Monthly Archives: December 2008

Three Things I’d Like to See #3

#3: RETURNING EDITORIAL POWER TO EDITORS

I think the saddest thing that ever happened in the book industry was the gradual devaluing of editors and all they stand for – their high standards, their belief in readers, their ability to nurture authors, their love of language, their patience, their dedication, their eye.

And most of all, their power.

Today we hear it like this: An editor will tell the agent that the house is prepared to make a bid. The agent conveys this to the author, who is overjoyed. The day of the auction rolls around, but the editor tearfully tells the agent that the marketing department has decided the house cannot make a bid, and that’s the end of that.

Or this: The manuscript has been copyedited, the jacket design approved, a good-sized marketing package underway until somebody shows the ms. to a Barnes & Noble buyer, who doesn’t like it for the standard reason (too depressing), and suddenly the wheels go in reverse: The marketing budget is cut, the jacket goes on hold, the author is asked to do a rewrite, and the editor looks like an idiot. But hey, the difference may be tens of thousands of copies, so who’s complaining? This question has so easily undermines the editorial process that eventually no one considered the long-term consequences.

Or this: Neither the agent nor the author can believe it, but every single rejection from editors who’ve seen the manuscript has praised the writing and the content with such excitement you can almost see the tears on the page. “We all love this book,” say the decline letters. “But nobody can figure out how to sell it.” Continue reading

When Math Can Be Murder

I knew Wendy Lichtman was a good writer (Washington Post, New York Times), but I never thought she (or anybody) could pull off a book so inventive and winning as “Secrets, Lies & Algebra” (HarperTeen; 183 pages; $6.99 paperback).

It’s a great novel for young readers in the 6th-8th grades, but if you’re a math-phobic oldster like myself, it’s even better for mature(d) audiences.

The story takes off like a rocket and before you know it, principles of algebra and even a little non-Euclidean geometry (I never heard of it before but now find indispensable) fly into your brain as though destined to reside there. Continue reading

The National Book Foundation Responds

Dear Readers:

I don’t want this response from Harold Augenbraum of the National Book Foundation – sponsor of the National Book Award ceremony I wrote about Monday – to get lost in the comments page so I’ve brought it up front here.

It’s a stirring defense of an evening I will always regard, I’m afraid, with “unrelentingly negative” thoughts, as he puts it, but there is information here we should all celebrate regarding the hard work the NBA has done (and that I didn’t mention in my column) to get these awards noticed outside New York. At the same time – well, my reply follows his letter below.

Dear Pat,

Your column is interesting, but missing many facts: Continue reading

Three Things I’d Love to See #2.2

#2:  PUBLISHERS LEAVING NEW YORK

[Part Two]

What a piece of work is mainstream book publishing in New York! Yesterday’s column looked at how remote and exclusive it’s become, how isolated from the rest of the country. The National Book Awards fiasco was cited as a humorous example, but two other influences (see below) demonstrate how serious the stakes have become.

Philip Roth Makes a Demand

I admit another side of me is saying about the National Book Awards debacle, So they had a little party (all right, a big party) — you don’t have to make a federal case out of it. Life in book publishing is not easy, and these people work hard to survive, so give ‘em a break. It was just one night.

Right. It’s what that one night represents that we should look at – indeed what Philip Roth has been railing against with his Nathan Zuckerman novels for years. That same Page Six mentality that turns the arts into a gossip machine has moved the focus of publishing away from books that are literature and put the spotlight on the authors who create literature. Roth doesn’t mean we’re honoring authors more than books – quite the contrary. He means we’re exploiting famous authors by writing biographies that deliciously and salaciously accent their hidden pasts, their secret inspirations, their dark side. It’s more lucrative to do that, he says, than to publish serious literary works.

In Roth’s latest novel, “Exit Ghost,” he especially indicts “cultural journalism” as presented and practiced by the New York Times. Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #2.1

#2: PUBLISHERS LEAVING NEW YORK

[Part One]

Right, they’ll never do it, but shouldn’t mainstream publishing houses want to explore a world beyond the Hudson River? Maybe talking about it will shed light on such fiascoes as the recent National Book Awards (see below) and the defensive reaction to a Nobel Prize judge’s accusations that the U.S. publishing community has become “too isolated, too insular.” (Honeys, it is.)

I’ve never understood why American publishers duplicated the British model of placing mainstream houses in one location so they would dictate to the tastes of the rest of the nation.

Why didn’t we load our printers and binders into the wagons as we went hacking and slashing across the Plains to the West? We certainly brought our newspaper presses. But for some reason – perhaps it was the independent wealth of publishing founders — we kept book publishing on the East Coast and eventually in New York City itself. We decided to depend on a “cottage industry” ideal in which literary ideas would foment within the social exchange of like-minded people.

By now, however, working in close proximity has made New York book publishers appear inbred and clannish. If you can’t get them on the phone, it’s because they’re calling/emailing/texting each other, lunching at publishing “in” spots, complaining about hotel rates at Frankfurt or BookExpo and working the room at author receptions as if a world outside publishing doesn’t exist. Continue reading