I returned home yesterday to find a case of books waiting for me.
This is my translation of poems by José Ángel Valente, considered by many the most significant Spanish poet of the second half of the twentieth century. (Thanks to Eliot Weinberger for the generous blurb.)
The book was published by Archipelago Press, in a lovely edition with a laid-textured cover. Its elegantly simple design is by Dave Bullen (whose mastery of typography is evident in the treatment of the title on the cover).
This curious image, shamelessly copied from Peacay’s excellent Bibliodyssey, is one of several similar images from a 36-page manuscript said to date from the sixteenth century. The provenance and attribution of this work are a bit mysterious. There was great interest in regular geometric solids during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as it was thought that in them was hidden God’s secret design for the universe. Such thinking derived from the ancient lineage of Pythagoreanism.
One researcher who explored this direction in depth, as described in my 1616: The World in Motion, was Johannes Kepler, who in the early seventeenth century produced this somewhat similar diagram of a “cosmic cup” in which all of the regular solids are embedded together (Kepler persuaded the eastern Habsburg emperor Rudolf to commission royal metal workers to construct such a cup, though the efforts came to nothing):
The image reproduced at Bibliodyssey is curious for its lack of context and its early date. As a philosophical/mathematical model it is much less rigorous than Kepler’s version and seems as much the result of private symbolism as of mathematics. Some of the images from the manuscript have something of the quality of origami, which is certainly out of the mainstream even of esoterica, so to speak. I would hazard the guess that the author of this work might have been a forerunner of Rosicrucianism (notice the three-dimensional cross in the center of the image, which has some of the vocabulary of alchemy). If I can learn more about the manuscript I will share what I find out.
Meg Wolitzer raised the issue at the New York Times. Emily Temple at Flavorwire followed up with a sampling of book covers. These authors focus on supposed typographical differences between books by male and female authors. From the Flavorwire sample it looks to me like color and tone might be at least as significant. Is this just random? What do you think?
In many respects we’ve got a real Stockholm Syndrome around the model of publishing as it’s existed up until now. We just take for granted that it is the way it is because that’s a good way for things to be. And when something diverges from it we look for proof as to why it should diverge. But I’m interested in trying to reframe questions. Why do we think that a person won’t buy a print book because in theory they could read it for free online? What is it that people are buying? What is it that people want?
From an interview with Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press. Read the rest here.
My author questionnaire and author photo for 1616: The World in Motion are due this week to Counterpoint Press. My daughter Ellen, who is a brilliant photographer, among other things, took this photo from the roof of her apartment overlooking Lake Merritt in Oakland. It was raining lightly at the time, and later that day ice would fall from the sky.
In Tom’s Glossary of Book Publishing Terms the author photo is defined as “Pictorial fiction. Authors always choose photos that emphasize that quality in which they feel most deficient.” So what does this say about me? I dunno — but I will say, as a guy who has been cutting his own hair for years, that I don’t think the hair looks too bad.
This interesting standoff between Rupert Murdock’s big publishing conglomerate and a little public library could be a bellwether for future digital book disputes. The SSC Library is boycotting HarperCollins. It is part of a consortium of 60 Nebraska libraries that purchase e-books for library patrons. Until recently the libraries could allow an unlimited number of patrons to check out these materials (just as they do with printed books). But HC changed the terms of the library purchases, now allowing a maximum of 25 check-outs — less than half of one check-out per library. HC says unlimited check-outs could hurt its e-book business, library director David Mixdorf says the new policy “hits on us pretty hard.” It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.
One benefit: patrons may be reading better books during the boycot.
Image via El Bibliomata’s photostream.
The NBCC has announced their 2010 award finalists. I used to be a member of this group but there are too many older books I need to read to spend all my time trying to keep current with the new ones. So I don’t know much about a lot of these books. If you’ve read some, please share your thoughts.
An unusual feature of the NBCC awards is a category for “criticism.” This probably comes about because of the difficulty of comparing nonfiction titles, since nonfiction is such a huge, unruly category. They also have a “biography” category for the same reason.
Dalkey Archive was given a lifetime achievement award.
I think the biggest surprise on this list probably is the omission of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Or maybe it’s that there are still enough book critics around to form a society. Following is the full list.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Crossing Mandelbaum Gate by Kai Bird
The Autobiography of an Execution by David Dow
Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
Hiroshima in the AM by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell
The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang
The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers
Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends by Tom Segev
One With Others by C.D. Wright
Nox by Anne Carson
The Eternal City by Kathleen Graber
Lighthead by Terrance Hayes
The Best of It by Kay Ryan
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle
Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West by Clare Cavanagh
The Cruel Radience by Susan Linfield
Vanishing Point by Ander Monson
This ad, which to me sounds more like some kind of stunt than a typical scam, has been removed from Craigslist. Certainly it’s not a “new and better way” of getting blurbs. Blurbing is already largely corrupt, and it’s not at all difficult to get jacket blurbs without going to all this trouble.
Book Reviewer: $150 – $1500 (Telecommute)
Prepublication book reviews needed for literary novel.
I am an Author and Professor of English in Austin, Texas. I also own a small publishing company. I am currently seeking prepublication reviews for a novel set for publication at the end of next month (February 2011). If your review is favorable, I would like to include a blurb from it on the back cover of the novel.
I am an advocate of finding new and better ways to accomplish common tasks. The old way of seeking prepublication reviews is to send galley proofs (Advance Reading Copies – ARC) out into the abyss of the mainstream media to compete in the mailboxes of those organizations with the one thousand other books they received that day. To me, that sounds like the definition of insanity.
If you are a book critic, an author, a university professor, a member of the media, a blogger, a review writer, a representative of an independent bookstore, or anyone with high literary credentials, I will pay you between $150 and $1500 for your review. Those with higher credentials will receive a higher stipend.
Of course, your review should be honest. Just because this is a paid review does not mean that you have to review the novel favorably; however, I certainly hope that you like the book. If your review is negative, I will not be using any portion of it on the back cover of my novel, on my website, or anywhere else.
Although I will not reveal the name of the novel or the synopsis in this ad, I will tell you that it is literary fiction in the vein of Lolita, Blood Meridian, and Steppenwolf. The novel challenges organized religion and is left-leaning, but the overall message of the novel is one of peace, tolerance, and unity. The novel has been described as Less Than Zero meets Dead Poet’s Society.
I would expect you to read the novel and write a thoughtful evaluative review that is somewhere between 500 and 1500 words long. The review should not be merely summative. It should evaluate the novel, pointing out its strengths in the areas of style, theme, narrative, characterization, etc. It should also compare the novel and writing to other major writers and novels. Remember, this is a pre-publication review, so I am looking for blurbs to include on the back cover of the novel accompanied by your name and organization. Keep in mind that you must be authorized to use your organization’s name. I will also use your review and organization name on my website, in promotional materials, and I will ask you to post your review on Amazon.com.
If you feel you are a qualified reviewer and you are favorable to the type of novel outlined above, please respond to this ad with a list of your credentials. If I feel your credentials are adequate, I will contact you with the full details of the novel, and we can negotiate a stipend amount and a timetable for completion.
Although I will have to verify your credentials, the entire process will be confidential. No one will know that you were paid for your freelance review.
This will be a little basic for many but maybe helpful to others. Authors often wonder whether the advance a publisher is offering is a fair one. There is a simple formula that can help you to judge.
Advances are, in theory, a prepayment against expected royalties. Authors are often concerned about whether their books “earn out” their advances — that is, whether royalties from actual book sales are equal to or greater than their advance against royalties. The advance represents a kind of benchmark for expectations of a title, and when actual royalties fall short of that number authors feel their titles have underperformed. There is a degree of truth to this, but it’s not the whole story. There are many factors behind the size of advances, and a book that doesn’t earn out can still be a success — the advance excess is in effect the equivalent of a slightly higher royalty percentage.
Still, authors have to do their best with the information they have, so we will assume the advance is logical relative to expected royalties. This being the case, the best way to judge the advance is to get a sense of the publisher’s sales expectations. To do this, try to find out about how many copies will be printed and about what the retail price is likely to be. Those figures will give you a sense of how the publisher is thinking about the title in terms of sales.
As an example let’s use nice round numbers for ease of calculation. Say the publisher plans to print 10,000 copies and sell them at $20 each and is offering the author a royalty of 10 percent off the full retail price. Now, many of the copies that are being printed will not be sold: copies are needed for reviewers and other purposes (among them the inefficiencies of book distribution), but we are only trying to get a ballpark figure, so we’ll ignore that level of refinement.
With that caveat, sales of 10,000 books would equal a total retail value of $200,000, of which 10 percent would be $20,000. Consequently, a logical advance for this title would be somewhere around $20,000. Woohoo, you’re rich!
They’ve announced a venture called AmazonCrossing. Amazon has the sales data from their international customers to identify promising titles, which they will have translated and publish — probably mainly for the Kindle, since that’s what they think of as their sweet spot. According to Jeff Belle, their Vice President of Books:
The goal of our publishing programs is to introduce readers to terrific authors they might not otherwise have the chance to know. Our international customers have made us aware of exciting established and emerging voices from other cultures and countries that have not been translated for English-language readers. These great voices and great books deserve a wider audience, and that’s why we created AmazonCrossing.
You wonder if they know how to do this right, and whether they will low-ball their translators (duh), but considering the paucity of works in translation in the US market I suppose any new translation initiative is positive.
. . . in one pretty cool video.
Craig Mod makes an interesting case for celebrating the (supposed) demise of “disposable books” — he elaborates at some length a simple distinction between books where the content and form are integral and those where they are independent — and welcoming the IPad as a reading platform. Here’s a sample:
We’re losing the dregs of the publishing world: disposable books. The book printed without consideration of form or sustainability or longevity. The book produced to be consumed once and then tossed. The book you bin when you’re moving and you need to clean out the closet.
These are the first books to go. And I say it again, good riddance.
Once we dump this weight we can prune our increasingly obsolete network of distribution. As physicality disappears, so too does the need to fly dead trees around the world.
You already know the potential gains: edgier, riskier books in digital form, born from a lower barrier-to-entry to publish. New modes of storytelling. Less environmental impact. A rise in importance of editors. And, yes — paradoxically — a marked increase in the quality of things that do get printed.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everything in that last paragraph were true! Unfortunately, part of this is fiction writing. Check out the NYT bestseller list and see if you can observe “a marked increase in the quality of things that do get printed.”
To me the most interesting part of Mod’s argument is his vision for booklike content that disposes of the metaphor of the page, as shown in the image above (the image is Mod’s). In this vision the content metaphor is not the bound book but the East Asian handscroll, on which stories were rolled out continuously from one end to the other rather than proceeding page by page.
The book is a perfected technology, but why should the electronic platform inherit the binding metaphor?
The Bookseller is back with another round of odd book titles. This year the six finalists for the Diagram Prize for odd book titles are the following:
- Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter
- Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich
- Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes
- Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
- The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- What Kind of Bean is This Chihuahua?
As I mentioned before in this context, as the translator of Frozen Coagulated Cultures in Wine, Cheese, and Sauerkraut Production, I fail to see what’s so funny about these titles.
These are preliminary design pages for a new book about the art of Bali. The font is Garamond Premier Pro. The image is a cool piece by I Ketut Ngendon (1903–1948) called Goodbye and Good Luck to Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, 1938 (Batuan, Bali. Ink on paper. Mary Catherine Bateson).
The pages are the same, except that in one spread the main text block is ragged and in the other it is justified. I’m curious which version people prefer.
The New York Times recently issued its list of 100 notable books of 2009 — and I don’t think I’ve read any of them!
But it’s not like I haven’t been reading. What’s up with that?
The first post at The Art of American Book Covers, by Richard Minsky, was made on August 26, so this blog is less than a month old. I regret that I don’t remember who directed me to it, but this blog is so rich in knowledge about techniques of book production that it makes me feel like an absolute novice. The blog will apparently focus on fine books of the nineteenth century. The image above is a detail from a book published by L. C. Page, who it seems offered each of their titles in red, white or blue cloth (wow!). Instead of stamping, a white cloth panel was glued onto the red and blue books. Following is a portion of the blog’s commentary related to this detail, but you should check out Minsky’s blog for the full story:
A lot of people have weighed in with examples of book titles then and now over at kottke.org. These are some of my favorites:
Then: Book of Genesis
Now: FLOOD! A true story of heartbreak, heroism, and the will to survive
Then: Moby Dick
Now: Orca Obsession: How the Whaling Industry Is Destroying Our Sea and Sailors
Then: Romeo and Juliet
Now: The Teen Sex and Suicide Epidemic: What You Need to Know to Protect Yourself and Your Family
Then: The Gospel of Matthew
Now: 40 Days and a Mule: How One Man Quit His Job and Became the Boss
And my own contribution:
Then: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Now: Chicken Soup for the Kitchen
Green Apple Books — located right here in the Bay Area — has launched a ten-round battle between the book and the kindle. Who do you suppose wins round one?
That seems to be the argument that Douglas Rushkoff is making in the August 24 Publishers Weekly. I have described previously the corporate consolidation that has caused the largest book publishers in this country to be subsidiaries of foreign-based conglomerates. For about as long as I have worked in publishing that has been a pretty steady trend, and not a beneficial one to either writers or readers.
But Rushkoff believes that era is drawing to a close. He writes:
The book business, however, was never a good fit for today’s corporate behemoths. The corporations that went on spending sprees in the 1980s and ’90s were not truly interested in the art of publishing. These conglomerates, from Time Warner to Vivendi, are really just holding companies. They service their shareholders by servicing debt more rapidly than they accrue it. Their businesses are really just the stories they use to garner more investment capital. In order to continue leveraging debt, they need to demonstrate growth. The problem is that media, especially books, can’t offer enough organic growth—people can only read so many books from so many authors.
So begins consolidation. In order to achieve the growth shareholders demand but the businesses can’t supply, corporations embark upon mergers and acquisitions, even though, in the long run, nearly 80% of all mergers and acquisitions fail to create value for either party. The music industry is a prime example. In the 1990s, when Sony could no longer demonstrate growth commensurate with its share price, it bought Columbia Music. At the time, newly invented CDs were selling briskly and at margins higher than vinyl records. This was because baby boomers were replacing their record collections. Once that surge ended, artificial growth turned out to be negative growth. The centralization of recording companies and labels under a few corporate giants, meanwhile, favored the rise of large distributors and retailers and the decline of local, specialized shops. Blame Napster if you must, but the truth is that the retail music industry no longer had anything to offer that the Web couldn’t.
The same thinking led the conglomerates to hone in on publishing. Top-heavy, centralized bureaucracies know how to work with a B&N better than with a Cody’s or a Spring Street Books. And they applied their generic corporate management to a ragtag crew of book nerds, most of whom wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—know a balance sheet if their lives depended on it. Finally, unable to grow as fast as their debt structures demanded, these corporations have resorted to slashing expenses.
Read more of Rushkoff’s argument here.
Over at the Asian Art Museum blog I’ve written a post briefly outlining some of the issues involved in designing Emerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950. I oversaw this project; the book was designed by Tag Savage of Wilsted & Taylor.
There are special issues for American designers when working with Southeast Asian subjects. This book demonstrates, I think, how they can be successfully addressed.