Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is the University of Minnesota Press's Backlist Initiative Good For Authors?

According to Publisher's Weekly (November 21, 2008), "The University of Minnesota Press has announced a new initiative to reissue virtually every book published by the press since its founding in 1925. The project, Minnesota Archive Editions, was unofficially launched six months ago in partnership with, Google, and BookMobile, a short-run printing company specializing in POD and bound galleys."

At first glance this seems good for authors, especially academicians whose work might otherwise be unavailable except through library loans once it goes out of print. But the Authors Guild has long pointed out that "out of print" serves a contractual purpose for authors as well as publishers. Here, in the Guild's own words, is its interesting point on this subject (italics mean a quote from the Guild's website):

Your publisher should only have the exclusive rights to your work while it is actively marketing and selling your book, i.e., while your book is "in print." An out-of-print clause will allow you to terminate the contract and regain all rights granted to your publisher after the book stops earning money.

It is crucial to actually define the print status of your book in the contract. Stipulate that your work is in print only when copies are available for sale in the United States in an English language hardcover or paperback edition issued by the publisher and listed in its catalog. Otherwise, your book should be considered out-of-print and all rights should revert to you.

Negotiation tips:

Don't allow the existence of electronic and print-on-demand editions to render your book in print. Alternatively, establish a floor above which a certain amount of royalties must be earned or copies must be sold during each accounting period for your book to be considered in print. Once sales or earnings fall below this floor, your book should be deemed out-of-print and rights should revert to you.

Stipulate that as soon as your book is out-of-print all rights will automatically revert to you regardless of whether your book has earned out the advance.

So do I agree with the Authors Guild on this one, or the University of Minnesota Press? Dear reader, I'm torn. I can think of valid arguments pro and con. It's true that a publisher can lock up your book forever in electronic form, spitting out a copy every two years and never giving you the rights back. But does that matter in the case of academic work for a by-definition small audience? Isn't it only a problem if one can earn money on the book by republishing it elsewhere? (And yes, many books gain new life this way...)

I'm open to arguments pro and con from anyone who wants to weigh in.

My first Kindle disappointment

I wasn't in the earliest wave of Amazon Kindle adopters, but I got one fairly soon after they were released, and I love it. Living carless in the city I am on public transportation a lot, and Kindle has turned my commutes from drugery to pleasure. Sometimes I even hope the bus or train will wait a little while longer so that I don't have to interrupt a chapter to board!

So why am I now so disappointed? Because Kindle has (predictably?) begun jacking the price of its books. It promised less than $10 even for new books. But the just-released biography of V. S. Naipaul (which reviewers seem to admire, yet I don't plan to read, as good as it may be, because I just don't want a litany of author's private lives in my head -- in grad school I burned out on Plath, Hughes, Lowell, Sexton, and their ilk, and I Just Don't Care Anymore -- but I post it here as an example) is $17.82.

HUH? Paying around $10 for a book you can't give as a gift or share with anyone else was stiff enough, but I went for it because of the convenience. But $17.82?

That, my beloved seven readers, is a rip-off.

Why it is so challenging to pitch authors to radio

Radio and authors seem like a natural fit. There are so many wonderful regional radio programs around the country, and it only makes sense that some of them will be just right for particular authors, especially those who are conversational and have an exciting story to tell.

So why doesn't your publisher simply keep an exhaustive list of radio producers, and assertively pitch you to them? Come to think of it, why didn't your publisher bother to book you on regional radio programs all over this great land of ours?

I just found out why. Because every show, no matter how small, wants a free copy of the book. The cost of the book itself isn't even the biggest barrier, because books are far less expensive for publishers than you might think. But there's a second consideration: postage. And a third consideration: people power to label packages and stuff envelopes, plus the clerical work involved in keeping track of personnel changes (even the expensive media database services aren't perfect at this).

Can you imagine how much time and effort it would take to package, label, and send out several hundred copies of a book just to land a slew of regional and/or local radio shows? Of course it is worth it for the national shows, and even for the major regionals. But when you're talking about a program that has a community reach or even smaller (some stations only broadcast for a few miles), unless you're fairly certain they'll want your author, it becomes a game of diminishing returns.

Anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love community and regional radio. This is not even remotely a swipe at these programs or their producers -- I can certainly understand why they would want to see the actual book before inviting a guest on the show. But now that I have spent some quality time pitching certain select authors to radio programs nationwide, I also get why it doesn't happen more often, and why publishers don't typically go hog wild pitching their authors all over the USA. Who can afford it?

This is one time when an electronic version of the book available online in a limited format for regional radio and TV programs might be the way to go. But the technology just isn't there -- as a producer you can't look at the electronic version (yet) and tell whether the book is cool enough for your program. If I find a solution to this interesting dilemma, I'll post it.

(Oh, and the next time any authors reading this blog are tempted to sigh that your publisher didn't seem to push your book hard enough on radio, um, send me a note and we'll tawlk.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stephen Coonts at Booklab

Steve Coonts stole the day by making an audience of Georgetown faculty laugh... he is quite funny! Yes, he talked about book publishing, and yes, the outlook was bleak for fiction writers (it is as tough or tougher now than ever), but he offered some heartening statistics. Did you know that almost half of the books published in the U.S. today are fiction? Granted, much of that is by established writers, but it's still a good number. At one point he said "Remember this, class, because it will be on the quiz: trade publishing is a for-profit business!" He stamped his foot on each of the last three words for emphasis. Authors like to come to trade publishers with artistic work, but publishers like (and need) to turn a profit. Genre writing isn't the only way to do it (just ask Anne Tyler, A. S. Byatt or Paul Auster), but there has to be some consideration of what will make the book successful.

Coonts is convinced that it's all about characters. He does not believe that strictly plot-driven or gimmick-driven fiction can last long, although he acknowledges that it sometimes makes it out there. He emphasized both how he draws his own characters, and how he suggests that authors think about them. He prefers fiction with larger-than-life characters to that which reflects reality too faithfully, and he has a resistance to heroes who too closely resemble the author him or herself. I've heard debates on this either way, and I think it boils down to the artistry and skill of the author. Some can pull off autobiographical main characters and some can't, but for Coonts's money it's better to look outside oneself. As realistic as he was about how hard it is to get an agent these days for fiction, he also added that most manuscripts bobble not for lack of an agent, but because their authors need to learn their craft. He's also a big fan of writer's conferences (this was a surprise to me, as he seems a bit iconoclastic for that sort of thing), and he believes valuable author-agent relationships can be forged there.

The above photo was taken later yesterday evening at Book Fair.

Book Fair at the National Press Club -- Aftermath

We survived! There were record crowds last night, and it was wonderful to meet Roger Mudd, James Reston, Jr., Justice Scalia, and to re-meet Helen Thomas and Chip Bok, Alan Geoffrion, Russell Baker, Jim Wooten, and other stars. This is a photo of your book blogger (exhausted from chairing Book Fair this year, but trying not to show it) with (l-r) Jacques Berlinerblau, author of Thumpin' It, Alison Crowley, a Georgetown student who works in this office, and James J. O'Donnell, author of The Ruin of the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bret Hart will be at the Press Club, not my house!

In one of the more bizarre twists to come out of Book Fair this year, Bret "The Hitman" Hart's official website accidentally posted my home address and telephone number for his signing tonight, instead of the National Press Club. His publicists quickly corrected the error, but not before it was picked up by a number of fan sites. I have been fielding professional wrestling inquiries for two days now!

My interest in pro wrestlers goes back to around 2000, when I met legendary wrestler Luna Vachon on a plane ride from Tampa to DC (Tampa is a big hub for pro wrestlers). We had a great conversation, and I came away with so much respect for the history of the sport, and for what she termed the modern-day carnival. Her husband Gangrel was also on that flight, and later on another flight I met the Bushwhackers. When I became chair of Book Fair at the National Press Club late last year, I wanted Bret Hart in as a nod to that long-ago plane ride with Luna and her colleagues. He has certainly proven to be a popular choice, but who knew that fans might be showing up at my front gate tonight?

If you are reading this and wanted to go to Book Fair to meet Bret Hart or any of the other 85+ authors, PLEASE go to 14th and F Streets, NW (The National Press Building), 13th Floor, at 5:30 p.m. Do not come to my house. If you do, you will find the lights out, and a printed map with directions to the National Press Club. ;-)

Monday, November 17, 2008

A cup o' cliché

In an earlier post I wrote "a side-order of snark," and then later wondered if it was a cliché, so I googled it. Yep, cliché.

National Press Club 31st Annual Book Fair and Authors' Night

Wow, Book Fair is tomorrow night! I should have blogged about it earlier, seeing as how I'm the chair and all, but I did create a Facebook group, and we have had amazing publicity. It's an editor's pick at The Washington Post, we were on Elliot in the Morning today when Bret "The Hitman" Hart made an appearance on that show, Roll Call buzzed today for a quote, and we're in the regional media all over the place. Georgetown University will be represented by authors James J. O'Donnell (The Ruin of the Roman Empire), Jacques Berlinerblau (Thumpin' It), and by Anna Lawton and New Academia Publishing.

Other stars include Roger Mudd, Helen Thomas and Chip Bok, Kerry Kennedy, Senator Mel Martinez, sports authors Len Shapiro and Andy Pollin, Russell Baker and Jim Wooten (featuring the work of their friend and colleague, the late David Halberstam), James Reston, Jr., professional wrestler Bret Hart, bestselling author Stephen Coonts, renowned artist Wendell Minor (who designs David McCullough’s book covers,, plus he contributed rights to use the Abraham Lincoln image on this post and on the official poster), historian Thurston Clarke, Loretta and Linda Sanchez (the first-ever sisters in the House of Representatives), Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Senator Jim DeMint, celebrity chefs including Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, Kennedy family chef Neil Connolly, and “Made in Spain” star José Andrés, for a total of more than 90 great authors.

Just $5 buys all the excitement you can handle. 5:30 - 8:30, and you can dine at one of the club's two restaurants (casual upstairs, fine dining downstairs) afterward. 14th and F Streets, NW (National Press Building), 13th Floor.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Thriller author Stephen Coonts at Booklab

Booklab continues its proud tradition of bringing authors, editors and agents to campus. We started with Paul Aiken and Jan Constantine of the Author's Guild, and then soon followed with authors Sebastian Junger and Thomas Moore, agent Mildred Marmur and editor Cary Goldstein. Now Steve Coonts joins us. He wrote the classic Flight of the Intruder, and his newest thriller is The Assassin. Why do I bring a thriller writer to this oh-so-scholarly campus? Because I know your secrets, people -- scores of Georgetown's faculty, grad students, staff and undergraduates are closet thriller writers. I have seen your manuscripts and the truth is undeniable: many of you dream of seeing your name in bright, foil type on a hardcover book with a picture of a gun on it! Coonts is one of the very best, and he will join us for a 12:00 talk on Tuesday, November 18 in the Murray Room of Lauinger Library. This is open to faculty and select graduate students, and RSVPs to me are an absolute must because of space (the room holds 50 and we have 40 now).

Good writing found accidentally

I found a charming, witty, well-written article in today's New York Times, and I was so surprised that I almost wrote a fan letter to the author. Published wit seldom seems warm anymore -- it is all too often accompanied by a side order of snark, and a kind of deep-in-the-bones cynicism that can border on outright bitterness. So imagine my surprise at finding a straight-faced appreciation of Grand Central Station in the Times, written by Seth Kugel, a gifted writer with a name so perfect that it seems like a pseudonym. I was engaged enough to visit his website, where I learned that he will soon leave to be a full-time correspondent in Brazil.

He says he has co-authored a travel guide, but surely that's just throat-clearing. When will his first single-authored book appear? We need another Thurber, a colleague for Trillin, hell, we could use a new Bombeck while we're at it!