Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Michael Crichton at the National Press Club in 2006

Today I read the news about Michael Crichton's passing. He is one of the authors I've met in person, because I had the privilege of introducing him two years ago at the National Press Club. Famous authors are at the Club all the time, and if I wanted to I could have played Zelig and created a wall full of those grip-n-grin photos that are so popular in Washington (not that they'd have a clue who I am), but seldom does meeting an author really matter to me. In Crichton's case it did. He had the sort of full-package career that I admired -- his movie directing was especially impressive, and I loved his way with a story ever since I saw Westworld as a kid. He annoyed a lot of people with his political positions, and that made me like him even better. His personality really didn't seem firebrandish, however. He was laid back and gracious (not all famous authors are that way), and easily conversational.

The photo above is a little better. It was taken by Bruce Guthrie, a photographer who comes to literary events at the National Press Club from time to time. We laughed most of the time that night -- I was choosing questions from the audience, and I tried to be a little off-the-wall because he seemed to enjoy shaking things up a bit. The face he's making is him getting ready to chuckle at a particular question.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Are you still arguing with your publisher over paperbacks?

One of the many interesting discussions I had during visits to NYU Press and Columbia University Press this past week had to do with academic authors who want a paperback version printed at the same time as the hardcover version. They usually request this because university press hardcovers are notoriously expensive -- sometimes near or at $100 for a single copy. The academic authors rationalize this demand by saying they want their students to be able to afford the book.

However, the demand works against the author almost all of the time. First, most libraries will often acquire the least-expensive available version of the book, so many will buy the softcover if it is offered simultaneously with hardcover. Result? Not only does the press earn less money, but the author receives lower royalties and the book ages out on the shelves more quickly if it is used. Second, by blocking the publisher from earning more, the author chips away at the university press's already razor-thin profit margins. This has the net effect of making publishing more expensive overall, and (surprise) it increases the likelihood that hardcover prices will remain high. If academic authors really want to see hardcover prices decrease, one consistent way to do it is to work with the university press publisher to help them publish the book in an economically sustainable way.

There is a win-win solution that most publishers are willing to offer, but few authors know to request. If you really want your students to be able to buy the book economically, coordinate with your press to provide copies to you or to your university bookstore (if the bookstore will cooperate) that reflect the deeper author discount, which is sometimes as much as 40% or more. This can bring the price of the hardcover down close to where the paperback would have been priced anyway. Result? Your press makes its money on institutional sales, you get cheaper-priced copies for your students, and your students get a nice hardcover rather than a paperback.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A marvelous, detail-rich book about a legendary place

The more-than-a-century-old artists' community in Saratoga, New York known as Yaddo gets a delectable treatment in a new book by sociologist Micki McGee. Yaddo: Making American Culture (Columbia University Press 2008) has a back-in-time feel that reminds me of one of my favorite books ever, The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love by Alice A. Carter (Harry N. Abrams 2000). Both volumes gather photographs, documents, and interviews to weave stories and pictures in a manner that that makes the reader feel like a knowledgeable insider.

McGee is the curator of an exhibition by the same name at the New York Public Library, which jointly sponsored the book with Columbia UP. Interestingly, her bio says that among many honors, she has been a resident at another famous artists' retreat, the McDowell Colony. There isn't any mention of Yaddo, but maybe that's a given, or else in her future.