It's so cool that Book Expo 2009 is taking place, literally, in a crystal palace, otherwise known as Jacob Javits Center in New York City, alongside the Hudson River where only recently a pilot made these words famous:
"We're gonna be in the Hudson."
Indeed we are. Captain Sullenberger is at the Book Expo, so is Clarence Clemons and Steve Tyler and Tina Brown. I'm in there somewhere too -- I'll be part of the blogger book signing at the Firebrand booth, Sunday morning at 10 am. Please come down and say hi if you're at the Expo.
I'll be posting a full report this weekend, and here are just a few thoughts in advance:
• Dedi Felman (co-founder of Words Without Borders and former Simon and Schuster editor) and Richard Nash (former Soft Skull chief) are apparently launching some kind of new media publishing venture together. I missed their event so I don't know the details, but I know this is a power-packed team.
• I see there's a panel called "Book Format Fusion: Why Trade Paperbacks are the Format to Embrace". Well, well, well. What a crazy idea. I wonder who practically held his breath till he turned blue saying the same thing a year and a half ago.
• I'm looking forward to the unveiling (advance copies only) of the next Katharine Weber novel, the follow-up to her Triangle. She'll be signing at the Random House booth on Friday.
• Lev Grossman is appearing on Friday in a panel discussion blandly called "Discussion on the State of the Publishing Industry", along with Steven Johnson, Tom Standage and Chris Anderson. Lev Grossman's upcoming novel is apparently called "The Magicians" and is about a boy who is suddenly enrolled in a magical school. Come on, Lev. I don't mean to get on your case because I know there's a good writer inside you. But your last novel Codex wanted to be Da Vinci Code, and your new one is trying to be Harry Potter. Please tell me high school vampires aren't next.
Anyway, if I run into any LitKicks readers at the conference I hope you'll say hello. I'll also be at a so-called "Tweetup" downtown on Friday night. And if you're not at the Expo but want to join the discussion you can follow and comment on the events on twitter, or just follow me if you only want the choice bits.
1. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.
Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!
2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."
3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.
4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.
Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.
5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.
6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".
7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.
8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.
9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.
11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.
12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.
13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.
14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.
I'm in the process of moving to a new apartment, which means I just finished boxing up and shipping my entire book collection. This was a lot of boxes. I'm the kind of person who likes to travel light, so it's at moments like this that I really see the value in the so-called e-book revolution that's apparently heading our way. If the e-book revolution means I can enjoy these same objet's d'art in a virtual form about 600 pounds lighter, I'm for that.
As those who follow book industry news know, electronic books are the hot topic of 2009. Much of the coverage has been negative, in tones ranging from poignant to tragic. Another wave of media attention is coming, because Amazon has just purchased Lexcycle, the Texas-based startup that created Stanza, the most popular iPhone e-book reader. We've been interested in Stanza for a while, and we're not sure what to think about Amazon buying the Kindle's biggest competition.
As for the larger debate about the negative effects of electronic publishing, though, we remain confident that the transition from a print-only literary publishing environment to a print-and-electronic literary publishing environment will be a positive one. I'll say it again: that was a lot of boxes I just had to move. Sometimes when we carry a lot of weight with us everywhere we go, we forget to think about how good it might feel to become free of that weight. I'm looking forward to someday carrying all the great literature that's currently residing in 35 cardboard boxes in my new apartment in a device that fits inside my pocket. I don't see how anyone who truly loves books can not be excited about the idea that this will soon be possible.
1. According to Rolling Stone, Gus Van Sant's film version of Tom Wolfe's 60s-culture classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will start shooting soon, and may feature Jack Black (bad idea) or Woody Harrelson (slightly better) as novelist and psychological adventurer Ken Kesey. Woody Harrelson might actually make more sense in the role of Beat legend Neal Cassady, who drove the bus called Further during the real-life cross-country journey chronicled in Wolfe's book. He seems too old to play then-young Ken Kesey in this story, while Jack Black would have to severely rein in his comic instincts to avoid overpowering the role. I hope Gus Van Sant knows what he's doing here.
2. Meanwhile, George Murray of BookNinja gives a hopeful nod to Steve Jacobs' soon-to-be-released film version of J. M. Coetzee's powerful Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
3. A Bertrand Russell comic? Okay, though Russell was mostly bested by his star student Ludwig Wittgenstein.
4. The story of William Warder Norton, founder of the influential book publishing firm that bears his name.
5. Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer.
6. Denis Johnson's newest novel is called Nobody Move.
7. The earlist known dust jacket for a book has been found.
8. New Directions has a blog.
The New York Times Book Review keeps a bench of dull and competent specialists like Alan Light, including John Leland, who gets called up whenever there's a Beat Generation-related title to review. I don't know why they can't find a writer with some panache or maybe an original viewpoint to review these books instead. Leland's summary of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle and others in today's Book Review could not be more rote and mechanical. He hits all the standard points in the standard history, and even dishes up Kerouac's quote about "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live". But there are no new ideas or angles in this article; it may as well have been generated by an algorithm. I read the Pekar/Piskor/Buhle comic-format book myself, was pleased by a few of the tangential chapters towards the end but disappointed by the flat aspect at the book's core. Leland doesn't even touch on the book's real deficiencies, instead delivering a sniffy complaint about clunky prose before winding up for a weak conclusion: "Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art ... They rocked."
Supposedly every snowflake in the world is unique. Can't the New York Times Book Review find writers who will make sure their reviews maintain the same standard?
The problem may be intrinsic to the Book Review, because even the thoughtful Walter Isaacson seems to strain for insight in his review of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. He points helpfully to the book's new emphasis on the role played by a South Carolina politician, Charles Pinckney, but even so his article feels surprisingly conventional (a little pun there, if you think about it). The drafting of the US Constitution is not exactly fresh material, so the main thing the review needs to do is explain why this book is important enough to deserve a full page in this publication. After finishing the article, I'm barely convinced.
Luckily, there are several examples of excellent writing and original thought in today's Book Review. Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You is on the cover, and here's reviewer Kate Christensen first sentence:
If novelists were labeled zoologically, Arthur Phillips would fall naturally into the dolphin family: his writing is playful, cerebral, likable, wide-ranging and inventive.
Now we're getting somewhere. Christensen's intense level of engagement gives this article life, and so does David Kirby's in his consideration of poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's Slamming Open The Door. Michael Meyer's endpaper essay about how book publishing advances have evolved over the centuries is extremely informative and useful, but a strong point of view also buttresses the piece, conveying a sense of relevance and conviction that makes the piece not only useful but memorable. I hope the Book Review will run more examinations of book publishing practices (a hot topic that gets much better coverage in the blogosphere) in the future.
I always like anything Liesl Schillinger writes, even though she unwisely kicks off today's review of A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff with an utterly pointless generalization:
Do you remember how bored we all were a decade ago? The cold war was over; the stock market surfed a rising wave; President Clinton had announced a national budget surplus; and good fortune was so rampant that rich neurotics paid therapists to be reassured that it was O.K. to be happy. Belatedly, we've learned how lucky we once were to live in uninteresting times.
Hmm, well, as my memoir-in-progress will shortly show, I was personally going through a terrible divorce and a painful work crisis a decade ago, so "uninteresting times" is hardly the phrase I would use myself to describe 1999. I imagine many other readers of this article will react the same way, since we do not measure out our memories by news headlines but rather by events of personal importance, making generalizations like this one rather silly. Still, I would read a Liesl Schillinger review over an Alan Light or John Leland review any day, and her coverage of A Fortunate Age gets better when she explains the novel's intriguing parallel to Mary McCarthy's The Group.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness and Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun get some attention from Alison McCulloch in a fiction roundup, and Michael Beschloss offers fresh thoughts following Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This all adds up to a satisfying Book Review in a Sunday New York Times that also includes a Deborah Solomon session with Joyce Carol Oates and a Wyatt Mason profile of poet Frederick Seidel in the magazine. There's also a searching piece by David Barstow on the mystery of Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes's suicide on the front page of the news section.
(This is chapter eleven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The big idea behind Pathfinder.com was to turn Time Warner's top magazine brands -- Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly, the always incongruous Vibe -- into the best and most professional website in the world. If all went according to plan, Pathfinder would dominate the Internet the same way Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin's earlier venture Home Box Office had come to dominate cable TV.
The Pathfinder plan was an aggressive one, with a lot of money and corporate muscle behind it, and many people expected it to succeed. That didn't mean many people wanted it to succeed -- in fact, several of my web developer friends hated the idea of Pathfinder so much they reacted with horror when I joined the team in June 1995. I took a lot of heat on my tech/art mailing listantiweb and on rec.music.dylan after I proudly announced the new job change.
2. Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press has kicked off a promising new book-biz blog, Black Plastic Glasses, with a provocative argument: e-books must fail, because the pricing structure cannot support the production of books on the same scale as the current print-based model. However, Schnittman paints the current state of publishing as a near-disaster, rife with inflated advances and high return rates. He describes a brisk business in hardcover mass shipments that bring in cash flow even though the publishers eventually have to return the money for unsold inventory, which sounds like the same kind of pyramid-scheme con game as securitized subprime mortgages or credit default swaps. What's Schnitmann up to here? His article seems to be trying to bury the current book publishing model even as it pretends to praise it.
3. I enjoyed participating in (and telling you about) a Vol 1 music/storytelling event at Matchless Cafe in Brooklyn last year. The next installment takes place April 9 and features a six-word story (memoir) slam. Should be something to see!
4. The folks behind HBO's under-appreciated Def Poetry Jam are trying a new angle. Brave New Voices, a reality show about competing poetry slam teams from around the USA, debuts on April 5.
5. The Morning News' 2009 Tournament of Books, always a rousing encounter, ends with a surprise victory for Toni Morrison's A Mercy, narrowly beating out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge. I guess I'll have to read A Mercy now. I liked Beloved more than I expected to, and I expect I'll like this one too.
6. Get a personalized Penguin Classic paperback (like, say, this one). Neat.
7. John Updike's Pennsylvania.
8. Oxford University Press's list of obscure literary terms offers some nice surprises. I now know that I've experienced jouissance, that I dislike the use of adynaton, that I've been writing a feuilleton, and that hapax legomenon is the pre-Internet version of googlewhack. Good stuff.
9. Andrew Sullivan is absolutely right that the legal harassment of marijuana smokers, many of them honorable and hardworking citizens "in the closet", is an abomination that needs to end.
10. Barnes and Noble Review reviews Harvey Kurtzman's Humbug, also featuring Will Elder, Arnold Roth, Jack Davis and Al Jaffee.
I sell ads through BlogAds.com, a service whose Internet-grown principles and homespun values I trust. You can buy LitKicks ads for $20 and up on BlogAds, and they send me payments through PayPal once a month. I had a very good month in October of last year ($500.63), though I was disappointed in the Christmas season follow-through ($300.51 for November, $235.99 for December), which probably suffered due to general economic slowdown. But sales picked up in January ($403.00), dipped again in February ($210.95) and will hopefully be up again for March.
My regular advertisers include the wonderful independent book publicist M. J. Rose, whose brand of Buzz Balls and Hype usually includes a healthy dose of blog ads for her clients, and the Print On Demand publisher XLibris, whose highly varied offerings I always look forward to seeing here. I click through on every blog ad purchased on LitKicks -- every webmaster who sells ads should do this, I think -- and I have seen some excellent and surprising titles (as well as some admittedly less promising ones) in the mix. It makes me very proud to be able to help self-published and independent authors contact the readers they are looking for on these pages.
This pocket cash sure doesn't enable me to quit my day job, but it comes in handy and it feels good. It's a nice feeling to be paid for my writing, and for my ability to select other good writers for the site (I have experimented in the past with paying these writers, and will hopefully be able to do so again).
It's a very modest successful business that I'm running here -- but I take some solace in the fact that I probably earn more money each month than many established literary journals, and I take even more solace in the fact that several larger content organizations consider web advertising a failure (as Eric Clemons' TechCrunch article indicates) while I consider it a nice little nut. Maybe this is because these failing sites feature shallow content, overeager writers with untrained voices and shaky convictions who don't know how to build and keep an audience. Many hopeful content companies also spend way too much in pursuit of web ad dollars, and often don't include "patience" in their business plans.
I know a bit about patience myself, because my modest success selling ads on LitKicks caps a long series of frustrations that almost had me giving up at several points. In 2002, unemployed and broke, the dot-com economy a wreck, I urged an independent book publisher and rare book seller to be LitKicks' sole sponsor, with a graphic ad on the bottom of every page, for $100 a month. This arrangement lasted exactly one month before the publisher backed out. Later in 2003 and 2004, when I was even more broke and desperate, I initiated a custom LitKicks ad sales program, the "LitKicks Visibility Program", selling ads that looked something like BlogAds' ads would eventually look, for $75 a pop. This earned me more than a thousand dollars in its first year, but the revenue trickled in too slowly and unsteadily for me to consider it a success, and I was happy to dismantle the program and switch to BlogAds in 2005.
Web advertising, like any other honest business, is a hard grind. But the fact that fools rush in does not mean the business model is flawed. I believe the TechCrunch article that's making the rounds today tells only half the story. Web advertising isn't making me wealthy, but it'll pay for my lunch today, because after years of effort and mistakes I've gradually figured out how to do it right. That's what good business is all about, isn't it?
As for Soft Skull's future, Eric Rosenfield twittered that he can't picture Soft Skull without Nash, but this only proves that Eric is young, since Nash is not the first but the second charismatic leader in Soft Skull's exciting history. But, yeah, Sander Hicks and Richard Nash ... that's two tough acts to follow. I'm curious to see if anyone will turn up with the heart to try.
2. Adam Begley, who will be writing a major biography of the late John Updike, says "My principal aim in writing his biography will be to illuminate for the reader the nature of his character and of his greatest accomplishments". Ahh, cut the sanctimony. If that's all the book does, nobody will want to read it. Updike's artfully self-referential work revolved around the core topic of love, marriage, adultery and sex -- has he ever written a story or novel that was not a love story? -- and we want to know the real life juicy facts behind all this juicy fiction.
3. The fact that Michiko Kakutani hates Jonathan Littell's much-hyped The Kindly Ones means absolutely nothing to me. The fact that Michael Orthofer hates it means much more. E. J. Van Lanen posts a dissenting opinion, as does Steve Mitchelmore. I haven't even seen the book yet, but I sure am curious whether I'll join the fan club or not.
4. Via Mike Palacek's New American Dream, a play about Dorothy Day.
5. A really beautiful text visualization of literary St. Petersburg is featured at the New Yorker's blog. The Mercedes-Benz ad that pops up when you view the page is much less beautiful.
6. More Leningrad visualizations: Superimpositions of war and peace.
7. And even more Russian stuff: Cecil Vortex conducts the Brothers Karamazov deathmarch.
8. Musings on Damon Runyon.
9. Christopher Nolan, author of Under the Eye of the Clock and Dam Burst of Dreams, has died.
10. Greg Sandow of the Wall Street Journal says The Arts Need Better Arguments to gain a better share of public funding.
11. Mental Floss will be listing The 25 Most Influential Books of the Past 25 Years.
12. The Oxonian Review on The Collected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Synder.
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.