Monthly Archives: December 2018

I had three chairs

31 December 2018
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I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

~ Henry David Thoreau

Damn It All

31 December 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

“I think hell’s a fable,” the famous professor proclaimed—a surprising declaration not only because it was made in the late sixteenth century, when very few people would have dared to say such a thing, but also because he was at that moment in conversation with a devil to whom he was offering to sell his soul. The professor in question was Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s great Elizabethan tragedy. Bored with his mastery of philosophy, medicine, and law, Faustus longs for forbidden knowledge. “Where are you damned?” he asks Mephastophilis, the devil whom he has conjured up. “In hell,” comes the prompt reply, but Faustus remains skeptical: “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The devil’s answer is quietly devastating: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Did Marlowe, a notorious freethinker who declared (according to a police report) that “the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe,” actually believe in the literal existence of hell? Did he imagine that humans would pay for their misdeeds (or be rewarded for their virtues) in the afterlife? Did he think that there was a vast underground realm to which the souls of sinners were hauled off to suffer eternal punishments meted out by fiends? It is difficult to say, but it is clear that hell was good for the theater business in his time, as exorcism has been good for the film industry in our own. In his diary, the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe inventoried the props that were in storage in the Rose Theater. They included one rock, one cage, one tomb, and one hellmouth, the latter perfect for receiving a sinner like Faustus at the end of act 5.

There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill” unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In Doctor Faustus, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment; audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all too true. This is a familiar story. We humans have a way of turning our wildest imaginations into unquestionable beliefs, the foundations on which we construct some of our most elaborate and enduring institutions. In matters of faith, the boundary between make-believe and reality is porous.

The Penguin Book of Hell, edited by the Fordham history professor Scott Bruce, is an anthology of sadistic fantasies that for millions of people over many centuries laid a claim to sober truth. Not all people in all cultures have embraced such fantasies. Though the ancient Egyptians were obsessively focused on the afterlife, it was not suffering in the Kingdom of the Dead that most frightened them but rather ceasing altogether to exist. At the other extreme, in ancient Greece the Epicureans positively welcomed the idea that when it was over it was over: after death, the atoms that make up body and soul simply come apart, and there is nothing further either to fear or to crave. Epicurus was not alone in thinking that ethical behavior should not have to depend on threats and promises: Aristotle’s great Nicomachean Ethics investigates the sources of moral virtue, happiness, and justice without for a moment invoking the support of postmortem punishments or rewards.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

2019 Publishing Predictions from Agent Laurie McLean

31 December 2018

From Anne Allen’s Blog:

By Laurie McLean, Founding Partner of Fuse Literary Agency

. . . .

Diversity Continues its Dominance

One of the unforeseen yet marvelous results of the democratization of publishing is the emergence of #ownvoices authors and the increasing desire for marginalized voices to be heard and read. Top Ten and Best Books of the Year lists are crammed with nearly unpronounceable author names and stories about people and places foreign to most readers.

Publishing is slowly becoming more reflective of our society as a whole and that is a very good thing. We Need Diverse Books. In 2017 only 9% of children’s books featured African or African-America characters. We obviously have a large upside to explore.

Editors and agents are hungry for well-written books written by non-Caucasian authors. And I think that trend will accelerate in 2019.

Resurgence of Indie Bookstores as Destinations

When Borders Books went bankrupt and consumers began buying more and more of their books (and everything) from Amazon, things looked bleak for publishing’s beloved retail channel.

But something wonderful has happened. Indie bookstores, whose demise has often been predicted but has not happened, began to flourish. They added complementary items to their stores. They added cafes or partnered with good ones. Some added the capability to print books instantly through technology.

But the heart of indie bookstores was what really saved them. They are filled with book lovers as staff who can help you find the exact book you want for yourself or as a gift. Bookstores, with their bestselling author visits, workshops and conferences, classes, parties and other events, have finally become the destination book lovers craved.

Through smart expense management, good solid marketing, and really knowing their customers, indie bookstores are thriving across America. Let’s hope this trend continues (and it will if you buy books there!)

. . . .

Audiobooks and Podcasts are More Popular Than Ever

The sales numbers continue to accelerate. More people are listening to podcasts and books in commute traffic, at home while relaxing, pretty much anywhere they have a mobile phone or mp3 audio system. And it doesn’t look like they’re going to put the brakes on anytime soon.

Because they’re so popular (and profitable) audiobooks have joined ebooks and print books as “must have” rights traditional publishers won’t do a deal without. Audible continues to innovate in this space with subscription-based services, original audio stories, and “all you can absorb” genre titles (romance for now) for a monthly fee.

Podcasts are getting more and more professional and interesting. If you haven’t listened to a podcast ever, there’s a new year’s resolution you’ll be happy you made.

Link to the rest at Anne Allen’s Blog

With due respect to the author of the OP, if Barnes & Noble goes under during 2019 (PG says that’s a 90% certainty), indie bookstores will experience increased sales from people who formerly shopped at BN and Amazon will experience increased book sales from the same source.

However, after this false economic dawn, indie bookstores will continue their long decline.

For one thing, with BN gone, big publishers will not order printed books in quantities that allow book printers to put their presses on cruise control whenever a big new book is released. Printing costs will increase. Some printers will get out of the book business to focus on more profitable printing markets.

Will traditional publishers eat the increased production costs of printed books to help keep sales up?

As PG has mentioned here before, in a former life, he had extensive business dealings with large European publishers (which own all but one of the big US trade publishers). Based upon that and some other experiences, PG predicts the European publishers will increase prices for printed books in order to maintain profitability. There is also a possibility that large publishers will squeeze advances and author royalties to help make ends meet.

If PG is correct, Big Publishing will bestow yet another growth stimulus upon Amazon.

Amazon can afford to cut book prices to maintain or increase sales volume and gross revenues much, much more easily than any indie bookstore can. Amazon will need to be careful about violating U.S. antitrust laws because of its increasing market power, but, in another of PG’s personal experiences, Amazon employs some very smart and savvy lawyers. So long as management listens to legal counsel, Amazon should be able to avoid any encounters with the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Is smart money going into the bookstore business any more? Is a big investment in a chain of bookstores going to generate a better return than buying and holding yet more Amazon stock or buying Facebook or Apple stock on the dip?

Local children’s book authors find new ways to reach readers

31 December 2018
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From the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram:

With the development of new technologies and marketing methods, children’s book authors are finding new ways to publish quickly rather than wait years for a traditional agent or publisher. These days, with a plethora of juvenile books on store shelves already, competitive agents gravitate toward the sure thing. So what’s the newbie to do?

Four writers connected to this area shared their methods: Nick Zwirblia, author of “The Bramford Chronicles, Book 1: Johnny and Baby Jumbo;” Susan Lubner, author of “Lizzy and the Good Luck Girl;” Rebecca Boucher, author of “The Adventures of Mist;” and J. Anthony Garreffi, author of “I Caught Santa.” Each uses publishing methods unique to their talents: partnerships, informed self-publishing, e-books or traditional representation.

Susan Lubner

Susan Lubner lives in Southboro and was raised in Maine, the setting for her middle-grade book (MG, aimed at readers 8 to 12), published Nov. 6. Her heroine, Lizzy, is 12. Lizzy searches for good luck symbols everywhere. They lead her to hide a runaway girl at home, probably not the best decision to make solo. But life is complicated.

Lubner has traditional representation: a literary agent and a publisher. This setup opens the door to professional marketing assistance, editing and guaranteed publishing quality for the book.

The author of three previous books for children and another novel, “The Upside of Ordinary,” she is published by Running Press Kids, an imprint of Perseus Books/Hachette Book Group. Its MG designation removes the book from the more mature topics found in teen books (YA: young adult). That’s not to say MG doesn’t get real.

“Kids that age do face difficulties — death, divorce, sometimes alcohol abuse,” she said. “The issues are serious, but the book is very different from YA, in terms of language and social issues. Every child wants to feel safe and protected. When your foundation is turned upside down by death or divorce, you look for a safe haven.”

She has had more than one agent, having changed agents when one didn’t produce results. She also submitted to publishers independently, selling her first four books without agent representation. Now she has linked up with Linda Epstein, her agent for the past several years. “I adore her,” Lubner said. “It’s hard to get an agent, you have to be persistent, go to conferences, write a good query letter. You meet agents at conferences. I met Linda because one of my critique (group) buddies had seen in her blog that she was looking for funny picture books, and I had one. She thought it was hilarious and asked to see more of my writing.”

This route may not be easiest. “It’s a very difficult business to break into — be persistent, hone your skills,” Lubner said. “Just never give up. I’ve been very lucky. There are so many writers who deserve an agent but don’t have one, and it may just be a matter of timing, or the market when they submit. Just polish a novel, get it in the best shape possible and network.”

Lubner also works hard to promote her books, although publishers are very helpful. “I do what I can to help it sell,” she said. “There are a lot of great books out there, and you only have a certain amount of shelf time.” There is so much competition for shelf space that books can disappear within months. She finds independents such as Tatnuck Bookseller in Westboro very willing to shelve her books and counts on libraries for a chance to meet with readers. She’s making the rounds and mentioned upcoming events at Southboro Public Library’s Middle Group readers book club. She’s also working on a group tour with other authors. Innovative marketing is key.

One thing she asks of readers: “Leave reviews on Good Reads or Amazon. They’re so, so important and helpful.”

. . . .

Edward “Nick” Zwirblia

Edward “Nick” Zwirblia’s long-held dream of telling a story about Depression-era Vermonters has been realized through self-publishing on Amazon. His first book of a planned series, “The Bramford Chronicles: Johnny & Baby Jumbo,” is about Johnny Edes, 9, who rescues an elephant from a train wreck and hides him in the family barn. The chronicles are a planned four-part series to recreate times now fading from memory.

Zwirblia, 56, raised in poverty in Worcester and living in Vermont, has written in a unique voice because he learns by ear. His dialogue reflects the rural speaking habits he learned from locals, and the learning habits he adopted from a lifelong battle with dyslexia. Altogether, it gives the characters a lively presence and adds rapid motion to the story. Sentences are short, direct.

The book highlights the difficulties of people living in a rural, Depression-era Vermont town.

“I also wanted to write about discrimination and racism. These three boys became best friends, and the African-American boy teaches two poor local boys whose fathers are farmers and bootleggers about what life is really like for him in the 1930s,” he said.

He captures the times with camera-like precision, and the book reflects the flow of a kid’s thoughts, much of it stream of consciousness. It’s set in rural Bramford, Vermont, a small, fictional town near White River Junction.

Dyslexia gave Zwirblia limits (“I never read a book in school”). He relied on narrative voices from the past, especially an 86-year-old Vermont friend, Claude Thurston, whom he credits with much of the dialect assistance. “I gave the first copy to Claude.”

Like many a novice, Zwirblia connected with people willing to take his money without helping him out much. He battled early editors to retain language he knew was right for the place and times.

“I figure I spent about $26,000 trying to write this book for publication,” he says. That’s far more than most self-published authors will spend. The money went for typing, photo art, editing and publication details, and the cost of books donated to libraries and others. “There are a lot of marketing scams out there,” he warned. “I listened and believed everything they said.”

It wasn’t until he met Donald Unger in Worcester that he found an editor who understood his book and stuck by his side in getting it ready to publish. He credits Unger for helping him arrange and prioritize his story’s facts. “I couldn’t have done it without him. I have to write from A to Z because of my dyslexia. I can’t start in the middle.”

“Having an editor is a key step, as most beginners don’t know what to do to successfully complete a book and make it publishable,” he said. The book is available as a Kindle e-book and in softcover. Now he’s ready to complete part two, “Lost, One Elephant.” He plans for his series to advance into World War II.

Nostalgia factors into the series. His dyslexia has influenced his scrappy writing, a communicative style that may appeal to readers as young as 10 as much as his intended audience, adults. “Donald (Unger) feels it will appeal to a younger audience as well, but I have tried to reach out to people in their 40s and above. There’s no vulgarity, no horror or blood and guts. They can read it to their grandchildren. For some of them, it brings back childhood.”

Link to the rest at the Telegram

Party tricks and naked writing: the eccentric life of Victor Hugo

30 December 2018
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From The Guardian:

Victor Hugo is rightly remembered for his amazing literary output, and for his philanthropic work as a member of France’s National Assembly, campaigning for an end to poverty, free education for all children and the abolition of the death penalty. But he was also incredibly eccentric and libidinous, with a penchant for writing while starkers, and armed with a party trick – swallowing oranges whole.

The BBC remake of Les Misérables seeks to upturn what we think we know about the story, looking beyond the musical to the pages of the novel it came from. But what if we take a step further, looking beyond the pages to the man behind them? The stripped back (in more ways than one) Hugo is far more interesting than he’s given credit for.

. . . .

For much of his life, Hugo reportedly hosted around 30 guests for dinner every night. His party trick was to shove an entire orange in his mouth then fill his cheeks with as many lumps of sugar as possible. He’d then churn it all up in his mouth and glug down two glasses of kirsch before swallowing the lot. Neat.

In his spirit, even Hugo’s funeral turned into a party; urban legend has it that Paris experienced a mini baby boom nine months later.

. . . .

It’s probably quite difficult not to let your ego inflate when you’re so famous that the street you live on is renamed after you – Hugo spent his last few years on Avenue Victor Hugo, having letters addressed to him as “Mr Victor, in his avenue, Paris”. Prior to that, Hugo lived for 15 years on the Channel Island of Guernsey, where he wrote poetry and the majority of Les Misérables. He was so well-known even there that fans would take home pebbles that he had stepped on as mementos.

At his dinner parties, Hugo would list the reasons why he was superior to Balzac, Racine and while he was at it, all other French writers. (The orange trick may have been secretly devised by guests as a way to get him to shut up.) And in 1881, in celebration of his entering his 80th year, a national holiday was decreed, all school punishments were lifted and Hugo sat and waved at a procession of 600,000 people as they wandered past his front door.

. . . .

When negotiating payment with his publisher for Les Misérables, Hugo famously declared that he wanted to be paid more than anyone else had ever been paid to write a book. Biographer David Bellos claims that the 300,000 francs (around £3m in today’s money) Hugo received still remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature.

Luckily for the publisher, the investment paid off: Les Misérables was so hotly anticipated that Parisian workers queued up at bookshops with wheelbarrows to fill with newly purchased copies, to later sell to colleagues for profit. Possibly not quite the solution to urban poverty Hugo had in mind.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Literary Inspiration

30 December 2018
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From The New Yorker:

How do writers find their stories? The answers to that question are as varied as the stories they tell. This week, we’re bringing you pieces from The New Yorker’s archive in which authors pull back the curtain, revealing where their ideas come from and how they are transformed into art. In a series of letters he wrote to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow explains how he wrote his early novels (“I was out to satisfy an irrepressible hunger for detail”); in her essay “Trading Stories,” Jhumpa Lahiri recounts the experience that formed the basis for “A Temporary Matter,” the first story that she wrote as an adult. Muriel Spark and Arthur Miller explore the creation of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “The Crucible,” respectively.

. . . .

Books, and the stories they contained, were the only things I felt I was able to possess as a child. Even then, the possession was not literal; my father is a librarian, and perhaps because he believed in collective property, or perhaps because my parents considered buying books for me an extravagance, or perhaps because people generally acquired less then than they do now, I had almost no books to call my own. I remember coveting and eventually being permitted to own a book for the first time. I was five or six. The book was diminutive, about four inches square, and was called “You’ll Never Have to Look for Friends.” It lived among the penny candy and the Wacky Packs at the old-fashioned general store across the street from our first house in Rhode Island. The plot was trite, more an extended greeting card than a story. But I remember the excitement of watching my mother purchase it for me and of bringing it home. Inside the front cover, beneath the declaration “This book is especially for,” was a line on which to write my name. My mother did so, and also wrote the word “mother” to indicate that the book had been given to me by her, though I did not call her Mother but Ma. “Mother” was an alternate guardian. But she had given me a book that, nearly forty years later, still dwells on a bookcase in my childhood room.

Our house was not devoid of things to read, but the offerings felt scant, and were of little interest to me. There were books about China and Russia that my father read for his graduate studies in political science, and issues of Time that he read to relax. My mother owned novels and short stories and stacks of a literary magazine called Desh, but they were in Bengali, even the titles illegible to me. She kept her reading material on metal shelves in the basement, or off limits by her bedside. I remember a yellow volume of lyrics by the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, which seemed to be a holy text to her, and a thick, fraying English dictionary with a maroon cover that was pulled out for Scrabble games. At one point, we bought the first few volumes of a set of encyclopedias that the supermarket where we shopped was promoting, but we never got them all. There was an arbitrary, haphazard quality to the books in our house, as there was to certain other aspects of our material lives. I craved the opposite: a house where books were a solid presence, piled on every surface and cheerfully lining the walls. At times, my family’s effort to fill our house with books seemed thwarted; this was the case when my father mounted rods and brackets to hold a set of olive-green shelves. Within a few days the shelves collapsed, the Sheetrocked walls of our seventies-era Colonial unable to support them.

What I really sought was a better-marked trail of my parents’ intellectual lives: bound and printed evidence of what they’d read, what had inspired and shaped their minds. A connection, via books, between them and me. But my parents did not read to me or tell me stories; my father did not read any fiction, and the stories my mother may have loved as a young girl in Calcutta were not passed down. My first experience of hearing stories aloud occurred the only time I met my maternal grandfather, when I was two, during my first visit to India. He would lie back on a bed and prop me up on his chest and invent things to tell me. I am told that the two of us stayed up long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and that my grandfather kept extending these stories, because I insisted that they not end.

Bengali was my first language, what I spoke and heard at home. But the books of my childhood were in English, and their subjects were, for the most part, either English or American lives. I was aware of a feeling of trespassing. I was aware that I did not belong to the worlds I was reading about: that my family’s life was different, that different food graced our table, that different holidays were celebrated, that my family cared and fretted about different things. And yet when a book was in my possession, and as I read it, this didn’t matter. I entered into a pure relationship with the story and its characters, encountering fictional worlds as if physically, inhabiting them fully, at once immersed and invisible.

In life, especially as a young girl, I was afraid to participate in social activities. I worried about what others might make of me, how they might judge. But when I read I was free of this worry. I learned what my fictional companions ate and wore, learned how they spoke, learned about the toys scattered in their rooms, how they sat by the fire on a cold day drinking hot chocolate. I learned about the vacations they took, the blueberries they picked, the jams their mothers stirred on the stove. For me, the act of reading was one of discovery in the most basic sense—the discovery of a culture that was foreign to my parents. I began to defy them in this way, and to understand, from books, certain things that they didn’t know. Whatever books came into the house on my account were part of my private domain. And so I felt not only that I was trespassing but also that I was, in some sense, betraying the people who were raising me.

When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that, in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Being solitary

30 December 2018
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Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than of the absence of others. Because solitude is an achievement.

~ Alice Koller

This is your brain on solitude: Why alone time is what you need, now

29 December 2018
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As PG has mentioned before, 99% of the publishing world checks out over the Christmas holidays, so he wanders a bit farther afield on TPV than he might at other times.

However, this article may be a bit more relevant for introverted authors who are exposed to many social situations during the holidays that are better suited for extroverts.

From The Chicago Tribune:

The holidays are full of great moments, if we’re lucky. And one of the greatest is the moment you realize that, yes, it really is all over with. Dinner is eaten, presents are opened, guests have gone home and you can feel that delicate, delicious lag — time, unaccounted for, stretches like a dog in the sunshine.

You’re alone at last.

“Holidays are all about togetherness,” says Suzanne Degges-White, “and it’s wonderful — people are piling into your house, you’re talking and being together and doing the things we love to do because we’re human. But we also need to retreat, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We need to carve out solitude; we need to find it.”

Degges-White, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, says that the need for alone time is as present and prevalent as ever — even though satisfying that need has gotten more confusing in modern society. The constant use of technology has caused growing concern over social isolation and lack of human interaction. Yet, it also has fostered a sense of endless, limitless connectivity. We are isolated, yet we are always on. “Even though we may think of it as mindless entertainment, we’re using our brains constantly,” says Degges-White.

. . . .

Which is why being alone with a tiny glowing screen might remove you from the company of others, but it doesn’t feel the same as a walk in the woods. When it comes to the alone time your brain is asking for, phone time doesn’t count.

“Our brains were not meant to function at this high level that we insist on all the time,” Degges-White says. “We feel like we’re multitasking, but really we’re just constantly putting our brains into overdrive.” And brains, of course, are ancient machines that were not built to function that way. “The brain, unlike our devices, can’t be plugged into power and recharged. And sometimes I wonder when we are supposed to get our own processing, our own backing up done? Technology is great, but human evolution hasn’t caught up yet. We need a chance to reset.”

. . . .

Alone time also improves other brain functions, including decision-making and creativity, Degges-White says. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t ever give yourself time to reflect.” And “if you’re constantly engaged in the world, it’s harder to make space for those moments of genius.”

Link to the rest at The Chicago Tribune

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