Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:
A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until Eugene's daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.
Philip and Katharine Graham married for love -- they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.
(Here's Toro!, who runs a book cover design website and has designed posters for FOX and HBO and covers for J C Sum and John Kemmerly, and shares here some of the lesser-known challenges and tribulations of his career. -- Levi)
The cover: a one-page ad forever bound to its product, the most ubiquitous piece of marketing a book will ever have. The cover, a glossy cherry on top of a cake of words, chapters and (maybe) a story. The cover, an aide, a friend, a guiding beacon in that mind-boggling, panic-inducing, head-scratching state we often enter when inside a bookstore. Yes, it can be daunting to be surrounded by hundreds of books, all begging for our attention, all silently wishing to spend the next few days, weeks or months with us. (Very persistent books have been known to hold on to their victims for centuries).
All this spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN's announcement wasn't really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
Nobody's exactly sure when Mosaic, the first popular web browser, was released. Wikipedia cites April 22, 1993 as the date of the 1.0 release, but other sources place the 1.0 date in November 1993. Either way, this software release changed the world.
It's not surprising that the release date is hazy, because NCSA Mosaic was an open source project (not officially "Open Source" because that term hadn't been codified yet, but generally open source in that the software was openly shared and cooperatively developed). Like most open source projects, Mosaic was born gradually and irregularly, and crept into popularity via endless variations of beta versions. I remember first hearing of Mosaic at my computer programming job by the summer of 1993. One year later, every single person in the world, including my parents and grandparents, had heard of it (though few yet had access to it, instead using Compuserve or America Online, if anything at all, to experiment with the new fad generally known as "going online").
Mosaic changed everything. After Mosaic, Compuserve and America Online began their slow death spirals, because Mosaic established the public Internet -- that TCP-IP thing, based in universities, research centers and corporations -- over direct-dial alternatives. Once Mosaic took off, the web craze took off, and (as your grandparents with their Facebook accounts know) the craze has never slowed down. Blame it on Mosaic.
Nate Thayer, a well-respected journalist, has published a blog post roasting the Atlantic for asking him to provide a summary of a recent article for the Atlantic website for free. He didn't like that idea very much.
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts. 1200 words by the end of the week would be fine, and I can assure you it would be well received, but not for free. Frankly, I will refrain from being insulted and am perplexed how one can expect to try to retain quality professional services without compensating for them. Let me know if you have perhaps mispoken.
A lot of support has rolled in for Nate Thayer, and against publications that dare to ask writers to write for free. Another Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal has tried to explain the digital editor's side of the story, only to be torn into by Wonkette, which accuses Madrigal of "man-splaining".
It's well known that hipster Brooklyn authors -- well, all authors, but especially hipster Brooklyn authors -- sometimes go too far in blurbing each other's novels. Recently the acclaimed comic novelist Gary Shtynegart, author of Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story was detected in the repeated act of excessive blurbing -- extreme blurbing, even -- and became the subject of a mocking Tumblr called The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shtynegart. He has now also become the subject a unique 15-minute documentary film, Schtynegart Blurbs, narrated by Jonathan Ames and directed and conceived by my friend Edward Champion.
The film amounts to a cinematic intervention, and a fascinating real-time case study of a literary habit gone off the rails. It's also fascinating for me because I show up in the film (around the five-minute mark) along with many other New York based literary brats including Joanna Smith Rakoff, A. M. Homes, Alan Shephard, Jeopardy champ Jacob Silverman, Ron Charles, Tobias Carroll, Michele Filgate, Joshua Henkin, Rachel Shukert, Sarah Weinman, Edmund White, John Wray, A.J. Jacobs, Alexander Nazaryan, Hari Kunzru, and even Molly Ringwald. In the end, blurb-crazed Gary Shtynegart makes an appearance and tries to explain himself. Check this movie out ...
I sure am going to miss Andrew Sullivan.
Actually, I hope I'll still get to read his awesome blog, which has variously enraptured and informed me for many years, even though he just announced that he's putting up a paywall. But the Daily Dish paywall will be porous, he says, and this is good news for me, since I don't want to stop reading him. Here's how he describes the mechanism he's putting in place when he moves to a new site:
Our particular version will be a meter that will be counted every time you hit a "Read on" button to expand or contract a lengthy post. You'll have a limited number of free read-ons a month, before we hit you up for $19.99. Everything else on the Dish will remain free. No link from another blog to us will ever be counted for the meter - so no blogger or writer need ever worry that a link to us will push their readers into a paywall. It won't. Ever. There is no paywall. Just a freemium-based meter. We've tried to maximize what's freely available, while monetizing those parts of the Dish where true Dishheads reside.
I say it's a paywall, and I won't be paying. That's not because I don't think $20 a month is a fair value for Andrew Sullivan, who may be the single best blogger in the history of the format. I won't pay because supporting website paywalls for editorial and news content is against my religion.
Penguin and Random House are merging. This is big news because Random House and Penguin are two of the biggest of the "Big Six" publishing firms that currently rule the book business (the other four are Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Hachette). It's also big news for devoted readers, because these are two of the most beloved historic brands in modern literature. Random House once published Ulysses by James Joyce, and its Alfred A. Knopf imprint is often considered the single most prestigious name in literary fiction. Penguin helped generations of readers enjoy great books of the past with its beautiful Penguin Classics line, and its Viking subsidiary once published On The Road by Jack Kerouac.
What good will a Penguin/Random House merger do? In my opinion: absolutely none. A book publisher merger, like a bank merger or a food company merger, is never designed to improve the products the companies sell. It's usually an act of economic opportunism or arbitrage, a shuffling of objects to temporarily hype up their combined value. In this case, it appears that Penguin's parent company Pearson wanted to get out of trade publishing to focus on other businesses, and Random House picked up the orphan before HarperCollins could grab it.