Thursday, November 27, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The publishing business: up and down

The NYT on the deeply weird past few months in the publishing industry:
In less than a week the book publishing industry has been set abuzz by the news that one publisher is so uncertain about the economic climate that it has temporarily shut its doors to most manuscripts while another is celebrating a banner year by handing out extra bonuses to all its employees.

The bad news came from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a company formed from the union of two venerable publishers of authors like Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, Günter Grass and J. R. R. Tolkien.

On Monday a company spokesman said that with rare exceptions, editors were temporarily not acquiring new books, an extraordinary move that rattled agents throughout the industry.
On the surface these twin pieces of news would seem to suggest that success in the book industry, as with other forms of entertainment, is increasingly dependent on the production of major hits, works that are so successful that they can support a family of less successful siblings. David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said that the company had racked up 104 New York Times best sellers this year.

Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.

The article goes on to give voice to others within the publishing industry who argue that the backlist is where long term viability still exists.

I think that's exactly right. The book publishing industry is in trouble because decades of acquisitions and conglomeration have turned what was basically a cottage industry into divisions of international media corporations with demands for constant and substantial quarterly revenue growth. A few mega-success stories like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter have convinced the industry that it can operate on a blockbuster business model where a few books sell millions of copies and pay for everything else. The two problems with this business are 1.) not very many books are going to be million-copy bestsellers, less than one every two years, and maybe less than one every five years, and 2.) the pressure of the business model is toward publishing only books that the company thinks have the potential to become million-copy bestsellers. This tends to homogenize output, and defeats the one potential benefit of the blockbuster model, which is that it (in theory) provides the opportunity to publish books that should be published but that are near-certain to lose money in the short term.

While the article expresses a a certain concern for those who are trying to enter the publishing industry, either as authors or as publishers, I think that the future of publishing demands new blood. We need new small presses who are able to take advantage of their local and regional markets. We need authors who are looking for success that isn't measured by the bestseller list. (I'd like to say that we need local booksellers to provide an outlet to supplement the national chains, but, ironically, direct online sales and may make this possible already.) New York will probably always be the center of our country's literary universe, but, interestingly, the future of publishing may involve creating a universe around and outside of New York.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ping pong. With nunchucks.

On an awesomeness scale of 1-10, this is a good argument for 11.

Is it real? Who cares?

(Via Sullivan, of all places)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

You can't lose an audience you didn't have in the first place

But why in the world would anyone think that writers should be "bending over backwards" to appeal to people who have no interest in reading? What bizarre conception of literature would have it intended primarily for nonreaders? The mangled logic of this view, which perversely seems to be widely shared by many who do read, seems to me so far removed from any plausible assessment of the place of "literature" in our culture as to be pretty close to insane.

—Dan Green

(Via Chekhov's Mistress)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

One of my heroes

Nearly everything to do with George Plimpton is good reading, including Graydon Carter's review of George Being George: George Plimpton’s Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals—and a Few Unappreciative Observers. A few bon mots:

I remember getting a call some years ago from a television casting agent looking for a patrician type to play an editor who liked to go shooting rats in Central Park. I asked the agent if she had approached anyone else. As it happened, she had. Lewis Lapham said it was beneath him. George Plimpton agreed to do it, but he had a scheduling conflict. So she ended up with me. And the show went off the air within the year.

A wise man once said that 9/11 marked the end of the age of irony. Well, George would have none of it; he was an ironist to the end. He was not only in on the joke of being George Plimpton, he created the joke.

I am reliably informed that little magazines comprise four elements: shabby, cramped quarters; meager wages; attractive interns of independent means; and boundless enthusiasm. They are also excellent excuses for throwing parties.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Charles Bremner's anecdote of Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy in the Times UK may almost fall into the category of too-good-to-be-true, but Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan have both found it too irresistible not to cite, and so do I.

(Of course, you are asked to imagine the exchange in French, the language of international diplomacy and the 19th Century Russian aristocracy.)

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia's Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. "I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls," Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. "Hang him?" — he asked. "Why not?" Mr Putin replied. "The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein."

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: "Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?" Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: "Ah — you have scored a point there."

Friday, November 07, 2008

Worth quoting in full

From's War Room:

More Palin expenses: $40,000 for the First Dude

With the election over, it's time for the full cost of Sarah Palin's shopping sprees to be revealed. The latest news? Todd Palin wasn't exactly left out; Alaska's "First Dude" reaped the benefits of the Republican National Committee's money too. The Washington Post's Reliable Sources column says:

On top of the $150,000 first outlined in Federal Election Commission filings, Palin spent "tens of thousands of dollars" on additional clothing, makeup and jewelry for herself and her family, including $40,000 in luxury goods for her husband, Todd, our colleague Michael Shear reports. The campaign was charged for silk boxer shorts, spray tanners and 13 suitcases to carry all the designer clothes, according to two GOP insiders.

The defense for the spending, when the campaign was still going on, was that Sarah Palin's new clothes were just loaned to her. So who wants a couple pairs of Todd Palin's silk boxers, slightly used?

I wish I could say that it was a shock that Palin responded to her vice-presidential nomination by going on a shopping spree (on someone else's tab), but this is actually something of a pattern. When elected mayor of Wasilla she spent $50,000 of city money (without authorization) redecorating her office (keep in mind that her entire salary was $68,000 per year), and when elected governor of Alaska Palin installed a tanning bed in the governor's mansion (although she claims to have paid for that one herself).

She claims per diems for nights spent in her home, and she claims reimbursement for taking her children on state travel, whether or not they were invited or welcome. And, as Andrew Sullivan has observed, Palin just lies reflexively. (There are actually twenty documented "Odd Lies of Sarah Palin" and this and this from Sullivan are also of interest.) There are no boundaries for Palin between the state and her family. There's no necessary truth content to anything she says. This is why she and Kwame Kilpatrick have a great deal in common, and why she should be the subject of a Joyce Carol Oates story.

Thank you, Rush Limbaugh, for making sure that she simply will not fade away. As long as she's a national figure, the truth will continue to come out.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


The Complete New Yorker DVD and Hard Drive are already fabulous (the DVD-ROM in particular is now a reasonably-priced way to get all of The New Yorker, ever), but now there's something even better.

New Yorker subscribers (like me) now have free access to The New Yorker Digital Edition: which is The Complete New Yorker. Free. Online. (You can also buy access to individual issues or subscribe to the Digital Edition without a subscription to the physical magazine.)


I promised to stop reading Sullivan

but this is the one thing that could make me break that promise.

The aftermath

Language poet, critic, and Philadelphia Obama canvasser Ron Silliman:

I was just one of 1.1 million Obama volunteers yesterday. Unquestionably the get-out-the-vote effort was the greatest single act of community organizing in this nation’s history.

After the atrocious Republican National Convention, I take a great deal of satisfaction in the fact that community organizing is exactly what won this election for Obama.

Our work is not over, but now it has begun.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The most important item on the (Lansing) ballot

My wife and I took the girls to the polls this morning, as we usually do. We arrived a few minutes after the polls opened at seven 'o' clock, and there was already a substantial line. We vote in all the primaries, so I'm used to showing up first thing in the morning and getting ballot number 5 or 6. This morning I was ballot 122.

We were in line for about an hour and a half, and the girls were mostly good, but understandably restless. We didn't expect the line to be so long, so we didn't bring anything for them to do. I wished that I had brought a book, but as time passed, I realized it wouldn't have done much good. Entertaining myself isn't really a priority in a situation like that compared to entertaining my daughters.

I voted fairly quickly by the time I got my hands on the ballot, and only my conscience kept me from filling out the "straight party ballot" choice. It would have been faster, but the Ingham County Prosecutor needs to go.

I'm not misty about Obama, but then I never was. I'm optimistic, but I largely don't believe in a politics of enthusiasm and agreement. I'm ready to support the president where he's right, and fight him where he's wrong. I relish the thought of doing more supporting and less fighting, but nothing is certain until all the votes are counted. I've been disappointed before.

In all honesty, since Michigan went blue in the last two elections, and is likely to do so again this time, I'm a bit more worried about the CATA millage. If it fails, bus service will be reduced. Public transportation is good for the people and good for business. I'm hoping that Lansing realizes that.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The perks of a mail-order world

I'm normally not a big fan of Amazon—I liked them better when books were all they did, and I can't deny the pressure they exert on local independent booksellers. A perfect world would be "Amazon and," as in and your favorite local bookstore, but I'm not sure that such a world is possible in the way I would like it to be. (In all honesty, however, I have to admit that I'm able to resist Amazon in large part because of a long-term relationship with my own local bookseller which makes their prices competitive with or better than Amazon's, but also means that I'm not offering the maximum possible economic benefit to my local bookseller.)

However, I'm very enthusiastic about Amazon's new "Frustration-Free Packaging" initiative. Easy-to-open + less packaging waste + shipping-ready means I'm happy, the environment is happy, Amazon is happy, everybody wins. Retail packaging is insane, and while I understand the impossible competing demands of security and visual item marketing require a transparent-as-possible package that is as difficult as possible to open in order to defeat shoplifters. Amazon's mail-based warehouse-to-customer delivery system bypasses both of those needs, and they deserve a great deal of praise for taking the initiative to eliminate a great deal of useless and wasteful packaging.

Of course, interestingly, books are a primary exception to this wasteful packaging rule, especially if, like me, you keep all of your dust jackets. Thus, in a sense, I can have my cake and eat is too. I keep buying my packaging-free books from my local bookstore, and I order more retail items from Amazon than I currently do. Everyone really does win.