Monthly Archives: January 2014

Penguin Random House: ‘A Couple of Drunks Propping Each Other at the Bar’

If the biggest publisher in the world says that its recent merger “should not be interpreted as a couple of drunks propping each other at the bar,” what image comes to mind?

I would say it’s two drunks propping each other up at a bar.

The comment was made by the head of Penguin Random House, John Makinson, to the Economic Times of India.

He said that Random House and Penguin didn’t merge because they were “worried about our survival or that we were too small to be competitive” against the “impact of companies like Google, Apple and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

Really? That sounds exactly why Penguin and Random House merged, why Hachette bought out most of Hyperion, why Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins may decide to merge as well.

Afraid of being obsolete and technologically small, Penguin Random House is trying to buy its way into the competition with Google, Apple and Amazon. Feeling overpowered again and again, it will seek new mergers to cover the pain.

The bar metaphor is so true — Penguin and Random were drunk with power during the physical-book years. Now the print-on-screen years make them feel unnecessary and confused, so back to the bar they’ve gone to feed that acquisition addiction.

A big mistake of many CEOs like Makinson is to dwell on growth and power for traditional publishers rather than the centuries-old system of publishing procedures inside — the timeless discipline practiced by salaried professionals of selecting, editing, designing and producing literary works of merit.

I know it’s easy to criticize the mainstream (since I do it all the time), but deep inside these gluttonish corporate structures are at least a few people struggling to keep  the house’s standards high when it comes to literary quality and commercial appeal.  It’s too bad these dedicated pros have become the pearl in the oyster (irritating everyone, dismissed and often overruled by management) because they’re also invaluable.

A second mistake: Makinson said that “publishing is growing but the growth of bookstores has come to a stop.” Wrong. Independent bookstores are on the rebound, as recent statistics have shown. A smart publisher should know that word-of-mouth for new authors still begins at the brick-and-mortar level and is much more stable and accurate information than, say, sales rankings at any time on Amazon.

And the reason independent bookstores are strong?  For many, the key is to stay small, serve the local community well (book groups, author appearances, children’s programs, First Amendment protections) and hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell.   (As opposed to the direction Penguin Random House and other merger-minded publishers are going, which is to “grow” [what an icky word] dozens of boutique imprints but deny them freedom to publish.)

I loved the way novelist Ann Patchett, who started her own bookstore in Nashvllle, Tennessee, in 2010, described “the comfort about being around books” in a retail environment when she appeared with Terry Gross recently on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Bookstores are home,” Patchett said, speaking as a reader and customer.  Any “building full of books that can come home with me,” she added, is “a world of endless possibility and opportunity.”

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Patchett opened Parnassus Books after the other two bookstores in Nashville closed.  As she told USA Today, starting a new bookstore in the Digital Age felt like “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” The fact that Parnassus is thriving today does not mean that Patchett and Hayes are bucking a trend. “We are the trend,” she says, bless her.

But here’s the point of all this for me. When I hear people like John Makinson malign independent bookstores, or Jeff Bezos slash prices for the purpose of knocking out bookstores (why else would he do it?) or Barnes & Noble whine about unfair competition against its e-book reader Nook (aw. take another dose of your own medicine), I want to stop all that noise and do something about the problem.

Happily, bookstore owners believe that readers can make a difference. In fact, that’s the heart and soul of what they believe.

As Ann Patchett said to Terry Gross, for independent bookstores, proactive customers are the answer: “If you want a bookstore in your community — if you want to take your children to story hour, meet the authors who are coming through town, get together for a book club at a bookstore, or come in and talk to the smart booksellers — then it is up to you. It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore, and that’s what keeps the bookstore there.

“It’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides –  when do you plant, what kind of tools do you need –   use their time and their intelligence for an hour and then go to Lowe’s to buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”

Ann Patchett's new book of essays is "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage"

Ann Patchett’s new book of essays is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”

It’s refreshing to hear a bookseller speak directly and unequivocally about readers acting independently and responsibly to secure the future of bookstores.

Heaven knows the  book industry will be sinking further into chaos for some years to come. That’s what makes it, for me, a privilege to pay full price for a physical book or an e-book at an independent bookstore.

You know where each sale’s profit is going — not in the pocket of some meglomaniac billionaire or corporate giant but into the store’s budget for more books, each one deemed worthy to sell to any one of us, and to programs that enhance the neighborhood’s cultural roots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ‘Super Bowl Moment’ for the Book Industry

Listening to Anjelica Huston read the audiobook version of A Story Lately Told, the haunting first volume of her memoir from Scribner, I wished the world could see this Hollywood survivor tell at least a part of her story in some kind of live presentation.

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Anjelica Huston reading from her memoir

Then I thought (as frankly I do every year), wouldn’t it be great if celebrities who publish memoirs each year could present awards and read from nominated books at a televised event like the National Book Awards?

Call this literary show the Bookies, or something. Spread the cameras out as they do at the Oscars and Tonys so viewers feel tension slithering through the audience. Use a big Broadway theater and also bring in actors currently in New York to present awards, act out dialogue, read excerpts and bring alive history, criticism, poetry and children’s literature to a national audience.

I thought this was just a daydream of mine since I’ve made quite a stink about the present NBA ceremony, an exclusive black-tie dinner at an insanely lavish restaurant (Cipriani Wall Street) in New York. There publishers spend obscene amounts of money to congratulate themselves while across the country independent bookstores (the core of the industry!) are hanging by a thread.

Cipriani Wall Street - interior

Cipriani Wall Street – interior

But it turns out I’m not alone. “Can Book Publishing Have a Super Bowl Moment?” writes Brian Feinblum at BookMarketingBuzzBlog.  Considering the Super Bowl, where TV ads sell for $4 million and 75,000 people pay thousands of dollars per ticket, he sighs, “Big game, big money. Can book publishing ever have such a high-priced moment?”

It could if an event like the National Book Awards stops fiddling while the book industry burns and seizes that “big-stage moment, like an Oscars,” Feinblum writes, “or a Hall of Fame, or a theme park, or even a day to celebrate its contribution to society. Bring in corporate sponsors and put some money behind it. You need a televised event, some type of packaged show that gets the media talking about you. Give out awards, lifetime achievements, feature bestselling authors, highlight movie connections, take us behind the scenes of book publishing and hold contests that invite consumer participation.”

Whoa:  contests, movie tie-ins? That’s going way too far, young man.  I love it.

It’s kind of hilarious that last year the NBAs attempted “an Oscar-style red carpet inside the ballroom to welcome celebrity guests like the former teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald,” according to the New York Times. Well it’s a start, but a naive one — who will see the red carpet, let alone Molly Ringwald, if there are no cameras?

We  have to remember that without media coverage, the NBAs sink into oblivion every year. In 2013, for example, nobody outside the banquet room saw a moving and historic moment when Toni Morrison awarded the Literarian Award (for lifetime achievement) to Maya Angelou. 

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

Toni Morrison presenting National Book Award to Maya Angelou

And let’s not allow publishers their usual we-have-no-money excuse. Perhaps the only benefit to corporations ruining (pardon, I mean ruling) the book industry is that connections to the entertainment world are all over the place. It’s worth spending money to hire a professional production company to produce a big celebrity blowout with bankable stars from movies, television and literature, and considering how these things are run, there might even be a profit.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

So stop backstepping, dear Mainstream Publishers: If you don’t assert your dominance in the modern literary world, there’s a guy named Jeff Bezos who’ll push you all aside with a hot-ticket, book-oriented celebrity-filled Super Bowl event of his own, and he’ll finance it with the change in his back pocket.

P.S. Which celebrities 1) are recent authors (say 2012-13) who could draw terrific TV audiences, and 2)  are just as recognizable as Molly Ringwald?  Here’s a brief list of some great candidates I would have loved to have seen on that 2013 Super Bowl/National Book Award stage:

Billy Crystal

Tina Fey

Christopher Plummer

Madeleine Albright

Rob Lowe

Ellen Degeneres

Anjelica Huston

Patti Smith

Jane Lynch

Anthony Bourdain

Sarah Silverman

Sidney Poitier

Mindy Kaling

Lewis Black

Betty White

Keith Richards

Bill Cosby

Shirley MacLaine

ON LANGUAGE: MISTAKE OR BREAKTHROUGH BY JANE LYNCH?

I admire actor Jane Lynch (Glee, Best in Show) for many reasons –  her comic timing, her touching memoir Happy Accidents, and her courage to come out as a lesbian when it was still dangerous to be gay in Hollywood.

So I don’t know whether to blame or forgive this dear funny celebrity for making a statement on her popular TV show, Hollywood Game Night, that I appreciate yet find appalling.

Jane Lynch

Jane Lynch

Hollywood Game Night features celebrities who compete in what we used to call parlor games, except the contests are so ridiculous and the contestants so wild that chaos fills the screen.

In one game, the stars sing melodies of songs by substituting DO for lyrics (as is in do, do-do, do-do, do-do, do-do … that’s Tea for Two, see) until a teammate guesses the title. In another they look  at pictures of two famous faces (or cereals or junk food) mashed into one photo and guess a name that would combine the two.   In another they’re given six famous magazine covers from, say,  People or Rolling Stone, which they have to arrange from earliest to most recent.

The fun of Hollywood Game Night is not watching the games  but scrutinizing stars like Amy Poehler, Ray Romano, Minnie Driver or Martin Short (and a lot of younger stars I don’t recognize) being unaffected and sincere while they race around hitting buzzers and making faces and shouting instructions.

Part of the show is deliberately phony — all that self-conscious applauding and high-fiving can drive you nuts — but for the most part, the point seems to be that stars can’t be divas. They have to at least try to show genuine enthusiasm and spontaneity even if the pressure to win puts them in awkward situations.

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

Brooklyn Decker and Andy Roddick

(It was very funny,  for example when Brooklyn Decker, the actress/model wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, correctly answered every question within seconds while Andy stood there dumbly trying to figure out how the game worked. Later he pretended to glower at everybody while saying how great it was to be emasculated on national TV “BY YOUR OWN WIFE” — a risky joke that he pulled off as the good sport he seems to be in real life.)

The show moves at such a crash pace, with the (unnecessary) live band too noisy and the (unfortunate) open bar too boozy and the (white-gloved) stagehands too quick to bring in one stupid game after another, that the center of the action falls to Jane Lynch herself.

Hollywood Game Night

Hollywood Game Night

I’ve never seen anyone work so hard at stopping arguments and explaining rules while joking with contestants and having so much fun, fun, fun in the chaos that you wonder why she took this gig in the first place.

Which brings us to that thing she said.

It happened at the start of a game in which six poster-sized Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues were randomly placed on easels in front of the two celebrity teams. Most of the models’ faces were recognizable, so the celebrities found it relatively easy to rearrange the magazines chronologically (i.e., a young Heidi Klum would be #1, a more recent model #6).

Now you have to say that in most TV game shows, the emcee would overlook the fact that here were nearly naked models, so bosomy and posed so suggestively that looking only at their faces (not their bodies) proved difficult  for everyone, stars and audience alike. And this was not a cable channel — it was NBC, which has formal “standards and practices” policies about such things — so not a lot of, you know, trashy T&A talk was going to be allowed.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Swimsuit Cover, S. I.

Still, Jane Lynch is not somebody who’s going to let an opportunity for humor pass by, so as the magazines were positioned and before the game started, she said this:

“Can I just say that as a feminist, I am appalled by these images. And as a lesbian, I am delighted!”

(Reporting on the remark, Page 6 of the New York Post spelled the last word “de-light-ed” because she did emphasize each syllable.)
The comment was so bold and unexpected that I laughed out loud, perhaps more in astonishment than anything else.  Never in my whole life have I heard a gay woman wisecrack on TV about how much fun it is to be a lesbian, let alone a bawdy one.

Plus I’m also a feminist and come on, Sports Illustrated, enough with the soft porno!  Quit looking like an outdated Playboy and celebrate women swimmers for athletic achievement  the same way you do male swimmers.

At the same time, I wondered if Jane Lynch realized what a huge faux pas she had just made. I can’t speak for other gay women (as she shouldn’t have), but I don’t know any lesbian who would say that pimped-out female bodies with their chests and haunches in your face is appealing, let alone arousing.

Maybe if she had phrased the second sentence differently — instead of “As a lesbian,” which includes all gay women, she could have referred only to herself, as in, “But I’m a lesbian, and I’m de-light-ed!” — it wouldn’t have sounded so smarmy. But then, some of the rhythm and a lot of the humor (I guess) would have been lost.

Then I got to wondering if retail stores still cover up Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions like they used to so that children won’t see these images and assume that women exist to be objectified. Nobody wants that, and yet here is Hollywood Game Show coming on early enough and accessible enough

Playing Charades

Playing Charades

(by On Demand services) for all to see! How many families tuned in for some old-fashioned Charade-like fun only to see a bunch of tits filling up the screen?

That’s when it struck me that Jane Lynch might have pulled off quite a stunt. After all, she IS a feminist and she IS a lesbian. If she had said nothing about the Sports Illustrated magazines, then yes, all those kids and families and American viewers might have regarded the almost-nude models as acceptable, everyday fare.

But if she had said only that as a feminist she was appalled by the covers, a lot of people would have looked at her in horror because these days, as we all know, feminists have no sense of humor and spoil the fun for everybody.

So Jane, I’m still adding up what you accomplished by that remark:

1. You refused to let the swimsuit images go by without some kind of comment.

2. You sneaked in two references (feminist, lesbian) that were (I feel) more controversial than humorous.

3. You sacrificed a tiny bit of respect from nit-pickers like me for making all lesbians appear to “de-light” in objectifying women’s bodies. BUT in terms of stopping the show and making us all think more deeply about such matters than before, Jane, bravo.  You pulled off a genuine breakthrough.

Jane Lynch on the set

Jane Lynch on the set