Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A book you must read if you love books

Oh, what a wonderful book this is. If you want to understand publishing history from an insider's point of view, then find and read the excellent The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors, and Authors by Al Silverman. Here's a NYTimes book review. Milly Marmur suggested it, and as in all things, she was of course correct. Maybe I love it more because the first chapter is about my publisher for two books, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and FSG has gone through some very sad, even agonizing times this month, or maybe it makes me feel nostalgic for a publishing past I never had the privilege to know (also well-documented in At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf and Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda), but this is a don't-miss-it gem. Seriously, drop everything.

Words I Looked Up: Submit

After that last post about submissions, I began thinking about the strange sound of the word "submit," and all the things it can mean. As usual, the OED was helpful but a bit florid, so I turned to Merriam-Webster. The one that fascinates me most? "To yield oneself to the authority or will of another." Scary.

Main Entry: sub·mit
Pronunciation: \səb-ˈmit\
Function: verb
Inflected Form(s): sub·mit·ted; sub·mit·ting
Etymology: Middle English submitten, from Latin submittere to lower, submit, from sub- + mittere to send
Date: 14th century
transitive verb1 a: to yield to governance or authority b: to subject to a condition, treatment, or operation 2: to present or propose to another for review, consideration, or decision ; also : to deliver formally 3: to put forward as an opinion or contention intransitive verb1 a: to yield oneself to the authority or will of another : surrender b: to permit oneself to be subjected to something 2: to defer to or consent to abide by the opinion or authority of another
synonyms see yield
— sub·mit·tal \-ˈmi-təl\ noun

Blogger bait part two

My second "I took the bait" post about this month's Poets and Writers concerns the cover. P&W gives them this front-cover line: "Four next-generation agents reveal what they love, what they hate, and ten things writers should never do." The list enumerates glitches that are hallmarks of the uninitiated, such as sending letters addressed "Dear Agent," gushing about how Oprah will love this book, sighing about how many times they've been rejected before, etc.

But why would anyone in publishing complain about this? Such mistakes are harmless enough, and it's not as though we don't all see them. Can't people be given room to learn? In fairness, I think the agents were just answering the question (after a bit of wine... it was a dinner interview). It was P&W's editorial decision to go the classic "never-ever," ruler-on-knuckles direction.

I have always loved the words of that great man of letters, Lewis Lapham, who once said that he received submissions to Harper's "with gratitude." I suggest that is how the literary profession should treat the submission letters or e-mails that come our way. Instead of instructing them on how they should dare approach the throne (the belly crawl? or perhaps the miserable grovel with a flourish?), we might consider remaining ever grateful that would-be authors think well enough of us -- and of their art -- to even try. If they get it wrong, we could simply bless them with the kindest words we can muster. (After all, even the least likely may become bestselling authors one day -- and here I think of Tennessee Williams, who legend says began with few social skills and spoke like a yokel when he first approached super-agent Audrey Wood, and who was known to write dialogue on cocktail napkins.)

We don't live long, any of us, and our relationships would benefit from more mutual ease and forgiveness, and fewer "don't" lists, especially from writer-focused magazines.

Blogger bait

I think I've been baited. This month's issue of Poets and Writers seems almost deliberately controversial... some editor out there is hoping against hope that they've peeved off enough bloggers to get some free digital ink. Okay, here's some. First the headling on page 14, "Google Gets Generous, Settles Suit," referring to the Authors Guild's heroic suit against Google. It GETS GENEROUS? Is this a joke or something? Google tried to appropriate authors' works for free, claiming a laughable definition of "fair use," and the noble Guild fought and won. It was an amazing effort carried out over years of court battles, and Google et al (while I do appreciate their interest in digitizing books) acted like a pack of low-down, scurvy dog pirates. They deserved to lose, and the $125 million payout was barely enough, not an act of "genersity."

More energy in the next blog post.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Georgetown University Press named one of the best places to work in publishing

Congratulations to our colleagues at Georgetown University Press. Their charming shop on Prospect Street was recently named the third best book publisher to work for by Book Business magazine. Although Booklab and Georgetown University Press are not officially connected, we consider them friends and colleagues, and I certainly agree that their director, Dr. Richard Brown, runs a terrific organization.

Acknowledgement and thanks to Rich Byrne as well

Richard Byrne, who was a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education before becoming the Editor of UMBC Magazine, the alumni publication of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (where I once joined a panel on publishing!), had also discussed writing an article about Booklab a couple of years ago. At the time we were too new... there wouldn't yet have been enough to say. I'm grateful to Rich for suggesting the piece, however, and then for introducing his Chronicle colleague Jennifer Howard to me/us after he moved on. She did such a brilliant job, yet of course I'm curious what his take would have been as well. You can read his blog here (it is also in the blogroll).

Booklab makes the Chronicle!

Now this is a delightful early Christmas present. The Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications and just some of our wonderful authors are featured on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jennifer Howard researched and wrote the article, and she did a beautiful job of capturing the spirit of what we do here. Although I love editors and the physical, editorial process, this is far more than a manuscript shop, and Jennifer got the nuances of that. We're here to think with you about how to further your career and Georgetown's overall stature via books wonderful books, and in the process to feed your soul (and our souls as well).

I am astonished at the amount of legwork and old-fashioned reporting she did. Not only did she come to Booklab and for an interview, but she met an author and me at Barnes & Noble, she interviewed Provost O'Donnell, and she tracked down faculty who had come here for consultations (this work is confidential, but some people offered to speak). The result is an accurate snapshot of what we have spent the past three years trying to build.

Merry Christmas, Booklab authors. It's all (as always) about you.

Once I see the print edition, I'll scan and post the cover with photos.