The Washington Post raves about David Sedaris’ latest book Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Here’s an excerpt. At the local chain store I noticed, prominently displayed, David Foster Wallace’s new collection of short stories, Oblivion. Here’s an excerpt from that one. Also in the news, Oprah makes her summer selection, and in keeping with her recent predilection for dead authors, she chooses Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts.
Mark Kurlansky is one of the primary practitioners of an interesting type of history book in which he takes a specific type of object or group of people and uses it as a lens through which he views history. Kurlansky has recently gained notoriety with three books that followed this sort of historical exploration: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Salt: A World History, and The Basque History of the World, all of which are clever and very readable and which, with their success, have spawned a sort of cottage industry (see: The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman, Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization by Iain Gately, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It by Arthur Herman, and many, many others.) Kurlansky, meanwhile, has a new book coming out that is a new twist on the one subject history book. It’s called 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, and it’s thesis is that 1968 was the year when the world grew up, so to speak. A book like this will probably be pretty fun for a couple of reasons: Kurlansky is a skilled writer and historian, who is sure to produce the sort of engaging history that is always a thrill to read; at the same time, it is always fun to take sides along the way when a writer decides to choose a such a specific thesis, one that will undoubtedly prove difficult to defend against claims of selective inclusion and omission of events in order to prove the point. I’m curious to see if he is able to pull it off.
Still in the throes of controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Oprah has selected Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night as the next selection for her book club. While this selection was no doubt in the works long before the Frey controversy, the juxtaposition is still remarkable. Frey’s confessional, sensationalized addiction memoir, the credibility of which seems to crumble further with every passing day, looks awfully silly next to the beloved memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor whose character is unassailable as far as I know. In the New York Times, Wiesel says he hasn’t read Frey’s book (big surprise), but then goes on to make some comments that seem to me to be directed at Frey’s fast and loose treatment of the truth (emphasis mine):He acknowledged that some people and institutions, including on occasion The New York Times, have referred to Night as a novel, “mainly because of its literary style.””But it is not a novel at all,” he said. “I know the difference,” he added, noting that Night is the first of his 47 books, several of which are novels. “I make a distinction between what I lived through and what I imagined others to have lived through.”As it is a memoir, he said, “my experiences in the book – A to Z – must be true.” He continued: “All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel.”Meanwhile, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that Amazon is changing the classification of Night from fiction to memoir. As of this writing, Night is number one on Amazon, bumping Pieces to number two.
Writing at home can be distracting and discouraging. It’s hard to concentrate when surrounded by all your stuff. There’s TV to watch, chores to do, people to call on the phone, a dog to walk. Days can go by without a word ever being put on the page. So writers seek refuge outside their homes to write in more conducive settings, a local coffee shop or University library, for example. Writers of a certain stature might attend a writers’ colony hoping for a stretch of forced productivity, while others will fashion their own writers’ colonies by secluding themselves in a rented office to toil away.With this in mind, two enterprising former MFAs in New York City, noting the need so many writers have for a place to write, have created Paragraph Workspace for Writers. As they describe it:Paragraph is a membership organization dedicated to providing an affordable and tranquil working environment for writers of all genres. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.Paragraph was created by writers for writers, with an understanding that writers work best in a quiet, comfortable space away from the hurry and obligation of urban life.For between $80 and $132 a month (depending on length of commitment and level of access) writers can use the space – a decked out 3rd floor apartment on 14th Street – as their own little writing venue. The online application for membership includes space for references, presumably to weed out the crazies. I can think of a few other reasons why this may not work – the more members the group gets, the less worthwhile the space becomes for each individual member; there are hundreds of places in New York that provide the same environment (though perhaps not the 24 hour access), starting with libraries; a writer in need of such a space is not likely to have the disposable income to spend on it – but who knows, maybe it’ll work.
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
I thought I was a decent member of the literary community. I read local writers; I buy books at local bookstores; I go to at least one literary event a week. Then my own novel came out. Mountains crashed; music rang out; and I was flooded with the awareness that I’ve been doing a whole lot wrong.
A few weeks in, I’ve assembled a list of my top epiphanies. As you can see, First Novel Karma blends classic karma, the golden rule, the pirate code, and old-school business ethics. Still, I’ve been shocked by how completely this Way has taken root in me; how seemingly obvious it (now) is; how, in most situations, there really is a right way and a wrong way.
Respect the author
Do you have any idea how hard it is to publish a book? First, an author invested years of her life to create a story out of nothing; then she had to plow through hundreds of rejections to convince seasoned industry veterans that the story is actually valuable and land a deal—or, harder yet, do it herself; then she had to go bang the drum to get readers to actually care about the story enough to pay for it, all while emanating grace and gratitude and the goodwill of all humanity.
Books aren’t slapped together over the weekend; they’re built on years of love. Ignore the snarky reviews and trust that love.
Read books from living authors only
This one’s easy: Hemingway’s grandkids are swimming in cash, whereas hustling artists need whatever they can get. That $10 purchase actually does make a difference for writers like me. Respect life.
A guy from my college rap group (long story) just Facebookmailed me to tell me he liked my book. I hadn’t talked to him in person since he mysteriously disappeared after my junior year, presumably to become a plumber. But he bought the book, and may tell more people about it, because he saw it on Facebook.
Facebook feeds your high school boyfriend, your dentist, that girl you used to play tennis with, the friend of a friend who laughed at your jokes at a wedding four years ago. Wading through Farmville gifts from that weird uncle is absolutely worth the hassle. Also, I might be a little spammy for a while, but it’s worth taking that risk—and my friends understand.
Shut up and buy books from people you know
A month ago, when acquaintances put out books, I’d balk at buying em. I have a Kiliminjaro book pile I’m never going to finish, and life’s too short to read books you don’t want to.
Now, when I see friends slishing out of the book sales line, I know I had it coming. From here on out, I’m shelling out for at least one copy. That means sometimes buying a book I know isn’t my style—but on the plus side, an autographed book always makes for a bad-ass gift for somebody.
Don’t talk shit
Not that I’m a particularly big shit-talker, but I have opinions and enjoy sharing them frankly and generally like people who do the same—that’s what makes them interesting.
From now on, I’m only dishing the positive opinions in public. While I remain fervently anti-boring, pissing in the literary pool only enrages the swimmers, and the world’s short enough on civility and tact. If I ever feel an unquashable need to shit-talk, the plan is to let loose on dead guys.
Channel jealousy into solidarity
Did you see the front-page rave in the New York Times for John Brandon’s Citrus County? Every striving writer in America did, then checked John’s meteoric Amazon ranking (I saw it top out at #33).
After 30 seconds of furious envy, I knew I would become an advocate for John—not only do highly reputable people vouch for John’s chops, he’s with a local bad-ass publisher and he’s hustled for years. By god, he has earned it. And the more terrific writers who catapult into mainstream success, the better it is for all of us.
Sell with charm – and by hearing no
My publisher booked me at a “Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour” last week. Though it sounds intriguingly festive, the event actually consisted of a thin crowd of tourists enjoying a quiet glass of wine. I was already there, so I went for it: during lulls in conversation I politely introduced myself to each table, offering to leave as soon as they said the word. I noted that the Pre-Bastille Day Happy Hour was furiously gaining steam, handed them a copy of a recent review, and offered to read whatever chapter they liked, or tell a joke, or dance for them. An alarmingly high percentage of patrons bought copies immediately; two people went on to buy me drinks. It was a pretty awesome afternoon.
Still, people didn’t like saying no to my face. Identify the code words—“maybe,” “let me think about it,” “I’m out of cash”—and exit with dignity.
Never relax, tastefully
We have so many terrific distractions clamoring for our time—not just millions of well-written books, but also movies, family, bands, sports, The Daily Show and iPads, Twitter and the new hot ice cream shop, not to mention old-fashioned walks on the beach and phone calls and sex. Gambling eight hours and $12 on a first-time novelist is a significant request. I’m a little too aware of this and spend most of my free time figuring out how I can get the word out to people who might care enough to take the dive.
There’s a gourmet restaurant storyline in my book; I’m lining up tasting/reading events with foodie organizations. The book’s an allegory for the French Revolution, so I want to throw down with every Francophile organization within driving distance. I’m in touch with my alumni association, have activated my workplace, and am hitting the neighborhood garage sale. I’m absolutely hustling, but I’m trying to hustle the right way, with thank yous and confirmation emails, eye contact and the extra phone call, every interaction loaded with what I hope comes across as charming and respectful writerly energy.