Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Will “Linchpin” be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way? — Part 2

Yesterday we were talking about Seth Godin’s announcement that he was abandoning his publisher and was going to be self-publishing everything from here on in, presumably electronically. The story was reported in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Author to Bypass Publisher for Fans”—Page B7), by their publishing reporter, the very perceptive Jeffrey Trachtenberg, who reported the  surprising fact that Linchpin had sold only about 50,ooo copies retail (perhaps as many as 100,000 copies total, including direct and by-author sales, which in Godin’s case, is considerable—but overall, still a surprisingly low number). I discussed how I should have been prepared to take up arms against Seth and defend the publisher and the traditional book publisher, given that yesterday I received word that my own book, Religion in America, was going to be published and bound books would be available ahead of schedule (I still think somebody ought to pinch me—I must be dreaming), and I speculated (none too wildly) that this may have something to do with the coming showdown on September 28th, when the fate of Barnes & Noble (and, in my view, the entire future of publishing, books and reading in America) will be determined. (And since everyone likes a good closed-cage no-holds-barred wrestling match with two yelling over-the-top showmen, here’s that New York Magazine article again about the face-off between Len Riggio and Ron Burkle, in case you missed it.) I was stymied in my defense of the book by this surprising turn of events because it prevented me from entering some small (I was going to say minor, but no corrections can be viewed as minor, can they) corrections from an Eastern religious group, and I was going to lose sleep over this (literally—this is no joke, buster). But I pointed out that there were other aspects of yesterdays events that entered the picture. Here they are:

ITEM: I was also informed yesterday that an e-book of Religion in America was also going to be produced soon (meaning, within two or three months, instead of the usual never) after the publication of the print edition. Now, in the past, publishers have been so lax in producing electronic editions of the books I’ve produced, that I’ve accumulated the electronic rights of nearly everything I’ve ever created. We routinely had our contracts read that the publisher had one year following first print publication to exploit the electronic rights, and failure to do so—a foregone conclusion—meant that those rights reverted to me. But here was a publisher who was making a point of telling me that they were issuing the electronic edition of the book right away. What is pertinent here is my reaction to this news. I was elated. I am almost embarrassed to say that I was elated. Now it would be possible to accommodate those corrections—in fact, to enter all corrections as they are received. But there was much more:

When you do a large reference book like this, you become painfully aware of the limitations of the space of the page. Every inch becomes valuable and every column inch has to give a good accounting of itself. I’ve always told people that the most valuable experience I’ve ever had preparing me for my career as a reference editor was watching and helping my mother pack for the times we went away to a hotel for the Sukkoth holiday or for any vacation. She crammed so much into those suitcases that you could feel them straining as they were just sitting there on the floor. They were like ticking bombs, ready to burst open at any moment and cover everyone and everything in the room (or the lobby we were walking through) with all our underwear, winter coats (even in the middle of summer—because you never know how cold it gets in the mountains), and just about every other article of clothing and household goods we owned. The hackers who drove us to those hotels in the Catskills or Lakewood looked forward to picking us up with dread, knowing that the Rabinowitzes’ luggage was going to be the heaviest and most tightly packed luggage on their run—so tightly packed, that if they didn’t put our’s on the bottom of the pile on top of the station wagon, they risked the possibility that a suitcase would burst open while we were on the New York State Thruway and we (my mother, my father, the hacker, and me) would be out combing the countryside for Itzik’s long undies and little Hershele’s collection of sweater vests (a possibility that became horribly real one drizzly Sukkoth eve in 1958!).

Take a look at all the reference books that we’ve produced at The Reference Works over the years and you’ll notice that, good, bad or indifferent, you certainly got a hunk of reference for your book-buying dollar. The books had a lot of text and a generous helping of illustration, and not a great deal of white space—and even the images were not sprawling, indulgent affairs; they were to the point, compact. The books had to be attractively designed in order to be Book-of-the-Month Club Main selections (six times!), but they were filled with stuff to read, and stuff worth reading.

All right. But now we tackled the largest subject yet—Religion in America—and tried to pack it into a suitcase that was less than a thousand pages. It wasn’t easy. Many times during the process I thought, it would be nice if we had the possibility of adding the feature of a video or an audio, or additional linkages that would take readers to websites that would instruct and show religious ceremonies and historical footage, perhaps sacred sites around the world or at least in the United States. The images available alone would fill a book ten times the size. In a sense, for me the book became a kind of catalog and guide to what was available on the internet and elsewhere about each religious denomination. There are 14 essays in Part Two of the book—we could have put in 140 or more covering issues of interest and concern in the religious scene today. No reason we can’t in an electronic version—along with reader comments and video readings of addresses and lectures.

It was while editing this book that the full capabilities of the electronic medium became apparent to me—but it was also during this period that it became clear that the print edition was a critical element in the process. The print edition, burdened with all the so-called traditional values and methods of editing and publishing, was tight and fluid, easy to read and clear—hallmarks of good writing and good reference publishing. The discipline of editing is what allows the electronic to flourish in a way that serves the reader instead of inundating him and making the page a hodge-podge of what passes for information so often on the information highway. So while I have a new appreciation of the possibilities of electronic publishing, I also have a newfound appreciation of the importance of traditional bookmaking and its place in this new environment.

So I’m ready for you now, Mr. Godin. In tomorrow’s conclusion to this post, Part 3 of “Will Linchpin be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way?”—I’ll tell you why I think you’re making a big mistake—and why you’ll find yourself coming back to Portfolio (or perhaps another imprint) and the warm, supportive editorial shelter of a book editor office, a publisher’s house, and bookmaker’s home.

Will “Linchpin” be the last book ANYBODY publishes in the traditional way? — Part 1

Seth Godin’s blog post yesterday was about how Linchpin, his wonderful book about how every person can become indispensable to a company or to a start-up,  by using his or her unique talents, is going to be the last book he is going to publish in the old, traditional way. It’s an eloquent argument for doing away with the traditional way of producing books and for his personal abandonment of the the publisher as a means of communicating with his audience. It’s worth reading because it’s as good a presentation of exactly what I am fighting against and defending as one is likely to see.

This should have been a day when I was certain that Seth Godin was wrong—when I saw a glimmer of light for books and I would feel an elation about the future of books. A good day for Book Templars–let me tell you why. I received the unexpected news that a book I had edited and on which I had work for a long, long time was going to actually exist as bound books on September 21 (September 21 of this year), which happens to be my birthday. The fact is, I had given up hope of ever seeing this book in print. It was a 992-page work on the full range of Religion in America (that’s its title) and I had actually handed it in for publication, completely ready for printing (my God!) two yeas ago. But now I’d been told that the publication date has been moved up—leaving me to wonder if this has something to do with the bizarre melodrama that’s very publicly playing out in the Boardroom of the publisher’s parent company—and book will be extant a week before the “big showdown” oat that company’s stockholders meeting.

All right—let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. Let’s take it and be overjoyed. A great day for books, and great day for  me and books, right? So please explain the following several items, some related to this book, and some related to some of the other publishing projects I’m involved in:

ITEM: When I got the news regarding Religion in America, I was in the process of calling the publisher to arrange for material to be sent to the production department that consisted of some corrections that came in from one of the religious organizations covered in the book. The religion covered had been reviewed already when we first handed in the book and it had been well reviewed. These corrections were either new information that reflected the last two years of developments, or errors that had cropped up in the production process itself. (Copy editors know that the very process of correcting proof creates the likelihood of new errors being introduced into the text, and that the best you can do is cut down the errors to a minimum. Like a precious gem, some flaws always remain, and anyone who believes a book is ever published without any errors is a damn fool.)

But this religious group had been very conscientious and I had agreed to try (with no guarantees) to accommodate them and enter their corrections, late as the process was. Since the book was originally not scheduled to be out until 2011, which meant it would not be going to press until October at the earliest (and since the corrections meant changes in only two or three pages, and no re-pagination—and since I would do the corrections myself and submit them on the publisher’s FTP site ready to go), I thought there’d be no problem. But I was wrong. The publishing of the book was hurried and the books were, in fact, already being bound. And now I would have to explain all this to the representatives of the religious group, who would be understanding, I know (they’ve always been so), but disappointed, as will I, for even the slightest error knowingly being contained in the book. (It’s one thing when you know there’s an error somewhere in the book; it’s another when you know exactly where and what it is.)

Now you know that this is going to bother me no end, and that every time I show anyone the book, I’ll (needlessly) point out the really good things about it—that it contains an essay by Pope Benedict XVI and by Greg Easterbrook from Wired magazine; that it contains some 400 illustrations; that it was thoroughly reviewed by every denomination as thoroughly as humanly possible—but I’ll also point out the few errors with this particular religion and tell people that “we just didn’t have time to enter the corrections because the printing was rushed because of the corporate problems that everybody heard about in the newspapers…what? You didn’t hear about it? Well, let me tell you…”

But it get’s worse. Wait till you see Part 2…tomorrow.

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.