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April 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, April 11-Stefan Zweig’s “Letter from an Unknown Woman”

The title story in this collection of four tales of psychological disturbance is built around a mysterious epistle an unnamed author receives, announcing a distant lover’s passion for him that due to his own myopia of many years he learns about, for only the first time. Zweig (1881-1942) was born in Vienna and among many works of short fiction wrote the stories that inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson to make the recently released “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Another collection of Zweig’s work has been selected by Anderson, titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, also translated by Anthea Bell. These books are brought out by Pushkin Press, a London publisher of literature in translation and belles lettres, with newly translated works by writers like Zweig, Alexander Pushkin, Antal Szerb, and many other writers, such as the Catalan author Marc Pastor, whose crime novel Barcelona Shadows I look forward to reading soon. While choosing and translating the books very thoughtfully, they also design very handsome editions, as you can see on this page at their website. Pushkin PressBarcelona Shadows

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April 10th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; News, Politics & History; Publishing & Bookselling

Fearing Lawsuit, Cambridge University Press Pre-emptively Quashes Investigative Book on Vladimir Putin

Out of fear of libel action in the UK, Cambridge University Press has declined to publish a new book by Karen Dawisha, Professor of Political Science at Miami University who had earlier published seven well-regarded books with the scholarly press. As first reported in the Economist, Cambridge judged the book—reportedly chronicling Vladimir Putin’s ties to organized crime—likely to draw a lawsuit by Putin and/or the oligarchs covered in the book. Britain’s libel laws have long been regarded as a friendly haven for claimants crying “libel,” and even after a recent improvement to these laws, Cambridge declined to proceed with the book. In an exchange of emails with the press published by the Economist, Dawisha laments,

“One is left to conclude that the main lesson to prospective authors is not to publish in the UK anything that might be seen as libelous. Leaving aside the amusing thought that using the standards of ‘comfort’ set out in the letter–deftly written, one assumes, by your legal department–even the King James’ Version should probably also have been published outside the UK, I do think the field of political science and Russian studies (but also Middle East studies as evidenced by CUP’s pulping of Alms for Jihad) needs to come to terms with the difficult situation that no empirical work on corruption (and probably many other topics) should be published with a British publisher. Last week the EU and the US Government issued a visa ban and asset freeze on the very inner core that is the subject of my book. Many works will now come out on the makeup of the list and why each individual was placed on it. The answers to these questions are in my book. Isn’t it a pity that the UK is a ‘no-fly’ zone for publishing the truth about this group? These Kremlin-connected oligarchs feel free to buy Belgravia, kill dissidents in Piccadilly with Polonium 210, fight each other in the High Court, and hide their children in British boarding schools. And as a result of their growing knowledge about and influence in the UK, even the most significant British institutions (and I think we can agree that CUP, with its royal charter, 500-year history and recent annual revenues in excess of $400m, is a veritable British institution) cower and engage in pre-emptive book-burnings as a result of fear of legal action.”

Washington Post foreign policy blogger Adam Taylor also covers the fate of Professor Dawisha’s book, publishing an illuminating Q&A with her. Here’s a sample:

Adam Taylor: Are you able to describe any of the new evidence you found or how you found it?

Prof Dawisha: I rely on published sources, especially Russian investigative journalists in the period before press freedom was attacked. Many of these documents and reports disappeared from the Russian Internet, but I have been able to get hold of them. Interviews were used for background only, but lots of them in many countries. As to the details, I would rather people read the book since the cases I cover provide quite a clear picture of Putin’s role.

Adam Taylor: Do you feel like Putin’s St. Petersburg days are especially relevant now, what with the Crimea conflict and the U.S. sanctions against his associates that time?

Prof Dawisha: Absolutely. Almost all the key players, including (Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry) Kozak, who was just named as Putin’s federal representative to Crimea, started together in St. Petersburg. All the people on the sanctions list are key players in my book….

Adam Taylor: What’s your plan for getting the book published now?

Prof Dawisha: I will seek a U.S. publisher, although this decision has certainly cost me time. And it is a pity because this is a story that should come out sooner rather than later.
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Like the author I do hope a US publisher will pick up the title for publication here, though the house that does so will have to try and prevent even single copies being shipped to UK customers, lest Putin and his cronies use these sales as a pretext to claim the book has officially been published in the UK, giving them (spurious) grounds to sue the US company.

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April 4th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, April 4–A Week for Bookselling & Publishing Memoirs: “Amazonia” by James Marcus & “Stet” by Diane Athill

Amazonia #FridayReads, April 4–AMAZONIA: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut by Employee #55, James Marcus’s witty and winning memoir of working at Amazon from 1996-2001, which he published with The New Press in 2004. Having earlier this year read and written about Brad Stone’s THE EVERYTHING STORE: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which briefly cited Marcus’s book, I also read Marcus’s review of it in Harper’s. I made a point to also read George Packer’s February 2014 New Yorker articles on Amazon, “Cheap Words” and “Amazon and the Perils of Non-Disclosure.” In the latter piece, Packer likens Amazon executives, secure in their Seattle redoubt parceling out only the most limited information about the company, to American officials during the Iraq War confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone who only shared information that suggested the war was going great. I found this analogy quite striking, and suggested, that at least from Packer’s perspective, things may not be going so well for the retail “juggernaut.” Seeing that Marcus was a quoted source for Packer, Marcus’s book has been squarely on my radar for a few months, so I’m glad now to have gotten a copy and begun reading it. It’s immediately enjoyable, with Marcus chronicling the decidedly weird and geeky culture of Amazon and his first meeting with Bezos, when the Amazon founder asked him to “explain a complicated process in as simple a manner as possible.” Humor is sprinkled throughout, as when he begins his new editorial job by writing a 45-word spiel on the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian.Amazonia back

I’m also reading STET: An Editor’s Life, Diane Athill’s London publishing memoir spanning the end of WWII 40s to the 90s with Andre Deutsch Ltd. Athill knew and edited many great writers, including Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler for several of their early books. She recounts having also published Philip Roth’s first novel, LETTING GO, which did well enough that they were going to make an offer on his second book, WHEN SHE WAS GOOD. I love the way she presents this embarrassment:

Stet “[We] decided to calculate the advance on precisely what we reckoned the book would sell–which I think was 4,000 copies at the best–and that [offer] was not accepted. As far as I know WHEN SHE WAS GOOD was not a success–but the next novel Philip wrote was PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT.

This space represents a tactful silence.”

 

These are illuminating and humorous recollections, gossipy but never malicious, coupled with a wise presentation of editing essentials. She’s also a very endearing narrator. I heard a lot of good things about this publishing memoir when it came out in 2000, and bought it on a trip to a Bay Area publishing sales conference back then. I’m glad I’ve finally made time to read it.Stet

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April 1st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Sports

The Day Gandhi Pinch-hit for the Yankees

In honor of April Fool’s Day and the start of the new Major League Baseball season, I’m re-reading and sharing a very clever New Yorker sketch–Chet Williamson’s “Gandhi at the Bat,” in which the writer imagines a ballgame where the Mahatma, or the “Nabob of Nonviolence,” one of many funny names the author assigns him, played an inning with the 1933 Yankees, including Babe Ruth.  I love the whole piece, especially the set-up. The sketch is viewable below. You may hit the pause button in the blog’s slideshow to read each page (Apologies to Mr. Williamson, who I want to add has had a very interesting career, and The New Yorker for scanning and screen-grabbing my old clipping.)New Yorker baseball sketchChet Williamson sketch

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March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, March 21–Jan Wong’s Engrossing Memoir of Surviving Depression, “Out of the Blue”

WongBeginning last week when I made Out of the Blue my #FridayReads for March 14, I spent much of the past week reading and being enthralled by Jan Wong’s scalding memoir of surviving a severe depression that was triggered when an article she’d reported and written became controversial. Her employer at the time, the Toronto Globe & Mail, completely failed to support her as as the story, about a mass shooting in Montreal, blew up over several weeks and months, even though her editor had praised the approach Wong took to the story, which while reporting on the tragic incident also considered ethnic politics in the francophone province. Wong’s editor had even asked her to carry this part of it further. As she began getting death threats and vile messages, the Globe & Mail hung her out to dry, implicitly criticizing her and pandering to the haters arrayed against her. Wong tells her story in first person, a compelling narrative that follows the course of her struggle for fair treatment by her employer, and the torturous path of her illness, with records she later got from the insurance company that tried to deny her disability claims for what was basically an injury that occurred on the job.

The setting is mostly Toronto and Montreal, where Wong’s father had long owned a Chinese restaurant whose business fails when Wong’s reputation suffers amid the controversy. She travels a lot in the course of her narrative, even while she’s ill, for what she and her medical providers hope will be a “geography cure.” She goes to Finland with her son for a hockey tournament, and travels with her sturdy sister to Paris. As an alum of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she visits New York City and the Columbia campus, near where I live. The Globe & Mail tries to make an issue of her ability to travel, while not working, failing to recognize that it was their careless treatment of her in the newsroom that had triggered her illness, and was continually re-injuring here.

She pays sincere homage to her predecessors in the field of depression memoirs–William Styron, Andrew Solomon, and Kay Redfield Jamison–quoting strategically from their books. She also laments something I’ve written about on this blog, in the context of my own departure from Sterling Publishing in 2009, “the baleful influence that today’s HR mindset casts on our culture, full of its own hermetic vocabulary, with bland euphemisms, opaque acronyms, and inhumane doublespeak. Shunning and banishment are two of the signature modes of behavior in this modern HR culture.” Wong experienced this far worse than I ever did. And yet, it would be wrong to paint the book too bleakly. Despite unable to write for most of the two years, and suffering huge losses in cognition and her social comfortability, I was conscious while reading the book that she’s writing it from some post-depression standpoint. Amazingly, she also manages to inject mordant humor in to the tale, as she portrays some of her managers and the contortions they took to deny how sick she was.

To top it all off, there’s also a triumphant backstory to the publication of the book, which came out in 2012. Out of the Blue has done well, with many recognitions and healthy sales, and yet she was forced to publish it herself after Doubleday Canada canceled it shortly before the manuscript was due to go in to copyediting. They evidently became uneasy over the legal climate around the book, since Wong, the Globe & Mail, and their insurer had had so many legal battles during the course of her ordeal. I read a lot of first-person literature, and this is one of the best examples of it I’ve read in a long time.

 

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March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Most Over-Hyped Publishing Story This Week

A headline teasing a new Buzzfeed publishing story caught my eye this morning, something about a decline in sales of conservative books, so I later clicked the link and read the story. The title and tagline of the piece were way over-hyped:  Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End Of A Publishing Gold Rush

Reporter McKay Coppins talked with some conservative agents, editors, and publishers who told him that their books aren’t doing well, or at least not as well as they were doing during some halcyon earlier time. They complain that publishing is tough right now, with declining sales, which they gravely lament. Here’s a nugget from Coppins’ piece: “I think the problems in the conservative publishing arena are more acute than in the rest of the industry,” said Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, who now runs a communications firm in Washington and works as a literary agent for conservative authors.” His grandiosity is fairly stunning, and it’s like that throughout the story: this is an example of people living in a bubble who think their problem are worse than everyone else’s. They’ve just noticed that times are tough, and are acting like they discovered a trend.

My response to these agents, editors, and publishers, especially the latter who’ve paid ridiculous advances to officeholders, cited in the story, like $800K for Marcio Rubio: As Republicans are fond of demanding from others, “Tighten your belts.”

My view is that all this right-wing publishing that was doing better until recently reaped the benefit of being on the up side of a boom cycle that has finally begun coming back to earth. These guys have feasted for years creating chimerical boogeymen (the Clintons, Barack Obama, progressives, liberated women, etc.) in their political messaging, then reaping the dividends of it all in many areas of media, including books. For a time this allowed them to inflate their sales among low-information right-wing viewers and readers who knew little and for a long time believed much of what they heard and read. Evidently many of those people are wearying of the ceaseless clown show put on for them, or at any rate, have tired of buying the books.

My response to McKay Coppins: the book business is struggling in a lot of areas these days. Your story took a really myopic view of this situation, by focusing almost entirely on hard times for your chosen subjects, and overlooking what’s going on for all political books, as well as current affairs and history titles, and in many other areas of consumer publishing.

My headline for Coppins and his sources: “Welcome to the book world of 2014!”

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March 18th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Publishers Weekly Makes a Key Correction to a Story about Ebook Rights


Open Road Media lost this ebook rights case, but are not in jeopardy for damages anywhere near what PW had at first suggested. Although I don’t have a screenshot of Publisher Weekly‘s first version of their story, they had stated that penalties for willful infringement could run up to $150,000 for each copy sold of the infringed work, reporting that the damages could potentially run in to hundreds of millions of dollars. Later, they revised that to say the penalty could be “per work infringed.” As they put it now at the bottom of the story they ran this morning,

Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly put the damages as applying per infringement, rather than per work infringed. In fact, there is a single infringement involved here, not multiple infringements. Thus, damages could not run into the millions. We regret the error.

In a penultimate paragraph that also was not part of PW‘s first Web version of this story, they point out that in its filing Open Road Media had asserted that the author whose ebook rights were at issue, Jean Craighead George, author of Julie of the Wolves, would have preferred to publish an ebook of the book with HarperCollins, given her long print history with them, but she objected to the 25% net royalty on offer by them. Open Road offers 50%, and so George went with them, or so Open Road implies. The entire issue of ebook royalties–and the 25% difference between the sum offered by Big 6/Big 5 publishers and other publishers, such as Open Road–has been a flash point of disagreement for several years among agents and authors on one side, and the Big 6/Big 5 houses on the other.

For the record, this is a link to the full Publishers Weekly story, as it ended up late on Tuesday, March 18, including the penultimate paragraph and the correction.

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March 14th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Urban Life & New York City

Night II of the NBCCs–Book Prizes Awarded

Monday March 17 update, video of the NBCC Awards ceremony:


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NBCC finalThe concluding evening of the National Book Critics Circle annual awards last night at the New School auditorium was a jubilant celebration of the book with generous recognitions given to critics and authors alike. Having enjoyed the author readings on Wednesday night I was eager to hear who the winners would be. The program began with remarks by NBCC president Laurie Muchnick, reminding the audience that members of the organization spend months each year reading and keenly debating the merits of all the books in the six categories. With the housekeeping taken care of, the procession of awards began.NBCC final ii

First up it was time for a new award, the John Leonard Prize, named in memory of the longtime NBCC member and ebullient NY Times reviewer.  Each year it will be given to an author for a first book, in any genre. It had earlier been announced that Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth Press at Crown Publishing) was the inaugural recipient. His novel is set amid the war in Chechnya. Then, Katherine A. Powers, who has a regular books column in the BN Review, received the NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She gave a congenial talk setting forth her own principles of reviewing. Among these was that she tries to avoid lordly pronouncements of approval or condemnation, as if she were representing some “cohort of worthies.” She declared herself in service to the reader and the author, and quoted a memorable line from H.L. Mencken: “Criticism is prejudice made plausible.” Next, pioneering man of Hispanic letters Rolando Hinojosa-Smith received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the literature of Mexican-Americans.

After naming all five poet finalists, chair of the Poetry committee David Biespiel began the presentation of awards that, unlike the three above, were not decided until yesterday afternoon, only a few hours before this ceremony. After naming all the poet finalists while their four book jackets flashed across the on-stage screen, David announced that Frank Bidart was the recipient of the NBCC for his book Metaphysical Dog (FSG). Bidart brought some papers to the lectern, and joked that each time he’s nominated for something, he prepares remarks and when he doesn’t win, files them away, continually adding to them each time he’s on a shortlist. This got a laugh from the audience, especially, after he said, “It’s true.” In fact, his acceptance speech was an elegant one. He described himself as a neo-modernist, not a post-modernist, saying he didn’t feel the need to be in conflict with his poetic predecessors. As to his own work, citing the words of a critic who upon hearing Maria Callas for the first time had written that the experience was like “biting in to a lemon,” he offered a hope that his own poems offer readers a similarly astringent quality. Quoting a great sentence from King Lear, “Ripeness is all. Come on.” Bidart pointed out that profound as it is, it’s not actually the last line of the scene. Instead, Gloucester points playgoers to the plurality of existence, uttering, “That’s true, too.”

Next, the award in Criticism was given to Franco Moretti for his book Distant Reading (Verso Press), with essays that use data, charts and other apparatus to consider reading in new ways. With Moretti’s arrival at the lectern he made a confession that held true the rest of the night: he had not expected to win and didn’t prepare remarks. He had a lovely Italian accent and the audience found him charming.

With a new precedent oddly established by Moretti, each of of the four recipients who followed uttered a version of the same thing, accepting the award graciously, and briefly. As it happened, four times in a row, the audience laughed a little more at it, as the recipient would sheepishly cop to his or her forgivably mild dereliction. Mild because audiences always expect to be held for a long time, and this was a veritable vacation from standard awards palaver.

Autobiography committee chair Eric Banks announced Amy Wilentz and her book on Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo (Simon & Schuster), as the recipient of the NBCC. Once behind the lectern Wilentz explained that she’d written earlier books on Haiti–a country she called her “muse”–and this one was the most autobiographical of them, but she implied that because it wasn’t a proper autobiography she had really expected a different winner to be called up to the stage. And her category was very strong, filled with great writers of first-person narrative, a favored genre of mine. Next up, Leo Damrosch, winner in Biography for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press), said that he’d always written for academics and so doubted his book would be selected. He was off before I could take a picture, so the one with this post is the one I took the night before, at the readings. Sheri Fink, whose Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown Publishing) I first heard about when her editor Vanessa Mobley presented it at last year’s BEA Buzz panel. Fink seemed truly taken aback at this recognition given to her book. For the last award, in fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of Nigeria allowed as how she had been so tickled to be on the same shortlist as her former professor, Alice McDermott, she just hadn’t thought her novel Americanah would win. As she walked to the stage, she shouted in jubilation, a celebration the audience audibly shared with her.

With that the ceremony–in a tidy 90 minutes–was over. Most of the audience repaired to another New School building one block away for the gala reception. A hungry and thirsty crowd met there and partied for a much greater stretch of time than the ceremony’s duration. During the party I met and spoke with many of the finalists: critic Katherine A. Powers; poet Denise Duhamel; essayist Franco Moretti; Marianne Moore biographer Linda Leavell; Whitey Bulger chroniclers Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, and their editor at W.W. Norton, Tom Mayer; observer of New Orleans’ tragic triage, Sheri Fink; novelist Ruth Ozeki; and one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright, whose reading from Going Clear I had found so chilling the night before. I also enjoyed talking with NBCCers Walton Mayumba, Karen Long, Anne Trubek, Tom Beer, Eric Liebetrau and his writer wife, Signe; Ron Charles; and Marcela Valdes. Also enjoyed meeting for the first time one of my favorite tech writers, Andrew Leonard, there celebrating the memory of his father John Leonard; book agent, Andrew Blauner; editor Philip Marino of Liveright; journalist Casey Schwartz, Riverhead Books publicist Katie Freeman; and indie publicist Michelle Blankenship. Below are my pictures from last night. If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss its counterpart on the readings.

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