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Take this book jacket graphic - please

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Swing_of_Beijing_cover.jpg
Book jacket graphics seem to be the locus of all manner of anxiety for authors.  I believe it's a law of physics that authors - universally - are required to hate the cover art on their books.  And, as I've blogged previously (here and here), when dealing with international, cross-cultural or multi-racial stories and / or authors, the visual representations of those stories become extremely contested.

In all these contests, however, the author squares off against his or her publisher.  I have never before known a situation in which the author's nemesis is herself.  Yet that is the situation in which I find myself.

In conjunction with my (shortly) forthcoming audiobook version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, I need to include a picture with the audio file.  If the book had been published, that picture would be its cover; since the book is not yet published, I need to furnish a "cover equivalent."

The experience of assembling this cover equivalent has given me new empathy for graphic designers who work at publishing companies.  The process seems simple: get a relevant image and juxtapose it in a visually-pleasing way with the title of the book and the author's name.  Duh.  Yet my efforts suggest that the process's "simplicity" is more alleged than actual.

You can see the results above and draw your own conclusions about how lucky the world is that I have not attempted to inflict my graphic design work more widely on the innocent public.  The nicest thing one can say about this proposed cover is, I believe, that it's very DIY.  The font, in particular, comes awfully close to inducing stomach cramps. 

Nonetheless, I have surrendered to my limitations and throw myself on the mercy of my blog readers.  Anyone who wants to send me a proposed cover of their own making will find a happy recipient at maya.alexandri [at] gmail.com.  If I use your proposed cover with the audio book, you will receive - in addition to the privilege of licensing your work to me for free - a free copy of the audio book and my undying gratitude.    

If only all the memoirs were about pleasure...

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Much as I enjoyed Neil Genzlinger's hit piece on memoirs in this week's NYT Book Review, I humbly protest that I think he's misdiagnosed the problem. 

Genzlinger complains about "oversharing" in a culture where people have been encouraged to "grade inflate" their lives - to think their experiences A+'s, when they're really somewhere in the C- range.  As a result, people without anything to say are writing memoirs.

While Genzlinger no doubt has his finger on a live pulse in current American society, I don't think the issue is the authors: I think it's the publishers.  (See also the opening of Joyce Carol Oate's recent review of Paul Auster's novel, Sunset Park, in The New York Review of Books, in which she rhapsodizes about "the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises" that has burgeoned in the past few decades.)

Publishers want to invest in books that sell, and memoirs have an audience.  (I discuss why I think memoirs have such a robust audience base here.) 

However, as Genzlinger's annoyance attests, publishers don't seem to have a terribly refined notion of which memoirs will find an appreciative audience, and which will incur the public ire of prominent critics. 

At least part of this failing seems to be the Internet.  Publishers by now are accustomed to watching their profits sidle over to Internet-provided content, and they appear to have decided to try to move some of that content back into the print arena.  As Genzlinger observed, much of one of the memoirs he reviewed (Dis­aster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky) would do better on a blog.

Similarly, publishers are investing in topics that garner extensive coverage online, with websites, bulletin boards, Facebook pages, etc., devoted to them.  Hence, we have the phenomenon Genzlinger decries of piles of memoirs being released on the same topic (e.g., autism, cancer, addiction, etc.).

This approach of Internet-driven decision-making about publishing content is misguided.  I'm going to go out on a limb with a totally untested, anecdotal observation here, but people don't necessarily want to find the same content on every platform.  I have friends who won't respond to an e-mail, but who are lightning fast on Facebook.  Among my ex-es is one who thinks text messaging appropriate for all manner of intense declarations that I might channel into an in-person or (at worst) a phone conversation.  And plenty of people will join a group, leave a comment, become a "fan" or otherwise evince interest in some topic online about which they do not want to read a book.

In broad strokes: books are deep; the Internet's superficial.  Content appropriate to one doesn't necessarily translate well.  Publishers should cultivate more sophistication about doing - and marketing - well what they do best, and leave the Internet to its own thing.

Of course, there is one content area in which book publishers shouldn't be shy about following Internet trends.  It's an area with a well-established pedigree in Western literature, and it nicely overlaps with the genre of memoirs.  The Internet may be for porn, but the book publishing industry is for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

(Image of Phoebe showing Fanny how, from John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, from the University of Michigan site)

Giving American women readers their due

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Biblioteca_Nazionale_Marciana_Venice.jpg
American women readers are the consumer backbone of the publishing industry.  (By some reports, women compose 80% of the market for novels.) 

Publishers think they're catering to women by publishing chick-lit and women-friendly novels (the kinds with "sympathetic" female protagonists, dealing with issues familiar to readers). 

Never mind the homogenizing impact this approach has on newly-published literature.  Never mind the narrowness and condescension implicit in this publishing strategy.  Never mind that some women - myself included - have no interest in these types of books.

Never mind that publishers might get better returns from their female consumers if they followed another strategy.  My vote is for publishers to follow the lead of the Renaissance Venetians: put a naked man outside the door of every bookstore or library.  I can't think of a better way to prime the ladies for furious book reading and thank them for their patronage.

(Photograph of the entrance to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, off Piazza San Marcos in Venice, by Maya Alexandri)

Psorry, but Psmith Psucks

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Psmith.jpgNotwithstanding the title, I come to herald Caesar, not to bury him - Caesar being, of course, P.G. Wodehouse, the great comic novelist and short story writer.  Having no shortage of admiration for Wodehouse, I have recently begun to delve into his considerable repertoire outside the Wooster-Jeeves stories.  In so doing, I had the misfortune to pass more hours than I'd have liked in the company of Psmith, Journalist.  (The "P," in case you were wondering, is silent, as it is in "psoriasis.")

The plot of Psmith, Journalist sounded interesting: high-bred British Communist takes over a refined American weekly, Cozy Moments, and turns it into a radical rag.  But from the outset, the book sags.  (Or I should say, "psags.")  

P.G. Wodehouse never really got America.  That he loved it is abundantly clear.  But you have to get a place to skewer it.  He got England so well that his skewering is timeless.  But his American pieces are always a bit awry, and Psmith, Journalist is no exception.  The accents and character types are too stereotypical and two-dimensional.  In England, where repression has been necessary to maintain the "stiff upper lip" and manners for which the British are famous, stereotypical, two-dimensional people are usually secreting an individual beneath the surface.  In America, where earnestness is the watchword and repression is a mortal sin, stereotypes are as unoccupied as abandoned hermit crab shells.

Then there's Wodehouse's unfortunate use of terms like "wop," "dago" and "coon" in Psmith, Journalist, not to mention his descriptions of black people with "woolly head[s]" and "rolling eyes."  In contrast to his timeless British stories, Psmith, Journalist (which was published in 1915) is painfully, cringe-worthily dated.

And, although Wodehouse exhibits his typical mastery of plot (and its attendant twists) in Psmith, Journalist, his skills at characterization fail him.  Psmith's own motivations remain superficial and scantily addressed.  In the Jeeves-Wooster stories, love or freedom is the standard motivation for the hijinks: couples are trying to scrape together the financial means to get married, or men are trying to summon the gumption to propose (love); or men are trying to escape a bad marriage (freedom).  In Psmith, Journalist, Psmith is never doing more than amusing himself.  Nor is his bizarre habit of referring to everyone as "Comrade" - or his ostensible Communism - ever explained; it's as external an adornment to Psmith's person as his monocle.  

Additionally, Psmith, Journalist lacks a single female character.  Women, of course, were a major problem for P.G. Wodehouse to depict as human beings, an issue that may stem of his authorial struggle to sympathize with them.  But Wodehouse nonetheless used them wonderfully as foils for the character development of his vapid male characters, for whom he seemed to have no shortage of empathy.  (Jeeves, in fact, does similar foil-for-protagonist work in Wodehouse's stories.)  Fascinatingly, in the course of his explorations of the utilitarian benefits of female characters, Wodehouse created one brilliant, fully-realized, totally lovable and sympathetic female character: Aunt Dahlia.  Troublemaker, defender of the clan, foodie, fox hunter, magazine editor, devoted wife, blackmailer, gambler and articulater of some of the finest comic dialogue in literature, Aunt Dahlia (and not Jeeves) may well be Wodehouse's most astonishing achievement.

What redeems Psmith, Journalist and makes it worth reading is a similar opportunity to witness Wodehouse's extraordinary growth as an author.  As much as his towering literary achievements, Wodehouse's trajectory - from psucks to pstupendous - is an amazing legacy.  

Nonetheless, appreciating this kind of developmental legacy seems to be something of a challenge in the current publishing environment (and its penumbra of book criticism).  For instance, in a profile of novelist Nora Roberts about a year ago in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins made the eyebrow-raising statement, "Most writers have worked out the kinks in their writing by the time they are published."  Not if they're any good they haven't.

In my experience, as both a reader and a novelist, growth is an intrinsic part of a writer's process.  If a writer is engaged in the world, his or her work will not be static.  What wasn't a "kink" in an earlier work will be identified and ironed out in a later work.  This process happens over many articles, stories and books.  

Ian Rankin, for example, experienced this process and spoke on Bookslut about his "long apprenticeship" over seven Inspector Rebus novels, which led to his eighth, Black and Blue, being a breakthrough:

I felt it. When I started plotting [Black and Blue] and started writing it, I could feel that it was a different kind of book. It was initially given an injection from my close and passionate reading of James Ellroy. I went on a real tear with him. If you read the opening pages of Black and Blue, there's a real James Ellroy feel to them - very staccato sentences with a lot of slang that you might not know but that gives a lot of mood and character. I knew the book was going to be a lot darker and use a real-life case, which I had never done before.
. . . .
To me, it felt like a big important book.
Rankin was right, and just in time.  As he recounts in The Scruffy Dog Review

There were a lot of years back then when I just wasn't selling. The first six or seven books sold very poorly and then suddenly Black and Blue came along at a time when my publishers were getting ready to drop me. They felt they had done everything they could to try and break me into a bigger market, so they were getting ready to let another publisher take a shot . . . ."the books aren't selling, they're not getting well reviewed," and that was eight years of my writing career. I was panicking.
Black and Blue went on to win the Gold Dagger Award, and Rankin ultimately broke ground on the UK best seller list when six of his titles graced the Scottish Top 10 simultaneously.  By 2002, he'd received an O.B.E.

As the examples of P.G. Wodehouse and Ian Rankin suggest, if an author lives in Lauren Collins' world and doesn't publish until he or she works out the kinks, then one of two possibilities will occur.  Either he or she will not work out all the kinks.  (Ian Rankin wouldn't have written seven Inspector Rebus novels if the first hadn't been published.)  Or the author is going to starve.

P.G. Wodehouse didn't starve.  He was publishing from 1902 to 1974 (and even into 1978, posthumously).  His bibliography runs to something like a hundred books.  I can imagine that Wodehouse could relate to Samuel Johnson, who (as described by Andrew O'Hagan in The New York Review of Books)

while half-blind and aching with the gout, in a cold garret and dressed like a mendicant, formed his nation's dictionary and an entire multivolume edition of Shakespeare with commentary and notes, while also devoting himself to poetry, plays, hundreds of essays, parliamentary sketches, prayers, prefaces and multiple biographies . . . . [H]e believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer.   
Writers need to write if they're going to reach their pinnacles.  To write, they need to eat.  To eat, they need to publish.  To publish enough to eat, sometimes they need to publish crap, but only by writing and eating and publishing will the crap improve.

All of which is to say that Psmith is a pstep that Wodehouse had to take to give us Aunt Dahlia, and I'm psuper grateful that the publishing industry psupported Wodehouse in the course of his literary pstruggles.  This lesson is one that publishing will forget at psociety's expense.

(Image of Psmith from The Project Gutenberg)   

The India price for books

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Having lived in the States, China and Kenya, and having shopped for books in other countries, like the UK, South Africa and Sri Lanka, as well as those notorious netherland spaces, like Online and in Airports, I thought I knew what books basically cost.  In all the foregoing place, prices for English-language books occupy roughly the same - high - price range (typically between $11-20 for a paperback).

So I was very surprised to find books selling at well below the US price for ebooks in India.  Whereas average book prices in the US exceed the Kindle $9.99 loss leader, the average price for the same book in India is $5-$7. 

This dramatic pricing difference confused me.  A $5-$7 retail price suggests costs of production of something less than $2, which means that the US publishing industry is either making a 500-1000% profit on books (not the case to my knowledge), or that, by failing to explore international production and shipping options, it's printing books at a vastly higher cost than necessary (entirely possible, but I don't know).

That India can sell books for so cheaply also casts fresh light on the ebook pricing dispute, since whatever the marginal cost of producing another ebook, it cannot possibly exceed the price of producing a corporeal book.  All of which is to suggest that Kindle's $9.99 price shouldn't have been a loss leader, and that the current push to raise ebook prices to the $12.99-$14.99 range is sheer industry greed.

In terms of delivering books to consumers at fair prices, India exposes failures that the US publishing industry should work to rectify.  For my own part, India delivered a mandate as well: buy books.

The seven books pictured averaged $6.95 a piece.  On Amazon, the same selection would have cost $10.31 apiece, plus shipping. 

The future may find me in India just to buy books.
worlds_best_technology.jpgIn a recent, ranging Huffington Post entry, Andrew Zack opines:

[N]o one believes that the days of paper books aren't numbered.  It will take a couple of generations for kids to be fully separated from paper books and adults ready to read everything on a tablet of some kind, but I wouldn't recommend anyone more than a decade from retirement invest in starting a bookstore.  We are experiencing the beginning of the end of paper books right now.  The brick-and-mortar store and the paper book will disappear faster than you might imagine.
I can only hope that provincialism and myopia disappear faster than we might imagine.  From his statement, Zack appears to be unaware that much, if not most, of the world lives in locations where electricity is unreliable, broadband is unavailable and devices like iPods - let alone tablet computers - are prohibitively expensive.  The fragility of electricity-dependent devices will only be compounded by ensuing climate change-related disasters and environmental upheaval.  (Even without abnormal weather conditions, I've been amazed at the amount of insect life that I've had to dislodge from my laptop's keyboard and screen while working in Kenya.)

A book, on the other hand - as J.M.G. Le Clezio observed in his Nobel speech - is an "ideal tool.  It is practical, easy to handle, economical.  It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate."  He might also have added that a book is less likely to be stolen than a Kindle, that it won't clog up a landfill or contaminate a water source with its toxic e-waste, and that reading off a screen of any kind, no matter how gentle on the eyes, is less versatile than reading from a book.  (Try reading off a screen in the bathtub.)

All of which is to say: the future is about versatility.  The world's economic, environmental, cultural, technological and knowledge-management conditions are, and will continue to be, in flux.  Successful navigation of the field will require adaptability and flexibility above all other skills.  In this context, books will always have a place.

What is misplaced are smugly confident predictions premised on demonstrably-incorrect assumptions of never-ending prosperity. 

(Image of the world's greatest technology from the MIT Libraries blog)
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