Saturday, December 13, 2008

What is Google doing to the books it scans?

Google Books has a voracious appetite for out-of-copyright books, which can be good news for those of us who root around in them for tidbits like pigs in the forest hunting truffles. But what is Google doing to those books, many of which are old and fragile? Have you ever asked yourself how the scan gets there in the first place? I assume it has to go on a scanning bed, which means (potentially) cracking the spine and/or damaging pages to get a good, clear image. This photograph is a screen shot I took directly from Google Books. Does this book look damaged to you? Of course, we don't know if Google caused that damage, but how does it ensure that books are protected?

(And lest you think I'm worrying over nothing, remember what happened to many old newspapers in the early days of document scanning. Many libraries scanned all of their historic newspapers and then tossed them, often throwing away priceless literary research in the process.)

Why the advice in the columns is free

I enjoy reading advice columns for the letters, because they are often such vivid, painful glimpses of human life. But I often disagree with the answers. This week a reader wrote to Emily Yoffe, who took over the "Dear Prudence" column in Slate from Margo Howard. Yoffee herself is always worth reading; she has an offbeat energy that is smarter-than-your-average eccentric magazine writer, and she is charmingly open about her own flaws and foibles. She is a gem in her "Human Guinea Pig" pieces, and overall I consider her quite talented.

But this time around I must take issue with her resolution to a wife's question in the December 11 column (2nd letter). The wife has finished editing her husband's book manuscript, and she thinks it's awful. She wants to know if she should just keep her mouth shut, or sit him down and inform him that he'll never be published. Yoffee writes "You don't need to crush your husband—you're right, the marketplace will take care of that task—but you should be honest. The next time he starts talking about what he's going to say to Meredith Vieira when she's interviewing him on the Today show, you need to convey that the chances of anyone's book becoming a best-seller are vanishingly small, and his are less than that."

Bzzzzzzzt! As someone who has mediated in many a would-be literary partnership masquerading as a marriage, I have to throw a flag here. What? Why? How on earth can this be helpful advice? Everyone has to learn to write somehow, and some of the best-published authors today -- authors sitting at the top of the bestseller lists -- got off to a rough start. An underrated but lovely volume called Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul has a zillion of these stories, including mystery author Tony Hillerman, whose agent told him the Native American theme would never sell, and the now-insanely-rich romance author Debbie Macomber, whose friends begged her to stop typing at the kitchen table and get a real job so she could help support her family. In my own past I have a rogue's gallery of people who felt the need to inform me that my interest in writing books and working with them for a living was both unrealistic and self-indulgent. (Sometimes I think this society must have an undeclared war on literary interests.)

I am grateful to Yoffe for publishing the letter, though, because it highlights why in an earlier post I urged authors to stop making your spouses, partners, parents and colleagues your readers. 97% of the people close to us have no qualifications whatsoever to read and edit our writing, yet I counsel author after author who has been actively discouraged by loved ones who thought they were helping by being honest (i.e. unkind).

Here is my answer to the woman who wrote that letter. "You are his wife, not his editor, so if you don't care for his writing then I urge you to resign at once and return to your most important role in his life: that of partner and supporter (the role that he should also fulfill for you). Personally I would nurture my partner's dreams, whether that person wanted to write books, act, direct, sail, or run marathons. It doesn't matter if you think he's good or bad at it -- what matters is that when you two merged your futures as one, you agreed to be there for each other. If he joined a running club and had the slowest time in the group, you wouldn't stand out there on the trail yelling 'Give it up! You'll never win the Marine Corps Marathon so stop embarrassing me and get back to the couch where you belong!'

By the way, editors are losing jobs every day in this country, and most of them are very good. Let him pay a professional editor to work with him (or send him right here to Booklab!), and enjoy your retirement from the defacto book coaching profession."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Funny postscript to the Roy Blount bit below

This follow-up e-mail arrived later in the day after the earlier one. I assumed no permission was needed, but apparently others were more cautious:

The Guild's staff informs me that many of you are writing to ask whether you can forward and post my holiday message encouraging orgiastic book-buying. Yes! Forward! Yes! Post! Sound the clarion call to every corner of the Internet: Hang in there, bookstores! We're coming! And we're coming to buy! To buy what? To buy books! Gimme a B! B! Gimme an O! O! Gimme another O! Another O! Gimme a K! K! Gimme an S! F! No, not an F, an S. We're spelling BOOKS!



The Authors Guild sends a holiday message

With the blood running in the streets of New York publishing, and editors leaving to become lawyers or something, this is a timely message from the Authors Guild. I personally will make all of my gifts new, full-price hardcovers, as a show of solidarity:

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see... we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.


Authors Guild

Monday, December 08, 2008

We're in the Blue and Gray. Cool.

Assistant editor Lauren Burgoon wrote yet another terrific piece about Booklab for The Blue and Gray, Georgetown's newspaper. Normally I don't get too exited over campus publications about a university's own activities (rah-rah journalism, etc.), and I've tried to avoid being an obvious Georgetown tool on this blog, but Lauren is talented and she always brings another dimension to her work. She also did a great job when Sebastian Junger visited last year, and she has come to Book Fair at the National Press Club as well.

Lincoln's doctor's dog (with a nod to Bennett Cerf)

Book groups can make the careers of some authors, and for a few years now it has been painfully obvious that many authors are writing specifically to pander to book clubs. When the book is a gem like The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, then fine... even though the title reads like a fawning bid for the book group business (the late author herself was encouraged by her book club to write it), it also happens to be an excellent little charmer, so no harm no foul (although I still chafe at the title, and I would object even more if I were in a book club).

But what about all those other books with book club code words in the title, such as "Knitting Society," or "Friday Night," or some other semaphore that screams "We're pandering to yooooooooou, book clubbers!" Many of them even include book club discussion questions at the end. Often you'll see the name of a famous author such as Jane Austen invoked to give the book gravitas, but it usually ends up being sacrilegious, akin to using God's name to sell used cars. Some howlers are on the way in future titles, and although I do not use this blog to put down any book by name, you can find some of the forthcoming ones if you go to Amazon and type in a few of the code words above. It's enough to make you run screaming from the bookstore. ;-)

Am I holding out on you?

A while back I promised terrific new information from the university presses that I visited in New York: Columbia and NYU. Then I shared some of it, but didn't keep going. Why not? The answer is somewhat complicated, but it boils down to a lot of the information being traceable back to the individuals who shared it, even if I keep identities private. When I wrote and said "Can I blog about this?" the answer came back "In this instance, I'd rather you didn't." Normally people are fine when I blog about books using material they shared, but when a university press editor trusts you enough to offer candid industry information in private, it is understandable that she or he wouldn't want to later see it in a public forum when it would be easy enough for an insider to guess who said it.

I don't kid myself that this blog has more than its seven dedicated readers, but all seven of you are bigshots, and more than one of you could potentially know who I'm writing about. So I'm pondering how to reveal some tidbits. What I'll probably do is visit two more presses (Cambridge NYC and Norton) soon and then create some composite stories based on getting verification there for things I learned elsewhere. Once you have five people giving you a variation of the same odd phenomenon, then it's not gossip. It's news.

Should you tell your agent your new book idea?

Yesterday I had brunch with an author colleague and his wife at their beautiful home in DC. He has published books before -- to considerable praise -- and he worked with me to get a literary agent for his most recent project. Now he has a new book idea, and he wanted to know if I thought he should run it by his agent.

Without even thinking about it, I put down my fork and said "Be careful!" Then I backpedaled. What I meant to say was "Of course you can run it by her, but (I suggest) only after you've worked it through." I urged the author to work with me to develop the idea and make a wonderful case for it. The art of writing a full-featured nonfiction book proposal and sample chapter would help the author determine whether he loved this particular idea enough now to take it all the way to a book, and it would also demonstrate that book's essentiality in document form that an agent could then see.

In my experience, agents can be professional naysayers when it comes to new literary projects. For them, new books mean more work with little hope of monetary reward unless the project is highly commercial or fits a specified niche. "No" is the easiest answer in a world where "yes" means having to babysit the author through an idea that may not get off the ground. Yet by definition, most work-in-progress is just that -- embryonic, shape-shifting, uncertain. Innocent authors call their agents when they get new ideas, only to hear some variant of "It will never work."

I listened to my then-agent over a decade ago when he nixed a project I was working on about having been born into a family that lost a child, and what it meant to be the child who was specifically conceived to take the place of another. Personally I have liked the role fine (we are all born in unusual circumstances, yes?), but I thought it would be worth exploring my own family and others where a devastating loss is followed by a planned new arrival. "Too much of a downer," said my agent, and it wasn't until years later that I stopped to remember that his first book -- a bestseller -- had an equally bleak theme. His "no" wasn't the considered wisdom of a literary guru at all. It was the knee-jerk response of an agent being an agent. I don't blame him for this, because now that I work with scores of agents I can see that most of them do it.

One famous agent is known for taking client calls on his cell phone that never last more than one minute, during which time he usually barks "Don't do it!" and hangs up. No fewer than three of his clients have come to me distressed over phone calls with him that went exactly the same way. Once I detected the pattern, I was able to warn the third one about him, but she didn't believe me. So she called him, and of course the same thing happened. She then came to me and said "How can he earn a living if he says no all the time?"

Neither do I, but then, maybe he knows something I don't, because he has landed a lot of bestsellers in his day. I'm curious how, and why.