Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Of Unicorns, Easter Bunnies and Independent Bookstores

The National Post was channeling The Onion the other day. I love reading interviews with people who make Truthers seem cogent and thoughtful.

When I was reading the interview, I swear that Santa, the Tooth Fairy and even Bunny McEaster stopped by to add their two cents to the wonderfully concocted fantasy reality constructed therein.

Why I even found myself interjecting from time to time!

I thought I might note down a re-cap of the event:

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: I think that the shift and trend towards digital positions independent booksellers as more important than ever. After all, it’s one thing to find something to read, it’s quite another to find something good to read. More is not necessarily better. You can get to the world’s largest buffet but you might need help determining which of the dishes to sample, otherwise you fill your plate with a lot but enjoy little of it.

Moi: You're so right, Mark. The internet is just a bad dream, book bloggers are a figment of the imagination, and I always trust desperate sales staff to consider my wants and needs when buttering me up for a sale.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: It makes sense that an online company that is all about the Internet and the virtual IS going to see huge successes in the digital/virtual realm.

Moi: I totally see why they made you the manager of a bookstore in Hamilton - You're a smart fella. A company with a market cap of $85 billion, with warehouses around the world, and 33,000 flesh and blood employees totally is all about the virtual.

Alana Wilcox: Most e-tailers offer only a Top 50 or theNew York Times bestsellers — useful if you already know what you’re looking for. But most of my best book finds have been accidental meetings on bookstore shelves, which is nearly [im]possible in the ebook world if you don’t have a search term.

Moi: You tell it! It absolutely is so much easier to discover new writers from disparate parts of the globe in a cramped little bookshop at the corner of Somewhere St. and Out-of-the-Way Dr. than through an e-tailer with worldwide publishing and distribution connections.

Alana Wilcox: We send books out to stores and never know whose bookshelves they end up on. But regular chats with our indie bookselling friends let us know who’s buying our books and why.

Moi: You make a solid point, Alana, Otherwise, how else in the world would a small, indie publishing house that specializes in experimental poetry and fiction know that their work generally appeals to a small group of well educated urbanites with an interest in the avant garde. Lacking this input, you probably would have spent countless hours loading copies of Eunoia on to the book racks at Shopper's Drug Mart.

Becky Toyne: I think indie bookstores will evolve...Daunt’s in London, England, has already started its own publishing imprint to capitalize on its brand. I don’t expect it to be the last to do so.

Moi: La la la! Can't hear you because my fingers are in my ears! Look, Becky, if you're just going to sit there and talk sense, we're not going to listen to you.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: Even though the bookstore at McMaster has had the ability to print books on demand since 2008 with our Espresso Book Machine, I’ve never thought of Titles bookstore as a publisher – in my mind it has always been about selling books.

Moi: Don't beat yourself up about it, Mark. Absolutely anyone who spent every day for three years staring at the means through which they could profit greatly by cutting out the middle man, and controlling the production and distribution of a product they know intimately would be hard pressed to connect the dots.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: I think there are huge opportunities for creative collaboration between publishers and booksellers in which both of them discover new wins and new successes.

Moi: And, to add to your point, when publishers soon start shipping books via unicorn, in baskets carefully packed by elves, publishers and booksellers will the see themselves as equals, holding hands, united in purpose, boldly walking forward into a future of harmony and co-prosperity.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Internet Can't Compare to the Grand Custodians of Literature

The ever media shy and elusive Margaret Atwood made an appearance in the Wall Street Journal, in a story about her appearance at Book Expo America. What with Book Expo Canada long dead and buried, it's one of the last venues where the books in all their forms and market tested glory are sprayed at an adoring audience.

The most memorable bit -

She described the “serendipitous experience” of walking into a store and picking up two or three unexpected books. She said that unlike the Internet, bookstores provide a filter for customers – they are a modern-day version of hand sellers (earlier, Atwood described how she sold her own first book by going from bookstore to bookstore). Bookstore employees read and make informed guesses as to what their customers would like.

She is so right. The internet is totally unfiltered, so it's just, like, totally impossible to get a personal book recommendation the way those grand old (*sniff*...sorry...nostalgia gets the better of me) librarians used to. Why, I will always remember that one time, in my entire life, when a librarian I knew recommended a book to me. It was such a good book. Yes it was. It was about incest, death, and the tragic loss of innocence of a 12 year old boy.

No, it's not like there are any book blogs, or reviewers out there who passionately engage with their readers about books that have caught their imaginations. I was so used to walking into a Chapters or Indigo and spending a good thirty minutes to an hour with a staff member, discussing my reading wants and needs, and standing there in awe as these noble $10 an hour curators of great literature went out of their way to find the books that were best suited to me.

Oh, wait. Check that. That's just my imagination getting too active. Come to think of it, outside of handwritten book recommendations on the shelves of the science fiction bookstore Bakka in Toronto, not in a single bookstore I have ever entered in my entire life (and I have indeed been known to haunt my share) has there been a friendly staff member who has come up to me to guide me deeper into the worlds of imagination. They'll happily guide my hand into my wallet, but that's where the interaction always begins and ends.

Like everyone else I know, I'd peek at the jacket, hear about a book from a friend, or maybe read about a book in the paper, or (later) online.

Atwood describes an idyllic fantasy that never was. I mean "bookstore employees read and make recommendations?" Since when?

Invariably, whenever I have gone to a clerk to ask something for a recommend, this is the conversation -

"Can you recommend any authors similar in style to (author x)?"
"What genre?"
"Fantasy, I think."
"Fantasy section is over there" Waves a hand vaguely toward the back of the store.
"Oh, uh, okay. How about authors comparable to (author y)?"
"Mystery section is over there" Waves a hand vaguely towards the back of the store.

Sigh. This bullspit just never ends.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Using Piracy to Turn Your Book into a $$$ Machine

There's some new thought turning up on the interwebs about the intersection of pirating and the book business, and while the mainstream line is that piracy is always bad, recent events may be adding a caveat on to that.

Sure, if you sell and e-book and someone pirates it, it's bad, because who wants to pay money for another e-copy? But if you are getting the digital copy of a book that can only be truly experienced in a more tactile form.... then pirating becomes marketing.

At least this was the case with the breakout best-selling kids title "Go the F--- to Sleep."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

More Prizes Yay Happy Clapping

John Barber had an interesting piece in the G&B recently, about how the overabundance of literary awards has perverted the course of publishing by creating twisted incentives. Due to this, nobody really reads or reviews books regularly any more.

B.C. native George Bowering, Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, notes that he has published 40 books since the inauguration of the B.C. Book Prizes 28 years ago – and has yet to win. But the attention he most misses is different. Books he published as a young man would routinely garner dozens of reviews, according to Bowering. “Now that I am older and a better poet, my books will be lucky to get more than one or two reviews in the papers,” he laments. “How did I know that 1970 was the golden age for books in Canada?”

Absent reviews, publishers need to look to somewhere for validation, and awards are it, now.

Nor do prizes properly honour writers, according to Baird. “For a lot of writers, it’s total agony,” she says. “If your book doesn’t make the short list, you might as well fold up shop and forget about it.” The message is reinforced by publishers who rely heavily on past and hoped-for prizes to shape their lists, according to Baird, often including bonuses for nominations and wins in writers’ contracts and discounting future advances extended to “failures.”

So that's where it's at? If you don't get the blue ribbon, Mommy and Daddy don't love you no more?


Friday, June 10, 2011

Rick-rolling the professor

This was just awesome.

To see whether his prof actually read his essay, a US Computer Science student, user name Mayniac 182, decided to Rick-Roll his prof in acrostic form.

I love acrostics.

Here's what he did -

Who said poetry wasn't practical?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Are video games the new novels?

I been sayin' that since I got my first NES back in '89. Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, Zelda... they weren't games so much as stories. And the trend only continued on, moving out of the RPG realm, into RTS, FPS, and various Sim games.

Take a game like Halo... the latest derivation is actually a prequel, where you play the back story to the original three games. What's more, it's structured as a tragedy, as there is no way to win (the end is already known... the protagonists fail, Reach falls to the invasion), but the appeal is in the story, the details. It's no longer the "what" that is the concern, but the "why", the "how", the "who".

It's a lucrative, and viable option for writers... not only do these games require writing for the games themselves, but also for the novels, the cartoons, the movies, and the web series they spawn.

And as for lit-cred... not long ago the idea of a TV show being accorded the same respect as classic and contemporary literature was the stuff of mad men and fools. A complete nonsense idea.

Things change fast. And increasingly faster.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Head up #$% disease - a modern literary ailment

Saw something in the HuffPo...

Writers of the literary sort tend to be isolated, introverted, yah-dee-yah. They also tend to disdain modern socializing technologies.

The problem is, however, that their potential readers don't, and these technologies have quickly become enormous elements in the discourse of modern life.

As Joanne MacNeil sees it:
The average fictional character is either so thoroughly disinterested in email, social media, and text messages he never thinks of it, or else hastily mentions electronic communications in the past tense. Sure, characters in fiction may own smart phones, but few have the urge to compulsively play with the device while waiting to meet a friend or catch a flight. This ever-present anachronism has made it so that almost all literary fiction is science fiction, a thought experiment as to what life might be like if we weren't so absorbed in our iPhones but instead watched and listened to the world around us at a moment's rest.
Are literary writers anachronizing (not a word, I know, but it works!) their characters by imbuing them with their own authorial techno-uselessness or disdain?

Contemporary readers of contemporary fiction are now running into the same problem that post-Colonial readers had with the all-white, all-male Great Books pantheon. The works don't speak to them, because they do not resemble them.

Now, the other side of the coin is that by imbuing a work with period specific references, it hampers the ability of a work to later be considered "timeless."

I believe there is a certain arrogance in thinking that your work is somehow fit for the ages. Anyone dispensing that advice really is putting the cart before the horse (an anachronistic idiom that is yet somehow still relevant in our hyper-cyber-age!).

But even if you receive the approval of these fuddery gatekeepers of eternal lit, what they think and feel has no bearing on what time will bring.

A few years ago, I met with Ross King, who wrote "The Judgment of Paris" and he spoke about Ernest Meissonier, who, in the 18th Century was perhaps the most famous and celebrated artist in the empire. Of all the artists whose work and fame would survive through the ages, all were certain Meissonier would be foremost of them all.

Within decades of his death, his work had been derided, his name forgotten, and his art, which had once commanded sums only kings and emperors could afford, barely drummed up a pauper's two-pence and ha'penny.

All of which has led me to think that there's little point in writing for the ages. Write for today, if history decides that your work is worth remembering, count it a blessing, happenstance, or luck. No more.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Career options for MFA graduates

If you are wondering what use you could put your newfound MFA skills to, Michael Savitz's article in Slate "Confessions of a Used-Book Salesman" seems like a great place to start!

If I ever get back into the interviewing biz, I am so going to list all the excess books I get on Amazon, to at least defray the cost of bus fare.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Re-writing the real world

This isn't really writing related, but I had to pass it on.

It is inspirational, for sure.

It's the story of Bharti Kumari, of Kusumbhara, Bihar.

Makes me feel kind of embarrassed that I'd think of myself as a teacher also.

Inspired me to inflict poetry on y'all.

(Using text from the article)

Bharti Kumari

Under a peepal tree,
her people.
Dalits , from four to ten.
For an hour or so, every day,
the air fills with
the steady rhythm of the alphabet.

Orphaned, found, adopted,
brought up as part of the family
until a loose wire, and fire
killed her new mother,
and brought her a new life.

She has had head lice for nine months
and this has provoked the fever,
but one of her teachers,
a smiling young woman, fondly
acknowledges that she is a middling student,
no more proficient at her studies than her peers.

Wearing her uniform, she eats her roti
in the small room that is a bedroom,
dining room, and living room, all in one.
Ill as she is, as soon as she recovers,
she will resume her role.

There is hope in the little school
under the peepal tree.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Should you still buy paper books?

I still buy paper books...indeed I find myself drawn to the enormous Kinokuniya Book World in the Dubai Mall every time I pass by, and the new cherry wood writing desk I got for myself when we moved to a new flat is already a bit overfull with paperbacks.

This summer I've been thumbing through Aarvind Adiga, Stephen King, Joe Abercrombie, Diana Gabaldon, and a few more, and while I still enjoy the tactile sensation provided by these books, the rolling from side to side on the bed, trying to get the light to hit the page just right, and all the other rituals associated with paper books, when I finish the last page, my mood changes. Why? Because when I am done, I have this book, this now useless lump of paper and glue, which no longer holds any wonder and surprise for me, and has become merely another object always getting in my way.

I could lend these books to colleagues or friends, but too few of them read, and only one (that I know of) will read fiction from time to time. So that's not an option. I also can't throw them away. I'm physically able to, but can't bring myself to, can't overcome a lifetime of conditioning where books were sacred objects, to be treated with respect. So that's out. I could sell then to the used book store, but in these economic times, I'm lucky to get 5 cents on the dollar on the deal, and end up losing money on the deal when I factor in the cost of gas. So forget that.

What to do?

I have donated books to the library from time to time, but when I learned that not one donation I'd given had ever been read or even checked out a single time, it felt really depressing. I'll still keep donating my books when I am done, because I just don't want them cluttering up my place for no good reason. But it is hardly the ideal.

With my e-books, I can delete them when I am done, with no compunction whatsoever. When I am done, and I've gotten my money's worth, I can trash the file and go on to the next file with no fuss, and no muss.

The only thing that really keeps my from going fully into e-books is that I can't get a lot of my favorite authors easily. I can't buy Kindle books from out here, so I am left with either MobiPocket books for my Nokia (or titles from Fictionwise or Gutenberg), or buying from Kobobooks or iBooks for my iPod Touch. They have a good sized list of authors, but it is nowhere near comprehensive, and backlists are really wanting.

Worse... the prices are still way too high for new release fiction. I understand that hardcovers cost a lot to produce, which factored into that original pricing, but I can go see a movie for $10, a movie that cost $100 Million to make, yet a novel that only really cost the publisher pocket change and the time it took for the writer to hide from the world and pound it out does not seem like it is worth $27 to $40 when the cost of distribution and publishing is essentially zero.

Perhaps we'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Goodbye cruel publishing world

Seth Godin has sworn off heroin...err...traditional publishing, mostly because he's tired of hauling ass across the country into little bookstores nobody goes to, to see people who would rather crack open a Bud and check Facebook.

Seth has a way with words, but it is a sentiment I have heard expressed more and more often lately.

A lot of the authors I really like now have blogs (Neil Gaiman, C.J. Cherryh, David Brin, etc...) or twitter feeds, and they really do encourage their readership to interact with them and invest themselves into their fictional universes.

Yet when you encounter those same authors through their Publisher's website, you often find stale, outdated material, a site that is difficult to navigate, and pretty much zero in the way of interaction.

It's kind of like they can't be bothered by the distractions of the world around them. They are like a bad parent focused on something to such an extent that they not only not notice their kid tapping their shoulder, crying, wanting something to eat, but they swing at them absently while wishing that the little buzzing thing would go away and leave them be.

Friday, June 3, 2011

No, they are not stealing your stuff

The list of the most pirated books came out a little while ago, and other than the Twilight books, no novels made the top ten.

Come to think of it, that means that no novels made the top ten.


So unless you are re-translating the Kama Sutra, or knee deep in a Secrets of Photoshop user guide, the internet is probably more your friend than enemy.

From Macleans:

According to BitTorrent’s tally of nefarious downloads, the literary pirates of the world are not interested in Dan Brown. The No. 1 illegal download of 2009 was the “Kama Sutra,” the ancient Indian manual for so many things sexual, which just managed to beat out number two: “Adobe Photoshop Secrets.” As commentators have noted, the two books may well have been downloaded by the same people for entirely related purposes. So too, perhaps was the number three finisher, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex,” possibly stolen by those who found No. 1 too hard to follow. There’s no explaining number four, “The Lost Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” but the fifth-place finisher, “Solar House–A Guide for the Solar Designer,” may reflect a surge in pregnancies. More sex began the second half of the list, “Before Pornography–Erotic Writing In Early Modern England,” which edged out the entire sublimated-sex “Twilight” vampire trilogy at number seven. “How To Get Anyone To Say YES–The Science Of Influence” (number eight) and ninth-place finisher “Nude Photography–The Art And The Craft,” possibly reflect a desire to move on from sublimation. Rounding out the list, and possibly the average pirate’s real daily life, is “Fix It–How To Do All Those Little Repair Jobs Around The Home.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Walking a Moment in Another Person's Thoughts

It's like found art, or found poetry, but instead of coming away with an artifact, you come away with the barest hint of another person's consciousness.

Perhaps I overstate it a little, but try it out a bit, and you will see. It can be, at times, disheartening and disturbing, then by turns enlightening and surprising.

What is it? Why, it's Mystery Google. Where you type in a search query, but what it returns is not your query, but the query of the one who came before you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Decline of the English Department

A while ago, William M. Chace posted a piece up at The American Scholar.org called The Decline of the English Department.

Chace bemoans the sorry state of English departments across the land, as the number of undergraduates studying English has roughly halved over the past thirty years.

As a story addict, who would love nothing more than to wallow in books for the rest of my days, I feel for the guy.

But I have to say that the fellow has a real Pollyanna streak in him.
What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.
I swear, I fell off my chair.

The decline is due to students not seeing the study of literature as a human good?

Charity is a human good, but that has never resulted in Humanitarian Aid programs becoming oversubscribed.

If anything, the root of the decline of English as a major is the failure of departments of English across the country to show undergraduates how the study of English can make them filthy, stinking rich.

Or at least very well off.

It's not like 1 in 5 students go into the study of business because they find Johnson & Johnson and GE case studies to be enthralling, life changing experiences. They take business because they hope that, some fine day, they can whiz by in an S Series Mercedes, splashing mud from the previous evening's rainstorm all over the hunched line of English majors sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling for enough change to buy themselves a bite to eat.

It's about not having to choose between Royale and No Name Brand toilet paper, preferring instead to use hand stitched rolls of $100 dollar bills.

As Ice Cube says, "It's all about the Benjamins."