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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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Much Ado About Something

Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room by David Weinberger (Basic Books, $25.99, 231 pages)

What we have here is a situation that’s either really simple or overwhelmingly complex.   This reviewer isn’t so sure of what to make of David Weinberger’s history and background survey of the Internet.   Weinberger’s credentials are impeccable.   He is a senior researcher at the Harvard University Berkman Center for the Internet and Society.   Perhaps it’s his professional training that had led to a penchant for sequencing, numbering and setting forth the pros and cons of an issue.

The book begins with the background of how, over the past few centuries, man has considered knowledge to be facts gathered by elite scholars and used these facts as the basis of a broad acceptance of scientific principles and general information.   Prior to the ubiquity of the Internet, small numbers of experts who were organized into scholarly associations that, along with the publishing industry, controlled access to knowledge.   The limits of peer review and publishing kept this information under tight control.

We have given up the idea that there is a single, knowable organization of the Universe, a Book of Nature that we’ll ever be able to read together or that will settle bar fights like the Guinness Book of World Records.Too Big to Know (nook book)

Weinberger readily offers his own take on the new use of knowledge by everyone and his uncle.   We know that the growing number of online communities provides ample opportunities for anyone with an opinion to broadcast it all over the world.   He argues that specialized communities on the Internet are becoming insular in much the same way past experts operated within the walls of academia, literally echo chambers.   Of course there is a glaring difference between the past scholarly cliques and today’s echo chambers because anyone with a laptop and access to WiFi can appear to be an expert.

On the Net, everyone is potentially an expert in something – it all depends on the questions being asked.

Too Big to Know sometimes bends back on itself with examples.   The premise of the book may be a bit overworked.   The target audience for this book is not clear to this reviewer.   Perhaps it might be someone of an indeterminate age who is inquisitive about knowledge.

This survey book may be the answer to a question that no one was asking.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Publishers Versus Authors?

Why Book Publishers Hate Authors by Michael Levin

Michael-Levin11

It seems so…  unliterary.   But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable.   Here’s why.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot.   There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

On top of that, authors are flaky.   They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October.   Or the following April.   Or the April after that.   This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad:  revise publishing schedules at the last-minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors are also prickly about their work.   There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses.   Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.   When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, “You’re the only writer who ever lets me do my job.”

Also, annoyingly, writers expect to be paid.   Maybe not much, but something.   The Authors Guild produced a survey in the 1970s indicating that writers earned only slightly more, on an hourly basis, than did the fry cooks at McDonald’s.   Publishers were still responsible for paying advances to authors, hoping that the authors would turn in a publishable manuscript – which doesn’t happen all of the time.

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends.   But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers’ Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

The three R’s of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became, “Reduce royalties and returns.”   Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores.   Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns.   Reducing advances and royalties – money publishers pay writers – was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

And slash they did.   More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.   They said to authors, “We’ll give you more of a back-end on the book, and we’ll promote the heck out of your book.   We’ll be partners.”   Some partners.   Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce…  that’s right.   Zero sales.

And then who caught the blame for the book’s failure?   Not the publisher.   The author.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan.com to get sales figures.   These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they’re out in the open for all to see.   And if an author’s sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book.   The author’s career is essentially over.   One and done.   Next contestant, please.

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers.   Which leads me to think that publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

As authors gain traction in the marketplace, their fees go up.   They can charge a publisher more money for their next book.   The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author.   So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commodotize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable, and unpredictable writers.   They can lower the costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.   The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.   As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic.   They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend.   But they won’t buy another book.

Publishers have begun to hate authors.   But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

Book publishing process chart

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs www.BusinessGhost.com, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

This opinion piece reflects 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.

For more on this topic see the article, “Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry,” by Colin Robinson:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/12/ten-ways-to-save-publishing-industry

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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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Son of Your Father

Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (Tin House Books, August 2010)

“Every writer is alone…”

This is a memoir about a writer, Tom Grimes, whose idol was famous for writing a memoir.   It began as a eulogy written by Grimes for Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time: A Memoir that was published in 1977.   Grimes decided to expand that eulogy by writing in detail about how he came to be discovered by Conroy, a noted instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   This, however, describes just half of the narrative – the book might just as easily have been titled A Writing Life, as it fully details the obstacles, impediments and vagaries that can overwhelm an ambitious young writer.

Interestingly, Grimes and Conroy first happened to meet when the former was an applicant to the Workshop.   The meeting went so badly that Grimes left and destroyed his copy of Stop-Time.   But Conroy randomly happened to read the manuscript for a novel written by Grimes, and greased his admission into the Iowa Writer’s program.   Conroy and Grimes had such an obvious father-and-son relationship that many of Grimes’ fellow students derided him as Conroy’s “golden boy.”

In the sections where Grimes writes about Conroy, I was reminded of the tone used by John Gunther in Death Be Not Proud, the account of his son’s death at the age of 17.   The tone is quiet, sad, respectful.   (Especially as Grimes comes to regret the periods where he failed to keep in touch with Conroy.)   In contrast, the writing has a sometimes jarring quality when Grimes details his own rollercoaster-like (and manic) career as a young author.   With the strong support of Conroy, Grimes’ first novel resulted in a small bidding war among publishers for the rights.   Grimes went for the highest pay-day only to find that the promised public relations campaign for his novel was never to materialize.   And then no publisher wanted Grimes’ second novel.

Grimes clearly covers his descent into depression and near-madness in a manner that only some will wish to read.   The more fascinating pages are the ones where he provides a view into the world of publishing; it’s a world where a writer can be offered a high six-figure advance one day and find that the offer has dropped to the very lowest of five figures the next.

“You’ve changed my life…  love, love, love.”

This memoir concludes in a way that the reader will find – depending on his/her perspective – either encouraging or unimpressive.   Grimes was 54 at the time he wrote Mentor, the same age that Conroy was when the student-writer Grimes met his most important instructor.   Grimes is now a college-level journalism professor.   He teaches in Texas rather than in Iowa, but serves as a replica of Frank Conroy.   This can be viewed as a heartfelt, living, tribute to his mentor or, alternatively, as the reliving of a life that had already run its course.

This reader found this to be an admirable and frank memoir of two lives that, for all of its stark candor, fell just a bit short of being the type of inspirational story that one would read and subsequently re-read.   The first half of the account was far more engaging than the second half.   Mentor leaves one with a sense of sadness and wariness about life, which was likely the writer’s intent.

Takeaway:   This is a memoir that some (writers, mainly) will love – they will view it as a loving tribute to a teacher from his student.   Others will understandably see it as a bit too unvarnished.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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