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Publishers, Weakly

What the Penguin/Random House Merger Really Means by Michael Levin

When I saw the word “synergies” applied to the proposed merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House, I laughed out loud.   “Synergies” is Wall Street-speak for “Let’s merge two failing companies, fire half the employees, run the resulting business more cheaply, suck out all the money we can as quickly as we can, and then leave the wounded, gasping beast that is the resulting company to die a miserable, public death.”

Which is exactly why “synergies” best describes the merger of two of the biggest names in the publishing industry, which is wringing its hands over the immediate consequences of this deal, which really represents one more death rattle of the once thriving book publishing trade.

Here’s what happens now:  lots of editorial, marketing, and other jobs will vanish.   Agents will have fewer places to sell books.   Fewer books will be published.   Authors will get even less money (if that’s possible, since some publishers are paying zero advances whenever they can get away with it).   And the pontificators will pontificate on what it all means to society (not much, since most of society has already given up on reading books).

Here’s what happens next:  the remaining major publishers will find it harder to compete, because the resulting publisher (Penguin House?) will be able to produce books more cheaply.   So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.

All because publishers never figured out how to deal with the Internet and how to sell books in a wired world.   All because publishers considered themselves “special” and thought they could get away with selling products they didn’t market.   All because publishers are English majors wearing Daddy’s work clothes and pretending to be business people, running their businesses on whim and gut feeling instead of figuring out what people want and giving it to them, the way smart businesses work.

I have no pity for the fallen publishers.   In Wall Street terms, there isn’t enough lipstick in the world to make these pigs kissable.   They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come.   And instead, what did they give us?

Ann Coulter, Navy SEALs, and Fifty Shades of Gray.

The publishers will blame everyone in sight for their predicament, but this is a self-inflicted wound; what the Brits would call an “own goal.”

You can’t run a successful business passively waiting for people (in this case, literary agents) to tell you what you should produce.   You can’t run a successful business by throwing 10,000 strands of spaghetti (or 10,000 books a year, in Random House’s case) against the wall of public opinion and seeing what sticks.   You can’t run a successful business selling information in the form of printed books by putting them on trucks to distant cities, hoping that booksellers (anyone who can fog a mirror, run a cash register and repeat the phrase, “We don’t have it but we could order it for you.”) will actively sell your stuff to people.

Bottom line:  You can’t run a successful business when you are essentially competing with yourself.   If Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell a Simon & Schuster book within three weeks, it sends the book back to Simon & Schuster, at Simon & Schuster’s expense, only to have that same space on the shelf filled with…  wait for it…  a different Simon & Schuster book.   That’s not marketing.   That’s masochism.

A New York editor who worked at Penguin once told me that his boss called all the employees into a meeting and said, “If there’s any merger talk, you’ll hear about it from me and not from The New York Times.”   A few days later, he was reading The New York Times on the subway on the way to work, and read that Penguin was merging with another publisher.   Here we go again.

If it weren’t for Fifty Shades of Gray, Random House (and Barnes & Noble, for that matter) would have been on life support.   There would have been nothing left to merge.   Penguin’s owner, Pearson LLC, is the smartest guy in the room, dumping off Penguin’s trade publishing on Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate which somehow still thinks it can make money selling books.   And now a few thousand more publishing employees are going to leave the world of books and hit the bricks.

So let the hand wringing begin.   The collapse of a once proud industry has taken a giant step backward.   And there ain’t no synergies in that.

Michael Levin is a New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank survivor.   He runs the Business Ghost website, and is a nationally acknowledged expert on the future of book publishing.

Note:  This opinion piece represents the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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The Grand Illusion

I very much love reading fiction, but there’s just one thing that bothers me when I do.   My mind starts spinning around fictional scenes and I begin wondering how much of what I see is not fictional but true; that is, based on actual events in the author’s life?   So, dear Reader, I think I may have developed a solution to this question of real versus fake via the development of a new ratings system.

Publishers, effective immediately, each novel is to carry a cover sticker that states, “This book is based __% on actual events.”   Yes, every fiction book is to carry an informational sticker that gives the prospective reader a number that represents the average amount of content derived from true happenings.   Or should it be the median?

The beginning of each chapter must also contain a similar statement, “Chapter 4 is based 62% on actual events in the author’s life.”   In addition, at the rear of the novel, a summary must detail which ” fictional” scenes were based on which real events in the life of the writer – let’s call her Suzie Smith.   As an example, “When the protagonist Liz Bordon crashes her Mini Cooper into the Goodwill drop-off box on her way home from a college party in 2011, this scene was based on the time that Ms. Smith crashed her Toyota Tercel into a U.S. postal service box on her way home from a fraternity-sorority mixer in Berkeley in 1987.”   See, in this way, we will be able to determine exactly how original and creative each author is, and we’ll also see how often they’re just writing down things that happened to them decades earlier.

This relates to the matter of why most successful novelists are past their twenties and early thirties…  Because one needs to live at least 35 or so years before one has enough big and interesting experiences in life to turn them into alleged fictional events.   If you think about this, it’s totally logical.   How would one be expected to make up things about situations one knows nothing about?   It would be like asking a middle school drop-out to write about life in graduate school at Harvard.   You’re not very likely to get a novel out of that.   But ask a Yale graduate school drop-out to write about graduate school life at Harvard and you might well have something.   (Note: A new federal law prohibits individuals from making up scenes about life at a rival’s campus.   If you went to Stanford, you cannot legally write fiction about being a Cal student.   Writers, this is a matter to talk to your legal counsel about.   Better safe than sorry.)

This is not something that I’ve studied scientifically, but my guess is that the range of fictional content in a novel is likely to be in the range of no more than 20 to 35 percent.   If this is true, then there’s bound to be a demand for additional consumer protection.   Federal regulations will surely come into play requiring a minimum of 51 percent fictional content in order for a story to be classified as fiction.   Anything less, and the book must be labeled as a pseudo-fictional work (Caution: This book is substantively based on things that happened in the writer’s life when he/she wore a younger person’s clothes.   You’re not getting much fiction for your money if you buy this one.)

See how helpful this will be?   And, yes, I can see what it’s going to mean in the long run…  Many of today’s novelists will be converted into new-born memoir writers, telling us about their past lives without covering them in the guise of fictional events.   The truth shall set them free!

If you think I have some good ideas here, then write your congressperson or U.S. senator today and urge them to adopt these essential reader protections.   Or better yet join my public interest group, the Association to Properly Brand So-Called Fictional Works.   Once my crusade has proven to be successful, I may write a novel about it.   Oh, make that a memoir.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured: The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister which was not based on actual events (read the synopsis and you’ll understand why).   BTW, this is not intended to be a serious essay – it’s a joke, folks.  Thank you.

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The L.A. Times Book Festival Goes Trojan

L. A. Times Festival of Books Comes to USC

The Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California today announced that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one of the Southland’s most cherished and engaging weekend celebrations, will kick off its 16th storied year in a new home at USC’s University Park campus from April 30 to May 1, 2011.

Angelenos of all ages interested in famous authors, celebrity appearances, speaker panels, superstar chefs and local musicians will have something extra special to look forward to as the celebration debuts downtown.

“After 15 years on the Westside, we are very excited to move the Festival of Books to its beautiful new home and have the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with USC to ensure we grow bigger and better in the future,” said Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.   “Attendees and exhibitors can expect more to see, do and experience in addition to great access and a refreshing change of scenery.”

USC President C. L. Max Nikias said, “We are thrilled that the festival has a new home here.   The Festival of Books is known for sparking just the kind of intellectual curiosity and energy that are at the heart of USC’s mission.   The festival is a great fit for our world-class faculty authors and writing programs, as well as for our literacy work in the community.   USC and the Los Angeles Times are two of the oldest institutions in Los Angeles, and it’s fitting that we would be joining together for this event that is so important to the intellectual life of Southern California.”

The move allows for increased attendance due to USC’s central location, proximity to public transportation, abundant parking and newly enhanced campus facilities.  The Times and the university will work together to best utilize the University Park campus to expand programming, provide exhibitors and sponsors with the benefit of more  useable space and other concession opportunities.   The Festival of Books previously was held on UCLA’s campus in Westwood.   (Noted the L.A. Times: “UCLA is a bigger campus, but USC spokesman James Grant said his university had plenty of room for the festival’s many outdoor activities and indoor seminars and lectures.”)

Last year, more than 140,000 people enjoyed the nation’s largest public literary festival, where more than 400 authors blended with hundreds of exhibitors representing booksellers, publishers, literacy and cultural organizations.   Poetry, mystery, politics, young adult, comic book, graphic novel and manga all flavor the festival’s author readings, book signings, intimate Q&A’s, comedy, children’s activities and more.   The event, which is free to the public, delivers a celebration of all the written word inspires.

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was created in 1996 to promote literacy, celebrate the written word and bring together those who create books with the people who love to read them.

Source: USC News, September 22, 2010 (Used by permission).   Information on the L. A. Times Festival of Books will be available at: http://latimesfestivalofbooks.com .   Pictured above: USC President C. L. Max Nikias and L.A. Times publisher and CEO Eddy Hartenstein.

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Making the Time to Read

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.”   David Bowie

A female book blogger mentioned recently that whenever people learn that she writes book reviews, they ask a common question, “Where do you find the time to read so many books?”   It’s a good question, and one that I’ve been tempted to ask film reviewers.   “How do you get the time to watch so many movies?”   So, the question being on the table, let’s see if I can provide one set of answers to the question as it relates to reading.

First, it helps to be a speed reader.   I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Program when it was all the rage (John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter being two of its graduates); and once you paid the initial enrollment fee, you were free to re-take the entire program again and I did.   There were and are many misconceptions about speed reading in terms of what was offered by the Wood Program.   No reading “tricks” were taught.   The Wood Program was actually a memory course applied to the skill of reading.   One started without much confidence in one’s own ability to remember long passages but through constant reading and test taking (similar to mock SATs), Wood students learned that the brain locks in content quite quickly.   The Wood Program also illustrated the value of instinct as in learning to accept the rule that one’s first answer to a question is, generally and statistically, the right one.

The simple matter of gaining confidence in one’s reading retention abilities meant that a Wood graduate felt he or she could (and did) read faster, not worrying that it would soon be forgotten.   (There’s a parallel to learning a new language.   If you’re learning Korean, you will initially speak slowly and perhaps loudly.   With confidence, you’re speaking the language faster and in a more normal tone of voice.)

Second, taking public transportation to work and back home builds in periods where reading is relaxing.   My light rail trips mean that I have almost three-quarters of an hour each work day in which to concentrate on a new book.   In fact, if I don’t read while commuting, the trip seems longer, something that most airline passengers have learned.   (There are a lot of books sold at airports these days!)

Third, is to learn to combine a walk and a reading break into each work day.   The walk is good exercise and spending a few minutes reading is a nice reward before trekking back to the salt mines.

Fourth, if you skip watching the local and national news in the evening, you will gain another half hour to 90 minutes of reading time without the depression and angst which result from hearing – and seeing – bad news.   Life is simply more relaxing when valuable time is spent reading instead of tensely watching the tube.   And, of course, there’s more time gained by treating newspapers as an optional, sometime, non-essential activity.   As one of my former supervisors told me, if something truly important happens you’ll know because someone will walk up to you and say, “Did you hear about…?”   That’s when they supply you with the news you’ve missed.   It’s the way of the world.

Then there’s the certified trick of book reviewers everywhere, audio books.   If you drive yourself to work all that formerly wasted commute time now becomes valuable audio book listening time, and the same holds true for out-of-town trips for work or family matters.   This is why I will occasionally plead with a publisher for an audio book.   And there’s a related audio trick…  I used to listen to music on headphones virtually every night, but now that time is and can be reserved for audio books instead of listening to old Doors albums.

So, just like that I’ve covered six ways in which reader-reviewers like me create time (we don’t actually find it) in which to read.   Are there other tricks of the trade?   Of course, but as our wise old cat Munchy says, “Yeow!”   Translated into English this means, “There are secrets that go with the territory!”

Joseph Arellano

One article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson, to be released by Plume in trade paperback form on July 27, 2010.

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A book giveaway for Anglophiles!

My Paper Chase 2Ten years ago, a distinguished English reporter, Donald Trelford of The Observer, wrote this about Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday (London) Times:   “The book Harry should write now is the story of his own life, from St. Mary’s Road Central School in Manchester to the Sunday Times to the conquest of corporate America and rubbing shoulders with the Washington elite.”   Well, Harold Evans has now written that book, entitled My Paper Chase, and this autobiography of almost 600 pages is being released by Little, Brown and Company.   We have 5 copies to give away!

Here is the Google books overview of My Paper Chase:  

“In My Paper Chase, Harold Evans recounts the wild and wonderful tale of newspapering life.   His story stretches from the 1930s to his service in World War II, through town big and off the map.   He discusses his passion for the crusading style of reporting he championed, his clashes with Rupert Murdoch, and his struggle to use journalism to better the lives of those less fortunate.   There’s a star studded cast and a tremendously vivid sense of what once was:  the lead type, the smell of the presses, eccentrics throughout and angry editors screaming over the intercoms.   My Paper Chase tells the stories of Evans’s great loves:  newspapers and Tina Brown, the bright, young journalist who became his wife.   In an age when newspapers everywhere are under threat, My Paper Chase is not just a glorious recounting of an amazing life, but a nostalgic journey in black and white.”

It should be noted that Harold Evans was the newspaper editor who broke the worldwide story about thalidomide and led the effort to justly compensate the victims of this improperly tested drug.   My Paper Chase is 592 pages, sounds fascinating for readers and newspaper lovers (and prospective journalists) and sells for a list price of $27.99.   Thanks to Valerie at Hachette Book Group (HBG), we’re giving away five new hardbound copies to our own loyal readers.

What are the contest rules?   As usual, they’re very simple.   To enter this contest, send your name and e-mail address to josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as one entry.   For a second entry, complete the following sentence:  “If I were to visit England, the first thing I would like to see is _______________________.”  

The deadline for submitting entries – and we’re giving everyone plenty of time – is Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at midnight PST.   On Wednesday, November 25th, Munchy the cat will pick out the names of the 5 winners from a large plastic container.   The winners will be notified the next day, for Thanksgiving, via e-mail.   Don’t forget that you can’t win if you don’t enter!

Note:   For this contest, prior contest winners of HGB books are not eligible.   (If in doubt, enter anyway and we will verify eligibility.)   Also, you must receive your mail at a residential (street) address in the continental U.S. or Canada.   HBG will not mail books to P.O. boxes.

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