Tag Archives: New York Times

More on ‘Cell Phone Pilferers’ … and Bad, Bad Customers

I must say it was heartening to see so many blogs and letters objecting to the behavior of New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife, as described here last time.

To recap: The Biltons surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books” as they sat on the floor “for a couple of hours” at a Barnes & Noble store. They “lobbed” the books back and forth and photographed pages with their iPhones, then “left the store without buying a thing.”

Only later did Bilton wonder, gosh: “Did we do anything wrong?” He sought out legal experts: “Did we indeed go too far?”

I have never heard of such self-absorbed rudeness or flat-out idiocy in a bookstore and was further incensed when the article revealed that Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the Times and author of a book about the future of iPhones, for heaven’s sake. But enough about me.

Defacto Shoplifters

“Yes, you and your wife went too far,” writes Denny Hatch of the website Target Marketing, “And your tacky little iPhones’ theft of copyright wasn’t the half of it.”

Hatch says Bilton was guilty of “de facto shoplifting — taking merchandise off the shelf, using it and then discarding it.”

In the world of direct marketing, this is “the equivalent of the catalog bandit — the woman that orders three party dresses from a catalog, chooses one to wear to the party and then returns all three the next day for a full refund.”

A Treacherous Course

The Biltons not only got away with ruining the merchandise, writes Richard Curtis at [e-reads], a reprinter of out-of-print books.

“By the mere act of clicking their iPhone a dozen times, Nick Bilton and his wife steered a treacherous course between fair use and piracy, between the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act,” Curtis observes.

Bilton tried to excuse himself by saying that “many people have a cavalier attitude toward using cameras to obtain copyrighted material.”

Curtis huffs, “Cavalier indeed. Our archives are packed with the exploits of ‘cavaliers.’ Up to now the Times has tiptoed around the issue of piracy in the book business …. But the time is approaching when the subject will take center stage, for it is by far the greatest threat to the future of authorship and the success of the e-book industry.”

Infringement Recipe

Perhaps it’s not Bilton’s actions but his article that should be held up to scrutiny, writes Bill Rosenblatt at Copyright and Technology. By describing how easy it is to photograph book pages in a store, Bilton has published an “infringement recipe” that could “induce” readers to do the same. Given the newspaper’s exposure and influence, “would [publishers] have a case against the New York Times?”

Swiping More Than the Bar Code

Of course, readers already have the “recipe” for photographic infringement, and more. As independent-publishing expert Dan Poynter puts it, customers regularly “visit a store, see a book they want, pull out their iPhone, check the price at Amazon and make a one-click order.”

To do this fast (before the staff sees ‘em! bad, bad customers!), iPhone users simply photograph the book and let technology take it from there. As Poynter explains:

“Now Amazon makes the process faster and easier with an iPhone App. With Price Check for iPhone, buyers can photograph the bar code of a book (or any other product), say the product name, or type it in. Amazon will find the product and offer it for sale—often for much less. Point, scan, check, click, done. And Amazon delivers.”

Blatantly Criminal

“If only the problem were just cell phone pilferers,” writes Suzanne White, author of bestselling astrology books. “People today can scan my entire books and put them up for sale all over the Internet — Kindle, Nook, Crook, et al, and nobody stops them. Others try. I try. But we don’t always succeed.”

White says that “Amazon now asks authors placing their books on Kindle to check a box attesting that they own the rights.” But elsewhere, piracy flourishes. One magazine group in France copied an astrology book by White and “pleaded innocence” when she sued. This group “tried to prove I was complicit because I had written horoscopes for one of their magazines. They had very powerful big guns.” She settled for 5000 francs.

In another case, “back in the beginning of Facebook, I found an
app called Chinese Horoscopes that used my text,” White recalls. “It was doing such good business that after much haggling, I eventually went into business with the guy! He had taken the texts quite innocently from a site that claims to ‘share copyrights.’ I wrote a stinging how-dare-you letter to the owner who wrote back saying that because the company was offshore, I could do nothing.”

The commercial appeal of nonfiction books makes them vulnerable. “Astrology and Tarot and I Ching or diet or cookbooks and many other subject areas are commercial and easily exploited,” White says. But novels are copied illegally, too, especially in foreign countries.

“Does Stephen King know when his books are pirated in Czech or Hungarian, Chinese or Urdu? I doubt it,” White says. “Neither he nor his publishers can read those languages. Let’s face it. This is the Internet. There is money to be made in pirating any and everywhere. Publishers can’t police it any better than authors can.”

Most egregious for White was a matchmaking site in New York that “used my New Astrology™ book, pasted my photo on the front page …. then wrote to congratulate me! I could not get him to take it down. Instead, he hired someone to rewrite it all, paraphrased my whole book and changed the name of his site, and eventually tried to sell it to me for a million dollars (no lack of chutzpah there). Eventually he went bankrupt.”

(Granted it’s not saying much, but) I’ve never heard of such blatant stealing! It’s so criminal, and yet, as White says, going to court is not an option. “The folks who scan my books and pirate them are not rich people. I would be suing in the dark.”

Watching the Bookstore Go Up in Flames

Here’s another scam that floored me. In his article, “The Price of Now: Why I Hate Bookstores,” Kyle Bylin at Hypebot.com says he read the first chapter of Bilton’s book at a bookstore and was so taken with it that “I didn’t want to wait,” so he bought it right there, knowing “I could buy it cheaper on Amazon.”

He did consider another shortcut: “I’ve heard of people buying books from Barnes & Noble and returning them once their Amazon shipment arrives. I opted not to do that.”

My hero! We’re back to women and their pretty dresses! This scheme involves buying and returning the physical book after using the bookstore as your bag man. And won’t that book feel nice and new to the next customer.

Here’s what went through Bylin’s mind as he bought the book for a higher price in the bookstore than he would have paid at home, ordering it on Amazon: “In my head, I came up with the excuse — that while I’d be content with watching the store go up in flames for their high prices — I did like walking around, browsing, and the experience of holding books before I bought them elsewhere.”

So here’s a reader who understands the perilous situation of bookstores, all right. He’s just so jaded by the Internet that he sees the retail price as “a donation for feeling sorry about reading for free.” This was a real jaw-dropper for me. A … a…. donation? You mean, like a … a …. charity? Because you feel sorry for the bookstore?

Exactly, says Bylin. It’s the bookstore’s fault for overcharging the poor customer: “The instant gratification of getting what I want now, in my hands, something that I can carry home and read: Shouldn’t that be the bonus and not the cost?”

Yes, let’s all remember: The world is here to bring everyone like you instant gratification because today nobody owns anything, really. Copyright law is so “uncharted,” as Curtis says, that tools are everywhere to help you monetize, maximize, and Appize everything you want.

Being Almost That Stupid

And everybody’s in on this scam. even authors like Bilton, muses Poynter. “So,” he writes, “was Bilton’s ‘confession’ a publicity stunt to bring attention to his book?”

That would be hard to figure, since Bilton’s article makes him look so stupid. But maybe fame is fame: If you just get your name out there — even exploit the newspaper that (I guess) employs you — readers will race to buy your book.

But could that have been Bilton’s idea all along? I must say, when I listen to Bilton interviewed on the Internet, he seems far more knowledgeable than the kind of jackass who clogs up the aisles of a bookstore while photographing pages of new books and dumbly wondering, “Did we do anything wrong?”

Self-run Social Library Places

To be charitable, maybe Nick Bilton and his wife didn’t actively set out to steal. Maybe they simply represent masses of people who have changed their minds about brick-and-mortar stores in the last decade.

Certainly they, and perhaps millions like them, don’t think of bookstores as places to go to buy books. To them, in the 21st century, bookstores are just vehicles for “showcasing books for Amazon,” as Poynter puts it.

If that’s true, surviving bookstores may now be seen as “self-run social library places,” muses Suzanne White, because they offer book clubs, author events, classes, cooking demonstrations, storytelling hours, sidelines and even books lining shelf after shelf.

At these bookstores, observes White, “bookish and other types can meet and greet each other, have coffee and a sandwich and get to know authors, take courses and hear writers talk about their work.”

Wait a minute: That sounds familiar in a way that’s, you know, alarming.

A successful bookstore, White adds, is more like a “bricks-and-mortar social network,” and there it is, the retail/electronic world in reverse: No longer does Amazon need to mimic the retail experience with its “Look inside!” feature and browsing facsimile. Instead, bookstores should now try to be Facebook inside the retail environment, a place where you can import all your “friends” right there in the aisles.

Isn’t that what the Biltons were doing? They could just email those iPhone photos to their contractor, so they didn’t bother about that pesky problem of buying a book or actually reading it.

This is why Bilton’s “infringement recipe” is so seductive! Customers who “hate bookstores” like Bylin at Hypebot don’t want to wait, and you shouldn’t either! You can “like” bookstore displays, Tweet shelf talkers, video author events and order, order, order books from every other resource but the store itself.

The Entitlement of Internet Pricing

Thank heaven many readers agree with Ben Patterson, a reader who left this comment at Hypebot: Along with “paying rent, providing a community gathering spot [and] bringing cultural events into a neighborhood,” brick-and-mortar bookstores are also “responsible for collecting sales tax — all things Amazon does not do.”

And to bookstore hater Bylin himself, Patterson wrote: “I suppose, if you’d rather have a Cash4Gold or PaydayAdvance on every street corner, that is an alternative, but it feels a lot like Internet pricing entitlement is negatively impacting neighborhoods and service.”

My new hero! That is so true: The sense of entitlement people get from pricing things on the Internet has turned consumers into tyrants! That’s why Bilton and his wife felt so righteous camping out in the aisles; and why Bylin has the audacity to pity rather than respect bookstores.

Patterson understands this odd reasoning: Keep the playing field even by charging Amazon sales tax, he says, and people will stop believing that Amazon is somehow ahead of the game by eluding the law.

That’s the real meaning of internet entitlement, I guess. Once you have your smart phone, anything on display in some dumb brick-and-mortar store is all yours for the taking.

When Cell Phones Turn Readers into Idiots

One needn’t be a fan of Barnes & Noble to sympathize with the staff at a B&N store where New York Times writer Nick Bilton and his wife acted like a couple of six-year-olds storming a playpen.

According to Bilton’s article, the couple sat down “cross-legged on the floor” and surrounded themselves with “several large piles of books,” which they “lobbed back and forth” (!) for “a couple of hours” (!!) while researching “ideas for a new home that we are planning to buy.”

Isn’t that nice. Whenever you need a library, just go to a bookstore, Bilton suggests. There you can turn new books into used books for all the customers to follow.

Then Bilton and his wife “snapped a dozen pictures of book pages with our iPhones” and “went home without buying a thing.” Very tidy. Bilton does mention that they “placed the books back on the shelf” like the Good Samaritans they see themselves to be.

A Disturbing Idea

But later that night, Bilton was struck by a disturbing idea: “I asked my wife: Did we do anything wrong? And, I wondered, had we broken any laws by photographing those pages?”

So conscientious! After all, those pages were protected by copyright, a very big word for a very important concept. You’d think an explanation of copyright would be the point to an article with the headline: “Can Your Camera Phone Turn You Into a Pirate?”

But no. The authorities Bilton consults compare the use of cell phones that photograph book pages today with the use of Xerox machines that duplicated book pages during the ’70s, and the use of Napster programs that shared music files during the ’90s.

According to these experts, technology has advanced so quickly that copyright laws can’t keep up, so nobody really knows the exact definition of piracy when it comes to cell phone cameras. But Bilton’s journalistic drive demands a deeper truth: Will he get caught?

“Need I worry yet that a phalanx of lawyers will soon grab me between the Home Decor and New Age aisles at Barnes & Noble?”

Well, if I were the two thugs running this chain, I would have thrown the Biltons off the escalator, but you know, bookstore clerks are nice. They allowed this couple to clog the aisles and rummage through new books on the floor because it might have sounded rude to ask them to put their !@#$%^&*! cell phones away.

That leaves readers to ponder a thought by Julia A. Ahrens, associate director of the Fair Use Project at Stanford Law School: “By the time this becomes an issue,” she tells Bilton, “we might not even have bookstores anymore.”

That’s comforting, isn’t it, Nick? One day the same might be said of libraries.

Bookstore Rudeness

I know that bookstores have long been invaded by ill-mannered customers who blithely sit down in the aisles, break the spines of new titles, “lob” books around or — these I could throttle — buy a book on Amazon and bring it into a bookstore to have autographed at an author event.

But Bilton’s article raises new questions about the effect of cell phones on social manners in general. Maybe we’ve all grown accustomed to cell phone users driving erratically or talking loudly on the street or in elevators and restaurants because for some reason, they think their conversation takes precedence over everyone else’s experience.

What I can’t figure out are bookstore customers who blatantly use cell phones to compare prices with Amazon’s while they walk around the New Release table, or worse, take cell phone photos of books they might want to read so they can buy them on Amazon later.

I won’t go into Kindle owners who actually bring … well, you get the point.

This is not just rude behavior; it’s profane. A bookstore offers browsing opportunities and instant camaraderie with staff and authors that we never find on the Internet. There’s something sacred about a place where censorship is fought routinely, unknown authors are welcomed and introduced and young adults who’ve inexplicitly stopped reading are lured back to books they’ll treasure forever. For a customer to interrupt this kind of sacred exchange because they’re so entirely self-involved seems tragic.

Thanking Our Lucky Stars

The Biltons don’t appear to be stupid or cheap — I bet if you asked them, they’d want to contribute to the betterment of bookstores. Then, too, Nick Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times and author of I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works (Crown; 304 pages; $25), a book published last fall about the impact of iPads and smart phones. That makes Bilton an expert. Yet he doesn’t know the meaning of copyright? When he and the missus took advantage of the bookstore staff’s good graces, he had to ask, “Did we do anything wrong?”

So come on, Nicky, get off the phone. Think how you’d feel if somebody photographed your book and blithely departed “without buying a thing.” The future you write about can and should provide Americans with every kind of reading option, most especially the bookstore option.

Patti LuPone, Part II: “Don’t Give Critics the Power”

A big difference between books and theater, as Broadway star Patti LuPone points out in her enlightening and instructive memoir (Crown; 324 pages; $25.99), is the fact that in publishing it takes an accumulation of negative reviews to damn a book; in theater, one review can kill a play overnight.

Here’s one reason: With books, the Internet has ushered in our current era of “the democratization of publishing” in which everybody’s a critic. True, traditional critics at newspapers and magazine may still be influential, but readers give as much or more weight to reviews by bloggers, customers, book clubs and, of course, themselves.

Theater criticism, on the other hand, has remained more parochial and elitist. A handful of trusted reviewers still seems to reign, and among these few, for Broadway shows especially, the New York Times has inordinate power.

Fighting Back

LuPone is both victim and victor to this oddly provincial tendency. She has even been doubly damned: Despite her incredible talent and wildly favorable notices in Europe, LuPone has been the subject of hostile critics in New York not just for a few years but for entire decades.

This forced LuPone to re-earn audience regard every time she appeared onstage. For example, thanks to early publicity, tickets for Evita, her first big hit, were sold out so far in advance that LuPone and her co-star Mandy Patinkin had to outlast the sour impact of New York critics who hated her performance. This surprised even LuPone: Continue reading

A Newspaper Comeback Plan – Part B

PART B: BE BOLD

So now: What can newspapers do to lure readers back to print?

As our quiz last week suggested,  after our 30-year honeymoon with computers, and 20 solid years on the Internet, people are getting tired of screens and starting to miss the newsprint experience.  It’s time for newspapers to earn their way back into readers’ minds and pocketbooks. Here are some suggestions:

Fight for Your Paper

Everybody’s waiting for publishers to do something — to, in the first place, define the benefits of newspapers that computers can’t offer. If you run a newspaper, the time has come to get out there and tell readers: Our paper publishes the kind of stories in print that you can’t find on the Internet.

This means that the newsprint version will be different from the website version, so you  have to believe in it. If you don’t think that newspapers are far ahead of the Internet in key ways, get outta the biz. 

Create an Aggressive Ad Campaign

Billboards, cable TV, talk radio, buses, cabs and yes. computer banners are waiting for newspapers to re-stake their claim.

Run the most simple kind of ad:

*a giant photo of the morning newspaper invitingly spread out on a kitchen counter or desk,  next to

*a cup of steaming coffee

*a blank computer screen.

*a headline like one of these:

GIVE YOUR EYES A BREAK

NO CLICKS, NO BANNERS, NO POP-UPS, NO NOISE

WE PUT  IT ALL ON THE TABLE

YOUR WRISTS, YOUR EYES, YOUR BACK WILL THANK YOU

TAKE A MINI-VACATION EVERY MORNING

WE PAY PEOPLE TO BRING YOU THE WORLD AT A GLANCE

Get Your Executives Behind It

Start right now to train your executive management to place this campain on a person-to-person level. Get your PR department to book these top guys on the media and lecture circuit. You should join them and speak to groups ranging from Rotary to Wiccan, Unitarian to Morman, book clubs to fight clubs and every school and library in town. (Take the Freedom of Speech-in-jeopardy angle and you’re in.)  Go on talk shows, start blogs, help with charities, sponsor events.

This old-fashioned passionate appeal 1) heightens morale, which is currently in the gutter because you’ve cut your staff to shreds and nobody knows who’ll be terminated next, and 2) it stops general readers from feeling sorry for newspapers as expendible dinosaurs and reestablishes high journalistic standards (and deliciously low entertainment values) that work best in newsprint and promise to enrich daily life. Continue reading

Why Authors Are Furious, Part 2

I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM

As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.

This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”

Uh huh. That would be fine if  these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know,  blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).

Giving Away the Ending

Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles),  the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with TomAndrew Sarris as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.

Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Chandra PrasadDon’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?

This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed,  it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Janet MaslinSecond, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.

Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times,  I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted!  It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!

Michiko KakutaniHere’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook:  If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”

Ruining the Story

And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship:  “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.

And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something  criminal about a review that says the author  “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.

Rex ReedThen there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that.    “No spoilers,” says  Reed in the Observer,  “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.

Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading

Two Furious Authors Tell Reviewers Where To Get Off

I DON’T BLAME THEM


1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman

Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending. images

Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).

Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”

Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”

But  I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because  the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”

Two Reviewers Give It Away

Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”

No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she  then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”

Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)

The Fall of Lit Crit

I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But  boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ‘em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you.  At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.

2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton

In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?images-1

You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.

Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”

But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.” Continue reading

The Million-Dollar Sure Thing

 

BRANDING OUR CHILDREN

Last week’s New York Times arts section had a story about a travel writer with an autistic son whose “wild temper tantrums” abated only when he was riding a horse.   

The travel writer had a bent for nonWestern medical traditions, so he and his wife took their son to Mongolia where shamans and horses helped the boy achieve “an amazing ‘recovery’ and ‘healing,’ ” or so the Times quotes the dad. He also said his son’s temper tantrums “all but disappeared” after the trip.

The story is meant to be inspiring, and it is, except for the many business deals that seem to trump and the son’s role in it all. For example:

1) the travel writer dad is well connected in NY, so before the trip he got a $1-million-plus advance from Little, Brown based on a 37-page proposal about the “prospective adventure.”  

2) Dad also took a filmmaker along to create a documentary. 

3) He made YouTube video of himself and his son riding a horse that “stoked interest” in the book’s auction. 

4) He optioned the feature film rights to the producers who made “Lord of the Rings” and “Golden Compass” — with himself as scriptwriter.

5) He says part of the advance is going to a ranch he’s founded to treat autistic kids who like horses. 

HOW THE BIG BOYS DO IT

I’m sure this travel writer dad started out with the idea of helping his son, and hey, maybe he needed to finance the trip so he started pulling deals together. It’s just worrisome to see every related industry kick in to make this a million-dollar sure thing with the boy as a much-scrutinized cog. Perhaps Dad realized he needed the PR value of creating the charity ranch in case somebody accuses him of exploiting both his son and autism. 

At the same time, the NYT article is written as a kind of a model scenario for writers. It says, This Is The Way the Big Boys Do It.  Don’t wait until you write the book or even know how your story ends. Build your power base now. Start the marketing process now. Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? She was writing magazine articles about exotic spas for the rich before jotting down a similar of “prospective adventure” submission, which earned her a sizeable advance that paid for an all-expenses trip around the world and resulted in “Eat Pray Love.” 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