Category: On Publishing


A Reader’s Review of the Kindle

By Midge Raymond,

In today’s New York Times, Charles McGrath writes about his experience with the Kindle — from the POV of a “by-the-book reader” — and it’s an interesting piece for anyone considering buying one.

It’s also interesting for anyone who already has one. I like our Kindle for many reasons, and most of them have to do with avoiding the clutter that threatens to overtake the household: having the New Yorker delivered and stored there, rather than smashed into the mailbox and subsequently left scattered to the far reaches of the apartment; storing dozens more books without having to give up another inch of space.

But for me, as for many readers, it will never replace going to bookstores and wandering the shelves (it’s decidedly less fun to scroll through book titles on the Kindle, though it might be more efficient). It’ll never replace the feel of books in my hands or inspire me to get rid of any of my favorites, no matter how much more storage space I’ll need to rent. But there is one unbeatable aspect to the Kindle, which is that it’s truly excellent for traveling (especially with the airlines charging you for every pound these days). My only problem is that because John and I share our one Kindle, we’ll either have to book separate vacations or lug a few books around anyway.

In the article, McGrath mentions the “sameness” of each book as it appears on the Kindle — something that had occurred to me as well, first as a reader who’s used to books in all shapes and sizes and weights, and also as an author, as I prepare Forgetting English for its Kindle debut. I had an excellent book designer for the printed book and envisioned a similar design for the Kindle before realizing that, in fact, the font and layout are basically the same for every Kindle book.

The last time I checked out the Kindle “bookstore,” I noted that there are 275,000 books available, of which 111,000 are fiction and 8,511 literary fiction (soon to be 8,512!). However, as McGrath notes, “Most current books are available there, but the backlist is strangely spotty…The poetry selection is particularly skimpy.”

Though a lot of book lovers and writers are anti-Kindle, McGrath believes that “the future will not be as hard to get used to as you imagined.” And I completely agree. The Kindle will evolve further (as McGrath notes and most Kindle users will agree, it needs backlighting for reading in the dark, among other things), and as it does, I hope we can all coexist — that readers will appreciate it for what it can do, and keep returning to their favorite bookstores for all that it can’t.



The History (and future) of Publishing

By Midge Raymond,

This article in The Nation, by Elisabeth Sifton, senior VP of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is an excellent, if depressing, look at the history of publishing and its still uncertain future. (Sifton also writes about technology and culture in a way that made me a little depressed about things even beyond publishing.)

But it’s a great piece, and something well worth reading if you’re a writer with hopes for a future. Sifton recalls trends in publishing and points out, as we’ve heard before, that despite all the changes in business and culture and technology, “the arithmetic remained unchanged” in the publishing industry — and money isn’t the only problem: “The unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto).”

Perhaps these grim times will ultimately force the industry to make the huge changes it needs to, so that it might rise from the ashes into a thriving, sustainable business. This means embracing ideas that are still anathema to many — smaller advances, digital publishing, e-books — but better to adapt than to get left behind altogether.

Not even Sifton, an industry veteran, can tell us what’s ahead: “It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive.”



Briefly, because the sun is out…

By Midge Raymond,

A couple interesting things …

George Braziller’s blog offers the Narwhal Awards, to recognize booksellers, agents, publishers, and others in the industry who are finding unique ways to stay afloat in this economy. The first award went to Readers’ Books, which now sells local, organic eggs off its shelves — that is about as unique as you can get for a bookstore.

And I love this new feature from the LA Times: Off the Shelf: Writers on Writing, especially the column “When Second Novels Go Bad” (which is even more depressing for those of us still working on the first). In other entries, Nahid Rachlin remembers her childhood writing room in Iran, and Tod Goldberg  remembers Dungeons & Dragons.

Finally, Writers Out Loud: Literature for the Ear is currently accepting audio submissions — this cool new literary venture “publishes original Voice-Only Prose and Poetry as well as Multi-Audio Prose and Poetry, which may include background music tracks and other sound elements as part of the creative expression.” Check it out.

…and that’s it for today; the sun is shining in Seattle, and I have miles to go before I can bask.



Literary Pirates

By Midge Raymond,

When I lived in Taipei in the early 1990s, my furnished apartment had a television monitor that didn’t receive any local channels. Limited to watching movies, I went down the street to my local video store (all VHS back then) and rented a few films. I was happily surprised by how quickly Taipei was getting the fairly recent films from the States — and I soon found out why. The video and sound quality was so poor the movies were hardly watchable … because they’d been pirated, of course. (Even if I hadn’t been against piracy for obvious reasons, the films were so hard to watch it just wasn’t worth it.)

This New York Times article presents the latest in acts of piracy — not in Asia but here. And not films  but books.

It’s an interesting piece that shows why authors are paranoid about making their work available digitally — Ursula K. Le Guin talks about finding unauthorized digital copies of her books on Scribd. (Scribd says that it removes illegally posted content once the company is made aware of it, and it has even installed filters to identify copyrighted work.) But clearly LeGuin’s work made it through the filters, leaving authors to wonder whether they need to start devoting time to prowling through web sites looking for unauthorized copies of their work.

The publisher John Wiley & Sons employs three full-time staff members to do just that. The Times notes that most pirated content is already bestselling work, like the Harry Potter or Twilight series. Stephen King told the Times that, basically, he couldn’t be bothered trying to chase down the pirates: “My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions and discount beer.”

While the piracy problem isn’t going away, digital publishing isn’t either. Because more readers are turning to the Kindle and Sony Reader, it makes sense to offer books in digital form (in fact, we’re in the process of preparing Forgetting English for its Kindle version even as I type this post). It makes especially good sense for writers who aren’t Stephen King, or J. K. Rowling, or Stephenie Meyer. As the novelist Cory Doctorow, who offers free electronic versions of his books on the same day they are published in hardcover, told the Times, “I really feel like my problem isn’t piracy. It’s obscurity.”



On poets & writers

By Midge Raymond,

Wasn’t it great to read about Britain’s first woman poet laureate in more than three hundred years? In fact, Carol Ann Duffy told the BBC that she took the post “purely because there hasn’t been a woman.” When she first started writing, a woman poet was still called a “poetess,” which Duffy called “ludicrous.” She talked about the validity of a woman’s unique perspective — writing about being a mother, for example — but believes that “the second-class citizen element of the description has long gone, and we won’t ever see that again.”

Speaking of poets, I’ve just ordered — and am eagerly awaiting the arrival of — Jill McDonough‘s book, Habeas Corpus, a collection of poetry comprising fifty sonnets, each about a historical execution. I first met Jill years ago in Boston, where she was teaching in Boston University’s Prison Education Program, and her passion for teaching incarcerated students has clearly found its way into her work. Gail Mazur calls her “a daring poet, formally sophisticated yet pushing the boundaries of form at every turn,” and Wendy Lesser writes, “The power of Habeas Corpus, as a work of literature and as a political act, is both cumulative and chastening.”

In other news, I’m still cheering for my friend Janna, whose book The Motion of the Ocean was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly‘s top 10 summer reads for 2009! The book’s pub date is only a month away, and since it is already at the top of must-read lists, I would highly recommend pre-ordering now.

And I so enjoyed doing this interview about Forgetting English with Diana Joseph. I recently finished Diana’s hilarious and heartwarming book I‘m Sorry You Feel That Way, and the only thing I didn’t love about it was that it had to come to an end. The good news is that Diana is also the author of a story collection, Happy or Otherwise, which I’m eager to check out next.

You might bookmark Diana’s teaching blog, where the Q&A appears, as it’s a fantastic resource of author interviews and links to articles about writers and writing, including Steve Almond’s “10 Rules For Writing Real Classy Sex Scenes.”

Happy reading.



Why Writers Shouldn’t Dis the Kindle

By Midge Raymond,

At the Get Lit! festival last weekend, there was a lot of talk about the Kindle and all that it implies for publishing. John, who’d brought his Kindle along, pulled it out a couple of times to show writers how it worked — and reactions were similar to my first impressions. First: This is really weird. Then: I can get my New Yorker on here? I can take eight books on a trip on one thin, tiny device? This is pretty cool.

In this Wall St. Journal article about the Kindle, Steven Johnson describes his first “aha” moment in the adventure of electronic reading: He was sitting in a restaurant, “working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel.” He browsed through the Amazon store, bought a book, and read the first chapter before getting the check. It was in this moment, he writes, that he knew digital books would profoundly change the way we read, write, and sell books.

kindle

Johnson outlines the pros and cons of the Kindle — for example, making it easier for us to buy books, but also easier to stop reading them — and reminds us of the history of publishing and technology’s effect on ideas. He also imagines a world in which novels are impulse buys (great news for lots of us writers). He does worry, however, that because it’s so easy to switch from one book to another, one of the joys of reading — “the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas” — will be lost.

It’s an article worth reading — for both readers and writers. As a reader, for example, I love the Kindle’s dictionary feature, which allows me to simply click on a word for a definition; with a print book, I might be lazier. As a writer, I love the notion that I could sell Forgetting English as a book, or that I could sell the stories individually — and that this a la carte option might attract additional readers and a more diverse audience.

Like most writers, I don’t want to see print books go away, just like I didn’t want the Seattle P-I to disappear. But change happens…and maybe the best we can do is prepare for it, if not try to embrace it.



Dispatches from Get Lit!

By Midge Raymond,

My plan was to write about Get Lit!, from Get Lit!, on a daily basis — but I soon realized that I wasn’t going to have that kind of time (they kept us busy, in a GREAT way). So here are some highlights and insights, all wrapped up into one nice tidy little post.

Arrived in Spokane on Thursday afternoon, with the sun shining and the temperature at something-warm-enough-so-I-didn’t-need-a-jacket-for-the-first-time-in-six-months. John and I had some time to explore so we walked around the falls a bit …

spokane

… before heading to the authors’ reception at the Spokane Club, where we met other festival authors. John and Jane Smiley talked about where they went to high school (it’s a St. Louis thing), and I was happy to meet (in person at last) the wonderful people at EWU Press who brought Forgetting English into the world.

Afterward we went to the Bing Crosby Theater for a hilarious reading by Laurie Notaro, followed by Jane’s reading from Ten Days in the Hills and a Q&A afterward. Among the things she discussed were the pros of living in a small town (Ames, Iowa, in her case), where distractions are few, day care is good, and everything is close enough so that the time you might spend driving around a bigger city can be spent writing … how, after writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, she no longer compares books to one another but takes each on its own merits, appreciating them for their individual idiosyncrasies … how she tackles research differently for each book … and how she no longer reads reviews, knowing that not everyone is going to like everything she writes and not minding it at all.

The conversation continued in the morning at our panel, A Female Perspective on Writing — where Laurie, Jane, Kate Trueblood and I talked about our writing processes; inspirations; and thoughts on topics from humor, style, and writing from a female point of view.

panel

That evening, Charles Baxter read a piece he’d never read in public before: “Conversation Piece,” a lovely, poetic work that he’d written to accompany a dance performance. He then read from his novel The Soul Thief, which was inspired by a friend of his who had, inexplicably, started impersonating him, going around Southern California telling everyone he was Charles Baxter and even doing readings). The friend eventually called and confessed, asking afterward, “Do you think I should go into therapy?” (I don’t think a writer’s material gets much better than that.)

Baxter spoke afterward about, among other things, his process (to write, he needs a room with a window, but no phone or Internet connection) and about why so few stories are happy ones (“stories begin when things start to go wrong”).

On Saturday I did a reading with Brenda Miller, who read from her beautiful new book, Blessing of the Animals, and then co-taught a workshop on revision. That evening, we went to a fantastic reading and talk by scientist-environmentalist-author David Suzuki, which was a call to action to save the planet that was somehow not depressing but amazingly inspiring and uplifting. Visit his web site for info on anything from global warming to human health to sustainability — it’s worth it.

Sunday: left Spokane in the morning, stopped at a winery along the way (used the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” rule to justify tasting eight different wines), and got home to find that spring has arrived in Seattle at last.



Recycle Your Rejection Letters

By Midge Raymond,

Finally, something to do with all those rejection slips! The literary magazine Marginalia is offering a “Sad Bastard” discount on a copy of the magazine: simply mail in ten rejections and a dollar for your free issue. What a great deal.

And, in case you find that digging out those ten rejection slips is a little depressing, just know you’re not alone. Here are a few ways to commiserate with fellow rejected writers:

Read: Jon Friedman’s book Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled is a compilation of essays, jokes, sketches, cartoons, and articles rejected by venues from Saturday Night Live to Reader’s Digest, and was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “uplifting” and “fine, funny collaboration.”

Listen: Check out this NPR segment on famous rejected writers, from Jack Kerouac to George Orwell to Sylvia Plath (all turned down by Knopf). This will make any rejected writer feel a little better.

Visit: Rejection Collection posts rejection letters of all types, including those from literary agents, publishers, magazines, and art galleries — and invites you to submit. (NOTE: Be warned that the site doesn’t publish all submissions, so there exists the possibility that you could be rejected by a rejection letter web site, which might take you back to This Is Depressing).



Literature in the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

Hirsh Sawhney has a nice post in today’s Guardian Books Blog on independent publishing, noting that while many of the bigger publishers are scrambling to cut expenses, the smaller, independent presses, which have always operated on lean budgets, are doing quite well.

Sawhney admits to being a bit biased (his book, Delhi Noir, is forthcoming in August by the independent publisher Akashic) — and I’m a little biased myself, Forgetting English having been published by a university press. But I think a lot of us who love good writing will appreciate his point of view: “[What] will save literature from economic disaster? Simple: independent publishing. Yes, independents -– the ones who struggle to sell enough books to make payroll -– will ensure that engaging, challenging books continue to be produced and consumed. It’s they who’ll safeguard literature through the dark economic days ahead.”

It’s not just small-press pride that inspires Sawhney’s claim (nor is that why I’m repeating it here); it’s a fact that the smaller publishers simply do business differently, which in this economic climate has served them well. Small presses don’t generally pay gigantic advances, then suffer huge losses when books don’t earn them out. They’re accustomed to shoestring budgets (which most likely does not include martini lunches). And, as Sawhney points out, “when you’re independently owned, you’re somewhat insulated from the machinations of the market.”

Sawhney says he’s “hearing rumblings from friends and colleagues who work with bigger houses,” and while he’s not specific about what these rumblings are, exactly, the point he’s making is that he’s very happy with his own publisher — like me, he gets nearly instant replies to his emails and the careful, personal attention to his work that, these days, perhaps only an independent press can offer to each and every one of its writers.

Whether independents will “save literature from the recession,” I’m not sure…I do believe books will survive no matter what (even if we have to read them on our Kindles or laptops). But I too see the independents, and their authors, weathering this recession quite well. I’ve been grateful, many times over, that my book was published as a trade paperback (who can afford hardcovers these days?) and that every royalty statement I receive will reflect actual earnings, not how much farther I have to go until I’ve paid back my advance. And, as Sawhney writes, “The real virtue of working with an independent publisher is the artistic experimentation they not only allow, but encourage.”

But publishing is still an industry facing big changes. Kassia Krozser’s Booksquare post (or I should say critique) on the panel “New Think for Old Publishers” at South by Southwest 2009 offers an interesting and important look into the publishing industry of today. The panel’s goal was to address how traditional publishing would interact with our new digital world, “to learn what is going right and wrong in publishing…to learn how books and blogs can work.” Yet, Krozser writes, “Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative.”

Krozser followed up with another post yesterday on the same topic — it’s great food for thought, not only for publishers but for writers as well. Like it or not, publishing as we’ve known it will continue to change, and if publishers and writers alike aren’t ready, what’s likely to suffer the most is all those good books out there that won’t be able to find their audiences.



How to write a query letter…

By Midge Raymond,

Literary agent Janet Reid‘s awesome blog, Query Shark, is a great way to learn how to write a good query. You can send in a query to get posted and critiqued — but even if she doesn’t post and critique your own query, you can learn a lot about what to do (and what not to do) by reading the other posts.

A couple of Query Shark’s recent tips:

  • Always put “Query” in the subject line of an email, so agents will realize that titles like “Unleashing Your Inner Sex Demon” aren’t spam.
  • Identify who the main character is (sounds obvious, but see Query #101).
  • Always use word count, not page numbers.
  • Be humbly professional (don’t tell an agent “time is of the essence” or mention your membership in Mensa).
  • PROOFREAD. I know the Query Shark isn’t the only stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.

This is just a fantastic blog – in part because people tend to learn best by making mistakes (or studying others’ mistakes). And with the variety and number of queries posted here, it’s impossible not to pick up a few good tips. Best yet, at the end of the critique, Reid lets you know whether your query would’ve been a form rejection, a request for pages, etc.



A Few More “Don’ts”…

By Midge Raymond,

Last week, literary agent Colleen Lindsay proclaimed March 5 as #Queryfail Day on Twitter — a day on which a group of online agents, as well as book and magazine editors, post about what exactly makes them stop reading in a query letter.

It’s a wonderful idea (one she indicated will be a regular or semi-regular event) — and please keep in mind, as I reprint a couple of their examples of bad queries here, that this was done in the spirit of education:

  • “I’ve queried more than 50 agents and have gotten nowhere and now I’m querying you.”
  • “I don’t think you’re the right agent for me, but could you pass my query along to some of your colleagues?”
  • “I know you don’t represent children’s literature, but I hope you’ll make an exception in my case.”
  • “This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.”

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to add a few “don’ts” of my own. As a fiction reader for a literary magazine, I don’t receive queries but full manuscript submissions — and it’s the cover letters that are often problematic in my case. First, you must know that no matter how absurd your cover letter may be, I’m always going to read your story (it’s a karma thing). Second, you must realize that not all editors feel this way, and that a cover letter does have the potential to taint a reader’s experience of a story.

I always say keep your cover letters short and to the point: give editors what the submission guidelines ask for and little or nothing more. Including a word count and a short bio can’t hurt — but adding a three-paragraph description of your story could. (Why? Because by telling us what the story is about, you 1) take away the pleasure of discovery that goes along with a first read; 2) limit the uniquely individual experience that we might have were we able to draw our own conclusions, and 3) offer very little incentive to read the story from beginning to end, if we already know how it turns out.)

A few other things to keep in mind…

  • If you mention a famous writer you’ve studied with extensively, be sure you spell this author’s name correctly.
  • Send clean copies of your manuscript, not worn-out, coffee-stained photocopies with torn pages.
  • Make sure there are no pages missing in your manuscript, particularly those very important pages at the beginning or end.
  • While we like knowing whether yours is a simultaneous submission, it is not necessary to list all the magazines to which you have simultaneously submitted your story.

This is, of course, a small and incomplete list … and it probably makes me sound like one of the crankier editors out there (really, I’m not). But I do admit my bias in favor of the simple, straightforward query: Here’s my story; here’s a little about me; thanks so much for your time. As a writer, that’s what I send out. As an editor, it allows me to get straight to the work at hand, to focus on the story itself. And that’s where, as both editors and writers, we want our readers to be.