Saturday, December 24, 2005

Pause in posts

There will be no further posts on the GOB until Monday 2 January.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Eva Hemmungs Wirten: No Trespassing

In July last we looked at Eva Hemmungs Wirten's PhD thesis (from 1998), which was about romantic fiction; and, in the course of examining that subject, the author had quite a lot to say about the globalisation of literature and the power of the multinational media conglomerates.

Subsequently, in 2004, Wirten published No Trespassing: Authorship, Intellectual Property Rights, and the Boundaries of Globalization (University of Toronto Press).

Now I suppose we had better admit at the start that the average would-be writer -- indeed the average publisher -- could probably go through life quite comfortably without actually reading this book, which has a definite academic slant to it. However, I have always taken the view that it never does any harm to learn as much as possible about the background of the business you happen to be in. So I would encourage you to borrow a copy of this book, and at least have a look at it, even if you don't actually buy it for your bookshelf.

The book has three main subjects, which are stated in the title: authorship; the ownership of intellectual property rights (in a whole lot of other things besides books); and the 'globalisation' of the media in the last few decades. Along the way, Wirten looks at the relationship between authors and translators; the impact of the photocopier; and what I would describe (though Wirten doesn't) as the massive greed of modern media conglomerates (Wirten calls them TransNational Media Corporations, or TNMCs). I know that business is business, but sometimes these people go a little too far for my taste.

There are two aspects of the style in which the book is written which require comment, before we look further at the contents.

First, Wirten is an associate professor at Uppsala University and is, I believe, Swedish by birth. But as no translator is mentioned in connection with No Trespassing, I also assume that she wrote it in English. This situation leads to passages which occasionally read rather oddly; indeed there are more than a few points where one is not quite sure whether she has said what she meant to say; although in other places her use of English is quite idiomatic and informal.

Secondly, this is a very academic book, and there are certainly chapters where Wirten resorts to the kind of litbabble which does no one any credit. She has got in with bad company (too many professors of Eng. Lit.), and has picked up some nasty habits. On the whole, however, the book is, to use the publisher's description, scholarly yet accessible. Well, reasonably acessible. Bits of it are just plain incomprehensible, especially when Wirten quotes other academics.

Chapter 1 considers Victor Hugo's opening speech at the Congres Litteraire International in Paris in 1878, a speech which ultimately led to the foundation stone of modern copyright, the Berne Convention of 1886.

Chapter 2 uses Peter Hoeg's bestseller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, which is also known as Smilla's Sense of Snow (two translations, two titles) as the basis for consideration of the complications which can ensue when translation takes place.

Then, in Chapter 3, we come to the question of how technology can result in change: the photocopier is used as a case study.

The growing interest in, and importance of, intellectual property rights is the subject of Chapter 4. And, of course, we must remember that intellectual property covers far more than just copyright; it involves trademarks, industrial designs, patents, and so forth.

This point is hammered home in Chapter 5, which looks at how a nation's culture can, in a sense, be seized and exploited as property.

The final chapter, Chapter 6, deals with two legal disputes in an attempt to decide what is or is not, and what should or should not be, in the public domain.

I'm afraid I found myself not very interested in Victor Hugo, but Chapter 1 does provides a valuable summary of events for those who need to know more about the history of copyright.

Fortunately, Chapter 2 becomes more relevant to our circumstances today. As mentioned above, we get an enlightening case study of the events surrounding publication of Peter Hoeg's 1993 bestselling novel, which I will abbreviate here to Smilla. In Hoeg's native Denmark, this book had a mixed critical reception, some of the negative comments being prompted by a belief that a big seller is, pretty much by definition, a nasty, vulgar book; and, to such critics, a big seller in America is held to be unspeakable.

What strikes me most about this chapter is just how clueless some academic critics are. This is an all-too-familiar but always somewhat astonishing realisation. By and large, academics insist on finding more in a book than is really there, and they complain bitterly when anyone actually sets out to entertain the reader. In my view, this attitude is often adopted, consciously or unconsciously, in order to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the reviewer; and I find it socially, professionally, and morally objectionable. What is worse is that such critics' views are invariably dressed up in fancypants language, with a level of obscurity which often manages to disguise the sheer banality of the ideas on offer.

Smilla, for my money, was just a thriller which started brilliantly and ended much less so.Wirten reminds us that the heroine in Smilla turns out, at the end, to be trapped on board a ship while the bad guys are after her. And one highbrow commentator maintains that 'the ship is a useful metaphor for the relationship between the empire and the colonies.' And metaphors, of course, are A Good Thing.

Now, I don't pretend to know how Peter Hoeg's mind was working when he wrote the end of Smilla. But I do know how 99% of the authors of thrillers would be thinking. Smilla develops into a woman-in-peril story. And when you're writing a woman-in-peril story, it's a good idea to put your woman in a really tricky situation. You put her somewhere where there is no easy way out. A sealed sewer system, for instance; or a train; or -- now here's an idea -- on a ship! In the vast majority of cases, metaphors about 'empire and the colonies' would have fuck-all to do with it.

Wirten, I fear, tends to side with the academic and highbrow critics in this regard. 'Smilla's "dustbin" identity', she tells us, 'struck a cord with readers who perhaps recognized the constant negotiation of "otherness", its function of incorporation and negotiation.' Or perhaps not. Perhaps readers just read it as a thriller (and it was later made into a not-very-good movie).

The sentence quoted immediately above is a prime example of the occasional bursts of litbabble that I warned you about. And there is more. According to someone called Danius, 'Smilla is first and foremost a text about the contemporary conditions of postmodern uncertainty and postcolonial ambivalence, and only second a literary pastiche.'

That, I'm afraid, is gibberish.

Wirten is on much surer, and more interesting ground when she tells us how it was that Smilla came to have 'two' translations. It seems that the American publisher commissioned a translation from Tiina Nunnally, with the title Smilla's Sense of Snow. When the translation was finished, the author went over it in detail, and asked for certain changes. Some were agreed to by the translator, and some weren't. The US publisher went with their translator's version; but the British publishers preferred to accept all of the author's changes. And the translator, who had a highly distinguished track record, thereupon declined to have her name on the British edition, and the translator was therefore shown as a non-existent F. David.

It is arguable as to which version of the book best served the readers and the author.

There is a lot more in this chapter about translations, much of the discussion being mercifully free of academic jargon. English, for better or for worse, is the dominant language in the world today, and hence translation tends to be largely forgotten in the UK and the US. Comparatively few translated works are published in the UK or the USA; and from 1968 to 1992, only 2 per cent of US bestsellers came from non-English-language authors.

The third chapter considers the question of what happens to authorship and intellectual property rights when they meet the machine, and most of the chapter is concerned with the development of the photocopier. This is a fine old story of missed opportunity.

Chester Carlson was a man who found it inconvenient not to be able to make copies of documents, so he devised a new method: but when he tried to get his ideas implemented he was turned down by IBM, Kodak, General Electric, and RCA. What a testimony to the success of capitalism.

Things did not go smoothly even when the Xerox company took over. The early Xerox machines had a nasty tendency to catch fire. So common was this that each machine had to be provided with a fire extinguisher. But, true to the American principles of plain speaking, these were referred to in the company literature as scorch eliminators. The Japanese, it later turned out, built better machines at half the cost.

All in all, Chapter 3 is an entertaining read and a great relief from the nonsense of Chapter 2. And what this chapter demonstrates is that, with the invention of the photocopier, anyone on earth could become an author -- at least in a modest sense. You no longer needed lead type and a machine that used ink.

And that possibility, of course, greatly alarmed those who had hitherto controlled the flow of information. As Wirten puts it, 'As soon as we see new technological modes enabling access [to information], we will see a direct response on all levels to delimit and police that possibility.' Yes indeed.

Chapter 4 is entitled How Content Became King: Economies of Print. And its subject is the process which affected publishing and the media in general from about 1960 on: conglomerisation. 'Where once there was a publishing house relentlessly searching for quality... there now stretch desertlike corporate spaces of major multinational media conglomerates whose understanding and appreciation of books and reading is tantamount to nil.' Quite.

During the course of this chapter, we learn that, historically speaking, large corporations have done whatever suited them. In the nineteenth century the Americans pirated European literature, and vice versa; in the twenty-first century the big firms try to implement digital-rights management, and they sue fifteen-year-old kids who download music. At all stages, content is seen as a key asset.

Chapter 5 asks whether there can be property with a 'difference'. And the answer is yes.

Here we go back into impenetrable sociological jargon -- at least in places -- which is a great pity. At the top of one of the pages I have scribbled the following note: If it was vital to know this stuff I would go in search of a simpler explanation. So be warned. However, parts of the chapter are reasonably straightforward.

What we learn from this chapter, if we can be bothered to stick with it, is that the greed of large companies knows no bounds. We already know this actually, because of Kembrew McLeod, but Wirten provides further examples. The word Olympic, for instance, together with the signs and symbols of the Olympic Games, 'belongs' to the US Olympic Committee. The Dutch ABN/Amro Bank holds the exclusive rights to the combination of the words The and Bank. And author's rights in 'techno dance' were in 1997 claimed by the Zurich-based company Techno Tanz Veranstaltungsverwertung Zurich GBR, which subsequently demanded that a Berlin disco should pay a fee for using the phrase.

Worse, while Prozac, Levis, Grisham, and Hollywood movies go into developing countries, 'cultural' items such as the customs, visual patterns, oral traditions, and ancient medical treatments of the indigenous peoples are looted because they are not equally well protected. Traditional American Indian imagery is used sell motorcycles; an image of the Wandjina spirit is used as the logo of an Australian surfboard company; and so forth. (Australia did not even grant citizenship to its Aboriginal population until 1967.) And of course, such 'borrowings' are then fully protected by their new owners.

The history of the concentration of publishing companies into an ever smaller number of companies is considered in some detail. And one side effect of this process is that the author becomes almost irrelevant: not so much an individual as the legal entity of the publishing house.

As the twentieth century progressed, intellectual property became an extremely valuable export. The companies which marketed copyrighted materials became one of the fastest growing segments of the US economy, with an annual growth rate more than twice that of the economy as a whole. But it was found, in this process, that not every nation provided laws which were sufficient to protect the interests of the large companies; and so the big boys began to lobby both nationally and internationally for more protection. And, if you've been paying attention, you know that they got it; and will continue to demand more.

It may still not be enough, at any rate to satisfy the big companies. It is estimated that in 1995, China produced $1.8 billion worth of pirated US films, books, and music; even Italy stole $515 million. The Russian mafia and the IRA are said to be among those profiting from this wickedness; and so too (oh but you've guessed) are Middle Eastern terrorists.

The final chapter of No Trespassing deals with 'two cases of upset relatives and a public domain.' Here we find that Victor Hugo becomes relevant once again, in a rather amusing way. Hugo's descendants took offence at what they considered to be the exploitation and vulgarisation of his work. But the French courts, using Hugo's own words, did not agree with them! Hugo had written extensively about the value of work being in the public domain, and, on the strength of that, the relatives' case was summarily dismissed.

The other case which is considered here is the much better known row about the publication of a parody of Gone with the Wind, entitled The Wind Done Gone. The trustee of the Margaret Mitchell estate sought damages of $10 million for the unauthorised use of copyright material. This case rattled around the American courts until the two parties eventually reached a confidential settlement. Under this arrangement, the unwelcome sequel to Margaret Mitchell's huge seller would continue to be sold as 'an unauthorised parody'.

In the US and UK, meantime, determined and successful efforts have been made to extend the term of copyright. These efforts were largely initiated by the large corporations, though the heirs and successors of those whose work is taught in universities and colleges are also major beneficiaries. The public domain is the loser, and so are readers, because they are deprived of new and fresh material which is inspired by, and draws upon, the giants of the past.

The conclusion of Eva Hemmungs Wirten's book reminds us that intellectual property rights today cover everything from DNA sequences to ebooks, from totem poles to traditional medicine, and every form and kind of artistic endeavour. The nature of the subject is such that it puts to sleep the average member of the public. (If you have struggled to the end of this review article, congratulations.) But the impact of the growth of intellectual property is far-reaching; in fact, 'it reaches down into the innermost core of the human genome.' It would be a smart idea for all of us to take a bit more interest.

If I have been critical of No Trespassing in places, let me conclude by saying that it is a considerable achievement. Let's face it, I couldn't write a book in French or German. The material assembled is deeply complex but has been well researched; and not many writers in this field can match Wirten's grasp of the subject. We live in an age when academics, desperate to add to their list of 'publications' will cobble together more or less anything; but this is a proper book, the result of several years' work; and, despite some shortcomings, it is a great credit to its hard-working author.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gerard Jones: Ginny Good audiobook is done

Back in August we noted that Gerard Jones was at work on converting his masterwork Ginny Good into an audio format. Well, now it's done. Here is Gerard's press release in full, so that you have all the details. When you've read it, I have a few comments.

Okay, after working ten or twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for a little over six months—not to mention the money it cost to hire an audio engineer...or the twenty years it took to write the book in the first place...or the eight years it took to get it published, edited and distributed—I finally finished both versions of The Audio Book of Ginny Good and got them stuck onto CDs. Phew. The voice only version is eleven hours long; the multimedia version is fifteen hours long. I'm giving them both away for free. If you want to see the index and/or download the big version, click this:

If you want to see how to get CDs of both or either version OR a signed copy of the real book, click this:

Once you get the CD or CDs, you're welcome to copy 'em and give 'em away to anyone you want, or copy 'em and sell 'em if you want, that's fine with me. I don't care if anyone buys my stuff I just want 'em to hear it or read it.

If you want to see three years of stuff I've been excited to say about the mind-numbingly inane, money-grubbing loser twits who run the book and movie businesses, click this:

And of course, as always, you're more than welcome to poke around among all the other free stuff on this site to your heart's content. Click some links. Let 'em take you where they take you. Oh, oh, and here's a Christmas Story. Have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Gerard Jones

OK, now before you start clicking the links, just a few words. First, the audio files take a little while to load, even on broadband. And if you ain't got broadband that could be a long wait. Start with the Introduction, which is short. Then you can either settle down to listen the whole thing, from Chapter one on, or just dip into some more at random.

I have to say that I think the whole thing is quite wonderful. It's a tremendous achievement. And I especially admire the choice of music, which is so evocative of the period.

There are, of course, morals for all of us here. All of us, that is, who care about writing. Whatever your feelings about Gerard, whether you love him or hate him, he is surely an example of what can be done, if you have the mind to.

You can write a book. It may not be a great one. The laws of probability say that it is very unlikely to be great. But if you stick with it long enough you will eventually get to the point where it strikes you as OK, if not perfect.

And then you can, if you choose to, put it before the public somehow or other. God knows there are a million ways now. And then, if you still have the appetite, you can do it in a different format.

Oh, and if you are sensible, you won't expect it to make you a fortune; or cover your costs. So you might just as well go one step further: become part of the gift economy, and give it away for free.

If that isn't a source of inspiration then I don't frankly know what to do for you. And it's a new year coming up. You could make a resolution. Or something.

M.J. Rose and the letters to Santa

Over at Buzz, Balls and Hype, M.J. Rose has been re-running a feature which she did last year (I seem to remember), namely inviting a few writers to write letters to Santa about what they would like for Christmas.

To tell you the truth I haven't been too enthralled by some of them, but those which appear on 20 December are both a lot of fun and also rather touching.

We have Gayle Brandeis asking Santa to remember those who haven't done too well this year. Then we have a non-fiction writer for a change -- most books are non-fiction, remember -- and this one specialises in self-help. But it seems he still needs a little help from others. Even a top-notch agent and a few published books isn't enough to persuade a publisher to do another one.

Next is M.D. Benoit, who says that she's been a relatively good girl. (How come we don't get the detail about the times when she was relatively naughty?) And finally (on that day) comes Fred Romney, with some interesting stuff about his new publishing company, and how he promises to be good in future if Santa will just give him a break.

All of these letters are good-humoured and entertaining, and they all have some valid and important things to say about the book world de nos jours.

100 years of bookselling in the UK

John Sutherland (Professor Sutherland to you) is a widely respected observer of the literary scene, and he has an enlightening piece in the Telegraph about the changing features of bookselling in the UK over the last hundred years or so. (Link via

Once upon a time, bookselling was the occupation of gentlemen scholars, who did not go around trying to cut each others' throats. All that is past. At least according to some. Booksellers may still be gentlemen and scholars (I know a few), but the competition is fierce. Sutherland gives an account of how and why.

What John Sutherland doesn't do -- it's a short article -- is point out that the high street bookshop is no longer the only place to go for your books. And while your local Waterstones or supermarket may have only a limited stock of bestsellers, there is another source of supply which can offer you a couple of million books, some of which struggle to sell more than ten copies, but which meet the needs of a particular type of customer.

No prizes, even though it's Christmas, for guessing where that source of supply is. But here's a clue.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Pamela Howe Taylor: The Germans We Trusted

Since this is the season of goodwill (allegedly), it seems appropriate to describe a book which features goodwill in abundance.

The Germans We Trusted tells the story of thirty-six friendships which developed during or shortly after the second world war. These friendships were between German prisoners of war and their 'enemies', members of the British public.

I am old enough to remember prisoners of war. When I first went to school, in 1943, I walked past a prisoner-of-war camp both going to school and coming home. These particular prisoners were Italians, and were not heavily guarded. They were behind wire, and the occasional British soldier with a rifle could be seen. But it was generally believed (and rightly so, I suspect) that the Italians were not in any hurry to escape; neither were they seen as any sort of terrorist threat. They often spoke to us children as we passed on our way to school, and seemed both friendly and harmless enough.

After the war, a fair number of these Italians remained in England, and were soon absorbed into the local population.

German prisoners of war seem to have far out-numbered the Italians. When peace was declared in May 1945, 400,000 Germans were housed in 1,500 camps in Britain. And they certainly didn't disappear overnight. Although some went back to Germany, the numbers were kept up by other prisoners returning from the USA and Canada. Many of these prisoners were put to work: in 1946 169,000 were employed in agriculture, and 22,000 in the construction of roads. 'Fraternisation' was only officially allowed in December 1946.

The probability is that the prisoners who remained here were slightly better off than they would have been at home. Food and fuel were in short supply in England in the late 1940s, but they were even scarcer in Germany, where many tried to exist on what was, effectively, a slow-starvation diet.

Pamela Howe Taylor was the daughter of a Methodist minister, the Reverend Joseph Howe. The Rev. Howe was the British padre to a German prisoner-of-war camp near Blackburn, and, being a good Christian, he tried to ensure that the soldiers whom he met were treated as honorably as possible. This involved, among other things, inviting them into his own home, and the homes of members of his congregation.

These experiences, as revealed in the papers which came into his daughter's possession after his death, were the basis for Pamela Howe Taylor's first book, Enemies Become Friends (1997). They were also used in a BBC Timewatch programme, The Germans We Kept, and the German television documentary film Wie aus Feinden Freunde werden (How Enemies Became Friends).
The first book reveals how a simple act of kindness could make a profound impression. One Englilsh family invited a couple of battle-hardened Germans into their home, only to find that the men burst into tears when they got there.

That 1997 book is now out of print, and is rare. Secondhand copies purchased via Abebooks will cost you £25-45. However, over the next few years Pamela Howe Taylor explored her subject further: hence The Germans We Trusted. This was sufficiently well written to attract a foreword from the former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

Take a trip to, and you can read the first couple of chapters of the book for free. There is also a lengthy review, written by an Italian.

Shortly after the book's publication, the author died of leukemia.

Tao Lin: I Went Fishing With My Family When I Was Five

Tao Lin has written a children's book -- I Went Fishing With My Family When I Was Five -- and is looking for an illustrator and a publisher. You can read all about it at Reader of Depressing Books, or on its own site.

As for I Went Fishing... Well, I like bits of it. Shows promise. But needs a little work, I feel.

Tao Lin is also working on a novel, one which shows definite signs of originality. Which I personally think is overrated. Originality, I mean. Not the novel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Free stock photos

If you're a small, independent publisher -- so small that you even do your own book covers -- you are problably often left scratching your head and wondering where you can find a suitable image which won't cost you $250 (or whatever currency you work in).

Well, here's a possible solution. It's called Stock.exchng. The stock part is a reference to 'stock' photography, which normally means a huge commercial library of prints, from which you make a choice and then pay the aforementioned $250 or whatever. But in this case it seems to be... well, free.

I haven't explored the small print in any detail, but you could start with the FAQ, in which it says that you can use the images for web sites, magazines, books, CD covers, and so forth. Free of charge.

Lawrence Watt-Evans and payment on the instalment plan

Back in May I mentioned Lawrence Watt-Evans, who had made the painful discovery that no mainstream publisher was interested in the ninth volume of his Legends of Ethshar series. So Lawrence decided that he would offer the book online; and he would write a chapter a week, just so long as there were enough readers willing to pay him a total of $100 a week to do the job.

Well, even to the author's own surprise, it turned out that there were enough fans to support this proposal, and you can read all about it at The Spriggan Mirror. You can even read the book for free now, though you'd better get on with it because Lawrence has had an offer from an e-publisher.

Whether inspired by Lawrence Watt-Evans's example I know not, but over at Out of Ambit, Diane Duane (13 December Straw Poll, and 15 December Astonishment) is speculating about doing something similar.

Thanks to Carole Nadin for pointing all this out.

Incidentally, for a writer, Diane's blog is very hi-techie indeed.

More about small publishers

Yesterday I mentioned that some big-time authors are choosing to offer their work to smaller firms. And today Bloomberg has a story about how such firms operate. (Link from

This is quite an interesting article, especially for those who are hoping to get taken on by a smaller firm, on the general principle that it's easier to get in there than at Random House. (A principle which is open to question.)

I think the answer lies in tweed jackets and lace-up boots. (See the article for explanation.)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Michael Hyatt: clear thinking on digital publishing

Last Friday's crop of online discussions of the digital future left me a bit depressed at first, but then things cheered up.

First, I read a Publishing News report of the (UK?) Publishers Association's International Conference. And I would like to say that I was astonished by the stone-age quality of the thinking on offer, but of course I wasn't. I was irritated, saddened, and disappointed. But not surprised. Why? Because negative, out-of-date thinking is what I've come to expect from the UK book business.

Ideas at this conference were being bandied about as if they were new, when actually they've been commonplace on the web for somewhere between two and five years. For example, one speaker says 'The digital revolution is no longer the future. It's here now.' And actually it's been here quite a while.

'Online content has gone from being a niche phenomenon to mainstream.' So you've noticed? At last.

'Publishers should consider the issues now.' Actually it's a bit late.

'The Net means a global market which means thinking beyond traditional boundaries.' Yes it does, but with a few exceptions the people who can do it don't seem to be working in book publishing.

And the whole tone of the conference, judging by the PN report, seems to have been negative. The emphasis was all on control, prevent, limit, avoid. Not on opportunity, leap in, take advantage, grow.

Fortunately the day improved. Because Publishers Lunch pointed out a couple of blog pieces by Michael Hyatt. Now Hyatt, it turns out, is president and CEO of Thomas Nelson publishers, which is the ninth largest publishing company of any kind. So he is in a position to know what he is talking about.

In any event, the gist of Hyatt's argument is that we are just one technological step away from 'a digital publishing tsunami. Consider what happened when Apple launched the iPod in October of 2001. They provided an end-to-end solution that made downloading music easy, portable, and fun. Now, 30-plus million iPods later, iPods are everywhere.'

In his follow-up article (13 December), prompted by some of the comments he received, Hyatt says: 'Yes, traditional books will be available to bibliophiles for the foreseeable future. All I am arguing is that a shift will occur. A big enough slice of the book-reading public will opt for digital delivery and that will have a significant, disruptive effect on the entire industry. Trust me, it won’t take much. This is not an industry awash in profits. A 5-10 percent reduction in sales would wreak havoc. It’s already happening with newspapers and magazines. On the other hand, publishing companies that anticipate this shift and prepare accordingly will prosper. But this must happen now, not after the shift occurs. By then, it will be too late.'

Now that's a bit more like it. Not brilliant. But better.

And by the way, if you're wondering what the CEO of a major company is doing, using his time to write a blog, the answer is that he's doing exactly what he ought to be doing: thinking.

In 1992 I had the pleasure of publishing Thinking about Management, by R.W. Holder, a book which Sir Kenneth Cork described as the best guide to management that he'd ever read. Holder maintains that if a CEO/managing director is busy, he should be sacked.

What a CEO should be doing is wandering around, talking to people, surfing the web, sniffing the air, and generally trying to figure out the best direction to steer his company in so that it doesn't actually go bust. If more bosses did that, publishing might not be the low-profit enterprise that it demonstrably is (see above).

Sarah's Books -- used and rare

If you live in Bangor, Maine, or anywhere nearby, Sarah's Books at 32 Central Street is clearly the place to go to look for used and rare books. In addition, Sarah has a blog which contains all sorts of useful information about bookshops and books. Get over there now.

Hard cases make good law?

The Book Standard carries an article about a modest trend whereby some established and pretty big-time authors are deliberately choosing to be published by small, independent publishers, rather than by the big guys.

The main example quoted is that of Stephen King, who has handed a whole new book to Charles Ardai, owner/operator of paperback publisher Hard Case Crime. Author and small publisher now have a bestseller on their hands. Other examples are quoted.

Hmm. What could possibly cause these successful writers to prefer small firms to big ones? Very puzzling.

You couldn't make it up department

The Independent manages to make a longish story out of the fact that the Ann Summers chain of sex-shops is introducing a new line of sexy lingerie named after Lady Chatterley, famed heroine of D.H. Lawrence's much-banned novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. And guess what -- the trustees of the Lawrence estate are hopping mad. (Maud Newton link.)

By the way, as of this morning, the Indie seems to want you to pay money to read this story. Don't bother. Try the Times instead.

The trustees' objection, apparently, is that Lawrence would have been appalled by the sale of vulgar knickers. (They're not worried about not being paid any money, you will be pleased to note.)

Well, that's a bit bloody rich, I must say. I have always found Lady C to be completely unreadable, and the various movies made about her have not been any better. But for the literary executor to complain about underwear is just too silly for words. Lady C includes every 'dirty' word in the English language, many times over, plus a dose of anal sex (which had to be decoded for 1960s readers by no less a person than the Warden of All Souls, as I recall).

Ann Summers and co, meanwhile, must be deeply grateful for the publicity.

End of year quotes

The Sunday Times has an end-of-year round-up from the book world which is tolerably entertaining for once. It consists of the year's 'best' quotes from reviews, interviews, et cetera.

For example we have the sentence of the year:
In an attempt to breathe life back into the traditional pillars of the economy, the coffin of classical liberalism was nailed shut.
That's Richard Holmes, getting himself almost as confused in his metaphors as was the famous Sir Boyle Roche.

Then there's more about Terry McMillan's failure to notice that her husband was gay; and there's Margaret Drabble ticking off her husband, in public, for spelling Joyce Cary's name wrong. (Michael Holroyd stuck an e in there. Good grief, the chap ought to be shot.) And more.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Libby Rees: Help, Hope and Happiness

A couple of days ago, a sharp-eyed reader called David Jones wrote to ask whether I'd seen the press reports about the latest book published by the Aultbea stable. And I hadn't, so I went a-looking.

Well, without too much trouble I found lots of publicity for 10-year-old Libby Rees, who has written a book called Help, Hope and Happiness. It's a guide to help other kids to survive their parents' divorce. Lots of UK papers carried the story earlier this week -- e.g. the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Mirror. And, for all I know, a dozen others.

This morning, however, came the icing on the cake. Young Libby gets a two-inch banner on the front page of the main section of the Times, pointing to a story inside. And in the Times 2 section, Libby's portrait takes up the whole of the front page, while on the inside there is a two-page interview with Penny Wark, plus extract.

Well, stap me vitals. Whatever else may be said about Charles Faulkner, head of Aultbea, you have to admit that he has some formidable skills when it comes to getting free publicity for his young authors. Whether he has the sales team and the distribution channels to be able to take full advantage of it remains to be seen.

In the meantime Charles seems to have set up a nice little deal with the Times, because anyone who is intrigued by the lengthy description of Libby's book can buy a copy from Times Book First. It's 2,200 words in length, and it will cost you £9.45. But look, it's Christmas, OK? Don't be such a Scrooge. Make a kid happy.

As for the rest of you ambitious young writers out there: well, I suspect that some of you are going to have mixed feelings. There you are, struggling to finish that novel, your thirtieth birthday came up and went past, and you're still working on the damn thing, and all of a sudden some kid one third your age taps out a few pages on the computer and gets a contract!

It's a bit bloody much, don't you think?

For those readers who have just joined us, you might care to get up to speed on Mr Faulkner's previous endeavours by reading the Dragon Tamers saga. It's all good clean fun.

Jack Saunders: an underground legend

Jack Saunders is a man who writes a book a month, and posts them, as he writes them, on The Daily Bulletin.

Now of course 'book' is a relative term, and some of Jack's books are 10,000 words long. But even so, the industry is impressive.

Whatever else Jack may be, I don't think you could call him egocentric, because you have to work hard to find his name anywhere on the front page of The Daily Bulletin. All you can see at first is the work. However, if you want to know more, you can find his c.v. set out in the format used by Contemporary Authors:a volume from which he is, he tells us, excluded.

Jack and I are pretty much the same age. He is now retired and fills his day with writing. As, modest cough, do I. I really like the c.v. though. 'Publishers, rejected by: most of the larger ones.... Literary agencies, declined representation by: all I have enquired of.....Jack Saunders has been writing for 33½ years, without selling a word to New York or Hollywood, winning a grant, a writer-in-residence position, or a literary prize. He is working on a 40-year roman-feuilleton, or saga-novel, that is too large for small presses to publish and too outspoken, freewheeling, and vulgar for the mainstream commercial houses.' And all like that.

I like such people. It's eccentric of me, I know. But hell, I'm English. Goes with the territory. I may not like or admire everything that such people do, but that's not the point.

I gather that Jack is working on an anthology of underground writing. This will include 'not just writers I have known and worked with for 30-some years in the small press, mail art, zine, ezine, and blogger scene, but also folk artists, roots musicians, indy film makers, and repertory theater people who produce their own work and sell it through nontraditional distribution channels (hand-to-hand and word-of-mouth).'

I look forward to it.

The conclusion of the anthology is already completed and Jack kindly sent me a draft of it because it contains a reference to On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. Entitled 'Disintermediate Now!' this is as striking a defence of the status of the amateur-professional, independent/self-published writer, as I have ever read, or am likely to read. Bold, passionate stuff, and I couldn't put it better myself.

'Disintermediate now,' says Jack. 'Don’t wait for permission. Start from where you are. Get better by doing it. By and by, a cult will form around you. You’ll be respected by your peers. You’ll be known in the narrow world of what you do as a mensch. A stand-up guy. A soldier.'

Hear, hear.

In the meantime, if you prefer to hold something in your hand, you can nip over to and buy Jack's Bukowski Never Did This: A Year in the Life of an Underground Writer & His Family. Or you can buy it cheaper, direct from the publisher.

The best of times for writers?

Writers are a bit like farmers: they always complain, whatever the 'weather'. But young would-be writers probably don't realise that they live in the very best of times, at least in one respect: and that is in terms of the volume of useful information about publishing and bookselling which is now available to them.

The Galleycat blog has been around a long time, but under editors Ron Hogan and Sarah Weinman it is rapidly becoming a must-read item. For one thing, they seem to have the knack of getting big-time publishers and agents to talk to them, albeit anonymously.

Take, for instance, the really valuable discussion under the heading The tipping point for publishing success. Here we have a fascinating analysis of how publishing's profit and loss accounts really work. This is the kind of info that people of my age would never have even dreamed of getting when they were starting out.

At first sight, the article appears to provide some real hope for young writers. It indicates that, if you are in the right place, with the right book, at the right time, it makes perfect economic sense for a big publisher to make you a massive offer for world rights.

However, when you examine the small print, what the anonymous Agent Orange demonstrates is that the knock-on effect of big deals for a tiny number of writers is smaller advances for majority of other writers, who just get published.

This is the winner takes all mechanism, for which publishing is renowned. And of course we knew about that already, didn't we? Well we did if we've read my piece on the Booker prize; or my free book, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

Literary theory as she is tort today

Literary theory is a really gripping subject, right? Right. In my case, it grips me tightly round the throat and rapidly induces a state of merciful unconsciousness.

You, however, may be made of sterner stuff. And if you want to know what little Jimmy is likely to be taught when he starts college next year (at least in the US), then the Chronicle of Higher Education provides a pretty good survey. Basically, it turns out to be the same sort of crap as the Hollywood 'character arcs' stuff mentioned earlier; only in the case of literary theory, even some of the professors have realised that no one's taking any notice.

Paul H. Fry, a professor of English at Yale, says 'Literary theory is now a topic that interests a few people as a matter of intrinsic importance and matters to a few more as an object of historical research. Why continue to view it as a national threat?'

I promise I won't. I shall just regard it as an unusually tiresome nonsense.

Meanwhile, the same issue of the Chronicle has an article about literary aesthetics. This one claims that 'today's academic scholarship has become separated from its grounding: It is no longer connected to the very medium that gave it rise, literature.' Which comes as no surprise to me.

Both links from Galleycat.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Madhouse economy of bookselling provided a link to some interesting correspondence in the Guardian, in response to comments made by Simon Jenkins. This shows that at least a few people who work in bookselling are aware of what a crazy business it is. Not so much a business, in fact, as a way of life. One which is increasingly difficult to sustain.

Non-UK readers will need to know that the Net Book Agreement, referred to in the Guardian letters, was an arrangement whereby no retailer could sell a book at anything less than the price fixed by the publisher. Hence there was no discounting. This quaint old English custom was abandoned in 1995.

John Grisham: The Broker

By my count, The Broker is John Grisham's eighteenth novel. It is not one of his very best; in fact, by Grisham's standards it's a bit of a pot-boiler; but all that means is that it's head and shoulders above most of the other stuff on offer.

The plot concerns a high-powered Washington lawyer, known, naturally enough, as the Broker. At one point, a few years before the plot begins, the Broker over-reached himself, and was forced to choose between going to jail and being bumped off; so he opted for the former. Now, unexpectedly, he gets a presidential pardon.

The pardon has been engineered by the CIA, who confidently expect that, now that the Broker is out on the street again, someone will shoot him. But they want to see who does the job, in order to find out who was behind a plot to take over control of some very advanced spy satellites.

The remainder of the story deals with the question of whether the Broker will survive or not. Is he smart enough to talk himself out of the mess which, some years ago, his big mouth got him into?

The opening chapters are masterly, moving at a rapid pace. After that, things slow down. Indeed, were it anyone but Grisham in charge, one might also say that things would get bogged down; but Grisham keeps us interested.

I had one or two reservations about the credibility of the plot. To begin with, the CIA seem keen to drug the Broker with some sort of truth serum; but they abandon that attempt rather too easily for my taste. And there are other minor points.

None of this seems to have bothered Grisham's hard core of readers. There are, reportedly, 6 million copies of this book in print in the US, and it is currently top of the UK paperback lists, give or take a place or two.

At the end of the book Grisham has an author's note which is noteworthy in itself. The book, he reminds us, is all fiction. He made it up. He explains that he knows nothing about spies, electronic surveillance, satellite phones, and various other pieces of hardware which feature in the plot, and adds: 'If something in this novel approaches accuracy, it's probably a mistake.'

I warmly endorse this approach. I have often argued that all fiction should be regarded as taking place in a parallel universe, where the rules are slightly different from those which operate in our world. Mind you, all writers do have to be aware of that group of people for whom any deviation from accordance with reality -- particularly in technological matters -- is a cause for outraged objection. But mercifully there aren't too many of them.

One final point. In the course of this novel, Grisham provides us with numerous portraits of high-level US politicians, including a couple of presidents and various senators, heads of the CIA, et cetera. All of these people, as portrayed in The Broker, are either wholly corrupt, or completely incompetent, or both.

Just as well then, that Gresham reminds us at the end that he is writing fiction. Otherwise we might think that that was his assessment of real politicians. And that couldn't possibly be so, could it?

It is, after all, a readily verifiable fact that all US and UK politicians are persons of total integrity, unmatched ability, and unimpeachable reputation. You could trust them with your life, and with your children's future. Come to think of it, we do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Jon Courtenay Grimwood: 9tail Fox

Hmm. Where to begin?

Let's start with the man's life. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's official web site has a very short biography, but there is a much more interesting one on the fantasticfiction web site. From the latter we learn that he was born twelve weeks premature, and was not expected to live; and, during the first few days of his life, the ghost of a black-robed priest was seen bending over his crib. A sign of things to come, it seems, because the bio also tells us that, at a later stage in life, Grimwood spent two years dead, for tax reasons.

In between, Grimwood seems to have spent most of his time working for UK publishers and magazines, and doing rather well at it. He has certainly had wide experience of the media, and is married to the UK editor of Cosmopolitan, which must open one's eyes a bit.

In between all of this, Grimwood has written a number of novels. Some would describe them as science fiction, but I think that 'speculative fiction' is the term which best describes his current one, 9tail Fox.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot. Let's just say that it's a story about Detective Sergeant Bobby Zha, of the San Francisco police department, investigating a murder. And it's a thriller/whodunit/what are they up to kind of plot. Hard-edged but not gory. That should be enough.

The main point I want to make is that, if you're interested in learning how to write a novel, you could do a lot worse than read the first 32 pages of this book. They are textbook stuff. We have six short chapters, which introduce the main characters. The main elements of the plot are laid out. We are given plenty to encourage us to continue reading. Viewpoint is well handled. And we get a big surprise on page 30. And all like that.

Page 33 takes us back more than sixty years, which seems at first an irrelevance but isn't really. And then on page 41 the author provides us with a twist which will, I am sure, cause some readers to hurl the book into a far corner of the room with a cry of 'Ridiculous!' That's if they're not used to this genre.

Those who are more accustomed to speculative fiction will stick with it. But if I have a criticism of the book it is that the author could have added a line or two, somewhere in chapter 8, say, which makes his central proposition more credible in terms of the book's own terms of reference. So so speak. Which is a bit cryptic, but will make sense if you ever read the book.

The rest of the book doesn't quite live up to the outstanding quality of the start, but by most people's standards this is excellent stuff. And if you're really smart you may think you have guessed how things are going to work out, but I doubt that you will be quite smart enough to anticipate everything. Well I wasn't, anyway.

And if you wonder why a Brit is writing a novel about a Chinese policeman in America -- well, his childhood summers were spent in the Far East. And I guess it's a world market. Or something.

And by the way, the acknowledgements at the end show that Grimwood is backed by an excellent team of agent, editor, et cetera.

The author's dilemma

Locus online had a link to an article in the Internet Writing Journal, 'The author's dilemma: to blog or not to blog.' Turns out there's something to be said for either way.

My heart bleeds for Neil Gaiman, who recalls writing a really cool piece, only to lose it somewhere between his screen and the blog. Yes, Neil, we've all had things disappear into cyberspace; and it's always your best work. Sod's Law. And there are few things more inclined to make one seize a hammer and drive it through the screen in front of one.

Jeanne Birdsall: inspiration or warning?

Publishers Lunch led me to a story in the Boston Globe about Jeanne Birdsall, winner of the 2005 US National Book Award for her first children's novel The Penderwicks.

This is a story which will fill many writers with hope. If she can do it, they will think, I can too.

Well, maybe. And then again maybe not. And even if you do, the way to success is about as comfortable as walking on razor blades in bare feet.

'Before Birdsall had an agent,' says the Globe, 'a book editor saw early chapters and held out the possibility of a contract but wanted major changes. ''I didn't have enough self-confidence or savvy to hold on to my own book," Birdsall said, ''so for a year and a half, I tore it up and rewrote it completely, and wrecked it. The editor said, 'You wrecked the book and we don't want to deal with you anymore,'and I felt that my life was over."'

A really happy experience, no? Can't wait until it's your turn, right?

Fortunately for Birdsall, she had found an agent, Barbara Kouts of Bellport, N.Y., who urged her not to despair but to go back to her original story. Which she did, and everything turned out right in the end.

It doesn't always.

Lee Lowe short stories

Lee Lowe has a blog on which are posted short stories. You can read Legacy as the first one. It's described as being fantasy and speculative fiction for teens and young adults, but I fancy there is a wider audience than that.

Well, this shows that there are now many ways to reach an audience for short stories. You can choose whether to run your own personal blog as a site for your fiction, and gradually build a readership; or you can participate in one of the many sites which permit you to post stories with lots of other authors, and which provide (one presumes) a larger audience ready-made. (To find the latter, Google "post your short stories" and you get over 1400 hits.)

HarperCollins goes digital

I am no sort of commercial historian, but I seem to remember that there have been various battles in the past about which particular format would prevail. VHS versus Betamax and all that kind of thing.

Now something of the same sort seems to be happening in publishing. A little late in the day, major publishers have woken up to the fact that the digital revolution cannot be ignored. More to the point, it offers possibilities for increased revenue, if only someone can figure out how to do it.

Google, Amazon, Yahoo, MSN, and doubtless others, are all working on ways to unlock the riches in books, make those riches available to the public, and so earn a buck or two in the process. Until recently, the publishers have either been oblivious to these schemes, or have stood there open-mouthed, or have tried to block them. But now a new strategy has emerged.

First Random House announced its plans to digitise its books, and now HarperCollins has joined in. The Times has the story. It's all a little vague and woolly at present, and nothing much will happen, as far as the consumer is concerned, for a year or two. But what looks like emerging is another of those battles about format, so to speak.

Will Google beat up MSN? Is Yahoo coming up on the rails? Who is running a book on this?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mainstream media stagger along in the wake of the web

I am not as severely critical of the mainstream media (MSM) as some web-based observers. However, there is increasing evidence that if you want to be up to date on what is happening in the digital world, the last place to look is your daily newspaper.

Here, for instance, are a couple of UK newspaper articles highlighted yesterday by

First, a Guardian article on the long tail concept -- an article which tells you very little that you haven't read before, if you've been paying attention. The long tail was covered here, for instance, in my lengthy essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which was issued to the world back in February. And I wasn't exactly ahead of the game myself. I also dealt with the subject in July.

And then there's a piece in the Times, which gives a very quick skim through podcasts, ebooks, digital rights management, and the developments at Google and Amazon.

I am pretty confident that the authors of both these articles are better informed on their areas of expertise than I am. I simply make the point that the editors of a couple of top-class UK newspapers seem to have decided that their role is not to provide really cutting-edge information, but to offer a kind of bland beginner's guide.

Things, I suspect, were not always so.

One Christmas present problem solved

Have you got a nerdy 18-year-old nephew who spends all day in front of his computer, and is planning to go to college next year to study science? If so, I just solved your Christmas present problem. And it won't cost you a penny.

Well, actually, it's Paul Perry (ex-secondhand book dealer and now an analog electronic designer) who's solved the problem for you. Because Paul has written to tell me about a university-level Physics text book which he thoroughly recommends and which is available free.

You can find the text online (naturally) at the Motion Mountain. It turns out to have been written by Christoph Schiller, who got his first degree in Stuttgart, his PhD in Brussels, wrote the book mostly in Holland, and lives in Italy.

This book has, it seems, been online since 1997, is in its 18th revision, and 226,438 people have taken a look at it.

Peder Hill and Dreaming Underwater

Peder Hill is a man who has chutzpah, I'll give him that. Peder has written to tell me about his web site on how to write a novel.

You can go take a look at it yourself. But so far as I can see Peder seems to have read a good deal about literary technique and he now presents some of the findings of his research for the benefit of others. Or that's the way I read it.

Bits of it look OK, but bits of it I don't like. All that stuff about character arcs, for instance. Hollywood gibberish if you ask me. Much beloved by studio executives who have absolutely no idea how to make a hit movie, and so they hire various gurus who feed them this kind of guff. Do you think John Grisham spends much time worrying about his characters' arcs? I rather doubt it.

The other major element in Peder's web site is the section devoted to his own work in progress, Dreaming Underwater. As I understand it, he has completed 28% of the thing. Which means that he intends the final work to be about 130,000 to 140,000 words. Too long, my friend, too long. You could write two books for that sort of money.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Seth Godin and Squidoo

Seth Godin is a marketing expert who has been referred to here a couple of times, most recently in relation to his free ebook Who's There?. Now Publishers Lunch has alerted me to the fact that he is involved in a new enterprise known as Squidoo.

You can go take a look at Squidoo in a moment. But you will find that it is still in the beta stage, and frankly it is not all as clear as it might be. But basically the idea seems to be that Squidoo provides a basic framework which can be used by absolutely anyone to produce a web page about almost anything. So, for instance, if you are an expert on black and white fine-art photography, or on teaching kids how to play the violin, and if you know about lots of useful sources of info on the web, you can put that knowledge all on to one page (of flexible length), complete with links to various other sources of information.

Hmm, I can hear you thinking. Sounds like a lot of work, but where's the benefit? Well, the theory, at least, is that it has commercial uses. In book world terms, for instance, any publisher or author could use it to plug a book, or series of books. According to Publishers Lunch, which is better informed on all this than I am, 'it's a free and simple way to provide essential information about any book, author, or topic addressed by an author with expertise, to help spread word-of-mouth and sell books online.'

In Squidoo, each page is called a lens, because it focuses information. The people who create the pages are lensmasters. And 'lensmasters are individuals with strong personal agendas, expertise, causes, products and even opinions. They are not employed or directed by a corporation. Lensmasters build their lenses for fun, or for ego, or to drive traffic to their corporate sites or their blogs. Lensmasters build lenses to raise money for charity or to earn royalty checks for themselves.'

Squidoo is certainly worth a look, and worth thinking about. It's taken me a good hour or more to make much sense of it, and the very best place to start, if you have the time, is with a free ebook, described as the book which started it all off. That is the best way to get the flavour of the thing.

You could then go to the Squidoo home page, which will make a lot more sense after the ebook than it will otherwise.

I think we're going to have to watch Squidoo, which, as I say, is still in beta. It may turn out to be a bit like Rightscenter, which started out full of promise but didn't live up to it, and now seems to have metamorphosed into something a bit different. Or it may turn out to be huge, like Google.

Who's signing Davina McCall?

This post won't mean a lot to anyone who lives outside the UK, except in terms of its general principles. They will apply anywhere.

A few years ago, when I used to go to the gym regularly, the gym TV was always tuned to (UK) MTV, and I used to see a young woman called Davina McCall interviewing various deadbeat pop stars. And I thought at the time that Davina was a great deal more interesting than the Snoop Doggy Doggs of this world.

Then she got a job hosting Big Brother, which I watched when it started (Jade days) but haven't seen while Davina's been in charge. And last week I saw her twice in Gordon Ramsay's F Word show; once in the first broadcast and once in the Saturday night repeat.

Now I have to say that Davina struck me as absolutely beautiful. She is not really young -- damn near forty -- but these days she is wonderfully well groomed, and the camera seems to love her. Not only that, but she is very much at ease. Marriage and two kids seem to have calmed her down.

Davina reminisced with Gordon Ramsay about the days when she worked as a singing waitress in Paris. She went and did a bit of waitressing to prove it, and also sang a lovely version of Georgia On My Mind. And, of course, as any fule kno, she has just been signed up to host a major chat show on the BBC.

And the thought that struck my mind is this: If I was a big-time publishing executive in a major UK firm, I have been would be on the phone to her agent long since, talking about a book. So I looked her up to see if anyone had beaten me to it.

Well, they have. Sort of. Six years ago Davina did a book called The Dating Game, an Arrow paperback which was a guide to how to get girls/boys to go out with you, and so forth. And in February next we shall get Sex in the Classroom. This is published by Channel 4 books and not surprisingly seems to be based on a TV programme of that name.

I'm glad to see that someone in publishing has been thinking along the same lines as myself. And it would be interesting to know who dreamed up the dating book. Was it a publisher, Davina's agent, or Davina herself?

Of course Davina could do the standard celeb autobiography -- she's had an interesting enough life. But that's a bit too simple. And in any case it could come later. No, what I would do is discuss the possibility of getting her to do two or three novels. To be ghosted, of course, because she's pretty busy, apart from the small problem that she doesn't seem to have written any fiction so far. But the plots would get input from the gal herself.

Now what sort of novels they would be would require some thought. But if it happens, remember that you read it here first.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Dara Horn: The World To Come

A few days ago (5 December) we noted that, when a publisher intends to spend a lot of money on publicising a book, the firm puts out Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) and distributes them to more or less anybody who walks past the door. So it is that a lowly blogger such as I has been sent an ARC of Dara Horn's new novel, The World To Come.

This book has an official publication date, via Norton in the USA, of 16 January 2006. And January, by the way, is a really quiet time in the book trade, so doubtless they are hoping that, with competition reduced, the book will head the bestseller lists. No UK publisher seems scheduled as yet; neither, it seems, has any UK publisher been interested in Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image.

Dara Horn is in her late twenties and is absolutely soaked in Jewish culture. Her official web site describes her an award-winning novelist, essayist, professor, and scholar. She is currently a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University, studying Hebrew and Yiddish; she has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada.

In the Image, published when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. It was also chosen as one of the Best Books of 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle ('stunning and absorbing') and as one of the Top Five Novels of 2002 by the Christian Science Monitor ('a work of raw genius' -- raw genius as opposed, presumably, to cooked genius), along with rave reviews throughout the United States and overseas.

The official blurb for In the Image says that it 'seamlessly weaves its deeper preoccupations into a narrative thoroughly absorbing and satisfying.' It follows a young New Jersey woman, Leora, through the death of a friend in high school and on to college, career, and falling in love. Simultaneously, it traces the story of Bill Landsmann, her lost friend's grandfather, back through several generations of experience in Amsterdam, Austria, and New York's Lower East Side. Each dramatic episode of their lives is also a foray into the nature of good and evil; of the significance of tradition and the law; of the presence or absence of God.

You get the idea. We have here a powerful intellect, drawing on a rich vein of culture, religion, folklore, and the like. Also we have someone writing fiction which she intends to reflect upon such matters as the nature of good and evil, the existence of God, and so forth.

So now, what of The World to Come?

Well, The World To Come appears to be more of the same. We have a reasonably interesting plot, set in the present, which concerns the theft of a painting by Chagall; and that plot is interwoven with the family history of the man who took the picture. The family is, inevitably, Jewish.

Now I have to admit that I have a slight problem. Maybe several problems. I quite enjoyed this book, and I admire the skill and the emotional intensity which has gone into the making of it. There is much to recommend it. But the publisher is already beating the drum very loudly, and is pretty much going to ensure that when the novel comes out it's going to be labelled a work of genius. And it isn't that. Not unless genius is spread rather thinner than I take it to be. (And since there are those in the world who think that Michael Cunningham is a genius it may be spread a great deal thinner than I suspect.) And while it isn't the author's fault if she gets wildly overpraised, I do fear for her future. If you're told that you're a genius, and win lots of prizes, and sell lots of copies, why change anything? And for any writer, that's a problem; and particularly for this one, because she still has lots to learn.

Another problem that I have is that The World To Come will be slotted into a pigeonhole which is labelled Serious Fiction Involving Major Philosophical and Religious Issues. It will be treated not just as a story, therefore, but as some sort of guide to how we should live our lives; it will be said to be full of ancient wisdom and deep insights. And what I resent about such books is not the books themselves, or the undoubted talent and sincerity of their authors: it's the attitude of those who sell, review, and -- above all -- use the damn things as teaching material.

The attitude in question takes the form of an assumption that this stuff is far superior, in every way, to books which just tell a story. It is held to be self-evident that a novel which concerns itself with Big Issues is, by definition, more worthy of attention, shelf space, and sales than is a book which contents itself with telling a story.

And personally I flat out do not believe that. It may be, that for some people, the addition of religious and philosophical overtones intensifies the emotional impact of a novel. I can only report that, for me, both in this novel and others of its ilk, it reduces the emotional impact.

I am making every attempt to be fair to The World toCome, and its author, by repeating at various points in this review that Dara Horn has lots of talent, has a marvellous grasp of the history, culture, and religion of the Jewish people, and uses all these to good effect. But you see, what you have here, when push comes to shove, is a mixture of various genres; and none of them done particularly well, because they all trip over each other.

For a start we have traces of a thriller or a crime novel. The book begins, as noted earlier, with the theft of a painting, and the complications resulting therefrom. We also have a good old-fashioned family saga, of the kind much beloved by heavy library users in the UK, and which comes in both highbrow (Elizabeth Jane Howard) and lowbrow (Josephine Cox) versions. And the final chapter of The World To Come is pure fantasy.

In fact fantasy is perhaps the dominant tone here. There is a very definite otherworldly feel about The World To Come; and 'otherworldly' is the one word lifted from a Boston Globe review of In the Image and stuck on the back of this one. But God forbid, I bet you a penny to a pound, that any of these genre tints should ever be mentioned by any of the intellectuals who will discourse upon the book when it comes out.

No, the debts to genre will be totally ignored, and this book will firmly be labelled Literary Fiction; which it is, overall. And it comes complete with various literary devices which all critics of that type of fiction have come to expect, and which they regard as valuable.

For example, we are told more than once in the book that, in Jewish folklore, there is a belief that the child in the womb learns all there is to know, and sees his whole life in its entirety. But immediately before the child is born, the child's teacher strikes it a blow, right below the nose, whereupon the child forgets everything that it has learnt.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that at various points in the book, various characters have smudges of paint, or bruises, or whatever, right below their nose. This linking of folklore and narrative description is quite obviously deliberate. And if I were deeply, deeply cynical (which of course I'm not) I would say that this has been introduced purely to add Significant Detail. Detail which will be warmly welcomed, and taken as a token of genius, by the reviewers, the PhD students of the future (who will devote their thesis to the work of Dara Horn), and, above all, by a certain class of reader.

The average grad student in Eng. Lit., for example, will find Significant Detail of this sort to be absolutely invaluable when chatting up the waitress in the coffee shop. 'What I didn't understand...' the waitress will say. And our hero will enlighten her. 'Ah yes, you see, but what that means is...' And the waitress will think, Gee, this guy is really smart. Maybe I should let him do it a few times.

The book, you see, contains enough material which can be understood by the average grad student -- yes, even modern ones -- and which can be discussed far into the night; until whatever resistance the lovely waitress has left is dissipated.

But personally I find all the Significant Detail stuff slightly irritating.

There are other problems with the book. The author (female, twenties) has chosen to give us an episode concerning combat in the Vietnam war. Not a wise move. Danielle Steele did it in one of her books too; rather better, as I recall. And Dara Horn wisely concentrates upon the personal anguish of one soldier rather than on the details of combat; but it's hard for a woman to do convincingly.

And then there is lots and lots about dreams. Courtesy of good old Sigmund, who also had Jewish antecedents. But I am not keen on novels that do dreams. I am old enough to remember reading an article by Dorothy Parker, who used to review books for Esquire in the 1950s, in which she said that she had absolutely had it with dreams in novels. And so have I, pretty much.

I did like the portrait of a Yiddish writer called Der Nister -- the Hidden One. Der Nister is more or less completely nuts, and is therefore just like every other writer. But the chapters which deal with him are the best, in my opinion. (And he was, by the way, a real person, as was Chagall, of course.)

The biggest disappointment of all, for me, was that the story was unresolved at the end. True, we have hints of how things are going. But there is no real conclusion in the traditional sense; and I have my own strong sense of the importance of tradition.

Well, the kind lady who sent me this book from Norton did hope that I wouldn't be too grumpy, and I really don't want to undersell this book. It is in many ways a very fine piece of work. Not quite as good as it could be, in my opinion. But it is, after all, only the author's second novel. And, on the general principle that you need to write a million words of fiction before you get the hang of it, I look forward to her later stuff.

I would certainly not recommend The World To Come as a model for young writers -- who will doubtless be tempted because of the fame and fortune which it will generate.

Finally, I want to return to my point that the novel which eschews all attempt at Deeper Significance, and just tells a story, is at least as valuable (actually rather more so) than one which seeks to weave in some message or other. At one point in the book, Der Nister is told that a painting doesn't have to mean anything, but a story does. And we are left in little doubt that Dara Horn believes in that principle. But personally I don't. A story, in my opinion, doesn't have to mean anything. But it does have to have an effect; otherwise both writer and reader are lost. And the story also has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Apat from that, just leave the damn thing alone. Let it speak for itself, and let the reader draw from it whatever conclusions she wishes; if she wishes. And if she chooses to value the book just for its emotional effect, rather than for its insights into the Meaning of Life, so much the better.

Amazon v. Gotham (or old publishing v. new)

Val Landi has an interesting post on his blog, entitled Amazon v. Gotham. Amazon, in this context, represents the new digital approach to publishing, whereas Gotham = New York = the old, traditional ways of publishing books.

(Sorry if you feel that's all obvious, but there is always someone who is reading these things for the first time. I still remember reading my first issue of the UK pop-music magazine Melody Maker, well over fifty years ago. There was an article by Steve Race about Liberace. And I'd never heard of Liberace; and I got confused by the fact that both men's names ended in --race. And it was obvious that I ought to know who Liberace was, and that I ought to know how to pronounce his name... and so forth. But I didn't know any of those things, and it took me some time to work it all out. So whenever I remember that, I try to bear in mind the new, young reader who is not yet up to speed on all these things bookish.)

Anyway, Val Landi tells me some things about Amazon facilities that I certainly didn't know. I didn't know, for instance, that I could publish a book through the Amazon-owned BookSurge company and market it globally through the Amazon "Buy X Get Y" Bestseller program that allows you to partner your book with a Top 3 New York Times bestseller for $750 per month. Which looks intriguing, to say the least.

The general thrust of Val Landi's piece -- that following the new digital route is the no-brainer, and that someday very very soon a blockbuster will emerge from one of these new worldwide distribution channels -- is a sermon that has been preached here lo these many times. But it is pleasing and encouraging to find it being echoed by someone of Val Landi's experience and background.

By the way, while doing the Times crossword yesterday morning (the easy one, of course), and shortly before reading Val Landi's article, I came across the origin of the Gotham business. And now, thanks to the miracle of the web, you can read about it too.

R. Preston McAfee on Economic Analysis

Well, it seems that there is at least one eccentric and brave professor in America, and he's mad as hell about the greed of journal and textbook publishers. He also complains bitterly about the dumbing down of education. 'Textbooks have gotten dumb and dumber as publishers seek to satisfy the student who prefers to learn nothing. Many have gotten so dumb ("simplified") so as to be simply incorrect. And they want $100 for this schlock?'

Which reminds me. About fifteen years ago a colleague of mine was due to give a public lecture in which, in passing, he was going to make an incredibly mild criticism of the racket which was then practised by the late, and unlamented, Robert Maxwell, in charging steadily increasing prices for academic journals. Because he knew that Maxwell retained a team of lawyers who did nothing else except bully and threaten anyone who said anything untoward about the fat monster, my friend took legal advice. He was strongly advised to remove even the mildest comment on the business practices of Mr Maxwell. Which he did.

So don't underestimate the courage required to say the kind of things that R. Preston McAfee is saying. And, more to the point, McAfee is acting on his opinions. The Creative Commons blog has the details.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

2005 book sales in the US

The Literary Saloon provides a link to an article in the New York Times about the sales of books in the US during the past year. You can read it yourself by clicking here, but note (a) that you have to register, and (b) that you have to put up with an advert for Buick before you get to read it.

The general picture is one of doom and gloom, but the main point is that we get some solid figures from Bookscan, rather than just flim-flim from a publisher's spokesperson.

And, of course, you won't be surprised to read the Literary Saloon's comment that Salman Rushdie 'hasn't had a sales-success in the US in ages (which probably has something to do with the facts that the past few books haven't been that great (to put it politely)); like Martin Amis he gets tons of press, but shifts (relatively) few copies.'

Go on. Really? Who'd've thunk it.

Print On Demand becomes respectable

How many years ago is it? Not more than ten perhaps. But about ten years ago there came about a dramatic new innovation in printing technology. The combination of computers and high-quality photocopiers meant that a new way of printing books became available to publishers. It was known as print on demand (POD).

In the past, publishers had been obliged to print a substantial number of books in one go. The main cost element in printing had been the time spent to get the machine ready to print a book. So printers were reluctant to quote for anything less than 1,000 copies; and indeed the fewer you printed the higher the unit cost was, and very small numbers became quite uneconomic. The result was that, in the UK, even quite small university presses would print 1,000 copies of books which they knew were never going to sell that many.

When I was involved in academic publishing, we normally printed 1,000 copies, though the most we ever sold of any print run, at full price, was 800. The other 200, in that case, we sold on to a remainder dealer. (The smallest number we ever sold, by the way, was 60 out of 1,000; but fortunately my predecessor as man in charge had made a deal with a rich enthusiast that any loss on the book would be made good.) I once had a printer's rep tell me that Oxford University Press had ordered a print run of 450, but that made me whistle a bit.

And then, along came POD, and it transformed the economics of small-scale publishing. Of course, this being the book world we're talking about, there were a few snags. Print quality on some early POD editions was reportedly not very good; although I have never had any trouble with any of mine. And there were also some old-time publishers and their employees who were reluctant to adopt new ways of doing things. Printers weren't always keen either. Plenty of printers were very sniffy about the new technology. If it didn't go clank when the wheels turned, and get you thoroughly filthy, then it didn't count as proper printing.

Well, at long last even the dinosaurs in academic publishing have woken up to the benefits of POD. You can read all about it in an article from the US Chronicle of Higher Education (link from Publishers Lunch). And what is true of university presses, of course, is also true of small publishers everywhere.

It's a brave new world -- or something -- with new opportunities for everyone.

Telling lies for fun and profit

Michael Schaub, on Bookslut, tells us that he is going to make a career of telling lies, because it's such fun.
I've basically decided to fill this entire blog with pure lies, as it is easy and much less stressful. It's made the last month much better for me, psychologically speaking. So despite what I wrote on the blog last week, Rick Moody has not been arrested for arson. Joan Didion did not refer to the other National Book Award nonfiction nominees as "fucking pussies." Leonardo DiCaprio has not bought the rights to Malcolm Gladwell's hair. And poetry is not "totally gay." Though like 90 percent of poets are. That part's true.
Ah yes, my friend, fun it may be. But as we have demonstrated only this week, irony is a dangerous tool to have in the box. Sometimes you can injure yourself just reaching for it.

Yesterday, by the way, and before I forget, I read somewhere in the press that a recent Archbishop of Canterbury has said that he found out the hard way that self-deprecation can be misunderstood. The use of that curiously English form of comic self-mockery can lead to difficulty, because in some cultures they take you seriously. And they are not impressed.

What a pity. Because self-deprecation is so much more attractive than its opposite -- grandiose claims about one's own talent and degree of success -- which is so often found in the book world.

Choose your literary agent with care

A while back I did a piece which mentioned literary agents, and it was plain to me from the comments that finding an agent in the USA must be easier than it is in the UK.

I can't offer any hard data on that, but I think that any UK-based writer who is not yet published is likely to agree that getting an established agent even to read your work is difficult; getting her to take you on as a client is close to impossible. The bigger and better the agency, the more this is true. For the top firms, the ratio is something like 500 rejections to 1 acceptance at best.

In the USA, however, the book market is four or five times bigger than the UK's, and it is spread over a far vaster geographical area. In the UK, with a handful of exceptions, all leading agents are based in London, and everybody knows everybody else. An agent in Sunderland or Wigan is not going to be taken seriously by anyone. But in the US most major cities seem to have a sprinkling of agents, and the West Coast seems to me to have plenty of firms which rival those in New York. So perhaps there is more opportunity for people to set up shop as agents with some sort of credibility, even if they aren't known names.

All of that being said, this post is simply to advise you to choose your agent with care, wherever you live. Publishers Lunch provides a link to a report about a 'literary agent' who was not only in it for the money but used deliberate fraud as a standard operating procedure. By name, Martha Ivery.

Ms Ivery, it transpires, took $700,000 dollars from 200 would-be authors. That's -- lemme see, punches calculator -- $3,500 a head, on average. Look, I know people are keen to get published, but this is ridiculous.

And on top of that, Martha Ivery seems not to have been a very nice person. A.C. Crispin, a Maryland author who helped to unmask her through the Writer Beware web site, says 'This case, unlike the other ones we followed, really got personal. She made death threats to us, and stalked us online. I plan to go to the sentencing.'

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Andre Bernard: Rotten Rejections

You may well have heard of this book. It was first published in 1990, and seems to have been through various incarnations since. I have been reading the version published in the UK in 1991 by Robson Books.

Andre Bernard is the compiler, or editor, and he seems to have been a leading light in the Pushcart Press, Rotten Rejections' original publisher. The book's subtitle is The Letters That Publishers Wish They'd Never Sent. In other words, it largely consists of extracts from letters written by publishers -- letters which not only reject, but in many cases are also highly critical of, books which subsequently went on to become literary classics or enormous bestsellers.

In his introduction, Bernard thanks 'the brave editors who admitted their mistakes and contributed letters... and the few writers who admitted they had ever been rejected and produced the document or the memory.' So Bernard evidently did a trawl and asked people in the book world for examples of book rejections which later proved to be a mistake.

But were they really mistakes? You know, this book is generally spoken of as if it proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that all publishers are fools who couldn't recognise a bestseller if it came with two years of sales figures attached. Indeed, I may, in moments of stress, have given that general impression myself.

In my calmer moments, however, I take leave to doubt whether that is so.

In the first place, there are often good reasons for a publisher to reject a book which goes on to be a huge success when published by another firm. The book may be excellent of its kind, but not something that the publisher wishes to deal with. As for one of his own 'mistakes', rejecting John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Bernard says that he would do it again. So would I.

Then there's the comment on Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. Leave aside, for the moment, the fact that I have barely heard of Henry Roth, and I doubt that you are much better informed either, but the comment is as follows: 'As a practical commercial venture I am against it.' Which seems to me to be an example of very sound judgement indeed. Especially when you look up Roth on the internet, and find that his book was originally published in the 1930s, and his publisher went bankrupt.

Then there's an American publisher's take on The New Men, by C.P. Snow. 'It's polite, literate, plodding, sententious narrative of considerable competence but not a trace of talent or individuality;.... Real dull stuff for us Americans. The values in it are so bloody sanctimonious English that I found it hard to take.'

Which strikes me as an excellent summary, and really rather far-sighted. (It must have come, I think, from the 1960s.)

All in all then, this book is not the source of justified sniggering and finger-pointing that it is often thought to be. But it's an interesting enough read if you can find a cheap secondhand copy somewhere.

The Brad Vice affair


There is a writer called Brad Vice (a literary fellow) who has been accused of plagiarism. And whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, he seems to be in deep trouble. I am grateful to Rodney King for pointing out to me an article which appears in the New York Journal and which describes the whole sorry story.

If you read the NYJ story, which is pretty much a head-on attack on Brad Vice and all he stands for, then in all fairness you need to be aware that Vice has his defenders. Chief among these is Jason Sanford. And the whole thing has generated a furore in those sections of the blogosphere which actually take stuff like this seriously. See, for instance, From Here to Obscurity.

Well, I take plagiarism seriously too, of course. It's just that this particular instance involves the whole literary-fiction/creative-writing nexus in the good ole USA. And that is a group of people for whom I have very little time or patience. I have frequently been critical in these columns about the proliferation of creative-writing courses in general and MFA degrees in particular. At its best, this area of activity seems to me to be delusional; at its worst it closely resembles a racket.

What you will observe, if you pay even the most passing attention to the Brad Vice row and similar spats, is that there is a great deal at stake here. Such as teaching jobs and associated perks for writers who would otherwise, I suspect, be largely unemployable. Then there's reputation -- limited to certain areas though it may be. Not surprising then that tempers run short.

By the way, a minute after I finished writing the above, I came across a link on the Literary Saloon leading to an article by Sam Sacks, called The Fiction Machine. Sam is himself a graduate of a creative-writing course, but he is smart enough to have some reservations about the whole tedious business. As does anyone else with any brains.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Everyone Can Contact Anyone

There are good days, bad days, and really, really good days. Yesterday was a really, really good day.

Gerard Jones wrote to tell me that his Everyone Who's Anyone web site had 300,000 hits following the appearance of two online articles, one in Variety, and the other, which looks like a rip-off of the first, in Cinematical.

These articles belatedly tell the story which was aired here back on 31 October.

Well, I did tell that lady from Universal, in a personal email which was reproduced in my 31 October piece, that, if she picked on Gerard Jones and persisted on trying to close him down, she would achieve precisely the opposite effect from that which she intended. And now there are 300,000 extra people who had never previously heard of Gerard and his site, but who now know where he is and can draw on his resources.

But the really, really good news, for me, is in Variety's last paragraph. Noting that Gerard has done no more than gather together publicly available material, Variety sought an opinion from 'attorney and free-speech expert Martin Garbus'. Garbus says this about Gerard's position in law: 'I think he's protected; email addresses are in the public domain. If anyone took him to court, he'd probably win.'