Today’s New York Times has a couple of interesting articles about publishing and its fate — one story, “Puttin’ Off the Ritz,” considers the new austerity in the publishing industry, i.e., cutting back on expensive holiday parties, sales meetings in exotic locales, and pricey lunches. But as editor Robert Gottlieb points out, this is “small potatoes compared to the problems they face.”
Yet HarperCollins is experimenting with a new business model that addresses the two biggest concerns in publishing when it comes to profits — large cash advances and unsold book returns — and this is a solution that works for both author and publisher. Set up last year, HarperStudio will limit author advances to no more than $100,000 and give authors half of the profits from book sales (currently it’s at 10 to 15 percent). It’ll be interesting to see how bookstores deal with the issue of returns, which dates back to the Depression — but so far Borders has agreed to take on 14 nonreturnable books from HarperStudio’s 2009 list.
As an instructor, I still run across writers who think they’ll crank out a novel and make an easy buck. (For a few lucky people, this actually does happen.) But this new publishing model would engage the writer even more, while allowing publishers to take chances on more writers, promote more books, and not worry so much about creating mega-blockbusters to earn back those huge advances. (Though the article does quote an independent bookseller who’d like to see fewer books: “[Publishers] need to have some sense of what is going on in the country and what the readers are really looking for.”)
And speaking of new publishing models, this article on Google’s book search highlights the program as a way to get out-of-print books back to readers, as well as providing a great resource for researching just about anything (such as the phrase “you’re not the boss of me,” which, by the way, was coined in 1883). It’s good news for authors and publishers, too, as they receive 63 percent of revenues. According to the article, Macmillian offers 11,000 titles for search on Google through its various imprints and estimates having sold 16,400 copies through Google in 2007.
With all the bad news about the economy (and all the talk about the demise of books and bookstores in general over the years), it’s good to see the industry embracing new ideas. People are always going to want and need books — but they way they’re acquired, sold, and read is definitely changing. As Paul Courant, university librarian at the University of Michigan, told the Times, “There is no short way to appreciate Jane Austen, and I hope I’m right about that…But a lot of reading is going to happen on screens.”
I’m so glad it’s 2009 (for so many reasons). I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions (which I always forget by the end of January anyhow), but I do find it a good time to map out some writing goals — and having a day off is the best way to get started on them.
I’m lucky to have a couple of great friends whose life’s work helps me so much with these things. Last year, I set a few writing goals that I wasn’t sure I’d meet (it was a crazy year) — but thanks to my friend Stacey, I met each and every one. She happens to be a life coach (and a great one), but the key is to tell someone what you want to accomplish — or even several people. They will always ask, How’s that novel coming along? or Have you sent out that story yet? Finally, you’ll get tired of the questions, and you’ll just go ahead and do it already.
I also love my friend Judy Reeves’ wonderful book A Writer’s Book of Days, which has a writing exercise for every day of the year. I’m going to start today (last year, I only made it through early March, but that’s the nice thing about having a whole new year ahead). This book is one of the best things I have on my bookshelf — it’s great for writer’s block; you just pick an exercise, and you’re cured.
Happy New Year!
You’d think — after James Frey (we all remember James Frey), then Margaret Seltzer (she’s the one who wrote the “gang memoir” about being a white girl raised in an African-American foster home, when in reality she grew up with her own family in a lovely Los Angeles suburb), and then Misha Defonseca (whose memoir about running from the Nazis and living with wolves turned out to be fabricated) — that we’ve seen the end of fake memoirs, canceled publishing contracts, and poor Oprah being duped. But not quite: this article in today’s New York Times tells the story of yet another one. Another amazing love story, another unbelievable Holocaust memoir — and another confession from the author that its premise is not true. And yes, another canceled book contract.
It’s not that I blame the agents, editors, and publishers — they can’t fact-check every detail of every manuscript that comes across their desks, though they might consider doing a bit more given the prevalence of fake memoirs these days. I’m just not sure what these writers are thinking. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t just go ahead and write a novel instead of a “memoir,” when they know the story is untrue and often have to go to elaborate lengths to perpetuate the lie.
I can empathize with the notion that a story can seem more powerful if readers know it’s true — but this is only the case when, in fact, the story is true. What about the power of fiction to open readers’ eyes to truth as well? (I’m not just saying this as a fiction writer but as a former nonfiction writer who remains a stickler for getting the facts straight.)
In the end, I worry that writers with legitimate stories will find it hard to earn the trust of agents, editors, and publishers, and I worry that readers may stop caring whether a memoir is true or not, as long as it’s a good story (this is especially frightening with such historic events as the Holocaust). If writers keep blurring the lines between fact and fiction — and keep getting published — then what?
I’ve just posted an excerpt of one of the stories in Forgetting English for all of you who are just dying to start reading (okay, just humor me here). Click here for the excerpt, which is from the story “First Sunday,” first published in Indiana Review.
I’d like to say a special THANKS! to Rebecca Raymond, without whom I could not have written this story (which is not in any way based on her life, in case you wonder about that after reading it…all characters and their actions are purely a figment of the author’s imagination and are not based on actual persons, living or dead, yada yada yada). But, being a former journalism type and therefore being a stickler for details even when I’m making stuff up, I wanted the fine print of the story to be just right, from the Tongan phrases to life in kingdom’s villages.
It’s so great to know people who do interesting things and don’t mind your stealing their material. Thanks, Beck.
Not that the holidays alone don’t provide us all with plenty of writing material…but I love this project by photographer Andrew Bush, in which he snapped photos of people driving around (mostly) Los Angeles. From Highway 101 in the summer of 1989 to the Hollywood Freeway in 1991 to the Glendale Freeway in 1997, these are (ostensibly) private moments in which people are driving alone, singing or whistling or just looking irritated by traffic — or with others (family, friends, dogs, and parakeets among them). One guy is reading what looks like a book (but I’d hope, at least, it’s a map), and at one point the photographer detoured all the way to Rolla, Missouri — but it’s mostly California and completely entertaining.
I love looking at these and wondering who these people are, where they’re coming from, where they’re going — and what is that guy smoking, and where did those nineteen bullet holes in the blue coupe come from?
My friend Nicole just got me to sign on to Goodreads, and it’s so cool.
Goodreads is great because you can see what all your friends are reading, and friends are the ones who always recommend to me what end up being my favorite books ever. Being brand-new to the site, I only have a couple books up there on my “shelf,” but of course the list will grow. For karmic reasons, I haven’t done any reviews, and I’m leaving off the books I’ve recently begun and haven’t been able to finish (if anyone out there hates Forgetting English or simply can’t get through it, I don’t really need to know that…and with that in mind, I can’t do it to anyone else). I do love reading others’ reviews, though.
Since I’m not very technically minded, even on a site this easy to use, I inadvertently sent a “join goodreads” email to every single person in my contact list (sorry, guys!). But this has turned out to be a good thing … except for the fact that I now have an even longer list of Things I Want to Read.
I wanted to share this story by the brilliant Melanie Rae Thon, appearing in Drumlummon Views — it’s breathtaking and beautiful. And it’s just that time of year when we should all take a little time to curl up with a good story and a cup of tea (or hot buttered rum, whatever it is you go for).
I liked this post by Debra Darvick on the hidden gifts of rejection. Rejection is something we’ve all experienced if we’ve been writing long enough — and certainly if we’re published.
My favorites are numbers 3 and 5, about how rejection makes us stronger — but I also really enjoyed Darvick’s creative suggestions for what to do with these rejection letters (see number 4) as well as the one big stretch (see number 8, about how our rejections help the U.S. Postal Service).
And if you’ve been published, you know that number 10 is absolutely true…if you’re still waiting, this is what you can look forward to.
It’s that time of year again — the Literary Review has announced its fourteenth annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. This year’s winner is Iain Hollingshead for a passage in his first novel Twentysomething.
As many of you know, the award was established with the aim of “gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.”
Author Tim Willocks was the runner-up (The Religion), but, as the Literary Review notes, “ultimately Hollingshead’s ‘bulging trousers’ tipped the balance.” Another consideration was the fact that “Hollingshead is a first-time writer, [and] we wished to discourage him from further attempts. Heavyweights such as Thomas Pynchon and Will Self are beyond help at this point.”
You can read the winning passage as well as those of finalists (including Mark Haddon, Thomas Pynchon, and Julia Glass).
Misspelled words should be accepted as “variant spellings” rather than corrected, says Ken Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University in England, in this BBC article.
Apparently Mr. Smith is tired of correcting common spelling errors, and proposes that instead of “complaining about the state of the education system,” we simply add a couple dozen of the most commonly misspelled words to those that have “variant spellings.” In one argument, he asks, “The spelling of the word ‘judgement’, for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of ‘judgment’, so why can’t ‘truely’ be accepted as a variant spelling of ‘truly’?”
I have yet to accept “alright” as a variant of “all right,” so that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the issue. But I know I have more than a few former undergraduate students who would love to see Smith’s proposal widely adopted.
I just read this story about an interesting twist on Twitter — Quillpill, which though still in private beta is available by invitation at Techcrunch. It apparently is a new way for all would-be-novelists-if-I-only-had-the-time to write their novels…you simply write it 140 characters at a time, from your cell phone, whenever and wherever.
It sounds like lots of fun, except for two things: while it’s free now, a paid subscription is planned; plus the fact that while I appreciate the 140-character limit for the sake of concision, I wouldn’t necessarily want the world to see my first drafts of much of anything, even if it’s only 140 characters long.
But it’ll be interesting to see where this goes … Quillpill founders were inspired by the popularity of mobile publishing in Japan, where books written on cell phones have sold hundreds of thousands of copies — and some have gone on to become bestsellers in print.
I just discovered Word Spy, a web site “devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases.” Words featured here are new terms that have been legitimized a bit through multiple appearances in newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites, and other recorded sources.
Some of the words and terms are hardly new — the publishing section lists such familiar terms as “backstory” and “chick lit” — but others in this section were a nice surprise, like “me-moir” (a memoir that is exceptionally self-centered) and “shnovel” (a self-help book disguised as a novel).
Overall, it’s lots of fun, and it’s a great way to fill up a few moments of “microboredom” (boredom caused by having nothing to do over a short period of time). Enjoy.
This weekend I discovered FreeRice.com, which has proven itself to be yet another wonderful way to escape the blank page. It’s a fun little word game (rather like the SATs, only without the pressure) in which you guess the correct meaning of a word, and the program will adjust to make subsequent words harder or easier, depending on how you do. It’s good news all around: Free Rice will help you improve your vocabulary (if you’re ignoring your writing, you may as well be doing something that will enhance it) and, best of all, will donate rice through the UN World Food Program for every word you get right (okay, so there’s a little pressure). But you can play as long as you like, learning new words and helping combat world hunger. I’m hooked.
When the Los Angeles Times published my short story, “Aftershock,” in its Sunday magazine, it was fact checked. In fact, I was contacted because one of the story’s lines — “She’d never felt the earth shake until she moved to California, even though she’d grown up near the largest earthquake ever recorded, the one that sent the Mississippi flowing backward, that cracked chimneys in Washington, D.C., that made church bells ring in Boston–all from its epicenter in New Madrid” — was not technically accurate. The New Madrid earthquake is, in fact, ranked sixth or seventh on the list of most powerful quakes, and despite the folklore, there is no evidence that the Mississippi River actually flowed backward or that it cracked chimneys in D.C. (I hadn’t checked — this is supposed to be one of the benefits of writing fiction.)
But I was impressed. After all, this was a piece of fiction, and yet it had been checked for accuracy as if it were nonfiction. (We revised the line to read “one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded” and allowed that we could leave the rest alone, as it reflected the character’s perception of those events.) This sort of attention to detail shows a great deal of respect for the reader; it suggests that someone out there, even knowing he or she is reading fiction, might just be sharp enough to catch this inaccuracy. And the problem was resolved in two emails.
If only the New York Times, before publishing its feature on Margaret Jones, aka Peggy Seltzer, had asked fact checkers to send out a few emails, or make a few calls. Instead, the paper ended up publishing an embarrassing follow-up story about how she fabricated her entire memoir.
And now, with more and more memoirs being outed as fiction, it seems that publishers, too, might have to start adding fact checkers to their staffs.