accounts of the history carried by today's Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whose previous permutations and acquisitions include Harcourt Brace, Harcourt Brace and Javonovich, Henry Holt, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Houghton Mifflin and even the legendary Ticknor and Fields, which was merged into Houghton Mifflin in 1880. (No, not 1980. 1880.)

Books these publishers have been responsible for include Thoreau's Walden, Sinclair Lewis's Main Street and Orwell's 1984. So is this company "too literary to fail"? I doubt that. I can't possibly guess as to the business implications of today's dramatic announcement, but the fact that a major publishing firm is closing its doors even temporarily is obviously bad news for writers, publishers, booksellers, agents and pretty much everybody else. Ironically, as we've pointed out here on LitKicks often, books remain a highly profitable business every year (current code word: "Twilight"), but our top executives don't seem to be doing a good job of keeping the financials under control even with all that money (yes, money) floating around.

You know, sometimes the book game reminds me of the bank game. I just had to say that again.

Anyway, this is especially galling to me because, as I told you many months ago, I am trying to sell a book. I finished a proposal this summer -- an absolutely kickass proposal for a non-fiction book on a popular topic -- and a top literary agent (who I am very proud to have representing me) began approaching publishers with the proposal in August. This agent, who appears to be a man of few words, delivered a status report to me recently which wasn't what I wanted to hear. The email contained two sentences:

not a lot of reaction to it. but i will keep trying.

I know this will be a great book and I seriously expect it to sell a hundred thousand copies, so I find this very frustrating (though I realize that it's only been three months and I am glad that my agent is still trying). But with companies like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt slamming their windows shut and going into fetal positions, even temporarily, I am that much more depressed about my chances.

Whether we are publishing professionals, writers or readers, these business developments will affect all our lives and the lives of our children just as much as developments in the inexcusably mismanaged financial markets will. I think we'd all better pay extra close attention to the publishing industry in the next few weeks. (If you need a starting place, here's one.) Let's just hope we can get through the holiday season with no more dominoes falling.





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