St. Augustine tells the story

St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, “How dare you molest the seas?” To which the pirate replied, “How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor.”

St. Augustine thought the pirate’s answer was “elegant and excellent.”

Noam Chomsky

Enemy of All Mankind

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Sept. 11, 1695, a Mughal treasure ship found itself so shrouded in Indian Ocean haze that the lookout failed to sight an English vessel until she was only 5 miles distant. She was coming on very fast—possibly making 15 knots—but this didn’t worry the captain of the Ganj-i-sawai (Anglicized into Gunsway in the copious accounts that were to follow): His ship mounted 80 guns; he commanded 400 musketeers and had 1,000 men aboard.

The British interloper, the Fancy, had a crew of only about 150, but she possessed 46 guns—an extraordinary weight of metal for a pirate ship—and a determined captain who had been waiting months for the Gunsway. The Mughal ship fired first and was at once beset by a scarcely believable run of bad luck. That initial shot burst the gun, killing its crew and leaving a swath of flaming wreckage; and the first broadside from the Fancy not only struck the Mughal’s 40-foot mainmast but knocked it right down to the deck in a tangle of spars and rigging. Amid the confusion, the Fancy ranged alongside; her men swarmed aboard the Gunsway in the smoke and, having subdued a far larger crew, made straight for her rich cargo.

This encounter, dramatic in itself, is the pivot on which far greater events turn and continue to reverberate down to this day, as Steven Johnson argues with verve and conviction in his thoroughly engrossing “Enemy of All Mankind.” “Most confrontations like this one, viewed from the wide angle of history,” he writes, “are minor disputes, sparks that quickly die out. But every now and then, someone strikes a match that lights up the whole planet.”

The man who struck this particular match was Henry Every, a Devon-born Royal Navy renegade who had turned pirate and, after stealing a fortune from the richest man on earth, became the first object of an international manhunt. On that one violent day in the Indian Ocean, he set in motion a chain of events that, as Mr. Johnson shows, did much to shape the modern world.

. . . .

The career that was to capture the world’s attention began blandly enough in 1694, when Every was hired by a group of British investors who had formed a company called Spanish Expedition Shipping to recover treasure from sunken galleons in the West Indies. They built a “ship of force” named the Charles II, which, with three consorts, got as far as Madrid, a voyage that should have taken a couple of weeks but, for reasons lost to history, consumed five months. And there they waited, without getting their promised pay, for some never-received orders, until Every, the first mate of the Charles II, seized the ship, renamed her the Fancy and set sail for the riches of India.

. . . .

Euphemisms notwithstanding, reports of the attack generated growing anger on a national level. One of the earliest, issued just days later by a local British official, held that “it is certain the pirates, which these people affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the people of the Gunsway . . . to make them confess where their money was.” They seized a woman “related to the king, returning from her pilgrimage to Mecca, in her old age. She they abused very much, and forced several other women, which caused one person of quality, his wife and nurse, to kill themselves to prevent the husbands seeing them (and their being) ravished.”

. . . .

Mr. Johnson writes: “Against extraordinary odds, Henry Every had made his fortune. But he must have realized, listening to the screams echoing across the water from the Gunsway, that his men’s actions had now made him something else: the world’s most wanted man.”

And, surely against any desire he likely had, one of the world’s most influential ones. His attack took place during the vigorous infancy of the joint-stock company, which—then as now—allowed investors to diminish their financial risk by investing in the whole operation rather than gambling on a single voyage. The joint-stock company most crucial to Britain—really, almost an alternate, farmed-out government of its own—was the East India Co. It had already grown so important to England’s commerce that to assuage the Mughal emperor’s wrath the whole British government had to make amends by condemning the Fancy’s attack and its English captain. And, in condemning it, had to suppress piracy as a whole. A mere 30 years earlier Sir Francis Drake might plausibly be seen as a pirate operating under British protection. No longer.

Parliament passed new laws; the East India Co.—which came to have a navy of its own—enforced them, and in time it became clear that Henry Every’s profitable day had helped bring about a trading system that, despite the fall of empires and the rise of modern technology, has not in essence changed for three centuries.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Coronavirus Lockdowns Trigger Rapid Drop in Retail Sales

From The Wall Street Journal:

U.S. lockdowns to contain the coronavirus pandemic prompted record monthly drops in retail spending and industrial output, as consumers pulled back sharply on shopping and eating out and factories suffered a sharp drop in demand.

The Commerce Department on Friday said retail sales, a measure of purchases at stores, at restaurants and online, fell a seasonally adjusted 16.4% in April from a month earlier. The drop eclipsed a revised 8.3% drop in March sales, and marked the steepest month-over-month decline in records dating to 1992.

The Federal Reserve separately said industrial production dropped 11.2% in April, its steepest monthly fall on records dating back more than a century, as the coronavirus response closed factories, sapped demand and froze supply chains.

“They’re just dramatically weak numbers,” said Jim O’Sullivan, an economist at TD Securities. “We’re obviously in this big hole now.” He said a key question is how long it takes to climb out of it, which depends in part on the speed of reopening.

Social distancing, business closures, travel restrictions and other disruptions that started in mid-March have taken a particularly heavy toll on retail stores and restaurants, many of which remain closed or are opening gradually as states begin to reopen their economies.

Consumer spending in April was down more than 20% from the same month last year, and certain categories posted dramatic declines. Clothing-store sales in April were nearly 90% lower than a year earlier, while sales at department stores, bars and restaurants, and sporting goods stores were all down nearly half. By contrast, sales were up over 20% on the year for online retailers and up 12% at food and beverage stores.

Lower vehicle sales and spending at bars and restaurants drove last month’s decline in retail sales, but nearly every other category suffered too as commuters worked from home and malls remained shut.

The exception were sales at nonstore retailers, a category that includes internet merchants such as Inc. and which grew 8.4% month-over-month.

. . . .

Sales were weak across a range of categories, but nonessential businesses were particularly hard hit. Sales at furniture stores dropped 58.7% and electronics fell 60.6%. Clothing sales plummeted 78.8% from March.

. . . .

Consumer spending is the main driver of the U.S. economy, accounting for more than two-thirds of economic output, and retail sales account for about a quarter of all consumer spending.

. . . .

Workers also are losing jobs in record numbers because of the coronavirus pandemic, another factor hitting consumer spending. And declining consumer sentiment has economists worried about how quickly people will return to spending, as the economy opens back up.

. . . .

Some retailers are also unlikely to weather the pandemic and face permanent closures.

“2020 is going to be a year of rebalancing,” said Under Armour Chief Executive Patrik Frisk during an earnings call Monday. The athletic-apparel retailer reported that about 80% of global business has been at a standstill since mid-March, and revenue may drop as much as 60% in the second quarter.

Retailers on both sides of the Atlantic are “trying to figure out how fast they can open and how fast the consumer is going to come back,” Mr. Frisk said.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG hasn’t seen any information from major business publications about Big Publishing, Barnes & Noble and other parts of the publishing establishment.

His guess, as mentioned previously on TPV, is that Barnes & Noble will experience a substantial financial impact and that its online business won’t be nearly large enough to materially offset the costs of cutting off its retail arm for an extended period of time.

At least some B&N stores located in malls will have problems if major mall tenants close and/or the foot traffic they generate is substantially diminished. If a mall shuts down, as many malls have done in the recent past, there is likely to be one fewer Barnes & Noble store in the vicinity.

A year from now, PG believes there will be substantially fewer Barnes & Noble stores than their were pre-corona. Ditto for a great many other physical bookstores. He suspects this is the type of major societal and financial upheaval that changes some habits and institutions on a permanent basis.

Unfortunately, PG believes a number of small traditional publishers won’t be able to reopen or will reopen with substantially reduced staff and much-reduced advances.

PG suspects that traditional publishing will see mixed results with bookstore declines offset to some extent by improved Amazon sales. It’s pure speculation on PG’s part, but he would guess that Amazon sales of ebooks from traditional publishing will have seen an uptick while the market share of hardcopy books may decline.

In the short run, an increased proportion of ebook sales, which involve no costs for warehousing, shipping or returns of unsold hardcopy books from physical bookstores may well increase the profit margins of traditional publishers even as, if PG is correct, gross sales revenues suffer steep declines.

Over a longer period of time, if readers under lockdown have sampled ebooks from Amazon or their local libraries to read on their own electronic devices (or devices purchased from Amazon for the purpose), PG suspects some proportion of this group will become permanent ebook aficionados.

It may be too much to expect, but PG would hope that those in traditional publishing with any business sense would put a stop to the childishly petulant attitude displayed toward Amazon by so many New York publishing drones and their associated literati. Absent Amazon or someone like Amazon, traditional publishing’s future would look a lot more like Barnes & Noble’s than is the present case.

PG predicts that, ten or twenty years from now, intelligent and informed individuals will have concluded that Amazon saved literature (and a bunch of jobs in the literature biz that don’t involve writing books) during this difficult time.

Children’s book wins Australia Book of the Year award for first time.

From The New Publishing Standard:

The Australian Book Industry awards, affectionately known as Abias, is hosted by the Australian Publishers Association to recognize excellent Australian writing, although of course with a bias towards sales rather than literary quality.

In that respect it was only a matter of time before a Bluey book came up for an Abias award.

Published by PRH Australia imprint Puffin, titles from the Bluey board book series were the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bestselling books in the country in 2019, and derive from the Emmy-winning Australian children’s TV series of the same name. Bluey being a dog, the antics of which have earned sales totaling over 1 million across 7 titles in the series.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG checked and Amazon (US) does appear to carry Bluey books.

Beating the Bounds

Not much to do with books and writing, but interesting history.


Maps are only one way of knowing the shape of a place. Before the borders of England’s parishes were definitively mapped, people learned the boundaries of their community by foot. Every year, a few days before the feast of the Ascension, the members of each parish would come together to walk the edge of their common lands.

The practice was called “beating the bounds,” and the purpose was to create a shared mental map of the parish, to ensure that neighboring communities couldn’t encroach on their land. They carried flags, sang songs, read homilies, and used slender willow-branches to swat the landmarks that separated one parish from another.

It was the responsibility of the older members of the community to remember the boundaries, and the responsibility of the younger ones to learn them, so that they could be preserved for another generation. Pain was used as an aid to memory, and the form of attack was determined by the landscape. If they came to a stream, the children’s heads might be dunked in it; if the boundary ran against a wall, they might be encouraged to race along it, so that they would fall into the brambles on either side. If they came across a ditch, they might be encouraged to jump across it, so that they would slip in the mud. And when they came to a boundary-stone, the children would be flipped upside down, to have their heads knocked against it. In some spots, though, more pleasant memories would be created, by pausing for a glass of beer or a snack of bread and cheese. Finally, they would finish with a party on the village green.

The most practical reason for this tradition was to create a living record of the parish’s boundaries, which could serve as evidence in disputes. In one case, for instance, a 75-year-old man testified that he knew exactly where the eastern boundary of the parish lay, because he had been thrown into a heap of nettles there sixty years ago, when he was a boy. Simply asserting that he remembered the boundary would not have stood up in court; it was the vivid, visceral nature of this memory, its connection to a dramatic experience, that helped his parish win the case.

The perambulation also served to bless the crops and to draw the people of the parish together. The poet and priest George Herbert wrote that the beating of the bounds was a time for “reconciling of differences” and that anyone who stayed home would be reproved as “uncharitable and unneighborly.” The parish came into being as its inhabitants walked it: both as a geographical space, and as a community.

But, in the sixteenth century, the common lands began to be enclosed and appropriated to the exclusive use of landowners. John Taylor writes bitingly of how landowners, through enclosure, enriched themselves at the expense of their neighbors:

One man in garments he doth wear
A thousand akers on his back doth beare
Whose ancestours in former times did give
Meanes for a hundred people well to live
Now all is shrunke, (in this vaineglorious age)
T’attire a coach, a footman, and a page.

Landowners employed professional surveyors to assess the value of each acre (which quickly led to hikes in the rent) and make maps of their properties. Rather than a space to be travelled through, the land was turned into an object that could be viewed at a distance and treated as a trophy. The common lands that the people had once considered part of their shared landscape were fenced off and surrounded with hedges, and the practice of “beating the bounds” was slowly suffocated.v

But the consequences of land enclosure were much more dramatic than simply destroying a colorful tradition. The common lands supported people in many ways: they were used for grazing, hunting, for digging sod, and for collecting firewood. Enclosure cut deeply into the ability of average commoners to support their families, and many were forced to uproot themselves and move to the cities, becoming industrial laborers.

Link to the rest at JSTOR, which includes a photo and an illustration

Late Start

Apologies for the late start on posting today.

Everyone’s healthy at Casa PG. This morning, PG felt an irresistible compulsion to kill some weeds infesting the grounds of the PG Estate. He was a veritable avenging angel of vegetative destruction.

If Home Depot ever stocks a herbicide for the Covid virus, PG will pick up some right away and start fumigating the world.

A Wrinkle in Time

About fifteen years ago, when I was fresh out of college, I taught middle school, sixth and seventh grade English. It was a trip. I knew nothing about anything, let alone the thematic depth of The Red Badge of Courage or all the things a noun can be (person, place, idea, emotion, name, et cetera). I spent my first year, as I imagine many novice teachers do, just trying not to drown. Mostly, I was terrified that my students would find out I barely knew what I was teaching them. I’d stay up late the night before, read a few chapters ahead, and then put together a weekly assignment sheet that suggested an authority I did not have. The next day, we’d go over their homework, and I’d stand at the front of the class sweating through my blazer and praying my voice wouldn’t break. Then I’d preview the coming unit as if I really knew the future, feigning confidence, meaning to reassure them. I could see the path ahead absolutely, could see it all the way to its glorious end in June.

When the lockdown began in Oregon, when it became clear that my five-year-old daughter would not be returning to school for the year, I thought back to those early teaching experiences. It seemed I was again in the same boat: unprepared, ill-equipped, drowning in my own ineptitude. My only option was to do as I had done before, to try as hard as possible. For a while, I really did. I made a schedule that transitioned her, every thirty minutes, from “educational” iPad games, to some kind of art-making, to free play, to basic math, and so on. That lasted one week. My own work piled up (I’m fortunate to be an instructor at a university, and my teaching, like everyone else’s, has gone remote). I decided very quickly to scale back, to ask one thing of her a day. I decided we would try, for the first time, to read a chapter book together.

We didn’t choose Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time for any other reason than it was already in our house. A friend had gifted my daughter the complete series for Christmas. My daughter can sound out words fairly well. The struggle is, of course, with patience, with seeing a new and unfamiliar term and not allowing its length and phonetic combinations to overwhelm her. The work is slow, and I remember from teaching middle school that I must marshal my own patience before I can help with hers.

Together, we attempt a chapter a day, often less. I ask her to read or sound out only four sentences during each session. If she does this, she earns a piece of sugarless gum as her prize, which she loves because she desperately wants to figure out how to blow bubbles. She can’t always sit still while I read, so she wanders about the room, touching scattered stuffed animals, rearranging LEGO sets, putting her model horses in a row and making them eat hay. I sometimes quiz her to see if she’s following along. She always is. She recalls everything without effort, and it startles me, the dynamism of her memory:

“Who’s Charles Wallace?” I ask.

“Meg’s little brother,” she replies.

“What does Meg’s mother do for a living?”

“She’s a scientist.”

“Where is their father?”

“He’s missing.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

This Person Does Not Exist

PG is not getting angsty, but a lot of people are. PG isn’t feeling particularly alienated, but a lot of people are.

So, what’s the ideal website for a person who doesn’t want angst or alienation cured, but would rather wallow a bit?

The title of the site is apt – This Person Does Not Exist.

First, a bit of lingo:

A generative adversarial network (GAN) is a class of machine learning frameworks

. . . .

Two neural networks contest with each other in a game (in the sense of game theory, often but not always in the form of a zero-sum game). Given a training set, this technique learns to generate new data with the same statistics as the training set. For example, a GAN trained on photographs can generate new photographs that look at least superficially authentic to human observers, having many realistic characteristics.


So, you have two powerful computer networks in a constant duel that makes each one better at producing photographs of people who do not exist. If the two networks were located on a distant planet and had been adversarial competitors for millions of years with no contact with intelligent carbon-based life, you might have an interesting premise for a science fiction story.

Each one of these people is named a1.JPG

From This Person Does Not Exist:

You can prod the battling computer networks yourself by clicking on This Person Does Not Exist

Pestilences Have a Way of Recurring

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Albert Camus, The Plague

The Comprehensive Guide to Finding, Hiring, and Working with an Editor

From Jane Friedman:

As an independent developmental/substantive editor, I field a lot of the same questions every day. What is an editor? What do book editors do? How do I find one? How do I hire one?

The questions make sense—like book editing itself, an understanding of the editorial process happens almost exclusively in private author-editor interactions, and the specifics are rarely transferable between writers or projects. What’s an author to do? 

For anyone embarking on a search for your first, next, or best editor, may this article be your comprehensive guide.

What an Editor Is

Much confusion about editors and editing begins right here, at the meaning of the word editor. Consider the following sentences:

  • “I’m working with an editor to turn my keynote speech into a book.”
  • “The editor said I should delete my entire fourth chapter.”
  • “My editor caught all my typos.”
  • “The editor did a final proof yesterday.”

Editor means something (and someone) different in each of those examples. It used to confuse me, too, and that’s because we use a catch-all term when we shouldn’t. We employ the word editor to describe anyone who has anything to do with preparing words for publication, and we don’t realize that editors, in this umbrella sense of the word, don’t actually exist. Nobody out there is just an editor—there’s always a descriptive word that comes before (or instead) to describe where that individual sits on the continuum of the book-editing process. For both traditionally published and self-published authors, the continuum looks like this:

Developmental Editor → Substantive Editor → Copy Editor → Proofreader

Practically speaking, what this means for authors is that you need to know the lingo that editors use to describe the work we do. Looking for “an editor” to “edit your book” won’t get you very far because no one knows what that means—editors included. I’m sure the copy editors are working on that, and maybe that will be funny later.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Maxing Out Your Readership

From Dave Farland, Story Doctor:

Certain books don’t just sell well, they sell far more copies than there it would seem that they have audience members. They aren’t just hits, they become a “phenomenon.” You know their names: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades, etc.

Before Harry Potter was released, I’d read an article talking about the Goosebumps novels. Analysts believed that there were 2.5 to 3 million fans of middle-grade novels. But Harry Potter “broke out” of the middle-grade bestseller list and was read by adults and teens and even kids who were younger than the intended audience. As a result it sold 130 million copies worldwide—and garnered an audience 50 times larger than logic dictates it should have.

It happens over and over. We eve know how that happens. Sometimes an influencer, someone like Oprah, will champion a book. Bill Clinton will walk into a press conference with the book in hand, or a superstar actress will be spotted reading it on a beach, and suddenly a novel like The Alchemist gets extraordinarily wide press coverage and surges into the “phenomenon” range on the bestseller lists.

Most of the time, it happens when publishers pay large bookstore chains to make nice displays of a book in their store windows, and the displays attracts wide attention from avid readers.

On other occasions, critics and reviewers on television take notice and create a hullabaloo, promoting the books with news articles.

Once a book gets enough sales, it will often glean Hollywood interest and get a movie tie-in, and the publicity for the film—which may be worth tens of millions of dollars–drives millions of more fans to the books. Thus you get a hit like Lord of the Rings that has great sales, but sold a hundred million more copies after the movies based on it came out. The same thing happened with Game of Thrones.

That’s the way that it has been done in the past, but I’ve been thinking about how we might create a phenomenon novel for Indie writers now, or in the near future. It wouldn’t be as expensive as some of the traditional ways, but it would be completely possible.

. . . .

The big problem with authors is that our books are so inexpensive, we don’t have enough profit margin for big advertising campaigns. It’s not quite like we’re selling yachts or cars.

But there are a number of ways to get inexpensive advertising—enough to create a big enough hit to justify expanding the campaign in stages. So you focus on going onto Goodreads, then creating a fanbase on Twitter or Facebook. Maybe you start a channel on Twitch, or put up some videos YouTube.

Many authors develop what we call “Street Teams” to help in such efforts. These are fans who help advertise on platforms where they have a presence, and I don’t know a really successful author who doesn’t have a couple of heroic fans who help out in that way. Of course, as an author you don’t want to take advantage of other people’s goodwill, but there are ways to thank your Street Team without paying huge sums of money.

Authors who don’t grow their audience may soon find that they have a shrinking audience, and most of us usually come to realize that the best way to grow our audience is to write another book.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland

Bookshop, a new startup, is offering publications bigger kickbacks than Amazon

From Nieman Lab:

The pitch is simple. “They get to feel good about themselves. They get to diversify the revenue. And they don’t have to take a financial hit because we’re able to deliver the sales that they want.”

. . . .

The Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire. A David taking on Goliath. Any way you want to put it, the new ecommerce site Bookshop has attracted a lot of attention for challenging Amazon on its original turf. (What, did you forget Amazon launched as “Earth’s biggest bookstore”?)

Bookshop, which was founded to support independent bookstores, distributes earnings through a pooled fund and provides digital storefronts that let local stores keep the profits on any sales they generate. Launched in late January, Bookshop has served as a lifeline for indie booksellers during a pandemic that has forced many of them to shut up shop. Here in Massachusetts, for example, local favorites like Harvard Book Store, Brookline Booksmith, and Porter Square Books — not considered “essential businesses” — have closed and suspended curbside pickup. This could change after May 18, but until then, online orders are keeping them afloat.

There’s something in it for publications that cover books, too.

If a publication refers a sale to Bookshop, the site will kick back 10 percent of the book’s price. That’s more than twice the going rate — 4.5 percent for physical books — through Amazon’s affiliate program.

. . . .

News organizations have seen ecommerce as an attractive way to diversify their revenue streams for a while now. The concept is straightforward (even if the ethical questions aren’t): An outlet publishes an affiliate link — in a review or gift guide, maybe — and earns a small percentage of any sales.

Back in 2016, The New York Times paid more than $30 million for the product review site Wirecutter, a major investment that now seems like a bargain. (The Times doesn’t break out affiliate revenue in its financial reports, but we noted a 20.9 percent increase in “other revenue” back in 2017 that was largely credited to referral revenue. That category has grown in the years since, though the latest earnings report credited revenue from The Weekly and Facebook licensing.) Wirecutter often points readers toward Amazon, which runs the largest, best-known affiliate revenue program. But, as the book publishing industry learned early on, it’s not smart to be overly dependent on the whims of a tech giant. Just last month, Amazon cut commission rates across several categories, which can’t have been welcome news for digital publications like BuzzFeed and New York magazine that regularly publish shopping guides to drive affiliate revenue. The company is also delaying shipping on some items — including books.

By providing an alternative, Bookshop offers an opportunity for publications that rely on ecommerce to diversify at least part of their payouts.

For all the galaxy-sized metaphors in the press, Bookshop isn’t trying to beat Amazon at its own game — just loosen its vice-like grip on bookselling. (More than 90 percent of ebook and audiobooks sales and about 42 to 45 percent of print book sales happen on Amazon, according to industry tracker BookStat.) Part of the solution, concluded Bookshop CEO Andy Hunter, was developing an affiliate program that worked for publishers but supported many independent stores instead of one trillion-dollar company.

Link to the rest at Nieman Lab

An open letter to newspapers and other media outlets from the Authors Guild and the National Book Critics Circle

From The Authors Guild:

Media outlets in particular have been hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis, with many losing virtually all their advertising revenues overnight. This has forced many newspapers, websites and other media outlets to lay off or furlough staff and cut back on freelance assignments.

As one response to this revenue crisis, some outlets are reducing or eliminating book reviews. While we understand and truly sympathize with the grave financial pressures behind these decisions, we believe maintaining book coverage now will benefit readers, authors, reviewers and media outlets themselves. We encourage those outlets to continue to make space for the vital conversation around books in their coverage.

With many other forms of arts and entertainment inaccessible for now, more people than ever are looking for good books to read. Many bookstores and libraries are operating online only and unable to hold public events, and book festivals are being postponed or cancelled. 

As a result, authors with new books coming out face an unprecedented challenge in connecting with readership. Many of them have responded in innovative ways, such as virtual book events and streaming interviews. 

Still, authors depend, perhaps now more than ever, on book reviews, and readers look to the media for reviewers’ voices. Strong literary arts coverage not only benefits authors, but nourishes the entire literary ecosystem, including freelance reviewers, publishers, bookstores, libraries, literary agencies, editors, designers and everyone who contributes in one way or another to the world of books.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Barking Dog Nocturnal

From The Offing:

I come from the country, from a home in the woods where nights are filled with cricket chirps and coyote howls. My most persistent childhood memory is my mom guarding the front porch, one hand on her bottle and the other holding her 12-gauge as she fired into the dark.

“Why do you do that?” I asked, a little girl as frightened of the sound as I was of my mother’s reddening eyes.

“To keep the coyotes from getting close,” she slurred.

If a coyote ventured near the porch, my mother would point the gun at its howling mouth. She never fired, but I could see her itch to kill as the twitch in her trigger finger.

“Why do we hate coyotes?” I asked on another dripping hot night. I was just old enough to ask questions with no grammatical inconsistencies and old enough to shoot the BB gun if I wanted. I often fired unloaded pops into the air during daylight hours. I’d seen a coyote slinking in the sun once: mangy red-orange fur and pointed ears, like a wolf and a fox in one body. “They’re beautiful,” I said.

“Beautiful things are wild,” my mother said. “In packs, coyotes don’t care for fear.”

“What’s fear?” I asked.

“Fear is what keeps us safe.” She ran her finger over the safety, waiting for the howling in the distance to come closer. “Fear is what separates us from chaos.”

I knew nothing more about chaos than that it was the word that sprung to mind when I snuck peeks into my mother’s liquor cabinet: half-drunk bottles of liquor in every color imaginable, a cityscape of differently-sized alcohol glasses, and a clutter of little umbrellas she utilized to placate me when I cried about her drinking.

. . . .

Around that time I developed my routine. On Tuesdays I pulled all the clothes out of my closet and forced myself to put each shirt, each dress back one-by-one, arranged by color. On Wednesdays I wiped down every drawer in the house with a wet rag folded in quarters. On Thursdays I tossed scraps of paper from my desk into the recycling bin then promptly emptied it. On Fridays I plucked stray hairs from my face. I kept these tasks arranged on a calendar I hung on my wall. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I wasn’t the only occupant.

My mother scolded me for staying up too late, but she had a front porch to defend and a cabinet of vodka bottles to empty, and as such didn’t follow through on her threats to punish me if I stayed up again.

I moved out after high school graduation and rented an apartment with its own drawers. But there was only so much order I could enforce in a house where I hadn’t been the only occupant. The dust on the baseboards seemed a type of permanent that no amount of Wednesday scrubbing would erase. The cracks kept me awake. I imagined them opening, swallowing me into the dusty walls. On TV I watched the news of mass shootings, endings messy and terrible in their gore, and worried that one day the opening of a gun would swallow me into its gunpowder-dusted shaft.

I spent my work days in a real estate office yawning and dozing off on bathroom breaks, waking with my pants around my ankles. I struggled to remember where and who I was. On Saturdays I scrubbed at old mold stains in my bathroom until my fingers bled. On Sundays I brushed over inconsistencies in the apartment’s paint until sunlight crept through the windows.

Link to the rest at The Offing

Shanghai’s Past, Hong Kong’s Future

From Public Books:

Sometimes, when a city changes, residents are suddenly forced to ask themselves hard questions: Should we stay, or cut our losses and leave to start afresh somewhere else? Will this place still be enough like the community we love in a year or a decade to make it worth sticking it out? If we don’t leave now and things get worse, will we still be able to get out? Even if we’re okay now, what about our children? And all these personal questions boil down to bigger ones: What does it mean for a city to be free? What happens when a free city loses its freedom? And when does that occur?

Seventy-one years ago today, these questions were being asked by many residents of the most cosmopolitan city on the China coast: Shanghai. Some had considered leaving in 1937, when the Japanese took over all Chinese-run parts of Shanghai, and again in 1941, when the city’s two enclaves of foreign privilege, the International Settlement and the French Concession, fell to Japan. But they had stayed, only to face a choice early in 1949, when the Red Army advanced toward the great metropolis of the Yangtze Delta. While many locals welcomed the Communist Party’s arrival, others, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, feared that their way of life would be dramatically changed once Mao Zedong’s forces took over, and changed for the worse. As the first battles outside the city began on May 12, 1949, those who had remained surely wondered if they’d made a mistake.

Seven decades later, the same questions are being asked again, but in Hong Kong. In the Pearl River Delta’s most cosmopolitan city, the people asking the questions today might have pondered leaving in 1984, when Beijing and London made the deal that would change a British colony into a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They also might have considered leaving at other, later points, including before July 1, 1997, the day of the Handover. Today—as the mainland government warns that it is losing patience with locals seeking to defend the liberties and legal protections that make their city markedly different from all mainland ones, protesters battle with police after nearly a year of struggle, and the novel coronavirus disrupts daily life and the economic activities that make the city’s unique lifestyle possible—Hong Kong residents may be wondering again if they’ve made a mistake.

Hong Kong and Shanghai are connected by more than just history: they have long competed for the crown of the China coast’s most worldly, wealthy, and cosmopolitan city (even during eras when racism and segregation limited the freedoms of many of their residents). And each one’s successes have been matched by the other’s downturns. For a time, Shanghai was an open and prosperous city far outstripping its sleepy colonial counterpart—before 1949. But as Shanghai suffered under Maoist rule, Hong Kong prospered. Both have triumphed when they remained open to outside finance and outside cultures; both have turned stagnant when denied access to the world.

Therefore, the story of Hong Kong and Shanghai isn’t simply a defining story of the last two centuries of Chinese history. It is really the story of all world cities around the globe today: how they thrive and how they decline.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Alice Munro, The Art of Fiction

From The Paris Review:

There is no direct flight from New York City to Clinton, Ontario, the Canadian town of three thousand where Alice Munro lives most of the year. We left LaGuardia early on a June morning, rented a car in Toronto, and drove for three hours on roads that grew smaller and more rural. Around dusk, we pulled up to the house where Munro lives with her second husband, Gerry Fremlin. It has a deep backyard and an eccentric flower garden and is, as she explained, the house where Fremlin was born. In the kitchen, Munro was preparing a simple meal with fragrant local herbs. The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter. It is here that Munro works.

After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”

Our last morning in Canada, supplied with directions, we sought out the house in which Alice Munro had grown up. Her father had built the house and raised mink there. After several dead ends, we found it, a pretty brick house at the very end of a country road, facing an open field where an airplane rested, alighted temporarily it seemed. It was, from our spot, easy to imagine the glamor of the air, the pilot taking a country wife away, as in “White Dump,” or the young aviation stuntsman who lands in a field like this in “How I Met My Husband.”

Like the house, like the landscape of Ontario, which resembles the American Midwest, Munro is not imposing. She is gracious, with a quiet humor. She is the author of seven books of short stories, including the forthcoming Open Secrets, and one novel, Lives of Girls and Women; she has received the Governor-General’s Award (Canada’s most prestigious literary prize), and is regularly featured in Best American Short Stories (Richard Ford recently included two Alice Munro stories in the volume he edited), and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards; she also is a regular contributor to The New Yorker. Despite these considerable accomplishments, Munro still speaks of writing with some of the reverence and insecurity one hears in the voices of beginners. She has none of the bravura or bluster of a famous writer, and it is easy to forget that she is one. Speaking of her own work, she makes what she does sound not exactly easy, but possible, as if anyone could do it if they only worked hard enough. As we left, we felt that contagious sense of possibility. It seems simple—but her writing has a perfect simplicity that takes years and many drafts to master. As Cynthia Ozick has said, “She is our Chekhov and is going to outlast most of her contemporaries.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Amid the global coronavirus crisis Storytel sees subscribers grow 38%, streaming revenue 45%, even as publishers that sidelined digital struggle for survival

PG Note: Storytel sells audiobooks.

From The New Publishing Standard:

The only surprise with the latest results from Sweden-based Storytel would have been if subscriber rates and earnings had dipped amid a global crisis that has left print-focussed publishers imperiled.

That of course did not happen, and while streaming revenue took a notional hit at SEK 429m ($44m) compared to the SEK 438m forecast, this in large part was down to “negative currency effects from the Norwegian Krone and an increase in Family subscriptions during the period.”

Overall Storytel’s Q1 results came in at 33.5% revenue growth (streaming and non-streaming) to SEK 513.2 million ($52.7) and a subscriber boost of 71,400, taking Storytel’s total subscribers to 1.54 million.

The average number of paying subscribers in the Nordic segment was 785,800, while 43,200 subscribers were added outside the Nordics, taking total non-Nordic subscription levels to 369,000.

Tellander issued a Q2 forecast of 1.25 million global subscribers, amounting to 41% YOY growth, and a 43% YOY revenue growth to SEK 458m ($47m), with the caveat that the coronavirus crisis meant there was an element of uncertainty about how things might pan out.

Addressing shareholders, Tellander, echoing a common theme that audiobook downloads had dipped as commuters stayed at home, said that afternoon and evening consumption “more than compensated” for the downturn in commuter consumption.

. . . .

New consumption patterns have started to emerge as a result of lockdown on many markets. Morning listening while commuting has gone down in some markets for obvious reasons, but this is more than compensated for by a higher rate of listenings in the afternoons and evenings. In the Nordics, we also see a clear growth in consumption on Sundays and at the beginning of the week.

Crime & Thriller and Fiction have kept their positions as the most consumed genres in our service, but the influx of new users, combined with families spending more time with each other at home, has boosted the Children category to third place. At bedtime this category actually surpasses Fiction and is the second-most popular genre among our customers. Biographies and Personal Development are two other genres that have grown pronouncedly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Print Unit Sales Rose 10.1% Last Week

From Publishers Weekly:

Unit sales of print books are proving to be surprisingly resilient despite the massive disruption to the economy caused by the coronavirus. Unit print sales rose 10.1% last week compared to the week ended April 18 at outlets that report to NPD BookScan. Sales were nearly flat with units sold in the period ended April 27, 2019, and in the year-to-date, units were down 3.2% compared to a year ago.

BookScan estimates that it captures about 85% of print books sold through physical and online retailers who sell books. The service, however, does not record sales to libraries—and with many libraries closed, trade publishers who do significant business through that channel are likely seeing softer sales.

The adult nonfiction category had the strongest performance among the major publishing segments, with units increasing 24.7% last week over the previous week. The religious segment posted a 54.4% increase, led by the release of Jen Hatmaker’s Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire which sold more than 17,000 copies. Another new release, Medical Medium Cleanse to Heal by Anthony William, sold more than 11,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Physical Exhaustion

From Writers Helping Writers:

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.


Category: Increased pressure and ticking clocks, failures and mistakes, duty and responsibilities, losing an advantage, no-win situations, miscellaneous challenges

The character’s body being pushed past it’s limits due to exertion
Being depleted due to poor nutrition or starvation
An illness that ravages the character’s strength
Forced wakefulness that takes a physical toll

. . . .

Resulting Emotions: anger, anguish, defeat, defiant, despair, desperation, determination, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, inadequate, powerlessness, regret, resentment, resignation, self-loathing, self-pity, shame, tormented, unappreciated, uncertainty, vulnerability, worthlessness

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Administration Would ‘Eviscerate’ Copyright, Say Industry Players

From Publishing Perspectives:

In what a study from University College of London’s Genetics Institute has revealed this week, by December, the novel coronavirus that would be named COVID-19 likely had left Wuhan and was entering communities in Florida, France, and elsewhere. As Morgan McFall-Johnson at Business Insider reported Thursday (May 7), researchers are now urged by the World Health Organization to reexamine samples from December and January, to see if an earlier-than-expected presence can be detected.
And at that point, Publishing Perspectives readers were learning of an alarm being sounded by scientific research publishers about a proposed policy change in the United States that effectively would require scientific journal articles be made available immediately, without embargo. A group of more than 100 publishing and/or research organizations including the Association of American Publishers (AAP) were telling the administration of Donald Trump that this would “effectively nationalize the valuable American intellectual property that we produce and force us to give it away to the rest of the world for free.”

Copyright protections, in short, would be short-circuited.

. . . .

Documents reviewed by Publishing Perspectives today show that the public comment “request for information” from the OSTP has produced a brace of considered and extensively argued responses from the field and from members of Congress.

. . . .

For a kind of flagship response, we can recommend the article produced on May 7 for the Heritage Foundation by the visiting intellectual property fellow Adam Mossoff.

Titled Radical OSTP Proposal Would Undermine American Research and Sacrifice American Intellectual Property, the article carries special weight because–as our international readership may not know–the Heritage Foundation is an enormously respected conservative think tank with more than half a million paying members. Its condemnation of a Republican administration’s effort to adjust copyright protection policy therefore arrives with tremendous gravity.

In his abstract, Mossoff and his editors encapsulate the foundation’s stance this way;

“The Trump Administration should not permit the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to eviscerate the key constitutional and economic function of copyright law by forcing US intellectual property owners to give away their copyrighted works for free to China and the rest of the world.

“Nor should it allow the OSTP to contradict its own policies on trade and IP.

“It should join with those who have already raised serious legal, policy, and economic concerns about the OSTP proposal. The administration should reject the OSTP proposal and reaffirm the vital role that copyright serves in securing the fruits of the productive labors of those who create and disseminate journal articles.

Mossoff’s article, as presented by the foundation, has three key takeaways, and they’re reflected in the commentary from others responding to the OSTP’s request for information. Quoting those takeaways:

  • “An Office of Science and Technology Policy proposal would give away US intellectual property, undermining US trade positions and weakening US leadership
  • “America’s founders understood citizens would only engage in productive labors if the fruits of their labors were secured to them under law
  • “The Trump Administration should reaffirm the vital role copyright serves in securing the productive labors of those who create and disseminate journal articles”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG is almost reflexively supportive of strong protections for creators’ works via enforcement of copyright laws.

In this case, his inherent cynicism along with a bit of inside knowledge about world of scientific, technical and academic publications leads him to support the proposal of the Office of Science and Technology Policy provided it continues for only a limited period of time.

Long-time visitors to TPV will might recall PG’s prior posts on this topic, so he’ll lay the factual basis out in bullet-point form.

  • College professors and researchers in scientific areas plus similar professionals employed by some other institutions are expected to publish scientific and quasi-scientific (Looking at you, English Departments) research in their area of expertise.
  • Hence, “Publish or Perish”. Absent such publications, college lecturers are unlikely to become Associate Professors, Associate Professors unlikely to become Assistant Professors and Assistant Professors unlikely to become full Professors with tenure.
  • In every academic/professional field with which PG is acquainted, there are a limited number of scientific/academic journals of the quality sufficient to gain an author publishing points.
  • These academic journals pay their authors nothing – Zero – in exchange for publishing the work of the author.
  • Typically, these academic journals require the author to assign her/his copyright in the work to the journal. (PG remembers hearing that some journals allow the author to keep the copyright, but obtain an irrevocable perpetual royalty-free license of all rights from the author, which has the same financial outcome for the author.)
  • The academic journals claim to have some expertise necessary to judge the quality of submissions, but, in fact such expertise is sketchy. What the journals do have is a network of experts in a variety of fields to whom submitted papers are sent for review.
  • By pure coincidence, members of this network of experts are likely to have published articles of their own with the journal and are also likely to want to publish future articles with the same journal and, in connection with those future articles, will be dealing with the same editor(s) who are asking them to provide an expert review of the paper in question with no financial compensation.
  • Whereas scientific and professional journals were formerly nurtured by a variety of different publishers, over the last 20-30 years, ownership of the large majority of prestigious academic journals has been consolidated by a small group of large holding companies, Reed-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage.
  • The customers of these publishers almost always include the academic institutions that employ the authors who wrote the scientific papers in the first place.
  • If a particular academic journal is recognized as the most authoritative/prestigious in its field, a respectable university library is going to be required to subscribe to the journal. The publisher of that journal is likely to increase subscription fees over time in order to maximize its revenues and profits. At least some of those subscription fees will come from the tuition fees paid by students at the college/university.
  • None of those revenues the journal’s publisher receives will be paid to the authors of the journal articles, so PG’s innate author-oriented attitude is that complaints about the derogation of copyrights caused by a requirement to immediately make COVID-19 papers public as described in the OP are all about whether the publisher will make as much money as it wants to make from publishing and charging fees to access the COVID-19 papers.
  • Here’s what Reed-Elsevier (an Anglo-Dutch company), generally regarded as the largest academic, scientific and professional publisher, says about itself:

Scientific, Technical & Medical provides information and analytics that help institutions and professionals progress science, advance healthcare and improve performance.

We help researchers make new discoveries, collaborate with their colleagues and give them the knowledge they need to find funding. We help governments and universities evaluate and improve their research strategies. We help doctors and nurses improve the lives of patients, providing insight to find the right clinical answers.

Elsevier is headquartered in Amsterdam, with further principal operations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Berkeley in North America, London, Oxford, Frankfurt, Munich, Madrid and Paris in Europe, Beijing, Chennai, Delhi, Singapore and Tokyo in Asia Pacific and Rio de Janeiro in South America. It has 8,100 employees and serves customers in over 180 countries.

We enhance the quality of scientific research output by organising the review, editing and dissemination of 18% of the world’s scientific articles ScienceDirect, the world’s largest platform dedicated to peer-reviewed primary scientific and medical research, hosts over 17m pieces of content including from over 40,000 e-books and has over 17m monthly unique visitors Scopus is a leading source-neutral abstract and citation database of research literature, with over 76m records across 25,000 journals, sourced from more than 5,000 publishers SciVal offers insights into the research performance of over 16,000 research institutions ClinicalKey, the flagship clinical reference platform, is accessed in around 100 countries and territories, and by over 1,900 institutions in North America alone Elsevier journals have at some point featured articles by 195 of 196 science and economics Nobel Prize winners since 2000

“Organizing the review, editing and dissemination” AKA posting it behind a paywall and charging a lot of money for access. The authors are paid nothing. The highly-qualified reviewers are paid nothing. The employee/editors are not paid a lot of money. Elsevier makes the large majority of the money.

PG humbly suggests that is not what the authors intended when they wrote and approved Article I Section 8 | Clause 8 – the Patent and Copyright Clause of the Constitution.

[The Congress shall have power] “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

What Shakespeare Actually Wrote About the Plague

From The New Yorker:

Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of bubonic plague. On April 26, 1564, in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the vicar, John Bretchgirdle, recorded the baptism of one “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere.” A few months later, in the same register, the vicar noted the death of Oliver Gunne, an apprentice weaver, and in the margins next to that entry scribbled the words “hic incipit pestis” (here begins the plague). On that occasion, the epidemic took the lives of around a fifth of the town’s population. By good fortune, it spared the life of the infant William Shakespeare and his family.

Such outbreaks did not rage on forever. With the help of strict quarantines and a change in the weather, the epidemic would slowly wane, as it did in Stratford, and life would resume its normal course. But, after an interval of a few years, in cities and towns throughout the realm, the plague would return. It generally appeared on the scene with little or no warning, and it was terrifyingly contagious. Victims would awaken with fever and chills. A feeling of extreme weakness or exhaustion would give way to diarrhea, vomiting, bleeding from the mouth, nose, or rectum, and telltale buboes, or swollen lymph nodes, in the groin or armpit. Death, often in great agony, would almost inevitably follow.

Innumerable preventive measures were proposed, most of which were useless—or, in the case of the killing of dogs and cats, worse than useless, since the disease was in fact spread by rat-borne fleas. The smoke of dried rosemary, frankincense, or bay leaves burning in a chafing dish was thought to help clear the air of infection, and, if those ingredients were not readily available, physicians recommended burning old shoes. In the streets, people walked about sniffing oranges stuffed with cloves. Pressed firmly enough against the nose, perhaps these functioned as a kind of mask.

It was early recognized that the rate of infection was far higher in densely populated cities than in the country; those with the means to do so escaped to rural retreats, though they often brought infection with them. Civic officials, realizing that crowds heightened contagion, took measures to institute what we now call social distancing. Collecting data from parish registers, they carefully tracked weekly plague-related deaths. When those deaths surpassed thirty, they banned assemblies, feasts, archery contests, and other forms of mass gathering. Since it was believed that it was impossible to become infected during the act of worship, church services were not included in the ban, though the infected were not permitted to attend. But the public theatres in London, which routinely brought together two or three thousand people in an enclosed space, were ordered shut. It could take many months before the death rate came down sufficiently for the authorities to allow theatres to reopen.

As a shareholder and sometime actor in his playing company, as well as its principal playwright, Shakespeare had to grapple throughout his career with these repeated, economically devastating closings. There were particularly severe outbreaks of plague in 1582, 1592-93, 1603-04, 1606, and 1608-09. The theatre historian J. Leeds Barroll III, who carefully sifted through the surviving records, concluded that in the years between 1606 and 1610—the period in which Shakespeare wrote and produced some of his greatest plays, from “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra” to “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest”—the London playhouses were not likely to have been open for more than a total of nine months.

It is all the more striking, then, that in his plays and poems Shakespeare almost never directly represents the plague. He did not write anything remotely like, let alone as powerful as, his contemporary Thomas Nashe’s haunting “A Litany in Time of Plague”:

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

In Shakespeare, epidemic disease is present for the most part as a steady, low-level undertone, surfacing in his characters’ speeches most vividly in metaphorical expressions of rage and disgust.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Confessions of a Bookseller

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the coastal Scotland community of Wigtown, tourists can pay to operate a bookstore called The Open Book for a week or two and live in an upstairs apartment, fulfilling their dream to run their own bookshop. The rental attraction is typically booked years ahead, proving that running a bookstore is a popular dream for bibliophiles.

Wigtown, known for its many bookstores, is also home to Shaun Bythell, who’s owned the prosaically named The Book Shop—“Largest in Scotland”—since 2001. Mr. Bythell has a more cautionary view of the business, as he made clear in “The Diary of a Bookseller,” published in an American edition in 2018, and “Confessions of a Bookseller,” just out in a U.S. edition, too. “Confessions,” which like its predecessor unfolds in the form of a daily journal, excels at the same kind of acid comedy that made “Diary” such a guilty treat. Those who can’t peruse the shelves of their local second-hand bookstore during this lockdown season will find Mr. Bythell’s diaries a sharp reminder of what they’re missing. But it’s probably better to shop at a bookstore than to own one, or so readers gather from Mr. Bythell’s wryly observed accounts of his tribulations in the trade.

In “Diary,” the 40-something author takes as his muse a 1936 George Orwell essay, “Bookshop Memories,” in which Orwell pointed to his time as a bookstore clerk as a personal purgatory. For outsiders, Orwell noted, old bookshops can easily seem “a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios.” In reality, Orwell countered, bookstores draw a lot of hapless souls “because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” Dealing with this clientele, Mr. Bythell writes, has turned quite a few bookshop owners into “a stereotype of the impatient, intolerant, antisocial proprietor.” He counts himself among them. “The constant barrage of dull questions, the parlous finances of the business, the incessant arguments with staff and the unending, exhausting, haggling customers have reduced me to this,” Mr. Bythell tells readers.

In his diary, though, Mr. Bythell gets the last word. His wicked pen and keen eye for the absurd recall what comic Ricky Gervais might say if he ran a bookshop. A “short man with a wispy beard” buys a copy of “The Hobbit,” which suggests a theory: “I am putting a mental jigsaw together,” Mr. Bythell writes, “of what a hobbit looks like, based on a composite of every customer I have ever sold a copy to.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The ‘Credibility Bookcase’ Is the Quarantine’s Hottest Accessory

From The New York Times:

Imagine that you are a member of the expert class — the kind of person invited to pontificate on television news programs. Under normal circumstances, your expertise might be signaled to the public by a gaudy photograph of skyscrapers superimposed behind your head. But now the formalities of the broadcast studio are a distant memory, and the only tools to convey that you truly belong on television are the objects within your own home. There’s only one move: You talk in front of a bookcase.

As the broadcast industry shelters in place, the bookcase has become the background of choice for television hosts, executives, politicians and anyone else keen on applying a patina of authority to their amateurish video feeds. In March, when the coronavirus put the handshaking and baby-kissing mode of presidential campaigning on pause, Joe Biden conspicuously retreated from public view for several long days as his team scrambled to project an air of competence from within Biden’s basement. When he finally re-emerged, it was in front of a carefully curated wall-length bookshelf punctuated with patriotic memorabilia like a worn leather football and a triangle-folded American flag.

In April, an anonymous Twitter account, Bookcase Credibility, emerged to keep an eye on the trend and quickly accumulated more than 30,000 followers. Its tagline is “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you,” and it offers arch commentary on the rapidly solidifying tropes of the genre as well as genuine respect for a well-executed specimen. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki appears before “a standard credibility wallpaper presentation in the unthreatening homely style.” The migrants’ rights activist Minnie Rahman’s Encyclopaedia Britannica collection “is a lazy hand wafted at convention.” And the British politician Liam Fox’s “bold grab at credibility is somewhat undermined by the hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code.”

. . . .

The bookcase offers both a visually pleasing surface and a gesture at intellectual depth. Of all the quarantine judgments being offered right now, this one feels harmless enough. One gets the sense that for the bookcase-background type, being judged by their home libraries is a secret dream finally realized. 

. . . .

But often the titles of the books themselves are not legible through the screen; all that can be ascertained is the overall vibe. The presence of gilded, leather bound volumes can overwhelm the expert’s own expertise, recalling the props in an ad for a personal injury lawyer; a library so extensive that it requires a “Beauty and the Beast” style ladder inspires grudging respect.

. . . .

The credibility bookcase, with its towering, idiosyncratic array of worn volumes, is itself an affectation. The expert could choose to speak in front of his art prints or his television or his blank white walls, but he chooses to be framed by his books. It is the most insidious of aesthetic trends: one that masquerades as pure intellectual exercise.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

On the other hand, if you’re going to have an important videoconference and don’t have the time or money to purchase books, you can always just buy a bookcase backdrop from Amazon.


But, why limit yourself to Amazon backdrops?

With a little computer magic, maybe with a green screen or maybe without, you can have a library that will put all your fellow celebrities to shame.

Publishing Needs to Face Its Ableism Problem

From Publishers Weekly:

“This is not a remote position. Candidates are expected to perform work on-site in our office,” is a line that I look for in every job posting before I decide whether or not to apply. I’m disabled; I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and I’m autistic, and working remotely is a reasonable accommodation that I need to do my job.

Up until the Covid-19 pandemic, most book publishing jobs have required employees to work in the office with little room for remote flexibility. Now the same publishers who denied disabled and chronically ill people the ability to work from home are requesting that their staff do just that. Accommodations to work remotely are prioritized when public health issues affect everyone, including nondisabled staff, but are deemed impossible when the request comes from a disabled employee.

While there are definitely functions in publishing that can’t be performed entirely remotely, such as warehouse jobs and production jobs, the pandemic has made it clear many tasks can be completely or at least partially remote if publishers allow them to be. Over half of American workers could work from home at least some of the time, according to an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics by research firm Global Workplace Analytics.

If there’s a lesson that publishers can learn from this pandemic, it’s that our industry needs more remote-friendly opportunities if we want to address the widespread ableism and inequality in publishing. We need more remote opportunities in book publishing. Of 166 recent job listings for positions at Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster, only two specify that they are open to remote candidates, and one of those two is a contract position, not a full- or part-time job.

Not offering remote-friendly opportunities widens the ongoing diversity gap in publishing. According to Lee & Low’s “2019 Diversity in Publishing Baseline Survey,” 89% of those working in publishing are nondisabled, 76% are white, 97% are cisgender, and 81% are straight. Many publishers are based in New York City, where only one in five subway stations are wheelchair accessible and average rents for a one-bedroom apartment are $3,000 per month, according to the “Zumper National Rent Report.” Glassdoor puts the national average salary for an editorial assistant at $43,761, making it difficult to live on in New York. More than 400,000 disabled employees regularly work from home, so allowing people to work remotely would give publishers a bigger employee pool to create a more inclusive workplace.

Common advice for those pursuing careers in publishing who can’t work in an office or can’t afford to move for a job is to freelance. Copyediting, proofreading, book reviewing, and sensitivity reading are areas where contract work is common. According to Lee & Low’s diversity survey, 19% of book reviewers identify as disabled, while in most other areas of publishing it’s closer to 10%.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

After he calmed down from mentally condemning Big Publishing for its multitudinous faults once again, PG was interested in the 19% of book reviewers disabled statistic.

PG didn’t know that anyone was counting book reviewers, let alone querying them about their disabilities.

After a few strokes on his latest keyboard, PG discovered that Lee & Low Books, headquartered in New York City, is, “the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the United States. We are your diversity source.”

Lee & Low sponsors The Diversity Baseline Survey. They conducted their first survey in 2015 and a second in 2019. Here’s a bit more about the surveys:

Why We Created the Diversity Baseline Survey

Lee & Low Books released the first Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 1.0) in 2015. Before the DBS, people suspected publishing had a diversity problem, but without hard numbers, the extent of that problem was anyone’s guess. Our goal was to survey publishing houses and review journals regarding the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of their employees; establish concrete statistics about the diversity of the publishing workforce; and then build on this information by reissuing the survey every four years. Through these long-term efforts, we would be able to track what progress our industry shows over time in improving representation and inclusion.

Why does diversity in publishing matter? 

The book industry has the power to shape culture in big and small ways. The people behind the books serve as gatekeepers, who can make a huge difference in determining which stories are amplified and which are shut out. If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?

Here’s a chart from the 2019 survey:

PG (and others) started forecasting the sunset of traditional publishing acting as a gatekeeper some time ago. Since he (and others) began their doomsaying, the publishing sun has continued to drop like a fading orange pie chart in the metaphorical west.

That said, PG entirely agrees that tradpub definitely does not reflect the demographics of the world, the United States or any other place besides a few tiny spots on a map of New York City and its nearby environs.

PG does suggest that indie publishing is a much closer reflection of the demographics of humankind at large.

On Amazon, nobody knows your race, gender, orientation or disability unless you choose to tell them.

The computers don’t care. A self-published book by a genderfluid Navajo asexual paraplegic gets the same amount of space and service as a book written by, edited by and published by a variety of White Cis Woman Straight Non-Disabled persons who also happened to graduate from the right colleges after growing up in the right suburbs.

Books-A-Million re-opens bookstores with curbside pick-up, staff in PPE, telephone experts, and cosmetic cases in beautiful floral prints

From The New Publishing Standard:

America’s second-largest bookstore chain, Books-A-Million, is readying for Mother’s Day (Sunday, May 10 in USA) and is opening all but a handful of its 200 stores across the country, the exceptions being states or counties where full lockdown continues.

In a press release Books-A-Million CEO Terrance G. Finley said,

We are extremely appreciative of the support we have received from our customers during these difficult times. Through online ordering; the buy online, pick-up in store option; and curbside pick-up, our guests have continued to seek out great books, educational materials, puzzles and toys.

Now that we are able to welcome our customers back to the stores in time for Mother’s Day, our booksellers stand ready to share the rich assortment of new books and products that we have been curating over the past weeks.

“Cosmetic cases in beautiful floral prints and a wide assortment of Mom mugs,” along with “items for self-care, including journals, relaxation kits, candles and more” will be edging books off the shelves as Books-A-Million’s new normal looks remarkably like the old normal. A book store that believes that books aren’t attractive enough on their own to keep customers coming through the doors.

But to be fair, books are the primary focus still. Recognising that post-pandemic booklovers who do choose to visit the stores (open from 11AM through 7PM), won’t want to be standing around shouting across to staff standing six feet away to discuss the latest releases, Books-A-Million has,

launched its new program “Talk to a Bookseller,” which gives book lovers the opportunity to speak to bookselling experts for recommendations by calling 866-544-1468.

Further, the newly launched curbside pick-up offering will continue to be available to at least entice customers to the vicinity of the store. and for those few that are willing to risk walking through the doors Books-A-Million has,

implemented additional efforts to provide a safe shopping environment for guests and associates with some noticeable precautions in place, including providing personal protective equipment for associates, installing acrylic register guards at all check-out areas and implementing self-distancing markers in aisles and at the registers.

In other words, the post-pandemic shopping experience at Books-A-Million will be about as far removed from the old normal as one can get while still operating a book store.

But hold on, did I say “post-pandemic”?

Wishful thinking.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

Like ‘Pride and Prejudice’? You’ll Love This Cult Classic Novel

From The Wall Street Journal:

Each time I reread “I Capture the Castle,”—roughly once a year, or whenever my lagging spirit needs a kick-start—it feels like a homecoming. But I’ll admit: Dodie Smith’s 1948 tale about the fortunes and foibles of the Mortmain family, cooped up together in a crumbling castle and cut off from the outside world, has never seemed more apt than in this age of quarantine. “Castle” is often classified as “young adult” fiction, perhaps because Smith remains better known for her kiddie classic “The Hundred and One Dalmatians.” But its sophisticated charms defy pigeonholing. Would anyone paint “Pride and Prejudice”—the text from which “Castle” is self-consciously descended—with so sloppy a brush?

The cast of characters consists of our protagonist, precocious Cassandra; her pretty, pouting older sister, Rose; a younger brother; and an adopted hired hand; their bohemian stepmother, Topaz, a former artist’s model who resembles a lovely “angel of death”; and their father, a Joycean man-of-letters whose chronic writer’s block underlies most of the family’s woes. Though they have a 40-year lease on the castle, the destitute Mortmains despair of improved prospects—that is, until the Cotton brothers, Americans who have newly inherited the estate, arrive on the scene. With a brazenness that verges on bloodlust, Rose vows to land one for a husband and reverse the family fortunes.

Smith began writing the book, which is set in the 1930s, during World War II, while she and her conscientious-objector husband were living in exile in California. And indeed, as Cassandra strives to “capture” the castle in her diaries, what she most succeeds in recording is wistfulness for a time and place that may never be the same. Sound familiar? At one point, Cassandra considers the letdown one gets from “brick-wall happy endings,” where readers lose “the fun of thinking something wonderful may be just around the corner.” Thankfully hers is not that kind of story.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

What Good are Books, in a Situation Like This?

From The Guardian:

[by Sarah Perry, the author of The Essex Serpent]

Some months ago I stood in the pulpit of Lancaster Priory and spoke on the virtue of art. What do we mean, I said, by “a good book”? I proposed that literature had use beyond pleasure, and that moral purpose was intrinsic to any book worth the cover price: the only way is ethics. I quoted Aristotle; I burnished my halo. My duty, I said, was to write good books, and this was an act of love. Well, a haughty spirit comes before a fall, and I tripped on a virus, and fell into believing that literature was useless and I’d wasted my life in its pursuit. Even before the lockdown began I could not write. It baffled me that I’d ever done such a trivial thing. I have a banner hanging on my study door: “L’amour c’est tout”. It bloody isn’t, I thought. I never went in.

This is not to say I have been unable to create at all. With the privileges of comfort and time, I sew patchwork quilts, make bread, play the piano. This is common: “Everybody is feeling the same thing,” wrote Virginia Woolf of Londoners in the second world war, “therefore nobody is feeling anything.” Social media has become a village hall for the display of sourdough loaves and cross stitch samplers: fear and love sublimated into all the things we think our mothers did. What else can we do, inhabiting a place of present or anticipated grief?

But these are crafts, which distinguish themselves from art by their utility. A quilt will keep you warm; a book can do so only if you burn it. What I felt when I looked at my shelves was not consolation, but contempt. What good were books, in the end? Nobody calls for a writer when their leg is broken; nobody wants a story when they cannot breathe. I am capable enough, I thought: I could have been a lab technician for a brilliant virologist, I could have administered a hospital ward. Meanwhile writers pleaded the case for literature’s place in a catastrophe, and pleaded well. I admired them as I suppose an atheist might admire a priest’s sincerity, and the manuscript of my novel remained unopened.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

With due respect to Ms. Perry, PG thinks books are invaluable for those who are sheltering in place.

You can’t get away with anything pretentious with YA

From The Bookseller:

1. Can you sum up The Gifted, the Talented and Me in one sentence?

It’s a funny novel about a proudly ordinary teenager who gets sent (against his wishes) to a school for gifted and talented children, and has to find a way to somehow fit in.
2. What inspired the book?

Like a lot of teenagers, my son is more interested in his phone than in books. He loves comedy, and when I found myself looking for something funny for him to read, I realised that in amongst all the tearjerkers and dystopias, there was very little to choose from. So I decided that I’d just have to write one for him myself.

. . . .

5. What’s the best thing about writing for young adults?

You can’t get away with anything pretentious with a young audience. If you’re writing YA you have to keep your feet on the ground and stay focussed on telling an interesting story.
6. What was your favourite book as a teenager?

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend, which was in some ways the inspiration for this novel.

7. What is your top writing tip?

Just get something – anything – down, and worry about getting it right later. Don’t let your anxieties about whether or not it’s any good (which afflict every writer) stop the flow of words.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Categories YA