Entries from June 2009

On Moving to a New Publisher in the UK

I have held off announcing this until things were certain, but last week I agreed to move to a new publisher in England, Orion. Orion is a terrific house and a good fit for me. Their crime catalog reads like an all-star team: Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Ian Rankin, Walter Mosley, Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder — the list goes on and on. (One of my favorites, Alan Furst, too.) Coincidentally, my new editor at Orion, Bill Massey, used to work at Bantam-Dell in New York alongside my U.S. editor, the great Kate Miciak. So the stars seem to have aligned, and I am tremendously happy to have landed in such good hands.

For a while now, I’ve thought of my next book — as yet untitled, to be published in fall 2010 or spring 2011 — as a fresh start. In the five or six years since my first book came out, I seem to have become that pitiable creature, the critic’s darling. Which is to say, my books have had glowing reviews but anemic sales.

This is in no way the fault of my previous U.K. publisher, Transworld, where I and my books were treated royally. I suppose it is partly an example — one of many, many such examples — of the serendipity of publishing. As anyone in publishing will tell you, there is a lot of luck involved in making a best seller. Jonathan Galassi remarks in this month’s Poets & Writers magazine that the whole business is a “crapshoot”:

One of the hardest things to come to grips with is how important the breaks are. There’s luck in publishing, just like in any human activity. And if you don’t get the right luck — if Mitchi [Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times] writes an uncomprehending review, or if you don’t get the right reviews, or if books aren’t in stores when the reviews come, or whatever the hell it is — it may not happen.

But my indifferent sales numbers have been my own doing, also. A writer simply cannot hope for commercial success — no matter how good his books are — if he does not produce regularly. And I haven’t. Maybe I just did not understand how unforgiving the market is for unreliable producers. Now I do.

The problem has not been that I write too slowly. If my words-per-hour rate is slow, no doubt I make up for it by logging a hell of a lot of hours at the keyboard. No, the real culprit has been poorly chosen projects that were begun and then scrapped, at considerable cost in time and labor. The solution, I think, is to have my next project lined up with certainty — vetted by editors, with the basic development of plot and characters already done — so that, the moment I finish one book, I can begin drafting the next. A writer cannot wait until he finishes one book before thinking about the next. Obvious as that sounds, it’s been a hard lesson for me.

With all that said, I feel like I am on the cusp of a run of good books. A writer is in the unfortunate position of having to learn his craft in full view of the public. His mistakes are there on the bookshelf for all to see. I have at least a few of those early blunders out of the way now, and I am ready to relaunch, a little wiser this time. The switch to a new publisher feels like a part of that transition.

Categories: My Books    Tags: · ·

Fred Wilson on Social Media

Fred Wilson is a venture capitalist with a knack for explaining the power of social media in plain English. I am a junkie for the latest developments in the web, and I’ve become addicted to his blog, called A VC.

In this interview, he talks at length about the rise of social media — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and blog comments, mainly — and why in the aggregate they will soon rival Google as the primary source of passed information on the web. The interview runs a little over thirty minutes but it’s well worth your time if you are interested in social media.

I think all writers, including novelists, simply have to be on top of this stuff. For all the paeans we hear about the glory of traditional printed books, the fact is the internet utterly transforms our business and our art.

Anyway, for a taste of Wilson’s sort of insight, here is an excerpt from the interview, on why Twitter succeeds better than Facebook as a viral medium (this snippet comes at about 26:30 in the video).

Fred Wilson: … Search is very intent-driven: I want to buy a digital camera, I go, I search, I buy. The passed-links thing is much more serendipitous. StumbleUpon, I think, was a very interesting service … But it was very serendipitous, right? You stumbled upon something. And I think that Twitter and Facebook and social media more broadly, I think, is a more powerful way of that serendipity. You want, I think, in life, you want some things you subscribe to, you want some things that you go search for, and then everything else you want to come at you through some filtered set of trusted sources.

Interviewer: Through what Mark [Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder] calls the “social graph.”

Fred Wilson: Correct. But the social graph — the problem that Facebook has, and they know it, is that there are a lot of people out there who are not friends who are really powerful social recommenders, and you’re just not going to have them in your social graph in the original instantiation of the way Facebook was set up. So I think blogging to me is the proper model, and I think that the people who started Twitter launched Twitter with the blogging model, which is: I can follow you and you don’t have to read me, and we don’t have to be friends but you can be influential. And that is, I think, a more natural model.

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

How Writers Write: Philip Roth

“Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” From a writer’s point of view, it is touching to hear a giant like Roth confess to a feeling I know well. Here Roth discusses his writing process. I love the brief glimpse of Roth at his stand-up desk (beginning at about 3:23), composing his novels on what looks like the ancient blue screen of a DOS-based word processor. Roth uses a stand-up desk because of a bad back. “He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes.” (link) How comforting it is to see the homely touch of those extra reams of paper stacked under the monitor to boost it up to eye level.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · · ·

Publishers as booksellers?

In a long and interesting interview with Poets & Writers magazine, Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has an interesting prediction for the future of book-selling: publishers, not online retailers like Amazon, will profit from selling directly to readers. It makes a lot of sense, especially as book-selling transitions more and more to digital and Amazon’s massive edge in order-fulfillment and customer service is nullified. Is it any wonder Amazon is rushing to solidify the Kindle’s position as the standard platform for eBooks.

Where do you think the future of bookselling is?

With the publishers. I think the publishers will be selling the books directly.

Are you talking about digitally or physical books?

Both. I think there are always going to be people who want physical books, but I think the digital part of the business is going to increase. One of the things that all publishers are worried about now is this idea that a book on Kindle is worth $9.99. If that establishes the price of what a book is worth, what does that say? What if I want to sell Maureen McLane’s book as a hardcover for twenty-four dollars? I think that’s a problem. Again, it’s a lesson from the music business. People have been used to the idea that intellectual property—that a book, an artwork—is worth a certain amount of money. It’s a mark of respect, in a way. But if you turn it into a widget, where every book is worth the same amount, it’s not good. This is where the author, the agent, and the publisher should be working together to protect their mutual interest. And not have the business be decided by a seller.

By Amazon.

Yeah. We should be deciding what a book is worth, not them. It’s a problem.

Are you envisioning bookstores going away the way that record stores did?

I think that bookstores are going to be around, but I don’t think they’re going to be the major channel. Especially if we go more and more digital.

Read the whole thing here.

Categories: Publishing    Tags: · ·

Richard Diebenkorn: Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting

Richard_Diebenkorn's_painting_'Ocean_Park_No.129'

The following list was found among the papers of the painter Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. Spelling and capitalization are as in the original. (Via Terry Teachout.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Ocean Park No. 129, 1984.

Categories: Art · Creativity    Tags: · · ·

Writers as Performers

Obviously the internet has blown a hole in the business model of the publishing industry, and we have all heard dire predictions that digital will obliterate printed books altogether. The doomsday scenario usually maps to the demise of the music CD: Kindle equals iPod, Amazon equals iTunes, eBook equals MP3. The details may vary, but the end is always the same — the poor printed book is the next unfortunate dinosaur technology to be smashed into extinction.

If that is indeed how things play out — and who knows — then we writers may well find ourselves in a situation like today’s emerging musicians. In the MP3 era, bands do not “break” by getting radio play. They freely give away much of their music over the web and make up for the lost sales by touring constantly. Ticket sales replace CD sales, at least in theory. This may be a lamentable change from the musicians’ point of view, but the truth is “any new music-related business must accept the fact that it’s competing against a huge store of readily available free music, and build that fact into its business model.”

There is as yet no iTunes for books, no single, dominant legitimate online seller, let alone a killer peer-to-peer platform like Napster or Bit Torrent. And the Kindle and Sony Reader are as yet no match for even the earliest iPods in terms of design, usability, or sheer coolness. For many other reasons, especially having to do with the nature of books and book readers, the switch to digital is not likely to be as apocalyptic for writers as it has been for musicians, at least in the near term. But when the change comes, however it plays out, how will authors replace the income lost to digital distribution and piracy?

One thing is for sure: Malcolm Gladwell is sure to survive the flood. Gladwell is flourishing even in this twilight era by doing what indie bands have done: performing. He reportedly commands forty thousand dollars for live appearances, no doubt much more for the corporations who often hire him to speak. Last year he even displaced “The Lion King” from its home in the Lyceum Theater in London’s West End, for one night only, for two shows. The Gladwell shows sold about 4,000 tickets at £20 apiece. Gladwell said of his London shows, “The Lyceum evening was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theaters like that all the time.”

Does all this have any significance for the rest of us? Can mere mortals take a lesson from Gladwell? Well, most writers cannot do what Gladwell does, obviously. Gladwell is a celebrity. He also happens to be a gifted speaker. In appearances on stage and on TV, he is a natural storyteller and raconteur. Whatever you think of his books — and the backlash against Outliers has been harsh; Michiko Kakutani’s review in the Times described it as “glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing” — as a writer looking to the future, you have to wonder if Gladwell isn’t onto something.

Consider the usual bookstore reading. The author is sweaty and uncomfortable on stage, or vaguely pissed off at having to do a dog-and-pony show merely to sell books. Usually he has little to offer beyond a bald pitch for the book. He will relate a story or two about where the idea for the book came from, invariably he will read (badly) a paragraph or two, answer a few desultory questions, and that’s it. It’s not much of a show. Now watch Gladwell on stage. He takes seriously his duty to entertain the audience that shows up to see him. He has a story to tell. He has practiced the craft of live storytelling and honed his material. He is a thoroughly professional speaker — which is to say, he is an entertainer.

Most writers will never be able to earn a dime on the speaking circuit, as Gladwell has done. Nor, frankly, should we have to. A book is not a song or a speech: it is not intended to be performed live. It is intended to be “heard” only in the intimacy of the reader’s mind.

But I have a feeling that the writers who survive will have to be a little more like Gladwell. We will have to be better showmen. Gladwell has a point in looking back to Dickens and Twain, who also lived in an era of looser copyright protection and rampant piracy. What these writers knew was that, while their books could easily be reproduced, the author’s genuine presence could not. Unlike indie bands, we cannot replace book sales with live appearances. But we can do a much better job of using these appearances to drive sales by taking seriously the opportunity that a reading or live appearance provides.

How? Watch Gladwell. Or watch any of the presenters at the TED conference. Don’t sit behind a desk or stand behind a lectern. Don’t lecture; tell a story, preferably one that is not just a pale summary of your book. Learn to use PowerPoint or Keynote. Study presentation gurus like Garr Reynolds or Nancy Duarte for ideas. Whatever you do, don’t read — at least, don’t just read. You have twenty minutes to fascinate your audience. Make it count. Put on a show.

I have broken every one of these rules thus far in my career. I have been told by editors and agents not to waste my time on readings, that you cannot reach enough people to move the needle by speaking to a dozen people at a time. But the world has changed in the last few months, and in the wreckage of the publishing industry there will be room for fewer writers. So writers, grab every opportunity you can, including readings. It is one of the few opportunities you will have to separate yourself from the run of ordinary writers.

Oprah’s Mystery Reading List

In over a dozen years of her “book club,” Oprah has never recommended a straight mystery or crime novel. Now, for the first time, Oprah has published a summer reading list of mystery novels, which is very good news for those of us who till that field. The list is quirky and very interesting. It includes classic mystery authors (Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels) and current bigfoots (Walter Mosley, Ruth Rendell), but also authors not usually associated with mystery or crime novels (Denis Johnson, T.C. Boyle) and several I’ve never heard of at all. It looks like a terrific list. (Hat tip: The Rap Sheet.)

Categories: Book Reviews    Tags:

The Science of Home-Field Advantage

Jonah Lehrer examines why the home team tends to win more often. The answer is more complex than you might think.

Several years ago, an innovative study compared the performance of two NCAA basketball teams in the presence and absence of spectators. Because of a measles outbreak, the teams played 11 games while the schools were quarantined: the matchups took place in empty arenas. To the surprise of the researchers, both of the teams played much better without fans. They scored more points, had higher shooting percentages, and made more free throws. The cheers of adoring fans, it appears, actually hurt the home team. They just hurt the visitors even more.

Read the whole thing.

Categories: Sports    Tags: ·

Kickstarter

Kickstarter.com is a cool new web site that provides “a funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, bloggers, explorers…” Think of it as DonorsChoose for creative types: artists post descriptions of projects they would like to do; visitors pledge donations to support them. The artists might offer any sort of reward they can think of as an incentive to donors. Donors might get updates about the project, say, or dinner with the author, or have their name incorporated into the book. Right now, the site is by invitation only. Not everyone can sign up to flog their project.

But think about the implications for writers. If donors provide the writer’s advance, the upfront payment that supports him while he writes the book; and digital platforms like Amazon/Kindle provide the writer direct access to a free, paperless publishing platform, then what exactly will be left for publishing houses to do in the digital publishing space? Editing? Book design? Publicity?

I am not one of the doomsayers who believe publishing houses will vanish anytime soon, but here is another example of how the web undermines the traditional business model publishers have lived by for over a century. First computers came along and converted text to digital format. Then the web came along and provided a super-efficient platform for the distribution of digital data — free, instant, global — making everyone a “publisher.” Now come the nimble competitors who see and fill the newly opened niches faster than the lumbering old beasts can react.

At the moment, Kickstarter doesn’t look like a giant-killer. But neither did Craigslist, once. The web enables all sorts of disruptive ideas whose significance is hard to perceive at first (Twitter, Boxee). Who knows where this one will lead?

Categories: Internet · Publishing    Tags:

The Breakthrough, at last

After an excruciating three weeks of trying — and failing — to make a difficult chapter work, yesterday morning I woke up at 5:45 with this sentence in my head: “There is so much to tell.” And that was it. Six words, six syllables, and I knew I had it. I wanted to rush out of bed, up to my office, and write it fast, while I had the thing in my head.

But when I got up, there was Henry, my five-year-old, in the bathroom peeing, and when he was done he came out and hugged me around my leg and said he wanted to come into the big bed to snuggle. So I climbed back into bed and we snuggled awhile, until Henry announced, “I’m done snuggling.”

Then I pulled on a pair of jeans and bolted up to my office to write the first few pages of this chapter in an extended gush. Most of it poured out in long run-on sentences — and … and … and — but the new material is good, and I am elated to have broken through, finally.

There is nothing worse than being stuck. The project loses momentum, and with each passing day it becomes harder and harder to get that boulder moving again. Today, I feel massively relieved. Now the thing is to keep it moving, to maintain that momentum.

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags: · ·

The economics of dealing crack

At TED in 2004, Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist and co-author of Freakonomics, analyzes the economics of the street-corner crack trade. Contrary to popular belief, the “corner boys” make less than minimum wage — for a job with a higher mortality rate than death row.

Categories: Crime    Tags: · · ·

Creating Writers: Do MFA Programs Produce Dull Writers?

Can creative writing be taught? Virtually nobody thinks it can, but there are 822 creative writing programs in the U.S. ostensibly doing just that.

Louis Menand has a (typically) great piece in the current New Yorker that considers the rise of these programs. Here is Menand’s opening. (MFA’s, you are advised to avert your eyes.)

Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writers.

Read the whole thing. In fact, read everything Louis Menand writes.

Personally, I have never taken a creative writing course and can’t imagine ever doing so. To me, the question is not whether writing can be taught; it’s whether creativity can. These programs seem designed to produce a certain kind of writing: conservative, restrained, discreet, sophisticated — dull.

Imagine you are a young writer thrown into a workshop. You are anxious, surrounded by a dozen equally inexperienced but ambitious student-writers all eager to critique your work. Are you likely to go out on a limb by trying something wildly original? Of course not. In that environment, you don’t take chances. You conform to the expectations of others. Why throw meat to the sharks? It is no wonder that the beau ideal of these programs is Raymond Carver, whose stories are so concise and involuted that they are workshop-proof. (I should point out, I love Raymond Carver.) The simple fact of submitting your pages to others for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down compromises the writer’s independence — and at just the time in a young writer’s development when he is still searching for his own unique style.

Of course there is no way to measure how the increasing professionalization of our writers has affected our literature, but here is an anecdotal test: when was the last time you picked up a book by a young American writer with a truly wild, out-of-left-field new voice, unlike anything you’d ever heard before? To my mind, there is a ton of very good books out there but there is a sameness to the prose, a cautious, sober tone that we take for “good writing,” even “literature.” It is as if we have come to a consensus about what good writing is supposed to sound like. It is a tyranny of good taste. For some time now, the most daring new writing has come from other countries, particularly Latin America. How sad that even our creativity has to be outsourced.

Yes, yes, it is too much to lay all that on the rise of creative writing programs. Plenty of dull writers have nothing to do with these programs, and plenty of iconoclastic writers have come through MFA programs with their creativity intact.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine these programs not tending to homogenize our young writers. There has to be a standard curriculum, after all — they have to teach something. We have created a national professional academy for training young writers just as we train young doctors and lawyers. That may be good for writers, not so good for literature.

Categories: Creativity · Writing    Tags: · ·

“The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon

An older friend of mine went to high school in Newark with Philip Roth, Weequahic High School class of 1950. For obvious reasons, I grill my friend about Roth whenever the opportunity presents itself, and in one of these interrogations I learned that Swede Levov, the “steep-jawed insentient Viking” who is the hero of Roth’s American Pastoral, was based on a real classmate at Weequahic.

I should not have been surprised. Roth has been playing peekaboo with his readers for years, inserting himself to varying degrees into his fictions. It has become an ongoing theme: like the silhouette of Hitchcock in old movies, we seem to recognize Roth — or aspects of Roth — in all his books, particularly in the flawed writers, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman, even a character named “Philip Roth.” They are all plainly Roth, the reader understands, and they are all invented too. The point of all this line-blurring is to get beyond fictional realism and closer to reality, to the actual lived human experience. Roth’s novels have a vivid, confessional quality not just because Roth is an extraordinary writer (though obviously he is), but because his books pretend to be more than fictions — they sometimes are more than fictions.

A similar fission occurs whenever a writer’s face seems to hover behind the pages. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway all are recognizable in their stories. Even in a fantasy like The Great Gatsby, the reader’s experience is influenced by the knowledge that Nick Carraway shares much of his creator’s biography: Midwestern boyhood, Ivy League education, witness to “riotous” Jazz Age parties. Nick is the thinnest mask for Fitzgerald. When we read Gatsby, we understand that the voice and the sensibility are Fitzgerald’s own. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron goes a step further, all but stepping onstage himself, undisguised, inside the story. Continue reading →

Categories: Book Reviews    Tags: ·

“The Commitments”

It is always dangerous to watch a movie you liked as a kid, but I watched “The Commitments” last night for the first time in years and thought it held up remarkably well. Alan Parker’s 1991 film, based on Roddy Doyle’s debut novel, tells the story of a Dublin hustler named Jimmy Rabbitte who puts together a soul band composed mostly of working-class kids who know nothing about soul or even, in some cases, about music.

The core of the cast are all non-actors recruited from various Dublin bands. Still, “The Commitments” is loaded with great performances. Glen Hansard, who would appear fifteen years later in another great Dublin music film, “Once,” plays the lead guitarist. Maria Doyle, of the band Hothouse Flowers, is one of the backup singers, the Commitment-ettes. And Andrew Strong, an unknown who was 16 years old when “The Commitments” was filmed, blows the roof off with performances that owe as much to Joe Cocker as to Wilson Pickett.

After “The Commitments,” most of the cast returned to careers in music or, frankly, in obscurity. Among the band members, only Doyle and Angeline Ball, who played the blond-bombshell backup singer, have had substantial acting careers since “The Commitments.” So the film feels like lightning in a bottle — an unrepeatable one-off caught on film. It feels alive.

What makes the film live, also, is the sense of music as a pure expression of hope and joy for young people in a gritty down-and-out place. In these down-and-out times, that’s an uplifting thing to watch.

Here is just a taste:

Categories: Movies · Music    Tags: · ·

I Miss U: Updike Is Gone

I miss John Updike. Not his work. I loved his stories and some of his novels, but lately I admired his books more than I enjoyed them, and sometimes not even that. Anyway, he left more books than I will ever be able or inclined to read.

It is not Updike’s writing that I miss, it is Updike. I miss knowing he was out there, always working, writing, producing. To legions of younger writers, he was the model. He showed us how a professional writer ought to conduct his life, how to comport himself in public and discipline himself at work.

Julian Barnes wrote an appreciative review of Updike’s last books in which he struck on the perfect word for Updike: courteous.

Updike’s fertility was matched by his courtesy — both as a man and as an authorial presence. His fiction never set out to baffle or intimidate. … Updike always treated the reader as a joint partner in the artistic process, an adult equal with whom curiosity and delight in the world were to be shared.

And, Barnes might have added, he always treated his characters with the same decency and sympathy, even when they were behaving badly. It was not in his nature to judge them. (He was an equally gentle book reviewer, a rarity now.)

No particular insight here. It is just sad to see a great man pass.

Updike lives on in cyberspace, at least, as perhaps we all will. For star power, the best clip to emerge since his death was this 1981 interview with John Cheever on the Dick Cavett Show. But I prefer the old, avuncular Updike. (He never seemed elderly — not frail, merely old.) Here he is in 2004, explaining the ability of the novel to “extend the reader’s sympathy,” which is the secret power of fiction.

The rest of the interview is here.

Categories: Writers    Tags: ·