Archive for the 'Publishing' Category



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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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.


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