The Five Biggest Cultural Events Of 2015

December 30, 2015

41199682-fa08-4cca-9691-bfdd5163c812_12731_CUSTOMHAMILTON. Every bit as crowd-pleasing as it is brilliant, this changes everything, as OKLAHOMA!, HAIR and RENT once did, by bringing fresh ideas into the theater just when we needed them. Among the show’s legion of fans is the President of the United States (and he saw the understudy!), who commented, ”I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on during my entire political career.” The night Cheney attended, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” A hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers is the toughest ticket in New York: who would have thought? Before HAMILTON wins its inevitable Tony next June, I predict it will have already earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

UnknownTRUMP. Talk about a disruptor! The Pub race was always gonna be colorful (Rick Santorum again?), but Jeb! was supposed to be unstoppable: guys like Rubio and Kasich were actually running for vice president, went the wisdom. Then Donald J. Trump shows up with a very simple message for the Pub base: (1) I don’t even HAVE a dog whistle, so I say out loud what you’ve been thinking all along; and (2) I’m so rich that the power brokers can’t buy me off. Add that to a general loathing of professional politicians among the Tea Party set (the wet-eared, anti-governance Freedom Caucus just obtained the scalp of its own party’s Speaker of the House), and Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are promoted as electable not despite, but because of their ignorance. The star chambers which actually run the party have been impotently predicting The Donald’s demise for six months, but now the RNC is making contingency plans to protect its down-ballot candidates against an ever more possible Trump nomination. Absurd, yes. But party bosses have to think about it. Anything less would be malpractice.

Unknown-1ADELE. Recorded music was supposed to be dead to streaming and piracy. Then Adele released her album 25, and to say it was eagerly awaited is the understatement of the 21st century. In its first week, 25 sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S., shattering quarter-century sales records to bits and making it far and away the most lucrative cash cow of the digital era. To put it another way, that week 25 was responsible for 42% of all recorded music sales; the closest competitor in this regard is Taylor Swift’s RED one year ago, and she controlled barely half of Adele’s market share. Her listeners come from all shades of the music spectrum: men and women, old and young, people who barely follow what’s left of the music business. Her single “Hello” became so ingrained in the culture that it was able to serve as the recurring punch line for a SNL sketch, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” the week she appeared.

tfa_poster_wide_header_adb92fa0STAR WARS. Adele the most fervently anticipated in the year of THE FORCE AWAKENS? I still say yes, because of the utter domination of her business. But I doubt there’s a living being anywhere up the food chain from the unicellular flagellate that wasn’t aware of the coming date of December 18. The hitch was that many devotees had been soured by the ho-hum “prequel” trilogy, so the #1 job of Bob Iger and the marketers at Disney, new owner of Lucasfilm, was to get the fans back on board. I won’t go into detail (see it soon or it’s sure to get spoiled for you), but mission accomplished. And the globe-spanning magnitude of STAR WARS fever was up there in Adele territory. It took THE FORCE AWAKENS just two weeks to become the all-time worldwide #9, and it could even be a notch higher by the time the ball drops in Times Square. Now let’s see if it can rack up a sick amount of multiple viewings like TITANIC or its 1977 predecessor. This is the first STAR WARS picture without George Lucas’s hands on it — he gets a “based on characters by” credit — but J. J. Abrams really performed under pressure, and this makes two iconic space franchises he’s re-energized. We’re starting to see a backlash develop among people who found the flick a little too familiar, but just now Disney is right where it wants to be, armed with the ultimate selling proposition: everybody wants it, and only we have it.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanGO SELL A WATCHMAN. That is not a typo: the event wasn’t really the content of Harper Lee’s second published novel — the critical reaction has been tepid to a story that pales when compared to her inspiring masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — but the circumstances of its discovery and dissemination decades after it was written. After keeping GO SET A WATCHMAN locked away for half a century, was the frail and ailing author honestly willing to approve its publication now? It was the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins’s long history (they published MOBY-DICK, dude), doing 1.1 million units in the first week and a skajillion more as the year wore on. More people wanted it in paper than on a pad — the opposite sales pattern from most works of fiction — and physical booksellers quite understandably rejoiced. Anything that brings in customers is good for everybody, and the book business could really use some good news right now.

4/18/16: And the Pulitzer Prize goes to…HAMILTON.

5/26/16: And the Pub nomination goes to…TRUMP!

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Stop Press: Print Is Not Dead!

September 23, 2015

stanley__livingstone_the_hague_travel_bookstore1Front-page “trend” piece in the Times this morning by Alexandra Alter, with some rare good news for the embattled trade book industry: by some measures, the initial excitement over digital publishing at the putative expense of print may have crested, at least for now.

E-book sales (trade only, not counting self-published titles) fell 10% in January-May 2015. Bundled subscription services, allowing e-reading from a library of titles, are struggling and failing. Sales of dedicated e-readers (like the Kindle or the Nook) have plunged. The reports of print’s demise seem greatly exaggerated. Yet this trend may not be as clearly delineated as it seems at first glance.

There is one piece of incontestable evidence for a resurgence of print bookselling in Ms. Alter’s story: in the last five years, the number of member bookstores of the American Booksellers Association has increased from 1,410 in 1,660 locations to 1,712 in 2,227 locations. The local independent bookstore — one key component in a community’s healthy cultural life — is experiencing a mini-renaissance. Nobody can argue with that, and those who care about books and reading can only hope this trend keeps up.

Trade publishers all over New York — and elsewhere — are smiling at this article today, but it’s not because of any healthy cultural life in any community. Print books, particularly new or “frontlist” titles in hardcover, are the industry’s high-margin cash cow, even after all the costly editing, printing, shipping and distributing is done. And those margins are completely under the control of the publisher, which can and does print any price it wishes on the front left flap. Common sense tells us that a digital copy, which costs next to nothing to distribute once the first one is made, should fetch a far lower price. But that, reason the publishers, would cannibalize the sale of a juicy hardcover copy. Therefore, e-books are a disruptor, an enemy. Meanwhile, we await the first $50 trade hardcover; it shouldn’t take much longer now. (Before MISS SAIGON, $100 Broadway tickets were considered gluttonous. Now they’re a bargain.)

The arrival of electronic books as a real market segment dates from 2008 and the release of Amazon’s Kindle. While many booklovers spurned the new technology, I jumped in and have been an avid e-reader ever since. As I’ve written before, there are three kinds of books: those in which I have no interest, those which I want to keep in the increasingly precious space on my bookshelves, and those I’d simply like to read and discard. This last kind is the perfect e-book. (A fourth kind, the bulky doorstop in which I’m nevertheless interested, is also much easier to read electronically.)

But there’s an important difference between the present-day consumer and the 2008 version. I don’t depend on a physical Kindle any more.

I’m not surprised at all that sales of “dedicated e-readers” have fallen, because you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle editions. You still need an Amazon account, but there are free Kindle-reading apps for any smartphone, tablet or desktop you can whip out. I own a Kindle Paperwhite, the single best e-reader available; its screen can automatically adjust for bright sunlight or a dark room instantly. But I only use it on plane flights or other long reading-friendly trips. My doctor’s-office or line-waiting device is my smartphone. Here at home, maybe a tablet to make the pages larger. I can skip among them at will; the software always remembers my place. Among dozens more, I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s mammoth SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books this way and didn’t miss a thing. Having a dedicated e-reader is no longer necessary.

Secondly, since the publishers wrested pricing power back from Amazon, which was selling Kindle editions as loss leaders (the same thing bookies did during World War II to create a later lucrative mass market), there has doubtless been some sticker shock. Speaking only anecdotally but including friends who feel the same way, I’ve quite often decided against buying a read-and-discard book at all because of the high Kindle price. When it exceeds the paperback reprint price, I really get frosted. And I repeat, I’m not alone. No wonder sales are slipping. The goddam things are too expensive. But boys, at least from me you didn’t gain a hardcover by overpricing your e-book. You lost a frickin sale altogether. Unless I still want to read it — and remember that I once wanted to — some day in the future as it falls into the “backlist,” the low-margin mines which actually kept traditional publishers alive for decades. Maybe I’ll buy it second-hand, in which case you get zippando.

Book publishers do not like change. They have responded to this disruptive technology the same way the movie industry has viewed every perceived encroachment: network radio and television, pay TV, home video, anything that tips the business model. And each time the industry has eventually been forced to embrace them as potential new revenue streams — in home video’s case, the very saviour of the movie business for almost twenty years.

Trade book publishing (that means books sold by the “book trade” as opposed to academic or self-published and distributed titles) has yet to cross that line. E-books are still the enemy, sold only grudgingly if at all. But let’s return to those self-published titles. While there is without doubt a cornucopia of dross out there, a few prolific category authors — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, erotica — have managed to carve out day jobs by selling serial novels at $1 or $2 a pop. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was self-published. So was Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN. So was Hugh Howey’s series WOOL, about cities packed in silos (don’t ask). In fact, when Howey sold the rights to a trade publisher, it was a print-only deal: he gets to keep all his online money.

The point is that breaking through from the ground up may certainly be improbable, but it’s no longer impossible. And the e-book figures cited by Ms. Alter do not include sales outside the book trade, which is a world whose boundaries are unknown to us. God bless every new independent bookstore, and good luck to them all. But technology is not going to quit chipping away at the hegemony of the Big Five.


Some Moss Gathers

April 10, 2015

politifact-photos-141205175643-rolling-stone-uva-rape-on-campus-story-topThis has to be the all-time low point in the 48-year history of Rolling Stone. One of the last remaining outlets for long-form journalism, which used to be everywhere, the magazine has been forced to retract one of its biggest stories, and it has nobody to blame but itself for the great damage it has done to the fight against sexual assault on the college campus.

A loudly publicized RS article by Sabrina Rubin Erdely purported to document a shocking instance of gang rape during a fraternity party at the University of Virginia, using it to highlight a very serious — and very real — nationwide problem. But Ms. Erdely’s scoop began unraveling almost as soon as it was published. It was, it developed, largely based on interviews with but one traumatized victim, and the rest of her story didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Potential corroborators disputed the main witness’s version of events, and the fraternity in question hadn’t even held a party that night. Other journalists are shaking their heads at RS’s utter failure to double-check its reporting, at every step of the process, even after its fact-checking department warned that the factual backup was unusually flimsy. An independent review by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism (in fairness, itself promptly commissioned by an appalled Rolling Stone) ripped the magazine for ignoring basic rules of reporting. Soon, RS was reduced to the butt of a Jon Stewart bit.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Ms. Erdely and her editors evidently committed the logical error called “confirmation bias,” which means they began with a proposition and searched for real-life support. In their victim, known as “Jackie,” they felt they had found what they needed and, in deference to her psychological trauma (or so the editors say), they failed to subject her story to the scrutiny that would have been employed by any decent high-school newspaper. A journalist reports verifiable facts.

It’s a delicate subject, to say the least, about which we definitely don’t know enough. A few weeks ago, two activists told Bill Maher that on average, one in five college women would face sexual assault by the time they graduated. That number sounded way high to me, so I did some digging around. The stat comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which says: “In a study of undergraduate women, 19% experienced attempted or completed sexual assault since entering college.” Wow. Amazing. In my defense, though, I submit that I was way off in my estimation for one simple reason. I’m a man.

A long-ago girlfriend, with whom I worked in the same professional setting, years later casually mentioned the gauntlet of potential hit-ons she’d had to endure when we were together, mostly from older gents who were also part of that setting. I had been absolutely oblivious. Nor had she cried on my shoulder about it; to her, it was just an annoying part of everyday life as an attractive young woman. You guys have no idea, bub. Let’s take that same dynamic and dial back the maturity level so that both people are in college. Now the one-in-five starts to look much closer.

If you’re not a rock star, jock star or movie star, it’s hard to imagine having to fend off potential suitors, but women (adjust for LGBT relationships however you wish; let’s just say, the “naturally pursued”) do it all the time. And pursuers have to stick their necks out every so often and face casual rebuke: most women I know have many ways to clearly indicate they’re not interested in a romantic relationship, because life forces them to develop those signals. (Or hmmm: was it just me?) You may wind up feeling foolish for trying, but by me, that’s not sexual assault. When you don’t yet know enough to (or are too drunk to) read a NO THANKS signal, you’re getting into some deep water that no amount of “Boy, did we get hammered!” can bail. And even if a woman gets used in the worst way by some budding Stanley Kowalski, it’s still up to her to report the damn thing and go through the humiliation all over again. Because little lady, the burden of proof is on you.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

Columbia J-School Academic Affairs Dean Sheila Coronel and Dean Steve Coll present their report.

The worst part of this is that many — especially our pals on the pale, male and stale far right — don’t believe in college sexual assault any more than they do in climate change or evolution. It’s just a bunch of gals getting too tipsy and marijuanaed up and regretting the hookup the next day. And this false alarm is going to set societal awareness back even more. Red-state pinup Ann Coulter has already begun: “From the Duke lacrosse team, the Columbia mattress girl and the University of Virginia, the left has not been able to produce one actual rape on a college campus. It’s beginning to look as if the rape of the Sabine women never happened, either.” College rape is nothing but another left-wing canard.

I also have trouble squaring Rolling Stone’s decision to go to the mats for its employees with my natural outrage that no Wall Street bankers are in jail for ruining the economy, no Cheney-Bush goombahs were punished for torturing human beings and inspiring legions of terrorists, and cop after cop walks away clean unless a camera lens is stuck in his snoot while he’s committing murder (and sometimes even then). Seems like if you’re in for a penny, you’d be in for a pound.

It’s a tragedy all around: for an unjustly pilloried fraternity and university, for any serious response to assault on campus, and for the journalistic reputation of a paper that should never have let this one get sent to layout.

7/30/15: The Times reports today that RS managing editor Will Dana will be leaving. It’s almost certainly related to the mishandling of this story. So here, at least one head did roll.

11/5/16: Yesterday Rolling Stone lost a defamation suit filed by Nicole P. Eramo, a former assistant dean of students at U.Va., who said she had been depicted as the “chief villain” in the article. A federal jury found against the magazine just in time for its 50th anniversary next year.


Adventures In Editing, Part VI

September 18, 2014

fansSo far we’ve been ruminating about the care and feeding of different kinds of authors. How does it work when your author isn’t an author at all? That’s what you face when you enter the land of celebrity books, always one of the hottest aspects of publishing.

I’m not talking here about biography, which doesn’t require the cooperation of the subject. I edited beautiful bios of the writers Terry Southern and Michael O’Donoghue and a haunting account of the parallel lives of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, and in all three cases we had access to some private material — each of those books is the last word on its subject and will be used as a reference from now on — but no estate had any input into, or approval over, the finished manuscript. What I’m getting at instead is celebrity autobiography, usually by a star of stage, screen, sound or sport, or by a politician who is planning to run for President.

Pop-music autobios have always interested book publishers, nearly all of whom are boomers or later. And just now a notable subset is doing pretty good business: the Summation of the Aging Rock Star. It was probably kicked off by Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES and Keith Richards’s LIFE, both huge bestsellers and genuinely good books, which have encouraged a host of other musicians (or at least their managers) to crack open the laptop: a month rarely passes without the announcement of another classic-rockin’ book contract.

That’s figurative, of course, the laptop: most celebrity books are co-written by someone who at least has recorded hours of tape, at most researched and reconstructed a life and spit it out in the subject’s voice. The good ones are so good that you can’t tell the difference. They’re credited as “with” or “as told to” in teeny type on the book cover. There’s no shame in that: it doesn’t mean the celebrity is incapable of forming a sentence, only that she became famous for something other than writing a book, and the best way to get an assured voice on the page is to hire a pro. (I heard that Bob Dylan actually wrote his book himself, and there are undoubtedly others who’ve rolled up their sleeves as well. David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS isn’t about his life but his art, yet it sure feels like it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.) There are also people who have celebrity thrust upon them, like Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who safely landed a huge Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009. To write his book, the captain collaborated with a pro — not a “ghost writer,” since Jeffrey Zaslow’s name is right there on the cover. My old friend Bret Witter is making quite a career out of helping “ordinary” people relate their extraordinary narratives; he’s now officially a multiple New York Times bestselling author.

psychological-skills-training_eMusicians who write their own material are artistic cousins to authors; they’re firing similar synapses. Actors, on the other hand, and especially sports stars, are confronted with a type of expression that is utterly foreign to them. Their talent isn’t a natural fit with the process of writing a book. In my experience, some have been better than others in bridging the necessary gap. Once my company published a very famous athlete who was confronted with some incendiary comments in his book (you want to make news if possible), and not only did he deny making them, he was also a little too candid when he denied having read his own autobiography. That’s one extreme.

It all comes down to the individual, and one common attribute. When you’re evaluating a celeb proposal, you’re not only trying to predict how much interest there could be out there, you’re also judging the subject’s ability and plausibility as a storyteller. Because that’s the heart of any celebrity autobio, and here’s where actors regain some advantage, particularly those who’ve enjoyed long careers. It is the rare actor indeed who isn’t also a raconteur. If you can get that delightful quality on paper, you’re in for some fun.

snakenbaconIt helps if you yourself enjoy the subject’s work, though you normally can’t go so far as to persuade her to do a book (I made a pest of myself trying to talk the Lucasfilm folks into asking George Lucas to consider an autobio in his own voice. Wouldn’t you like to read that?). The already-assembled package usually lands on your desk through an agent, who is shopping the personality as much as the proposal. Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes create a book on your own. In the mid-Nineties we kept seeing hilarious, so-retro-they’re-hip cartoons by one “P. Revess” in places like the (late, lamented) Oxford American. I made a few calls, searched on this new Internets thing, and tracked down Michael Kupperman in my very own New York. I called him up out of the blue and asked him if he might consider doing a collection of his work, along with some new material. At first (he later told me) Mike suspected it was a prank call. I invited him down to the office to establish my bona fides, and a year or so later we published SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET; in a sense, it’s his autobio. No agent was involved, by the way. I’ve published two other books sans agency, but in all three cases I knew the authors’ work-ethics very well (one reason to have an agent), and each time I proved worthy of their trust by doing everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me (the other reason). Mike has since gone on to greater things, including a cover illustration for Fortune and many inside illos in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and he’s seen some of his work animated for television. Last year he won the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics industry. I didn’t discover Michael Kupperman: those magazine editors did that. But by God, I published his first book, which introduced him to Robert Smigel, who brought his stuff to tv…

al_green_bw2-905x1024As I said, it helps if you’re a fan. Some celeb books are bought because somebody at the publishing house wanted to hang out with the notable, and that can be tremendous (if expensive) fun. I “inherited” (see Part III) the autobio of the incomparable Al Green when I got to Avon Books, and upon putting it together after heroic work by Al’s co-author Davin Seay, there finally came that wonderful moment when the finished books showed up and the angels sang. Al (or “Reverend,” which is what everybody in his entourage calls him) came to New York to meet with us, do a signing or two, and headline a Central Park concert opened by Odetta. (!) I’d ridden in Rev’s limo to take him to to lunch and then the book signing; we talked about Memphis and music, it was an out-of-body experience in that I remember thinking how lucky I was while words were still coming out of my mouth. Rev invited me to bring my wife backstage before the concert, and we found his trailer just before Odetta went on. He hugged me like I was a long-lost brother (he’d met me only the day before), and after kissing my wife’s hand, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Tonight, I’m going to sing ‘Simply Beautiful’ for you.” As we were strolling away toward our seats, Linda noted, I realize that was probably the five millionth time he’s used that line, but my knees still got a little wobbly. I have never met a more adept, more piercing, more sex-exuding, let’s say ladies’ man, than the Rev. Ever. And it only happened because I happened to be a book editor. That’s what I mean: to enter such a milieu, book publishers fight for celebrities.

You may be a fan, yes, but as an editor you have to play dumb. Any celebrity autobio has to be understandable to a reader who’s never heard of the author. You can’t assume the reader knows about the time her boyfriend did that thing, or the day they got thrown out of that hotel. You can’t assume anything; the subject’s life should be understandable to a Martian. (Besides, if the reader knew everything, why in the world would he need to buy your book?) The exception that proves the rule is, you guessed it, Bob Dylan. His highly enjoyable CHRONICLES begins in medias res and jumps around in time, fitting his mercurial, iconoclastic nature perfectly. Some find it excruciating to make the leap. When I was at Bantam, we’d held the contract on Hugh Hefner’s mega-late autobio (wouldn’t you like to read that?) for many years, then one day the accountants said: time to clean house, cancel the contracts that are just fairy tales and get our money back. At Avon, we had a deal with Todd Rundgren to do the most amazingly creative autobio I’ve ever imagined. Upon inheriting the project, I was so reluctant to jettison it that I invited Todd up to the office to see if he was still serious. He showed up and said he was. But I think his creative eyes were bigger than his creative stomach, because he couldn’t make any progress and we had to cancel, me sobbing all the while. (It would have required die-cuts, a different kind of press run…don’t get me started!)

hillary-clinton-book-signingOne intangible which you frequently only discover on the fly is, how active will the celebrity be in promoting the book come crunch time? With a politician or a notable who is pushing a particular social issue, well, as the old saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be in Washington is between [POLITICIAN’S NAME] and a camera. (Conservative gasbags are having fun piling on Hillary Clinton right now, but Henry Kissinger — who, it’s safe to say, is not running for President — has been nearly as ubiquitous promoting his new book.) And book publicists, who usually spend too much of their day hearing the word no, enjoy finding themselves able to apportion appearances by their famous temporary clients. But artists and athletes have such a range of personalities that sometimes a guaranteed number of signings or tv appearances becomes a contractual deal point. No promote, no check. I’ve noted reluctance in some celebrity authors (interestingly, never directed at their fans), but then there were people like Richie Havens who not only played music at his signings, but also lunched with booksellers and spent hours autographing books and posters for key accounts. That’s another extreme.

imagesBooksellers, especially staunch independents (of which there are never enough, my friends), are sometimes ambivalent about celebrity publishing. Does a wall full of gold records give this “author” any right to the hallowed lectern occupied last week by Margaret Atwood? Most of these people have never set foot in my store before and never will again! But as I say to anyone who’ll listen, anything that causes anybody to enter a bookstore is good for everybody, whether the come-hither attraction was Jorge Luis Borges or David Lee Roth or Kathie Lee Gifford. A rising tide lifts all bookselling boats, in a bit of cultural magic most recently performed by young Master Harry Potter. All true book professionals are pleased (ok, maybe a tad jealous too) when anything becomes a huge hit, because it brings in customers all set to read something and eventually inquire about something else. The unfortunate part is that a year or two after any trend establishes itself, all the lesser pretenders show up, just as in movies and tv. Where books are concerned, I think the paranormal teens have just about worn themselves out in favor of the ordeals of Hungry Divergent teens, but, as noted, right on cue, here come the geezer rockers to make their grandparents happy!

MAC40_BOOKS06Publishers guarantee too much for celeb autobios because they bid against each other and it often boils down to, which house employs the biggest fan? You have to get your money back quickly because every year the notable’s career continues puts your book that much farther out of date, and only a well-researched, dispassionate biography can stick around long enough to strike gold on the backlist. Why are there so many serious bios about dead people? Hmmmm. Very few autobiographies can stand the test of time, and the ones that can damn sure don’t come from the entertainment field. But try not to begrudge the “author” who never picked up a book when s/he was in school. Maybe it’s nothing more than time for a little literary payback.

NEXT: Some final thoughts as our Adventures In Editing conclude.

 Previous Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part V


There Are No Angels Here

June 27, 2014

amazon-vs-hachetteWith World Cup fever in full flower – even in America, you proboscis-tilting non-USAers! – it is perhaps meet and right that we gather here to examine whether Amazon v. Hachette is an example of (a) the American-football-style strong-arming ground game, or (b) futbol-style “diving” – that is, clutching one’s knees and falling to the turf after “suffering” a killer-asteroid-length flyby from an opponent so that the entire darby may be temporarily halted while all beautiful-game athletes catch their verdammt breath. I think it’s a soupcon of each.

Amazon’s practice of punitively declining or delaying orders from one of the Big Five trade publishers – the others are Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan – has a very large echo in the cable tv business, where “content providers” (Disney; ESPN—wait, that’s Disney too; CBS) have been at war with cable resellers (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc. – wait, Comcast owns NBC-Universal, see how weird all this is getting?), but sorta reversed. In cable, the content providers have all the juice. Wanna see the NFL this weekend? Tell Time Warner they’re a buncha greedy late-for-service-calls bums! But in books, it’s as Tom Doherty and Ian Ballantine once agreed, I hope over a cocktail: the book business went to hell when the publishers lost control over their own distribution. To the wholesalers and middlemen who physically deliver books to retailers, they are renewable product like magazines – or loaves of bread – and have to be rotated nearly as often. To retailers, books are lent on consignment and can be returned at the publisher’s expense if they don’t sell, thus the decorative flower-petal stacks of blockbusters you used to see at Barnes & Noble. The idea was to make it easier for bookstores to take risks on unknown authors. The idea got out of hand. But all this is ancient history. People who are still moping about it are schmucks.

Since Alexandria, volumes of info, from the Iliad to Grey matter, have held an exalted status in the general culture. But books, even the finest ones, are no longer bestowed us by patricians or scholars: they come now from big, BIG, profit-oriented corporations. Seventy-five years ago you may have had an argument; that three-martini-lunch gentleman’s game was populated by the artisteic elite. Nowadays you’re encouraged not even to have lunch at all; editors, please dial it back to a drinks date if possible. I’m not saying that book publishing was never powered by heart and intellect. I’m only saying it’s not so any more. Privately owned publishers whose founders are still hands-on (e.g., in our day, McSweeney’s) behave very differently from conglomerates to whom books may be an afterthought, maybe even an asterisk. Many passionate people still work in book publishing: these folks have to auto-motivate, because they don’t make much money unless they’re at or near the top. In the current climate, the Big Five don’t have to nurture, because they can replace you in a heartbeat, get somebody less experienced for less dough, and to advance you don’t necessarily excel, you survive. Today’s book biz is built on bucks. Big Five execs aren’t mean. What they really are is scared.

Amazon is the largest single retailer of books – remember, it began as a bookseller, founder Jeff Bezos reasoning that books were sturdy and easy to ship, and you didn’t have to try on or even touch one before you were ready to buy it – and is more crucial to the industry than even B&N. Yet book sales account for only 7% of Amazon’s total revenue, according to research by Jeff Bercovici of Forbes. So publishers need Amazon far more than it needs them. Furthermore, Amazon owns the e-book market: about 30% of all books sold in the U.S. are digital, and of that market Amazon has a 65% share. Put another way, nearly one of every five books sold in this country is a Kindle file.

Publishers just now are enjoying being on the noble side of the Amazon dustup; agents, booksellers and even some authors have long viewed the big houses as deep-pocketed suits. Now there’s a more monstrous foe: worse than mass-market editions (which first upended the hardcover pricing model), mail-order book clubs (which made trips to the village bookstore unnecessary), superstores (which strangled independents with, um, selection and discounting), and digital books (which – wait, didn’t they provide the monster’s only jolt in the neck in a generation? – were too cheap). Andrew Wylie, of the highest level of literary agency, wrote, “The book industry is overwhelmingly the repository of our nation’s culture. To destroy it is to destroy the culture.” Painters, composers, screenwriters, anyone else wish to speak up? No, the contemporary trade book industry is overwhelmingly concerned with making money, and screw the culture. Any one of the remaining Big Five trade publishers would gladly swap three Nobel laureates for one HUNGER GAMES franchise and throw in a few poets besides.

Amazon is pushing Hachette around because it wants to improve its profit margins, and everybody else is holding their breath not because they’re gallant brothers in arms, but because Amazon’s contract with Hachette happened to expire first. Whatever the company wrests from them will be the same deal it wants from all the others. This happens all the time in other industries; Bezos perhaps appears a tad scuzzy only to those who have been insulated from the real world all their corporate lives. In case you’re not absolutely sure yet that times have changed, Hachette responded by purchasing Perseus (in the movie business you’d call it a “mini-major,” like Lionsgate), making itself even larger. As the long case against Apple and and the then-Big Five (Penguin has since folded into Random House, which temporarily resisted Steve Jobs’s entreaties and was therefore not party to the antitrust action) wore on, one fact remained clear: when the publishers colluded (we don‘t have to say “allegedly” any more), they were no longer thinking about their customers, only their own profit margins. Publishers actually received more money for each e-book under Amazon’s “loss-leader” pricing than they did under Apple’s “agency model.” They weren’t working with Apple to prop up e-book prices because they felt competition was swell. They were defending nothing more righteous than, as federal judge Denise Cole remarked, “consumer perception of the value of a book.”

The printed retail price of a book has little to do with trim size, page count, all the physical factors you might expect. It’s derived from a larger profit-and-loss assumption that includes the expected distribution, the projected shelf life in paperback, and the amount initially expended (the “guarantee,” or “advance”). Why then does the breezily-set 400-odd-page MR. MERCEDES from Stephen King sell for $30? Because trade book prices only go one way, up, and because Scribner knows its “price” will be discounted down the line, even though the publisher keeps roughly half of whatever number it chooses to print on the front flap. Kinda nuts, isn’t it – and here’s another wacko fact: all those “$30” hardcovers won’t come anywhere near paying out Uncle Stevie’s guarantee (huge authors get paid huge money up front, unless they’re “back-end” profit participants, like the biggest movie stars, but star authors are far rarer). As in movies, the publisher finally makes its profit downstream, years later, on the paperback — and digital — editions, which theoretically go on forever. Not this quarter. Much later on.

So Amazon is coming into a genteel industry and refusing to be genteel about it. I think it’s a PR minus for Bezos & company, who are supposed to be looking out for their customers above all – and now they’re making it harder to buy Hachette books? Not too bueno. They may have actually done a lefthanded favor by encouraging people to reconsider their online purchases. I just bought a Hachette book called AMAZON: THE EVERYTHING STORE from Powell’s Books – one of the great indies still standing – and though their site was clunkier than Amazon’s, I had no trouble sailing through the order process, and I felt kinda good about it. But the higher price I freely agreed to pay was pulled forth from nothing more substantial than Hachette’s ass.

Yes, Amazon is acting like a bully, and yes, the industry is doing its best to preserve its ineluctable pricing power. So be very careful before you pick sides in this fight. There’s plenty of venality to go around.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.

A sticker promoted on the air by Stephen Colbert, a Hachette author.


Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by brains bigger than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a creaky metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg. Lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image in our day required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads

A line o’ type. I saved one (wish I knew where) that reads “By TOM DUPREE”.

A chunk of type ready to be

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, before I ever saw one in person, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct yet comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays in our bold new century. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood

3/27/17: ETAOIN SHRDLU makes it back into the New York Times, only now it’s on purpose.


Hurrah For The Economist!

September 11, 2013

econcovThe blokes over at The Economist are spending this week celebrating their 170th anniversary, which is amazing, since it’s become the world’s leading English-language newsmagazine not only by excellence, but also by stamina.

Of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report – all 20th century creations – only the former still exists in a print edition, and it’s an anemic shadow of its former self. Everybody else has long gone digital. Yet since September 2, 1843, the British “newspaper” – that’s what it still calls itself – returns solid, intelligent, sprightly-written but resolutely fact-based journalism, each and every week. Articles are unsigned, as they used to be in America’s newsmags, and regular opinion columnists are identified only by historical personages: “Lexington” for the U.S., “Bagehot” for Britain, “Charlemagne” for Europe, “Schumpeter” for business and economics, etc. The journalists behind these names may change – and they often say so-long in their final columns before a new writer picks up – but the bylines remain the same.

A leading American businessman told New York magazine last week that you could learn all you need to know just by reading The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek. (This individual happens to own Bloomberg Businessweek, but he’s right: it’s a great, lively mag these days.) The Economist covers everything else with a charming Old World objectivity; it’s instructive to get the British take on American subjects, and even to be chided about our own odd obsessions, such as with the President’s place of birth or our Bizarro-world relationship to our guns. Here was the paper’s entire coverage of a certain spring 2011 event, in its world roundup section: A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the opportunity to take a foreign holiday. This in a week when Time and Newsweek both had the royal wedding splashed all over their covers (and thus missed the killing of Osama bin Laden).

The Economist would probably fall into the “moderate Republican” camp if it were American; in other words, there’s no place for it in Congress. Socially open-minded and fiscally conservative, it can’t possibly agree with your point of view every single week. (It is currently acting quite hawkish toward Syria and is aghast that Parliament declined to support a military operation for the first time since 1782.) But, aside from the clearly delineated opinion pages, you can trust it for straight, unadorned news. There is no better way to learn about our complicated, interconnected world than in the spinless pages of this international paragon. Happy 170th, mates, and have a pint on me!


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