Barnes & Noble is buying used books. They’re marketing it as a way to sell your old textbooks, but they’re buying other books too. They’ve set up a simple site that lets you check titles and find out if they’ll take them and how much they’ll pay. You then send your books to Barnes & Noble and they cover the shipping. As far as I can tell, the prices are fairly comparable to what you might get selling your books to your local used bookstore, maybe even a little better.
The trenches of publishing can be equal parts reward and frustration. It is amazing to have a publishing house, no matter the size, respond to your work. You engage with the editor, work through drafts, commission an artist, read the proofs and then bam: boxes and boxes of books. The unrepentantly indie Fractious Press risked such a kindness with my collection of short stories, I Like to Keep My Troubles on the Windy Side of Things.
What do you do with all of these books? Sell them, of course. Distribution can be a nightmare for large houses and indies alike. Marketing a book is more of an uphill battle than ever in our forget-me-now culture of constant media noise. And so were born internet literary stunts.
While Tao Lin certainly didn’t invent the form (check out this April 25, 2000, Village Voice article about a McSweeney’s internet stunt) he sits high atop the virtual landfills of digital fodder created to promote the written word. Since 2005, Lin has dutifully maintained a blog that antagonizes and engages readers. Recently he ran a contest where his devotees were asked to watch a video of him reading and then guess what drug he was on (mushrooms). Everything Lin does online serves to promote his books. Or is it just about promoting himself? In the current issue of Bookforum Joshua Cohen examines this notion in his excellent review of Lin’s latest book. Regardless of what you think of Lin’s persona, or his writing, the extent of his influence on prioritizing an author’s persona can be seen in how this past May his publisher, Melville House, took it upon themselves to inaugurate the Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers. When it comes to internet stunts, Lin might be the most prolific but he isn’t the only writer hoping to go viral in the name of raising awareness about a new book.
With my collection of stories, Fractious went the traditional promotional route, sending out galleys and finished review copies to both print and select online outlets. But nothing really came of it. Meaning that outside a small number of people, most of whom I know, no one really knows about this book.
So, after reading on The Rumpus about Mickey’s Hess’s “I will blurb any book within 24 hours” literary stunt, I decided to send him a PDF for yucks. Sure enough, in about twelve hours he had something for me: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Nothing is more frustrating than discovering an author’s troubles, but what it does do is really change my preconceived judgments about certain things.”
A few weeks ago, Hess posted a revised blurb on his personal blog: “Buzz bares his soul in this book. Overcoming obstacles such as toothaches, his gently androgynous narrators (all fictional characters) are driven by two things: tough-minded exclamations and 21st-century anxieties.”
Everything else aside, I can tell you that there is not a single toothache in the book. There is, however, a story that involves children losing their baby teeth, painlessly. Am I surprised that Hess hasn’t actually read all of the stories? Not really. Perhaps Hess’s ultimate motive was to create a spectacle of stunts? Make examples of those, like me, who take part in, fall for, such a stunt? Only he can say. I feel like asking would feed into the stunt more – and I acknowledge that writing this piece makes me truly complicit in engaging self-promotional activity.
But thinking about it more, maybe Hess was really calling into question the validity of promotional blurbs, printed or otherwise. Litanies of hyperbolic praise have long adorned the front and back covers of books (writing at Red Room in 2009, Matthew Pearl credited Ralph Waldo Emerson with being the first author to blurb a book, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career“). The purpose of the jacket blurb is obvious: if you like Author A, then you’re sure to like Author B, whose debut has been raved about by Author A.
Sit around with enough agents and editors and blurbs will come up – the bigger the name issuing the blurb, the better. Writers tend to know other writers, but many blurbs come in via professional associations – sharing an agent or publisher – so in a way they are also stunts, promoting one person’s words using someone else’s words by virtue of doing a favor for someone you may or may not know very well.
Adjective-heavy, blurbs try to relay a book’s tone, its author’s approach to storytelling boiled down to a sentence, maybe two. While jacket blurbs might not be as connected to the cult of personality as certain online promotional tactics, they still aren’t really about the writing. They are more about the writer and what he or she does with the written word.
The internet provides an outlet to anyone that wants to pipe up about something. This has changed how the public becomes aware of everything, whether a book, movie, storewide sale or a politician’s stance on an issue. In the pre-internet book trade, awareness was created through specific outlets, very much influencing the new books we found out about by via high-profile reviews and interviews. Today, with some degree of perseverance, you can find out about pretty much anything with a simple search and some mouse clicking.
This leaves large and small publishers alike, as well as self-published authors, vying for attention. So, is there a difference between traditional promotional activities and internet stunts? I suppose people talk more about stunts, but then they are talking more about you and not your writing. Promotional marketing tools can be very savvy about blurring the line between objective critiques and ads. Which, after my little foray into this world makes me wonder, more than ever: How much of consumer culture is about actual content?
(Image: for sale, from hive’s photostream)
Faced with a stark choice – where to buy books in New York congressional district 8 – I have decided to endorse my new employer, the Housing Works Used Bookstore & Cafe. As any American who’s attended a reading or browsed the shelves at HWUBC’s SoHo location knows, the store is a home away from home for bibliophiles. Better still, all of the store’s profits go to Housing Works, a nonprofit that supports homeless New Yorkers living with HIV. Recently, Housing Works has entered the online book business. So this election season, if you want a candidate who will protect your pocketbook while working for social change, look no further than the Housing Works page at half.com. I’m Garth Risk Hallberg, and I approved this message.
Why is it that so many people are turned off by the classics? Is it because would-be readers are afraid they won’t “get it?” Or does reading a well-known tome on the subway or in a cafe exude an air of pretentiousness, when it’s more likely that the reader just never followed through on that English lit assignment?In talking about his latest book, Classics for Pleasure, the Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Michael Dirda, said he not only hopes to make the classics appear less daunting and more accessible to the general public, but he also wants to “encourage people to read more widely.”Dirda, a columnist for The Washington Post’s Book World, said his goal is to get people to “read beyond the recognized classics and read beyond the contemporary.” He made his remarks Tuesday during a lecture, co-sponsored by the English-Speaking Union, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C.Classics for Pleasure consists of about 90 essays, written by Dirda, that describe the importance of lesser-known authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Abolqasem Ferdowsi as well as literary giants like Henry James and Christopher Marlowe.Each essay, ranging from two to five pages, serves as a primer on the era and author, with excerpts from famous works. They also offer some much-needed perspective, even for the seasoned reader, and are grouped together with topical headings such as Realms of Adventure, The Dark Side and Love’s Mysteries.But why should these classics, or any others for that matter, deserve a kind of sacred reverence?”Truly distinctive voices, once heard, ought never to be forgotten,” Dirda writes. “More than anything else, great books speak to us of our own very real feelings and failings, of our all-too-human daydreams and confusions.”From Dirda’s point of view, some of those failings and confusions are commonplace on the Web, perpetrated by those who dabble in his trade. He said that while “blogs and the online bookish universe are a wonderful thing… there are no oversights for the most part,” meaning no editorial review like the kind he gets from The Washington Post.He went on to say that some online book critics have a tendency to make a name for themselves by writing “vulgar, rude, outrageous” reviews, and such pieces should not be the standard for literary criticism.While that eventuality seems unlikely, Dirda’s nonetheless uses the book to re-establish his high bar for criticism while drawing in readers to “discover” the classics of yesteryear. One is certainly easier to achieve than the other.See Also: Classifying Classics; Nothing is Dead Yet: The Era of the Trusted Fellow Reader; Literature and History
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
What happens when people with a lot of money want to get their hands on a book that they think will make them more money, but that book is out of print and hard to find? That book gets very expensive.A BusinessWeek article profiles Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor by hedge fund manager Seth Klarman. The book was largely ignored when it was first published in 1991, but it Klarman’s ideas have come back into vogue and suddenly everyone on Wall Street wants to read the book, but copies are almost impossible to come by. As a result, the cheapest copy of the book on Amazon (as of this writing) is going for $1750. Not a bad investment if you bought the book when it first came out. (via)
Attention prospective authors: not to discourage, but the number of books coming out each year is getting out of hand. According to Bowker, a company that compiles and distributes bibliographic information, approximately 175,000 different books came out in 2003, a rise 19% from the previous year. Many believe this “book glut” is at least partly to blame for the financial woes of many publishers. Here’s the full press release with all the facts and figures. Following up on the comment that Edan left under yesterday’s post. Missing novelist, Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai, has been found in Niagara Falls. Here’s the article. Look for Dan Chaon’s first novel, You Remind Me of Me to be a hot read this summer. Janet Maslin gets the ball rolling with her warm review in the New York Times.BookspottingWhen: Evening 05/26/04Where: The gym at George Washington UniversityWho: A girl on one of the stationary bikesWhat: Catch 22 by Joseph HellerDescription: “Catch-22 is like no other novel we have ever read. It has its own style, its own rationale, its own extraordinary character. It moves back and forth from hilarity to horror. It is outrageously funny and strangely affecting.”When: Late 05/26/04Where: At the bar at Cantina Marina on the waterfront in downtown Washington, DCWho: A man in a suit, puffing a cigar, sipping his drinkWhat: The Prince of Providence by Mike StantonDescription: “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanton tells the incredible story of Buddy Cianci, America’s most colorful mayor, in this classic story of wiseguys, feds, and politicians riding a carousel of crime and redemption.”
Using Amazon.com bestseller rankings as his data set, a physicist at UCLA, Didier Sornette, and his coauthors have just completed a study to investigate which phenomena lie behind the creation of best-selling books. While Sornette acknowledges that a big sales spike occurs after a book receives a prominent review or a mention on television, “the slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time.” He finds that word of mouth is — scientifically — the best way to sell books. Or, to put it another way, it appears as though the laws of physics decree that creative marketing will win out over the more aggressive variety. Here’s the abstract for the original study with all its scientific mumbo-jumbo.A Baseball Book MiracleAs Janet Maslin notes in her review of Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan couldn’t have picked a better year than this one to write a fan’s-eye-view book about their beloved Boston Red Sox. Maslin likes the book and I’m not surprised; passion for the subject matter often leads to inspired and entertaining writing.