Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Books for Readers Newsletter # 99

Newsletter #99
September 10, 2007

This issue continues the discussion about whether Amazon.com is doing more good or ill to writers and small publishers, this time with comments from Jonathan Green, long time publisher of beautiful books at Gnomon Press. There is also part of a review by Molly Gilman plus suggestions and responses from Norman Julian and John Yohalem. Don’t miss, as usual, lots of good news about new work and small presses. Please send me what you’ve been reading and thinking about in the world of literature– the next issue, to my astonishment, will be #100! Let me begin thanking you all now, friends and strangers, who have contributed to this newsletter.
Meredith Sue Willis


Just back from the [Kentucky] State House chambers and the uphill useless fight against legislation to give Peabody Coal millions in incentives which may very well result in more mountaintop removal devastation in the eastern coalfields.

But back to Amazon, this from the view of a small publisher (with over 40 years experience): The way the book world is set up is less than ideal for a small publisher. Amazon is not Evil in that in many instances it gives access to readers who want small press books that are not otherwise easily available. Certainly I agree with my friend Gordon Simmons: first support your local independent bookstore if you are lucky enough to have a good one in your neighborhood; they are a dying breed.

But not all such bookstores will go to the trouble to order a book that is not distributed by the near-monopoly of Ingram Book Co. Ingram takes the same deep discount (55% off of list price) that Amazon takes, but (unlike Amazon) Ingram often returns much of what it buys in beat-up condition which the publisher has to eat plus pay the UPS cost back to its door. I once got a hardback book returned by Ingram with a razor cut the length of its spine through both the jacket and the cloth. And had to pay for its trip back to my warehouse. As far as Amazon being non-union, I doubt many bookstores are union or pay what many would consider decent wages. Not right, but friends who work in stores complain to me about this fact without telling me their specific salaries.

Readers can also try to support publishers directly if their local store will not bother to order a book that Ingram does not carry. Research on-line and contact or buy from the publisher directly. Not all publishers take credit cards, a reason some would prefer to deal with Amazon. Barnes & Noble often will not order from small publishers directly, but often seem to give out their telephone numbers to those that want books from those publishers. Small Press Distribution and Consortium that distribute books for many small presses return even less to small presses that Amazon: they normally sell books to stores or chains at 40% - 55% then take half of the gross receipts of any payment and put the amount due the publisher in escrow for three months. And Consortium charges the publisher a re-stocking fee for any books stores or distributors return. In other words, it is almost impossible for a small literary publisher to survive without massive infusions of grants from NEA and foundations. Or increasingly asking for author subsidies. And this affects writers who want to be published by small publishers. The health of these publishers helps the writers they publish. The worsening condition is also caused by big publishers deciding to kill of their mid-list authors, authors who do not sell books at or above the 10,000 range. They would rather publish fewer authors selling more product (a ubiquitous hateful word now in the book trade).

Print-on-demand vendors are a new avenue for authors and publishers. Or in many instances now the author is the self-publisher. A complicated situation. Bashing Amazon is not really helpful. Bash Ingram, bash the fact that mainstream literary publishing is now dominated by multi-nationals. Knopf, Random House, Farrar Straus, etc. are now owned by German companies. Or lament the fact that just released figures state that 27% of Americans do not even read one book a year. One was quoted: reading made them sleepy. Well, then tout reading for insomniacs as much healthier than sleeping pills. That should boost book sales.

– Jonathan Greene, Gnomon Press

Norman Julian writes to say, “I am trying May Sarton, among your recommendations. I much like her essays. She has a facile grace of writing which looks easy but, as we both know, isn't. Or at least it takes years and probably decades to get to the point where it isn't as hard.
“I am also reading ECHOING SILENCE – Thomas Merton on the vocation of writing. Edited by Robert Inchausti. Worried about whether you write for emotionally and spiritually healthful reasons? Try Merton. He'll get you properly directed, if you aren't already. He might also preserve a little of your sanity, no easy task when adrift in modernity. A fancy phrase of mine that last, no? I shoulda been a NEW YORK TIMES critic, instead of a toiler at THE DOMINION POST, but didn't have the time to get up there. Besides I didn't want to be away from my dog or garden....”

Two and a half years ago, I commented on a book by M.F. Young published back in the 1920's called THE MEDICI . I recently received the following note. This is one of the wonders of the Internet, that something I wrote all that time ago is now getting this thoughtful response. John Yohalem writes: “ I too have just read M.F. Young's THE MEDICI – I don't see how you can allege that he prefers simple soldiers to bookish types; he goes on and on about how much Lorenzo il Magnifico spent on books, and how much all of western civilization owes to him for it. Lorenzo is his hero if anyone was. His defense of Catherine (note that he quotes her own letters -- everyone's own letters -- wherever he can) is a response to the way she had been treated up to that time, and even later by Garrett Mattingly in his otherwise superb THE ARMADA: If you were Catholic, she was treacherous in opposing the Guises; if you were Protestant, she was doubly treacherous in plotting the Massacre and pretending to be for peace. No one ever looked at the woman and tried to figure out human reasons for her actions. (It is my opinion that she DID plan the murder of Coligny, and let the Guises pull it off, but that the general massacre took her entirely by surprise. As he notes: she did not plan it with Alva four years earlier, as many Prots said -- we have her letters and his, and they hated each other at that meeting. So this may be the first more or less objective treatment of her. (Young, of course, is clearly a Protestant, but fighting down his prejudices.) It is interesting that he goes out of his way to praise Fernando I for opening Livorno to Jews and Protestants, and for lending Henri IV money, but he holds himself back from condemning the priest-ridden policies of Cosimo III that sank the duchy in poverty. (He decided to have one monastery of each accredited monastic order. Leopold I closed most of them.) I would certainly recommend this book (if anyone can find it) for anyone who loves both art and history and plans to spend a lot of time in Florence."
This review by Molly Gilman is available in full at Live Journal (http://halflingmerry.livejournal.com/ Scroll to the entry for Thursday, August 23rd, 2007).

This past Saturday, on my way to visit my cousin Rosie, I picked up THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst from the free rack in my town's train station. In the ten minutes between waking up and catching the train (which hadn't exactly been my plan, but I made it!), I'd crammed two novels, a crossword puzzle book, and a sudoku book (gah, I've joined the throng) in my bag already but wasn't quite satisfied with any of them. Still, I'd expected just to add DOGS OF BABEL to their weight and shuffle between the lot for the four sets of 40-minute train rides ahead of me (New Jersey to New York Penn Station and Grand Central Station to Scarsdale, Scarsdale and back).

I didn't expect to use the total transit time that day (amounted to about five hours, including Shuttle time—which included the stranger sitting next to me asking about the book and getting into a semi-deep discussion—and a fifty-three minute wait back at Penn that night after just missing the intended homeward train) to read the book cover-to-cover, making it my second quickest full-length adult novel read after WATERSHIP DOWN. It would have been one sitting if not for the day of visitation in the middle....I completed the final page just as the train stopped at the station before my own, and used the last two minutes of train time to read the author's note and some "discussion questions"—still I'm left with the urge to review it a bit here. I think my reactions will be spoiler-free, but be warned that they commence after this point....The specifics of the story are unique, and some outrageous and unlikely to be encountered in anyone's life. But on the whole, every rare and bizarre story and incident, the moments of horrifying grotesqueness (only one, really; if more I may not have been able to read it), everything serves an incredibly realistic and relatable emotional experience (or thirty). The central bizarrity of the story is an understandable manifestation of the narrator's experience, once you get inside it. Which I found to be fairly instantaneous, in the general sympathetic way, though deeper understanding came to the reader at about the same pace as the narrator.

Who, by the way, I may or may not find detestable. Or at least unlikable, in a way that particularly resonates with me. Even in that, though, he's relatable and can be empathized with. And reading this story through his subjective eyes (which is also a reductive statement as it's as much the story of his reactions and experience as the events he goes through in the present and relates from the past), learning and experiencing as he does and forming your own judgments and conclusions in the wake of that... well, maybe feels real in a uniquely literary way... I'm not going to like any wording of this statement.

It does kind of segue, if I've managed to impart anything of what I mean, into some of the themes I found most compelling—and able to articulate. The [probably] central one [certainly to the narrator's development] is that of... not objectivity, not wishful thinking, but projection. Our perception is, in perhaps unquantifiable percentage, projection, and desire makes it more so. The reader sees the narrator do it throughout the novel, but also is presented with unignorable opportunity to do—and catches themself doing—it as well. Historical and legendary anecdotes to be found, selected and interpreted as evidence for an obsessive experiment. An unanalyzed dream journal. A list of book titles divided by ownership, left in perhaps an intended code by a character for another and perhaps an unintended [by the character] one reflecting on their owners' personalities for the reader. Indistinct sounds that may or may not be taken as speech. The behavior of a creature who cannot communicate in specific, humanly understood terms. A lover's whole knowledge and perception of their partner and their shared life.

Emotionally, I was quite invested in the exploration of grief, obsession, and depression. The stages of grief were not labeled, pointed to, or even overtly described, but the progression of timelines past and present [though that sort of storytelling is starting to seem bandwagonish, a symptom of current trends; still enjoyable and to a purpose here], the emerging picture of the other main character, the arisings and collapsing of mysteries and problems to solve, are... basically, what I meant by realistic and relatable emotional experience, which is putting it too cerebrally to match the intent behind it. As for obsession... well, here's where one of the book's most controversial (it seems) aspects comes into play....There are moments of horrendousness towards dogs, however much the book is written by a dog-lover and one of the main characters, intensely compelling, interesting, and empathetic, is a dog. But without those moments of horrendousness, I don't think the book would be as intense and full an exploration of the emotional core. It shows the difference between obsession and irrational thought and behavior when sparked by intense emotion in a generally stable person, and when those things are the manifestations of a clinically disturbed mind. ...And also, the moments of horror were far fewer than I'd feared when first reading the dustjacket. People who know me, the greatest endorsement I can give for this book not being too much to handle in the disturbance-area: I was able to handle it. There was only one section that was very difficult to get through from the disturbance/disgust angle, and as I said, I would not skip it or have wished it omitted.

The front cover of the book also mentions something cheesy about "love and loyalty", but, without quite knowing how to go into it further, I found it intrinsic, moving, and not cheesy or overemphasized at all... which is to say, another thing it's difficult to mention at all without feeling I'm being reductive. I guess I'll say: every level of emotionality in the book, from physically-trembling horror to almost crying-happy, was very much earned and natural and there because it was part of the whole.

So, I recommend it. ;-) But more than that, would love to chat about it with anyone else who's read it....

-- Molly Gilman
Bob Cumming, Publisher of Iris Press writes to say: “I'm pleased to report that another Iris Press poet has had a poem selected by Garrison Keillor to be featured on his American Public Media program, THE WRITER'S ALMANAC. Rebecca McClanahan's poem, ‘Autobiography of the Cab driver Who Picked Me Up at a Phoenix Hotel to Catch a Four A.M. Flight and Began to Speak in (Almost) Rhyming Couplets’ from her book, DEEP LIGHT: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, 1987--2007, (Iris Press, 2007) will be featured on the program to be aired on September 25, 2007. APM currently distributes the program for broadcast to about 320 non-commercial public radio stations around the country. The program is also streamed and podcast from and archived on the APM website at http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org and may be streamed, archived on carrying station websites as well.”
Frances Madeson’s COOPERATIVE VILLAGE received some good press at the August 20, 2007 entry on http://noggs.typepad.com/the_reading_experience/2007/08/responding-to-t.html .
Marsh Hawk Press has new books and good events in New York City. See their website at http://www.marshhawkpress.org/ .
John Amen had a poem in the August issue of STIRRING– see it at http://www.sundress.net/stirring/archives/v9/e8/index.html His poem "Triptych" appeared recently in RATTLE has been posted at www.myspace.com/johnamen. His books CHRISTENING THE DANCER and MORE OF ME DISAPPEARS as well as his first CD, ALL I'LL NEVER NEED are currently available through various sites, including Amazon and www.johnamen.com.
Novelist Krista Madsen writes that she has been offered “the chance to teach at the Abroad Writers' Conference, next stop the little southern village of Cassis, France. There will be workshops (I believe you take two, one lead by a lesser known soul like me, and one by a more established author) in which the focus is giving/receiving feedback on a good body of work. Each evening there are readings/programs offering the chance to further mine the minds of all these amazing folks. Along with food, lodging, private consultations, time to write & wander... I can't wait to go, perhaps you'll join me? I know June seems a long way off, but reservations must be made soon for this to happen...... [Get in touch with] Nancy Gerbault, abroadwriters@yahoo.com, http://www.abroad-crwf.com, and her number: 209-296-4050; tell her I sent you. Let me know if you decide to do this, and if you know anyone else who might be interested, pass it on!” ABROAD WRITERS' CONFERENCE--Authors without Borders at Camargo Foundation, CASSIS, FRANCE, June 14 - 28, 2008. Abroad Writers' Conference: http://www.abroad-crwf.com Camargo Foundation: http://www.camargofoundation.org/ Abroad Writers' Conference, 17363 Sutter Creek Road, Sutter Creek, CA 95685.

D. S. Nurske, Michael Graves, and Burt Kimmelman will read September 30, 2007 at Bengal Curry, 65 West Broadway betw. Murray and Warren Streets, 1½ blocks south of Chambers), NYC 10007 Phone: (212) 571-1122
Carol Stone and Burt Kimmelman will read March 25, 2006, 7:00 PM, Watchung Booksellers, 54 Fairfield Street,Watchung Plaza
Montclair, NJ 07042 973-744-7177
Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget Amazon.com, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books (http://www.powells.com) --the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from http://www.powellsunion.com; prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go directly to the [Powell’s bookstore] union's benefit fund.’” But also see Jonathan Greene’s comments above and more of the discussion in Issue #98 and #97 .

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