Archive for September, 2007

New York is Still Book Country

I’ve received a few e-mails regarding the post of last week regarding “What Will Happen to Bookstores” (though I would advise and ask that these comments be made in the Blog itself. That’s the way it works, campers.)

I think of the issues raised in that post as I write this particular week’s comment because this was the weekend that the “New York is Book Country” book fair used to take place. There’s a connection between my concern about the future of bookstores and the story of what happened to that book fair.

The New York is Book Country (NYIBC) book fair had been around for some 25 years and it was one of the events in the book calendar that I would wait for with great anticipation. It wasn’t always easy for me to attend this event: it sometimes fell on one of the Jewish High Holy Days (and, during the the time I was a rabbi of a synagogue, my employers/congegregants frowned on my puting in for vacation time just then); sometimes I lived in Boston or the western suburbs of Philadelphia; and sometimes, I was just not paying attention and I missed it. But at least a dozen times over the year, I walked down Fifth Avenue and browsed and chatted with book dealers and authors. If you would like to see what it was like, there was a nice description of the 2003 event, I believe the last one held on Fifth Avenue (between roughly 47th and 54th Streets), that appeared in the IOBA Standard. It’s at:

http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/v13/rfl3.php

That year, an anthology appeared of 25 years of talks, reminiscences and observations under the title, Metrpolis Found–you can see it at:

http://www.amazon.com/Metropolis-Found-Country-Anniversary-Collection/dp/0974061409/ref=sr_1_3/103-9744672-8575848?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1190731058&sr=8-3

The 1999 event was probably its high point, with an appearance by Laura Bush and many authors giving readings and the most intense participation of the Library of Congress in the event. You can see what the LOC had to say about that event at:

http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0001/cfb.html

Really, the event was going well and the only question people had about it was would the weather hold up. Some of the posters created to promote the Fair were real keepers: Maurice Sendak created two of them that became classic:

Sendak NYIBC Poster-01

Everybody seemed to be having a good time. Sure, New York was still reeling from 9/11 and from a blackout, and everybody was concerned about what the Internet was going to do to books and bookselling. But all that was forgotten as soon as people came in contact with the books and the stalls on Fifth Avenue.

It looked like the event would continue and grow, as institutions (for that is what the Fair has become–a New York instituion) are supposed to do.

But then something happened. It’s not exactly clear who did what–a lot of the moves were made behind closed doors, and besides, what’s the difference? The fact is that the Fair made a disastrous move to Washington Square Park–really at the urging of the Parks Commissioner, who assured the Fair’s Board and director that the Fair would find a more congenial home there and would get some real support and promotion by the city, neither of which ever materialized. Instead the Fair was met with hostile neighbors and community protest over the “clutter” and congestion that the Fair was creating in the streets. The tone of the protest was so high-pitched, that I often thought that my mother (by then gone a few years) was leading the protesters in chants of “dust collectors; dust collectors; dust collectors.” They weren’t chanting that–but they were chanting in protest and got the City to withdraw its support in a New York minute as soon as they perceived that the Fair was unpopular with the locals. (Incidentally, if anyone has a different view of these events, or can amplify and explain some things, I’d love to hear from you. My own opinions are based on conversations with people high up in the organization and in related professional offices–many of whom were hard to find and reluctant to discuss this.)

But wait! Here comes the cavalry–in the person of the New York Times. The Times offered to take over the whole shebang and run the thing–the Board couldn’t pack their bags fast enough and headed for the next stage out of town. The Times took over, and proceeded to make the following changes:

• The event would be promoted as a New York Times event in the context of the Times Talks events that take place at the CUNY Graduate Center and Symphony Space. This meant that the Times would select the speakers and manage the entire content of the event–not any book sellers.

• In fact, there wouldn’t be any booksllers. The books on sale would be handled exclusively by Barnes & Noble. Gone were the stalls and the ramshackle booths–and all those scruffy, wizened dealers, authors and bookpeople.

• The Event would be held in Bryant Park, now no longer a property of the NYPL, but privately owned and operated. (Did you know that?)

•The Event would be scheduled for–whenever those running it (which now included Target) thought best, which means, it had to fit into the schedule that the Times felt was best for the promotion of its program.

All that may be fine, and I have enjoyed and apppreciate the Times Talks program. Been to several of them myself. But what we are also left with is this: Cleveland has a book fair; Houston has a book fair; Seattle has a book fair; Miami has a book fair–all the major and many of the smaller cities have book fairs–even Brooklyn has its own book fair; you can read about it at:

http://onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.typepad.com/only_the_blog_knows_brook/2006/05/brooklyn_book_f.html

All these places have book fairs, BUT NEW YORK DOESNT HAVE A BOOK FAIR!

And I miss it. We all do–and we need one now more than ever! So here is what I am proposing: That we revive this idea. That we create a new effort and call it NEW YORK IS STILL BOOK COUNTRY. (It doesn’t have to be something that starts entirely fron scratch, incidentally. The former director told me the booths, signage and paraphenalia is all in storage and, as Thurber said about his letters, “available as Hell” and ours for the asking.)

How do people out there feel about htis? Do you remember the NYIBC Fairs of the past? Care to share any mamories of those events? And, most imporant, would you join an effort to get a new Fair–New York is Still Book Country--off the ground? Let me know. The real people who have an interest in this are the bookdealers of New York, and particularly the book dealers of Manhattan. Are there any independent bookdealers left in Manhattan? Of course there are, and their book stores are a great asset to the city. They have got to be instumental in this effort if it has a chance of succeeding. And the same is true of all those internet book merchants in apartments and co-ops all over the place–I know your out there (because I bought and sold books galore from and to you. No point hiding–not from me.)

So let’s start talking about this, shall we? I’d hate to look like an idiot when I ride a horse draped in medieval gear and me wearing knights armor, brandishing a huge pencil instaed of a lance, and a large book instead of a shield, riding down Fifth Avenue promoting the New York is Still Book Country Book Fair. And if I do look like an idiot, I’d hate to look like an idiot all alone.

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God’s Book

We just celebrated/observed Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year— and tomorrow is Yom Kippur. This was one of those years when the Rosh Hashana holiday fell on Thursday and Friday, and in the days when I didn’t do any “work” on the holiday or on Saturday, these three-day jamborees were particularly wearing. Three solid days of running around, standing in the synagogue, meal after meal after meal–a trip to the river for the Tashlich ceremony for good measure, and enough sermonizing to turn a rabbi hoarse. This year, I spent it in the pleasurable company of the kids at a synagogue on the Upper West Side–for some reason, the rabbi felt it was important for us to know that the synagogue was being sued by someone who didn’t like the way a cemetery was being maintained. (I guess they no longer make a point of telling rabbinic students never to read a sermon from a paper.)

This period of the Jewish calendar has always meant something special to me, but for a reason that might surprise you: It is the holiday that places a lot of emphasis on books. (Then again, why should that surprise you?) People greet each other with, “May you be inscribed for a good year in the book of life,” and there are many references to God writing our fate and recording His judgement for the coming year in a book. I’d often wondered, where does all this “book talk” come from? Well, it comes from the Bible—from two verses in Exodus that I have always found strange and intrigung. I’ll always remember these verses, because they were the reason I got smacked in the head by Rabbi Goodman when I was nine years old.

I went to a parochial school (a yeshiva) that was modeled on the old Lithuanian paradigm: the language of instruction was Yiddish and the religious teachers hit us when we misbehaved. I was a pretty good (or at least obedient) student, so I rarely got hit. In fact, you could count the number of times I was hit on the fingers of one hand—which means I got hit a total of five times in the eight years I went there. Each time I was smacked, it was for blurting out something so outrageous, so borderline blasphemous, that the Rabbi hit me almost as a knee-jerk reaction. This was the time Rabbi Goodman let me have it.

It’s the part of Exodus just after Moses has smashed the Tablets when he comes down to find the Children of Israel have worshipped a Golden Calf. God, understandably upset, threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel and start again with Moses (promoting him to Patriarch status, as it were). Moses pleads their case before God: Exodus 32:32. “And now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin [then well and good;] but if not, blot me out from Thy book which You have writen.” I remember sitting in Rabbi Goodman’s class with about 35 other kids; we would read a few verses of the Bible in Hebrew and then translate them into Yiddish, and then we’d do the same with the Rashi commentary on those verses at the bottom of the page. On the day we reached this portion, it was my turn to read.

After reading the verse aloud, I translated it (again, into Yiddish), and then, without thinking, I looked up and muttered audibly, “‘Book?’ What book? Who said anything about a book?” I looked up at Rabbi Goodman and he looked at me.

“What do you mean, ‘what book?’ This book—the Torah.”

“You mean the very book we’re reading right now?”

“Of couse. Why not?”

“Well, because Moses is saying these words. Did he write them down as he said them—like dictation?”

Rabbi Goodman thought a moment. “No, Moses wrote it down later.”

“Right,” I said, “because at this point, all that had been written down was the Tablets with the Ten Commandments. So what book is Moses talking about? The book that he’s going to write? But if God destroys the Children of Israel and there’s not going to be any book, is there?”

“He’s not talking about the Torah,” Rabbi Goodman said, thoughtfully. “He’s talking about another book—a book that God keeps on High in which He records who will live and who will die in the coming year, just as we say on Rosh Hashanah when we greet people with, ‘May you be inscribed in the Book of Life’.”

“Ah, so Moses doesn’t mean literally a book—a physical book with pages and binding and ink. I mean, he’s just speaking figuratively, right? It’s just a manner of speaking.”

“That’s right,” Rabbi Goodman said, but now he was a bit hesitant.

“In that case,” I continued, “I have a real problem with the next verse (verse 33): “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, I will erase him from my book’.”

“Yes. So what’s the problem?”

“You mean God uses the same figure of speech that Moses just used? He adopted the same colloquialism because Moses just used it? Is that what we’re saying? It’s as if the conversation went like this: Moses says, ‘Erase me from your book,’ and God thinks ‘Book? What book,’ and then says, ‘Anyone who has sinned, I will erase him…er…from my, er, book’.”

At this point Rabbi Goodman was peering intently at the Bible in front of him, taking this all in. He didn’t seem angered or even annoyed by any of this, and I was enjoying my primitive analyzing of the text instead of just the routine reciting of the text and the translation.

“And besides, isn’t there something missing in Verse 32?” I continued. “Moses says, ‘If you will forgive their sin…But if not, erase me from Your book.’ The part about what will happen if God forgives them is missing.”

“Well, the commentary of Rashi explains this,” Rabbi Goodman said, “He says that the ‘fine and good’ is understood.”

“‘Understood?’ ‘Understood!?’ I mean, what are we to imagine, that Moses made a motion with his hands to indicate that if the people are forgiven, then it’s good?” and I made a fine-and-good motion. (Today I guess we’d use a “thumbs-up” sign; I wonder what they used back then.) “It really seems that something is missing here–in fact the key words and the main idea of the text are missing. Rabbi, this verse seems to me to be very…very strange.”

Now, recall that the entire conversation had been taking place in Yiddish. And at the end of that last sentence, I used a common Yiddish word for “strange”—modneh. But modneh has the connotation of bizarre, screwy, unhinged—even disreputable and weird. So as soon as I said that—perhaps I was a bit proud of myself for making these observations—Rabbi Goodman jumped to his feet and hurried down the aisle to my seat and gave me a sharp smack in the back of my head. “Nothing in the Torah is ever ‘modneh’, Rabinowitz,” he said angrily. Then he returned to his desk and called the name of the boy sitting behind me and told him to continue reading.

At lunch that day, a few of us talked about what happened, trying to figure out what I had done to earn that smack. We were stumped. “Well,” said one classmate, “At least he didn’t make you come up to the desk to get smacked like he usually does.”

Later, I would discover that this practice (of leaving information understood) is used often in the Bible and it even has a name—apiosiopesis. And I would also learn that this is the source for a great deal of Kabbalistic lore about the Book or Books God (and the Heavenly Court) have up there. But it still seems like something went missing from the text–and the verse still strikes me as…modneh.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to everyone from all of us Book Templars.

What will happen to bookstores?

Of the Blogs I read regularly, an interesting one that I’ve learned from is Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020–dedicated to the future of books and publishing. I found a recent exchange on it about what will happen to bookstores. You can see it for yourself at:

http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2007/08/scott-karp-give.html#comment-81262741

The discussion is about what will happen to brick-and-mortar bookstores in the future. This is certainly an important question—there were many suggestions and comments, but what was most troubling about it all was the lack of any real sense of urgency in virtually all of the comments.

People, the number of bookstores is declining! It’s already pretty low and it’s getting lower by the day. The published statistics are misleading, insofar as they count many establishments as bookstores that we wouldn’t. (Any establishment that orders books through a wholesaler can qualify for bookseller status, even if most of what they sell is, say, Irish imports–a case I know about personally. The two big chains account for about 1800 stores across the country between them, and that number is going down in two ways: the number of stores is declining as marginal, small stores are closed; and the floor space in the chains devoted to books (as opposed to stationary, toys, CD/DVDs, electronics, fluff, coffee and biscotti) is declining as well. Right now about a third of Borders floorspace (by its own reports) is devoted to non-book merchandise, and that number is expected to rise in the years ahead. Borders display strategy places more books per square footage than Barnes and Noble (the stacks in Borders are usually a foot or more higher), so Barnes & Noble has a slightly smaller percentage of floor space devoted to non-book product, but still about the same one-third of the store (figured as dollar revenue per square foot) is dedicated to non-book merchandise. (And we are not considering the subtle change that has taken place in the change in which prime floor space near the entrance of the store is devoted to non-book product and the books have been pushed upstairs or to the rear.)

What all that means is that a third of those 1800 outlets might as well not be considered bookstores at all! The figures are better for the independents, but their number is smaller to begin with—depending on how you read the statistics, there are from 700 to 900 independents left in the United States. That means fewer that 3000 bookstores, total! And the number is going down. By 2010, we’ll be lucky if we have 2500 bookstores in the entire country. There are entire counties of the U.S. in which there is no bookstore whatever. Compare this with England or France—countries every bit as cultured as us, I dare say—and we would have three times as many bookstores in the U.S. if we had the same density as those countries.

In the past, local public libraries were able to pick up the slack. But have you been to a local branch of a public library recently? The dedicated librarians have their hands full simply maintaining the basic reference services that students and researchers need. Most of the librarians I’ve talked to have given up trying to serve adults altogether and focus their attention (not unwisely, I think) on children and young adults. Adult fiction and non fiction acquired by many libraries is highly selective—geared mainly to best-sellers and provocative titles that will attract local “patrons.” A librarian once complained to me that she resented having to purchase ten copies of The DaVinci Code just to quiet complaining users—and then had to unload eight of them—at a loss—after the demand quieted down in a few weeks.

So what do Joe and his readers suggest? They think stores should focus on print-on-demand kiosks; bookstores of the future should make internet access routine and turn significant space over to terminals. (Borders, sensing the competition to its coffee-shop operation from Starbucks and the wireless-Wifi access it provides in many of its stores, has already announced its intention to do just this.) Some of Joe’s respondents talked about the “joy of browsing through the shelves of a bookstore that simply cannot be captured by an online purveyor,” but the question remains, for how long and for haw many people will that experience (enjoyable as it is to me and might be to others) continue driving people to bookstores?

So here’s a stab at an answer: I think book dealers are going to have to bring people to their stores so that they can…meet the authors! Not physically—only the major markets can get authors to show up. I mean electronically. Picture this. An author “appears” at a local store through an internet connection that allows the author to be seen by people in the store and (this could be more difficult) that allows the author to see whom he or she is addressing. A large flat screen TV in the store “broadcasts” the author’s talk and the author responds to questions afterwards—he or she can even talk to people directly and sign books (with personalize inscriptions), which will then be mailed to the store or directly to the customer, and the revenue credited to the store. A store I know in New York routinely takes orders for signed and inscribed copies of books two weeks before the author appears live—and customers come in the week following the appearance to pick up their (pre-paid) purchase.

Here the power of the network comes into play. A group of bookstores working cooperatively can plan a schedule in which authors appear live at one store, and are simultaneously netcast to many others. The authors rotate among those stores, but each one is available to others and the event is shared electronically everywhere. Will people show up to see an electronic broadcast of an author—even a live broadcast. The experience of BookTV may give one pause. As a book-lover I am often astounded by how boring and poorly done BookTV is–and I have no choice. Here, people will come to see, hear and interact with authors that interest them.

If bookstores are going to “go electronic,” they should do so whole-heartedly, and to me that means using the internet to communicate with their local customers (who else is there?) via e-mail, e-newsletters, and podcasts that are conducted from the store or through the store. And the archive of these appearances should be used in the stores during the week to promote titles of interest. Bookstores have to become what they have, in fact always been:centers of culture and literature; a place to have a certain kind of experience that people find satisfying. Some of Joe’s commenters talked about how brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive just a movie theaters have. I wouldn’t hang a lot on that analogy—we still have to see what home theater technology and movies-on-demand will do to the theater business. (And you don’t see anyone moving in to fill the void left by the closing of Tower Records, do you?)

Now, all this costs money, and if there’s one thing independent bookstores don’t have a lot of, its money. So some of this is going to have to be provided by the deeper pockets that can afford it—and who have a vested interest in promoting and maintaining independent bookstores and books in general. That is not such a long list: it includes the publishers, the non-profits, the schools, government—and even the printers, who seem to be the only people making a buck in the book business.

So far, we’ve been talking about the stores and their design. Next time, let’s talk about a huge area of publishing that is being virtually ignored in the U.S., but which accounts for as much as 30% of the book trade in other countries.

How Long Does a Book Take?

I’m asked this often, and most people are very surprised that it takes such a long time. It’s understandable that people who are not in publishing are surprised by this; what I can’t figure out is why people who are in publishing are almost equally puzzled. I tell the people who come to work at The Reference Works, particularly the interns, to be prepared for them not being at the company when the book they work on is published—just as it is rare (and getting increasingly rarer) for an editor to be at the publishing company when a book he or she acquired and developed for that house is published. In some 60-plus books The Reference Works has produce over some twelve years, that number (the ESI—”Editorial Survival Index”) is well below .10—fewer than one-tenth of the editors who acquired the books we have packaged and produced were there at the publishing company when the book finally saw the light of day. I don’t know if there are statistics on this, but (like the stats in baseball that aren’t kept, but are still meaningful, like the runs a relief pitcher allows that are not credited to hie ERA). This is why I always insist that everyone who worked on a book be credited in it (on the copyright page), but some publishers simply brush that aside with impunity.

Now comes a book in the mail last week that was produced by The Reference Works that has a shot at a record: the book began its trek from conception to existence 38 years ago (!) and has now come off press (as the copy I received proves) and will be in book stores in November. The title is “Amazing…But False!” and it’s a compendium of many popular delusions that people harbor–things people think are true but aren’t.

Now the book was born when i was about 20 and a student at Yeshiva College. The phrase, “Amazing…But False!” became a kind of signature phrase that people associated with me. In the Seventies, I actually submitted a proposal to a publisher for such a book—not very different from what was eventually published. It was rejected—possibly because my cover letter was (oy vey!) handwritten. I tried to interest the various publishing companies where I worked in this title over the years. People liked the title and the concept, but the publishers I worked for were never in solid enough shape to take a flier on this.

When I created The Reference Works, I figured this was going to be a sure thing—it’s just the kind of book that packagers package. Still no go.

Then we were asked to submit a bunch of books for consideration by Sterling, then the newly acquired publishing arm of Barnes & Noble. So we tried it again, but this time, there was interest. It was necessary, however, to improve the package, so we added some clever cartoons by a gifted young artists, Nick Meola, and we recruited a veteran Reader’s Digest editor with the right combination of studiousness and whimsy, Dave Diefendorf. We even invited the mentalist and great debunker, James Randi, to contribute a Foreword. And so the book exists.

As an extra bonus, I included an Epilogue to this book under the title, “An Epilogue in 15 Dedications” that contained a capsule intellectual history of the book and its idea. It was supposed to have a subtitle, “If Only I Didn’t Know Now What I Knew Back Then,” but that was taken out. I had fun writing it; I hope you have fun reading it It’s attached as I originally wrote it, which is substantially how it appears in the book.

An Epilogue in 15 Dedications

I can’t honestly say whether this relationship with Sterling will work out, but I will say that, in spite of all the problems, there was a warm glow in the office the day that book came in. A long, long journey had come to an end, and that may be a good way to look at every book.

It’s Not Easy Being Beige

Here comes the New Year like a freight train. We are moving into new offices and are sending out the attached letter to our authors, friends and associates (and even to a few nudniks and adversaries), explaining why we moved and that it means more than just a physical move. You can read it at:

A-List Media Group Letter

It’s got a new logo for something we are calling “A-List Media Group” and an explanation of what that’s all about. It’s our attempt (actually our commitment to MAKING an attempt) to change the way we develop and produce books. Read it and feel free to tell me what you think.

The people who will be in the office with us–the people of IideaGroup–have been as fussy about the details of the office as I ever could have imagined anyone could be. The floor is going to be a very particular kind of copper-pumpkin color with copper metallic flecks. It’s really quite nice and eye-cathching, but then the question came up: what should the walls be? They had to be just the right matching shade and I was amazed at how earnest and concerned they were about this. There was point in the exasperation when I shrugged and smiled, and said, “What’s the difference? What’s the big deal if the floor looks a certain way or the walls are colored a very particular shade of beige to match?”

The mastermind of that operation, Jo-Anne, looked at me and said, “Aren’t you interested in changing? In making your company more than a musty producer of books nobody wants anymore? isn’t that what all this is about?” It was a poignant moment that got lost in the frantic activity of the day, but I thought about that exchange for good long while.

When I was questioning the very idea of getting rid of that large portion of the books, I ranted that many of those books were “irreplacable” and thus “priceless.” “Oh yeah?” my wife and son, Ilana and Dan, said, “Give us twenty books you think you’ll NEVER be able to get again and let’s see just how ‘unfindable’ and ‘priceless’ they are!” So I gave them my list of twenty and they went on-line to abebooks.com and bibliofind (which is Amazon’s used book service) and looked for them.

Not only did they find them all—lots of copies—there were none that cost more than $10 and most were a dollar or less; a few were a penny plus the $3.99 for shipping. Some treasures! So I unloaded that baggage easily. What this experiment has to say about the value of books—the financial value, I mean—is jarring to anyone who has a large library, but one thing is clear, for the most part, the days of rummaging in old used book stores (assuming there still are such things) and looking for books I MIGHT one day need—those days are over.

What I’m doing is, I think, very difficult for a conservative, pretty even-tempered guy like me—a person whose moonstone color is beige: changing something when things were very comfortable the old way I was doing things for a good long time, even though I’ve known for long time that they didn’t work very well. So in the process of moving, I gave up about half the library of books in the office (about 8,000 books! But remember—that was only half the books in the office!); got rid of files and furniture that seemed like they were from the turn of two centuries ago, and set up operations in a very (what I imagine to be) current and cutting edge way.

It’s the attempt of someone who is beige to become a different color–or at least to add a shade to the beige that can pick up the flamboyant color of something in the vicinity. When you’re beige, your stuck—there isn’t a whole lot you can do and if a change or an alteration is necessary, there you are in beige and where do you go from there? When you’re beige, you can’t reach out a grab hold of anything that can whisk you away from the muddy quagmire and tar-pit you’re stuck in—even when it is within reach. When you’re beige, you go with a lot of different things, which means you don’t go with anything. Bill Maher once pointed out that when something is publicized as “fun for the whole family,” that means you can be sure it’s fun for no one.

I’m not ready for a Harley or a Mohawk (both old-fashioned symbols of what people going through a mid-life crisis do to signify their attempt at being contemporary, only I’m so far from that that even my clichés are cliché.) But here goes painting my world that shade of beige that has the hint of the colors of the “wild and crazy” way we are going to be doing business. I just hope someone slaps me if I wind up looking like Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd playing those “wild and crazy” Czechoslovakian Festrunk brothers.

I wonder if Harleys come in beige.

What Does “Blog” Stand For?

Well, everyone knows it’s short for “web log,” right? Well, maybe. Consider the article that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times, page 1 of the Styles section: “The Author Will Take Q.’s Now” by Kara Jesella. You can read it at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/fashion/02blog.html

In it, Kara recounts how a number of authors have promoted their books through blogs–either by establishing blogs of their own our by submitting a guest post (or a week of them) on a popular blog. It is amusing how disappointed some of the authors she discusses are (and, it seems, Kara herself is) that publishers have cut back drastically on book tours. But let’s face it: it’s a very rare appearance where more than a handful of books are sold. Unless you’re Bill Clinton or Howard Stern, most author speaking events at book stores do not end up selling a lot of books. (Attendees usually wander off into the night muttering something about getting the book on discount at Amazon, and then wind up not getting it at all.)

But when an author blogs, the likelihood of achieving a “critical mass” of interest is higher and the contact between author and reader (or potential reader) is more direct and, I would argue, more intimate. In a blog, you can carry on a conversation in a live chat or in a give and take that will last days, even weeks–and the sense of contact is a very palpable one.

Also consider this: an author has usually achieved publication by virtue of a talent in writing, and this is often accompanied by a reserved, inwardly-directed personality. Writers as a group are withdrawn and private; they are not, in my experience, bon vivants and toasts of the town. (The few who are usually wind up making spectacles of themselves in ways that ordinary people would find embarrassing.) It stands to reason that a medium that allows the essential contact between author and reader to take place through words–but which also allows for the immediacy and intimacy of give-and-take, query and response–is going to present the author in a better light than a live, in the flesh, face-to-face encounter.

So I’m going to suggest that we start thinking of the word “blog” as short for “book log”–one of the web-based accompaniments that is part of the total authorial package that includes the book itself, but extends to other things that are critical and part of the communication process. After all, a writer may write a book, but it is the work of a great many people that resulted in that book being manufactured, distributed and promoted. Once we realize the “book” process is a collegial process, then we can get a grip on the totality of that process and include a blog in with the rest.

Just a suggestion.

A Bloggin’ We Will Go!

This is the first posting of a blog devoted to the defense and protection of the book. You wouldn’t think a blog like this would be necessary, would you? How could books be in need of defending or protection? Well, they say that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. And I’m here to tell you: there’s a problem. With books. Books are in trouble.

It’s not reading that’s in trouble. There’s still an awful lot of reading going on. But not in books. People are reading tons of stuff on-line, in magazines, on websites–and people are getting lots of information from cable television, audio books, podcasts…the competition for people’s attention is dizzying. But books as a primary or even important source of information, insight, guidance, and entertainment is on the wane.

There are many places to look for evidence of this–and, believe me, we will look at many of them in the months ahead–but one appeared yesterday in the New York Times that you might have missed–mainly because on the face of it, it seemed to be extolling the virtues of books. As a person with a passion for books–as a Book Templar–I read it with sadness.

The article was on page B1 of the Saturday, September 1, 2007, as the last of the paper’s “Summer Rituals” series. This one was by Nina Bernstein and it was entitled, “On the Outdoor Book Tour, the Word is Spreading.” You can read it at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/01/nyregion/01summer.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

As I said, on the face of it, it’s a very pleasant piece–about people in all sorts of public areas reading. But thinking about it, I was shaken: has reading become so rare an activity that we have to write (and read) articles about people simply reading a book in a public place? Imagine if someone wrote a piece about the joy of walking on the sidewalks of New York. Just that–walking. Or window shopping, or looking at tall buildings, or walking on grass in a city park…wouldn’t we come to the conclusion that we were dealing with an endangered and soon-to-be-extinct activity?

Wasn’t there a time in the not-so-distant past when people read all the time–on trains and busses, waiting in a waiting room, sitting on a park bench? I am always amazed at how totally engrossing a person listening to iPod is by what’s coming in through the earphones. Wasn’t there a time when a book could do the same thing? I haven’t seen that kind of immerssion in a book in a public place for a long time.

I wonder if someone who was sitting on a bench in a place where a “No Loiterng” sign was posted would be liable to being arrested or shooed away.

I’m glad Nina Burnstein wrote the article; I’m worried and disturbed by what I think it said.