Saturday, November 29, 2008

Even Dickens tried self publishing

I have long maintained that there is nothing vain or historically new about the current trend toward self publishing. Although it often presents a rough road for authors, and considerable financial risk, it is both viable and honorable, and never to be sneered at. From the day the first printing press took the first bite of type on good, cotton paper, we have had self-published books. I have also shared the names of famous authors who self published, from Lord Byron to A. E. Housman to Marcel Proust.

But now there is another name to add to the roster: Charles Dickens. His scholars surely already have known this, but I only just learned from Jonathan Yardley's review of a new book that he paid to have A Christmas Carol published because his publishers were not interested. In Yardley's words quoting the author: His publisher, Chapman and Hall, expressed little enthusiasm for the book, so Dickens decided to have the firm bring it out "for publication on his own account." All the risk would be his own: "He would be responsible for the costs of the book's production, which would be deducted from its sales. He would also oversee the book's design, hire its illustrator, and consult on its advertising. In essence, his publishers -- which would receive a fixed commission tied to sales -- had become merely his printer. In contemporary terms, then, A Christmas Carol was to be an exercise in vanity publishing."

The book is The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford (Crown 2008).

JO'D in the TLS

The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a "Book of the Year" in the Times Literary Supplement. Here is what British author and Byron scholar Tom Holland writes: "James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (Ecco) takes as its centrepiece the period of Ostrogothic rule in sixth-century Italy... [it is] revelatory: scholarly and original, unafraid to tackle profound issues of cultural and religious identity, and often hauntingly poetic."

Another good writer disguised as a journalist

I found some more humorous writing in The New York Times, this time from Towle Tompkins. Tompkins offers three (now) articles about the East German Trabant, a car with the soul of a cold war tin can that fell out of fashion when the Berlin Wall came down. Apparently the Trabant is back, and Tompkins is celebrating with sparkling prose dotted with just the right balance of humor and insight: "The good news is that the Trabant is twice as powerful as a Sears Craftsman two-stage snow blower; the bad news is that it’s twice as loud." Tompkins's series would be well-positioned as the run-up to a charming book.

So perhaps you ask, "Hey Book Blogger, you're a Washingtonian, so why don't you point out great humor writing in The Washington Post?" The Post does have occasional writing that makes me smile, but much of it is too often obvious and lowbrow. I don't respond to it in an "I'm above this" way, but rather in a "potty humor is lame and too easy" way. Some of the Post's writers have earned kudos for their humor writing, and the recent humor Pulitzer was well deserved, but the day-to-day level of the wit could be better. If I see something, though, I'll post it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

POETRY magazine has the coolest covers. Ever!

Just a note that I love many of POETRY magazine's covers, and I can't say that about all journals. A surprising number of them are actually off-putting. But POETRY has some amazing art. Just visit this link and click around:

The Journal Experiment: Cracking Poetry's Code

One of my glorious correspondents sent this insider information about getting her work into POETRY magazine. Part of the secret, it seems, is persistence, but not just any ol' kind. Many authors interpret persistence as "sending the same thing again and again." (These souls are often of the "I'm a genius, but those idiot editors can't recognize it" school.) Instead, my correspondent intelligently made the assumption that most successful journal editors actually know what they're doing, and s/he adjusted accordingly.

"Like all poets, I have hazarded a submission to POETRY magazine. Like all poets, I received my generic rejections--three times over. I crossed paths with the editor and sent again, hopeful; again, rejected (though gracefully, with a personal note, by which I mean a hand-scribbled sentence). When I sent again, I stacked the deck: a long poem, a formally acrobatic poem, an ekphrasis. I'm not sure if there's any particular code-cracking to POETRY--as safes go, it is dynamite-proof--but somehow, I made it in. Three poems forthcoming! (She says, before fainting in exhaustion and relief.)"

Besides the "I'm a genius" assumption, many authors come to me after one or two rejections, heart-in-hand, crushed that they weren't loved enough to be published (yet). Huh? I usually smile and say I don't want to hear any complaints until at least rejection number 30. Authors tend to exaggerate the number of times they actually tried, and they also think that rejections are even remotely personal. In fact, they're so impersonal that unless you made a particularly strong impression for some reason, you can probably try again in a week with no fear of even being recognized, let alone spotted as "That doofwad dreamer we so wisely bounced last time."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kinda sweet

I found the video of the man who wept when the library closed to be quite touching. Some internet folks seem to be laughing, but I get it. One of my earliest memories is of going to the George Mason Regional Library in Annandale, Virginia with my mother to check out books. I remember sitting in the aisles to read, and also going to the adult shelves long before I was old enough to understand the books over there. I checked out Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood: A Play For Voices with absolutely no idea who he was or what any of it meant. I don't even know why I picked out that particular book, something critics think is either a mishmash or a masterpiece, depending on who you ask. Whatever library they were planning to close, I hope his heartfelt plea saves it.